Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend have seen this tendril before. Indeed, they witnessed Elise Traynor become engulfed by the very same material, so they know that the tendril will overtake Willie and fasten him to the roof of the white stone home. Once he’s fixed in place, the tendril will harden into “a shell-like carapace,” which will in turn “begin to transition through a series of” terrible scenes and objects, “each more detailed and hideous than the last, this process only serving to increase the speed of his downward spiral: the more perverse the carapace, the less ‘light’ (happiness, honesty, positive aspiration) [will] get in.”
If Willie stays in the Bardo, he will lose all of the “happiness, honesty,” and “positive aspiration” that might otherwise characterize his existence. Once again, then, Saunders intimates that stasis is unfit for children, who are inclined toward “aspiration,” not idleness. By staying, Willie will find all of his boyish qualities choked out of himself, leaving only a “perverse carapace.”
Thinking about the effect of the tendril on children depresses Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend because it reminds them that they did nothing to help Elise Traynor when she succumbed. They remember walking away with bowed heads as the tendril wrapped around her, and she was singing the whole time, though her songs gradually became “less lovely as the initial carapace formed and she took on the form of a girl-sized crow.” Indeed, they feel now that they didn’t do enough to save Ms. Traynor, since they were “rather newly arrived back then” and thus “much preoccupied with the challenges of staying,” which, they make clear, are not “inconsiderable” and “have not lessened in the meantime.” Now, they watch Willie tossing back and forth in discomfort as the chapel bell tolls three o’clock—indicating that the night is drawing to a close and that they should be on their way.
As the three friends watch Willie struggling against the tendril, Saunders infuses the story with a new kind of urgency, since he indicates that the night will soon end, at which point it will be too late to save the boy. What’s more, the characters feel ashamed for having ignored Elise Traynor in her time of need, a memory that unearths the notion that each person in the Bardo exists first and foremost as an individual. Indeed, these souls focus primarily on “the challenges of staying,” meaning that they often have to eschew notions of unity and empathy in order to wholeheartedly devote themselves to remaining in the Bardo.