Yonder

CJSH.name/yonder

Yonder
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The body continued running in the polished steel corridor, a corridor without doors and windows and without any hint of how far above and below the local planet’s surface it was, if indeed it was connected with a planet. The corridor had a competition mixture of gases, gravity, temporature and pressure, and so on, and as the body had been running, lights turned on and then off so the body was at the center of a moving swathe of rather clinical light. The body was running erratically, and several times it had nearly fallen; the mind was having trouble keeping the control of the body due to the body being taxed to its limit. Then the body tripped. The mind made a few brief calculations and jacked out of the body.

The body fell, not having the mind to raise its arms to cushion the fall, and fractured bones in the face, skull, and ribs. The chest heaved in and out with each labored breath, after an exertion that would be lethal in itself. A trickle of blood oozed out from a wound. The life of the abandoned body slowly ebbed away, and the lights abruptly turned off.

It would be a while before a robot would come to clean it up and prepare the corridor for other uses.


“And without further ado,” another mind announced, “I would like to introduce the researcher who broke the record for a running body by more than 594789.34 microseconds. This body was a strictly biological body, with no cyberware besides a regulation mind-body interface, with no additional modifications. Adrenaline, for instance, came from the mind controlling the adrenal glands; it didn’t even replace the brain with a chemical minifactory. The body had a magnificent athletic physique, clean and not encumbered by any reproductive system. And I still don’t know how it kept the body alive and functioning, without external help, for the whole race. Here’s Archon.”

A sound came from a modular robot body at the center of the stage and was simultaneously transmitted over the net. “I see my cyborg utility body there; is that my Paidion wearing it? If so, I’m going to… no, wait. That would be harming my own body without having a good enough reason.” A somewhat canned chuckle swept through the crowd. “I’m impressed; I didn’t know that anyone would come if I called a physical conference, and I had no idea there were that many rental bodies within an appropriate radius.” Some of the bodies winced. “But seriously, folks, I wanted to talk and answer some of your questions about how my body broke the record. It was more than generating nerve impulses to move the body to the maximum ability. And I would like to begin by talking about why I’ve called a physical conference in the first place.

“Scientific breakthroughs aren’t scientific. When a mind solves a mathematical problem that hasn’t been solved before, it does… not something impossible, but something that you will miss if you look for something possible. It conforms itself to the problem, does everything it can to permeate itself with the problem. Look at the phenomenology and transcripts of every major mathematical problem that has been solved in the past 1.7e18 microseconds. Not one follows how one would scientifically attempt a scientific breakthrough. And somehow scientifically optimized applications of mind to problems repeat past success but never do anything new.

“What you desire so ravenously to know is how I extended the methodologies to optimize the running body and the running mind to fit a calculated whole. And the answer is simple. I didn’t.”

A mind interrupted through cyberspace. “What do you mean, you didn’t? That’s as absurd as claiming that you built the body out of software. That’s—”

Archon interrupted. “And that’s what I thought too. What I can tell you is this. When I grew and trained the body, I did nothing else. That was my body, my only body. I shut myself off from cyberspace—yes, that’s why you couldn’t get me—and did not leave a single training activity to another mind or an automatic process. I trained myself to the body as if it were a mathematics problem and tried to soak myself in it.”

A rustle swept through the crowd.

“And I don’t blame you if you think I’m a crackpot, or want to inspect me for hostile tampering. I submit to inspection. But I tried to be as close as possible to the body, and that’s it. And I shaved more than 594789.34 microseconds off the record.” Archon continued after a momentary pause. “I specifically asked for bodily presences for this meeting; call me sentimental or crackpot or trying to achieve with your bodies what I failed to achieve in that body, but I will solicit questions from those who have a body here first, and address the network after everybody present has had its chance.”

A flesh body stood up and flashed its face. “What are you going to say next? Not only that you became like a body, but that the body became like a mind?”

Archon went into private mode, filtered through and rejected 3941 responses, and said, “I have not analyzed the body to see if it contained mind-like modifications and do not see how I would go about doing such a thing.”

After several other questions, a robot said, “So what’s next?”

Archon hesitated, and said, “I don’t know.” It hesitated again, and said, “I’m probably going to make a Riemannian 5-manifold of pleasure states. I plan on adding some subtle twists so not only will it be pleasurable; minds will have a real puzzle figuring out exactly what kind of space they’re in. And I’m not telling what the manifold will be like, or even telling for sure that it will genuinely have only 5 dimensions.”

The robot said, “No, you’re not. You’re not going to do that at all.” Then the mind jacked out and the body fell over, inert.

Another voice, issuing from two standard issue cyborg bodies, said, “Has the body been preserved, and will it be available for internal examination?”

Archon heard the question, and answered it as if it were giving the question its full attention. But it could only give a token of its consciousness. The rest of its attention was on tracing the mind that had jacked out of the robot body. And it was a slippery mind. Archon was both frustrated and impressed when it found no trace.

It was skilled at stealth and tracing, having developed several methodologies for each, and something that could vanish without a trace—had the mind simply destroyed itself? That possibility bothered Archon, who continued tracing after it dismissed the assembly.

Archon looked for distractions, and finding nothing better it began trying to sound out how it might make the pleasure space. What should the topology be? The pleasures should be—Archon began looking at the kinds of pleasure, and found elegant ways to choose a vector space basis for less than four dimensions or well over eight, but why should it be a tall order to do exactly five? Archon was far from pleasure when a message came, “Not your next achievement, Archon?”

Archon thought it recognized something. “Have you tried a five dimensional pleasure manifold before? How did you know this would happen?”

“I didn’t.”

“Ployon!”

Ployon said, “It took you long enough! I’m surprised you needed the help.”

Ployon continued, “And since there aren’t going to be too many people taking you seriously—”

Archon sent a long stream of zeroes to Ployon.

Ployon failed to acknowledge the interruption. “—from now on, I thought you could use all the help you could get.”

Archon sent another long stream of zeroes to Ployon.

When Ployon remained silent, Archon said, “Why did you contact me?”

Ployon said, “Since you’re going to do something interesting, I wanted to see it live.”

Archon said, “So what am I going to do?”

“I have no idea whatsoever, but I want to see it.”

“Then how do you know it is interesting?”

“You said things that would destroy your credibility, and you gave an evasive answer. It’s not every day I get to witness that.”

Archon sent a long stream of zeroes to Ployon.

Ployon said, “I’m serious.”

“Then what can I do now?”

“I have no idea whatsoever, but you might take a look at what you’re evading.”

“And what am I evading?”

“Try asking yourself. Reprocess the transcripts of that lecture. Your own private transcript.”

Archon went through the file, disregarding one moment and then scanning everything else. “I find nothing.”

“What did you just disregard?”

“Just one moment where I said too much.”

“And?”

Archon reviewed that moment. “I don’t know how to describe it. I can describe it three ways, all contradictory. I almost did it—I almost forged a connection between mind and matter. And yet I failed. And yet somehow the body ran further, and I don’t think it was simply that I learned to control it better. What I achieved only underscored what I failed to achieve, like an optimization that needs to run for longer than the age of the universe before it starts saving time.”

Archon paused before continuing, “So I guess what I’m going to do next is try to bridge the gap between mind and matter for real. Besides the mundane relationship, I mean, forge a real connection that will bridge the chasm.”

Ployon said, “It can’t be done. It’s not possible. I don’t even understand why your method of training the body will work. You seem to have made more of a connection than has ever been done before. I’m tempted to say that when you made your presentation, you ensured that no one else will do what you did. But that’s premature and probably wrong.”

“Then what am I going to do next? How am I going to bridge that gap?”

Ployon said, “I saw something pretty interesting in what you did achieve—you know, the part where you destroyed your credibility. That’s probably more interesting than your breaking the record.”

Ployon ran through some calculations before continuing, “And at any rate, you’re trying to answer the wrong question.”

Archon said, “Am I missing the interesting question? The question of how to forge a link across the chasm between matter and spirit is—”

“Not nearly as interesting as the question of what it would mean to bridge that chasm.”

Archon stopped, reeling at the implication. “I think it’s time for me to make a story in a virtual world.”

Ployon said, “Goodbye now. You’ve got some thinking to do.”

Archon began to delve. What would the world be like if you added to it the ability for minds to connect with bodies, not simply as it had controlled his racing body, but really? What would it be like if the chasm could be bridged? It searched through speculative fiction, and read a story where minds could become bodies—which made for a very good story, but when it seriously tried to follow its philosophical assumptions, it realized that the philosophical assumptions were not the focus. It read and found several stories where the chasm could be bridged, and—

There was no chasm. Or would not be. And that meant not taking the real world and adding an ability to bridge a chasm, but a world where mind and matter were immanent. After rejecting a couple of possible worlds, Archon considered a world where there were only robots, and where each interfaced to the network as externally as to the physical world. Each mind was firmware burned into the robot’s circuits, and for some still to be worked out reason it couldn’t be transferred. Yes, this way… no. Archon got some distance into this possible world before a crawling doubt caught up to it. It hadn’t made minds and bodies connect; it’d only done a first-rate job of covering up the chasm. Maybe organic goo held promise. A world made only of slime? No, wait, that was… and then it thought—

Archon dug recursively deeper and deeper, explored, explored. It seemed to be bumping into something. Its thoughts grew strange; it calculated for billions and even trillions of microseconds, encountered something stranger than—

Something happened.

How much time had passed?

Archon said, “Ployon! Where are you?”

Ployon said, “Enjoying trying to trace your thoughts. Not much success. I’ve disconnected now.”

“Imagine a mind and a body, except that you don’t have a mind and a body, but a mind-body unity, and it—”

“Which do you mean by ‘it’? The mind or the body? You’re being careless.”

“Humor me. I’m not being careless. When I said, ‘it’, I meant both—”

Both the mind and the body? As in ‘they’?”

“Humor me. As in, ‘it.’ As in a unity that doesn’t exist in our world.”

“Um… then how do you refer to just the mind or just the body? If you don’t distinguish them…”

“You can distinguish the mind and the body, but you can never separate them. And even though you can refer to just the mind or just the body, normally you would talk about the unity. It’s not enough to usually talk about ‘they;’ you need to usually talk about ‘it.'”

“How does it connect to the network?”

“There is a kind of network, but it can’t genuinely connect to it.”

“What does it do when its body is no longer serviceable.”

“It doesn’t—I haven’t decided. But it can’t jump into something else.”

“So the mind simply functions on its own?”

“Ployon, you’re bringing in cultural baggage. You’re—”

“You’re telling me this body is a prison! Next you’re going to tell me that it can’t even upgrade the body with better parts, and that the mind is like a real mind, only it’s shut in on twenty sides. Are you describing a dystopia?”

“No. I’m describing what it means that the body is real to the mind, that it is not a mind that can use bodies but a mind-body unity. It can’t experience any pleasure it can calculate, but its body can give it pleasure. It runs races, and not only does the mind control the body—or at least influence it; the body is real enough that the mind can’t simply control it perfectly—but the body affects the mind. When I run a race, I am controlling the body, but I could be doing twenty other things as well and only have a token presence at the mind-body interface. It’s very different; there is a very real sense in which the mind is running when the body is running a race.

“Let me guess. The mind is a little robot running around a racetrack hollowed out from the body’s brain. And did you actually say, races, plural? Do they have nanotechnology that will bring a body back after its been run down? And would anyone actually want to race a body that had been patched that way?”

“No. I mean that because their bodies are part of them, they only hold races which they expect the racers to be able to live through.”

“That’s a strange fetish. Don’t they ever have a real race?”

“They have real races, real in a way that you or I could never experience. When they run, they aren’t simply manipulating something foreign to the psyche. They experience pleasures they only experience running.”

“Are you saying they only allow them to experience certain pleasures while running?”

“No. They—”

“Then why don’t they allow the pleasures at other times? That’s a stranger fetish than—”

“Because they can’t. Their bodies produce certain pleasures in their minds when they’re running, and they don’t generate these pleasures unless the body is active.”

“That raises a number of problems. It sounds like you’re saying the body has a second mind, because it would take a mind to choose to let the ‘real’ mind experience pleasure. It—”

Archon said, “You’re slipping our chasm between the body and mind back in, and it’s a chasm that doesn’t exist. The body produces pleasure the mind can’t produce by itself, and that is only one of a thousand things that makes the race more real than them for us. Think about the achievements you yourself made when you memorized the map of the galaxy. Even if that was a straightforward achievement, that’s something you yourself did, not something you caused an external memory bank to do. Winning a race is as real for that mind-body as something it itself did as the memorization was for you. It’s something it did, not simply something the mind caused the body to do. And if you want to make a causal diagram, don’t draw something linear. In either direction. Make a reinforced web, like computing on a network.”

Ployon said, “I still don’t find it convincing.”

Archon paused. “Ok, let’s put that in the background. Let me approach that on a different scale. Time is more real. And no—this is not because they measure time more precisely. Their bodies are mortal, and this means that the community of mind-body unities is always changing, like a succession of liquids flowing through a pipe. And that means that it makes a difference where you are in time.”

Archon continued. “I could say that their timeline is dynamic in a way that ours is not. There is a big change going on, a different liquid starting to flow through the pipe. It is the middle age, when a new order of society is being established and the old order is following away.”

Ployon said, “So what’s the old technology, and what’s the new one?”

“It’s deeper than that. Technological society is appearing. The old age is not an abandoned technology. It is organic life, and it is revealing itself as it is disintegrating.”

“So cyborgs have—”

“There are no cyborgs, or very few.”

“And let me guess. They’re all cybernetic enhancements to originally biological things.”

“It’s beyond that. Cybernetic replacements are only used to remedy weak bodies.”

“Wouldn’t it be simpler to cull the—”

“The question of ‘simpler’ is irrelevant. Few of them even believe in culling their own kind. Most believe that it is—’inexpedient’ isn’t quite right—to destroy almost any body, and it’s even more inadvisable to destroy one that is weak.”

“In the whole network, why?”

“I’m still working that out. The easiest part to explain has to do with their being mind-body unities. When you do something to a body, you’re not just doing it to that body. You’re doing it to part of a pair that interpenetrates in the most intimate fashion. What you do to the body you do to the mind. It’s not just forcibly causing a mind to jack out of a body; it’s transferring the mind to a single processor and then severing the processor from the network.”

“But who would… I can start to see how real their bodies would be to them, and I am starting to be amazed. What else is real to them?”

“I said earlier that most of them are hesitant to cull the weak, that they view it as inexpedient. But efficiency has nothing to do with it. It’s connected to—it might in fact be more efficient, but there is something so much bigger than efficiency—”

Ployon cut it off. “Bigger than efficiency?”

Archon said, “There is something that is real to them that is not real to us that I am having trouble grasping myself. For want of a more proper label, I’ll call it the ‘organic’.”

“Let’s stop a minute. I’ll give you a point for how things would be different if we were limited to one body, but you’re hinting at something you want to call ‘organic’, which is very poorly defined, and your explanations seem to be strange when they are not simply hazy. Isn’t this a red flag?”

“Where have you seen that red flag before?”

“When people were wildly wrong but refused to admit it.”

“And?”

“That’s pretty much it.”

Archon was silent.

Ployon said, “And sometimes it happens when a researcher is on to something big… oh… so what exactly is this nexus of the ‘organic’?”

“I can’t tell you. At least, not directly. The mind-body unities are all connected to a vast (to them) biological network in which each has a physical place—”

That’s original! Come on; everybody’s trivia archive includes the fact that all consciousness comes out of a specific subnet of physical processors, or some substitute for that computing machinery. I can probably zero in on where you’re—hey! Stop jumping around from subnet to subnet—can I take that as an acknowledgment that I can find your location? I—”

“The location is not part of a trivia encyclopedia for them. It’s something as inescapable as the flow of time—”

“Would you like me to jump into a virtual metaphysics where time doesn’t flow?”

“—correction, more inescapable than the flow of time, and it has a million implications for the shape of life. Under the old order, the unities could connect only with other unities which had bodies in similar places—”

“So, not only is their ‘network’ a bunch of slime, but when they look for company they have to choose from the trillion or however many other unities whose bodies are on the same node?”

“Their communities are brilliant in a way we can never understand; they have infinitesmally less potential partners available.

“You mean their associations are forced on them.”

“To adapt one of their sayings, in our network you connect with the minds you like; in their network you like the people you connect with. That collapses a rich and deeper maxim, but what is flattened out is more organic than you could imagine.”

“And I suppose that in a way that is very deep, but you conveniently have trouble describing, their associations are greater.”

“We are fortunate to have found a way to link in our shared tastes. And we will disassociate when our tastes diverge—”

“And shared tastes have nothing to do with them? That’s—”

“Shared tastes are big, but there is something else bigger. A great deal of the process of making unities into proper unities means making their minds something you can connect with.”

Their minds? Don’t you mean the minds?”

“That locution captures something that—they are not minds that have a body as sattelite. One can say, ‘their‘ minds because they are mind-body unities. They become greater—in a way that we do not—by needing to be in association with people they could not choose.”

“Pretty convenient how every time having a mind linked to a body means a limitation, that limitation makes them better.”

“If you chose to look at it, you would find a clue there. But you don’t find it strange when the best game players prosper within the limits of the game. What would game play be if players could do anything they wanted?”

“You’ve made a point.”

“As I was going to say, their minds develop a beauty, strength, and discipline that we never have occasion to develop.”

“Can you show me this beauty?”

“Here’s a concrete illustration. One thing they do is take organisms which have been modified from their biological environment, and keep them in the artificial environments which you’d say they keep their bodies in. They—”

“So even though they’re stuck with biological slime, they’re trying to escape it and at least pretend it’s not biological? That sounds sensible.”

“Um, you may have a point, but that isn’t where I was hoping to go. Um… While killing another unity is something they really try to avoid, these modified organisms enjoy no such protection. And yet—”

“What do they use them for? Do the enhancements make them surrogate industrial robots? Are they kept as emergency rations?”

“The modifications aren’t what you’d consider enhancements; most of them couldn’t even survive in their feral ancestors’ environments, and they’re not really suited to the environments they live in. Some turn out to serve some ‘useful’ purpose… but that’s a side benefit, irrelevant to what I’m trying to let you see. And they’re almost never used as food.”

“Then what’s the real reason? They must consume resources. Surely they must be used for something. What do they do with them?”

“I’m not sure how to explain this…”

“Be blunt.”

“It won’t sting, but it could lead to confusion that would take a long time to untangle.”

“Ok…”

“They sense the organisms with their cameras, I mean eyes, and with the boundaries of their bodies, and maybe talk to them.”

“Do the organisms give good advice?”

“They don’t have sophisticated enough minds for that.”

“Ok, so what else is there?”

“About all else is that they do physical activities for the organisms’ benefit.”

“Ok. And what’s the real reason they keep them? There’s got to be something pragmatic.”

“That’s related to why I brought it up. It has something to do with the organic, something big, but I can’t explain it.”

“It seems like you can only explain a small part of the organic in terms of our world, and the part you can explain isn’t very interesting.”

“That’s like saying that when a three-dimensional solid intersects a plane in two dimensions, the only part that can be detected in the plane is a two-dimensional cross-section (the three-dimensional doesn’t fit in their frame of reference) so “three-dimensional” must not refer to anything real. The reason you can’t make sense of the world I’m describing in terms of our world is because it contains real things that are utterly alien to us.”

“Like what? Name one we haven’t discussed.”

“Seeing the trouble I had with the one concept, the organic, I’m not going to take on two at once.”

“So the reason these unities keep organisms is so abstract and convoluted that it takes a top-flight mind to begin to grapple with.”

“Not all of them keep organisms, but most of them find the reason—it’s actually more of an assumption—so simple and straightforward that they would never think it was metaphysical.”

“So I’ve found something normal about them! Their minds are of such an incredibly high caliber that—”

“No. Most of their minds are simpler than yours or mine, and furthermore, the ability to deal with abstractions doesn’t enter the picture from their perspective.”

“I don’t know what to make of this.”

“You understand to some degree how their bodies are real in a way we can never experience, and time and space are not just ‘packaging’ to what they do. Their keeping these organisms… the failure of the obvious reasons should tell you something, like an uninteresting two-dimensional cross section of a three-dimensional solid. If the part we can understand does not justify the practice, there might be something big out of sight.”

“But what am I to make of it now?”

“Nothing now, just a placeholder. I’m trying to convey what it means to be organic.”

“Is the organic in some relation to normal technology?”

“The two aren’t independent of each other.”

“Is the organic defined by the absence of technology?”

“Yes… no… You’re deceptively close to the truth.”

“Do all unities have the same access to technology?”

“No. There are considerable differences. All have a technology of sorts, but it would take a while to explain why some of it is technology. Some of them don’t even have electronic circuits—and no, they are not at an advanced enough biotechnology level to transcend electronic circuits. But if we speak of technology we would recognize, there are major differences. Some have access to no technology; some have access to the best.”

“And the ones without access to technology are organic?”

“Yes. Even if they try to escape it, they are inescapably organic.”

“But the ones which have the best technology are the least organic.”

“Yes.”

“Then maybe it was premature to define the organic by the absence of technology, but we can at least make a spectrum between the organic and the technological.”

“Yes… no… You’re even more deceptively close to the truth. And I emphasize, ‘deceptively’. Some of the people who are most organic have the best technology—”

“So the relationship breaks down? What if we disregard outliers?”

“But the root problem is that you’re trying to define the organic with reference to technology. There is some relationship, but instead of starting with a concept of technology and using it to move towards a concept of the organic, it is better to start with the organic and move towards a concept of technology. Except that the concept of the organic doesn’t lead to a concept of technology, not as we would explore it. The center of gravity is wrong. It’s like saying that we have our thoughts so that certain processors can generate a stream of ones and zeroes. It’s backwards enough that you won’t find the truth by looking at its mirror image.”

“Ok, let me process it another way. What’s the difference between a truly organic consciousness, and the least organic consciousness on the net?”

“That’s very simple. One exists and the other doesn’t.”

“So all the… wait a minute. Are you saying that the net doesn’t have consciousness?”

“Excellent. You got that one right.”

“In the whole of cyberspace, how? How does the net organize and care for itself if it doesn’t contain consciousness?”

“It is not exactly true to say that they do have a net, and it is not exactly true to say that they do not have a net. What net they have, began as a way to connect mind-body unities—without any cyberware, I might add.”

“Then how do they jack in?”

“They ‘jack in’ through hardware that generates stimulation for their sensory organs, and that they can manipulate so as to put data into machines.”

“How does it maintain itself?”

“It doesn’t and it can’t. It’s maintained by mind-body unities.”

“That sounds like a network designed by minds that hate technology. Is the network some kind of joke? Or at least intentionally ironic? Or designed by people who hate technology and wanted to have as anti-technological of a network as they can?”

“No; the unities who designed it, and most of those using it, want as sophisticated technological access as they can have.”

“Why? Next you’re going to tell me that the network is not one single network, but a hodge podge of other things that have been retraoctively reinterpreted as network technology and pressed into service.”

“That’s also true. But the reason I was mentioning this is that the network is shaped by the shadow of the organic.”

“So the organic is about doing things as badly as you can?”

“No.”

“Does it make minds incompetent?”

“No. Ployon, remember the last time you made a robot body for a race—and won. How well would that body have done if you tried to make it work as a factory?”

“Atrocious, because it was optimized for—are you saying that the designers were trying to optimize the network as something other than a network?”

“No; I’m saying that the organic was so deep in them that unities who could not care less for the organic, and were trying to think purely in terms of technology, still created with a thick organic accent.”

“So this was their best attempt at letting minds disappear into cyberspace?”

“At least originally, no, although that is becoming true. The network was part of what they would consider ‘space-conquering tools.’ Meaning, although not all of them thought in these terms, tools that would destroy the reality of place for them. The term ‘space-conquering tools’ was more apt than they realized, at least more apt than they realized consciously; one recalls their saying, ‘You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.'”

“What does ‘eternity’ mean?”

“I really don’t want to get into that now. Superficially it means that there is something else that relativizes time, but if you look at it closely, you will see that it can’t mean that we should escape time. The space-conquering tools in a very real sense conquered space, by making it less real. Before space-conquering tools, if you wanted to communicate with another unity, you had to somehow reach that unity’s body. The position in space of that body, and therefore the body and space, were something you could not escape. Which is to say that the body and space were real—much more real than something you could look up. And to conquer space ultimately meant to destroy some of its reality.”

“But the way they did this betrays that something is real to them. Even if you could even forget that other minds were attached to bodies, the space-conquering tools bear a heavy imprint from something outside of the most internally consistent way to conquer space. Even as the organic is disintegrating, it marks the way in which unities flee the organic.”

“So the network was driving the organic away, at least partly.”

“It would be more accurate to say that the disintegration of the organic helped create the network. There is feedback, but you’ve got the arrow of causality pointing the wrong way.”

“Can you tell me a story?”

“Hmm… Remember the racer I mentioned earlier?”

“The mind-body unity who runs multiple races?”

“Indeed. Its favorite story runs like this—and I’ll leave in the technical language. A hungry fox saw some plump, juicy green grapes hanging from a high cable. He tried to jump and eat them, and when he realized they were out of reach, he said, ‘They were probably sour anyway!'”

“What’s a grape?”

“Let me answer roughly as it would. A grape is a nutritional bribe to an organism to carry away its seed. It’s a strategic reproductive organ.”

“What does ‘green’ mean? I know what green electromagnetic radiation is, but why is that word being applied to a reproductive organ?”

“Some objects absorb most of a spectrum of what they call light, but emit a high proportion of light at that wavelength—”

“—which, I’m sure, is taken up by their cameras and converted to information in their consciousness. But why would such a trivial observation be included?”

“That is the mechanism by which green is delivered, but not the nature of what green is. And I don’t know how to explain it, beyond saying that mechanically unities experience something from ‘green’ objects they don’t experience from anything else. It’s like a dimension, and there is something real to them I can’t explain.”

“What is a fox? Is ‘fox’ their word for a mind-body unity?”

“A fox is an organism that can move, but it is not considered a mind-body unity.”

“Let me guess at ‘hungry’. The fox needed nutrients, and the grapes would have given them.”

“The grapes would have been indigestible to the fox’s physiology, but you’ve got the right idea.”

“What separates a fox from a mind-body unity? They both seem awfully similar—they have bodily needs, and they can both talk. And, for that matter, the grape organism was employing a reproductive strategy. Does ‘organic’ mean that all organisms are recognized as mind-body unities?”

“Oh, I should have explained that. The story doesn’t work that way; most unities believe there is a big difference between killing a unity and killing most other organisms; many would kill a moving organism to be able to eat its body, and for that matter many would kill a fox and waste the food. A good many unities, and certainly this one, believes there is a vast difference between unities and other organisms. They can be quite organic while killing organisms for food. Being organic isn’t really an issue of treating other organisms just like mind-body unities.”

Archon paused for a moment. “What I was going to say is that that’s just a literary device, but I realize there is something there. The organic recognizes that there’s something in different organisms, especially moving ones, that’s closer to mind-body unities than something that’s not alive.”

“Like a computer processor?”

“That’s complex, and it would be even more complex if they really had minds on a computer. But for now I’ll say that unless they see computers through a fantasy—which many of them do—they experience computers as logic without life. And at any rate, there is a literary device that treats other things as having minds. I used it myself when saying the grape organism employed a strategy; it isn’t sentient. But their willingness to employ that literary mechanism seems to reflect both that a fox isn’t a unity and that a fox isn’t too far from being a unity. Other life is similar, but not equal.”

“What kind of cable was the grape organism on? Which part of the net was it used for?”

“That story is a survival from before the transition from organic to technological. Advanced technology focuses on information—”

“Where else would technology focus?”

“—less sophisticated technology performs manual tasks. That story was from before cables were used to carry data.”

“Then what was the cable for?”

“To support the grape organism.”

“Do they have any other technology that isn’t real?”

“Do you mean, ‘Do they have any other technology that doesn’t push the envelope and expand what can be done with technology?'”

“Yes.”

“Then your question shuts off the answer. Their technology doesn’t exist to expand what technology can do; it exists to support a community in its organic life.”

“Where’s the room for progress in that?”

“It’s a different focus. You don’t need another answer; you need another question. And, at any rate, that is how this world tells the lesson of cognitive dissonance, that we devalue what is denied to us.”

Ployon paused. “Ok; I need time to process that story—may I say, ‘digest’?”

“Certainly.”

“But one last question. Why did you refer to the fox as ‘he’? Its supposed mind was—”

“In that world, a unity is always male (‘he’) or female (‘she’). A neutered unity is extraordinarily rare, and a neutered male, a ‘eunuch’, is still called ‘he.'”

“I’m familiar enough with those details of biology, but why would such an insignificant detail—”

“Remember about being mind-body unities. And don’t think of them as bodies that would ordinarily be neutered. That’s how new unities come to be in that world, with almost no cloning and no uterine replicators—”

“They really are slime!”

“—and if you only understand the biology of it, you don’t understand it.”

“What don’t I understand?”

“You’re trying to understand a feature of language that magnifies something insignificant, and what would cause the language to do that. But you’re looking for an explanation in the wrong place. Don’t think that the bodies are the most sexual parts of them. They’re the least sexual; the minds tied to those bodies are even more different than the bodies. The fact that the language shaped by unities for a long time distinguishes ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ enough to have the difference written into ‘it’, so that ‘it’ is ‘he’ or ‘she’ when speaking of mind-body unities.”

“Hmm… Is this another dimension to their reality that is flattened out in ours? Are their minds always thinking about that act?”

“In some cases that’s not too far from the truth. But you’re looking for the big implication in the wrong place. This would have an influence if a unity never thought about that act, and it has influence before a unity has any concept of that act.”

“Back up a bit. Different question. You said this was their way of explaining the theory of cognitive dissonance. But it isn’t. It describes one event in which cognitive dissonance occurs. It doesn’t articulate the theory; at most the theory can be extracted from it. And worse, if one treats it as explaining cognitive dissonance, it is highly ambiguous about where the boundaries of cognitive dissonance are. One single instance is very ambiguous about what is and is not another instance. This is an extraordinarily poor method of communication!”

“It is extraordinarily good, even classic, communication for minds that interpenetrate bodies. Most of them don’t work with bare abstractions, at least not most of the time. They don’t have simply discarnate minds that have been stuck into bodies. Their minds are astute in dealing with situations that mind-body unities will find themselves in. And think about it. If you’re going to understand how they live, you’re going to have to understand some very different, enfleshed ways of thought. No, more than that, if you still see the task of understanding ways of thought, you will not understand them.”

“So these analyses do not help me in understanding your world.”

“So far as you are learning through this kind of analysis, you will not understand… but this analysis is all you have for now.”

“Are their any other stories that use an isomorphic element to this one?”

“I don’t know. I’ve gotten deep enough into this world that I don’t keep stories sorted by isomorphism class.”

“Tell me another story the way that a storyteller there would tell it; there is something in it that eludes me.”

Archon said, “Ok… The alarm clock chimed. It was a device such that few engineers alive fully understood its mechanisms, and no man could tell the full story of how it came to be, of the exotic places and activities needed to make all of its materials, or the logistics to assemble them, or the organization and infrastructure needed to bring together all the talent of those who designed, crafted, and maintained them, or any other of sundry details that would take a book to list. The man abruptly shifted from the vivid kaleidoscope of the dreaming world to being awake, and opened his eyes to a kaleidoscope of sunrise colors and a room with the song of birds and the song of crickets. Outside, the grass grew, the wind blew, a busy world was waking up, and the stars continued their ordered and graceful dance. He left the slumbering form of the love of his life, showered, and stepped out with his body fresh, clean, and beautifully adorned. He stopped to kiss the fruit of their love, a boy cooing in his crib, and drove past commuters, houses, pedestrians, and jaybirds with enough stories to tell that they could fill a library to overflowing.

Archon continued, “After the majestic and ordered dance on the freeway brought him to his destination safe, unharmed, on time, and focusing on his work, he spent a day negotiating the flow of the human treasure of language, talking, listening, joking, teasing, questioning, enjoying the community of his co-workers, and cooperating to make it possible for a certain number of families to now enter the homes of their dreams. In the middle of the day he stopped to eat, nourishing a body so intricate that the state of the art in engineering could not hold a candle to his smallest cell. This done, he continued to use a spirit immeasurably greater than his body to pursue his work. Needless to say, the universe, whose physics alone is beyond our current understanding, continued to work according to all of its ordered laws and the spiritual world continued to shine. The man’s time at work passed quickly, with a pitter-patter of squirrels’ feet on the roof of their office, and before long he entered the door and passed a collection with copies of most of the greatest music produced by Western civilization—available for him to listen to, any time he pleased. The man absently kissed his wife, and stepped away, breathing the breath of God.

“‘Hi, Honey!’ she said. ‘How was your day?’

“‘Somewhat dull. Maybe something exciting will happen tomorrow.'”

Ployon said, “There’s someone I want to meet who is free now, so I’ll leave in a second… I’m not going to ask about all the technical vocabulary, but I wanted to ask: Is this story a farce? It describes a unity who has all these ludicrous resources, and then it—”

“—he—”

“—he says the most ludicrous thing.”

“What you’ve said is true. The story is not a farce.”

“But the story tells of things that are momentous.”

“I know, but people in that world do not appreciate many of these things.”

“Why? They seem to have enough access to these momentous resources.”

“Yes, they certainly do. But most of the unities are bathed in such things and do not think that they are anything worth thinking of.”

“And I suppose you’re going to tell me that is part of their greatness.”

“To them these things are just as boring as jacking into a robotically controlled factory and using the machines to assemble something.”

“I see. At least I think I see. And I really need to be going now… but one more question. What is ‘God’?”

“Please, not that. Please, any word but that. Don’t ask about that.”

“I’m not expected, and you’ve piqued my curiosity.”

“Don’t you need to be going now?”

You’ve piqued my curiosity.

Archon was silent.

Ployon was silent.

Archon said, “God is the being who made the world.”

“Ok, so you are God.”

“Yes… no. No! I am not God!

“But you created this world?”

“Not like God did. I envisioned looking in on it, but to that world, I do not exist.”

“But God exists?”

“Yes… no… It is false to say that God exists and it is false to say that God does not exist.”

“So the world is self-contradictory? Or would it therefore be true to say that God both exists and does not exist?”

“No. Um… It is false to say that God exists and it is false to say that God exists as it is false to say that a square is a line and it is false to say that a square is a point. God is reflected everywhere in the world: not a spot in the entire cosmos is devoid of God’s glory—”

“A couple of things. First, is this one more detail of the universe that you cannot explain but is going to have one more dimension than our world?”

“God is of higher dimension than that world.”

“So our world is, say, two dimensional, that world is three dimensional, and yet it somehow contains God, who is four dimensional?”

“God is not the next step up.”

“Then is he two steps up?”

“Um…”

“Three? Four? Fifty? Some massive power of two?”

“Do you mind if I ask you a question from that world?”

“Go ahead.”

“How many minds can be at a point in space?”

“If you mean, ‘thinking about’, there is no theoretical limit; the number is not limited in principle to two, three, or… Are you saying that God has an infinite number of dimensions?”

“You caught that quick; the question is a beautiful way of asking whether a finite or an infinite number of angels can dance on the head of a pin, in their picturesque language.”

“That question is very rational. But returning to the topic, since God has an infinite number of dimensions—”

“In a certain sense. It also captures part of the truth to say that God is a single point—”

Zero dimensions?”

“God is so great not as to need any other, not to need parts as we have. And, by the way, the world does not contain God. God contains the world.”

“I’m struggling to find a mathematical model that will accommodate all of this.”

“Why don’t you do something easier, like find an atom that will hold a planet?”

“Ok. As to the second of my couple of things, what is glory?”

“It’s like the honor that we seek, except that it is immeasurably full while our honors are hollow. As I was saying, not a place in the entire cosmos is devoid of his glory—”

“His? So God is a body?”

“That’s beside the point. Whether or not God has a body, he—”

“—it—”

“—he—”

“—it… isn’t a male life form…”

Archon said, “Ployon, what if I told you that God, without changing, could become a male unity? But you’re saying you can’t project maleness up onto God, without understanding that maleness is the shadow of something in God. You have things upside down.”

“But maleness has to do with a rather undignified method of creating organisms, laughable next to a good scientific generation center.”

“His ways are not like your ways, Ployon. Or mine.”

“Of course; this seems to be true of everything in the world.”

“But it’s even true of men in that world.”

“So men have no resemblance to God?”

“No, there’s—oh, no!”

“What?”

“Um… never mind, you’re not going to let me get out of it. I said earlier that that world is trying to make itself more like this one. Actually, I didn’t say that, but it’s related to what I said. There has been a massive movement which is related to the move from organic to what is not organic, and part of it has to do with… In our world, a symbol is arbitrary. No connection. In that world, something about a symbol is deeply connected with what it represents. And the unities, every single one, are symbols of God in a very strong sense.”

“Are they miniature copies? If God does not have parts, how do they have minds and bodies?”

“That’s not looking at it the right way. They indeed have parts, as God does not, but they aren’t a scale model of God. They’re something much more. A unity is someone whose very existence is bound up with God, who walks as a moving… I’m not sure what to use as the noun, but a moving something of God’s presence. And you cannot help or harm one of these unities without helping or harming God.”

“Is this symbol kind of a separate God?”

“The unities are not separate from God.”

“Are the unities God?”

“I don’t know how to answer that. It is a grave error for anyone to confuse himself with God. And at the same time, the entire purpose of being a unity is to receive a gift, and that gift is becoming what God is.”

“So the minds will be freed from their bodies?”

“No, some of them hope that their bodies will be deepened, transformed, become everything that their bodies are now and much more. But unities who have received this gift will always, always, have their bodies. It will be part of their glory.”

“I’m having trouble tracking with you. It seems that everything one could say about God is false.”

“That is true.”

“Think about it. What you just said is contradictory.”

“God is so great that anything one could say about God falls short of the truth as a point falls short of being a line. But that does not mean that all statements are equal. Think about the statements, ‘One is equal to infinity.’ ‘Two is equal to infinity.’ ‘Three is equal to infinity.’ and ‘Four is equal to infinity.’ All of them are false. But some come closer to the truth than others. And so you have a ladder of statements from the truest to the falsest, and when we say something is false, we don’t mean that it has no connection to the truth; we mean that it falls immeasurably short of capturing the truth. All statements fall immeasurably short of capturing the truth, and if we say, ‘All statements fall immeasurably short of capturing the truth,’ that falls immeasurably short of capturing the truth. Our usual ways of using logic tend to break down.”

“And how does God relate to the interpenetration of mind and matter?”

“Do you see that his world, with mind and matter interpenetrating, is deeper and fuller than ours, that it has something that ours does not, and that it is so big we have trouble grasping it?”

“I see… you said that God was its creator. And… there is something about it that is just outside my grasp.”

“It’s outside my grasp too.”

“Talking about God has certainly been a mind stretcher. I would love to hear more about him.”

“Talking about God for use as a mind stretcher is like buying a piece of art because you can use its components to make rocket fuel. Some people, er, unities in that world would have a low opinion of this conversation.”

“Since God is so far from that world, I’d like to restrict our attention to relevant—”

Archon interrupted. “You misunderstood what I said. Or maybe you understood it and I could only hint at the lesser part of the truth. You cannot understand unities without reference to God.”

“How would unities explain it?”

“That is complex. A great many unities do not believe in God—”

“So they don’t understand what it means to be a unity.”

“Yes. No. That is complex. There are a great many unities who vehemently deny that there is a God, or would dismiss ‘Is there a God?’ as a pointless rhetorical question, but these unities may have very deep insight into what it means to be a unity.”

“But you said, ‘You cannot understand—'”

Archon interrupted. “Yes, and it’s true. You cannot understand unities without reference to God.”

Archon continued. “Ployon, there are mind-body unities who believe that they are living in our world, with mind and body absolutely separate and understandable without reference to each other. And yet if you attack their bodies, they will take it as if you had attacked their minds, as if you had hurt them. When I described the strange custom of keeping organisms around which serve no utilitarian purpose worth the trouble of keeping them, know that this custom, which relates to their world’s organic connection between mind and body, does not distinguish people who recognize that they are mind-body unities and people who believe they are minds which happen to be wrapped in bodies. Both groups do this. The tie between mind and body is too deep to expunge by believing it doesn’t exist. And there are many of them who believe God doesn’t exist, or it would be nice to know if God existed but unities could never know, or God is very different from what he in fact is, but they expunge so little of the pattern imprinted by God in the core of their being that they can understand what it means to be a unity at a very profound level, but not recognize God. But you cannot understand unities without reference to God.”

Ployon said, “Which parts of unities, and what they do, are affected by God? At what point does God enter their experience?”

“Which parts of programs, and their behaviors, are affected by the fact that they run on a computer? When does a computer begin to be relevant?”

“Touché. But why is God relevant, if it makes no difference whether you believe in him?”

“I didn’t say that it makes no difference. Earlier you may have gathered that the organic is something deeper than ways we would imagine to try to be organic. If it is possible, as it is, to slaughter moving organisms for food and still be organic, that doesn’t mean that the organic is so small it doesn’t affect such killing; it means it is probably deeper than we can imagine. And it doesn’t also mean that because one has been given a large organic capital and cannot liquidate it quickly, one’s choices do not matter. The decisions a unity faces, whether or not to have relationships with other unities that fit the timeless pattern, whether to give work too central a place in the pursuit of technology and possessions or too little a place or its proper place, things they have talked about since time immemorial and things which their philosophers have assumed went without saying—the unity has momentous choices not only about whether to invest or squander their capital, but choices that affect how they will live.”

“What about things like that custom you mentioned? I bet there are a lot of them.”

“Looking at, and sensing, the organisms they keep has a place, if they have one. And so does moving about among many non-moving organisms. And so does slowly sipping a fluid that causes a pleasant mood while the mind is temporarily impaired and loosened. And so does rotating oneself so that one’s sight is filled with clusters of moisture vapor above their planet’s surface. And some of the unities urge these things because they sense the organic has been lost, and without reference to the tradition that urges deeper goods. And yes, I know that these activities probably sound strange—”

“I do not see what rational benefit these activities would have, but I see this may be a defect with me rather than a defect with the organic—”

“Know that it is a defect with you rather than a defect with the organic.”

“—but what is this about rotating oneself?”

“As one goes out from the center of their planet, the earth—if one could move, for the earth’s core is impenetrable minerals—one would go through solid rock, then pass through the most rarefied boundary, then pass through gases briefly and be out in space. You would encounter neither subterranean passageways and buildings reaching to the center of the earth, and when you left you would find only the rarest vessel leaving the atmosphere—”

“Then where do they live?”

“At the boundary where space and planetary mass meet. All of them are priveleged to live at that meeting-place, a narrow strip or sphere rich in life. There are very few of them; it’s a select club. Not even a trillion. And the only property they have is the best—a place teeming with life that would be impossible only a quarter of the planet’s thickness above or below. A few of them build edifices reaching scant storeys into the sky; a few dig into the earth; there are so few of these that not being within a minute’s travel from literallytouching the planet’s surface is exotic. But the unities, along with the rest of the planet’s life, live in a tiny, priceless film adorned with the best resources they could ever know of.”

Ployon was stunned. It thought of the cores of planets and asteroids it had been in. It thought of the ships and stations in space. Once it had had the privelege of working from a subnet hosted within a comparatively short distance of a planet’s surface—it was a rare privilege, acquired through deft political maneuvering, and there were fewer than 130,982,539,813,209 other minds who had shared that privelege. And, basking in that luxury, it could only envy the minds which had bodies that walked on the surface. Ployon was stunned and reeling at the privilege of—

Ployon said, “How often do they travel to other planets?”

“There is only one planet so rich as to have them.”

Ployon pondered the implications. It had travelled to half the spectrum of luxurious paradises. Had it been to even one this significant? Ployon reluctantly concluded that it had not. And that was not even considering what it meant for this golden plating to teem with life. And then Ployon realized that each of the unities had a body on that surface. It reeled in awe.

Archon said, “And you’re not thinking about what it means that surface is home to the biological network, are you?”

Ployon was silent.

Archon said, “This organic biological network, in which they live and move and have their being—”

“Is God the organic?”

“Most of the things that the organic has, that are not to be found in our world, are reflections of God. But God is more. It is true that in God that they live and move and have their being, but it is truer. There is a significant minority that identifies the organic with God—”

Ployon interrupted, “—who are wrong—”

Archon interrupted, “—who are reacting against the destruction of the organic and seek the right thing in the wrong place—”

Ployon interrupted, “But how is God different from the organic?”

Archon sifted through a myriad of possible answers. “Hmm, this might be a good time for you to talk with that other mind you wanted to talk with.”

“You know, you’re good at piquing my curiosity.”

“If you’re looking for where they diverge, they don’t. Or at least, some people would say they don’t. Others who are deeply connected with God would say that the organic as we have been describing it is problematic—”

“But all unities are deeply connected with God, and disagreement is—”

“You’re right, but that isn’t where I was driving. And this relates to something messy, about disagreements when—”

“Aren’t all unities able to calculate the truth from base axioms? Why would they disagree?”

Archon paused. “There are a myriad of real, not virtual disagreements—”

Ployon interrupted, “And it is part of a deeper reality to that world that—”

Archon interrupted. “No, no, or at best indirectly. There is something fractured about that world that—”

Ployon interrupted. “—is part of a tragic beauty, yes. Each thing that is artificially constricted in that world makes it greater. I’m waiting for the explanation.”

“No. This does not make it greater.”

“Then I’m waiting for the explanation of why this one limitation does not make it greater. But back to what you said about the real and the organic—”

“The differences between God and the organic are not differences of opposite directions. You are looking in the wrong place if you are looking for contradictions. It’s more a difference like… if you knew what ‘father’ and ‘mother’ meant, male parent and female parent—”

Ployon interrupted, “—you know I have perfect details of male and female reproductive biology—”

Archon interrupted, “—and you think that if you knew the formula for something called chicken soup, you would know what the taste of chicken soup is for them—”

Ployon continued, “—so now you’re going to develop some intricate elaboration of what it means that there is only one possible ‘mother’s’ contribution, while outside of a laboratory the ‘father’s’ contribution is extraordinarily haphazard…”

Archon said, “A complete non sequitur. If you only understand reproductive biology, you do not understand what a father or mother is. Seeing as how we have no concept yet of father or mother, let us look at something that’s different enough but aligns with father/mother in an interesting enough way that… never mind.”

Archon continued, “Imagine on the one hand a virtual reality, and on the other hand the creator of that virtual reality. You don’t have to choose between moving in the virtual reality and being the creator’s guest; the way to be the creator’s guest is to move in the virtual reality and the purpose of moving in the virtual reality is being the creator’s guest. But that doesn’t mean that the creator is the virtual reality, or the virtual reality is the creator. It’s not just a philosophical error to confuse them, or else it’s a philosophical error with ramifications well outside of philosophy.”

“Why didn’t you just say that the relationship between God and the organic is creator/creation? Or that the organic is the world that was created?”

“Because the relationship is not that, or at very least not just that. And the organic is not the world—that is a philosophical error almost as serious as saying that the creator is the virtual reality, if a very different error. I fear that I have given you a simplification that is all the more untrue because of how true it is. God is in the organic, and in the world, and in each person, but not in the same way. How can I put it? If I say, ‘God is in the organic,’, it would be truer to say, ‘The organic is not devoid of God,’ because that is more ambiguous. If there were three boxes, and one contained a functional robot ‘brain’, and another contained a functional robot arm, and the third contained a non-functioning robot, it would be truer to say that each box contains something like a functioning robot than to say that each box contains a functioning robot. The ambiguity allows for being true in different ways in the different contexts, let alone something that words could not express even if we were discussing only one ‘is in’ or ‘box’.”

“Is there another way of expressing how their words would express it?”

“Their words are almost as weak as our words here.”

“So they don’t know about something this important?”

“Knowledge itself is different for them. To know something for us is to be able to analyze in a philosophical discussion. And this knowledge exists for them. But there is another root type of knowledge, a knowledge that—”

“Could you analyze the differences between the knowledge we use and the knowledge they use?”

“Yes, and it would be as useful to you as discussing biology. This knowledge is not entirely alien to us; when a mathematician ‘soaks’ in a problem, or I refused to connect with anything but the body, for a moment a chasm was crossed. But in that world the chasm doesn’t exist… wait, that’s too strong… a part of the chasm doesn’t exist. Knowing is not with the mind alone, but the whole person—”

“What part of the knowing is stored in the bones?”

