Terror Destroys a Small Town

‘Salem’s Lot

By Stephen King

Ever wonder what Bram Stoker would make of the industry that has sprung from his groundbreaking 1897 Dracula? Though not the first vampire novel, it proved to be the one that launched hundreds of sharp-fanged anti-heroes. It’s an industry and a character writers, film studios, and television have worked practically to death. Yet, we never seem to tire of the Count and his brethren.

Which brings us to Stephen King, the writer most will acknowledge as the modern master among masters of horror and the macabre. For his second outing, he chose vampires in a small Maine town, and readers, even now, are the luckier for it. You can say this about most of King’s early works, Carrie, The Shining, and The Stand (first half): it’s a masterwork of terror.

What makes ‘Salem’s Lot, as well as these others so appealing, appealing enough to read a second time years after your first reading? It boils down to small town life, ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, clear writing, terrific pacing (at least in these early novels), and powerful, literal descriptions. King puts you in the situation and the action and because his characters are much like his readers, you can easily project yourself onto the pages. In short, he’s completely relatable.

You’ll find no better work among his pile of writing illustrating King’s strengths. Could there be a more representative American small town than the Lot? Don’t many small towns have a sinister house occupied, or once home to, the town curmudgeon (not a killer, for sure, but scary, especially in the eyes of children). The Lot has a rhythm to it, a way of living that stretches back years, a dull sameness that locals like and set their emotional clock by. Like any town, though, it’s not perfect bliss, or even close to blissful. It’s relatively poor. It’s filled with its share of misfits. It even has a town dump that many who grew up in small towns will recognize. Above all, everybody knows everybody else, maybe a virtue but which contributes to its succumbing to evil.

Even Ben Mears is a small town boy. He’s published a couple of books, true, but hasn’t achieved any kind of fame and no fortune. He returns to his roots to face a fear that has haunted him, and to get a really good book out of the experience. That fear resides in the old, abandoned Marsten House stilling atop a hill overlooking the Lot. Horrible things happened there long ago, long before when Ben was a boy.

Ben gets more than he bargained for. He gets his greatest fear multiplied a hundredfold in the form of Barlow, an ancient vampire come to establish residence in the Lot coincidental with Ben’s arrival. Poor Ben loses so much: a new love in the form of tragic Susan, new friends in the forms of Matt the high school teacher and Jim the doctor, the new novel he’s written deeply into, and most of all, any comfort and joy in living. Yet, with young Mark at his side, he does gain a new and pretty meaningful purpose in life as one who now can see behind the curtain of quotidian life, like that that the Lot enjoyed before Barlow’s arrival.

There’s one other characteristic of King’s writing that unfortunately ‘Salem’s Lot doesn’t have: stunningly memorable characters, among them religious lunatic Margaret White, rabid fan Annie Wilkes, pyromaniac “Trashcan Man,” the list is long. Vampire master Barlow could have been such a character, ancient, big, nasty, egotistical, and above all, wonderfully bombastic. It isn’t often said about novels, but ‘Salem’s Lot would have benefited immensely from deep background on Barlow. Nonetheless, ‘Salem’s Lot is still a heck of a powerful horror yarn. w/c

Joyce Carol Oates Shares Nightmares

The Corn Maiden

By Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is among our best and certainly most versatile writers, one who not only can scribble persuasively in most any genre but also plumb depths often lacking in the efforts of others. You can regard this mostly very good volume of “nightmare” tales as a prime example of the extra value she injects into the common fright tale.

In “The Corn Maiden,” she reaches beyond the obvious terror of a child kidnapped by a demented classmate to explore a working mother’s fear for her child and her own fitness as a mother, as well as the effect on a falsely accused teacher. The longest, best paced, and most heart-pounding story in the collection.

“Beersheba” and “Nobody Knows My Name,” while different also share a quite ingenious connection; that is, our inability to definitively understand what is stirring in the mind of another. In the first story, a nearly forgotten daughter returns to extract satisfaction from her father. In the second, a little girl, apparently normal on the outside but horribly psychotic inside, deals with her newborn sister.

“Fossil Figures” and “Death Cup,” too, share a connection, that of two brothers of two very different natures, separated for years, who come together to end their lives side-by-side. What differentiates them and how they reach their endings together is something you will enjoy discovering yourself.

“Helping Hands,” concerns a widow trying to come to terms with the early and surprising death of her husband (originally published a few years after the death of Oates first husband, Raymond Smith). So blinded by her loss and by her need to project and receive love, to be cherished and cherish, she cloaks a war veteran working in a disabled veteran’s donation shop with virtues we clearsighted readers feel can’t be real, leading us to fear for her.

In the final story, “A Hole in the Head,” a plastic surgeon with insecurity issues, a ruined marriage, and suffering from financial desperation, allows a patient to seduce him, against his better professional judgement, into performing a bogus procedure on her, trepanning, the drilling of holes in the skull to release evil spirits. And, indeed, evil emerges, but of a quite different sort than the doctor expected.

While the stories vary in quality, overall the collection will leave you properly disturbed, maybe even give you a nightmare if you dwell on their underlying ideas. w/c

A Terrific Horror Movie for Tonight

The Others (Amenábar, 2001)

There’s nothing quite as good as a psychological horror thriller. We had only high praise for The Babadook. Now, add to the list of the best The Others (Los Otros). It’s Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar’s first English-language feature and the winner of numerous awards, including the first English-language feature to win Best Film at the Goyas. It won seven additional Goya awards, among them Best Actress for Nicole Kidman.

Here’s what we said about The Others in our review that appeared previously elsewhere.

When death and destruction surround you, you attune every fiber of your body, every cell of your brain to holding on to life even beyond anybody’s ability to preserve it.

In Alejandro Amenábar’s beautifully filmed and gradually paced horror film, we meet Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman, superb in the role) living in a rambling country house located on Jersey (British Crown Dependency, located off the Normandy coast). WWII has just ended and Grace and her two children yearn for the return of husband and father Charles (Christopher Eccleston).

Mysteriously and suddenly, her house staff has disappeared. But fortunately three servants led by Mrs. Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan, who won a Goya for Best Supporting Actress) appear at her door seeking positions. Grace hires them, then introduces them and us to her children who suffer from a rare photosensitivity disorder. Under no circumstances can sunlight be allowed into the house, otherwise Anna (really well played by Alakina Mann, who won a Goya for Best Performance by a Younger Actor) and Nicolas (James Bentley) will burn to the point of death. Needless to say, affairs get progressively weirder until the truth reveals itself to Grace and to us.

Horror films, for the most part, are schlocky constructions of cheap thrills and gore. Of course, we love them for just that. However, they can be elevated into thoughtful films (case in point, the terrific The Babadook, which taps our deepest fears).

Such is the case with The Others. The issues here revolve around facing your worst behaviors, your personal weaknesses, your need to deny and erase bad deeds, and, ultimately, to reject and reverse your own mortality, as well as that of those you love.

If a mindless scare fest is what you seek, this movie will disappoint you. If, though, you desire suspense, strangeness, and the psychological legerdemain of the human mind, you’ll not do better than with this award-winning film. c/w

The Inside-Out Woman: 16: Receptacles and Vessels

The Inside-Out Woman

CHAPTER 16:  RECEPTACLES AND VESSELS

“Mommy, Mommy, open the door,” begged Dominic, across from the door on the floor, his back against the bed, legs pulled tight to his chest, embraced by a shivering, teary Dominica hunkered on legs tucked beneath her.  He stared at the door, and listened to his mother, puzzled and frightened by her rhythmic thumping and runic screaming. 

“I’m ‘fraid, Dominic.  Make Mommy come out.”

“It’s a bad storm, Mommy.  Please come out.  Please,” Dominic called in his loudest voice.

My dear, you’ve really tumbled down a rabbit hole, haven’t you?  What a mad hatter your Pater is.  Honestly, dear, how you suffer the beast befuddles me.  It certainly does.  Though, I must accept a tiny bit of responsibility.  Yes, for I should have returned to you sooner.  You’ll forgive me, dear, won’t you?  You, more than anyone, appreciate how delightfully absorbing my little world is.  None of your Pater’s nonsense there, I can assure you.  Oh, twiddle-dee, water under the bridge, as they say; I’m here now.  Please don’t force me to be stern with you, dear.  You know I despise playing the disciplinarian.  It simply doesn’t suit my Mamie personality.  I’ve always been the sunnier, brighter, more delightful, more desirable sister.  She hated me for my disposition, you know.  I mean, poor sis, who wouldn’t?  Be that as it may.  To the task at hand.  Stop your crying, dear.  Dab dry your tears.  Gather up our babies.  They are terrified darlings, and with good reason, for if my ears aren’t deceiving me—and I assure you I’ve always been blessed with acute hearing—the heavens are about to open.  Release yourself now, dear.

