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All Over a Bowl of Bitter Beans by Alec Bryan

All Over a Bowl of Bitter Beans by Alec Bryan

Fiction, Vol. 4.1, March 2010

§”All Over a Bowl of Bitter Beans” is Part III of IV of the novel Night on the Invisible Sun; Part I, “The Tugs and Pulls of Existence,” appeared in Prick of the Spindle Vol. 3.2. Read it here. Read Part II, “When Stars Die,” in Vol. 3.4.

The creature did not fare much better over the next few weeks. Between the furious onslaught of wing-drenching rain—forcing the creature to cling to the undercarriage of whatever leaf, overhanging rock, or shrubbery it could find to avoid the brunt of the storm’s precipitation—and the large nets random people kept chasing after it with, they were weeks it wished to forget. Naturally, when it went through life’s common vicissitudes it wondered why it had ever left the old man’s side. Up to this point the only memorable occasions away from the old man had been those of extreme discomfort or those that filled the creature’s soul with banal sorrow and doubt.

During its current wanderings, the creature began to divide its life into three distinct periods. First: the time of its juvenescence spent in the presence of the magnanimous old man. Of that time, the creature would often reminisce upon the wonderful knowledge the man vouchsafed it with, and the long and tedious hours and days of hard but rewarding toil (of course, the creature was more a spectator throughout) and the never-ending stories the man would relate about his strange and squalid youth. All these things the creature thought upon now—imbued by time’s uncanny ability to glorify the past—with the sturdiest recollection and most palpable of joys, and it longed for more experiences like those. It was these recollections, thought the creature, which reminded it why it felt an urge to tell the world the old man’s story in the first place, and these recollections spurred it on in the face of opposition.

The second distinct period (or stage of growth, depending on how one looks at it): the creature’s initial brush with the harsh realities of an unremitting world. The creature still shuddered when it thought about the horrible time spent in the presence of the irascible, unkempt man who shuttled it across the river. The creature still felt the wrenching ache in its abdomen when it even thought, momentarily, about the tragic time in the presence of the austere but abeyant beauty of the woman whose pleading and pain seemed as ancient as time immemorial. Whereas time is usually the healer of mortal wounds, it had yet to place its bandage upon the open gash this stage of life caused the creature. However painful, the creature identified two important truths from this period.

The first verity the creature noticed was how sorrow and pain took the vastness of the large matter of life and compressed it down into a heavy and distinct mass of tightly wound molecules. The creature had no analogy or metaphor apropos of this compression, but its thoughts reverted to an image of a large river trying to funnel through a small gorge, and how the onrushing water stacks up and builds pressure and speed at the point of ingress, and then how the water slows down again and spreads out to flow shallow and tranquil at the point of egress—sorrow and pain caused the flow of life to function in a similar manner: intense and deep. The second verity the creature noticed was how sorrow and pain were not one-time occupants of their host, but were more like prodigals whose inevitable return was not celebrated with the killing of the fatted calf. One could beat sorrow into remission, the creature thought, but it never fully went away, and trigger moments seemed to cause it to swell up again within the host with ferociousness similar to, but not quite as powerful as its initial blow. Of a certainty, the creature could identify these two truths about sorrow and pain; it just felt uncertain as to what it should do with them.

The third distinct period of division, and the current period the creature was experiencing: a time of lackadaisical, directionless wandering to and fro with no real destination. If creatures were afforded such things as mid-life crises, this period would qualify. Of late, the creature felt harried by the desire to return to the simple life. Always, this desire to return to the old man was combated and suppressed by the conflicting desire and longing to impart the stories of the venerable old man with the inhabitants of whatever place the creature came to. The persistent but flickering desire filled the creature’s breast with the hope that maybe someone would listen, maybe someone would benefit, and maybe someone would understand it when it opened up that treasure-trove of past experiences locked within.

Alas, all these hopes were in vain and came to naught. Most people viewed the creature as a pest, a nuisance, and its attempts of promulgation were met with vehement swats of the hand the moment it neared a person’s ear. Nearly all misunderstood what it sought when it entered a room and tried to dissect the light emitting from the bulbs. Almost all saw the creature as a destructive being, or outcast spawn of the devil, still aching from its august expulsion and still incessantly waging war on any light of this world.

Of course, such thinking by man is erroneous, but for his part, how would a human know the moth’s annoying but gentle brush and patter with the skein of un-spooling light escaping from the being or that the bulb is an attempt to understand and fathom the history of the occupants themselves and of the place respectively. Oh, the poor misunderstood creature; so desperate to at least find one soul in which it could share all the goodness stored within its abdomen.

Just at this pivotal time of dire want, the creature abandoned the stalk of the common mullein to which it had stayed fastened to for the past hour, and flew into the open window of a house belonging to a middle-aged man it had seen walking down the street the day before. A man whom, consequently, not only did not mind the fluttering wings of the creature near his face during his weekly walk, but also did not even threaten to roll up the paper he held in his hands and use it as a weapon—an incontrollable and justifiable reaction for almost all human beings.

Entering this man’s house through the window, the creature was first struck by the barren white walls and the messy kitchen. There were dishes piled up to overflowing in the two sinks. The floor was covered with a film of dust, and tiny balls of hair, lint and cobwebs infested each of the corners. Closer inspection of the barren walls revealed nail holes that left small black scars where pictures or decorations had once hung. The cabinet doors were swung open and manifested the meager sustenance of the middle-aged man. There was a loaf of bread in a plastic bag, some canned foods scattered on the shelf below, and nothing more. The sparse cabinets appeared as if someone had ransacked the house in haste and taking only the necessities, left the rest behind for the rodents and rust. In the middle of the kitchen sat the room’s lone furnishings: an old, dirty oak table with one wobbly leg and the accompanying chair—with its corresponding wobble. Both furnishings sat menacingly empty beneath the interrogating glow of the low-hanging overhead light.

In the corner of the kitchen, the middle-aged man fastidiously attended his boiling soup, stirring when necessary, and once in a while checking the palatableness of his concoction. The creature watched the man grab one of the dirty bowls out of the sink, rinse it with water and then dry it with his shirt. The man repeated the process with a spoon. The man poured what looked like some kind of bean soup, minus the vegetables, into the bowl and placed it, along with the spoon, upon the table. The discarded pot joined the others in the dirty dish pile. The man reached into the open cabinet and grabbed a piece of bread from the loaf and slid it back to its regular spot. He placed the piece of stale bread on the table, sat down on the wobbly chair and lurched forward to be closer to the soup. The man dipped the spoon in the soup and pulled up a steaming spoonful. After swallowing his first spoonful, the man spotted the intruding creature hovering in a corner of the kitchen. Without the least bit of sarcasm or pretentiousness, he invited the creature to come join him for dinner. Then, chortling a bit, the man said, “I would invite you to pull up a chair, but as you can see, I don’t have any other than this rickety thing I use. It isn’t everyday a visitor happens to drop in unannounced.” The man slouched over and blew upon his next spoonful of soup. The creature, with an abdomen full of presentiment, remained in the corner.

