Fiction by Lev Raphael
A writer finds his story struggling to make sense of a spiritual experience.
Josh Rosenberg had never been alone in a European church. There were always crowds when he was abroad that often included embarrassing and loud Ugly Americans.
But armed with heavy, colorful Dorling Kindersley guidebooks, fluent French and passable German and Italian, Josh had never felt like one of them on any of his travels to Europe. Everyone from cab drivers to waiters, hotel clerks, tour guides, and even strangers he asked directions from had always complimented his language skills. Many refused to believe he could be from the U.S.
"But Americans don't speak other languages!" was the insistent judgment, sometimes offered with a shrug, sometimes with a frown.
Early on, Josh had figured out that speaking a foreign language wasn't just about learning grammar and vocabulary; it was about intonation, listening intently, and being unafraid to make mistakes. With a bit of feeling yourself on stage: it was a performance.
Now, before this past summer, he'd only been away for a week at a time, and the brevity of those trips wasn't satisfying.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, though, his parents had rewarded him for getting straight 4.0s in French, History, and English with a two-month trip to Europe. He didn't stay in youth hostels; his hotels were all three-star at the very least.
"I want you to be comfortable" was his father's wish, and that was a man who relished his after-dinner glass of 18-year-old Glengoyne, his Porsche SUV, and a closetful of hand-made shoes. And why not? His father's own parents had lost everything in the Holocaust—family, home, country—had come to America as paupers, and he himself was an American success story, an award-winning journalist-turned-editor. He looked the part, too: tall and Scandinavian, slim with dense gray-streaked black hair, and a long, thoughtful face with intense sky-blue eyes.
So Josh traveled those two gift months without being rushed, enjoying a museum or church with important art in the morning, then a long lunch, and finally a bus or boat tour—unless he rented a bike instead and rode through an embracing park to experience the city in a less touristy way.
Josh wanted to be a writer and wanted to see as much as he could without feeling overwhelmed, so he took notes at the end of every day for a possible travel memoir he imagined writing. But whether he was in Belgium, Italy, Germany, France, or England, every famous must-see church he visited was almost always as crammed as a train station, with tourists talking loudly about what they were seeing or hoped to see—crowding around celebrated art like Michelangelo's Mary and Child in Bruges and taking selfies to prove that they'd been there.
Before, any church he'd spent time in was filled with either mourners for somebody's funeral mass or celebrants for a wedding. He was there to support a friend or friends and felt present but very much out of place. What happened during a Mass was an alien language, and sometimes, he felt as removed as an explorer noting the unique ways of a people long hidden from a Western microscope.
Words like "the body and blood of Christ" stumped him—what could that possibly mean? Yet in spite of growing up Jewish, he sometimes admitted to himself that he felt intrigued by this mystery.
Fifteen years later, he was still unpublished and working on his PhD in case he couldn’t find a teaching job to support himself while he attempted to make a career of writing.
On the way back from a session with his therapist, he'd made some wrong turns and found himself passing St. Jerome's Cathedral, a twin-towered Gothic Revival cousin of the many churches he'd seen on his latest trip abroad.
This latest therapy session was another dead-end—another fifty minutes lost. All he ever did was talk about how he could never finish anything he tried to write. Though he wasn't remotely ADHD, he could never get himself focused and organized enough, despite taking writing workshops and going to writers' conferences. Whenever he had a deadline, he missed it, asked for more time, and then drifted away. Was he deluding himself about becoming a writer? Nothing he worked on seemed important. . .
He pulled into a parking space near the cathedral, as compelled to stop as if he'd seen the flashing red and blue lights of a police car behind him. Looking over at the church, it was as if every rusticated sandstone block of the facade held some kind of message, a secret or rune.
He crossed the street that was unrelieved by traffic or pedestrians mid-afternoon, climbed the wide and shallow steps, pulled open the surprisingly heavy door, and found himself suddenly inside, immediately struck by how old this place looked. The quiet space smelled of sandalwood, and even though the interior of the church at first glance lacked any sense of being venerable, historic, his skin was tingling as if he'd just taken a brisk hot shower. What was that about?
Wandering down an aisle on the left, touching the oaken pews that seemed to pull him further and further from the doors and closer to the altar, he might have been on a slow-moving airport walkway.
It was so quiet, so calm and inviting. How, why?
Josh wasn't religious, but he was nominally Jewish, or at least Jewish enough to have had a bar mitzvah. At the time, he had griped about it because reading Hebrew was unaccountably as difficult for him as algebra or balancing chemical equations. And like most of his friends, that was his exit visa from Judaism. He didn't miss it, had never experienced any kind of need that wasn't being met. He felt completely unaffiliated, disconnected from Judaism, and thankfully, his secular parents never nagged him.
"You'll come back when you're ready," his mother had predicted, pushing her auburn curls back off her neck with both hands the way she did when she believed what she was saying was indisputable. A brisk, bright-eyed, woman, his mother was given to wearing black to show off her colorful statement jewelry. She was on various committees at "their" synagogue, acting out of a sense of connection to her people but with no trace of belief or spiritual longing. "God?" she sometimes said. "You don't need God to go to shul. You just need to belong somewhere. Hey, maybe you could write about that!"
"Oh, mom . . ."
Now, here in this hushed and empty space, the enormous crucifix hanging from the high ceiling over the huge, elaborate altar, the paintings whose subjects he could only guess, the bright red carpet leading up to the altar, the dazzling light pouring down from chandeliers—all made him feel he was on a stage waiting to perform . . . something. Back behind him was some sort of shrine with dozens of candles burning in a tiered black metal stand. It wasn't possible, but he could almost sense their heat, even standing so many feet away.
