Sword of Damon Cleese

26 04 2012

[fiction]

Damocles was, naturally, quite enthralled with the prospect of standing in as archon of the day.  Five servants attended him in attiring himself for the evening feast.  It would have been six servants, but the sixth servant was Damocles, himself, and the ruler with whom he had traded places appointed himself to the role of waiting on tables.  It seemed that a direct and literal trade of roles was out of the question.  The real archon still had a job to do after this charade was over, and he still had a reputation to go with it.

Then, it was time.  Two heralds preceded him into the hall, and a train of attendants followed.  The doors opened, and everyone stood, as though for the bride at a wedding.  He appeared before them in his lavender robes, with real gold thread woven into elaborate patterns of what probably was supposed to be olive branches.  Stately, he walked up to the dais and took his place at the table.  Just before sitting, he had a second thought and readjusted the positioning of the salt boat.  Then, he sat, and the rest of the assembly followed.  He patted the arms of his chair with great satisfaction.  Gingerly, he leaned back into the seat, as though the back might give way at any second.  There, in the front row, instead of serving appetizers, was the real archon, Dionysus the Second, sitting on a bench and smiling at him with great satisfaction.  Had the roles been actual, Damocles would have ordered him beaten for his insubordination.  Apparently, the archon had no intention of keeping up more than half of the bargain.  At least he was dressed down for the occasion.  Dionysus locked eyes with him in a hard, unfaltering stare, until Damocles had to look away.

To Damocles’ right sat the wife of the archon, sitting as far from him as room would allow, folds forming in her neck as she held her head back like an adder ready to strike.  To his left sat the archon’s daughter, leaning away from him to talk in low tones with a friend, while surreptitiously hiding her face from him with a hand or a linen head scarf.  Opportunities for lively conversation were lacking.  Near the other end was a friendly cousin of Dionysus, with whom Damocles had chatted often.  He called out the man’s name, and the man sat there, ignoring him, staring down at the table top.

Damocles drummed his fingers on the table with irritation, until a nervous adolescent servant girl arrived with his dinner upon a silver plate.  He tried to graciously accept her service by thanking her, but she gave him a worried look in return, and her eyes, ever so briefly, glanced up toward the ceiling and then down again.  He watched her retreat, and he noticed, again, that the archon was giving him the cold hard stare.  There seemed to be meaning in his look.  Damocles had learned to read what people were trying to say by their looks, especially when there was something unusual about it.  He struggled to understand the stare of Dionysus, until he realized that it wasn’t a stare to give meaning, but it was a stare to hide meaning.  The man was fixing his gaze in order to avoid looking at something else.  He recalled the server glancing up, quickly, and he realized that she was either trying to tell him something, or else there was something up there that she was trying very hard not to look at.

Up above him, Damocles caught a glimmer of something metallic catching the light of the fire that burned in braziers about the room.  Then the object turned and became dark.  Then it turned and caught the light again.  A moment of horror fell upon him, and he dashed his wine and food to the ground in his scramble to get out from under the thing.  At a safe distance, he looked up and saw that a very large sword, possibly the precursor of what would later be known as a falchion, a sword that could double as an axe, seemed to hover high over his seat, suspended point-down by nothing but the air, itself.

“What the…?!  How…?  For the love of life, somebody take that thing down!” shouted the horrified Damocles.  He looked over at the archon, and saw a smile beginning to curl upward the corners of his mouth.  “How did you do that?”

“Don’t worry, Damocles,” said Dionysus, “I assure you, it’s very securely held in place by a single horse hair.”

Almost whimpering, the distraught Damocles asked, “Were you trying to kill me?”  It’s an important question, because if the archon wishes to kill someone, he usually gets what he wants.

“Perhaps,” Dionysus replied, coldly.  “It’s just that when you came in here flattering me like the sycophant that everyone knows you are, I felt the need to teach you a lesson.  You think the life of a wealthy man is secure and full of every happiness, but it’s not.  The more I have, the more I have to protect.  The more power I exert, the more people want to kill me.  I couldn’t let you experience all of my wealth and pleasure without giving you a sense of the danger, could I?  You wanted to know what it’s like to be me.  Even though we traded roles, no one would ever try to kill you, because you still aren’t really the archon around here.  If an assassin walked through that door right now, he would still be out to kill me, not you.  So, I added a little spice to your experience.  You want to be an archon?  Okay then!  An archon you shall be!”  Then, he called to a servant, “Take it down.  I want Damocles to have it, so he’ll remember.”

Damocles got his sword and continued to be a servant in the house of his ruler, and Dionysus went back to being a ruler, ever mindful of the constant threat that comes with having what other people covet.  By the way, does anyone know which of the two lived longer?  Perhaps Dionysus was wrong and outlived the other by several years, due to an unfortunate plague.  Perhaps he was right and died a few years earlier.  Both have been dead for thousands of years, now, so the difference in their respective times in the grave amounts to about one percent or less.  They’ve both been dead for maybe two and a third millennia, and one wonders that they ever discussed how one might be likely to die one or two decades earlier.  The difference is negligible.  Even the entire kingdom is entirely dead.  Even their lineage is lost.  The corpse of Damocles has been no safer than the corpse of Dionysus for more than a couple thousand years, already.

It’s really not just a problem for the rich, though.  Our king, God, has set us up in much a similar situation, wherein he watches us pursue and enjoy riches for a time, with the threat of our mortality ever hanging over our heads.  We all have a certain consciousness of it.  For some, it’s a jeopardy that causes us to cast all to the floor in disdain.  Who cares about such things with death barely suspended over us?  For others, it is merely the aging process, a commonplace thing that everyone experiences.  If cancer were universal, then they would be calling that a commonplace process, also.  Perhaps it is time to illustrate the extraordinary life of death, the unnatural nature.

Therefore, we shall extend this tale.  Besides, I concocted the tale years ago when I was just a kid, and it’s still bouncing around in my head.  I might as well let it out, so here it is.

Half a world away, thousands of years later, a similar sword, or perhaps the same sword, appeared once again, floating in the middle of the air.  It was first discovered by a couple of farm boys on a breezy, sunny day.  The way it caught the sunlight acted as a beacon, drawing them near.  This time, there was no horse hair to suspend it.  It hovered about four feet from the ground, over a field, near a stand of oak trees, pointing menacingly toward a nearby town, which will remain unnamed.  The two boys studied it circumspectly, doubtlessly feeling a little intimidated by it.  At first, they tried throwing rocks at it, which is, for some strange reason, always the first thing boys seem to do with most foreign objects.  They probably threw rocks at the first cat they saw, the first bird, the first rusty can and the first girl (a sister, of course).  The sword was unyielding, and they tired of the game quickly.  Next, they tried touching it, then pushing it and hanging on it.  With all of their efforts, it would not budge in the slightest.

The sword was first discovered at about noon by two kids who should have been in school.  Four hours later, the first adults heard of it.  Twenty-four hours after that the first adult  believed enough to have a look at it, when the number of kids who had seen and told of it reached critical mass, which is to say that once every kid in town said that they had seen it an adult finally took them seriously.  Two weeks later, someone from the local news agency heard of it enough times on a slow news day to go out and have a look.  By the evening news, the story had gone viral, and the whole world knew about it.  By dawn of the next day the sword was gone without a trace.

Two days after the sword’s disappearance, the world forgot about it.  Two months later the locals stopped talking about it.  It wasn’t gone long before someone found it again, on the other side of the town, twenty miles away, pointing toward the next town on the highway.  The poor woman who discovered it was lucky enough to have survived by swerving hard at the last second when its golden hilt glinted in her headlights in the predawn hours.  The sword was back on the world stage.  Experts arrived from all over the world to give opinion on it.  Someone brought a tractor to see if it could be moved by any force, which it couldn’t.  The thing just hovered there, indestructible and absolutely immovable.  On its blade was some foreign script, which, when transliterated, said, “mene, mene.”  A quick internet search (insidiously cited by the press as an expert analysis, though it was none other than that infamous site known as Wikipedia) showed that it derived from an ancient phrase, “mene, mene, tekel upharsin,” meaning, roughly, “your days are numbered, and your empire will be divided and given to the Persians.”  By itself, “mene, mene,” only meant, “your days are numbered.”  Of course, no one knew what it meant.  Some doomsday addicts made a great deal out of it.  Screenwriters were already brainstorming it into a full-feature film.

