Here is the first chapter of my latest WIP.
Working Title: The Presumption of Darkness
Word Count: 2,400 (approx)
Reading time for average reader: 12 minutes
Before I even completed my walk to the podium I found you in the audience. You were seventh row back, 5 seats from the right. You recognized me as soon as I made eye contact with you. You managed to suppress the gasp. I could almost see it catch in your throat. Of course, you didn’t know I had changed my name, so I’m sure it was really a surprise. I was not surprised you were there. You always took the social aspect of academic theology just as seriously – if not more so – than all the papers, research, and teaching. Well, at least until our summer traveling around Latin America. Everything changed that Summer. But not so much that you would miss this.
I was a little surprised that my paper was accepted for a plenary session. I had been out of the game for a long time. But the dance came back quickly after I managed to drag my sorry corpse back to the US.
I started reading a felt a little twinge of guilt. You probably thought I was dead, I thought. Or maybe in some loony bin. You wouldn’t have been far off. It took me a week to find my way out of the jungle. Maybe more. I should have died. Then I spent the next seven years finding ways to keep myself drunk in half a dozen different countries. I would dry myself out now and then and make some vague attempt to get myself back to the US but then I’d remember what the three of us saw in the cave and, well, I would find a way to make enough dough to go back to my drinking.
I very consciously avoided looking at you as I read the rest of the paper. I let the dance take over. Once upon a time I engaged in academic theology as a search for truth, but truth seemed so elusive, so damn frustrating, that I let the joy of writing take over. My teachers would often tell me that I was more a poet than a theologian. Some meant this as a criticism, others as praise. Either way, it got me most of the way through graduate school. Well, that and my not-so-secret crush on you. Theology became just a very special sort of poetry to me… Until you and I found ourselves sucked into Eric’s orbit.
Still, it seems to move people. If you had asked me what my paper was about, I’m not sure I could have given you a straight answer. I think the title went something like To God and Back Again:Metaphors of Self-hood in Mystic Poetry I had to admit, my definition of Mystic Poetry was pretty broad. I encoded hints and secret messages designed to reach you – and only you. So, I had to do some rather artificial things in my selection of sources. Many of the messages came from mouths who were nothing like mine and land on ears who were nothing like yours, Precious. Still, I managed to make all the jumble dance. When I can feel the dancing under the surface of my text, I know I have a good paper. Even if, as in this case, I haven’t the foggiest idea what it all means. No one has ever called me out about this, but if they did, I’d probably mutter something about my paper being written in a prophetic mode or some such thing. There is some truth in this. I often feel like my writing is informed by voices and forces outside of myself.
Truth seems more like a person to me than a set of propositions. Truth reveals a bit of herself, but hides more. She gives and takes away.
I answered a few questions after I finish reading the paper. I turned my attention back to your seat and saw you were missing. I felt a twinge of guilt. I didn’t want to hurt you or ambush you, I thought, but what was I supposed to do? Send you an email telling you I was alive? Would you immediately block my account and tell your husband? I’ve gone through too much to get back to you to just let you wash your hands of me that easily.
I stepped down of the stage and exited the lecture hall and looked at my conference schedule and headed for the beak out session I had chosen to sit in on.
I spent most of the rest of the day sitting in on sessions about fairy tales. I was really surprised at how many sessions at a theology conference had some connection to fairy tales. Or, rather, I would have been before I found myself with you and Eric in that blasted cave. Now I know what so many of the fairy tales are really about. No amount of Freudian sexualization, Jungian archetypal or demythologizing will ever sanitize the reading of these little stories ever again. I can sense the darkness underneath them, the darkness that lives in the heart of this planet… maybe in the heart of the universe itself. And I can now sense people who have been close to that darkness.
You can sense the darkness, too, can’t you, Cassie? Are you an unheeded prophetess? Or have you stopped issuing warnings about what we found? Or did you never bother? Didn’t you feel like you owed the world? Or didn’t you feel like you at least owed poor Eric something? What did you tell people when they asked about him? Or me, for that matter?
That night, after the last of the sessions, I headed to the bar at my hotel. It wasn’t the closest one to the conference center, but it was close enough that it was packed with theology geeks. Back before my Latin America tour, it would have been a joy to be there, knowing I was never the weirdest person in the room. But I’ve seen too many things that these people have only speculated about to ever be at peace anymore. I find myself a secluded table and order a whiskey with a beer chaser. I gave the waitress a big tip and made it clear that I’m not driving and that I’ll get even looser with my money if she keeps the drinks coming.
I was barely done with my first order when I saw you typing away on your laptop with you back to me. I saw the familiar Gmail interface on your web browser and you were typing like mad. Somehow, and I knew you were typing an email to me. You found it in the program or on my website or something. I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I let me mind reach out to you, hoping I could read your thoughts. I can’t be sure if I succeeded, but I felt like I knew what you were typing – at least parts of it. And I tried to answer your questions as you typed them
Samuel, you bastard. I’ve missed you. Why didn’t you tell me you were alive? So many questions…
I’m sorry, Cassie. I missed you, too. More than you could know. I’m not sure I was alive. I spent so much time trying to blot out my consciousness… Maybe I did die and somehow came back to life.
