A cord of seven strands

Surgeon General’s Warning

This work is my first novel(la) and may be chiefly of interest to fans who are interested in my development as an author and want to see some of my work before I got certain things nailed down.

If you read it, probably the biggest key to enjoying it is to remember that with most novels, the priority is plot, then character, then relationships; while in this book the priority is relationships, then character, then plot.

My subsequent (and probably better) novels are The Steel Orb, Firestorm 2034, and in particular The Sign of the Grail.

C.J.S. Hayward

A Cord of Seven Strands
Read it on Kindle for $3!

Read it on Kindle: part of the collection, A Cord of Seven Strands

Chapter One

“Boo!” Sarah, who had been moving silently, pounced on Jaben, and wrapped her arms around him.

“Hi, Sarah. Just a second.” He typed in a few more lines of code, saved his work, and ran make. As the computer began chugging away, Jaben reached down and pinched Sarah’s knee. She jumped, and squeaked.”Aren’t you ever surprised?”

“By some things, yes. But I have a preconscious awareness of when you’re trying to sneak up on me.”

“Even when you’re deep in concentration, programming your whatever-it-is on the computer?”

“Even when I’m deep in concentration, programming my whatever-it-is on the computer.”

Sarah paused, and looked around. They were in the place where their circle of friends met — a big, old house which an elderly couple in the church was allowing them to use. It had many niches and personal touches, nooks and crannies, and was home to a few mice, especially in the winter. (There was a general agreement not to get a cat or mousetraps, but simply to minimize the amount of food left about.) The house even had a not-so-secret secret passage, a perennial favorite of the children who came to visit. This room had deep blue, textured wallpaper, with a painting hanging on the wall: an earth tone watercolor of the sinful woman kissing Jesus’s feet. There were bits and pieces of computers lying about, and a few computer books, some of which were falling apart. That room — and the whole house — was a place that bore someone’s fingerprints, that said, “I have a story to tell.”

“I was listening to the radio,” Sarah said, “and the fire danger has gotten even worse. Things have gone from parched to beyond parched. It wouldn’t take much to start a blaze.”

“I know,” Jaben said. “We can only be careful and pray.”


Thaddeus drove up to the rifle range. He reached into the back seat, and pulled out a blue .22 competition rifle, a box of rounds, some nails, a small hammer, some targets… He sat down on a bench, and slowly cleaned his gun. There was a funny smell, he thought, but he did not pay it much attention.

He went over and nailed a target to a stump, then moved everything in front of him and to the left, lay prone, and slowly waited for target and sight to align, and fired. Nine points. Good, but he could do better. He reloaded, and this time went more slowly. He drew a deep breath, grew still, waited even more slowly for the sight and target to line up, and fired. Ten points, dead center. The same for the third round, and the fourth. “Good.” Confident, Thaddeus fired a fifth shot, and frowned. He had only gotten seven points.

He started to go up to replace the target — “This time if I slow down and really concentrate, I think I can get 50 points.” — and unwittingly kicked over a small plastic bottle. Then he turned around, and said to himself, “I think I’m going to try to shoot the nail.” He lay down, loaded another round, and fired. Lead splattered at the top of the target face, and the target fell. He relaxed, and let his gun down.

“Boy, the sun is blistering hot today.” Thaddeus blinked; the air seemed to shimmer as if it were a mirage. Then he looked around a bit. His eyes widened, and his jaw dropped.

There, in the dry grass before him, were dancing flames.

Thaddeus groaned; he immediately recognized the funny smell he’d ignored. He hadn’t exactly grabbed the right fluid to clean his gun…

He threw his apple juice on the fire, which hissed and sizzled, but did not diminish much. Then he grabbed his gun and ran to his car.

As he drove away, Thaddeus heard the report as the unused rounds exploded.


Thaddeus ran through the living room, upsetting a game of Mao that was being played. He dialed 911. “There’s a fire! Rifle range near this house.” After a few questions, he called a phone tree and hurried those present into the cars. Sarah and Jaben joined Thad in his car — a rusty, ten year old black Cadillac with the driver’s side window broken and deep blue pictures painted on the side — and the other four got into an equally rusty trade van, a nondescript brown with a ladder, some rope, some tools, several rolls of duct tape, some paint cans, some tents, inside. They locked up, and began to bounce up and down some primitive roads.

As they passed, the spreading wall of fire loomed ahead of them.

“What do we do now?” Sarah said.

“Floor it!” Thad said.

Jaben did. He jounced through the straight stretch of road by the rifle range, where everything on the ground was glowing ashes; the heat, coming through the broken window, was incredible, and singed Jaben’s hair. “We’re coming through the other side of the fire!” They did, and flew out. Behind them, they could see a falling sapling land on the van. A quarter of a second earlier, and it would have shattered their windshield.

Jaben breathed a little easier as cool air blew in through the window. “Woo-hoo!” shouted Thaddeus. They slowed down, and drove.

Chapter Two

They continued several miles, and then Jaben pulled into a gas station, low on fuel. As he fueled up, Amos stepped out of the van and walked over.

“What do we do now?”

“Well, I think we’re far enough away, and we’re near Frank’s Inn. It might be nice to sit and collect our thoughts there.”

“Jaben, I like a good drink as much as you do—”

“—Miller Genuine Draft does not constitute a good drink—”

“—but do you really want the smell of a smoky tavern?”

“That’s actually why I thought of Frank’s. The new proprietor is allergic to cigarette smoke, and thought it would be nice to have one place in this county where people can have a good drink with their friends without having to breathe that stuff. I like the atmosphere there. People predicted that it would die out, but it’s flourished.”

“Frank’s it is.”

There was a moment’s silence, as Jaben waited for the tank to fill up. He started to turn away to put the pump up, and Amos said, “You look like you have something to say.”

“I know, but I can’t think of what.” He put the pump up. “It’s one of those annoying times when you can’t put your finger on what you want to say. I’ll think of it later, as soon as you’re not accessible.”

Amos laughed a deep laugh.

Jaben walked in, paid, and drove to Frank’s Inn.


As they walked in the door, Désirée breathed a sigh of relief. A large “Out of order” sign was on the television. There was some rock music playing, but even with the music the din was not too bad. They sat down around a table, and Jaben waved to the bartender.

A bartender walked over, and said, “Hi, my name’s John. Will you be wanting something to eat?”

“Please,” seven voices said in unison.

“I’ll be back with menus in just a second. What can I get you to drink?”

“I’ll have a cherry Coke,” Thaddeus said.

“Sprite,” Sarah said.

“A pint of Guinness,” said Jaben, and winked at the bartender.

“MGD Lite,” said Amos.

“I’m sorry,” the bartender said, “We don’t carry Miller. Can I get you something else?”

“Just give me the closest thing you have to a Miller.”

“Ok.”

“Strawberry daquiri,” said Désirée.

“I’ll have a glass of the house white,” said Lilianne.

“A strawberry kir,” said Ellamae.

“Oh, come, Belladonna, are you sure you wouldn’t rather have a strawberry shake? It looks much more you,” said Jaben.

Ellamae, who had somehow grown to womanhood without losing the beautiful visage of a little child, gave him a look you could have poured on a waffle.

“Could I see some ID, please?”

Ellamae, doing her best to keep a straight face, fished in her purse and procured a driver’s license.

The bartender looked hard at the license, then at her, and said, “Thank you,” returning the license, and walked off.

“Too bad he left,” said Jaben. “He seemed to raise his eyebrows at hearing that name.”

“Who asked you?” said Ellamae, trying to look cross while suppressing a laugh.

“Jaben, would you tell us—” said Amos.

“Shut up,” laughed Ellamae.

Jaben continued. “Belladonna, n. In Italian, a beautiful lady. In English, a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.”

Ellamae, laughing, said, “Die, Jaben, die!”

Some more people walked in the door, and the bartender came back, set seven menus on the table, and began to distribute drinks. “A strawberry daquiri for you, a glass of the house white for you, a strawberry kir for you, a cherry Coke, a Sprite, a pint of Guinness, and — aah, yes, the closest thing we have to a Miller.” He set down a pint of ice-cold water.

Amos looked at his drink a second, and then burst into a deep laugh, shaking his head.

“Jaben, if you ever…” his voice trailed off.

The menus were passed around, and after a little discussion they decided to eat family style. They ordered a meat lover’s pizza, a salad, and some French onion soup.

As the circle of friends sat and waited for the food, the song on the radio ended, and a news report came on. “The forest fire that we have all been worrying about is now burning. Starting somewhere near the campgrounds, it has been the subject of an evacuation effort. The rangers had a helicopter with a scoop at the lake for training exercises, and so the blaze should be put out speedily. Authorities are currently investigating the cause of the fire. Details coming up.”

Thad sunk into his chair.

Lilianne caught his eyes. After looking for a second, she said, “Want to talk about it?”

“Not here.”

“Want to take a walk outside, after dinner?”

Thaddeus nodded.

He really needs to talk — thought Jaben — but he’s not in any hurry. Living in Malaysia for a couple of years has that effect. It changes your sense of time. It changes a lot of things.

Jaben longed to be back in France, longed for the wines, longed for the architecture, longed for the sophistication and the philosophical dinner discussions, longed for the language most of all.

Tu as amis içi,” Lilianne said in broken French. “You still have friends here.”

Yes — Jaben mused — that was true. The friendships in this circle of friends are more friendships in French (or Malaysian) fashion than in the American sense, which is really closer to acquaintanceship than friendship. Here are friendships to grow deeper in, to last for lifetime instead of for a couple of years until someone moves. Here are kything friendships. That is something. And my friends know what is close to my heart, and give me things that mean a lot to me. Désirée, Lilianne, Ellamae, and Sarah each give me kisses when they see me, and Lilianne is taking the time to learn a little French. She doesn’t believe me when I tell her, but she has the gift of languages. J’ai encore des amis içi. And God is the same God in France and America; from him come the best of both. Perhaps it would be fitting to give him thanks now.

Jaben brought his hands up to the table. “Shall we pray?”

The others joined hands. Amos said, “Lord, you are faithful, as you were faithful to Israel.”

Désirée said, “Lord, you are vast enough to care for our smallest details.”

Lilianne said, “Lord, you have the imagination to create all the wonders about us.”

Ellamae said, “You are he who searches hearts and minds, and perceives our thoughts.”

Thaddeus said, “You are the fount of all wisdom.”

Sarah said, “You are the Artist.”

Jaben said, “You are the worthy recipient of all our worship.”

Then Amos said, “Lord, I confess to you that I have harbored wrath against my white brothers and sisters, and seen them first through the label of ‘racist’.”

There was a silence. Not a silence at Amos confessing a sin — that was appropriate at that point of this form of prayer — nor that he would be guilty of that particular sin. It was rather that he had the courage to admit it, even to himself. Ellamae was reminded of a time she had spoken with a Canadian and, after a long discussion, watched him finally admit that he was anti-American. Jaben squeezed Amos’s hand, and said, “I love you, brother.”

Finally Désirée said, “Lord, I have coveted the time of others.”

Lilianne said, “Lord, I have been vain, and not always relied on your help.”

Ellamae said, “Lord, I have held pride in my heart.”

Thaddeus said, “Lord, I have ignored the prompting of your Spirit.”

Sarah said, “I have been quick in temper, and impatient.”

Jaben said, “I have also been proud, and been unwilling to embrace America as I have embraced France.”

Amos said, “Thank you for the many friends and family” — here he squeezed Désirée’s hand — ” that I have.”

Désirée said, “Thank you for the butterfly I saw today.”

Lilianne said, “Thank you for washing us clean from sin.”

Ellamae said, “Thank you for drawing us into the great Dance.”

Thaddeus said, “Thank you for the helicopter.”

Sarah said, “Thank you for letting me paint.”

Jaben said, “Thank you for my time in France.”

Amos said, “Please allow the fire to be extinguished quickly, and not to do damage to our meeting place.”

Désirée said, “Please help me to know the hearts of my friends better.”

Lilianne said, “Please draw my heart — all our hearts — ever closer to you.”

Ellamae said, “Please bless my music.”

Thaddeus said, “Hold me in your heart, and keep my steps safe.”

Sarah said, “Bless my touch.”

Jaben said, “Bless my wonderful friends.”

There was a moment of silence, and then they raised their voices.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise him all creatures here below.
Praise him above, ye heav’nly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Amen.

The place grew a little more silent as their harmony filled the room. The stillness was finally broken by Amos saying, “I’m ready for some good food.”

Sarah heard some noise behind her, and turned and looked — there was a waiter bringing the food. As it was set on the table, she waited, and Thaddeus scooped some of the soup into her bowl. She took a sip, and said, “This is certainly turning out to be an interesting day.”

Jaben reached his arm over her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “I don’t know if I’m going to sleep like a rock tonight, or not be able to sleep at all.”

Ellamae said, “Whenever you say that, you sleep like a rock.”

Jaben mumbled, “I suppose.”

Lilianne took a hearty scoop of salad. “What were we talking about earlier?”

Ellamae said, “Moral theology. Good and evil. Except that I don’t think Jaben really wanted to talk about good and evil. I think he wanted to talk about something different.”

“But he still wanted to talk about moral theology, like the rest of us,” Désirée said.

“How was that again?” said Amos.

Jaben said, “One way to put it would be like this: if goodness is likened to health, and evil to disease and death, then most of the discipline of moral theology may be likened to a debate about the boundary that separates health from disease, life from death. That is certainly a legitimate area of study, but I think it is overemphasized. I would like to see a moral theology that is concerned with the nature of life itself, abundant life. I would like a moral theology that studies people as they dance rather than debate over the boundary line between a dying man and a fresh corpse.”

“Aah, yes,” Amos said.

Thaddeus said, “Western culture has a very disease-centered view of medicine. The point of medicine is to keep a person out of disease.”

“What else would medicine be about?” said Sarah.

“Instead of trying to keep a person out of disease, keeping a person in health. We have some elements of this concept. Preventative medicine kind of makes this step, and gradeschool schedules have physical education. It is picked up by,” Thaddeus shrunk back into his chair slightly, and mumbled the words, “New Age—”

He turned to Jaben, waiting for a wisecrack. When none came, he cleared his throat and said, “New Age is half-baked and goofy, and if you talk with a New Ager about medicine, you’ll get some garbled version of an Eastern religion’s balancing energies or whatnot, but at the heart of that goofiness lies a real idea of cultivating health, a health that is a positive concept rather than a negative concept. That is worth paying attention to.”

Désirée said, “That’s deep.”

Thaddeus paused a second, chasing after a thought. The others read the expression on his face, and patiently waited. Ellamae took a piece of pizza.

“In China, people do — or at least did — pay doctors, not when they got sick, but when they were well. If you think about it, that difference in custom reflects a profound difference in conceptions of medicine.”

Lilianne turned to Amos. “Amos, can you think of a difference in black custom that reflects your ways of thinking?”

Amos paused, looked like he was about to speak, and said, “Could I have a minute to think about that?”

Lilianne nodded.

Sarah said, “Today I had the idea for the coolest painting, and I started sketching it. It’s in my studio — a big watercolor, with all of the colors of the rainbow swirling together. The real essence of the picture, though, will take a lot of looking to see. In the boundaries between color and color lie the outlines of figures — horses, unicorns, men fighting with swords, radiant angels.”

Jaben said, “Interesting. Where did you get the idea to do that?”

Sarah said, “I don’t know where I get my ideas from. I like color, moreso than shape even. I like Impressionist paintings. I guess I was just daydreaming, watching the colors swirl, and I had this idea.” She smiled.

Thaddeus smiled, waited a moment, and then poked her in the side. Sarah squeaked loudly.

Jaben said, “Blessed are the ticklish—” and stopped, as Sarah’s hands were covering his mouth.

“For the touch of a friend shall fill them with laughter,” Amos said through a mouthful of pizza.” Thaddeus poked Sarah again. She moved her hands to cover her side and her knee.

Jaben poked her in the other side. In her laughter, she began to turn slightly red.

“Ok, I thought of an answer to your question,” Amos said to Lilianne. “Our family structures are different. Where you usually have a nuclear family living together and nobody else, we will often have not just a nuclear family but cousins, aunts, great-aunts, uncles… The extended family lives together, tightly knit. The difference has to do with how white culture is about individualism, and black culture is about community, in a sense. Three of the seven principles of Kwaanza — Unity, Collective Work and Responsibility, and Cooperative Economics — are explicitly community oriented, and all seven of them say ‘we’ and ‘our’ instead of ‘I’ and ‘my’. We have all sorts of stories, but you’ll have to look pretty hard to find a black Western.”

“Was it hard way back when,” Ellamae said, “hanging out with a group of otherwise white friends? Is it hard now?”

Amos said, “I’m not sure if you noticed then, but I didn’t say ‘Hi’ to you when you walked by when I was with a group of black friends. It’s just one of those things a black man doesn’t do. It would be a lot harder if I didn’t have some black friends and my family to be around. There are still some people who think I’m trying to act white by hanging around with you.”

“And when you liked Country and Western,” Désirée said.

“We all have our problems,” muttered Thaddeus.

“And when I liked Country and Western, yeah. People say that if you don’t like rap, you ain’t black. Well, I like rap, but liking Country and Western is even worse in some folks’ eyes than not liking rap.”

Lilianne frowned. “Nobody thinks that a white man who listens to rap is trying to act black. I suppose that if I made heroic exertions to be like a member of some other race, people might think I was weird, but I can’t imagine having to cut back on some part of being myself for fear of someone thinking I was trying to act Chinese.”

Désirée nodded. “You got it, honey. It’s hard for us.”

Lilianne squeezed her hand.

Jaben turned to Amos and said, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. Why did your parents name you ‘Amos’? What with Amos and Andy and all, it seems a rather cruel name to give a little black boy.”

Amos said, “I did get teased, and I ran home crying a couple of times. I asked them why. They explained to me what the name means — ‘strong’, ‘bearer of burdens’, that it was the name of a prophet. Then, when I was older, they explained to me something else.” Here his voice rose. “My parents were determined that Amos and Andy should not have the last word about what it means for a black man to be named Amos.”

Ellamae nodded. “Your parents named you well. They are strong people. So are you.”

“Thank you,” Amos said.

“Who are Amos and Andy?” Sarah asked.

“Amos and Andy were a couple of black comedians who acted the perfect stereotype of black men before their audiences.”

“Ok,” Sarah said. “Kind of like Eddie Murphy?”

Désirée giggled.

“Uh…” Amos’s voice trailed off. After a second, he said, “Jaben, help me out here.”

“Eddie Murphy’s humor is coarse, vulgar, and entirely without class. That stated, he invites his audience to laugh with him, and there is a glow of camaraderie about even Raw. Amos and Andy invited their audiences to laugh at them, to laugh at the stupid blacks. Eddie Murphy is the sort of comedian who would strengthen a racist impression of blacks, but the whole point of Amos and Andy is to pander to racism.”

By this time, the food was mostly finished, and the bartender had brought the bill. They fished in their wallets for cash, paid the bill, bagged the remaining food (none of the pizza or soup was left, but there was still some salad), and got up and walked out. Ellamae caught Thad’s eyes, and the two of them walked off.

Thad and Lilianne stepped out into the privacy of the street. A car passed by; it was twilight, hot but not humid.

“Riflery is one of the times I can most grow still,” he said. “I never touched a gun in Malaysia — was never interested in one, for that matter — and the concentration of riflery is different from the laid-back attitude Malaysians hold. All the same, the slowing down of riflery is a special treat, the one thing you don’t have to fight against hurry to do at its own, unhurried pace.”

Lilianne walked in silence.

“I must have grabbed the wrong bottle. I remember something smelling funny. I ignored that funny smell, all through cleaning my gun, and with it ignored a gut feeling. I didn’t want to know where that gut feeling led; I wanted to clean my gun, and then I wanted to shoot. I fired five rounds — forty-six points — and then shot the nail off the target. And when I looked, a fire had started.”

Lilianne said, “You feel awfully guilty.”

“Shouldn’t I feel guilty? After starting a forest fire?”

“If I had done something like that, would you love me any less?”

They walked in silence past a couple on the street.

Lilianne wanted to speak, but knew the futility of winning an argument. “Amos loves you. Désirée loves you. Ellamae loves you. Jaben loves you. Sarah loves you. I love you.”

The two walked on in silence, turned a corner.

“I’m also scared,” Thaddeus said. “Will I get in trouble? Will I go to jail?”

“You are in God’s hands,” Lilianne said.

“I know, but it doesn’t make me feel any better,” Thad said.

Lilianne stopped walking, turned, and gave him a long, slow hug. “You are in God’s hands,” she said.

“Thanks, I needed that.”

They turned, and walked back in silence. For Thad, it was a silence that was wounded, but also a healing silence, the silence of healing washing over a wound. For Lilianne, it was a praying silence, a listening silence, a present silence. They walked slowly, but the time passed quickly, and they were soon back at the cars, and met the others.

Chapter Three

Désirée stepped away from the tents and walked down the trail. It had been an exciting day, and she needed some time to quiet down.

She moved down the trail noiselessly. Up above was a starlit sky with a crescent moon, and around her were tall, dark pines. Below was a thick carpet of rusty pine needles. As she walked along, her heart grew still.

Thoughts moved through her mind, in images, sensations, and moments more than in words. She smiled as she recalled Sarah asking, “Kind of like Eddie Murphy?” She also cherished the expression on her husband’s face, the look he had when a question arose, and he knew the answer perfectly, but didn’t know where to begin to explaining. That look on his face bore the same beauty as it often did when she teased him.

She saw a glint out of the corner of her eye, and looked. For a second, Désirée couldn’t make out what it was, and then she recognized it as a monarch butterfly, illuminated by a single shaft of moonlight. Désirée prayed, and slowly reached out her hand; the butterfly came to her finger, rested for just a second, and then flew off into the night.

Désirée sat down on a rock in silence. She heard the footfall of a small animal — a rabbit, perhaps. The sounds of insects rang faintly about her; she slapped a mosquito. To her, it was music, music and a kind of dance. She drank it in, praying as she breathed. Standing up, she walked further along the path, as it passed by the lapping shore of a lake. An abandoned canoe lay along the shore.

O-oh God,

she sang.

O-oh God,
Build up your house.
O-oh God,
Build up your house.
Your Kingdom in Heaven,
Your Kingdom on earth.

O-oh God,
O-o-o-o-oh.

A-a-a-a-men.

Stopping in the stillness, she heard a twig snap behind her, a heavier footfall than that of a small animal. Quickly but yet unhurriedly, she melted into the blackness. She looked out, and saw Lilianne’s silhouette against the moonlit ripples dancing on the water.

“Désirée?”

Désirée stepped out of the shadows. “How are you, sister?”

“I wanted to talk.”

“Something troubling you?”

“No, I just wanted to talk.”

“Need to talk, or just be quiet together?”

They walked along the shore together. The path on the shore widened into a clearing filled with tall grass. Désirée took Lilianne’s hand, and they spun around, dancing under the starlight.

After a time, they sat down, and Désirée said, “You know, I just realized something.”

“What?”

“In parts of Africa, one of the biggest compliments paid for dancing is, ‘You dance as if you have no bones.’ Dancing is one of the things that couldn’t be completely taken away in slavery, and… white folk in general would do better to learn to dance. I mean, really dance. There are so many good things about it, and the people who would benefit the most are the last people you’d find dancing. But what I realized is this, maybe something I saw but didn’t believe: you dance as if you have bones, but your dance is no less beautiful for it. It is graceful, and has a different spirit.”

Lilianne’s blush was concealed by the moonlight and starlight.

“Ever sit and cloudwatch?” Désirée said.

“It’s been a while,” Lilianne said.

“What about with stars?”

Lilianne shook her head, her fair skin looking almost radiant in the moonlight.

Désirée and Lilianne lay down on their backs next to each other, looking up into the sky.

Lilianne said, “All I see are isolated stars. It’s not like clouds, where there are clusters.”

“Hush,” Désirée said. “Look.”

“That bright cluster over there looks like a blob, except a sparse and prickly blob.”

“Just relax. Don’t rush it.”

Lilianne lay on her back. The stars just looked like stars. Then she saw how much brighter some were than others. Her mind began to enter a trance, and she almost thought she heard faint, crystalline singing. Then—

“There!” she pointed to the crescent moon. “There, a Phoenecian trading ship, laden with goods, with the moon as its sail.”

Désirée blinked, and said, “That’s it. The biggest jewel in the sky. I hadn’t thought to look for a picture that would include the moon.”

Lilianne sat for a few minutes, breathing in and out, and said, “Let’s not look for any more patterns tonight.” Thoughts moved in her mind about moderation and enjoyment and “A person who is full doesn’t ask for more.” She didn’t want to see any other patterns. She was content looking on that one.

They lay in stillness for — how long? Neither one of them took any notice of time.

“When you were a little girl,” Désirée said, “what did you most like to do?”

Lilianne paused, pondered the question for a few moments, and then said, “I liked to read, or have stories read to me, and imagine — imagine being long ago, and far away. Maybe it would be imagine. I still daydream a lot.”

