Vortex Vorticum (Whirlpools of Whirlpools)
by Ewen (John) Harris
"What would you find if you could follow the lives of half a dozen people, all of about the same age, all exceptionally bright and well educated, on their divergent paths from a major university into the far corridors of academe’s ivory labyrinth? Would their brains, polish, and paper glories assure them of society’s veneration—and if so, would such applause make their lives worthwhile? Would they become leaders? Would they form happy and stable relationships in their existence beyond the public eye? How would our culture’s philosopher-class, having dedicated itself to knowledge rather than the pursuit of lucre, tend to fare under the guiding light of its heavily documented wisdom?
"The answers implied by Ewen Harris’s delicate and subtle shepherding of several related life stories into one are not optimistic about the power of utter self-sufficiency. Yet neither do they suggest that reason leads away from a dependency upon a greater power. Far from it! Harris’s central character, Jim, under the mentoring of Huston Evans (an older, humbler Evans from Seven Demons Worse), reflects the triumph of intelligent faith over such unhealthy fixtures in our culture as sexual liberation, pharisaical piety, and high-brow aloofness from responsibility. Jim’s ordeal (the unifying sequence of the book) in coming to accept the loss of the woman he loves most in the world to her own sense of worthlessness is a feat of still greater love—of super- human love which enlists his strong mind as well as his wounded heart and oversensitive imagination. [next frame]
ISBN: 0-9676054-0-7 (paperbound: Arcturus Press)
Here follows a very thorough synopsis of the plot. Because Vortex is complex and somewhat experimental, we have chosen to include more detail than we have for other works. Please feel free to skip straight down to the excerpt.
Vortex Vorticum is subtitled A Novel of Closing Loops. This is a kind of "warning" from the cover forward that you must not expect the typical linear plot. The events described are usually presented in their chronological sequence, but that sequence is not always causal. In other words, a given section is not necessarily motivated by what happened in the preceding section. This is especially true of the chapters. A new chapter often seems to have left the chapter just before it dangling, or at least closed off from what follows.
That appearance is an illusion. The truth is that the various characters, some of whom never meet most of the others, are all proceeding through very similar stages and challenges as they negotiate life’s problems in the rarefied atmosphere of the academic world (where minds are some- times as deeply confused as they are highly trained). Chapter One, "The Ravening Beast", traces Fuller Ransom through the budding phase of his first intense love affair. Ransom is a part-time professor and part-time minister whose sheltered life has haunted a prestigious western campus. In contrast, Callie Weber is an impulsive child of her times, immersed in the "undergraduate experience" up to the roots of her lovely hair. Callie displays vaguely suicidal tendencies which, oddly enough, send seductive signals into Ransom’s dreamy domain. He himself, excessive- ly thoughtful for his effusive religious surroundings and dangerously doubtful for the ministry to which he claims a calling, has known moments of despair; he has, indeed, lived one long, frantically repressed moment of despair since exiting a naïve childhood for a very lonely adulthood. In Callie, then, he glimpses both escape and arrival—both a flight from his loneliness and an entry into the bliss which is supposed to illuminate his soul. That this bliss is solely a thing of the flesh does not occur to him once he convinces himself that he is saving Callie’s soul from despair. His tale seems to end as he and Callie prepare to spend their first night together.
Chapter Two, "The Seer", introduces Jim, a young man much like Ransom in some ways—lonely, intellectual, introverted, and sexually uninitiated. Jim differs from Ransom in at least one crucial respect, however: his religious faith is not mere cultural inheritance, not a set of behaviors designed to mimic contentment. He does not flee analysis of his status as a misfit, but rather plunges into it in the certainty that he can reach a tolerable compromise with loneliness (if not find a solution to it). He is particularly perplexed at the chapter’s beginning, though, because his recent progress from graduate student (at Ransom’s university) to college professor has not eased his social isolation as he had anticipated. It has, indeed, intensified his awareness of not having a place at anybody’s table. Orphaned and lately deprived of the grandmother who raised him, Jim becomes so concentrated upon his distance from the human community that he finds himself susceptible to peculiar daydreams which possess something of the visionary, the prophetic. Their irrational power somewhat alarms him, but he is able to channel the experience productively into a series of letters addressed to his vacationing department chair, Dr. Evans.