So there it hovered, two miles from the nearest town, pointing directly at that town. The local hotels flooded with curious visitors, and the local residents cleared out as quickly as they could.  Clearly, the town was cursed.  No one knew what the sword was about, but many feared it.  One man, in particular, watching the news from his rented room in the town, did know what the sword was about, and he feared it more than anyone.  After two restless nights and a third that left him swimming in his own sweat, he packed his bags and hit the road yet again.  That night, the sword disappeared from sight and was not found for a few days.

A door to a bar opened, and an eighty-year-old man staggered into the room looking like he could just as easily ask for cyanide as ask for a beer.  He plopped his disheveled self onto a stool and regarded the patron next to him.  “I don’t know why, but it seems like the only place to meet people and talk about things is a bar,” he said.

“That’s not true,” said the other patron, a dumpy middle-aged man who had only just begun his binge for the evening.  “There’s always the confessional booth at a Catholic church.  Then, you have internet chat rooms, brothels, orgies and… I forget what else.”

“Now, I don’t feel so bad,” said the old man.  “Maybe I’ll try a confessional booth, next.  Actually, that might not be a bad idea.”

“Now, don’t go running off too soon,” said his new friend.  “I have ears, too.  Besides, I haven’t heard any good gossip in weeks.”

So the old man told him his story.  Damon Cleese, as he turned out to be, had put a great deal of effort in his younger years toward uncovering a certain cache of stolen treasure.  His friend, Danny Nice, had figured that trains of stage coaches in the area had been robbed all within a ten-mile radius of a craggy region, back during the rough days of the wild west.  The band of robbers responsible had been caught in a trap, possibly because of their predictable pattern, and all of them went to the grave, taking the secret of their stash with them.  Their stolen goods were never recovered,  but a simple analysis of terrain and distance suggested that they probably did have a hideout in the area, from which a person could ride for half a day or less, rob a wagon train and get back by dusk, without overburdening the horses.  Hence, the stolen goods must be stashed somewhere in a narrowed area, and because they were never recovered, those stolen goods must still be there.

With two months of searching, Damon and Danny finally found the cache of goods in a cave, just sitting there waiting for the return of their robber barons.  Most of it was in gold coins and moldy notes.  There were a few rusty guns and other items of interest, but the thing that caught Danny’s attention the most was a shiny, heavy sword with a gold hilt encrusted with jewels.  They counted out the coins and divided the spoil evenly, but a small boulder, not much bigger than a large sow, fell from the ceiling of the cave and landed on Danny’s arm, crushing it badly.  Damon rushed to his aid, rolling the boulder off and wrapping the poor arm in a sling and a poultice.  Danny immediately went into shock, shaking and pallid.  His friend covered him in a blanket and did his best to make him feel better.

By the next day, Danny was feeling well enough to attempt a ride back to the nearest town on horseback.  They took as much of the loot as the horses could reasonably hold, and they headed off down the trail.  A mile down the trail, Danny began complaining of his aches and pains, and eventually he became too weak to remain on a horse.  He noted that his urine was strangely brown, and later he found he had no more urine of any kind.

“Damon,” Danny told his companion, “I don’t know why, but I think I’m losing more than just my arm.  I can’t pee anymore, Damon.  I’m a sick man.  You need to go for help.”

Instead, Damon insisted that they stay where they were for a while, to allow for him to convalesce.  Truth be told, he was afraid of leading rescuers too near the rest of the stash and having to explain how the injury occurred.  By the time they returned, there might not be anything to return to.  The days whiled by, and Danny got worse.  Finally, Damon agreed to go for help, but Danny insisted that it was already too late.  He was about to die.

“Forget about dividing the stash,” Danny said, “You can have the whole thing.  Just promise me you’ll bury me with the sword.  Just give me the sword and you can have everything else.”  Then, he died.

At first, Damon tried to carry the body back, but in the heat of the day it began to smell bad.  He couldn’t just leave it for the vultures, so he opted to bury Danny where he was.  After digging the hole, he was about to place the sword over the body, when he began to think about it pragmatically.  In truth, the dead body could never care what happened to the sword, and it was, after all, quite beautiful and would probably fetch a couple thousand dollars, should he choose to sell it.  Why bury a perfectly good relic like that?  It would be a shame!  So, he kept the sword and buried the body.

“Seems reasonable to me,” said the dumpy man at the bar.  “I would’ve done the same.”

“Anyone would have,” said Damon, “but it would have been a terrible mistake.”

As Damon was turning to repack his things, he heard the voice of his old companion speak to him from the grave.  “I said you could have everything, didn’t I?”

Damon turned around and saw the sword hovering there, pointing right at him.

“Take the whole thing, I said.  Just bury me with the sword, I said.  Was it really too much to ask?  I couldn’t have just this one thing?  Are you so bent on wealth that you would rob a dead friend?!” the voice scolded in rage.

With that, Damon jumped on his horse and rode away as fast as he could.

“Ah, I see.  You’re saying this all has to do with that freaky hovering sword that’s been on the news lately,” the other patron said with a slight slur to his words.

“Yes, that’s the one.  That’s Danny’s sword,” said Damon.

“So why don’t you go back and bury it?” suggested the patron.

Damon eyed the man skeptically.  “I don’t know, but I think it would kill me.  Would you try to take a weapon from a ghost?”

“Have you tried an exorcist?” the patron offered.

Just then, someone stormed into the room, shouting, “The sword!  I just found it, about a mile up the road, pointing this way!”  The bar cleared in seconds, everyone being in a hurry to go find the sword or to get far away from it as fast as possible.

Damon gripped the edge of the bar tightly and whispered, “It’s getting closer.  It’s almost here.”  He looked to the side and found his companion still sitting there.  They and one unconscious fellow in the back of the room were the only ones left.

“Interesting,” remarked the other, “So this thing has been following you all these years.  How long has it been?”

“Fifty-five years,” Damon answered without even having to calculate it.

“Fifty-five years?!  The blasted thing sure is taking its time, isn’t it?  How old are you, anyway?” asked the other patron.

“Eighty years, last June,” replied Damon.

The other patron roared with laughter.  Damon was obviously upset by his reaction. “Sir,” said the other, “You’re not going to die by the sword!  You’re going to die of old age!”

Damon got to his feet and replied in anger, “You might think this is funny, but once it’s done carving me up, it might come for you, even if I have to haunt it myself!”  Then he stormed out.

That night was the worst of his life.  The mysterious hovering sword had, apparently, been covering miles and miles of uninhabited and rugged terrain, slowly approaching him unnoticed for all of these years.  Finally, it happened upon civilization, and nothing anyone did to the sword could stop it, and nothing Damon did to get away from it could increase that distance.  After leaving the bar, he journeyed for five hours to a roadside motel, where he attempted what he figured would be his last chance at sleep before the sword arrived.  Somewhere out there, a mile away or less, the sword was still coming.  He could only guess how much time he had left.

Damon miscalculated.  The sword, like death, does not come by a human schedule.  We can see it coming and estimate the end to some degree, but sometimes it arrives much earlier than anticipated, and it makes no apology for its impolite punctuality.  The door to the room crashed open, split down the middle, with the blade shining in the moonlight that streamed through the window opposite the door.  Damon screamed in abject terror.  Even then, it just hovered in place, stationary, like it never intended to advance further.  The movement was slow, like the movement of shadows cast by the sun.  If Damon moved to the other side of the room, though, it repositioned itself quickly to maintain its aim at his heart.  Needless to say, it was a long night, and he could not get past the sword and reach the door.  Every time he moved, it cut him off.

By dawn of the next day, the sword was less than an inch from his flesh, and he found himself seriously imploring to God for his salvation.

The reader, at this point, will be happy to note that the poor man did not, in fact, die from the sword.  Rather, he died of a stroke, a complication of his old age, just before the sword could hurt him, and the sword had nothing to do with it.  What a relief!  All of this time, Damon feared what would happen when the sword reached him, but instead of dying, as he thought, he died before it could happen.

[/fiction]

Ah, but a mysterious hovering sword is so much more fearsome, is it not?  If we all had hovering swords threatening to take our heads off at every turn, we might consider it a fact of life, and, instead, be more terrified by death of old age.  On a serious note, though, the fact is simply that whatever ultimately kills us, that thing and its destiny are on a determined and unstoppable collision course for our lives.  Whatever it is, it definitely exists, and it will definitely get here in due time, and it will definitely kill us.  Cheery, isn’t it?  The real sickness, then, is not that we fear death, but that some of us are so consumed by our present riches that we do not notice the steady progression of doom.  Thousands of years from now, no one will care what riches we owned, no one will know who we were, and nothing will matter about the fact of our former existence.  All that will matter is whether this human soul, the thing that some people are dumb enough to insist does not exist, is in a place far better or far worse than it is now.