“I’m not sure why I had such difficulty with the stars tonight — or did I?” she continued. “My daydreaming is somewhere faroff, and seeing things in clouds at least requires that you be right there. Somehow I was able to look at the ship, though my mind wandered. Am I making sense?” She saw the two of them, as little girls, laughing and running, hand in hand, through a field in the summer’s sun.

“Perfect sense, dear. Don’t worry about making sense when you’re telling the truth, my mother always says.”

“What about you, Désirée? What did you like to do as a little girl?”

“Ask questions of the grown-ups, and listen. I would ask questions most of all of my elder relatives. I can still remember asking a question of my grandfather, in his old, careworn rocking chair, and listening to all the stories he’d tell. He’d sit there with his corncob pipe, smelling of smoke and the sweat of hard labor, and speak in this deep, deep bullfrog voice. Listening to him always made me feel like I was curled up in his arms and falling asleep. I liked the new stories he told, but the old ones best of all.”

“What were some of the stories he told you?”

“Let me see… there’s one… wait, I shouldn’t tell you that one.”

“Why not? You can tell me anything, Désirée.”

“Um… You won’t get mad at me if you don’t like it?”

“Désirée, you know me.”

“Ok. Once there was an unusually kind master, Jim, who would talk with his slaves, especially a witty one named Ike. He would tell him his dreams, except, well, they were made more to impress than dreams. And Ike would tell good dreams, too, but they weren’t usually quite as good as Jim’s.

“One morning, Jim said, ‘I had this dream, that I went to Negro Heaven. In there, everything was broken; the houses had holes in the walls and broken windows, and there was refuse in the streets, and the place was full of dirty Negroes.’

“Then Ike said, ‘Wow, master, I had the same dream as you. I dreamed that I went to White Heaven. There, everything was silver and gold; there were great, spotless marble mansion, and the streets sparkled. But there wasn’t a soul in the place!'”

Lilianne laughed. “That’s very funny. It reminds me of Jewish humor.”

Désirée said, “I don’t know much Jewish humor.”

Lilianne said, “Too bad. I’ll tell you a couple of their jokes if I can remember them. Jaben commented that Jewish humor is subtle, clever, and extremely funny.” She cleared her throat, and said, “Tell me another story.”

“Grandpa was always telling stories about the animals, stories that he learned sitting on his grandfather’s knee. Let me see… Aah.

“Brer rabbit saw Sis Cow with an udder full of milk, and it was a hot day, and he hadn’t had anything to drink for a long time. He knew it was useless to ask her for milk, because last year she refused him once, and when his wife was sick, at that.

“Brer Rabbit started to think very hard. Sis Cow was grazing under a persimmon tree, and the persimmons were turned yellow, but they weren’t ripe enough to fall down yet.

“So Brer Rabbit said, ‘Good morning, Sis Cow.’

“‘Good morning, Brer Rabbit.’

“‘How’re you feeling this morning, Sis Cow?’

“‘I ain’t doing so well, Brer Rabbit.’

“Brer Rabbit expressed his sympathy and then he said, ‘Sis Cow, would you do me the favor of hitting this persimmon tree with your head and shake down a few persimmons?’

“Sis Cow said ‘Sure’ and hit the tree, but no persimmons came down. They weren’t ripe enough yet.

“So then Sis Cow got mad, and went to the top of the hill, and she lifted her tail over her back and came running. She hit the tree so hard that her horns lodged in the wood.

“‘Brer rabbit,’ said Sis Cow, ‘I implore you to help me get loose.’ But Brer Rabbit said, ‘No, Sis Cow, I can’t get you loose. I’m a very weak man, Sis Cow. But I can assuage your bag, Sis Cow, and I’m going to do it for you.

“Then Brer Rabbit went home for his wife and children, and they went back to the persimmon tree and milked Sis Cow and had a big feast.”

Désirée had been speaking with animation, and Lilianne said nothing for a while. Désirée broke the silence. “You don’t like it?”

Lilianne paused, and said, “No, and I’m not sure why. Hmm… I’ve heard a few more of those stories, but I can’t remember any off the top of my head. I have this impression of Brer Rabbit as the hero, a hero who is characterized by being—” here she paused, “‘intelligent’ is not exactly the right word, and ‘clever’ comes closer but isn’t quite what I mean. ‘Cunning’. Brer Rabbit manipulates and uses the cow, and it is cast in a good light. The cow is mean, so it’s OK to do anything to her. Same logic as ‘Take ten!'” Then she hastily added, “Same logic as a lot of things in white culture as well. Same logic as Home Alone — the burglars are Bad Guys, therefore it’s OK for Kevin to torture them.”

She looked at Désirée, forgetting that the faint light would not permit her to read Désirée’s expression. She paused, prayed a moment, and said, “Did you like that story?”

“My favorite.”

Lilianne shuddered. “It’s a terrible thing to bruise a childhood dream. I’m sorry.”

They lay in silence for a minute.

Désirée said, “I was hurt, but I’m not sure you did anything wrong. When you’re a child, you like things simply because they are, and because they’re yours; everything lies under a cloak of wonder. Those stories were time with my grandpa, and they taught me that there is justice and injustice; they taught me that it is good to use my mind; they taught me that there is a time to trust and a time to be wary. Have you seen those I Learned it All in Kindergarden posters?”

“Yes.”

“I learned it all from Brer Rabbit. I see the problem you point out, but those stories will always be to me the starting-place of wisdom, and a point where I can remember my grandfather’s love.”

Lilianne lay in silence, pondering what Désirée said. Then she slowly reached through the grass, fumbled, squeezed Désirée’s hand, and said, “You ready to go back now?”

Désirée wiped a tear away. “Yes.”

“Let’s go.”

Chapter Four

Jaben asked, “Could I have the canteen?” As Sarah handed it to him, he took a swig of stale water, and rubbed his eyes. The harsh sun blazed in his eyes. “Why don’t we do Bible study now, and then worry about what else to do today? I’m sure we’ll be able to find something,” he said, then muttered under his breath, “though I’d much rather be programming,” and continued, “and, with something to eat, we’ll have the day before us.”

The others yawned their assent, and went back to the tents to get their Bibles.

“Whose turn was it to read? Lilianne’s?” said Sarah.

Lilianne said, “No, I think it was Amos’s.”

Amos said, “Yeah, that’s it.” He paused a moment, and said, “Shall we pray?”

They joined hands, and bowed their heads in prayer. Jaben squeezed Lilianne’s hand.

Lilianne prayed, “Father, we come before you a little excited, a little nervous. We don’t know what the course of the fire will be, or how long it will burn, or why this is happening. We ask that you preserve our meeting place and the property around it, and most of all human life. We thank you that we were able to escape the fire, and we meet to give you glory. Amen.”

They were sitting in a circle, on some logs, around a fire pit. Amos said, “I’ll be reading from I Kings 18, verses 41-46. Elijah has been chastising king Ahab, there is a drought, and Elijah has at the end of chapter 17 been staying with the widow. Earlier in the chapter, he has his famous contest with the prophets of Baal, where he called fire from Heaven down on the bull.” He cleared his throat.

“And Elijah said unto Ahab, ‘Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain.’ So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees, and said to his servant, Go up now, look toward the sea. And he went up, and looked, and said, ‘There is nothing.’ And he said, ‘Go again,’ seven times.

“And it came to pass at the seventh time, that he said, ‘Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand.’ And he said, ‘Go up, say unto Ahab, “Prepare thy chariot, and get thee down, that the rain stop thee not.”‘

“And it came to pass in the mean while, that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode, and went to Jezreel.

“And the hand of the LORD was on Elijah; and he girded up his loins, and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.”

Amos had been bending over the Bible, looking intently; now, he rested and sat up.

Jaben said, “Thoughts? Observations?”

Désirée said, “This story is one of my favorites, with the one before it. I like the Elijah stories.”

A minute passed, in which they looked at each other. “Lilianne?” Jaben said.

Lilianne stared off in space.

“Lilianne?” he said a bit louder.

“Huh? Oh, I was having a daydream about three mermaids swimming in a moonlit pool, and chasing the fish around, and petting them…” She paused in thought a moment and said, “I think I got into that daydream by thinking about the water in the story.”

“Sarah?”

“It’s a good story.”

Amos said, “What about you, Jaben? You’ve got to have something to say.”

Jaben said, “I always have something to say when I’ve had my morning bowl of coffee. Ugh, not even an espresso machine. Let me get back to you.”

Ellamae said, “Why don’t we get some more sleep, then go into town and get something to eat, maybe some coffee, and then maybe, maybe, try this again.”

The others nodded their groggy assent and padded off back to the three tents: one for the unmarried men, one for the unmarried women, and one for the married couple.


Jaben woke up, feeling delightfully refreshed. He felt sweaty, and the air was oppressively hot. The air felt slightly humid to him. He sat up, and looked around. Thaddeus was still sleeping, breathing deep breaths. Jaben slid out of his sleeping bag and stepped out of the tent.

The sun was high in the sky, and the sky was clear. He walked around on the pine needles, and lazily yawned. He walked over to a log, sat on a low part, and began to think.

That was a magnificent passage of Scripture, he thought, and the climax to a larger story. I’ve always taken away from it something about the wind of the Spirit. In a land dessicated by drought, the servant is told again and again to go back to look for signs of rain, going back even though he has seen nothing. On the seventh time, the servant sees a cloud the size of a man’s hand. And then, “Gird up your loins and run, lest the rain overtake you!” That’s how the wind of the Spirit blows — nothing for the longest time, and then a faint, imperceptible breeze, and then a storm.

His knee felt funny, as if there were pressure inside.

Now feels like the eye of the storm. Before was the fire, and now a moment of calm, and then there will be cleaning up. But this is a different kind of storm. Or is it?

He felt a soft arm over his shoulders, and turned and looked. Sarah kissed his cheek, and sat next to him.

“Hi, Sarah,” Jaben said, and gave her a hug and a kiss. “Are any of the other women up?”

“Yes, we’ve been up for about an hour. Talking.”

“‘Bout what?”

“Nothing.”

“What kind of nothing?”

“Silly stuff. Girl stuff. You wouldn’t be interested.”

Jaben reached behind her, and touched the back of her neck very, very lightly with the tip of his finger. She curled up.

Jaben looked at Sarah, as she sat back and relaxed. She had straight red hair cascading over her shoulders, and a round, freckled, face, with fair skin and a ribbon of deep red lips. Her body was — ‘fat’ would be the wrong word; ‘plump’, perhaps, or ’rounded’. Gironde. She was attractive. He looked at her, and felt glad that there are some women who do not feel the need to be twenty pounds underweight. Jaben smiled. Sarah plays the perfect ditz, he thought, and getting her into a deep conversation is usually impossible, but there’s more to her than meets the eye.

“Did you go and see the lake?” Sarah said. “It’s still, still, and every now and then a fish breaks the surface, and then ripples spread.”

“I just got up. I paced around, and sat down, and thought. Then you came.”

“Whatch’ya think about?”

“The Bible passage. I was thinking through. I feel that there’s another thought coalescing, coming together, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

A faint rumbling came from faroff.

Sarah looked thoughtful for a moment, and said, “Think it’ll rain?”

“I don’t think so. It could, but… Looking for a prediction of the day’s events in the Bible has the same aura as using it as a tool for divination. The fact that we read that passage today just means that this particular passage is what came up on the schedule.”

“So you don’t believe the Bible applies to our lives?”

“I do, it’s just — not that way. I wouldn’t have been thinking about it if I didn’t believe it applied.”

The land around them darkened, and they looked up. A cloud was between them and the sun.

“Hi, guys. May I join the conversation?” Lilianne was behind them.

Jaben’s hand shot out, and poked Sarah in the side.

“Eep!” Sarah jumped.

Sarah’s face turned slightly red, and she turned to face Jaben. “Do you never tire of tickling me?”

Jaben grinned, and winked. “Never.”

“Oh, well.” Sarah said, in mock resignation. “I suppose it can’t be helped.” She looked at Lilianne. “Do you think it’s time to wake everyone up?”

“Yes, let’s go.”

A few minutes later, they were all out sitting on the logs. Ellamae said, “I think we’ve all had some rest now; food wouldn’t hurt, but it’s nice to be here, and we should be able to pick up that Bible study. What do you think?” Désirée said, “Um…”

“Yes, Désirée?”

“Well,” she said.

There was a rumble of rolling thunder.

“Never mind. Let’s go on with the Bible study.”

Amos opened the Bible. “I liked the part where Elijah said—”

Splat! A fat raindrop splattered across the page.

Amos’s jaw dropped. He wiped the page off, closed the Bible, and looked up.

Another raindrop hit him in the eye.

Soon rain was falling all around them — sprinkles at first, then rain in earnest, then torrents. It was a warm, wet, heavy rain, with the sky dark as midnight, and the scene suddenly illuminated by flashes of stark, blue lightning. The wind blew about them; trees swayed rhythmically back and forth in the rain. Everything about them was filled with dark, rich, full colors, and was covered with the lifegiving waters.

The seven friends joined hands and danced in the rain.

Chapter Five

“Well, look what the cat dragged in today!” said the waitress. The friends had burst in the door, laughing, and soaked to the skin. “I wish I had some towels to give you.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Jaben said, looking around the diner. It was a small, cheery place, with a friendly noise about it. “Seven, nonsmoking.”

The waitress counted out seven menus, and said, “Walk this way, please.”

Sarah said, “Did you see the look on those people’s faces when we walked in?”

Thaddeus said, “Yep.”

They sat down around the table, and began to look through the menus. But not for long.

“Hey, Désirée. Tell us that joke you told me,” said Lilianne.

“Ok,” Désirée said. “There was once an unusually liberal and generous slave owner named Jim, who had a witty slave named Ike. Each morning they would tell each other their dreams (or so they said), and the one with the better dream won. Usually it was the master, Jim.

“One morning, Jim said, ‘I dreamed that I went to Negro Heaven, and in there everything was broken and dirty. The houses had holes in the walls, the windows were broken, and there was mud in the streets, and there were dirty Negroes all over the place.’

“Ike said, ‘Wow, master. We must have dreamed the same thing. I dreamed I went to White Heaven, and everything was spotless and immaculate — gold and ivory — and there were mansions and silver streets, but there wasn’t a soul in the place!'”

Lilianne said, “I remembered the joke I mentioned to you last night, Désirée, but couldn’t remember. There was a Jew named Jacob, who was financially in a bad way. He went to the synagogue, and prayed, ‘God, my bank account is low, and business is bad. Please let me win the lottery.’

“Some time passed, and he didn’t win the lottery. He ran out of money, and was in danger of being evicted. So Jacob went to the synagogue and prayed more fervently, ‘God, I’ve worked for you so hard, and I ask for so little. Please let me, just this once, win the lottery.’

“More time passed, and Jacob lost his house, his car. His family was out on the street. He came to the synagogue, and prayed, ‘Why, God, why? Why won’t you let me win the lottery?’

“The voice of God boomed forth, and said, ‘Jacob! Meet me half-way on this one. Buy a stupid ticket!‘”

There was silence, and then one laugh, and then another. The waitress came back, and asked, “Are you ready to order yet?”

“Um, uh, order. We were telling jokes. Could you give us a few more minutes?” asked Thaddeus.

“Certainly,” the waitress said, walking off.

This time, they made use of their menus, and thought of what to eat. The waitress came at the end, and they ordered — a few sandwiches, some soups, some fish…

“What do you call someone who speaks three languages?” asked Jaben.

“Uh, trilingual?” said Désirée.

“Good. What do you call someone who speaks two languages?”

“Bilingual!” said Sarah, smiling.

“And what do you call someone who speaks only one language?”

There was silence.

“American,” Jaben said.

Lilianne, smiling, said, “Here’s one. An English politician was speaking in a town near the Scottish border. In his speech, he slowly and emphatically said, ‘I was born an Englishman, I was raised an Englishman, and I will die an Englishman.’

“A Scottish voice from the back asked, ‘Ach, man. Have you no ambition?'”

After the chuckles died down, Thad said to Ellamae, “You look like you have something to say.”

Ellamae nodded, and said, “I do, but it’s a story I’m thinking of, not a joke.”

“Go ahead and tell it,” Désirée said.

“My mother has a harelip, as you know; that is a bit difficult for her now, but it was devastating to her as a little girl. She was teased quite a bit, and she would tell people that she had cut her lip on a shard of glass — somehow that was easier to admit than a physical deformity from birth. She was always unsure of herself, embarrassed, feeling less than her peers.

“One of the teachers was a kindly, plump little woman, Mrs. Codman, who had a sunny soul and was the delight of the children. Children would clamor about her, and her heart was big enough for all of them.

“The day came for the annual hearing test, when the children would cup their hands to their ears, and Mrs. Codman would whisper a sentence into their ears — something like ‘The moon is blue,’ or ‘I have new shoes,’ and the children would say what they heard.

“My mother’s turn came, and Mrs. Codman whispered into her ear,” — and then Ellamae spoke very slowly, and her voice dropped to a whisper — “‘I wish you were my little girl.'”

There was silence. Ellamae sat with a kind of quiet dignity; she glowed.

She continued. “Those seven words changed her life. She became able to trust people, to venture forth, to have courage and see her own beauty. I think those words have changed my life, too. Now that I think of it, the unspoken message she gave me throughout my childhood was, ‘I’m glad you’re my little girl.'”

She smiled, in a subtle, subdued manner, her elfin features bore a look that was regal, majestic, aristocratic.

“Wow,” Thaddeus said. “I never knew that about you or your mother.” He paused, closed his eyes in thought a moment, and said, “And I can see how it has shaped you.”

Ellamae’s eyes teared. “Terima kasih.

Thaddeus’s eyes lit up. “Sama sama.

They sat in blissful silence, a silence that spoke more powerfully than words.

Words were not needed.

The food arrived, piping hot; they joined hands and sat together in silence, their wet clothes beginning to dry. Finally, Amos said, “Amen,” and they began to eat without breaking the quiet.

Or at least they did not use their voices; I cannot tell you in full truth that they did not talk. They looked at each other, smiled, squeezed hands, let a tear slide, prayed. No words were exchanged, but a great deal was communicated.

When they finished, the waitress came with the check, and tarried a second.

“Ma’am?” Thaddeus said.

“Yes?” she said, slightly surprised.

“There is something you want to say to us, or ask us. What is it?”

She looked startled, and hesitated.

“You won’t offend us. Promise,” he said.

“Well, uh… You seem a little odd, not talking a whole meal long.”

“That’s not really what’s on your mind.”

“Ok, honey. Why are y’all telling racist jokes?”

Thaddeus said, “Thank you for being honest. To tell you the truth, we were a bit giddy. We probably shouldn’t have told those jokes in a restaurant.”

“No, I mean, why y’all telling racist jokes in the first place? You guys don’t seem the type that needs to tell those jokes. You look me in the eye, for one thing. You confuse me.”

“Do you ever tease your friends? Or do your friends ever tease you?”

“All the time.”

“Do you ever insult your friends? Or do your friends ever insult you? A real insult, I mean?”

“Never.”

“You see these jokes as being insults. Which racist humor may be. But this is not racist humor. It’s racial humor. It’s really much more like teasing.”

“That joke about the Jew was just plain mean.”

“That joke,” Lilianne said, “is a Jewish joke, and was told to me by a Jewish friend. It is quite typical of Jewish humor.”

The waitress hesitated. “But why do you need it in the first place? Don’t race relations matter to you? I would hope so, seeing as how you have a group of friends with both black and white.”

“They matter to us a great deal. What would your friendships be like if there was no room for teasing’s rowdy energy, if you always had to always walk on eggshells? Wouldn’t a friendship be better if it could absorb the energy of teasing and laugh a big belly laugh?”

“Could I have some time to think about it?”

“Take as much time as you want. We come by this town every now and then; we might stop in, and maybe we’ll be able to see you. And at any rate, I think you grasp our point, whether or not you agree with it.”

The waitress said, “Thank you.” She turned, started to walk away, and said, “And thank you for explaining. By the way, I was listening to the radio, and the fire is put out. The helicopter plus that tremendous rainstorm did it, not to mention flooded a few basements.”

“Woo-hoo!” shouted Sarah.

They paid the bill, leaving a generous tip, and headed out the door.

Chapter Six

The vehicles drove slowly along the winding roads, and as they came closer, each heart prayed that the meetingplace would be OK. As they cleared the last turn, they parked the car and the van, and got out in silence.

The meetingplace was reduced to cinders.

“My computer!” Jaben said.

“My paintings!” Sarah said.

As they stood, speechless, memories flashed through each mind, of moments spent there, treasures that were no more.

“I heard a story,” Sarah said through tears, “in which a man was fond of books, and had a massive library. One night, his angel appeared to him in a dream, and said, ‘Your time is near. Do you have any questions about the next world?’

“‘Will I have at least some of my books?’

“‘Probably.’

“‘Which ones? There are some that I really want to keep.’

“‘The ones you gave away.'”

Jaben completed the thought. “And now the only paintings of yours that you can still see are the ones you gave away.” He prayed a moment, and said, “You gave away some paintings that were very close to your heart. Now you can still see them.”

“What shall we do? What shall we do?” said Désirée.

Silence.

Then Ellamae, in her high, pure, clear voice, sang the first notes of a song.

Silence.

She sang the notes again, and reached out her hands.

The friends formed a circle, and joined hands.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise him all creatures here below.
Praise him above ye heav’nly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Amen.

Chapter Seven

“Well,” Amos said, “we should probably go and talk with the Weatherbys about the house.

Sarah slumped. “I don’t wanna talk to them about it.”

Amos said, “Neither do I, but we still should, and they are kind people. This is the first time I’ve thought about visiting them and not wanted to do it.”

“What’ll we say?” said Sarah.

“I don’t know,” said Ellamae, “but that is not reason not to go.”

“Let’s go,” said Jaben.

They slowly got into the van.

The drive to the Weatherbys’ dilapidated mansion seemed unusually long and slow, and Jaben carefully parked the van in the driveway. The friends got up, and walked up the gnarled path to the front door. Ellamae rang the doorbell, and listened to its echo.

“Well, at least the fire didn’t get their home.”

“Some of the plants are starting to bloom. The water was invigorating to them.”

Silence.

Ellamae rang the doorbell again.

Silence.

“Maybe they’re not home,” Sarah said.

“That may be,” said Ellamae. “We should probably leave them a note, and stop back. She fished in her purse for a pen and a notepad.

They talked a bit about what to say, and then wrote down:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Weatherby;

As you know, there has been a fire; it was started by a riflery accident with Thaddeus. None of us were hurt (we do not yet know if others were hurt), but the house you allowed us to use is in ashes.

We do not know what to say. We are very grateful to you for the use of that house, and we know it was a special place to others — children most of all. It was a place of memories for us, and we are the richer for it. We regret both to inform you that that wonderful house of yours is gone, and that you were out when we came, and so have to leave a note.

Thank you for the use of your house. We hope to be able to connect with you in person to speak about this.

The Kythers
Amos, Désirée, Jaben, Thaddeus, Sarah, Ellamae, Lilianne
 

The friends walked back, and got back into the van. “Where do we go now?” said Sarah.

“There’s the cave where we used to meet before the Weatherbys let us use the house,” said Lilianne. “Why don’t we go over there?”

“I want to give a gift to the Weatherbys,” Sarah said.

“What do you have in mind?” said Jaben.

“I don’t know, something special. Maybe something we could make.”

Jaben turned the keys, and they drove off.


The cavern was refreshingly cool, with air slowly passing through, sounding like a faint breathing. Amos’s flashlight swept over a few small crates that served as chairs and larger ones that functioned as tables, candles, matches, some flashlights, papers, some blankets, some sweaters, a sleeping bag, a pillow, a few other odds and ends, and a toolbox. Jaben struck a match, and lit the three wicks of a large candle. Amos turned the flashlight off.

Sarah picked up a moist flashlight, and pressed the switch.

Nothing happened.

She opened it, and dumped out two corroded D cells.

“Why do we store all of our bad batteries in our flashlights?”

Ellamae, shivering slightly, put on a sweater. It was loose around her elfin frame.

Sarah snuggled up against Thaddeus, and put an arm over Lilianne’s shoulder. “You know, it’s been a long time since we’ve role played.”

“Where were we?” Thaddeus said, interested.

“You were in the village, outside the castle. Looking for something — I don’t remember what.”

“And something happened when we drank from the spring,” said Lilianne. “It was a cold spring, like the one running through this cave.”

Sarah said, “Remember the time we went deep into this cavern, and found that pool this stream empties into, and petted the blind, eyeless fish?”

Lilianne nodded. Sarah had enjoyed that a great deal, and would have waded in had the others not stopped her.

Jaben closed his eyes, and appeared to be concentrating. “You are under a tree outside a chicken coop in the Urvanovestilli city Candlomita. There are children running around. About a hundred feet away, you see a troupe of performing Janra. One is juggling daggers and singing, one is playing a flute, three are doing acrobatics, and two are talking.”

Lilianne said, “‘Janra always make a day more interesting. Let’s go over.'”

Sarah said, “‘Yes, let’s.'”

Amos said, “‘Janra always make a day a little too interesting, if you ask me.'”

