Saturday, May 22, 2010

While the World Slept

You know how you sometimes remember something out of the blue? You hadn’t thought about it for years. Then, all of a sudden, it comes to you. It was hibernating in your memory, waiting to awaken at the slightest touch.

Aaron hadn’t thought about her since his was a boy. But he’d been thinking about her lately. He didn’t remember when he started to remember her. Or why.

She was just some girl he knew in second grade. Decades ago. He didn’t recall her name. He hadn’t seen her since second grade.

What made her memorable? She was poor. That’s all he remembered about her.

He’d attended a suburban grade school where most of the students were middle class. So she stuck out. She wore the same pale blue dress to school every day, rain or shine.

Now he wondered what happened to this poor nameless girl he met in second grade. For years and years he hadn’t given her a second thought. But now it haunted him.

He could only imagine. Where was she now? She’d be his age, if she was still alive. She probably had a hard life all her life.

You see people like that. Prematurely aged. Their face a map of their life.

How many of her classmates still remembered that sad little girl from second grade? But he remembered her. And God remembered her. Indeed, that’s why he remembered her. God reminded him.

Maybe it was his own time of life that made him reminisce. When you’re young, there is no urgency. Time is on your side. The horizon lies distant. But as year follows year, the horizon draws near–like a wall advancing to meet you.

He was sorry now that he hadn’t befriended her when they were young. And now it was too late. But even if he could go back in time, there’s only so much that one second-grader can do for another.

He thought about other desperate women on whom the Lord had shown his mercy. Like Leah, Hannah, Hagar, Rahab, and Mary Magdalene. As well as other nameless women–like the Samaritan, the Shunammite, the Syrophoenician, the hemorrhagic, and the widow of Zeraphath. Forgotten by time, but remembered by God. Lost to the world, but not to the Lord.

She, too, was forsaken and forgotten by so many of her peers. He might be the only one left who remembered–or cared. But as long as he remembered her, he could pray for her. He couldn’t pray for her by name, but God knew who she was.

So he prayed for her, that God would bless her like Lazareth. That God could take her to Abraham’s bosom. A loser in this life, but a winner in the life to come. He prayed to God to confound the wisdom of the world.

He thought about the parable of the seed growing at night. God planted and tended his garden after dark, out of sight. For the world was oblivious to the growing seed–lacking the nocturnal vision of faith. Unable to see God’s secret garden.

Aaron prayed for her every day until the day he died. And when he passed over to the other side, there she was. And there he remembered her name. A seed planted in a dying world, to blossom in eternity. God took her to heaven by a quiet backstreet–while the world slept.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Reunion

-i-

Anton was feeling restless. His two sons and only daughter were full-grown. All three were living out of state. His wife was long gone. She ran off with another man. He retired last year, having worked for the same firm for 30 years.

So Aton had time on his hands. Too much free time with too little to do.

Of course, there were endless ways to kill time, but he was at that point in life where he needed something more out of life than mindless diversions.

So he went to the garage and started rifling through old, unpacked boxes. Have you ever noticed that you seem to lose something else every time you move? You were sure you packed them for the move, but somehow, between one move and another, they mysteriously disappear.

But at the bottom of the sixth box he opened, there they were–his old yearbooks from junior high and high school. He took them back to the living room, got a beer, and began to thumb through them.

Dimly-remembered names and half-forgotten faces began to reassemble. It was with mixed feelings that he revisited his past.

Sometimes it reminded him of why he hadn’t made the effort to keep up. Reminded him of classmates he’d rather forget about. Classmates he really didn’t like. Now he remembered why he didn’t remember them.

Come to think of it, isn’t that why he attended that out-of-state college? To get away from it all?

He was also struck by how little he ever knew about them. Had he even exchanged a half dozen words with most of them in all the years they attended school together, five days a week, nine months a year, for six years or longer?

Flipping through the pages, most of them were vaguely familiar names and vaguely faces. Nothing more. What hit him was not the mere passage of time, but the ravages of time.

All those years together, then you graduate, go your separate ways. Even if you keep up with a few old friends for a time, you tend to drift apart as the years wear on.

Mind you, the yearbook didn’t always have that effect on him. There were the girls. Suddenly a name came to him from the back of his head. He skipped a few pages to that part of the alphabet and ran his thumb down the page. Sure enough. There was her name. And moving his finger sideways, there was her picture.

He always had a soft-spot for Keri. Sweet, pious, gentle Keri. Why did he never get around to dating her?

At the time his head was full of movie stars. A natural, adolescent infatuation. But none of them attended his high school.

Yet looking back through time as he stared at her photo, he was sorry that he missed an opportunity. At this point in life, nothing seemed more appealing to him than to be married to a high school sweetheart.

Maybe that’s why his wife left him. She sensed a change. A growing discontent.

Aton married her in college. At first they really hit it off. Had a happy marriage. But as the years piled up they grew apart–emotionally, and imperceptibly at first. It’s not something you notice right about because it reflects the absence of something rather than the presence of something. Tedium. Emptiness. An air of intangible regret. Intangible longing.

But at the time, Aton wasn’t what you’d call pious. He didn’t connect with Keri at that level.

Whatever became of Keri? What was she doing now? At this very moment? While he was sitting on the couch, thumbing through his yearbooks, what was she doing–he wondered. Was she still that kind, prayerful girl he knew from school? Or was that just a phase? Youthful naïveté?

Maybe they switched roles. Maybe she became what he used to be, while he became what she used to be.

Flipping through some more pages, he ran across Brad. He remembered Brad because Brad used to hang out with Keri.

Brad was on the football team. Come to think of it, Brad was on three different teams.

He’d bumped into Brad at their 10th high school reunion. They chatted for a few minutes.

As it turned out, public school was the high point in Brad’s life. He lived for sports. The camaraderie.

But he didn’t have the talent to play college football–much less pro football. So when he graduated from high school, the bottom fell out of his social life. He wound up in a series of dead-end jobs.

Keri was there, too. But she was always chatting with someone else, so he didn’t get to talk to her.

And that’s the last time he saw either one. He didn’t make it to his 20th or 30th reunions. It didn’t mean that much to him at the time.

But a few years ago he began to attend church. Began to pray. Began to reflect on life. The passing years. And the remaining years.

Prayer is a paradox. A confession of man’s impotence and God’s omnipotence. We place our impotence in the hands of God’s omnipotence.

-ii-

So Anton decided to pray for Brad and Keri. He added them to his daily prayer itinerary, along with his three kids–and the ex.

He couldn’t pray for all his classmates. There were too many. And, frankly, he didn’t know what to say. He barely knew most of them. It would be like praying over names in the phone book.

But just because he couldn’t pray for all of them didn’t mean he shouldn’t pray for some of them. So he’d pray for a little remnant.

In one sense, they were interchangeable with millions of other men and women his age. It was an accident of history that he attended school with this set of kids rather than some other set of kids.

And yet, in the providence of God, those were the folks God put him with. So, in a sense, they were his spiritual charges. His little parish. If he didn’t pray for them, who would?

Although he had lost track of them, God had not. Through prayer, he could be a secret friend or anonymous benefactor. In prayer he could be there for them even when he wasn’t with them. Intercede for them. Work behind-the-scenes.

Of course, it was ultimately up to God.

-iii-

Five years later, Anton died in a traffic accident. One of the features of life in heaven is that you got to serve on welcoming committees or greeting parties for new arrivals.

When a Christian died, there was usually someone who had preceded him to heaven, someone he knew in this life. A friendly face. A familiar face. A thread connecting two worlds.

When Keri died, the first person she saw on the other side was Aton. And when Brad died, the first person he saw on the other side was Anton.

They were young again. Like high school. Only this time, things were inexpressibly better than before.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Last Laugh

-i-


It was a Saturday night in downtown Zion, and The Olympian Speakeasy was filling up fast. Indeed, Mike and Gabe were waiting in line for a table. The late Pastor Bud Buster was with them. In Zion, everybody was the late someone or another--'cepting for the angels, naturally.

Pastor Bud was a new arrival, assigned to Mike for orientation week. He was still pretty green--green as a chameleon on Astroturf, quite unacculturated to the otherworldly street smarts of urban life in the Holy City.

“Isn't there a free table over there?” Bud asked.
“That's set aside for the Angelic Doctor,” Mike answered. “He's got a lifetime reservation, and in Zion, a lifetime reservation is going the distance.”
“The Angelic who?”
“The Angelic Doctor?” Mike answered.
“They didn't teach us about no Angelic Doctor at Holy Smokes Bible College,” Bud explained. “Just Bible and rodeo. Still, whoever he is, it seems a mite unsportsmanlike that he's got a lifetime reservation.”
“Well, he wrote a whole Quodlibet on the finer points of terpsichorean angelology--which got him in good with the upper management,” Gabe interjected.
“You mean...like...how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Bud asked.
“Exactly!”
“Seems like kind of a useless question to me,” Bud said.
Gabe glared at him while Mike had to suppress a frown. Bud reddened, realizing that he had committed a celestial faux-pas.
“Let me assure you,” said Mike, in tones of archangelic solemnity, “that up here it's a question of utmost metaphysical import!”
“Anyway, it's not like he has the whole table to himself,” said Gabe, recovering his self-composure. “He usually eats with St. Anselm. Why, only last Saturday they got into a rather intense discussion over Al's modal version of the ontological argument. Even St. Augustine got drawn into the conversation. Tom thought they were ganging up on him, at which point he abruptly reverted, in mid-sentence, from Latin to his native Neopolitan. Unable to win the debate, this at least precluded him from losing it.”
“So what's the answer?” Bud asked.
“The answer to what?” Mike replied.
“How many angels can...”
“Oh, that again. I'm not sure what to say,” Mike replied, slightly flustered. “I mean, that's an extremely personal question--one we don't ordinarily discuss in mixed company. What do you think, Gabe? Is this suitable material for an outworlder to hear?”
“If he doesn't hear it from us, he'll hear it from the wrong sort--in snickering, gold-plated back-alleys. Besides, we're all grown-ups here, and he's almost one of us by now,” Gabe whispered, under his breath.
“I suppose so,” said Mike, with a sigh. “Very well then,” he continued, in a low tone of voice, after looking around the room. “If you really must know, it all depends. In flamenco, it comes to 133 1/3 angels to the 50th power; in square dancing--220 1/4 to the 100th power, and in break dancing--545 1/2 to the 150th power. And that's not counting ballet, tap-dancing, the waltz, the foxtrot, or the Chattanooga Choo-choo.”
“How can you have a fraction of an angel?” Bud asked.
“Just as you've got the four-color problem, we've got the tetramorphic close-packing problem. There's an intimate branch of hyperdimensional geometry on all possible positions, wingtip to wingtip, of illocal angelology, but I fear it would be a bit over your head. Why, even poor old Newton went back to counting on his fingers--dubbed it 'digital fluxions,' he did.”
“I'll take your word for it,” Bud replied.