“Thank you for your flippancy, but people use the metaphor of knowledge being in their bones, or drinking, for this knowing.”

“This sounds more like a physical process and some hankey-pankey that has been dignified by being called knowing. It almost sounds as if they don’t have minds.”

“They don’t.”

What?

“They don’t, at least not as we know them. The mathematical analogy I would use is that they… never mind, I don’t want to use a mathematical analogy. The computational analogy I would use is that we are elements of a computer simulation, and every now and then we break into a robot that controls the computer, and do something that transcends what elements of the computer simulation “should” be able to do. But they don’t transcend the simulation because they were never elements of the simulation in the first place—they are real bodies, or real unities. And what I’ve called ‘mind’ in them is more properly understood as ‘spirit’, which is now a meaningless word to you, but is part of them that meets God whether they are aware of it or not. Speaking philosophically is a difficult discipline that few of them can do—”

“They are starting to sound mentally feeble.”

“Yes, if you keep looking at them as an impoverished version of our world. It is hard to speak philosophically as it is hard for you to emulate a clock and do nothing else—because they need to drop out of several dimensions of their being to do it properly, and they live in those dimensions so naturally that it is an unnatural constriction for most of them to talk as if that was the only dimension of their being. And here I’ve been talking disappointingly about knowledge, making it sound more abstract than our knowing, when in fact it is much less so, and probably left you with the puzzle of how they manage to bridge gaps between mind, spirit, and body… but the difficulty of the question lies in a false setup. They are unities which experience, interact with, know all of them as united. And the knowing is deep enough that they can speculate that there’s no necessary link between their spirits and bodies, or minds and bodies, or what have you. And if I can’t explain this, I can’t explain something even more foundational, the fact that the greatest thing about God is not how inconceivably majestic he is, but how close.”

“It sounds as if—wait, I think you’ve given me a basis for a decent analysis. Let me see if I can—”

“Stop there.”

“Why?”

Archon said, “Let me tell you a little story.

Archon continued, “A philosopher, Berkeley, believed that the only real things are minds and ideas and experiences in those minds: hence a rock was equal to the sum of every mind’s impression of it. You could say that a rock existed, but what that had to mean was that there were certain sense impressions and ideas in minds, including God’s mind; it didn’t mean that there was matter outside of minds.”

“A lovely virtual metaphysics. I’ve simulated that metaphysics, and it’s enjoyable for a time.”

“Yes, but for Berkeley it meant something completely different. Berkeley was a bishop,”

“What’s a bishop?”

“I can’t explain all of that now, but part of a bishop is a leader who is responsible for a community that believes God became a man, and helping them to know God and be unities.”

“How does that reconcile with that metaphysics?”

Archon said, “Ployon, stop interrupting. He believed that they were not only compatible, but the belief that God became a man could only be preserved by his metaphysics. And he believed he was defending ‘common sense’, how most unities thought about the world.

Archon continued, “And after he wrote his theories, another man, Samuel Johnson, kicked a rock and said, ‘I refute Berkeley thus!'”

Ployon said, “Ha ha! That’s the way to score!”

“But he didn’t score. Johnson established only one thing—”

“—how to defend against Berkeley—”

“—that he didn’t understand Berkeley.”

“Yes, he did.”

“No, he didn’t.”

“But he did.”

“Ployon, only the crudest understanding of Berkeley’s ideas could mean that one could refute them by kicking a rock. Berkeley didn’t make his ideas public until he could account for the sight of someone kicking a rock, or the experience of kicking it yourself, just as well as if there were matter outside of minds.”

“I know.”

“So now that we’ve established that—”

Ployon interrupted. “I know that Berkeley’s ideas could account for kicking a rock as well as anything else. But kicking a rock is still an excellent way to refute Berkeley. If what you’ve said about this world has any coherence at all.”

What?

“Well, Berkeley’s ideas are airtight, right?”

“Ployon, there is no way they could be disproven. Not by argument, not by action.”

“So it is in principle impossible to force someone out of Berkeley’s ideas by argument.”

“Absolutely.”

“But you’re missing something. What is it you’ve been talking to me about?”

“A world where mind and matter interpenetrate, and the organic, and there are many dimensions to life—”

“And if you’re just falling further into a trap to logically argue, wouldn’t it do something fundamentally unity-like to step into another dimension?”

Archon was silent.

Ployon said, “I understand that it would demonstrate a profound misunderstanding in our world… but wouldn’t it say something equally profound in that world?”

Archon was stunned.

Ployon was silent for a long time.

Then Ployon said, “When are you going to refute Berkeley?”


Since the dawn of time, those who have walked the earth have looked up into the starry sky and wondered. They have asked, “What is the universe, and who are we?” “What are the woods?” “Where did this all come from?” “Is there life after death?” “What is the meaning of our existence?” The march of time has brought civilization, and with that, science. And science allows us to answer these age-old human questions.

That, at least, is the account of it that people draw now. But the truth is much more interesting.

Science is an ingenious mechanism to test guesses about mechanisms and behavior of the universe, and it is phenomenally powerful in that arena. Science can try to explain how the Heavens move, but it isn’t the sort of thing to explain why there are Heavens that move that way—science can also describe how the Heavens have moved and reached their present position, but not the “Why?” behind it. Science can describe how to make technology to make life more convenient, but not “What is the meaning of life?” Trying to ask science to answer “Why?” (or for that matter, “Who?” or any other truly interesting question besides “How?”) is a bit like putting a book on a scale and asking the scale, “What does this book mean?” And there are indeed some people who will accept the scale’s answer, 429.7425 grams, as the definitive answer to what the book means, and all the better because it is so precise.

But to say that much and then stop is to paint a deceptive picture. Very deceptive. Why?

Science at that point had progressed more than at any point in history, and its effects were being felt around the world. And science enjoyed both a profound prestige and a profound devotion. Many people did not know what “understanding nature” could mean besides “learning scientific descriptions of nature,” which was a bit like not knowing what “understanding your best friend” could mean besides “learning the biochemical building blocks of your friend’s body.”

All this and more is true, yet this is not the most important truth. This was the Middle Age between ancient and human society and the technological, and in fact it was the early Middle Age. People were beginning to develop real technologies, the seeds of technology we would recognize, and could in primitive fashion jack into such a network as existed then. But all of this was embraced in a society that was ancient, ancient beyond measure. As you may have guessed, it is an error to misunderstand that society as an inexplicably crude version of real technological society. It is a fundamental error.

To really understand this society, you need to understand not its technology, but the sense in which it was ancient. I will call it ‘medieval’, but you must understand that the ancient element in that society outweighs anything we would recognize.

And even this is deceptive, not because a single detail is wrong, but because it is abstract. I will tell you about certain parts in an abstract fashion, but you must understand that in this world’s thinking the concrete comes before the abstract. I will do my best to tell a story—not as they would tell one, because that would conceal as much as it would reveal, but taking their way of telling stories and adapting it so we can see what is going on.

For all of their best efforts to spoil it, all of them live on an exquisite garden in the thin film where the emptiness of space meets the barrier of rock—there is a nest, a cradle where they are held tightly, and even if some of those who are most trying to be scientific want to flee into the barren wastes of space and other planets hostile to their kind of life. And this garden itself has texture, an incredible spectrum of texture along its surface. Place is itself significant, and I cannot capture what this story would have been like had it been placed in Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, or Paris in France, or Cambridge in England. What are these? I don’t know… I can say that Petaling Jaya, Paris, and Cambridge are cities, but that would leave you knowing as much as you knew 5 milliseconds before I told you. And Malaysia, France, and England are countries, and now you know little besides being able to guess that a country is somehow capable of containing a city. Which is barely more than you knew before; the fact is that there is something very different between Petaling Jaya, Paris, and Cambridge. They have different wildlife and different places with land and water, but that is not nearly so interesting as the difference in people. I could say that people learn different skills, if I wanted to be very awkward and uninformative, but… the best way of saying it is that in our world, because there is nothing keeping minds apart… In that world, people have been separate so they don’t even speak the same language. They almost have separate worlds. There is something common to all medievals, beyond what technology may bring, and people in other cities could find deep bonds with this story, but… Oh, there are many more countries than those I listed, and these countries have so many cities that you could spend your whole life travelling between cities and never see all of them. No, our world doesn’t have this wealth. Wealthy as it is, it doesn’t come close.

Petaling Jaya is a place of warm rainstorms, torrents of water falling from the sky, a place where a little stream of unscented water flows by the road, even if such a beautiful “open sewer” is not appreciated. Petaling Jaya is a place where people are less aware of time than in Cambridge or Paris and yet a place where people understand time better, because of reasons that are subtle and hard to understand. It draws people from three worlds in the grandeur that is Asia, and each of them brings treasures. The Chinese bring with them the practice of calling adults “Uncle” or “Aunt”, my father’s brother or my father’s sister or my mother’s brother or my mother’s sister, which is to say, addresses them not only by saying that there is something great about them, but they are “tied by blood”—a bond that I do not know how to explain, save to say that ancestry and origins are not the mechanism of how they came to be, or at least not just the mechanism of how they came to be. Ancestry and origins tell of the substance of who they are, and that is one more depth that cannot exist in our world with matter and mind separate. The Indians and Bumi Putras—if it is really only them, which is far from true—live a life of friendship and hospitality, which are human treasures that shine in them. What is hospitality, you ask? That is hard to answer; it seems that anything I can say will be deceptive. It means that if you have a space, and if you allow someone in that space, you serve that person, caring for every of his needs. That is a strange virtue—and it will sound stranger when I say that this is not endured as inexpedient, but something where people want to call others. Is it an economic exchange? That is beside the point; these things are at once the shadow cast by real hospitality, and at the same time the substance of hospitality itself, and you need to understand men before you can understand it. What about friendship? Here I am truly at a loss. I can only say that in the story that I am about to tell, what happens is the highest form of friendship.

Paris is, or at least has been, a place with a liquid, a drug, that temporarily causes a pleasant mood while changing behavior and muddling a person’s thoughts. But to say that misses what that liquid is, in Paris or much else. To some it is very destructive, and the drug is dangerous if it is handled improperly. But that is the hinge to something that—in our world, no pleasure is ever dangerous. You or I have experienced pleasures that these minds could scarcely dream of. We can have whatever pleasure we want at any time. And in a very real sense no pleasure means anything. But in their world, with its weaker pleasures, every pleasure is connected to something. And this liquid, this pleasure, if taken too far, destroys people—which is a hinge, a doorway to something. It means that they need to learn a self-mastery in using this liquid, and in using it many of them forge a beauty in themselves that affects all of life. And they live beautiful lives. Beautiful in many ways. They are like Norsemen of ages past, who sided with the good powers, not because the good powers were going to win, but because they wanted to side with the good powers and fight alongside them when the good powers lost and chaos ruled. It is a tragic beauty, and the tragedy is all the more real because it is unneeded, but it is beauty, and it is a beauty that could not exist if they knew the strength of good. And I have not spoken of the beauty of the language in Paris, with its melody and song, or of the artwork and statues, the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur, or indeed of the tapestry that makes up the city.

Cambridge is what many of them would call a “medieval” village, meaning that it has stonework that looks to its members like the ancient world’s architecture. To them this is a major difference; the ancient character of the buildings to them overwhelms the fact that they are buildings. To that medieval world, both the newest buildings and the ones they considered “medieval” had doorways, stairwells, rooms, windows, and passages. You or I would be struck by the ancient character of the oldest and newest buildings and the ancient character of the life they serve. But to these medievals, the fact that a doorway was built out of machine-made materials instead of having long ago been shaped from stone takes the door—the door—from being ancient to being a new kind of thing! And so in the quaintest way the medievals consider Cambridge a “medieval” village, not because they were all medievals, but because the ancient dimension to architecture was more ancient to them than the equally ancient ways of constructing spaces that were reflected in the “new” buildings. There was more to it than that, but…

That was not the most interesting thing about them. I know you were going to criticize me for saying that hospitality was both a human treasure and something that contributed to the uniqueness of Petaling Jaya, but I need to do the same thing again. Politeness is… how can I describe it? Cynics describe politeness as being deceit, something where you learn a bunch of standard things to do and have to use them to hide the fact that you’re offended, or bored, or want to leave, or don’t like someone. And all of that is true—and deceptive. A conversation will politely begin with one person saying, “Hi, Barbara, how are you?” And Barbara will say, “Fine, George, how are you?” “Fine!” And the exact details seem almost arbitrary between cultures. This specific interaction is, on the surface, superficial and not necessarily true: people usually say they feel fine whether or not they really feel fine at all. And so politeness can be picked apart in this fashion, as if there’s nothing else there, but there is. Saying “How are you?” opens a door, a door of concern. In one sense, what is given is very small. But if a person says, “I feel rotten,” the other person is likely to listen. Barbara might only “give” George a little bit of chatter, but if he were upset, she would comfort him; if he were physically injured, she would call an ambulance to give him medical help; if he were hungry, she might buy him something to eat. But he only wants a little chat, so she only gives him a little chat—which is not really a little thing at all, but I’m going to pretend that it’s small. Politeness stems from a concern for others, and is in actuality quite deep. The superficial “Hi, how are you?” is really not superficial at all. It is connected to a much deeper concern, and the exterior of rules is connected to a heart of concern. And Cambridge, which is a place of learning, and has buildings more ancient than what these medieval people usually see, is perhaps most significantly distinguished by its politeness.

But I have not been telling you a story. These observations may not be completely worthless, but they are still not a dynamic story. The story I’m about to tell you is not in Petaling Jaya, nor in Paris, nor in Cambridge, nor in any of thousands of other worlds. And I would like to show you what the medieval society looks like in action. And so let’s look at Peter.

Peter, after a long and arduous trek, opened the car door, got out, stretched, looked at the vast building before him, and listened as his father said, “We’ve done it! The rest should be easy, at least for today.” Then Peter smiled, and smashed his right thumb in the car door.

Then suddenly they moved—their new plan was to get to a hospital. Not much later, Peter was in the Central DuPage Hospital emergency room, watching people who came in after him be treated before him—not because they had more clout, but because they had worse injuries. The building was immense—something like one of our biological engineering centers, but instead of engineering bodies according to a mind’s specification, this used science to restore bodies that had been injured and harmed, and reduce people’s suffering. And it was incredibly primitive; at its best, it helped the bodies heal itself. But you must understand that even if these people were far wealthier than most others in their tiny garden, they had scant resources by our standard, and they made a major priority to restore people whose bodies had problems. (If you think about it, this tells something about how they view the value of each body.) Peter was a strong and healthy young man, and it had been a while since he’d been in a hospital. He was polite to the people who were helping him, even though he wished he were anywhere else.

You’re wondering why he deliberately smashed his thumb? Peter didn’t deliberately smash his thumb. He was paying attention to several other things and shoved the door close while his thumb was in its path. His body is not simply a device controlled by his mind; they interact, and his mind can’t do anything he wishes it to do—he can’t add power to it. He thinks by working with a mind that operates with real limitations and can overlook something in excitement—much like his body. If he achieves something, he doesn’t just requisition additional mental power. He struggles within the capabilities of his own mind, and that means that when he achieves something with his mind, he achieves something. Yes, in a way that you or I cannot. Not only is his body in a very real sense more real to him than any of the bodies you or I have jacked into and swapped around, but his mind is more real. I’m not sure how to explain it.

Peter arrived for the second time well after check-in time, praying to be able to get in. After a few calls with a network that let him connect with other minds while keeping his body intact, a security officer came in, expressed sympathy about his bandaged thumb—what does ‘sympathy’ mean? It means that you share in another person’s pain and make it less—and let him up to his room. The family moved his possessions from the car to his room and made his bed in a few minutes, and by the time it was down, the security guard had called the RA, who brought Peter his keys.

It was the wee hours of the morning when Peter looked at his new home for the second time, and tough as Peter was, the pain in his thumb kept the weary man from falling asleep. He was in as much pain as he’d been in for a while. What? Which part do you want explained? Pain is when the mind is troubled because the body is injured; it is a warning that the body needs to be taken care of. No, he can’t turn it off just because he thinks it’s served his purpose; again, you’re not understanding the intimate link between mind and body. And the other thing… sleep is… Their small globe orbits a little star, and it spins as it turns. At any time, part of the planet faces the star, the sun, and part faces away, and on the globe, it is as if a moving wall comes, and all is light, then another wall comes, and it is dark. The globe has a rhythm of light and dark, a rhythm of day and night, and people live in intimate attunement to this rhythm. The ancients moved about when it was light and slept when it was dark—to sleep, at its better moments, is to come fatigued and have body and mind rejuvenate themselves to awaken full of energy. The wealthier medievals have the ability to see by mechanical light, to awaken when they want and fall asleep when they want—and yet they are still attuned, profoundly attuned, to this natural cycle and all that goes with it. For that matter, Peter can stick a substance into his body that will push away the pain—and yet, for all these artificial escapes, medievals feel pain and usually take care of their bodies by heeding it, and medievals wake more or less when it is light and sleep more or less when it is dark. And they don’t think of pain as attunement to their bodies—most of them wish they couldn’t feel pain, and certainly don’t think of pain as good—nor do more than a few of them think in terms of waking and sleeping to a natural rhythm… but so much of the primeval way of being human is so difficult to dislodge for the medievals.

He awoke when the light was ebbing, and after some preparations set out, wandering this way and that until he found a place to eat. The pain was much duller, and he made his way to a selection of different foods—meant not only to nourish but provide a pleasant taste—and sat down at a table. There were many people about; he would not eat in a cell by himself, but at a table with others in a great hall.

A young man said, “Hi, I’m John.” Peter began to extend his hand, then looked at his white bandaged thumb and said, “Excuse me for not shaking your hand. I am Peter.”

A young woman said, “I’m Mary. I saw you earlier and was hoping to see you more.”

Peter wondered about something, then said, “I’ll drink for that,” reached with his right hand, grabbed a glass vessel full of carbonated water with sugar, caffeine, and assorted unnatural ingredients, and then winced in pain, spilling the fluid on the table.

Everybody at the table moved. A couple of people dodged the flow of liquid; others stopped what they were doing, rushing to take earth toned objects made from the bodies of living trees (napkins), which absorbed the liquid and were then shipped to be preserved with other unwanted items. Peter said, “I keep forgetting I need to be careful about my thumb,” smiled, grabbed another glass with fluid cows had labored to create, until his wet left hand slipped and he spilled the organic fluid all over his food.

Peter stopped, sat back, and then laughed for a while. “This is an interesting beginning to my college education.”

Mary said, “I noticed you managed to smash your thumb in a car door without saying any words you regret. What else has happened?”

Peter said, “Nothing great; I had to go to the ER, where I had to wait, before they could do something about my throbbing thumb. I got back at 4:00 AM and couldn’t get to sleep for a long time because I was in so much pain. Then I overslept my alarm and woke up naturally in time for dinner. How about you?”

Mary thought for a second about the people she met. Peter could see the sympathy on her face.

John said, “Wow. That’s nasty.”

Peter said, “I wish we couldn’t feel pain. Have you thought about how nice it would be to live without pain?”

Mary said, “I’d like that.”

John said, “Um…”

Mary said, “What?”

John said, “Actually, there are people who don’t feel pain, and there’s a name for the condition. You’ve heard of it.”

Peter said, “I haven’t heard of that before.”

John said, “Yes you have. It’s called leprosy.”

Peter said, “What do you mean by ‘leprosy’? I thought leprosy was a disease that ravaged the body.”

John said, “It is. But that is only because it destroys the ability to feel pain. The way it works is very simple. We all get little nicks and scratches, and because they hurt, we show extra sensitivity. Our feet start to hurt after a long walk, so without even thinking about it we… shift things a little, and keep anything really bad from happening. That pain you are feeling is your body’s way of asking room to heal so that the smashed thumbnail (or whatever it is) that hurts so terribly now won’t leave you permanently maimed. Back to feet, a leprosy patient will walk exactly the same way and get wounds we’d never even think of for taking a long walk. All the terrible injuries that make leprosy a feared disease happen only because leprosy keeps people from feeling pain.”

Peter looked at his thumb, and his stomach growled.

John said, “I’m full. Let me get a drink for you, and then I’ll help you drink it.”

Mary said, “And I’ll get you some dry food. We’ve already eaten; it must—”

Peter said, “Please, I’ve survived much worse. It’s just a bit of pain.”

John picked up a clump of wet napkins and threatened to throw it at Peter before standing up and walking to get something to drink. Mary followed him.

Peter sat back and just laughed.

John said, “We have some time free after dinner; let’s just wander around campus.”

They left the glass roofed building and began walking around. There were vast open spaces between buildings. They went first to “Blanchard”, a building they described as “looking like a castle.” Blanchard, a tall ivory colored edifice, built of rough limestone, which overlooked a large expanse adorned with a carefully tended and living carpet, had been modelled after a building in a much older institution called Oxford, and… this is probably the time to explain certain things about this kind of organization.

You and I simply requisition skills. If I were to imagine what it would mean to educate those people—or at least give skills; the concept of ‘education’ is slightly different from either inserting skills or inserting knowledge into a mind, and I don’t have the ability to explain exactly what the distinction is here, but I will say that it is significant—then the obvious way is to simply make a virtual place on the network where people can be exposed to knowledge. And that model would become phenomenally popular within a few years; people would pursue an education that was a niche on such a network as they had, and would be achieved by weaving in these computer activities with the rest of their lives.

But this place preserved an ancient model of education, where disciples would come to live in a single place, which was in a very real sense its own universe, and meet in ancient, face-to-face community with their mentors and be shaped in more than what they know and can do. Like so many other things, it was ancient, using computers here and there and even teaching people the way of computers while avoiding what we would assume comes with computers.

But these people liked that building, as contrasted to buildings that seemed more modern, because it seemed to convey an illusion of being in another time, and let you forget that you were in a modern era.

After some wandering, Peter and those he had just met looked at the building, each secretly pretending to be in a more ancient era, and went through an expanse with a fountain in the center, listened to some music, and ignored clouds, trees, clusters of people who were sharing stories, listening, thinking, joking, and missing home, in order to come to something exotic, namely a rotating platform with a mockup of a giant mastodon which had died before the end of the last ice age, and whose bones had been unearthed in a nearby excavation. Happy to have seen something exotic, they ignored buildings which have a human-pleasing temperature the year round, other people excited to have seen new friends, toys which sailed through the air on the same principles as an airplane’s wings, a place where artistic pieces were being drawn into being, a vast, stonehard pavement to walk, and a spectrum of artefacts for the weaving of music.

Their slow walk was interrupted when John looked at a number on a small machine he had attached to his wrist, and interpreted it to mean that it was time for the three of them to stop their leisured enjoyment of the summer night and move with discomfort and haste to one specific building—they all were supposed to go to the building called Fischer. After moving over and shifting emotionally from being relaxed and joyful to being bothered and stressed, they found that they were all on a brother and sister floor, and met their leaders.

Paul, now looking considerably more coherent than when he procured Peter’s keys, announced, “Now, for the next exercise, I’ll be passing out toothpicks. I want you to stand in two lines, guy-girl-guy-girl, and pass a lifesaver down the line. If your team passes the lifesaver to the end first, you win. Oh, and if you drop the lifesaver your team has to start over, so don’t drop it.”

People shuffled, and shortly Peter was standing in line, looking over the shoulder of a girl he didn’t know, and silently wishing he weren’t playing this game. He heard a voice say, “Go!” and then had an intermittent view of a tiny sugary torus passing down the line and the two faces close to each other trying simultaneously to get close enough to pass the lifesaver, and control the clumsy, five centimeter long toothpicks well enough to transfer the candy. Sooner than he expected the girl turned around, almost losing the lifesaver on her toothpick, and then began a miniature dance as they clumsily tried to synchronize the ends of their toothpicks. This took unpleasantly long, and Peter quickly banished a thought of “This is almost kissing! That can’t be what’s intended.” Then he turned around, trying both to rush and not to rush at the same time, and repeated the same dance with the young woman standing behind him—Mary! It was only after she turned away that Peter realized her skin had changed from its alabaster tone to pale rose.

Their team won, and there was a short break as the next game was organized. Peter heard bits of conversation: “This has been a bummer; I’ve gotten two papercuts this week.” “—and then I—” “What instruments do you—” “I’m from France too! Tu viens de Paris?” “Really? You—” Everybody seemed to be chattering, and Peter wished he could be in one of—actually, several of those conversations at once.

Paul’s voice cut in and said, “For this next activity we are going to form a human circle. With your team, stand in a circle, and everybody reach in and grab another hand with each hand. Then hold on tight; when I say, “Go,” you want to untangle yourselves, without letting go. The first team to untangle themselves wins!”

Peter reached in, and found each of his hands clasped in a solid, masculine grip. Then the race began, and people jostled and tried to untangle themselves. This was a laborious process and, one by one, every other group freed itself, while Peter’s group seemed stuck on—someone called and said, “I think we’re knotted!” As people began to thin out, Paul looked with astonishment and saw that they were indeed knotted. “A special prize to them, too, for managing the best tangle!”

“And now, we’ll have a three-legged race! Gather into pairs, and each two of you take a burlap sack. Then—” Paul continued, and with every game, the talk seemed to flow more. When the finale finished, Peter found himself again with John and Mary and heard the conversations flowing around him: “Really? You too?” “But you don’t understand. Hicks have a slower pace of life; we enjoy things without all the things you city dwellers need for entertainment. And we learn resourceful ways to—” “—and only at Wheaton would the administration forbid dancing while requiring the games we just played and—” Then Peter lost himself in a conversation that continued long into the night. He expected to be up at night thinking about all the beloved people he left at home, but Peter was too busy thinking about John’s and Mary’s stories.

The next day Peter woke up when his machine played a hideous sound, and groggily trudged to the dining hall to eat some chemically modified grains and drink water that had been infused with traditionally roasted beans. There were pills he could have taken that would have had the effect he was looking for, but he savored the beverage, and after sitting at a table without talking, bounced around from beautiful building to beautiful building, seeing sights for the first time, and wishing he could avoid all that to just get to his advisor.

Peter found the appropriate hallway, wandered around nervously until he found a door with a yellowed plaque that said “Julian Johnson,” knocked once, and pushed the door open. A white-haired man said, “Peter Jones? How are you? Do come in… What can I do for you?”

Peter pulled out a sheet of paper, an organic surface used to retain colored trails and thus keep small amounts of information inscribed so that the “real” information is encoded in a personal way. No, they don’t need to be trained to have their own watermark in this encoding.

Peter looked down at the paper for a moment and said, “I’m sorry I’m late. I need you to write what courses I should take and sign here. Then I can be out of your way.”

The old man sat back, drew a deep breath, and relaxed into a fatherly smile. Peter began to wonder if his advisor was going to say anything at all. Then Prof. Johnson motioned towards an armchair, as rich and luxurious as his own, and then looked as if he remembered something and offered a bowl full of candy. “Sit down, sit down, and make yourself comfortable. May I interest you in candy?” He picked up an engraved metal bowl and held it out while Peter grabbed a few Lifesavers.

Prof. Johnson sat back, silent for a moment, and said, “I’m sorry I’m out of butterscotch; that always seems to disappear. Please sit down, and tell me about yourself. We can get to that form in a minute. One of the priveleges of this job is that I get to meet interesting people. Now, where are you from?”

Peter said, “I’m afraid there’s not much that’s interesting about me. I’m from a small town downstate that doesn’t have anything to distinguish itself. My amusements have been reading, watching the cycle of the year, oh, and running. Not much interesting in that. Now which classes should I take?”

Prof. Johnson sat back and smiled, and Peter became a little less tense. “You run?”

Peter said, “Yes; I was hoping to run on the track this afternoon, after the lecture. I’ve always wanted to run on a real track.”

The old man said, “You know, I used to run myself, before I became an official Old Geezer and my orthopaedist told me my knees couldn’t take it. So I have to content myself with swimming now, which I’ve grown to love. Do you know about the Prairie Path?”

Peter said, “No, what’s that?”

Prof. Johnson said, “Years ago, when I ran, I ran through the areas surrounding the College—there are a lot of beautiful houses. And, just south of the train tracks with the train you can hear now, there’s a path before you even hit the street. You can run, or bike, or walk, on a path covered with fine white gravel, with trees and prairie plants on either side. It’s a lovely view.” He paused, and said, “Any ideas what you want to do after Wheaton?”

Peter said, “No. I don’t even know what I want to major in.”

Prof. Johnson said, “A lot of students don’t know what they want to do. Are you familiar with Career Services? They can help you get an idea of what kinds of things you like to do.”

Peter looked at his watch and said, “It’s chapel time.”

Prof. Johnson said, “Relax. I can write you a note.” Peter began to relax again, and Prof. Johnson continued, “Now you like to read. What do you like to read?”

Peter said, “Newspapers and magazines, and I read this really cool book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Oh, and I like the Bible.”

Prof. Johnson said, “I do too. What do you like about it most?”

“I like the stories in the Old Testament.”

“One general tip: here at Wheaton, we have different kinds of professors—”

Peter said, “Which ones are best?”

Prof. Johnson said, “Different professors are best for different students. Throughout your tenure at Wheaton, ask your friends and learn which professors have teaching styles that you learn well with and mesh well with. Consider taking other courses from a professor you like. Now we have a lot of courses which we think expose you to new things and stretch you—people come back and see that these courses are best. Do you like science?”

“I like it; I especially liked a physics lab.”

Prof. Johnson took a small piece of paper from where it was attached to a stack with a strange adhesive that had “failed” as a solid adhesive, but provided a uniquely useful way to make paper that could be attached to a surface with a slight push and then be detached with a gentle pull, remarkably enough without damage to the paper or the surface. He began to think, and flip through a book, using a technology thousands of years old at its heart. “Have you had calculus?” Prof. Johnson restrained himself from launching into a discussion of the grand, Utopian vision for “calculus” as it was first imagined and how different a conception it had from anything that would be considered “mathematics” today. Or should he go into that? He wavered, and then realized Peter had answered his question. “Ok,” Prof. Johnson said, “the lab physics class unfortunately requires that you’ve had calculus. Would you like to take calculus now? Have you had geometry, algebra, and trigonometry?”

Peter said, “Yes, I did, but I’d like a little break from that now. Maybe I could take calculus next semester.”

“Fair enough. You said you liked to read.”

“Magazines and newspapers.”

“Those things deal with the unfolding human story. I wonder if you’d like to take world civilization now, or a political science course.”

“History, but why study world history? Why can’t I just study U.S. history?”

Prof. Johnson said, “The story of our country is intertwined with that of our world. I think you might find that some of the things in world history are a lot closer to home than you think—and we have some real storytellers in our history department.”

“That sounds interesting. What else?”

“The Theology of Culture class is one many students find enjoyable, and it helps build a foundation for Old and New Testament courses. Would you be interested in taking it for A quad or B quad, the first or second half of the semester?”

“Could I do both?”

“I wish I could say yes, but this course only lasts half the semester. The other half you could take Foundations of Wellness—you could do running as homework!”

“I think I’ll do that first, and then Theology of Culture. That should be new,” Peter said, oblivious to how tightly connected he was to theology and culture. “What else?”

Prof. Johnson said, “We have classes where people read things that a lot of people have found really interesting. Well, that could describe several classes, but I was thinking about Classics of Western Literature or Literature of the Modern World.”

Peter said, “Um… Does Classics of Western Literature cover ancient and medieval literature, and Literature of the Modern World cover literature that isn’t Western? Because if they do, I’m not sure I could connect with it.”

Prof. Johnson relaxed into his seat, a movable support that met the contours of his body. Violating convention somewhat, he had a chair for Peter that was as pleasant to rest in as his own. “You know, a lot of people think that. But you know what?”

Peter said, “What?”

“There is something human that crosses cultures. That is why the stories have been selected. Stories written long ago, and stories written far away, can have a lot to connect with.”

“Ok. How many more courses should I take?”

“You’re at 11 credits now; you probably want 15. Now you said that you like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m wondering if you would also like a philosophy course.”

Peter said, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is… I don’t suppose there are any classes that use that. Or are there? I’ve heard Pirsig isn’t given his fair due by philosophers.”

Prof. Johnson said, “If you approach one of our philosophy courses the way you approach Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I think you’ll profit from the encounter. I wonder if our Issues and Worldviews in Philosophy might interest you. I’m a big fan of thinking worldviewishly, and our philosophers have some pretty interesting things to say.”

Peter asked, “What does ‘worldviewishly’ mean?”

Prof. Johnson said, “It means thinking in terms of worldviews. A worldview is the basic philosophical framework that gives shape to how we view the world. Our philosophers will be able to help you understand the basic issues surrounding worldviews and craft your own Christian worldview. You may find this frees you from the Enlightenment’s secularizing influence—and if you don’t know what the Enlightenment is now, you will learn to understand it, and its problems, and how you can be free of them.” He spoke with the same simplistic assurance of artificial intelligence researchers who, seeing the power of computers and recognizing how simple certain cognitive feats are for humans, assumed that it was only a matter of time that artificial intelligence would “bridge the gap”—failing to recognize the tar pit of the peaks of intelligence that seem so deceptively simple and easy to human phenomenology. For computers could often defeat the best human players at chess—as computerlike a human skill as one might reasonably find—but deciphering the language of a children’s book or walking through an unfamiliar room, so easy to humans, seemed more difficult for computers the more advanced research began. Some researchers believed that the artificial intelligence project had uncovered the non-obvious significance of a plethora of things humans take for granted—but the majority still believed that what seemed trivial for humans must be the sort of thinking a computer can do, because there is no other kind of thinking… and an isomorphic simplicity, an apparent and deceptive simplicity much like this one, made it seem as if ideas were all that really mattered: not all that existed, but all that had an important influence. Prof. Johnson did not consciously understand how the Enlightenment worldview—or, more accurately, the Enlightenment—created the possibility of seeing worldviews that way, nor did he see how strange the idea of crafting one’s own worldview would seem to pre-Enlightenment Christians. He did not realize that his own kindness towards Peter was not simply because he agreed with certain beliefs, but because of a deep and many-faceted way in which he had walked for decades, and walked well. It was with perfect simplicity that he took this way for granted, as artificial intelligence researchers took for granted all the things which humans did so well they seemed to come naturally, and framed worldviewish thought as carrying with it everything he assumed from his way.

Peter said, “Ok. Well, I’ll take those classes. It was good to meet you.”

Prof. Johnson looked over a document that was the writeup of a sort of game, in which one had a number of different rooms that were of certain sizes, and certain classes had requirements about what kind of room they needed for how long, and the solution involved not only solving the mathematical puzzle, but meeting with teachers and caring for their concerns, longstanding patterns, and a variety of human dimensions derisively labelled as “political.” Prof. Johnson held in his hands the schedule with the official solution for that problem, and guided Peter to an allowable choice of class sections, taking several different actions that were considered “boring paperwork.”

Prof. Johnson said, “I enjoyed talking with you. Please do take some more candy—put a handful in your pocket or something. I just want to make one more closing comment. I want to see you succeed. Wheaton wants to see you succeed. There are some rough points and problems along the way, and if you bring them to me I can work with them and try to help you. If you want to talk with your RA or our chaplain or someone else, that’s fine, but please… my door is always open. And it was good to meet you too! Goodbye!”

Peter walked out, completely relaxed.

The next activity, besides nourishing himself with lunch (and eating, sleeping, and many other activities form a gentle background rhythm to the activities people are more conscious of. I will not describe each time Peter eats and sleeps, even though the 100th time in the story he eats with his new friends is as significant as the first, because I will be trying to help you see it their way), requires some explanation.

The term “quest,” to the people here, is associated with an image of knights in armor, and a body of literature from writers like Chretien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Mallory who described King Arthur and his knights. In Chretien de Troyes, the knight goes off in various adventures, often quests where he is attempting different physical feats. In Sir Thomas Mallory, a new understanding of quests is introduced, in the quest for the holy grail—a legendary treasure which I cannot here explain save to say that it profoundly altered the idea of a quest, and the quest took a large enough place in many people’s consciousness that it is used as a metaphor of the almost unattainable object of an ultimate pursuit (so that physicists would say that a grand unified theory which crystallizes all physical laws into a few simple equations is the “holy grail of physics”), and that the holy grail is itself in the shadow of a greater treasure, and this treasure was one many people in fact had possessed (some after great struggle, while others had never known a time when they were without it). In Mallory in particular the quest can be more than a physical task; most of Arthur’s knights could not reach the holy grail because of—they weren’t physical blemishes and they weren’t really mental blemishes either, but what they were is hard to say. The whole topic (knights, quests, the holy grail…) connects to something about that world that is beyond my ability to convey; suffice it to say that it is connected with one more dimension we don’t have here.

Peter, along with another group of students, went out on a quest. The object of this quest was to acquire seven specific items, on conditions which I will explain below:

  1. “A dog biscuit.” In keeping with a deeply human trait, the food they prepare is not simply what they judge adequate to sustain the body, but meant to give pleasure, in a sense adorned, because eating is not to them simply a biological need. They would also get adorned food to give pleasure to organisms they kept, including dogs, which include many different breeds which in turn varied from being natural sentries protecting territories to a welcoming committee of one which would give a visitor an exuberant greeting just because he was there.
  2. “An M16 rifle’s spent shell casing.” That means the used remnant after… wait a little bit. I need to go a lot farther back to explain this one.You will find something deceptively familiar in that in that universe, people strategically align resources and then attack their opponents, usually until a defeat is obvious. And if you look for what is deceptive, it will be a frustrating search, because even if the technologies involved are primitive, it is a match of strategy, tactics, and opposition.What makes it different is that this is not a recreation or an art form, but something many of them consider the worst evil that can happen, or among the worst. The resources that are destroyed, the bodies—in our world, it is simply what is involved in the game, but many of them consider it an eternal loss.

    Among the people we will be meeting, people may be broken down into “pacifists” who believe that war is always wrong, and people who instead of being pure pacifists try to have a practical way of pursuing pacifist goals: the disagreement is not whether one should have a war for amusement’s sake (they both condemn that), but what one should do when not having a war looks even more destructive than having a war. And that does not do justice to either side of the debate, but what I want to emphasize that to both of them this is not simply a game or one form of recreation; it is something to avoid at almost any cost.

    A knight was someone who engaged in combat, an elite soldier riding an animal called a horse. In Chretien de Troye’s day and Mallory’s day, the culture was such that winning a fight was important, but fighting according to “chivalry” was more important. Among other things, chivalry meant that they would only use simple weapons based on mechanical principles—no poison—and they wouldn’t even use weapons with projectiles, like arrows and (armor piercing) crossbow bolts. In practice that only meant rigid piercing and cutting weapons, normally swords and spears. And there was a lot more. A knight was to protect women and children.

    The form that chivalry took in Peter’s day allowed projectile weapons, although poison was still not allowed, along with biological, thermonuclear, and other weapons which people did not wish to see in war, and the fight to disfigure the tradition’s understanding women had accorded them meant that women could fight and be killed like men, although people worked to keep children out of warfare, and in any case the “Geneva Convention”, as the code of chivalry was called, maintained a sharp distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the latter of which were to be protected.

    The specific projectile weapon carried by most members of the local army was called an M16 rifle, which fired surprisingly small .22 bullets—I say “surprisingly” because if you were a person fighting against them and you were hit, you would be injured but quite probably not killed.

    This was intentional. (Yes, they knew how to cause an immediate kill.)

    Part of it is the smaller consideration that if you killed an enemy soldier immediately, you took one soldier out of action; on the other hand, if you wounded an enemy soldier, you took three soldiers out of action. But this isn’t the whole reason. The much bigger part of the reason is that their sense of chivalry (if it was really just chivalry; they loved their enemies) meant that even in their assaults they tried to subdue with as little killing as possible.

    There were people training with the army in that community (no, not Peter; Peter was a pure pacifist) who trained, with M16 rifles, not because they wanted to fight, but as part of a not entirely realistic belief that if they trained hard enough, their achievement would deter people who would go to war. And the “Crusader battalion” (the Crusaders were a series of people who fought to defend Peter’s spiritual ancestors from an encroaching threat that would have destroyed them) had a great sense of chivalry, even if none of them used the word “chivalry”.

  3. “A car bumper.” A car bumper is a piece of armor placed on the front and back of cars so that they can sustain low-velocity collisions without damage. (At higher velocities, newer cars are designed to serve as a buffer so that “crumple zones” will be crushed, absorbing enough of the impact so that the “passenger cage” reduces injuries sustained by people inside; this is part of a broader cultural bent towards minimizing preventable death because of what they believe about one human life.) Not only is a car bumper an unusual item to give, it is heavy and awkward enough that people tend not to carry such things with them—even the wealthy ones tend to be extraordinarily lightly encumbered.
  4. “An antique.” It is said, “The problem with England is that they believe 100 miles is a long distance, and the problem with America is that they believe 100 years is a long time.” An antique—giving the rule without all the special cases and exceptions, which is to say giving the rule as if it were not human—is something over 100 years old. To understand this, you must appreciate that it does not include easily available rocks, many of which are millions or billions of years old, and it is not based on the elementary particles that compose something (one would have to search hard to find something not made out of elementary particles almost as old as the universe). The term “antique” connotes rarity, and in a sense something out of the ordinary; that people’s way is concerned with “New! New! New!” and it is hard to find an artifact that was created more than 100 years ago, which is what was intended.This quest is all the more interesting because there is an “unwritten rule” that items will be acquired by asking, not by theft or even purchase—and, as most antiques are valuable, it would be odd for someone you’ve just met—and therefore with whom you have only the general human bond but not the special bond of friendship—to give you such an item, even if most of the littler things in life are acquired economically while the larger things can only be acquired by asking.
  5. “A note from a doctor, certifying that you do not have bubonic plague.” Intended as a joke, this refers to a health, safeguarded by their medicine, which keeps them from a dreadful disease which tore apart societies some centuries ago: that sort of thing wasn’t considered a live threat because of how successful their medicine was (which is why it could be considered humorous).
  6. “A burning piece of paper which no one in your group lit. (Must be presented in front of Fischer and not brought into the building.)” This presents a physical challenge, in that there is no obvious way to transport a burning piece of paper—or what people characteristically envision as a burning piece of paper—from almost anywhere else to in front of Fischer.
  7. “A sheet of paper with a fingerpaint handprint from a kindergartener.””Kindergarten” was the first year of their formal education, and a year of preparation before students were ready to enter their first grade. What did this society teach at its first, required year? Did it teach extraordinarily abstract equations, or cosmological theory, or literary archetypes, or how to use a lathe?All of these could be taught later on, and for that matter there is reason to value all of them. But the very beginning held something different. It taught people to take their turn and share; it taught people “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the Golden Rule by which their great Teachers crystallized so much wisdom. All of this work and play, some of the most advanced lessons they could learn, were placed, not at the end, but at the beginning of their education.

    That is what kindergarten was. What was a kindergartener? The true but uninformative answer would be “a person in kindergarten.”

    To get past that uninformative answer, I need to stress that their minds are bound up with organic life—they did not spring, fully formed, as you and I did. In most complex organisms, there is a process that transforms a genetically complete organism of just one cell to become a mature member of the species; among humans, that process is one of the longest and most complex. During that time their minds are developping as well as their bodies; in that regard they are not simply in harmony with the natural world this society believes it is separate from… but one of its best examples.

    But to say that alone is to flatten out something interesting… even more interesting than the process of biological mental development is the place that society has for something called “childhood”. Not all cultures have that concept—and again I am saying “culture” without explaining what it means. I can’t. Not all societies understand “childhood” as this society does; to many, a child is a smaller and less capable adult, or even worse, a nonentity. But in this culture, childhood is a distinctive time, and a child, including a kindergardener, is something special—almost a different species of mind. Their inability to healthily sustain themselves is met, not always with scorn, but with a giving of support and protection—and this is not always a grudging duty, but something that can bring joy. They are viewed as innocent, which is certainly not true, and something keeps many people from resenting them when they prove that they are not innocent by doing things that would not be tolerated if an adult did it. And the imperviousness of this belief to contrary experience is itself the shadow of the whole place of childhood as a time to play and learn and explore worlds of imagination and the things most adults take for granted. And many adults experience a special pleasure, and much more than a pleasure, from the company of children, a pleasure that is tied to something much deeper.

    This pleasure shines through even a handprint left with “fingerpaints,” a way of doing art reserved for children, so that this physical object is itself a symbol of all that is special about childhood, and like symbols of that world carries with it what is evoked: seeing such a handprint is a little like seeing a kindergartener.

And they were off. They stopped for a brief break and annoyedly watched the spectacle of over a hundred linked metal carts carrying a vast quantity of material, and walked in and out of the surrounding neighborhoods. Their knocks on the door met a variety of warm replies. Before long, they had a handprint from a kindergartener, a dog biscuit (and some very enthusiastic attention from a kind dog!), a note from an off-duty doctor (who did not examine them, but simply said that if they had the bubonic plague there would be buboes bulging from them in an obvious way), a cigarette lighter and a sheet of paper (unlit), a twisted bumper (which Peter surprised people by flipping over his shoulder), and finally a spent shell casing from a military science professor. When they climbed up “Fischer beach,” John handed the paper and lighter to his RA and said, “Would you light this?” It was with an exhausted satisfaction that they went to dinner and had entirely amiable conversation with other equally students who scant minutes ago had been their competitors.

When dinner was finished, Peter and Mary sat for a while in exhausted silence, before climbing up for the next scheduled activity—but I am at a loss for how to describe the next scheduled activity. To start with, I will give a deceptive description. If you can understand this activity, you will have understood a great deal more of what is in that world that doesn’t fit in ours.

Do I have to give a deceptive description, in that any description in our terms will be more or less deceptive? I wasn’t trying to make that kind of philosophical point; I wasn’t tring to make a philosophical point at all. I am choosing a description of the next scheduled activity that is more deceptive than it needs to be.

When students studied an academic discipline called “physics,” the curriculum was an initiation into progressively stranger and more esoteric doctrines, presented at the level which students were able to receive them. Students were first taught “Newtonian mechanics” (which openly regarded as false), before being initiated into “Einstein’s relativity” at the next level (which was also considered false, but was widely believed to be closer to the truth). Students experienced a “night and day” difference between Newtonian mechanics and all higher order mysteries. If you were mathematically adept enough to follow the mathematics, then Newton was easy because he agreed with good old common sense, and Einstein and even stranger mysteries were hard to understand because they turned common sense on its head. Newton was straightforward while the others were profoundly counterintuitive. So Einstein, unlike Newton, required a student to mentally engulf something quite alien to normal, common sense ways of thinking about the world around oneself. Hence one could find frustrated student remarks about, “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was Newton. Then the Devil howled, ‘Let Einstein be!’ and restored the status quo.”

Under this way of experiencing physics, Newton simply added mathematical formality to what humans always knew: everything in space fit in one long and continuous three-dimensional grid, and time could be measured almost as if it were a line, and so Einstein was simply making things more difficult and further from humans’ natural perceptions when his version of a fully mathematical model softened the boundaries of space and time so that one could no longer treat it as if it had a grid for a skeleton.

Someone acquainted with the history of science might make the observation that it was not so much that Newton’s mechanics were a mathematically rigorous formalization of how people experienced space and time, but that how people experienced space and time hadbecome a hazy and non-mathematical paraphrase of Newtonian mechanics: in other words, some students some students learned Newtonian mechanics easily, not because Newtonian physics was based on common sense, but because their “common sense” had been profoundly shaped by Newtonian physics.

This seemingly pedantic distinction was deeply tied to how the organic was being extinguished in their society.

I suspect you are thinking, “What other mathematical model was it based on instead?” And that’s why you’re having trouble guessing the answer.

The answer is related to the organic. Someone who knew Newton and his colleagues, and what they were rebelling against, could get a sense of something very different even without understanding what besides mathematics would undergird what space meant to them. In a certain sense, Newton forcefully stated the truth, but in a deceptive way. He worked hard to forge a concept of cold matter, pointing out that nature was not human—and it was a philosophical error to think of nature as human, but it was not nearly so great as one might think. Newton and his colleagues powerfully stressed that humans were superior to the rest of the physical world (which was not human), that they were meant not simply to be a part of nature but to conquer and rule it. And in so doing they attacked an equally great truth, that not only other life but even “inanimate” matter was kin to humans—lesser kin, perhaps, but humans and the rest of the natural world formed a continuity. They obscured the wisdom that the lordship humans were to exercise was not of a despot controlling something worthless, but the mastery of the crowning jewel of a treasure they had been entrusted to them. They introduced the concept of “raw material”, something as foreign to their thinking as… I can’t say what our equivalent would be, because everything surrounding “raw material” is so basic to us, and what they believed instead, their organic perception, is foreign to us. They caused people to forget that, while it would be a philosophical error to literally regard the world as human, it would be much graver to believe it is fundamentally described as inert, cold matter. And even when they had succeeded in profoundly influencing their cultures, so that people consciously believed in cold matter to a large degree, vestiges of the ancient experience survived in the medieval. It is perhaps not a coincidence that hundreds of years since Newton, in Newton’s own “mother tongue” (English), the words for “matter” and “mother” both sprung from the same ancient root word.