Salvation from death is not an issue.  There is no salvation from death.  It’s the death after the death that we might resist.  This life is just a temporary endeavor, more like a game.  We pass through it briefly, to serve a temporary purpose, and then we enter the afterlife, where the story really begins.  Thanks for playing this game with me, and I hope you find what you came here for, even if it isn’t what you think you came here for.

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Rattlesnake Mountain

18 04 2011

We were all there in the open field at recess watching James’ dad get blown to bits.  James was even there with us.  Of course, we had no idea what we were looking at.  It was one of two plane crashes I remember seeing from that same playground during my time in elementary school.  The small aircraft hit close to the peak, igniting a fire that spread and rose until it engulfed the top.  What is fire to a little kid?  What is tragedy?

A few years ago, I noticed my goldfish staring in awe at a candle I had placed near the fishbowl.  Where, in nature, do fish confront fire?  All of the beasts in the forest know it well.  At the first scent of smoke, the bees start packing up the honey.  The deer flee for their lives.  Even the snakes head for the water.  All of the animals of the forest know what fire is, and they fear it dreadfully.  The fish don’t have a clue.

There we were, like a pond full of goldfish, staring at a fire, and somewhere in that fire was our classmate’s father.  We didn’t have a clue.  I remember when he was called out of the classroom.  I remember the next day, staring up at Rattlesnake Mountain, with its ashen gray cap, and freckle-faced Brent exclaiming, “Dude!  That was James’ father!”  He kept saying it until it finally hit home with us.  The teacher may have told us all at the same time, but I don’t remember.  It was a hard thing to grasp.

James was rare for being a black kid in a nearly all-white school.  He was one of only about three non-whites I think I saw in the seven years I was there, five non-whites, if you count the faculty.  He was extremely quiet and well-mannered.  So much more dramatic the change when he began biting and kicking his fellow students for no reason at all (I thought).  We were only second-graders.  I had no idea what it was like to lose my father.  All I knew was that my classmate was behaving like a rabid animal.  Shortly after that, James moved away, and we never saw him again.

And then I had my own Rattlesnake Mountain, that same year.

Christmas came, and I got my very own Starscream Transformer robot toy.  I remember it well, and I remember how it came with two left hands and a missile that broke as I was detaching it from the forms.  I recall the evening when I sat on my father’s lap, and he helped me put the decals on the toy.  He had the sticker for the shiny gold eyes grasped in a pair of tweezers.  He hesitated, he breathed deeply, and then he gave me the tweezers and set me down on the couch and wandered off.  I had no idea that I was witnessing my forty-two-year-old father have a heart attack.  Once I finished the decals myself, I wandered about, looking for my parents, when my older siblings informed me that they had gone to the hospital.  My mom came home late and alone.

The next day was business as usual.  I thought my dad was going to die, and there I was in school, doing what I did every day, helpless in my circumstances.  I don’t remember why, but I found myself biting and kicking my classmates like some rabid animal.  Yes, now I could relate to James.  I was horrified at my own actions, watching myself transform like a young Jekyll and Hyde story.  The teacher knew something was wrong at home.  She pinned a note to my clothes and admonished me to leave it there until my mom took it off.  I don’t know why, but I wore the note all the way home, without trying to read it.

The next day, my mother kept me home from school and took me to visit my father in the hospital, instead.  That was all it took to make me a happy well-mannered kid again, seeing him alive and in good spirits.  My first day back at school, the teacher pinned another note to my clothes, thanking my mother for whatever it was that she had done.  “Now, don’t take this one off,” she said, “This is a good note.”

In second grade, my parents were enormous giants to me.  The prospect of my dad dying was like the prospect of God dying.  This one who should have been too big to fall, this all-providing source of survival was at death’s door.  I can well imagine how Christ’s disciples might have panicked at the death of their rabbi, a surrogate father, but more, something like Father God in the flesh, too big to fall, dying like a mortal.  One can see Peter’s fight/flight response, cutting off a servant’s ear one moment, and denying Christ the next, having witnessed the death and destruction of the man who always had all of the answers, the one who could not be touched.  There he was, the apparent source of life and health, bleeding on a cross.  Christ’s mountain was called the Skull, but it was the place where the snake had bitten him on the heel, symbolically.  It was his Rattlesnake Mountain.

It recalls to mind the various faces of the September 11 attacks, all of those close shots of people hanging out of windows to escape the fire.  Those must have been someone’s fathers and mothers.  I can only imagine the horror of having watched it happen to a loved one.  Much worse, to have seen the face of one clearly, on a newspaper or on television.  When I watched the tsunami roll across Japan, it was like the plane crash at Rattlesnake mountain, like a goldfish staring at a flame.  It was mesmerizing, but it was nothing personal to me.  I feel like I should sympathize more.  I know I would feel much different if that tragedy came to me.

Deep in the recesses of my mind, I wonder if we’re all destined to feel the pain of those victims.  We’ll feel their pain, or we’ll feel that pain.  I pray to God that the pain is only sympathetic.  If that’s all I pray, then I probably am not sympathetic.  And, if I am cold, then perhaps the hour has come for God to break me, that I may bleed, and, having bled, I may learn to feel again.





The Last Dixie Cup

28 02 2011

A long line of predecessors passes before it, alike living and dying in the same story.  Within the column that hangs beside the water cooler is a long stack of waxed paper cups, Dixie cups, and within that stack is a single cup just like all of the others, awaiting its turn at fulfillment.  Its ancestors pass before it, each taking its turn.  Then, our selected Dixie cup emerges from its birthing canal, from whence it is filled, then drained, and then it is crumpled and tossed into the trash.  Even before it meets its demise, another cup is already waiting to take its place.  The story doesn’t end there.  Our little cup is then transported to Puente Hills Landfill, where it is buried and covered in a lovely layer of sod.

A long line of predecessors passes before him, alike living and dying in the same story.  His ancestors passed before him, each taking his turn at life.  Then, at the appointed time, our selected man emerges from the birthing canal into the world of the living.  He grows up; then he grows old, and then he dies.  Even before he meets his end, another child is already waiting to replace him.  His body is lovingly laid at Rose Hills Cemetery, where it is buried and then covered in a lovely layer of sod.

The biggest irony in all of this is that Rose Hills, the site of the man’s burial, is the exact same hill as Puente Hills, the site of the paper cup’s burial.  They’re two faces of the same hill.  The man and his trash will be buried side-by-side.  The only differences between the two are the oaks that grow on the landfill and the stone monuments that lay inert on the cemetery.  It’s not a very cheery comparison, but it’s definitely an effective way to clear the crowd at the water cooler and get them back to work.  “You see this cup,” I could say, “It tells the story of your life.”  The cheapness of the paper cup makes a very disturbing comparison with human life.

And then the paper cup dispenser runs out.  Someone removes the last cup, and it gives a little too easily.  He glances down and sees that he’s taken the last one.  He knows that he’d better hang on to this one if he ever wants to come back and get another drink, later in the day.  So, he writes his name on the side, and he places the little cup in an inconspicuous corner of the counter top, beside the microwave, behind the stack of loose paper towels.  This one little cup gets to experience a deviation in the pattern set before it.  Its life has been prolonged, because it has something that the previous cups did not.  The last cup has a little share of significance.  It’s not much, but it makes the last cup special.

Hollywood, over the years, has found a wide array of devices for destroying the Earth, whether by alien invasion, earthquakes, war, climate change and even robotic revolt.  They do this because it makes money.  That’s what interests people, the end of the world, because the last generation has something that all of the previous generations seemed to be missing.  The last generation has significance, and, deep down, many people in this world want that significance.  World religions have also profited from this tendency.  Either the world will end in fiery destruction, or it will transform into an everlasting paradise.  Either way spells the end of the world as we know it.  Nearly every world religion has some sense of eschatology, because everyone’s just dying to know how it all ends.

The quest for significance is just one of four basic motivators that drive humanity.  The first two, purpose and meaning, are divine in nature.  Only God can give them, and if he doesn’t exist, then they don’t exist.  The second two, significance and pleasure (alternatively pain), are like the bastard offspring of the previous two.  Where a sense of purpose is lost, significance takes the reins.  Where a pursuit of meaning is surrendered, the drive for pleasure takes hold.  Simple pleasure is shallow enough and not the subject of this post.  Here, we look closer at significance.