-ii-

“I trust you had a pleasant flight,” Mike asked, as they waited in the lounge.
“I knew a priest back on earth who assured me that I'd have a layover in Purgatory. I didn't believe him, of course, but I was still gratified to be booked on a nonstop flight to heaven,” Bud said.
Mike was winking at Gabe, while Gabe nodded in return.
“There is no Purgatory, is there?” Bud asked.
“It's a matter of definition,” Mike replied.
“What do you mean?” Bud asked.
“So many folks put so much faith in Purgatory that we decided to meet them half way. After all, if they can invent a Purgatory, so can we,” Mike replied.
“We aim to please!” Gabe interjected.
“I don't follow you.”
“We positioned Purgatory on the upper story of Dis, as the grand entrance to hell,” Gabe explained.
“There's always a hot market for prime real estate Down Under,” Mike interposed.
“New arrivals are mightily impressed at first. You should have been there to see Mussolini's face when the truth began to dawn on him,” Gabe continued.
“How so?”
“Well, long before his adoring public turned him into a Christmas tree ornament, Il Duce had this nifty little arrangement with a charming old Premonstratensian abbey just outside of Trieste. In exchange for a weekly wad of lira, delivered in thick, discreet manila envelops, the monks would celebrate a Requiem Mass in his honor once a day and twice on Sundays.”
“Why?”
“Why? To replenish his pension plan in the Treasury of Merit--like making regular deposits to a Swiss Bank account, you know.”
“Consider it a nest-egg for the Netherworld,” Mike added, helpfully.
“But doesn't that border on entrapment?” Bud asked, anxiously.
“Oh dear, you do have such a literal way of looking at things!” Gabe exclaimed, with a sigh. “Think of it as a sit-com--where the bad guy gets his comeuppance.”
“I guess so,” said Bud, in a doubtful tone of voice. “So what tipped him off?”
“He began to complain about the room service. And when he got no satisfaction, he took the elevator down to the first floor.”
“I don't understand,” Bud said.
“Hell is built like an upside down skyscraper,” Gabe explained. “You might call it a groundscraper, in the subterranean sense of the word. So the upper story is really the lower story, and vice versa--depending on how you look at it. Gives a whole new meaning to that sinking feeling.”
“And the elevators only go down, never up,” Mike interjected. “So once he got down to the first floor, he became cognizant of his truly abysmal situation.”
“How in hell can hell have a first floor?” Bud asked. “I thought it was a bottomless pit?”
“That's what makes it one of the Seven Wonders of the Underworld, designed by the old architectural firm of Hilbert, Cantor & Associates.”
“The original blueprint was deposited in the Empyrean Archive of Public Works, if you'd like to look it over sometime,” Gabe added. “A very ingenious feat of engineering.”
“What are the other Six Wonders?”
“That's above your security clearance!”

-iii-

After they were seated, Pastor Bud looked around a bit apprehensively. The sports bar was fitted with HD Plasma TV screens and Dolby surround sound so that every diner could enjoy the great and glorious spectacle of the scarlet whore a.k.a. the painted Jezebel a.k.a. the amber-scented Delilah weep and gnash her teeth in the Lake of Fire.

In the background, the Bebop Band was playing a riff on “When the Saints Go Marching In,” with Vivaldi on bass, Palestrina on drums, Mendelssohn taking the alto sax, and Bach at the jazz organ console. Handel would be by later that evening with his clarinet after he finished rehearsing the Junior Cherub Choir for Sunday morning services.

At one table, Milton and Dante were collaborating on a new poem, having discovered, upon their arrival, that both were way off on the architecture of heaven. It took them several centuries to hammer out a verse scheme agreeable to both, as terza rima was unsuitable to Elizabethan English, and blank verse to Medieval Italian. Finally, they settled upon Esperanto, for Milton was more at ease with Romance usage than Dante with Anglo-Saxon--although they gave serious consideration, for a time, to rewriting the Inferno in German since everything already sounds like a curse-word in German.

Then there was the Catholic question. For patriotic reasons, Dante was a Romanist, while Milton was an ardent foe of popery. With a word of advice from St. Peter, they agreed to confine all Augustan allusions to the state of the Avignon papacy, upon which they each could vent with equal spleen.

At another table, Jon and Sarah Edwards were having a romantic meal out on the town. Although it was hard to make out by candlelight, the Rev. Edwards seemed to be illustrating a point by dangling a spider over the flame.

At yet another table, Chuck Spurgeon and Sam Rutherford were debating church polity. Rutherford said the twenty-four elders in heaven proved the divino jure origin of Presbyterial governance, but Spurgeon countered by saying it wasn't for naught that John was denominated a Baptist.

“Is that who I think it is?” Bud asked, pointing to a table in the far corner of the room.
“Calvin and the Wesley boys, you mean?” Mike answered.
“I thought they didn't' get along.”
“That was before,” Gabe explained. “Heaven is a best seminary.”
“But it still took upwards of a century for Calvin to get John straightened out on the finer points of predestination,” Mike interjected.
“Thankfully, we've got time to spare up here,” Gabe added. “You should hear some of his brother's brand-new hymns on the horrible decree. Very edifying!”

“And what about that rather dispirited man over there?”
“Who? Oh, you mean Bishop Berkeley. Just as there are degrees of pain in hell, there are degrees of happiness in heaven,” Mike explained.
“But why isn't he as overjoyed as all the rest?”
“At first, he was bowled by the place. It was the very vindication of esse is percipi.
“What do you mean?”
“Ah, I see they didn't teach you that at Holy Smokes Bible College either. Very well then. Berkeley was of the opinion that things are really thoughts. And he tried to convince everyone that, deep down, this is what the common man believes as well. For his high-minded efforts, he was treated as a laughing-stock and butt of endless abuse. When, however, he finally made it to heaven, where everything is oh-so ethereal, his was, indeed, the common sense philosophy.”
“So why does he not appear to be more upbeat.”
“Well, there's nothing very revolutionary about telling everyone what they already believe. When he endeavored to explain his philosophy up here, it was like trying to prove that water is wet and grass is green. Everyone nodded with polite approval and went on about their business. It was rather like the reception accorded to Alister Crowley in hell.”
“How so?”
“Back on earth, to be a devil-worshipper with a worshipful throng was naughty fun; but when he actually got to hell, it was something of an anticlimax. Down Under, a Satanist is a dime a dozen, and he was pretty low on the pecking-order of infernal infamy. And over time, of which there's no shortage, above or below, he began to find the company distinctly disagreeable. Why, Down Under, they've got time to burn--literally!”

“And who's that?” Bud asked.
“Who do you mean?” Mike replied.
“The dude over there in the tiara.”
“Oh, that's Pius IX.”
“Why's he playing a game of Solitaire?”
”When he first got here he used to play a friendly hand of stud poker with Pascal, St. Theresa, and Bernard of Clairvaux.”
“I guess I understand about Pascal, since he could play the odds. But what about the other two?” Bud interrupted.
“Theresa and Bernard both bring a certain mystic intuition to the game.”
“I see. So what went wrong?”
“Whenever Pius was dealt a weak hand, he had a sneaky habit of switching to his infallible setting. At first they chalked it up to beginner's luck, but after the winning streak continued unabated for the next twenty years or so, they started to suspect that he had an ex cathedra card up his sleeve--which was tantamount to cheating, as far as they were concerned.”
“You mean the Pope really is infallible?”
“Not as a rule, but this is heaven, after all, so we humored him.”
“Service is our middle name!” Gabe interjected.
“Did he ever fess up?”
“Whenever they confronted him, he'd simply grin with that wry, Mona Lisa smile of his. So now he plays Solitaire.”
“Sounds highly questionable to me,” Bud said.
“Pius insisted that his conduct throughout the whole affair conformed to the highest canons of casuistry--which provoked a rather strenuous exchange with Pascal over the respective merits, or lack thereof, of probabilism, equiprobabilism, and probabiliorism.”