By now, the creature had all but abandoned any attempt of speaking with humans. It knew the pointlessness from frustrated experience. What an awful feeling to have some gnawing truth and not have the means of expression. The creature now thought it better to suffer the initial disappointment of remaining silent rather than the dejected feeling of failure when attempting to speak. The man continued to blow upon the spoonful as vapors of steam rose in spiraled wisps and disappeared into the light. Then, once again, displaying behavior contrary to the customary nature of the majority of humans the creature had so far been acquainted with, the man took a steaming bean off his spoon, placed it on the far edge of the table and invited the creature to eat.

“I do not wish to offend even the least of God’s creatures,” said the man in a tone of condemnation but full of sincerity at the same time.

“Who knows but some angel is recording this episode in the book of life, and perhaps this moment, even this miniscule moment between you and I, creature, matters.”

The creature would not be inveigled into another trap. It had been baited too many times to fall for the subterfuge and sophistries of human deceit. The evolved survival mode of the creature had imprinted it with two valuable assets when confronting humans. First, let the light reveal what it may, and second, look for harmless traits and characteristics. Once discerned, then the creature could determine the proper course of action. And in the case of the middle-aged man, the qualities of the light implied his harmlessness, and the creature gathered by his previous behavior that although the man might not necessarily be docile, he feared to act in a malicious way. The creature fluttered towards the table and nearing the low hanging light, cast its behemoth shadow upon the blank walls. It landed upon the offered bean, and in an attempt to befriend the man, pretended to nibble at it.

The man felt happy to have company. It had been so long since anyone had come to visit him. He placed another bean by the creature and encouraged it to eat up as he did the same. Elated by the friendly demeanor of the man, the creature instinctually, and against its own credo, tried to speak, and although its effort met with failure, it noticed the grinding noise it emitted did not sound as harsh as usual, and a discernable syllable or two snuck out with the foul noise. The man heard the droning noise of the creature, and almost thought the creature was trying to speak to him.

“Creature, if I did not know better, I would say you are trying to communicate with me.”

The creature grew animated as the words of the man reached it. It thought to itself, finally a chance to unload all those things locked within, and it tried to speak again but to no avail. The horrible noise had returned with vigor, and the man, who had sat piqued on the edge of his chair, straining to hear audible words, slouched back deflated from the awful sound. “I knew I was imagining things. I need to get out more.”

The man reverted to blowing upon his soup. He was disappointed the creature could not speak. The man became so distraught, he forgot about his soup and the task of eating altogether. The spoon levitating in his hand dropped back into the bowl limp, and the man quietly slipped into a mood of profound reverie. As the man slipped further away, the effluvium of ebullient light he emitted began to meander its way towards the creature, who was starving for such a resplendent meal. The light had a strange quality to it. It would come in spurts of intensity and then mellow out. Almost as if the light worried about overloading the creature or as if the moments wrapped up in the light were too intense to be told in any way other than quick and ardent flashes, and then followed up with slow cyclical build-ups, working their way back to the intensity of the quick flashes.

The creature had never come in contact with such a strange, random, ambiguous type of light. But this neither discouraged nor vexed the creature beyond its comprehension. It had practiced deciphering the light shed forth from people, and it had practiced unraveling the messages that came in scattered moments and memories, and it had managed a way of slowly piecing together the different and fragmented shards of life into one working pattern. And what did that random light rolling forth from the man bent over his soup lost in reverie say? It told of three recurring dreams: two, the man had while sleeping, and one, the man kept having while awake. Sleep or awake, there was no escaping the awful reality or non-reality of the dreams.

II

The man stared into his soup and listening to the light’s continuous hum, he remembered a time when he was young and naïve. Back then, his mother used to make his soup for him. It was a special treat for the little boy to come home from school on a cold winter’s day and have the steaming soup waiting. He would throw off his layers of clothing as he entered the door and run into the kitchen with the smell of basil or tomato permeating his nostrils. He would see the bowl sitting on the table waiting for him. On special occasions his mother would prepare his favorite—alphabet soup. How as a child, he loved to look at all those letters floating in the tomato paste. He used to grow so animated and happy, and would fill his spoon to the brim in an attempt to get as many letters or possible words into his mouth, and then he would look at them as they bounced on the spoon and see what he could spell, and without ever worrying about burning his tongue, he would laugh and swallow them whole.

Of course, for the boy, the enchantment of these moments came in part because he knew his mother was not supposed “to waste”—as his father used to remind her when he would come home early and find out—their meager savings on spoiling the child with such exuberance. The boy knew his mother would be punished if his father found out, and he knew his mother, with her overflowing heart of kindness, feared the disappointment of her child much more than the lashing out of her husband. The boy knew, too, that as she watched him perform his ritualistic eating of the soup, her eyes would light up, and she would grow happy to see him enjoy the meal. They tried to keep it their little secret. What it cost her, what pains she bore to assure him of some blissful moments in an otherwise blighted youth, the child was too young to fully grasp or fathom, but the token of her sacrifice to make him happy, the boy carried with him the memory of that ubiquitous love of a mother for a child into his adulthood.

The slow, revolving light explained all this to the creature as the man stared inactively into his soup. Then an ardent flash of light darted at the creature, and with pulsing intensity it shocked the creature with the power behind it. “It’s a lie,” shouted the light. As quickly as the pulse of light revealed the man’s thought, it was gone. The creature regained its composure from the force of the blow the rapid light delivered, and then watched and prepared itself as the earlier, more torpid light continued its snail-like crawl from the man to it.

When the torpid light reached the creature once again, it explained the meaning behind the flash of light. It explained how the man could not remember the childhood memory of his mother correctly. How to the man’s discontent, try as he might, the memory was embellished now and apocryphal. How each time the man tried to extract those moments of bliss from his childhood, his memory rejected his request and kept recollecting false moments. All the man had hoped for was a succinct vision of some of his fondest memories, but his psyche continued to deny him the pleasure. The light continued to explain, that, although the boy did receive, parsimoniously, an extra meal or two from his mother, it was nothing like the elaborate illusion now remembered. His poor father never castigated him or his mother over such a modest meal. While the man sat staring into his soup wearing a blank expression and brooded over his lost memories, the light continued to fall in rhythm upon the creature, disclosing further this falsified memory:

The boy would scarf down his spoonfuls with ardor. Each time he would pull the spoon up and out of the soup, brimming with letters, he would watch with wanton eyes as the excess tomato paste would drip back into the bowl, taking a letter or two with it. The boy pictured the soup as a brooding cauldron, and he the omniscient soothsayer preparing to cast a spell or create a charm, and each letter or combination of letters conjured was the needed elixir. He imagined the possibilities of words he could string together with each spoonful and with such a full cauldron, and as the spoon neared his hungry mouth he would recite the letters in the random order in which they appeared and envision it as some strange language only witches or warlocks could understand. The mother would stand near the boy, and laugh or smile.