Halfway down the aisle, he heard a voice: "Follow me."
He whirled around. "Who's there?" he called out, trying to make out if there was someone else present, perhaps in hiding. But the voice had been close, so very close, almost in his ear, yet he was obviously completely alone in the cathedral. Unless someone was tricking him with a hidden speaker—but why would anyone do that?
Facing front, he felt as if he'd been slapped: his face was now flushed and stinging. Along the wall to the left of the stage and altar, and not many feet away, was a deep, arched niche with a statue of Jesus, and Josh approached the larger-than-life figure, inexplicably pulled toward it. The lighting around the statue made it glow, and the marble eyes that should have seemed lifeless and cold instead filled him with warmth.
In a blinding instant, he knew it was the statue—the statue had spoken to him.
That was as solid a fact as the quickened beating of his heart. He felt this strange truth coursing through his body.
"Whoa . . ." he muttered, stumbling from the aisle into the nearest row of pews, suddenly feeling sweaty and afraid. And then, as if guided by an unseen hand, slowly he crossed himself.
What was happening to him?
Though he'd seen this gesture performed countless times both in person and in film, he'd never ever imagined doing anything like it, anywhere, and yet as his arm dropped to his side, all the tension in his body drained out of him and he felt as tired as if he'd been hiking for miles. But strangely still inside, and satisfied.
He sat there, waiting for something—perhaps another message, if that's what it was—but nothing came for many long minutes. Perhaps he had been hallucinating.
You can't sit here forever, he told himself, yet still he was unable to leave, his gaze held fast by the statue of Jesus, whose arms seemed open for an embrace.
"Can I help you, young man? Are you feeling all right?"
Surprised, Josh turned and saw that there was an actual person standing there, a smiling, soft-spoken, bearded Friar Tuck of a priest, looking to be in his fifties.
"Thank you, but I'm fine. Really."
"The name's Joe Thorndyke, and I'm one of the priests here. People call me Joe or Father Joe, whichever they're most comfortable with." He held out a beefy hand, and when Josh rose to take that hand, suddenly he gasped and wobbled.
Father Joe held on tight. "Hey, are you sure you're okay, do I need to call the EMTs?"
"Please don't. I need to talk, just talk."
Father Joe ushered him out around the pews to a side office filled with icons and framed religious posters, one of which was of a golden sunset with a line of text: "Be still and know that I am God." Josh squinted and made out a smaller line of text that read Psalm 46:10.
Father Joe pointed to two brown leather club chairs opposite what looked like a rosewood desk and asked if he would like coffee or water.
Josh shook his head, sat down, flushed with what he was about to say, but he couldn't hold back when the priest sat opposite him and cocked his head to listen. The moment was so much like a therapy session that Josh started to breathe more normally. I can do this, he thought.
"My name's Josh, and something happened to me out there."
"Well, I should tell you that I'm Jewish, but haven't been to a synagogue in a very long time."
The priest shrugged and waited.
"And I'm not stoned or drunk or anything like that."
Father Joe smiled. "I didn't think you were, son."
"Okay. . . ." Josh took a deep breath and told him as clearly and calmly what he had just heard and felt and done, waiting to be kicked out of the office like a lunatic. But the priest simply nodded at each turn of the story. When he didn't say anything, Josh asked, "What do you think it means?"
"What do you think it means?"
"Jeez— Oh, sorry—"
Father Joe waved that away.
Josh hesitated, and then words came from him that sounded both heavy and light: "I'm not sure. Do you think it was like some kind of visitation, or, I don’t know, a door opening to another life? Another way to see?" He tried to remember if he'd ever read of any experience exactly like his before, but he drew a big, fat blank.
"Well, Josh, nothing like that's happened to me, and I have to tell you, I'm a little envious. But some of our parishioners have had experiences of spiritual connection that are, well, unusual."
"Connection? You mean this was, uh, like, what?" He struggled for words and then heard himself asking "The Holy Spirit?"
"It's not for me to say." Father Joe smiled.
Moved to tears by the compassion in those words—and that smile—Josh wondered aloud, "I don't know what I can believe. I mean, I've never thought of being anything but one hundred percent Jewish."
Father Joe sighed. "Faith is a journey. That might sound corny, but it's true. If you're on a new path, for whatever reason, it'll be uniquely yours."
Imagining how his parents, his relatives, and all his Jewish friends might react if they knew what he was discussing now, Josh shook his head and then apologized. "I was just worrying—"
"—what people might say?"
"Maybe it's a bit early for you to worry about them. Why not come to Mass some Sunday and see how you feel, see if it fits? Every religion is a language, and they mean the most when they match our inner experience."
"Well. . ."
"Don't expect to have a repeat of what happened today." He grinned. "You know, the first time I had acupuncture, I felt as if I was riding on golden waves of light that rolled ever so slowly under and through my body. It was amazing. And the next time? Nothing. Nothing like that at all. I was so disappointed. I asked the acupuncturist what the difference was, and she said, 'Last week you were really blocked, and the energy was being released.'"
"Have I been blocked?" Asking the question made him feel both dizzy and clear at the same time—it was truly bizarre.
"Do you know the Bible story of Jacob and the ladder to heaven?"
"Sure. That's the one where he dreams about angels going up and down and the next morning builds some kind of shrine and says that God was in that place and he didn't know it. I love that story."
"Maybe you're Jacob, and you've found your place."