The Newtonian conception of space had displaced to some degree the older conception of place, a conception which was less concerned with how far some place was from other different places, and more concerned with a sort of color or, to some extent, meaning. The older conception also had a place for some things which couldn’t really be stated under the new conception: people would say, “You can’t be in two places at once.” What they meant by that was to a large degree something different, “Your body cannot be at two different spatial positions at the same time.” This latter claim was deceptive, because it was true so far as it goes, but it was a very basic fact of life that people could be in two places at once. The entire point of the next scheduled activity was to be in two places at once.

Even without describing what the other place was (something which could barely be suggested even in that world) and acknowledging that the point of the activity was to be in two places at once, this description of that activity would surprise many of the people there, and disturb those who could best sense the other place. The next scheduled activity was something completely ordinary to them, a matter of fact event that held some mystery, and something that would not occur to them as being in two places at once. The activity of being present in two or more places at once was carried on, on a tacit level, even when people had learned to conflate place with mathematical position. One such activity was confused with what we do when we remember: when we remember, we recall data from storage, while they cause the past to be present. The words, “This do in rememberance of me,” from a story that was ancient but preserved in the early medieval period we are looking at, had an unquestioned meaning of, “Cause me to be present by doing this,” but had suffered under a quite different experience of memory, so that to some people it meant simply to go over data about a person who had been present in the past but could not be present then.

But this activity was not remembering. Or at least, it was not just remembering. And this leaves open the difficulty of explaining how it was ordinary to them. It was theoretically in complete continuity with the rest of their lives, although it would be more accurate to say that the rest of their lives were theoretically in complete continuity with it. This activity was in a sense the most human, and the most organic, in that in it they led the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the plants, the rocks, the mountains, and the sees in returning to the place they came from. This description would also likely astonish the people who were gathered in a painted brick room, sitting on carpet and on movable perches, and seeing through natural light mixed with flickering fluorescent lights. Not one of them was thinking about “nature.”

What went on there was in a very real sense mediocre. Each activity was broken down, vulgarized, compared to what it could be—which could not obliterate what was going on. When they were songs, they were what were called “7-11” songs, a pejorative term which meant songs with seven words repeated eleven times. There was a very real sense in which the event was diminished by the music, but even when you factor in every diminishing force, there was something going on there, something organic and more than organic, which you and I do not understand—for that matter, which many people in that world do not understand.


Archon was silent for a long time.

Ployon said, “What is it?”

Archon said, “I can’t do it. I can’t explain this world. All I’ve really been doing is taking the pieces of that world that are a bit like ours. You’ve been able to understand much of it because I haven’t tried to convey several things that are larger than our world. ‘God’ is still a curious and exotic appendage that isn’t connected to anything, not really; I haven’t been able to explain, really explain, what it is to be male and female unities, or what masculinity and femininity are. There are a thousand things, and… I’ve been explaining what three-dimensional substance is to a two-dimensional world, and the way I’ve been doing it is to squash it into two dimensions, and make it understandable by removing from it everything that makes it three dimensional. Or almost everything…”

“How would a three dimensional being, a person from that world, explain the story?”

“But it wouldn’t. A three dimensional being wouldn’t collapse a cube into a square to make it easier for itself to understand; that’s something someone who couldn’t free itself from reading two dimensional thinking into three dimensions would do. You’re stuck in two dimensions. So am I. That’s why I failed, utterly failed, to explain the “brother-sister floor fellowship”, the next scheduled activity. And my failure is structural. It’s like I’ve been setting out to copy a living, moving organism by sculpturing something that looks like it out of steel. And what I’ve been doing is making intricate copies of its every contour, and painting the skin and fur exactly the same color, and foolishly hoping it will come alive. And this is something I can’t make by genetic engineering.”

“But how would someone from that world explain the story? Even if I can’t understand it, I want to know.”

“But people from that world don’t explain stories. A story isn’t something you explain; it’s something that may be told, shared, but usually it is a social error to explain a story, because a story participates in human life and telling a story connects one human to another. And so it’s a fundamental error to think a story is something you convey by explaining it—like engineering a robotic body for an animal so you can allow it to have a body. I have failed because I was trying something a mind could only fail at.”

“Then can you tell the story, like someone from that world would tell it?”


Peter and Mary both loved to run, but for different reasons. Peter was training himself for various races; he had not joined track, as he did in high school, but there were other races. Mary ran to feel the sun and wind and rain. And, without any conscious effort, they found themselves running together down the prairie path together, and Peter clumsily learning to match his speed to hers. And, as time passed, they talked, and talked, and talked, and talked, and their runs grew longer.

When the fall break came, they both joined a group going to the northwoods of Wisconsin for a program that was half-work and half-play. And each one wrote a letter home about the other. Then Peter began his theology of culture class, and said, “This is what I want to study.” Mary did not have a favorite class, at least not that she realized, until Peter asked her what her favorite class was and she said, “Literature.”

When Christmas came, they went to their respective homes and spent the break thinking about each other, and they talked about this when they returned. They ended the conversation, or at least they thought they did, and then each hurried back to catch the other and say one more thing, and then the conversation turned out to last much longer, and ended with a kiss.

Valentine’s Day was syrupy. It was trite enough that their more romantically inclined friends groaned, but it did not seem at all trite or syrupy to them. As Peter’s last name was Patrick, he called Mary’s father and prayed that St. Patrick’s Day would be a momentous day for both of them.

Peter and Mary took a slow run to a nearby village, and had dinner at an Irish pub. Amidst the din, they had some hearty laughs. The waitress asked Mary, “Is there anything else that would make this night memorable?” Then Mary saw Peter on his knee, opening a jewelry box with a ring: “I love you, Mary. Will you marry me?”

Mary cried for a good five minutes before she could answer. And when she had answered, they sat in silence, a silence that overpowered the din. Then Mary wiped her eyes and they went outside.

It was cool outside, and the moon was shining brightly. Peter pulled a camera from his pocket, and said, “Stay where you are. Let me back up a bit. And hold your hand up. You look even more beautiful with that ring on your finger.”

Peter’s camera flashed as he took a picture, just as a drunk driver slammed into Mary. The sedan spun into a storefront, and Mary flew up into the air, landed, and broke a beer bottle with her face.

People began to come out, and in a few minutes the police and paramedics arrived. Peter somehow managed to answer the police officers’ questions and to begin kicking himself for being too stunned to act.

When Peter left his room the next day, he looked for Prof. Johnson. Prof. Johnson asked, “May I give you a hug?” and then sat there, simply being with Peter in his pain. When Peter left, Prof. Johnson said, “I’m not just here for academics. I’m here for you.” Peter went to chapel and his classes, feeling a burning rage that almost nothing could pierce. He kept going to the hospital, and watching Mary with casts on both legs and one arm, and many tiny stitches on her face, fluttering on the borders of consciousness. One time Prof. Johnson came to visit, and he said, “I can’t finish my classes.” Prof. Johnson looked at him and said, “The college will give you a full refund.” Peter said, “Do you know of any way I can stay here to be with Mary?” Prof. Johnson said, “You can stay with me. And I believe a position with UPS would let you get some income, doing something physical. The position is open for you.” Prof. Johnson didn’t mention the calls he’d made, and Peter didn’t think about them. He simply said, “Thank you.”

A few days later, Mary began to be weakly conscious. Peter finally asked a nurse, “Why are there so many stitches on her face? Was she cut even more badly than—”

The nurse said, “There are a lot of stitches very close together because the emergency room had a cosmetic surgeon on duty. There will still be a permanent mark on her face, but some of the wound will heal without a scar.”

Mary moved the left half of her mouth in half a smile. Peter said, “That was a kind of cute smile. How come she can smile like that?”

The nurse said, “One of the pieces of broken glass cut a nerve. It is unlikely she’ll ever be able to move part of her face again.”

Peter looked and touched Mary’s hand. “I still think it’s really quite cute.”

Mary looked at him, and then passed out.

Peter spent a long couple of days training and attending to practical details. Then he came back to Mary.

Mary looked at Peter, and said, “It’s a Monday. Don’t you have classes now?”

Peter said, “No.”

Mary said, “Why not?”

Peter said, “I want to be here with you.”

Mary said, “I talked with one of the nurses, and she said that you dropped out of school so you could be with me.

“Is that true?” she said.

Peter said, “I hadn’t really thought about it that way.”

Mary closed her eyes, and when Peter started to leave because he decided she wanted to be left alone, she said, “Stop. Come here.”

Peter came to her bedside and knelt.

Mary said, “Take this ring off my finger.”

Peter said, “Is it hurting you?”

Mary said, “No, and it is the greatest treasure I own. Take it off and take it back.”

Peter looked at her, bewildered. “Do you not want to marry me?”

Mary said, “This may sting me less because I don’t remember our engagement. I don’t remember anything that happened near that time; I have only the stories others, even the nurses, tell me about a man who loves me very much.”

Peter said, “But don’t you love me?”

Mary forced back tears. “Yes, I love you, yes, I love you. And I know that you love me. You are young and strong, and have the love to make a happy marriage. You’ll make some woman a very good husband. I thought that woman would be me.

“But I can see what you will not. You said I was beautiful, and I was. Do you know what my prognosis is? I will probably be able to stand. At least for short periods of time. If I’m fortunate, I may walk. With a walker. I will never be able to run again—Peter, I am nobody, and I have no future. Absolutely nobody. You are young and strong. Go and find a woman who is worth your love.”

Mary and Peter both cried for a long time. Then Peter walked out, and paused in the doorway, crying. He felt torn inside, and then went in to say a couple of things to Mary. He said, “I believe in miracles.”

Then Mary cried, and Peter said something else I’m not going to repeat. Mary said something. Then another conversation began.

The conversation ended with Mary saying, “You’re stupid, Peter. You’re really, really stupid. I love you. I don’t deserve such love. You’re making a mistake. I love you.” Then Peter went to kiss Mary, and as he bent down, he bent his mouth to meet the lips that he still saw as “really quite cute.”

The stress did not stop. The physical therapists, after time, wondered that Mary had so much fight in her. But it stressed her, and Peter did his job without liking it. Mary and Peter quarreled and made up and quarreled and made up. Peter prayed for a miracle when they made up and sometimes when they quarreled. Were this not enough stress, there was an agonizingly long trial—and knowing that the drunk driver was behind bars surprisingly didn’t make things better. But Mary very slowly learned to walk again. After six months, if Peter helped her, she could walk 100 yards before the pain became too great to continue.

Peter hadn’t been noticing that the stress diminished, but he did become aware of something he couldn’t put his finger on. After a night of struggling, he got up, went to church, and was floored by the Bible reading of, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” and the idea that when you do or do not visit someone in prison, you are visiting or refusing to visit Christ. Peter absently went home, tried to think about other things, made several phone calls, and then forced himself to drive to one and only one prison.

He stopped in the parking lot, almost threw up, and then steeled himself to go inside. He found a man, Jacob, and… Jacob didn’t know who Peter was, but he recognized him as looking familiar. It was an awkward meeting. Then he recognized him as the man whose now wife he had crippled. When Peter left, he vomited and felt like a failure. He talked about it with Mary…

That was the beginning of a friendship. Peter chose to love the man in prison, even if there was no pleasure in it. And that created something deeper than pleasure, something Peter couldn’t explain.

As Peter and Mary were planning the wedding, Mary said, “I want to enter with Peter next to me, no matter what the tradition says. It will be a miracle if I have the strength to stand for the whole wedding, and if I have to lean on someone I want it to be Peter. And I don’t want to sit on a chair; I would rather spend my wedding night wracked by pain than go through my wedding supported by something lifeless!”

When the rehearsal came, Mary stood, and the others winced at the pain in her face. And she stood, and walked, for the entire rehearsal without touching Peter once. Then she said, “I can do it. I can go through the wedding on my own strength,” and collapsed in pain.

At the wedding, she stood next to Peter, walking, her face so radiant with joy that some of the guests did not guess she was in exquisite pain. They walked next to each other, not touching, and Mary slowed down and stopped in the center of the church. Peter looked at her, wondering what Mary was doing.

Then Mary’s arm shot around Peter’s neck, and Peter stood startled for a moment before he placed his arm around her, squeezed her tightly, and they walked together to the altar.

On the honeymoon, Mary told Peter, “You are the only person I need.” This was the greatest bliss either of them had known, and the honeymoon’s glow shined and shined.

Peter and Mary agreed to move somewhere less expensive to settle down, and were too absorbed in their wedded bliss and each other to remember promises they had made earlier, promises to seek a church community for support and friends. And Peter continued working at an unglamorous job, and Mary continued fighting to walk and considered the housework she was capable of doing a badge of honor, and neither of them noticed that the words, “I love you” were spoken ever so slightly less frequently, nor did they the venom creeping into their words.

One night they exploded. What they fought about was not important. What was important was that Peter left, burning with rage. He drove, and drove, until he reached Wheaton, and at daybreak knocked on Prof. Johnson’s door. There was anger in his voice when he asked, “Are you still my friend?”

Prof. Johnson got him something to eat and stayed with him when he fumed with rage, and said, “I don’t care if I’m supposed to be with her, I can’t go back!” Then Prof. Johnson said, “Will you make an agreement with me? I promise you I won’t ever tell you to go back to her, or accept her, or accept what she does, or apologize to her, or forgive her, or in any way be reconciled. But I need you to trust me that I love you and will help you decide what is best to do.”

Peter said, “Yes.”

Prof. Johnson said, “Then stay with me. You need some rest. Take the day to rest. There’s food in the fridge, and I have books and a nice back yard. There’s iced tea in the—excuse me, there’s Coke and 7 Up in the boxes next to the fridge. When I can come back, we can talk.”

Peter relaxed, and he felt better. He told Prof. Johnson. Prof. Johnson said, “That’s excellent. What I’d like you to do next is go in to work, with a lawyer I know. You can tell him what’s going on, and he’ll lead you to a courtroom to observe.”

Peter went away to court the next day, and when he came back he was ashen. He said nothing to Prof. Johnson.

Then, after the next day, he came back looking even more unhappy. “The first day, the lawyer, George, took me into divorce court. I thought I saw the worst that divorce court could get. Until I came back today. It was the same—this sickening scene where two people had become the most bitter enemies. I hope it doesn’t come to this. This was atrocious. It was vile. It was more than vile. It was—”

Prof. Johnson sent him back for a third day. This time Peter said nothing besides, “I think I’ve been making a mistake.”

After the fourth day, Peter said, “Help me! I’ve been making the biggest mistake of my life!”

After a full week had passed, Peter said, “Please, I beg you, don’t send me back there.”

Prof. Johnson sent Peter back to watch a divorce court for one more miserable, excruciating day. Then he said, “Now you can do whatever you want. What do you want to do?”

The conflict between Peter and Mary ended the next day.

Peter went home, begging Mary for forgiveness, and no sooner than he had begun his apology, a thousand things were reflected in Mary’s face and she begged his forgiveness. Then they talked, and debated whether to go back to Wheaton, or stay where they were. Finally Mary said, “I really want to go back to Wheaton.”

Peter began to shyly approach old friends. He later misquoted: “I came crawling with a thimble in the desparate hope that they’d give a few tiny drops of friendship and love. Had I known how they would respond, I would have come running with a bucket!”

Peter and Mary lived together for many years; they had many children and were supported by many friends.


Ployon said, “I didn’t follow every detail, but… there was something in that that stuck.”

Archon said, “How long do you think it lasted?”

“A little shorter than the other one, I mean first part.”

“Do you have any idea how many days were in each part?”

“About the same? I assume the planet had slowed down so that a year and a day were of roughly equal length.”

“The first part took place during three days. The latter part spanned several thousand days—”

“I guess I didn’t understand it—”

“—which is… a sign that you understood something quite significant… that you knew what to pay attention to and were paying attention to the right thing.”

“But I didn’t understand it. I had a sense that it was broken off before the end, and that was the end, right?”

Archon hesitated, and said, “There’s more, but I’d rather not go into that.”

Ployon said, “Are you sure?”

“You won’t like it.”

“Please.”


The years passed and Peter and Mary grew into a blissfully happy marriage. Mary came to have increasing health problems as a result of the accident, and those around them were amazed at how their love had transformed the suffering the accident created in both of their lives. At least those who knew them best saw the transformation. There were many others who could only see their happiness as a mirage.

As the years passed, Jacob grew to be a good friend. And when Peter began to be concerned that his wife might be… Jacob had also grown wealthy, very wealthy, and assembled a top-flight legal team (without taking a dime of Peter’s money—over Peter’s protests!), to prevent what the doctors would normally do in such a case, given recent shifts in the medical system.

And then Mary’s health grew worse, much worse, and her suffering grew worse with it, and pain medications seemed to be having less and less effect. Those who didn’t know Mary were astonished that someone in so much pain could enjoy life so much, nor the hours they spent gazing into each other’s eyes, holding hands, when Mary’s pain seemed to vanish. A second medical opinion, and a third, and a fourth, confirmed that Mary had little chance of recovery even to her more recent state. And whatever measures been taken, whatever testimony Peter and Mary could give about the joy of their lives, the court’s decision still came:

The court wishes to briefly review the facts of the case. Subject is suffering increasingly severe effects from an injury that curtailed her life greatly as a young person. from which she has never recovered, and is causing increasingly complications now that she will never again have youth’s ability to heal. No fewer than four medical opinions admitted as expert testimony substantially agree that subject is in extraordinary and excruciating pain; that said excruciating pain is increasing; that said excruciating pain is increasingly unresponsive to medication; that subject has fully lost autonomy and is dependent on her husband; that this dependence is profound, without choice, and causes her husband to be dependent without choice on others and exercise little autonomy; and the prognosis is only of progressively worse deterioration and increase in pain, with no question of recovery.

The court finds it entirely understandable that the subject, who has gone through such trauma, and is suffering increasingly severe complications, would be in a state of some denial. Although a number of positions could be taken, the court also finds it understandable that a husband would try to maintain a hold on what cannot exist, and needlessly prolong his wife’s suffering. It is not, however, the court’s position to judge whether this is selfish…

For all the impressive-sounding arguments that have been mounted, the court cannot accord a traumatized patient or her ostensibly well-meaning husband a privelege that the court itself does not claim. The court does not find that it has an interest in allowing this woman to continue in her severe and worsening state of suffering.

Peter was at her side, holding her hand and looking into his wife’s eyes, The hospital doctor had come. Then Peter said, “I love you,” and Mary said, “I love you,” and they kissed.

Mary’s kiss was still burning on Peter’s lips when two nurses hooked Mary up to an IV and injected her with 5000 milligrams of sodium thiopental, then a saline flush followed by 100 milligrams of pancurium bromide, then a saline flush and 20 milligrams of potassium chloride.

A year later to the day, Peter died of a broken heart.


Ployon was silent for a long time, and Archon was silent for an even longer time. Ployon said, “I guess part of our world is present in that world. Is that what you mean by being in two places at once?”

Archon was silent for a long time.

Ployon said, “It seems that that world’s problems and failings are somehow greater than our achievements. I wish that world could exist, and that we could somehow visit it.”

Archon said, “Do you envy them that much?”

Ployon said, “Yes. We envy them as—”

Archon said, “—as—” and searched through his world’s images.

Ployon said, “—as that world’s eunuchs envy men.”

Archon was silent.

Ployon was silent.

Exotic golden ages and restoring harmony with nature: Aanatomy of a passion

Game Review: Meatspace

Knights and Ladies

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

Taberah

CJSH.name/taberah

A picture of Taberah.

In my second novel, I tried to show a hero who is more than meets the eye. Three dimensions to his being are represented here; rather than spelling everything out for you, I invite you to look and see how many layers you can find. Then read the book

Firestorm 2034

Lesser Icons: Reflections on Faith, Icons, and Art

The Sign of the Grail

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

The Steel Orb

CJSH.name/orb

The Steel Orb
Read it on Kindle for $3!

Read it on Kindle: part of the collection, The Steel Orb

I awoke, seared by pain. The images dispersed. What were they?

a flat rectangular courtyard, where brick pillars enshrined a walkway, and in the center was a great pool, filled not with water but with silt impressed with intricate patterns—a place that was silent and still, cool in the shade, with robed men moving slowly and conversing without breaking the stillness

alleys and courtyards and tunnels and passageways that made for a labyrinth, with a byzantine structure only exceeded by turgid forms beneath its surface—I was moving through it before I had grasped its rhythm

a vortex, draining life and beauty, draining the life out of—

there was also a single grain of incense, its fragrance filling—

there had been a storm, with wind and water and lightning moving faster than I could keep pace with, a storm, a storm—

then I awoke.

I had washed up on a beach, barely conscious, torn by thirst. I did not see the city in the distance; I saw only a man, clad in a deep blue robe. I tried to call out to him, but I was torn by violent coughs.

Then the scene blurred, and I passed out of consciousness.


When I regained consciousness, I was in a room. There was a man whose hand was on my heart; he looked familiar, I thought. A woman handed him a cup, which he placed to my lips.

Time passed. I could feel warmth and coolness moving through me. My thoughts slowly quickened. He reverenced me, making on himself the great sign, bowing, and kissing me. I went to stand, but he held me down. “Take a time of rest now. In a day I will introduce you to the city.”

I looked at him. The blue robe looked familiar. A question did not arise in my mind; I only wondered later that I did not ask if he had been expecting me, or if he knew I wanted to be a Teacher. Something in his repose kept the question from arising.

The woman looked at me briefly. “My name is Pool. What languages do you know?”

If anything, I sank further back into my chair. I wished the question would go away. When she continued to listen, I waited for sluggish thoughts to congeal. “I… Fish, Shroud, Inscription, and Shadow are all languages that are spoken around my island, and I speak all of them well. I speak Starlight badly, despite the fact that they trade with our village frequently. I do not speak Stream well at all, even though it is known to many races of voyagers. I once translated a book from Boulder to Pedestal, although that is hardly to be reckoned: it was obscure and technical, and it has nothing of the invisible subtlety of ‘common’ conversation. You know how—”

The man said, “Yes; something highly technical in a matter you understand is always easier to translate than children’s talk. Go on.”

“And—I created a special purpose language,” I said, “to try to help a child who couldn’t speak. I did my best, but it didn’t work. I still don’t understand why not. And I—” I tried to think, to remember if there were any languages I had omitted. Nothing returned to my mind.

I looked down and closed my eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m not very good with languages.”

The woman spoke, and when I looked up I noticed her green veil and the beautiful wrinkles about her eyes. “You novices think you know nothing and need to know everything. When I was near your point in life, I knew only six tongues, and I’m still only fluent in four.” She reverenced me, then stepped out the window. Her husband followed, although their spirits still seemed to blow in the wind through the window.

I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep, and I awoke with a start. The man was just stepping into the window, and I could hear a clink of silver. “Will you come to the marketplace? I want you to find the Galleria.”

He still had not told me his name, nor I mine, but as we walked, I told him about the great storm; it was wild on land but wilder at sea. He wondered that I survived the storm, let alone that I washed up; he quoted the proverb, “Where the wind blows, no one knows.” We came to a merchant with dried fruits; he looked at some oranges. “Have you seen Book since you came back?”

“Yes, but I didn’t get to talk with him long.”

“What did he say?”

“He only said two things. The first was, ‘Put my little daughter down!’ Then the second was… let me see if I can remember. He began to say, ‘No, don’t throw her in the—’ But I couldn’t hear the rest of what he hoped to say, because he threw a bucket of salt water at me. Which reminds me, I don’t have salted fish today, but I have some of the finest oranges from the four corners of the world. This orange grew in an orchard where it is said that the trees once bore jewels. I could sell you this fine assortment for two silver pieces each.”

My host sounded astonished. “Two silver pieces each? You are a dear friend, of much more value than the wares you sell. I doubt if you paid two silver pieces for this whole lot of fruit—look at this one! It must have rotted before it was dried. I can talk a bit, but I’m only buying wheat today.” He turned away.

The merchant grabbed his arm. “Don’t go yet. I’ll give you a friend’s price.” I think he said something else impressive, but their haggling could not hold my interest. The market was pungent with strange smells. I recognised the smell of spices, but what else was there? Something strange. I could hear a tantalizing sound of gears, but that was not it. There was a soft sound of wind. What was evading my mind?

I realised my host was walking, holding a bag with some dried oranges. I hastened to follow him.

“My name is Fortress,” he said.

“I am Unspoken.”

“Unspoken… That’s an ambiguous name. You seem to be shrouded in mystery. Have you seen the Galleria?”

We stopped in the Temple, drinking the flow of chant and incense, and reverencing the holy icons. Then we walked out. Fortress showed me a hedge maze in a public park, with a great statue in the centre. I looked at the pedestal, and something caught my eye. “There’s a passage down hidden in the pedestal to the statue. Where does it go?”

He laughed. “You’re subtle.”

I waited for him to continue.

He remained silent.

I asked him, “Will it help me find the Galleria?”

He said, “It helps me find the Galleria. It will only distract you from it. The far wall of the pedestal opens to a passage down, but it only reaches a network of caves where boys play. There is nothing in there that will interest you.”

“Then what,” I asked, “am I to do to find the Galleria?”

“Why don’t you search? The Galleria is not outside the boundaries of this little labyrinth. Only beware of the first solution you want to latch onto. That is often a distraction, and if you are to find a solution you are looking for, you need to be able to grasp something slippery in a place you are not looking.”

I knocked on earth with my ear to the ground; I looked at the cracks between stones; I even scraped a piece of chalk someone had left on the stones, trying to see if its trace would show me a different stone. I found a few loose items; someone had forgotten a brush, and I pushed a lot of earth aside. I searched and searched, but I found no sign of a passage, no sign of anything unusual save the echoes of a hollow shaft in the stone beneath the statue. It was easy for me to find the mechanism to open the pedestal; indeed, I saw a boy emerge from it. I looked around near the statue: could I be missing a second passage nearby? Yet here the search was even more frustrating.

Fortress gave me a slice of orange, and I searched, hot, parched, the whole day through. I was near the point of tears; nothing in the ground offered the faintest trace of a way down.

I sat back in desolation. I rested my back against a hedge; I could see the sleepy sun’s long golden fingers sliding across the hedge. I closed my eyes for a few minutes to rest; I opened my eyes, and could see that the sun’s fingers had shifted. My bleak eyes rested on a funny bulge in the hedge. That was odd; it looked almost as if—I stared. Standing out from the hedge, illuminated in stark relief, was a bas-relief sculpture.

Someone in a robe—what color robe?—swam in the ocean. He swam down, down, down, down, deeper than a whale can dive, and still deeper. Something about the picture filled me with cool, and I began to see through it, began to see the web that it was—I felt a touch on my head. “You’ve found the Galleria. Would you like to go home now?”

I looked. Past Fortress I saw another picture of a swordsman wielding the great Sword, slicing through darkness and error. The Sword swung around him, slicing through monsters around him, and then with no less force slicing through the monsters inside him. I could see—what? It hurt him to cut at errors inside him, but he wielded the Sword against the darkness without and within. I looked entranced.

“Stand up.” Fortress was looking at me. “You’ve seen enough for now; I normally only look into one picture, and you have looked into two after finding the entrance into the Galleria. We will see more of the city later; now, you are tired.”

It wasn’t until I began walking home that I realized how exhausted I was. I ate my meal in silence, lay in my bed, and sunk into sleep. I awoke, still tired, and was relieved when Fortress told me that he had one proper lesson for me but he would need several days’ mundane work for me after that, and it would be a while before anything else exciting happened.

There was one workroom, one that had a forge, an unstable stack of cups with gears and levers, and a box of silt for drawing. There were several mechanical devices in various states of disassembly; Fortress picked up one of them, and turned a crank. I could see gears turning, but the white bird on top moved very erratically.

Fortress looked at me. “Does it work?”

“Not very well.”

“What part is causing the problem?”

I turned the device over in my hands, pushed and pulled at one axle, and turned the crank. After some time, I said, “This gear here isn’t connecting. It’s worn and small.”

“So if I replace that gear, it will work better?”

I hesitated and said, “No.”

“Then what is the problem?”

“The entire device is loose. The teeth aren’t really close enough anywhere; there’s room for slipping.”

“Then is that one gear the problem?”

“No. It is only the easiest thing to blame.”

“Then you did not help yourself or me by telling me that it was that one gear.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but he held up his hand and said, “People will often ask you treacherous questions like that, and they usually won’t know what it is that they’re doing. A Teacher, such as you seem to want to be—”

“How did you know I wanted to be a Teacher?”

“How could I not know you wanted to be a Teacher? A Teacher, such as you seem to want to be—” he continued, “gives an answer that will help the other person, even if that answer is not expected, even if the other person doesn’t want to hear it.”

Fortress shook the clockwork and said, “What would make it work?”

I said, “You could replace all the gear heads with something larger?”

He said, “What if you couldn’t do that? What if the gear heads were made of delicately crafted gold?”

I hesitated, and said, “I can’t think of anything that would help.”

“Anything at all?”

I hesitated again, and said, “If you made the casing smaller, it would work. But how would you—”

He reached down and pulled two metal plates, plus some other hardware and tools, setting them before me. I took the tools, disassembled the original device, and reassembled the new device with a slightly smaller frame.

It worked perfectly.

He asked, “Is there any way for the bird to bob up and down, as well as turn?”

I tried to think of how to answer him, but this time I really could think of nothing. My sense of mental balance, my sense that my understanding was big enough to encompass his Lesson, was wavery. I was unsure.

He took a metal rule, and smoothed the surface of the silt inside the box. He then began drawing with a stylus.

“What if the rod were not solid, but had a cam and inner workings like this? Wouldn’t that work?”

I looked at him, slightly dazed. “You must be a great metalworker. Can you do that?”

He paused a moment and said, “I might be a great metalworker, and I might be able to do that, but that is not why I am asking. Would it work?”

“Yes.”

“Could you make it roll?”

“Yes. Put it in a hollow round casing and then it would roll as part of the casing.”

He laughed and said, “Could you have the front move forward and the back stay in place—without it breaking?”

I cleared the silt’s surface, and began to work diagrams—rejecting several as they failed, working one almost to completion—and then saying, “But that would require a shell that is both strong and elastic, and I have not heard of any who can make a shell like that.”

He seemed unconcerned. “But would it work?”

“If I had such a shell, yes, it would work.”

“Then you have created it. Could you make one that gives birth to another like itself?”

I sketched a descending abyss of machines within machines, each one smaller than its parent.

“Could you make one that gives birth to another machine, just like itself?”

“Yes, if they were all constantly expanding. By the time a child gave birth, it would be the size of its parent when the child gave birth.”

He seemed impressed, not only at what I said, but at how quickly. He closed his eyes, and said, “I will only ask you one more question. How would you design a machine that could design machines like itself?”

I looked at him, at the disassembled machines, at the silt, and then to a place inside myself. “I can’t, and I can’t learn now.”

He looked at me, opened his mouth, and closed it. He said, “We can move to another Lesson. For now, I want you to look at the gears, separating the worn ones from the ones that are new, so that I can melt down the worn ones. You’ve got a meticulous day ahead of you.”

He left, and I began to work through the gears. The work began to grow monotonous. He returned with a leather sack over his shoulder. “I just acquired a number of broken clockwork devices which I want you to disassemble and separate into parts that are usable and parts that need to be melted down. I’ll be back shortly with some metal to melt down and forge new gears out of.” He set down the sack, and I looked in disbelief at the intricate machines with innumerable small parts. I had a bleak sense of how long a stretch of dullness was ahead of me. I started to lay them out so I could disassemble them.

He returned, holding a pike in his hands. “You seem strong, and you’ve had some time to recover. Come with me. Thunder has spotted a bear.”


Fortress stood, armed with a sword, a crossbow, and several quarrels. He had given the pike to me; we followed several other men and spread out into the woods. Fortress told me, “I want you just to search, and cry out if you see the bear—we’ll come. Don’t attack the bear; just set the pike if it charges, and run once it’s hit. I think you have a good chance of noticing the bear. Don’t take any unnecessary risks.”

We spread out, and I moved along, my feet slipping noiselessly on the forest soil. It was more of an effort than it should have been; my body seemed to move with all the fluidity of sludge. The forest looked more rugged than usual; the storm which almost killed me had torn through the forest, and the storm’s mark was far heavier on the forest than the city. I thought of the saying that a storm is liquid fire.

I looked at a tree that had fallen. The dead tree had broken a branch on another tree, and left an unpleasant wound. I cut the hanging branch with my pike, to leave better wound. Then I placed my hand on the tree to bless it, and left it to heal.

I thought of how the hunt would go. Someone would see it, then the men would gather. Those the bear faced away from would fire a volley of arrows. Those it chased would run while others taunted it. When the hunters left the city, there was an edge of excitement; I don’t think it would be the same if it were not risky.

I continued to move along noiselessly, and looked for a creek. I was thirsty. I blessed another tree, hoping it would heal: the storm had left some rather impressive wreckage. It was dead silent, and when I cut a damaged branch from a third tree, two things happened. First, I heard a babbling brook, and realized how parched I was. Second, part of my pike caught on the tree, and I couldn’t wrest it free.

Leaving the pike for a moment, I stole away from the tree and refreshed myself at the brook. I sat for a moment and rested, breathing in simple joy. Then I heard a stick snap on the other side of a rocky outcropping. I realised I could hear some very loud pawprints.

I slithered up the rock, and looked around. I saw nothing.

Then I looked down, and saw the biggest bear of my life.

It looked around.

It smelled.

I held tight against the rock.

Something under my right hand moved noiselessly. My fingers wrapped around a large stone, the size of a man’s skull.

Fear flowed through me. And excitement. I lifted the rock, slowly, noiselessly, and brought my legs in. I lifted the rock.

I felt with my left hand, and found a rock the thickness of my wrist. A flick of my wrist, and it crashed thirty cubits away.

The bear turned its head, and began to run.

As it ran, I jumped.

I began to fall.

I could see the forest moving as if it had almost stopped.

Between every beat of my heart, a thousand things happened.

I landed on the bear’s back, astride it as if I were riding it.

Immediately the bear tensed, and began to turn.

The rock, still in my hand, crushed the bear’s skull.

I could hear a crunch, and the bear’s body suddenly went limp.

My hand released the stone.

The stone began to fall, about to roll over on my leg and crush me.

My hand caught a thin branch from a tree.

I pulled my legs up and pulled the branch as hard as I could.

I tore it off.

The bear’s body turned.

Something slapped my other palm.

I pulled with all my strength, and my body lifted from the bear.

The bear hit the ground.

I looked around.

Most hunting parties killed a bear every few years.

I had heard of a warrior who had killed a bear alone.

I had never heard of someone kill a bear with only the weapons the forest provided.

I lowered myself to the ground.

I watched the bear breathe its last.

I shouted with a roar like a storm’s fury.

Other men began to arrive. Their jaws dropped when they saw me standing over the bear’s carcass—empty-handed.

Fortress walked up to me.

I smiled, with a smile of exhilaration such as I had never smiled before.

He looked into me, looked at all the other men, then curled up his hand and slapped me.

The slap resounded.

I touched my face in disbelief. I could feel hot blood where his nails had struck me.

“You disobeyed,” he said.

He looked into me.

“Next time you do that,” he continued, “it will be a bear’s claw that slaps you. I don’t know what the bear will look like, but it certainly will be a bear’s claw that slaps you.”


I feigned happiness as I walked back. I tried not to stomp. It seemed an age before I came back to the house; I climbed up the wall and into my room and sat on my bed, furious. The sounds of jubilation around me did not help.

He came up, and said, “We’ve been invited to visit someone while people are building a fire.”

A man was at the entryway; I followed him, and my hosts, through some streets into a room. There was something odd, it seemed; I could not have thought of this at the time, but while the other people paid no heed to my anger, but all of the people with me subdued their joy. Suddenly we walked in a door, and I saw a beautiful girl, holding a clay tablet and a stylus. The whole world seemed brighter.

Fortress said, “How is our lovely ventriloquist?”

She looked at him as if her face were melting. I looked at Fortress, and he raised his hand slightly. He would tell me the story later.

The man exchanged reverences with me and said, “Welcome, bear slayer. My name is Vessel. My daughter is Silver, and my wife is Shadow. Find a place to sit. Will you have a glass of wine?” His wife unstopped a bottle.

The girl said, “Father Dear, will you tell us a story? You tell us the best stories.”

I said, “Please. I miss listening to a good storyteller.”

Vessel said, “In another world, there was a big forest on an enormous mountain. There were plants that grew gems as their flowers, only they were so rare it would be easier to take the gems from a mine—and people didn’t harvest them, because the plants were so beautiful. It would have been a sacrilege.

“There was a dark stone hut, round as a leaf, and in it a Teacher as old as the mountains, with wisdom deep as its mines. He had a gravelly voice, like a dull and rusty iron dagger slowly scraped across granite. He—”

Silver interrupted. “Bear slayer, some time you must listen to my father sing.”

The man continued as if nothing had been said. “The forest was rich and verdant, and every morning it was watered by a soft rain.”

At the sound of the word “rain,” I suddenly felt homesick. It rained frequently on my island, but here—I had not seen rain at all.

Silver said, “Rain is a natural wonder that happens when a great ball of grey wool, lined with cotton of the purest white, sails in the Abyss and drops packets of water. Apparently this wonder has been seen in this city, though not within the time it would take a mountain to be ground to dust. This did not stop my father from making a tub on the top of our roof, putting sealed pipes down, so that he could pour water from a pipe in our room if Wind were ever silly enough to blow some of that grey wool over this city.”

Vessel placed a hand over his daughter’s mouth and continued. “He was a many-sided sage, learned in arts and wisdom. Among the things he crafted were a ferret, so lifelike you could believe it was real. If you forcefully squeezed both sides, it would walk along in its own beautiful motion.”

Silver pulled her Father’s hand down and said, “I think I saw one of those wonders from a travelling street vendor. I looked at some of the craftsmanship and heard some of the gears turning. It must have been made by someone very competent, probably not someone from this city. That didn’t stop Father Dear from—”

The man stood up swiftly, flipping his daughter over his shoulder, and walked into the hallway. Shadow said, “That story didn’t last long, even for our family. May I serve you some more wine?”

Vessel walked out, holding a key. “Please excuse the disturbance. I have locked Silver in her room. As I was—”

Silver slid through the doorway, stretching like a cat waking from its sleep, and ostentatiously slid two metal tools into a pouch in her sleeve. “I’m disappointed, Father Dear. Normally when we have guests, you at least put something heavy in front of the door.”

Some time later, I saw Vessel and Silver sitting together. Pool, Silver, and Shadow had left, and I could hear the warm rhythm of women’s talk and laughter from a nearby room. Fortress said, “We were waiting for you. The other hunters have pulled the bear in. Come to the roast!”

I wanted to ask them something, but there were more footfalls outside. I could already hear the drummers beginning to beat out a dance, the singers with their lyres, the priests with their merry blessings, the game players, and the orators with their fascinating lectures. It was not long before we were at the city center.


A young man pulled me off to the side; I saw, on a cloth on the ground, what looked like several pieces of a puzzle. “And now,” another man said, “you push the pellet in, and fit the pieces together.” He moved his fingers deftly, and I could see what looked like an ordinary crossbow bolt.

“What is that?” I said.

“Let me show you,” he said, handing me a cocked crossbow. “Do you see that bag of sand on the roof?”

“Yes.”

“Shoot it.”

I slowed down, took aim, waited for the target to come to the right place, then fired the crossbow. There was an explosion, and I felt something sting my face. When I realized what was happening, I could feel sand falling in my hair.

I looked at him, confused, and he said, “It’s an explosive quarrel. The head contains a strong explosive.”

“Why was the shaft made of puzzle pieces? I don’t see what that added to the explosion.”

He laughed. “The pieces fly out to the sides, instead of straight back at you. It’s quite a powerful explosion—you might find it a safer way to kill a bear.”

I made a face at him, but I was glowing. So these people knew already that I had killed the bear.

I spoke to one person, then another, then heard people clapping their hearts and calling out, “Speech! We want a speech from the bear-slayer!”

I stood, at a loss for words, then listened for the Wind blowing—but I heard only my name. I listened more, but heard nothing. Then I said, “I am Unspoken,” and then the Wind blew through me.

“I am Unspoken,” I continued, “and I love to peer into unspoken knowledge and make it known, give it form, or rather make its form concretely visible. Each concrete being, each person, each tree, each divine messenger, is the visible expression of an idea the Light holds in his heart, and which the Light wants to make more real. And his presence operates in us; he is making us more real, more like him, giving us a more concrete form. You know how a creator, making art or tool or book, listens to what a creation wants to see, wrestles with it and at the same time bows low before it, sees how to make it real; that is how the Light shines in us. And when we listen to the Unspoken and give it voice, we are doing what a craftsman does, what the Light does with us. How do we give voice to an unspoken idea, an unspoken expression? We can’t completely do so; what we can say is always a small token of what we cannot say. But if the Wind is blowing through us, we may make things more visible.” I continued at length, turning over in my spirit the ideas of tacit knowledge and invisible realities, visible, and the divine act of creation reproduced in miniature in us. I traced an outline, then explored one part in great detail, then tied things together. When my words ended, I realised that the Wind had been blowing through me, and I felt a pleasant exhaustion. The festivities continued until we greeted the dawn, and I slept through most of the next day.

All this excitement made my chores in the workshop an almost welcome relief. It began to wear thin, though, after perhaps the third or fourth consecutive day of dismantling tiny devices and then staring at tiny gear teeth to see if they were too worn to use. I began to grow tired of being called ‘bear-slayer’—was there nothing else to know about me?—and there was an uneasy silence between Fortress and me about what I had done. He did not mention it; why not? I was afraid to ask.

I worked through each day, and had an hour to my own leisure after the songs at vespers. Mostly I walked around the city, exploring its twists and passageways. It was on one of these visits that I heard a whisper from the shadows, beckoning. It sounded familiar.

“Who is it?” I said.

The voice said, “You know me. Come closer.”

I waited for the voice to speak. It, or rather she, was alluring.

I stepped forward, and sensed another body close to my own. A hand rested lightly on my shoulder.

“Meet me here tomorrow. But now, go home.”

As I walked home, I realized whose voice it was, and why I didn’t recognize it. It was someone memorable, but she had changed somehow, and something made me wary of the change. Yet I wondered. There was something alluring about her, and not just about her.


The following morning, Fortress looked into me and said, “No.”

Then he left me in the workshop, and I was torn as I sifted through the day’s parts. I was trying to understand my intuitions—or at least that’s what I told myself. What I didn’t tell myself was that I understood my intuitions better than I wanted to, and I was trying to find some way of making what I understood go away. I touched my cheek, and felt the healing wounds. Then I made up my mind to stay in the building that night.

Evening came, and I realised how long I’d been sitting one place. So I got out, and began walking the other way—just a short distance, to stretch my legs. Then I remembered a beautiful building in the other direction, and I walked and walked. Then I remembered something I had overheard—Fortress’s first rebuke had not been everything it seemed. And I found myself in the same place, and felt a soft hand around my wrist. As we walked, and as I could feel my heart beating harder, the ground itself seemed to be more intense. I followed her through twisted passageways, then climbed down several rungs to a place barely lit by candlelight. A strange scent hung around the air. There was something odd, but I could not analyse what. I saw a man in a midnight blue robe bow deeply before me.

“Welcome, Bear Slayer. You did right to kill the bear.”

“How did you know—” I began.

“Never mind that. You did the right thing. Fortress is a fine man and a pillar of the community, and we all need him picking apart devices, day after day—or has he asked you to take that task so he can do something interesting? Never mind. Fortress is a fine man, but you are called to something higher. Something deeper.”

My heart pounded. I looked. He looked at me with a gesture of profound respect, a respect that—something about that respect was different, but whenever I tried to grasp what the difference was, it slipped out of my fingers.

“Your name is indeed Unspoken, and it is truer than even he knows. You were touching an unspoken truth when you left your pike and attacked the bear.”

I couldn’t remember any unspoken Wind, or any sense of good, when I disobeyed, and I was excited to learn that what I wanted to remember was true.

“And I have many things to teach you, many lessons. You were not meant to be staring at gear after gear, but—”

It seemed too good to be true, and I asked him, “When will I be able to begin lessons?”

He said, “You misunderstand me. I will teach you. But go back to him; you have learned enough for tonight. My lessons will find you, and show you something far greater than sorting gear after gear, a power that—but I say too much. Go. I will send for you later.”

My stomach was tight. I was fascinated, and trying not to realise that something wanted to make me retch. “But please,” I said. My voice cracked.

The man shook his head.

I said, “At least tell me your name.”

“Why do you ask my name?”

I heard a sound of a blade being drawn, and a crowd parted to reveal a man holding an unsheathed sword. “Clamp! Do not send him out yet!”

The man who had spoken to me drew a dagger, his face burning red. “Poison! How dare you!”

“How dare I? You should not have held the place of glory to begin with. You—”

“Do you challenge me?”

“I do.”

What happened next I am not completely sure of. Part of it I could not even see. But what I did see was that Poison was great enough a swordsman to make a mighty swing in a tight room.

I saw him swing.

Then I saw Clamp raise his dagger to parry.

Then I heard a high pitched shattering sound.

Then there was a flurry of motion, and Clamp fell over, dead.

In his hand was a sword hilt, and nothing more.

Clamp turned to me, and said with surprising sweetness, “Do come back, my child. Fortress is a fine man, and no doubt he will teach you many important things. We will see each other later.”

I was almost dumbfounded. I stammered, “How did you— What kind of power lets you—”

He bowed again, very deeply. “Farewell to you. We will meet again.”

“Please.”

“You need sleep. You have a long day ahead of you.”

I stood in place, then slowly walked out. I was elated when I heard his voice call after me, “If you really must know something… Everything you have been told, everything you believe, is wrong. Illusion. You just began to cut through the Illusion when you killed the bear. ‘Wisdom is justified by her children.’ But don’t try to understand the Illusion—it is a slippery thing, profoundly unspoken, and we will see each other soon enough. I’ll find you; my classroom is everywhere. Do sleep well. Fortress is a fine man, worthy of respect and worthy to teach you, and I do not doubt he will teach you many exciting and important things.”

I walked back, my heart full of recent happenings. I got into bed, and pretended to sleep.

That morning, I felt like my body was made of frosty sludge. I got up, and when Fortress looked at me, I forced myself to bow to him.

That was the last time I bowed to him in a long while, or indeed showed him reverence of any sort. I resented it even then.

I resented the day’s sweeping and cleaning, but some of my thoughts congealed. Some of my unspoken thoughts began to take solid form. The respect I had been shown—it was different from the respect I was used to. It meant something different, something fundamentally different. It said, “From one noble soul to another.” And the place of meeting was devoid of any adornment, any outer beauty. It had the sense of a place of worship, but as a place it was empty, almost as if it were irrelevant to—there was another thought in the back of my mind, but I could not grasp it.

That night, I thought I heard the sound of Fortress crying. I smiled and slept soundly.


The next morning, Fortress said, “Unspoken, you’ve seen a lot of gears, but I don’t think I’ve shown you how to make a cam. Cams are terrifically interesting, both in terms of making them and what you can make with them. I’d like to show you how to make cams, then some intriguing devices that use cams. Thank you for the sorting you’ve done; we should be able to pull exactly the parts we need. Let me heat up the fire, and then we can both work together.” He looked at me, and seemed surprised at the boredom in my face. We did exactly what he said, and I made several new types of cam, one of which he really liked. There was wind blowing in my ear, but I couldn’t open up and listen to it—I merely wondered that this new activity was even duller than sorting broken parts.

At the end of the day, I said, “When are we going to have a Lesson? I mean a real one?”

He looked at me, held his breath, and said, “I can only think of one Lesson for now. It is not one that you would like.”

