A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."
—Stephen Crane, War is Kind and Other Lines
He was balancing, of course, on top of the wooden beam and his arms were stretched out at his sides with his palms turned downward. Earlier, Isaac had shuffled up the concrete stairs of the downtown side of Veterans' Bridge and was surprised that traffic could shake the bridge in unceasing abuse. It seemed that the constant shaking would have been unbearable. He wondered how the span had stood for fifty years without crumbling into the cold black water below.
It was cold here; his nose was cold so he blew, jutting out his jaw, to direct the warmer air from his lungs to bathe his numb nose. At the same time, new waterproof duck shoes that he paid five dollars for at the Saint Vincent de Paul store had no trouble gripping the two-inch surface of a two-by-six temporary railing. Isaac's world was this board; he balanced, feeling like a giant on a minuscule wooden bridge spanning the hole blasted through the side of a larger bridge.
Once past the folded outer ramparts, Feileb felt the rumbling of the canti'cle wash over her in waves and the heat from the immeasurable depths warmed her carapace. She paused in the immense darkness to prepare herself for a sending from the source of life.
This visit, she had an unusually urgent reason for striving for inner peace before entering. Outside, the weather was becoming unpredictable; a weird, frenzied growth was taking over their crops and strangers were threatening the Pariah. More and more citizens were being called to fight in these uncertain times.
As her six paired legs propelled her forward with smooth sweepings, the intensity of the canti'cle grew and its steady sub-tone washed over her with increasing frequency. Her legs moved in time to it, her heartbeat had become similarly synchronized, and her eyestalks swayed as she descended through the ridges and hollows heading steadily downward. As of late, her natural unusually strong attunement was strengthening, seemingly in proportion to the mounting chaos in the...
Her own sensitivity to the canti'cle, Feileb knew, was greater than most of the seers who had come before her. Yet she was not as confident as she once was. This horrible disruption which threatened the Pariah and all of the land extended to, or perhaps even emanated from, the life vibration.... She felt another surge of uncertainty, which she forced away. But the canti'cle, Feileb reminded herself, was, and always will be; it is life and breath for all.... She would meet this challenge to prove her worth.
The terrain in the sacred cave became convoluted and folded; the determined diviner began to use her forelimb spurs to keep from sliding out of control. Carefully lowering herself to a ledge before the sacred ring, Feileb felt her entire body vibrating with the canti'cle. The sensation was always familiar, but now it was never the same. Feileb forced herself to concentrate on a relaxing technique that she had learned from the previous seer, her teacher.
The intensity of her coming trance was a shock; she was unprepared for its suddenness. Her mind reeled, groped reflexively, struggled for control, and Feileb's light-sensitive bulbs retracted with her body's response to the shock—consciousness faded and the canti'cle surged...
"I'm dreaming… of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to..."
Isaac hummed the rest of the line as a sustained gust of wind caught his oversized long coat, pushing against it as a sail, expecting him to glide away under its power.
With the shove, Isaac bent his knees and let his upper body turn with the steady cold wind, maintaining his center of balance like a dancer with slow, sure movements.
Poised on the edge of a pine board filling a gap where a car had broken through the retaining structure, two hundred feet and more above the Ohio River, this 32-year-old man embodied a grace and economy of movement which had previously only arisen in certain 'magical' memories that he had of his lost youth—playing Frisbee with his father, and, at a wedding reception where he had felt barely connected to his body and the dancing.
The wind faded and Isaac continued to hum the Christmas carol under his breath. He was a man not infatuated with music, but he sang, or hummed or whistled bits of songs and tunes he remembered whenever his life was difficult and he was troubled or upset, or when—when deliberately pacing on the board edge. Measured steps to one sawed-off end, a careful pirouette, and another pass to the other end. It was dark except for widely spaced streetlights. The crisp sky presented billions of stars to unseeing speeding motorists on the bridge below.
Few drivers noticed the stars or anything but what was immediately before them—a car, the area of blurred pavement illuminated by headlights—and, of these few who noticed so little, none of them saw Isaac's deliberate pacing or heard his voice raised in song.