I can give myself to this, Josh thought, and he wondered if he had somehow found something to write about, wherever that might lead.
Or had something found him?
Lev Raphael's essays and fiction have most recently been published or accepted by Earth and Altar, Faith Hope & Fiction, Agape Review, Braided Way and a dozen other journals.
By Stephen D. Edwards
Peter weeps as the rooster crows a second time, and the morning chill overtakes him with a fire reduced to embers. The high priest leaves the courtyard of his home after delivering his command to take Jesus to Pontius Pilate, saying that He claimed to be the Son of God.
This must be the end of my days as a fisher of men, Peter thinks, because the Master is now a convict, and I’ve denied Him, as He said I would.
Peter leaves the courtyard heading to the upper room, as he considers last night’s events. Jesus washed everyone’s feet, which is so odd, because we should have washed His. Yet, now I can see how I should be last in order to be great in God’s kingdom.
New leaves on the fig tree just outside the gate remind Peter that the Master had said, “If you have faith with no doubt, you will not only wither the fig tree, but tell that mountain to fall into the sea, and it will happen.” With renewed faith, Peter prays, God, show me the ways that I may serve others in acts of washing feet for Your sake. Help me in my decisions from this day forward, and help my faith to never falter again.
Walking along the street toward the Sheep Gate, as the skies begin to darken from the hidden sun, Jesus falls three times while carrying the cross, unable to carry it further. A centurion orders Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross ahead of Jesus. Simon remembers that Jesus had said that if someone demands that he go a mile, he should go two. Pleased to obey Jesus, he lifts the cross to his shoulder, holding it securely with his arm, and he walks, willing to go any distance.
Peter sees Jesus nearing the top of Golgotha, tattered with blood oozing from His many wounds, which reminds Peter of the Scripture he learned as a child: “By His wounds we are healed.”
As Jesus cries out from the pain of the spikes ramming through his wrists and feet, John remembers a line from the psalmist: “They have pierced My hands and feet.”
The sight of that violence turns John away. He comforts himself with the memory that tomorrow is the Sabbath of the Passover, which celebrates the covering of the lamb’s blood on the lintels and doorposts, which protected the Israelites as the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt.
This reminds John of Jesus’ teaching about the grape vine, its branches, and its vinedresser. I know He wanted me to bear fruit as His branch, but He also said to live in Him and that He would live in me. How can I, now that the Vine has been cut down? Turning back to the cross, he continues: Jesus, how will You be glorified in this? Yet even so, I will honor our time together by striving to bear fruit.
When he turns away again, he sees Jesus’ mother Mary standing close by, streams of tears flooding her cheeks and chin. He walks to her to embrace her, as he hopes to comfort her in her weeping, remembering Jesus’ example of service to others. She remains silent as her arms surround him.
With the scribes and Pharisees mocking Jesus on the cross and the soldiers casting lots for his clothes, Jesus says, “Forgive them, Father. They don’t know the things they do.”
Storm clouds fill the daylight sky with rain threatening to soak the streets; the air becomes heavy. In the upper room, the walls slightly crack after an earthquake. The disciples’ eyelids droop as though weighted with lead; they fall asleep as they did when Jesus prayed the night before.
Mary Magdalene enters the sleepy room announcing that she needs help burying Jesus. Peter wakes up trying to shake off his sorrow and says, “I’ll go with you.”
None of the disciples leave the upper room until after the Sabbath, not even to buy food or go to the Temple. At dawn on the Third Day, Mary Magdalene and the other women return to the tomb to apply the spices to the body of Jesus. They become distressed because they find that Jesus is not there, even though the tomb had been well-sealed two days before.
Mary returns to the upper room out of breath, saying, “Our Rabboni has been taken away. We don’t know where they have put Him.”
Peter and John look at each other, stunned. Peter puts his shoes and garment on. John follows Peter out the door, as Mary moves out of their way with a gasp. Their walk to the tomb turns into a run and a race that John wins, but he stands outside of the tomb in wonder, looking in from the outside.
Peter arrives and doesn’t stop until he is inside the tomb, where he finds the burial cloths cast aside on Jesus’ ledge, but his eyes widen when he sees the face cloth folded, and he allows himself a titter of surprise.
John finally follows Peter into the tomb to see the cloth and asks, “Did you fold the cloth?”
“No, John! Jesus did, and you know that means He isn’t done with us yet! He truly has made me a fisher of men!”
John looks at the sunlight entering the tomb, saying, “It is confirmed by death’s defeat: eternal life belongs to all who believe in Christ. Because He lives, we too will live.”
Stephen D. Edwards is a regular contributor to AllAboutChrist.net and the author of The Branch and the Vine, a memoir of long-term depression and hope. He also writes novels and short stories with Christian themes. Edwards’ most recent work has been published in Agape Review, Faith on Every Corner, Calla Press and OpenDoor Poetry.
By Nicholas Kotar
It took Voran a maddening hour to get through the city's reaches and out the gates. Another half hour away from the paths as he tried to get his bearings in the forests beyond the city. He was intent on his path like a pointer on the scent. But when the howling started, his blood turned to ice in his veins.
He had heard wolves before. This was no mere wolf. The sound was deeper and darker, like the buzz of a hornet compared to a fly. He tried to recall the details of the many stories of the white stag. Was there a legendary predator to accompany the legendary quarry? Not that he could remember.
A blur of white raced before his eyes, so close he could spit at it. In an instant, it was gone.
The sun showered the foliage with dappled light. Something that was not the sun – a strange golden mist-light – flickered through the trunks, as though the stag had left a trail of light behind it. The mist beckoned him deeper into the forest.