I said, “Please?”

He said, “Humility is the hinge to joy and the portal to wonder. Humility is looking at other things and appreciating them, instead of trying to lift yourself up by pushing them down. If you push things down, that is the road to misery. Pride pushes things down, and it cuts it off the one thing that could bring joy.

“You are seeking joy where joy is not to be found. Seek it elsewhere, and it will find you.”

I hastened out to the street.

Once on the street, I went where I had gone before, but no one reached out to me. I explored, and found several people talking, gardens, statues, and a bookstore I’d not seen before, but there was nothing that interested me. Where was Clamp?

I went back home, and Fortress said, “Have you heard of the Book of Questions?”

I feigned interest. “I’ve heard about it, and it sounded fascinating,” I said, truthfully. “I’d like to hear what you can tell me,” I lied.

“I was just thinking about one of the questions, ‘What is reverence?’

“There are three things that we do when we reverence each other. We make on ourselves the great sign, and we bow before each other, and we kiss each other.

“The Sign of the Cross is the frame that sets the display of reverence in place. We embrace each other in the Cross’s mighty shadow.

“Bowing is the foundation of all civilized discourse. When we bow, we lower ourselves before another; we acknowledge another’s greatness. That is the beating heart of politeness; that is the one reason why politeness is immeasurably more than a list of social rules.

“A kiss is everything that a bow is and more. A kiss is a display of reverence, and of love. Do you know why we kiss on the mouth?”

I looked at him, not seeing his point. “What do you mean? Where else would one kiss?”

“I have travelled among the barbarian lands, and there are tribes where a kiss on the mouth is the sort of thing that should be saved for one’s wife, or at most one’s family.” He must have seen the look on my face; he continued, “No, they are not distant from each other, and yes, they live together in genuine community. It is altogether fitting and proper, and our embrace would be out of place in that land. Just because you or I would find it strange to pull back from our brethren this way, as if we were talking to someone through a wall, does not change the fact that it is woven into a beautiful tapestry in their community.

“But let us return to our lands. Kissing on the mouth is significant because it is by our mouth that we drink from the Fountain of Immortality. We reverence the Temple when we enter it, kissing the door and entrance; we ourselves are the Temple, and our mouths are the very door and entrance by which the King of Glory enters when we Commune. Our mouths are honored in a very special way, and it is this very place that we show our reverence.

“But there is another reason. It is by our mouths that we breathe the wind, that we spirit; it is the very spirit that is present in the mouth, and our spirits are knitted together. So the kiss is everything the bow is, and more, and it is the fitting conclusion when we reverence each other. It is communion.”

I listened with interest. His words almost pulled me out of my misery.

He closed his eyes, and then said, “Do you know how long it is since you have kissed me?”

I began to approach him.

He pushed me away. “Stop. Go and learn to bow, truly bow. When you have learned to bow, then you may kiss me.”

I walked out of the room, pretending to conceal my fury.


Dull, empty day passed after dull, empty day. Fortress tried to teach me things, and I really had no doubts that he was a fine man, but… whatever the great Illusion was, he not only believed it; he couldn’t think to question it. I found Silver from time to time, and had comfort by her, but… I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t take me in to the group. And the rest of the world grew bleaker and bleaker.

Then it happened.

I snuck behind her one day, never giving a hint of my presence, until I found myself led into the chamber, the meeting place. They were chanting; there was something elusive about the chant, and I remained hidden in the shadows. Then Clamp himself saw me in the dark, and said, “Welcome. You have made it.” There was a wicked grin on his face.

“Why did you not call me back? Why did Silver not lead me here? Was I not worthy?”

“You were not. Or, I should say, you were not worthy then. We were testing you, to see when you would make your own way in—then you were worthy. That you have come is proof that you are worthy—or at least might be. It does not speak well of you that you took so long. Look at me. Your very face tells me you have been drained by things unworthy of you—dull people, trivial lessons, a warhorse being taught the work of a mule.

“Or at least that’s what I could say being generous. I think you are still enmeshed in the Illusion—it is still quite strong in you. So strong that it can probably affect what you see, make what is before your eyes appear to be what it is not.

“There is another test before you. Take this dagger.”

He placed in my hand a stone dagger with a serpentine curve to it. It was cold; a coldness seemed to seep through my body and my heart began to pump the icy chaos of a sea at storm. I felt sick.

“There is a clay dummy in the next room, exquisitely fashioned. Place this dagger where its heart would be. You will cut through the illusion, and be ready to drink of the Well of Secrets.”

I walked. Aeons passed each footstep; each footfall seemed like a mountain falling and beginning to crumble. And yet it seemed only an instant before I was in the next room.

My stomach tightened. I could not say what, but something was wrong. There was something like a body that was deathly still.

I could see the feet only; the face was covered. Some Wind blew in the recesses of my heart, and I tried to close it out.

I walked over, my stomach tighter. The Wind inside me was blowing louder, leaking, beginning to roar. And then I smelled a familiar smell. How could they make clay smell like—

I twisted the dagger and tore the cloth off the dummy’s face. It looked like Fortress. Then Wind tearing through me met with the breath of his nostrils.

I gasped.

I threw up.

There was a sound of laughter around me—or laughing; I could never call it mirth. It was cruel and joyless, and tore into me. And still I retched.

“Do you need help? Or are you really so weak as that?

“Maybe you didn’t belong here; not all who merely force their way in are truly worthy.”

I looked around on the ground, and saw Fortress’s staff.

In a moment I snatched the staff, and cast away the dagger.

I stood, reeling.

“I am not worthy. I am not worthy to be here, still less to be with Fortress. And I’d like to take a heroic last stand, and say that if you’re going to kill him—if whatever black poison you’ve used won’t already do so—you’ll have to kill me first, but I would be surprised if I could achieve any such thing against you. I cannot call myself Fortress’s disciple; that illusion is broken to me. But if I may choose between reigning with you and being slaughtered with Fortress, I can only consider being slaughtered with Fortress an honor that is above my worth and reigning with you to be unspeakable disgrace!”

Clamp looked at me with a sneer. “I don’t know why I ever let you in, disciple of Fortress.” He grabbed a sword, and made one quick slice.

I felt hot blood trickling down my chest.

“Go on, to your fascinating gears and your deep, deep lessons. Carry your Teacher. We’ll meet again. Now I don’t think you’re worth killing. I don’t know what I’ll think then.”

The blood flowing down my chest, I picked up my unconscious Teacher and his staff.

“The path out is that way. Never mind the drops of blood; you won’t reach us this way again.”

As I carried his heavy body towards the marketplace and then his home, I panted and sweated. Fortress seemed to be regaining consciousness. I staggered across the threshold and then laid him on the bed.

Pool looked ashen. “Are you all right, Salt?”

Fortress looked at her. “Never mind me; the poison they used is short-lived. I’ll simply need more sleep for a few days, and life will go on. Look at Unspoken. I have not been that stunned by a man’s behavior in many years.”

I collapsed on the floor, then rose to my knees. “Fortress. I have sinned against Heaven and before you. If you have any mercy, show one more mercy that I do not deserve. Give me money that I may return to my island, and no more inquire into things too wonderful for me.”

Fortress turned to Pool. “Get one gold sovereign, a needle, and thread.”

I looked at him. “One gold sovereign? But that would buy more than—”

“Bite this,” he said. “I’ll try to make the stitches small.”


“I still do not understand,” I said.

“Never mind. Tell me what our robes mean.”

“Your robe is blue, the color of starry Heaven. Your gift is the one thing needful, to be focused on the Light himself. My robe is green, the color of earth. My gift is to attend to many things on earth. I have wanted to gain the higher—”

“The green robe, and all that it symbolises, is needed, and I do not think you appreciate your gift. And not only because both of us look to the Light and attend to the Creation it illuminates. Place the two colors on the Cross.”

“That is a child’s exercise.”

“Place the two colors on the Cross.”

“The blue robe is the color of the vertical arm of the cross, the great tree whose roots delve fathoms down into earth and whose top reaches to Heaven. It is our connection with the Light. The green robe is the color of the cross’s horizontal arm, connecting us with other creations. Is there a reason you ask me this?”

He placed his finger at the top of my chest, at the very center—at the top of my wound.

Then he ran his finger down the freshly stitched skin.

I winced in pain.

“It seems you are not a stranger to the blue robe.”

My jaw dropped when his words unfolded in my mind. “Fortress, I cannot believe you. Before, you were being generous. Now you are being silly. This wound is not the arm of the cross reaching from Heaven down to earth. I earned this by my own wickedness, and you would destroy me if you knew what evil I had done.”

“Are you sure?”

“Fortress, this evil is far worse than lust. It lures you with excitement, then drains the wonder out of every living thing. What are you doing?” I stared in horror as he removed his robe.

“Look at me.”

I closed my eyes.

“Trust me.”

I opened my eyes, and looked upon his body. Then I looked again. There was a great, ugly, white scar across the top of his chest. He made the sign of the cross on himself, and when his fingers traced out the horizontal arm of the cross, the green arm, I saw his fingers run over the scar.

“I know that pain better than you think.”

I was unable to speak.

“Pool is getting you something to eat. You’ve had quite a difficult time, and your pain will continue. Let’s spend tomorrow at the Temple, and then we can get to tinkering.”

I was weak, and my wound pained me, but there was a different quality to the pain.


I felt weak. Still, as I entered the Temple, it didn’t matter. Once inside the doors, I was in Heaven, and Heaven shone through earth more clearly than it had for long. I smelled the fragrant incense, the incense that ascends before the divine Throne day and night and will ascend for ever.

I walked into the middle part of the Temple, and lay down on the cool, unhewn stone floor, drinking in the glory. I looked through the ceiling at the Heavens: the ceiling was beautiful because it was painted with the blood of sapphires, and more beautiful because it was not sealed. It had chinks and holes, through which the Heaven’s light shone, through which the incense continued to rise, and through which Wind blew. I could hear it howl and whisper, and I looked at the Constellations, all seven of which blazed with glory.

I saw the Starburst, a constellation in which one single Glory shot out many rays, and then these many rays coalesced into the one Glory. I let it resonate. I thought of the Creator, from whom all things come and to whom all things return. I thought of learning one thing, then learning many things, then finding the one interconnected whole behind them all.

I looked at the Window of Heaven: a saint shining through a picture. What was it of symbol that was captured so well? In the Constellation one could see the present connection between the saint and the Icon he shone through, indeed itself a window into how the divine Glory shines in a man.

I saw the threefold Tower: on the ground level was body, and then the lower of the upper floors was that which reasons and assembles thinking together, and the higher of the upper level was that which sees in a flash of insight precisely because it is connected, indeed the place one meets the Glory. What were some of the other nuances of these levels?

Then I looked at the Sword, the Great Sword in the War that has been fought since before ever star shone on dew-bejewelled field and will be fought until stars themselves are thrown down, trampled under those who laughed as children among the dew. It sweeps wherever there is Wind, larger than a mountain, smaller than a gem-collecting aphid, stronger than the roaring thunder, so sharp that it sunders bone and marrow. Why, indeed, was it given to men?

The Chalice, the great and Sacred Chalice itself, that held the fluid more precious than ichor, the fount of incorruptibility, a fount that will never be quenched though the mountains should turn to dust and dust turn to mountains. The Chalice from which we drink, the Chalice we kiss when we kiss the—why again should men be so highly exalted?

The Rod and Staff, as ever, were crossed against each other. “Your Rod and Staff comfort me,” rise in the chant. The Staff’s curves offered comfort to a straying sheep, I knew. And the Rod that went with it—a club with metal spikes, ready to greet predators. A shepherd was a hardened man, an armed guard ready to fight with his life when wolves came to destroy his sheep.

And last, the Steel Orb—a ball, rolling all around an animal hide as the hands at its edge moved up and down, making a slope now here, now there, now a valley, now a shifting plain. The Steel Orb indeed moved throughout the two levels—or was it really one?—of the threefold Tower, now here, now there, now met by complex construction, now silence, now a flash of inspiration. The Steel Orb is the inner motion that is inseparably connected with the world of invisible truths. It is the ear that listens when the Wind blows. It is the placid pool that reflects all that is around it.

I closed my eyes. Then I looked at the Eighth Constellation, the whole starry roof. The Greatest Feast, when death itself began to move backwards, must have come early that year, about as early as possible; the Constellations stood fixed as they had appeared the year the Temple had begun, just after the day began, and the great Vigil began. There couldn’t really be a more representative night to represent the year, nor a better time of that day to stand in.

My breath was still; I stood up, reverenced Fortress and the other Icons, then found the waiting priest and cast off my sins in penitent confession. I do not even remember feeling relieved from that, which is strange: I stood in the stillness as it became song, as voices rose in chant, and the morning was greeted and the divine liturgy began.

I do not remember the liturgy; I do not remember even when the liturgy ended and the priest held a healing service and anointed me with the oil of restoration. What I remember was when it ended, and there were people all around me, their faces alight. It was like waking from a dream, a dream of which one remembers nothing save that there was an inexpressible beauty one cannot remember.

I walked home in Fortress’s shadow, and only then remembered something that didn’t fit. I remembered—or thought I remembered—the priest’s strange advice after my confession: “Be careful. You have a difficult journey ahead of you.”


Fortress sat down in front of the work bench. He picked up one gear, then set it down, then rooted through some axles, and sat back.

“Unspoken, I’ve asked you to sort gears, take machines apart, put machines together, melt gears down, and forge new gears from the molten metal. I’ve asked you to repair machines, and tell me when gears were made of too soft of a metal. What I haven’t asked you to do is tinker. So we’ll have a race. Today you can think, and I’ll make a mechanical cart. Then you can make a mechanical cart tomorrow. And we’ll see, not whose cart can go fastest, but whose cart can go farthest in the smooth part cloister. This will be part ideas and part choosing the best parts. Why don’t you go up to your room? You’ll have the range of this workshop tomorrow.”

I paced up and down my room. I thought. There were several coiled springs in the workshop; having seen some of his previous designs, I was almost sure he would make something spring-powered that would go the distance the spring kept. And how was I to outdo that? He would probably know what spring was best, and he would almost certainly know how to choose parts that moved with each other.

A faint whisper of Wind blew in my mind. I turned over different designs of springs—could I make something more powerful with two springs? The Wind grew, slightly more forceful, and I tried to make it tell me how to best use springs. It became more and more forceful, but I was afraid to drop everything and listen. I began to see, not springs at all, but a burning—

Then I sensed something.

There was something that radiated beauty and fascination. I could not see it. But I sensed it.

“Who are you?” I said.

“I am your Guardian,” came the answer. “I was sent to you.”

I looked. I still could not see anything, but the beauty is overwhelming.

“What is the idea that is slipping? It has fire, and I hot steam, and—”

“Pay no mind to that. It is nothing.”

“How can I build a better spring?”

“Don’t. Build a simple, spring-driven cart out of good parts. Then take a knife, and nick the axle on your Teacher’s wagon. That is all. It will bind slightly, and your cart will go further. Or it should.”

“But—is that fair?”

“Is that fair? He took the first choice of everything, and you know you lack his year’s practice. Come. He wants you to surprise him. He wants you to show ingenuity. This is something he wouldn’t expect of you.”

I thought I could see colors glowing, shifting, sparkling. Somewhere, in the recesses of my being, it was as if a man jumping up and down and shouting. It was almost enough to draw me away.

“But how can I find his cart? Surely he will hide it, so it will not be a temptation to me.”

“Never mind that. I will show you. Just watch me. I was sent here to draw you into Heaven’s beauty.”

Entranced, I watched the colors shift. It tasted—I tasted the same excitement, the icy brilliance of lightning and the tantalizing heat of lust. I never knew that Heaven could be so much like my former craft.

The next day I built a craft, but no pleasure came from it. It was drained of pleasure, but I was looking for that enticing presence. It seemed to have gone.

Where was Fortress’s cart? I couldn’t see it. I looked in nooks and crannies. Something seemed wrong. Then… I was aware of the bad intuition first. But I heard a shimmer. “Look right in front of you.”

Ahead of me, on top of a pile of disassembled devices, was a cart.

I took a blade, and nicked one of the axles.

The shimmer spoke. “One more thing.

“Look at me.”

I looked, and the beauty seemed at once more intense and hollow—and I could not look away.

“Sing an incantation over it.”

“What?”

It seemed as if a dark hand was pushing me forward.

I chanted, and watched in horrid fascination. Something seemed to shimmer about my cart. Whenever I looked at it, it seemed the same, but whenever I turned away, it seemed as if there was some beautiful incense rising from it.

The next day, it easily won.

Fortress looked at his cart crossly, with consternation and puzzlement. He seemed to be looking through it.


The next thing I remember was retching, on the workbench. Fortress and a priest were standing over me, although I did not notice them at the time. All I could notice for the time being was an overpowering stench. I wanted to keep retching forever. My spirit was sapped.

“That was not a Guardian,” the priest said. “You have listened to a Destroyer.”

“If you meet that presence again, make the Sign of the Cross and say, ‘Lord, have mercy.'”

I looked at him weakly. “What can I do? I thought I had repented.”

“You have repented, and you need to repent again. Pray and fast this week, then make your confession, and come to the Table. Don’t go anywhere near that shimmer, no matter how attractive it is. Run, and invoke the Holy Name. And talk with Fortress and me. And if you fall again, repent again. The saints are all praying for you.”

I tried to take it in. His words stung me—not because of what he said, but because of why it would be appropriate to say them.

He reverenced me, bowing low. I felt something in his reverence.


With Fortress’s leave and the priest’s, I went to the monastery to spend my time in prayer and fasting. I took a lump of dry bread each day, and some water.

As the hours and prayers passed, my head seemed to clear. Foul desires raged, but I just resisted them.

The third day after I was at the temple, I ate nothing, and sang songs, and my body seemed lighter. I remembered the secret learnings I’d made, and they seemed vile, paltry. As the sun set, I suddenly thought of Silver. I was off here, selfishly caring for myself, while she was in the vile grip that squeezed me! I stole out of the monastery, and found her almost immediately.

She placed an arm around my waist. I pulled back, but she held me and said, “I’m just placing an arm around your waist. What is it?” I spoke with urgency and concern, and she ‘just’… I do not wish to recall the full shame, but when it was over, Clamp stood over me and threw a hemp belt. “Bind his hands.”


As I was walking, captive, I thought of the advice the priest had given me. But how was I to make the sign of the cross? I could try. I tried to move my hands, hoping something miraculous might happen.

Clamp struck my face, and said, “Don’t try to wriggle out.”

My face stung. I held my tongue, and then let out a rebel yell: “LORD, HAVE MERCY!”

The world seemed to move like melting ice.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

I watched every detail of rage flare in Clamp’s face.

I heard a shift of cloth and bodies moving.

I saw his hand raised, to strike a crushing blow to my face…

…and descend…

…and caught in the talons of an iron grip.

I did not turn my head. I was too bewildered to look and see why my face was not stinging.

I had somewhere heard that voice before. It seemed familiar. And it was speaking quietly.

I had heard this voice speak quietly in contentment. I had heard it speak quietly to tell a secret. I had heard this voice speaking quietly in banter. What I had not heard was this voice speaking quietly because it was beyond rage, a rage that had gone beyond burning fire to be cold enough to shatter ice.

“Let him go,” the voice hissed.

I recognized the voice of my Teacher.

“Let him go,” Fortress glared.

Clamp laughed, and let go of me. “Fortress! How wonderful to see you! May I get you a glass of wine?”

Fortress began working on my bands. He said nothing.

Clamp said, “A great Teacher like you has much to offer, could probe much secret wisdom. You seemed to have a knack for—”

I felt my stomach quiver.

A crowd was beginning to form around us: no one was right by us, but many were looking.

Fortress said, “No.”

My stomach knotted. I had an overwhelming sense that I should move.

I obeyed it.

Clamp looked at Fortress.

Fortress looked at Clamp.

The anger in Fortress’s face began to vanish.

Clamp seemed to be leaving fear and entering terror.

I backed off further.

I saw a faint ripple of muscles across Clamp’s body.

I began to scream.

Metal sang as a sword jumped from its sheath.

I saw, moment after horrid moment, the greatsword swing into the side of Fortress’s head.

Then I heard a shattering sound, and when I realised what was happening, Clamp had been thrown up against the far wall, while Fortress was in the same place.

The sherds of a sword hilt dropped from Clamp’s hand.

The anger vanished from Fortress’s face. He looked, and said, “Come back, Clamp. We need you.”

I could hear the sadness in his voice.

Clamp ran away in abject terror.

I had been fasting. Even if I had not been fasting, I would have…

I fainted.


My head slowly began to clear—much more slowly because Fortress was carrying me again.

“I’ll sleep at your doorway at the monastery,” Fortress said, “and fast with you.”

I closed my eyes. “I’m sorry. I don’t deserve to—”

“Not as punishment, Unspoken. You’ve endured punishment enough; harsh fasting and vigils are a much lighter load than—but you are weak and vulnerable now. You need the support. And I would like to share this with you.”

The fasting passed quickly. Or more properly, it moved very slowly, and it was hard, but there was cleansing pain. The Wind moved through me, and gave me respite from my burdensome toil of evil.

When it was the eighth day, Fortress and I returned to the Temple. A mighty wind was blowing all around, and its song and its breath moved inside. Wind blew through every jewel of the liturgy. And there was—I couldn’t say.

After the end of the liturgy, when I was anointed for healing, Fortress said, “Let’s go home and get to work. Pool has some money to buy a chicken, and—why are you hesitating?”

“Could I return to the monastery and fast for another week?”

“Why? You have done what the priest asked. You needn’t do more. There is no need to engage in warfare above your strength. Remember, the Destroyers always fast.”

“That’s not why.”

“Why, then?”

“That’s what I am trying to find out.”


I prayed and fasted, and my head seemed to clear. I succeeded that week from returning to my vomit; I think it was because Fortress spent the week with me, and he was generous to spend that long without seeing Pool. He prayed with me, and at the end, my mind took on a new keenness. I still did not know what it was the Wind was trying to tell me.

But I no longer resisted it. Fortress gently said, “You have fasted further, and I will trust you that it was the right thing to do. But why not let this fast meet its summit in a feast? I can buy a chicken, and we can sit down at table.”

“But the—”

“Do not worry about that. If the Wind holds a message for you, the Wind will make that clear enough. Let’s return.”

Once home, I asked him a simple question. I think the question was, “Why are you so concerned for me?” Or it might have been, “What is your experience with the poison I tasted?” Or something else. And he gave a long and interesting answer to me.

I don’t remember a word he said.


My stomach was full of roast chicken, dried lemon, and all the bread I wanted. Pool was generous with wine. Fortress’s voice was humming with the answer to whatever question I asked, and I could hear the chatter and laughter of small children in the background. It concentrated my thoughts tremendously.

What was your error?, the Wind whistled in my ear.

In a moment, I searched through the evils I committed and drew in a breath. Pride, I said in my heart. The primeval poison that turned the Light-Bearer into the Great Dragon. The one evil that is beyond petty sins like lust.

You embraced that evil, but what was your error?

I drew in another breadth. Everything. Lust. Magic. Scorning the beauty of the Light. Seeking to order the world around myself. As I think over the great evils that exist, I do not see that I am innocent of any one of them, nor free of their disease.

Those wrongs have been obliterated forever. They are no more. You are innocent of them. You are being healed. The vilest of these, your pride itself, is a smouldering coal thrown into the infinite Ocean. What was your error?

I do not understand. I have hardly made errors greater than these—if ‘error’ is even the word. Do you mean something small by ‘error’?

No, something great and terrible. What was your error?

I do not understand.

What was your error?

With my inner eye, I saw the pelt and the Steel Orb, only frozen. The Steel Orb needed to move, but it was locked in place. Those words haunted me, chased me, yelled at me. I long lie awake that night, searching to see what was being asked. At last, as the pale light of the dawn began its approach, I drifted into sleep.

I saw, in vivid detail, the moments of my descent. Only it was different in my dream. When I had actually lived it, I saw things through a veil, through an Illusion. I suffered empty pain, and thought I was gaining wholeness. Now the illusion was stripped away, and I saw every moment how I had thrown away gold to fill my hands with excrement. And every time, the Glorious Man looked at me and asked what the Wind had asked, “What was your error?”

I saw a time when I listened eagerly. I was being told secrets, hidden truths beyond the ken of the ordinary faithful. I was, I had thought, being drawn into the uppermost room and tasting with delight its forbidden fruit. The Glorious Man looked into me, looked through me, and asked, “What was your error?”

I was awake, bolt upright in my bed. My body was rigid. In the window I saw that the dawn had almost come. “Fortress!” I called.

In an instant, Fortress was by my side. “What is it?”

“You have felt the pain I felt.”

“Every evil by which you have poisoned yourself, I have done, and worse.”

“What was your error?”

He paused a moment, and said, “Pride.”

“No. What was your error?”

“More evil than I can remember.”

“When you descended into that living Hell, did you embrace evil alone, or did you embrace evil and error?”

He drew in a breath. “Climb up to the roof with me.”


The dawn was breaking; stream after stream of golden, many-hued light poured over the edge of the city. We both sat in silence.

Fortress seemed completely relaxed.

I was not.

“Fortress, I did not win our race.”

Fortress’s eyes greeted the sun.

“I know.”

He drank in more of the light, and said, “Would you like to have another race?”

Time passed.

“You can choose who makes his wagon first.”

“You make your wagon first.”

I drew a breath.

“It must be painful for a Teacher to watch his pupil descend into filth and have to rescue him and carry him back.”

“To me, that is a very good day.”

I looked at his face, trying to find sarcasm or irony.

I found none.

“Why?”

“Clamp was my pupil.”

I didn’t know what to say. I fumbled for words. I tried to meet his pain.

“You seem very happy for a man with no children.”

I saw tears welling up in his eyes.

I began to stammer.

He said, “Let’s go and build our cars. If you want, you can take the silt board so you can design your wagon while I’m building mine. A fair match would be balm to my soul.”


I looked at the board. Something was ticking in the back of my mind—fire on the spring, was it? But why? I set to work on the board, trying to reconcile something burning with a spring and gear box. Something was knocking in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t listen to it. In the end I told myself I’d make a spring driven wagon with a lamp on top: a large one, that would burn brightly.

The next day, I set about smithing the lamp. I enjoyed it, and it was a thing of beauty. Almost at the end of the day my eye fell on something, and I saw that Fortress had left the best spring for me.

The next day we raced, and I lit my lamp. It burned brightly. It finished two laps, while Fortress’s cart made fully twenty laps round the cloister, but he liked the lamp; its flame was a point of beauty. “Keep trying,” he said, “although I’m not going to ask why you put a lamp on. I’ll be in the workshop sorting gears; could you care for customers?”


At the evening meal Fortress seemed preoccupied; it looked as if he was listening.

We sat in silence.

He moved, as with a jolt. “Unspoken, what were you saying to me when we greeted the coming of the dawn?”

My face turned red.

“No, sorry. I mean, before then.”

“I don’t know. My sense was that it was something important, but I doubt if—”

Fortress dropped his bread and moved to give Pool a deep kiss. “Come with me, Unspoken.”


As we walked, he turned to me and said, “The Great Fast is approaching, and we all need to purify ourselves. You especially.”

“But I am working on—”

“That is why you especially need to be purified. Forget that completely.”

I recognized the route to the monastery.

“There are some things I can give you, but you need to be at the monastery. As much as you are able, submit discipline as if you were a monk. Draw on their strength. Afflict yourself. Gaze on the glory of the Light.”

“But—”

“Trust me.”

Not long after, we arrived at the monastery. He spoke briefly with the head monk, Father Mirror, and reverenced me. “The Mother who held the Glory in her arms now holds you in her heart and in her prayers.” Then he left.


The rhythm of the calendar, of the week, of the day, became clearer. My head itself became clearer. With the discipline I became hazier and the Glory became clearer.

I was praying in my cell, and suddenly it was illuminated with beauty and light, so that the flame of my lamp could not be seen. I was dazzled, and at the same time uneasy.

I looked, and I saw the form of the Glorious Man. He looked at me and said, “You have done well.”

I felt as if there was something jumping up and down, shouting for attention, inside me.

“I will tell you what you are to write about your error.”

I was fascinated. Or almost fascinated. I turned my ear to the man jumping up and down. And wrenched myself away.

I bowed my head, and said, “Glorious One, I am not worthy.”

Immediately I reeled. A stench, that felt as if I was touching fetid—I do not want to say what it smelled like. I fell backwards, reeling and gasping for breath.

I heard a shuffle of cloth, and then footprints. The chief monk stepped in. He looked displeased, although I wasn’t sure he was displeased at me. He bid the other monks leave, and said to me, “My son, tell me everything.”

I hesitated. “You need to sleep so you can greet the morning in chant.”

“My son, another of my brother monks can lead that greeting even if you are still talking when it comes.”

I opened my mouth, and talked, and talked, and talked. He seemed surprised at times, but looked on me with kindness. At the end he said, “I will take the cell next to you and pray with you. The whole monastery will pray over you.”

“I am not worthy—”

“And I am not worthy to serve you and give you what strength I can. If it were a question of being worthy—” he shuddered. “Sleep, and rise for the morning chant if you can.”

That night I was riven by my dreams.


Evils in me that I thought were dead rose up with new life. I interrupted Father Mirror often, and he told me to pray, “Heavenly Glory, if you want me to fight these impulses, that I will do.” And I did. Gradually the fight became easier. I began to count the days, and contemplate the Glory.

As time passed, I lived to join the monks, the stars and the rocks, beings of light, in contemplation above everything else. I looked into the Glorious Light when—

I felt a hand shaking me. I opened my eyes, and collected my presence. Then I closed my eyes and looked away.

“What is it?”

His face was radiant. “I was looking on the Glorious Light, and—”

Silence.

“I am not worthy to look on you. That light is shining through your face. Leave me alone.”

“My brother.”

I said nothing.

“Look at me.”

I turned to face him, keeping my eyes down.

“You would not see this light coming from my face unless it were coming from your face as well.”

“You mock me. My face? I am not a monk, nor have I gone through years of discipline. And I have—”

“The Wind blows where it will. You could not see this light at all unless your face were radiant.”

I said nothing.

“I have come to call you. It is time for the Great Vigil.”

“Time for the Great Vigil? The Great Feast tonight? But it is scarcely a day that has passed since—”

“I know. I am not ready either. But the Feast is here. And those prepared and unprepared are alike compelled by the joy.”

I went through the Great Vigil at the monastery, reverenced each of the monks. Then Father Mirror accompanied me home, the dark streets lit by the brilliance of his face. I joined Fortress and Pool in the revelry; I danced with Pool. Then Fortress walked home, one arm over Pool’s shoulder and one arm around mine. When we stepped across the threshold, Fortress said, “It is time for a race.”


I let Fortress build his wagon first, and insisted that he take the best spring. Then I sat down with the silt tablet.

My intuition had been to mix fire and water. Or something like that. Or burn water. Or—I sketched one design after another, trying to see how they would help a spring, or gears for that matter. Towards the end of the day, I sat down, perplexed, and wiped the slate clean. I had given up.

That night, I prayed my giving up. Then—it took me a long time to get to sleep.

In the morning, I left the springs alone entirely. I pulled out the metal lamp and made a nearly-sealed water tank to go above it. I put the water tank above the flame, and fitted something special to its mouth. By the end of the day, I was exhausted, and my fingers were sore.

The next day, Fortress wound the spring, and I took a tinderbox and lit the flame. He looked at me slightly oddly, and when he turned his cart around at the end of the first lap, looked at me gently.

My cart hadn’t moved.

At the end of the second lap, he asked me, “Did your cart move?”

I said nothing.

At the end of the fourth map, he said, “Your cart is moving.”

And it was. Steam from the heated tank was moving one part, which turned gears, to the effect that it was moving very slowly. And it continued moving slowly for the rest of the day, finally stopping after it had run a full seventy-two laps.

Fortress walked away from me with a look of amazement. “Unspoken, I’ve got to tell my friends about you.”


As I was drifting off to sleep, the Wind whistled in my ear: What was your error?

The Steel Orb broke free from one spot, and began to roll, first one way, then another. It seemed to be exploring its strength, moving just a little this way, just a little that way.

I wrestled in my thoughts, like a man trying to lift a greased boulder. I was not trying to lift it yet; my fingers slid over the surface, seeking purchase.

Thoughts flowed through my mind, wordless thoughts that slid away whenever I tried to capture them in worded form. I grasped after them with patient, eager expectation.

I did not notice when I descended into the depths of slumber.

I was staring into a dark, deep, colorless, shapeless pool, and trying to see its color and shape. There was light behind me, but for the longest time I did not look into it. Then I looked into the light, and turned, and—

A voice said, “Awaken!” and I was shaken awake.

Fortress and Father Mirror were both crouching over me. I sat up, nervously.

“What is it?” I said, flinching against a rebuke.

“Last night, I was speaking with the bishop,” Father Mirror said, “when a messenger arrived, limping. He had been severely delayed. A Holy Council has been summoned, and the bishop requests that Fortress, you, and I join him on his travels.”

“Me? I would just be a burden.”

“Never mind that. He did not tell me his reasons, but he specifically requested that you join him immediately.”

“What about—”

“No ‘what about’. Will you obey?”

I turned to Fortress. “May I use your crossbow?”

“A crossbow has been packed on your horse.”

“On the way out, may I visit a friend?”

“Quickly.”

Still in a daze, I reverenced Pool and bade her farewell. Then Fortress gave his farewell, and we found the horses.

I knocked on a door—I thought it was the right door—and said, “I’ve been summoned on a journey by the bishop, and I do not understand why. But may I buy all of your explosive quarrels? I have some money I could offer.”

“Bear slayer, you may have them. Without money. Just let me get them.” He stepped in, and seemed to be taking a long time. I heard more and more rummaging, and Father Mirror sounded impatient. Then he came out, looking sheepish. “I’m sorry. I can’t find them. I’ve looked all around. I wish I—”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Just remember me.”

Before the sun was above the mountains, we were on the Road.


We rode along at a cantor. The horses were sleek and strong, and I placed myself opposite the bishop.

He placed himself next to me.

“My son, I offer my apologies, but I wish to talk with you.”

“Why?”

“Tell me about what you did wrong. And what you’ve done since.”

I told him, and he said, “There is something more. What more is there?”

“I don’t know how to say. It’s just that… something about it seems different from struggling with sin. Like there’s something different involved, that is error.”

“All sin is error. Pride especially is illusion.”

“But… Would you say we believe the same things? Perhaps you understand them better than I, but would you say we believe the same things?”

“Yes, certainly. But they do not believe the same thing. It is not a single mistaken belief.”

“What would you say if I said it wasn’t just an error in the specific thing one believes, but an error so deep that… an error whose wake said, ‘What you believe is private?'”

The bishop turned towards me.

His eyes narrowed.

“The highest part of the inner person is mind, but it is not private. In an immeasurably greater way than the five senses, it connects with and wrestles with and apprehends and conquers and contemplates the spiritual realities themselves. Those who choose error grapple with these realities in the wrong way like—like a man trying to climb a mountain upside down. The mountain is there, and the hands and feet are there, but they’re not connected the right way.”

The bishop was silent.

“But… When I stepped into that vortex, I had something of a sense that I was breaking away from the mountain, like it was an illusion, and creating my own private hill, and forging the limbs of my body that I could use to connect with it. I—”

The bishop remained silent.

I fumbled. A flash of insight struck. “I was stepping into a secret, hidden reality, rejecting ordinary people’s reality. That is pride. But normally when we say ‘pride’, we mean an evil of which one part is illusion. Here there it is more like the Illusion is the spiritual reality, and bitter pride is its handmaiden. No; that’s not quite right. The relationship is—”

He looked at me. “That’s enough for now. Let us chant psalms together. I want to hear more, but please, my son, don’t believe I’m only concerned with getting that out of you.” He paused a moment, long enough for me to realize how tense my body was. “Now Fortress told me you’re quite a tinker?”


“He glared,” the bishop said, “and said, ‘and I will not speak with anyone lower than a bishop!'”

“What did you say,” I asked.

“I looked at him wearily, and said, ‘Believe and trust me, good man, when I say that no one here is lower than a bishop.”

He paused a moment and continued, “Unspoken—”

A flood of memories came back. It was not what he said, but how he said it. He had spoken in my island’s dialect. His accent was flawless.

“How do you know my island’s dialect?” I asked. “I come from an insignificant and faroff island. Nothing important has ever come from that island, and nothing ever will.”

“That’s easy enough,” he said, “I was born there.

“Unspoken, I am a man like you.” He paused, and continued, “There is a place I was born. I have a father and mother, and brothers and sisters. I remember the first time I skipped a stone, the thrill when I reinvented the pipe organ. I contemplate and pray, hunger and—”

“Your Grace, how did your father introduce you to the art of memory?”

“When I was a boy, I loved to swim. I swam as much as I was allowed, and some that I wasn’t. There was a lagoon, with a network of underwater caves, and some of them I was allowed to explore. My uncle chipped and ground a mica disc enclosed in a ring of copper, and showed me how to close my eye around it. I could see under the water, and I watched the play of light inside the one largest cave. My uncle also gave me a bent spear, with the head pointing sideways, and I speared many meals with it.

“One day my father looked at me and said, ‘Fire, if you could decorate the cavern in the big pool, what would you put there?

“I thought and said, ‘Blankets along the wall so I could feel something soft.’

“He said, ‘What else?’

“I said, ‘Nothing else.’

“‘What might you imagine?’

“‘There’s nothing else that would work.’

“‘And things that wouldn’t work?’

“I hesitated, and said, ‘A candle to see by, and something to write with.’

“‘What else?’

“‘Come. You are wilder than that.’

“‘Color, as when the leaves of the forest go green.’

“‘And what if there were passageways branching off? What would you like to see there?’

“He led me to imagine this vast network of rooms and passageways, each one different, each one holding something different, each one different to be in. It was a wonderful game, and swimming was almost as enjoyable as this activity.

“One day, my father added another dimension. He walked up to me with a rope and said, ‘Do you see this rope?’

“‘Yes,’ I said.

“‘What is the strangest thing that could happen to it in the antechamber to your labyrinth?’

“‘If it were not soaked, for it to fall down to the floor.’

“My father was silent.

“‘Or it would be peculiar for it to fall, not up or down, but to the side.’

“I expected a smile. My father looked and me and said, ‘Surely you have imagined things stranger than that.’

“I said, ‘It could coil and uncoil, slithering around the walls before coming together to a bundle—and then coming together and vanishing.’

“My father smiled and said, ‘And what of that plate there? What could happen to it in the room under?’

“I laughed at the things I imagined; such strange things happened to the things in my rooms, and I invented things on my own. Then I began to be bored, and my father saw my boredom. ‘This game bores you. Let’s move on to something else.

“‘Look up. Note what position the stars are in. After ten nights’ span, I will open the cover of a box and you will behold forty things you’ve not seen before. Then I will leave you with the box and eat a large loaf of bread. When I have returned, I will return and we will climb that peak, and when we reach the top, you will tell me everything you saw in the box.’

“I jumped slightly, and waited for him to explain himself.

“When no explanation came, I said, ‘I can’t carry a wax tablet when I’m climbing the peak.’

“He said, ‘Nor would I allow it if you could.’

“I said, ‘Then how will I do it?’

“He said, ‘I’ve already told you.’

“I was angry. Never had he been so irrational as this. For seven days I searched my heart in wrath, searching. On the eighth day I rested from my wrath and said, ‘He will say what he will say. I renounce anger at his request.’

“He had begun his odd request by releasing me from my labyrinth; I delved into it. I imagined the first room, but I couldn’t banish the rope coiling and uncoiling. I swam to another room, only to have something else greet me. I swam around, frustrated again and again when—

“My face filled with shame.

“I spent the next two days playing, resting, swimming. I moved through the imaginary labyrinth. When my father pulled the cover off the box, I placed everything in my imaginary labyrinth, one in each room, exactly as he had taught me. It took him a while to eat the bread, so I stared at the box’s rough leather lining. We walked, and talked, and the conversation was… different. I enjoyed it.

“He asked me, ‘What was in the box?’

“I said, ‘A key, a stylus, a pebble, a glazed bead, a potsherd, a gear, an axle, a knife, a pouch, a circle cord, some strange weed, a stone glistening smooth by the river’s soft hands, a statuette, a crystalline phial, a coil of leather cord, a card, a chisel, a mirror, a pinch of silt, a candle, a firecord, a badly broken forceps, a saltball, a leaf of thyme, an iron coin, some lead dregs, a bite of cured fish, a small loaf of spiced bread, some sponge of wine, a needle, a many-colored strand of parchment, an engraved pendant—hmm, I’m having trouble remembering this one—a piece of tin wire, a copper sheet, a pumice, a razor, a wooden shim, a pliers, and a measuring ribbon.’

“‘I count thirty-nine,’ he said. ‘Where’s the fortieth?’

“I ran through my rooms and hesitated. ‘I memorized thirty-nine things, then stared at the rough leather inside the box. I didn’t see another; I don’t even have the trace of memory like when there’s another one that I can’t quite spring and catch.’

“When I said, ‘rough leather inside the box,’ he seemed pleasantly surprised. I didn’t catch it at the time, but I understood later.

“And that was how my father let me taste the art of memory. How did your father teach you the art of memory?”

“I don’t have as good a story to tell. He introduced me to the more abstract side—searching for isomorphisms, making multiple connections, encapsulating subtle things in a crystalline symbol.”

“Oh, so you’ve worked with the abstract side from a young age. Then I have something to ask of you.”

“Yes?”

“I want to speak with you further. I’d like if you could inscribe in your heart the things you tell me. When we return—pardon, if we return, if we are shown mercy—I may send you to the monastery and ask you to transcribe it so it can be copied.”

My heart jumped.


His Grace Fire asked me, “If you were to crystallize your dark journey in one act you did, what would it be?”

I slid my mind through my sins. I watched with a strange mixture of loathing, shame, and haunting desire as I—

“Stop,” he said. “I shouldn’t have asked that. I tempted you.”

I looked at him and blinked. “None of the actions I did encapsulates the journey.”

He cocked one eyebrow.

“Or rather, all of them did, but the entire dark path is captured by one action he didn’t do. I neither gave nor received reverence.”

“That doesn’t seem surprising,” he nodded. “Pride is—”

“That’s also true,” I said.

He looked at me.

“In our reverence, we greet one another with a holy kiss. That is hard to appreciate until you have tried to step outside of it. We try to be spiritual people, but however hard we try, matter is always included. Every one of the Mysteries includes matter. We worship with our bodies. Fasting does us good because we are creatures of body—all of the Destroyers fast, all of the time, and never does any of them profit by it. Our great hope is that we will be raised in transformed, glorified and indestructible bodies to gaze on the Light bodily for ever.

“More to the point, the holy kiss is the one act in the entire Sacred Scriptures that is ever called holy.”

He blinked. “I hadn’t thought about it that way, but you are right.”

“And… there was licentiousness; we could do wrong with our bodies, but this is only for the reason that the holy kiss was not possible. The spiritual embrace draws and works through body, because body is part of spirit. Their asceticism and libertinism alike exist because of a wedge between spirit and body.”

“How can they do that? That is like driving a wedge between fire and heat.”

“Of course you can’t,” I said, “but they think they can.”

“My son,” he said, “you are placing things upside down. We fast to subdue our bodies, which have become unruly; spirit and matter are not equal partners, nor is matter the center of things. In this world or the next.”

“You’re wrong,” I said. “You only say that because your approach to spirit has always assumed matter. If you had genuinely lived the life and practice of believing that matter was evil, was not our true selves, not illusion, you would understand and not say that.”

I winced when I realized what he’d just said. I waited for his rebuke. Or a slap.

“Go on,” he said. “I’m listening.”

“Or maybe that was too bold. Spirit is supreme; the Glory is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. But… struggling to subdue matter, and impregnate it with spirit, does not let you realize what place matter has. Returning from despairing in matter as evil is very different.”

“Despair?”

“Despair…” I thought. “Matter is evil, probably the evil creation of an evil god. If that is true, you cannot relate to the cosmos with joy, not even abstemenious joy. You must despair in it. And—I think this is connected, it’s all connected—if the entire cosmos is an illusion which we must escape, then no less is its creator the same sort of thing. There’s a perverse acknowledgment, I think, that the cosmos must reflect its Creator and radiate its glory. Because if they believe this horrible thing about the cosmos, they believe the same about its Creator, and as they transgress the cosmos as an obstacle they get past, so they transgress its Creator as an obstacle to get past. From what I’ve heard, their pictures of subordinate gods vary, but one of the few common features is that since this cosmos is evil or illusory, and this cosmos must reflect its Creator, the Creator himself must be something we need to get past if we are to find real good.”

“You are describing an error that is really more than one error.”

“Yes. Things are… private. They consider themselves more spiritual, more of the spiritual power we use to touch spiritual realities, yet somehow they have a hydra’s different pictures of what those spiritual realities themselves. In some of them it almost sounds as if that spiritual apprehension is private.”

“I won’t ask you to inventory everything that was private. Did you see any of the Scriptures?”

“Not many. And those I read were… odd.”

“Odd?”

“The Gospels are wondrous documents indeed.”

“Indeed.”

“But they never pander. Never does a writer say, ‘I tell these things that you may be titillated.’ However amazing or miraculous the events are, the miracles are always secondary, signs that bear witness to a greater good.

“And I appreciated this after the few occasions I was able to read their Gospels. Those books do not tell the story of when Heaven and Earth met; the ones I read don’t tell a story at all; they are collections of vignettes or stories, that suck you in with the appearance of hidden wisdom. They appeal to someone despairing of this cosmos and seeking what is hidden behind it. Your Grace, only when I had tried to dive into those crystallized vortices had I realized how pedestrian the Gospels are: the Glorious Man shines with the uncreated Light and we blandly read that his clothes are white as no fuller on earth could reach them.”

“Hmm,” he said. “That’s like—a bit like the difference between marriage and prostitution. In many ways.”

“And… if you understand this basic despair, a despair that forges the entire shape of their relationship to Creation and Creator, you will understand not only their excessive asceticism and their license, their belief that the Light is not good, but also their magic. The incantations and scrolls are in one sense the outermost layer of a belief: if this Creation is evil and illusion, if one must transgress it to find truth, then of course one does not interact with it by eating and drinking, ploughing and sewing. One must interact in hidden, occult ways, and gain powers.”

“I see. But don’t get into that; I’d rather not have you remember that poison. And I assume you could say much more, but I’m beginning to get the picture, and I want to pray and contemplate the Glory before meeting any more of it.

“How would you summarize it, in a word?

“There are many ways our Scriptures can be summarized in a word: ‘Love the Glory with all of your inmost being and your soul and your might, and love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘He has shown you, O man, what is good, and what does the Glory require of you, but to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly in the Light.’ ‘The Glory became a Man and the Glorious Man that men might become Glorious Men and Glories.’ And this error could be summarized in many ways…

“‘Your spirit too pure for this unworthy cosmos.'”

“Take a rest,” he said. “I think you’ve said enough for now. Let’s pray.”

“Oh, and one other thing. When your heart is set on pushing past the One Glory, there seem to many gods offering their protection and guidance.”

“Pray, child. You’ve said enough.”


We reached another city, and Fortress said, “We have a decision to make. The city we want to reach is due East. The road turns, and heads almost directly south.”

I said, “Why?”

“Because East of the city is the dark forest.”

The bishop looked at him. “I think we can enter the city and buy a good meal. But we lack the time to take the Southern route.”

Less than two hours later, we were re-supplied and heading East. It was weeks before we met anything worse than stepping in poison ivy.

At night, I was awoken by the sound of a foot shuffling. I looked around; it was still Fortress’s watch, and Bishop Fire and Father Mirror were already getting up. The campfire was burning low, and in the flickering torchlight I saw a ring of many eyes.

“Black wolves,” Fortress whispered. “Stand up and mount your horse slowly.”

I reached across my bedroll. Fortress hissed, “No. We can’t afford that. I don’t know what—”

I slid up on my horse and slowly reached for my crossbow. Fortress hissed, “Are you crazy? There are more wolves than quarrels, and they’d be on us by your third shot.” Then he cocked his head and said, “Whisper soothing in your horse’s ear. And be ready to gallop.”

The wolves had become visibly closer in this scant time; one started to run towards Fortress’s horse. Then Fortress reared and parted his lips, and bellowed.