Then, as the lethargic light uncoiled this strange repast of the man, another random dart of furious light unfurled itself upon the creature, causing it to cringe with the velocity and force of its blow. This time the flash of light did not just say “It’s a lie,” and then abscond, for no sooner had the light hit the creature, than the creature found itself observing the most strange and barren land, and more: it was actually amidst the ruinous landscape, almost as if the light had transported it to some new scenery.

Now, it need be interjected, light utilized numerous mediums with which it revealed truths to the creature, none of which were necessarily words. The creature had often thought upon how futile and what a poor medium words were to project the ruminations of the mind, and how short the metaphor falls in untangling even the most inherent of thoughts. This new vision demonstrated to the creature how impotent metaphors, words, and even images were when trying to portray or capture such overwhelming feelings. The creature remained amazed by the differing powers of the piercing emotion and the clarity the current vision had thrust upon it. The light did more than paint the most vivid picture of the man’s dream: it recreated it for the creature, placing the creature within the man’s memories. The creature did not just see scenery then; it saw scenery the way the man saw it, and it felt emotion the way the man felt it. And suddenly, while the creature looked at the bleak surroundings, the light divulged the man’s dream.

III

I, Phineas, am walking amidst the rubble of destroyed buildings that once made up the city. Everything is covered with a still-ashen gray, and more than just a shade, the gray represents something elemental: it symbolizes something primitive. I know it; I can feel the visceral, the almost biological power of this gray that has always been there, but only with its tumefaction has it become a concern. What it is, I can’t wrap my mind around, can’t quite put into words, but it feels somewhat like a perishing dream, and to look at the gray gives me the same feeling I experience upon awaking from a blissful sleep, a sleep brimming with euphoric emotion and exalted scenery, and I want to remember it, want to recapture it; I want to know what caused me to stir with such passion, such emotion, but all I feel now is the emptiness as wonderful sleep departs forevermore. And I know where I am now: this waking place, would not be so horrible if it were not for the contrast of the place I just left. The feeling harbored deep within the gut upon waking from such a sleep; the feeling of what can be, what is possible, and then the stifling reality of what actually is: this is the feeling attached to the gray. I acutely sense all the stunted possibilities and crippled ambitions that lie underneath its ashen coat.

I stumble on. I know I have been here before, but when, and under what circumstances remain mysteries. I don’t dare look to the left or the right. Strewn all over the street are bodies; bodies that won’t stop wheezing, struggling to breathe, writhing, coughing up the gray; bodies that are wandering, lost, or hidden under about an inch of this thick dust; bodies that are pulling at their own skin, vomiting up their own entrails, stretching out their emaciated hands in pleas of help—all of them are beyond help.

The dust is falling from the sky; it makes it hard to breathe. It stings the lungs. It burns the eyes. I am holding onto a railing; it is my only safety from losing my way. Where the sun should be, there is a foul alabaster ring that hardly penetrates the gray and casts a futile light. Ashes like identical snowflakes keep falling. I don’t know what kind of cosmic disturbance has caused this current condition, but as I look down at my hands, I realize even my flesh has turned this bitter gray, and I know my innards, my heart and my vitals have also turned this same dank gray.

It is terminal.

I keep walking with my destination set by a firm grasp on the railing. I come to a dilapidated building whose outer wall is not yet rubble. I can’t see inside the doorway. It is darker than a cave. I keep expecting two primitive glowing yellow eyes to look back at me, but they never do. I want to walk on, but I am drawn to this place, and the railing, which is my only sure navigational guide, leads inside of it. There is something inside I must see; I must come to know. I do not like the feeling rising in my gut. Instinct tells me to run, to let go of the railing and take my chances in the charcoaled day, but I am riveted to the spot. My second instinct takes over, the thanatotic instinct that does not fear fear, the one that revels in it, that knows by facing fear it has faced the worst thing fear can create—uncertainty in man. It guides me on, and I enter the blacker than pitch doorway.

In the offing, there is a voice: sonorous, cutting, full of emotion. Like the ocean’s waves it comes constant and crashing, crashing, crashing in canorous rhythm. I continue to walk through a dark hallway. I don’t know if the building still exists. Once I walked into it, everything peripheral turned dark and unreal, and I sensed the voice and the shallow light ahead like a tunnel: the voice is the light I am moving toward. I keep walking, only my feet have trouble finding where to step; I use the railing to reassure myself of direction and balance.

The voice grows louder, boisterous, still full of emotion. The echo is so overpowering in this quiet, dream-like place. It sounds the way the trumpet must sound when it startles the dead from their silent graves. The dark cavern opens up, and I am looking into a large room; it is capacious and cold. Candles adorn prickets and are burning a white-gray stain on each behemoth pillar. Gothic buttresses protrude from the top and bottom of the pillars, and fine damasks hang from metal rods in the aisles. Row upon row of hand-chiseled and elaborate wooden pews is filled with people. They have come to hear the voice. I know this. Some are rocking back and forth. Others seem to be entranced by the voice. Some are in the attitude of genuflecting, chanting, or moaning. I cannot hear the people, but I know what they are doing. Where their faces should be there is nothing but dark gray features. I turn away from them. I look up past the pillars, beyond the multitudinous rows of people, and spot, beneath the gray and translucent stained-glass window that have fused into them the metallic story of creation and the flood and the exodus, there, directly underneath the glass visage of a man with a long white beard and outstretched arms holding a wooden staff, rebuking the receding waters of the sea; there, directly underneath this image, clutching the pulpit, is the genesis of the voice; it is a man adorned in sacerdotal robes.

The man is animated. He does not belong here. Nothing is animated here. Everything is to be done in muffled silence and with drawn-out movements, but this man does not seem to be influenced by this place. He turns his head from one end of the room to the other with his body vacillating. He is making sure his voice reaches everyone. He is entranced by the power of his own speech. Every once in a while he loosens his grip from the outer edge of the wooden rostrum and slams his fist down hard upon the pulpit. I cannot see his face very well, and I continue to draw nearer until the railing ends. I no longer need the railing. I can see what it has guided me to. I let go of it. I come within ten paces of the pulpit and stop.