So liberating are Evans’s unapologetic defenses of a certain loneliness—Jim’s loneliness, the aloneness of the persecuted pure of heart—that Jim begins, in deliberate recollection as well as in his visions, to relive his failed courtship of a woman whose personal tragedy continues to torture him. He reviews minutely the steps of their mismatched dance, which proceeded quickly from friendship to utterly devoted love on his part. On hers, it degenerated to mistrust and alarm when emotional intimacy brought none of the physical demands which always climaxed the only dance she knew. Jim accepts that he will never see her again now: his study has a much broader focus. Far from regretting the abstinent conduct which led to their parting of ways or planning to revise it next time, he is horribly riveted by the power of self-hatred and self-annihilation in the lives of those who claim to live for themselves. He realizes that his love was returned, that his courtship had wonderfully succeeded to that extent; yet he realizes with equal clarity that this success is precisely what condemned their relationship—that his pure and profound respect for the girl, when pitted against her own fierce self-contempt, was a kind of maddening reminder of all that, in her mind, she could never become.
Chapter Three, "The Flawed Offering", opens upon the young woman whose future is such a source of anxiety for Jim—and her condition fully justifies his concern. She is dying of a disease which is never mentioned, but which is incurable and very probably connected to her years of drug abuse and ever-changing sexual partners. The novel’s chronology actually retreats a bit into the previous year’s autumn (though this is not discernible until later and, in any case, is virtually irrelevant). Jane-Sydney, as she has been aristocratically christened by her doting mother, has now returned to Virginia from the western university where she pursued her graduate studies. Her dissertation is long overdue, her teaching appointment has been terminated because of her failure to finish the Ph.D., her income and medical benefits have been cut off, and she has been forced to move back into the family mansion which incarnates the values she most detests. There is considerable friction between her and her father, especially, who is far more street-wise than her mother and suspects something irregular in the move. Yet neither parent learns the truth, and only Jane-Sydney’s best friend guesses her condition. Other- wise, she lives entirely alone with the specter of approaching death, which she evades in the same spontaneous leaps of fatalistic self-loathing as have kept her from confronting other, less mortal deadlines throughout her life. A bad reaction to carelessly consumed medications precipitates a crisis one night—a crisis at least as spiritual as physical. The immediate consequences for Jane-Sydney’s weakened body remain vague; but her spirit clearly confronts that persistent sense of its worth to God from which it has always fled, and is lifted to redemption despite its terrified resistance.
Chapter Four, "Lord Jim", contains the book’s most "philosophical" sections. Jim has now fully come to terms with his loss of Jane-Sydney. The exchanges between him and Dr. Evans thus assume a forward-looking, rather abstract character—but not a cool one; for the young man is assessing nothing less than how he can possibly proceed with life. They discuss beauty and ugliness, good and evil. Jim realizes that he must force himself back into some sort of social existence if he is not to be overpowered by isolation. In the small Southern town where he is trying to sink roots, he must inevitably explore the "singles scene" at the huge church which dominates all local social rituals. The story does not follow this awkward experiment in detail: Jim knows before he starts that he is ill-suited to such cliques, and he is more occupied by the apparent crescendo of his visions. The shallow, flirtatious, not always whole- some encounters which the singles group engineers feed further images into his alarming sense of an entire culture in its final spirals. Behind the most trivial events, he perceives that everything is falling apart and everything coming together. Among other disturbing little sideshows is the emergence of Callie Weber—now Mrs. Fuller Ransom—as a colleague on his campus and an ever more intrusive protegée. Though she claims that she wants to learn the professional ropes from him, Jim is keenly aware that he is also being pursued sexually, for Callie drops abundant hints that she considers her marriage a failure. Her husband is a nervous wreck, and the enormous church has recently dismissed him from its employ for acquiring sedatives in unlawful ways and quantities.