“Mommy, Mommy,” Dominic and Dominica shouted in a chorus of relief and jubilation at the sight of Iam’s foot pushing open the door.

They scurried on hands ands knees to her and reassumed their spots on either side of her, mindful not to disturb the box she balanced on her knees.

“Dominic, please get the lid.”

He obeyed and retrieved it in a doggie dash.  Iam removed the newspaper article, placed it on the contents, and covered everything with the lid. 

“We’re done with the box for a while.  How long have I … have you waited for me?” perceiving considerable time had elapsed, perhaps an hour, maybe more judging by the lit bedstead lamp and the darkness outside the window.

“Lots,” answered Dominica.

“Dominic?”

“A long time, Mommy.”

She pointed at the window.  “How long has that been going on?”

“Forever,” said Dominica

“After you closed the door, it started raining.”

Wind moaned around the house, snapped direction, bumped the house siding full on, rattling the windows, vibrating the floor, shifted again, resuming its moaning encircling.

“That?” referring to the flash of lightning and boom of thunder.

“It just started.”

She felt as if she had revived from an enduring, disturbing, draining nap.  Every part of her hurt from immobility, leaving her body like stone, rigid, heavy, and anchored to the floor.

“Dominic, Dominica, help me up.  We’ve got to get downstairs,” she said, placing the box next to her and shoving it into the blackness of the closet.

She gave them her arms and they tugged her forward valiantly and, at last, she pitched onto her knees, and stood up.

“Follow me,” she said, first stumbling from the room, next awkwardly walking to the stairs, limber again as she descended, and downstairs restored, all the while with the children clutching her on either side.

“What happened?” said Dominic, as they slogged through the mess outside the half bath.

“An accident,” Iam said.  “It’s nothing.  Don’t be afraid.”

“I’m not,” said Dominic.

“Me either,” said Dominica.

“Dominic, turn on the lights.  And, Dominica, switch on the TV.  Let’s see when the storm is supposed to end.”

She sat on the edge of the couch with Dominica searching stations for a weather report.  “Daddy’s coming home?” she asked, working the remote.

“Sure, honey, storms don’t stop Daddy.  There, hold on Dominica.  If he finishes his work, he’ll be home tonight.”

A summary forecast appeared in a scroll at the bottom of a stockcar race as Dominic joined them on the couch. 

“Okay, well, it isn’t as bad as it sounds.  Severe thunderstorms and a tornado watch ending around midnight.  It’s just a watch.  We know they never mean much, don’t we?  I think we can make it to midnight okay, don’t you think?”

They nodded, Dominica timidly.

“We’ll have some dinner, watch a fun movie—”

“‘Cinderella,'” Dominica said.

“‘Toy Story,'” Dominic said.

“Well, let’s see what time it is.  Maybe we an watch both of them before bedtime.”

“Mine first,” said Dominica.

“Dominic, find something you and Dominica can watch before we put the movies in and I’ll see if it’s time to start dinner.  It sure feels like it.  I’m hungry.  How about you two?”

“I am,” said Dominic.

“Me too, me too,” chimed Dominica.

Well, what a relief, dear.  I’ve never been a fan of thunderstorms.  They’ve always frightened me to death.  And you know, electricity doesn’t agree with me.  I’m always the worse for it.  Your mother, it never troubled her in the least.  She had a notion electricity was the best remedy for me.  I believe she would have enjoyed watching me electrocuted, if they’d allowed it.  I can’t recount all the times I saw her—I imagined I saw her lollygagging in the corner munching popcorn, snorting.  Oh, that nasty laughing through her nose.  My, the thought of her piggy snuffles, it disgusts me. 

“Hmm, I’m thinking meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  Doesn’t that sound perfect for a stormy night?”

Why, dear, you read my mind.  At this precise moment, I was saying to myself, “Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy would be scrumptious tonight.”  Don’t forget the gravy, dear.  Thick brown gravy is our favorite, not the red stuff.  The red stuff gives me the willies.

“Yes,” they said, as she rose and Dominic found a cartoon appealing to them both.

“With brown gravy, too.  We can’t forget the brown gravy,” she said, heading to the kitchen.

With the children settled, Iam entered the kitchen consumed with meatloaf, enumerating the ingredients, worrying if she had breadcrumbs, how she might concoct a proper meatloaf without them, remembering yellow, a temptation, a note, the priest, the consideration, vaguely her rage, a mess to clean up, attend to it while the meatloaf baked and the potatoes boiled, forgetting, glancing at the clock to confirm her suspicion she’d spent a couple of hours in the closet, in Hell, wondering, too, if Billy had finished, hoping she was right and the storm would not prevent him from coming home tonight, glimpsing the pitcher, whiffing the rank hut, recalling Aunt Margie never made a meatloaf, bounding from thought to memory, back and forth, when the cat’s eyes seized her and would not relinquish her and commenced to expelling everything from her mind and filling the vacancy with letters it formed with each swing of its big blazing eyes and click of its resonant curved scimitar tail, until her whole world reduced to the two words forming in the air before her, giant, unmistakable letters throbbing cruelly on children’s building blocks, each letter a vivid color, pulsing as if living, as if liquid, undulating as if a bizarre blood coursed through them, animating the letters so they levitated from the blocks, where airborne they united and transformed into a whole monster, a terrible slithering serpent with raven hair and piercing blue eyes and a blinding red maw, and darting from the gaping, sour hole a split deep ruby tongue that flicked at her, preparing to devour her, then enwrapping her and pulling her into itself, into blackness, absorbing her into the reality she had run from; and spelled on the glistening skin of the serpent, the only image in her head as she dissolved into the creature:  Resurrection Vessel.

She had dropped into her bunk an hour earlier dirty and exhausted, grateful Pater cancelled the Council meeting.  Now a hand rocked her gently.  She awoke slowly, her eyes glued shut by sweat, with a headache forming, and for a moment she forgot where she was.  It was the fragrance, sweet and fruity, like raspberries or strawberries or berry blue, not natural, though, but manufactured on a base of alcohol.  In a moment, she recognized it as the perfume Pater keep in his cabin for the girls she wasn’t suppose to know about.  Unsealing her lids, she looked into Nessa’s eyes smiling down upon her, and next to hers the pair belonging to Lotta.  The two were like their names and they moved with the stealth of sylphs.

Sitting up and rubbing her eyes clear of the gunk, she asked, “What time is it?” and like a mother, “You two should be asleep.”

“It’s midnight,” Nessa whispered.

“Pater kept us up,” Lotta hummed.

“Pater needs you, Marcella.”

“Osma is with him.”

“We woke her.”

“We took her to Pater.”

“We were going to wake you, too.”

“She said let you sleep.”

“Yes, let Marcella sleep until she knew what Pater desired.”

“Osma cares for you very much, Marcella.”

They giggled, two girls bursting with a secret they were bound not to tell.  “It’s a special night.”

“Special?  What are you talking about?”

“Come on, Marcella, come on and see.  Pater needs you, and so does Osma.  Come on,” they trebled low and sweet.

Iam dragged herself from her bunk with the aid of their ethereal tugging.

“I know the way, girls,” she said, when they insisted flanking her and guiding her.  “Get to your cabin.  Get some sleep.”

“Pater excused us from work tomorrow,” Nessa said.

“He said our work was done—”

“Shhh, or you’ll break our oath to Pater.”

“Oath?  What is up with you girls tonight?”

“Sorry.  We promised,” Lotta said.

“All right, we’re here.  Now, to your bunks, the both of you.”

It occurred to her, tapping on Pater’s cabin door, and entering when he summoned her to “Come,” that she never was a girl, never really innocent, not like Nessa and Lotta, who were brought up in the Church and weaned on its moral code.  The highest order of angels granted to him by his Father, said Pater; seed bearers of faith who would sprout a new, stronger Universal One; seraphim who would propagate his future.

The air conditioning, like the heater, a privilege Patter allowed himself as he worked around the clock and often met with Council members in his cabin, chilled her.  Pater reclined in bed covered by a sheet up to the mound of his rounding belly, sipping burgundy from a crystal goblet.  On the edge of the bed, sat Osma, naked but for the brilliant white towel she dried her hair with.

“Are you enjoying your time in the fields, my little warrior?”