Sarah said, “‘Spoilsport!’ I take Rhoz by the hand and start walking over.”

Jaben said, “A little Janra girl comes running, with brightly colored ribbons streaming from her wrists and ankles, and says, ‘Spin me! Spin me!'”

Sarah said, “I take her to a clear spot and spin her.”

Jaben said, “The path is narrow, and there are people passing through. There aren’t any good places to spin her.”

Sarah said, “I pick her up, give her a hug and a kiss, and say, ‘What’s your name?'”

Jaben said, “She says, ‘Ank. What’s yours?’ and, before giving you time to answer, grabs your nose and says, ‘Honk!'”

Sarah said, “I’m going to set her down.”

Jaben said, “She runs over to Rhoz and says, ‘Hey, Mr. Tuz-man! Throw me!'”

Amos said, “I’m going to pick her up and toss her about, while walking to the other Janra.”

Jaben said, “A young Janra in a shimmering midnight blue robe approaches you, holding a small knife and a thick, sculpted white candle. He says, ‘Greetings, fellow adventurers. May I introduce myself? My name is Nimbus, and I would like to offer you a greeting-gift. This is a candle which I carved. Perhaps, when you light it, it will remind you of the hour of our meeting.”

Amos said, “I’m going to take it and look at it.”

Jaben said, “Wrapped around the candle is a bas-relief sculpture of a maiden touching a unicorn, next to a pool and a forest grove. The detail is exquisite.”

Amos said, “I’m going to hand it to Cilana for safe keeping and say, ‘Thank you, Nimbus. I hope to be able to get to know you.

“‘Do you know anything about the crystalline chalice?'”

Jaben said, “‘The crystalline chalice? Yes, have heard of it. I used to own it, actually. The last I heard of it, were rumors that it was either in the towers of the castle, or possibly in the depths of Mistrelli’s labyrinth. But those are only rumors, and they are old rumors at that.'”

Sarah said, “What time is it?”

Jaben looked at his watch, and said, “7:58.”

Sarah gave him a dirty look, and said, “You know what I mean.”

Jaben grinned and slowly said, “Oooh! In the game!”

Sarah continued to give him a dirty look, and said, “Yeeees.”

Jaben said, “It is now dusk; you have been on your feet all day, and feel tired, dirty, hungry, and thirsty.”

Sarah said, “‘Nimbus, would you like to join us for dinner?'”

Jaben said, “‘I would love to, but I told a group of friends that I’d meet them for some strategy games and discussion. If you’re looking for a good bite to eat, I would recommend The Boar’s Head;’ and here he turns to Rhoz, ‘it’s the one place in this whole area where you can get a good beer. You know the saying, “Never drink Tuz wine or Urvanovestilli beer!” Well, they don’t serve any Urvanovestilli beers. Plenty of Urvanovestilli wines — they even have Mistrelli green.”

Ellamae’s eyes widened.

“‘But for beers, they have a couple of Yedidia and Jec lagers, and then a Tuz stout, and then a Tuz extra stout, and then a Tuz smoked!'”

Amos looked up. “‘Thank you, Nimbus.'”

Jaben said, “Nimbus bows deeply, and then walks away at a pace that manages to somehow be both slow and relaxed, and move faster than you could run. After he leaves, a small, multicolored ball rolls between your feet.”

Amos, Désirée, Ellamae, Thaddeus, Sarah, and Lilianne said, in unison, “We run, post haste!”

Jaben said, “You move along, and manage to clear the game, although you hear its sounds behind you. When you slow down, you come to an intersection of three streets; there is a beggar here.”

Ellamae said, “I’m going to give him a silver crown, and say, ‘Hi, there! Could you tell us where The Boar’s Head is?'”

Jaben said, “The beggar points along one of the streets, and says, ‘Two streets down, on the corner.’ You reach the inn without event, and a pretty waitress leads you to a table. She recommends boar in wine sauce, and the chicken broth soup.”

Amos said, “‘If there are no objections, I think we’ll go with that. I’d like a double of the Tuz smoked.'”

Ellamae said, “I’m going to set the candle Nimbus gave us in the middle of the table, and light it.”

Jaben said, “The wick does not burn like most wicks; it sparkles brightly.”

Ellamae said, “Interesting. I’m going to watch it.”

Jaben said, “The wick burns down to the bottom, and then appears to go out. A thin column of white smoke rises.”

Ellamae said, “That’s odd.”

Thaddeus said, “‘I’d like a glass of mild cider.'”

Jaben said, “She turns to you and nods, and then something odd happens. The candle begins to shoot brightly colored balls of fire. One of them lands in a nearby patron’s drink, and another in some mashed potatoes. Most of them bounce down and roll around on the tablecloth, which catches fire. The waitress pours a pitcher of cider from a nearby table over the burning tablecloth, and turns to you, puts her hands on her hips, and says, ‘Guests will kindly refrain from the use of pyrotechnic devices while inside the restaurant!'”

Amos buried his face in his hands, and then said, “‘He gave us a Roman candle!'”

Jaben said, “‘Well of course it’s a Roman candle! What did you think it was?'”

Amos said, “‘No, you don’t understand. A Janra named Nimbus met us and gave us what looked like a perfectly ordinarily candle.'”

Jaben said, “She rolls her eyes, and says, ‘Oooh, Nimbus! Please excuse me one moment.’ She walks away, and in a moment returns with something in her hand. ‘Please give this to Nimbus for me.’ She heavily places a large lump of coal on the table.”

Amos said, “I’m going to take it, and say, ‘Thank you. And who should I say that this lump of coal is from?'”

Jaben said, “‘Oh, he knows perfectly well who I am. We’re good friends, even if he is always trying to tickle me.'”

Thaddeus and Lilianne both poked Sarah in the side.

Amos waited until the others had finished ordering, and said, “‘Well, Nimbus was right about at least one thing.'”

“‘Ooh?'” Lilianne said.

“‘When we lit the candle, we remembered the hour of our meeting with him.'”

Chapter Eight

She stepped onto the construction site, and looked. The building’s frame was almost complete, and workers were beginning to lay conduit and 4×8″ sheets for the floors.

A young man — short, pale, wiry, and with sweaty black hair showing from under his headgear — walked over. “This site is dangerous. You need to wear a bump cap.”

“A what?”

“A hard hat. Like I’m wearing. C’mon, I’ll take you to get one.”

They walked along in silence. “Penny for your thoughts,” he said.

“Oh, I was just thinking about a book I’m reading.”

“What’s the title?”

“I’m not sure it’s something a construction worker would recognize, let alone read,” she said.

“Try me,” he said.

Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, by Franky Schaeffer.”

“Aah, yes. Like Why Catholics Can’t Sing, only better. I liked, and wholly agree with, the part about the deleterious effects of pragmatism. Franky’s father wrote some pretty good books as well; have you read How Shall We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture? The history of art is summarily traced there. Modern Art and the Death of a Culture is another good title on that topic.”

Her jaw dropped. “How long have you been a construction worker?”

“Only a few months. I’ve worked in a number of other professions — truck driver, child care worker, and firefighter, to name a few, and enjoyed them all. Why do you ask?”

She did not answer the question, but said, “Forgive me for asking this, and I know I’m breaking all sorts of social rules, but why on earth are you working as a construction worker? Why aren’t you working as a software engineer for instance?”

He smiled and said, “Well, I do program in my spare time; I’ve written a couple of applications in Java. But that’s not answering your question.”

He stopped walking and closed his eyes in thought for a moment, and then said, “I suppose there are a two reasons, a lesser and a greater. For the lesser — have you read Miyamoto Musashi’s A Book of Five Rings?”

“No; I don’t think I’ve heard of it.”

A Book of Five Rings is considered by many to be the canonical book on martial arts strategy. It—”

“You’re a martial artist, too?” she said, her jaw dropping further.

“No, but martial arts embody a way of thinking, and that way of thinking is beneficial to learn. A Book of Five Rings was written by Miyamoto Musashi, the greatest swordsman in Japanese history, perhaps the greatest swordsman in world history. The book itself is cryptic and deep, and is used as a guidebook by some businessmen and some computer techs, though I came to know about it by a different route. After a certain point, Musashi would enter duels armed with only wooden swords, and defeat master swordsmen armed with the Japanese longsword and shortsword.

“One of the pivotal statements is, ‘You must study the ways of all professions.‘ And Musashi did. In the book, he likened swordsmanship to building a house, and he was an accomplished artist; he left behind some of Japan’s greatest swords, paintings, and calligraphy. Not to mention a lot of good stories. Anyway, his legendary stature as a swordsman came in large part through his extensive study of disciplines that are on the surface completely unrelated to swordplay.

“I had not encountered that book yet in college, but (though my degree is in physics) I studied in subjects all across the sciences and the humanities. And I learned more outside the classroom than inside.”

The woman closed her mouth.

“Now I am, in a sense, moving to another phase of my education, learning things I couldn’t learn in an academic context.”

By this point, they had reached a van.

“And your other reason?” she said.

“My other reason? It’s work. Honest, productive, valuable work. It may be less valued in terms of money, and I may eventually settle down as a software engineer — I’ve gotten a few offers, by the way. But I am right now building a building that will house books, for people to read and children to dream by. It will give me pleasure to walk in these doors, check out a book, walk by a little girl, watch her smile at the pictures in a picture book, and know that I helped make it possible. Surely that smile is worth my time.” He reached into the van, and pulled out a bump cap. “Here’s how you adjust the strap to fit your head. The cap should rest above your head, like so, rather than being right on it. That gives the straps some room to absorb the shock if something falls on you from above.”

The woman, looking slightly dazed, extended her hand and said, “We’ve talked, but I don’t think I’ve introduced myself properly. My name is Deborah.”

The man shook her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Deborah. My name is Jaben.”

Chapter Nine

Ellamae heard a soft knocking on the door. “Come in, Sunny. I’ve been waiting for you.”

A little girl with long blonde hair walked in, and held up her mouth for a kiss. Ellamae gave her a peck, and then helped her up on the piano bench. “What are you today?”

“I’m a flower. A daisy.”

Ellamae thought for a second, and then said, “The petals on a daisy go around; if you move your finger along, you come back to the same one. With music, it’s the same, but there’s a twist. If you trace along the notes, you come back to the same one.” She played a few notes, and then closed her eyes and said, “To you, are the notes a circle, like the petals of the daisy, or a line, like the piano keyboard is laid out?”

“A circle! A circle!” Sunny said enthusiastically.

“Ok. I want you to improvise something for me that sounds like a circle. It’s interesting to me that you hear it that way.”

“Why?” the little girl asked.

“Why do I want you to play a circle, or why is it interesting?”

“Why is it interesting?”

“Because you hear things in ways that I don’t, and sometimes I learn something new from you.”

“Even if I’m a little girl?”

“Especially if you are a little girl. To me, the notes sound like a line, and so I want to hear you play. I want to hear the circle through your ears. Besides, it will help me teach you.”

“What keys can I use? The big ones, or the little ones, or both?”

“Right now I want you to stay with just the big keys, although you can feel the tips of the little keys to help you keep your place. And remember that, when you are not talking with me or your parents, you need to call them the white keys and the black keys.”

“Why?”

Ellamae closed her eyes in thought. “A smooth surface and a rough surface feel different, right?”

“Yes.”

“And loud and quiet sound different, right?”

“Yes.”

“There is a difference between the white keys and the black keys that is like those differences to a sighted person.”

“On some pianos, the big keys and the little keys feel different. The big keys feel smooth, like hard plastic or glass. The little keys felt smooth, but a different kind of smooth, like bare wood. And on Gramp-Grampa’s piano, the big keys feel like that funny stone in Polly’s cage. I don’t like pianos where the big keys and the little keys feel the same. Is that what you mean?”

Ellamae played a few notes, a musical question. Sunny played a startlingly simple answer.

“You hear and you touch, but they are different, right?”

“Yes, they are different.”

“Well, seeing is different from hearing and touch, in the same way. It’s hard to describe. Describing seeing to you is kind of like describing music to a man who doesn’t hear.”

“But music is like dancing! And swimming! And skipping!”

“Well, ok, I guess you’re right.” Ellamae’s eyes lit up. “Imagine that you took off your shirt, and wherever you went, everything became really small and pressed up against your chest and your tummy.”

“That would be fun! And confusing.”

“But do you see how that would help you know where things are around you?”

Sunny frowned for a second, and said, “I think so.”

“That is what seeing is like.”

“I wish I could see!”

“I do, too. But you know what? You see a lot of things that other people don’t. Your sense of touch picks up on things that most people don’t — like one of my friends, Sarah.”

“I want to meet her!”

“That can probably be arranged. Anyway, you hear things that other people don’t hear. When we improvise together, you do things that I wouldn’t imagine, and in a way I can hear them through your ears. When you play music, you let other people hear the things you imagine, and that is a great gift.”

Ellamae placed the child’s hands on the keyboard, her left pinky on middle C. “Now, I want you to play music in a circle.”

Sunny struck middle C, then the C an octave above, then the C an octave below. She played these three notes, venturing an octave further. Then she added D, F, and G, almost never striking two consecutive notes in the same octave. Then she added E, first playing fragmented arpeggios, and then all five notes, and then the whole scale, ranging all across the keyboard — quite a reach for her little body! Ellamae didn’t like it at first; it sounded jumpy and disjointed. Then something clicked within her, and she no longer heard the octaves at all, but the notes, the pure colors of the notes, arranged in a circle. This must be what it is like to have perfect pitch, she thought. Sunny wound the music down.

“That’s very good, Sunny. Sometimes I think I learn as much from you as you are learning from me. Did you practice ‘By the Water’ this week?”

The little girl placed her finger on her lip.

“Do you still remember how it goes?”

Smiling, the child started to plink the tune away, in a light, merry, happy-go-lucky way. Ellamae said, “That’s how we play ‘At the Circus.’ ‘By the Water’ is slow and restful, like Mommy reading you a story at bedtime. Think about drinking hot cocoa when you are sleepy. Can you play it again?”

Sunny played the song again, but this time at a placid adagio place. Her touch was still light, but it was light in a soft way.

“That’s good, Sunny. Now, would you scoot over a little, to the right? Let’s play Question and Answer.”

Sunny moved, and Ellamae sat down on the bench next to her. Ellamae played a phrase, and the little girl responded. Then she played something slightly different, and the child varied her response. Ellamae played a slightly longer question, and Sunny played a much longer, merrier, dancelike answer.

“That’s good, Sunny. Keep your hands dancing on the keyboard.”

Ellamae started to play a complex tune, and at the very climax stopped playing. Sunny, without missing a beat, picked it up and completed it. Then Ellamae joined in, and the two began to improvise a duet, a musical dialogue — sometimes with two voices, sometimes with one, sometimes silent. Many threads developed, were integrated, and then wound down to a soft finish.

They sat in silence for a while, breathless, and then Ellamae reached atop the piano.

“I have something for you, Sunny.”

“A CD!” the girl said, with excitement.

“Yes, this is a Bach CD. For practice this week, I want you to spend a half hour listening to the Little Fugue in G minor. Have the CD player repeat on track seven. Then I want you to spend half an hour improvising with the theme. Stay on the big keys; it’ll sound a little different, but stick with it. Next time, I’ll show you a way to use some of the big keys and some of the little keys.”

“Cool!”

A knock sounded from the door. “Is Sunny ready to go yet?”

Sunny gave Ellamae a hug, and turned away. “Mommy! Mommy! Look what Teacher gave me!”

With that, she was off, leaving Ellamae in silent contemplation.

Chapter Ten

Thaddeus marched down the steps, into the unfinished basement. He ducked under low hanging pipes and air ducts, not bothering to turn on the lights because he knew its nooks and crannies so well. He stepped onto a screw, yelped, and then ducked into a place called “the corner.”

There was an armchair among the various odds and ends — old, tattered, and very comfortable. He wrapped a blanket around himself in the cool air, and sunk in.

He closed his eyes, and began to pray:

“Our Father,
who art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power,
and the glory forever.
Amen.”

He began to grow still, grow still.

As he became quiet, he examined himself, confessed his sins. He began to sink deep into the heart of God, and there he rested and loved. Words were not needed.

Thaddeus held his spirit stiller than his body, in a listening silence.

“Yes, God?” he asked without words.

He sat, still, in wordless communion, feeling with his intuition, with the depths of his being. And waited.

Gradually, a message formed in his heart. A message of task, of needed and even urgent action, of responsibility.

What kind of assignment, what kind of need? he thought.

Silence. A dark cloud of unknowing. Darkness and obscurity.

What do I do? he wondered.

Wait, child. Wait.

Thaddeus had a timeless spirit; he knew not and cared not whether three minutes had passed, or three hours. He let himself feel the notes of the timeless hymn and Christmas carol, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.” If he rested in God, he could wait.

Thaddeus slowly returned to consciousness, and left, his heart both peaceful and troubled.

Chapter Eleven

RING! Sarah picked up the phone.

A businesslike and official voice said, “Hello. May I please speak with the Squeaky-Toy of the house?”

“Oh, hi, Jaben. What’s up?”

“Amos said he was going to meet me for dinner to talk about some stuff, and he hasn’t shown up. I called Désirée, and she said he’s not in any of his usual haunts. It’s not like him to break an appointment, and I was wondering if you would happen to know anything about it.”

“Wow, no I don’t. The last time I saw him was in the cave. By the way, do you know where my red bouncy ball is?”

“No idea.”

Chapter Twelve

Six friends stood in the cave in the early, early morning; none of them had slept well, and Jaben hadn’t bothered to have his morning bowl of coffee.

“I called the police,” Désirée said, “and they said that he can’t be officially treated as a missing person until he’s been gone for twenty-four hours. They asked me a number of questions — his height, weight, physical appearance, when he’d last been seen, and so on — and then left.”

“I was praying yesterday,” Thaddeus said. “I was praying, and I had a feeling of — urgency, but even more strongly of waiting. I’m confused. Usually, when God tells me to wait, it is for a long period of time. This was an eyeblink. Does this mean that the waiting is over, or that I — we? — should still wait?”

No one answered.

“What do we do now?” Sarah asked.

“We can sing,” Ellamae said. “Sing and pray.”

“Sing?” Désirée asked incredulously. “At a time like this?”

“How can you not sing at a time like this? If you can’t sing at a time like this, when can you sing?” Ellamae replied.

Désirée nodded.

Ellamae’s high, pure voice began, and was joined by other voices, deeper voices.

“O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all about me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!

“O the deep, deep love of Jesus, spread His praise from shore to shore!
How he loveth, ever loveth, changeth never, nevermore!
How he watches o’er his loved ones, died to call them all his own;
How for them he intercedeth, watcheth o’er them from the throne!

“O the deep, deep love of Jesus, love of every love the best!
‘Tis an ocean vast of blessing, ’tis a haven sweet of rest!
O the deep, deep love of Jesus, ’tis a heaven of heavens to me;
And it lifts me up to glory, for it lifts me up to Thee!

Désirée’s heart had calmed considerably during the singing. “Let’s sing it again,” she said. And they did. Then her voice led a song:

“My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the sweet though far-off hymn that hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul— how can I keep from singing?

“What though my joys and comforts die? The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round! Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

“I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin; I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths since first I learned to love it:
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing:
All things are mine since I am his— How can I keep from singing?”

“Can we pray now?” There was considerable concern in Ellamae’s questioning.

Désirée hesitated, and then said, “Yes. I am calm now.”

They joined hands and closed their eyes. For a while, there was silence, finally broken by Désirée’s tear-choked voice. “Lord, keep my husband safe.”

The songs held new meaning to her.

Jaben said, “I think of myself as a theologian, but I do not know the answers to the questions on our hearts. Lord, hold us in your heart.”

The faint echo of a gust of wind was heard in the cave.

Sarah began to hum, “I love you, Lord,” and the others joined in.

“Why?” asked Désirée.

Silence.

As the time passed, the silence changed in character. It became deeper, a present silence. The faint sounds — of air passing through the cavern, of people breathing, of cloth rubbing against cloth as people moved — seemed louder, more audible, and yet part of the silence.

“Lord, we come to you with so many things on our hearts,” Ellamae said. “In the midst of all this, I wish to thank you for the many blessings we have enjoyed. I thank you for my music, and for all my students, especially Sunny. She is such a delight, and I look forward to seeing her abilities mature. I thank you especially for Amos, for the delight he is to us, his patience, his deep laughter.” Voices had been saying “Amen,” and Jaben added, “for his taking teasing so well.” “If this is the last we have seen of him, we thank you for allowing us to pass these brief moments with such a friend,” Ellamae finished.

“Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven,” Lilianne joined. “Lord, we come before you in confidence that you have adopted us as your children, and whatever we ask will be done. May our request be your will, drawing on your willingness, as we ask that our fellowship be restored, and our friend and brother be found.” They sat for a time, continuing to hold each other’s hands, crying, listening to the silence. Then a squeeze went around, and with one voice they said, “Amen.”

It had been an hour. The hugs were long and lingering, and Jaben felt the kisses a little more. The six friends out of the cave and into their days’ activities, their hearts deeply troubled and even more deeply at peace.

Chapter Thirteen

Ellamae had come over to Désirée’s and Amos’s little white house, ostensibly to help with the housework. They were washing and drying dishes and chattering when the doorbell rang.

Désirée, in the middle of scouring out a dirty pot, said, “Could you get that, honey? My hands are kind of full.”

Ellamae set down the dish she was drying, and the towel. She walked over to the front door.

There was a police officer there, and something about his demeanor said that he did not bear good news.

“Mrs. Godfrey?”

“She’s in the kitchen, washing dishes. Come on in.”

Désirée had rinsed and dried her hands, and came into the living room. She shook the officer’s hand. “Hi, I’m Désirée.”

“Officer Rick. Would you be willing to sit down for a second?”

With trepidation, Désirée sat down in the armchair. Ellamae perched on the edge of the couch.

“Following up on a call, we found your husband’s car in a ditch by the roadside. The windows were broken, and the n-word was spray painted all over the sides.”

Désirée brought her hand to her mouth, and her eyes filled with tears. She suddenly looked like a very small woman in a very big chair.

Ellamae closed her eyes in pain. The officer continued. “We are presently fingerprinting the car, and beginning a search of the area. We will call you if we find out anything definite. I’m sorry to bear this news.”

Ellamae walked over, and wrapped her arms around Désirée. “Thank you, officer.” She paused a moment, and said, “I think we need to be alone now. Sorry you had to bear this news.”

The policeman said, “Yes, Ma’am,” and stepped out the door.

Désirée and Ellamae stood, held each other, and wept.

Chapter Fourteen

Jaben walked up the steps of the sanctuary slowly. Sarah was standing next to him, and squeezed his hand; he touched her, but did not feel her. The friends walked into the church quietly; the other members of the congregation gave them a little more space, and a hush fell. Désirée held on tightly to Ellamae’s arm.

“Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the celebrant said.

“And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen,” the congregation answered.

“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen,” the celebrant prayed.

The processional hymn was Amazing Grace, words and notes that flowed automatically, thoughtlessly, until the fourth verse:

“The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.”

Jaben had been thinking, a lot, and he held onto those words as a lifeline. With them came a little glimmer of hope that his beloved friend might be OK.

“Glory to God, glory in the highest and peace to His people on earth.
Lord God, heavenly King. Almighty God and Father,

“We worship You, we give You thanks, we praise You for Your glory.”Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth.
Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God,
“You take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
You are seated at the right hand of the Father, receive our pray’r.
For You alone are the Holy One, for you alone are the Lord.
For You alone are the most high, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God, the Father.

“Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.
Amen. Give glory to God.
Amen. Give glory to God.

“Amen. Give glory to God.”

In the music, Jaben felt lifted up into the divine glory — a taste of Heaven cut through his pain.

The celebrant said, “The Lord be with you.”

The congregation echoed, “And also with you.”

The celebrant bowed his head and said, “Let us pray.

“Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ came to seek out and save the lost: grant that we, looking in the divine Light you give us, and thinking in the holy wisdom you bestow on us, may succeed in the endeavors you set before us, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

A reader stepped up and said, “A reading from Ruth.

“But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.’

“The Word of the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” the congregation answered.

The celebrant said, “We will read the Psalm together in unison.”

The whole congregation read aloud, “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.
You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’
even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.'”

Two tears slid down Lilianne’s and Désirée’s cheeks.

“The word of the Lord,” the celebrant said.

“Thanks be to God,” the congregation answered.

“A reading from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians,” another reader announced.

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’

“The Word of the Lord,” concluded the reader.

“Thanks be to God,” answered the congregation.

Jaben mulled over the texts.

The congregation rose, singing, “Alleluia! Alleluia! Opening our hearts to Him.
Singing Alleluia! Alleluia! Jesus is our King.”

“A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Luke,” said the celebrant.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’

“The Gospel of the Lord.”

“Praise to you, Lord Christ,” answered the congregation, and sat down.

The celebrant walked behind the pulpit, and said, “There was a Baptist minister who would every Sunday stand behind the pulpit and say, ‘The Lord be with you!’ And every Sunday, the congregation would answer, ‘And also with you.’

“One Sunday, he said ‘The Lord be with you!’ as usual, but the microphone was turned off, and his voice did not carry very well in the large sanctuary. The congregation did not respond.