The robed man is facing the other way. I watch as his body rocks back and forth, as his turning head, with the consistency of a sprinkler, slowly makes its way towards me. I see the corner of an eye, the black lashes, then he completes his turn, and I am looking directly at him. A peculiar thing happens as I look into his face. I do not know how to explain it, and perhaps it is beyond the means of description, but as I stare at him, I nearly disintegrate, dissolve, abscond the very matter of body and melt into atoms of nothingness if such a thing is possible, and all because of his eyes.

His eyes are not at all gray like everything else in this place. His eyes are the most peaceful and live green, the color of two shining emeralds, and within the emerald, at the center of the pupil is the most vivid and piercing red, the color of a jasper, and the way the red attaches itself to the center of his green eyes and then in tiny vein-like shafts spreads out to the edges like two red octopi clinging to two large green stones, the large arms spreading out, tentacles expanding around the green stones in an attempt to devour them whole. So were his eyes, and when they looked at you, you could not help but feel like the helpless green stone being swallowed whole.

Oh how this priest flaunted those eyes, the way he abused such power. He laughed me to scorn with them; he seared my soul with them; and when he saw the effect they had, he paused, and he let his gaze rest more fully upon me. Then he stopped preaching. He slowed down his undulating body so everything seemed in slow motion. The people there to worship did not move, did not make a sound, and his silent gaze spoke its searing jest at pitiful me for a moment then began another turn.

When the gaze moved away from me, the room grew noisy again and filled with the muddled and shuffling sounds of knees scraping, hands and foreheads slowly hitting the wooden benches, and the man’s voice regained its sonorous tones. The echo came back to the spacious building, and things went on as if nothing had happened. But something had happened between the priest and me. A transaction of sorts had taken place, and I was his now, a victim of his power. With one glance he had surveyed my whole life, weighed and balanced it, and I knew he had found me wanting. There was some strange judgment encapsulated in those eyes.

I shuffle forward more and more without noticing it. When the eyes make their turn back my way, I am standing directly in front of them. The scarlet center looms larger and larger until it is omnipresent. The priest continues to preach, and I listen attentively to each word, afraid to fall victim to any warranted or angry gaze. Typical of sermons that prey upon fear after calamity, the priest’s words are apocalyptic and carry the weight of destruction with them, but the words cannot match the intensity nor do they capture or have the capacity to capture the essence of one single look from the scarlet center of his pupils.

In his sermon, the sixth seal has been torn open and catastrophes have been loosed both below man, as the earth’s bowels open up and swallow the wicked whole, and above man, as the stars refuse their light and come crashing down from the heavens. I had heard sermons on the topic before, but they were lavished with such luxuries or provoked by proximate needs to such a degree that, the present, stood as a barrier and disallowed me to fathom such strange and eccentric future happenings. Even now, as the apocalyptic destruction rages on around me, I cannot fear what the angry weather or some ethereal calamity might do to me. My gaze is fixed upon those oracle eyes in front of me; eyes revealing the very essence of the crux of life, and it behooved me to know what mystery hid within them. Let the earth have her calamities.

He rolls his head back and to the side for a moment, exposing the nape of his neck to the congregation. He pauses, looks up at the massive picture of the prophet with his menacing staff just behind him. Then he drops his head back down so that his eyes rest upon the congregation again. The audience stirs somewhat, and I know they too, like me, are mesmerized and crucified to the spot by those eyes. He has regained vigor for his topic and his next words come crashing upon each ear. He says he will reveal a secret, but he will only unlock a portion of it because he knows mystery itself must remain a mystery or else it will annul some of the healthy anxiety and needed tension that accompanies not knowing. He says something about how each being is born with equal embryonic or rudimentary capacities to become a god or a devil. He relates how both deities reside within us to a degree, and although neither dictates behavior, the divine occupant’s influence is easily noticed through emotional stirrings and the poignant promptings guiding our lives. He speaks of the double nature of man. He tells us the power and decision lies within us to become a devil or a god according to which voice we heed. He tells us there is no such thing as neutral ground and how each inch of cosmic realty, our minds especially, are either claimed or counterclaimed by the powerful forces of good or evil. The sermon leaves no room for objections, not because what is said is the truth, but because the words are superfluous in comparison with the axiom found within the eyes fixed upon each one of us, and none of us, regardless of how strong the objection to what is said, would dare object to anything with his gaze glaring down on us.

His sermon moves on in lacunal lapses to the purification of the earth by fire. He calls the firestorm a time of righteous claiming, a type of territorial cleansing. He does not delve into explanation, does not give lengthy or even logical arguments as to why things will be or even how; things just are or will be the way he says. He issues the congregation a challenge: “If there are any of the wicked, any evildoers, any lovers of darkness among us, let them step forward now.”

None come forward. And when the aisles remain empty and not a single soul budges, he yells at the top of his lungs, the echo reverberating from all angles, “What do you think, cowards? When He does return again to burn the earth, to baptize it with fire, who do you think will stand in judgment upon your poor soul that day, and who could withstand such a baptism?”

His right hand releases its grip from the pulpit and comes hammering down like a gavel’s bang upon wood—judgment meted.

“Your soul will burn with the wrath of your own indignation. If you have heeded that devil within, then the searing, the seething pain of knowing how wrong you were, and the knowing of how close you were to God—he never is more than a right thought away— that knowledge within you will scald your mind with the intensity of a thousand glowing suns, and you will wish to annihilate your own soul from existence, but will not be able to do so.”

He does not say anything for a moment. He lets the silence pervade, and silence at moments like this causes one to feel guilty regardless. Silence at moments like this lets the guilt sink down deep into the pit of the stomach and wreak havoc on the system.

When the silence has had its effect on the congregation, he continues.

“And those who heeded the knock at the inner door from that Heavenly Being will burn as well. Only they will not burn with the purging and purifying fire that the wicked will burn with. They will burn the way a bosom burns when it is brimmed to overflowing with love and joy. They will then see Him for what He is because they will be like Him—a consuming and everlasting fire of righteousness.”

He does not elaborate. He does not explicate. He just asks one last question: “And why is the fire the cause of indefatigable torment for one mind and everlasting bliss to the other?”

Here the sermon stops. The priest does not divulge any more.