What happened to you in that cave? Was it the same thing that happened to me? Is Eric really dead, or did he survive somehow, too?
We saw more truth than we knew how to deal with. Eric is dead. I hope for Christ’s sake that he is, anyway. I can’t see how anyone could survive what his body went through. I know his soul went through worse. I hope it’s at peace.
I don’t want to presume that the subtext of your paper was about me, Sam… But… I’ve missed you.
Presume? Why not? Your “presumption” would be entirely correct. Fucking hell, you are precious to me.
What about your wife?
She had every right to leave me when I ran off with you and Eric. But she didn’t. And somehow she had the faith to believe I wasn’t dead. I came back and tried to pick things up where they were… But as much as I love her, each day with her is a living death. Not even a fancy, “bells and whistles” sort of Messiah-complex death, just a dirty, gritty “I die daily” sort of death.
Your bio says you are still in Texas. Do you still hate it?
Yes, Cassie. Too many rich people with big cars and fancy churches.
Your paper is so ambiguous. Do you still have any faith left?
I suppose. I have enough faith for today. I’m not really sure what it is I have faith in anymore. God seems so near for a moment or two, and then my mind goes back to that cave. And you, Cassie? What do you trust in these days?
And then, quite suddenly, and quite… well, it was anything but a surprise… You hit delete instead of send. Did you get my responses? Did my thoughts reach you? I then proceeded to bury myself behind a book and consumed drinks as fast as the waitress could bring them.
That night, in my room, I dreamed of you. I love you, Cassie. I love you and yet, when I dream of you, I don’t dream of making love to you. That thing in the cave polluted everything good in me. My fantasies of you always turn twisted and dark – usually they involve me hunting you down, stalking you, capturing you and whisking you away to my lair, deep in the wooded mountains of North Carolina. There I do horrible things to you, torture you sadistically. You beg for mercy the first few days but after a while, you become as depraved as me, begging me to take you deeper into our little slice of hell.
I woke up and sensed someone in the room. I heard a hissing.
“Samuel,” it said. “What delightful dreams you have.” It had the shape of a man, but none of the details. It was just a blackness deeper than the blackness around it. I was tempted to be relieved that it didn’t have the shape of the beast that tore Eric literally to shreds as he screamed. But as I peered into the darkness I almost missed it’s more obviously hideous shape
“Why are you here? Leave me alone!”
“You don’t mean that, Sammy, my boy. You don’t mean that. What would your pal Eric say? Such an intoxicating fellow, wasn’t he?”
The creature was right. Eric’s twisted fantasies brought out a gravitas in you. You always seemed to think of theology as a lark you could give up any time. It’s not to say you weren’t talented and hardworking, but to you, the social aspect – the classes, the discussions, the conferences – they always seemed as important as the work. But when Eric was around, you couldn’t help but want to pierce the layers of reality.
“He got what he wanted,” said the creature. “He saw the truth. You conjured up something you couldn’t put down, but it was effective magic. For Eric, at least. Oh, the things he saw… You should be jealous.”
“I’m only jealous in that he is dead and I am alive,” I said, sweat pouring down my head.
“Let your mind drift back,” it said
I started to dream again – not the usual surreal, twisted fantasies I usually dream, but an almost photo realistic compression of that last trip we took together. We were supposed to be researching various ways Latin American churches had applied liberation theology to various political and social struggles people were facing. Mostly, we needed an excuse to wander around an alien landscape and get drunk.
I cried in my beer the first night when you and Eric went off by yourselves to make love. I thought about going home that night, but when he invited me to join you the next night… Well, I felt like I was in heaven. We would spend hours playing the game of you – giving you climax after climax as we tried to push ourselves closer and closer to our own edges without going over – trying to one up each other over how long we could go before passing the point of no return.
I think ours was the most debauched church trip in all of history.
After a week, we gave up all pretense of our agenda and just wandered from city to city, country to country, finding new places to get drunk and screw. Sometimes we’d glom on to whatever expat community we’d find. It seemed like every city no matter how small had some expats. They loved to new energy we’d bring to their rather incestuous community. We’d get them to buy us drinks and give us tips on things to see and places to go.
One of them, I would kill him on the spot if I could, suggested a walking tour into the rain forest. He knew just the guide. It would only be a couple of hours – nothing to strenuous the first time. The rain forest can be very dangerous to those who are unfamiliar with it.
It all was going so well. It was so beautiful. Until, somehow, we got separated from our guide. Then a massive rain storm opened up. The cave looked somewhat dry. And that’s where we saw it. Immediately, I knew we were int he presence of something dark and terrible. This was no mere animal. It’s eyes were like space itself.
You ran as soon as the thing dug into Eric. I have no idea why, but I hesitated and watched it dissect him. And then…
It took me a week to find my way out of the jungle. I have no idea how I survived.
Part of me wanted to return home to the states, to Texas. But each night I would dream of that thing in the cave and dream about its eyes… Eyes as vast and dark as space… And all I could do was drink.
Seven years I wandered from place to place running from my dreams. Long enough to be legally dead, I would think. I was spiritually dead, that’s for sure.
I love you, Cassie.