The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
15.2 (Spring 2015)
New Short Story
J. S. Moseby
I apologize to readers if my experimental layout proves more distracted than evocative. The mad ambition to write about the next life has obsessed me for years now, and I find myself chafing at conventions. The work below, of course, is only a first chapter. Who knows if more may follow?
It must have rained and rained, as when it had rained the Flood. Now it rained no more. The last raindrop forever more might already have fallen. Now the sun gilded the little city, but mostly it silvered the flooded parks and the slickened asphalt. Mostly it transformed itself into water.
The hissing, fizzing, sparkling streets he drove were less a city’s, or even a little city’s than the citified sprawl of small town wedded to small town. Multi-storied city structures were hard to find in the washed and rinsed sky. Treelines were hard to escape. * Chain-link fences criss-crossed in wet holiday wrapping the half-submerged lots of giant scrapers and scoopers, as bright yellow and inactive as Tonka toys beneath a Christmas tree. Low-cut strip-malls bathed in a daze. Words like Dollar and Prime and Easy and New&Used and Grill and Waffle and FashionsandCuts and Save and AsYouWait… they looked clean and playful, like random blocks from a child’s game beckoning a small hand to build a sentence. The soil of earlier use had been washed away.
I know there were others out and about, because I would have thought it over if the streets had been empty. And I never had a thought of any emptiness. But the other that must have been somewhere never converged upon a thought, as I drove. I did not think them many or few on the roads, or busy at their shopping or still hiding in brick-veneer single-family starter-homes. * The sun and the silver haze, lacing either the other incessantly upward and downward, misting wet light and fuming hot tinsel, filtered what I saw and filtered what I thought. I did not see what didn’t matter; or the things I saw that didn’t matter now mattered as a child’s toy does to a child, but not as purchase does to profit or gash and grit to job. * The others fluttered somewhere behind the filter, in some state of purgation or dissolution. I never had a care for them, as I drove.
He left one division with an Indian name and entered another, and another. The passages were seamless. There was no feathered shaman in the misty silver, no carved totem, no stacked-stone portal. Only ripples of words like Chattahoochie Heights and Shenawa Mall and Oostanaula Lumber beaming from the tumble of blocks in search of a sentence…of toys in search of a child. * And the treelines, now thicker, now thinner, sketched around the words like penciled doodles, never part of any likely sentence but never fully erased from the paper. In them, he thought, must be the meanings of the Indian words that everyone had used to string townlet into townlet, and that nobody understood. * He knew now what they meant, almost. The rain must have washed the meaning clear. The morning must have caught gilt in the shadows at a perfect angle, as the solstice sun would rise between two secret, sacred rocks a thousand years ago.
He had thought that he was driving to where the meaning’s last letters would rise like a sun—or perhaps he was reading a sentence as he drove. And none of the sentence would fit until he arrived. And then all would make sense.
At the College, I knew just what to say. The words spoke through me, used my tongue. I walked into the room where tiny little beings had slandered many before me, had slandered me, and were now slandering another. They were truly smaller now, or they shrank as I spoke. , perhaps. I told them they were fired, dismissed, permanently relieved. I told their opening mouths not to speak ever again in this place. I told them to go seek a place where they might speak again; that I doubted they would ever find such a place, and that their fate might be to look forever; that I did not know those truths. * Then I entered the Office of the President. I told all within to leave at once, that the College was being closed for now, and perhaps forever; that such truths were not mine to know, but that they would never speak another word within the hearing of these gates. I told their overworked words to freeze within their outstretched throats. I told them—the President, the Vice-President, the Provost, the Dean of Academic Affairs, the Dean of Students, the Deans of This and That—to go seek a heat that would make those words thaw all the way to the root—that would turn them to vapor and draw blooms from ice; that I did not think such a heat existed; that were I their judge, I should freeze them to the center of the earth and freeze their tears until rock grew from their eyes; but that such powers were not mine, and the wisdom to use them not mine.