Voran plunged headlong into the deepwood. The strange light continued before him for a mile or so, then blinked out. Voran looked around and realized he had never been in this place before. He stood on the edge of a clearing awash in the morning sun, so bright compared to the gloom of the woods that he could see nothing in it but white light. He stepped forward.
The light overwhelmed him, forcing him to crouch over and shield his eyes. Fuzzy at first, then resolving as Voran's eyes grew accustomed to the light, the white stag towered in the middle of the clearing, almost man-high at the shoulder. Its antlers gleamed gold, so bright that they competed with the sun.
Voran froze in place and adopted the deep, silent breathing pattern that an old woodsman taught him in childhood. Inch by inch, he reached for his bow. His quiver hung at his side in the Karilan manner, so taking the arrow would be the work of half a second, but extricating the bow strapped to his back was another matter. A single bead of sweat dropped from his forehead and slid down the side of his nose, tickling him.
The deer turned its head to Voran, showing no inclination to flee. As though Voran were nothing more than a fly, it flicked both ears and continued to graze.
The howl repeated, just to Voran's right. Out of the trees crept a black wolf the size of a bear, its fur glistening in the light of the antlers. It paid no heed to Voran, leading with bristling head toward the grazing deer. It lunged, blurring in Voran's vision like a war-spear, but the stag leaped over it and merely moved farther off to continue grazing. The wolf howled again and lunged again. Back and forth they danced, but the stag knew the steps of this death-dance better than the wolf. His nonchalance seemed to infuriate the hunter.
The wolf charged so fast that Voran missed its attack. The deer flew higher than Voran thought possible, and its golden antlers slammed the wolf's flank like a barbed mace. The wolf screamed. The sound ripped through Voran, an almost physical pain.
The stag trotted to the other end of the clearing. Looking back once more, it waited. Gooseflesh tickled Voran's neck. The stag called to him, teasing him to continue the hunt. Voran ran, and the deer launched off its back legs and flew into the waiting embrace of the trees.
Voran stopped. His body strained forward, intent on the hunt, but his heart pulled back. The wolf. He could not leave a suffering creature to die, even if it was the size of a bear, even if it would probably try to kill him if he approached. With a groan for his lost quarry, Voran turned back.
The wolf dragged itself forward with its forepaws. Each black claw was the size of a dagger. As Voran approached, its ears went flat against its head, and it growled deep in its throat. Voran's hands shook. Gritting his teeth, he balled his hands into fists and willed himself to look the wolf in the eye. Its ears went up like an inquisitive dog's. It whined.
In the eyes of the wolf, Voran saw recognition. This was a reasoning creature, not a wild animal.
"I can help you," he found himself saying to the wolf as to a human being. "If you let me."
The wolf stared at him, then nodded twice.
Voran pulled a homemade salve – one of Lebía's own making – from a pouch on his quiver. Tearing a strip from his linen shirt, he soaked it with the oils and cleaned the wound of tiny fragments of bone. The wolf tensed in pain, then exhaled and relaxed. Its eyes drooped as the pungent odor suffused the air, mingling with pine-scent. Soon the wolf was snoring.
As Voran watched the sleeping wolf, something stirred in his chest – a sense of familiarity and comfort he had only felt on rainy evenings by the hearth. For a brief moment, the wolf was a brother, closer even than any human. Perhaps it was better that he had given up the chance to hunt the stag. This stillness was enough.
A rustle of leaves distracted Voran. He turned around to see the white stag returning into the clearing with head bowed. Voran could not believe his good fortune. He would be the successful hunter. His family's dishonored name would be raised up again on Vasyllia's lips. Trembling, he reached for his bow.
The stag stopped for a moment, as if considering. More boldly, he walked to Voran. Voran's heart raced at how easy this kill would be, but the excitement died when the stag didn't stop. He stared right at Voran as he strode. Voran pulled out an arrow and nocked it. The stag walked closer.
No. He couldn't do it. This beast was too noble, his eyes too knowing. Killing him would be like killing a man in cold blood.
The stag stopped close enough that Voran could touch him. To Voran's shock, he bowed his two forelegs and dipped his antlered crown to the earth, a king of beasts making obeisance to a youth of a mere twenty-four summers. Gathering courage, Voran approached the stag. His hands shook as he reached out to touch the antlers.
Something shook the branches in the trees ahead. Voran looked up, shoulders tensed. Something, some sort of huge bird, much bigger than a mountain eagle, perched in the crown of an orange-leaved aspen. No, not a bird, something else. Then Voran understood, and terror and excitement fought inside him, leaving him open-mouthed and rooted to the ground. The creature had a woman's face and torso, seamlessly blending with the wings and eagle body. Her head was adorned in golden-brown curls, and each feather shone like a living gem. A Sirin.
She opened her mouth and sang. It was his song, but he had never heard it like this.
Voran no longer felt his body. It soared above the clouds; it plumbed the depths of the sea; it hovered on the wings of a kestrel. The song pinioned him like a spear to the earth, but raised him on a spring breeze above the world's confusion. He was once again in the arms of his mother as she nursed him, her breath a soft tickle. He was inside the sun, and its music weaved him into existence. The earth shuddered, and he knew that he could turn it inside out.
The song of the Sirin stopped, and life lost all meaning. It was all grey, ugly, useless without her song.
When he came back to himself, the stag, the wolf, the Sirin were all gone, though her song lingered on the air. It seemed he would never rest, never sleep until he found her again.