“I am learning much, Pater.”

“Yes, I hear you are.  The experience will strengthen you.”

“Thank you, Pater.”

“I have a new mission for you, Marcella,” he said, moving over to allow Osma to slip under the sheet and nest beside him.  “But, first, into the shower with you.”  He reached under the sheet, touching himself.  “Don’t forget to cream your hands.  They must have toughened in the fields.  Hurry.  Nothing can be revealed or begin without you.”

“Yes, hurry, Marcella,” Osma snickered, accepting a goblet from Pater, into which he poured a generous serving of his prized burgundy. 

In the bathroom, Iam leaned against the closed door.  Pater had trapped her.  He had broached the subject with her a few times in the Los Angeles Temple.  He said he wished to share himself with his most faithful and valued Council members.  She didn’t understand him, reminding him they shared much already, including each other intimately.  He proposed a different, more elaborate sharing; he wished to share with Osma and her together the fluid of perpetual life only he carried in him.  More, he said he wished for the three of them to merge as one, as his Father was the merging of three parts.  He offered her the chance at divinity on earth, before the great calling, which he sensed nearing with the velocity of a descending holocaustic thunderbolt.  Sharing a sexual trinity with her Pater and Osma would prepare her for another and unique role in Universal One that he would disclose to her soon.  She’d resisted, wounded by the assault of solo Ricky’s amigos.  Now, Pater had robbed her of choice.

She went to the shower and ran the hot water until steam billowed from the stall, transforming the bathroom into an oven.  She stepped in and the water nearly scalded her, but she didn’t lower the temperature; instead, she allowed the scorching water to raise the red on the surface of her browned skin, like hellfire forcing past, present, and about to be sin into the open for ablutionary consumption.  When she finished, she stood before the mirror, cleared the condensation, and examined herself.  She dragged her hands across her chest, between her breasts, over her stomach, trying to peer below her flesh, like she did when she was a little girl.  What she sought was gossamer; perfectly transparent when pure; translucent when impure; black when withered from abuse or neglect.  To her sorrow, she discovered hers was past withered, not even a black kernel.  Hers was vanished:  she was soulless.  She suspected back at the Los Angeles Temple the night of Pater’s proposition.  Her foreboding intensified when she came to “Feed the World” the first time.  It abated with the appearance of Fabian.  But here it was, the truth, undeniable; that what she believed her salvation, what had been her salvation, was the source of her condemnation; it was the reason her soul had deserted her.

And so what waited for her in the room meant nothing; it couldn’t hurt her; she would find her consolation in Fabian, and she would return to the Los Angeles Temple resolved to respond to the crisis of her missing soul in her familiar fashion:  she would run away.  She hoped she would, at least, for if this was not sufficient impetus, what would be?

She hung the towel on the hook behind the door and entered the room naked, more naked than Pater and Osma could imagine.

“Come, little warrior, come on my left side.”

He raised the sheet for her.  She settled in next to him.  He draped an arm over her and his hand wandered down to her breast and cupped it, as his other hand did Osma’s.  He smelled sweet and sour, of wine and sweat, of pleasure and labor, and the blended odor struck her as sulfuric. 

“Can the two of you picture us?” he asked.  “Can you picture the scene?”

Iam and Osma lay silent, sharing between them a glance of questioning.

“We are like a holy work.  We are like a religious triptych.  We are like a church fresco.  We are like men envision the Trinity.”

As he spoke, a glaze descended over his eyes, and Iam and Osma, locking their eyes, realized he was no longer aware of them, didn’t feel them next to him, for they knew from experience he was elsewhere; he was off on an astral flight, flitting who knew where.  And in that embracement of eyes, what Iam saw in Osma, Pater’s right hand, shocked her.  Osma possessed the very core of being she’d lost.  Osma possessed a soul, a stained, withered black dab.  But it was there, and, defective as it was, still it served as a compass for Iam, pointing to something she didn’t recognize until now, something Osma understood, accepted, nurtured in for who knew how long; that Pater was a blasphemer, a manipulator, a user, a solo Ricky.  The difference, the fountainhead of his control, he was educated, charismatic, and adorned in the white robes of ersatz belief; and, chilled by a draft of air conditioning or the cold hand of fate, she couldn’t distinguish, she glimpsed rampant paranoia underneath the ceremonial robes and golden sashes of Revelation

“We are the Trinity on earth,” he said, between them again.  “But for weeks, visions have plagued me.”  Both murmured, consolation from Osma, dread from Iam.  “These men of today, they see what I am about.  They understand how my growing power, the kingdom of my Father it is my mission to establish on earth, how I will use these to pry apart their greed infected grip on God’s people.  I feel, my most faithful, I feel the enemies of my Father and me marshalling against us.”

“We’ll fight them, Pater, as we always have,” Osma said, forever the fervent right hand.

“Your name truly fits you, God’s servant,” he said, caressing Osma’s breast and tracing a circle around her nipple.  “I have to say no.  They are too strong to resist with arms.  Our Swords are brave and skillful, but outnumbered.  No, our resistance that I plan will be different.  It will be monumental in its boldness.  It will be a rising up of the Anointed People, an astounding testament of belief that will eclipse anything the world has yet seen.”

No, Iam realized it wasn’t the artificial cold that sent shivers through her, that paralyzed her chest and held her breath fast in her, that dropped a veil of red terror over her eyes; it was a prophecy delivered centuries ago, a fantasy to some, but scripture, law, destiny to Pater; it was the calling up.

Osma put words to it.  “Pater, are we rapturing out?”

My God, thought Iam, an exit represented on the Black Night headbands, the people of the One with angel wings flapping them upon Pater’s command for the Home Chant and ascending in redemption red squadrons to the heavens where they would enjoy unfathomable rewards to the envy of the world-bound.

Pater laughed.  “We’ll talk of coming events another time in a meeting of the full Council.  Tonight, I’ve begun preparing for my departure.”

“Departure?” Osma pried.  “Where are you going?  For how long?”

“You’re filled with wonder, my faithful servant?  You know better than all what’s happening in Los Angeles, how our enemies, the newspapers, the television reporters, the Federal authorities, and who knows who else, are working overtime to trump up offenses they can use against me.  The true word, the acceptance of it, our growth, it is driving them insane.  They are resorting to desperate measures.  I don’t want to frighten either of you, but you should know … oh, how I wanted to avoid revealing this to you on such a special night … but you must know … my assassination may be imminent.”

Osma, startled, said, “No, it can’t true.” 

For the first time in a long while, a real prayer wriggled up from Iam’s girlhood; she prayed it was true, that this time, not like the dozens of other claimed attempts, this time it would come to pass.

“Sadly, it is.  Armand himself alerted me.  You know our Sword commander has informants in the LAPD.  He informed me last week, and we’ve been formulating plans since.  Not religious, governance, or business plans, or you would have been involved.  You both are my most valued advisers on those matters.  No, these are … let’s call them logistical plans.  Soon, you’ll hear the details.  I’ll say only that Armand believes if I disappear for a while our enemies might shelve their plans.  Others have disappeared and returned the stronger for it.  Look no further than Jesus Himself.  Off to the desert, tested by Satan, returned a man with a focused purpose.”

Iam saw Osma melt against Pater, relief washing the concern from her face.  “The house.  I am so happy you received the inspiration to buy it.”

Pater occasionally left the Los Angeles Temple for short retreats.  Several years earlier, when Iam was new to the Council, she accompanied Pater and Osma to the Baja with the mission of locating a suitable site for his retreats.  They settled on a small house in Ensenada with a view of the ocean and La Presa and bought it immediately with cash Osma carried in her purse.  The swiftness of the purchase and the pile of bills surprised her, but as she involved herself more deeply in Church business, she saw the practice was typical; the Church paid cash for nearly everything, and Osma served as the banker.  That trip was the first and last time Iam saw the house, though Osma mentioned in passing over the years several trips she took there with him.

“Yes.  So, you see, there’s nothing to worry yourselves about tonight.  Tonight we celebrate.  Tonight I will reveal to you joyous news.  Tonight you will believe the promise that Universal One will go on regardless of our enemies’ intentions.  Destroying Universal One is an impossibility.  Our Church is a continuum, my lovely servant and warrior.  It stands on a foundation of everlasting life, my everlasting life, past, present, and future.  You know by your faith that I have lived in the past and will live in the future.  And, as with everything, you will assist me.  You will be instrumental in my perpetuation.  You will be my instruments, the primary receptacles of my Resurrection Vessels.”