Then he drove home from work, from the College… a way he had driven for some few years so many, many years ago. Yet the age in his hands, where the wheel steered them with its own knowledge and without their effort, was the age of those few years many years ago. The midday of his youth. And the mind that looked from his eyes was a mind toughened and hardened by many years; but it saw young eyes in the rear-view mirror, dark-browed like a hero’s and thick-lashed like a girl’s. * Other cars were not in the mirror, or on the streets; or they were so only behind the filter, where they mobbed in some rush hour yet couldn’t block his way. It would have been morning, or noon, or maybe five o’clock. Groundwater danced with the sun in mid-air, and sunlight sifted and drifted everywhere. The others were caught in its swirls like sheep in a silver tornado.
And his car steered through them as a canoe slips down a creek, his hand soft on the rudder. It knew the where of home—one where of many in his graying mind, less known than remembered now, like those eyes his mind had borrowed: less remembered than recurrently dreamed. * His elbow against the window pane, he thought he remembered a crescent meadow here to the side, along the boulevard—a lowland park between townlets, good for no business because the levy would pump it soggy with overflow. Now it was a lake, a perfect mirror of the silver sun hiding everywhere over the treetops: a salver invaluable, a gate to thin air. Such peace was beyond thought. * No, he had not returned many, many years back into the past—and no, his gray mind had not draped a youthful disguise over the present. He was in another place, a third place. He was in both times, and in all times between them. And outside them all, as well.
I wondered if I was happy as I drove beside all that water—or maybe why I was not happy, or why I felt beyond happiness now, and just where I had put it. And would I ever see it again? And would I ever look for it again? In the vibrations of the sky’s silver-blue gong, could I be bothered to care about such a paltry thing as happiness again?
The lake, the drive along the lake, the drive behind the sun hiding above the trees, the drive after closing the College and chasing the rats out of her old woodwork, the silvered lake and the hidden others and the times past and future that moved among the others… it was all the most beautiful thing in the world, except that it was another world. * But the beauty of it showed me things about beauty that I had never known, never even suspected. I had not known that ultimate beauty was so painful. I had not known that putting everything together hurt more than picking pieces apart into tinier pieces—that the Life would hurt more than living. Or maybe that an utterly other kind of hurt existed—a kind that was utterly beautiful. It was such a symphony, the Life: the waste and the carelessness, the cowardice and the flight, the weariness and despair and surrender… and the folly and arrogance, too, and the insane pride, and the lies stacked upon lies whose ladder was meant to surprise heaven’s walls, but whose rungs went straight to hell…. * But no, hell had no bars in this melody. It wasn’t hell that could give such pain. It was heaven. The proximity of heaven. The orchestration that harmonized our lives was all strings. The golden veils of daylight and the silver sheets of waterlight were all cello and viola and violin. We had all suffered so much. Happiness is an instant of blind paralysis. When you hear the symphony, you see the suffering.
Their house had ridden high among four dozen others safely raised on forested hills. Water only ever threatened the lowest few homes, caught in the run-off of higher hills to bases that formed lower hills, if only you could have made out higher and lower hills from afar (if only the forest, from afar, had let you see its trees).
His small family’s was not among the hilltop homes, but neither did it swim at their feet. It was intermediate, a balancing act. The second floor seemed a third floor from certain windows—because, to one at just those points, a third floor propped up the view. The bottom-most entry through the garage opened either into a first floor or a basement, as you wished; and the one room entered thereby offered a coy little staircase to more lived-in spaces, but could also be the quietest spot on earth to anyone who remained. Smothered on two sides by thick, rich earth, its southerly sides could window crowding treetops or a roof or two at favorable moments, if the low magnolia boughs were trimmed and the sun high enough not to plaster the panes in gold. Yet even at those moments, as at all others, it had something of the crypt. Partially smothered in the hill’s warm, curled elbow, it overlooked a road seldom used—and those who used it left mostly buried in the hillside every sound of tires and engines scuffling to climb. * Sometimes, when the rain had fallen heavily, a little pump churned and churned in a clay pit beyond the stairwell—a skeletal space just behind a flimsy door. The churning switched on and off automatically, as the water level raised or lowered a float. The early sun could be firing the magnolia boughs and fingering the curtains… and suddenly the little motor would start to whirr; for water might take days to drain through the thick clay of the hill. In this, too, was the peace of the crypt, as if a caretaker were to come dutifully, discreetly clipping at the weeds above the graves.