Nicholas Kotar is an epic fantasy author and an Orthodox deacon. You can learn more about his writing, teaching and other work on his website.
The above excerpt comes from The Song of the Sirin (Raven Son: Book One), which is available for free as an ebook, as well as in audio and print formats (not free). The excerpt was published with permission from the author, who holds the copyright.
Fiction by Michael Dean Clark
A pastor with a heroin addiction fights for his life to deliver the eulogy of a young man he could not save.
Scott watches his hands. He should focus on the tiny butane torch or superheated silver spoon that had most likely been some grandmother’s wedding gift. But weddings are beginnings and today is just an end.
If not the spoon with its neglect-browned scalloped edges, he should watch its partially immersed face that has become, for yet another moment, his reason for existence. Just enough to push the thoughts away, submerge the fact that he has nothing of worth to say about Jesse, a sweet, earnest, awkward kid who loved everyone else but couldn’t love himself. Depression built a wall no kind words could breach and a cage even medication couldn’t unlock. But Scott won’t think about this yet, even though the funeral he’s in charge of performing is just a couple hours away. All his compulsions allow him to see are his hands through the peripheral phantom of curling smoke.
Tracing the length of his left hand with his eyes, he remembers to avoid burning himself again, the months-old, comet-tailed red scar on his inner thigh blinking memory spasms. The nails on fingers wrapped around the handle of the spoon, trimmed clean to exactly the same length fold smoothly into his skin, not a hangnail or rough spot. Small patches of blond hair on each knuckle hide deepening grooves. He knows without looking his palms are still young, elastic despite it all. They reject wear, pushing it outward to the publicly accessible real estate of the backs of his hands. This is what people see, their eyes finding still-emerging craters and ripples no amount of moisturizer prevents.
By the wrist, he is lost and his gaze travels up his forearm. A year ago, it was thicker. Now, it’s as if the water’s been sucked away, leaving a thin sheet of skin over veins clinging weakly to a bone pedestal. The difference is so great people have asked about his diet. He says he takes high-caffeine Starbucks supplements. When a couple asked where they could get the pills, he’d been forced to warn them, straight-faced, about the dangers of addiction.
Scott ceases his anatomical musings with a glance at the polished teak box resting just beyond his hands on the equally teak desktop. Lid up, its base blends seamlessly with the surface while the contents pop like neon lights against the maroon velvet lining. An already-opened alcohol swab waits on its torn package and the air moves with Fiona Apple’s voice singing I only travel by foot and by foot it’s a slow climb, but I’m good at being uncomfortable so I can’t stop changing all the time.
From preparation to injection, moments are meaningless. Mere efficiency. Inhaling, he places the elements of his bastardized communion back in the box, snapping the lid shut. He looks away from his father’s initials carved on its face. Racing the weight of thickening limbs, he drops the swab into the trash and turns up the fan on the miniature desktop air freshener. Sinking into his chair’s cushions, his head lolls to the side. From a distance, he hears a noise.
The groaning goes on for hours or minutes or thirty seconds before Scott realizes he’s making it. He tries to clamp a hand over his sagging mouth but stops at the sight of its veins throbbing and pulsing. Tiny holes at the base of each follicle gape like emptied eye sockets. Turning it over, he watches blood pool in the hollow of his palm and can’t tell if it’s really there or not.
They would have driven the nails through his wrists, not his hands.
His weight shifts and the worn nickel cross in his pocket digs against his thigh while he watches images of his closest friends—usually in sunny places, always smiling—fade in and out on the screen of his laptop. Each image feels sinister in its insidiously genuine happiness.
How can anyone feel this good when people like Jesse can only suffer? People like him?
Scott held counseling sessions with the kid once a week for three months and tried to tell him they had these feelings in common, that he doubted and felt empty most of the time too. But every time he verged on showing Jesse the depth of his pain, the physical scars that might have lent more weight to his hope that they showed he still believed in healing he’d yet to feel, Scott couldn’t. The fear walled up in his throat like a dam and the words drowned behind it.
Maybe what they actually shared were the things neither could feel, like the comfort of the dishonest certainty from people around them. But those talks never carried any comfort for Jesse, not even in the most basic sense of reminding him that he wasn’t alone in his isolation. Maybe he could sense the things Scott could never say and their absence made it all feel like a lie.
The next picture on the screen is his ex-fiancé, Gina, and he lurches to snap the computer shut like closing a door in her face. It takes him three tries. The effort ends the precious few moments where his need to control every aspect of his universe had evaporated into a lethargic space where time expanded like a rubber band stretching out beyond the horizon. These moments were why he suffered the rest of it, or so he’d convinced himself, and when they ended it was like a thousand rubber bands snapping against his naked body.
Without trying, Scott begins cataloging the neatly arranged items around the square of the desktop he cleared for his box, fighting to still the sense of it all ending. Just beyond the computer on the right is a small printer, its tray propped on top of his cell phone, which is either blinking a missed call or signaling him in sentient machine code. His thoughts drift to the saved message from Jesse from the day before he killed himself and a shadow falls over the office. There was nothing of note in the message, just the kid saying hello. Maybe that should have been a warning, but Scott refuses to linger on the thought. To the immediate left of the printer and facing him is a suddenly terrifying stapler. He leans forward to hide it behind his office phone and can’t stop his momentum before banging his head against the corner of the desk. It won’t hurt until tomorrow.