We achieve significance by doing or being something big or small, first or last, best or worst, brightest or darkest, and so on.  Whatever might motivate someone to write our names in a history book, even the history of the local chess club, such is significance, of a sort.  Significance is morally neutral.  It doesn’t need design, and it doesn’t heed the precepts of God.  It merely needs to be different.  Whether we go out in flames, or whether we all quietly freeze to death, if we are the last generation, then we have a certain significance, even though no one will be left to care.

We can see places in recent history where significance usurped purpose.  We know of televangelists who needed our money to fulfill a great purpose, but the greatness of that purpose was the real underlying drive.  Greatness is a matter of significance, not purpose.  A waxed paper cup fulfills its purpose by holding water for a few seconds, but it will never be great.  A gigantic prayer chapel reaching toward the heavens might be great, yet not really achieve a divine purpose.  The more we see a person striving for greatness, or any other manner of significance, the more we can be certain that such a person is losing or has lost hold of his sense of purpose.  Purpose is God’s design for your life, the ideal that he knows you ought to fulfill.  Purpose is often mundane.  It is usually not much different from everyone else’s purpose, and not at all different at its core.  The core of our purpose is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and soul, and love our neighbors as ourselves.  How we elaborate that purpose is the only difference between us.

Significance hits close to home.  Everyone seeks it to some extent, just like we all pursue pleasures and avoid pain.  This is not abnormal or wrong.  We have these four motivators, purpose, meaning, significance and pleasure, and when we lose hold of all of them is when we stand at the brink of suicide.  A person can be drawn from that brink, at least initially, through as little as a promise of pleasure.  Sure, you can kill yourself, but let’s go get a hamburger and milkshake first; I’m starving.  In a longer turn of events, the end can be staved off with a bucket list, an assortment of things that one wants to do before one dies, like climb a tall mountain or skydive.  This is an appeal to significance.  But then we might see drug addicts killing themselves with every chemical they can get their hands on in search of pleasure, or we might see game addicts wasting hours upon hours of every day to maintain the highest score in an online game in their drive for significance.  When we see an overemphasis on one motivator, then we can be sure that another motivator is lost.

Purpose: we dispense.  We are filled.  We are drained.  We are destroyed.  We are buried.  It’s nothing glamorous.  It’s downright frightening.  We are scared of the death, but even more so, we are scared of our lack of significance.

But here’s the end of the matter.  We must first strive for our purpose, to love God passionately and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  God’s response to us follows our pursuit of our purpose.  His response is the meaning that we find in life, the message that we see him telling us in our lives, and the words he whispers to us through his spirit.  If we seek our purpose and we find our meaning, then the significance follows naturally after that.  We are more than a waxed paper cup, even though we share a similar destiny.  We have the significance of being made in the image of God, heirs to his promise, saved and chosen, drawn out from among the whole world to be his own.  After that, the pursuit of pleasure is easy.  He grants us the desires of our hearts.  The cherry on top really is just the cherry on top.  It’s just something that happens to taste nice.

Without God, though, the whole thing topples.  Without him, I really am no better than the cup I drink from, and I’m no better off, either.





Lawless One; a permanent nightmare

18 10 2010

[fiction]

Our star, Larry Lawson, had a rousing morning slapping his girlfriend to her senses.  She was still moaning over that fetus he pushed her to abort.  Zooming down the parkway, he considered that he might stop by the bar after work and see if he could pick up a new hottie, maybe a Latino chic.  That would suit him nicely.  Who knows, he might get lucky, today.  A light turned red, and he breezed through it unscathed, only to be stopped dead by a stale red with heavy cross-traffic a hundred yards later.  A black kid with an iPod stuck in his ears strutted in front of him, earning a honk and a few nasty words.  Larry thought to teach him a lesson for prolonging his red light with a crosswalk signal.  The kid would probably think of this day whenever he considered white people, in general.  He probably hated white men, already.  Larry had the vague recollection of having honked at this kid before.  Across the intersection stood a billboard photo of some guy in a white cowboy hat holding a telephone, with the words, “In trouble with the law?  Call Jesse!”  He chuckled to himself and made a mental note of the number.  The traffic going straight got a green, but Larry couldn’t waste time for the red left arrow, so he pulled an illegal U-turn and slid into the underground parking lot of his glass-walled high-rise office building.  He did a quick glance into the rearview mirror for cops and mumbled, “Sorry Jesse, maybe next time.”

Out of the car, he hopped into the elevator and waited for it to take him to the top floor, where a coffeepot and a corner desk had his name on them.  Some sappy song played over the speaker while he waited; it may have been called Shooting Stars.

“Like shooting stars we shine and then fade,
Breaking the promises we made, what about the promises?
What about the promises we made?  What about our plans for forever?”

Without thinking about it, he hummed along and counted the floors on the display above the door.  He couldn’t get out fast enough.  He put on his best attitude, taking the long way to the coffee maker, past the desk of that hot new intern.  He tried not to huff when she wasn’t there.  At his desk, he barely had the computer fired up when the guy in the cubicle next to him rolled around the cubicle partition and asked him, “Yo, Larry, you forgot to get a chain of custody receipt for yesterday’s Picasso delivery.”

Larry gave an over-the-shoulder smirk at him and said, “I didn’t forget.”

“Then where is it?” the pest insisted.

“I’ll get it to you.  I’ll get it to you.  Just wait a minute.  I just got here,” Larry snapped,  “Don’t rush me.” As soon as the neighbor wheeled back out of sight, he brought up a blank form on the computer and hit the “print” button.  Strolling as casually as possible to the printer, he snatched the document and slipped into a nearby vacant cubicle.  A few forged signatures and falsified dates written in, and he was on his way back to his desk via the aisle next to the file cabinets.  He learned long ago not to make the falsifications at his desk.  The new guy was too sharp; he’d see Larry strolling back from the printer with a fresh document and pause in his own cubicle for a moment, only to appear with the requested document, which was only too obvious.  Justifying the action was easy.  The delivery had been made, and that’s what really mattered.  This was just a lot of red tape, and besides it was a mistake, after all.  Granted, everyone would like to do things right the first time, but that’s no reason to take heat for a stupid piece of paper, or so Larry figured.  So long as the customer never complained of non-delivery, the document was never scrutinized.

All this was so much fuss over dry paint.  Larry figured Picasso to have created almost nineteen hundred paintings in his lifetime.  Of those, he had personally sold over twenty-five hundred, courtesy of a man on Thirteenth Street, named Joe Guiles.  Old Joe was one of those artists who sold art by the pound.  Larry loved his abstract works.  The need to follow reality set rules that made realistic artwork difficult to forge.  Bad art was bad, whether it looked like the original or not.  Abstract art was the sort of thing that could never be bad art, because it never actually had to look like something real.  It was essentially lawless.  The consumer eye couldn’t tell a Guiles from a Picasso, but it could certainly tell it from a Rembrandt.  No Picasso fan could look at one of his works and identify it as a forgery by its poor quality.  That’s because it was all bad.  Without having the real thing to hold up next to it, no one could notice the difference.  With the advance of the Giclee printer, a downloaded work could be printed on canvass to look like a genuine double of the original.  Granted, there were certain risks.  He had to be careful not to sell any of the showcased works, or anything too famous.  The best bet was always something that Picasso never attempted, yet should have.  These were the “lesser-known works.”  That’s where Joe’s talent really shined.

Well, it wasn’t too hard to rationalize, really.  A painting was as good as the owner’s enjoyment of it.  It didn’t really matter who made it or how it was made, so long as it had the certain visual appeal that the consumer was looking for.  I mean, it’s either worth hanging on a wall, or it isn’t.  In the end, it’s just an image.  If the consumer wanted that image, then that’s what the consumer got.  In return, Larry only asked for mass-produced artwork of dead presidents on rag paper.  That should be fair enough.

The phone on his desk rang.  It was Joe.  He answered it, “Larry Lawson, superstar.”

Joe replied that one of his works was ready, and then he disconnected.

Larry stood, passed the bad document over the shoulder of his coworker and disappeared around a corner.  He had been in the office less than twenty minutes, and already he was headed for the elevator and freedom.  Stopping by the receptionist’s desk, he asked the lady to tell his boss that he was on his way to do a pick-up.  She replied that the boss was not coming in today.  This had “good day” written all over it.  He counted the steps to the elevator, waited for the doors to shut, and then he did his best rendition of a football goal line victory dance.  That stop at the bar would be coming earlier than he had planned.  The elevator car dropped a level and opened to a pretty little clerk that he had gotten to know a month earlier.  As soon as she saw him, she made an awkward nod of the head, mumbled, “Sorry, mistake,” and hurried away.  He made a mental note to study that case.  Clearly, something went wrong with that one.  Maybe he had pursued her a little to aggressively.