Chapter Five, "The Place of Outer Darkness", is perhaps the most loosely knitted to the rest of the work. Even as Jim’s experiences and fantasies impress upon him a sense of climactic convergence, the story abruptly shifts to another small campus in the Southern heartland which has no apparent connection to his. Thorndale College is the domain of Roger Down, Head of the English Department and recovering victim of severe depression. Roger’s name was implicated in Fuller Ransom’s drug problems, and it soon emerges that Roger also passed his years of graduate study at the large western university common to the past of all the book’s characters. Unlike Jim and Ransom, however, Roger has achieved much success in the academic world. The nearly absolute power which he wields over his immediate subordinates allows him to mingle his desultory daydreams (them- selves a far cry from Jim’s morally insistent visions) with his daily duties about campus. He plays with people’s lives in his incessant pursuit of a fully egocentric serenity. His medication usually assists him in minimizing the friction between this self-engrossment and reality.
On the day in question, however, Roger stumbles upon the end of the world, the edge of the universe. Time stops—on his watch, the clock, the television—and he can no longer detect his own image in mirrors. Believing that he is the victim of his wife or political adversaries, who must surely have tampered with his precious medication, Roger chases about the rural campus after dark looking for sane reference points. What he finds, instead, are scarcely refutable signs of his own long-standing turpitude. He refuses the evidence, all the same, always adroitly bending circumstances and recollections to justify himself. He ends where he began, both physically and spiritually. Embracing himself in a fetal posture, he seems surely condemned to inhabit his sterile solipsism for all eternity, just as he has done throughout his mortal existence. Whether this state is indeed eschatological or, rather, the product of his nervous condition cannot be inferred from the chapter’s ending. The inference to be drawn is that the two states are one—that no distinction at all need be made between them.
The "doomsday" tone carries over directly into Chapter Six, "The Funnel’s Eye". In fact, Jim’s visions had already been tightly converging upon the huge church in the heart of town at Chapter Four’s end, and here they resume. As the horizon glows and throbs in a volcanic climax, he confronts the living (though unnamed) figure of Christ at the church’s exit, walking against the crowd, unremarked by the congregation. And no wonder: the sermon within is exclusively concerned with exploiting mass hysteria for political objectives. Jim himself musters the courage to resist, but his gesture makes no impression on those around him. Soon after, in a final vision of the world’s end and eternity’s beginning, he rediscovers all the love and goodness that were strewn along his life’s wayside, including his grand- mother, kindly strangers whom he now knows, and—at the last possible instant—his beloved Jane-Sydney.
Yet daily living goes on, even though a vision may poetically capture the end of all creation. Dubiously armed with a new sense of aesthetic closure, Jim imagines himself firm enough to wade fraternally into Callie Ransom’s numerous problems (wherein, he knows, numerous un-fraternal traps have been laid for him). In the book’s final pages, Professor Evans has returned home, and Jim is at long last able to speak to him directly about his anguish. The situation has worsened for him in that, only hours earlier, Callie attempted to entangle him in her ambition to leave her husband. Evans confirms Jim in his resolve to stay aloof from the snares of pity while impressing upon him that the danger is ultimately in himself, not Callie. Jim acknowledges, with a hint of disgust but not without good cheer, that life will continue to revisit the same old trials, its loops perhaps accelerated as he learns better to navigate the same old obstacles.
The same but not the same —circles familiar to Evans, no doubt, and ever more so to Jim, but strange and deadly to others: this is the nature of the subtle repetitions in Vortex Vorticum. The complexity of life is often less than we think, for a unique-seeming situation usually reduces to an old-as-the-world kind of situation; but those whose center of gravity is displaced—who are drawn into the wrong spirals—are at last cut off from the grand unity, the grand comedy, of human experience and left for eternity in their own cold embrace.
This passage appears at the beginning of the novel's final chapter. Jim, the main character, has been privy to certain "apocalyptic daydreams" for several weeks which seem to address the crisis of his life's loneliness; yet he never claims that his experience is more mystical than imaginative. Indeed, as this beautiful vision of End Time reveals, the love of goodness within all of his spiritual insights is antithetical to the crude hysteria exploited by wolves in sheep's clothing.
