I know you’re there, hiding,
in the long gray shadows of time,
behind the gossamer clouds,
lurking in frigid depths,
in the blinding glare of dawn,
in the strange noises of dim halls,
and in the knock on the door
when sleep darts and weaves and taunts
like a pup freed from its tether,
wearing the grave face of the man in the white coat.
Averting your eyes, believing you’ve hidden yourself, marking your time,
measuring my days,
insinuating yourself into the cracks of quiet moments,
believing we are adversaries,
that you are the bane of my sometimes doleful soul,
the planter of subtle seeds,
the gardener of grim thoughts germinating in the ground of confusion;
I see you.
Oh, deceiver, you cannot hide.
Come to me.
Come and join me and let us walk together.
I will make you my friend.
Let us break the bread of communion,
let us walk hand in hand,
like silent searching companions,
singing songs of celebration in joy and sorrow and victory and defeat,
emancipated from the weeping wounds of
Author’s Note: Here’s a taste of my new science fiction novel, tentatively titled, The Darian Matter.
It was cold and damp, the sun hanging low behind a gray curtain of clouds wrestling against the horizon. On the Friday the before Thanksgiving, the sidewalks of Birmingham were filled with distracted men and women anxious to make their way home to begin their holiday festivities. The rhythmic incantation of a ringing bell, intermittently punctuated by coins falling into a red steel can, danced across the chill. A tall gaunt man, wearing a wrinkled navy suit, stood at the edge of the curb, unperturbed by the noise and fumes of the growing traffic. Across the street, the DON’T WALK sign flashed its silent orange warning.
The tall man had first felt Mike walking beside him more than he had seen him. He had seen Mike before and generations of watching had honed his ability to distinguish humans that were unique in some way. Mike stood over six feet, with a lean body and cautious eyes, carrying himself with the confidence of a man unburdened by social expectations. Letting his eyes briefly meet Mike’s, the tall man then stepped gently, but deliberately, into the path of the oncoming traffic.
An impatient driver was punching at the radio dials in her silver BMW and jerked at the wheel just in time to avoid the man who had stepped into her path. A pick-up truck, it’s horn blasting an angry warning, raced around the pedestrian. From behind the wayward man, a woman screamed a desperate warning. Whether the bus driver had failed to see the careless man, or simply had no time to react, was never clear. Only after the bus had rolled over the man in the suit did it come to a frantic, jerking halt.
Most of the crowd of pedestrians had turned away in horror, but now reluctantly peered through half-closed eyes to find the red pulpy remains of the victim of the bus’s violence. Their fears quickly turned to disbelief as they watched man continue his deliberate march across the intersection. He continued walking, stepped onto the opposite curb, and quickly disappeared into the incredulous oncoming crowd of pedestrians.
Even though the distortion of space-time, time dilation as Einstein had called it, was a skill he had fully mastered, he felt the brief but sure fatigue that accompanied his feat. Normally, such measures were reserved for times of battle or other perhaps other dire circumstances. But something had been stirring this man, driving him to action that might well become a matter of collective thought and, perhaps, a rebuke—if not something worse—from the The Magisterium.
Regaining his strength, the man quickened his pace and continued down the sidewalk, turning right at the end of the block. He walked about fifty feet and turned to face an unmarked gray steel door. Reaching into his left coat pocket, he pulled out a small scrap of paper, reading the instructions scribed in the complex mathematical language of his race. For a moment, he stood before the door glancing over his right shoulder, then passed cleanly through it.
As he vanished into the blackness of the building, a police officer and several others turned onto the same block. They searched for the tall man in the rumpled suit and encouraged one another with uncertain assurances. He was right here! I just saw him. I’m certain he turned this way. Had they known to look for the door through which the man had passed, they would have found none. Like the man, the door itself had vanished.
Once inside, the man paused, waiting for his pupils to adjust to the darkness. He adjusted his clothing, buttoned his jacket, and tightened the Windsor knot of his paisley tie. Rather than walk slowly through the darkness, he plunged forward across a seamless concrete floor. He took precisely twenty-five steps forward and stopped. The next moment he stood unblinking, bathed in white fluorescence. “What is your report?” asked the man standing before him
The second man had white hair and wore khaki cotton twill pants along with a blue oxford-cloth button-down shirt. He was a bit taller than the man in the suit, older by some vague number of years, but had broader shoulders—as if he might have been an athlete in his youth. The man with the white hair carefully studied his younger friend. Anyone listening to the exchange would have thought the men were speaking some ancient dead language. Latin, perhaps. Or maybe Pali—or something Arabic.
“They are not prepared, Theisen,” he said.
“Not prepared? How is that possible? Your last report was almost a generation ago.”
“It is just as it has been so many times before. Many of them are still bent on destruction. Some kill in the name of religion. Some in the name of race. They will oppress and destroy one another for anything from perceived offenses, lust, or greed. Some of their cultures still oppress their females, treating them as chattel. It is a difficult thing to watch. They have yet to learn they are one.”
Theisen recognized the man’s unspoken plea. “The Magisterium and the Path forbid our intervention. Influence without revelation. Perhaps if there were more of us to offer some gentle influence. What then? Is there any progress? Any at all?” Theisen’s own words were tinged with desperation.
The man in the navy suit thought for a moment. Weary, his head hung low between his shoulders.
“There are some. Though few are in a position to help them make dramatic leaps forward. The others tend to destroy or imprison the ones that might unify them. It will take time.”
For several minutes the men exchanged their observations about the condition of the indigenous people of this tiny blue planet. Theisen repeated his questions, looking for any sign of hope, his face washed in a brownish-orange dismay.