“He tapped the microphone, and saw that there was no sound, and so he said in a loud voice, ‘I think there’s a problem with the mike!’

“The congregation answered, ‘And also with you.'”

There was a chuckle throughout the congregation. Jaben’s nose wrinkled in distaste. Jaben objected strongly to Kant’s idea of Religion Within the Bounds of Reason. He was quite fond of Chesterton’s statement that, among intellectuals, there are two types of people: those that worship the intellect, and those that use it. He objected even more strongly to America’s idea of Religion Within the Bounds of Amusement. It wasn’t that he didn’t like a good joke, or having a bit of fun. It was just that he didn’t confuse those things with edifying instruction in the Word of God. When his irritation wore off, he began to sink into thought.

Jaben slowly turned the Scripture passages over in his mind. Each one seemed to say something about Amos.

It was then and there that Jaben Onslow Pfau decided that he would do everything he could, whatever the cost, come Hell or high water, to rescue Amos Regem Godfrey, his dear and beloved friend and brother.

Chapter Fifteen

There was a clamor of people around the friends. A black man, standing 6’8″ at just under 300 pounds, built like a brick wall, and bearing a gentle radiance, approached them, along with his little mother. The woman said, “I remember when Amos and my son were wee little boys, and there was rain after a heavy truck drove through the street. They both played in the mud, happy as pigs in a blanket!”

The man said, “If there’s anything we can do to help, just tell us.”

Jaben said, “As a matter of fact, Bear, yes, there is.”

“Yes?” the man said eagerly.

“Could we join you for dinner? I need to think, and having more company and less work to do would help me.”

“Certainly,” Bear said. “It would be a pleasure,” his mother added.

“What are we having?” Thaddeus said eagerly.

“Rice and gravy, fried chicken, and peach cobbler.”

“Mmm, soul food,” Thaddeus said, smiling. “I’ll try not to drool on the way over.”

“Ok,” Bear said, his deep voice rumbling into an even deeper laughter.


Different people were in and out of the kitchen at different times, although Grace, Bear’s mother, and Lilianne were always in. A pleasing aroma filled the house; Thad wasn’t the only one who found it hard not to drool.

Bear picked Jaben up and squeezed him in a big Bear hug. Then he set him down, and, placing his arm over Jaben’s shoulder, asked, “So, whatchya thinkin’ about, Bro?”

Jaben closed his eyes. “I want to find Amos, if he’s dead or alive. I know you’re supposed to leave this to the authorities, but it is on my heart to do so. I want to do whatever it takes, whatever the cost, to find him.”

Sarah walked out of the kitchen, her ears cocked. “I’m in.”

“Me, too,” said Lilianne’s voice.

“How’re you going to do that?” Bear asked, his eyebrows raised in curiosity.

“Don’t bother me with details.”

“I’m going with you, too,” said Ellamae, and squeezed his hand.

“Do you want to use my gun?” Bear asked. His gun was legendary in the town as an elephant gun with a laser sight.

“Bear, you know I can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a sniper rifle.”

“I’m in,” said Thaddeus, his eyes wide with interest. “Could we go out in the forest and shoot a few crabapples?”

“Just a second while I go get it.” Bear disappeared up some stairs.

“Honey, you know I’m in,” said Désirée.

Bear returned, carrying a very large rifle. He held it out to Thaddeus.

Thaddeus hefted it, and said, “Let’s go.”

As the two walked out the door, Thaddeus asked, “Why do you use such a massive gun, Bear? Nothing you hunt needs that kind of firepower.”

A stick snapped under Bear’s weight. “I don’t know. It’s me, I guess. Same reason I use a sixteen pound sledgehammer, or thirty-two when they’ll let me bring one. Part of it is toy and… you know the saying, ‘The only difference between a man and a boy is the size of the toy.'”

“How do you turn the laser sight on?” Thaddeus asked. “I’ve never used one.”

“Here,” Bear said. “Like this.”

Thaddeus lowered himself to the ground, and said, “See that crabapple tree out at battlesight zero? See that crabapple that sticks out to the far left?”

“Battlesight zero for this gun is about three times what you’re used to.”

“Oh, yeah. Thanks. I’ll adjust accordingly. Anyway, see that crabapple?” “The really little one?” Bear asked. “Uh-huh.” Thaddeus grew still, his body’s tiny swaying decreasing and decreasing. The tiny crababble glowed red. Then it stopped glowing, and Thaddeus closed his eyes.

Boom! A resounding, thunderous gunshot echoed all around.

The crabapple was no longer there.

Thaddeus rubbed his shoulder, and handed the gun to Bear.

“I’m sorry, Bear, but I can’t use that gun. It’s much too heavy for me, and the kick from that one shot is going to give me bruises. I can feel it now. I really appreciate the offer; I have for a long time longed to fire Bear’s gun. But I can’t use it. I need to stick with my .22.”

“You are a true marksman, Thaddeus, and a good man. I hope that you don’t meet anything that requires the firepower to take down a grizzly.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Thaddeus said. “I heard this from Jaben. Which is better to have if you’re attacked by a grizzly: a 10-gauge, or a hollow-nosed .45?”

“Ummm…” Bear hesitated.

“The shotgun, because you can use it as a club when it runs out of ammo.”

Bear laughed a deep, mighty laugh, and then they walked back. That man, Bear thought, was not entirely telling an innocent joke.

Chapter Sixteen

Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring. “We’re sorry, but the number you have dialed is an imaginary number. Please hang up, rotate the phone clockwise by ninety degrees, and dial again. Beep!

“C’mon, Jaben. Pick up the phone.” The voice paused, and reiterated, “Pick up the phone.”

Jaben picked up the phone. “Leave me alone, Thad! I’ve talked with Bear, and he’s given me time off. I need to do some thinking.”

“Amos is in Mexico.”

What?!?

“Amos is in Mexico.”

“How do you know that? Did he call you? Is he OK?”

“No, he didn’t call me. I was just… praying, and Amos is in Mexico.”

“Ok. That changes my plans.”

“Mine, too.”

“Let’s meet at the cave tonight. Could you call the others? I still need to do some processing.”

“I already have called the others.”

“Ok, see you there.”

“See ya! Wouldn’t want to be ya!”

Chapter Seventeen

Only one candle flickered, but the cave did not seem dark. The air was cool, but the Kythers were much too excited to feel cold. They were there with a mission, with a purpose.

Jaben said, “I think we should take a day to prepare, and then leave for Mexico. In a way, a day is not nearly enough time, but in another way a day may be more than we can afford. We need to use the time wisely. What will you do? I will work on securing material provisions.”

Lilianne said, “I will pray. Pray and fast.”

Thaddeus said, “I will talk with God.”

Désirée said, “I will talk with my kin for support.”

Sarah said, “I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe tell loved ones goodbye for a while, I’m going on an adventure.”

Ellamae said, “Plant a tree.”

“What?” Sarah asked.

“Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew what the Lord were coming the next day. His answer was very simple: plant a tree. It was the ultimate scatological response. Instead of nonstop singing, prayer, fasting, and wailing about ‘I am a worm!’ he reasoned that he had been planning to plant a tree, and if that was worth doing at all, it would be worth doing when the Lord returned. So he said he would plant a tree. Apart from packing, I’m just going to spend my day normally, and then go.”

“I’m with you,” said Sarah.

Chapter Eighteen

Ellamae smiled at the familiar knock on the door. “Come in, Sunny,” she said.

Sunny bounced in. “Teacher, teacher, I’ve been waiting to play for you.” She jumped up on the piano bench.

“Go ahead and play,” Ellamae said, looking with wonder on this little child.

Sunny began to play, and Ellamae listened with a shock. She had not taught the girl about different keys yet — other than C and the pentatonic key of the black keys, which were plenty to start with — and the child was confidently playing music in G minor. It sounded vaguely like Bach, at very least a set of variations on the theme of his little fugue — and then Ellamae realized what she was listening to. Ellamae was listening to a fugue in one voice.

She realized with a start that the music had shifted to the key of E minor, and was growing fuller, richer, deeper. Many different threads were introduced, developed, and then integrated. The music rose to a crescendo and then came to a sudden and startling conclusion. There was silence.

“Do you like it?” Sunny said, a bashful smile on her face.

“Yes, I like it very much. Did it take you all week to compose?”

“I didn’t compose it, Ellamae. I improvised it.”

“Sunny, how would you like to take a walk?”

“A walk? Where?”

“To go visit my friend Sarah. I’ll leave your mother a note, and not charge for this lesson. I’m going to look for my friend Amos, and I may not be back for a while. I love the keyboard, but I’d like to spend these last moments doing something else. Will you come with me?”

“I would love to!”

Ellamae wrote out a note, and taped it to the door of the lesson room, and then said, “C’mon, Sunny. Take my hand.”

As they walked out, Sunny turned her face up to the light, and said, “The sunlight is warm today!”

Ellamae said, “It is. Perhaps feeling sunlight is better than looking at sunlight. What did you do this past week?”

Sunny said, “I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do,” replied Ellamae.

“I got to ride a horse bareback with my Mom. That was fun. The horse was hot, and I could feel him breathing in and out, and I could feel the wind kissing my face.”

“Is wind a mystery to you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Sighted people find wind to be confusing; we can see what it does, like blow leaves around, but we can’t see the wind itself. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit is like wind that way.”

“I don’t find wind confusing. I feel it, and hear it, and hear what it does. It’s like a friend, moving around me and hugging me. Is that like the Spirit? I don’t find God to be confusing; he’s like a friend, or a warm bowl of soup, or… I don’t know what else to say, but he isn’t confusing.”

Ellamae pondered these words. Perhaps later the child would know the side of God that is wild and mysterious — or was everything so wild and mysterious to her that she made her peace with them, and was not frightened at the wild mystery of God? This was a voice that could call God ‘Daddy’, and be completely unafraid.

“Is that like the Spirit?” Sunny repeated. “Is that like the Spirit, Teacher?”

“I don’t know. I’m not a theologian. I think it is, but in a different way than Jesus meant. Maybe wind is different to blind people and sighted people. I wonder what else is—”

“What’s a theo-lo-, a the-, a the-o-loge-yun?” Sunny interrupted.

“A theologian is someone who devotes his life to studying the nature of God, and faith, and hope, and love. A theologian is somebody who reads the Bible and learns deep lessons from it.”

“Why aren’t you a theo-logian? I think you’re a theologian. I’m a theologian. Today I learned that God loves me. That’s a deep lesson. I think everybody should be a theologian.”

“Yes, but a theologian is somebody who does that in a special way, and is more qualified—wait, that isn’t right, a theologian is—” Ellamae paused, and closed her eyes. “I don’t know. I don’t know what makes a theologian. Maybe you and I are theologians. I don’t know.”

“But I thought grown-ups knew everything!”

“Nononononononononono!” Ellamae said. “Grown-ups don’t know everything. Here’s a story I was told when I was a little girl like you in Sunday school.

“An Indian and a white man were standing together on a beach. The white man took a stick, and made a small circle in the sand. He said, ‘This is what the Indian knows.’

“Then he made a big circle around the small circle, and said, ‘This is what the white man knows.’

“The Indian took the stick, and made a really, really, really big circle around both of the other two circles, and said, ‘This is what neither the Indian nor the white man knows.'”

They were walking along a primitive road, and Ellamae bent over, saying, “Give me your finger. Point with it.” She drew a small circle along the dirt, and said, “This is what children know.”

Then she drew a larger circle, overlapping with the former circle, but not engulfing it. “This is what grown-ups know. Grown-ups know more than children know, but we also forget a lot of things as we grow up, and some of them are important. So grown-ups know more than children, but children still know some pretty big things that grown-ups don’t.”

Then she walked around in an immense circle, dragging Sunny’s fingertip through the sandy dirt. “This is what neither children nor grown-ups know, but only God knows. Do you see?”

Sunny’s face wrinkled in concentration. “Yes. So you want to tell me the things I ask, but you don’t know them.”

“Yes,” Ellamae said, continuing to walk along.

“What do children know that grown-ups don’t?” asked Sunny.

Ellamae took a long time to answer. “You know how sometimes I say something, and you ask me a question, and I change what I said? That’s because you brought up something I forgot, like singing being like dancing. There are other things. Jesus said to become like a little child to enter; children know how to believe, and how — ‘honest’ is close, but not quite the right word. When a little boy says, ‘I love you,’ he means it. Children know how to imagine and make-believe, and how to play. Most adults have forgotten how to play, though a few remember (maybe by taking time to play, maybe by making work into play). That is sad most of all. This life is preparing us for Heaven, and what we do in Heaven will not be work or rest, but play. You live more in Heaven than most grown-ups.”

Sunny listened eagerly. “But you remembered.”

“Yes, but not easily. And not all of it. I am lucky to have friends who know how to play.”

By this time they had reached Sarah’s house, and Sarah saw them and came out to greet them. They sat down on a log, with Sunny in the middle.

“Teacher tells me that you’re tickulish,” Sunny said.

“Maybe I am and maybe I’m not,” Sarah said.

Sunny poked Sarah in the side. Sarah squeaked.

“Sarah is not a Squeaky-Toy,” Sarah said, sitting up and looking very dignified (and forgetting that Sunny was blind).

Sunny poked Sarah in the side. Sarah squeaked.

“Sarah is not a Squeaky-Toy,” Sarah reiterated.

Sunny poked Sarah in the side. Sarah squeaked.

Sarah grabbed Sunny’s hands. “I hear you like music.”

“Yes, I like it a lot. I especially like to play piano. What’s your name?”

“Sarah.”

“I love you, Sarah-Squeak.”

“Thank you, Sunny.” She paused, debated whether or not to say “It’s ‘Sarah’, not ‘Sarah-Squeak’,” and continued, “What do you think of when you play music?”

“Music stuff. Do you play music?”

“No, but I paint. Painting is kind of like music.”

“What do you do when you paint?”

“Well, I take all sorts of different colors, and I use differing amounts to make different forms and shapes, and when I am done people can see through my painting what I was thinking of, if I do it well.”

“I take different notes, and I use differing amounts to make different melodies, and when I am done people can hear through my music what I was thinking of, if I do it well. Yep, painting is like music.”

Sarah pondered the painting of rainbow colors she had been working on. “You know, I’d like for you to do something with me sometime. I’d like for you to improvise a song for me, maybe record it so I can hear it a few times, and I’ll see if I can translate it into a painting.”

“What about words? Can you translate it into words?”

“I can’t translate music into words. I don’t know if anyone can. But maybe, if I tried hard enough and had God’s blessing, I could translate it into a painting of color. Hmm, that gives me an idea of music for the deaf.” She turned to Ellamae. “What about a video where each instrument or voice was a region of the screen, and the color went around the color wheel circle as the notes go around, and the light became more intense as you went up an octave? And they became bigger and smaller as the notes became louder and softer?”

“I’d like to see that. Music for the deaf,” Ellamae said.

“Miss Sarah, please hold your arm out and pull up your shirt sleeve,” Sunny said.”

Sarah, curious, did as the child asked.

Sunny placed her fingers on Sarah’s bare arm, and started to play it as if it were a piano keyboard. “That is music for people who can’t hear,” she said.

Sarah and Ellamae nodded.

Chapter Nineteen

Thaddeus slowly got out materials — the right materials — and started cleaning his gun. Ellamae ducked in the doorway, and said, “What’s up?”

Thaddeus said, “Cleaning my gun. Taking care of details.” He looked at a small box of ammunition, and said, “And you?”

“I don’t think we’ll be needing that,” Ellamae said. “No good will come of it.”

“There’s more than people in Mexico. There are animals. I’d prefer to be prepared,” Thaddeus said.

“No good will come of it,” Ellamae said.

Chapter Twenty

Jaben thought about his visit with the Weatherbys. He called to apologize and explain why they wouldn’t all be able to come then to talk in person, and they gave him — unasked-for, undeserved — a thousand dollars in traveller’s cheques. He was very happy for the money. The friends had plenty of equipment from their other adventures, but money was tight, and he hadn’t known where it was going to come from. Perhaps Bear.

When he finished packing the van, it contained:

  • Children’s toys: a truck, a doll, a top…
  • Thaddeus’s .22 competition rifle.
  • A small box of ammunition.
  • Gun cleaning supplies.
  • A large box of MREs, military rations (“‘Meal Ready to Eat’ is three lies in one,” a marine had told them, but they’ll keep you moving).
  • Books:
    • The Bible, in four different translations (one Spanish, one French, and two English).
    • Madeline l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, the very first book (besides the Bible) that he thought of to bring along. (He identified very strongly with Charles Wallace.)
    • Jon Louis Bentley’s Programming Pearls, for serious thinking about programming.
    • Larry Wall’s Programming Perl, for light and humorous reading.
    • Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business, for pleasure, and to use road time to explain to his friends exactly why he believed that television was a crawling abomination from the darkest pits of Hell.
    • Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. When Jaben first saw this book sitting atop a television, he thought, “The author could only think of four?” For that, he found this book to be far deeper than Postman’s, and (in thinking about what to pack) thought it would be a good book to help appreciate nature and Mexico.
    • A Treasury of Jewish Humor, edited by Nathan Ausubel. Jaben found Jewish humor to be subtle, clever, and extremely funny, as did Lilianne; the others were beginning to catch on.
    • Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, to share with Sarah most of all.
    • Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, which he had read much too quickly and wanted to peruse, at least in part, to better understand his own culture.
    • Philip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial. This book, apart from some web articles, was the first contact he had that changed the way he looked at academia. He thought there were some arguments to add to the ones in the book, but he couldn’t put his finger on them.
    • Oliver Sack’s An Anthropologist on Mars, to stimulate his mind and help show him different ways of thinking.
    • A small box of black pens (which had the most tremendous knack for disappearing) and a hardcover blank book to write in.
  • Three climbing ropes.
  • Four notebooks, three of which were half-filled with miscellaneous scrawl.
  • The traveller’s cheques.
  • A heavy-duty, broad-ranging medical kit, including a snakebite kit.
  • Lanterns.
  • Kerosene.
  • Various people’s clothing, personal toiletries, etc.
  • Three large hunting knives, one of which had a serrated back.
  • A water drum.
  • Tents, groundcloths, and sleeping bags.
  • About 50 pounds in batteries.
  • Seven lantern flashlights.
  • Six canteens.
  • Five Swiss Army Knives.
  • Four pair of binoculars.
  • Three coils of bailing wire.
  • Two rolls of duct tape.
  • Sarah’s red bouncy ball.

Jaben packed it in as best he could; the equipment was smaller than it sounded, and they had a big van. He arranged it like furniture, and then called the others to come in. They joined hands in prayer, and hit the road at sundown.

Chapter Twenty-One

“Hello, and thank you for choosing Kything Airlines, where we not only get you there, but teach you how to pray. We will be cruising at an altitude of about fifteen to thirty-five hundred feet after hills, railroad crossings, and speed bumps, and zero feet otherwise. Our destination is Mexico City, Mexico, with an estimated time of arrival in thirty minutes. This is your copilot Jaben speaking, and our captain for this flight is Thaddeus.”

“Dude,” Thad said, “this van does like zero to sixty in fifteen minutes when it’s loaded like this. But your point is well taken. I’ll try not to speed.”

“Yeah, I know. If this van were a computer, it would be running Windows now. Anyways, I’d like to take this time for a debriefing on Mexican culture,” Jaben said.

“Don’t we usually pray when we start off on a trip?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, but I would like to use the time to talk about Mexican culture when it will make a clear impression on people’s minds,” Jaben answered.

“But prayer is more important!” Sarah insisted.

“Yes, it’s more important, but the more important things do not always take place first. Important and urgent are two separate things. You put your clothes on before you visit your friend, even though visiting your friend is more important,” Jaben explained, although he was not satisfied with his example.

“I still think prayer is more important,” Sarah said.

I’m not going to get into an argument, Jaben thought. An argument is definitely not the right way to start off this trip. “Very well, then, Sarah,” he said. “Why don’t you pray?”

“Me?” Sarah said with the earnest pleasure of a child. “I would love to.

“Dear Father, thank you for this trip, for all the good times we’ve had with Amos, even the time he named me Squeaky-Toy (even though I only let Jaben use that name). Father, I pray that you would help us find Amos, and Father, help us bring him back safely. And, oh, Father, please let him be all right. Amen.”

Jaben took a couple seconds’ more prayer to cool down, and let go of his angry thoughts about Sarah. Then he said, “Ok, for a primer on Mexican culture… let’s see. Touch. When you enter or leave a room, you give everyone a firm handshake; if you don’t, everyone will think you’re rude. Kissing cheeks is OK among girls, and side hugs are OK on special occasions. In general, we’ll have to back off on touch in public, and particularly avoid what would look like couples’ PDA. This means both you and me, Sarah. We should talk less, and particularly avoid extended public conversations between the sexes. In general, avoid real, deep kything except when we’re alone and away from eyes. Wait, that’s not exactly right. Etiquette is very important, and chivalry and ‘ladies first’, and you stand when an elder enters. Address people by honorifics. Be formal; to quote Worf, ‘Good manners are not a waste of time.’ Mexican culture is much more community oriented than but our peculiarities in community that can be misunderstood in the United States, will be misunderstood in Mexico.”

“Is Mexican culture higher-context than American culture?” Ellamae asked.

“Mmm, good question. Most cultures are less low-context than American culture; some Native American cultures are as high-context as the Japanese, and I think the Romance cultures are high-context. So by general guesswork and geneology, I would expect Mexican culture to be higher in context level. Except I don’t know much about what that context is. There are some superstitious remnants of Roman Catholicism, but Rome is more a behind-the-scenes, unseen force than it is the pulsating life in the Catholics we know, especially Emerant. Like the grandmother in Household Saints. Um, what else… aah, yes, time. You’ll fit in perfectly, Thaddeus. The rest of us, particularly me, will have to work on it. When you agree to meet someone at noon, that’s noon, give or take two or three hours. Mexicans will wonder what the hurry is all about. Try not to fidget.”

“How does Hispanic culture compare to black culture?” asked Désirée.

“Very similar; the two are probably closer than either is to white American culture. On, and girls, avoid eye contact with men; everybody, avoid flirting,” Jaben stated.

Sarah said, “I can’t wait to get to Mexico. Seeing another country will be so much fun!”

Jaben said, “Sarah, as I remember, you haven’t been out of the country, right?”

“No,” she said.

“Ok. A couple of tips on crossing cultures: prepare to have expectations violated that you didn’t even know you had. Crossing cultures is both wonderful and terrible, and it’s particularly rough the first time. Or at least I’ve heard it is for most people; I don’t experience culture shock the same way. It will look to you like people are doing all sorts of things the wrong way, and some of them will indeed be wrong, but a great many are just different, and some of them better,” Jaben said. “Try not to complain, or at least not to take a complaining attitude.”

“Oh, dear!” Sarah said. “That sounds frightful.”

“It is, and it isn’t,” Jaben said. “You’ll love Mexico, and, knowing you, you’ll walk away with at least twenty different paintings in your head, and be able to execute all of them perfectly. Which reminds me, did anyone bring a camera?”

There was no response.

“Good. We are not coming as shutterbug tourists, and taking a bunch of pictures wouldn’t be proper. Let’s see… what else… Aah. Does anyone know the Hacker’s Drinking Song?”

“Nope,” said Lilianne.

“Ok, let me sing the first two verses.

“Ninety-nine blocks of crud on the disk,
Ninety-nine blocks of crud,
Patch a bug and dump it again,
One hundred blocks of crud on the disk.

“One hundred blocks of crud on the disk,
One hundred blocks of crud,
Patch a bug and dump it again,
One hundred and one blocks of crud on the disk.”

The others joined in with a thunderous noise:

“One hundred and one blocks of crud on the disk,
One hundred and one blocks of crud,
Patch a bug and dump it again,
One hundred and two blocks of crud on the disk…”

They continued singing noisily until the wee hours of the morning.

Chapter Twenty-Two

“Wake up,” a voice said. “Wake up; the sun is high in the sky.”

“Oh, hi, Lilianne, can’t I sleep more?” Thaddeus said.

“No, we should get moving.”

“I like to be well-rested when I drive. My reflexes are faster.”

“Speaking of faster, I’d like to congratulate you on the stop you made when you decided you were too tired to drive. I didn’t know this van could stop that fast,” Lilianne said.

“Could I have just a half-hour more sleep?”

“I’m setting my watch.”

After another half-hour of sleep, Thaddeus was indeed alert; they drove along, stopping at an IHOP for breakfast. The conversation consisted mostly of how to rearrange the equipment to be more comfortable, and breakfast was followed by about half an hour of rearrangement. The friends got in, their stiffness reduced, and felt better about sitting down. This time, Ellamae rode shotgun.

“I’m bored,” Sarah said as they hit the road.

“How would you like to play riddles?” Jaben asked.

“I would love to!” said Sarah.

Jaben said,

“A man without eyes,
saw plums in a tree.
He neither ate them nor left them.
Now how could this be?”

“That’s impossible!” Sarah said. “A cabin on a mountain—”

Sarah paused. “Are the eyes he doesn’t have literal eyes, like you and I have?”