People who buy and sell houses the way speculators buy and sell livestock and wheat shares talk of Starter-homes—but this was no starter-home for us. We were targets for much talking out of, for much talking into. They wanted to put us into a starter-home—the realtors, our families. Not my family so much, which had mostly ceased talking to me… but interested parties: people whose footprints were all over our life’s boundaries. We were supposed to inhabit a rectangular box and then make a statement when my pay rose.
But we chose the house on the hill. I put everything I had into it, paid most of it down. We would get by with one car, and I would wear my shoes for five years. We would get old in that house. We would die asleep in it. * Upstairs, Sara would have the east room to the right of the landing, David would have the west room to the left. One of them would have the house when we died. The bushes would bear blueberries every August, and the pecan tree would rain pecans every September. * We would ride on that hillside as an ark rides on a wave. If our dove never returned with an olive branch in its beak, we would grow our own olives. Interested parties could grow uninterested. They could plant their busy footprints elsewhere. Hungry realtors could point their clients’ gazes farther up the hill. This was our finisher-home.
So we thought, before the College finished me.
At the base of the subdivision’s lowest hill—the whole colony’s geological basis—was a gate. Here the water had stopped as if denied admittance, though no gate that could even have kept out cars was ever closed. They must have driven a car, even though they had none now; or they must not have driven a car, for the country lane was submerged just beyond the gate.
They began the climb into the hills, on foot. His right hand held his wife’s, his left lifted Sara’s. Sometimes she swung from him. David went on ahead, pretending to blaze a trail. The way was familiar, of course: as well worn as a recurring dream. Yet now it had turned into a dream alive. For there was only the one same old road to follow as they scaled the initial slope, one tired avenue of entry; yet the houses all around them now breathed vapors of wilderness into the slanting, fanning sun of mid-morning. So did the lawns. So did the groomed, selected trees, as cowed and awkward now before the wild treeline at the gate as Jerseys before a herd of bison. * Something had run amuck—something besides the floodwater, safely pooled beyond the gate. People were gone. Signs of people… all gone. No light in any window—as there wouldn’t have been, with the sun so bright. But no face at the curtains, and no croaking from any dry hinge. No barking dog. No distant growl of engine. The very birds that trespassed from the forest into the manicured trees—the bluebirds that Sara thought had drawn their color from eating blueberries, and whose discreet comments subtly, remotely worked beneath the squawks of louder cousins—now left a flashy, boisterous silence. Silence bayed, and stillness thrashed. * As if the flood had brought a plague, all life lay silent. As if the rising silver mist and the spinning golden shafts had already carried paralysis through nook and cranny and keyhole, all lay still. The very leaves on the manicured maples and blades in the manicured grass, green as green was never seen before, seemed to hold their breath and freeze their growing.
David was triumphantly first to see the house, leading the way uphill and downhill along the entry avenue, then slightly up again. His mother called him out of the street, where water had pooled deeply before their driveway. They cut across the neighbor’s yard as an inexplicable, impossible cloud tarnished the morning’s burnish. David intrepidly searched the empty mailbox, leaning over the pool. * Meanwhile, his own first vision of the home restored to them, slender girlish fingers pressed in either of his palms, was of a high structure gray against a gray sky. Halfway up the towering magnolia, a gray veranda stared blankly through the boughs. The stair-like steps angling up to the front door perched on stilts, as if the whole structure were some fisherman’s hut along the Amazon. The highest windows were carried aloft in the mist, and could hardly have been attached below by any plausible architecture.
They began their long climb up the sloping driveway. Why had he never painted over the house’s gray?