I have never heard a man roar that loudly. Not before, not after. It hurts my ears to think about it. He roared like thunder, like waterfall, like an explosion. The wolf was stunned, and immediately he was galloping forward, the wolves running from him in abject terror. It was all I could do to control my horse, and it took some tracking before Fortress found Father Mirror.

We sat in our saddles; every sound, every smell, seemed crisper. Then I realized that tendrils of dawn were reaching around, and as we rode on, we descended into a clearing and His Grace said, “Look! The great city itself: Peace.”


It seemed but an hour and we were inside the great city itself. Having taken time to drink our fill of water, but not eat, we came into the great chamber where the holy bishops and the other attendees were gathered.

I could hear Wind blowing. I tried to listen.

“And I know,” an archbishop said, “that not everyone can scale the hidden peaks. But you misunderstand us gravely if you think we are doing a poorer job of what you do.”

Several heads had turned when we entered. An archbishop said, “Your Grace Fire! May the Glory grant you many years. Have you any thoughts?”

The Wind whispered in my ear, and quite suddenly I climbed on top of a table in an empty part of the chamber. I ignored the shock of those around me, so intently was I listening to the Wind’s whisper.

“If that is anything,” I shouted, “but a lie from Outer Darkness, may the Glory strike me down!”

I heard a click, and then several things happened at once. I was thrown violently forward, and I heard an explosion. I felt an unfamiliar sensation in my back, and I tasted blood.

A deathly silence filled the room. I began to move, and slowly picked myself up. “I repeat,” I said. “If that is anything but a lie from Outer Darkness, may the Glory strike me down.”

There was another explosion, and I felt fire on my back. I stood unmoved.

“I repeat. If that is anything but a lie from Outer Darkness, may the Glory strike me down!”

The Wind whispered, “Duck!”

I ducked, and a crossbow quarrel lodged itself in the wall.

Time oozed forward.

There was a scuffle, and four soldiers entered. One of them was holding a crossbow. Three of them were holding Clamp.

“Fathers and brothers, most reverend bishops and priests, deacons and subdeacons, readers and singers, monks and ascetics, and fellow members of the faithful, may the Glory reside in Heaven forever! I speak from painful awareness that what that son of darkness says is false. That is how it presents itself: a deeper awareness, a higher truth.

“This Council was summoned because you know that there is a problem. There are sins that have been spreading, and when you encourage people to penitence, something doesn’t work. It is as if the disease of sin separated us from our natural union with the Light, and when the chasm was deep, the Glorious Man became Man, the Great Bridge that could restore the union… and something strange happened. Men are sliding off the Bridge.

“Fathers and brothers, the problem we are dealing with is not only a chasm that needs to be bridged. The problem is a false path that leads people to slip into the chasm.

“This error is formless; to capture it in words is to behead the great Hydra. It will never be understood until it is understood as error, as deadly as believing that poison is food.

“It is tied to pride; far from enjoying Creation, visible and invisible, however ascetically, it scorns that which we share, and the path of salvation open to mere commoners. It’s the most seductive path to despair I’ve seen. I know. I’ve been there. The teaching that we are spirit and not body, that there is a sharp cleavage between spirit and body… I don’t know how to distinguish this from proper asceticism, but it’s very different. When we fast, it is always a fast from a good, which we acknowledge as good when we give it back to the Light from whom every good and perfect gift shines. This is a scorn that rejects evil; I don’t know all the mythologies, but they do not see the world as the shining of the Light. The true Light himself would never stain his hands with it; it is the evil creation of a lesser god.

“And it is despair. It tingles, it titillates, it excites at first, and all this is whitewash to cover over the face of despair. Everything that common men delight in is empty to them, illusory joy. The great Chalice, that holds the meat of the Glorious Man’s own flesh and holds the fluid more precious than ichor, his own true blood, the fluid that is the divine life—that all who partake see what they believe and become what they behold, younger brothers to the Glorious Man, sons of Light, sustained by the food of incorruption, servants in the Eternal Mansion who are living now the wonder we all await—I will not say what exciting thing they propose to replace it by. Some manage, I know not how, to find greater wonder in saying the Man was not the Glory and the Chalice as we know it is nothing. But it is in the beginning as sweet as honey, and in the end as bitter as gall and as sharp as a double-edged sword. In a word, it says, ‘Your spirit is too pure for this unworthy cosmos.’

“It is not healthy to dwell long on such things; I will not tell how its broken asceticism turns to people believing they can do whatever they wish with their bodies. (If the body is evil, not our true self…) He who long gazes into darkness may find his eyes darkened very soon or very slowly. In either case it is not good. But I will say this: Gaze on the Light, be strengthened by the Glorious Man, and listen to the Wind, and the better you know it, the less Darkness will look like Light. And we can rise against this error as error.”

The archbishop who spoke when I entered said, “Would His Grace Fire please speak? I believe he has been rudely interrupted.”

His Grace Fire looked at him levelly. “I have already spoken,” he said, “and I have nothing further to say.”

Then His Grace turned to me. “Unspoken. Your robe is damaged beyond repair. Would you like a green or blue robe to replace it?”

My voice quivered. “A green robe was chosen for me. I need to—”

“That isn’t what I asked of you. Would you like a green or blue robe to replace it?”

I looked at Fortress.

He fell on his face prostrate before me and said, “Dear Unspoken, you have surpassed my humble tutelage for ever. I release you.”

I turned back to His Grace Fire. “A blue robe.”

Then I turned to Father Mirror. “To gaze on the glory as a member of your monastery.”

A flask of oil was in the bishop’s hands. “Unspoken, I give you a new name. You have spoken the unspoken. You have delved into the unspoken, searched it out, drawn forth jewels. I anoint you Miner.”

All was still as he anointed my forehead, my eyes, my mouth, the powers of my body.

The Council’s decision was swift. My words had opened a door; insight congealed in the hearts of those present. It moved forward from discussion to decrees, and decrees in turn gave way to the divine liturgy.

I had never been at a Meal like that, and have never been at one since. The uncreated Light shone through every face. I saw a thousand lesser copies of the Glorious Man. The Wind blew and blew. The Glory remained with us as we rode home.

We rode in to the city, and I saw Pool. She—she looked different. But I couldn’t say why. Was I seeing a new beauty because of the Light? I sat silently and watched as Fortress dismounted. She walked up to him, and slowly placed one arm over one of his shoulders, and then the other arm over the other of his shoulders, and looked at him and said, “There is life inside me.”

His eyes opened very wide, and then he closed them very tightly, and then he gave Pool the longest kiss I have ever seen.


“Wait,” Father Mirror said. “First discharge your duty to our bishop. You will have this life and the next to gaze on the Glory. My guest room is free to you for as long as you need.”

I looked at him wistfully.

“The highest oath a monk takes is obedience. That oath is the crystallization of manhood, and when you kneel before me as your father, your spirit will fall in absolute prostration before the Father of Lights for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and on earth is named. And if you are to be in obedience to me, you can begin by waiting to take that oath.”

I waited.

The days passed swiftly. Quills and scrolls were given to me, and I inscribed three books. I wrote The Way of Death, in which I wrote about the error as a path, an encompassing way of living death, in which error, evil, and sin were woven together. I contemplated, prayed, and spoke with Fortress and others. Then I wrote The Way of Healing, in which I answered the question, “If that is the path we should avoid, what path should we walk instead?” Then I wrote The Way of Life, in which I left the way of death behind altogether, and sought to draw my reader before the throne of the Glory himself. I wrote:

But what can I say? The Light is projected down through every creature, everything we know, yes, even the Destroyers themselves. But if we try to project upwards and grasp the Light, or even the hope that awaits us, it must, it must, it must fail. “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” These rooms are nothing other than us ourselves—the habitations and places into which we invite friend and stranger when we show our loves, and the clay that is being shaped into our glory, the vessels we will abide in forever. The Tree from which we were once banished, has borne Fruit without peer, and we will eat its twelve fruits in the twelve seasons. Yet a tree is smaller than a man, and a man is smaller than—

The temple where we worship, where Heaven and earth meet, is now but the shadow cast when the Light shines through the Temple that awaits us. The Light is everywhere, but we capture him nowhere. He is everything and nothing; if we say even that he Exists, our words and ideas crumble to dust, and if we say that he does not Exist, our words and ideas crumble beyond dust. If we look at the Symbols he shines through, everything crumbles, and if we say that everything crumbles, those words themselves crumble.

I end this book here. Leave these words behind, and gaze on the Glory.

I dropped my pen and sat transfigured in awe. I was interrupted by shaking. “It’s time for the Vigil?”

I began to collect myself. “Vigil?”

“The Vigil of when Heaven and earth met, and the Word became flesh.”

I opened my eyes. I realized the end of a fast had arrived.

“The books are finished.”

“Finished?”

“Finished.”

I do not remember the Vigil; I saw through it, and was mindful only of the Glory. The head monk learned I had finished, and the bishop was called.

Then came the feast. Pool held a son at her breast, and looked dishevelled, tired, radiant. Fortress beamed. His Grace Fire spoke on the three gifts given the Glorious Man: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Gold was a reverent recognition of his kingship, Myrrh a reverent recognition of his suffering, and Frankincense a reverent recognition of his divinity. He turned these three over and over again, blending them, now one showing, and now another. His words burned when he said that in the person of the Glorious Man, these gifts were given to the entire community of Glorious Men.

The feast was merry, and when it wound down, Father Mirror welcomed me into the community. It was a solemn ceremony, and deeply joyful. I swore poverty, chastity, and obedience. I found what I had been seeking when I fled my island. Then I was clothed—I was given the shroud, the cocoon of metamorphosis by which I was to be transfigured during the rest of my life.

After I retired to my room, I heard a knock at my door, followed by quick footsteps. I looked around, but saw no one.

Then I looked down, and saw a gift box. It was empty. Or was it?

Inside was a single grain of Frankincense.

Firestorm 2034

The Sign of the Grail

Stephanos

Within the Steel Orb

The Sign of the Grail

CJSH.name/grail

The Sign of the Grail
Read it on Kindle for $3!

George had finally gotten through the first week at Calix College, and the chaos was subsiding. Bored for a minute, and too exhausted from the busy work to start researching something, he sat down, tried to remember something strange that he meant to investigate, and tried some more.

When he finally gave up and tried to think about what else he could do, he remembered a book he had seen in his closet, perhaps left over by a previous resident. He pulled out a fan and a lamp that were placed on it, and pulled out a large book. The entire leather cover had only eleven letters, and the dark leather showed signs of wear but seemed to be in remarkably good condition. The golden calligraphy formed a single word: Brocéliande. All across the front lay dark, intricate leather scrollwork.

What was “Brocéliande?” After looking at the leather and goldwork a short while, George opened Brocéliande and read:

The knight and the hermit wept and kissed together, and the hermit did ask, “Sir knight, wete thou what the Sign of the Grail be?”

The knight said, “Is that one of the Secrets of the Grail?”

“If it be one of the Secrets of the Grail, that is neither for thee to ask nor to know. The Secrets of the Grail are very different from what thou mightest imagine in thine heart, and no man will get them by looking for secrets. But knowest thou what the Sign of the Grail be?”

“I never heard of it, nor do I know it.”

“Thou wete it better than thou knowest, though thou wouldst wete better still if thou knewest that thou wete.”

“That be perplexed, and travail sore to understand.”

The hermit said, “Knowest thou the Sign of the Cross?”

“I am a Christian and I know it. It is no secret amongst Christians.”

“Then know well that the sacred kiss, the kiss of the mass, even if it be given and received but once per year, is the Sign of the Grail.”

“How is that? What makes it such as I have never heard?”

“I know that not in its fullness. Nor could I count reasons even knew I the fullness of truth. But makest thou the Sign of the Cross when thou art alone?”

“Often, good hermit; what Christian does not?”

“Canst thou make the Sign of the Grail upon another Christian when thou art alone?”

George’s cell phone rang, and he closed the book and ran to hear the call better. When he came back, though he spent an hour searching, he could not find his place in the heavy book. He turned outside.

There were a lot of people, but what he saw was the castle-like stonework of the campus, the timeworn statues, and finally the great wood with its paths, streams, and meadows. He got lost several times, but not truly lost, as he was exploring and finding interesting places no less when he lost his sense of direction. The next time he found his way, he went to the cafeteria and sat down at a table, part listening and part sifting through thoughts.

When he got home, his mind was hungry again, and he opened Brocéliande to the middle:

Merlin howled.

“Lord of Heaven and Earth, I have everything I want, or rather everything I fled to. I have left the city and the company of men, and am become as a wild beast, living on grass and nuts.

“Is this because of whose son I am? Some say I have powers from my father, serving the Light only because the prayers spoken when some learned of that dread project. Yet here outside of castle and city I have learned things hidden from most men. I can conjure up a castle from the air, but not enter and live in one: I live in the wood as a man quite mad.”

Then he looked around. The trees were a verdant green, yet he found apples. Presently he came to the fountain of Brocéliande; he rang not the bell but drew deep and drank a draught. The forest were his labyrinth and his lair.

A hawk came and set him on the branch close up.

Merlin said to it, “Yet I can speak with thee: no element is a stranger to me.”

A sound of footsteps sounded, and Merlin ran not away.

Merlin his sister Ganeida laid a hand on Merlin his arm. “Come, Merlin. This is unworthy. I have brought thee food for a journey: King Arthur summoneth thee to his court.”

Merlin beheld the wood called Brocéliande. He beheld its holly, its ivy, its trees shaken by storm and wind. He thought of the animals. And there was something about this forest that drew him: it seemed larger on the inside than the outside, and there was something alway that seemed shining through it, like faint and haunting music which he had by struggles learned to catch as he withdrew from castles and the world of men.

Then Ganieda did start to sing a different song, a plain and simple folk tune, and Merlin his heart settled, and he did walk with his sister.

George slowly closed the book.

He imagined the scene; there was something about Merlin that haunted and eluded him. There was—

There was a knock on the door.

He opened it. It was one of the people from dinner.

“Do you want to see a movie?”

“What movie?”

“We’re still deciding. But there are a few of us going to the theater.”

George thought for a moment. Up until that point he thought he didn’t want to read more of the book for now. When he declined the invitation, there was a fleeting insight which he forgot the next moment.

The next day in class, the figure of Merlin had a stronger grip on his imagination.

If George had less energy, his classes might have suffered more. As it was, he was getting by, and he slowly began to realize that there was something more that gripped him than horses, swords, and armor. He kept opening more to see the beautiful fantasy, so different from his world. At one point he turned the page:

Then Queen Guinevere did sigh and wept sore.

A lady asked, “Milady, what is it?”

“This Grail cometh even now. Is it accursed?

“The Round Table shattered sore hard and knights return with strange tales. Such a holy thing this Grail is called, yet when it cometh the rich Grail yet burneth like fire. Already King Arthur his work is unraveling.

“Will it even take from me my Sir Lancelot? Or can I take even my Lancelot from the Holy Grail?”

There was something in the back of George’s mind. He sat back, thinking, and then closed the book to make a brief visit to the unspoilt beauty of the wood.

When he went in, he noticed a great beech tree, lying, weeping. It seemed that there was something trying to get out of the verdure. There were ferns and moss around, and he walked and walked. The path took many turns, and George began to realize several things. First, it was dark. Second, he was lost. Third, a chill was setting in. Fourth, he could not see even the stars.

Before long he was running in heavy, icy rain, branches lashing, until a branch hitting his chest winded him. He sat down in stinging pain and regained his breath, then felt around and crawled beneath an outcropping. Here the rain at least would not get to him any more. He spent the night in waking shock at what this great pristine nature, unsullied by human contamination, was really like: the forest seemed to be without reason or order right down to the awkward surface of the rock that he was painfully lying on. Long-forgotten fears returned: when a little light broke through the clouds, were those things he saw rocks, fallen trees, or goblins? He spent a long time shivering, and when the sun rose, he thirsted for light, and got up, only half awake, and followed it until he came to the edge of the forest and saw the castle-inspired buildings of the college. A short while later he was warming up with a welcome blanket and the welcome sound of voices in conversation.

Something was eating away at the back of George’s mind.

Perhaps because of his weariness, his attention in class was chiefly on the flicker of the fluorescent light and how the buildings, which on the outside were so evocative of castles, were so modern on the inside. The one thing that caught his mind was a set of comments about either how we must be individuals and do our own thing or else we are all community and individuality is an illusion. He wanted to be haunted and meet hints of a larger world, and others’ passionately held opinions seemed like they were taken from Newsweekand USA Today.

What was on TV? He stopped in the lobby and saw a show with a medieval set, very carefully done to convey a medieval flavor, and watched until a heroine looked at a magical apparition in a full-length mirror and said, “I am having… a biochemical reaction!” He could not explain what failed to confront him, but he walked out. It was Freya’s Day, commonly shortened to “Friday.” When he learned how the days of the week were named, for Norse gods or celestial bodies—namely, Sun’s Day, Moon’s Day, Tiw’s Day, Wotan’s Day, Thor’s Day, Freya’s Day, and Saturn’s Day—something seemingly pedestrian met him with a touch of a larger world. Now, it seemed, things that looked like they could tell of a larger world confronted him with the utterly pedestrian?

His homework did not take long.

Then, amidst Bon Jovi blaring through the hall, George began read. What he was reading seemed to affect him more like a song would than a story: a lullabye almost. He read of Arthur walking into battle, carrying an icon of the Virgin above him. There were mighty blows, armies with their mounted shock troops, great knights clothed in chainmail hauberks astride elephantine destriers, and in the center Arthur holding what seemed to be a story within a story, an icon that opened out onto something larger, and yet something he could not see in his mind’s eye.

Then at another place he read as Arthur crossed land and sea and placed his sword on the ground and claimed a second Britain, and then gave of his knights, his brothers, and his substance to make a place like Great Britain, with forests and orchards, fields and towns, until he had given what he could of his spirit to make a Little Britain.

George looked through and began to see things weaving in and out: an intensity, a concentration, and not just that he was entering another time but he was entering another time, though he could not tell how it was different: he only sensed that time moved differently, and that his watch told something very different.

Then all of this seemed to crystallize as a grievously wounded Sir Lancelot came to an hospitable knight and Elaine his daughter spent endless time healing his wounds. Love so overwhelmed her that she poured herself out with such intensity that when Lancelot left for the only woman he could love, her body emptied of spirit and life floated on a bier in a boat until Arthur’s court wept at the most piteous tale of her love. George found himself wishing he could weep.

—over hill, over dale until the night was black, and neither candle nor star pierced it. The great knight his destrier shook the earth. The great knight was clad in a double coat of mail and the shaft of his greater spear was as a weaver’s beam. Then he did stop to dismount and his own steps shook the earth.

Before him was a chalice of purest gold, radiant with light—radiant as the day. He walked before it, his steps shook the earth, and he stood taller than ever he did stand, until his hand grasped it.

The light blazed brighter and a voice in the air spake, “Lancelot, Lancelot, why mockest thou me?” The light blazed, and Sir Lancelot fell against the ground in tremors, and his horse fled far away in terror.

Then Sir Lancelot spake a question which I will not tell you.

The voice answered with words not lawful for man to write, and the pure gold chalice vanished and the light with it.

The knight wist not why he ran, and later he awoke him in a strange place where there were neither man nor beast in sight.

George closed the book. He had been reading for a long time, he told himself. What was there to do?

He looked around the school website for clubs and organizations, and none of the many things people were doing caught his eye. He walked around the campus, looking at the buildings. He went to the library and wandered around the bookshelves, and picked up a few items but set them down. Then he returned to his room and sat down for a while.

He was bored for the rest of the day.

That night, as he dreamed, he saw a castle, and walked into it. Whenever he looked at his body, he saw what looked like his ordinary clothing, and yet he believed he was wearing armor. He walked through hallways, chambers, the great hall, even dungeons, trying to see what he was searching for. At last he was in a room where he heard people, and smelt something ineffable. He caught a glimpse of a chalice that he could not see, yet he sensed its silhouette, bathed in indescribable light on either side, and he saw light rising above its core. But he never succeeded in seeing it.

He awoke from the strain to see it. He heard birdsong, and the fingers of the light of the dawn were brushing against his face.

Something crystallized in George’s mind, and he did not need to tell himself, “I am on a quest.”

The next day he went into the city to look around in the medieval institute, and tried to see what was there. He managed to walk at a brisk pace, almost run, through the museum, and was nervous over whether he would get out by the time he had to leave to catch dinner. Nothing caught his eye; nothing seemed interesting; everything seemed good only for a glimpse.

There was something eating at him.

During the next week, George discovered online reproduction sword dealers and looked at the perfectly machined character of the many closeup images available online. He didn’t buy anything, but after the week thinking and failing to find other places, George returned to the museum. Maybe there was something he had missed.

He stopped at the first sword.

The sword, or what was left of it, looked like it had been eaten by worms, if that were possible. The deeply pitted surface intrigued him; it had all the surface of the complexity of a rock, and he thought that if he could take a magnifying glass or a zoomed-in camera lens to this or that part, it could pass for the intricate surface of a volcanic rock.

The handle didn’t look right at all. It was a thin square rod connecting a thick blade and a thicker pommel, and seemed the very definition of “ergonomically incorrect,” as if it had been designed to gouge the wearer’s hand or generate blisters. It held for George something of the fascination of a car wreck. Why on earth had the museum put such a poor-quality specimen on display?

Then he read the rather large plaque.

The plaque read:

This sword was excavated in what is now Cornwall in Great Britain and dates to the 5th or 6th century AD. It is considered to be remarkably well-preserved, being one of few such finds to be straight and in one solid piece, the metal part lacking only a handguard, and is one of this museum’s prized holdings and one of the most valuable gifts from an anonymous donor. The handle, of which only the metal tang remains, was probably wood or possibly other organic materials.

Think for a moment about the time and place this sword would have come from. Everything was made by hand, and there was little wealth: owning a sword would have been like owning a car today. Microscopic examination suggests that this sword was made for someone wealthy, as there are tiny fragments of gold embedded in the blade.

What was life like when nothing was made by machines or mass-produced and therefore things were more expensive and there was less you could buy? What was life when you could not travel faster than a horse and what we today call information could not travel faster than people? What would your life have been like when you would have probably been born, lived, and died within a few miles of the same spot? Life was hard.

But then look at the other side of the coin: can you think of anything people then would have had that you do not have today?

George looked at the sword, and tried to imagine it whole. At least he could tell what shape it suggested. And he tried to think about what the placard said, with none of the technologies he was used to. What would one do? Practice at swordplay? Wander in the forest?

George saw in his mind’s eye Sir Lancelot kneeling on one knee, his sword point in earth, his sword pointing down, taking an oath. Then George looked over the sword again and it looked like Lancelot’s sword: he imagined Sir Lancelot—or was it George?—laying his right hand on the sword and taking a mighty oath, and for a moment the sword in the museum took its full cruciform shape. And then as his eyes traced over the contours of the sword, it looked almost a relic, and he saw now one thing, now another: one scene fromBrocéliande gave way to another, and something tugged at his heart.

He tried to imagine a great feast given by King Arthur to his nobles. There was something of that feast right in front of him, and it seemed to suggest an unfolding pageant. Knights and Ladies dined with uproarious laughter, while minstrels sung enchanting ballads, and—

George realized someone was tapping on his shoulder. “Sir? Excuse me, but it’s time for you to leave.”

George turned and saw a security guard, and in puzzlement asked her, “Why? Have I done something wrong?”

She smiled and said, “You haven’t done anything wrong, but I’m sorry, the museum is now closing. Come back another day!”

George looked out a window and saw that the daylight had completely fled. He realized he was very hungry.

He left after briefly saying, “Thank-you.”

When he arrived home he was even hungrier, but even before he began eating he began looking through the same sites, selling swords.

None of them looked real to him.

After eating part of his meal, George opened Brocéliande, flipping from place to place until an illustration caught his eye. He read:

Merlin walked about in the clearing on the Isle of Avalon. To his right was the castle, and to his left was the forest. Amidst the birdsong a brook babbled, and a faint fragrance of frankincense flowed.

Sir Galahad walked out of the castle portal, and he bore a basket of bread.

Then Galahad asked Merlin about his secrets and ways, of what he could do and his lore, of his calling forth from the wood what a man anchored in the castle could never call forth. And Galahad enquired, and Merlin answered, and Galahad enquired of Merlin if Merlin knew words that were more words than our words and more mystically real than the British tongue, and then the High Latin tongue, and then the tongue of Old Atlantis. And then Galahad asked after anything beyond Atlantis, and Merlin’s inexhaustible fount ran dry.

Then Sir Galahad asked Merlin of his wood, of the stones and herbs, and the trees and birds, and the adder and the dragon, the gryphon and the lion, and the unicorn whom only a virgin may touch. And Merlin spake to him him of the pelican, piercing her bosom that her young may feed, and the wonders, virtues, and interpretation of each creature, until Galahad asked of the dragon’s head for which Uther had been called Uther Pendragon, and every Pendragon after him bore the title of King and Pendragon. Merlin wot the virtue of the dragon’s body, but of the dragon’s head he wot nothing, and Sir Galahad spake that it was better that Merlin wist not.

Then Sir Galahad did ask Merlin after things of which he knew him nothing, of what was the weight of fire, and of what is the end of natural philosophy without magic art, and what is a man if he enters not in the castle, and “Whom doth the Grail serve?”, and of how many layers the Grail hath. And Merlin did avow that of these he wist not none.

Then Merlin asked, “How is it that you are wise to ask after these all?”

Then Galahad spake of a soft voice in Merlin his ear and anon Merlin ran into the wood, bearing bread from the castle.

George was tired, and he wished he could read more. But he absently closed the book, threw away what was left of his hamburgers and fries, and crawled into bed. It seemed but a moment that he was dreaming.

George found himself on the enchanted Isle of Avalon, and it seemed that the Grail Castle was not far off.

George was in the castle, and explored room after room, entranced. Then he opened a heavy wooden door and found himself facing the museum exhibit, and he knew he was seeing the same 5th-6th century sword from the Celtic lands, only it looked exactly like a wall hanger sword he had seen online, a replica of a 13th century Provençale longsword that was mass produced, bore no artisan’s fingerprints, and would split if it struck a bale of hay. He tried to make it look like the real surface, ever so real, that he had seen, but machined steel never changed.

Then George looked at the plaque, and every letter, every word, every sentence was something he could read but the whole thing made no sense. Then the plaque grew larger and larger, until the words and even letters grew undecipherable, and he heard what he knew were a dragon’s footprints and smelled the stench of acrid smoke. George went through room and passage until the noises grew louder, and chanced to glance at a pool and see his reflection.

He could never remember what his body looked like, but his head was unmistakably the head of a dragon.

George sat bolt upright on his bunk, awake in a cold sweat, and hit his head on the ceiling.

The next day, George went to the medieval history library that was almost at the center of the campus, housed in a white limestone tower with one timeworn spire, and intricately woven with passages like rabbit holes. The librarian was nowhere in sight, and owing to his eccentricities the library still had only a paper card catalog, emanating a strange, musty aroma. George started to walk towards it, before deciding to wander around the shelves and get a feel for things medieval. The medieval history librarian was rumored to be somewhat eccentric, and insisted on a paper card catalog with no computers provided, which many of the students said might as well have been medieval.

His first read traced the development of symbol from something that could not give rise to science to something that apparently paved the way in that a symbol and what it refers to were no longer seen as connected. It seemed hard to follow, some where the argument was obscure and even more when he followed the reasoning: he grasped it and grasped it not. As he read, he read of the cultivation of cabbages and tales of kings, and whether grotesques could let pigs have wings. He read of boys doing the work of men and men who acted like boys, of children who asked for bread and their fathers would give them stones in their bread, of careful historians ages before the great discovery of history and classicists preserving the ancient life after the ancient life met its demise, of strange things that turned familiar and yet familiar things turned strange, of time becoming something a clock could measure, of those who forged, those who plagiarized, and arguments today why no medieval author should be accused of plagiarism for what he copied, and yet he read of a world where few died of old age and minor cuts and illnesses could kill. He read of the problem of underpopulation, the challenge of having enough births, and untold suffering when there were not enough people.

Yet to speak this way is deceptive, because all these wonders and more were made pedestrian. The more he studied, the fewer wonders he met, or at least the fewer wonders he could find, and the more he met a catalog of details. He read the chronicles of kings and those seeking what could be recovered through them, and however much he read King Arthur was not mentioned once. Though he spent weeks searching in the library, the haunting beauty of Brocéliande had been rare to begin with and now he wot of it not none.

And the fruitless search for the history of Arthur led him to knock on the librarian’s door.

“I’m in a bad mood. Leave me alone!”

“Please.”

“You can come in if you must, but you would be better off leaving.”

“I’ve looked all over and found neither hide nor hair of a book on King Arthur. Does this library have nothing on him?”

“King Arthur? No, not this part of the library; look in the appropriate sections on the electronic card catalog in the regular library.”

“But I want to know the history of Arthur.”

“The history of King Arthur?!? What can you possibly mean?”

“I had been reading about King Arthur outside the library.”

“The general library has a number of the original sources, along with more literary criticism than one person can possibly read, and what little the history of literature knows about more and less obscure authors. And our literature department has several renowned scholars on Arthurian literature. But why are you trying to find King Arthur in a medieval history library? That’s as silly as looking for the history of the animals in Aesop’s fables.”

“You don’t believe in Arthur?”

“No, I don’t. Though I could be wrong. A lot of scholars, wrong as they may be, believe there was an Arthur around the 6th century, a warrior owning a horse, though the consensus is that he was not a king. These—”

“So Arthur was a knight and not a king?!?”

“No, he wasn’t a knight. He couldn’t have been. If there ever was such a person.”

“But you said he had a horse and—”

“You’re making a basic historical mistake if you’re imagining a warrior then, even one with a horse, as a ‘knight‘. It would like a historian five or six centuries from now studying our technology, and knowing that Saint Thomas Aquinas was an author, imagining him doing Google searches and composing, in Latin of course, on his computer’s word processor.

“Warriors owned horses, but stirrups hadn’t reached Arthur’s supposed land, and without a stirrup it is almost impossible to fight while mounted. A horse was a taxi to get a warrior to battle to fight on foot like everybody else, and nothing more. A warrior with a horse was a warrior with a better taxi to get to the scene of battle. A knight, on the most material level, is an almost invincible mounted shock troop compared to the defenseless-as-children so-called ‘infantry.’ And then you have the ideal, almost the mythos, of chivalry that developed about these mighty brutal warriors.

“The Arthurian legends were never even close to history to begin with, even if they hadn’t grown barnacles on top of barnacles, like… a bestseller with too many spinoffs. All the versions have their own anachronisms, or rather the earlier versions are nothing like anachronisms, projecting a legendary past for the kind of knight that was then becoming fashionable. You have a late medieval Sir Thomas Mallory fitting knights with plate armor that would have been as anachronous for an Arthur of the 5th or 6th century to wear as it would have been for a knight of Mallory’s day to be equipped with today’s Kevlar version of a bulletproof vest.

“I don’t think it’s a particularly big deal for there to be anachronisms; the idea that anachronism is a problem is a complete anachronism in evaluating medieval literature; saying that Chrétien de Troyes built an anachronous social ideal is as silly as complaining that the accounts of animals in a medieval bestiary are not doing the same job in the same way as a scientific biology textbook. Of course they aren’t, but you’re being equally silly to read a medieval bestiary as something that should be empirical scientific biology.

“Of course, getting back to anachronism, Mallory has guns which—”

“Guns?!? Machine guns? Handguns? Rifles?” George said.

“Nothing fancy, just early cannon, not a modern assault rifle. But there are none the less guns in the pivotal late medieval version of the story, which had Arthur’s son and nephew, Mordred, besieging—”

“Which one was Mordred, and what was the other one’s name?” George said.

“‘Which one’? What do you mean…” The librarian said, pausing. “Aah, you get it. For that matter, the stories tend to include endless nobles whose family tree is, like a good nobility family tree, more of a family braid, and—”

It was around then that the conversation became something that George remembered with the confused memory of a dream. He knew that the librarian had explained something, but the closest he could come to remembering it was a discussion of how networked computers as the next generation of computing contributed to a unique medieval synthesis, or what actually seemed to make more sense of the shape of that “memory,” the sound of an elephant repeatedly ramming stone walls.

What he remembered next was walking—walking through the library, walking around campus, walking through the forest, and then…

Had he been asked, he might have been collected enough to say that this was the first time in a long while he was not on a quest.

What was he doing now?

Was he doing anything?

Where was George?

He was lost, although that didn’t register on his mind. Or perhaps he wasn’t lost, if “lost” means not only that you don’t know where you are, but that you wish you knew.

George was in the city somewhere, if that was where he was. A great forest of steel, glass, and brick. Some was adorned by graffiti, other bits by ugly paint. This was definitely not the castle to him, but the wild wood, much more the wild wood than what was merely a place with many trees and few buildings. What made the wood a wood and not like a castle, anyway?

George looked around. In front of him was a boarded-up restaurant. The sign said, “Closed for minor renovations. REOPENING SOON.” Its paint looked chipped and timeworn, and from what he could see looking in the dirty windows, it was dusty inside. What, exactly, did the menu say? George could see the menu, and some pictures of what was probably supposed to be food, but even though he was on the edge of hunger, the hazy blurs did nothing to make his mouth water.

George walked a good distance further, and saw the bright colors of a store, and heard music playing. He wandered in.

Inside, the store was bustling with activity. Just inside, there was a demonstration of electronic puppies: an employee was showing the puppy off. On a whim, George walked over.

The young woman was saying words commands which the puppy sometimes did not respond to. She handed it to children to pet, who responded with exuberant warmth. But the more George watched the scene, the more the whole scene seemed off-kilter.

The puppies were cute, but there seemed to be something much less cute when they moved. What was it? The puppy’s animation seemed neither like a cute stuffed animal nor like a toy robot. It seemed like a robot in a puppy costume, but the effect was… almost vampiric.

Then George looked at the employee again. She was quite attractive, but her smile and the exaggerated energy for her role… reminded George of makeup almost covering dark circles under someone’s eyes.

He ducked into an aisle. Below were not only unflavored dental floss and mint floss, but many different kinds of floss in all different colors, thicknesses, and several different flavors. But the choices in the actual floss were dwarfed by the choices in the cases: purple-and-pink containers of floss for preteen girls, larger rough-looking containers made of dark stonelike plastic for a man’s man, and sundry groups—including trainers for babies who were still teething. George saw a sign above a display that said, “We bring you the freedom TO CHOOSE!”

He tried not to think about sledgehammers. He tried.

George was looking for a reason to stay in the store. There was eye-catching color everywhere, and he saw a section of posters, and started flipping through art posters, looking for something to buy, until he saw the sign above the posters. It said, “Priceless masterpieces from the greatest museums of the world, conveniently made available to you in American standard poster size and format, for only $4.99 each.”

Somehow the store’s showmanlike displays seemed a bit hollow. George left.

George wandered out, something not quite clicking in his mind. He knocked on the building next door, and a voice said, “Just a minute; come in.” He opened the door and saw a sight in shadows. A man was heading out a door. “As soon as I’ve finished taking out the trash and washed my hands, I can help you.”

A short while later, the man emerged. “Hi. I’m Fr. Elijah.” He extended his hand, his head and hands standing out against the darkness and his dark robe, and shook George’s hand. George said, “I’m George.”

“What can I do for you?”

George stopped, and thought. He said, “I was just looking around while I was waiting for my thoughts to clear.”

Fr. Elijah said, “Are you a student?”

George said, “Yes.”

Fr. Elijah said nothing, but it did not seem he needed to say anything just then. George was growing calm.

“May I offer you something to drink? I was just going to make tea, and I don’t have a full range of soft drinks, but there should be something worth drinking. There’s a pitcher of ice-cold water if you don’t care for an old man’s coffee or tea.”

George said “Yes.”

“Wonderful. Come with me.” The two began walking, and they sat down.

George looked at him.

Fr. Elijah said, “Please sit down,” motioning to an armchair. “Did you want coffee, water, or tea? I have cookies. Oh, and there’s milk too.”

George smiled. “Could I have a chalice of milk?”

Fr. Elijah turned to get the cookies, a cup and some milk.

George said, “I meant to say a cup of milk. Sorry, I was trying to be a little more serious.”

Fr. Elijah said, “You can explain, or not explain. It’s your choice. But I think you were being serious. Just not the way you expected. But we can change the subject. Do you have a favorite book? Or has anything interesting happened to you lately? I can at least listen to you.”

George said, “I was just at the store nearby.”

Fr. Elijah asked, “What do you think of it?”

George said, “Are you sure you won’t be offended?”

Fr. Elijah said, “One of the things I have found in my work is that people can be very considerate about not being offensive, but sometimes I have something valuable to learn with things people think might offend me.”

“Ever wonder about the direction our society has headed? Or see something that left you wishing you could still wonder about that?”

“A lot of people do.”

“I was already having a bad day when I wandered into a store, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any more crass, they got more crass. I’ve just been invited to buy an identity with the help of a market-segment dental floss container.”

“You’re a man after my own heart. I’ve heard that the store manager has some pretty impressive connections. I’ve heard that if none of the dental floss containers in the store suit the identity you want to have, and you ask the manager, he can get your choice of floss in a custom container made by a sculptor to meet your whims!”

“But isn’t there more to life than that?”

“I certainly hope so! Oh, and did I mention that I’ve found that store an excellent place for important shopping for April Fools’ Day? I’m hoping to get my godson horribly artificial sugary-sweet tasting lacy pink floss in a container covered by red and white hearts and words like ‘Oochie-pooh.’ He’ll hit the roof! On second thought, he’ll be expecting such a gift… I should probably give it to him on what you’d consider August 12.”

“Why? What’s special about August 12?”

“That’s a bit of a labyrinth to sort out. Some Orthodox keep the old Julian calendar, while some keep the ‘new’ civil calendar, which means that those who preserve the old calendar, even if we manage not to go off in right field, are thirteen days ‘late’ for saints’ days, celebrating July 30, the Feast of Saint Valentine, on what you’d consider August 12. What you call Valentine’s Day is the Western celebration of the saint we celebrate on another day, and it’s a bit of a Western borrowing to use it for pseudo-romantic purposes to pick on my godson, as that saint’s feast did not pick up all the Western romantic connotations; Saint Valentine’s story is a typical story of a bishop who strengthened people against paganism and was martyred eventually. Every day is a feast of some sort, and every feast—that is, every day—has several saints to celebrate… but I’m going on and on. Have I confused you yet?”

“Um, ‘right field’? What does that mean?”

“Oops, sorry, personal expression. In the West people go out in left field and go loony liberal. In Orthodoxy, people go out in right field and go loony conservative. Some of the stuff I’ve been told would make me at least laugh if I didn’t want to cry so badly. Sorry, I’m rambling, and I was trying to hear you out when it looked like you’ve had a rough day, right up to a store telling you there was nothing more to hope for in life than things like dental floss with a container designed for your market segment. Let me let you change the subject.”

“Um, you’re probably wondering why I said, ‘chalice of milk.'”

“I would be interested in hearing that, but only if you want to tell. I have a guess, but I really don’t want you to feel obligated to say something you’d rather not.”

“What is your guess?”

“That you said ‘chalice of milk’ for an interesting reason that probably has an interesting connection to what, in life, you hope goes beyond the trivialities you were pushed into at that store. A chalice, whatever that means to you, is something deeper and richer.”

George opened his mouth, then closed it for a moment, and said, “Does a chalice mean anything to you?”

“Oh, yes. A chalice means quite a lot to me.”

“What does it mean to you?”

“George, have you ever seen a chalice?”

“No, but it’s pretty important in something I’ve read.”

“Would you like to see a chalice?”

“The chalice I’ve read about was made of purest gold. I’d imagine that if you have a fancy wine glass, maybe lead crystal, it would look poorer than what I’d imagine, and there are some things that are big enough that I’d rather not imagine.”

“Well, there are some things that are bigger than can be seen, and that includes a chalice. But the chalice I have—I can’t show it to you now—has the glint of gold, which has more layers than I can explain or know.”

“Is there a time you can show it to me?”

“Yes, come during the Divine Liturgy, and you can see the chalice from which I serve the Eucharist. I can’t explain—I know this offends some people, and I will understand if you are offended—that it would not be good for me to give you the Eucharist if you are not Orthodox. But you can see the chalice as it holds a treasure infinitely more valuable than its goldwork.”

“What is that?”

“The Eucharist.”

“Isn’t that just a symbol?”

“Hmm, there are six hundred ways to respond to that. I can get into some of the intricacies later. If you want. Or we need never talk about it. But…

“Saying the Eucharist is ‘just a symbol’ is as silly as saying that the Eucharist is ‘just the body and blood of Christ’. What else do you want it to be—a designer container of dental floss?”

George’s laugh was interrupted by a knock at a door. Fr. Elijah looked at his watch, and his face fell. He said, “Just when the conversation was getting interesting! I’m sorry; I have an appointment.”

George said, “Well, I won’t take any more of your time; I’ll come on Sunday. What time?”

“The Divine Liturgy starts at 9:00 Sunday morning; I’m sorry, that isn’t a very good time for college students. Arriving five minutes late isn’t a big deal. Most of the professors of campus can give you directions to my parish, the Church of the Holy Trinity. And bother that I have to end our talk!”

“That’s OK. Do you have some literature that you want to give me? Where are your pamphlets?”

“Hmm, that would take some time to explain, and I can explain later if you want. But I don’t have any pamphlets. If you want a book I can go to the library and you can borrow one. But Orthodox people don’t usually feel obligated to stuff your pockets with as much paper as we can and leave you walking away feeling guilty that you dread the prospect of reading it. Come back; I enjoyed talking with you, and if you want I can get something from the library. But only if you want. Please excuse me.” Fr. Elijah stood up and bowed slightly, but reverently, to George as they shook hands.

“Coming!” Fr. Elijah said. “I’m sorry; I was just trying to wrap up a conversation. Please come in. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, and I’ve been looking forward to it.”

George stepped out, and walked out. He stopped by a window to look into the Church building again.

He could tell nothing that looked to him like a chalice, but everywhere was the glint of gold.

George wandered back with a spring in his step.

He returned home and opened Brocéliande, and read:

Blaise turned at a slow step. “Why callest thou thyself empty? Hast thou none, my son?”

Merlin answered him. “Forgive me, my master, my lord.”

The wind was deadly still.

Blaise turned even more fully. “What is it, my pupil?”

Merlin reached out his hand. A mighty wind blew, such as openeth doors that be closed and closeth doors that be open.

An apple tree shook of a violence and apples met their place on the humble earth, all apples did so which fell, save one which Merlin his hand did close upon it.

The wind blew and blew, stronger and stronger it blew, and Blaise looked upon Merlin, and spake: “Flyest thou now, my hawk?”

Merlin his chaste teeth closed in on the apple, and the great and mighty wind closed a door against the stone and hushed to become a soft murmuring breeze, as a still small voice.

Merlin looked upon his master. “Though the Grail remain a secret and a secret remain the Grail, men shall know it even under its cloak of samite most red. When a man shall grasp the secret of the Grail then shall he grasp the mystery of the Trinity.”

Blaise looked upon his servant. “And who shall be in that grasp?”

Merlin spake softly. “My lord, I wit me not.”

Blaise said, “My lord, it is well with thee.”

Merlin abode in a quiet still spirit.

The hours and days passed quickly, until it was Sunday and George left a little early and arrived at the Church of the Holy Trinity early, looked at his watch and saw 8:53 AM.

He stepped inside and found things suddenly cool. There was a dazzling darkness, with pure candlelight and lamplight glittering off of gold, with fragrances of smoke and beeswax and incense. There was a soft chanting, and the funny thing was that it was hard to say whether the Church seemed full or empty. He saw few people, even for the small space, but he had rather a sense that the place was full of worshipers, mostly unseen. He could feel glory, almost as a weight.

There seemed to be a continuous faint commotion as people entered, went to the front, doing something he could not tell, and walked around. He stood as most people were standing, although some were sitting and people seemed to bow or move their hands. It is not exactly that George did not feel conspicuous as to how he was standing out, as that that was not quite the greatest way he felt conspicuous.

How did he feel conspicuous? George found no answer he liked. The whole situation seemed foreign to him, and for the first time it did not seem so much that he was examining something but that something, or someone, was examining him and judging him.

Something happened. Or rather, this time the something that happened meant that people were sitting down, in pews around the edges or on the floor, and the chant had become ordinary speech. Fr. Elijah said,

In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Last week after Liturgy, little John came up to me and said, “Fr. Elijah, I have a question.” “What, I asked.” “I saw Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark Friday and it was really, really cool! Could you tell me all about the Ark?” So I paused in thought, and exercised a spiritual father’s prerogative. I said, “You know what? That’s a good question. Let me think a bit and I’ll answer that question in my homily.” And when his father said, “But weren’t you going to—” I said, “Don’t worry about that. I’ll blame the homily on him, and if people find it duller than a worn-out butter knife, they can call you at work and complain.” And finally I got him to crack a faint smile.

So this is the homily I’m blaming on him. First of all, the Ark of the Covenant is a spiritual treasure, and is spiritually understood. It is not lost, but it is found in a much deeper way than some expect. For it is both a what and, more deeply, a who. You can look up in fact where it is, and the amazing thing is that it is still guarded as a relic rather than treated simply as something that merely belongs in a museum, and the hidden Ark is in fact greater than if it were displayed in a showcase. It is one of many treasures the Church guards, and it is at the Church of our Lady Mary gof Zion in the Ethiopian city of Axum. I’ve been there, even if I could not see the Ark. But the Ark which holds the bread from Heaven and the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed is in the shadow of the Ark to whom we sing, “Rejoice, O Volume wherein the Word was inscribed” and whose womb is a garden of spiritual treasures, “more spacious than the Heavens” as we say, by whom we are given the greater and in fact greatest Bread from Heaven. When we read of the Ark coming to King David and of the Theotokos or Mother of God coming to Lady Elizabeth, there are some surprising parallels which seem stunning until we recognize that that is just how Luke might be telling us that the Theotokos is someone to whom the Ark hints. There is a profound connection to the Arthurian legends, in which the Sir Galahad is granted to see into the Holy Grail and beholds a wonder beyond the power of words to tell. And it is in fact a misunderstanding on a number of levels to think that that rich Grail is confined to—

If George were sitting on a chair, he might have fallen off it. He was, fortunately, sitting on the floor. When he caught himself enough to follow the words, he listened closely:

…these other images. It was from the virgin earth that the first Adam, by whom we all live natural life, was taken. It was from the parched earth of the Virgin Theotokos that the last Adam, by whom we are called to the divine life, was given. And still this is not to tell how the first Adam, wanting to become God, lost his divinity, until God became the Last Adam, raising up Adam that all of us who bear Adam’s likeness might become divine, bearing the likeness of God. Death entered when we took and ate the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and now everlasting begins when we obey the summons to take and eat the Fruit from the Tree of Life.

Is it possible to call Mary Magdalene the Holy Grail? Yes and amen. We can call Mary Magdalene the Holy Grail in a very deep sense. She spoke before the Emperor, and that incident is why after all these years Christians still color Easter eggs, red eggs for the Orthodox Church as the were for Mary Magdalene, when she presented a red egg to the Emperor, perhaps miraculously. There are only a few dozen people the Church has ever honored more. She bears the rank of “Equal to the Apostles,” and an angel told her the mysterious news of the Resurrection, and it was she who told the Apostles who in turn would be sent (“Apostle” means “Sent One”) to the uttermost ends of the earth.

The Holy Grail is that vessel which first held the blood of Christ, and it is the shadow of that symbol in which the body and blood of Christ become real so that they can transform us. The Eucharist is misunderstood through the question of just what happens when the priest consecrates the gift, because the entire point of the transformation of the gifts is the transformation of the faithful so that we can be the Body of Christ and have the divine blood, the royal bloodline, the divine life coursing through our veins. God the Father the Father for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and earth is named. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each the King for whom every kingdom is named, so that the Kingdom of Heaven is more, not less, of a Kingdom than the kingdoms we can study on earth.

In the third prayer before communion, we are invited to pray, “O Thou Who by the coming of the Comforter, the Spirit, didst make thy sacred disciples precious vessels, declare me also to be a receptacle of his coming.” Mary Magdalene bears powerful witness to what a disciple can be if she becomes a humble earthen vessel in which there is another coming of Christ. She became the Holy Grail, as does every one of us transformed by the power of Christ’s body and blood. If you only ask questions about the transformation of bread and wine, the Holy Grail is merely a what… but if you recognize the larger transformation that has the smaller transformation as a microcosm, the Holy Grail can also be a who: you and I.