The vision was winding down, like a tightly coiled spring allowed to ease out slowly. Or perhaps it was pulling him up its winding spiral, like a tornadic vortex ever more tightly gyring--but "in" was "out" and "down" was "up" on this whirlwind ride through time. He felt the pressure of an exponential acceleration, drawing him less through curves and more along a line. The sense of a tunnel was poised with the tunnel’s end, so that the lower his head bent, the deeper he breathed in that sense of coming space. It was there at the end, a pin in the tornado’s eye, not growing before him but he growing into it. It--the truth that was, is, and will be, whose gravity now drew him in a plunge that was a soar--drew him through the illusion of shadow, into the present from which only a few instants more yet parted him. He plummeted toward being from cloudy half-being, leaving what he was to join what is, fleeing the funnel to be born beyond time.
People were walking through the funnel where it drilled an empty space, a square doorway beneath a solid lintel, its voraginous curves suddenly turned to angles--to sharp points which slowed and snagged his passage. People were walking through the door in their very best Sunday finery, and Jim found himself sitting alone in the alcove of some anteroom or vestibule. There were no windows. Again the light was artificial, as it had been before in the oblong room--but he could still hear the pulsing beyond, as loud as it had been before. The people around him gave no sign of noticing; perhaps they confused it, that rhythmic tremble, with the organ music flowing from the door. Was he, then, the only one who heard?
Amid the steadily entering crowd, a single figure walked the other way, making directly for him. The figure passed with ease, unjostled and unnoticed, almost as though it floated through the hundreds of human obstacles. Its dress was plain--or must have been plain--or possibly was of the most outlandish sort. Jim had, in fact, only the sketchiest impression of the gaunt male body whose movement was so fluid, for he could not divert his attention from the eyes. They caught him instantly through all the crowd. He had been raised to consider it rude to stare another in the eyes, a teaching which had always nourished his own natural diffidence, allowing him to hide within the rituals of politeness. Though a popular culture not of his grandmother’s vintage affirmed that honest men would stare you in the face and grab you by the hand, experience had taught him mistrust of aggressive greetings. For such gate-crashing men, such forthright dynamos, the tender abstractions of honesty seemed to get lost quickly in falling debris.
Not so with these eyes. They were not the pompous invasion of one mind exacting obedience from another--not at all. They had no goods to sell, no case to argue: only pure truth, which belonged to all that was. Nothing more lavish, yet more placid, could be imagined. They asked all the questions that escaped his power to formulate--and, in the same instant, gave back the answers. To look into them was at once to know his longing and its remedy--the essence of his humanness and also his human destiny. They were himself, what was best in him: the thing in him for which a widening pupil searched whenever he saw himself in the mirror. There was something of the sun in these eyes, nutritive, inexhaustible, intolerant of any shadow, even as a touch of sun sat upon the tanned brow and the gilded beard. He instinctively rose. Some question in his throat refused to come out, and formed a tear, instead. He was in confusion, as if over whether to sob or laugh; and, raising his hands as if they, at least, might speak his heart, he found them, too, encumbered, holding a thick umbrella.
"Will it rain, do you think?" he sobbed and laughed. "What is it going to do? Something awful is about to happen!"
"It is almost time now--and it has always been, as you know time. All that the Father set out to do was done when He began. He has now almost begun."
After an immeasurable span--an hour, perhaps, or perhaps a second--his eyes fell suddenly to the floor beneath the unbearable weight of seeing. "But I am so young," he said, "and this time drags on so, in which it is not yet time! If only it were the time at last!"
Then, in alarm, he raised his eyes again. He knew that the other had vanished in that instant, an instant when idle, self-indulgent longing had imbalanced his judgment with its onrush; but to see that the other was truly gone dislodged his longing with a still greater surge of self-reproach, greater by proportions which only mercy could have measured and exceeded. "I am no better than those I abhor!" he cried--but could neither laugh nor sob.