His face against the cool dark wood, Scott is eye-level with a neatly-fanned pile of letters and a stack of papers. The top one reads “Local Boy Dies, Suicide Suspected” and he lets out a slow, gasping, eyes-closed sob. He can’t be a mourner. People need assurance the world isn’t too broken to continue caring. But faith is hard to hold onto when he pauses to find that he still believes he could have saved Jesse. Maybe if Scott had let the kid in, even just a little more, just enough to see how much darkness he was wrestling with. Isn’t that what he always preached faith is? Grasping for some light against the moments that feel most pitch black? The picture in those words only moves away, replaced with the look on Jesse’s mom’s face when she fell into his arms in the hospital hallway, pressing her face into Scott’s chest after they declared her only child brain dead.
“He wasn’t sad. He was happy.” The words were muffled and then she pulled back enough to look up at him through eyes ringed with black eyeliner gone starburst from her tears. “He was…happy, right?”
The desperation in her tone blanks the memory playing on the screen in Scott’s head and his stomach pitches into his throat as the ocean in his head drops from high to low tide, gagging him. He gulps and struggles to hold off the next heave by imagining the contents of his desk drawers.
The lower right-hand drawer’s contents are so lodged in his mind they appear in list form: open surf wax, bubble-gum scented; Quiksilver sandals, worn; one re-gifted bottle of chardonnay, untouched; three DVDs, Garden State, Heat, Riding Giants; 200-count coffee filters, unopened; one still-sealed bottle of caramel syrup. By the end of the inventory, Scott breathes evenly while slicks of sweat break like dank tropical storms against his skin.
Moving to the upper right-hand drawer, he inhales deeply and a rattling cough causes purple and orange flares to burst before his eyes. He yanks it open and rifles through the contents: printer paper, one ream of ivory; printer ink cartridges—black, cyan, magenta; four compact discs he refuses to replace with digital copies--Nothing is Sound, Core, The Black Album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star; three full-sized chocolate bars—two Hershey’s and one Ghirardelli’s mint; the church checkbook. Shame scalds him at the sight of the last check made out to “Cash.” The memo line reads “Ministry Donation.”
The center drawer is last, even though the paper bags he’s looking for are there. So is the worst piece of Jesse. But it’s the only piece that matters. Scott imagines the kid’s face, dead eyes moving from his fix kit to his face and live mouth asking Didn’t you love me enough to hold off for once? He has no answer and sifts through the rest: keys to church doors and his motorcycle, boxes of paper clips and staples, pink and yellow Post-it notes, miniature Hershey’s chocolate bars, cheap Bic pens, cheaper sharpened pencils, four thumb drives, and loose change totaling 74 cents in two quarters, two dimes, and four pennies. Sweeping it all aside sets him spinning and he barely gets one of the sacks to his mouth before everything comes up. He’s still lurching when the knock comes.
“Pastor Scott, are you ok?” The handle jiggles, but the brass deadbolt is shot.
“Fine,” he grunts, the slide in his head deepening. “I’m just—” he heaves, “—getting ready.”
“Yeah, ‘m sure.”
“Well, people are starting to get here.”
”Be out soon,” he says, a little louder than he wants.
After a few seconds, he drags himself to standing, fighting the warp and sway of the walls around him. It takes two tentative steps to circle the desk, five to cross the room, and two more to get far enough inside his closet bathroom to shut the door. Each step is agony and he strips off his white t-shirt as he goes, catching a breeze but no relief from the rotating fan in the corner. The rattle of its turning taps a Morse code that carries a meaning he can’t make out. Closing the door, Scott drops the lunch-sized puke sack onto the white tile floor and kneels in front of the toilet.
Oh God, I tried. I know this isn’t my thorn, but if it isn’t, what is it?
What if you were Jesse’s thorn, a voice that sounds like his own seems to answer aloud.
Scott heaves again. When he’s done, he wipes his face with the extra-soft toilet paper. The plushness of it is terrifying. He is suddenly convinced the 762 squares left on the extra thick roll will smother him right there in the bathroom. He drops it like a snake and trembles, his hands opening and closing in an incomprehensible sign language, and refuses to touch the paper towels coiled on top of the toilet’s tank.
Instead, he pulls himself up on the white pedestal sink to rinse off his face. It rocks slightly under his weight and Scott looks at his reflection. Generally, he hates thinking about himself for more than thirty seconds at a time, but he can stare into a mirror for hours, especially this one with its brushed silver frame hung the length of its rectangle to accommodate his 6’5” frame. The image is exactly what he expects: the sloppy heap of imminent collapse in all forms.
No one sees it yet.
At 35, he still looks healthy. He’s pretty lean, save the small boiler and handles pressing into the waistband of his shorts. His face is clear and a mild tan says he spends a good amount of time in the San Diego sun. Even his hair seems healthy, a full head cropped with clippers and shaped at the edges.
They don’t look close enough. At the gums pulling away from the tops of my teeth. The gray stealing the blue in my eyes. The lumped ridge of my nose. How my smile lifts more on the left than the right.
He spins the high school class ring around his right middle finger and scratches at the lines of his tattoos—a Celtic cross, the full text of Romans 3:23, and a pin-up Bette Page with U.S.M.C. under it—each green with age on his left arm. The angry purple slash of a scar at his collarbone from the stray mortar pulses with the pounding heartbeat he’s only just noticed.
He should shower but has no time. Instead, he splashes water on his face and chest before applying every toiletry he has; his electric toothbrush and whitening toothpaste give way to the burn of Listerine for germs and then the sting of Scope for breath. He shaved earlier, the fear his razor would try to slash his neck if he waited seeming less crazy now. He puts alcohol on the silver hoop in the cartilage of his left ear, smears deodorant under each arm, and slaps on Old Spice hard enough to feel it through the deadened nerves of his face. The scent carries his father into the room, but Scott forces him out just as quickly. He already disapproves of himself enough.