One of my favorite verses ever written by the hand of man: Álainn an tosd do-ní an cor—“Beautiful the silence made by the crane.” It was probably sung or chanted for centuries in a land of water-birds and mist before someone wrote it down sitting on a monastery’s cold stone slab. Alene was her name, but neither she nor her great-grandparents would have known what it meant. My own people, the ones I no longer talk about, the ones I no longer speak to, the ones who no longer speak to me, the ones who had my life’s partner narrowed down to two or three finalists in a prep school, the ones who don’t want to see their own grandchildren, the ones who taught me so well how to be alone—they figured her name must have been borrowed from some Country Western singer: a confraternity of whose members they couldn’t have named a single one.. or so they would have pretended. And they, in their suffocating arrogance, knew no more about medieval monasteries than my in-laws. And to think that both sides, genetically speaking, came from the same land of water-birds and mist. Probably from opposing slopes of the same little green mountain. And they probably cold-shouldered each other at the mountaintop, too.
They called her the cowgirl, my people. The freckled cowgirl. That was when I was still around to hear what they called her. And, while they still had my ear, they told me that I was marrying her on the rebound after bad experiences with debutantes and Cotton Belt Queens. That I had made her my Other, my non-fake and non-flirt—my low bar, my easily impressed admirer, my solace that would never disappoint as long as I never sought deep comfort. Or that is what they would have said, what they meant to say, if they had learned my own grad-school eloquence. But they planted the seeds while they had my ear, and then they let my own never-ended suspicions water the weeds.
And I will always know that they were partly right. But they will never know that they were completely wrong. Because all love between all people is always blended with illusion. Drive out all illusion and you drive away love. There are only loves of benign or malignant illusion—no illusionless love. That was their option, their completely wrong option: no love but no illusion. Put your wedding band on power and status, say your vows to them, and you will always have influence and a bank account, even when the blonde slut mother of your children—or somebody’s children—flings ice cubes soaked in Jack Daniels at you because the Lexus is still in the shop. Those things happen… but diamonds are forever.
Was I so noble, though, to choose Alene? Was I making her happy, or instead throwing a torch over my shoulder into the ancestral palace? Was my self-sacrifice a self-indulgence? Could she ever have guessed what a cursed-and-damned outcast I am? Even the way I proposed… it would never have happened if I hadn’t received a tenure-track offer. If I hadn’t been able to her and say that I was leaving for good, going far away, and wanted her to come with me… and she left her friends and family and came with me, and she got pregnant, and I feuded with cheats and scoundrels, and I was unemployed and she pregnant again, and… and then the College, the job description just written for me, my long-awaited chance, my big break, the It of Its, our finisher-home, and bluebirds, and… and then another Judas kiss and another Sanhedrin. If the freckled cowgirl had married some good old down-home rancher fella, wouldn’t she have been happier? Did I have a right to make her ride my life’s whirlwind—did I really think I was doing her a favor? Was my arrogance really so great? Am I not, in the end, a carrier of the same genetic plague as the people I stopped talking to? Am I not what I most abhor? Is there a punishment bad enough for such hypocrisy—or is being myself the punishment? What did Alene do, then, to deserve the punishment of being chained to me? Why didn’t I stop to think about that? Did I just assume that someone of her background couldn’t help but be lifted up by someone of my background?
How did they take me over like that? Who am I, really? Do I call down vengeance on them because of my own guilt, since their evil abetted my fatal flaw? Was it their fault to be the medium where my contagion bred?
But isn’t self-reproach also self-indulgence, and maybe the worst kind of all? If I loved a freckled child, isn’t it because children are innocent? If I won’t speak to those who hate her, shouldn’t the enemies of innocence be ignored? And if I feuded with scoundrels because they were scoundrels, should I have bargained and compromised with them, instead? Cheating is wrong. Demanding sycophancy is wrong, and so is paying it out. I am no Christ—but there was one at the College who was all Judas, and several who were all Sanhedrin. That monument to eternal truth… * No, I was never one of them, nor they ever among mine. I am not what I most abhor. Say Alene didn’t deserve me because she didn’t deserve to suffer. Should I have passed her by, then? She followed me in an instant. Should I have commanded her like a little dog—Stay! Don’t follow!