Hope Webber was a pessimist. But she was an incomplete pessimist because she thought of herself as an optimist—the pessimism was creeping up on her just as steadily as her birthday, a week away.
Her world was a place that she was sure of; she knew without question that she could be extremely successful and possibly even happy if she were careful and did everything right: if she paid her bills, cultivated especially 'useful' friends, performed preventive maintenance on her two-year-old car and 24-year-old body.
The route she took while jogging had remained fixed since she had planned it out on the city map that she kept in her tidy glove compartment. Hope wasn't afraid of becoming bored with routine; the concept of boredom was foreign to her. Jogging was not fun; it was simply a means to an end. Being healthy, attractive, keeping her options open—these things demanded payment, and to her it was worth it. Four point two miles on her car's digital odometer: the long run. Four tenths of a mile less and a bypass over Veterans Bridge: the short run. Tonight, she was running late.
Hope had attended college and graduated with scholastic honors; she'd found a decent job with growth potential and 'portfolio appeal,' and she'd bought a sensible car to match her personal appearance and other choices that she'd made in her surroundings over her lifetime. Everything that she did was meticulously scheduled. It was her anchor to the reality that she was so sure of. Nightly runs begin at 6:30; she was twenty minutes late tonight, but she always allowed half an hour extra, and besides, the bridge was open again to pedestrian traffic and she wanted to see where the accident had been.
This well-scheduled woman with fluorescent yellow tabs on her shoes, a gore-tex jogging suit and fuzzy sweatband that covered her forehead—this sensibly attractive woman experienced an electric shock when, with the wind at her back and her brown hair waggling, she looked to her left and saw a man! hovering in the thin air above her. Hope's body spasomed in shock and hopped sideways in mid step towards oncoming traffic. She collected herself and stepped back onto the safety of the bridge sidewalk, whirling to face the man, her breathing fast and her body tense.
"What..?" she gasped, not aware of whether she spoke aloud or not.
The man was not hovering, he was standing on a board—walking and balancing with nothing to hold on to—like a high wire act in the circus.
Hope was recovering from her surprise. She looked behind and around her and there was no one else, no one.
She was jogging in place on the sidewalk a safe distance from the man.
He continued his strange balancing without appearing to notice her.
"Pardon me," she asked. "Are you all right?"
The man, who was probably crazy but almost certainly not drunk, answered with a
"No, not really, but thank you,"
and continued his mesmerizing movement from one end of the board to the other.
Hope was having a hard time reconciling that gentle, sane voice with the man's appearance and situation. She looked to the snow on the sidewalk and back at the man up on the board. He may have been her favorite uncle by his voice. He didn't look like him however; Uncle Jim was always tastefully yet casually dressed. This man, still balancing up there like he wasn't afraid—he stank. It was that old, sweetly pungent smell that she always associated with panhandlers sitting on the steps outside of buildings on the lower end of the street where she lived. Hope shifted her weight from foot to foot. She nodded quickly to herself as much as to the stranger, and was turning to go away when that almost familiar voice stopped her.
"Beautiful sky, isn't it?"
"Oh," she answered reflexively. She hadn't noticed. She looked up.
The man completed a neat turn at the end of the flimsy looking board—why
won't he get down? I hope he won't come down here—
The man hadn't looked at her; his gaze was centered on that narrow looking board. Hope wanted to go; her time was ticking away... Yet his voice... Why was he here?
"I like winter nights the best," the man said.
"When the sky is so clear and the air is so crisp and when it hurts when I breathe."
Hope felt hypnotized... nagging thoughts of her night's schedule faded away. His voice did sound like her uncle's. Exactly. Somehow different, but had the same honest openness. She felt—if only he would hold onto something and get down!
"I like to run in the winter," Hope said to the man, surprising herself.
"Ah," he answered, conveying understanding and warmth.
"I used to run, though maybe not the way you do. I would run and run, and never think of stopping."
Covering her nose briefly with a mitten, Hope said,
"I'm running a little more than three and a half miles tonight."