-iv-

“You seem to be a tad uneasy,” Gabe said.
“It's just not what I was expecting,” Bud said.
“What's not to expect?” Gabe asked.
“Well, the bottle and the altar-call don't mix where I come from.”
“I thought you were a Southern Baptist?”
“What of it?”
“Doesn't that make you a whisky Calvinist?”
Bud was speechless.
“Heaven takes a bit of getting used to,” Gabe continued. “Why, you should have seen the expression on Fra Angelico's face when we picked him at the airport back in 1455. It was obvious that he'd never seen a real angel before!”
“And then there was the first time that Raphael got to meet the Blessed Virgin,” Mike interjected. “I guess he was expecting a face like Dolores Del Rio, not Golda Meir!”
“Still, I wasn't prepared for a celestial establishment serving intoxicants,” Bud said.
“Intoxicants? Let me assure you that every elixir served on these premises is non-alcoholic!” Mike remonstrated.
At this, Bud let out an audible sign of relief and his facial muscles went flaccid.
“And unlike that other place, The Olympian is a strictly non-smoking establishment,” he added.
“What other place?” Bud asked.
“Why, The Demon Rum saloon--Down Under,” Gabe answered, lowering his gaze. “If you want to get your mitts on a real Bloody Mary, ya gotta go to Bloody Mary. She's the barmaid.”
“How do you know that?” Bud asked.
“Gabe's a part-time building inspector,” Mike explained.
“It takes a certain amount of regular maintenance to keep a firetrap up to code,” Gabe interjected. “The Demon Rum has been fined on numerous occasions for code violations--wrapping bare wires with rubber tape, stuffing insulation in the walls, stocking extinguishers and other contraband retardants smuggled in from off-world suppliers--in exchange for a few magic spells to hex old enemies and charm new hearts.”
“But if they get caught and punished every time, why do they keep on doing it?” Bud asked.
“Because they're incorrigible, that's why,” Gabe answered.
“Hellions do the damnedest things,” Mike interjected. “You might say it goes with the territory. And it's not as though they've got a lot to lose at this stage of the game!”
“Where in hell is The Demon Rum anyway?” Bud asked.
“In the third circle, on the corner of Broadway and Easy St., right behind the Blockbuster, and down a block from the old law firm of Lupine, Rapine, & Abaddon,” Gabe answered.
“What's it like Down Under?” Bud asked.
“Pretty dingy,” Gabe answered. “The scenery hasn't been refurbished since Hieronymus Bosch was last brought in to perk up the decor.”
“It's soooo Fifteen Century!” Mike exclaimed. “And, needless to say, The Demon Run caters to a very different clientele than we do up here,” he said, with a pious sniff.
“Such as?” Bud asked.
“Oh, all the usual riff-raff,” Gabe answered. “Fallen angels and fallen broads; hypocrites and heretics; Simonites and sodomites; Turks, apostates, and reprobates; infidels and idolaters; lawyers, abortionists, and Antipopes; perverts and politicians; French diplomats and Belgian bureaucrats; rock stars and porn stars; Swiss bankers and eastern liberals; merit-mongers, free-willers, loose-livers, and Bible-debunkers; psychics and psychos; freethinkers and hard drinkers; Berkeley professors and tax assessors; Darwinists, feminists, environmentalists, and so on, ad nauseum. In sum, hell on earth transposed to a lower key.”
“How could a loving God permit it?” Bud exclaimed.
“Ours is not to say,” Mike replied.
“Last time I was down there,” Gabe interposed, “Leibniz was attempting to prove to Russell that hell is the best of all possible pandemonia--based on the Principle of Sufficient Unreason.
“Did Russell agree?”
“He was unpersuaded at first until Kant piped in with a supporting argument.”
“What was that?”
“The nonontological argument.”
“Which is what?”
“Well, Kant reasoned that according to the privative theory of evil, pure evil is nonbeing, such that if being is not a predicate, then--by parity of reasoning--nonbeing must be a predicate, in which case less is more, the badder the better, or something like that. I'm a little fuzzy on the details. It's been a while.”
“I guess I'm gratified to learn that The Olympian only serves nonalcoholic nectar. But shouldn't we avoid even the appearance of evil?”
“What evil? What appearance? What's more natural than for spirits to imbibe spirits?” Mike replied.
“This is heaven. Every hour is the happy hour,” Gabe interjected.

-v-

Bud looked over the menu. There was only one item--ambrosia.
The waitress came to take the order.
“You look familiar,” Bud said. “Haven't I see you somewhere before?”
She blushed. “I'm Fanny Crosby. So what's your pleasure, gentlemen?”
“I think I'll try the ambrosia hors d'oeuvre, followed by the ambrosia entree, along with a side-dish of ambrosia,” Bud answered.
“How'd you like the entree prepared?” she asked.
“What are my choices?”
“Well, the chef's special is fricasseed ambrosia. But if you prefer, you can also have your ambrosia boiled, broiled, baked, barbecued, roasted, toasted, deep-fried, stir-fried, pan-fried, poached, stewed, scalloped, sautéed, or curried.”
“Do you happen to have deviled ambrosia?”
She blanched. Mike and Gabe averted their eyes and shook their dreadlocks. The whole room went dead silent except for a contagious fit of throat-clearing all around. Bud was getting warm around the ears. Bud Buster had just committed yet another breach of heavenly etiquette.
After the color returned to her cheeks, she explained to him that that sort of preparation was only available at The Demon Rum. Indeed, that's the only sort of preparation they ever did Down Under--with a heavy accent on ever, as in forever.

Bud ordered the fricasseed ambrosia.
“Good choice, old chap!” Gabe exclaimed. “Latimer does the most divine ambrosia. Best place to eat since that little bistro in Herculaneum Mike and I used to frequent went out of business back in--when was it, now?--AD 80 or so.”
“79!” Mike corrected.
“Yes, that's right!”
“Did you say 'Latimer'?” Bud asked.
“Uh-huh, the late Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worchester. “We'll go back into the kitchen and introduce you after dinner.”
“You say he's the chef?”
“On week-ends. And Huss during the week.”
“John Huss?”
“Precisely! They're the two best chefs in all of Zion.”
“How did they get the job?”
“Their personal experience with the auto-da-fe gave them on-the-job training with the culinary arts. No substitute for hands-on experience, you know!”
“And is that why Luther is the bar-tender?”
“On week-ends. Pascal during the week. That's their department. Can't beat a Frog and a Kraut when it comes to beverages! Nice thing about heaven--everyone knows his place.”

“Pascal is also the go-to guy for handicapping the Antichrist,” Gabe interjected.
“What do you mean?” Bud asked.
“Whenever a promising candidate comes along--like Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon, Bill Gates, Henry Kissinger, or Kaiser Wilhelm--folks flock to Pascal to lay odds. He and Newton had a real row one time when Newton, in the 105th edition of his Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John, came up with a numerological proof for Napoleon III, whereas Pascal had him at no better than 50/50. The cherubic pool went heavily for Newton's candidate, but the Seraphim, who are better connected with the Powers-That-Be, chose to stand pat.”
“So Pascal won the bet?,” Bud asked.
“Well, in the 106th edition, Newton attributed their 'apparent' difference of opinion to a simple misunderstanding--what he meant all along was the 'spirit' of the Antichrist, not the 'embodiment' of the Antichrist.”
“I read somewhere that Newton was an Arian,” Bud said, in a quizzical tone of voice.
“Repented on his deathbed,” Mike replied, with an air of finality.
“And not a moment too soon!” Gabe added, helpfully. “The Pale Rider was one house away when Izzy had a last minute change of heart.”
“And how did Milton make it in?”
“Yet another deathbed conversion. He was warned by his chaplain that unless he recanted certain theses in De Doctrina Christiana, he would be spending eternity with Mary Powell. Now that threw the fear of God into him--let me tell you!”

-vi-

“So, Bud, who do you think is the Antichrist,” Gabe asked.
“Back at Holy Smokes, all the smart money was on Hillary Rodham.”
“Doesn't the Antichrist have to be a man?” Mike interjected.
“Yeah, but Hillary's true gender was one of the hotly disputed questions.”
“I take it, though, that she wasn't your first pick?” Gabe asked.
“The type-casting just seemed too good to be true--if 'good' is the operative word. I mean, if the Antichrist came straight out of central casting, who'd he be fooling? No, it has to be someone less obvious.”
“So who do you suspect?”
“The meter maid.”
“The meter maid?”
“Yes, the meter maid.”
“Which one?”
“You mean there's more than one? Sure about that? Haven't you ever noticed that they all look alike--right down to the little red eyes?”
“Can't say I have, but whenever Mike and I are sent on a mission to terra firma, we've got diplomatic license plates, so we can park wherever we please.”
“Well, every meter maid I ever saw was a pistol-packin' momma in a pintsized three-wheeler. That's what tipped me off in the first place. There's only one meter maid in all the world. She's omniscient and omnipresent, handing out tickets if you're two minutes over the limit, or two inches over the line--and just generally making life a living hell. Now, if that's not an entry-level job for one-world government, I don't know what is!”
“I see your point! But, strictly speaking, only God is omniscient or omnipresent.”
“Okay, okay...but the meter maid's near enough to it to have a decidedly preternatural aura about her, if 'her' is the operative word.”

-vii-

“There's a question I've always wanted to ask when I got to heaven,” Bud said.
“What's that?” Gabe answered.
“How could the highest archangel become a devil?”
“The highest who?”
“Lucifer.”
“Who makes you think Lucifer was ever the highest archangel?”
“Oh, I don't know...that's what I've always heard.”
“I see that Old Horney has been padding his résumé again. But back when Mike and I knew him, he was just a royal page. Indeed, he was one of my employees in The Ministry of Telecommunications--before it became the Ministry of Misinformation, oh...some six-thousand years ago. Even back then he was a bit of a bigmouth and gossip. Should have seen it coming.”
“So what caused him to fall?”
“He got tired of being a lowly errand boy--hankered to see his name up in lights, sit in the big chair. You know the drill. Don't be fooled by all the low-falutin' titles like the 'The Prince of Darkness' and 'His Satanic Majesty.' Underneath it all he's just your average, small-time social climber and all-around flimflam man--a showman with a cardboard crown.”
“But if he wasn't the highest archangel, how come so many other angels followed him.”
“It isn't so much that they followed him as followed his example. He got them to think they were doing themselves a favor. Rebellion is infectious. All it takes is one guy to make the first move. Then the idea takes on a life of its own. Hell is chock-full of frustrated prima donnas.”
“But how could a sinless angel sin?”
“Again, all it takes is a vivid imagination. You don't have to be a sinner to contemplate good and evil. That's how you know right from wrong in the first place.”
“But wasn't it a lost cause from the get-go?”
“Yes, but that's only because you know how the story ends. God plays his hand close to his vest. Predestination would never work if he laid all his cards on the table, face up.”
“I've never been able to wrap my head around all that predestination business,” Bud said. “I mean, if it's a stacked deck, then what difference does it make what we do, or did, or didn't do?”
“That's a delicate question,” Mike replied. “Pity you never read Marcel Proust's immortal novel on the subject. A trifle long-winded, but up here we've got all the time in the world!”
“What's its called?” Gabe interposed.
”Remembrance of Things That Might Have Been.”
“I never knew Proust wrote a book by that title.”
“He didn't. That's one of the things that might have been! I said it was a pity, did I not?”
“Then how did you hear of it?”
“From a well-placed seraph, who heard it first from...oh, well--you know who!”
“Even so, they had a lot more to lose than to gain, didn't they?” Bud asked, in tones of resignation.
“Who?”
“Adam and Eve.”
“Oh, back to that. Well, sure, but that's the thing about sin. Where sinning is concerned, at least in my own extensive observation--I can't speak from personal experience, you understand--you never know what you're getting into until you get into it, at which point it's too late to get out. Besides, they thought that even a demotion would be a promotion of sorts. That's why Lucifer tempted Adam and Eve--to give him someone to lord it over.”