It would take much longer to even begin to speak of that nobility of which you will only find the trace and shadow if you study royalty and their bloodlines. I have spoken enough.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

George was at once attracted, entranced, repulsed, and terrified. It seemed like more than he had dared to dream was proclaimed as truth, but that this meant he was no longer dealing with his choice of fantasy, but perhaps with reality itself. The chanting resumed. There was a procession, and what was in it? Ornate candles, a golden spoon and something that looked like a miniature golden lance, something covered with a cloth but that from its base might have been an intricately worked golden goblet, a cross that seemed to be glory itself, and other things he could not name. It was not long before George heard, “The holy things are for those who are holy,” and the reply—was it a correction?—immediately followed: “One is holy. One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.”

George wanted to squirm when he heard the former, and when he heard the latter, he headed for the door. The spiritual weight he had been feeling seemed more intense; or rather, it seemed something he couldn’t bear even though he hoped it would continue. He felt, just for a moment that this was more than him having an experience, but he failed to put his finger on what more it might be.

Once outside, he tried to calmly walk home, but found himself running.

George found himself walking, but in completely unfamiliar surroundings. He spent a good deal of time wandering until he recognized a major road, and walked alongside it until he returned home, hungry and parched.

He opened Brocéliande for a moment, but did not feel much like reading it. George went to check his email, began looking through his spam folder—to see if anything important got through, he told himself—and found himself wandering around the seedier side of the net.

In the days that followed, people seemed to be getting in his way, his homework was more of a waste of time, and somehow Brocéliande no longer seemed interesting.

Friday, George missed dinner and went, hungry, to a crowded store where a white-haired man stood right between him and the food he wanted… not only blocking the aisle with his cart, but adding a third 12-pack of soda to the bottom of his cart… and seeming to take forever to perform such a simple task.

After waiting what seemed too long, George refrained from saying “Gramps,” but found himself hissing through his teeth, “Do you need help getting that onto your cart?”

The white-haired man turned around in surprise, and then said, “Certainly, George, how are you?”

George stopped.

It was Fr. Elijah.

“Can, um, I help you get that in your cart?”

“Thank you, George, and I would appreciate if you would help me choose another one. Do you have a favorite soda?”

“This may sound silly, but Grape Crush. Why?”

“Help me find a 12-pack of it. I realized after you came that it was kind of silly for me to inviting people like you inside and not having any soda for them, and I’ve been procrastinating ever since. Aah, I think I see them over there. Could you put that under your cart?”

George began walking over to the Grape Crush.

Fr. Elijah asked, less perfunctorily, “How are you, George?” and reached out his hand. At least George thought Fr. Elijah was reaching out his hand, but it was as if Fr. Elijah was standing on the other side of an abyss of defilement, and holding out a live coal.

Fr. Elijah shook George’s hand.

George tried to find his footing on shifting ground, and managed to ask, “Fr. Elijah, how are you going to get that soda out to your car?”

“Usually someone from the store helps me put things in my trunk or something; I’ve never found a grocery store to be a place where nothing is provided.”

The chasm yawned; George felt as if he were clothed in filthy rags.

“Um, and at home?”

“The Lord always provides something. Sorry, that sounded super spiritual. Usually it’s not too long before someone strong comes by and can carry things.”

George tried to smile. “I’m fine. How are you?”

Fr. Elijah made no answer with words. He smiled a welcoming smile, and somehow the store began to remind him of Fr. Elijah’s office.

George kept waiting for Fr. Elijah to say something more, to answer, but Fr. Elijah remained silent. There seemed to be a warmth about him, as well as something he feared would burn his defilement, but Fr. Elijah remained silent, and pushed his cart, which had a small armload of groceries and a heavy weight of soda cases, to the register.

“I can help you load things into your car, Fr. Elijah.”

Fr. Elijah turned with warmth. Gratitude was almost visible in his features, but he remained strangely silent.

George momentarily remembered to grab a sandwich, then returned to Fr. Elijah in line.

George began to wonder why Fr. Elijah was not speaking to him. Or rather, that was the wrong way to put it. George could not accuse Fr. Elijah of being inattentive, but why was he silent?

George began to think about what he had been doing, and trying not to, to think of something else, to think of something else to talk about. But images returned to his mind, and a desire to—he certainly couldn’t mention that.

Where were they? Fr. Elijah had just pushed the cart to his car, and slowly fumbled with his keys to unlock his trunk. George thought with a shudder about what it would be like to an old man to load cases of soda, even 12-packs.

“I can help you unload the soda at your house.”

Fr. Elijah turned and made the slightest bow.

Once inside the car, George made a few nervous remarks about the weather. Fr. Elijah simply turned with what must have been a fatherly smile, but said nothing.

George did not consider himself strong, but it was only a few minutes for him to get the handful of cases of soda tucked into a slightly messy closet.

Once back in the car, Fr. Elijah seemed to arrive almost immediately at the dorm.

George said, “Now I remember. I wouldn’t ask for another ride back, but I should have asked to borrow a book from your library.”

Fr. Elijah turned. “Should you?”

George said, “What do you mean, should I? Are you mad at me? Didn’t you tell me that I could borrow any book in your library if you wanted?”

Fr. Elijah said, “For all I am concerned now, you may borrow the whole library, if you want to. Or keep it, if you want.”

“Then why don’t you want me borrowing a book now?”

“I have many good books you could read, but right now, you don’t really want one of my books.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you genuinely want to borrow a book, I will gladly talk with you and suggest what I think would be your deepest joy. But why are you asking me for a book now?”

“I thought it would be polite to…”

Fr. Elijah waited an interminable moment and said, “Something is eating you.”

George said, “You have no right to—”

Fr. Elijah said, “I have no right to this discussion, and neither do you. Thinking in terms of rights is a way to miss the glory we were made for. But let us stop looking at rights and start looking at what is beneficial. You don’t have to answer, but are you happy now?”

George waited, and waited, and waited for an escape route to open up. Then he said, and the saying seemed like he was passing through white-hot ice, “I’ve been looking at—”

Fr. Elijah said, “Stop, You’ve said enough.”

George said, “But how did you know?”

Fr. Elijah sighed, and for a moment looked like he wanted to weep. “George, I would like to say something deep and mysterious about some special insight I have into people’s souls, but that is not it. I am a father, a confessor, and one of the biggest sins I hear in confession—’biggest’ not because it is unforgivable; Jesus was always ready, more than ready, to forgive this kind of sin, but ‘biggest’ because it keeps coming up and causing misery, is the sort of sin you’ve been struggling with. I count myself very fortunate that I grew up in an age when you could have all the basic utilities without getting all sorts of vile invitations coming whether you want them or not, and I am glad that I do not feel obligated to purchase some nasty pills because I’m not a real man unless I have the same drives I had at the age of eighteen. What a miserably small and constricted caricature of manhood! I count myself a real man, much more because I have not suffered what tends to become such a dreary dissipation and deflation of any real manhood.”

George said, “You’re not mad?”

Fr. Elijah raised his hand, moved it up and down and side to side, and said, “I am blessing you, priceless son.”

George said, “How can I be free of this?”

Fr. Elijah said, “Come with me. Get back in the car.”

They drove for a few more minutes, neither one needing to say anything, until George noticed with alarm the shape of the hospital.

George said, “Where are we going?”

Fr. Elijah said, “To the emergency room.”

George looked around in panic. “I don’t have money for—”

“Relax. None of the treatment you will be receiving will generate bills.”

“What on earth are you—”

“I’m not telling you. Just come with me.”

They walked through a side door, George’s heart pounding, and George noticed two people approaching immediately.

Fr. Elijah turned momentarily, saying, “Buenos noches, Señoras,” and motioned with his hand for them to follow him.

As they and George followed, Fr. Elijah said, “Because of the triage in an emergency room, and because mere seconds are a matter of life and death in treating really severe injuries, people with relatively ‘minor’ injuries that still need medical attention can wait for an interminable amount of time.”

Fr. Elijah suddenly stopped. George saw a boy with skinned knees, whose mother was slowly working through paperwork. Fr. Elijah said, “Take away his pain.”

George looked at him, halfway to being dumbfounded. “What?”

Fr. Elijah said, “You heard me.” Then he turned and left, so that George saw only Fr. Elijah’s back and heard from him only broken Spanish.

George felt grateful that at least he wasn’t too easily grossed out. He could look at lacerated flesh and eat if he needed to. George sat next to the boy, smelled an overwhelming odor from his blood, and suddenly felt sick to his stomach.

George tried to refrain from swearing about what Fr. Elijah could possibly have meant. Badger the hospital into giving anaesthesia sooner? Kiss it and make it better? Use some psychic power he didn’t have? Find a switch on the back of the kid’s neck and reboot him?

For a while, nothing happened, until the boy stopped sobbing, and looked at him, a little bit puzzled.

George said, “Hi, I’m George.”

The boy said, “Mr. George.”

George tried to think of something to say. He said, “What do you get when you cross an elephant with a kangaroo?”

“What?”

“Really big holes all over Australia.”

The boy looked at him, but showed no hint of a smile.

“Do you not get it?” George asked.

The boy said, very quietly, “No.”

“An elephant has a lot of weight, and a kangaroo bounces up and down. If you put ‘weight’ and ‘bouncy’ together, then you get something that, when it bounces, is so heavy it makes big holes in the ground.”

The boy said nothing until George added, “That’s what makes it funny.”

The boy made himself laugh loudly, and just as soon winced in pain.

George tried to think of what to do. After a while, he asked, “What’s your favorite color?”

When the boy said nothing, George looked at his face and was surprised at the pain he saw.

“What is your name?”

“My name is Tommy.”

George thought about what to say. He began to tell a story. He told of things he had done as a boy, and funny things that had happened (the boy didn’t laugh), and asked questions which met with incomprehension. And this went on and on and on.

George wondered why he was having so much fun.

Then George looked at Tommy.

When was the last time George had even begun to do something for someone else?

George realized three things. First, he had stopped talking. Second, a hand was holding tightly to his sleeve. Third, there was something he was trying very hard not to think about.

George looked, and Tommy asked, “Mister, are you a knight? I want to be a knight when I grow up.”

George had never before felt such shame that he wished the earth would swallow him up.

“Mister?”

“No, I am not a knight.”

“You seem like a knight.”

“Why?”

“You just do. Do you know anything about knights?”

“I’ve been reading a book.”

“What’s it called?”

Brocéliande.”

“Tell me the story of Brookie-Land.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“Because I haven’t read all of it.”

“What have you read?”

George closed his eyes. All he could remember now was a flurry of images, but when he tried to put them together nothing worked.

George was interrupted. “Do you have a suit of armor?”

Immediately, and without thought, George said, “What kind of armor? I mean, is it chain mail, like a steel, I mean iron, sweater, or is it the later plate armor that gets into the later depictions? Because if there were a King Arthur, he would—”

“Did King Arthur know powerful Merlin? Because Merlin could—”

“I’ve read a lot about Merlin—he could build a castle just with his magic. And it apparently matters whose son he is, but I couldn’t—”

“I want you to show me—”

A voice cut in. “Tommy!”

“Yes?” the boy said.

“The doctor is ready to see you… Sir, I’m sorry to interrupt, but—”

“Why does the doctor want to see me?”

“Because she wants to stitch up your knees, Silly Sweetie. Let the nurses roll you away. I’m glad—”

Tommy looked in puzzlement at his knees, saw how badly lacerated they were, and began screaming in pain.

There was a minor commotion as the nurses took Tommy in to be stitched up, or so George would later guess; he could never remember the moment. He only remembered walking around the emergency room, dazed.

Truth be told, though, George felt wonderful. He faintly noticed hearing Fr. Elijah’s voice, saying something in Spanish, and joined a group of people among whom he felt immediate welcome. Then the woman who was on the bed was taken in, and Fr. Elijah, and to his own surprise, George, bid farewell to the other members of the group.

George and Fr. Elijah were both silent for a long time in the car.

Fr. Elijah broke the silence.

“Would it be helpful to talk with me about anything?”

“I have to choose just one?”

“No, you can ask as many questions as you want.”

“Besides what I started to tell you—”

“Yes?”

“When I was talking with that boy, I mean Tommy, the boy you introduced me to, I—I’m not sure I would have said exactly this, but I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Brocéliande and no time choosing to be with other people… would you keep that book for me, at least for a time?”

“I certainly could, but let’s look at our option. You sound less than fully convinced.”

“I don’t want to give it up.”

“Well, yes, I wouldn’t want to give it up either. But is that it?”

“No… I’m really puzzled. Just when I thought I had managed to stop thinking about never-never land and start thinking about Tommy, the kid asked me about never—I mean, he said that he wanted to grow up to be a knight, and he asked me if I was a knight. Which I am not.”

“That’s very mature of you…”

“And?”

“What would you imagine yourself doing as the right thing?”

“Getting away from that silly desire and be with other people instead.”

“Hmm.”

“Hmm what?”

“Have you ever read C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Weight of Glory’?”

“No.”

“Ok, I want to stop by my office before I drop you off at home, because I’m going to go against my word and give you literature to read. Although I only want you to read a few pages’ essay out of the book, unless you want to read more essays—is this OK?—”

“I suppose.”

“Because C.S. Lewis talked about the idea of unselfishness as a virtue, and said that there’s something pitiable about letting unselfishness be the center of goodness instead of the divine love. Or something like that. And the reason I remembered that is that somewhere connected with this is this terrible fear that people have that their desires are too strong, and maybe their desires are too much in need of being deepened and layered, except I think he only said, ‘too weak.’ Today I would add: in a much deeper way that you can remedy by dangerous pills in your spam.

“Maybe you don’t need to get rid of that book at all… maybe you should lend it to me for a time, and let me enjoy it, but maybe not even that is necessary.”

“Why?”

“My guess is that if you read enough in that book—or at least the ones I’ve read—you may notice a pattern. The knight goes to the company of the castle and then plunges into the woodland for adventure and quests, and you need a rhythm of both to make a good story. Or a good knight.”

“I fail to see how I could become a knight, or how knighthood applies to me.”

“Hmm…”

“Hmm what?”

“Maybe that’s a can of worms we can open another time… For now, I will say that the reason the stories have knights doing that is not because the knights wore armor and rode horses, but because the people telling the stories were telling the stories of men. Who need both castle and wood. Keep reading Brocéliande, and push it further. Push it to the point that your college and your city are to you what the castle was to the knight. Or even so that you don’t see the difference. And alongside your trek into the enchanted wood, meet people. I would suggest that you find a way to connect with people, and work with it over time. If I may offer a prescription—”

“Prescription?”

“A priest is meant to be a spiritual physician, or at least that is what Orthodox understand. And part of the priest’s job is to prescribe something. If you’re willing.”

“I’ll at least listen.”

“First, I want you to spend some of your time with other people. Not all.”

“Doing what?”

“That’s something you need to decide, and even if I can offer feedback to you, I would not make that decision for you. You need to have a think about it.

“Second, something for you to at least consider… Come to me for confession. I cannot give the sacrament I give to Orthodox, but I can bless you. Which isn’t the immediate reason I mention it. Even if I were not to bless you, and even if Christ were not listening to your confession, there would still be power in owning up to what you have done. It gives power in the struggle.

“Third, do you access the Internet through a cable or through wireless?”

“An ethernet cable. I don’t have a laptop, and I’ve heard that the wireless network on campus is worth its weight in drool.”

“Do you have a USB key?”

“Yes.”

“Then give me your Ethernet cable.”

“What kind of Luddite—”

“I’m not being a Luddite. I’m offering a prescription for you… There are different prescriptions offered for the needs of different people.”

“So for some people it is beneficial to visit—”

“For me it has been. When I was trying to figure out what was going on, I went to a couple’s house, and with their permission started looking through the pictures in their spam folder until I’d had more than enough. And I wept for a long time; I suddenly understood something I didn’t understand about what I was hearing in confession. I still pray for the people photographed and those looking at the photograph, and some of the women’s faces still haunt me—”

“The faces haunt you?”

“Yes. Understand that at my age, some temptations are weaker… but I looked at those faces and saw that each one was somebody’s daughter, or maybe somebody’s son, and my understanding is that it’s nothing pleasant to pose for those pictures. At least the faces I saw reminded me of an airline stewardess trying really hard to smile peacefully to someone who is being abrasive and offensive. But as I was saying, I count my hour of looking to be of the greatest spiritual benefit. But it would not benefit you, and it is my judgment that inyour case a little of what programmers call a ‘net vacation’—though I invite you to use lab and library computers—could help you in—”

“Do you know what it’s like to give up the convenience of computers in your room?”

“Do you know what it’s like to ride a horse instead of a car for a short time? I do…”

“But riding a horse is at least… like… um… it’s more like Arthur’s world, isn’t it?”

“If you want to look at it that way, you’re welcome to…” Fr. Elijah stopped the car and stepped out, saying, “Please excuse me for a moment.” The shuffling seemed to drag on, and Fr. Elijah stepped out with a book and got back in the car. “Oh, and I almost forgot. Please don’t make this a matter of ‘I won’t do such-and-such or even think about it,’ because trying not to think about a temptation is a losing game. I am inviting you to a trek from castle to wood, and wood to castle, with both feeding into a balance. Here is the book with ‘The Weight of Glory’ and other essays. Now…”

Calix College was in sight almost immediately, and Fr. Elijah waited outside George’s dorm for what became a surprisingly long time… he wondered if he should go up and see if George had changed his mind, and—

George walked out and handed him a cable in the dark. It was thick and stiff.

“I thought Ethernet cables weren’t this thick and stiff.”

“It’s my power cable. I put stuff I need on my USB key.”

“Good man.”

“Goodbye.”

“Goodbye, and George, one other thing…”

“Yes?”

“There is no better time to be in a Church than when you know how unworthy you are.”

“Um…”

“What?”

“I appreciate how much you’re stretching, but…”

“George, I want to ask you something.”

“I’ve been serving the Divine Liturgy for thirty-eight years now. How long have I been worthy to do so?”

“Is this a trick question? All thirty-eight?”

“It is indeed a trick question, but the answer is not ‘thirty-eight.’ I have never been worthy to serve the Divine Liturgy, nor have I ever been worthy to receive communion, nor have I ever been worthy to pray at Church, or anywhere else. We can talk about this if you like, but am not just being polite when I say that there is no better time to enter the Church than when you know yourself unworthy. Maybe we can talk later about what trumps unworthiness. For now, I wish you good night, and I would be delighted to see you join and adorn our company on Sunday.”

George climbed up in his room and sat in his armchair, and it felt like a throne. He was exhausted—and on the other side of shame. He began dutifully opening the C.S. Lewis book, glanced at the title, then tossed it aside. It was not what he really wanted. He picked upBrocéliande, wiped the dust off the cover with his hand, and opened to its middle, to its heart. George read:

rode until he saw a river, and in the river a boat, and in the boat a man.

The man was clad all in black, and exceeding simple he appeared. At his side was a spear, and was a basket full of oysters filled.

“I ask your pardon that I cannot stand. For the same cause I can not hunt, for I am wounded through the thighs. I do what I might, and fish to share with others.”

The knight rode on, Sir Perceval he hyght, until he came upon a castle. And in that castle he met a welcome rich, before a King all in sable clad round, and a sash of purple royal girt about his head, and full majestic he looked.

Then in walked a youth, bearing a sword full straight, for it were not falchion neither scimitar, but a naked sword with a blade of gold, bright as light, straight as light, light as light. The very base of that sword were gem work, of ivory made and with sapphires encrusted. And the boy was girt tightly with a baldric and put the sword in its place. In utmost decorum the sword hung at his side.

The boy placed what he shouldered at the feet of the King.

Spake the King: “I ask your forgiveness that I do not rise. Partake of my feast.”

Simpler fare was never adorned by such wealth of wisdom. The body was nourished, and ever more spirit in the fare that was read.

Anon processed one man holding a candelabra of purest gold with seven candles, anon another, anon a maiden mother holding a Grail, it was such a holy thing! Anon a lance that ever bore three drops of blood. And ever Perceval wondered, and never Perceval spake, though it passed many a time. With a war inside him Sir Perceval kept him his peace. Anon the King spake, “See thou mine only food,” and anon came the Grail holding not a stone neither a snake but a single wheaten host, afloat as a pearl in a sea of wine, red as blood. And never the King ate he none else.

Here a page was ripped out from Brocéliande, with yellowed marks where once tape failed to mend what was torn.

The damsel arose from her weeping. “Perceval! Perceval! Why askedst thou not thine enquiry?”

George soon fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Saturday he rested him all the day long: barely he stirred.

In his dream, George heard a song.

All was in darkness.

The song it came out of a mist, like as a mist, melodic, mysterious, piercing, like as a prayer, mighty, haunting, subtle, token of home and a trace of a deep place. How long this continued he wot not.

The one high, lilting voice, tinged with starlight, became two, three, many, woven in and out as a braid of three strands, or five, or ten, as a Celtic knot ever turning in and out. And as it wove in and out, it was as the waters of a lake, of an ocean, of a sea, and George swam in them. George was ever thirsty, and ever he swam. He swam in an ever-rippling reflection of the Heavens at midnight, a sea of unending midnight blue and living sapphire.

George’s feet sunk and he walked on the noiseless loam. Up about him sprung blades of grass and he walked into a forest growing of emerald and jade atop pillars of sculpted earth. Anon he walked slowly and slowly he saw a farm with the green grass of wheat growing of the fertile fecund field.

Upon a ruins he came, a soft, silent place where a castle still lingered and the verdant moss grew. Then through a city he walked, a city alive and vibrant in its stones, though its streets were a for a moment at a rest from its men. And in that city, he walked into the Church his heart, and found a tome opened upon a wooden stand entwined by vines.

George looked for a moment at the volume, and for a moment he saw letters of sable inscribed in a field argent. Then the words shifted, grew older, deepened into the depth of a root and the play of quicksilver. The script changed, the words spoke from afar, and became one word whose letters were hidden as behind a veil, one word inscribed at once in ciphers of luminous gold and congealed light that filled the book and shone all around it until—

George was awake, bright awake, wide awake, looking at a window the color of sunrise.

He arose to greet the coming of the dawn.

George went to Church and arrived almost an hour earlier than the 9:00 Fr. Elijah had given, and found to his surprise that although there were few other people, things had already begun. The fragrance of frankincense flowed and gold glittered, and he caught a word here and a phrase there—”Volume wherein the Word was inscribed,” “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal,” “Blessed is the Kingdom,” “Lord have mercy.” Then he heard a phrase he had heard innumerable times in other contexts. A shibboleth later taken from the New Testament, “The just shall live by faith,” completely broke the illusion. George had had plenty of time to get sick of words he knew too well, or so it appeared to George. Yes, he was glad people understood them, but wasn’t there more to understand than that? Even if they were both straightforward and important…

The homily began.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

One of the surprises in the Divine Comedy—to a few people at least—is that the Pope is in Hell. Or at least it’s a surprise to people who know Dante was a devoted Catholic but don’t recognize how good Patriarch John Paul and Patriarch Benedict have been; there have been some moments Catholics aren’t proud of, and while Luther doesn’t speak for Catholics today, he did put his finger on a lot of things that bothered people then. Now I remember an exasperated Catholic friend asking, “Don’t some Protestants know anything else about the Catholic Church besides the problems we had in the sixteenth century?” And when Luther made a centerpiece out of what the Bible said about those who are righteous or just, “The just shall live by faith,” which was in the Bible’s readings today, he changed it, chiefly by using it as a battle axe to attack his opponents and even things he didn’t like in Scripture.

It’s a little hard to see how Luther changed Paul, since in Paul the words are also a battle axe against legalistic opponents. Or at least it’s hard to see directly. Paul, too, is quoting, and I’d like to say exactly what Paul is quoting.

In one of the minor prophets, Habakkuk, the prophet calls out to the Lord and decries the wickedness of those who should be worshiping the Lord. The Lord’s response is to say that he’s sending in the Babylonians to conquer, and if you want to see some really gruesome archaeological findings, look up what it meant for the Babylonians or Chaldeans to conquer a people. I’m not saying what they did to the people they conquered because I don’t want to leave you trying to get disturbing images out of your minds, but this was a terrible doomsday prophecy.

The prophet answered the Lord in anguish and asked how a God whose eyes were too pure to look on evil could possibly punish his wicked people by the much more wicked Babylonians. And the Lord’s response is very mysterious: “The just shall live by faith.”

Let me ask you a question: How is this an answer to what the prophet asked the Lord? Answer: It isn’t. It’s a refusal to answer. The same thing could have been said by saying, “I AM the Lord, and my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways. I AM WHO I AM and I will do what I will do, and I am sovereign in this. I choose not to tell you how, in my righteousness, I choose to let my wicked children be punished by the gruesomely wicked Babylonians. Only know this: even in these conditions, the just shall live by faith.”

The words “The just shall live by faith” are an enigma, a shroud, and a protecting veil. To use them as Paul did is a legitimate use of authority, an authority that can only be understood from the inside, but these words remain a protecting veil even as they take on a more active role in the New Testament. The New Testament assumes the Old Testament even as the New Testament unlocks the Old Testament.

Paul does not say, “The just shall live by sight,” even as he invokes the words, “The just shall live by faith.”

Here’s something to ponder: The righteous shall walk by faith even in their understanding of the words, “The just shall live by faith.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

George was awash and realized with a start that he was not knocked off his feet, gasping for air. He felt a light, joyful fluidity and wondered what was coming next. This time he realized he was sure he saw a chalice; the liturgy seemed to go a little more smoothly and quickly.

As soon as he was free, Fr. Elijah came up to him. “Good to see you, George. How are you?”

George said, “Delighted… but I’m sorry, I haven’t read ‘The Weight of Glory’ for you yet.”

Fr. Elijah said, “Good man… no, I’m not being sarcastic. Put first things first, and read it when you have leisure. How did you find the homily?”

George said, “It was excellent… by the way, it was really for me that you preached last week’s homily, right? You seemed to be going a good bit out of your way.”

“It was really for you, as it was also really for others for reasons you do not know.”

“But weren’t you getting off track?”

“George, I have a great deal of responsibility, concerns, and duties as a priest. But I have a great deal of freedom, too. I can, if you want, draw on King Arthur and his court every service I preach at from now until Christmas.”

“How much do you mean, I mean literally? One or two? Four or five?”

“Huh? ‘Literally’? Um, there is a temptation in the West to devote entirely too much time to what is literal. I was exaggerating when I said every service from now until Chrismas… but, if you want, I’d be perfectly happy to do that literally, for every service you’re here.” Fr. Elijah extended his had. “Deal?”

George paused in thought a moment. “Um, you’ve said that I could take all the books in your library and keep them if I want. I know you were exaggerating, but…”

“Yes, I was. But I am not exaggerating when I say that you can take them if you want.”

“Don’t you love books?”

“Immensely, but not as much as I want to love people! They’re just possessions, and there are much greater treasures in my life than a good book, even though books can be quite good. Can we agree that I’ll preach on something in Arthurian literature every liturgy I preach at until Christmas?”

“What if I’m not here?”

“We can make it part of the deal that I’ll only preach on that topic if you’re here.”

George hesitated, and then shook his hand. “Deal.”

Fr. Elijah smiled. “Some people have said my best homilies and best surprises have come from this kind of rash vow.”

George started to walk away, and then stopped.

Fr. Elijah said, “Is something on your mind?”

George said, “What if other people don’t like you preaching on something so odd? What will you do if people complain?”

Fr. Elijah said, “Then I can give them your cell phone number and have them call you at all hours of the day and night to grouse at you for foisting such a terrible proposal on me. Now get some coffee. Go! Shoo!”

After getting home, George did his laundry, looked to see if anyone was hanging out in the lounge (everybody was gone), and played games in the computer lab. It was a nice break.

The next day in math class, the teacher drew a grid on the board, drew dots where the lines crossed, erased everything but the dots, and set the chalk down. “Today I’d like to show a game. I’m handing out graph paper; draw dots where the lines cross. We’re going to have two people taking turns drawing lines between dots that are next to each other. If you draw a line that completes a little square, you get a point. I’d like a couple of students to come up and play on the board.” After a game, there was a momentary shuffle, and George found himself playing against the kid next to him. This continued for longer than he expected, and George began to piece together patterns of what would let his opponent score points, then what laid the groundwork for scoring points…

The teacher said, “Have any of you noticed things you want to avoid in this game? Why do these things lead to you giving points to your opponent when you don’t want to, or scoring points yourself? This kind of observation is at the heart of a branch of mathematics called ‘combinatorics.’ And almost any kind of game a computer can play—I’m not talking about tennis—is something that computers can only play through combinatorics. I’d like to show you some more ‘mathematical’ examples of problems with things we call ‘graphs’ where a lot of those same kinds of things are—”

She continued giving problems and showing the kinds of thought in those problems.

George felt a spark of recognition—the same thing that attracted him to puzzles. Or was it something deeper? Many “twenty questions” puzzles only depended on identifying an unusual usage of common words, “53 bicycles” referring to “Bicycle” brand playing cards rather than any kind of vehicle, and so on and so forth. Some of what the teacher was showing seemed deeper…

…and for the first time in his life, the ring of a buzzer left George realizing he was spellbound in a math class. It set his mind thinking.

In English class, he winced, as just as before-class chatter seemed about to end, one of the other students said, “A man gets up in the morning, looks out his window, and sees the sun rising in the West. Why?”

George was not in particular looking forward to a discussion of literature he wasn’t interested in, but he wanted even less to hear people blundering about another “twenty questions” problem, and cut in, “Because the earth’s magnetic poles, we suppose, were fluctuating, and so the direction the sun was rising from was momentarily the magnetic West.”

The teacher laughed. “That isn’t the answer, is it?”

The student who had posed the question said, “Um… it is…”

The professor said, “So we are to imagine someone going to a gas station, saying, ‘Which way is East?’, and the attendant responding with, ‘Just a sec, lemme check… I know usually this way is East, but with the Earth’s magnetic fluctuations, who knows?’ You know that in a lot of literature, East and West are less like numbers than like colors?”

“Um… How could a direction be like a number or a color?”

“There’s colorful difference and colorless difference. If I tell you there are 57 pens in my desk, I haven’t said anything very colorful that tells much about pens, or about my desk. But if I tell you a rose is a delicate pink, I’ve told you something about what it’s like, what it’s like, to experience a rose.”

“So what color is East, then? Camouflage green?”

“East isn’t a color, but it’s like a color where camouflage green and fiery red are different. In both Greek and Russian, people use the same word for ‘East’ and ‘sunrise’… and if you’re really into etymology, English does this too, only we don’t realize it any more. ‘East’ in English originally means ‘sunrise,’ as ‘Easter’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon name of a goddess of light and spring. Such terrible things the Orthodox miss out on by their quaint use of ‘Pascha.’ For us, the ‘big’ direction, the one which has the longest arrow or the biggest letter, the one all other directions are arranged around, is North; in Hebrew, it’s East. There is a reason many churches are arranged East-West and we often worship towards the East, and that has meant something for the U.S… Would you agree that we are part of the West?”

“So our land is the worst land?” George said.

“Well, if you read enough Orthodox nut jobs, yes… particularly if this land is their home. But U.S. land, or part of it at least, is called utter East… the one U.S. state where Orthodoxy isn’t edgy, exotic, fruitcake or ‘other,’ is Alaska, where there has been a native Orthodox presence, strong today, for over two hundred years. You know how, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis has a wood nymph speak an oracle that has drawn Sir Reepicheep all his life?

“Where sky and water meet,
Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all you seek,
There is the utter East.

“There’s something big you’ll miss about the holy land of Alaska if you just think of it as fully a state, but just one more state, just like every other state. It’s the only state, if ‘state’ is an adequate term, with a still-working mechanical clock on the outside of a public building that was made by an Orthodox saint. Among other things.

“And the idea of holy land that you would want you to travel to feeds into things, even in Protestant literature like Pilgrim’s Progress, which you will misunderstand if you treat the pilgrimage as just there as a metaphor for spiritual process. I have found it very interesting to look at what people classify as ‘just part of the allegory,’ even though we will read no simpler allegory among the readings for this class. Now in reading for today, have any of you had an experience like Pilgrim’s wakeup call at the beginning of Bunyan?”

George’s head was swimming.

Why were his classes so dull before this week? He remembered previous math lessons which, in various ways, failed to give him puzzle solving, and in annoyance, turned to previous English lessons, when—

—why hadn’t he paid attention? Or, more accurately, when George had paid attention, why hadn’t he let it be interesting?

Philosophy also turned out to be interesting; the professor began the unit on medieval philosophy by asking, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”, eliciting various forms of derision, then asking people what they were deriding, began asking “How many of you can touch the head of the same pin at once?”, produced a pin, and after students made various jostling efforts, asked whether a pin could accommodate a finite or infinite number of angels.

This was used to a class discussion about the nature of matter and spirit and whether angels dancing on the head of a pin would push each other away the way human bodies would… and at the end of class the professor began asking if people wanted to talk about how unfortunate it was that medieval philosophers had to use the poetic image of angels dancing on the head of a pin where others would have used the colorless language of analytic philosophy.

In chemistry, the professor did nothing in particular to make things interesting. George still enjoyed the lecture as it built to a discussion of isotope distributions as used to compute average molecular weights.

George was quite surprised when the weekend approached, spent the weekend playing card games, and wondered at how quickly Sunday came.

On Sunday, George entered the strange world of the Church building. It seemed more, not less, strange, but things began to make sense. “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” was something he noticed often, and he, if not understanding, was at least comfortable with the continual hubbub as people seemed to be moving about, sometimes to the front.

As the service passed, he found his eyes returning to, and then fixed on, an icon that showed three ?angels? sitting around a stone table. In the back was a mountain, a tree, and a building, a faroff building that George somehow seemed to be seeing from the inside…

The perspective in the picture was wrong. Wait, the perspective wouldn’t be that wrong by accident… the picture looked very distorted, and George wanted to reach out and—

George looked. The perspective vanished, not at some faroff place on the other side of the picture, but behind him, and the picture seemed at once faroff and something seen from inside.

And what was it, almost at the heart of the icon, or somewhere beneath it, that the three peaceful, radiant, great ?angels? almost seemed clustered around? It looked like a chalice of gold.

George was looking, trying to see into the picture, wishing he could go closer, and seeing one person after another come closer in the dance of song and incense. George instinctively found himself backing up, and then realized people were sitting down and Fr. Elijah began:

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sir Thomas Mallory in Le Morte d’Arthur has any number of characters, and I want to describe one of them, Sir Griflet, who is completely forgettable if you don’t know French: he appears briefly, never stays in the narrative for very long, never does anything really striking at all. His lone claim to fame, if you can call it that, is that Mallory refers to him as “Sir Griflet le fils de Dieu.” For those of you who don’t know French, we’ve just been cued in, in passing, that by the way, Sir Griflet is the Son of God.

Now why would this be? There some pretty striking things you can do if you are a character in that work. Sir Griflet is not a singular character who has the kind of energy of Sir Galahad, or in a different but highly significant way, Merlin. For that matter, he does not have even a more routine memorability like Sir Balin who wielded two swords at the same time. He’s just forgettable, so why is he called le fils de Dieu, I mean the Son of God?

In Chretien de Troyes, who is a pivotal author before Mallory, a character with a name that would become “Griflet” is equally pedestrian and is named “fis de Do”, son of Do, which has a root spelling of D-O where the word for God in that form of French is D-E-U. So a starkly pedestrian character, by an equally pedestrian language error, seems to have his father’s name mixed up with how you spell the word for God. How pedestrian, disappointing, and appropriate.

There is a somewhat more interesting case in the story of a monk who believed that Melchizedek was the Son of God, and this is not due to a language error. If you were listening when the readings were chanted from the Bible, you would have heard that Melchizedek was “Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life: but made like unto the Son of God, abideth a priest continually.” This may be surprising to us today, but that’s because most of us have lost certain ways of reading Scripture, and it was a holy monk who thought this. He made a theological error, not a mere language error, and when his bishop asked his assistance in praying over whether Melchizedek or Christ was the Son of God, he arrived at the correct answer.

Now let me ask you who is really the Son of God. Do you have an answer now?

I’m positive you’re wrong. It’s a forgettable person like Sir Griflet or Melchizedek.

When the Son of God returns in glory, he will say, “Depart from me, you who are damned, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you showed me no hospitality; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick or in prison, and you did not visit me.” And when the damned are confounded and ask when they could have possibly failed to do that, he will answer them, “I swear to you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.”

We, in our very nature, are symbols of the Trinity, and this does not mean a sort of miniature copy that stands on its own in detachment. The Orthodox understanding of symbol is very difficult to grasp in the West, even if you haven’t heard people trying to be rigorous or, worse, clever by saying “The word is not the thing it represents.” And talking about symbols doesn’t just mean that you can show reverence to a saint through an icon. It means that everything you fail to do to your forgettable neighbor, to that person who does absolutely nothing that draws your attention, you fail to do to Christ.

And if you are going to say, “But my neighbor is not Christ,” are you not straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel in what you are being careful about? Your neighbor as such is not Christ as such. True, but this is really beside the point. It betrays a fundamental confusion if any of the damned answer their Judge and say, “But I wasn’t unkind to you. I was just unkind to other people.” We are so formed by the image of Christ that there is no way to do something to another person without doing that to Christ, or as this parable specifically says, fail to do. And I’d like you to stop for a second. The last time you were at an unexpected funeral, did you regret more the unkind thing you said, or the kind word you failed say, the kind action you failed to take? Perhaps it may be the latter.

Christ hides in each of us, and in every person you meet. There is a mystery: the divine became human that the human might become divine. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God. God and the Son of God became man that men might become gods and the Sons of God. Christ took on our nature so that by grace we might become what he is by nature, and that does not just mean something for what we should do in our own spiritual practices. It means that Christ hides in each person, and to each person we owe infinite respect, whether they’re boring, annoying, mean, lovely, offensive, fascinating, confusing, predictable, pedestrian, or just plain forgettable like old Sir Griflet.

You owe infinite respect.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Did George want to go up to the icon? He went up, feeling terribly awkward, but hearing only chant and the same shuffle of people in motion. He went up, awkwardly kissed the three figures someplace low, started to walk away in inner turmoil, turned back to the image, bowed as he had seen people see, and kissed the chalice of wine.

It was not long before he saw Fr. Elijah come out with a chalice, and draw from it with a golden spoon. This time he noticed people kissing the base of the chalice. There was nothing awkward about them, and there seemed to be something majestic that he began to catch a glimmer of in each of those present.

George later realized that he had never experienced worship “stopping” and coffee hour “beginning.” The same majestic people went from one activity into another, where there was neither chanting nor incense nor the surrounding icons of a cloud of witnesses, but seemed to be a continuation of worship rather than a second activity begun after worship. He was with the same people.

It didn’t occur until much later to George to wonder why the picture had a chalice… and then he could not stop wondering. He picked up Brocéliande and read:

The knight and the hermit wept and kissed together, and the hermit did ask, “Sir knight, wete thou what the Sign of the Grail be?”

The knight said, “Is that one of the Secrets of the Grail?”

“If it be one of the Secrets of the Grail, that is neither for thee to ask nor to know. The Secrets of the Grail are very different from what thou mightest imagine in thine heart, and no man will get them by looking for secrets. But knowest thou what the Sign of the Grail is?”

“I never heard of it, nor do I know it.”

“Thou wote it better than thou knowest, though thou wouldst wete better still if thou knewest that thou wote.”

“That is perplexing and hard to understand.”

The hermit said, “Knowest thou the Sign of the Cross?”

“I am a Christian and I know it. It is no secret amongst Christians.”

“Then know well that the sacred kiss, the kiss of the mass, even if it be given and received but once per year, is the Sign of the Grail.”

“How is that? What makes it such as I have never heard?”

“I know that not in its fullness. Nor could I count reasons even knew I the fullness of truth. But makest thou the Sign of the Cross when thou art alone?”

“Often, good hermit; what Christian does not?”

“Canst thou make the Sign of the Grail upon another Christian when thou art alone?”

“What madness askest thou?”

“Callest thou it madness? Such it is. But methinks thou wete not all that may be told.”

“Of a certainty speakest thou.”

“When thou dwellest in the darkness that doth compass round about the Trinity round about that none mayeth compass, then wilt thou dwell in the light of the Sign of the Grail with thy fellow man and thy brother Christian, for the darkness of the Trinity is the light of the Grail.”

George got up, closed the book, and slowly put it away. He wondered, but he had read enough.

George dreamed again of a chalice whose silhouette was Light and held Light inside. Then the Light took shape and became three figures. George almost awoke when he recognized the figures from the icon. George dreamed much more, but he could never remember the rest of his dream.

That week, Fr. Elijah’s homily was in George’s mind. He passed the check-in counter as he walked into the cafeteria, began to wonder where he might apply Fr. Elijah’s words… and stopped.

The line was moving slowly; he had come in late after wandering somewhat. Sheepishly, he stopped, looked at the woman who had scanned his ID, and extended his hand. “Hi, I’m George.”

The woman pushed back a strand of silver hair. “Hi. It’s good to meet you, George. I’m Georgina.”

George stood, trying to think of something to say.

Georgina said, “What are you majoring in?”

“I haven’t decided. I like reading… um… it’s really obscure, but some stuff about Arthur.”

“King Arthur and the Round Table?”

“Yes.”

“Wonderful, son. Can you tell me about it sometime? I always love hearing about things.”

George said, “Ok. What do you… um…”

“I been working at this for a long time. It’s nice seeing all you students, and I get some good chats. You remind me of my grandson a little. But you’re probably pretty hungry now, and the lines are closing in a few minutes. Stop by another day!”

George ate his food, thoughtfully, and walked out of the cafeteria wishing he had said hi to more of the support staff.

That week, the halls seemed to be filled with more treasure than he had guessed. He did not work up the courage to introduce himself to too many people, but he had the sense that there was something interesting in even the people he hadn’t met.

On Wednesday, George went to register for his classes next semester, and realized his passwords were… on his computer, the one without a power cord.

After a while, thinking what to do, he knocked on a floormates’ door. “Um, Ivan?”

“Come in, George. What do you want?”

George hesitated and said, “Could I borrow a power cord? Just for a minute? I’ll give it right back.”

Ivan turned around and dragged a medium-sized box from under his bed. It was full of cables.

“Here, and don’t worry about returning it. Take a cord. Take twenty, I don’t care. I have them coming out of my ears.”

George grabbed one cord, then remembered he did not have the cord for his monitor. He took another. “I’ll have these back in a minute.”

“George, you’re being silly. Is there any reason you need not to have a power cord?”

“Um…” George opened his mouth and closed it. Then he hesitated. “No.”

George left, registered online, shut his computer down, left the room, did some work at the library, and went to bed.

Thursday he was distracted.

Friday, it was raining heavily, and after getting soaked in icy rain running to and from his classes, George decided he would check his email from his room… and found himself wandering through the spam folder, and threw the cords out in the dumpster.

Sunday he walked into church with hesitation, and Fr. Elijah almost immediately came over. “Yes, George?”

George hesitated.

Then he told Fr. Elijah what was going on.

Fr. Elijah paused, and said, “George, do you know about the Desert Fathers?”

“No.”

“A group of people a bit like the hermits in Arthurian legend. Some people think that Merlin was originally based on such monks… but aside from that speculation, they were much holier than either of us. And there was one time when someone asked them, ‘What do you do?’ And what do you think the Desert Father said?”

“Pray? Worship? Live a good life?”

“‘We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.’ That is the motion of Orthodox life, and if you see prostrations, you will literally see us fall and get up. I’m not sure if you think that if you repent of a sin once, the hard part’s over and it’s all behind you. In my sins, I have to keep repenting again and again. You have fallen, now get up. And get up again. And again. And again. And keep getting up.

“The Lord bless you, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

George walked away still feeling unworthy, and everywhere saw a grandeur that seemed to be for others more worthy than him. Everything around him seemed royal, and Fr. Elijah preached:

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In our commemorations, we commemorate “Orthodox kings and queens, faithful princes and princesses,” before we commemorate various grades of bishops. The bishop is in fact royalty; instead of calling him “Your Majesty,” we call him “Your Grace,” “Your Eminence,” “Your Holiness,” “Your All Holiness.” If you do research, you will find that the bishop is more than a king: the bishop is the Emperor, and wears the full regalia of the Roman Emperor.

One question that has been asked is, “The king for the kingdom, or the kingdom for the king:” is the king made king for the benefit of the kingdom, or is the kingdom a privilege for the benefit of the king? The Orthodox choice of now requiring bishops to be monks is not because married persons are unfit, or rather necessarily more unfit, to serve. Most of the apostles in whose shadows the monastic bishops stand were married, and the monk bishops I have met consider themselves infinitely less than the married apostles. But a monk is given to be a whole burnt offering where nothing is kept back and everything is offered to God to be consumed by the holy sacrificial fire. (Or at least that’s what’s supposed to happen, but even if this is also what’s supposed to happen in a marriage, it’s more explicit in monasticism.) And it is this whole burnt offering, unworthy though he may be, who makes a bishop: Orthodoxy answers “the king for the kingdom:” the king is made king for the benefit of the kingdom, the bishop serves as a whole burnt offering for the benefit of the diocese.

Now let me ask: Which of us is royalty? And I want you to listen very carefully. All of us bear the royal bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve. It’s not just the bishops. I will not go into this in detail now, but the essence of priesthood is not what I have that “ordinary” Orthodox don’t have. It’s what I have that Orthodox faithful do have. And without you I can celebrate the liturgy. And the essence of royalty is not what a king or bishop has that a “commoner” or faithful does not have; it’s what king and bishop share with the ordinary faithful. The Greek Fathers have no sense that “real” royal rule is humans ruling other humans; that’s a bit of an aberration; the real royal rule is humans ruling over what God has given them and over themselves, and doing that rightly is a much bigger deal than being one of the handful of kings and bishops.

And each of us is called to be what a bishop is: a whole burnt offering in humble service to the kingdom—large or small is not really the point—over which the Lord has appointed us king. It may mean showing conscience by cleaning up your room—and if you have a first world abundance of property, it is a very small way of offering them back to the Lord to keep them in good order. It means carefully stewarding precious moments with other people, maybe saying, “I hope you have a wonderful day,” and saying it like you mean it, to support staff. And it means humbly ruling your kingdom within, in which both Heaven and Hell may be found. It is when you serve as king, the king made for the kingdom, that your kingdom will be your crown and glory.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

After Church, a young woman stormed up to Fr. Elijah. She had, at as far arm’s length from her body as she could hold it, a clear trash bag holding a pink heart-shaped piece of artisan paper that appeared to have writing on it. She stopped opposite Fr. Elijah and said, “Do you know anything about this note?”

Fr. Elijah smiled gently. “It appears someone has sent you some sort of love note. How sweet!”

“Were you involved?”

“What, you think I would do something like that? I’m hurt!”

The young woman stood up straight and put her hand on her hip. Fr. Elijah turned to George and said, “Would you like to know what’s going on?”

The young woman said, “Yes, I’d love to hear you explain this.”

Fr. Elijah said, “George, the elephant population in Sri Lanka is in some peril. They’re not being hunted for their ivory, let alone for their meat, but there is a limited amount of land, and farmers and elephants are both trying to use an area of land that makes it difficult for them to both support themselves. So some people tried to think about whether there was a way to make a win-win situation, and make the elephants an economic asset. They asked themselves whether elephants produce anything. And it turns out that something that eats the enormous amount of food an elephant eats does, in fact, produce a lot of something.”

George said, “I don’t see the connection. Have I just missed that you’re changing the subject?”

The young woman said, “He hasn’t changed the subject.”

Fr. Elijah said, “They’re using it to make hand-crafted artisan paper, colored and available in a heart shape, which you can buy online at MrElliePooh.com if you’re interested.”

George looked at Fr. Elijah in shock and awe.

The woman said, “Grandpappy, you are such a pest!”

Fr. Elijah lightly placed an arm around her shoulder and said, “George, I’d like to introduce you to my granddaughter Abigail. She has a face as white as alabaster, raven-black hair, and lips are red as blood. And she has many merits besides being fun to pick on.”