Resurrection was nothing new to Osma and Iam.  Christ resurrected.  People of all sorts believed in their personal resurrection and elevation to life everlasting; it was an impeachable tenet of most religions.  Pater, however, over the years, added a new dimension to the concept by blending it with reincarnation.  When he spoke of resurrection, specifically his personal perpetuity, he meant by way of reincarnation into another temporal life in the whole form of himself, incarnated after resting and renewing in his Father’s house.  Pater’s continuum would go on until he accomplished his Father’s mission of returning all the people of the world, who had been led astray by the sin of Adam and Eve and the incessant evil of the devil, to Him. 

Osma and Iam naturally assumed Pater would die and return as a newborn somewhere on earth.  He would then start again to wage his father’s earthly battle of universal unity and salvation.  But exchanging glances, Osma’s eyes communicated to her that Vessels was a codicil she alone comprehended.  Osma beat Iam in asking the question they shared.

“Pater,” asked Iam, “what do you mean by Vessels?”

“God’s servant and my little warrior, I’ve have preached on my origins.  I am from my Father.  What do you suppose I mean by that?”

“God gave you life,” Iam said, instantly, like the brightest girl in class impressing the teacher.

“God gave you life, and you, too, Osma,” he said, squeezing both their breasts, eliciting murmurs from them.  “God gave life to everyone one of the Anointed surrounding us in our great monument to His goodness, and to all the good and bad—innocent and pure from God’s fingertip, let us not forget, and bad through their own devices and their willingness to accept the devil as their Baal—to all the world’s inhabitants.  No, God did more for your Pater.”

He fell silent, seemly lost in another reverie, or off on another flight. 

Iam closed her eyes, let escape a murmur of satisfaction as they burned pleasantly against her lids.  But Osma, herself dreamy, though not with sleep but with the pleasure of the wine and the man to whom Iam knew she was devoted, asked, “Pater, what blessing did God bestow upon you?”

Revived, he said, “Well, in the beginning, the first incarnation was familiar.  Like my brother, God placed the seed of me into a specially selected woman, the Prime Receptacle.  She possessed the faith and love in God to understand her good fortune and mission.  She nurtured me until I matured and took up the work of my Father, the very work that has engaged me for thousands of years.  It is a difficult undertaking, my two faithful believers.  People prefer to be consumed by their own petty lives than by the life God has waiting for them.  Many times, innumerable times, I have perished, always by the efforts of men who cannot tolerate God’s good word, God’s power, who abhor the very thought of a kingdom opposing their own.”

He trembled and sweated and gripped Osma and Iam hard, until their pained cries calmed him.

“Please,” he said.

Osma handed him his goblet of wine.  He drank it off in a long, loud gulp.  “Blood of the Father give me strength.”  Osma took the goblet.  “Thank you,” he said.  “You have always known what I need.  I am grateful for you, God’s servant.  Come here.  Let’s settle down.  I promise to be a good Pater.  Okay, there, where … It infuriates me.  Several times I’ve come close to fulfilling the mission God blessed me with only to be foiled by agents of the Great Nemesis.  If it were not for unbelievers like that vindictive worm Harlan Johnson.  He has been my crucifier.”

“I’m sorry, Pater,” Osma said.  “We’re sorry.  We tried.”

“Yes, don’t worry yourselves.  Don’t let it spoil our evening.  You’ve turned away many of our enemies.  Even the best earthly creatures can’t bat a thousand.  Ted Williams couldn’t.  No, Johnson is a worm and a cockroach, slippery and filthy, and it’s near impossible to kill either of them.  At least, thanks to your efforts, his discomfort supplied your Pater with a delectable consolation.”  His eyes blanked and he laughed softly, and this vision both could see; that of letters streaming to Mrs. Johnson, and, the consequence, Harlan Johnson miserable in the efficiency until he’d convinced his wife they were a cruel ruse.  “Well, your solace is the jealous trait of women.  I’m sure she’s watching him like a hawk.”  He chuckled.  “My Father has always blessed me with wives who understand I am for all the people.  Fidella is yet another.  Praise you, Father.”

“We are grateful to the Father for you, Pater,” they chanted, Iam rote to Osma’s fervency.

“Please, kiss your Pater.”  Together, they arched up and kissed his cheek.

“Such delightful innocents,” he chuckled, hugging them.

“The Vessels,” Iam said.  “You were explaining them.”

“The Vessels will be from you, Osma and Marcella.  You are my primary receptacles.  I will plant in you the seeds of my next life.  Once the seeds germinate in you, you will carry and give birth to them as males, and they will be my Vessels.  Residing in my Father’s house, I will oversee the maturation of these Vessels.  When the time is propitious, I will select the best one among them.  I will descend from my home, forfeit the love and hospitality of my Father, and enter the fray for God’s souls once again.”

“But,” Iam asked, “what will become of the child?”

“Marcella, for a warrior, you process such a tender heart.  I know it is your gender.  The Father designed you to care and nurture.  It is a glorious design and like most of His gifts the enemies shit on it.  It is simple and necessary:  I will subsume the Vessel and it will be me.  To the amazement of all the world, the boy will be a whole man in a child, and they will refuse to believe it; they will not comprehend such a thing could happen, not in the modern world of logic and science; they will be no different than the temple doctors who marveled at my brother.  What a glorious event, remember?  ‘And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.’  What a scamp, sneaking off from his parents and setting up shop in the temple with the learned doctors.  He was a daring fellow, for sure.  Smart, too.  ‘And all that heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.'”

“What of the child?” Iam asked, catching the spark of love in Osma’s eyes, but wondering if maybe she was wrong about her; that maybe she, in addition, believed, or wanted to believe so hard, to fortify and justify her love.

“He will go.  Science is correct about that, at least.  You can’t have two bodies occupying the same space simultaneously.  Science understands the simple things, but not the complex.”

“He will die?”

“Marcella, what is with you?  Mortal life ends for everybody, and then we all are raised up and born into a heavenly life.  We, the true believers, never die; we live forever and ever.  He will return to his heavenly home and live for eternity.  And he, and she who carried him and prepared him for me, will enjoy a special place in Heaven, close to my Father and to me, when I return.”

“What a glorious reward,” Osma said.

“You see, Marcella, Osma understands.  The spirit possessed her.  In Heaven, we’ll be a big, happy family.”

Osma stirred and laughed softly and pushed against Pater as if she wanted to jump inside him.

Iam said, “Yes, it is a glorious reward.”

“That is our purpose tonight.  You will deliver Vessels, and yours will be the cream.  The Father has imbued me with special strength and vigor; He has multiplied the seeds in me; and as His good farmer, I have begun sowing them tonight.  I will continue His work steadily for several weeks.  At the end of that time, we will test all the receptacles and determine which ground has proved most fertile.  After, secure in the certainty of continuity, we will deliver our powerful message of faith and promise to all the world.”

Pater directed them.  Osma first, always the right hand first.  A rest.  Libation.  Iam second, treated more brutally, as a warrior wishes and deserves.  As he mounted behind her and Osma knelt in front of her, she saw the excited eyes of Nessa and Lotta and others like them, and she wanted to cry, and she did when he yanked her hair in his passion and thrust her into Osma.

Afterwards, Pater fell asleep.  Osma and Iam took turns showering.  Iam could not clean herself no matter how vigorously she scrubbed and left only when Osma urged her, “Hurry, will you.  It’s almost morning.  We can sleep while he sleeps.  Hurry up.”

On their way out, Osma said, “Wait.  Let me show you something.”

She pulled a box from under Pater’s bed, beckoned Iam to her knees, and opened it.  She gazed on bright packages of pregnancy testing kits. 

“When any of us begin to feel the Vessel inside us, we are to come to Pater for one of these.  I intend to be first, Marcella.  I love you, but I will be first.”

Iam hugged Osma.  “I pray you are,” she said. 

COMING NEXT WEEK, MONDAY, JUNE 8, 2015: CHAPTER 17: THE WORST

The Inside-Out Woman: Chapter 10: The Offering

The Inside-Out Woman

CHAPTER 10  THE OFFERING

Intoxicated with the word of God and contrite over the human manner in which he’d accepted it, Father Chapas knelt, scoured the site of the abomination with holy water and recited the rosary over the stain, purifying and sanctifying this patch of carpet that represented sin,  praying for redemption from wayward ways, freedom from evil control, and the enigmatic call of God to His work, no less worthy, in the priest’s fevered mind, of a scribe’s chronicling than the burning bush or the Damascus road or any other manifestation of God to sinful man.