-viii-

“When did Lucifer have time to rebel before the fall of Adam?” Bud asked.
“Well, for all we know, it was a matter of days, weeks, months or even years before that Adam's lapse,” Mike replied.
“You mean you don't know?”
“Not from our vantage-point. According to Metatron's Sempiternal Theory of Relativity, heaven and earth occupy different time zones.”
“Metatron?”
“Yes, he won the Noel Prize for Metaphysics back in 4003 BC--your time. Very clever fellow--even for an angel.”
“What is more,” Gabe interjected, “there are two different solutions to Metatron's equations. The Thrones and Dominions, seconded by Boethius, Berkeley, Augustine, Anselm, and Edwards, are of the opinion that just as time passes faster in a dream than in the waking world, time passes faster or slower in the supernal realm than in the sublunary realm, relative to one another. Time moves very fast in heaven, but very slow in hell.

The other theory, favored by the Principalities and Powers, as well as Newton, Aquinas, Scotus, Philoponus, and Bradwardine, is that that the supernal realm is a separate domain, parallel to the sublunary realm. Each sphere has its own absolute timeframe, along with its very own point of origin.”

“Isn't there some way of proving one or the other?”
“No, because you can't tell, when you're within the sublunary timeline, if that's isocronic with the supernal timeline, or vice versa. You can only be in one time at a time, as it were. I should add that Kierkegaard and Tertullian dismiss the whole question as absurd, while Pascal remains undecided.”
“But surely the good Lord knows the answer.”
“Naturally, but he keeps his own counsel.”

-ix-

“I had another queston for you,” Bud asked.
“What about?” Mike answered.
“The Lake of Fire.”
“What about the Lake of Fire.”
“Well, I believe it, of course, 'cause it's in the Good Book and all, but...”
“But what?”
“But it does seem a wee bit excessive. I mean, is it really strictly necessary to cast the damned into a lake of lava or vat of acid or whatever it's filled with.”
“It's filled with water--that's what it's filled with.”
“Water?”
“Yes, water.”
“Plain old water?”
“No, not exactly.”
“What kind of water, then? Mineral water? Distilled water? Artesian spring water? Clorinated water?”
“Holy water. We have it blessed by Aaron.”
“So what makes it the Lake of Fire?”
“A simple chemical reaction--like putting a Tums tablet in a glass of water.”
“I don't get it.”
“When pure evil comes in contact with utter goodness, you get a this colorful chemical reaction. But all the fizzle and sizzle is supplied by the evildoer, not by the water itself. The water is perfectly swimable and drinkable if you happen to be a saint or an angel. Ingersoll used to get all lathered up about this--still does, more so than ever!--but you might as well curse a bottle of Perrier.”

-x-

“So, Gabriel, what's your day job?” Bud asked.
“Gabe's an Attaché to the Ministry of Misinformation,” Mike interjected. “So am I.”
“Ministry of Misinformation?”
“That's right. Our mission is to delude the lost and ensnare the wise in their own craftiness.”
“Doesn't that sound a tad underhanded to you,” Bud asked, a little bit shocked--not to say, scandalized.
“Underhanded?” Mike replied, in questioning tone of voice, as the Tetramorph gazed at all three pair of his hands.
“That's a rather jaundiced way of looking at the matter,” Gabe interjected. “Think of it as a practical joke.”
“A joke?”
“Yes, a cosmic joke. God's a great practical joker, you know.”
“He is?”
“Indeed, is it not written that he who sits in heaven shall laugh them to score and hold them in derision?”
“I guess I never took it all that literally.”
“I'm surprised. You were a Southern Baptist, weren't you?
“Yes, I was. Still am, I guess.”
“It's just the difference between worldly wisdom and otherworldly wisdom. To the philosopher of this age, wisdom from above is just so much folly and Tomfoolery. But remember that the court jester is the smartest, sharpest character in the play--the only one who's in on the joke.”
“But it still strikes me as a tad unscrupulous.”
“How so? Just because some people can't take a joke? You'll always have folks who don't know satire when they see it. When Dean Swift came out with his Modest Proposal, why, some folks took it to be a new dainty for the five-star palette! Is God to blame because too many men have no sense of humor?
“Just who is God spoofing, anyway?” Bud asked. “What do you guys do?”
“Well, there was the time when Mike and I painted navels on Adam and Eve. Then were was the whole peppered moth business.”
“What business is that?”
“We spray-painted some white moths a darker shade. You wouldn't believe how many men were taken in by that prank! Scientists are such a straight-laced lot!” Gabe said, convulsed with laughter.
“Painfully earnest!” Mike interjected. “There was also the occasion when Gabe and I were up all night gluing the wings onto Archaeopteryx.”
At this point, Mike was shaking so hard that the vibrations were making him levitate involuntarily.
“Not to mention Pitdown man,” Gabe blurted out, in-between spasms of laughter.
“You were even behind the Pitdown hoax?” Bud asked, astonished.
“Who else? I also get a big kick out of conjuring up quantum quandaries by changing myself into quarks and tachyons, playing dead, being in two places at once, and all that fun stuff. Poor old Einstein never figured it out!”
“Gabe is such tease!”
“Sleight-of-hand is child's play when you've got six hands to work with!” Gabe exclaimed, modestly.
“What about fossil water on Mars?”
“We didn't have enough lead-time on that one, which is why we kept zapping the unmanned probes. But in the end we were able to fake it with an out-take from an old Star Trek episode--you know, what with the styrofoam rocks and day-glo color scheme. Looks kind of cheesy up close, but the resolution is too poor to detect at a distance.”
“Sometimes though, the joke is on us,” Mike admitted. “I mean, when Crick came up with his Panspermia hypothesis--now that takes a real leap of the imagination!”
“Wish we'd thought of it first!”
“No, that would be way too far-fetched for any self-respecting creationist. To be really gullible, you just can't compete with the pros,” Mike said--feathers flying every which way in gales of hilarity.
“Next week we'll need to tweak the red-shift once again,” Gabe said.
“Why?”
“Every time they send a new telescope into orbit, we have to push the stage-lights back a bit further to maintain the illusion. It takes constant monitoring and incessant tinkering to keep up appearances.”
“Stage-lights?” Bud asked, in a questioning tone of voice.
“What you vulgar earthlings call the 'stars,'” Gabe explained.
“Who runs the Ministry, anyway?”
“It's chaired on a rotating basis. Last year, Bishop Wilberforce; this year, William Jennings Bryan; next year, Philip Henry Gosse--with G. K. Chesterton as the Director-at-large.”
At that moment the appetizers arrived. After Gabe said grace, they dug into the first course with relish--while the Bebop Band played a Thelonius Monk arrangement of “Too Close To Heaven.”

Ring Shout

-i-

In the middle of the sermon, Pastor Davenport came down with laryngitis. At that point, the choir director cut ahead to the communion service.

For many parishioners, this was an improvement. They didn’t like long sermons anyway. They only came for communion.

Not only did they dislike long sermons, but they had a particular distaste for the tone and content of Pastor Davenport’s sermons. After all, these were Episcopalians.

But Davenport was more like a Baptist preacher. Long sermons on sin and atonement. Preaching through books of the Bible—including books of the Old Testament, no less! Was the Old Testament actually a part of the canon?

They much preferred his bland, avuncular predecessor. How ever did the search committee make such an egregious blunder?

Pastor Davenport had only been there for about a year, and yet the church, which had been dying, was growing. He was into “outreach” and door-to-door evangelism. Organized a Bible Club at the West Ashley high school. Was a part-time chaplain at the Citadel.

As a result, the small, stately Colonial church of Old St. Andrew’s was beginning to swell with growing pains. Newcomers with callused hands were invading the sanctuary. The established families no longer felt at home.

Things where coming to a head when Davenport lost his voice. He was preaching on the devil. Possession. The occult. Can you believe it? I mean, it was embarrassing to modern ears—like a throwback to Cotton Mather.

But that’s when his voice cut out. Six weeks ago. He’d been speechless ever since. He’d seen a specialist, but the laryngologist couldn’t detect any physical cause.

However, his son, Dominic, had a suspicion. Indeed, after his dad lost his voice, Dominic had to read his sermons aloud in church. Pastor Davenport used to write out his sermons anyway.

-ii-

As soon as the family moved in, Dominic tried to befriend some of his age-mates at church. There was a troika of young men his own age, consisting of Brad Osborne, Philip Proctor, and Dustin Seabrook. They were altar-boys at St. Andrews. They also went to West Ashley high school, where Dominic was a transfer student.

There was some mysterious affinity which all three boys shared in common. Brad and Philip were pretty tight. Indeed, they were cousins. Their forebears had a long history of intermarriage to keep the major assets in the family. Still, they seemed to have a connection that went deeper than DNA.

Dustin was often seen in their company as well, but it was fairly one-sided. Dustin seemed to avoid them whenever possible. They would accost him, but he never sought them out.

Or course, Dominic also took a healthy in girls, but as an outlier he had to befriend the boys before he could befriend the girls, since he didn’t know which girls were already off the market.

He also noticed that students at West Ashley High seemed to take their cue from Brad and Philip. They had a strange hold over the other students, which made them natural leaders.

Students asked them for favors. But they feared them, too.

Later on, he heard a story about a new student who got into an altercation with Brad. The new student was about to strike him when he started to scream. He said he was burning up. Burning alive. Burning in hell. He ran, screaming from the schoolyard, and drowned himself in a pond to cool off. The authorities fished him out of the pond a few hours later.

So breaking into the troika was a ticket to wider acceptance. Instant acceptance. Dominic didn’t have to work his way up. He could start at the top. Or so he hoped.

But Brad and Philip formed a tight circle. A closed circle. They were outwardly sociable. They showed him around.

Yet they were holding something back. When they took him to lunch, or took him to the beach, the conversation seemed to move on more than one level. The words were like code words, which meant one thing to him, and another thing to them.

And they knew things about him before he spoke. Little things would slip out in the course of conversation. Things he never told anyone.

As he got to know them better, insofar as they let him get to know them, he began to pick up on other quirks. Brad was rather sickly. His illnesses were unpredictable, and evaded diagnosis. Were they psychosomatic? Hard to tell.

During one of his frequent illness, Dominic paid him a visit at Middleton, where he lived with his parents. Middleton was one of the grand old plantations along the Ashley river—back when Indigo was a cash crop.

Dominic noticed an odd, upside down statue in Brad’s bedroom. “What’s this?” he asked.