“Literal eyes.”

“Not like the eye of a storm?”

“Not like the eye of a storm.”

“And he literally saw? Did he see in a dream?”

“He literally saw, as I literally see you now.”

“Exactly the same?”

Jaben closed his eyes. “There is a slight difference, that is understandable if you know a bit of biology or psychology.”

“That’s not a fair riddle!” Sarah said. “You know that only Ellamae knows psychology. Don’t give me a riddle I can’t answer!”

“You do not need to know of biology or psychology to solve this riddle. In fact, I never thought of connecting this riddle with biology or psychology until now.”

“I know what the answer is,” said Ellamae.

“What is it?” Jaben asked, smiling.

“The man had only one eye. He took some of the plums, but not others.”

Sarah sat, silently, and then said, “Ooooooooh.”

Jaben said, “Et voila!

“How did psychology tell you that?” Sarah asked, confused.

“Put one hand over your eye,” Ellamae said. “Do you notice anything different in how things look?”

“Yeah, everything looks flat like in a picture.”

“Your depth perception (things not looking flat, but having depth) is what happens when your brain takes input from both eyes (which are in slightly different positions, and see something slightly different) and puts them together. A man who had only one eye would see slightly differently from someone with two eyes — like you did when you covered one eye with your hand.”

“Ok, what’s the next riddle?”

Jaben chanted in a lyrical voice,

“‘Twas whispered in Heaven, ’twas muttered in Hell,
And echo caught faintly the sound as it fell;
On the confines of earth ’twas permitted to rest,
And in the depths of the ocean its presence confes’d;
‘Twill be found in the sphere when ’tis riven asunder,
Be seen in the lightning and heard in the thunder;
‘Twas allotted to man with his earliest breath,
Attends him at birth and awaits him at death,
Presides o’er his happiness, honor, and health,
Is the prop of his house, and the end of his wealth.
In the heaps of the miser ’tis hoarded with care,
But is sure to be lost on his prodigal heir;
It begins every hope, every wish it must bound,
With the husbandman toils, and with monarchs is crowned;
Without it the soldier and seaman may roam,
But woe to the wretch who expels it from home!
In the whispers of conscience its voice will be found,
Nor e’er in the whirlwind of passion be drowned;
‘Twill soften the heart; but though deaf be the ear,
It will make him acutely and instantly hear.
Set in shade, let it rest like a delicate flower;
Ah! Breathe on it softly, it dies in an hour.”

The van was silent for a minute, and then Ellamae said, “The letter ‘h’.”

“You have a sharp mind,” Jaben said.

A light of comprehension flashed in Sarah’s eyes, as she murmured parts of the riddle to herself, and then she said, “Give us a riddle that will take longer to solve, and that Ellamae won’t get.”

Jaben closed his eyes, thinking, waiting. Then, as if not a moment had passed, he pulled a duffel bag onto his lap, and said, “What have I got in my pocket?”

“What have I got in my pocket? What have I got in my pocket?” Sarah said, again murmuring to herself, and said, “I know! A pair of pliers!”

“No,” Jaben said. “My pliers is on my knife. And it’s something very specific, not my wallet.”

“A picture of me!” she said, beaming.

“No, I forgot to pack that. But I usually carry a picture of you in my pocket. I like to look at you.”

“Ok, I give up. What is it?”

Jaben put the duffel bag back, reached into his pocket, and pulled out an annulus, which had a metallic shimmer and yet was not of metal. He handed it to Ellamae, and said, “Hold it in the sunlight.”

Ellamae smiled, and said, “The sunlight is hot, and yet the CD-ROM remains cool. On the inner edge of the central hole I see an inscription, an inscription finer than the finest penstrokes, running along the CD-ROM, above and below: lines of fire. They shine piercingly bright, and yet remote, as out of a great depth: 42 72 65 61 64 20 61 6E 64 20 74 65 6C 65 76 64 73 69 6F 6E 73. I cannot understand the fiery letters and numbers.” She looked very elfin.

“No,” said Jaben, “but I can. The letters are hexadecimal, of an ancient mode, but the language is that of Microsoft, which I will not utter here. But this in the English tongue is what is said, close enough:

“One OS to rule them all, One OS to find them,
One OS to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

The friends stopped for a picnic lunch on the grass. Thaddeus remarked that it was a cool day, although sunny, and the women protested until Jaben pointed out that Thaddeus, having lived in Malaysia and spent a lot of time with Indians, used the words ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ to distinguish weather that will melt a brass doorknob from weather that will merely make it a bit mushy. They ate MREs and talked de tout et de rien, of everything and nothing, and then packed up the waste and left.

As they got into the van, Jaben picked up A Treasury of Jewish humor, and said, “Here, from the introduction. An anti-Semite says to a Jew, ‘All our troubles come from the Jews!’

“‘Absolutely! From the Jews—and the bicycle riders.’

“‘Bicycle riders! Why the bicycle riders?’

“‘Why the Jews?'”

There was a chuckle, but Désirée said, “You know, Jaben, your jokes are good, but I think we’re all kinda laughed out now. Or at least I am. Why don’t we do something else?”

“Did Jaben pack A Wind in the Door?” Sarah asked.

Lilianne smiled. All of the Kythers had read the book cover to cover at least three or four times, and Sarah knew it by heart. It was the book from which they had taken their name, alongside a lesser and obscure document listing 100 ways of kything.

Jaben rummaged among the bags, and produced a small, battered black book. “Lilianne, why don’t you read?”

Lilianne took the book gently, and said, “Since we all know Wind so well, I’m just going to open it at random, look until I find something good, and read it aloud, and then we can talk about it. Lessee…” she opened the book to the middle, and read silently, then said, “Aah, here. Page eighty-one. Meg and Proginoskes are talking.

“Meg says, ‘Okay, I can get to the grade school all right, but I can’t possibly take you with me. You’re so big you wouldn’t even fit into the school bus. Anyhow, you’d terrify everybody.’ At the thought she smiled, but Proginoskes was not in a laughing mood.

“‘Not everybody is able to see me,’ he told her. ‘I’m real, and most earthlings can bear very little reality.'” Lilianne closed the book.

“That’s my favorite part!” Sarah said, with an animated smile. “Or one of my favorites; I like positive parts. But ‘most earthlings can bear very little reality’ is true. Most people, when they grow up, lose their childhood. I don’t mind that they become adults. That’s good. But they stop being children and that’s really sad. You can’t be a true adult without being a child. Some people have asked me when my interminable childhood was going to end, and I have always told them ‘never’. I was surprised and happy when Jaben told me, ‘You have somehow managed to blossom into womanhood without losing the beauty of a little girl.’ Jaben was the first to understand me.

“Children are able to bear reality. They are so expert at bearing reality that they can even bear not-reality just as easily. Santa Claus and Easter bunny and fairies don’t harm them like they’d harm an adult, because they are from the same source as a deeper reality — faith and goodness and providence and wonder. This is why, when children pray, things happen. People are healed. Their prayers are real. This is also why Chesterton said, ‘A man’s creed should leave him free to believe in fairies,’ or kind of. A child who looks at some leaves and sees the wee folk is wrong, but not nearly as wrong as the adult who looks at the human body and sees nothing but matter. Not only because the error is worse, but because the child knows he is a child and wants to grow up, and the adult thinks he already isgrown up. I still want to grow up; it’s a shame when a person’s growth is stunted by thinking he’s grown up. Anyways, God is too big and too real for us to deal with — so is his Creation — but most children can bear something they can’t handle, and most adults can’t bear much of anything they can’t handle. Like death; our culture denies death, whether it is tearing the elderly and dying out of their houses and isolating them in hospitals and nursing homes, or this whole porn of death like Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. And that philosopher Kant’s — what was it called? The book that cut faith into —”

Religion Within the Bounds of Reason,” Jaben said.

“Like the Jews who told Moses, ‘We don’t want to see the Lord. Be our prophet for us that we don’t see him, so we don’t die.’ I count myself really, really, really lucky to have friends who can bear reality, who kythe, who touch me, who look into my paintings, who can see that I am not a ditz.”

Thaddeus winked at her. “Yes, Squeaky-Toy.”

“Hey!” Sarah said. “Only Jaben is allowed to call me that.”

“Me rorry,” Thad said affectionately.

A silence fell. Jaben began to hum a strand from a French lovesong — <<Elle est femme, elle est gamine,>> and when Sarah asked what he was humming, he explained that a man was singing of his beloved, that she was both a woman and a child. Sarah smiled, not feeling the slightest hint of romantic interest. Jaben was presently undecided as to whether he wanted to live celibate or married — presently not dating anyone, not seeking to, but not closed to the possibility — and yet was fascinated by lovesong and love poetry. It had taken Sarah some time to understand that his collection of erotica — from all places and all times — was not pornographic and was perused without lust by un chevalier parfait, sans peur et sans reproche. She was finally persuaded, not by the force of his arguments (for she knew how often forceful arguments could be wrong), but by the passion and the purity of his heart. Jaben had memorized Baudelaire’s l’Invitation au Voyage, and had made his own translation of the Song of Songs because, he said, politics had coerced translators into bowlderizing the English rendition and using wooden literality to obscure its meaning. Sarah had turned a very bright shade of red when Jaben explained to her the meaning of “I have entered my garden;” her skin matched her shining hair, and Jaben had revelled in her beauty. Thereafter, and after Jaben gave explanations to un-bowlderize other areas of the Bible, she always giggled at certain texts. Sarah found it quite curious that most of the sexual content in the Bible was softened considerably, but none of the violence; in her mind, it was connected not only to the behavior of many Christians — who wouldn’t touch a film with nudity (not even Titanic, which Sarah loved and Jaben hated), but didn’t flinch at movies that were rated ‘R’ for violence, let alone cartoons that show how funny it is to drop an anvil on someone’s head — but to a movie ratings system that, in the words of one magazine article, found “massaging a breast to be more offensive than cutting it off.”

These — and many other things like them — were thought about in the car. Some of them were discussed; others did not need to be said aloud, because of the common understanding between them; this gave the dialogue a unique potency and depth, and thus it remained the next day, and the day after, until when — as they were in Texas, approaching the Mexican border — something interesting happened.

Their radiator blew out.

Chapter Twenty-Four

“Well,” Jaben said. “we just passed a town. Let’s some of us stay with the van and some of us go in. Drink a goodly bit of water, he said, grabbing a canteen, “and we’ll hope to be back soon.” They talked amongst themselves, and Thaddeus, Jaben, and Sarah decided to go, leaving Désirée, Lilianne, and Ellamae to sit in the van’s shade.

“Do you think you could ever write like Kant,” Sarah said.

“Certainly,” Jaben answered, “if I tried hard and studied a certain book.”

“Which of Kant’s books?” Sarah asked.

“Not one of Kant’s books,” Jaben said. “The Handbook of Applied Cryptography.”

Sarah’s eyes lit up, and then filled with perplexity. “You don’t like that type of deep philosophical writing?”

Jaben said, “It is hard to think deep thoughts. It is harder still to think deep thoughts and record them faithfully. It is hardest to think deep thoughts and record them faithfully in a manner that people will understand. That is what I aim for.”

As they walked around, they passed an abandoned 1950’s truck, rusted and with one window broken. A small animal scurried behind a tire.

“Stop,” Sarah said. “I want to look at this truck.” They stopped, and Sarah stood, looked at the truck, tilted her head, bent over, walked a bit, and walked further. Then she finally said, “Okay. I have my picture ready,” and continued talking into town as if not a moment had passed.

After stopping in a gas station, they found an auto body and repair shop, and junkyard, advertising, “Largest parts selection in fifty miles.” There was a tall man who was sitting in a rocker in the shade outside the shop, and rose to greet them. “Hello, folks. May I help you?”

“Yes. Our van’s radiator blew out, and we were looking for a mechanic.” Jaben tried not to wince, thinking about the damage that the repairs would do to their funds.

“I wish Bear were here. He’s so good with cars,” said Sarah.

“You know a guy named Bear? The Bear I know is almost seven feet tall, weighs three hundred pounds—”

“—and has an elephant gun with a laser sight,” Jaben finished. “How do you know him?”

“He’s my cousin.” Now all those present were astonished. “How do you know him?”

“He’s my friend and my boss. My name’s Jaben, by the way, and this is Thaddeus and Sarah.”

“I’m Jim. I think I might have heard of you. What are y’all doing down here?”

Jaben’s smile turned to a frown. “We are looking for our friend Amos, who has disappeared, and whose location we do not know.”

Jim’s jaw dropped. “Amos has disappeared? Bear said the best things about him. They used to play together as little boys, and—ooh, I’m not going to tell you that story, because Bear and Amos (if you find him) will kill me.”

Jaben said, “He has, which is why we’re on this adventure. It may be a fool’s errand, but we want to see it through.”

The mechanic looked at him with a deep, probing gaze. “Your friendship runs that deep?”

“Our friendship runs that deep,” said Jaben.

The mechanic closed his eyes for a second, then said, “Come on over to my truck. I’ll throw a blanket in the bed so the metal doesn’t burn you, and there are a few containers of iced tea in the fridge. Y’all look like you’re melting. The repair is on me. What’s the make and model of your van?”

Jaben was so surprised that he forgot to tell James the requested information. Sarah ran up and gave him a hug and a kiss. Thaddeus asked, “What can we do to thank you?”

The mechanic took out a notebook, and wrote something on it. “This is my number. You can give me a call when you find Amos, or give up the chase. And, if you want to do something else, you can bring Amos by here when you find him. I’ve always wanted to meet him. Did Bear ever show you that gun of his?”

Thaddeus pulled his shirt collar aside to reveal several bruises. “These black and blue marks are from firing it, once. He offered to let me take his gun with us, but I can’t handle a gun like that.”

“Yep, that sounds like something Bear would do. He’s a big man with an even bigger heart. Would you step inside? The fridge is there, and some of my tools. I’ve got several vans with radiators in the junkyard. Any of you handy with tools?”

Jaben raised his hand.

“All right. Here’s my leather gloves; I don’t want you burning your hands. Let’s go.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

Jim invited them to stay for the night — which they did, unrolling their sleeping bags in the living room. In the morning the women especially were happy to have a real shower. After a breakfast of eggs and bacon, Jaben asked about where to get certain supplies, and insisted on paying for a siphon, a 12-pack of cigarette lighters with 7 left, a stack of old newspapers (USA Today, Jaben was glad to see, so he wouldn’t feel bad about burning them), and a couple of other odd items. They drained the water drum and refilled it afresh, and left with a hearty goodbye and thank you, hugs and a kiss from Sarah.

There seemed to be not much change on the road from Texas to Mexico; they stopped at a border town on the way to change some money, and two or three hours after crossing the border, they came on the town of Juarez and decided to stop for lunch.

The marketplace was wild, colorful, and full of smells. It had an energy about it that was lacking in American supermarkets. “Ooh, look!” Sarah said, and walked over to a vendor. There were several paintings, and she was looking intently at a small painting of a seashell on the sand. “Two hundred pesos,” the vendor said.

Jaben looked at the painting, looked at the vendor, and pulled out seventy pesos. “Este dinero es suficiente.

The vendor seemed slightly surprised, and took the money.

As they walked over to the fruit stands, Jaben said, “I don’t mind that you bought that picture, Sarah, but we are not here as tourists, and money is tight. Please don’t buy anything else we don’t need.”

“But Jaben, look!” Sarah said, holding the picture up.

He looked, and there was a glimmer of comprehension in his eyes. The picture was a deep picture, and he would need some more time to understand it. The artist must have been talented. “Thank you for buying it, Sarah,” Jaben said slowly.

Picking up a few oranges, Jaben asked the vendor, “Cuánto cuestan estas naranjas?

Uno peso.”

As well as the oranges, they purchased some bananas, avocados, and a chili pepper or two for Thad to munch on. The friends sat down in a corner, and talked, and watched the children play. They were kicking a rock around; their clothing was well worn and their bodies thin, and yet the children seemed to be playing in bliss. One of them walked over, and Ellamae gave the little girl half of her orange. Thaddeus pulled out a knife and was about to cut up one of the avocados, when Sarah reached into the pockets of her baggy pants, and said, “I know why I brought my red bouncy ball along!”

Jaben said, “No, wait. Sarah!”

Sarah had already rolled the ball down the street. A child kicked it, and it knocked the avocado out of Thaddeus’s hand, and looked very sheepish. Then Sarah batted it back to the children, and—

Perhaps the best way to describe the ensuing chaos would be to say that it would have given Amos a headache, and that Jaben loved it. The ball was tossed around; people said things in English and in Spanish, not understanding the words and yet somehow understanding the meaning; there was dance; there was chaos. At one point, two teams formed, but they were trying to give the other team possession of the ball, and then that shifted, and then there were three teams, and then none. At one point, the friends and the children were all hopping on one foot; at another, they were all weaving a pattern in the air with their hands. There was touch; there was tickling; there was dodging. At the end of the joyous romp, Jaben sat down, exhausted; Sarah took the ball, and placed an arm over Jaben’s shoulder (Jaben shifted away, and said, “Not here. Remember what I told you.”), and said, “So, Jaben, how’d you enjoy your first game of Janra-ball?”

Jaben laughed. “I didn’t think it was possible.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

As they drove along, the desert gave way to rocky land. The friends pulled over about an hour’s drive away from Mexico city, and got out to go.

Ellamae and Sarah started to head around a rocky corner — the first words out of Sarah’s mouth when they stopped were, “I really need to pee!” — and stopped cold in their tracks. Ellamae, her voice stressed, said, “Thaddeus, come here. There’s a rattlesnake raised to strike.”Jaben said, “Whatever you do, don’t move a muscle. Be a statue.”

Sarah said, “Still is the last thing I can be right now. I’m—”

Jaben said, “Recite to me the subjects of your last five paintings.”

Sarah said, “I can’t do that. I’m too scared.”

Jaben calmly said, “Yes, you can. What is the first—”

Bang! A gunshot sounded. Ellamae and Sarah jumped high. The rattlesnake fell to the ground, dead.

Thaddeus was crouched on a rock, holding a smoking gun. He loaded another round, and then walked over. He drew a hunting knife. “You guys know that rattlesnake meat is considered a delicacy?”

Sarah quivered, and said, “Thank you, Thaddeus. Now if I can change my pants—”

Ellamae looked in his eyes, and said, “I’m sorry for what I said about your gun. You saved my life.”

Thaddeus opened his mouth to say something, then closed it as he had nothing to say. Finally, he said, “You’re welcome.”

Jaben said, “Thaddeus, I’ve always wondered why you didn’t even get a gun with a clip. Not that you have to have a semi-automatic, but…” his voice trailed off.

Thaddeus and said, “This was the only good rifle that was within my price range when I brought it, and I brought it for target practice, not for hunting. But as to the other aspect — I just decided that I wanted to practice until my aim was good enough that I would never need to shoot twice.”

Ellamae said, “Again, thank you.”

They set up camp, and soon fell into a deep sleep.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Two warriors, clad in back, holding unsheathed katanas, silently approached each other in the forest. A sliver of moonlight fell. They circled around each other, slowly, crouched, waiting.

Then one of them swung, and there was a counter. Silence. Another swing. A flurry of motion. They circled.

They were both masters, and as they fought — one of them swinging, the other swiftly evading the razor sharp blade — it became apparent that one was greater than the other.

The greater swordsman lowered his weapon and closed his eyes, and in an instant the lesser struck him down.

Ellamae awoke, greatly troubled by her dream, but decided to tell no one.

As she drifted off to sleep again, Ellamae wondered who had really won the duel.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

They pulled into Mexico City early in the morning, the stench of smog only a hint of how bad it would get. Thaddeus had no difficulty finding the governmental buildings, nor Jaben in finding the appropriate bureaucrats. Getting anything useful out of them was a different matter.

As the friends sat down for lunch, Jaben said, “I’m a little disappointed at progress, but not surprised. Mexican bureaucracies are almost impossible to navigate if you don’t know someone on the inside.”

“That stinks!” Sarah said. “Aren’t the officials supposed to help people?”

“Sarah, culture shock is difficult. It’s a leading cause of suicide, right up there with divorce. There is great beauty in seeing a new country, but also great pain. I’m surprised at how well you’re adapting; you’re in the hardest part now,” Jaben said.

“Stop talking philosophy at me!” Sarah snapped, and then repeated her question. “Aren’t officials supposed to help people?”

“Yes, but in this culture you don’t just see someone when you want something from them. Relationships are very important, and you cultivate a relationship with someone inside the bureaucracy before trying to get something out of them. In a way, what we are doing is rude, asking for services without taking the time to first establish a connection. Except we have to be rude, because—”

“I still think it stinks,” Sarah said.

“I would rather we were dealing with an American bureaucracy, too. American bureaucracies are sluggish and Machiavellian and do things wrong, but they have a rare achievement in being responsive to the needs of strangers — a Brazilian I know was amazed when he got a scholarship after just filling out a form, without knowing anyone on the inside. But we don’t have that now; we are looking for Amos in Mexico, and therefore have to deal with a Mexican bureaucracy. I didn’t expect much, but I wanted to check just in case. Being open to the wind of the Spirit blowing, eh?” Jaben answered.

“So what do we do now?” Désirée asked, rubbing her arm nervously.

“We go to Tijuana,” Thaddeus stated.

“What?” several voices said in unison.

“The voice of the Spirit says to go to Tijuana.”

“Ok,” Désirée said.

They finished their lunch in silence, and got into the van. As they pulled out of the city, Lilianne said, “Thaddeus, I’d give your driving in Mexico City about, oh, an 8.7.”

“Really?” Thaddeus said, his eyes widening. “On a scale of 1 to 10?”

“No, on the Richter scale.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

As they drove, Jaben said, “Sarah, remember that one time when you asked me what I didn’t like about television, and I said, ‘Sarah, I’d really like to explain it to you, but I have to go to bed some time in the next six hours?'”

“Yeah, I remember that. Why?” Sarah said.

“We’re going to have a few days driving to Tijuana, and I think this would be a good time to give your question the answer it deserves,” Jaben said.

“Ok,” Sarah said thoughtfully. “But you still like Sesame Street?”

“I grew up on it, but no. I do not like Sesame Street,” Jaben said.

“Why not?” Sarah said, with sadness in her voice.

“I mean to give your question the answer it deserves.”

Ellamae cocked her ears, attentive. So did Lilianne.

“I have a number of thoughts to give. I would like to begin by reading the foreword to Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, the first one I read on that score:

“‘We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

“‘But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns us that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

“‘What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyrrany “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

“‘This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.'”

Jaben closed the book.

Chapter Thirty

Jaben said, “Let’s see. The first part of Amusing talks about how different media impact the content of discourse. Somewhat overstated, I think, but an extremely important point.”

Sarah asked, “You mean there’s a difference between reading something in a book and reading it on the web?”

Jaben replied, “Yes, there is. The web appears — and in some ways is — an author’s dream come true. It is a kind of text where you can read about a surgical procedure and click on a link to see an MPEG of it being performed, or have transparent footnotes that actually pull up the document quoted. All of this has wonderful potential, but there is a dark side. For starters, a book has to be purchased or picked up at the library, which means that you have to invest something to get it, and if you’re reading it, you have to get up and walk to put the book away and get another one. This makes for some commitment to the present document, which is not present on the web. Furthermore, putting color pictures in books is prohibitively expensive. This makes it more likely that a book which draws people’s attention will do it with substance. But images are far cheaper on the web, and images grab attention much faster than books do. So if you’ll look at a corporate website, you will find sound bites and flashy pictures, and almost nothing thought-provoking. The web has potentential to be far better than books, but it also has a strong tendency to be much worse.

“You mean with all the porn that’s out there?” Sarah asked.

“Well, that’s a part of it. But even apart from that — have you ever gone to look for some information on the web, and found yourself clicking all sorts of silly links, and looked at your watch and realized that an hour had gone by, completely wasted?”

“Well, yeah, but I thought that was just me.”

“It’s not just you. It’s the Web.”

Sarah pondered this in silence.

“Technology — some more than others — is something I treat like a loaded gun, or like alcohol. It can be beneficial, very beneficial, but you should never lay the reins on the horse’s neck, and never treat it as something neutral. It has a sort of hidden agenda. Have you heard of the Sorceror’s Bargain?” Jaben explained.

“No, what’s that?”

“In the Sorceror’s Bargain, the Devil says, ‘I will give you power if you will give me your soul.’ But there’s a problem — obviously, you lose your soul, and less obviously, it isn’t really you that has the power at all. All that has really happened in the exchange is that you’ve lost your soul. You haven’t gained anything.”

“That stinks,” Sarah said.

“It does, and something of that is what happens with technology. Mammon and Technology are twin brothers, and I think I see part of why Jesus said, ‘No man can serve two masters. Either he will love the one and hate the other, or else hate the one and love the other. You cannot serve both God and Mammon.’ What I find fascinating is that he did not refer to money as a slave, but as a master. With technology — have you noticed that I use e-mail for all sorts of technical and intellectual matters, but never for personal matters? That I walk over and talk with you in person?”

“Yes, and it means a lot to me,” Sarah said.