Gray, gray light of my house. Gray shade of my hair. But grayest gray of my mind, my thoughts. My faith. My gray blood. My gray God, have mercy!
Somehow, by the time they had entered the one basement room through the garage, and found the coy little stairwell hiding behind the wall (whose landing guarded the little door to the discreet pump churning in a clay pit), and filed up the staircase (he leading the way, David no longer quite so intrepid), and exited into the main hall (but unobtrusively by the kitchen door)… somehow the gilded-and-silvered morning tarnished by a single stray cloud had turned dusk. In the kitchen—on the counter beside the sink, where lesser gray flowed from a window—he found realtors’ cards. Three, five… maybe eight. Put up for sale, bought, put up for sale again… he wondered, in the gray mind behind young black eyes, how many times their finisher-home had hit the auction block since his distant youth. Anchored firmly in the hillside clay, its discreetly buried pump keeping it ever afloat, how many sets of pairs of tracks—how many families unstarted, starting, breaking up—had his home housed in his absence? How many dreams had shattered or simply putrefied into clay, ignoring the wordless counsel of its lofty windows? For no life put together right would have chosen to leave here freely.
They marveled at the master bedroom, so clearly vacant even in the dusk. Pictures would not have formed images on the walls, but the uniform sheets of gray showed no square stain of any frame. Nothing had been nailed, hung, or carried in. A life-numbing odor of disinfectant embalmed the gloom. The carpets, soaked and sucked clean-dry, whispered in crisp strands beneath their footfalls. In the morning he would find plain tracks, if morning still followed night.
He gaped at the foyer with its unlit chandelier, a bristling mass in the high darkness—a mastodon’s tusks that might surprise one in a museum after the lights go out. The fused shadows of brass arms and chains matched the top landing of the staircase at his side. He stood and felt in memory, through his shoes, the clay pit at the bottom of the stairs—then followed, through his spine and arched neck, the ascent to the second story’s ceiling. It was a great gray ship, this house, a great gray tower: beautiful, suffering, and silent.
In the bare living room, David was being coaxed by his mother to remember stockings hanging before the brick fireplace… to recall a Christmas tree decked in colored lights twinkling before the broad front window. David stood, stared, and said nothing, a little pillar of ash in the dusk. * Sara could not have wandered off: Alene would not have allowed her to go free in a place so unrestored to familiarity, so haunted, so friendly to ghosts, so fertile in nightmares. Alene, the freckled cowgirl, had the rare power of perceiving ghosts. He finally discovered, after scanning the emptiness for thicker shadow and waiting in vain for his voice to work, that both of his females occupied one space, a little shadow threaded into a taller one: a mother and daughter ghost.
They all went to bed without any supper. Some spreads and blankets and boxes sat upstairs—some in the room to the right, some to the left. They made pallets on the floor; and for no apparent reason, he and his wife slept to the east, but the children shared a blanket in the western room. It didn’t last long. A storm came, and they went in to the children. It was a dry storm, without a drop of rain to patter on the shingles or to streak the windows; but it was a fearful storm, for the wind rocked the tall house to and fro, and lightning sent thunder to vibrate shingle and window as an earthquake sends and ocean wave to bathe a coastal mountain. * Alene folded a child in either arm as he stood and studied the sun-splinters out the westward window. Then only did he pause to think that the house had had no electricity since they entered it. The neighborhood everywhere was black and blacker, up and down. All the sparks had passed into the sky: none was left anywhere on earth. A starless sky, as blue as midday when the hot forks stabbed the earth… the stripes of a tiger that prowled, the fangs of a tiger that snarled roars. Appallingly, fearfully beautiful, this beast on the loose.
He hurried his wife and children into the other room. There, in the dark east, huddled all four beneath the blankets on the floor, they heard the thunder growing dim, and the lightning bolts became mere shooting stars. When we were alive, he thought, we never slept all four in one room. How could that have happened, he wondered? And a deep sleep fell upon them all.
J. S. Moseby has published fiction of a magic-realist twist with this journal for years. He has “almost fully” retired from academe now to a farm in North Georgia.