“Just an old statue of St. Expédit,” Brad answered. “It’s an heirloom from the West Indies. Been in the family for generations now.”

For his part, Philip was accident-prone. Indeed, it was a tad hazardous to be around Philip since you might end up as collateral damage from one of his many mishaps.

He had a fetish dangling from his review mirror. Said it was there to ward off evil spirits. But it seemed to be more of a magnet than a repellent.

As for Dustin, even in hot, humid weather, he almost always wore long-sleeve shirts. The only exception was when he was at the beach, or alone with Brad and Philip.

Dustin had a cabin on Folly Beach. One time, when they all went surfing, Dominic noticed some scars on Dustin’s wrists.

-iii-

“I’m going to invite Dominic to the ring shout,” Brad said.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Philip said. “Is it safe to lay our cards on the table?”

“It’s worth the risk,” Brad said. “This is a chance to turn him. Once he’s on our side, we can use him against his dad.”

“But what if we can’t turn him? What if he exposes us?” Philip said.

“We have other ways of dealing with him,” Brad said.

-iv-

In few days later, near about midnight, Brad rapped on Dominic’s bedroom window and said he was planning to take Dominic somewhere. He didn’t say where. It would be a surprise.

It turned out to be Magnolia cemetery. There was a flickering light as they approached.

There were some other kids gathered there, from the church or the high school. They were speaking to each other in some sort of patois that Dominic could only partly make out, with his smattering of schoolboy French. They were mulling around a circle with a cross inside.

“Want to join us?” Brad asked.

“No thanks, I’ll just stand here and watch,” Dominic said, warily.

Some of the kids began clapping, chanting, or drumming while the group moved in a counterclockwise motion. Their fluid figures, backlit by the campfire, cast ominous shadows.

Suddenly, one of the dancers began to twitch, tremble, and convulse. Then he stiffened. Then he began to speak in a low, raspy voice. The speaker identified himself as Baron-Samedi. He proceeding to utter a number of dire-sounding oracles.

Dominic found the spectacle both unnerving and revolting. He went back to the car and waited for Brad to return. In the distance he could hear the noise die down and the see the light extinguished.

Brad came back, visibly irritated, but biting his tongue. They drove back in dead silence until Brad spoke up. “I take it that you didn’t enjoy the ring shout,” Brad said.

“I’m a Christian,” Dominic said. “And not just because my Dad’s a pastor. It’s real to me. What I saw back there was a throwback to something diabolical.”

Brad grimaced, but held is peace.

-v-

After Brad dropped Dominic off at his house, he drove over to Drayton Hall, where Philip lived. It was a Colonial mansion, downriver from Middleton.

“Think Dominic will tell his dad what he saw tonight?” Philip asked.

“I doubt it,” Brad answered. “His dad wouldn’t approve of his being out at this hour. And he would be sneaking around if he was trying to please the old man.”

“You mean we can still turn him?” Philip asked.

“After tonight I don’t think that’s in the cards,” Brad answered.

-vi-

After his father was literally dumbstruck, Dominic thought back on the ring shout and all the other uncanny things he’d seen and heard. But what could he do?

Dustin was the weak link in the chain. Indeed, he was the opposite of Brad and Philip. They were outwardly approachable, but inwardly unapproachable. Their friendliness was a pose. They kept you close to keep you at bay.

They manipulated people. Used friendship to monitor and control others. Ironically, they got close to you to shield themselves from intrusive contact regulating the level of contact. They befriended you on their terms. They defined the boundaries.

Dustin, by contrast, was outwardly unapproachable, but inwardly approachable. He wanted friends and needed friends. He could be a genuine friend in return. His concern for others was real rather than feigned.

Yet he was guarded. Distant. Was he hiding something? Was he afraid of Philip and Brad?

If he could get some time alone with Dustin, he might be able to milk him for information. Yet it was hard to catch him alone. It’s as if Brad and Philip were also worried about Dustin, and kept him under surveillance.

Dominic staked out the beach cabin from a concealed location, and waited for the other two to leave. Dominic knocked on the door. Dustin seemed surprised and a bit apprehensive. He looked around to see if Brad and Philip were anywhere in sight before he let him in.

Dominic talked about his Dad’s situation. Dustin was sympathetic. He wanted to help, but something was restraining him.

“What are you afraid of?” Dominic asked. “Is it Brad and Philip”?

Dustin nodded.

Reaching for an explanation, Dominic asked, “Are you afraid they’ll put a hex on you, like they did with my Dad?”

It was a shot in the dark. Dominic didn’t know if that was the answer. But it’s something he’d been mulling over.

Dustin nodded.

“I don’t know what you have to lose,” Dominic said. “No offense, but you’re pretty miserable. If you’re this unhappy with the way things are, then you might as well try to change the situation. Anything would be an improvement.”

“No,” said Dustin. “Things could be even worse.”

“You’ve already said enough that you might as well tell me the whole story,” Dominic said. “You can trust me.”

And it’s true that Dustin trusted Dominic. They trusted each other. Dustin was a trapped animal, waiting for someone to spring the cage.

“It’s witchcraft,” Dustin said.

“What do you mean?” Dominic asked.

“All three of us come from founding families,” Dustin answered. “We’re Barbadians. Our English ancestors colonized Barbados before they settled in Charleston.”

“What about it,” Dominic asked.

“Some of our forefathers rediscovered the Old Religion when they were living in the West Indies. They picked up witchcraft from the slaves,” Dustin said.

“You mean you dabble in the occult?” Dominic asked?

“Brad and Philip are into that sort of thing, but I try to avoid it. Still, it’s like a family curse. You don’t ask for it. It’s willed on you by birth,” Dustin answered.

“But Brad and Philip seem to enjoy it,” Dominic said.

“Because it empowers them. But there’s a tradeoff. You pay for it in other ways,” Dustin said.

“Would you rather be normal?” Dominic asked.

“I wish to God I were!” Dustin exclaimed.

“Well, if it’s witchcraft, then God can deliver you,” Dominic said.

“God hates me! I’m like the devil’s spawn,” Dustin replied. “My ancestors made this bloody pact with the dark side.”

“But you believe the Bible, don’t you?” Dominic asked.

“Naturally! I’m not some clueless liberal,” Dustin answered. “How could I believe in the devil, and not believe in God? I know from experience who’s who and what’s what. But I’m on the wrong side of that battle.”

“But you don’t need to be,” Dominic said. “You and I can pray right now for your deliverance.”

“Is that all?” Dustin asked.

“You’ve also got to break your ties with Brad and Philip. And destroy any charms, idols, amulets, or talismans,” Dominic answered.

“I don’t keep that sort of thing around the house. Brad and Philip are into that sort of thing, not me,” Dustin said.

“So what have you go to lose?” Dominic asked.

“They will retaliate,” Dustin answered.

“What can they do? Stick pins in voodoo dolls?” Dominic asked.

“That only happens in the movies. But you’ve seen and heard what they can do,” Dustin answered.

“But if you renounce the devil and turn to Christ, that will break the circle and break the spell.” Dominic said. “They depend on you—like an electrical current. Cut the circuit, and the current dies.”

“I never thought of that,” Dustin said.

So Dominic prayed with him and for him. Dustin felt as though a shadow had dissipated. A storm cloud that shadowed him all his life. And now, for the first time in his life, he felt as if he was stepping out into the sunshine.

-vii-

When Dominic returned home, he overheard his Dad talking to his Mom. Much to the consternation of the old-time parishioners, Pastor Davenport returned to the pulpit that Sunday.

A week later, Brad and Philip died in a freak accident. Philip was driving Brad to Folly Beach when lightening struck an oak tree, which split in half and came crashing down on their car—killing them instantly.

Riverrun

-i-

Capt. Christopher LaHaye was exploring a solar system on the far side of Alpha Centuri when the wormhole he came through collapsed, leaving him stranded on the wrong side of the galaxy. There was one barely habitable planet in the solar system.

On its surface, the planet was largely one unending desert, enfolding the globe in a blanket of searing sand. But it also had a few huge lakes below sea level. Evaporation from the relentless sun precipitated snowfall in the mountainous polar regions. And from there, subterranean rivers gouged out deep and narrow ravines.

Although a few hardy shrubs formed a ribbon around the lakes, most life on the desertuous planet took refuge in the ravines. Chris would soon run out of food and water on his space ship, so he landed on the edge of a ravine to explore the world below.

-ii-

The steep walls were carpeted with bushes and vines, which gave him something to grab on to as he lowered himself into the ravine. Within a few yards of the surface, he found himself on terrace, with flowerbeds hugging the sides of the ravine. The terrace continued in either direction.

Peering warily over the terrace, he could see another terrace, and yet another—in a staircase of flowerbeds. As he looked across the ravine, he saw the same thing on the other side—like a double staircase. He also saw a rope bridge between the opposing terraces.

Perhaps “flowerbed” wasn’t the right word. Apparently, these were vegetable gardens. As they descended, the terraces faded into obscurity.

Far below was the invisible, but audible roar of a swift-moving river. At this time of day you could hear it, but you couldn’t see it.

The ravine was teaming with life. None of it was quite like anything on earth, but it was similar. Snake-like creatures, birdlike creatures, ape-like creatures, and so on.

Suddenly he also heard someone let out a shriek.

-iii-

When he spun around he saw a little boy running away from him. He considered climbing back up and out of the ravine, but before he had time to decide one way or the other, he was surrounded by a number of young humanoid males with menacing spears.

There were some tense moments when he couldn’t tell if they were going to kill him or not. Apparently, the tribe had traditional enemies, and was at the ready to defend itself against any and all intruders. On the other hand, he didn’t look like an ordinary stranger. Curiosity tempered ferocity.

While they deliberated, an older man approached. I’ll call him a “man” since this was a humanoid species, and it was easy to tell the sexes apart. Apparently he was the chieftain. He studied Chris intently, then spoke to the warriors in some incomprehensible tongue. They gestured that he was to follow them into the village.

The village occupied part of the upper terrace—on either side of the ravine—in a slender column of row houses. The chieftain sat him down and proceeded to interrogate him. Of course, Chris didn’t know a word of their language, so the chieftain found the exercise frustrating and aggravating. The chieftain then sent for a man who appeared to be their witch doctor or shaman.

Chris decided that the shaman would be a good person to impress with a display of uncanny force. Chris had his laser pistol with him. So he shot a bird from a tree.