An irrepressible urge had made him shout aloud. He recoiled uneasily, darting defiant glances--fearing that he had been heard, yet warning the people of the world, as it were, that he could now see through them all, having seen through himself. But no one had heard, it seemed. Instead, everyone was standing and looking forward, on either side of him, before him, and behind him (as he saw by spinning around abruptly). They held books before their faces, and rhythmic noises came from behind the books: they were singing with the organ that droned in some dark closet. Suddenly it all stopped. The scented figures slowly sat down in an embalmed and torpid expectation--pews, he found, were all around him--and finally he himself sank downward, subdued by an oddly embarrassed dismay, by a faint twinge of acknowledged betrayal, upon finding a hymn book in his hands, too.
A new voice started speaking. It solved for him the riddle of the scattered, vacant stares as an axis would bring meaning to a graph of random-seeming points: the people were gazing in the direction of the voice. The words, if words they were, echoed irresolutely up and down the aisles, looking for a column or a wall off which to bounce. Something about a charity bazaar, something about the Young Adults Class... "excursion to see the Blob. Those interested should contact Chuck.…" Something about softball and Bible study.
Then a queer alteration of events made him look forward, too. It was the silence: a silence so intentional, so obviously rhetorical, that his stomach seized up in anticipation. He was supposed to be preparing himself for something: some reprimand, some lecture, some shoulder-shaking, or some tidal wave. And prepared he was, and prepared he had been (the stranger in the vestibule had been no stranger at all to him)--but this was not the moment for which he had prepared. His fall through the tunnel toward daylight had stopped: he was caught in an eddy, or trapped in a false corridor. Why had he not followed the stranger away from the gaping wall and its crypt-seal of a lintel stone--a stone hanging by a thread, poised to seal in the dead? Why had he feared a storm of sunlight in explosion?
"My friends, we live in a growing community."
There was nothing irresolute about the voice now; it dwelt upon isolated words and phrases, rather, with an unctuous emphasis whose purpose seemed inscrutable.
"Many people will tell you that this church of ours is one big happy family; that we raise our children in the fear of God, and that we serve as examples to others of what God’s love can do in their lives."
He sought the face that belonged to the voice, but could scarcely distinguish a nexus of odd motions between the pulpit’s loudspeaker (a rostrum fit for a head-of-state’s press conference, or perhaps for the star of some costly entertainment) and a huge cross on the wall.
"Well, all of this is true, but all of this is not enough. If we simply keep this family we have--and it is a very large, very lovely family—" the sweeping motions coalesced into a huge, insistent grin—"but if we simply keep this wonderful family of ours at its present size, then, my dear friends, we are not doing God’s will in this community."
There was something in the face, if face it were, which drifted continually into and out of focus. It was the mouth--or rather, it was everything but the mouth; for the mouth alone could not dissimulate, in any of its contortions or gyrations, a soft and sensual nature, as soft as a photograph out of focus. Yet the pale cheeks and flabby chin and tiny, brilliant eyes were forever dissolving and reforming in brief flickers of sinew as new words simmered and popped at the surface. The next words were shouted. They actually pained his ears.
"God sent His only son into the world to found the true church among His people! We are His representatives here on earth, and we have a mission to go forth and win the world to Him! I am not the only man here with a calling. All of you, too, are called to conquer the world. Now I know.…"
The voice, which had slowed to a jellified halt, like pitch in a tank where passing insects stick, was supplemented now by something like a smile. Another eruption was soon building, however.
"I know that it ain’t easy dealing with the world. ‘I joined this church to protect my family from the ways of the world,’ you say. But, my friends, we belong to a greater family. ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ sayeth the Lord! We are God’s chosen people, but we would not have been chosen if God didn’t have a task for us to do. He has chosen us to build His kingdom here on earth! If our faith is not strong enough for us to go forth and do battle for that kingdom, then our faith is not strong enough to do God’s will! He has chosen us to build a Christian nation, starting right here in this town! He has blessed you with the fellowship of His church so that you might spread that fellowship abroad! He does not mean for unbelief to win the battle! He does not mean for this nation’s sin to downtrod you! He has delivered His enemies unto your hands--He does not mean for you to be beat!"