Thus, cleansed, renewed, and invigorated with God’s absolution and with His mission in his heart, Father Chapas grabbed a pen and the tormenting paper from his desk and departed his rectory, praying that the Father, during the course of fulfilling his duty, would work a mundane miracle, granting him the golden words that would empower him to leap the barrier of “Knox County.”

In his car, he dropped the paper on the passenger’s seat and reached to turn the ignition, when it struck him that he did not know what sort of offering would be appropriate.  Flowers, while beautiful, seemed too …  He couldn’t bring himself to form the thought of the temporal suggestion contained in “flowers,” so repugnant to him was it now; so directly opposite of God’s wish for him and Maryam was it. 

What best would signal renewal of the spirit?  What best announced the end of spiritual starvation in favor of the nurturing of life?  He contemplated the Bible, always an infallible wellspring of divine guidance.  Bring forth food from the earth; and wine that makes glad the heart of man; and bread which strengthens man’s heart.  And woman’s, too, he amended.

He started the car and drove a short distance to the nearby liquor store.  There he puzzled over several gift baskets.  Too large would seem ostentatious and inappropriate.  Too small might appear niggling and cheapen the purpose.  Dios no quiere que sea un tacaño.  He purchased a basket containing two bottles of wine, a red and a white, a dozen varieties of crackers packaged in sleek boxes that attested to their superior quality, two cheese rolls and one of salami.  Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those who are bitter of heart. ¿Qué falta Chapas? he reproved, leaving the store totting his gift basket; siempre sobresaliste en los versículos de la Biblia.  Ah!  “When they drink, they will forget their misery, and think no more of their burdens.  Si, Señor,” he said

At the wheel, he sat with the gift basket in the passenger’s seat.  It occupied the entire seat.  Bright yellow cellophane encased the delicacies, cheery yellow like the season, like the maize that underpinned the Sullivan County economy, like the maize he remembered growing behind the Brick house the several times he’d driven past it. 

In his hand, he held a gift card.  At this, he stared. ¿Qué digo?  More words that did not come to him.  “Dear Maryam.”  No, no for obvious reasons.  “Dear Mrs. Brick.”  Wrong yet again.  “Knox” peeked at him from under the basket.  “Por favor, Señor,” he whispered and elongated like an elaborate devotional.  On the card, he wrote in his best orphanage hand, “Dear Brick Family.”  He paused.  No.  “Dear Familia Brick.”  Yes, an homage to her, just to her in honor of her kindness to a lost priest.  “For your good work, your participation in God’s work, and your help to me.  God sees the good in your heart and soul.”  It seemed to strike the right tone, fit the situation, and was sufficiently oblique that only Maryam, inspired like him, would fully apprehend God had a plan for them.  He signed off, “With my gratitude, Father Mario.”

He enclosed the note in the yellow envelope that came with it.  He attached it with the pin also thoughtfully provided by the fabricator of the basket.  Then he tugged at the sheet that held the two words of his homily.  ¿Por qué no vienes a mí tan fácilmente, demonio?

He drove off and blankly watched flat fields of corn, which rose against a pure blue sky marred only by clouds billowing in the northwest, replace the town.  His mind was clear and receptive; it anticipated the right words dropping into it.  But he arrived at the Brick house without a single word to add to “Knox County.”

He pulled into the Brick’s driveway and parked behind Maryam’s van, gladdened to see Billy had not returned early and that only she and the children were at home.  God had not yet revealed the particulars of his mission, but Father Chapas had no doubts He would, perhaps on the steps of the Brick house.

He climbed from his car and walked around to the passenger door.  He opened it for the basket as he would for a companion, for Maryam Brick.  Qué mala idea es esto.  “No te metas conmigo, demonio, o te enfrentarás a la ira de Dios,” he intoned softly, lifting and cradling the basket. 

He strolled to the house struggling to focus his thoughts on how he would greet her, on how he would explain God’s mission for them, but muttering, “Ah, Chapas, qué hombre hubieras sido.  Qué buen tipo.  Detente.  Está mal.  Sirves a Dios.  Séle fiel,” struggling to purge his mind as he climbed the steps to the porch door.

He tapped lightly.  When no one responded, he turned the knob.  After all, it was the entry to the porch, not to the house.  And, how could anyone be expected to hear his knocking over such a vast expanse, through a closed door no less.  Besides, he had to move quickly to avoid additional miscreant intrusions, to preserve the cleanliness of his mind.  At the door, a thump startled him.  Another louder thump followed and he pedaled back.  Next poured forth shouts, loud and harsh.  He heard Dominic called.  He heard Dominic warned.  Not warned.  Not warned at all, but threatened … threatened with a sword. ¿Puede ser esto?  ¿Esto?  ¿Una espada?  And the voice, surely it could not belong to Maryam.  Perhaps someone is in the house, someone who should not be there.  But, no, the voice was Maryam’s.  Yet, it didn’t resemble her soft and sweet and kind voice in the least.  It vibrated with loosened phlegm; rattled harshly; burst with frenetic, unbridled vehemence; frightened with malevolence.  And the sword?  Surely Maryam did not possess such a medieval weapon.  But she used the word with such conviction that he, for an instant, pictured her rampaging about the house, slashing madly, armored and ferocious like a demented, corrupted St. Joan.

“Chapas,” he chided himself, “¡Qué día para visiones!  Te estás acercando al límite.  Seamos sensatos.”

The sensibility was that children can sometimes be difficult, and even a person as good and holy as Maryam Brick might be tempted to raise her voice and issue extravagant, ridiculous threats.  Why, on occasion, he did it himself.  And at Santa María, did not the loving brothers sometimes allow themselves to scream and shout at disobedient children?  “Por supuesto,” he said in the direction of the door, “es natural.”

Still, he should check.  He had his offering to present.  He was a man of God, of peace and tranquility.  He could help Maryam regain her composure and see that Dominic was just acting as boys act, and that however he offended could not be very bad.  Boys can never be truly bad, not evilly bad to their cores like men, like men who stared, like those in the pews, like those quivering on prie …

He set the basket in front of the door and leaned close into it.  He placed his ear against it and heard nothing but the pounding of his heart.  Bueno, una buena señal.

He knocked timidly, and when there was no reply, he knocked as he would if announcing himself as a friend, which he was.  When still there was no reply, he applied himself to the task with greater force until he discovered himself in a frenzy, slamming the door with an open hand five times, each time with greater ferocity.

“¿Qué estoy haciendo? ¿Por qué estoy actuando como un loco?” were his remonstrations as he massaged his red and aching hand, alert all the while.

No response issued from inside.  Not a “Who are you?”  “Go away.”  “Stop it, or I’ll call the police.”  Nothing came from behind the door, except vexing silence.

He waited a moment more.  Then he heard a rustling, but saw it was from outside, where a breeze had kicked up.  The sky was thickening with clouds, and the beautiful Saturday was fading away.  He moved the basket tight against the door, thankful for the protection afforded it by the porch.  He returned to his car.

In the car, he waited another moment, staring at the house, tormented by the thought he might be like Peter, in his case, denying God’s mission when it seemed at hand. 

He prayed to God, asking if he should go back, if he should beat insistently on the door until Maryam opened it.  God, he believed, responded by reminding him of the promise in Isaiah:  They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar as with eagles’ wings. 

With the promise of God ringing in his head that this was not the moment, that the moment would present itself in wondrous clarity, he drove to his rectory.

COMING NEXT WEEK, MONDAY, April 27, 2015: CHAPTER 11: DOUBTS

The Inside-Out Woman: 8: Resurrection

The Inside-Out Woman
CHAPTER 8:  RESURRECTION

“What a mess.  What a terrible mess everything is,” Iam declared, surveying the condition of the living room, arms akimbo, rocking side to side, wagging her head.  How much of a mess Dominic would divulge shortly, she thought, folding her sweater, tidying the afghans and the room.  “I can’t have Billy walking in on a mess.  I’ll have everything spic … spic …”

“Everything is terrible mess, Aunt Margie,” Iam sobbed, gagging on the words.

Iam and Ruth laid on Aunt Margie’s bed with their heads in her lap, one on each of her thighs.  Aunt Margie alternately stroked their hair, ending each gentle brushing with little pat, pat, pat.  Sammy hung by the closed door, his ear fastened to it as if by suction, flinching as another dish or glass shattered, another chair clattered across the kitchen floor, another wretched, piercing, agonized scream issued from their mother, and their father responded with another awful, rude, insulting roar.

“Sammy, come away from the door.  Come over here with us.”