Everyone began to chatter in great agitation. The shaman was overawed, and bowed to the ground.

Not only were they stunned by his ability to kill at a distance, but as he later learned, the bird he killed was one of their gods. The fact that he had such power over a god made him some sort of god.

Since he didn’t know their language, he must be a god of another tribe. So why had he come to here?

-iv-

Over the next few months, Chris began to master their language. He learned much from them, and they learned much from him.

They called themselves the Burrone people. And the Burronese were not the only tribe in the ravine. Upstream were the Borro, and downstream were the Gola. There were other tribes further upstream and downstream as well. But there wasn’t much communication between the various tribes, because it was so difficult to traverse the ravine. Overland travel was almost impossible due to the dense, intractable vegetation. Tribes maintained a few trails around their villages for farming, hunting, fishing, and trapping—but nothing continuous. Indeed, the natural barriers cut down on tribal warfare.

It as impossible to take a canoe upstream, against the current. It was treacherous to take a canoe downstream, and even if you could ride out the rapids—that was a one-way trip. There were legends about tribesman who had taken a canoe all the way down the river to the end of the world.

There were other ravines with other tribes, but the desert was impassable. Raiding parties would sometimes travel along the surface of the ravine, but it was too hot to go very far by day, and too cold to go very far by night.

Because the ravine had such a narrow opening, the days were short. Indeed, as Chris was soon to observe, much of Burronese culture was adapted to the limited sunshine. Life in the shady ravine created a stark contrast between sunlight and daylight, for the sun was directly overhead for just a fraction of the day.

That was playtime for the Burronese. They would work all morning and afternoon, but take a break when the sun was visible. They would also go up to the surface to ritually greet the sun at dawn, and ritually bid it farewell at dusk. Their astronomical knowledge was limited by the fact that they could see so little of the sky.

Even though they were pretty primitive in many respects, they had a fairly sophisticated hydraulic system. They built a watermill, powered by the river. Water was pumped through bamboo-type piping to irrigate crops and supply the villagers with water for washing, cooking, drinking, and bathing.

-v-

Christ found it both fascinating and lonely to live among them. Although his space ship was till operable, he could never reach home with the wormhole gone.

But, for him, the Burronese also posed a theological conundrum. They were clearly a fallen race, as were the other planetary tribes, but they had no story of redemption. They were religious, in their own, retrograde way.

They worshipped certain animals. There was a leopard-like creature that was their war-god. They also had their share of bird-gods and snake-gods. They worshipped the forces of nature, like fire.

They believed that when you die, you take a canoe ride down the river to the end of the world. They dimly understood that the river emptied into a lake, which—in their religion—was a vast oasis.

But what were they here for? Why did God make them?

Chris had originally planned to be a pastor. But he was torn between his love of theology, and his love of science. A seminary dropout, the prospect of space exploration proved to be irresistible.

Now he felt a little guilty about his failure to share the gospel. But what could he say? They were aliens. They had no Gospel. No Savior. No incarnation.

His history wasn’t their history. They couldn’t be evangelized, for they were literally inhuman. What had happened in his world never occurred in theirs.

Did they exist as an object lesson in depravity? Reprobation without election to illustrate the gratuity of grace? Was darkness their portion?

Or did their redemption lie in the future? Was he an instrument of providence?

Perhaps he would be like an Old Testament prophet. His New Testament would be their Old Testament. Types and shadows prefiguring their redemption to come.

Is that why God sent him to this God-forsaken planet? A dislocated astronaut with a prophetic vocation?

He could die on this planet, keeping what he knew to himself. Marry a native girl. Father kids. Or he could try to make a difference.

-vi-

So Chris told them his own story. The story of his world. The story of his Redeemer.

Chris also decided to take the chieftain and the shaman on a ride in his spaceship. He showed them their planet. Showed them the polar ice-capped mountains. Showed them their ravine, as well as the other ravines. Showed them the enormous lakes—surrounded by oceans of sand.

At first, the chieftain and the shaman were excited to see the lakes. For them, this was like going to heaven without having to die. They insisted that he land by one of the lakes.

But when they disembarked, it wasn’t an oasis all. It was more like a furnace. They didn’t see their ancestors waiting to greet them, in a grand family reunion. All they saw was some brown shrubbery encircling a dead sea—a steaming, boiling body of water.

The shaman was crestfallen. After they returned to the ravine, the shaman hurled himself down from the upper terrace.

Chris had a final card to play. When the Burronese came up to the surface to celebrate their sunset ritual, he showed them all his spaceship. Then he got inside, and flew back into space. Surely they would believe him now. He came to them like a falling star. And he departed in a flaming chariot—like an angel returning heaven.

Surely the Burronese would tell the story to their children, and their children’s children. And share it with the neighboring peoples of Borro and Gola. And surely they would wait for another to come from above.

Hours passed as he orbited the forbidding planet. As his oxygen ran thin, he wondered if he’d done the right thing. Was it all in vain? To die in space on a suicide mission of his own contrivance? He had been presumptuous?

Perhaps they were a race of reprobates. Maybe it was a fool’s errand. As the Burronese slept, he began to fade from consciousness.

-vii-

Years later, as the Burronese were once again celebrating the sunset, they saw a meteoric light descending from the skies. Was it the Angel Gabriel, with an urgent message for a Burronese maiden—or a burning spaceship, reentering the atmosphere after its orbit decayed?

Tuesday's Child

-i-

Jeremy was playing with his mom’s Tarot deck. His mom was a psychic, you see. Why, it said so right on the hand-written sign in the front lawn.

His mom was a deeply spiritual woman. And deeply opposed to organized religion—for as she often explained to Jeremy, spirituality and religion had absolutely nothing in common.

His grandmother—a good, god-fearing woman—disapproved of her daughter’s occupation. She used to take Jeremy to church. But she died last year when Jeremy was 7.

Just before she died, she had given him a little cross to wear around his neck, tucked underneath his T-shirt. Mom would take it away if she saw it. So he had to keep it hidden from view.

His mom and dad split up when he was 5. That’s after his dad found out that his wife was having an affair with another woman. This being the West Coast, custody was awarded to his mom and her domestic partner.

His dad lived in New York. Dad would pay the occasional visit to Astoria to see his son on birthdays and Winter break—you were not allowed to call it “Christmas” in Oregon—but otherwise it was just Jeremy and his mom. Actually. Jeremy now had two mommies, but no daddy.

-ii-

Jeremy didn’t play cards. Rather, he played with cards.

He liked the cards because of the really neat pictures—like the Hierophant and Hanged Man. He used to play with them as if they were his friends because, well, because he didn’t have many other friends. Except for the family business, his mom was rather reclusive.

She kept the drapes drawn all hours of the day and night to screen out the evil eye. And the neighborhood kids stayed away from his house. Said it was haunted. Rumors of snakes and dead cats in the backyard.

One of the neighborhood boys said he slipped over the fence one day and came face to face with a King Cobra! His buddies all nodded in solemn awe whenever he told them the tale of his narrow escape from the fangs of death! None of the other kids had the nerve to check out his story.

When he was around, dad would take his son to the beach, or boating on the Columbia, but dad was never around—except for Winter break or his birthday. So it came down to Jeremy and his imaginary playmates.

Mom didn’t approve of his using her deck of cards. Not that she suffered from any moral compunctions, mind you. But she needed them for her business. She had to go looking for them every time she needed them.

They were scattered all over his room—like toy soldiers. He would stage battle scenes, with one suit attacking another suit. Spades against clubs, and hearts against diamonds.

She often told him not to play with her Tarot cards, but he didn’t pay attention. For one thing, she was far too enlightened to punish him. Discipline was child abuse. Spanking was a hate crime.

She tried to make him understand how much it hurt mommy’s feelings when he did these things, but somehow that didn’t reduce him to abject submission. She couldn’t very well send him to his room since that’s where he spent all his time in the first place. It was hard to be a progressive parent.

-iii-

One day he fell asleep while he was playing with her cards. He awoke when he felt someone tugging at his sleeve. It was the Fool. Only the Fool was now as tall as he was.

But when Jeremy looked around, there was nothing on the other side. The Fool was paper-thin. He had a front, but no back. Invisible unless you saw him from a certain angle.

The Fool was tugging and his sleeve and speaking to him. Somehow, the Fool had come alive. Maybe he was dreaming. Jeremy, that is.

“Wake up! Wake up!” it said.

Jeremy was too dumbfounded at first to say anything.

“Hurry up!” it said. “We must run away and hide,” it said.

“Why?” Jeremy asked

“Because she’s coming to get you,” it said.

“Who is coming to get me?” Jeremy asked.

“The High Priestess, of course!” he answered. “Come, I will take you to the Empress. She will protect you.”

“But where can we hide?” Jeremy asked, drowsily, still wiping his eyes. “Under the bed? In the closet?”

Jeremy thought he was still in his bedroom. And, in a way, maybe he was. But after his eyes began to cleared, he took a look around.

Above him was the open sky. The ceiling was gone. It was a full moon. With twinkling stars. Just like a postcard.

In the moonlight, he could also dimly see that the walls of his room were gone. The furniture was still there, but where the walls had been was a forest on every side.

The Fool took him by the hand and they ran into the woods. Jeremy had a pocket full of marbles, and he dropped a marble on the ground every so often so that he could find his way back.

Because of the moonlight, they were able to see pretty well, although Jeremy still stumbled over branches in the dark. Behind him he heard the clickety-clack of horses galloping in the distance. Whatever it was, it was gaining on them. As it came closer, the ground began to shake.

He looked over his shoulder and saw a horse-drawn carriage bearing down on them like a freight train. He felt like he was trying to outrun a train. Like he would stumble and fall on the tracks.

The glint of the lanterns shone like a pair of fiery eyes. The roar of the horses thundered in his ears. Finally, the Fool yanked him off to the side of the trail before they were tramped underfoot by the carriage.

The carriage abruptly halted. The horses were flicked with white foam from their exertions.

The carriage door opened and the High Priestess emerged.

“She looks like a witch!” Jeremy whispered to the Fool.

“She is a witch,” he said, under his breath. “But it’s impolite to call people witches nowadays,” he said. “So we call her the High Priestess instead.”

She stalked over to the huddled pair.

“Fool,” she began, in an imperious tone of voice. “Did you really think you could make off with the boy?”