The doors closed and the elevator car continued on its way.  “Shooting Stars,” played softly over the speaker.  “Come on, people, we just played that one,” he muttered.  Two lines later, he realized that the words were different.  This one wasn’t about shooting stars, like the kind one might watch on a hot August night.  This one was about shooting stars, as in celebrities and with a gun.  He shifted uncomfortably.  “Odd, that one,” he said to the wall.  His cell phone rang.  It was the jerk from the cubicle next to his.

“Larry,” whined the jerk, “This receipt is a complete forgery!  What the heck are you doing, trying to pawn this junk off on me?”

“Just file it,” Larry answered, “you know no one’s going to look at it, anyway.”

“Larry, I looked at it!  Now we’re both involved.  This isn’t just your butt that’s going to get fried.  I never asked for this.  It’s illegal, you know!” the twiggy coworker cried.

“Laws were made to be broken,” Larry returned, “Get a grip.  You’re not going to get arrested for possession of a fake receipt.”  He snapped his phone shut and continued waiting.  This was taking too long.  He looked at the display above the door, and it showed that he was ascending, instead of descending.  “Drat!” he shouted.  Actually, that wasn’t quite the word he used.  The numbers kept going up.  Then, he was back to his own level, which was on the highest floor.  Then he was on the floor above it.  The numbers rearranged themselves into a little face, just a line for a mouth and two dots for eyes.  “What the…?!”

“So, you don’t like laws, do you?” the little face said, and he heard it through the speakers in place of the music.  The face screwed itself up into various Chinese characters.  Then the display went blank and the doors opened, revealing the roof and all of the workings one might find on top of a high-rise office building.

“This is nuts,” he said with a shiver, “Elevators don’t go clear to the roof.  This can’t be happening.”  But the unnaturally dark and smoky sky drew him outside and toward the parapet.  Looking down, he saw that the whole city was on fire, making him think for a split second that it had caused his elevator to rise to the top, but that would still be impossible.  The elevator still doesn’t reach the roof, even if it malfunctions.  A huge billow of smoke rose in the distance, forming what vaguely looked like an angry face, which turned and dissipated a second later.  A moment after that, the roiling smoke formed another face, which rotated and obliterated.  It was only the sort of thing one sees in clouds, when one looks up and makes believe that the thing is shaped like something familiar, even when it clearly looks dissimilar.  Yet, face after face arose and disappeared.  “What is going on, here?” he wondered aloud.

“At the moment, you’re hallucinating, but that could all change in a few minutes,” said a voice behind him.

He turned toward the speaker and saw a man in a leather jacket, leather pants and leather boots.  In fact, it would appear that every thing he wore required the shedding of blood.  “What’s going on?  What’s happening,” Larry asked.

“This day has been waiting for you for thousands of years, and you have only just now stepped into it,” replied the stranger, “But I wanted to give you a moment longer before you met your destiny.  The world burns like incense to appease the nostrils of a holy God, but one can burn swine meat forever without ever producing a pleasing aroma.  Really,  I don’t think we need more of that.  I like to think that there’s a chance to reconcile you with the law you hate.”

Larry tried to give him a look that said, “You’ve got to be kidding,” that looked more like a terrified, “Man, I sure hope this is just a joke.”  He looked back at the rising smoke, which seemed to look back at him.  “So what are you saying?”

“You need Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for your breaking of the law,” the man in leather said.

“Yeah, whatever.  Jesus overthrew the law,” Larry replied.

“No, you overthrew the law.  Jesus fulfilled it.  He loved the law enough to die, rather than break it.  He loved you enough to die, rather than break you.  Something had to break.  It was you against the law, and….”

“That’s nice,” Larry interrupted, “but I’ve got an elevator to catch,” and he headed back to the entrance.

“Are you really in such a hurry to go down there?” asked the stranger.

Larry stepped inside the elevator, turned, and gave the button for the parking garage a resolute push.  There’s something about insanity that makes people compensate by attempting to be extra sane.  They stand a little taller.  They walk stiffly and talk about anything normal, if they can.  They find themselves looking for any symbol of normalcy to which they can cling, even striding with ineffective slowness from an onrush of doom.  For Larry, this meant resetting himself to the last moment before things went haywire, which meant standing in an elevator and pushing the button for the parking garage with the determination of one who actually expected it to go there.  When the doors closed and his stomach rose into his throat from the descent of the car, he hoped life was as normal as it now looked, but four seconds later, when he became weightless and floated about the interior, he realized with horror that he was better-off on the roof, with the freak, where at least he was free and not trapped in a box.  The display above the door showed the little face again, and he heard its voice through the speakers.

“You know, Larry, I know you think of yourself as a minor outlaw, but I happen to know that you love laws,” said the voice in a synthetic sort of way.  Larry was too busy floating about the cabin to venture a response, so it continued, “Take the law of gravity, for instance.  You love that law.  You like being able to use those little stilts you call legs to pry yourself away from the ground and move from place to place across the surface of a dirt ball.  You love knowing that every day, God happens to follow that law faithfully.  Or, take the laws of time and space, even.  You like, or better yet, are tremendously excited to know that your elevator will get to where it’s going in a timely manner.  You like to be able to cross a room in a matter of seconds, rather than decades.  In fact, it would kill you to know that you might not even get there in your lifetime.”

“Oh, dear God,” Larry mumbled, not reverently.

“Yes, both dear and God, in fact,” said the voice.  “Aren’t you glad God obeys his laws?  Don’t you wish you had obeyed yours?  Oh, but then there’s the Master Law, and this one you love the best.  It’s the law that makes all other laws possible.  It’s the law of consistency.  It’s so universal and so important that most people don’t even know it exists.  You wake up every morning, go to work, come home and go to bed.”

“I do not love that law,” Larry groaned.

“Oh, but you do,” argued the voice.  “You don’t like not knowing if, perhaps, you might wake up one day and find that you are a chicken, strapped to the back of a flying purple pig, singing We Are The World a hundred times really fast.  For instance, you don’t like floating about, trapped inside an elevator that talks nonsense to you.”

Larry resisted the urge to puke, and said, cautiously, “You’re right.  I definitely do not like this.”

“Ah, but fortunately for you God is very good at following his laws,” the thing said.

“Then why isn’t he?!” Larry roared.

“Ah, but he is!” the elevator cheered, “You may think that you are floating, but it only seems like that because your entire world is falling with you.  Your coworkers are falling with you.  Your elevator car is falling with you…and it still only takes four and a half seconds to hit the ground!  Even the laws of time and space are obeyed.  Did you know, Larry, that the terrified mind of a human fires signals so fast that he perceives that time comes to a standstill?”

“That’s great!  That’s just fantastic, you stupid, little, whatever you are!  What about consistency?  What about your freaking Master Law?!” Larry screamed.

“It’s about to be taken from you,” said the elevator, flatly.  “The Master is about to be taken from you, and there’s really no way to have the Master Law without the Master, now is there?  I mean, that wouldn’t make any sense, now would it?

“You mean, I’m going to be stuck in this nightmare?!” Larry panicked.

The elevator was silent for a moment.  Then it replied, “Yes, but this is all taking too long.  We are nearly out of time.”

All at once, the elevator groaned softly, and Larry was flung at the floor, where he stopped, mid-air, spread-eagle, with his nose an inch from the ground, hovering.  He brought his arms and legs down, and he carefully stood to his feet.  The moment the doors opened, he rushed outside, into the parking garage, and for a moment life seemed to have returned to normal.  A short distance away was a small one-person restroom, used mostly by the security guards and the incontinent.  Into this he rushed, either to vomit or to splash water on his face, whichever he could manage best.  It was one of those cold, ugly places, with a steel mirror and a steel toilet and a push-button washbasin.  He got one splash of water to his face before he began to doubt his own reflection.  It didn’t look right.  He worried that the nightmare might be returning.  It was his face, alright, and it even imitated his movements, but somehow it felt like the image of someone else.  The man in the mirror looked like the sort of jackass a person loves to hate, bearing a sneer best removed with a tightly-clenched fist.  Then, he could contain himself no longer.  He fell to his knees before the toilet and spilled his breakfast, which appeared to be a diet of worms.  In between retches he could still feel them wriggling in his throat, which made him retch all the more.  Gripping the bowl with both hands, he felt himself surrender to the panic.  There was no end to the worms within.  That’s when he noticed his hands.  They were covered in worms, too.  In fact, they were so covered that he could not see his hands.  He swiped at them vigorously, knocking them in large clumps into the toilet, taking off whole fingers and then an arm, into the bowl.  That’s when he realized that the worms were not on his arms.  The worms were his arms.  He pushed himself to his feet and examined his body, a seething mass of worms in the general shape of a man.  His right arm flopped detached over the edge of the bowl, spreading in an array of nematodes, until it no longer resembled an arm.