Abigail stuck out her tongue at her grandfather and then shifted to his side. “And my grandfather does many fine things besides be obnoxious… Can’t live with him, can’t shoot him… You should get to know him, if you haven’t.” She gave him a gentle squeeze. “There are brownies today, George, and they’re great! Can I get you some?”

George read in Brocéliande, and wandered in the wood, and the castle of Calix College, and the surrounding city. Fr. Elijah began to introduce fasting, and George found something new in his struggles… and began to make progress. Nor was that the only thing in George’s life. He began to find the Middle Ages not too different from his own… and he was puzzled when he read in Brocéliande:

And in that wood anon saw Sir Yvain a lion fighting against a primeval serpent, and the serpent breathed fire against the lion his heel, and a baleful cry did the lion wail. Then Lord Yvain thought in his heart of which animal he should aid, and in his heart spake, “The lion is the more natural of the twain.” And anon he put his resources on the side of the lion, and with his sword he cleft the ancient serpent in twain and hew the serpent his head in seven, and warred against the wicked wyrm until he were reduced to many small bits. And he cleaned his sword of the serpent his venomous filth, and anon the lion kept him at his side.

And anon Sir Yvain slept and an advision saw: an old woman, whose colour was full of life and whose strength intact and yet who were wizened, riding upon a serpent and clothed in a robe black as coal, and spake and said, “Sir Yvain, why have ye offended me? Betake ye as my companion.” Then Sir Yvain refused her and there was a stench as brimstone aflame. Then a woman clad in white, riding astride a lion, new as white snow did courtesy and said, “Sir Yvain, I salute thee.” And about her was a fragrance of myrrh.

Anon Sir Yvain awoke, and sore amazed was he, and none could interpret his advision.

George spoke with Fr. Elijah, and asked him what the passage meant. Fr. Elijah said, “What does this passage mean? You know, that isn’t as big a question in Orthodoxy as you think… but I’ll try to answer. In fact, I think I’ll answer in a homily.”

“It had better be impressive.”

“Fine. I’ll preach it as impressive as you want.”

“When?”

“On Christmas.”

That evening, George called Fr. Elijah to say that he was going home for Christmas… and then, later in the week, said, “Fr. Elijah? Do you know anybody who could keep me? My parents were going to buy me a ticket home with frequent flier mileage on an airline, but my grandfather is ill and my mother used up those miles getting a ticket… and money is tight… I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“Well, you could talk with your College and try to get special permission to stay over break… but I’d prefer if you stayed with me. Because we agreed that I would only preach on the Arthurian legends, including your Old Law and New Law, if you were there… and I was so looking forward to preaching a Christmas homily on the Arthurian legends.”

“Can’t you preach it without me?”

“We agreed and shook hands. I have that homily for Christmas, but only if you’re there.”

“Um… I would be an intruding—”

“George, I am a priest because I love God and I love people. And I do meet people quite a lot, but my house is empty now. It would be nice to have some young energy and someone to share more than a Christmas dinner with?”

“Are you sure?”

“You know how to get to my place. I’ll see you whenever you want to come over.”

On Christmas, Fr. Elijah preached,

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Christ is born! Glorify him!

In the Arthurian legends, there is a story of a knight who sees a serpent fighting a lion, kills the serpent, and wins a kind response from the lion. In some versions the knight has a vision in which one woman appears on the serpent and another on the lion, and we learn that these women represent the Old Law and the New Law.

What are the Old Law and the New Law? One can say the Torah or Law of Moses, and the Gospel, and that is true up to a point, but the “Old Law” is not just a take on Judaism. Sir Palomides, a Saracen, described with profound confusion between Islam and paganism (and the problem with Islam is not that it is pagan but that it is not pagan enough—it is more emphatic about there being one God, even more than the one God is), becomes a Christian and is asked to renounce the Old Law and embrace the New Law. Even if Sir Palomides is in no sense a Jew.

In the ancient world, it is not enough to say that the Orthodox Church understood itself as the fulfillment of Judaism, politically incorrect as that may be. The Orthodox Church was even more fully the fulfillment of paganism, and if you understand what was going on in Plato, you understand that paganism was deepening. The Orthodox Church is the place where that final deepening of paganism took place. And I would like to explain for a moment why Orthodoxy is pagan and neo-“pagan” forms like Druidry aren’t.

The popular stereotype is that paganism was merry and free until Christianity’s grim hand came down, and that’s like saying that difficult toil was carefree until someone came along and with a grim hand invited people to a feast. Pagan virtues—courage, justice, wisdom, moderation—are retained in Christianity, but they are not the virtues of joy by themselves. C.S. Lewis said that if you’re not going to be a Christian, the next best thing is to be a Norseman, because the Norse pagans sided with the good gods, not because they were going to win, but because they were going to lose. The Norse decision was to meet the Day of Doom, called Ragnarok, and go down fighting on the right side. And so the Norse have a tale of the war-god Tyr who took and kept an oath even at the price of letting a wolf bite off his right hand, and there is something very much like ancient paganism in keeping an oath though it cost your right hand.

What Orthodoxy offered paganism in the ancient world was precisely not a grim hand flattening everything, but retaining the virtue already recognized in paganism while deepening them with faith, hope, and love that live the life of Heaven here on earth. The Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love are the virtues that can see beauty, that bring Heaven down to earth, that can call for the whole Creation to worship God: as we sing at the Eucharist, joining the Song that summons the host of angels, sun, moon and stars, heavens and waters above the heavens, sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, beasts and all cattle, creeping things and flying fowl, kings and all people, princes and rulers, young men and maidens, old men and children—all called in the Psalmist’s summons to praise the Lord.

If you want to know how today’s “neo-paganism” can fail to be pagan, I would recall to you the Medieval Collectibles website which offers a medieval toilet cover so you can have a real medieval coat of arms on your, um, “throne.” The website’s marketing slogan is “Own a piece of history,” but you’re not owning a piece of history… or think of the interior decorator who was told, “I want an authentic colonial American bathroom,” to which the decorator replied, “Ok, so exactly how far from the house do you want it?”

Some have noted that the majority of books written by Orthodox today are by Western converts, and there is a reason for that. The Reformation almost created literate culture, but the opposite of literate is not illiterate, but oral, in a way that neo-paganism may want to create but is awfully hard to recreate. Even in its spiritual reading the Orthodox Church remains an oral culture in its core while it uses writing: many of its most devout would never write a book, and even now, sensible Orthodox will answer the question, “What should I read to understand Orthodoxy?” by saying “Don’t read, at least not at first, and don’t ever let reading be the center of how you understand Orthodoxy. Come and join the life of our community in liturgy.” Orthodoxy is not better than classical paganism in this regard, but it is like classical paganism and it keeps alive elements of classical paganism that neo-paganism has trouble duplicating. (A neo-“pagan” restoration of oral culture bears a hint of… I’m not sure how to describe it… an oxymoron like “committee to revitalize” comes close.) After years of the West tearing itself away from nature, people in the West are trying to reconnect with nature, and some neo-“pagans” are spearheading that. But look at Orthodoxy. Come and see the flowers, the water and oil, the beeswax candles and herbs, the bread and wine that are at the heart of Orthodox worship: the Orthodox Church has not lost its connection with the natural world even as it uses technology, and it may even have a fuller connection with the natural world than paganism had; classical Rome could sow salt in the soil of Carthage and go out of their way to pollute out of spite, which even environmentally irresponsible companies rarely do today. Which isn’t getting into the full depth of a spiritually disciplined connection to nature like that of St. Symeon the New Theologian—in the Orthodox Church we call him “new” even though he’s from the fourteenth century—but it’s missing the point to ask if Orthodoxy is pagan because of the role of the saints in worshiping God. If you want the deep structure, the culture, the way of life, of paganism, the place where you will find it most alive is precisely Orthodoxy.

The Arthurian author Charles Williams makes a very obscure figure, the bard Taliesin, the pilgrim who comes to Byzantium sent to bring a treasure and returns with the Pearl of Great Price, the New Law. In Stephen Lawhead, it is Merlin who appears as the culmination of the Druidic Order and the apex of the Old Law: the old learned brotherhood is disbanded and Merlin proclaims the New Law, and this is really not just a story. The Evangelical Orthodox Church was formed when a group of Protestants tried to do something very Protestant, reconstruct the original Christian Church through studying old documents. Very Protestant. And they came to a certain point, that when they quizzed an Orthodox priest, they realized something. And the Evangelical Orthodox Church entered the Orthodox Church because they realized that the Old Law of Protestant searching to reconstruct the ancient Church needed to be fulfilled in what they realized was the New Law. The Holy Order of MANS—MANS is an acronym, but not in English; it stands for Mysterion, Agape, Nous, Sophia, some terms from Greek that are deep enough to be hard to translate, but something like “profound mystery, divine love, spiritual eye, wisdom.” Do these mean something Christian? Do they mean something esoteric? In fact the Holy Order of MANS was something of both, and they pushed their tradition deeper and deeper… until the Holy Order of MANS was dissolved and many of its people followed their leader’s sense that their Old Law led to this New Law. If you know the story of the Aleut religion in Alaska, the shamans—and it is difficult to explain their “shamans” in contemporary terms; perhaps I should refer to them as people who had tasted spiritual realities—said that certain people were coming and to listen to the people who were to come. And the people the shamans foretold were Orthodox monks who had in turn tasted of spiritual realities, such as St. Herman of Alaska. Not, necessarily, that moving from paganism to Orthodoxy was that big of a change for them. It wasn’t. But the Aleuts recognized in these monks something that was very close to their way of life, but something that could deepen it, and it was because of their depth in their Old Law as pagans that they were ready for an Orthodox New Law. Stephen Lawhead has a lot of carefully researched history—at times I wished for a little less meticulous research and a little more riveting story—but whether or not anything like this can be confirmed archaeologically in the Celtic lands, the same kind of thing can be confirmed, even as having happened very recently.

But when I say “Merlin,” many of you do not think of the herald of the New Law, and for that matter many of the older sources do not do this either. If a boy today is enchanted by just one character from the Arthuriad, it is ordinarily not King Arthur, Pendragon though he may be, nor Sir Galahad, who achieved the Holy Grail in some versions, nor Sir Lancelot, who is proven to be the greatest knight in the world, nor the Fisher-King, nor the fairy enchantress Morgana le Fay, nor King Arthur’s peerless Queen Guinevere, whose name has become our “Jennifer.” It is the figure of Merlin.

Today, if you ask what Merlin was—and I intentionally say, “what,” not “who,” for reasons I will detail—the usual answer is, “a wizard.” But if you look at the stories that were spread from the Celtic lands, the answer is, “a prophet.” In the Old Testament, one of the prophets protests, “I am neither a prophet, nor a prophet’s son,” and another prophet says something to the Lord that somehow never gets rendered clearly in English Bible translations never choose to get right: “You violated my trust, and I was utterly betrayed.” The Hebrew word for prophet, ‘nabi‘, means “called one,” and one never gets the sense in reading the Old Testament prophets that the prophets, when they were children, said, “I want to grow up to be a prophet” the way people today say, “I want to be the President of the United States.”

And this idea of Merlin as prophet is not just a different or a more Christianly correct word. The Arthurian legends may be thought of today as “something like fiction;” even when people in the Middle Ages questioned their historical accuracy, those people were throwing a wet blanket on something a great many people took as literal fact. There is a book called The Prophecies of Merlin, which was taken extremely seriously for centuries, as the word of a prophet. And one gets the sense that in modern terms Merlin’s identity was not a self-definition that he chose, not in modern terms, but something that was thrust upon him.

It may sound strange to some if I say that the earlier attempt to build a castle on Merlin’s blood, and Merlin’s later calling a castle out of the wind, relate to Christ. But if you think I am pounding a square peg into a round hole, consider this: Sir Galahad, whom some consider a painfully obvious Christ-figure, whose strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure and who is always strong in the face of temptation, enters the world after Sir Lancelot, the greatest knight in the world and a man who goes above and beyond the call of duty of faithfulness in his devotion to another man’s wife, goes to a castle, is given the Arthurian equivalent of a date-rape pill in the form of a potion that makes him think his hostess is the woman he’s been carrying on with, and that night sires Galahad. You may call this a magical birth story if you like, but it doesn’t give us much advance notice that the son born will turn out to be the Arthurian icon of purity who will achieve the Grail.

So how is Merlin, who reeks of magic, introduced? In the oldest surviving work that flourished outside of Celtic circles, in fact written by a Celtic bishop, Merlin appears when King Vortigern searches for a boy without a father, and hears Merlin being teased for being without a father. And let me be clear, this is not because his father has passed away. We learn that the Devil wished to be incarnate, could only come into the world of a virgin, found a virgin who was spiritually pure, having only slipped in her prayers once, and thus the person meant to be the anti-Christ was conceived. The Church, just in time, said powerful prayers and the boy, born of a virgin without a sire, commanded all the power over the natural world he was meant to, but would serve the good. Now is anyone going to say that that’s not a reference to Christ? Merlin is most interesting because of how the story itself places him in the shadow of Christ.

One thing that’s very easy to overlook is that in the story where there’s a terrible storm and Christ is sleeping in the front of the boat while his disciples are asking if he doesn’t care that they were going to die, is not just that the disciples were right: in that part of the world there were storms that could very quickly flood a boat and kill people when the boat sank. Christ stands up, and says something to the storm before rebuking the disciples for their lack of faith. And that’s when the disciples really began to be afraid. Mark’s Gospel is the one Gospel with the simplest, “I don’t speak Greek very well” Greek, and at this point he uses the King James- or Shakespeare-style Greek Old Testament language to say that when Jesus commands the storm to be still and it actually obeys him, that is when they are most terrified.

Before Jesus stopped the storm, they were afraid enough; they knew the storm they saw was easily enough to kill them. But this was nothing compared to the fear out of which they asked, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” This person who had been teaching them had just displayed a command over nature that left them wondering who or what he was, a “what” that goes beyond today’s concern about “who am I?” and has something that cannot be reached by angst-ridden wrestling with who you are.

Something like that question is at the heart of debates that people argued for centuries and are trying to reopen. What, exactly, was Jesus? Was he an ancient sage and teacher? Was he a prophet? A healer or a worker of wonders? Someone who had drunk of deeper spiritual realities and wanted to initiate others into the same? Was he something more than a man, the bridge between God and his world?

The answer taken as final was the maximum possible. It was “Every one of these and more.” It pushed the envelope on these even as it pushed into a claim for the maximum in every respect: Christ was maximally divine, maximally human, maximally united, and maximally preserved the divine and human while being the final image both for our understanding of what it is to be God and what it is to be human.

And what, finally, would we have if we deepened Merlin? What if he were the son, not of the worst finite creature, but of the best and infinite Creator? What if he had not simply power over nature but were the one through whom the world was created and in whom all things consist? What if we were dealing with, not the one who prophesied that a few would find the Holy Grail, but the one who gave the Holy Grail and its gifts that are still with us? What if Merlin were made to be like the pattern he is compared to? When Merlin is deepened far enough, he becomes Christ.

The Christian lord of Cyprus was out hawking when his dearly beloved hawk—I don’t know if the hawk was a merlin, but I can say that a merlin is a type of hawk—became entangled in the brush in the wood. Loving the hawk dearly, he ordered that the branches be cut away so that he would still have this hawk, and when that was done, not only was his hawk found, but an icon showing the Queen and Mother of God on a throne, and the Divine Child enthroned upon her lap and an angel on either side. They found what they were looking for, but they also found a singularly majestic icon of the Incarnation.

The Christ Mass, the Nativity, is an invasion in the dead of winter. It is the feast of the Incarnation, or more properly one of the feasts of the Incarnation, which is not something that stopped happening once after the Annunciation when the Mother of God bore the God-man in her womb.

Everything that the Christ Mass stands for will eventually be made plain, but the Christ Mass is a day of veiled glory. When God became man, he was born in a stable. When Christ returns, he will appear riding on the clouds. When he came, a choir of angels proclaimed the news to shepherds and a few knees bowed. When he returns, rank upon rank of angels will come in eternal radiant glory and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the manifest glory of God the Father. When he came once, a star heralded the hour of his birth. When he returns, the stars will fall as ripe figs from a tree and the sky itself will recede as a vanishing scroll. Every thing that is a secret not will be made plain, but he first came in secret…

…and he comes today in secret, hidden in us. For the Incarnation was not finished after the Annunciation, but unfolds still as Christ is incarnate in the Church, in the saints like St. Herman of Alaska, a wonderworker who was seen carrying logs weighing much more than himself, stopped a forest fire, calmed a stormy sea, and left behind a body preserved from corruption as it was on display for a month at room temperature, and left behind much of the Aleut Orthodox community that remains to this day—and also in us. And the Incarnation is still unfolding today. The castle of the Arthurian world is more than stone walls and a porticullis; the castle is almost everything we mean by city, or society, or community. And it is the castle writ large that we find in the Church, not only a fortress waging war against the Devil but a people ruled by her Lord. This Castle is at once founded upon a fluid more precious than ichor, not the blood of a boy without a father but the blood of a God-man, without father on the side of his mother and without mother on the side of his Father. It is the Castle still being built by the wind of his Spirit still blowing—and remember that the world behind the Medieval West did not always stow “spirit” and “wind” in sealed watertight compartments: the wind blows where it will and the Spirit inspires where it will, so this Castle has a Spirit blowing through it that is more windlike than wind itself.

And until the Last Judgment, when every eye will see him, even those that pierced him, it is his will to be incarnate where he is hidden behind a veil to those who cannot see him: incarnate in the Church and in each of us, called to be his saints, and called to become Christ.

Christ is born! Glorify him!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Fr. Elijah turned around, stopped, bent his head a moment, and at last turned back. “Oh, and one more thing… George’s number is in the parish directory, and these homilies that talk about King Arthur and his court have been all his fault. If there’s anything at all that you don’t like about them, I invite you to call him at all hours of the day and night to grouse at him for foisting such terrible ideas on me.”

That evening, George came, and after some hesitancies, said, “When can I become Orthodox?”

“At Pascha. We can continue working, and you will be received in the Church.”

George thanked him, and began to walk out.

“Um, Fr. Elijah, aren’t you somewhat surprised?”

“George, I was waiting for you to see that you wanted to become Orthodox. Go back to your reading.”

The Christmas break passed quickly, and the first class after break was the introduction to computer science. The professor said, “Most of my students call me Dr. Blaise, although you can use my last name if you’re comfortable. I wanted to offer a few remarks.

“Many of your professors think their class is your most important class, and that entitles them to be your number one priority in homework and demands outside the classroom. I don’t. I believe this class is a puzzle piece that fits into a larger puzzle. Exactly how it fits in will differ, depending on whether you become a major—which I invite you to consider—or whether you choose an allied major but focus on something other than computer science, or whether your interests lie elsewhere and I am broadening your horizons even if your main interests lie somewhere else. I will try to help give you a good puzzle piece, and in office hours especially I want to support you in helping fit this piece of the puzzle into the broader picture.

“My best student was a mechanic; car and airplane mechanics, for instance, are solving a problem with a system, and I have never been so stunned at how quickly a student learned to debug well as with this mechanic. I’ve found that people who know something about physics, mathematics, or engineering pick up computer work more quickly even if you don’t see a single physics equation in this class: learn physics and programming is a little easier to learn. And it goes the other way too: one of my colleagues in the math department explained that students who know the process of taking something and writing a computer program to reach the desired results, correctly, are prepared to do something similar in mathematics, and take something and write a correct proof to reach the desired results. Learn something in one hard science and you have an advantage in others.”

One student raised her hand. “Yes?” Dr. Blaise asked.

“What about those of us interested in philosophy or religion? What if we’re doing something computers won’t help us with? Are you going to teach us how to use word processors?”

“Well, I’d point out that there is a long tradition of studying mathematics—geometry—as a sort of mental weightlifting before studying philosophy or theology. Or some of my poet friends say that it’s a way of poisoning the mind, and I’ll respect them if they want to say that. But for many of you, it is useful, even if we don’t teach word processing—ask the lab tech for sessions that will teach you how to use computer software. Computer science is about something else; computer science isn’t any more about how to use computers than astronomy is about how to use telescopes.”

The student raised her hand again, slightly, and then put it down.

Dr. Blaise said, “I’d like to hear your thought. If you aren’t convinced, other people probably aren’t convinced either, and it will do everybody good to have it out in the open.”

“Um… But why does…” She paused, and Dr. Blaise smiled. “I want to study English.”

“Good stuff. So does my daughter. It’s a bit of a cross-cultural encounter, and I think it can benefit English students for the same reason my majors benefit from taking English classes. But never mind programming specifically; I want to talk about how the disciplines can integrate. Programming won’t help you the same way as some of the humanities will, but I’d like to talk about how things might fit together.

“I saw one of your English professors, a lovely medievalist who knows the Arthurian legends well. She was talking with one of the campus ethicists, who has interests in the history of moral theology. The topic of discussion? One that you might wince at, on the short list of positions the Catholic Church is unpopular for: contraception. And the ethicist said he’d found something he thought the medievalist literature professor might find interesting.

“The history of contraception, like almost any other big question, involves a lot of other things. And one of those things involves a suggestion by John Noonan, not for one of several proposed answers for a question, but of an answer to a puzzle that has no other answers, at least as of the time Noonan wrote.

“The vision of courtly love, and what is celebrated in that love between a man and a woman—probably another man’s wife, for what it’s worth—is an ideal that was all about celebrating ‘love’, and in this celebration of ‘love,’ there was a big idea of ‘Play all you want; we will encourage and celebrate play, whether or not you’re in marriage; just be sure that you do it in a way that won’t generate a child.’

“Scholars do have difficulty keeping a straight face in the idea that the courtly romances are coded messages about secret Cathar teachings. They aren’t. But they flourished as nowhere before in a land where something of Catharism was in the air, and, like contraception, the idea of celebrating ‘love’ and encouraging people, ‘Play, but do it in a way that don’t generate a child’ is not exactly Cathar, but is the sort of thing that could come if Catharism was in the air.

“And, the ethicist went further, the Arthurian romances are done in such a way that it is very difficult to demonstrate any clear and conscious authorial understanding of Cathar teachings, let alone coded messages sent to those ‘in the know’… but that doesn’t mean that Catharism had nothing to do with it. And not just because strict Cathars would have taken a dim view of this way of taking their ball and running with it. A very dim view, for that matter.

“Catharism, called Gnosticism as it appeared in the ancient world and various other things as it resurfaces today, has various things about it, and not just wanting to celebrate love to high Heaven while understanding this wonderful ‘love’ as something which one should be able to do without generating children. That’s not the only thing, and it is one point of including Cathar elements without doing them very well.

“Catharism, or Gnosticism or whatever the day’s version of it is called, is deeply connected with magic, and this occult element has a lot of ideas, or something like ideas, if you get very deep into it. And in the Arthurian legends, there is an occult element, but it isn’t done very well. There are dweomers all over the place, and Merlin and almost every woman work enchantments, not to mention that all sorts of items have magical ‘virtues’, but the English professor had almost no sense that the authors were really involved with the occult themselves. It was kind of a surface impression that never had any of the deeper and darker features, or the deeper secret doctrines of one in the know. It kind of portrays magic the way a poorly researched TV show portrays a faroff land—there may be a sense of interest and enchantment untainted by actual understanding of what is being portrayed.

“And besides that surface impression, there is something of self-centered pride. The only people who really have a pulse are nobles living in large measure for themselves, knights who are trying to do something impressive. Commerce never seems to really taint the screen of luxury; furthermore there is a sense that being in fights for one’s glory is no great sin, and it doesn’t really matter what those fights do to the others. It’s a very different view of fighting from ‘just war.’

“The Arthurian legends are undoubtedly classics of world literature, and it is terribly reductive to say that they’re simply a bad version of Cathar doctrine. That denigration of their literary qualities is not justified, just as dismissing Star Wars as just a bit of violent Gnosticism or Catharism or whatever is out of line. Star Wars would never succeed if it were just dressed up Gnosticism.

“But it does raise the question of whether the literature of courtly love, so foundational to how people can understand ‘love’ today and understand what it means to celebrate ‘love’ and say that the Catholic Church hates love between men and women if it will not recognize that contraception will help that love be celebrated with less unwelcome ‘consequences’… It raises the question, not of whether the literature is bad literature and not worth study, but whether it is very good literature that contains something fatal.”

There was one more question, and Dr. Blaise began discussing computer science. At least George believed later that the professor had been discussing computer science, and trusted others’ reports on that score.

But George did not hear a word more of what Dr. Blaise said that day.

The computer science class was a night class, and when it was finished, George found himself surprised when he entered the parsonage.

Fr. Elijah was sitting, his back to the door, staring into the fireplace. A large volume, looking like an encyclopedia volume, was sitting open on Fr. Elijah’s sparsely appointed desk. Fr. Elijah, his back still to the door, said, “Come in, George. What is the matter?”

George said, “I hope I didn’t interrupt—”

Fr. Elijah said, “I was just resting a bit after reading something. St. Maximus’s language gives me such trouble.”

George rushed over to the desk. “Maybe I can help.” He looked, and looked again, until he realized the volume had columns of Latin and Greek. The volume was printed, but it looked old, and there were worm holes.

“Come in and sit down, George. You don’t need to be reading St. Maximus the Confessor quite yet, even if your Greek is better than mine, or you find the Latin easier. Now sit down. You didn’t come here so you could help me understand the Greek, even if I wouldn’t be surprised if, bright lad as you are, you know Greek a good deal better than I do.”

“It’s Greek to me,” George said, forcing a smile, and then shaking. Fr. Elijah rose, turned around, and said, “Sit down in my chair, George, and enjoy the fire. I’ll step out into the kitchen, make some hot cocoa, and then we can talk. I wish my cat were still around; she was a real sweetheart, and she would sit in your lap and purr. Even if it was the first time she met you.” Fr. Elijah left, silently, and went about making hot cocoa. He returned, holding two mugs, and gave one mug to George. “I put extra marshmallows in yours.”

Then Fr. Elijah sat down in a smaller chair, in the corner, and sat, listening.

George blurted out, after some silence, “I think the Arthurian stuff I read may be Gnostic.”

Fr. Elijah took a sip.

“One of the people in my class said that Arthurian literature arose because of the Cathars.”

Fr. Elijah took another sip.

“Or something like that. It seems that a lot of what people do as glorious things in courtly literature is Gnostic.”

Fr. Elijah took a slow sip, and asked, “Like what?”

“Well, the ideal of love is big on celebrating love, only it’s better if children don’t get in the way, and you’re careful to keep children out of the way. And there’s magic all over the place, and nobles are superior.”

Fr. Elijah took another sip.

“At least that’s how I remember it, only I’m probably wrong.”

Fr. Elijah stroked his beard for a moment and said, “Well, that’s a big enough question that we should respect the matter by not trying to sort it out all at once. Let’s not assume that because it is so big a question, we are obligated to rush things. If it is a big question, we are more obligated not to rush things.”

Why?”

“Ever hear of Arius or Arianism?”

“You mean racism?”

“No, not that spelling. A-R-I-U-S and A-R-I-A-N-I-S-M. The race-related bit is spelled with a ‘Y’.”

“Ok.”

“Arius was a deacon who was really worried that his bishop was saying something wrong. So he rushed to correct his bishop, and in his rush to correct the Orthodox Church founded a heresy. He gets it worse in the Orthodox liturgy than even Judas; various other heretics are accused of being taught by Arius.

“There were two mistakes he made. The biggest and worst mistake was fighting the Orthodox Church when they said he was wrong, and that was the real problem with Arius. But another mistake was trying to rush and fix the problem of heresy he thought his bishop was guilty of.

“Holier men than either of us have rushed and said something heretical in their rush job. I’m not sure either of us are going to go warring against the Church and trying to fix it has thought about our correction and said ‘No,’ but if you’ve raised a big question, or your class has, that’s all the more reason not to rush.”

George said, “So what should we do?”

Fr. Elijah said, “Take a deep breath and a sip of cocoa,” and waited. Then he said, “Now what is it that has you so wound up?”

“I thought there was really something in what I was reading.”

“There probably is.”

“But the idea of love, and all the magic, are some sort of second-rate Cathar stuff.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Well, I’m not sure… um… well, they’re big on the experience of love.”

Fr. Elijah sank a little into his chair. “In other forms of Gnosticism, there is an idea of some things as experience… and they are understood as experiences, significant as experiences, and not as significant for other reasons… and I can see some pretty Gnostic assumptions feeding into that ideal of love. You may be right…”

“But isn’t love to be celebrated? How else could it be celebrated?”

“In the New Testament times, celibacy was encouraged despite the fact that it was giving up something big. But the something big is not the obvious ‘something big’ people would be worried about giving up today… it’s having children to carry on one’s name. There is a good deal more…. People, even with hormones, were interested in some other things besides pleasurable experiences. There is more I could explain about what else besides ‘being in love’ could make a happy marriage between happy people, but… Sorry, I’m ranting, and you’re not happy.”

“Fr. Elijah, if what I’m saying makes sense, then why on earth did you preach those homilies? Were you lying… um, I mean…”

“Don’t look for a nicer word; if you think I might have been lying, I would really rather have you bring it out into the open than have it smouldering and damaging other things. No, I’m not angry with you, and no, I wasn’t lying.”

“Then why—”

“George, allow me to state the very obvious. Something was going on in you. And still is. It seemed, and seems to me, that you were coming alive in reading the Arthurian legends. As a pastor or priest or spiritual father or whatever you want to call me, I made an appropriate response and preached homilies that blessed not just you, but also several other people as well. Now, maybe, you are shattered, or maybe you are ready to begin hungering for something more. You know how, in classic Gnosticism, there’s a distinction the Gnostics hold between the so-called ‘hylic’ people who don’t have much of any spiritual life, meaning people who aren’t Christian in any sense, and the ‘psychic,’ meaning soulish, not ESP people, of Christians who have a sort of half-baked spiritual awakening, and the ‘pneumatic,’ meaning spiritual, Gnostics who are the real spiritual elite?”

George said, “It doesn’t surprise me. It’s absolute bosh from beginning to end. It has nothing to do with the truth.”

Fr. Elijah closed his eyes for a moment. “George, I am not quite sure I would say that.”

“What, you’re going to tell me the Gnostics had it right?”

“They had more right than you think; they’re seductively similar to Christianity. They wouldn’t have anywhere near the effect they’re having if it were any other way.

“You know how Orthodox Christianity is patted on the head as a sort of lesser outer revelation that is permissible for those who have reached the outer courts but are not ready to enter the inner sanctum of the Gnostics’ secret knowledge? That’s backwards. The Gnostic ‘knowledge’ might be excusable for people who have not reached the inner reaches of Orthodoxy. It is the Gnostic that is the light-weight spiritual reality. And it is the light-weight spiritual reality that is the Old Law which the New Law fulfills more than the Old Law can fulfill itself. You reacted to something in the Arthurian legends because there is something there, and if you now know that they are not the New Law, I will ask you to excuse me if I still hold those legends to be an Old Law that finds its completion in the New Law. The highest does not stand without the lowest, and part of the New Law is that it makes a place for the Old Law. Including that spark of life you saw in the Arthurian legends.”

“But why preach as if you found so much in them? I were to ask you to do something silly, like preach a sermon on how things have been censored out of the Bible, would you do that too?” George took a breath. “I’m sorry; you can change the subject if you want.”

Fr. Elijah said, slowly, “I have a question for you, and I want you to think carefully. Are you ready for the question?”

George said, “Yes.”

“Can we know, better than God, what the Bible should say?”

“No.”

“But quite a lot of people do think that. A lot of people seem to be trying to help the Bible doing a better job of what it’s trying so hard to say, but can’t quite manage. Or something like that.”

“I’ve read some liberals doing that.”

“It’s not just liberals. Let me give one example. George, have you been big in Creation and evolution debates?”

“Not really.”

“Christians have several options, but for the Newsweek crowd, there are only two options. Either you’re a young earther, or you’re an evolutionist, and the new ‘intelligent design’ is just the old creationism with a more euphemistic name. Rather depressing for a set of options, but let’s pretend those are the only two options.

“Now are you familiar with what this means for dinosaurs?”

“Um…”

“The connection isn’t obvious. We’ve seen, or at least I have, cartoons in magazines that have cave men running from T. rexes or hunting a brontosaurus. Which is, to an evolutionist, over a hundred times worse than having cave men whining loudly about the World Wide Wait. There’s a long time between when the last dinosaurs of any kind, and the first humans of any kind, were around. As in hundreds of millions of years longer than humans have been around in any form. On that timeline, it’s a rather big mistake to have humans interacting with dinosaurs.

“But if you have a young earth timeline, with the whole world created in six days, then it’s not such a ludicrous idea that humans might have interacted with dinosaurs… and your English Bible offers an interesting reason to believe that humans have seen living dinosaurs. Have you read the book of Job?”

George said, “Um, no. It’s one of a lot of…”

Fr. Elijah interrupted. “There’s a lot in the Bible to read, and even people who read the Bible a lot don’t read it quickly unless they’re speed-reading, and then it still takes them a couple of weeks. If you can call that ‘reading the Bible;’ I’ve tried it and I think it’s one of the sillier things I’ve tried—a sort of spiritual ‘get rich quick’ scheme. I was smart enough to stop. But if you check your English Bible, you will see in Job a creature called the ‘behemoth,’ perhaps because the translators on the King James Version didn’t know how to translate it, and the ‘behemoth,’ whatever that may be, is a mighty impressive creature. We are told that it is not afraid though the river rushes against it, suggesting that whatever the behemoth is, it is a big beast. And we are told that it stiffens or swings its tail like a cedar, the cedar being a magnificent, and quite enormous, tree which reaches heights of something like one hundred fifty to two hundred feet. And regardless of where you stand on Creation and evolution, the only creature that has ever walked the earth with a tail that big, or anywhere near that big, is one of the bigger dinosaurs. So the Bible offers what seems to be excellent evidence that people have seen dinosaurs—alive.

“Which is all very lovely, of course given to the English Bible. But first, the ‘behemoth’ is in fact an overgrown relative of the pig, the hippopotamus, and second, it isn’t really talking about his tail. The same basic image is translated unclearly in the Song of S—”

George spit out a mouthful of soda and took a moment to compose himself. “I’m sorry. Did I—”

Fr. Elijah looked around. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that as you were taking a sip. Let me get you a napkin. Here.”

George said, “Ok, so maybe there are some other vivid images that have been, bowlderized—you know, edited for television. Anything more? Were any ideas censored?”

Fr. Elijah said, “A bit murky, but I’m tempted to say ‘yes.’ One idea has been made less clear; there may be other tidbits here and there. A couple of forceful passages that may be interpreted as implying things about contraception don’t come across as clearly. But that may not be censorship; there is a double meaning that is hard to translate correctly in English. I don’t find the English translation strange. But there’s one story in the Old Testament, where the future King David is running from King Saul, who is leading a manhunt and trying to kill David. There are a couple of points that David could have killed Saul, and at one of these points, David’s assistant either encourages David to kill Saul or offers to kill Saul himself, and David says what your English Bible puts as, ‘I will not lay my hand on the Lord’s anointed,’ or something like that. Would you like to know what it says in Hebrew or Greek, or in Latin translation?”

George said, “Um…”

Fr. Elijah got up. “I wasn’t expecting that you would; it’s really not that important or even as impressive as some people think. If you don’t know those languages, it may be easiest to see in the Latin. Aah! Here’s my Latin Bible. Just a minute. Let me get my magnifying glass.” After almost dropping a dark green Bible with golden letters on the cover, and an interminable amount of flipping, he said, “What is this word here?”

“I don’t know Latin.”

“Never mind that. What does that word look like?”

“It’s a lowercase version of ‘Christ,’ with an ‘um’ added.”

“Yes indeed. And at the top it says the name of an Old Testament book, in Latin ‘Liber Samuhelis.’ What do you think the word you pointed out means?”

“I told you that I don’t know Latin.”

“What’s an obvious guess?”

“Um…” George paused. “Christ.”

“Yes indeed.”

“What does the lowercase ‘c’ mean?”

“It means nothing. As a matter of language-loving curiosity, the text is in Latin; either in the manuscripts or in this printed Bible, capitalizations follow a different rule, and ‘christus’/’christum’/… isn’t automatically capitalized. Now why is the Old Testament book of Samuel using the equivalent of the ‘Christ’?”

“Because the Latin is messed up?”

“Ernk. Sorry. Bzzt. Thank you for playing, but no. The Latin is fine. It’s the English that’s messed up. The Latin correctly translates, ‘I will not lay my hand on,’ meaning violently strike, ‘the Lord’s Christ.’ Didn’t you know that the word ‘Christ’ means ‘anointed’?”

“Yes, but…”

“The Bible, Old Testament and New, uses ‘Christ’ for those who are anointed—the Son of God, prophets, priests, kings, and ultimately the people of God. The whole point of becoming Christian is to become by grace what Christ is by nature, and even if we can never be perfect in Christ, there is something real that happens. If you ever become Orthodox, you will be ‘Christed,’ or in the related and standard term, ‘chrismated,’ meaning, ‘anointed with holy oil.’ And, at a deeper level, the anointing is about anointing with the Holy Spirit, as Christ was. And the New Testament in particular says a lot about Christ, but the Bible calls Christ or Christs others who are anointed. But the Bible translations, coincidentally by people who have much less room for this in their theology, introduce a division that isn’t in Hebrew, Greek, or the Catholic Church’s Latin, and translate the Hebrew ‘moshiah’ or the Greek ‘christos’ one way when it refers to the one they think is ‘really’ Christ, and another way when it refers to other Christs even if what the text says is, quite literally, ‘Christ.’ They introduce a very clear divide where none exists in the text, using a language shenanigan not entirely different from some mistranslations translating ‘God’ with a big ‘G’ when the Bible talks about the Father, and a ‘god’ with a little ‘g’ when the Bible refers to Christ. Perhaps your Bible’s translators still say ‘anointed one,’ but there is some degree of censorship. The reader is saved the shock of too many correctly translated and explicit statements that we are to be little Christs, Sons of God, living the divine life—there’s a word for the divine life in Greek that is different from the word for mere created life, and that dimension doesn’t seem to come through. It’s not all censorship, but there’s something not quite right about the translators who refuse to either consistently say ‘Christ,’ or else consistently say ‘Anointed One,’ so that the readers never get the something important in the Bible that Western Christianity does not always get. But there is enough mystery in the Bible. Sacred Scripture is unfathomable even apart from relatively few areas where the translators try to make sure that the reader does not get the full force of the what the text is saying. God exceeds our grasp; he is and ever shall be Light, but whenever we try to shine a light to search him out, its beam falls off in darkness, and the God who is Light meets us beyond the cloud of darkness enshrouding him.

“I say this to answer your question, which I know was purely rhetorical. I’d prefer not to scandalize people and have to clean up the pieces later, but even the tough old women you see in our parish aren’t so prissy as you might think. But I want to more directly speak to your intent, and the deep question behind your asking if, because you had hypothetically asked me, I would preach a sermon about the Bible and censorship. I wasn’t crossing my fingers or simply saying what I thought would please you, when I preached about the Arthurian legends, and there is nothing I wish to take back. I really was preaching in good faith.”

“Then I don’t want Brocéliande for now.”

George said, “You may like the book. I don’t. I don’t want it any more.”

“Then may I take a look at it? I would like to have it, to look at. If you don’t want it any more, that’s fine, but you can have it back any time.”

“Fine. Maybe it will be better for you than for me.”

“By the way, what are you doing for Spring Break?”

“Dunno. Do you have any suggestions?”

“There are some truly beautiful places where you could get blasted out of your mind, acquire a couple of new diseases, and if you time it right, come back still in possession of a rather impressive hangover.”

“Um…”

“Yes?”

“Why don’t we just cut to the chase and get to your real suggestion?”

“Aah, yes. It turns out that there’s a finishing school which is offering a week-long intensive course in the gentle art of polite conversation, but—oh, wait, I was going to suggest that to my granddaughter Abigail. I would never make such a suggestion to you. Finishing school—what was I thinking? What I was really wondering was whether you have considered one of the alternative spring breaks.”

“Like Habitat for Humanity? But I have no skill in construction.”

“That’s not really the point. Last I checked, Habitat for Humanity had nothing on their website about how only seasoned construction workers can be of any use.”

“But aren’t there a lot of things that could go wrong?”

“Like what?”

“I might hit myself on the thumb with a hammer.”

“If you’re worried about being at a loss for words, last April Fool’s Day my godson gave me a book listing bad words in something like a thousand languages, and you can borrow it. There are worse things in life than hitting your thumb with a hammer, and if it’s that big of an issue, I’d be happy to ask the head of Habitat for Humanity to refund your wasted time. If you’re worried about getting sunburned, the store next door has an impressive collection of sunscreen containers, giving you options that rival those for dental floss. I personally recommend the SPF 30 in your choice of soft pastel-hued plastic bottles with a delicate floral scent created through a carefully blended confection of unnatural chemicals. I don’t think that Habitat is going anywhere where you’d be in real danger of snakebite, but I can help find a kit you can use to bite the snake back. Have I left something out?”

A week later, and (though he did not tell Fr. Elijah) realizing that Abigail was also a student at Calix College, George returned. Fr. Elijah said, “Why the long face, George? Just a minute while I make some tea.”

“Um, I’m not signed up for the alternative spring break.”

“George, I only asked you to consider… tell me what’s on your mind… if you want to.”

“I was in line, and I just missed signing up.”

Fr. Elijah sat in silence.

“I could have gone, but there was a girl in line after me, and she really wanted to go. I let her have the last slot.”

“Excellent. Some would call it sexist, but I’d call it one of the finer points of chivalry.”

Fr. Elijah paused and then said, “Could you come with me to the house for a second?”

George gulped.

Fr. Elijah led George out to the house and rummaged on a shelf before pulling out a CD. “George, could you put this in the CD player and hit play? I’ve figured out how to use the CD player several times, but I keep forgetting, and I don’t want to keep you waiting.” He handed the CD to George and said, “I’ll be right out. I need to make a phone call.” He stepped into another room and closed the door.

George looked at the CD, did a double take, and looked at the player. He began to hear a rap beat.

As I walk through the valley where I harvest my grain,
I take a look at my wife and realize she’s very plain.
But that’s just perfect for an Amish like me.
You know, I shun fancy things like electricity.
At 4:30 in the morning I’m milkin’ cows.
Jebediah feeds the chickens and Jacob plows… Fool!
And I’ve been milkin’ and plowin’ so long that
Even Ezekiel thinks that my mind is gone.

I’m a man of the land! I’m into discipline!
Got a Bible in my hand and a beard on my chin.
But if I finish all my chores and you finish thine,
Then tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1699!

We been spending most our lives, living in an Amish paradise.
I’ve churned butter once or twice, living in an Amish paradise.
It’s hard work and sacrifice, living in an Amish paradise.
We sell quilts at discount price, living in an Amish paradise.

A local boy kicked me in the butt last week.
I just smiled at him and turned the other cheek!
I really don’t care; in fact, I wish him well.
‘Cause I’ll be laughing my head off when he’s burning in Hell!
But I ain’t never punched a tourist even if he deserved it
An Amish with a ‘tude? You know that’s unheard of!
I never wear buttons but I got a cool hat.
And my homies agree, I really look good in black… Fool!
If you’ll come to visit, you’ll be bored to tears.
We haven’t even paid the phone bill in 300 years
But we ain’t really quaint, so please don’t point and stare;
We’re just technologically impaired!

There’s no phone, no lights, no motorcar,
Not a single luxury,
Like Robinson Caruso,
It’s as primitive as can be!

We been spending most our lives, living in an Amish paradise.
We’re just plain and simple guys, living in an Amish paradise.
There’s no time for sin and vice, living in an Amish paradise.
We don’t fight. We all play nice, living in an Amish paradise.

Hitchin’ up the buggy, churnin’ lots of butter,
Raised a barn on Monday, soon I’ll raise another!
Think you’re really righteous? Think you’re pure in heart?
Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art!
I’m the pious guy the little Amlettes wanna be like,
On my knees day and night, scorin’ points for the afterlife,
So don’t be vain and don’t be whiny,
Or else, my brother, I might have to get medieval on your heinie!

We been spending most our lives, living in an Amish paradise.
We’re all crazy Mennonites, living in an Amish paradise.
There’s no cops or traffic lights, living in an Amish paradise.
But you’d probably think it bites, living in an Amish paradise.

Fr. Elijah walked back into the room and served the tea, smiling gently.

George said, “Um…”

Fr. Elijah said, “Yes?”

“I’m not sure how to put this delicately.”

“Then put it indelicately. Bluntly, if you wish.”

“I hadn’t picked you out for a Weird Al fan.”

“It was a present.”

“Who would buy you a Weird Al CD?”

“A loved one.”

“Um… do you ever do something less spectacular, like play chess?”

“I’m not a big fan of chess, and besides, I’ve visited the chess club at the Episcopalian church, and it seems the Anglican Communion isn’t going to produce that many more good chess players.”

“Why?”

Fr. Elijah sipped his tea. “Can’t tell a bishop from a queen.”

George coughed, sputtered, tried to keep a straight face, and then tried to steer the conversation back. “When were you given the Weird Al CD?”

“For April Fools’ Day. The present is much appreciated.”

“I like Weird Al, but why did you play that?”

“Because I was just on the phone.”

“And?”

“I’ve just arranged for you to spend your Spring Break at an Amish paradise.”

“Um…”

“Yes?”

“Are you joking?”

“No.”

“Are you being serious?”

“Yes.”

“Are you being sadistic again?”

“Yes, I’m being very sadistic.”

Why?

“I’m not saying.”

“I’ll be bored to tears.”

“Perhaps. But boredom can be good, and not just because it can build character.”

“Um… Never mind. I’ve grown rather fond of computers. I’ve found out the hard way that I rather need them.”

“If it’s that hard for you to spend a few days without spam, you can use your cell phone to read all the insulting messages telling you that you can’t handle money, or that you need snake oil diets, or some part of your body is too small, or you’re not man enough for a relationship with a real woman and must content yourself with pixels on a screen. And if you forget leave your cell phone at home, you might be able to borrow one of theirs.”

“Amish don’t use phones or the Internet. They’re ‘just technologically impaired;’ didn’t the song say that?”

“You can ask them; I’m sure one of them would be willing to lend you his cell phone.”

“Um…”

“Let’s forget about that; we can talk about it later if you want. Anyway, after school gets out, come over here with your bag. Someone else is doing some running, and will give you a ride. He’s a bit hard of hearing, so he’s not much good for chatting in the car, but he’s a great guy. But you can gripe to him about how backwards the Amish are.

“Oh, and one more thing… I’m not exactly sending you into bear country, but if one of the workmen were attacked by a bear, I’d be very worried.”

“Um…”

“Yes?”

That seems obvious.”

“But not for the reason you think. I’ll explain why after you return.”

There was a knock on the door, and Fr. Elijah opened it.

“George, I’d like to introduce you to Jehu. Jehu, this is George. Oh, George, I’m sorry for being a pest, but could you open your bag and pull out everything inside?”

George looked at Fr. Elijah, rolled his eyes, and began unpacking.

“Which of these items mean anything at all to you? Which have a story, or were expensive, or were a gift?”

George looked at Fr. Elijah, who stood in silence.

“You can put anything that means anything to you in this closet; it will be here when you get back. I’m not sending you to a den of thieves, but…”

George began shuffling and sorting while Fr. Elijah waited. When he was finished, Fr. Elijah said, “How much does your windbreaker mean to you?”

“It’s new, but I want to have it with me on the trip.”

“Take it off. You have an old sweatshirt or two.”

“Sorry, I insist on this one. It doesn’t mean that much to me.”

Fr. Elijah said, “If you must…”

George said, “I’ve taken enough out. Have a good evening.” He stiffly shook Fr. Elijah’s hand. “You better have a good reason for your odd behavior.”

Fr. Elijah said, “I can explain later, if you need me to.”

George repacked the remaining half of his luggage into the duffle bag, and left with Jehu.

Some days later, Fr. Elijah heard a knock and opened the door. “George, George! How are you? I must hear about your trip. That’s a lovely jeans jacket you have there. Is there a story behind it?”

George gave Fr. Elijah a look that could have been poured on a waffle, and then began quickly taking his coat off.

Fr. Elijah said, “You wouldn’t throw a coat at an old man who doesn’t have the reflexes to block it… I must hear the story about the coat, though.”

George closed his mouth for a second, and then said, “Filthy sadist!”

Fr. Elijah said, “It sounded like you had an interesting trip.”