Or maybe the sermon did continue and I was unable to assimilate more. I have seen a mother receive news of her child’s death, and I witnessed how the remainder of the account (cause of death), albeit she stood there and received it, did not register because the initial piece of information so inundated her with sorrow, and only days later she had to ask relatives for details about her son’s death. All I know for certain, when the priest is talking about burning, is that his eyes are upon me. And the only fire I fear is the penetrating look those eyes have when they peer into my soul. This burning sensation, which causes my being to tremble and convulse, is neither the burning of damnation nor salvation, it is just the heat from the flame. The burning starts as I watch the pupils contract to pinpoints and the emerald green circumference bleeds into the center of the eye. Then the scarlet rings, in a move that almost looks like a counterattack, expand again and encroach upon the area where the green had just been, and with each encroachment, the intensity of the burn I am experiencing increases. I am watching this with bewilderment and fear, when all of a sudden it happens—and from this point on, I can relate what happens, but as for what is real and what is imagined, it is not clear in my own mind:

When the scarlet pupil completes its usurpation of the green iris, I am so near the eye, (right or left, I know not) that my existence consists of me and the penetrating gaze. The voice, and I now realize the voice is coming from those eyes, speaks soft: “And how about you?” its taunting whisper says.

“Will that day be ‘great’ or ‘terrible’ for you when the fires of wrath come?”

The voice does not let up, but keeps the provocations rolling.

“I know your fear,” it says in a sinister and hushed tone.

“You fear you heed the wrong voice.”

I find myself walking, drawn toward the center of the eye. I see the striation of black amidst the scarlet. The eye continues in susurrations: “You feel the only way to be sure of no offense is by not acting at all.”

I am so close now I can see my reflection in the center of his eye. It is me I am sure, but there is a foreignness to the reflection, a distortion to the image. I can see my mouth move in the reflection, but it is not by my own volition. I hear my mouth say the words, “If you will not act, then be acted upon.”

No sooner do these words leave my mouth than the scarlet center opens up, and like a gaping maw, swallows me whole. I pass out.

When I come to, I am suspended in a pitch black field. I do not know how long I am or have been surrounded by this black. Time does not exist. Intensity is the new measurement of how moments are calculated. I see a tree on a hilltop off in the distance. I do not know if it has always been there or if it just appeared. Against the black background, it has a canopy of the most incandescent green leaves blanketing the branches. The trunk is patched with a corrugated and scaly umber bark which runs straight down into the dirt. At the heart, a solitary red apple adorns the tree. I know the apple is precious, and as I am brought closer and closer to the apple, the desirability of it increases tenfold, until the want, the expediency to possess the apple becomes an obsession.

I reach out with reckless abandon and pluck the apple from the tree. I hold the apple in my hands and cannot contain the urge of biting into it. I put the apple to my mouth and sink my teeth through the skin and into the pulp. Immediately, I am filled with this vividness, this feeling of pure being that so excites and overloads me I become unaware of my physical self, and I give way to a sensation beyond corporeal, beyond comprehension, a total feeling of a bliss, an interconnectedness to the universe, to the power that upholds and animates all life. It is a feeling I have never experienced while living. How long it lasts, I know not, but what intensity!

The sensation starts to wear off and as the euphoria abates, I become aware that what I have just done by biting into the apple, I have done. It is an irreversible Act. And as I slowly masticate the bitten-off piece, I look at the apple in my hands and see that the inside is totally green and unripe. I get a queasy feeling in my gut. Something has gone wrong. I feel the apple start turning rotten and withering in my hands. Then the seeds start moving within the desiccated fruit and turn into slithering maggots. I throw the fruit down and spit out the remains in my mouth. What have I done? I think to myself. I clutch at my throat and try to induce vomiting. It is too late. I can feel maggots crawling within my body. I can feel them in my bloodstream. I can feel the mucus tracks tickling down the back of my throat as they slither down. I can hear them in my head.

They start sliding out of my ears and mouth and all other orifices, leaving a trail of mucus wherever they go. I feel them at the back of my eye sockets trying to force an opening where the eye resides. They leave the bloodstream and start crawling underneath my skin. I can see the bulge of skin move when they move. I am overcome by an incontrollable itch all over, but each time I scratch, it tears the skin and maggots come bursting out. I can feel them furrowing through my innards. I fall to the ground and am overcome as the maggots start funneling out of my entire body. I am covered in mucus. I can hear the patter as they devour what is left of my skin and organs. This crawling army totally annihilates my skin and starts for the brain. I can hear the chattering teeth as they methodically devour the final remains of my being. I am about to lose consciousness forever, when the cacophony of chattering teeth gnawing on my brain stops. I say the teeth stop, but that isn’t correct. The chattering noise just shifts of a sudden, becomes a symphony of high-pitched chatter now uttering the phrase in unison, “I spew thee out. I spew thee out!”

And like that, I am spewed out of this black place and land on the floor of the same beautifully adorned and spacious building—a building I never left. I realize I am a pile of bones now, yet somehow, I still possess all of my senses. My heart lies beating against my rib cage which sits in a puddle of liquid. The liquid might be blood, I cannot tell because everything except those horrible red eyes is gray. I try to move but I cannot. I am left on the floor. I am aware that the host of faceless people have gathered around me now, and instead of helping me up, they are mocking me, pointing their fingers of ridicule and scorn in my face and laughing loudly. The bone-clanking noise from their laugh fills the capacious building with a sound like the drumming of locust wings. I lie writhing on the floor, unable to move. The people are still pointing and laughing at me, but their scorn is emasculated. Their scorn is the bite of a dog whose chain, when pulled taut, keeps him one foot out of range from being able to sink its teeth into you. No, there is but one thing that could scorn me here.

The preacher has left the pulpit, veered to his right, walked down the stairs and now crouches in front of me, bringing his large scarlet eyes to bear within inches of my beating heart. Oh, the indefatigable heat such eyes and such a gaze effectuate. My heart is on the verge of exploding. I feel the marrow in my bones boiling. I watch the preacher extend his hand toward my heart. I feel the heart give way, feel the rapid increase of the beat. I am about to disintegrate into nothingness. It is all I want, to burst into an effervescent cloud of thoughtlessness, to eradicate the pain and anguish and the burning of those searing eyes. Burst open, I scream as the eyes burn into me. Burst, and then, wake up.

A sticky drenching sweat covers my body. My breathing is fast and belabored. It takes minutes to calm me down and find a suitable rhythm. I find it, and for once, I am happier to be awake than to be back in my dream. Only I fear this reprieve is all too transitory and that when night falls again, yes, when sleep overtakes me again, I will relive this horrific experience, over again, will have to face the scarlet gaze once more.

IV

The light disappeared. The creature returned from the desolate place and found itself exhausted but still perched upon the table and upon the same bean. The man still glanced lethargically at his soup. The creature ascertained that the man’s mind was still wandering down the labyrinthine roads of former times. Every once in a while, the man would shift in his chair and a wry smile would make its way across his otherwise dour countenance. As the jolted creature recovered from the intensity emitted by the visionary light, and as it recovered from seeing those same red eyes that haunted the man’s dream, it noticed the earlier and more customary slow light twirling like a crooked halo around the man’s head. The slow light made its way toward the creature. The man shifted his gaze from the soup, put a hand upon his forehead and rubbed. The slow light reached the creature and began dispensing its essence in a more mannerly fashion, rather than bursting upon the creature and overwhelming it en masse like the jolts of light had done.