“The Empress has a rightful claim on him,” he answered. “Everyone in the land of Arcana is subject to my Mistress.”

“Spoken like a royal Fool!” she cackled. “Or should I say the court jester?”

The Fool was tempted to reply, but bit his tongue.

“Come here, Jeremy,” she said, extending a cadaverous hand with long sharp nails.

“How do you know may name?” he asked.

“You can’t see into our world, but we can see into yours,” she answered.

“Bind the Fool and take him with us!” she told the coachman, who looked like a troll.

“Where are we headed,” Jeremy asked, as they got into the carriage.

“To the Tower,” she replied.

-iv-

When they arrived, wolves were guarding the premises. A man wearing a tiara was the porter. He accompanied the Priestess and her captives to the rood tower.

“Bind the Fool to the Wheel of Fortune,” she ordered the Hierophant, “to punish him for his treachery!”

“And now for you, young man!”

“What about me?” Jeremy said.

“Up until this evening, our two worlds were walled off from one another, but now that you’ve been able to invade my domain, by your black magical arts, I may be able to invade yours and reign in both.”

“I don’t practice black magic,” Jeremy protested.

“No, but your mother does, and you were playing with her deck of cards. That’s how you got here. The question is how to reverse the process.”

She sat down with a deck of cards.

“You mean, you play cards, too?” he asked.

“Why not” she said, slightly affronted.

“It’s just funny to see one card play cards.”

“They’re imaginary characters,” she said, looking at her deck of cards. “We’re the real thing! What’s imaginary in your world is real in ours, while what’s real in our world is imaginary in yours! Here, cartomancy is a science, and cosmology is a pseudoscience; there; cosmology is a science, and cartomancy is a pseudoscience.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Jeremy said.

“You’ll understand when you’re older,” she said. “If you live that long,” she added—ominously.

“What are you going to do to me?” he said?

“We need to take you back to your bedroom and open the door.”

“So why don’t we just go back?” he asked.

“Because my evil sister may be on the look out for you. She has spies, you know. Especially the elderberry bushes. Never trust an elderberry bush!”

“Your evil sister?” he asked.

“I mean, the ‘Empress,’ as she’s pleased to call herself.”

“I’m sorry to hear you have an evil sister,” he said, trying to play for sympathy.

“Yes, our mother was terribly disappointed. You see, my sister was only moderately evil, whereas our mother was hoping, through good breeding and a liberal arts education, to have a purely evil daughter. Good witches are such a bore, you know. But everyone loves a wicked witch. The badder the better. It was quite a let down until I was born. I was her favorite!” she said, beaming with filial pride.

As she spoke, the Priestess was laying cards on the table, face up, when—all of a sudden—the Tower was struck by lightning. The wolves began to bay.

“She found us first!” the Priestess, exclaimed.

“Who?” Jeremy asked.

“My evil sister. I must make my escape!”

With that, the Priestess hopped on a broomstick and flew out the window.

-v-

Down below, Jeremy could hear the wolves howling and growling, followed by the sound of footsteps mounting the staircase. The rood tower echoed with the rising entourage.

Finally, two rows spear-bearing guards entered the rood tower, followed by a breathless woman in purple robes—with her Magus taking up the rear.

“Release the Fool from the Wheel of Fortune and take the boy to my carriage,” she commanded.

“Where am I going,” Jeremy asked, as they were riding along.

“To your bedroom,” she said. “You must show us the way.”

“I don’t know if I remember the way,” he said. “It was awfully dark in the woods.”

“Don’t lie to me, little boy!” she shrieked, “unless you want to end up like him!” as she gestured to the Hanged Man, seated on the other side.

Jeremy thought to himself, “Wasn’t this supposed to be the good witch?”

The sun was dawning, and Jeremy could make out the marbles along the trail. When they arrived at his bedroom, the Empress said, “Show us the door!”

Jeremy looked back at her blankly. For the door had vanished when the walls went away and the ceiling disappeared.

“Stupid boy!” she said. “What I’m asking you is, where was the door? I know you can’t see it. It’s invisible.”

Jeremy pointed to where the door used to be. The Empress snapped her fingers at the Magus.

He walked over to that side of the bedroom, uttered a Latin incantation, and the door reappeared. He tried the knob, but the door was locked.

The Empress was furious. “Where’s the key?” she screamed.

Jeremy didn’t know what to do. He dearly wanted to escape, but he didn’t want to take her along with him into his own world. Then he thought of something.

“Wait a minute while I look for the key,” he said, strolling over to his toy box as he pretended to look for the key.

While he was rummaging through the toy box, with his back turned to the Empress, he felt for his cross. It was still there, underneath his T-shirt. He then said a prayer his grandmother taught him before she died.

All at once, the other cards came alive, like figures stepping out of a picture frame. One by one they introduced themselves:

“I’m King David,” said the King of Spades.

“I’m Charlemagne,” said the King of Diamonds.

“I’m Judas Maccabaeus,” said the Jack of Clubs.

“I’m Olgier Danemarche,” said the Jack of Spades.

“Attack them!” said Jeremy, pointing to the Empress and her royal retinue.

Then a great battle ensued. Her guards outnumbered Jeremy’s little band. But his warriors were better the spear, sword, slingshot, and crossbow.

In the melee, Jeremy headed for the door and locked it behind him. On the other side of the door he could hear the clatter of swords and spears. Snapping bones and shrieks of pain.

At that point, Jeremy did what any sensible, levelheaded, well-adjusted, and enterprising boy would do. He went into the kitchen and made himself a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich.

After his snack he went back and put his ear to the bedroom door. He heard nothing on the other side.

Warily, he opened the door just a crack and took a peek inside. The room was back to normal. The sky was gone. The woods were gone. The rug was strewn with playing cards.

-vi-

Next day, he decided to burn the deck of cards in the backyard on a rusty old BBQ. He only saved the King of Spades, Jack of Spades, King of Hearts and Jack of Clubs—which he put beside his model plane on the chest of drawers.

In the following weeks he started to attend Sunday school, waking to the very same church his beloved grandmother used to take him to. And he began to play with the neighborhood boys.

Mom was naturally distraught by his delinquent behavior. And things went from bad to worse. A few years later she was shocked and appalled to find a Bible under his mattress when she was hoping to uncover a syringe or condom.

She had tried so hard to raise him right. But there was nothing much she could do about it. It was hard to be a progressive parent.

By Gihon's Gilded Shores

-i-

Ethan was in a daze when he got home.

Well, to tell the truth, he’d been in a daze for several weeks. Headaches, blurry vision, and misremembering. He even thought he saw his doppelganger a few times.

Still, the diagnosis came as something of a shock. Or, perhaps I should say, prognosis.

The oncologist tried to be as upbeat as possible, floating the hope of experimental therapies, but terminal brain cancer had a certain ring of finality.

As a life-long Christian, Ethan had imagined that he would be better prepared for the prospect of death.

He had seen his saintly grandmother die a peaceful death, haloed with the hope of immorality knocking at the door.

And, indeed, Ethan was a believer. But believing was one thing, and knowing was another. Or was it?

He had no reason to doubt. Indeed, he had every reason not to doubt.

But imaginary doubts have a way of bootstrapping their own conception, gestation, and birth.

He had faith, but how could he trust his own state of mind at this stage of the game? Was his faith a grace of God, or merely a symptom of his cancerous delirium?

He had read of signs and wonders. And heard of many more. But that was hearsay.

God had spoken to the prophets, but not to him. No burning bush or water into wine in his own experience.

Where was God?

-ii-

Ethan woke up in the middle of the night. Or, perhaps I should say, he was awaked from sleep.

At the foot of his bed stood a shadowy figure. Ethan tried to suppress his terror.

At first he pretended to be asleep; hoping he would, in fact, fall asleep; hoping the specter would go away.

But even with his eyes shut, he sensed the specter staring at him—as if it could pierce his eyelids with the intensity of its gaze.

At last he sat upright and addressed the specter.

“Who are you?”

“I am Legion.”

“What do you want?”

“To do you a favor.”

“What sort of favor?”

“I can cure you.”

“What’s the point? I’m already an old man. I’m going to die sooner or later. I admit the diagnosis threw me for a curve. Like everyone else I’ve been procrastinating about the inevitable. Maybe I needed this jolt to prepare me for my final end.”

“But that’s the catch, now isn’t it?”

“What catch?”

“It’s easy to believe when you have no other alternative. As long as you’re going to die anyway. What kind of faith is that? But suppose I could make you well? Suppose I could make you young? Suppose I could make you immortal? Then how would you choose?”

“I don’t know. I never thought about it.”

“Then give it some thought, and tell me how you choose when I return.”

-iii-

And, indeed, that’s all Ethan could think about the next day. But wouldn’t this be apostasy? If he were wrong, he would forfeit eternal life for this hopeful hallucination. Or maybe it was the other way around. Was eternal life the delusion? Maybe there was no heaven or hell. Only here and now. Why mortgage the present on a future that might never come?

Either way, the stakes were equally high. If he accepted the offer, and he was wrong, he would damn himself for all eternity. God would never forgive him. Or could he take it back?

He could only know by giving it a try, but by that time it would be too late to rectify his mistake. Ethan’s mind went round and round.

-iv-

Once again, Ethan awoke in the middle of the night. Once again, the specter was standing at the foot of the bed.

“How do you decide?”

“I can’t?”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know what to believe. What if I accept your offer, and it turns out badly?”

“Then I’ll make you another offer. So it’s risk-free, you see.”

“What do I do?”

“Follow this map. It will take you to Gihon spring, deep in the woods. Take a drink. The spring will restore your youth. Render you ageless.”

-v-

The next morning, Ethan woke up with the usual headache. Blurry vision. Forgetfulness.

He showered, shaved, and dressed. Then, when he went to put his wristwatch on, he saw the map on the chest of drawers.

So he drove to the countryside. The trail was overgrown with underbrush, making it a hot and tiresome hike. Age and ill health made it even more onerous.

Without the map, he would have lost his way many times. But finally he arrived at the spring.

The aureate tint of the gurgling the waters set it apart from any an ordinary spring.

Even under normal circumstances, a drink of cool spring water would be refreshing after such a hike. But the flavor of this water was especially bracing.

He decided to lie down for a little nap before retracing his steps. When he awoke, the sun was already edging towards the horizon.