There were strange murmurs in the pews now, up and down, punctuating every shouted sentence with groans as old as Bacchus and Cybele--and older, perhaps; perhaps as old as mobbing and stoning, when the only words were shouts and groans. Behind the face’s metamorphoses, he seemed to glimpse something which always instantly evaded him, like a stalking beast known only by the branches left swinging after its shadowy passage.
"‘Judge not, lest ye be judged,’ sayeth the Lord! My friends, the people in this community who are not in God’s house this morning are just waiting to meet Jesus! O ye of little faith, how can you be here today and doubt that those poor souls are miserable? How can you turn away from them? How can you not hear their lamentations? How can you refuse to share with them the happiness which has been showered upon you? Just look at what the Lord has given unto you! Look at the wives, the husbands, and the children at your side! Look at your dear friends around you! Look at this wonderful building and the fellowship we have here! Look at the cars in our lot and the houses among our membership! You might have been born black in Harlem--just look at what you are, instead! All this hath the Lord given unto you--and do you still doubt that He is the only Lord for all men? ‘He who believeth in me,’ sayeth the Lord, ‘yea, though he die, yet shall he live!’ How can you hear the Good News this day, and withhold it from your fellow man? Share, brethren, share! Let your light shine forth! Go out and spread the word! Let this community of ours flock through these doors until it bursts the walls open and builds a new house for God!"
The congregation throbbed now with every shouted phrase; but the beast had not yet seen its kill, and continued to make trial passes at the herd. Weak understandings filled their nostrils on hysteria. The branches swung, and the air reeked with panic.
"Now I know that there are some false prophets among us--some wolves in sheep’s clothing--who would have us believe that being a Christian is a quiet, private sort of a thing. It’s bad to get too enthusiastic, they tell us. It makes people nervous--it doesn’t mix well with what they drink at cocktail parties. Can you imagine saying to that pretty little secretary with the Bloody Mary in her hand, ‘Sister, let me tell you what a difference Jesus has made in my life’?"
Teeth showed palely here and there in laughter. The herd was only walking now, had almost stopped to browse again. Now was the time to sprint for the kill.
"‘He who is not with me is against me,’ sayeth the Lord! We have all heard those false prophets, and we know where they come from! We have seen where they have led us, and we can see where they are leading us! While Satan is at their ear, whispering to them that religion is a private arrangement with God, you can bet that he isn’t planning to stay at home! He’s running wild in every city and town of this nation, while God’s people... while God’s people... and just what are God’s people doing through it all? Trying to meditate and find themselves! He’s never had it so good, old brother Lucifer--not since Eve bit the apple! My friends, the world is a seedbed of immorality today, not because of those lost sheep who are looking to you and me for the light, just waiting for us to say, ‘Come to my church!’--but because of the wolves who have the Lord’s name piously in their mouths! What good does your faith do locked away inside your heart? What good does it do to read your Bible and say your prayers if you give nothing back? What good does it do, even, to come to church on Sunday if you don’t take your church into the world on Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday? We are God’s people! We are His servants here on earth! He sent us His only son, not to be served, but to serve, and our Lord and Savior served us by founding God’s church among us to do God's will! We could solve all the problems of this community in one year--in one month--yea, verily, if everyone would reach out, in one week--just by spreading the word of the Lord! There’s no other point to being a Christian! You must arise, and you must act! You are no good to the Lord at home, and you’re no good to the Lord keeping quiet! You must be His people and go forth to do His will, and His will can only be done through His church! He will deny you in the end if you deny Him now! ‘I come not in peace, but with a sword,’ sayeth the Lord! Pick up His sword and fight His enemies in this world! Lift up your hand now if you will pledge to take His sword! Lift up your hand now if you will pledge to reach out to others! Lift up those hands, lift up those hands!"