When he’s done, he feels good enough to leave, and it’s only after he’s opened the door that he notices he hadn't locked it. Fear slithers up the back of his neck and he stumbles back into the office, grabbing the side of the four-shelf, mission-style teak bookshelf on the wall next to the bathroom. Leaning with all his weight, he’s glad he used all six anchors to attach it to the wall. The spinning speeds up and he pants for more air than the rattling fan can produce. So, he reads his shelves, moving dutifully from left to right, up to down like any other book he studies.
The top is taken up with, but not full of, six Bibles: the King James Version, the New International Version, the Living Bible, The Message (Old and New Testaments), a Greek New Testament, and a Hebrew Old Testament. It occurs to him for the first time that all his Bibles are wrapped in the same dead brown leather. Shelf two is for non-fiction, alternative faiths, and commentary, from left to right: the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad-Gita, Wiccan Magic, the Koran, the Catholic Study Bible (apocryphal texts included), The Life of Christ in Stereo, Tyndale’s Omnibus Bible Commentary, The God Delusion, the Satanic Bible, The Art of War, The War of Art, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Man’s Search for Meaning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Your Best Life Now, The Anarchist’s Cookbook, St. Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life, Velvet Elvis, Mere Christianity, Night, Lions and Lambs, Blue Like Jazz, a bound set of Sister Theresa’s letters on doubt, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the Chuck Klosterman Box Set (Fargo, Rock City/Sex, Drugs, & Coco Puffs/Dying to Live/IV), and six copies of 40 Days of Purpose. Shelf three holds eight novels: A Son Comes Home, Big Sur, The Bridge of San Luis Ray, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, The Pelican Brief, and Wonderboys. Shelf four houses three editions of World Magazine, six editions of Time, three editions of Mother Jones, and six editions of Christianity Today. It also holds several notebooks of Scott’s own writing: two detailed accounts of his sins, seven sets of notes from his personal studies, three separate novels in progress, one complete screenplay, four collections of quotes he finds meaningful, and ten of the most horrific moments of being a pastor. Jesse would someday be eleven when Scott can make himself write it down.
By the bottom of the case, Scott is calm again, although two or three of the books he expected to find aren’t there and he assumes his secretary has stolen them. Of course, she didn’t. But still. He looks out a window at the midday sun and wishes for sunset instead. The sofa below it is covered by the blanket he slept under the night before and his clothes for the service—dark brown slacks, white dress shirt, white undershirt, brown and gold tie—rest over its back. He walks over, chemical detachment evaporating, and glances sadly at the coffee pot on the knee-level teak coffee table. Its orange power light glows and the full pot steams. Dropping a Hershey’s Kiss into the mug, Scott pours coffee over it and then, without stirring, takes a drink and immediately burns his tongue. The cactus prickle pain deepens his sadness.
Setting the cup down to cool, he drops his shorts and slides on the slacks, their cotton scratching like wire brush. He glances longingly at the board shorts next to his green and white surfboard he wishes he was paddling out on and then pulls on an equally scratchy undershirt. His eyes stray along the far wall as he finishes dressing, stopping briefly on each object: signed pictures of him with North County celebrities Eddie Vedder, Tony Hawk, Jon Foreman; medium-sized mini-fridge with twelve-inch Gumby and Pokey figures on top; Powell & Peralta hat on the floor next to it; 1982 Chargers calendar on the wall; a Zimbabwean walking stick from a mission trip in the far corner. Each item holds a comfort he’s too tired to feel.
Through the solid oak door, Scott hears the movement of people filing past toward the sanctuary. He imagines them, awkward in steps and words because they must force away silence. The sanctuary was already set when he arrived, Jesse’s body boxed in dark-stained maple on the stage to the right of the pulpit. No flowers, though. Not the kid’s style. Instead, dozens of supermarket candy bouquets with Snickers bars and boxes of Milk Duds on sticks in place of sunflowers or roses. That way everyone leaves with something sweet, Jesse’s mother said through tears as they planned the service. Sliding bare feet into his dress sandals, Scott moves back through the room, weaving in the space between two visitor chairs. The corner of the desk catches his thigh and he almost goes down, managing, barely, to stay on his feet and limp back around to his chair. An immediate knot forms in the meat of his thigh.
Seated, he finds the mechanics of reopening his laptop ungainly. His fingers move independent of intention, at odds with each other like unclasping a bra for the first time. Finally, with a permanent crunch, he manages to lift the screen. Gina’s face reappears while the internal components power back up and then a picture of his face grins out from under a jumble of desktop icons he keeps telling himself to organize. He can’t remember feeling as genuine as that smile seems. He hits print. As soon as the printer wheels squeakily eject three sparse pages outlining a life, Scott shuts the computer down completely. It complies, but takes its time doing so. Scott swears he hears it mutter something vaguely threatening just before the blue power light is extinguished.
The throbbing radiating from deep in his face refuses to be ignored any longer as he snatches up the notes, like his sinuses have crystallized and are shattering into razor shards behind his eyes. Noting the bottle of pain killer next to his forgotten coffee, he groans out of his chair and tucks his notes into a pocket as he walks to the table. They’re just points to riff on and Bible verses long memorized. He eats three aspirin dry, the metallic tang of the pills matching the flavor in his mouth before turning to paste in the back of his throat. Scott swallows hard and then collects the rest of what he needs for the service.