“Technologies have an obvious benefit, and a less obvious, insidious cost; there is always a cost, and with some it is worse than others. With—”

“Are you a Luddite?” Sarah asked.

“I am at present riding in a van; one of my hobbies is writing computer programs; I have a massive collection of books; I eat prepared foods, wear clothes, telephone people, and speak language. All of these are technologies, and I use them in clean conscience. Someone said of war, ‘I don’t think we need more hawks or more doves. I think we need more owls.’ I don’t want to be a hawkish technology worshipper or a Luddite dove. I want to be an owl.

“As I was saying, television has an incredible darkside. It is a sequence of moving images that stimulates the senses and makes brain cells atrophy. I fervently believe that, since the beginning of time, the twilight hours have belonged to the teller of tales and the weavers of songs. You know I like music, and role play, and listening to Désirée tell stories, and all sorts of things. But television is among pass-times what nihilism is among philosophy, what Bud Lite is among beers. That is why, I think, the author of the 100 ways of kything said, ‘Television is a crawling abomination from the darkest pits of Hell. It is a pack of cigarettes for the mind. It blinds the inner eye. It is the anti-kythe. A home without television is like a slice of chocolate cake without tartar sauce.'”

Chapter Thirty-One

Jaben said, “The second half of the book deals with how television is impacting public life, how everybody is always expecting to be amused. A good place to start is,” he said, flipping through the text, “let’s see…”After some more flipping, he started fiddling with the folded sheet of paper being used as a bookmark. “I’m not sure that there’s a good, concise place to begin, and the problem may get worse with Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.”

“The author could only think of four?” Ellamae asked.

Jaben idly opened the sheet of paper, and then his eyes widened. “This’ll do nicely. It must have been left as a bookmark by the previous patron to check the book out. It’s a seminar announcement:

“The Middle School PTA is sponsoring a free parent education seminar — Why are we slowing down?”

“We’re being pulled over,” Thaddeus said.

Jaben reached into his wallet and pulled out 70 pesos, handing them forward to the front.

They stopped, and Thaddeus unrolled the window. “Buenos dias, señor.” He held out the money; the officer took it, said “Gracias,” and walked back.

Jaben put his foot on the petal and rolled up the window at the same time.

“It’s really cool that in Mexico you can pay a speeding ticket on the spot without having to go into an office. That would have cost us so much time,” said Sarah.

“Why are you smiling, Jaben?” Sarah asked, after a moment had passed.

“That wasn’t exactly paying a ticket, Sarah.”

“Well what was it then.”

“A little bit of grease on his palm.”

“You bribed a police officer?” Sarah asked, incredulous.

“Yes, Sarah. It’s not the same as in America.” Jaben said, folding the paper, sticking it in the book, and closing the book.

“I can’t believe you did that!” Sarah said. “Does breaking the law only count in the United States, not in Mexico? There is no authority except from God, and Romans 13 and all.”

“Sarah, do you know why the cop pulled us over?”

“Because Thad thinks that he’s in Malaysia.”

“Uh, ok. You have a point there. But do you know why else he pulled us over?”

“Yes, he was going to write a ticket.”

“No, the cop had no intention whatsoever of writing a ticket.”

Sarah closed her eyes in concentration for a minute. “Are you saying he pulled us over in the hope of receiving a bribe?”

“No, I’m saying he pulled us over in the certainty of receiving a bribe.”

“Well, if a corrupt cop pulls us over, why don’t we go in and report him?”

“Sarah, do you know what would happen if we did that?”

“Yes, they’d put him under discipline.”

“Not exactly.”

“Ok, I give up. What would happen?”

“We’d be laughed out of court,” Jaben said.

Sarah opened her mouth, then closed it.

“Police officers are paid much too little, like the majority of other Mexicans, and it’s an accepted part of the culture. In our country, bribes are associated with corruption and subversion of justice, but in Mexico they do not have that meaning. It’s just an informal income distribution system with very little overhead. The outrage you are experiencing is culture shock.”

“So there’s nothing wrong with Mexico? All there is is difference? You can critique American culture, but Mexican culture is off limits?”

“No; there are a great many things wrong with Mexican culture, some of which make me sick. It’s a macho culture, but women hold all the power —”

“Go, women!” Sarah cheered. Jaben decided not to recite Ambrose Bierce’s definition of ‘queen’, and continued, “—and it’s an unhealthy, manipulative power that they hold. If you were my wife, you might get me drunk and steal money from my wallet. The phenomenon exists in the United States; it’s just not so stark. It’s why there were all those bumper stickers saying, ‘Impeach President Clinton and her husband.’ In many families, the husband’s off doing his own thing, drinking with his buddies, and the wife is meeting her emotional needs with her children, especially her oldest son. It’s not incestuous, but it’s very unhealthy. In contradistinction to our own culture’s exaggeration of ‘leave and cleave’, a man will choose his mother and sister over his wife and children. They have the opposite error. Mexican culture emphasizes family and community, but certain aspects of familial community are very unhealthy. Their culture is as much marked by the Fall as our own.”

Sarah sat in thought, and said, “Why do you condemn these things, but condone bribing an officer?”

Jaben said, “Later, I’d like to talk with you about implications of fundamental beauty. But for now, just trust me on this.”

“Ok,” Sarah said slowly. “I’ll trust you.”

Chapter Thirty-Two

“The Middle School PTA,” Jaben read, “is sponsoring a free parent education seminar by So-and-so, a highly sought after seminar leader who combines practical strategies with a high energy ‘you can do it’ approach to parenting middle schoolers. So-and-so has been a professional communicator for over 20 years as a parent, teacher, clinical counselor, author and professor at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. She has addressed school districts, corporations and community organizations throughout the Chicago area on the subject of parenting. Noted for her ability to get audiences involved using a highly interactive humorous format, she has consistently received the highest level ratings for her warm, knowledgeable and practical presentations.

“So-and-so will tackle how to help your child develop attitudes and skills essential to withstanding peer pressure. She will also provide concrete ways to encourage building self-esteem in both our children and ourselves through practical techniques that actually work. Drawing on her years of experience in working with teenagers, So-and-so shares proven ideas you can use immediately. Don’t miss this lively, inspiring and humorous session!” Jaben folded the sheet of paper, set it in the book, and closed it.

“What’s wrong with that?” Désirée asked.

“Well, it doesn’t distinguish between the presenter being entertaining and her being an expert in dealing with adolescents,” Ellamae said.

Jaben said, “On one televangelist’s show that Postman addresses, the saved get to play themselves before and after, and, Postman says, they are saved twice: by being brought into the presence of Jesus, and made a movie star. To the uninitiate, Postman says, it is hard to tell which is the higher estate.” They discussed a bit more; Jaben did not say much of anything additional, beyond encouraging the others to sit down and read the book, and that a week of careful television watching and attending consumer oriented services (for which he recommended a perusal of Why Catholics Can’t Sing), listening to people, and otherwise examining American life would reveal a lot to a perceptive mind. Asked about Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, he said, “That’s another discussion for another day.”

Chapter Thirty-Three

Sarah said, “What was that about fundamental beauty?”

Jaben said, “There is a trinity of the good, the true, and the beautiful, in which we must neither confound the elements nor divide the substance. Those three words describe the same — being, but in different ways. And there is something I have called ‘fundamental beauty’, for lack of a better term in any language, to refer to something that is fundamental and is of the character of beauty that is shared between different things, things that may look different on the surface. My favorite example is singing and dancing — in one sense, they are not very much alike at all — one is sound, the other is motion, and (my physics training notwithstanding) the two are not the same. But in another, deeper way, there is something very much the same about them. They are both beautiful in the same way. They share the same fundamental beauty.

“The Chinese character for ‘metaphor’ is a compound character, a little like an English word like ‘doughnut’, and the constituent characters are ‘hidden’ and ‘analogy’; there can be a hidden analogy, a shared fundamental beauty, between two objects that may look very different. A recognition of shared fundamental beauty seems to me to lie at the heart of all metaphor, and the more striking and poetic the metaphor the more disparate on the surface the two things are, and the more closely they share a fundamental beauty. When a poet compared a woman to a red, red rose, the comparison was not anatomical in character, nor along any other literal lines; he was rather seeing a shared fundamental beauty.

“The present grandmaster of ninjutsu, Masaaki Hatsumi, wrote in Essence of Ninjutsu about talking with a photographer who took pictures of horses, and had to deal with a basic problem: horses know when they’re being watched, and stiffen up. When she takes a picture, she stands with her back to the horse, waits until the horse relaxes, and then swiftly turns around and snaps a shot before the horse can tense up. He commented that it is like the ninjutsu 5th degree black belt test, where the master stands with an unsheathed katana over the disciple, and then sometime in the next thirty minutes gives a shout and brings the sword down. The disciple has to get out of the way. The grandmaster saw a likeness between the two disciplines at that point; you might say that he saw the same fundamental beauty, and commented that two disciplines, no matter how far apart, will share something in common. This kind of point of connection might also be why Musashi wrote in A Book of Five Rings, ‘You must study the ways of all professions.’ If so, it is most definitely not a lesson which should be confined to martial artists.

“What I realized in our discussion about bribing cops is that, not only is it possible for two different-looking things to share the same fundamental beauty, but it is possible for two similar-looking things to have very different fundamental beauties. I hesitate to use the term ‘beauty’ in reference to bribing a cop, but the fundamental essence of bribing an American cop and bribing a Mexican cop are different. They look the same, but the heart is different, just as ninjutsu and horse photography look quite different, but at that one point are very similar.”

Sarah looked pensive for a few minutes, and said, “I see, Jaben. I really see. I’m glad I trusted you on this one.”

By this point, it was getting very late, and so they pulled over and got ready to set up camp.

Chapter Thirty-Four

They stopped in the rocks, and began to unload the groundcloths, sleeping bags, and tents. They were unpacking, when they heard a rustle. “What’s that?” Ellamae said. Immediately, Thaddeus had his gun aimed at the sound.

Five bandits stepped out from behind the rocks, followd by more. They were armed with rifles. “Drop your gun,” the leader said, in a thick but understandable accent.

Thaddeus casually cast aside his rifle.

“Give us your money, your women.”

“No,” Thaddeus said, stepping forward. “It will not help you.”

“We will kill you,” said the leader.

“No,” Thaddeus said.

“Give now!”

“No,” Thaddeus said.

The angry leader aimed his gun, grinned wickedly, and pulled the trigger.

Click. The gun jammed.

The leader angrily shook the gun, struck it against the rock, and successfully fired three shots into the air. Then he took aim once again, and pulled the trigger.

Click.

“My God is bigger than your gun,” said Thaddeus.

The man threw down his gun, and drew a wicked-looking knife. He started advancing.

Thaddeus had the knife with a serrated back, but did not draw it.

Thaddeus looked intently into his eyes.

The brigand slowed his pace.

Thaddeus kept his intense, probing gaze.

The brigand stopped.

Thaddeus closed his eyes for a moment, and then looked with all the more focus.

The brigand stood still, returning his gaze.

Te amo,” Thaddeus said in broken Spanish, praying with his whole heart that it wouldn’t be misunderstood.

The brigand sheathed his knife, took his gun, and walked away.

One by one, each of his thirty companions followed, leaving the six friends alone.

“Thanks be to God,” Ellamae said.

Thaddeus collapsed in fear, relief, and exhaustion.

Chapter Thirty-Five

Packing away the equipment after eating another round of MREs, the friends got into the van. Désirée rode shotgun, and the others got into the back. “And the Four Arguments?” Ellamae said, looking at Jaben.

“I’m not going to treat them all; there’s a reason why those arguments are given in a long book. It’s necessary for a fair treatment. I’m only going to mention, for example, the argument that ‘the programming is the packaging, and the advertising is the content’, and advertising’s role in harmful manipulation. But I do want to treat Mander’s argument of artificial unusualness, in conjunction with a transposed argument from Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.

“Television is inherently boring,” Jaben began.

“Tell us something new,” Désirée said from up front.

“No, really. Even more than you think. Have you ever had a professor tape a class session, and be bored silly with the videotape even though your professor was an engaging speaker? Television has lousy picture quality, and the viewing area is only a tiny portion of your visual field, and the sound is terrible. It’s a sensory medium, but its stimulation is second rate at best.

“When a person has a handicap, he can sometimes find ways to work around it, and become far stronger than a normal person would be. You know how weak I was in gradeschool. This happened with television; they found a number of unnatural ways of making material artificially unusual, kind of like taking a dull technical document and making it appear interesting by italicizing lots of text and putting an exclamation point at the end of each sentence. They do things like camera changes, or moving the camera, or adding music, or putting in computer graphics. These things are called technical events, and the rate of technical events seems to be going up; when Mander wrote his Four Arguments, he claims that the average rate of technical events was one every ten seconds; Postman wrote a few years later, and said that the average rate of technical events was one every three and a half seconds; last time I watched television and counted technical events, it was toeing the line of one technical event per second. This is why, if you go to Blockbuster and rent an old movie — even an old color movie — it appears boring. The number of technical events to keep you stimulated is much lower, and it doesn’t meet your threshold for interesting. It makes an interesting experiment to watch ten minutes of regular programming (doesn’t matter whether it’s sitcoms, tabloids, X-files, news, or other mindless entertainment), ten minutes of commercials, ten minutes of PBS, ten minutes of a movie from this decade, and then ten minutes of some 1960’s movie, and monitor both the number of technical events, and how excited or bored you are. This, incidentally, ties in to sex and violence in TV and movies; it’s not just that some of the producers have questionable morals, but also that a bit of skin flashing across the screen is stimulating in a way that wholesome shows cannot be. Two people respectfully talking through a disagreement doesn’t have nearly the same camera appeal as a bit of a fistfight.

“This is where Allan Bloom comes in. In The Closing of the American Mind, he talks about different things that are crippling American students — interestingly, though he is not writing from a moralistic perspective, he is concerned about many of the same things we are, such as promiscuity and divorce of parents. He could be quoted in a sermon to argue that sin is harmful and that, in fact, God has given us moral law, not for his own good, but for our own good, just as the Bible says. One of the things he says in particular as a crimp on American students is drugs. The argument is terrifying, and if it were believed by our youth, it would keep them away from narcotics like no ‘do drugs, do time’ posters ever could.

“The argument is very simple. Once you have done drugs — once you have cheaply and for nothing experienced the godlike heights of pleasure associated with the greatest successes — a heroic victory in battle, or the consummation of a marriage — what, in your day to day life, could you possibly experience to compete with that? What can possibly compare? Suddenly, everything is bleak, dull, grey, boring. Everything.

“It would be like — remember that time when we were in the cave, our eyes comfortably adjusted to the candlelight, and Sarah thought that Désirée and Amos looked so cute snuggling, and whipped out her pocket camera and snapped a picture? There was an instantaneous and tremendously bright flash of light, and then none of us could see anything, not even the candles’ flames. This is why, by the way, I never use a flashlight when I am outside; I regard it as an implement of blindness rather than an implement of sight, because it brightly illuminates one area but prevents you from seeing the others. That’s why, when Lilianne offered me a flashlight that one time, I said, ‘No thanks, I want to see.’ If you have to use a flashlight, you will never step out from a cabin into brilliant summer moonlight, and I don’t know how to tell you — fair is the sunlight, fairer still the moonlight, fairest of all is the light of thy face —

“Television, video games, movies, are things that embody the same fundamental ugliness as drugs. Non-chemical narcotics, you might call them. The strength of this is hard to recognize if you’ve used them enough to get inured to them, but I remember the first time I watched that one James Bond movie, with 007 and 006 and that Georgian pilot… I was on the edge of my seat with lust after the usual James Bond opening of half-naked women — I believe the proper term for that is ‘artistic porn’ — and it still quickens my pulse to remember how my heart was pounding when James Bond was free falling and climbing into the free falling airplane. If you’ve seen the movie, you probably didn’t experience it that way. Hollywood needs to build a stronger and stronger brew to have the same effect on people, and I was much more strongly affected by the movie than most other people would — just like I would be extremely affected by what would be to a drug addict just a little bit to tide him over until he needed more.

“After you’ve watched TV, where all the men have high-paying jobs and all the women look sexy in their tight clothes, and there’s a camera change every second, and there is music and perhaps a laugh track, and every conversation is exciting and witty — just what, exactly what, in your normal experience is going to compete with that? Talking with your friends has lulls in the conversation, and not everything is a witty retort; running provides you with something like the same camera change, but the people who go for long runs aren’t the people who sit in front of a television. A book, however profound, is not stimulating enough to even lose a competition with television. So people watch television, at, what, six hours a day? Television is kind of like alcohol; a little bit can be good (or, in the case of television, tolerable), a lot at once induces a stupor, and a lot over time rots the brain.”

The discussion that followed was vivid and animated. Sarah was disappointed to learn that Sesame Street had been created by a group of former advertisers, and listened with interest to Jaben’s argument that advertising embodies the same fundamental ugliness as porn: “It arouses desires that cannot have a righteous fulfillment, in this case spending money on material possessions beyond even what natural greed would produce. This is, incidentally, why a television is the most expensive household appliance you can buy; it deducts from your pocketbook for long after you’ve paid it off.” Lilianne was particularly interested in this claim; her way of believing (each believer, she said, who is in full orthodoxy has very much his own way of believing) placed a particular emphasis on living simply. “What should I do with my television, then?” asked Lilianne, who felt that she would never look at a television again in the same way. Jaben’s reply was simple: “Give it to Thad. He could always use a new target.”

Chapter Thirty-Six

It was not long before they arrived in Tijuana, and searched everywhere. They searched high and low, in the resorts and in the slums; they prayed; Lilianne said glumly, “We’re looking for a needle in a haystack.” After a week of searching, Jaben said, “This city is too noisy. I need to go out into the countryside to think.”

The friends drove aimlessly, and pulled over for a lunch of MREs. Each person grabbed one, and they sat down on the edge of a cornfield.

“So what do we do now?” Sarah asked.

“I don’t know,” Thaddeus said. “I felt positive that the Spirit was pulling us to Tijuana.”

“At least we tried to be faithful,” Ellamae said.

Jaben pulled out the Windows CD-ROM, placed it on the tip of his index finger, and ran his thumb along the edge. “I wonder. I think—”

“Why is the ground trembling?” Sarah asked.

The friends dropped their food and staggered to their feet.

There, not fifty feet away, molten rock was spewing into the air. A chunk landed ten feet away.

The heat was incredible.

Jaben hurled the annulus into the lava, where it disappeared in a burst of lambent flame. “Let’s run!”

They did run, and this time Thaddeus’s driving was estimated to be about a 9.5 on the Richter scale. They drove and drove, and after a time realized they were lost.

“We’re approaching a small village,” Lilianne said. “Maybe they’ll be able to tell us where we are, or how to get to the nearest city.”

“We’d better not,” said Jaben.

“Men! Always refusing to ask directions,” Sarah said.

“It’s not that, Sarah. You know I ask directions at home,” Jaben said.

“Which is why you should do it here, too,” Sarah said, crossing her arms and nodding her head.

“It’s standard procedure in Mexico, if you don’t know where something is, to make up directions. They could give us driving directions to Brazil,” Jaben said.

“They could hardly leave us more lost than we are now,” Lilianne said.

Jaben said, “Slow down. I want to get out.”

Thaddeus stopped the van.

Jaben got out, and walked to the doorway of the nearest hovel. “Por favor,” he asked, “disez cómo encontrar—”

“Jaben?” a faint voice queried from the darkness within.

Amos!

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Amos was weak and slightly emaciated, but hardly ever had the friends seen so beautiful a sight as he — Désirée had never been so happy. They gathered around him, and laid hands in prayer; healing flowed through Ellamae’s fingers, and Amos stood up, strengthened.

Por favor, dinez con nosotros,” the peasant said.

It was a simple meal; the friends were each given a few corn tortillas.

“This isn’t much food,” Sarah said. “How much do they have?”

“Eat it,” Jaben said. “This is more than they can spare. The family will go hungry tonight.”

“I know!” Sarah said. “We could give them some of our MREs.”

“No,” Jaben said. “I’d be happy to give them, but to a great many Mexicans, corn is food and food is corn. Our own ancestors had difficulty finding food in a New England whose waters were teeming with lobster. Each culture has its own baggage, and these simple folk are giving us the only food they know. A gift of MREs would not do them much good.”

Sarah wasn’t the only one to wipe a tear from her eyes.

The meal was mostly quiet; Amos explained how he had been abducted, beaten, and left for dead in a field, and how the peasants had taken him in and slowly nursed to health. “Will this make it hard for you not to hate white people?” Jaben asked.

“Very hard,” Amos said. “But you’re worth it.”

The peasant family consisted of a grandmother, a mother, a father, a teenaged son, a preteen daughter, two little boys, and a baby girl. They were all thin, and lines of suffering were etched on all but the youngest of faces, but at the same time there was a real joy, a glow, about them. “I would like to go to mass with them, if they go to mass, but we should really be going back,” Jaben thought. “I need to get back to work.” Still, he did not wish in the least to haste this moment.

After the meal, they said goodbye, gave abrazos, and then Jaben reached into the sheath on his left hip and pulled out a thick Swisschamp Swiss Army Knife, showed them every one of its twenty-seven features (the children liked the magnifying glass), and then ceremoniously handed it to the father. The man’s eyes lit up.

Sarah stared at Jaben; she knew what that knife meant to him, where he had taken it. Then she ran to the van, and ran back, and threw her red bouncy ball to the children, gave them each a kiss, and departed.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Jaben said, “Amos, you’re the guest of honor. Would you like to make the reading selection? We have Darwin on Trial, An Anthropologist on Mars, A Wind in the Door, Four—

A Wind in the Door,” Amos said.

Jaben handed him the small volume. Amos opened it, flipped one way, flipped another way, closed the book, opened it, turned a few pages, and said, “Aah, here. Page 82.” He read terrifying words as Proginoskes showed Meg a moment when stars had been murdered — Xed.

“I’ve had a lot of time to think, and to feel, and I’ve realized something. It is a chilling feeling — un-Named, Xed — to know that someone hates you. Their brutality, their words, their blows hurt, but not nearly as badly as the real knowing that there was hate. My stomach hurt so much when they were done beating me, but the pain was nothing. Désirée, remember the time when we were dating, and I got my thumb in your eye? I know that hurt, but it only hurt physically. With hate it is different. It is a hurt of the spirit, and it is worse. Terribly worse.

“I am drawn to Wind, as you are, for its bliss and beauty. But it shows as very real the power of evil, and this passage was the one my heart was drawn to. I never knew how real the story was until I knew that there were men who could kill me. Hate is a very real power, and I have come to appreciate that, in the end, Proginoskes gave everything he had to give to stop the Echthroi. He gave until there was nothing left to give. Hate is so evil, that sometimes it costs that much.”

Amos opened his mouth, then closed it, then began to weep. Ellamae and Sarah crawled across the baggage; Ellamae was first, kissing him on the forehead, and Sarah wrapped her arms around him. Their tears began to mingle with his, and soon all but Thad (who was with them in spirit) joined in the embrace; no one offered him anything to say, because they saw his pain was so great. And they stayed together for hours.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

There was healing in Ellamae’s touch, and that of the others — restoration not only for Amos’s wounded body, but for his broken soul. Their love was a healing balm, and after a day of weeping and eating MREs as fast as he could keep them down, Amos graced them with his deep, rich smile, and a day later he called for a rousing chorus of “99 bottles of beer,” sung very loudly and very off-key, sometimes in several keys at once. This was one of Amos’s favorite traditions, and it had surprised more than a couple of people who knew how truly good his baritone voice was. They were in Texas, approaching Jim’s village, when something interesting happened.

Their radiator blew.

Jaben and Amos walked into the village, although by the end of the walk they had each drunk a canteen dry, and were thirsty and sorefooted when they reached Jim’s shack. Jim rose to greet them, and said, “Hi, Jaben, and is this Amos? Why the sheepish grin, Jaben?”

Jaben shuffled, cleared his throat, and said, “I’m embarrassed to say this, but could we impose on you for another radiator?”

Jim laughed, and said, “Sure. I just got another van of your make and model in this week. I thought your new radiator had a bit more life in it. Would come with me to the yard? I’ll step inside for my tools.”

Jim was pleased to make Amos’s acquaintance, and it was mostly those two who were talking as Jim and Jaben worked on the radiator (“You’d make a great mechanic,” Jim said — “I might try that when my present position ends,” Jaben replied). It wasn’t that long before the friends’ van had a new radiator, and it wasn’t long after that that they were sitting at Jim’s regular table, with the card table pulled up, eating collard greens and smothered pork chops.

Sarah opened the conversation, by saying, “I’m grateful to you, Jim, and I trust you.”

Jim smiled, and said, “Thank you. Out of curiosity, why do you trust me?”

“Your touch is that of a trustworthy man.”

“How can you tell that from touch?”

“You know when two strangers are sitting next to each other on the bus, and their legs are touching? Their bodies are touching, but their spirits aren’t touching. They aren’t really touching.