The slow light continued revealing the embellished moment from the man’s childhood. The alphabet soup sits in front of him again. His mother is there watching his spoon trudge through the soup. She watches with care as her boy looks at the letters, as he imagines the possible words, as he recites the strange cantation and then devours the letters greedily. But this can only go on for so long, and now the soup is about half full and the boy’s pace slows down. The letters start swimming in the tomato paste, and the boy is running out of letters and words which he can devour. Soon the empty bowl will need to be washed and his mother will leave his side. The boy recognizes all this and tries to forestall the moment. The torpid light kept revealing this to the creature when once again a clairvoyant flash of light came streaking toward it. The quick light jolted the small creature and once again it was not just watching another vision of the man, but, experiencing it vicariously, as if it were the man.

V

At the side of a painted-white house resides a closed cellar door. The latch is unhooked and sways upon a rusted hinge that squeaks in the wind. The lock, with the key still in it, lies upon the ground. I forget why I am here. I vaguely remember someone has summoned me to retrieve something, but paramount now is the overwhelming thought that the summoning was wrought by something residing within the unknown confines of my own mind. I throw open the door and stare helplessly into the cloak of blackness. The eyes adjust to the darkness, make out a stairway, and I descend into the maw, the very depths of the lightlessness. I cannot understand why, but with each step into the darkness, I find myself more and more imagining primordial and archetypal images of hell: the smell of brimstone, sulfuric stench, vaporous exhalations of intermittent fumes, the loud crackling and hissing lurch of the odious melodies of damnation, along with the drum of wailing madness from the tortured souls inhibiting such dark places: the indefatigable heat, the hissing motion of the gory fire gliding by, imagining him there, knees buckling, the immensity filled with his bestial horns, bloodied skin, burning eyes, carnivorous teeth, ubiquitous abominable laugh, and three-pronged pitchfork of the master of all hopelessness. A long pause and I step further. There is no end to the despair felt: no end because spiraling infinite, the bottom cannot be reached: it is always racked with insufferable and unending pains, with immolation ever-looming. The mountains will not fall on me. This cardinal torture, always this unflagging reminder of the failure, of the loss, of the innocent sufferer: reliving regret over and over again: thinking these steps might never end. Then, in the moment of extreme necessity, the mind recalls the sagacious words of the old poet, and like a beacon, they illuminate the final steps:

When any of our faculties retain
A strong impression of delight or pain,
The soul will wholly concentrate on that,
Neglecting any other power it has…

With that recollection, and the coinciding moment when I pull upon the metal chain, the light flips on. My descent into the dank cellar is supplanted by a sparkling room. Just like that, abracadabra, let there be light, and my Gethsemane is now dotted with brilliant white and yellow flowers speckled across a blithely pink wall. And my purgatory is filled with the fake fruit smell of waxen peaches emanating from a small candle flickering in the corner. And my damnation feels refreshing and crisp, as the summer breeze snakes through the ruffled blinds, caroms off the walls and ruffles the scattered papers, whispering soft upon my skin. And the pinnacle of my hell is defined by the most noble and courageous young woman. A woman whose dark hair is splayed, unfurled upon the brown- and pink-striped bedspread where she lies.

There is no explanation for how I came to this moment. I know as little about this woman and this place as the common spectator would, but I do know, through the inundating empathy I feel toward her, that she means something to me, and I know I signify a symbol of import to her as well. It is as if the animus and anima were playing out a drama in actual forms, as if the soul had surged up and created the image and now the physical bodies must become helpless observers trapped deep within the form.

I am sitting on the edge of her bed. She is curled up like a fetus. Her hair is strewn around her like a moat. Tears stream from her eyes and run in rivulets onto her bed making one last mark before they evaporate. Her back no longer undulates with the weight of whatever made her cry. She grows calm and quiet, serene. Then, without warning, she starts crying again.

I am now standing over her. I kneel by her side and look into her eyes. An emotion, like sadness but more complete, bursts upon me. I need to try and explain this emotion, but how? It is not a common emotion. It is an emotion verging upon blasphemy, an emotion not granted human beings without exacting an irremediable price. It is to say that when one watches the innocent suffer (and this woman is innocent), a part of them is reminded of, and compares the proximate predicament to the ultimate visage of all human pain, the archetypal first pain. And I know that to watch her needlessly suffer is not the same in proportion or magnitude, but it evokes the identical emotion from the onlooker, and the pain is too real to negate the emotion surging within.

A thought comes to my mind: “In the ordeal of love, there is never just one sufferer; they always come in tandem. There is the suffering she experiences, and then there is the consequent pain of the one who must watch her suffer.”

I now touch her with my hand in an effort to console her, but she does not feel me. I tell her it will be okay, but she does not hear me. I beg, plead, implore her to look at me and tell me what is wrong, but she does not see me. This moment, like a scratched record playing the same line, repeats itself. I am constantly going to her side, kneeling, trying to touch her with my hand, telling her it will be okay, begging, pleading, and imploring, but to no avail. Each time the moment repeats itself, it is a different woman who lies upon the bed, but each time, the emotive qualities evoked are the same. How long this has gone on, I do not know.

Most nights the vision proceeds no further. It replays without variation. Some nights the scratched record stops skipping and the moment comes again when the first—the dark-haired woman—reappears on the bed. She is still crying when the door opens and her mother comes rushing in. I step aside and tell her mother I do not know what is the matter with her. Her mother sidles by me, and sits on the bed next to her daughter and runs her caressing hands along her daughter’s forehead, through her hair, and along her back, all the while whispering soothing words of comfort. I am forced to stand helpless and watch her daughter’s bereavement. I wish to take her pain upon myself. If it were mine, I could live with it, could expiate it, but to watch the most innocent and beautiful girl suffer causes me an anxiety and pain more acute than damnation’s fire ever could ignite. It is this agony, I know, this unquenchable agony that I must overcome. But there is no way to overcome it. My anxiety for her, the overwhelming wish to tell this young woman of the dream that it will be okay, but not knowing if it will, and knowing she cannot hear or see me: this, this has become my hell—my utter helplessness.

On the nights I experience this part of the dream, I wake sweating profusely and with a bellicose inclination to lash out at whatever invisible demon might still be hovering over me. I go to the toilet, nauseated, and vomit. I wish the memory of the dream would flush out of my system in the same way, but it never does. The lingering thought that always haunts me is this: If this is the price of love, then I am positive I want nothing to do with it. And I hope in desperation a girl like the one in my dreams does not exist, and if she does, I hope I never encounter her, not because I would not love her, but because I would love her, and there would always be the chance that I might hurt her. How could I live with myself if I hurt her?