Larry had one thread of sanity left, and with it he barged out of the restroom, up the ramp and out onto the street.  He was going to wake up or die trying.  The street outside was packed with pedestrians, marching routinely to work.  He pushed through them rudely, not knowing where he was going, or why.  He overheard their conversations with each other, normal and unrelated to him, but his mind picked out one word from one person and one word from another, fitting it nicely together into a sentence that was never spoken by a single individual.

“Hurry…call…on…Christ!…now,” said no one and everyone.

Larry stopped at the street corner and looked each way.  It was an alley, crossing with the main boulevard.  The alley had nothing but two old trash cans, a cat, and a homeless bum, who was striding purposefully toward him.  Everyone else was walking or driving along the boulevard.  In the moment that he recognized the bum as the man from the roof, he looked up at the street sign and saw that he was at the crossing of Hell Avenue and Heaven Alley.  “Oh, very funny!  Oh, yeah, this is all just one big hilarious joke, isn’t it?!” he yelled at the stranger.  The people on the street stopped in their tracks and stared.  Even the cars slowed to watch the madman.  Everyone was waiting to see what he would do next.  He was about to say something more, when he heard the whistle of a train.  It was the Seven-Ten, and for once it was right on time.  He knew what he had to do.  He turned up the boulevard and ran madly for the tracks.  The stranger broke into a dead run after him, trying to stop him.  Up ahead, he saw the tracks.  To his left, he saw the coming of the Los Angeles Westbound.  Larry was determined to meet the LAW head-on.  Someone or something was going to break.  With his legs spread, he stood and faced the oncoming diesel engine.  To his left, the stranger kept coming, with a look of horror on his face and his hand upraised in warning.

“Larry!” yelled the man in leather, “You can’t wake up from this kind of nightmare!”  But Larry turned toward the engine and ignored him.  The stranger slowed to a stop when the futility of his effort became evident.  The words barely squeaked from his throat, “Not again.  Oh, for pity’s sake, not again.”

The impact was so thunderous that everybody thought a bomb had gone off.  The doors and large pieces of the elevator car blew out into the cars parked opposite, rebounding with a clatter, a tremendous racket and a billow of dust.  A dozen car alarms sounded, honking in protest like frightened donkeys.  The entire office building came alive with workers buzzing about, trying desperately to know what was going on.

The event was summed up in a news article the next day, that the elevator in a downtown office building had become detached from its pulley mechanism and fallen all the way from the top floor to its resounding demise far below, killing one person in the process.

A clerk from the top floor minus one considered that she barely missed getting on that elevator seconds before the disaster.  Strangely, she was saved by her disdain of the victim, which, incidentally, made the victim harder to disdain.  Had he not been on that elevator, she felt that the victim would have been her, instead.  Somewhere on the top floor, the victim’s coworker made a callous remark that he probably hit the ground and kept going, straight to Hell.  Both were wrong in their own way.  The reason she did not die was simply because it was not her time to die.  He did not go straight to Hell, exactly.  Somewhere along the way life took an unexpected detour, before continuing on into the permanent nightmare.

But it is not for others to know the full story of a man.  His interaction with God is known only to him and God.  He can’t tell, and God won’t.

[/fiction]

Some say that the genre of Christian horror is a self-contradictory and impossible concept.  In truth, those who see the world falling headlong into a permanent nightmare are audience of the ultimate horror story.





The Endless Hallway

16 08 2010

[fiction]

Solomon Leechman failed to live up to his name that day at the bar, when he’d had too much to drink.  He made a friend and accepted a ride home.  The next thing he knew, he was lying in the dark on a cold stone floor, which probably contributed as much to his headache as the hangover.  Several hours passed in semi-consciousness, where he very much hated lying there, but he very much more hated the idea of standing.  Eventually, the sun finally found its way to him, after illuminating his prison several hours in advance, like a prolonged twilight.

Finally admitting awareness of his environment, he observed two things.  Firstly, he noticed that he was in a hallway without a ceiling, letting in the blare of direct sunlight from high above.  At least, if it was not a hallway, then it was an alley between two walls.  Next, he noticed that he was among two others, one man and one woman.  The other man came to his senses hours later, being, perhaps, more affectedly drugged than Solomon.  The woman awoke not long after that.  Upon inquiry, he found that the man’s name was Charles Bessemer, and the woman’s name was Mary Eddy.  Neither of them knew how they had gotten there.  Mary had only sipped a cup of tea on her front porch before winding up here.  Charles had taken such a cocktail of drugs that any of them could easily have been responsible for his unconsciousness.  In fact, he had taken them for that express purpose.  There was no apparent connection between any of them, other than that they were all lacking anything that might have been in their pockets previously, except for a used tissue and a pack of cigarettes with accompanying lighter.  This was immediately put to use by the man called Charles, who took a long drag and muttered, “Apparently, we’ve been robbed.  Well, at least we’ve still got fire.”

Solomon looked around at the cold stone walls and wondered what good a fire would do them here.  Perhaps if they had something to burn, they might have a comfort at night.  “Well, I suppose we’d better be making our way to the police,” he said, without confidence, as he peered down the seemingly interminable alley.  He looked both ways and then picked one at random, following it steadily for about ten minutes before doubting himself.  The others followed him for lack of any excuse to do otherwise.  He stopped in his tracks and looked back.  The way they had come stretched out indefinitely behind them, but the way before them was unchanged.  They might easily have remained in their original position, by all appearances, except for the fact that they knew that they had moved.  Solomon ran his fingers through his hair and said to himself, “Man, what a long alley.”  They continued for a few minutes more, accelerating a little with every passing minute.  When the end of the alley continued to elude them, they broke into a trot.  The trot became a run, and the run developed into a mad dash.  When Solomon finally could run no further, he stopped dead in his tracks and panted, staring down the hellishly interminable lane.  He looked back and found that he had lost his friends.  The insanity of the imprisonment seemed so much the worse without companionship that he panicked and ran back the way he had come, until he reached Charles and Mary, who had given up the chase before him.

Mary sat against the wall and hugged her knees.  Charles smoked another cigarette and gazed down the alley.  Solomon kept looking up at the sky, with the sun now out of sight, wondering if there might be some way to climb over the wall.

“Listen, man,” said Charles, irritably, “This blasted hall can’t go on forever.  Everything has an end.”  He paused to think about it, glanced up and then reconsidered.  “No way, man, we didn’t just get taken into some parallel universe.  This thing has an end, and we’re going to find it.”

“Are you sure we’re not just dreaming the whole thing?” asked Mary.

“You want me to kick some sense into you?” barked Charles, coldly, “I’m not dreaming, and neither are you.”

They continued on down the way between the walls for the rest of the day, until the light faded into dusk, and then the real fear began to set in.  Charles burned through the rest of his cigarettes for the sole joy of having a flame.  Solomon sat staring at the stars, comforting himself with the one opening to their prison.  Mary sat with her back to the wall and cried herself to sleep.

“You know,” mused Charles, “We’ve been marching down this alley all stinking day.  We must have come several miles, yet.  We’ve encountered neither corner nor door, so we can rule out the possibility that either wall surrounds some other area, which means that this probably isn’t the space between two properties, and those aren’t just walls at the edge of someone’s estate.  We’ve been doing the only thing we know, which is to follow this thing in one direction, in some hope of reaching the end.  I figure this is probably a canal of some kind, which means that the top of the wall is actually at ground level.  Otherwise, I can’t see any reason to build two such long walls.  I mean, sooner or later someone’s going to want to cross from one side to the other.  There’s got to be a bridge, or a tunnel or something, eventually.”

Solomon kept looking at the stars.  Cool air drifted down to him from above, which was about the only comfort to be found in that otherwise comfortless place.  At least he had fresh air.  At least he could see an opening above him, if nothing else.  He stood to his feet and called out to the opening above.  Nothing answered him.