The prey was in the dust, and its blood coursed in the open. Hands waved in the room like maggots in a carrion. Everyone lifted a hand into the air. An organ throbbed that was not the organ music, ululating frenzy, but a cosmic heart that strained beneath a wound. The great cross on the wall seemed to him (surely he was seeing things) to rotate with each pulse, until it described a dark, lopsided "x" trailing straight tails at its ends.
"Lift up your hand, brother! You, brother--lift up your hand!"
Slowly, he lifted his hand before his face, then looked upon the palm as if it held a message--as if it held a mirror. It was his hand, his own and no other’s: he had once cut its middle finger badly with a knife--ten years later, the pale scar was still there. To what conspiracy was it signing his name? What wheel of what Juggernaut would it be ordered to roll? Before his eyes, it wilted into a fist, angry, embarrassed, and afraid. "What word will you spread?" he cried into the confusion, though his shout was drowned to a whisper.
"Lift your hand, brother—"
"What word will you spread?" he cried again, shouting from his feet. "Is it happiness? Wives, husbands, family, friends--is that your word? Why do I hear the name of God so much, but only see man’s happiness behind it? What do I care for your power of happiness, or the happiness of power? I could have been the happiest man in the world one time, but I turned my back on it--and not for this! I turned my back to follow... I can’t see him now, but he was here--he was passing through.…"
He found himself turning and pointing back into the chapel’s vastness, where he imagined the great door and the vestibule to be. Yet there was no door now, nor any wall at all, but a threatening storm or inverted eclipse, it seemed: a light shed from the earth into the grayness of a cloudy noon. It glowed in a huge dome swollen like a wound, a bruise upon a star whose molten soreness grows, ready to rupture in radiant spume. The soreness pulsed over miles of earth to echo at last through the soles of his feet, even as the birth-or-death struggle throbbed in ominous rumbles about his ears. Every fiber of his body now registered every pulsation. Nonetheless, the glow was steady. It shone above the housetops unmoved, a golden halo, a lid on something brewing. The whole horizon seemed to shrivel under the torrid, splendid, monochrome rainbow.
What blow had wounded the planet like a star--what cosmic abuse had raised a golden welt? Was there any cure--or was the welt itself a cure, somehow, for some disease which had gone on long enough? He was sure that something was coming undone, and that something was about to rise from its undoing. Something awful was about to happen: something fearful, final, and exciting.
As if from a great distance--as great as the glowing dome’s--he heard spurts of rhythmless chatter caught between the pulses: static, perhaps, if they came from the radiation. But they were more like chattering sparrows than hissing radio receptors--and more like human voices (as he listened), perhaps, than chattering sparrows. He turned in mild curiosity from the glow: it was two men--it was the stammering lecturer from the oblong room, his firm face wearing a mustache and glasses, and He of the Changing Faces who had just roared with power. They were speaking now in muffled words, but the one still had much more to say than the other.
"And what if it’s dangerous--what if it’s radioactive? They don’t know what it is! No one knows where it comes from or what it is—"
"You know, if we took their word about everything that’s supposed to be radioactive, we’d all starve and freeze to death before the creepy-crawly sickness got us, and our whole economy would get flushed right down the pipe--which is just what they want. You can go through life fearing everything, brother, or you can go through life harvesting the bounty which God—"
"But Reverend--people could get hurt!"
"I haven’t heard of anyone getting hurt yet... have you?"
"But... to go out and play on it!"
"My friend, you are a worrier! Let each day’s worries be sufficient unto itself. Shoot, everybody’s going out there--good for the local economy! Maybe it’ll put this place on the map. And what’s good for the economy is good for us, brother. What do you want to go stirring up trouble for? No one’s been zapped yet—nobody’s seen no green men! You mark my words: this’ll be the best thing for business that ever happened to us."
If there was a reply, it was so short that the throbbing swallowed it. "Can’t you hear the throbbing?" he himself called from his vantage across the street--and would have said more; but neither seemed to hear him, and a convoy of buses just then began to rumble between them. The buses, brightly painted, bore skis and sleds and surfboards and iron stakes for volleyball nets and, probably, faces (although he saw only silhouettes) in odd positions at the windows. He watched each bus that passed, yet soon lost count of them. An orange circle with two dots and a smile was painted identically on the side of each, together with the slogan, "The Happy Place To Be", which curled itself beneath.