“I want to hear,” he said.

“There’s nothing to hear.”

“Are kidding?  There’s plenty.”

“A good boy like you shouldn’t be listening to bad things like that.”

Sammy shook his head and snickered.  He said, “Shit.”

Ruth’s head popped up.  She pointed at Sammy.  “He said a bad word, Aunt Margie.”

“It doesn’t mean we have to listen, Ruth.”

“You’re in trouble, Sammy.”

“Shit, Ruth.  Double shit.”

“Sammy, Ruth, please, behave yourselves,” said Aunt Margie.

“Like them,” Sammy said, adding, “Shit.”

“Please, Sammy, you’re the oldest, almost a young man.  Please, set a good example for your sisters.  I realize it may be a challenge, but couldn’t you try?”

“Sure,” he said, and under his breath let loose another, “Shit.”

Ruth laid her head back down.  Iam, who heard Sammy’s defiance, pretended she didn’t, earning her an extra stroke and pat from Aunt Margie.

“I am scared,” Iam whispered.

“You am, Iam?”

“Really, scared, Aunt Margie.  Really scared, not joking scared.”

“Of what?  Are they disagreeing for the first time?”

“They’re fighting, Aunt Margie.”

“Now, dear, I think of it as disagreeing.  When you look at it that way, you can see it isn’t quite so bad.”

“They are fighting.  It is bad.”

“If you insist, but is it the first time they haven’t seen eye to eye?”

“No.”

“No.  And it won’t be the last.”

“Maybe.”

“Dear, they’ll be disagreeing at your wedding.”

“Mine, too?” piped Ruth.

“Goodness, yes.  Sammy’s, too.”

“Shit,” Sammy said, “I’m too smart to get married.”

“You think so?” asked Iam, disregarding Sammy.

“It’s like what actors do preparing for a show.  They rehearse.  This is nothing.  You just wait,” said Aunt Margie.

“But,” said Iam.

“But what, dear?”

“I’m scared of, you know, being alone.”

“They’re rehearsing, that’s all.”

“But what if they aren’t?  What if they … what if?”

“Well, if, and I’m not saying they will, but if, I’ll always be with you.”

“You’re not ever going away, Aunt Margie?” said Ruth.  “You aren’t ever going away anymore.”

“Well, I can see you girls don’t know much about being with somebody.”

“What do you mean?” asked Iam.

“I’ll always be with you here,” she said, touching a finger to Iam’s head, “and here,” moving to her heart. 

“Me, too?”

“You, too,” doing the same to Ruth.

“Sammy, too?” Ruth asked.

“If he’ll have me.”

Sammy ignored them, concentrating on the door, and the very prominent silence below them.

“Is it over?” asked Iam, now aware of the quiet.

“I believe it is.”

“It’s a terrible mess, I bet,” Iam said.”

“Well, how about we see, and if it is, how about we make everything spic and span neat and clean?”

“It’s really over?” asked Iam.

It couldn’t have been more over if her parents had burned down the house, had blown up the house, if a tornado had carried the house off into oblivion, she remembered, getting on with restoring order to the living room, then sinking onto the sofa, putting her feet up, closing her eyes, trying to avoid for a few moments what awaited her upstairs under the bed, then opening her eyes, unable to avoid it. 

Discovery of the box, the dreadful lunch, the exhausting hide and go seek romp with Dominic and Dominica, the empty, haunting aloneness, these left her drained, restless, tormented. 

“Forget it,” she said to the ceiling.  “I’m too tired to rest.  And it’s stifling in here.  Cold one minute and almost unbearable the next.”  The ceiling answered with images of fields and a shoddy encampment, of bedraggled people, of herself worn and overheated from labor, then spent and shivering under a thin blanket, uncomfortable on a foul, hard canvas cot, in a cramped hut, worse a shed too shameful even for tobacco road. 

Your son endangers the Father’s mission, Marcella.

“No,” she said, with all the evenness she could manage, squeaking with the effort.

You will see.  You will see.  The report will remove all doubt.  It always does.  You will see how the enemy is striving to win him to the work of the devil.  When you see, you will smite the evil from him and prepare him to obey and submit like Isaac.

“I buried you,” she cried.

And I am come again, as I prophesized to you.

Luxury at Feed the World had come to this for Iam:  hot showers with store-bought soap, heat to ward off the chill of the California night, laundered and pressed sheets, a bottle of forbidden wine, and privacy, of a sort.

“Marcella, how beautiful you are,” murmured Pater.  “Put down the towel and come to me, my little warrior.  I want you close to me.”

Iam descended onto the bed and slid next to him.

“Yes, close like this,” he said, snuggling with her.  “Do you know what I wish?”

“To unite as one, Pater.”

“You are a wondrous disciple of the word, little warrior.”

“Because I believe in the word, Pater.”

“It’s good to believe.”

“Yes.  Believing saved me, Pater.  Without you, I don’t—”

“Don’t worry, little warrior.  Tonight is not a night for worry.  I will always be with you.  You know I will.”

“But our enemies, they frighten me.”

“We have the Black Nights.  We are preparing.”

“Yes, Pater,” she waffled.

“You are not confident?”

“They have tried to hurt you so many times.”

“Assassinate me is what you mean.”

“I’ve seen the files, too, Pater.”

“Our enemies are legion, without question.  They are determined.  They are perfidious, devious, and ruthless.”

“Please, Pater, you’re scaring me.  Not tonight, like you said.”

“It is a glorious night, I agree.  And you have nothing to fear.  After all, God has granted us eternal life, and the chosen among us more.”

“More?”

“Marcella, you have become very close to me.”

“I have,” she agreed.

He tightened his hold on her.  “I mean that I have tested you with many challenges.  You have earned my confidence, and I have rewarded you with many responsibilities.”

“For which I am grateful, Pater.  I wish to serve the divine principle of One.”

“Tonight, I believe, it is time for me to reveal something of myself to you, an aspect of my being known only to a handful.”

“Fidella, Osma …”

“Yes, and a few others, who have earned the knowledge as a result of their loyalty, belief, and meditation on the teachings of Universal One.  This information is quite incredible, and because it is, we confine it to a select group who appreciate and honor its volatile nature.  One day, perhaps soon, the world will be ready to accept it.  For now, though, should our enemies learn what I am about to reveal to you, well, you can imagine how they would turn it against us.  It would be a destructive new weapon in their arsenal against which even our Black Night drills might not protect us.”

“I swear I will never—”

He placed a finger against her lips.  “Marcella, don’t you know your pledge isn’t necessary?”  He traced the finger up over her nose to her forehead.  “I see in here, Marcella.  I am in here.  I was in here that first day when you wept over your aunt.  I will always be in here.  Always, Marcella.”

“I feel you, Pater.”

“Marcella … I have lived before … and I shall live again.”

“Pater,” she exclaimed, pulling from him to take him in, to judge the truthfulness of his revelation.  His deep blue eyes shone on her, reflecting delight at her surprise.  A hand extended and caressed a breast.

“Come closer,” he said, “push tight against me.  Melt into me.”  She obeyed.  “It is not as astounding as you are, Marcella, at this moment.”

“Pater, please don’t play with me.”

“It’s just … you delight me.  You lighten my burden.”

“I’m happy I do—”

“But you want to know more.  Naturally.  I have not only lived before.  I have lived lives of influence, of great merit.  And yet …”

“Yet what, Pater?”

“Yet I must live again and again until I accomplish the ultimate task my divine Father has bestowed upon me.  I must win every man and woman for Him.  They must believe in Him, obey and worship Him with the fierceness of the Anointed People.  Until then, my rebirths will continue.”

“Pater, you are like, like a myth, like a Sisyphus.”

He laughed.  “Please, no.  I am flesh and blood, as corporal as these charming nipples of yours.  Don’t blush.  They are charmers.  Sisyphus, no.  His task is impossible and eternal.  I pray that in my current incarnation to do what I have labored over for centuries, for time immemorial, you might say.”

“Who?”

“Who what?  Who was I?  Here, Marcella, is the most startling aspect of the secret.  Many, those who mistakenly believe they are reincarnated, will accept the possibility that I have lived before.  Few, though, will welcome the whole truth, that I was Zoroaster, Buddha, Lao Tzu, St. Paul, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, Luther, Joseph Smith, and, presently, Pater of God’s only true religion, Universal One.”

Iam fumbled for words to express herself properly; startled and awed, the best she could manage was a wide-eyed stare.

“Yes, all great parts of me, Marcella, and each, sadly, a resounding failure.”