Charles rebuked him, saying, “Save it, man.  No one hears you, alright?  Now, I have an idea.  Just wait here.  Don’t move until I get back.”  Then, he walked off into the darkness.

Solomon sat down next to Mary, attempting to comfort her as best he could, which wasn’t very much.  They passed a long sleepless night together, with no event except the movement of the stars and Solomon’s occasional calling out to them.  If they had been in a pit, then their circumstances might not have seemed as dire, but this interminable hall gave it just a devilish enough intrigue to make the place unbearable.  At least a pit was normal.  This was something out of Hell.

In the morning, Solomon and Mary started walking down the alley again, wondering constantly whether they were moving forward, or whether hey were merely retracing their steps.  He resolved not to make the mistake again.  Charles had not returned.  The passageway had swallowed him up with sheer distance.  Somehow or other, he would reach an end, and so would they, if they just continued on.  When darkness fell that night, Solomon removed his shoe and placed in on the ground, pointing in their direction of travel.  At least, if they needed several day’s journey, they would be traveling in the same direction each day and not undoing the previous day’s work.  They spent the night without conversation.  Whatever her thoughts on the matter, she wasn’t sharing.  By the third day, he knew that they would perish without food and water.  Somewhere in this waterless canal, there must be at least a puddle, or they were sure to die.  Mary was an inconsolable wreck.  He had to urge her every step of the way.  When at last they reached a stand of water in their way, probably a slightly low spot in the dry channel, he fell to his face and sucked at what little was there.  To continue this journey might be death of dehydration, but if they remained where they were, they were also doomed.  Forward was the most hopeful thing in the universe.  They stayed at the puddle for an hour longer, and then they continued.

In the distance, barely seen in the darkening dusk, they perceived the figure of a man walking.  Solomon ran toward him, and when the man heard him, he also began to run.  The other man was the first to stop running.  It wasn’t until the other man fell to his knees and roared with agony at the top of his voice that Solomon realized whom he was running at.  It was Charles, finally returning to them after so much time.  He trotted the remaining distance and called to him, “Charles!  You came back!  What’s wrong, man, did you reach the end?”

Charles wept like a baby and said through his tears, “Shut up, you fool!  I didn’t come back!  I didn’t come back, you ass!”

Solomon ignored the slight and inquired, “What do you mean, you didn’t come back?”

“Don’t you get it?” Charles cried, “I went full circle!  I’ve been walking nonstop since I left you people!  This thing is just one great big circle!  There’s no end!  There’s no way out!”  He gasped for breath, “It took me two days to get around it.  If I went two miles per hour, then it must have been ninety-six miles around.  But, wait!  You were travelling in the other direction!  That means it could be even twice that!  What hole have we fallen into?  This isn’t a channel!  This is like a moat around some gargantuan castle!”

After much hugging and weeping, they decided that their best option was to retreat back to the puddle, where at least they had water.  That night, Charles slept like a log, while Solomon lay awake, staring at the sky, hallucinating frequently of people looking down at them.  Once, he thought for sure that a man poked his head out from above them, and he leapt to his feet and yelled at the face until Charles knocked his legs out from under him and told him to shut up.

The next morning, they sat around the puddle and stared at their respective sources of comfort.  Charles stared at the flame of his lighter.  Solomon stared at the open sky, and Mary stared at the back of her eyelids.  Charles was the first to speak, “Well, at least there’s some comfort in knowing that this isn’t a passageway that goes on forever in both directions.  If it’s a circle, then it might as well be a pit.  We’ve been in a very large pit, wandering its outer edge.  There’s nothing too diabolical about that.”

Solomon found no comfort in the thought.  Knowing the limits of his enclosure only heightened his fear, because that meant that there was no way out.  Charles might have been comforted by the taming of its magic, but Solomon was terrified at the setting of its outer limit.  He would have preferred a magical hall with no end, because at least in magic there was some hope of something totally unexpected happening and providing a way out.  For a while, he even argued that it really was a magic hall, and that it really was straight.  He imagined that the magic had caused Charles to reverse directions, or to come back from the other end without actually travelling in a circle.  In the end, though, Charles’ rationality won out.  Yet, there still stood the matter of getting out.  Charles, forever the thinker, worked on various means of escape, such as climbing on each other’s shoulders, climbing the stones, or using a belt buckle to carve a hole.  In the end, though, they were not tall enough to scale it, the masonry was too smooth to climb, and the belt buckle idea, though theoretically possible, would take more days than they could survive.  Even at that, if they were in a circle with no bridge over them, then they might accidentally find themselves inside of the circle with not one but two walls between them and freedom.

Solomon continued to shout at the stars, and Charles continued to yell at him to stop.  “No one hears you, okay?”

“Someone might eventually hear me,” Solomon argued.

“What’s going to make that happen?  No one has heard you yet, and you have no reason to expect that to change.  The stars can’t hear you.  Walk a few feet down the way and scream, and if that doesn’t work, then walk a few feet more and do it again.  Eventually, I’ll be rid of you, and maybe I’ll be able to spend my last days in peace!”

The irony of the situation was that while Charles had brought the hall down from the mysterious to the understandable, he had brought the outer world from the understandable to something rather mysterious.  There was no explanation as to how a trench, or hall, could follow such a huge circle without impacting the lives of other people.  There was no reason it should even exist, and there was no reason why anyone should make it.  Nevertheless, there really was no sign of interference from without, and there was almost no reason to believe that the pit was made by humans, except that it did not likely make itself.  Solomon, however, who had originally clung to the idea of a mysterious hallway, was the last to give up on hope for outside help.  Someone had obviously made the pit, or hall, which meant that human civilization was not only near, but the passage was actually a part of that civilization, somehow.  The walls were built by people, therefore there was a chance of meeting more people.

Solomon and Charles argued about the matter until Mary burst out with her first words in more than two days, “Shut up!  Just shut up!  Keep your beliefs to yourselves.  You want to climb the wall and save yourself, then do it.  You want someone to climb down from the wall and save you, then let them.  Just stop talking about it!”  Then she closed her eyes, plugged her ears and imagined herself in a happier place.

So Solomon continued down the hall, shouting every so often for help from above, to people that he could not see.  It was the only chance for hope.  He wasn’t content to make the best of his short life in the pit.  He wasn’t content with imagining it all away.  If someone outside didn’t hear his cries, then there was no hope, but if he did not cry out, then there never could be hope.  Several times, he hallucinated that people were looking down on him.  With time, he began to imagine even wilder things than people looking down on him.  Then, startlingly, a voice called down to him, saying, “Hello, now how did you get down there?”  He looked up at the smiling ruddy round face at a man, and for a moment, the real thing seemed stranger than the hallucinations ever were.  He stared transfixed at the stranger before he could mumble something only halfway intelligible in return.  When he finally came to grips with the reality of the situation, he wanted to run back and get the others, but then the stranger might go away, and Solomon might not find the spot again.  When the face did disappear, he sat down, afraid to leave the spot, which was rewarded nearly an hour later by the lowering of a very tall ladder.

“Sorry it took so long,” said the jolly man, “but the shed is some distance from here and I had a dandy of a time finding a ladder.”

Solomon scaled the ladder quickly, afraid that the dream might fade.  At the top, he discovered that the passage was a deep trench.  Some distance away was a small building, and the surrounding terrain was quite flat.

“You’re lucky I came by when I did.  They’re closing down the place, and I was the last to leave.  They dug this monstrosity to be an atom smasher, only the funding got cut before it was finished.  They gutted the workings and sold it as scrap, but there’s no money in filling holes, so they left it.  I can’t imagine what you were doing in there,” said the rescuer.

“An atom smasher?” Solomon wondered.  Suddenly, it was all making a little more sense.  The pit contained a massive circle of piping for shooting subatomic particles in a circle, faster and faster, in an attempt at breaking them apart and discovering the origins of the universe.  People had quit trying to reach beyond the universe to the one who made it, preferring instead to live and die within it.  The flat earth with mysterious limits had become a circular prison devoid of mystery, and the ones who shattered the mystery devoted themselves to abolishing any mystery that they could not shatter.  It did not continue in all directions, but it went in a circle.  There was no point in calling for help from the outside, because no one had heard, and no one would ever hear.

While some people, like Charles, tried to defeat the mystery understood by Solomon, others, like Mary, tried to defeat the prison created by people like Charles, preferring instead to take refuge in the ever subjective philosophy of their own imaginations.  If Solomon was pre-modern, Charles was modern and Mary was postmodern.  Charles, at least, had a great deal of understanding the nature of the confinement.  Solomon understood the nature of his salvation.  Mary feared all understanding, and therefore she had none.  In the end, only the wisdom of Solomon could save them.