The man was in the middle of the board now. The ends were far apart, and the young woman felt a sudden queasiness in her stomach as she watched. She wanted to ask him a question, but she was afraid. Not until he was closer to the end of the board would she say anything. She didn't want to distract him.
"It sure is nice to meet you. I'm Isaac."
The man's voice surprised her again. She had been watching his feet.
"Hope," she managed to say. "I'm Hope," she said a little louder.
Isaac didn't say anything, but Hope saw his teeth in the night sky and thought
that he was smiling. She bent her knees and hugged herself—she waited until he
was near the end of the narrow board and asked,
"Isaac, why are you here?"
"Because I'm going to jump."
Feileb was not aware of her body; she was not aware that her eyestalks had retracted into the top of her triangular head and that her six legs had locked—typical symptoms of systemic shock. Reactively, her forelimb spurs had anchored the rest of her body to the soft ground of the inner Chancel.
In her dream-like state, she was aware of all; she was all. There was no awareness of her physical form or of the place where it stood locked in rigor. She had expanded beyond; she had merged as before with the essence of creation from which the canti'cle emanated, but previous mental journeys seemed mere dips beneath the surface in comparison to where she found herself now....
As awareness expanded, she experienced her individual-ness being peeled away, layer by layer, as if each portion of her was torn away and shredded to pieces. She felt a raw nerve tickling of her consciousness and that weakening essence, which had been her, was disappearing in the Trance. What had once been Feileb gave way to, and resonated with...became one-with the greater presence of: maker.
The transformation, her essential disintegration and mystic rebirth, was complete. On the edge of an abyss, poised on a precipice facing simultaneous annihilation and salvation, her new self permanently locked in a conscious state of liberating focus: the seer understood.
Samoh't rested with his fighting detachment in a depression that offered protection from the battle. The enemy was cunning, curse their existence! Their last sortie into the Pariah had resulted in the heaviest losses yet among citizens and fighters alike. Patches of intense fighting, citizens pitted against foreigners, pockets of conflict moved shadow-like across the land. Scores of prone citizens peppered the plains between the Pariah's outer ramparts and the entrenched enemy. They had not perished alone. The weary warrior recalled with cruel pleasure the stunted, torn bodies that had fallen beneath his own thrashing limbs. Foreigners littered the plain in even greater numbers than his own unfortunate kind.
The ferocity of the foreigners, no matter their diminutive size, and their alarming numbers, hung over his head, a constant reminder of terrible changes in the land. Samoh't had reliable scouts, and news of an enemy that darkened all the lands as far as they could see, moving toward the Pariah... Well, something must be done. He is a protector of the community. He must protect the Pariah.
Nearby, a lieutenant, brave and battle ferocious, lay on his side with a thick, weary limb supporting a massive head. Exertion had tapped his formidable energy. Dark moisture ran from his carapace in rivulets while lateral vents strained to disperse heat through evaporation. His scarred carapace was battered. He turned to his superior.
"Commander, they will not wait long before trying again. How will we defeat them?"
"It is obvious we cannot. Yet—"
Commander Samoh't turned to a lean messenger lying in exhaustion on the opposite
side of the protective gulch.
"—Go to the community where they are gathered at the center of Pariah. Tell them to move to the highlands, to the emergency fortifications. Go quickly."
The messenger had heaved itself upright at the sound of the commander's voice, signaled obedience with its feelers, and trotted away.
Samoh't addressed another runner that moved forward automatically as the first
messenger moved away.
"Notify division commanders to prepare for attack. We will strike before the enemy can reinforce. Tell them to await my signal." The second messenger snapped his feelers in obedience and scuttled over a rise, disappearing.
Almost immediately, a scuffle ensued from the direction the messenger had taken. The lieutenant and several fighters jumped forward in protection mode. Noise intensified and suddenly Feileb the seer appeared, accompanied by the second messenger whose sensitive receptive feelers were twitching in anxiety.
Samoh't's voice boomed.
"This is no place for you, seer! Go to the Pariah and console citizens that have lost family."