VI

The flash of light left once more, leaving the creature dumbfounded and overwhelmed by the vividness of its dreams and by the amount of physical exertion required in deciphering them. The creature pondered the meaning of the light’s unravelings and of the man’s current predicament. The man lived with these two dreams and they seemed to cause him two fears, thought the creature. One was the fear not to act, which made him a victim, and the other was the fear of the consequences of his actions, which victimized the innocent. Which path should the man take? And if he should misstep while upon the chosen path, how far would that lead him toward the wrong path? These were not hypotheses one could arbitrarily play out. To test any path required action, but implicit with action was consequence, and the man feared the consequences of his actions. While the middle-aged man wondered about which path to take, slowly his life went by without him taking either path, and that, too, caused him panic to no end, and during the current panic, the creature had wandered into this man’s life and now sat upon the bean which sat upon the table.

The creature did pity the poor man. What strange dreams he suffered, it thought. And as it looked at him and watched him slurp his cold soup, it saw the tangible but slower light start its descent again. The light curled around the cranium of the man and then wafted its way towards the creature. Once again, the light elaborated on the man’s waking dream:

The boy, with shallow dips of the spoon, picks up one or two letters at a time. Gone are those moments of puerile exhilaration when the boy thought of his mother by his side and the full bowl of steaming soup. In their stead is the worry, stemming from the moment’s fleetingness. Why would it not last? wonders the boy.

The boy eats on, not looking up anymore to see his mother’s face. He is afraid that even she, the most understanding and compassionate of souls, might not understand that his happiness diminishes at the same rate the letters in the soup diminish. The boy dips his spoon into the tomato paste and twirls it around, watching the remaining letters caught in the undertow that the empty space behind the spoon’s forward motion creates. The boy stares into his soup and counts the last letters. Nine exist. He can afford to, and so begins picking them off one at a time. He dips his spoon into the paste and brings it up and lets the teetering letters fall off, then, with reluctance, swallows only the letter left on the spoon. With four letters remaining, the boy tires with reluctance and does not wish to finish this ritual.

He stares at the last four letters. The remaining “V” had always been one of the boy’s favorite letters. He always liked the way it looked and sounded. He watches as he dips it under the red paste and how its buoyancy causes it to resurge. The boy lets the “V” bounce and make its way toward the edge of the bowl. He turns his attention to the “L” scooting toward the middle. The boy had always been ambivalent of the “L.” He liked the looks of it when it was capitalized, but lowercase, he saw it as a simple line, or in cursive as an inadvertent swoosh. The boy places the edge of the spoon at the right angle on the inside of the “L,” and slowly drags it along in circles, making a formidable wake. Once the wake dies down, the boy turns his attention to the letter “E.” He never did like the sound of the letter “E,” but he did like the looks of it. Besides the letter “X,” the boy thought the letter “E” aesthetically superior to all other letters. He placed his spoon under it and raised the spoon halfway out of the soup and then back in.

While the gentle light unspooled the waking dream of the man, another flash from the same light the creature had felt earlier hit.

“It’s a lie,” the flash of light screamed, knocking the creature down with its force. Each flash of light zapped more and more energy from the creature, and now, after so many bursts, the totality of shocks added up and left the flaccid creature scrambling to regain its bearings and composure. Once regained, the creature hopped back onto the bean and searched for the light, and although the creature dreaded another flash of light, it had to know the conclusion of the man’s embellished waking dream. Sure enough, the torpid light still wafted from the man, and once the creature found it, it recovered the thread where it had left off.

The boy turns his attention to the final of the four letters, the “I.” He watches it reel to and fro when he moves his spoon up and down. He dunks the “I” under the paste and watches as it exhibits the same buoyancy the “V” did earlier. He has surveyed the final four letters and must now perform the inevitable task of finishing his soup.

He closes his eyes and scoops through the paste. He lifts the spoon out of the depths. The spoon has no letters, and the boy is agitated by his failed attempt. He corrals the letters to one side of the bowl to increase his odds, and then he re-attempts to snatch up one of the last four letters. Success! The spoon has picked up the “E” and the “L,” and although he was hoping to devour them one at a time, he knows his ritual does not allow for him to put one of the letters back. All transactions are final at this point of his game. The boy puts the letters in his mouth and devours them without thought.

He plunks the spoon back into his soup and looks down with remorse at the remaining “V” and “I.” He knows once they are gone he will have to return to his banal, his empty, his real life. The boy takes the spoon out of the soup and lets it fall heavily back into it. The letters scatter and rock back and forth until the soup becomes calm again. Once the letters stop moving, the boy closes his eyes again and swirls the spoon around so both letters will have an equal chance to find their way onto the spoon. The boy then lifts the spoon up and out of the soup. He opens his eyes just in time to see he had both letters on the spoon, but the slight tilt of the spoon along with the thick paste slowly trickling off the tilted edge has claimed the “I” and sent it back into the soup as the last survivor of the boy’s silly childhood game.

The boy devours the “V” remaining on the spoon, and then he looks back at the lonely “I” as it careens back and forth, the only letter left to fill the void all the tomato paste now makes. The boy is about to finish with his game of letters, and he knows beyond refutation his moment of bliss has come to a close. He is somber. He lifts his head away from the soup and glances to see if his mother is still watching him; He is hoping for her reassurance, but as his eyes focus on the place his mother once stood, there is nothing but shallow emptiness. His mother has abandoned him. Perhaps, he thinks, he has taken too long to eat the last portion of his soup, and her duties called her away. It did not matter what the cause, to a young boy, desertion is desertion, and the universe is empty when a mother is one room away.

The boy decides he had better finish the soup. No sense in upsetting his disappearing mother by not at least being thankful for the meal she prepared him. He looks down at the soup and stares at the lonely “I” engulfed by the thick ocean of tomato paste. The boy, with his eyes wide open now, puts his spoon under the “I” and lifts it out of the void into his mouth. He places the “I” between his teeth, but before he devours it, he looks back into the empty bowl of tomato paste. He thinks, for a moment, about all the letters that had been in the bowl and about how empty it now seems, and he begins chewing, almost with anger, masticating the final letter with force. As he does so, he thinks to himself how hunger, how the base appetite—after everything else is gone, is the only thing that survives the malaise of life. He thinks of his condition, of his disappointment, and he thinks how often words fail to explain it. He looks into the void of tomato paste. The boy is old now, and says sardonically into his bowl, “Some things cannot be explained by the word, but only by its absence.”