Perhaps, then, Solomon outlived his first mistake by living up to his name in the end.

[/fiction]





Disposable Man

30 05 2010

Somewhere on the streets of gold a man does not walk, though he might have.  He was not born into that world.  He never walked there.  He was discarded from there before he ever arrived.

Somewhere in a dark alley on Earth, another disposable man also does not walk.  He was never born into this world, much less reborn into the next.  Perhaps, he was murdered in the womb, discarded before he ever arrived.

Then again, perhaps he never even arrived in the womb.  Maybe his parents used effective contraception.  Perhaps they abstained altogether.  The parents were too busy to marry, or they rejected each other, not knowing that they rejected their own destiny.

Disposable Man had no say in his own parentage, whether he would be born at all.  Had he been born, he would have had no say in his own death.  No degree of effort could prevent his passing.  Somewhere in between the two, between the cradle and the grave, we presume that he would have had the autonomy to choose his destiny, and yet, that destiny may have been the beginnings, or lack thereof, of yet another Disposable Man.  The part in the middle, where we assume he had free will, another is born into the world by destiny through the actions of an autonomous man.  Perhaps we presume too much.

When a woman aborts her child, we say that she has murdered another human being, and rightly so.  She assumes the right to live, and she attributes to her child the duty to be discarded.  The child is disposable, but she is not.  From before conception the baby had no identity at all.  Had she abstained from sex, it would not have existed.  She would not have been guilty of murder, because nothing existed to be murdered.  So much weight is given to sentience.  Some would say that the death of a human does not matter before it is fully conscious enough to realize that it is getting ripped apart.  At what point does the human soul enter the body?  As far as I know, I am the only one for whom it ever has.  I cannot study or know the soul of a single other human on the planet, any more than I could travel to a parallel universe.  People are islands, entire universes separated from each other by uncrossable chasms.  I only know that I have a soul, because I experience the act of living.

The woman who wishes to kill justifies her act, essentially, on the notion that the soul of the baby has not yet arrived, does not exist.  Yet, no one can know if or when it ever does.  She can only know the existence of her own soul, and this is the crux of the matter.  She was the only person that concerned her, anyway.  Abortion is, at heart, a postmodern problem.  The modernist, at least, can see the creation of a new human within the womb, because the modernist is obsessed with the physical world.  What can be studied can be believed.  But the postmodernist is obsessed with the highly internal world of the mental universe, those events and experiences which capture the soul.  If she does not feel it, then she does not care.  As postmodernism grows, so does the industry of infanticide.

A pastor need only mention the word, abortion, and we can see certain women in the congregation squirming in their seats, as though the truth were trying to crawl right out of their wombs where they sat.  But there can be forgiveness.  If Paul The Apostle can make a living at murdering masses of believers, yet repent and walk straight into Heaven, then there is hope for any of us.

Otherwise, the mother of the Disposable Man may find herself disposable in the next life.

What of the man who was never conceived?  He may have more in common with the everyday man than any might recognize.  The one who fails to live the entire nine months of gestation may only live a few weeks, but the elderly man who dies after a century still dies.  Both are soon forgotten.  As we approach eternity, both lifespans approach nothingness.  A man of any lifespan gradually becomes a Disposable Man.  If he is not born again into eternity, then he is lost before he even began.  He is like the man who never existed.

Coming into existence was always a matter of destiny.  It always comes about by an act of God, being entirely beyond us.  This remains as true for the second birth as for the first.  And so, our Disposable Man does not wander the streets like a haunting ghost.  He ceases  to exist without a trace.

At the top of this page is a picture.  Look again.  Is something missing?  Was it ever there?  Something is desperately missing from that picture, gone as though it had never existed.  It is Disposable Man, and it may be you.





The Soapbox and the Train

16 05 2010

True story: a woman dropped her coat on the ground, just below a platform.  She climbed down to retrieve her coat, and some complete stranger jumped down and rudely shoved her, attempting to force her back onto the platform in a hurry.  Several bystanders stood there and watched.  In the next moment, he was dead, and she was critically injured, but alive.  All of this, because of a mere coat.  To save that material article, she climbed onto the subway tracks.  Then the man climbed onto the tracks to save her.  Most would say that the coat wasn’t worth it.  Some might even say that the woman wasn’t worth it.

But that was just a subway, and he tried by physical means.  It was only a matter of life and death, nothing more.  In another time and another place, a man stood on a soapbox and preached at a passing crowd.  This is also a true story.  He told the world that they were sinners and needed to repent.  He said that they needed Jesus.  He warned them that they were going to Hell.  A man with good intentions stopped to argue with him.  In fact, the man who wished to take him to task was no less than a pastor.  He asked the man on the soapbox why he was being so mean-spirited, why he didn’t just show people the love of God.  Fortunately, the man on the soapbox ignored him.

Let’s take the two true stories and merge them for the sake of analogy.  A woman drops her coat on the train tracks, and in a moment of carelessness, she places exceedingly high priority on a temporary piece of property at the expense of something far greater.  A coat is until the next paycheck, but death is forever.  A man on the platform yells and screams at her to abandon the coat and move to safety.  He warns her of impending doom.  The other people around him mostly do nothing, same as before.  One man stops and accuses him of being unloving, harsh and overly critical.  According to the detractor, all of this yelling and screaming is only bound to chase her farther onto the tracks.  “She’ll never come to safety if you keep on like that,” he says.  At some later time, we might even make the suggestion that the police come and arrest the shouter for “hate speech.”  The liberal says that a loving God would surely not let a train come and crush a person flat, simply because she followed her own tendencies.  What harm did she do anyone?  How did her actions justify the punishment?

Yet, God’s moral laws are no more flexible than his physical laws.  She stood on the tracks when the train came, and she was to be crushed by it.  We don’t fault the train.  We don’t fault God.  We place the blame squarely on the woman.  She should have known better.

There’s a popular little lie that makes its rounds among believers that we should, “preach the gospel to the world, using words, if necessary.”  Faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes by people speaking the message (Romans 10:17).  If no one speaks it, then no one is going to hear it.  Somehow, we are expected to simply be nice people, without ever really getting to the marrow of what we believe to be not only the truth, but a dire truth, at that.  In any other dire situation, we would be expected to go out of our way to convey the danger of the matter to the potential victims as quickly and as loudly as we possibly could.  Yet, somehow, when it comes to the only thing more important than life or death, being Heaven and Hell, we are expected to simply show people the love of God, without ever broaching the subject of the other person’s future of burning in Hell for all of eternity.

Focus on Heaven, they say.  Don’t scare them with the stuff about Hell.  So our victim is bending over to pick up her coat, and the man on the platform is calling to her seductively, telling her how wonderful it would be if she could stand up there on the platform with him, instead of being down there on the dirty old tracks, like that.  Her response?  Yes, of course it would be nice to stand on the platform, instead, but she’s going to get her coat first.  Yes, it would be nice to get into Heaven, but I’ve got time, and I’m going to enjoy life first.  In the end, the woman still gets crushed, but at least the man didn’t get hurt in the process.

That’s what it’s all about, anyway, isn’t it?  We try to win people to Christ in the way that is least likely to get us hurt.  The train comes.  We don’t mention it.  We act like there’s no hurry.  We behave as though there were no threat.  We even pass laws against telling people that they are going to be utterly destroyed if they don’t get out of harm’s way.  That’s hate speech.  But, love is not always polite.

Jesus was often rude.  He spent much time railing against the teachers who led people astray.  In his case, he was so determined to save a person, that, like the good fellow who tried to rescue the woman, he died trying.  As in that case, more often than not, Christ’s own attempts to save people are for naught.  In the end the train comes, and there is Hell to pay.  Even so, he still hopped down from his high place and died in the attempt.  Futile effort is better than the nightmare of having done nothing.

It doesn’t have to be futile, though.  There was always some slim chance that the person might be saved.  In fact, sometimes the hero is rewarded with another soul rescued, a life saved from imminent doom.  We are not that hero.  We are only asked to speak the warning from our place of relative safety.  Our job will not always be this easy.  For now, the bystanders only ridicule us for speaking of the train and the danger.  For now, we are only made to endure a little scorn.  The time is coming when the masses will drag us away and put us in prison, that the woman may remain on the tracks until her execution.  That is, they will do so if we continue to warn.  As it is, we mostly stand and stare, like an audience at a horror film.

And we think we are virtuous for our gentleness.