“I’ve had hugs that felt like handshakes, and handshakes that felt like hugs; what most people know is that a touch means different things depending on how much of the body is touching and where, but what most people don’t know is that a touch also is different depending on how much of the spirit is touching and where. Children’s hugs can be the best, because when they’re touching you, they aren’t doing anything else, not anything; you’re their whole universe, and you’re wrapped in their trusting arms. There is something in the touch of a child who has not yet learned to draw back, just like there is something in the words of a child who has not yet learned guile. I don’t mean that young children can’t lie, or pull back — but a child who will transparently lie about stealing cookies still doesn’t know how to put guile into real and honest communication, and a child who draws back and says ‘I don’t want to hug you’ still doesn’t know how to draw back when he’s touching someone. I —”

“So that’s why your hug reminded me of a child,” interrupted Jim.

Sarah began to blush, and continued. “You can tell a lot about a man by the way he touches. Kind of like what you can tell by whether and how he looks you in the eyes — eye contact is a form of touch — only moreso. Your touch has a lot of strength — even apart from your calloused hands, I can tell that you spend a lot of time applying force when you fix things — but it is a strength with complete control and gentleness. You are strong, but I do not fear you. And it is a touch that draws me into your heart. You have a big heart. If you were a man whom I couldn’t trust, you would be holding something back; you can tell when a person’s holding back, and his touch says, ‘There is something about me that I don’t want you to know.’ But your touch doesn’t say that. It’s transparent. Even when you gave me a handshake, when I touched your hand, I felt your heart.”

Jim sat, with his mouth open. “What else do you know about me?”

“Not much,” Sarah said. “I’m not an astrologer.”

“You saw more of Sarah than she usually shows at first glance. Most people think she’s a ditz,” Lilianne said.

Jaben got up, and gently pulled Sarah’s hair aside, so he could see part of her scalp.

“What are you doing?” Sarah asked.

“What an odd tattoo,” Jaben said. “It says, ‘Do not exceed 65 PSI.'”

Sarah hit Jaben, and he sat down.

Amos said, “It’s so good to have your friendship, your community, your banter.

Désirée said, “It’s so good to have you back, Amos. Our communion is restored; our fellowship is complete.”

Amens circled round the table. They joined hands over the meal:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise him all creatures here below.
Praise him above, ye heavenly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Amen.

They dug in, and for a time people were silent as they enjoyed the meal. Then Thad said, “I had a mystical experience when we were driving out of Tijuana. It was my first mystical experience while driving.”

Jim raised his eyebrows, and said, “A mystical experience while driving? I thought they came in church, and deep meditation, and things like that. I’ve never had one. I’m too ordinary.”

Thaddeus smiled, and said, “Those moments are gifts from God, that come quite often unexpected. The biggest qualification you can have is a sense of need before God. And there is something ordinary about the mystical — no, that’s not quite right, or maybe there is. There is something mystical about the ordinary. Mysticism is not this strange and remote thing; it is very near to us, and you may know more mystics than you think. Every child is born a mystic. The problem is how to keep him that way.”

Jim said, “So how do you become a mystic? Do you read a book, or spend a lot of time praying, or whatever?”

Thaddeus said, “I don’t know. I don’t know how I became a mystic. It’s not something you can achieve by doing the right things; it’s a gift from God. It’s kind of like asking what we did to achieve being given two radiators; the answer is that we did, quite properly, nothing; we cooperated with your gift and God’s, but it was given. Prayer can be helpful, but if you try praying six hours a day to make yourself a mystic —

“To borrow from a Zen koan:

“A master observed that a novice was very diligent in prayer; he prayed an hour a day more than anyone else, and could shut out all distractions. One day, the master asked the novice, ‘What are you doing?’

“The novice said, ‘I am praying hard to make myself a mystic.’

“The master took a tile, set it before the novice, and began to polish it vigorously. ‘What are you doing?’ the novice asked.

“‘I am polishing this tile to make it into a mirror,’ the master answered.

“‘You can’t make a tile into a mirror by polishing it!’ the novice protested.

“‘And neither can you make yourself into a mystic by prayer,’ the master answered.

“Prayer is a fundamental part of mysticism, and there are good books — I can think of Experiencing God and, let’s see, Tales of a Magic Monastery, which is my personal favorite. But if you go to a book and say, ‘This will make me a mystic,’ you are setting yourself up for failure.”

“What was your last mystical experience like? How did you manage to drive and have a mystical experience at once? How much more often do they come when you become an experienced mystic?” James asked.

“I don’t know how to describe it. I was driving, and I was with God, and I was suddenly very aware of his presence and love for me, in, under, and through everything around me. I was also intensely aware of my surroundings; it helped me drive, if anything. But I would not too much dwell on mystical experiences; they are a blessing, but there are far greater blessings, those that non-mystics think are dull next to mysticism. It’s hard to explain,” Thaddeus answered.

James said, “I am still listening with interest.”

Thaddeus said, “I feel like I’m in a bind, like I can only explain these things to someone who needs no explanation — and, in saying this, I probably sound otherworldly and mysterious and an initiate of circles you cannot hope to probe. It is not like that at all. Perhaps my best advice is this: if you value mysticism, forget completely about being a mystic, and seek God with your whole heart. God will make you a mystic if he wants.”

Jim said, “I am already doing that.”

Thaddeus said, “Then I have nothing to add to you.”

Ellamae held her plate, and said, “Could you give me a pork chop?” and then, receiving the food, said, “I think you were following God when you gave us the radiator. It helped us receive our friend back. And the story about that —”

“What is the story about you finding him? Were the Mexican police much help?”

An animated recounting of the story’s events followed, and lasted long into the night. They stayed the night, showered, packed up, and headed on the road home.

Chapter Forty

Jaben said, “Ellamae, why don’t you choose our Bible reading today? It’s been a while since we read the sacra pagina.”

Ellamae said, “I’d like to read the extended commentary on the words ‘The just shall walk by faith,’ as found in Hebrews chapter eleven. It’s my favorite passage of Scripture.”

Jaben handed a Bible and a flashlight to Lilianne, and said, “Lili, will you do the honors?”

Lili took the book reverently, opened it, flipped a few pages, and began, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. Because of it the ancients were well attested. By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of God, so that what is visible came into being through the invisible. By faith Abel offered to God a sacrifice greater than Cain’s. Through this he was attested to be righteous, God bearing witness to his gifts, and through this, though dead, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and ‘he was found no more because God had taken him.’ Before he was taken up, he was attested to have pleased God. But without faith it is impossible to please him, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, warned about what was not yet seen, with reverence built an ark for the salvation of his household. Through this he condemned the world and inherited the righteousness that comes through faith.

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise; for he was looking forward to the city with foundations whose architect and maker is God. By faith he received power to generate, even though he was past the normal age — and Sarah herself was sterile — for he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy. So it was that there came forth from one man, himself as good as dead, descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sands on the seashore.

“All those died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on the earth, for those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land from which they had come, they would have had the opportunity to return. But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

“By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.’ He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol. By faith regarding the things still to come Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph and ‘bowed in worship, leaning on the top of his staff.’ By faith Joseph, near the end of his life, spoke of the Exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his bones.

“By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that he was a beautiful child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharoah’s daughter; he chose to be ill-treated along with the people of God rather than enjoy the fleeting pleasure of sin. He considered the reproach of the Anointed greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the recompense. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s fury, for he persevered as if seeing the one who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them. By faith they crossed the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted it they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after being encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with the disobedient, for she had received the spies in peace.

“What more shall I say? I have not the time to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, did what was righteous, obtained the promises; they closed the mouths of lions, put out raging fires, escaped the devouring sword; out of weakness they were made powerful, became strong in battle, and turned back foreign invaders. Women received back their dead through resurrection. Some were tortured and would not accept deliverance, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others endured mockery, scourging, even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, sawed in two, put to death at sword’s point; they went about in skins of sheep or goats, needy, afflicted, tormented. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered about in deserts and on mountains, in caves and in crevices in the earth.

“Yet all these, though approved because of their faith, did not receive what had been promised. God had foreseen something better for us, so that without us they should not be made perfect.”

Lilianne closed the book.

Sarah said, “That’s awesome.”

Ellamae said, “The part I like best about this is that there was no distinction made between those who were miraculously saved and those who died in faith. None whatsoever. In Daniel, the three men, Shadrach, Mechach, and Abednego say, ‘Our God can save us, but even if he does not, know, O king, that we will not bow down.’ Some manuscripts even say, ‘if he cannot.’ It reminds me of—

“Thaddeus, when you were looking down the barrel of that brigand’s gun, what was going through your mind?” she asked

“My heart was completely at peace,” Thaddeus said.

“Did you know that the gun was going to jam?”

“No.”

“Did you pray that the gun would jam?”

“No.”

At this, Ellamae was surprised. “What did you pray?”

“I prayed that God’s will would be done.”

There was silence for a second, and then Jaben said, “I like how the text says that we are strangers and aliens, that this world is not our home: we look for a better country, a heavenly one. I fit in better in French culture than American culture, but not even very well there; no culture on earth is a home. Each culture is a cave, as Bloom reminds us, and I can’t wait for the day when I will climb out of the caverns and behold the sun in all its glory.”

Amos said, “The chapter reminds me of the words, ‘Here I stand, ready to live, ready to die.”

Ellamae said, “‘My name is Aragorn, son of Arathorn. If by life or death I may serve you, that I shall.'”

Jaben said, “Jewish tradition holds that the prophet Isaiah was sawn in two.”

“Interesting,” Lilianne said. “What was the story?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t spent nearly as much time studying the Talmud and Jewish tradition as I should. Maybe reading the Babylonian Talmud will be my next project.”

“All things in this chapter point to the King of the Jews,” Ellamae said. “Every righteous man was a shadow of the One who was to come. And there is more — I cannot say it.”

The conversation went on for hours, days. Before they knew it, the friends pulled into a driveway…

Chapter Forty-One

It was dusk as the van pulled out, finally at home, and slowed down. Everybody got out, yawning, Thaddeus still, out of habit, carrying his rifle slung over his shoulder. They closed the van doors and walked along, silently, when —

a roaring sound was heard

“Look out, a bear!”

the Spirit moved in Thaddeus’s heart like rapid fire. “Shoot it.”

Thaddeus, bewildered, was pushed into a dimension beyond time, out of ordinary time, and automatically took what seemed an eternity slowly aiming the gun into the bear’s mouth, frozen open, hoping by some providence to sever part of the time

fired

a resounding, thunderous gunshot echoed

the bear staggered

Thaddeus looking at his smoking .22 in confusion

BOOM! another gunshot echoed

the bear staggered

BOOM! another gunshot echoed

the bear staggered

BOOM! another gunshot echoed

the bear fell

a stick snapped

a massive man, holding a massive gun, walked out of the forest

the gun still aimed at the dying bear

“Bear!” Désirée said. “Boy, are you a sight for sore eyes!”

“You’re back. Is that Amos I see? How are you, Amos?”

“Happy.”

Bear drew a few paces back from the grizzly’s body, cautiously set his smoking gun down, still pointing at the grizzly, and then drew all seven friends into his enormous, thick, strong, gentle arms. “Good to have y’all back, folks. Good to have ya back.”

Chapter Forty-Two

It was good to be back in church. The seven friends filed into the sanctuary and sat down.

“Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the celebrant said.

“And blessed be his Kingdom now and forever. Amen,” the congregation answered.

“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord,” the celebrant said, joined by the congregation in saying, “Amen.”

Then came the opening hymn:

“Here in this place new light is streaming,
Now is the darkness vanished away,
See in this space our fears and our dreamings,
Brought here to you in the light of this day.
Gather us in— the lost and forsaken,
Gather us in— the blind and the lame;
Call to us now, and we shall awaken,
We shall arise at the sound of our name.

“We are the young— our lives are a myst’ry,
We are the old— who yearn for your face,
We have been sung throughout all of hist’ry,
Called to be light to the whole human race.
Gather us in— the rich and the haughty,
Gather us in— the proud and the strong;
Give us a heart so meek and so lowly,
Give us the courage to enter the Song.

“Here we will take the wine and the water,
Here we will take the bread of new birth.
Here you shall call your sons and your daughters,
Call us anew to be salt for the earth.
Give us to drink the wine of compassion,
Give us to eat the bread that is you;
Nourish us well, and teach us to fashion
Lives that are holy and hearts that are true.

“Not in the dark of buildings confining,
Not in some heaven, light-years away,
But here in this place the new light is shining,
Now is the Kingdom, now is the day.
Gather us in and hold us forever,
Gather us in and make us your own;
Gather us in— all peoples together,
Fire of love in our flesh and our bone.”

Then all the voices stepped into the timeless, eternal song:

“Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.
Lord God, heavenly King, Almighty God and Father,
we worship You, we give You thanks, we praise You for your glory.
Glory to God.

“Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God.
You take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
You are seated at the right hand of the Father:
receive our prayer, receive our prayer.

“For You alone are the Holy One, You alone are the Lord.
You alone are the Most High. Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit
In the glory of God the Father, in the glory of God the Father. Amen. Amen.”

“The Lord be with you,” the celebrant said.

“And also with you,” answered the congregation.

“Let us pray,” the celebrant began.

“Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we, the redeemed, may obtain what you promise, make us work with you the work of your redemption; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” The congregation joined in, “Amen.”

“A reading from the book of First Kings,” the reader said.

“Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. She said to Elijah, ‘What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?’ ‘Give me your son,’ Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed.

“Then he cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?’ Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!’ The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, ‘Look, your son is alive!’ Then the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.'”

“The Word of the Lord,” the reader said.

“The psalm will be read with the women on the even numbered verses, and the men on the odd numbered verses.”

The women began, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you.”

The men answered, “You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!”

“For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”

“From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows.”

“The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the Lord will praise him— may your hearts live forever!”

“All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him,”

“for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.”

“All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive.”

“Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.”

“They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn—for he has done it.”

“A reading from the book of Acts,” the reader said.

“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and had a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’

“‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what to do.'”

“The word of the Lord,” the reader said.

“Thanks be to God,” answered the congregation.

The congregation rose, singing:

“Alleluia, alleluia! Give thanks to the risen Lord,
Alleluia, alleluia! Give praise to his name!”

“The holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to St. Luke,” the celebrant said.

“Glory to You, Lord Christ,” the congregation answered.

“Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

“When the Pharisee who invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Simon, I have something to tell you.’ ‘Tell me, teacher,’ he said. ‘Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’

“Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.’ ‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said. Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I came to your house. You did not give me any water fro my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.’ Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ The other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'”

“The Gospel of the Lord,” the celebrant said.

“Praise to You, Lord Christ,” the congregation answered.

“‘There is a Redeemer,'” the preacher began, “‘Jesus, God’s own son,’ begins one song. I’m not going to inflict my singing voice on you, but that’s how the song begins. Today I want to talk to you about the message of redemption in the Gospel, in the whole Bible. This is one of the most important messages in Scripture.

“Forgive and forget. Forgive and forget. That’s what our culture says, and I don’t agree with that. I’ve thought and prayed, and I really don’t agree with that. If you forgive, you don’t forget. If you forget, you don’t forgive. God takes evil, and makes it better than if nothing had gone wrong. The New Jerusalem will be better than Eden ever could have been — that’s how powerful a God we serve. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthane? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? These were the words that Christ cried in agony on the cross, and they were not new. He was quoting, and more specifically he was quoting the first verse of the twenty-second psalm. In those days, people emphasized memory a bit more than we do now. They didn’t memorize Bible verses; they memorized the whole Bible. To those who were looking on, the Pharisees leering at him, Jesus was quoting the whole psalm, the Psalm of the Cross: I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me. They divide my clothing among them; for my garments they cast lots. They pierced my hands and my feet. These words, and others, foretold the exact way and manner of Christ’s death, and in quoting them, Jesus was saying, ‘Look, you who have pierced me. This prophecy is fulfilled this day in your midst.’

“The beginning of psalm twenty-two is a psalm of lament, but the end is a psalm of triumph, and those are the verses we read earlier in the service. The cross is the balance point of the story, but not its end. God’s strength at work is very powerful, and they take the cross, because it was the most evil moment, the hour when darkness reigned, and placed it at the heart of his triumph. Christ trampled death by death, and when he rose from the dead, the power of death was forever broken, like the stone table in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And not only can death not hold him any longer, but death is now too weak to hold those who believe. When the body dies, the spirit is held in God’s heart until the resurrection we await, when the dead in Christ shall rise first, and the body will surge with power and be reunited with the spirit. That is how God has redeemed death.

“I want to tell you something important. God isn’t just trying to restore Eden, he has a whole, new, bigger project. He can redeem me; he can redeem you. He redeemed the sinful woman in our Gospel reading, and not only left her with a new beauty but left behind one of the most beautiful stories in the whole Bible — and that story was very widely circulated among the ancient Church. The point of saving us, Lewis tells us, is to make us into little Christs. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else. God is transforming us so that we may become gods and goddesses to reign with him forever in the holy City. Let me repeat that. God is transforming us so that we may become gods and goddesses to reign with him in the holy City.

“I would like to tell you a story. I prayed, and hesitated now — Lord, I pray, bind me from saying anything that would harm these little ones, bind the power of the Evil One, and keep me in your heart. But I’ll tell the story, with a warning that I don’t agree with all of it. When I told it to one young man, he asked me, ‘So, do you really believe that God created man just to prove a point?’ I stepped back and said, ‘No. I don’t believe that. That’s not why I told the story at all; it’s just that I don’t know how to tell the story without it looking that way.’ So I ask you to excuse my weakness, and I pray that you will see what in this story I mean to tell: God’s power and wisdom as manifest in his redemption.

“In the very beginning, before God created the heavens and the earth, he created angels, stars of light to shine in the light of glory. He created one star higher and holier than any of the others, and named him Lucifer, the Light-Bearer.

“Lucifer saw his own wisdom, majesty and glory, and told God, ‘I want you to give me my rightful place, as head of you as well as head of the angels. I am wiser than you.’

“God could have zapped Lucifer then and there, and that would have established his power. But not his wisdom. So God decided on something very different.

“‘Very well, then,’ God said, ‘Prove it. I’ll unfold my plan, and you’ll unfold yours.’

“The great Dragon shouted in rebellion, and swept the sky with his tail, and flung down a third of the stars, and a third of the stars chose to become dragons, vipers, worms.

“Then God created Heaven and earth; he set the stars, in their courses, and created glory after glory after glory: no two blades of grass alike, thousands upon thousands of species of beetles, and as the crowning glory man, created godlike in his image, pure, holy, spotless.

“Then the Dragon appeared in the form of a serpent, and beguiled the woman, and the woman pulled the man down with her. The whole creation became accursed, and began to rot, with poison seeping in a wound.

“‘Well, then,’ the Dragon said, ‘Who is wiser now?’ And God wept.

“Then God pointed to one person and said, ‘You see that man?’

“‘Yes,’ the Devil said.

“‘Hey, there!’ God said to the man. ‘You in the desert. Build a huge boat.’

“And the man did. When the wind and rain came, the man and his household were saved.

“Then the Devil walked on the earth, and said, ‘I see not one who is righteous,’ and God said, ‘Have you considered my servant Job?’ And Job, bewildered, saw his children and his property taken away, and then his health — and cried in agony, cursing the day of his birth, but refusing to curse God like the Serpent said he would. In the midst of his misery, Job said, ‘I know that my redeemer liveth, and in my flesh I shall see God. Though he slay me, yet shall I praise him.’

“The story unfolded, and God sent a prophet to give his people Law. When they strayed, he sent prophets, never tiring of loving them. Finally, in the fullness of time, he sent his Son, to become a man.

“This man was a stranger in a strange land, and passed through the world like a flame. The Serpent spoke beguiling words into the ear of one of his disciples, and he was betrayed, and nailed to a piece of wood, and left to die. And darkness reigned.

“‘Surely you will acknowledge,’ said the Serpent, ‘that I am wiser?’

“God raised his Son from the dead, in a new and incorruptible life, surging with power. And the Devil trembled with fear.

“His Spirit filled those who were his Son’s disciples, and they burst forth with new life. The Serpent tried everything to stop them — even making some of the people God had called to persecute them. God was not discouraged; he called one of the persecutors to join in the new life.” The preacher took off his glasses, and said, “I’d like to read to you now from one of the letters written by that persecutor:

“‘Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

“The Church — I mean you and me, not just people who wear a white collar — stands as a family for Christ, his brother and sister and mother, as children for God the Father, as God’s magnum opus, as a servant to the world, as a witness to the world, as a mother and family to those who believe, and lastly as a warrior against Satan. This is the secret God has concealed in his bosom, and his many-sided wisdom is displaying so that all of the angels and even all of the demons, Satan himself, can look and see the wisdom of God’s plan.

“Christ came once; he will come again, and then every knee shall bow. Then the redeemed shall stand holy, spotless, pure, and perfect, gods and goddesses, sons and daughters of God, to enter into his eternal paradise. Then the Dragon will look and see beyond any question or doubt that God’s plan is wiser. Then, and only then, will Satan and all his minions be cast into the lake of eternal fire.

“I’d like to conclude by saying that Heaven is off in the future, but it is also here now. We can, and should, bring Heaven down to earth. Each time we forgive, each time by God’s grace we work good out of evil, there is Heaven. When we arrive at the Holy City, we will see that Heaven has always been very close. Let’s pray.

“Lord, thank you for being the Redeemer, and calling us out of our sin, out of our filth. Thank you for calling me out of my slavery to the bottle and my worship of alcohol. Help us to be co-workers and co-redeemers with you, with hearts that are holy and lives that are true. In Jesus’ name, amen.

“Will you please stand?”

The congregation rose, and said with one voice,

“I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
Maker of Heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

“I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from Heaven:
by the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into Heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
I believe one holy Catholic and apostolic Church.
I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
Amen.”

A deacon said aloud, “Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church;”

The congregation answered, “That we all may be one.”

“Grant that every member of the Church may truly and humbly serve you;”

“That your Name may be glorified by all people.”

“We pray for all bishops, priests, and deacons;”

“That they may be faithful ministers of your Word and Sacraments.”

“We pray for all who govern and hold authority in the nations of the world;”

“That there may be justice and peace on the earth.”

“Give us grace to do your will in all that we undertake;”

“That our works may find favor in your sight.”

“Have compassion on those who suffer from any grief or trouble;”

“That they may be delivered from their distress.”

“Give to the departed eternal rest;”

“Let light perpetual shine on them.”

“We praise you for your saints who have entered into joy;”

“May we also come to share in your heavenly kingdom.”

“Let us pray for our own needs and those of others.”

A time of silence ensued.

The celebrant said, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.”

The friends knelt in silence.

“Most merciful God,” the celebrant began, joined by the people,

“We confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name.
Amen.

The celebrant raised his hand, and said, “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.

“The peace of the Lord he always with you.”

“And also with you,” the congregation answered.

The friends exchanged the Kiss of Peace; Jaben placed his lips on Sarah’s cheek and planted a kiss. It was not romantic, erotic, or sexual, but it was very much real. Their bodies touched; their spirits touched. Jaben gave the kiss his whole attention; he wasn’t doing anything else, not anything. This is why—Sarah thought afterwards—the Kiss of Peace between friends should not just be a handshake, but a hug, or even better a kiss. And why I like Jaben’s kisses best of all.

The kiss bore the same fundamental beauty as singing

dancing

a small white feather in the air

a placid lake

deep green seaweed swaying under the ocean

a glass of dry white wine

silence

stillness

moonlight

starlight

crystalline ice

a fire of roses

a child falling asleep in its mother’s arms

agape

life.

Someone said that, when thinking of singing Alleluia, one should not so much think of “We start and stop this song,” as, “There is a song which always has been going on and always will go on, and when we sing, we step into it for a time.”

This kiss was not a momentary kythe, but a moment stepping into the Eternal Kythe.

It lasted less than a second, but it filled eternity.

The offering plates were passed around, and the voices joined together singing the doxology:

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise him, all creatures here below.
Praise him above, ye heavenly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Amen.”

The celebrant said, “The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you,” answered the congregation.

“Lift up your hearts,” the celebrant said.

“We lift them to the Lord.” the congregation answered.

The celebrant said, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”

The congregation answered, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.”

The celebrant said, “It is right and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth. For by water and the Holy Spirit you have made us a new people in Christ Jesus our Lord, to show forth your glory in all the world. Therefore, we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of Heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:”

The eternal Song arose like incense:

“Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of pow’r and might.
Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.

“Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of pow’r and might.
Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.

“Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest.
Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest.

“Blessed, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

“Blessed, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.”

The celebrant said, “Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.

“He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

“On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.’

“After supper he took the cup of wine, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, ‘Drink this, all of you. This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.’

“Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith:”

The whole congregation said, with one voice,

“Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.”

The celebrant said, “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.

“Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him. Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom.

“All this we ask through your Son Jesus Christ. By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and forever. Amen.

“And now, as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say:”

Celebrant and congregation joined voices in a natural, almost chantlike recital:

“Our Father
which art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil,
for thine is the Kingdom,
and the power,
and the glory forever.

Amen.”

The celebrant said, “Alleluia! Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;”

“Therefore let us keep the feast! Alleluia!” the congregation answered.