But his headache was gone, and there was a new spring in his step.

It was nearly dark when he got back to the car. After arriving home, he went to the bathroom.

What he saw in the mirror as soon as he switched on the light was amazing. It’s as if the odometer of his life had been turned back to the time he was twenty or so.

-vi-

There were some unforeseen circumstances when he accepted Legion’s offer.

His picture ID was out of date. And he couldn’t very well update his picture ID, for there was a mismatch between his present appearance and his date of birth.

Neighbors also began to notice that they never saw Ethan around the house. Instead, some young kid was coming and going.

A homicide detective came rapping at the door. Ethan was able to bluff his way through the conversation, yet it was clear that he had only succeeded in arousing rather than dispelling the detective’s suspicions.

The next time the detective came rapping at the door, he would no doubt have a search warrant in hand.

So Ethan suddenly found himself on the run. He was able to book a flight to Rio, since Brazil had no extradition treaty.

No doubt life as a fugitive was a small price to pay for immortality, but it did put a crimp in his plans. And the irony of it all is that he was completely innocent, yet he couldn’t afford to prove his innocence, lest someone dissect him for his immortal genes.

So he’d have to lay low for a few decades. Create a new identity.

Indeed, to be an immortal in a world of mortals meant recreating your identity every generation or so—as he was to discover.

He couldn’t get married. Or even have a girlfriend for very long. He couldn’t live in one place for very long.

It was only a matter of time before the natives began to notice that Ethan was immune to the passage of time. He could only visit Monte Carlo every so often. Every few decades, really.

If you went back too soon—say, thirty years later—and the same card dealer was still there, it would raise awkward questions. Hazardous questions.

He made many new friends. But the trouble with making new friends is that they had a habit of eventually dying of old age.

And he had to fake the aging process himself—as best he could.

At first he reveled in his apostasy. The nice thing about being an apostate is that you could cast off all the hang-ups of organized religion.

And Ethan was in a hurry to make up for lost time. Not that he needed to be in a hurry. It took him a while to make the mental adjustment.

He had all the time in the world. He would be alive until the sun went supernova.

For the first few years, he wondered to himself how he was ever able to put up with the utterly suffocating, claustrophobic creed of organized religion. Life was so much bigger than the four walls of a church.

But with time to burn, time began to burn a hole in his proverbial pocket.

He didn’t dare have a wife and kids. And even if they kept his secret, he would outlive them. He would have to watch them die, one by one, of old age.

No wife or mistress. Just a trip to the local brothel.

He did attempt to make one exception. For there was one woman who was everything he ever wanted in a woman. The sort of woman that a man could only hope to meet once in a thousand years. Which meant, for most men, never meeting her at all. But as an immortal, the odds of meeting her were greatly improved.

She would be the love of his life. Or, should I say, the love of his many lives. His serial lives, as he traded on alias for another. Or so he hoped.

He didn’t care about risk. She was too good to lose.

He tried taking her to Gihon spring. But the spring had dried up. Legion’s offer was to him, and him alone.

And it wasn’t just people that died on you. Places changed.

He began to appreciate the sense of place. Place was a beachhead against the high tide of time. Place was memory externalized. A way of fixing memory.

We associate people with places. Even when the people are gone, the places remind us of them. But when both are gone, what is left?

He went back to his hometown for the first time in 50 years. But his parents’ house was gone. His grandparents’ house was gone. His junior high school was gone. His high school was gone.

Without these outward dikes to dam the flood of time, the loss of continuity began to erode his sense of identity.

Everything which anchored him to his past was gone. His childhood. Coming of age. First love.

And making new friends, far from replacing old friends, accentuated the sense of loss.

Even if his new friends had been immortal, they could never take the place of those he’d grown up with. Those with whom he’d come of age. His father and mother. Brother and sister. His adolescent buddies. His high school sweetheart.

There was no substitute for that look of recognition in the eyes, when you spoke of shared memories.

To mention a girl you both knew from high school. To mention a trip you once took with your brothers.

There’s a reason these were called the formative years. They were irrevocable.

The isolation became unbearable. The dislocation became maddening. It was like being an amnesiac. Knowing no one and known to no one.

And there was one more thing. Before his rejuvenation, he had been an avid nature lover. And after his rejuvenation, he was looking forward to revisiting his favorite haunts as well as exploring a hundredfold more.

And yet, for some reason, which he couldn’t quite put his finger on, it didn’t have the same resonance.

-vii-

So, at the age of 473, he demanded that Legion put in an appearance.

“I’m tired of living like this!”

“So soon?”

“I’d rather die. Give me back my brain cancer!”

“If you wish. But there is another alternative.”

“What’s that?”

“I could send you back in time to when you really were about twenty. And I could immortalize your loved ones as well.”

“That would be better. Yes, that would make a world of difference.”

-viii-

And it was better—for a time. He offered to take his best friends to Gihon Spring. He offered to take his next of kin to Gihon Spring.

His grandmother was the only holdout. To her, apostasy was not an option. Life without Christ was a living death.

Her refusal was a disappointment to him. For she was one of the people he cared the most about—because she was one of the people who cared the most about him. And she died as she lived—praying for his soul.

But while that was loss, there was gain. They could face the future together.

One by one they drank the water. And it changed them. Renewed them.

Yet it changed them in other ways as well.

When he told his younger brother Austin about the spring, the first reaction took him aback. He saw disillusionment in his brother’s eyes.

Austin always looked up to Ethan. Ethan was his hero. Ethan’s piety was a cornerstone of Austin’s piety.

So Ethan’s apostasy left his younger brother shattered. But eventually he succumbed to temptation. Indeed, the loss of faith made it easy.

His mother, father, and older brother Dominic, none of whom were what you’d call devout, needed no convincing.

Neither did Selina, his high school sweetheart, or Brad, his best friend from junior high and high school.

Everything was looking up—for a while.

But one of the unforeseen complications of immortalizing your love ones is that they will also want to immortalize their loved ones, and so on. And all their loves ones are not the same as all your loves ones.

Here you were hoping to spend eternity with all, and only, your loved ones, only to find yourself in the company of folks you’d rather avoid.

Ethan found that he was unable to immortalize only his own loved ones, for some of them were unhappy unless the same benefit was extended to all of their loved ones.

Yet another oversight is that, because his loved ones had been dead so long, it slipped his mind that things had not been all that idyllic to begin with.

It’s easier to love some people after they’re gone. You can forget about all of their irritating traits, and just remember the good things about them.

But having immortalized his loved ones, he immortalized all of their irritating traits.

In his memory he had unconsciously rewritten parts of the past. Made some signal improvements. Perfected the past.

He forgot that his mother never understood the first thing about men. He forgot that his dad was the consummate backseat driver.

And he also forgot why he and Brad drifted apart in the first place. Indeed, “drifted apart” is a euphemism. They had a falling out over Selina. They were both in love with the same woman.

Now he was right back to the same ménage a trois.

What is more, Selina wasn’t the way he remembered her. How could she be?

He hadn’t seen her for over five hundred years. The Selina he remembered, the Selina he idolized, was the legend. The ingénue, forever frozen in time at sweet sixteen.

Not a real woman. Or a real wife. But a fantasy.

And it now occurred to him, for the very first time, that this is why he could never settle down with another woman.

I don’t mean, when he was immortal the first time around. I mean back when he was still a mortal.

In fact, it dawned on him that he might have had a happy marriage with any one of several other women he met over the years if he hadn’t been constantly comparing them with Selina. How could any flesh-and-blood female compete with a legend?

What is more—having now known countless women over the centuries, he could suddenly see her for what she really was all along—just a normal, ordinary girl.

When he was a teenager, Selina was a goddess. A star in the constellation.

In the meantime, his parents were getting a divorce. They had a good, working marriage back when the two of them expected to grow old together. Nurse each other in their dotage.

They were sensible people. Life is short. You take what you can get. You settle for less. You make the most of what you’ve got.

But now, restored to youth, with limitless opportunities ahead of them, they could afford to be more finicky. They had the luxury of time to find the perfect mate. The husband or wife of their dreams.

And this degenerated into a lawsuit over the division of their assets.

Early one, without consulting Ethan, his parents decided to cash in on Gihon’s spring. There was a fortune to be made. People would pay anything for immortality.

They took out a loan to buy the tract of land on which the spring was situated. They then had various investors put in a bid. Billionaires. Multibillionaires. Multinational corporations.

For a time, they were living the high life. But as is so often the case, a dream come true is only as good as your wildest dreams.

Success is the worst thing that can happen to some people.

Austin became a compulsive gambler. Dominic became a compulsive womanizer. Both became alcoholics and drug addicts.

The property deed was challenged in court. The state exercised eminent domain.

Overnight, Ethan’s family was dirt poor—hopelessly mired in unimaginable debt.

A civil war ensued when Washington attempted to federalize the land, after having been seized by the state.

The civil war escalated into a world war as everyone attempted to wrest control of Gihon’s spring from everyone else.

That’s before Gihon’s spring went up in smoke—or, more precisely—a mushroom cloud.

In a fallen world, eternal life is a living hell.

Ethan saw the fallout on the horizon when he went hiking one day. He was still trying to figure out why the mountains and streams and other wonders of the natural world had ceased to inspire him they way the used to—before Legion first appeared to him.

Then it came to him. Or, rather, it came back to him. Flooding back. Before his apostasy, there was more to nature that meets the eye. Nature was a sign.

Behind a tree stood the tree of life. Behind the starry heavens stood the throne of heaven. Behind a stream stood the river of life. Behind a mountain or high hill stood Mt. Zion. Behind the dawn stood Eastern morn. Behind a woman stood the Church.

And behind it all lay God, as the surpassing good in every earthly good, and greater good in every incidental evil.

Where was God? God was everywhere he looked. But, up until now, that had been subliminal. Something he took for granted. Something so familiar that it escapes our jaded gaze.

That’s what he was missing. God was there all along. God was writ so large that he couldn’t see him—for the whole of a nature was an allegory or theophany, of which Scripture was the key.

Throw away the key, and nature is all surface. An antique photograph. A thin film of sepia.

Once more, he demanded an audience with Legion.

“I repent! I recant! I take it all back!”

“As you wish.”

-ix-

Ethan woke up the next morning with a headache. He showered, shaved, and dressed for church.