It’s a fairly standard memorial. Some of Jesse’s favorite music will accompany a slideshow on the screen behind the choir loft. People will be moved at the sight of him at the beach or playing soccer or leading the junior high group on his guitar. Scott watched the show the night before, imagining a bullet hole marring the kid’s face in each. He hopes people will latch onto the significance of the opening scripture—John 17:13–19—because a prayer for protection against what the world does to people seems like something they all need. After a short time for sharing memories, Jesse’s parents will read a statement, and then the viewing will start. Scott hopes the make-up artist did a good job. Then, they’ll sing “It Will Be Worth It All That Day,” he’ll give a fifteen-minute sermon, and Jesse’s best friend Kate will close in prayer. Even on paper, Scott isn’t sure he’ll make it through the service. A second knock scuttles those thoughts.
“It’s time Pastor.” Scott is struck once again by how polite his congregation is; how they only get him when he’s really needed.
“Be there in one minute,” he says, his voice so hollow it cracks.
“Alright, I’ll start the PowerPoint.”
Footsteps move away and he slides the desk drawer open, taking out all he really has left of Jesse and sliding it into his left pocket. He wants its weight against his leg, pictures the five bullets he’d loaded into it the night before and the one chamber left empty. He puts a picture into his shirt pocket and sweeps up the newspaper article as well. He plans to use the headline as part of his sermon, but may change his mind. For a second, he stops and stretches his neck, rolling his head around on his shoulders and opening his mouth wide to loosen his clenched jaw. His cheeks are raw and his teeth hurt from grinding.
As he does, Scott hears music still coming from the speaker on the top of his bookshelf. Picking up the teak box from the desk with his free hand, he walks over slowly, noting the song, “Fragile” by Sting, is the last on the “Jesse’s Day” playlist he made yesterday. The realization does nothing for him. He places the box in front of the speaker and turns off the music on his phone. The sting of twin disappointments—at the drugs’ ineffectiveness and in himself—mingle in his stomach like food poisoning.
For a second he picks at his nails and rubs his head, the sensation of spiders crawling just beneath his scalp. He’s still sweating, but now it makes him shiver. Absence always comes too soon, always before he’s braced himself for it. Grabbing the aluminum water bottle that keeps his mouth from cottoning up, Scott goes to the door, the tiny silver cross that belonged to his father tinkling against the gun as they bang against his thigh in the same pocket. Pausing at the lock on his office door for a second, he imagines leaving, walking out the side door of the church just across from his office, firing up his bike, and never returning. But there is no freedom in that dream and it dies instantly. He shakes his head, unlocks the door, and walks into the hall, praying for something more than he has to offer.
Entering the sanctuary at just the moment the first slide show ends, Scott walks directly to the pulpit, takes the gun from his pocket but not his notes, and plants his feet underneath himself. He hears a gasp from the pews, but presses on, setting the nickel-plated revolver on the top of the podium so that it is visible to everyone in the room. Everything he had planned drains from his mind, like a plug at the base of his skull has been pulled. For a moment, he waits, terrified there will be nothing left. And then it stops, every thought gone but one. Scott inhales deeply and then leans into the microphone in front of him.
“When he was still alive, I believed that with God’s help I could save Jesse. The fact that we are here today proves how much of a lie I was telling myself.” He picks up the gun and holds it in the air above his head. “His death is no lesson, no parable. But I have learned something from it.” He cocks the gun and watches eyes go wide across the room. “Death is like this gun. It has one purpose. And it’s waiting on us. Where then will we find grace in the shadow of that reality?”
Lowering the gun slowly, Scott sets it back down and the room shudders with a collective convulsion of relief. He looks out on the room, considering his next words. None of this is planned.
“Maybe Jesse knew better than the rest of us. Maybe he was begging us to be honest…with ourselves and each other. Or maybe this was as senseless as it feels. Faith isn’t a salve designed to make us feel better. It’s the wound itself, healing when we believe the bleeding will never stop.”
Scanning the faces looking back at him, Scott sees only confusion in their eyes. Picking up the gun again, he flips the revolver to the left and then upright and the bullets tumble from their chambers, clattering one by one against the wooden stage.
“But for the wounds of love to begin that healing, we have to be honest, with ourselves, with each other, and with God. Only then will we see where the bleeding is coming from.”
Michael Dean Clark is an author of fiction and non-fiction whose work has appeared most recently in Drunk Monkeys, Jabberwock Review, Punctuate and The Other Journal, among others. Editor of the book Black Was Not a Label (Pronto) and co-editor of Bloomsbury Academic Collection's Creative Writing in the Digital Age (2015), Creative Writing Innovations (2017) and Imaginative Teaching (2021), he lives and works in the Los Angeles, California, area.
The author wrote the following about this story on his Twitter account @MDeanClark (15 February 2021):
I wrote and workshopped the first version of this 11 years ago and have seen it rejected more than 30 times over the years. It gets at something I think about a lot. The dishonesty some call hope, and the real thing in the midst of real pain.
It also sits with the loneliness pastors often feel (something I watched growing up in the home of one and the presence of many others). When the needs of people are your full-time job, your own needs can get lost or even spiritualized away as burdens one bears in silence.
I guess this also came out of my own wrestling with a sense of loneliness, a disconnect in rooms where I should have felt connection. Even still, there was hope.
I am grateful, then, that the folks at @foreshadow_mag gave this story a home after such a long journey. I hope it finds you well, but if not, please know you're not alone.