Then the light is gone. It gives no explanation to the creature, no warning, the torpid light just vanishes.

VII

The creature sat upon its tepid bean and wondered what this latest revelation of the man’s life might signify. It did not have time to mull it over because just then, the man lurched forward—he was definitely awake now—and grabbed his half-eaten bowl of cold bean soup, and yelling at the creature, exclaimed, “What is left? What is left to sacrifice? All I have left are lies.”

Cupping the bowl with both hands the man screamed in a manner similar to the electric light, “It’s all lies. It’s all lies. You’re a lie!”

Grasping the bowl in his right hand, he flung it as hard as he could right over the creature’s cowering head, hitting the barren wall.

The strewn bowl of soup ricocheted off the wall and scattered shards of glass and solitary beans every direction. The thick broth dripped down the wall in rivulets patterned after exigent slithering snakes with small translucent copper heads. When the shards of glass stopped tumbling, and the man stopped yelling at the blameless creature, only during the halcyon aftermath did the man realize what he had just done. To unbridle the fiery passions was something altogether foreign and abstract to him, and perhaps, that is why it was the man, not the creature, who shocked himself into action.

He got up from his wobbly chair and began cleaning the mess. He paid no mind to the fact that the shards of glass were embedding themselves through the hard crust and into the doughy part of his feet. The man appeared altogether distracted. His action had somehow unraveled him and a trembling fear now gripped at his very being. While instinct took over the physical aspect of life, and the man knew the only physical reparation necessary was to clean the mess and erase the evidence of such impetuousness, the mental, the imprinted ethical functions of the mind began to hound him for his behavior. Why couldn’t he, for once, just act, give in to the pent up anger inside of him, dash it upon the wall and watch it run out, and just like how the soup scurried on to its final moments and now lay quiet, a stain. So too his anger would run out if he could just uncork it. Such overabundance, such exuberant rebellion for him was not an option. He had trained his mind and heart to suppress such feelings, to quell the vicious storm and in an act of self-flagellation, force the pent up anger down deep into the gall, to the guts, where it would writhe and churn in astringent bile, all the while plotting with viciousness the time when it could perhaps, surge up and rise out of the gut, and take over the tired man unaware, as it just had.

The man wiped down the wall with a wet washrag. He swept the broken glass into a dustpan. The entire time he cleaned up the mess, he never stopped begging out loud for forgiveness. A peculiar thing happened, however: just before he discarded the mess into the trashcan, he stopped, dustpan in hand, and looked at the wall for a moment, toward the very spot where the stain recently was. The creature felt positive the middle-aged man was contemplating throwing the dustpan down. The man stopped asking for forgiveness. The creature could almost feel the impetus of the moment; it knew the man to be teetering between some earlier resolution and this new crisis. This moment had become a squeaky fulcrum. The man was tired of something—and the creature could sense that—but what was he going to do, the creature wondered.

The man wondered the same thing, as he paused in attending to his duties for the moment and contemplated throwing the dustpan down, in a sort of un-apologizing for having let his anger take hold of him. He contemplated the repudiation of all his humble and righteous deeds over the past years. What had they got him? What had he gained by not allowing the passions to take over him, by not being swayed by the ribald, the indulgent, the excessive behavior so many had given into? He was thinking about the total negation of such behavior, because the supernal reward he had got for all of his striving to please the overpowering part of his mind was a type of cold absence of self, an inability to decide on a course of action, a lethargic will to initiate any type of idea that might not align with his current standards, and a bitter resentment to anything that might not parallel his metallic sense of conscience. His moment of silent contemplation evaporated as quickly as it had come, an effervescent puff of smoke on a windy day. And then something familiar, reliant—that good old punishing and flagellating part of the brain—took over the man, and he regained composure and his usual sensibilities, remembered what he was doing, and rapidly went to the trashcan and threw away the shards of broken glass and the filth-covered beans, the reminder of his sullied self, as he did this, returned to the appeasing inflections of begging for forgiveness.

After mopping up, the man sat back on his wobbly chair, propped his elbows on the table, and rubbed the back of his head. When he looked up, his eyes were tired and had the haggard look of someone who has given into a force both incomprehensible and all too powerful to be reckoned with. The tired eyes looked upon the docile creature and pleaded for the man without so much as a needless word. But then the words came anyways, came in droves: pathetic words of forgiveness. The man pleaded with the creature to forgive him. He pleaded until he grew tired of begging and then he sat with his tired head in his tired hands and began to weep like a little child.

The creature was not familiar with this type of grief and suffering. It hadn’t thought about it for some time, but it wondered if the old man’s story, if the creature could convey the old man’s ploy to dig to the bottom of all this suffering and find the light at the end, if such chronicles wouldn’t help the man. No, it thought to itself, in this case it did not have the answer for this middle-aged man. It is the light that seeks to punish this man, not the darkness, thought the creature. It was the light, the light that came furling from the man and zapped the creature like an electrical spark. It is this man’s tragic quest to only heed the light that is causing him such precise pain. It was not that the source of light was not there that tortured him, it was the possibility that it was there that racked his mind with torment.

The man gathered himself together and left the table for the open window. A slight breeze rustled the half-opened blinds, and the moon’s stolen light slanted into the room. The creature followed the man over to the open window. It perched upon his craggy shoulder. The man turned to the creature, and illumined by the quiet light, spoke once more to it.

“What does one do to make it through this world, moth? I envy the simple choices you have to make. Where and what to eat? Where and when to mate? Where and how to die? Nothing else.”

If only it were that easy, thought the creature, but it too knew the man did not understand the anxieties confronting it daily. The man went back to his table and sat down with his head resting upon clasped hands. Through his hands he murmured, “Small moments are the stratum upon which we construct our lives. But is it ever clear which moment will shatter the entire structure? Or is it ever really specified: is there a protocol for how one should act when such moments fall upon us?”

The man was talking to himself under his breath. The creature grew reluctant to stay much longer. It couldn’t help the man, and to stay any longer was to get carried away by this man’s stupor of thought and action. The creature knew its life to be too short-lived not to act. An innate force compelled it to move on. It flew in front of the man’s face and tried one last time to thrust out some word, if even a lowly goodbye, but all the man heard was the trilling of its wings. He watched it float in front of his face and followed it with his eyes as it ventured toward the open window. Although the man had time, and the thought entered his head, to close the window so his guest would be forced to stay the night with him, the man feared that such action was not an acceptable way to behave, and so instead, he murmured lightly to the creature the words “live” over and over again. Much to his chagrin, he watched helplessly as the creature, with its drumming wings, exited his open window and exited his stagnant life.

Millerstown, OH by Doug Cornett

August from July by Eric Aldrich

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