“These men, these yous, I don’t know all of them, but I know some.  You changed history, Pater.”

“I did.  I will again.  I will now.  But I will not have served my Father as He wishes me to serve Him until every man, woman, and child welcomes Him as their Creator, devoutly believes in Him, sacrifices all in His honor, and worships Him unendingly.  This is my fate.”

“Pater,” she said, gliding the back of her hand down his smooth cheek, almost waxen, as if his skin weren’t real, as if she wasn’t touching flesh but something unearthly, ephemeral, the unblemished manifestation of an angel, “I … I …”  She wept softly.

Then the tears came harder and she heaved and gasped from the effort of crying, of trying to expel him.  Again and again she screamed at the ceiling, “I buried you.  I buried you.  I BURIED YOU.  Why can’t you stay in your grave?  Why has my own son betrayed me?”

On and on she raved, until the air in the room changed, until she sensed it turned denser, compressing her; until she realized she shared the room with someone. 

She bolted upright.  “Who’s there?  Who are you?”

“It’s me, Mommy.”

Dominic stood on the last step of the staircase, a leg dangling tentatively, prepared to bring him into the room.

“We heard you yelling.  Are you okay?”

In the back of her throat she felt something, a horrid epithet, ragged and sharp, cutting and hurtful, a second from flying from her.  She clamped a hand over her mouth and wiped her tears with the other.

“Are you okay?” he asked, setting a foot on the floor.

She pointed at him.  “Don’t.”

He jumped back onto the step.

“Mommy?”

Deep breaths, dear.  Nice and deep.  That’s right, deep, deep breaths.  Better, isn’t it?

“Yes,” she said, moving her hands to smooth her clothing.  “A rumpled mess.  I must look terrible.  A real fright.”

You are lovely, dear.  You are such a lovely girl.  And a kind girl.

“Yes, yes, I am kind.  Yes, I am.”

“Mommy!”  Dominic’s cry pierced her.

“Dominic,” she said, walking to him, running her hands over herself, up and down, making herself normal.  “Well, have you finished?”

“Finished?” he said, retreating a step at her approach.

“Your report.  Have you finished your report?”

“No, I—”

“No?  Well, you shouldn’t be here then, should you?”

He shook his head.

“Upstairs.  Go on, upstairs.  Don’t dawdle.”

“You’re okay?”

“Yes, Dominic.  What would give you the idea I am not fine?  I am simply peachy.  Now, upstairs with you.  The report, please.”

Cautiously, he reversed himself and climbed the stairs, tossing his head back twice to check for her.

Marcella, what sadness you burden your Pater with.  Since I’ve been away, you have become weak.  The boy will deny us.  Unless you discipline him severely, he will betray us, and, more important, the Father.  You must act.  You must act with haste.

Iam hunched and hit her thighs with her fists.  She beat herself and whimpered a long, mournful mantra, “I buried you.  I buried you.  I buried you.”

And I am come again, as I prophesized to you.

“No,” she spat, limping to the kitchen, “No.  I deny you.  I deny you.”

Look!  I cometh with clouds.

COMING NEXT WEEK, MONDAY, April 13, 2015: CHAPTER 9: WAR ROOM

The Inside-Out Woman: 7: The Call

The Inside-Out Woman

CHAPTER 7:  THE CALL

In the rectory kitchen, Father Chapas hung up the wall phone, mildly flummoxed over his misconduct.  Como un colegial, he admonished himself.  Te comportaste como cuando los fieles visitaron Santa María.  Idiota, mintiéndote a ti mismo.  La verdad es un deseo tonto.

He went to the refrigerator, foraged in it, and decided he wasn’t hungry, at least not for food.  It was best to divert his mind from what it dwelled upon; it dwelled upon the inexorable prodding of the devil.  When el diablo tormented him by dangling temptation before his soul, prayer or work was his salvation, not indulgence. 

He crossed into the living room that also served as his office and knelt at the prie dieu he stationed in front of the picture window.  He inherited the kneeler from his predecessor, who had kept it in the second bedroom.  He moved it because he enjoyed performing his diurnal office of praise and thanksgiving gazing on God’s magnificent creation, in particular the copse of evergreens, three in a row, the two rows paralleling each other, that stood between the parking lot and the street, and not on a plasterboard wall in dire need of painting; at night, as he executed his nocturnal office of preparation for eternal life, he examined his reflected expression and demeanor to ensure his attitude was properly humble and yearning inside and out.

Now he prayed for strength.  He prayed to forget.  He prayed to banish the idolatry of his attraction to her from his body and soul. 

When prayer failed him, he stood and flexed his knees.  He followed with a few awkward squats.  “Espero que el ejercicio funcione donde el rezo no lo ha hecho,” he said to his desk, as he settled in his chair.  The job at hand was a sermon for tomorrow, a homily of gratitude to those who had given of themselves for the people of Knox County, for those like the Brick children, Billy Brick off assisting people in reconstructing their lives, and Mrs. Brick, Maryam, like Mary, a Madonna, such a pure and wondrous creation, a truly magnificent creature of God.

“Oh,” he murmured, pushing back from the desk, “esto no.”

He rubbed his eyes to purge her from them. 

“Otra cosa.  Ve otra cosa.”

Imaging himself in his pulpit in front of his congregation was another remedy for a trespassing mind.  Nothing like picturing himself before expectant worshipers enraptured by his interpretation and explication of the holy word to fix himself on the challenge.

The pulpit was a glorious perch.  Up high on Sundays as he spoke, his eyes flitting from face to face, engaging his parishioners, helping them appreciate the frequently elusive ways of the Lord, he felt like a god.  How it must be to look down on your creations, marveling and reveling in what you wrought.  One day, he believed, he would know.  Not just him, all would be revealed to everybody who believed.  The key was keeping God’s word, leading a life pure in thought and deed.

What he saw from up there!  What he saw when people deluded themselves with the illusion that no one would notice.  Like God, little escaped the capering eyes of Father Chapas from on high.  What he sought was faith in the eyes of his people.  What he found was … was lust.  Lust in the house of God!  ¡Oh Dios misericordioso, perdónalos, perdóname!  Es inocente, Padre, incoente.  But He knew, as did Father Chapas.  The idea was as real as the deed.  Sin did not require physical execution to be sin.  If your thoughts were evil and, especially, if evil set your heart racing with excitement and hunger, you were in a state of sin. 

Regardless, some behavior was laughable, and he tittered in the silent rectory at the vision of the men and boys.  Boys were a special case, bundles of raging hormones; he understood their roving, randy eyes.  He had been like them, overflowing with the urge to ogle and touch girls.  Even after his calling to the service of the Lord and his commitment to the difficult celibate life, the desire stalked him.  Innumerable nights he lay in his seminary bed imploring God to free him, to elevate him to the plane on which his religious teachers resided, impervious to the attraction of fleshy allurement.  Most times, the Lord showed him mercy.  But there were other times.

“Detente, diablo,” he said, rustling the still air with his demand.  “¡Detente!”

He tried again to concentrate on his writing pad.  Scrawled on it was “Knox County.”  He sighed at his meager progress and envisioned himself struggling through the afternoon with what should be simple.  The words should jet from him; they should leap from the compassion in his heart; they should resound in the church and raise all up, up to the heights.  They should contain such power that every man, every married man, with his wife on the right and his children on the left, in the presence of his Creator …

Men, with full knowledge of right and wrong, of sinful thoughts and deeds, they were quite another matter.  Such fools that they did not comprehend He, and Father Chapas, saw them behind the women, casting their eyes down, studying backsides and legs, conjuring images, unholy, disgusting and perverted scenes of entwined bodies, of forbidden fornication, of worse condemned acts.

“Diablo, estás en todas partes,” he muttered.

“Knox County” winked at him.  Deep in the night, Knox County would repeat itself on the page, on page after page, and he would assume his station above the congregation delivering an eloquent sermon consisting of Knox County pronounced over and over again, and look into the sneering eyes of the sinful men when they tired of their rump gazing, into the bewildered eyes of the children who would intuit his stupidity, into the amused eyes of the women, the benevolently amused eyes of the women who would sense his need, weakness, his desire to be cuddled in the valleys of their breasts.