All said in unison,

“Most merciful Lord,
your love compels us to come in.
Our hands were unclean,
our hearts were unprepared;
we were not fit even to eat the crumbs from under your table.
But you, Lord, are the God of our salvation,
and share your bread with sinners.
So cleanse and feed us with the precious body and blood of your Son,
that he may live us and we in him;
and that we, with the whole company of Christ,
may sit and eat in your Kingdom.
Amen.”

The celebrant held up the elements, and said, “The gifts of God for the People of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

The congregation was seated for a moment, and then rose with the power and energy of a song:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for joy.
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.

“Praise for the sun, the bringer of day,
He carries the light of the Lord in his rays;
The moon and the stars who light up the way
Unto your throne.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for you.
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.

“Praise for the wind that blows through the trees,
the sea’s mighty storms, the gentlest breeze;
They blow where they will, they blow where they please
To please the Lord.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for joy.
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.

“Praise for the rain that waters our fields,
And blesses our crops so all the earth yields;
From death unto life her myst’ry revealed
Springs forth in joy.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for joy.
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.

“Praise for the fire who gives us his light,
The warmth of the sun to brighten our night;
He dances with joy, his spirit so bright,
He sings of you.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for joy.
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.

“Praise for the earth who makes life to grow,
The creatures you made to let your life show;
The flowers and trees that help us to know
The heart of love.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for joy.
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.

“Praise for our death that makes our life real,
The knowledge of loss that helps us to feel;
The gift of yourself, your presence revealed
To lead us home.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for joy.
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.
Sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.”

As they came up to receive communion, Jaben thought, “The body and blood of Christ. Real food and real drink.”

Thaddeus thought, “The body of Christ, the Church. I am mystically united with the whole body of Christ, across all ages and all nations, and — what I hold more special still — I drink the divine life.”

Désirée thought, “United again with my husband; made one in two ways now.”

Amos thought, “United again with my wife; made one in two ways now.”

Lilianne thought, “Here is a magic beyond anything in my daydreams, anything I can dream of.”

Ellamae thought, “This chalice holds a fluid more precious than ichor. This cup is the Holy Grail.”

Sarah thought, “God descends to meet my senses, and oh, how I appreciate that taste, that touch. He goes Within me.”

They sat in silence after returning to their seats.

“Let us pray,” the celebrant said.

The congregation joined him in saying,

“Eternal God, heavenly Father,
you have graciously accepted us as living members
of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
and you have fed us with spiritual food
in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
Send us now into the world in peace,
and grant us strength and courage
to love and serve you
with gladness and singleness of heart;
through Christ our Lord.
Amen.”

The celebrant raised his hand in blessing, and said, “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! May the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you for ever.”, and the congregation said, “Amen.”

They sang a recessional filled with joy:

“For the beauty of the earth
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies.

“Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

“For the beauty of each hour,
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon, and stars of light.

“Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

“For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth and friends above,
For all gentle thoughts and mild.

“Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

“For Thy church, that evermore
Lifteth holy hands above,
Offering upon every shore
Her pure sacrifice of love.

“Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.”

“For Thyself, best Gift Divine,
To the world so freely given,
For that great, great love of Thine,
Peace on earth and joy in heaven.

“Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.”

The celebrant raised his right hand in benediction, this time lowering his ring finger to meet his thumb. “Go forth into the world in peace, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.”

The congregation answered, “Thanks be to God.”

Chapter Forty-Three

Jaben was awoken by a phone call. “Be at Mortmain’s Cove at 6:00 PM, and bring your friends along.” He set the phone back on the receiver, and looked at his clock. 3:43 AM. Jaben scratched his head in puzzlement, and then drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Forty-Four

The friends’ van pulled around the corner, and they piled out. “I wonder what this could be about,” Désirée murmured.

Jaben put his arm over Ellamae’s shoulder, and said, “Ellamae, there’s this one joke I’ve got to tell you. You’ll laugh so hard, your breasts will fall off.”

Then he glanced down at her chest for a moment, and said, “Oh, wait. You’ve already heard it.”

Ellamae did not immediately react, then her mouth opened with a most delicious expression of “I can’t believe I just heard what I thought I heard,” and started laughing, and hit him in the arm. “Naughty, naughty,” she said.

Thad said, “Ok. You are in a field. There is a clown suit, a crowbar, and a laptop here. Above are ominous clouds.”

“I go west,” Amos said.

“I do not recognize the verb ‘I’.”

“Take clown suit.”

“Taken.”

“Wear clown suit.”

“The clown suit is about three sizes too small for you, and its colors clash with each other and your skin. Definitely you. You see—”

“Hullo, what’s this?” said Ellamae.

Another van came up. It had no license plates.

Four men in white sheets stepped out. Two of them were carrying shotguns, and one of them was holding a box, about a fifteen by fifteen by six inches. The last one stepped out, and said, “Which of you is Jaben?”

Jaben stepped forward and said, “Me.”

“Jaben,” the Klansman said with a sneer. “Don’t you think that when we get rid of one of them, it is with good reason?”

“We have rescued our friend,” Jaben said calmly. “Is that not good reason?”

“No. You are ashamed of being white, and you are a disgrace to our race.”

“I am very proud of being white,” Jaben said. “I am proud of all the paintings and philosophy and poetry my race has produced. And I believe that loving others of your race comes before loving people not of your race.”

“You do?” the Klansman asked with some surprise.

“Most definitely. But I don’t think race defines the end of love. I believe in loving myself, my kin, my race, all of humanity, in an ever expanding circle of love. Your love of your kindred helps you love whites who are not your relations; my love of whites helps me love men who are not white. I am the richer for the friendships I have had with people who are not white, most of all Amos and Désirée. You would be the richer if you could expand your circle of love as well.”

The Klansman snorted. “I did not come here to discuss philosophy with you. I came to challenge you to a duel.” He opened the box to reveal two silver handguns. “Each of these is a .45.”

“I don’t believe in fighting. You can as much win a duel as win an earthquake.”

Another Klansman fired a warning shot into the air. The echo resounded. “You will enter this duel, or we will mow down you and your friends, starting with the two of them.”

Jaben closed his eyes, and prayed silently. His friends — not touching him, not moving — prayed with him. Then he opened his eyes, and said, “Ok.”

Ellamae looked at him in absolute shock.

Jaben said — loud enough for the Kythers to hear — “Trust me,” and walked over, and whispered something in Ellamae’s ear.

Ellamae gulped.

Jaben walked over to the Klansmen, took one of the pistols. He stepped to the side, pointed the gun up, and turned his back.

The Klansman took the other pistol, and stood back to back with Jaben.

“One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.”

Jaben turned, fired a shot into the air, and dropped his gun to the ground. “My brother!” he cried, facing his adversary.

The Klansman turned, took aim, and shot him through the heart.

Chapter Forty-Five

Ellamae was the first to reach him, and caught him before he reached the ground. She knelt down and held him, his hot blood coursing over her shirt. She kissed him on the forehead, and Jaben smiled. Then the life left his eyes.The others gathered around, for one last embrace. Thaddeus closed Jaben’s eyes, which were still open, vacant, empty. Ellamae’s voice once again rose in a song that was high, clear, pure. It was immediately joined by Sarah’s voice, Thaddeus’s, Lilianne’s, Désirée’s, and Amos’s.

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.”

Amos could not sing. His voice was choked with tears.

“It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“My sin! O the bliss of this glorious thought,
My sin! not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the Cross and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be made sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”

They sang a second time.

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“My sin! O the bliss of this glorious thought,
My sin! not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the Cross and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be made sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”

Amos choked back tears long enough to say, “Let’s sing it a third time.”

This time, they sang more slowly:

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed his own blood for my soul.”

Here they all stopped, and for a time there was only a sound of tears. Then the song continued, loudly, powerfully, mightily.

“It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“My sin! O the bliss of this glorious thought,
My sin! not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the Cross and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“And, Lord, haste the day when our faith shall be made sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

“Amen.”

Lilianne looked up, and looked around. The Klansmen had all fled in terror.

The Kythers had been so deeply enraptured in the song that they had not even heard the sound of the van.

“The gun!” Sarah said. “We still have a gun with their fingerprints on it. Maybe the police can trace whoever it was, and bring them to justice.”

Ellamae picked up the gun with two fingers, as if she were holding a dead fish, and moved it a few paces away. Then she went into their van, took out a container and a cigarette lighter, poured some kerosene on the gun, and lit it.

“No,” she said. “That is not the way.”

She looked at Sarah, and said, sadly, “An eye for an eye only ends by making the whole world blind.”

Chapter Forty-Six

“I can’t believe he’s gone,” Désirée said. “Or that his life was cut so short.”

“I don’t believe that he’s gone,” Lilianne said. “Or that his life was cut short.”

“Explain,” Désirée said, raising her eyebrows.

“You know Hebrews chapter 11, that great chapter cataloging all the heroes of faith? After that, Paul writes, ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perserverance the race marked out for us.’

“The image is that of a stadium, where all those who have completed the race and received their laurel wreaths are standing around, excited, cheering on those who are still running. I may never hear from Jaben again this side of Heaven, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t here with us, watching us, praying, smiling on us. Jaben only lived a few years, but he managed in his own special way to cram more living into the scant years that he did live, than many people would live in a hundred years. I don’t know how to explain it, but his life was complete.”

The conversation gave way to a deep and powerful silence, a silence on which Jaben smiled.

Chapter Forty-Seven

Friends and family gathered inside the church, weeping.

The pastor began,

“I am the Resurrection and the Life, says the Lord.
Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will live
and whoever lives and believes in me
will never die.

“I know that I have a living Defender
and that he will rise up last, on the dust of the earth.
After my awakening, he will set me close to him,
and from my flesh I shall look on God.
He whom I shall see will take my part:
my eyes will be gazing on no stranger.

“For none of us lives for himself
and none of us dies for himself;
while we are alive, we are living for the Lord,
and when we die, we die for the Lord:
and so, alive or dead,
we belong to the Lord.

“Blessed are those
who die in the Lord
Blessed indeed, the Spirit says;
now they can rest for ever after their work.”

“The Lord be with you,” the pastor said softly.

“And also with you,” answered the congregation, even more softly.

“Let us pray.”

There was a deep, still, empty silence, a wounded, grieving silence, that after a time took the form of the celebrant’s words:

“O God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day our brother Jaben. We thank you for giving him to us, his family and friends, to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn. Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

“Amen,” all said together.

“Most merciful God,” the celebrant said, “whose wisdom is beyond our understanding: Deal graciously with Amos, Désirée, Lilianne, Ellamae, Thaddeus, Sarah, Wallace, Elizabeth, and Bear in their grief. Surround them with your love, that they may not be overwhelmed by their loss, but have confidence in your goodness, and strength to meet the days to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

An Amen filled the church.

“A reading from the Song of Songs,” said the reader.

“Set me as a seal on your heart,
as a sigil on your arm.
For love is stronger than death,
more relentless than Hades.
Its flame is a flash of fire,
a flame of Yahweh himself.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.

“The Word of the Lord,” the reader said.

“Thanks be to God,” the congregation answered.

“A reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

“What you sow must die before it is given new life; and what you sow is not the body that is to be, but only a bare grain, of wheat I dare say, or some other kind; it is God who gives it the sort of body that he has chosen for it, and for each kind of seed its own kind of body.

“Not all flesh is the same flesh: there is human flesh; animals have another kind of flesh, birds another and fish yet another. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies; the heavenly have a splendor of their own, and the earthly a different splendor. The sun has its own splendor the moon another splendor, and the stars yet another splendor; and the stars differ among themselves in splendor. It is the same too with the resurrection of the dead: what is sown is perishable, but what is raised is imperishable; what is sown is contemptible but what is raised is glorious; what is sown is weak, but what is raised is powerful; what is sown is a natural body, and what is raised is a spiritual body.

“The Word of the Lord,” the reader said.

“Thanks be to God,” the congregation echoed.

All rose, and the pastor said, “The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John.”

The congregation answered, “Glory to you, Lord Christ.”

“‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You trust in God, trust also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many places to live in;
otherwise I would have told you.
I am going now to prepare a place for you,
and after I have gone and prepared you a place,
I shall return to take you to myself,
so that you may be with me
where I am.
You know the way to the place where I am going.’

“Thomas said, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus said:

‘I am the Way; I am Truth and Life.
No one can come to the Father except through me.'”

The pastor closed the Bible, saying, “The Gospel of the Lord.”

The congregation answered, “Glory to you, Lord Christ.”

The pastor paused, and began, “A conservative, someone said, is someone who interprets the book of Jonah literally and the Song of Songs figuratively. A liberal is someone who interprets the book of Jonah figuratively and the Song of Songs literally.” He paused, and then continued. “I’m not sure where that would place Jaben; I don’t know how Jaben interpreted Jonah, but I do know that he interpreted the Song of Songs on at least three levels: a literal level, a figurative level, and a level of human relationships. He explained to me the last one by saying that if marriage is the crowning jewel of human relationships, as the Bible leads us to believe, then we should expect a book devoted to marriage to not only be a book about marriage, but a book about every human relationship. ‘Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes, that wreak havoc on our vineyards’ means to deal with the little problems that wreak havoc on a relationship, and that is sound advice for a marriage and sound advice for any other friendship.

“The Song of Songs was Jaben’s favorite book, so much so that he made his own translation — that and, he said, the fact that existing translations are highly bowlderized. Remind me to tell you sometime later what happened when the scholars working on the NIV made mistake of translating the greatest Song well. What you have in your Life Application Bible isn’t what the translators—

“I normally read from the King James at funerals, but Jaben would not have liked that. The King James, he said, is a wonderful monument of Elizabethan prose that should respectfully be permitted to rest in peace. So other readings in the service were taken from the New Jerusalem Bible, the most current English equivalent to the French Bible de Jérusalem that Jaben read, but the passage from the Song of Songs was from Jaben’s own translation. I would read other passages, but there are children listening.

“I thought about having ‘His Banner Over Me Is Love’ sung at this service, but I decided not to, for two reasons. The first reason is that it is a bouncy song, and does not very much sound like a dirge. And the second and most important reason? Jaben would have rolled over in his grave. The ultimate emasculation of an erotic text, he said, is to take a woodenly literal translation that obscures its meaning, and make it into a children’s song. Come to think of it, I will tell you of one portion of Jaben’s translation. He translated ‘His banner over me is love’ as ‘He is gazing on me with desire.’

“Jaben was a brilliant man; he spoke four languages fluently, received a bachelor’s degree in physics, and did things with computers I can’t begin to understand. He was also quite a joker. I’ll never forget the time he was talking with a senior political science major who was looking for a job, put an arm around his shoulder, and said, ‘What did the computer science graduate say to the humanities graduate?’ ‘What?’ ‘I’ll have the burger and fries, please.’

“And yet, as I think about him, not his humor, nor even his intelligence, strike me as most important about him. To explain exactly what was most important, I will in a moment tell you about his death.

“Jaben believed in living counterculturally. He believed in working to establish a culture of life in the midst of a culture of death. He always, always had time for people, from the youngest to the oldest. He would play with children, and sit at the feet of the aged and listen to their stories. He wouldn’t have anything of disposable relationships—he kept up correspondence with his friends in France, and made a conscious decision to stay with his friends here until death. God alone knew how soon that death would come.

“His friend Amos was abducted, and I have never seen friendship so deep as in that seven-stranded cord of friends. He and the other friends left, and traveled through Mexico to find Amos, and at last came back as seven friends, singing loudly and off-key. That is quite a story, to be told another time. But when he came back—

“Amos was abducted out of hate, a hate that is real and not only white against black. Amos is struggling hard not to be consumed by the same hate that consumed his adversaries, and I ask you, brothers and sisters, to pray for him. He bears a heavy burden. The men who left Amos to die in Mexico were enraged that he be brought back alive, and insisted on a duel — their way. Jaben was not allowed to choose the place and weaponry as used to be the etiquette when duels were fought. The place was Mortmain’s Cove and the weapon was a magnum .45. Jaben deliberately fired into the air, and then his opponent shot him through the heart.

“His last words, spoken to his murderer just before his death, were, ‘My brother!’

“His next to last words, whispered into Ellamae’s ears as he faced death, were, ‘Tell my brothers and sisters that I love them.

“To understand the full extent of these words, let me tell you something. Jaben was an only child.

“When he said, ‘Tell my brothers and sisters that I love them,’ he was talking about you. And me. He loved us, and loves us still.

“When Jesus knew that his hour was approaching, he said over and over again, ‘Love one another’ — the heart of Christian ethics — and ‘There is no love like this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ That is exactly what Jaben did. He gave his life as a ransom for Amos and the others. He decided to try to rescue Amos, whatever the cost — even his life.

“He gave more than money or time. He gave himself, his life. He lived well. He died well. We have before us the body of a man, of a hero. He is no longer with us. But his love remains.

“Let us pray.

“Lord, thank you for the scintillating light that shone in your servant Jaben. We stand bereaved; his candle burned short, but it blazed. Grant that each of us may learn from him and carry him in our hearts, and that you would enfold him in your own heart. Draw us into your heart. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

The congregation began to rise, as the pastor said, “In the assurance of eternal life given at Baptism, let us proclaim our faith and say,”

One united voice said,

“I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

“I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Amen.”

The pastor said, “Lord, help us to be like you, just as your servant Jaben was like you. Let us be shaped in your image, in preparation for that day when we shall ever be changing from glory to glory, in your presence even more fully than he is in your presence. Help us to know that we are strangers, we are aliens, we are not of this world, even as Jaben was not of this world, and is in it no longer. Draw us all into your eternal home, with its many dwelling places, in your eternal heart. Amen.”

The pastor stood in silence for a full minute, the silence breathing life into the prayer. Then he closed his eyes, and said, “Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to you our brother Jaben, who was reborn by water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. Grant that his death may recall to us your victory over death, and be an occasion for us to renew our trust in your Father’s love. Give us, we pray, the faith to follow where you have led the way; and where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, to the ages of ages.” The congregation joined him in saying, “Amen.”

The pastor and the others ordained walked over to the coffin, and prayed, “Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,”

The people joined him, saying,

“where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither signing, but life everlasting.”

“You alone are immortal,” the pastor continued, “the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

All said in unison,

“Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.”

The pastor turned to the body, and said, “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Jaben. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.” And all the people said, “Amen.”

The pastor raised his hand in benediction, and said, “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you, and remain with you always,” and the congregation joined him in saying, “Amen.”

“Let us go forth in the name of Christ,” the pastor said.

“Thanks be to God,” the people answered.

As the body was carried out from the church, the people chanted:

“Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and giving life to those in the tomb.

“Into paradise may the angels lead you.
At your coming may the martyrs receive you,
and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.”

Chapter Forty-Eight

Désirée said, “Remember Sarah’s first time making hamburgers? She put raw meat on top of hamburger buns, and then put them in the oven at 550. When someone smelled smoke, the buns and the outside were burnt to a crisp, and the inside of the burgers was still raw. We scraped off the charred buns, and put fresh ones, and Amos said, ‘Jaben, would you return thanks for this meal?’

“And Jaben folded his hands, and bowed his head, and began, ‘Lord, bless the hands that repaired this meal…'”

A chuckle moved among the friends.

“Or remember,” Désirée said, “the time when Bear ate a steakhouse out of shrimp, and the time after that that Jaben outate Bear? I never saw Bear stare like that. Or you, Amos, dear.” She gave her husband a squeeze.

“Or remember that time on the internet when Jaben advertised free, automated technical support for all versions of Windows, and created a CGI that would read in a user’s question, and then display a page that said, ‘Your computer appears to be infected with a piece of malicious code known as Windows. To remedy this problem, try upgrading to the most recent version of Debian or Redhat.’ Man, some of the flames he got after that!

“Or remember the time Jaben installed a Blue Screen of Death screensaver on Bear’s laptop? I never seen Bear so mad.

“Or remember the time when he went into a bike shop, and opened the entire supply of locks the store had around a bar, and walked up to the front counter, and said, ‘These aren’t very effective, are they?’

“Or remember the time when Sarah was working on a paper, and called out, ‘How do you spell “Approximately?”‘ And Jaben answered, ‘Q-F-R-3.’ And Sarah said, ‘No, really. I want a real spelling of a real word,’ and Jaben answered, ‘A-L-M-O-S-T?’

“Or remember that one last time when he called his medical insurance, waited for thirty minutes listening to music, and then said, ‘Hello. I’m calling to inquire as as to whether mental health will pay for singing lessons for the voices in my head?'”

The six friends were holding hands in a circle, laughing, weeping. Ellamae wiped a tear from her eye, and then softly whispered, “Fare thee well, Jaben. Adieu.”

Chapter Forty-Nine

Jaben looked. “Aah, Pope Gregory. There is something I’d like a theologian’s feedback on.”

“Yes?”

“My theories of prophecy. When I have asked people on earth to look at it, they have said that the theories are too deep to comment on.”

“Aah, yes,” the Pope said with a twinkle in his eyes. “They are great favorites in this realm. It serves to continually astonish us how someone so intelligent, so devout, and so open to the Spirit’s leading could be so completely wrong.”

Jaben looked, then smiled, then laughed, then laughed harder, then roared with laughter. His whole form shimmered with mirth. His laughter echoed throughout Heaven, and shook the foundations of Hell. Finally, he stopped laughing, and said, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.”

He paused a second, and asked, “Will you introduce me to the folk here?”

“Mary!”

“Welcome, child,” smiled the lady. “I have been waiting for you for ages.”

“What news do you have to tell me?”

“Désirée is with child, though she does not know it, and will give birth to a man-child who will be no ordinary child.”

“What will his name be?”

“His name shall be called Jaben.”

“And what do you have to tell me of yourself?”

“Only this: I love you.” She held him to herself as a little child.

Jaben asked Gregory, “Who was the greatest saint of all? Paul? Francis of Assisi? Theresa of Avila?”

“Come, let me show you to her.” He introduced her to a little girl. “This child’s name is Roberta. She lived in fourteenth century Italy, and you have not heard of her. She died at the age of seven in an epidemic, and she was not particularly attractive or bright — she was slightly retarded — she worked no miracles, and she was very easy to ignore (and most everyone did ignore her). She certainly wasn’t canonized. If you were to find an earthly account of her life, it would strike you as that of an ordinary and somewhat dull child. But here, we look at things a little differently. God saw into her heart, and saw faith, hope, and love such as never has occurred in mere man before and will never occur again.”

“Hi, Mister,” the child said. “May I please hold your hand?”

They walked along, and saw three men talking. “Who are these?” he asked Gregory.

“These are Peter, Augustine, and Aquinas.”

Jaben felt a moment of awe, and said, “May I join your theological discussion?”

“What a funny idea!” Aquinas said. “We weren’t discussing theology. There is no need for that here. You don’t need a picture of a friend when you can see his face. We were doing something far holier — telling jokes.”

“Aah, wonderful. May I tell you my favorite joke? It involves you three.”

“Certainly. Sit down.”

“There is a seminary student who is about to finish his studies, when he is killed in a car accident. He goes and waits outside the Pearly Gates.

“Peter asks the first person in line, ‘Who are you?’ And then Augustine replies, ‘I’m Augustine.’ ‘Prove it,’ Peter says. So you talk for a time about the Civitas Dei, and Peter lets him in, saying, ‘Welcome to Heaven, my dear friend.’

“Then Peter asks the next person in line, ‘Who are you?’ And Thomas replies, ‘I’m Thomas Aquinas.’ ‘Prove it,’ Peter says. So the two talk for a time about how Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics can enlighten our understanding of the Natural Law. And he says to Aquinas in turn, ‘Welcome to Heaven, my dear friend.’

“Finally, it’s the seminary student’s turn, and so you ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He replies, ‘Well, I’m, like, Nabal, and I was, like, studying all this really cool stuff in seminary about how we can bring together the best in, like, Christianity and New Age and other religions, and how it’s OK to honor the goddess in our worship, and then this car, like, creams me, and so here I am.’

“Peter pauses a second, and says, ‘Very well, then. You’ll have to prove who you are, just like Augustine and Aquinas.’

“‘Augustine? Aquinas? Like, dude, man, who are they?’

“‘Welcome to Heaven, my dear friend.'”

They were swept up with a merry, joyful mirth, and then, another voice called out, “Come! Sing the great song! Dance the great dance!”

He was swept away in a tempest of fire and wind and motion — wholly wild, wholly uncontrollable, wholly good. Song was over it and in it and through it. Notes flowed in and out to something beyond notes, and this incredible unfathomable motion was somehow also perfect peace. It was neither work nor rest, but play — pure, unending, awesome, wondrous play.

At last he found himself before a throne of seven stones.

“Daddy! I have been so longing to meet you!”

“Why, child? You have known me from childhood.”

“But oh, Daddy, how I long to touch your face.”

“Blessed are you who long to touch my face, for that you shall. Come. Touch.”

After a time, the Father said, “What else is on your heart, child?”

“Many things, but only one thing.”

“Yes?” “My friends, and the men who murdered me. I want them to know each other, to be reconciled, and I want them all to be with me in the New Jerusalem. Oh, Daddy, will you give me that?”

“Absolutely.”

With that, Jaben sunk into the Father’s heart of love, never again to leave.

soli deo gloria
marana tha
 

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