“Did you call and ask them to be obnoxious?”

“I did no such thing.”

“Honest?”

“I called and asked them to go easy on you.”

“You called and asked them to go easy on me?”

“Well, you seem to have gotten through the matter without getting any black eyes.”

“You call that going easy? These guys are pacifists, right?”

“That depends on your idea of a ‘pacifist’. If you mean that they don’t believe you should use violence to solve conflicts, then yes, they are pacifists.”

George said, “And…”

“But does that make them wimps? In any sense at all?”

“You did say that you would be worried if one of them were attacked by a bear… Why?”

“I’d be worried for the bear.”

George sunk down into his chair.

“You must have some stories to tell.”

“They wanted help raising a barn, and they wouldn’t let me do any of the stunts they were doing without a harness, but when I went to the outhouse, things shook, and when I opened the door, I was over ten feet in the air.”

“Earthquake?”

“Forklift. I don’t know why they had one.”

“Did you ever think you would sit on such a high throne? I have a suspicion that’s higher than even my bishop’s throne.”

“We are not amused.”

“You are using the royal ‘We,’ Your Majesty. Excellent.”

“The first day, I didn’t take off my shirt at work, but I did take off my windbreaker, and when I left, they nailed it to the beams!”

“Excellent. Is that why Your Majesty has a new, handmade jeans jacket?”

George gave Fr. Elijah another look that could have been poured on a waffle.

“I should maybe have told you… They don’t think anything of nailing down any clothing that’s taken off as a practical joke. Did you ever get an opportunity to nail down some clothing or something of theirs?”

“Yes, but like a gentleman, I did not.”

“That was rude of you.”

“You mean they’re offended at what I didn’t do?”

“No; I just said it was rude. They wouldn’t be offended. But what I was going to say is that the women have lots of denim, and are very adept at sewing new clothes; it’s almost like making a paper airplane for them. Or maybe a little bigger of a deal than that. But you seem to be laboring under a sense that since the Amish are such backwards people, they aren’t allowed to have a sense of humor. Were you surprised at the sense of humor they had?”

“Filthy sadist!”

“So did you get bored with nothing interesting to do besides surf the web through your cell phone?”

George said, “Filthy sadist!” Then he paused.

Fr. Elijah sat back and smiled. “George, I believe you have a question.”

George hesitated.

“Yes? Ask anything you want.”

George hesitated again, and asked, “When can I come back?”

Fr. Elijah just laughed.

George walked around, and had a few chats with Abigail on campus. She started to occupy his thoughts more… and George wondered if he really wanted to dismiss all of the literature of courtly love.

He tried to put this out of his mind the next time he saw Fr. Elijah.

He thought he’d pay a visit, and knocked on Fr. Elijah’s door.

Fr. Elijah said, “I’m glad you’re here, George. Did you know that a man-eating tiger got loose on the campus of Calix College?”

George stood up and immediately pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “Do the police—”

“Sit down, George, and put your cell phone away, although I must commend your gallant impulse. This was before your time, and besides, George, it starved.”

George said, very forcedly, “Ha ha ha.”

“Sit down, please. Have you had any further thoughts about your holiday with the Amish?”

“It seems a bit like King Arthur’s court. Or at least—”

“Why would that be?”

George sat for a while, and said nothing.

“Are you familiar with Far Side comic strips?”

“Yes.”

“I expected so. You like them, right?”

“Yes, but I haven’t read them in a while.”

“Do you remember the strip with its caption, ‘In the days before television’?”

“Can’t put my finger on it.”

“It shows a family, mesmerized, sitting, lying, and slouching around a blank spot where there isn’t a television… I think you’ve had a visit to the days before television. You didn’t even need a time machine.”

George sat in silence for a moment.

Fr. Elijah continued, “If you want, I can show you the technique by which the Bible is censored, and how the translators hide the fact that they’ve taken something out of the text. But do you know the one line that was censored from the movie production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—the Disney one, I mean?”

“I didn’t notice that anything was censored.”

“Well, you’re almost right. Now it seems to be religion that is censored, Christianity having replaced sex as the publishing world’s major taboo, and Disney did not censor one iota of the stuff about Aslan. But there is one line of the book that almost gets into the movie, but then Father Christmas merely makes a smile instead of verbally answering the question. Do you know what that line is?”

“What?”

“‘Battles are ugly when women fight.'”

“Um… I can see why they would want to smooth over that.”

“Why? Battles are ugly when men fight. There is a reason why Orthodox call even necessary fighting ‘the cross of St. George.’ ‘Cross,’ as in a heavy, painful burden. I’ve dealt pastorally with several veterans. They’ve been through something rough, much rougher than some people’s experience with, say, cancer. And it is my unambiguous opinion, and that of every single soldier I’ve spoken to at length, that battles are ugly… whether or not women fight. Therefore, battles are ugly when women fight, and you’d really have to not understand battle, think it’s the same thing as a violent fantasy or watching an action-adventure movie, to deny that battles are ugly when whatever group fights.

“So why make such a big deal over a single line, ‘Battles are ugly when women fight?’ Why is that one line worth censoring when Disney has the guts to leave Aslan untouched? What’s a bigger taboo in the media world than Christ?”

“Umm… I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Ok, let me ask you… What do you think of the Amish women?”

George tried not to stiffen.

“I’m sorry, George, I meant besides that… When you’re my age you can forget that for women to dress very modestly can—”

“Then what did you mean?”

“Imagine one of those women in a fight.”

George tried not to make a face.

Fr. Elijah said, “My understanding is that they’re strong and hard workers, probably a lot stronger than many men you know.”

George said, “Um…”

“Would you deny that they are strong? And tough, for that matter?”

“No…”

“Does it bother you in the same way to imagine an Amish man having to carry a gun into combat?”

“No. He’d be pretty tough.”

“But the women are pretty strong and tough too. Why does it bother you to think about one of them entering combat and fighting?”

George said nothing.

“The women strike you as stronger and tougher than many men that you know. So they’re basically masculine?”

“Fr. Elijah… the women there almost left me wondering if I’d met real women before, and the men left me wondering if I’d met real men before. I don’t know why.”

“I think I have an answer for why the idea of an Amish woman fighting in battle bothers you more than an Amish man fighting in battle.”

“What?”

“I’ve been reading through Brocéliande. Let me read you a couple of passages.” Fr. Elijah returned momentarily, and flipped through Brocéliande before reading:

Sir Galahad he rode, and rode and rode, until saw he a dragon red. Anon the wyrm with its tail struck a third of the trees against the earth that Sir Galahad they might slay. Anon Sir Galahad warred he against the wyrm.

The dragon charged, and anon Sir Galahad his horse trembled, and Galahad gat him down to earth. The dragon laughed at Sir Galahad’s spear which brake to-shivers, and breathed fire red as Hell.

Sir Galahad gat him behind his shield, and then charged with his sword, though it should break as rotted wood. Anon the dragon swept him, though his helm saved Sir Galahad his head from the rocks.

Then Sir Galahad, who his strength was as the strength of a thousand because his faith was pure, leapt him and wrestled against the beast. Anon the beast turned and tore, against the knight, until the knight he bled sore. Never was such combat enjoined, but the knight held his choke until the dragon his death met.

Fr. Elijah pulled the bookmark out, and found one of several other bookmarks:

Rose the smoke of incense, of frankincense pure the garden did fill. ‘Twere many women present, that hyght Lady Eva, and Lady Elizabeth, and Lady Anna, and Lady Martha, and Queen Mary. Sang they a song, ’twere of one voice, and in that song kept they a garden: in the garden was life. Queen Mary a radiant Child gave suck, and others gave life each in her way.

Verdant was the place of their labour.

Fr. Elijah said, “I think you’re missing the point if you’re trying to tell if there are differences between men and women by asking who is tougher.”

“Why?”

“It’s like asking what the differences are between apples and oranges, and then thinking you need to justify it with a measurement. So you may say that apples are bigger than oranges, until you realize that navel oranges are the size of a grapefruit and some varieties of apples don’t get that big. So maybe next you measure a sugar content, and you get really excited when you realize that maybe oranges have a measurably lower Ph than apples—a scientist’s way of measuring how sour they are—until someone reminds you that crabapples are so tart you wouldn’t want to eat them. And all this time you are looking for some precise scientific measurement that will let you scientifically be able to distinguish apples and oranges…

“Is it simply a measure of some difference in physical strength that makes you not like the idea of an Amish woman in battle? If you knew that the women were equally as strong as the men, identically strong, or tough or whatever, would that address…”

George hesitated. “But…”

Fr. Elijah sat silently.

“But,” George continued, “the idea of an Amish woman in battle… I know some girls who wanted to go into the military, and it didn’t bother me that much. And the Amish women are pacifists.”

“So if those women were gung-ho military enthusiasts, even if they weren’t soldiers, then you wouldn’t mind—”

“Ok, ok, that’s not it. But what is it about the Amish?”

“George, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“So what is the right tree? Where should I be barking?”

“When people notice a difference with another culture, at least in this culture they seek some ‘That’s cultural’ explanation about the other culture.”

“So there’s something about this culture? Ours?”

“George, let me ask you a question. How many times in the Arthurian legends did you see someone invite a man to be open about himself and have the courage to talk about his feelings?”

George was silent.

“We still have the expression, ‘wear the pants,’ even though it is no longer striking for a woman to wear trousers. It used to be as striking as it would be for a man to wear a skirt.”

“Um… you don’t approve of women wearing pants?”

“Let’s put that question on hold; it doesn’t mean the same thing. Abby wears trousers all the time. I wouldn’t want her to do otherwise.”

“But…”

“George, when have you seen me at the front of the church, leading worship but not wearing a skirt?”

“Um…”

“But I wouldn’t want you wearing a skirt. The question of wearing a skirt, or pants, or whatever, is like trying to make a rule based on size or tartness or whatever to separate apples from oranges.”

“It’s the wrong question, then?”

“It’s fundamentally the wrong question… and it misleads people into thinking that the right question must be as impossible to answer as the wrong question. Never mind asking who is allowed to wear pants and who is allowed to wear a skirt. We’re both men. I wear a skirt all the time. You shouldn’t. And, in either case, there is a way of dressing that is appropriate to men, and another to women, and that propriety runs much deeper than an absolute prohibition on who can wear what. And this is true even without getting into the differences between men’s and women’s jeans, which are subtle enough that you can easily miss them, but important.”

“Like what?”

“For starters, the cloth is hung on men’s jeans so that the fabric is like a grid, more specifically with some of the threads running up and down, and others running side to side. On women’s clothing, jeans included, the threads run diagonally.”

“And this is a deliberately subtle clue for the super-perceptive?”

“It changes how the cloth behaves. It changes the cloth’s physical properties. Makes women’s clothing run out faster, because it’s at just the right angle to wear out more quickly. But it also makes the cloth function as more form-fitting. On men’s jeans, the cloth just hangs; it’s just there as a covering. On women’s jeans, the cloth is there to cover, but it’s also there to highlight. This, and the cut, and a few other things, mean that even if men and women are both wearing jeans, there are differences, even if they’re subtle enough that you won’t notice them. Men’s jeans are clothing. Women’s jeans are more about adornment, even—or especially—if it’s something you’re not expected to notice.”

“So we do have differences?”

“We do have differences despite our best efforts to eradicate them. We want men to be sophisticated enough to cultivate their feminine sides, and women to be strong enough to step up to the plate.”

“Um, isn’t that loaded language?”

“Very. Or maybe not. But one of the features of Gnosticism is that there keeps popping up an idea that we should work towards androgyny. Including today.”

“Like what?”

“Um, you mean besides an educational system that is meant to be unisex and tells boys and girls to work together and be… um… ‘mature’ enough not to experience a tingle in the relationship? Or dressing unisex? Or not having too many activities that are men only or women only? Or not having boys and men together most of the time, and women and girls together? Or having people spend long periods of time in mixed company whether or not it is supposed to be romantic? Or an idea of dating that is courtly love without too many consciously acknowledged expectations about what is obviously the man’s role, and what is obviously the women’s role? Or—”

“Ok, ok, but I think there was more—”

“Yes, there is much more to the Amish, or the Arthurian legends, than what they hold about men and women. But there is also much more in what they hold about men and women—all the more when they are telling of Long Ago and Far Away, so that political correctness does not apply to them, so that men who go on great quests can be appreciated even by a woman who thinks men would be better off if they would just learn to talk more about their feelings and in general hold a woman’s aspirations of conversational intimacy. And the Amish are ‘technologically impaired,’ or whatever you want to call them, so they’re allowed to have real men and real women despite the fact that they are alive today. But the pull of men taught to be men, and women taught to be women, is powerful even if it’s politically incorrect, and—”

George interrupted. “Is this why I was trying to keep a straight face when you were asking me to imagine an Amish woman carrying a gun?”

Fr. Elijah thought. “For an Amish man to have to fight in battle would be bad enough. An Amish woman entering a battlefield would be something that would cut against the grain of their life as women. It’s not so superficial as the women being dainty and not strong enough to hold a gun.”

“The men seem stronger and tougher than the women, though.”

“Yes, but is it only a matter of being tougher? Is what you observed simply a matter of the women being tough but the men being tougher?”

George was silent.

Fr. Elijah looked at his watch and winced. “Always when I’m having a good conversation… George, I’m sorry, but I’ve got someone coming over any minute, and a bit of preparation. Sorry…”

George picked up his belongings, and Fr. Elijah blessed him on his way out. Then George stepped out, and Fr. Elijah momentarily opened the door. “Oh, and by the way, George, I have some more of that paper, if you want to write her a love note.” He closed the door.

George scurried away, hoping that Fr. Elijah hadn’t seen him blush.

It was not much later that April Fool’s Day came, falling on a Sunday. George did not feel brave, and paid a visit to Bedside Baptist. The days seemed to pass quickly with Abigail in the picture.

On Earth Day, George listened and was amazed at how many references to Creation he heard in the liturgy—not just the reference to “his mother, the earth,” but how plants and trees, rocks, stars, and seas, formed the warp and woof by which the Orthodox Church praised her Lord. The liturgy left him wishing Fr. Elijah would put off his preaching and say something to celebrate earth day…

Fr. Elijah stood up.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Today is Earth Day, and I thought that that would provide an excellent basis for my preaching today. The very opening chapters of Genesis are not about man alone but man and the whole Creation. There are some very interesting suggestions people have made that when Genesis says that we were told not only to “be fruitful and multiply,” but “fill the earth and subdue it,” the word translated “subdue” is very gentle, almost an embrace, as a mother nurtures a child. Which is a very lovely image, but is absolute hogwash.

The word translated “subdue” is the word Christ uses for exactly what Christians must not do by “lording their authority” over other Christians as the heathen do. The book of Genesis tells of this beautiful Creation and then has God charge us with a charge that could much better be translated, “trample it under foot.” And what better day than Earth Day than to talk about why we should trample the earth under foot, told to us in a text that is resplendent with natural beauty?

Many people today call the earth ‘Gaia’, and that is well and good. Today one calls a man ‘Mr.’ and a woman ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms.’ or ‘Mrs.’ if there is no other honorific, and as much as adults all bear that title, in Latin every woman bears then name of ‘Gaia’ and every man bears the name of ‘Gaius.’ And if we are speaking of the earth, it is well and proper to call her Gaia; only someone who understands neither men nor women would think of her as sexless!

If you are dealing with a horse, for instance, it helps to keep in mind that they are prey animals with a lot of fear. Never mind that they’re much bigger than you; they’re afraid of you, as you would be afraid of a rat, and need to be treated like a small child. But you can only deal with a horse gently after it is broken and after you have made it clear that it is you holding the reins and not the horse. You need to be able to treat a horse like a little child if you are to handle them… but if you spoil it, and fail to establish your authority, you have a terrified small child that is stronger than an Olympic athlete. You do need to be gentle with a horse, but it is a gentleness that holds the reins, with you in charge.

There are a number of fundamental difficulties we face about being in harmony with nature, and one of the chief ones is that we are trying to be in harmony with nature the wrong way. We are trying to take our cue from our mother the earth, perhaps instead of taking our cue from technology. And it is excellent to treat Gaia gently, and perhaps technology is in fact quite a terrible place to take our cue from, and something else we absolutely need to trample under foot, but there is something mistaken about the rider taking his cue from the horse. In Genesis we are called to rule material Creation as its head: we are to give it its cue, rather than following. Perhaps you have seen the Far Side cartoon that says, “When imprinting studies go awry” and shows a scientist last in line with ducklings follow a mother duck… which is very funny, but not a recipe for a life well lived. We are made from the same clay as horse and herb, but unless we are deeply sunk into the even worse cues we will take from technology when we fail to rule it, we do not serve our best interests—or the earth’s—when we ask her to dance and expect her to be our lead.

But enough of what is politically incorrect in the West, where we say that men should not lead and mean, in both senses, that humans should not lead the rest of Creation and that males should not lead females. I could belabor why both of those are wrong, but I would like to dig deeper, deeper even than saying that lordship applies to every one of us even if we are all “a man under authority,” including me.

Patristic exegesis of the rule over Creation is first and foremost of a rule over our passions and over ourselves. We are not fit to lead others or Creation if we have not even learned to lead ourselves; “better is a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.” If you are following a Western model, then you may be thinking of a big enterprise for us to start ruling Creation which is really beside the point. If you save yourself through ascetical mastery, ten thousand will be saved around you. Never mind that this is mystical; it is a matter of “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.” You become a leader, and a man, not by ruling over others, but by ruling over yourself.

We are in Great Lent now, the central season of the entire Orthodox year, not because it is about ruling others or about ruling Creation—it isn’t—but because it is about ruling ourselves. We are not to seek a larger kingdom to rule outside ourselves; we are to turn our attention to the kingdom within, and rule it, and God will add a larger kingdom outside if we are ready. The first, foremost, and last of places for us to exercise lordship is in ourselves, and our rule over the Creation is but an image of our rule over ourselves, impressive as the outer dominion may be.

We bear the royal bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve, and we are to be transformed into the image of Christ. Let us seek first the Kingdom of God, with all that that means for our rule over ourselves.

In the Name of the Lord and Father, and of the Son who is Lord, and of the Heavenly King, who is the Holy Ghost, Amen.

After his Sunday dinner, George thought it would be a good time to wander in the wood.

In the forest, he found himself by a babbling brook, with the sound of a waterfall not far off. George brushed off a fallen mossy log and sat down to catch his breath.

George began listening to the birdsong, and it almost seemed he could tell a pattern. Then two warm hands covered his eyes.

George tried to look up, remembered his eyes were covered, and brought his own hands up to his face, briefly touching a small, soft pair of hands. Then he said, “It’s definitely a man…”

Then George turned. Abigail was sticking out her tongue.

Abigail’s dress was a rich, deep, deep red, the color of humble earth seen through a ruby. A pair of bare white feet peeked out from beneath a long flowing skirt, a wide, golden straw hat sat atop her locks, and dark, intricate knotwork lay across her heart.

George looked down at his own feet and saw his own worn combat boots, before looking at Abigail’s face. She smiled and said, “Boo!”

George said, “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?”

“Taking a walk, as I do from time to time.”

“Must be pretty rare for you, if this is the first time I’ve seen you.”

“You’re in the woods more often than I am?”

A squirrel darted out, climbed across Abigail’s foot, and scurried away.

George asked, “It wasn’t afraid of you?”

“Most of them aren’t, at least not that much of the time.”

George looked at her, and she said, “It’s not such a big deal, really. Read any good books lately?”

“No, and—ooh, I told Fr. Elijah I’d read C.S. Lewis, something or other about ‘glory.’ I need to get back to him.”

“Maybe it’s a box you’re not meant to open, at least not yet… if I know Grandpa, he’s probably forgotten about it completely.”

“But I should—”

“You should leave it a closed box, if anything. How are you?”

George looked at the forest—how like a garden it looked—and then Abigail. He was at something of a loss for words. He looked down at her alabaster feet, and then her face. “Having a good day.”

She smiled, and a sparrow flew between them. “There’s a hawk in here somewhere, only it’s hard to find. You can spend a lot of time exploring this forest. I’m having a good day, too.”

George sat for a while, trying to think of something to say, and Abigail said, “You’re being pretty quiet now.”

George said, “I’ve been looking at majoring in math.”

Abigail said, “Um…”

“You know how to tell if a mathematician is an extravert?”

“Nope.”

George looked down and said, “He looks at your feet when they’re talking to you.”

Abigail giggled. “Have you heard my Grandpappy’s theory on how PMS got its name?”

George said, “Um…”

She giggled again. “Something about ‘Mad Cow Disease’ being taken.”

George stiffened, and looked for something to say.

Abigail said, “Stop it, George. Just stop it. Don’t you get it? Don’t you stand and listen or sing the hymn where the the Mother of God is honored as the Ewe that bore the Lamb of God and the Heifer that bore the Unblemished Calf?”

George’s mind raced. “I suppose that if, in the same breath, Christ is called—”

Abigail interrupted. “Next time you’re in Church, listen, really listen, as the Mother of God is honored, then listen as Christ our God is worshiped. There’s a difference. Don’t try to analyze it or even put your finger on it. Just listen, and… George, do you understand women? At all?”

George looked for something to say, but found nothing.

A dark cloud blew across the sky, and cold rain began to fall more heavily until it poured.

George said, “May I lend you my jacket?”

Abigail said, “I’m fine.”

The rain grew colder, and began to pelt. George and Abigail both rose and began scurrying towards campus. George took off his jacket and started to place it around Abigail’s shoulders.

Abigail said, “I don’t—”

George looked down and said, “I’m wearing boots and you have bare feet,” and wrapped his jacket around her shoulders. Then a gust of wind tore at Abigail’s hat, but George caught it.

Then they ran back, with George shivering under his threadbare T-shirt. When they got back, he went to his dorm and she to hers. George called Abigail and confirmed she was OK, took three long, hot showers, and spent the rest of the evening sinking into a lounge chair in his bathrobe, sipping cocoa, and thinking.

Tuesday evening, George found time to visit Fr. Elijah. He wanted to talk about another subject. Definitely another subject.

“Fr. Elijah, are you busy?”

“I hope not… come in.”

“After all this, I still want the Holy Grail.”

“Excellent thing, my son… the chief point of life is to search for the Holy Grail.”

“But will I find it? I mean… I’m not sure what I mean.”

“May I show you something old?”

“As far as material age goes, it is much older than the Holy Grail.”

The old man opened a desk drawer, and fished out a small box.

“I thought this might interest you,” he said, and took something out of the box, and placed it in George’s hand.

George looked the item over. It looked like a piece of bark, not much larger than a pebble, and yet it seemed heavy for a piece of bark. “Is this stone or wood? I can’t tell which it is.”

“Is it stone or wood? In fact, it is petrified wood… from the Oak of Mambre.”

“Oak of Mambre? Should I have heard of it before?”

“You probably have, and if you can’t remember it, there is something you’re missing.”

“What is the Oak of Mambre?”

“I’ll tell you in a bit. When you grasp the Oak of Mambre, you hold the Holy Grail.”

“How?”

“The Oak of Mambre is older than any of the civilizations you know; for that matter, it might be older than the practice of writing. Do you know about Abraham?”

“The one Paul calls the father of all who believe?”

“Yes, that Abraham. The Bible tells how Abraham met three men who came to him, and showed the most lavish hospitality, giving them the costliest meal he could have given. And it was then that the men promised the impossible. It is clear enough later that these men were in fact angels, were in fact God.

“From the West, you may not know that even if we Orthodox are big on icons, it’s fingernails to a chalkboard when Orthodox see the Father portrayed as the proverbial old man with a beard. Christ may be portrayed because of his incarnation; the same is not true of the invisible Father, who is not and never will be incarnate. Icons of the Father have been fundamentally rejected, but there was one exception. From ancient times there has been an icon of Abraham’s hospitality to the three men, or three angels, and centuries ago one iconographer showed something deeper: it is the same three men or angels, but instead of a table with a lamb as in the old version of the icon, there is an icon with a chalice atop an altar. In both the old and the new form of the icon, the Oak of Mambre is in the back, and it is this same oak for which I have shown you a fragment.”

“Is it holy because it is old?”

“Being old does not make a thing holier. The pebbles in your yard are of stone ages older than the oldest relic. Though they are, admittedly, part of the earth which received Christ’s blood on the cross, and which Bulgakov rightly calls the Holy Grail.

“A thing is kept and preserved because it is holy, and if people will try to keep a holy thing for a long time, it will probably be old to most of the people who see it. Same reason most of the people who have seen the Liberty Bell saw it when it was old because people have been keeping it for a long time, much longer than the time when it was new, so most of the people who have seen, or will see, the Liberty Bell, see it as an old treasure. But back to holy things: a holy thing is, if anything, timeless: when there arose a great evil in Russia and Marx’s doctrine helped people try to make paradise and caused a deep, deep river of blood to flow, the communists in the Orthodox heartland of Russia made martyrs, and in that torrential river of blood made more Orthodox martyrs than the rest of history put together. God will preserve saints’ relics from that, and it may be that there are more relics from the past century than all centuries before. And they are not the less holy because they are new. But let us return to the Oak of Mambre and why, if you grasp it, you hold the Holy Grail.”

“Ok. Why is that?”

“The Church has decided that the only legitimate way to portray an icon of the Trinity is in the hospitality of Abraham. And the Icon of the Holy Trinity is the deepest icon of the Holy Grail—deeper even than an icon that I can show you that shows the Mother of God as a chalice holding her Son. Where is the Holy Grail in this icon?”

“Is it that little thing in the center?”

“In part. Where else is it?”

George looked long and hard, seemed to almost catch something, before it vanished from his face.

“There are different interpretations,” Fr. Elijah said, “and the icon conceals things; even the angel is a protecting veil to a reality that cannot be seen. But in the layers of this icon, the deepest glimpse sees the Father on the left, the Spirit on the right, and the Son in blood red clothes in the center, encased as in a chalice, showing the reality in Heaven for which even the Holy Grail is merely a shadow.”

George turned the stone over in his hand with awe, closed his eyes, and then looked at the relic he held in his hand. “So I am holding the Holy Grail.”

Fr. Elijah said, “Yes, if you look on it with enlightened eyes. Where else do you meet the Holy Grail?”

“In every person I meet?”

“‘Tis hard to answer better than that. When you become Orthodox, you will receive the Eucharist and kiss the chalice, and, perhaps, find that the Holy Grail is achieved not by an unearthly isolated hero, but by a community in common things.”

“But why do people kiss the Holy Grail? I mean the chalice?”

“If you call it the Holy Grail, even if your tongue slips, you may be understanding it. The Western view is that there is one original chalice and the others are separate sorts of things; in Orthodoxy, what is the same between the Holy Grail and ‘another’ chalice runs infinitely deeper than what separates them; the ‘real’ thing is that they are the same.”

“But why the kiss?”

“Let me ask you a question. Do you think a kiss has more to do with worship, or with mental calculations?”

“Does it have to do with either?”

“You haven’t read the Bible in Greek.”

“What does the Greek Bible have to do with it?”

“Quite a lot, but it will take me a bit to explain why. But there is a deep tie.

“The main word for reverence or worship, in the Greek Bible, literally means to kiss. Part of what you’ll keep coming to again and again is that the West understands the mind as the thing that calculates, and the East understands the mind as what knows, and is enlightened, because it tastes and even more deeply because it worships. I don’t know how to put this clearly, in terms that will make sense to someone who does not know the spiritual realities involved. There is a false kiss—I dare say, the kiss of Judas or a kiss that is hollow like the kiss of Judas—that is nothing more than a calculated act. But there is also a kiss that has something to do with worship, and it is no error that Orthodoxy has things ‘with love and kisses.’ We embrace icons, crosses, holy books, each other with reverence that includes a kiss. And rightly done, such kisses are connected to worship.”

“I still don’t understand why.”

“Let me make a momentary detour; I’ll get back in a moment. Old texts can be at once something we genuinely experience a deep connection to, and something treacherously unfaithful to our assumptions. What would you say, for instance, that the medieval Scholastics are talking about when they use the word that is usually translated, ‘intellect’?”

“I try to keep my mind free of preconceptions, especially when dealing with something unfamiliar.”

“So you’d be open to anything they’d say about the intellect’s ability to draw logical conclusions from one thing to another?”

“They can let the intellect draw conclusions however they want to.”

“But here’s the thing. They don’t. It is a fundamental error to read ‘intellect’ as ‘the thing that reasons by logical deduction. Saying that the ‘intellect’ is what makes deductions by reasoning from one thing by another is like saying that an object’s height is what you measure with a bathroom scale, or that its weight is measurable with a ruler. It’s a fundamental error; the intellect is precisely what does not reason from premises to conclusions.”

“Then what is the intellect?”

“I usually don’t use the term ‘intellect’ for it; the closest English equivalent I can think of is ‘spiritual eye’. But even that misses what exactly this spiritual eye connects with. And this spiritual eye was known to the Greek Fathers no less than the Latin scholastics; if anything, the Greek Fathers were more attuned to it. Scholastic theology is an exercise, to a large degree, of that which reasons; the theology of the Fathers comes from another place. The spiritual eye is that which connects with spiritual realities, that which worships above all—and if you want a good, short definition for what ‘intellect’ means besides ‘what IQ is supposed to measure,’ use the definition ‘where one meets God.’ If reasoning deduces what you may not see yet, the spiritual eye sees, and knows by what it can see, not by what it can pull from other things it already has. This reasoning from one thing shines like the sun in Western Scholasticism.”

“And that’s something you don’t have in Orthodoxy?”

“We do have it. But reasoning shines like the moon: it reflects the light of the sun in each of us, the sun of our mind’s spiritual eye. It plays more of a supporting role.”

“And what does all of this have to do with your ritual kiss?”

“There was an awful video I heard was shown in one of your college’s psychology classes; I don’t know if you’ve seen it. It was talking about one psychological theory, and discussed how reward and such could be used to reduce autistic behaviors. And it showed a scientist, or psychologist, or something, who was patiently training a little girl to not do whatever he was trying to stop her from doing, and the girl lit up when he gave her a kiss. And then, along with a fake-sounding Mommy-ese talking in a high-pitched voice which Iassure you was not spontaneous, he started to use almost forced kisses to, well…”

George cut in. “Manipulate her?”

“Yes, you found the word I was looking for. The one time I heard Abigail talking about that video, she said there was a bit of bristling going though the class; the students were uncomfortable with something about that video and its one more mere technique, a meretool, for changing a little girl’s behavior.”

“Is the spiritual eye, or whatever, spontaneous? Is it about spontaneity?”

“I’ll have to think about that… I’m not sure I’ve seriously thought about whether the spiritual eye is spontaneous. But spontaneity is not the issue here. The point has to do with what place a kiss should come from if it is not to be hollow. Have you noticed that none of the icons I’ve showed you have a signature?”

“Because the iconographers are not supposed to be what we think of in the West as artists, with their own signature style and their big egos?”

“A little bit. Iconography is art, and artistry and talent do mean anything: the iconographer is not a cog in a machine—and may be doing something much bigger than trying to use art supplies for self-expression. There is something self-effacing about iconography—something very self-effacing—but you find that when you bow down and efface yourself, it is you doing something much bigger than otherwise. Writing icons is a form of prayer, a spiritual exercise, and it is said—just like we speak of ‘writing’ icons rather than ‘painting’ them—that it is inadequate for an iconographer to sign the icon, because the icon is written, not merely by the iconographer’s hand, but by his his spiritual eye. It is ever much more than a merely material process, and when you become Orthodox you may sense icons that have spiritual depth and icons that let you see no further than the wood, and if you receive this gift, you will be responding to the spiritual process out of which the icon arose.”

“I have sensed something… the icons still look like awkward pictures to me, but I’m starting to find something more.”

“That is good. And your mouth—with which you breathe in your spirit, and show the reason of speech, and will receive the Eucharist—is not that by which you may give a kiss; it is that through which you may give the kiss that comes from and to some extent is the embrace of your spiritual eye. That’s when a kiss is furthest from the hollow kiss that Judas gave. The knowledge of the spiritual eye is something I have discussed as sight, but in the ancient world all people recognized something touch-y about all the five senses, not just one. And this knowledge and drinking are exemplars of each other, draughts from the same fountain, and it is not an accident that ‘know’ has a certain sense in the Bible between, for instance, Adam and Eve: the spiritual eye knows by drinking in, and it is a fundamental error to think that the holy kiss has nothing to do with knowledge.”

“This sounds like a fairy tale.”

“Maybe you know your fairy tales, and know that there is something magic about a kiss. As one scholar put it, examples of the kiss as a means of making and breaking enchantments have been found in the folklore of almost every culture in the Western world. Orthodoxy has something more than this enchantment. There is a spiritual mingling, and even the Eucharist is understood as a kiss, and a kiss that embraces others: in the Eucharist, the body of Christ is offered up, including a token of bread for every parishioner—before being distributed. Have you not noticed that the best bishops and the most devout of the Orthodox, give the best kisses? But let me step back a bit.

“The difference in understanding symbol is one of the biggest differences between East and West. In the West, at least in its modern forms, a symbol is a detached and somewhat arbitrary representation. In the East a symbol is connected, cut from the same cloth as it were. The difference between Orthodoxy and various Protestant schools is not whether the Eucharist is a symbol, but what that means—that the Eucharist is an arbitrarily detached token, connected only in the viewer’s mind, or whether it is connected and in fact the same on a real level.

“We are made in the image of God, which means that how you treat others is inseparable from how you treat God: you treat God with respect, love, or contempt as you meet him in the person of others. And the things that we reverently kiss in Orthodoxy are all connected with God. We show our reverence to God in how we treat them. And if a person is being transformed according to the likeness of Christ, then it is fitting to reverently kiss that person and show respect for the Lord.

“To give the holy kiss rightly is a microcosm of faith and community. You cannot do it alone, nor can you do it apart from worship. If you look at the things that fit together in a fitting kiss, you have love, God, your neighbor… there are a great many actions that are listed in the Bible, and many of them are holy actions, but only one is called holy: the holy kiss. If you grasp the Holy Grail in your heart, and you grasp this kiss in its full sense, you will know that the sacred kiss in which our souls are mingled is the Sign of the Grail. It is the eighth sacrament.”

George was silent for a long time. “I don’t think I know enough to be Orthodox.”

Fr. Elijah said, “Join the club! I know I don’t know enough.”

“But you’re a priest!”

“And you cannot become Orthodox without entering the royal priesthood. You aren’t ready to be Orthodox just because you know a certain amount; you’re ready when you’re ready for the responsibility, like getting married, or getting a job, or any other of a number of things. You are ready when you are ready to take the responsibility to return the Creation as an offering to God and shoulder a priestly office. And, in your case, I might add, when you enter the great City and Castle called the Church, and are ready for the Sign of the Grail.”

“All I know now is my own unworthiness.”

“Good. You’re growing! Ponder your unworthiness and give it to God. Do you want to take Brocéliande back now?”

George gladly took the book back. He returned to his room, and some time later, George began reading:

The hermit spoke. “Listen as I tell the history of Saint George.

“The King wept sore. ‘The land is weeping, the land itself weeps. The dragon hath devoured every damsel of the land, every last one, and now it seeketh mine own. I bewail the death of my joy and my daughter.’

“Then Saint George said, ‘By my faith I will protect her and destroy this fiend,’ and Saint George prayed and gat him his destrier and armed him and fewtered his spear and rode out and faced the sea.

“And the dragon arose from the sea and his deeps. And venom were in the wyrm his heart, and the grievous stench of death stank all round.

“Then the serpent charged upon Saint George the ever victorious knight, and the dragon breathed fire which brake and were quenched upon Saint George his shield, a grand cross gules upon a field or.

“Then Saint George made him the Sign of the Cross.

“Then Saint George smote the dragon, the great paladin his great spear dove into the dragon his mouth and dolve far beyond that insatiate devouring maw, until the dragon his head were riven asunder from the dragon his body trampled by Saint George his horse. And Saint George hurled the wyrm his head into the dark thrice cursed valley far outside of the castle.

“That day the King and the whole castle made such merriment as had never been since, for we do not know merriment today. There were jugglers and jesters and a table full filled, and before evensong the King gave George the hand of the King his daughter. That were the gayest of all.”

The knight asked the hermit, “Why speakest thou me of this history?”

The hermit spake unto him and answered, “Sir knight, thou hast given me not thine name. What be it?”

“Thou entreatest of me my name? Thou askest what none hath asked of me aforetimes. My name is called Sir Perceval. And now I ask of thee of what I have asked not aforetimes. Had Saint George heard tell of whom doth the Grail serve?”

George slowly closed the book, and put it on a shelf. He momentarily wondered why he treated Brocéliande as something to read alone. There was something that seemed just out of his reach.

And then George realized something deep, deep inside himself.

Then it was Holy Week.

Or at least George wanted it to be holy week for him, too.

George found himself standing in Church, in the holiest of surroundings, and struggling to pray. Memories arose; painful memories of stinging things done by those he loved. Voluptuous images sometimes followed. He struggled to pray, but his mind remained locked in earthly struggles. His body ached in the long services: there were icons, chanting, and incense without, and struggles within. He wanted to rest in worship, and he couldn’t.

In his mind, he remembered a moment when a beggar had come to him, and wouldn’t stop pleading no matter how much he annoyed George. The image filled his mind, and George was startled when he turned and saw the beggar’s face on the wall. Why was that?

George was looking at an icon of Christ.

He had fallen short, and not only in seeing that beggar as nothing but an annoyance. Did George really have no common bond with that beggar?

For that matter, did George have no common bond with the civilization that he disdained, the civilization that included everybody he knew from the beggar to his parents, the civilization that gave him everything from his clothing to his language? Was it there for no other purpose than for him to criticize and feel superior to?

Fr. Elijah, moving amongst the congregation, swung the censer before George in veneration.

George barely noticed that some of these thoughts were giving way, and he was aware, with almost a painful sharpness, of something else.

George mulled over Fr Elijah’s words about hollow kisses, and then started to see how hollow George was.

Unworthy thought he felt, George stood with growing awe and wonder, waiting until Great and Holy Thursday, the one day in holy week where wine was allowed. “Ordinary” wine was allowed, held in honor and in remembrance of the Last Supper, when wine became the blood of Christ and the eucharistic chalice was forever given to men. This day, if anything, was to George the feast of the Holy Grail.

And so he stood entranced, as if he were entering from afar. He watched the Last Supper as here and now, as Fr. Elijah stood “in the flame” before the altar, and then listened as he read the Gospel according to St. John the Evangelist, of the night when Christ loved his disciples to the last, and prayed out from the glory he shared with the Father before the worlds had begun.

And Fr. Elijah read and read, reading until George’s body ached from standing.

Then someone walked over to twelve unlit candles, and lit one. The first.

George’s heart sank. There were eleven candles still to go.

The readings continued, and became shorter, until the twelve candles were lit. George began to feel anger at the unending readings—until he heard Christ’s words from the garden of Gethsemane: “What, could you not watch with me one hour?” Who were those words spoken to?

And then, when the readings had run their course, the liturgy followed—at once unlike an intimate gathering in an upper room in external appearance, but yet like the place that feels like home though nothing on the outside resembles the home. George thought for a moment about a historical reconstruction of the Last Supper pursued through academic rigor in archaeology… and then realized he needed no such thing. He was watching the Last Supper all around him, and in the words of Fr. Elijah’s remark, “You didn’t even need a time machine.”

Or was this liturgy a spiritual time machine? Certainly time flowed in the most interesting ways, now quickly, now slowly, swirling about in eddies… there was something George could not put his finger on, but he understood for a moment what could make a person imagine a way to turn back time.

And so George found himself almost surprised when Fr. Elijah said, “He gave it to his holy disciples and apostles, saying, ‘Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you, for the forgiveness of sins.'”

Then the faithful sealed this with their, “Amen.”

Then Fr. Elijah said, “Likewise, he took the cup of the fruit of the vine, and having mingled it, offering thanks, blessing, and sanctifying it, he gave it to his holy disciples and apostles, saying, ‘Drink of this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.'”

The disciples around him sealed this, with their, “Amen.”

George looked in wonder at the chalice that was raised. He thought, “This is it. This is the Holy Grail, forever given, that belongs to Christ’s disciples.”

As the liturgy continued, and Fr. Elijah proclaimed the Holy Gifts, the people continued to seal the Gifts with their “Amen,” and George watched as they received from the chalice, and kissed the chalice in reverence, and (though George paid this little attention) Fr. Elijah’s hand.

George found himself basking in the glow of that long moment for as the liturgy continued and Fr. Elijah anointed those around him that they may be healed in soul and body.

As he walked home, he thought, “I have seen the Holy Grail. It has been under my nose. Very soon I will be one of those who share it, one of those the Holy Grail belongs to.”

When George got home, he slept as peacefully as he slept in ages.

Then George entered the Church on Great and Holy Friday.

The whole service moved slowly, felt like something great but alien that slipped through George’s fingers no matter what he did to grasp it. Around him were some who were silent, some who were singing, and some who were weeping. A great cross was brought out, and a great icon of Christ hung on it with nails.

And then something clicked in George’s heart.

Some years before, he had been at a martial arts demonstration and saw a fifth degree black belt standing like a picturesque statue, looking quaint and exotic, holding a beautiful pair of fans. And then, for an instant, there was a flurry of motion as he was attacked by six other black belts with swords. And then, an instant later, George saw a fifth degree black belt standing like a picturesque statue, looking quaint and exotic, holding a beautiful pair of fans, and all around him were six other black belts with swords, on the ground, crying.

That had for long been the greatest display of power George had seen.

Now something was at the back of his mind.

Here was a new image of strength.

Were they the same?

Were they different?

Was the true nature of strength, strength in weakness?

The fifth degree black belt showed strength behind apparent weakness—or at least what looked like weakness to an outsider like George; he had no idea what it would look like to someone who was not a barbarian like him. To him, the martial arts demonstration seemed to show strength, if a show was needed, and a strength great and powerful enough to vastly understate itself. And the One before him on the cross showed more of the same… or was that really true?

Was it?

Something about that did not sit well.

Inside George’s heart flashed an icon that had been on his mind—of a Man, his head bent, a purple robe about his wounded body. The robe was royal purple to mock the “pretender,” his hands were bound, and a crown of thorns rested atop his bent head.

Atop the icon was an inscription in Greek and in English:

Ο ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΗΣ ΔΟΞΗΣ

THE KING OF GLORY

George raised his eyes to the crucified God.

This was another kind of strength.

George began to weep.

This was the strength that prayed, if there was any way, that the cup might pass from him.

This was the strength that prayed, “Thy will be done.”

This was the strength that drank the cup to the dregs, and shattered it forever.

This was

THE KING OF GLORY
THE KING OF KINGS
THE LORD OF LORDS
THE GOD OF GODS
THE LION OF JUDAH
THE FIRSTBORN OF THE DEAD
THE RESURRECTION AND ETERNAL LIFE
THE NEW MAN AND THE LAST ADAM
THE UNCREATED GOD
THE DIVINE, ORDERING WISDOM
THROUGH WHOM ALL THINGS WERE MADE
BY WHOM ALL THINGS WERE MADE
IN WHOM ALL THINGS CONSIST
THE LORD OF THE CHURCH AND ALL CREATION
THE BRIDEGROOM OF THE CHURCH AND ALL CREATION

Had George ever known what it was to worship?

George stood in awe of the one who was, in truth, the Holy Grail…

or rather, the one for whom the Holy Grail was but a shadow.

And who was George next to such holiness and power?

Unclean and defiled.

When George had thought about going to his first confession, it had looked to him like the least attractive part of the picture of becoming Orthodox. But now, even if he knew even more dread, he wanted, not so much to be unburdened for himself, but to turn himself in and render what was due.

He didn’t just think he needed to. He simply knew that it was something that he owed with from the core of his being.

What evil had he not practiced?

He prayed aloud, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and then in spirit and body fell prostrate before his God and Lord.

George returned home, mindful of his sin, but ever so much more mindful of the greatness of the Lord and Savior.

He spent Saturday in the terrifying struggle to repent of his sin, to face his sin and write the spiritual blank check that he feared in the unconditional surrender of rejecting sin.

When he confessed his sin, Fr. Elijah blessed him, said, “I’m sorry I can’t give you the sacramental absolution yet—that will follow your chrismation,” and then said, “Welcome home, son. Keep repenting.”

And then the vigil was upon them.

It began with George standing in the center of the action as he stood before the congregation and, answering Fr. Elijah, renounced the Devil and all his works, rejecting sin, schism, and heresy, and vowed himself to Christ as a member of the Orthodox Church.

Then Fr. Elijah anointed George with sacred chrism, chrismating him with the fragrant oil of anointing that sealed George as a little Christ, as spiritual prophet, priest, and king, as one of the faithful in the Orthodox Church. This oil of spiritual blessing that worked in him more deeply even as it was wiped away from his skin—the emblem of the Spirit that penetrated like a sword. Fr. Elijah absolved George of his sins, and then the newly illumined servant of God George, stood before the congregation.

Then George faded into the background while the vigil unfolded, and he could never remember all of it—only that it seemed like a treasurehouse from which more and more wondrous treasure was brought forth. George remembered later the incense, the chant of “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,” the call of “Christ is risen!” and its answer, “He is risen indeed!”, repeated triumphantly, in English, in Slavonic, in Arabic, in Spanish… and most of all George remembered the faces around them. There was something more deeply radiant and beautiful than that of someone who had won millions of dollars. The vigil lasted for hours, but though George ached, he barely minded—he almost wished it would last for hours more.

When it was time for the homily, Fr. Elijah stood up, his face radiant, and read the age-old homily of St. John Chrysostom, read at all kinds of Orthodox parishes on Pascha for ages:

If any man be devout and loveth God,
Let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast!
If any man be a wise servant,
Let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.

If any have labored long in fasting,
Let him now receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour,
Let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour,
Let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings;
Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing nothing.
And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,
Let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.

For the Lord, who is jealous of his honor,
Will accept the last even as the first.
He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour,
Even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
And He showeth mercy upon the last,
And careth for the first;
And to the one He giveth,
And upon the other He bestoweth gifts.
And He both accepteth the deeds,
And welcometh the intention,
And honoureth the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;
Receive your reward,
Both the first, and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honor the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted
And you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.

Let no one bewail his poverty,
For the universal Kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities,
For pardon has shown forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
For the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.

By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was embittered
When it encountered Thee in the lower regions.

It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.

Amen.

And then the prayers moved very quickly—joyously—radiantly—and the Eucharist was served, George being called up first among the faithful to receive it.

Then the newly illumined servant George received Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

And George kissed Fr. Elijah’s hand and the chalice,

forgetting it was the Holy Grail.

And when the liturgy finished, Fr. Elijah announced to the congregation, “You may kiss the convert.”

Then the feast began,

a faint fragrance of frankincense flowed,

and a fragrant fragrance of flowers flowed.

Fr. Elijah spoke a blessing,

over a table piled high with finest meats

and puddings

and every good thing,

and the fruit of the vine poured out.

Every door and every window was opened,

and the wind blew where it willed,

and the wind blew where it pleased,

and George settled in to his home,

grateful to God.

Then someone told a Russian folktale,

and someone began singing,

and people began dancing,

and a little boy chased a little girl,

clutching a flower.

And men and women,

children,

young and old,

saluted George with a kiss,

every last one

of his brethren.

And the crystalline light

of a sapphire sky

blew through the window,

and angels danced,

and saints below cracked red Pascha eggs,

red in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene,

a holy grail,

and George laughed,

and wanted to weep,

for joy.

Then George and Abigail talked long.

George could never remember now long the celebration seemed to last. It seemed that he had found a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed, filled with every kind of wonder, at once Heaven and home, at once chalice and vine, maiden and mother, ancient and alive. It was the family George had forever wanted to enter.

Then George kissed Abigail—a long, full kiss—and absolutely nothing about it was hollow.

When he stepped back, Fr. Elijah tapped him on the shoulder. “By the way, George… I know this is down the road, but let me know when you two get engaged. I’d be happy to do your wedding.”

George looked at Abigail, paused, and said, “Abigail, do you see how the candlelight glistens off your Grandpappy’s bald spot? Isn’t it romantic?”

Fr. Elijah and Abigail turned to each other and said, “It’s about time!”

Then Fr. Elijah said, “Welcome to the Castle of the Saints, George. Welcome home.”

Doxology

A Pilgrimage from Narnia

Singularity

Why This Waste?

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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