The convoy roared into the highway from the parking lot (for such was the setting where he found himself), and a reeking cloud of sulfurous soot lingered to mark its progress, swirling under the cloudy noon. The man with the mustache and glasses reappeared beyond the exhaust: the other seemed to have evaporated, or to have been swallowed up by the earth. Removing his glasses and mopping them nervously, the man turned straining eyes in his own direction. Was he visible once again, or did the weak eyes fail to see him, or perhaps see straight through him due to some weakness in himself? "Do you think it will rain?" he called. "The sky is growing very dark."
A thunderclap spun him round by the shoulders, if thunderclap it were which came from right behind his shoulders. A cannon might have sounded an alarm, a volcano might have spat out its summit, or an earthquake might have cracked the planet; for there was something of these all in the thunderclap, and vastly more of each than of thunder in what confronted his eyes. The sight was very simple: existence was coming unraveled, being unzipped, and dropping off in shreds. If a strip of lightning had been the zip or tear, then its painful radiance multiplied dizzily instead of vanishing in an instant. It flowed like lava or yawned like a crevasse, perhaps, but infinitely faster, spanning earth and sky at the speed of pure energy. Things in front of it simply disappeared. Had all existence been so paper-thin before, and had such perfect brilliance always hidden beneath the paper-thinness? Now it all came down: the stage-props were toppled, the posters split, and new curtains opened on that which was no stage. Light poured in from everywhere--an avalanche or bursting dam of light. Or was it more like an optical puzzle where that which was background suddenly came forward? No, it was not at all like that: there was no riddle, no leopard’s spots and leopard’s mesh--only unending, intolerable light. The leopard had leapt clear of the branch, and the sun’s white crown appeared in the gap.
It was inconceivable that he should still be alive. Yet a dismembered consciousness would not be feeling this vertigo of climbing, this delirium of scaling mile after mile of the radiant wave which had overtaken him--which had launched him so quickly that he forgot to fear. What meaning was there in miles now, though, or in light years or parsecs--any more than in hours or instants--now that the planet’s façade had been unzipped? Yet why was he intact? Had he less of that paper-thin existence than the trees and steel and concrete that had vanished? What was his body but a rag in the wind?
He blew like a cloud before the crystalline wind as he rode like a dust mote through turbulent light, bathing his face in the radiant warmth. Who would have imagined that a man was such a vessel--a light-going schooner that gently heeled and surged? Who would have imagined such bays and such a channel, such golden, eddying estuaries that gave into one roadstead, all flowing together, all present now in one fluid sinew? Now that he was well embarked, he could imagine no better form for traveling these paths, this path, than his.
A pair of glasses washed up against his chest. With a laugh, he let them pass; for the man with the mustache was seeing quite well now. His own mild myopia, too, had fallen away like film cleaned off a window, or like a window lifted from the face of reality. They walked across the lawn of his grandmother’s house together, a house which should have been two states away and which had not looked like itself since the old woman died five years ago; and their walk was more like a swim than swimming ever was before, when swimming was nothing like flight through liquid brilliance. The huge white columns sank into ivory swirls around the porch, and his grandmother called them both by name--he and a man she had never known while living--in a voice that rang like silver and gold. More people walked on cobblestones of opal, leaving an expanse of emerald lawns to follow the spiraling esplanade, approaching the knowledge that called them all by joining their names in a single call; for all of them knew the others’ names, and all had read them by looking in one place. He recognized the eyes which asked and answered. Now was the time which was the time.
A cinder of light, or bubble of its absence, drifted beyond the outer corridors extending along the corner of his eye, trapped in some counter-current far behind him. Already it was no more; but he heard his name from miles away, and remembered a voice that had never laughed. He asked and was answered, even before his voice could ask; and, even before he could raise a finger to beckon, he felt a hand behind him tightly grasp his own.