Feileb dropped into the hollow where the commander and his command detachment rested.
"I will do more by being here."
Samoh't replied somewhat wearily.
"Your talents do not suit this business. Go to where you are safe."
"I will speak with you privately," Feileb told the commander.
This seer was mindful of their differences in duty to the Pariah. In the past, there had been an underlying level of tension in their communication: a warrior's mistrust and a spiritualist's contempt for a warrior's task. Her new conviction state, however, dissolved all previous difficulties; the Vision of what was to come still whirled in her mind; in fact, it had expanded to influence every moment of thought. She had no doubt that she could save the Pariah. It was foreseen.
The lieutenant dropped back to a sitting position after sending more scouts to inspect the area of their coming counterstrike. It was important to make sure that enemy spies had not followed the seer. The subordinate watched Samoh't. His commander would not have eternal patience for a well-intentioned citizen, even if she represented the Chancel. The lieutenant respected the diviner's religious wisdom, but wisdom was useless during war. The battlefield was no place for a civilian, holy or not.
"Samoh't, I would speak with you privately," Feileb repeated.
The commander stomped three legs.
"You endanger lives while you divert my attention—the enemy is using every moment to act against us!"
"That is what I wish to discuss," Feileb said. She gestured for him to accompany her to a secluded corner of the hollow. Samoh't grunted, and with sudden movements strode away with the seer toward a niche in the protective valley.
The lieutenant observed the commander's back and the seer's firm gestures. They were out of listening range.
After a remarkably long time, the lieutenant noticed his commander's displays of impatience cease...
Suddenly Feileb attached to Samoh't by the upper limbs.
Time slowed. The commander was exhibiting classic shock: rigid immobility, retracted eyestalks... The lieutenant's instinct propelled him forward. This was a diviner's trick—the seer had forced Samoh't into a religious trance! Before the lieutenant could tear them apart, his commander's body spasmed and the leader staggered backward. Surprisingly quickly, his commander's shock-like symptoms faded as if they had never been. The leader locked gazes with the seer for long moments before speaking.
The commander's feelers flexed with command as he addressed the lieutenant.
"Go personally and find the runner that went to Pariah. If you cannot stop him—if he has delivered my former message and the citizens are moving to the fortifications, tell them, tell all of them: 'It is Commander Samoh't's order that you enter the Chancel immediately if you will survive this day.'"
Adrenaline squeezed her heart. She felt queasy. Without trying, Hope had started
to like Isaac. Normally she was cautious. But, about him... she cared. Her mind
raced as she tried to find a way to respond to what he had just said (he wants
"You've got so much to live for—Isaac." The young woman felt as if she was pleading for her own life.
Isaac stood at one end of the board. Smoothly and steadily, he executed a pirouette, and then started walking again. Foot after foot.
"You're right," he said. "And you want to know something? I'm still sure that I can enjoy spring after a cold winter with all those indescribable smells of life in my nose."
Hope nodded encouragingly.
"I'm even sure—" He paused, perfectly balanced, nearly at the end of the board,
and then moved slowly forward again.
"—that hot chocolate will still taste good years from now, and I do know that the sun does rise, also. So I'm not horribly depressed. I just know what's going on. I have foreseen my future, and I've reconciled with my past... my beautiful tortured, shit-low wonderful past." Isaac sniffed and blew warm air up at his nose.
"I'm just tired of being acted on. Now it's my turn. I will finally do something."
Hope felt his intensity, his earnestness, but his words didn't explain anything. There was always hope, wasn't there? And to willingly stop living... Isaac seemed like a good person; he shouldn't die.
The young woman felt that a decision was made inside of her. She begun moving slowly closer towards Isaac. She had to do something. Isaac held up his right hand without speaking. Hope stopped five feet from the man on the broken edge of the bridge.
"Oh Isaac, I will be here for you. I promise."
"I'm sorry," Isaac said. "I know that you think I'm throwing everything away, but I'm not. I'm just doing something with my life."
"Why don't you try… with me?"
Isaac sighed. His breath steamed and he was tired and cold and stiff.