“Knox County.”  He pressed the pen hard against the paper until it penetrated to the next sheet, not deterred by the tearing.  “Knox County,” he dug, “was a blessing.  We can’t always understand the mystery that is our God.  We do know God is good and He desires only good for us.  Embedded, then, even in the worse events, is God’s goodness.  We search for it.  We faithful find it.  From this week’s tragedy emerged …”

Nothing?  Did nothing emerge from the tragedy?  Much emerged, he was certain, much good, and it all eluded his pen.  If only he could look into the eyes of those who helped and read their feelings, fathom and absorb the lessons they learned, be kindled by their spirit, and be renewed by their sacrifices for the sake of others.  Writing the sermon would be easier if some who participated assembled before him in his rectory and spoke to him.  Imposible.

No, posible, whispered something from within him.

He swung his eyes to the shelf above his desk.  On it rested the Bible, several guidebooks to better homilies, a rites volume, a dictionary and thesaurus, and what he sought, the fruit of a year of labor, from conception to fulfillment, the first of what he planned to be a yearly chronicle of church life, the Holy Redemption Album of Parishioners.  All but a handful of members had sat for family portraits and nearly every family had purchased a copy.

He eased the album from the shelf and set it on top of the recalcitrant sermon.  He ran his finger over the leatherette cover and traced the gold embossed outline of Holy Redemption Church.  He opened to the first page, a letter from him in which he praised God, the lay leaders and volunteers, and the faithful who enthusiastically proclaimed their devotion to their Catholic Church by posing and agreeing to have their pictures included.  Instead of thumbing from the front, he flipped to the back and began perusing from the higher end of the alphabet.  Lovely families.  Beautiful children.  Such strength, unity, and love.  The album delighted him, as it always did, for it was a manifestation of the goodness of God, of what was deprived him, of what he dreamed until God summoned him to His service:  a strong family committed to God and earning His grace through their belief and their good works.

Here was the inspiration he sought.  Page after page of God’s spirit in the beautiful, beaming faces of his flock, each face lovelier than that preceding it, lovely, lovely, until he stared at the loveliest of all. 

“Señor, te excediste cuando creaste a Miriam Brick,” he whispered, unaware, a secret prayer escaping from his heart.

She sat on the stool provided by the photographer, a cushioned swiveling affair on chrome legs the man lowered and raised and upon which subjects turned this way or that at his direction.  She held Dominica on her lap.  Dominic stood to her right, straining to convince Father Chapas and everyone else who leafed through the album he was taller than he was.  Father Chapas couldn’t help smiling for he too wished to be taller.  Judging by his father, Dominic would be, unlike Father Chapas, for whom height was another unfulfilled dream.  Behind Maryam, behind the family, towered Billy.  His hands rested on Maryam’s shoulders.  Clearly, the pose declared to anyone who looked, to Father Chapas in particular, that he possessed her.  This, regardless of how hard Father Chapas tried to suppress the sinful emotion, always caused his heart to beat a bit faster and twinge with a small spark of jealousy. 

Father Chapas chuckled remembering the families.  How differently everyone dressed.  Most chose to pose in the clothes they wore to mass, neat, casual attire.  Some treated the session like a wedding, the men in suits, the women in cocktail dresses, boys in ties, and girls in party dresses; there were a surprising number of these.  Others believed it was an opportunity to make a statement about their lifestyle.  A motorcycle couple sported their Harley regalia; two farm families dressed as if Father Chapas had commissioned the spirit of Grant Wood to immortalize them.  One couple chose to proclaim their undying passion for their disco-era youth in the gaudiest rayon attire.

The Bricks, however, were the perfect representation of the American family.  While they dressed casually, they brought it off more skillfully than the others, especially Maryam.  She wore modest heels and pressed blue slacks.  Father Chapas couldn’t see Maryam’s shoes and only a portion of her slacks, but he’d been there, in her presence, and he could never forget them.  Her blouse was plain, bright white, with a mannish collar, heavily starched, high against her neck, contrasting in the most delightful way with her lightly tanned skin, lending her flesh a certain beckoning quality. 

There was another reason Father Chapas always found the Brick family photo startling.  No other family, no other woman reached out and arrested the viewer with her eyes as did Maryam.  Hers were black eyes, lustrous, like polished obsidian, inviting eyes that sparkled with life and love; eyes that more than spoke:  they sang a complex tune of understanding, compassion, delight, release, and fulfillment.

Father Chapas felt himself swelling.  His eyes bulged and scratched.  He realized he hadn’t blinked since coming upon the Brick photo, and he fluttered his lids rapidly to produce soothing tears, tears of contrition.  He had changed into his full clerical uniform; he wore it whenever he wrote a homily because, usually, it inspired him to scribe a stirring piece, at least by his lights.  Now the collar bit into his neck; it choked him to the point where he believed he might faint.  He undid it and it hung open on him like the disheveled necktie of a drunk.  His black pants were notched too tight, further restricting his breathing, bringing him closer to keeling onto his desk, onto the lovely photo of Maryam Brick, marring it.

He felt himself in a dream.  He floated.  His chair seemed to vanish from beneath him as he unhitched his belt.  The belt strangled him and he needed to be free.  Undoing the belt was nothing; it was an innocent deed; it was a necessity, simple human necessity; otherwise he would pass out. 

He felt compelled to massage his stomach.  Rubbing his belly was nothing more than therapeutic.  He rubbed and rubbed but relief eluded him.  He ached farther down.  His hand slithered in pursuit until it encountered the root of his affliction.

“Dios, Dios, esto es malo,” he cried, as he withdrew his hand that seemed a sentient creature.  “Dame fortaleza, te lo ruego.”

He exhaled sharply.  He covered his face with his hands, shielding his eyes from temptation.  It wasn’t possible, though; she lived in his mind; she had invaded every part of him; she possessed him:  head, heart … his personal godhead.  The sacrilegious name, what it demanded of him, how it attempted to overrule his reason and the principles of his life sent a shudder through him. 

“Ruega.  Debo rogar.  Debo rogar para tener fortaleza.  Dios dame fortaleza y guíame.”

He stood and started toward the prie dieu.  He staggered, tripped, and fell.  “Malditos pantalones,” he swore.  “Deberían ser mi armadura y me están matando.”  He pushed them down violently, as if they were his enemy, and they took his underwear with them.  He shrugged them off and crawled to his kneeler.

He kneeled and hunched forward.  He clasped his hands, a two-handed fist of prayer.  “Maryam,” he muttered.  “Maryam.”

And there she was, where the grass and the trees should have been.  There she was, a vision, an apparition, but not descended on a cloud; before him on a bed, his bed; before him not garbed in flowing robes, not veiled; before him as God had created her, as Eve had appeared to Adam, glorious, splendid, pristine.

“Maryam,” he prayed, hand griping hand, hands white with panicked effort, “excedes belleza.”

He prayed and wept and clenched his hands until they jerked in spasm and they forced him to release each other, convinced him they would break each other if he continued to restrict them.  To quell their rebellion and relieve the agony, he acquiesced.  He stoked his thighs with them.  His right hand strayed and happened upon the blasphemous godhead.  The throbbing was unbearable and he fondled it and he saw her fall back in response and he pulled and she smiled and he caressed and, finally, they moaned in unison.

Empty, relieved, he slumped on the prie dieu. 

When he looked up, he saw God’s earth, except he saw it differently; he saw it through the eyes of a sinner. 

He cried uncontrollably for a long while, shaking and gasping for breath.

When he cleared the last of the tears from his eyes, God seemed to have worked a miracle upon him, for he saw His creation just as he should, as he always had, better than he ever had, its beauty and immaculacy enhanced.  In that instant, he comprehended what had transpired as best as any mortal could.  God, wise, merciful, and infinitely mysterious, had bestowed a mission upon him, and it involved Maryam Brick. 

In his flash of revelation, he grasped that God had enlisted Maryam to make him aware of his human weakness, a weakness implanted and amplified in him by an evil spirit, a deadly weakness unperceived fully by him until God had compelled him to purge it from his heart and soul. 

There was more, for Maryam was a righteous woman; she could not be a temptress by her own will.  God, he convinced himself, was compelling him to help her.  If she was good yet bewitching him, he deduced, was she not operating under the misguidance of an evil scepter?  God had inspired the expunging of his sin to prepare him for his role in saving her.  It was a strange and mystical plan embodying as it did the opposites of evil and good.  The mission and the manner in which God had presented it to him were mysterious, as enigmatic as the Creator Himself.  He could ponder it for a lifetime and never comprehend it.  However, not a mystery, not a subject for interminable, unyielding deliberation, was that God required him to accept the calling on faith, and act.

He would begin with an offering to show Maryam God had a plan, yet to be revealed, for the two of them.

Coming Next Week, Monday, April 6, 2015: Chapter 8: Resurrection