"Do you really want to help me?"
"Then come up here."
The young woman struggled to whisper,
"I know," Isaac said levelly.
"I can't join you, either."
Hope couldn't say anything. Isaac was at the center of the board and looked up from the board at her for the first time. He transferred his unwavering attention to her eyes. Isaac smiled at her tenderly and then stepped off the board, into blackness and the river below.
Her hands reflexively reached forward, though it was too late. Hope saw such sadness in his eyes... Her thoughts were interrupted by a distant slap. She went up to the edge and put her mittened hands on the cold, impersonal temporary wood railing. Down below, she saw an expanding circle of concentric rings around a bubbling white center flashing in the darkness of slowly flowing water.
Feileb felt radiant, glowing with power. Her prophecy brought the community to the dark interior of the Chancel where they would all survive a disaster that will cleanse the blight from their world forever.
After Samoh't had experienced the truth firsthand (she was able to transmit it to him directly, mind to mind), he moved his forces skillfully, implementing a strategy of attack and retreat that succeeded in confusing the enemy, allowing defensive forces to escape nearly unscathed. All fighters had rendezvoused with the community and provided security escort into the holy cave.
The seer felt certain that a great power was at work which intended to allow the community to survive the invasion and the cleansing catastrophe that she had foreseen.
Her kind would emerge from the sacred cave into a new world, born from the womb of the universe. Her Pariah would be everlasting!
Samoh't neared Feileb in the darkness of the Chancel. She sensed him with her feelers as the omnipresent beating of the canti'cle washed over them, bathing the entire community in its benevolent holiness.
Samoh't could not finish. The world, the Chancel—everything—turned upside-down. Time ceased. Tens of thousands of citizens were thrown to one side of the great cave, crushing many thousands of others... Attempting to hang from what had just been the ground beneath him, Samoh't was not aware when a darker, more complete blackness plunged his entire existence into an abyss of nothingness.
The floor was smooth, concrete and cold. Rows of fluorescent bulbs lined the ceiling. In the center of the room stood a stainless steel table with beveled edges, a slight upward tilt and drain holes in one end. Next to the table, against a paneled wall that separated this room from the rest of the basement, there was a metal cabinet with sliding glass doors.
White cotton towels lined the shelves and dozens of shining surgical tools along with coils of rubber hose for embalming lay in rows, waiting to prepare a body for viewing by its family and friends. Squatting on the other side of the steel table was a large, claw-footed porcelain tub.
A mortician's assistant worked casually; lifting an arm, then a leg, he directed a stream of water to places that he had recently scrubbed, rinsing away mild detergent. Another assistant was out of sight. Clanging noises came from the other side of the wall, mixed with occasional bits of a poorly sung tune.
"Hey Bart," the assistant washing the body barked. "This one took a bath for us! Nice guy, eh?"
Bart, unseen, mumbled something that the assistant couldn't hear. He chuckled to himself and pushed the body onto its back once again. Beginning at its neck, he scrubbed with a yellow sponge in small circles. After a final rinse-off, he leaned closer to look at something.
The seer's eyestalks bobbed with uncoordinated movements as she regained consciousness.. She became, gradually, aware of her surroundings. Bright! So bright... Something… missing...
—the canti'cle! Gone! Its undercurrent felt-sound was gone. Its rhythmic beating… only: the murmur and groans of thousands of citizens injured, confused and dying. Many were dead. Then: a brightness.
Feileb struggled reflexively to move further into the holy cave, away from the light, but was shoved backwards by a seething mass of groaning citizens that mindlessly clawed forward from the depths of the Chancel where numerous bodies had collected when the world impacted after the long fall. Prodded forward by fear, moving on instinct, a tide of citizens carried Feileb into a blinding brightness...
"Holy shit—" The mortician's assistant stood back up and paused, nervously. After a moment, he held the water pick at arm's length and aimed a blast at the corpse's frothing navel.
Feileb struggled to stand. She clawed upright, ignoring her injured side.
"It is come!"
~ Read the author's "back of the book" comments at author's notes.