“Thank you, Athelius, my young friend. I will consider your report carefully. Return to your duty, Watcher. Your time here may be nearing an end,” said Theisen vanishing.
Darkness fell over the room once more and the solitary man strode through it to the opposite side from which he had entered. He did not slow his pace as he approached the interior wall of the abandoned building. Reaching the wall, he effortlessly passed through it as if the steel and masonry were nothing more than the morning fog that had laid over Birmingham that morning.
In the amber light of dusk and neon, Athelius stopped and took a deep breath. He had grown to enjoy the smell of this world, especially the damp cool of fall. He would miss this place. “How long have I watched them?” he wondered.
These gods who made her,
this woman first,
bestowed their good gifts,
yet hid the dark curse;
By Zeus’ command,
With earth and the waters,
And Athena’s soft hand;
Her lilting speech,
Hermes he gave,
Yet from that strange jar,
These gods wouldn’t save;
Apollo, he offered,
The gift of his song,
The lid was still tight,
Though not for too long;
Her beauty bestowed,
Aphrodite’s own gift
And though she was warned
The top would she lift;
Now Apate she creeps,
Could Pandora have seen,
These things to abhor?
Unleashing their demons,
The god’s sure revenge
Prometheus stole fire
Now they would avenge;
But could it be,
That our bejeweled box
Holds terrors unknown,
A thing we should lock?
Despair now creeps,
On her padded feet,
From behind in the shadows,
‘Tis our soul that she seeks;
Still in the bright light
Some time there may be
A chance for us all,
The truth we might see;
These gifts that tempt
In deceit so adorned
Might only deserve
Our steadiest scorn;
Beauty and Riches
Glory, Fame too,
It seems that our world
They’ll someday undo.
Beware of the strangers
Bearing gifts they still say,
And guard all your steps
Each one every day;
So be it a box, or be it a jar,
The gods may soon offer,
Release only Hope,
From heart’s shining coffer;
For the once the lid’s opened
It may only release,
Fear and regret,
Leave you longing for peace.
It’s 4:04 a.m. and I’m wondering about someone. A few people actually. I’ve been wondering about them a for a while.
There are more than a few homeless men and women living near my home in downtown Huntsville, Alabama. When I lived in the suburbs I rarely saw them. Oh, occasionally I would find myself trapped in that awkward space at a traffic light where men or woman gaze vacantly past the eyes of me and other commuters. In the liminal space between red and green, these doleful souls stand quietly hoping someone will crack a window and pass a few coins into their fatigued waiting hands.
I’m wondering how long it’s been since the young man with the Sewanee University tee-shirt has had a meal.
I’ve led a pretty charmed life. Sure, I’ve had my share of disappointments and trials. Promotions I didn’t get. Relationships that didn’t work out. A scary call from the dermatologist followed by some unexpected surgery. Those were rough patches. Very rough. But this morning, they don’t seem to loom quite as large. My apartment is cool. My bed is soft. There’s food in my pantry. And last night, I celebrated a victory with some friends.
I’m wondering about the man with the scratches on his face, sitting on the curb, with the ice-stuffed blue trash bag delicately pressed against his elbow.
A few weeks ago, I spent a sleepless night suffering from a terrible headache. The following morning, I called my doctor. Within a few hours, I walked away from his office with two prescriptions and high hopes for a better night’s sleep. When I picked up my medicine, I threw in a half a gallon of Moose Tracks ice cream—just because I could. Then I went home to an air-conditioned home where I waited comfortably for the meds to kick in.
I’m wondering about the old man with the beard dragging the cart behind him. He’s the one continuously talking to himself. Or maybe he’s doing battle with some relentless demon that plagues him. I’m wondering how far he walked today and how he can wear that long-sleeved shirt and gloves on a sweltering Alabama August day.
To be clear, trials are trials. They should not be diminished. And they are ours to navigate. But I can navigate mine with the comfort and wisdom of my family, my friends, and, from time to time, my counselor. They are my physical and emotional safety net. I’ve had to learn to trust it—my pride gets in the way, you see. But when I’ve fallen those short distances into it, my net has never failed me.
I’m wondering about the shirtless man peddling a bicycle who barked “I’m okay” refusing my offer of a bag full of food. I’m wondering if he really is okay and if I somehow offended him.
I’m wondering if we recognize we all live on the razor’s edge of calamity. A few missed paychecks. An unexpected diagnosis. Betrayal. An economic crisis. It doesn’t take much for the mythological Eris, the Greek goddess of discord and strife, to have her way with us. If we’re paying attention, we will recognize it, I think. Perhaps it will change us.
Maybe, we will learn to genuinely appreciate the value of the warm touch of a friend.
Or perhaps we will be grateful that our family and peers do not avert their eyes in our presence.
We might be less likely to complain there’s nothing to eat, or that it’s too hot or too cold, or even that we can’t sleep.
Or perhaps we will realize the least of these deserve our compassion regardless of how they found themselves on living on the streets, that we feed them because they are hungry. We clothe them because they are cold, not because they have passed our test of worthiness. Our meager efforts may never change the world. It may not seem to matter in the grand design of life. But I’m certain it matters to the ones to whom we’ve offered our help—if only for a moment.
Author’s Note: This is the fifth and final chapter of Long Distance. If you haven’t read the four previous chapters, you should scroll back and begin at chapter one.
“Alethia, it’s Ian.
“Hello, Ian. Nice to hear from you. How can I help you?”
“Well, for starters, you can explain how I ended up with this number.”
“Ian, I think I told you,” she said it like a mother to her child, “I can’t do that.”
“Can’t or won’t”
“Can’t. If I knew, I would. People call here for all kinds of reasons. How they get the number isn’t really what matters, Ian. It’s why you call that matters.”
Ian suppressed the urge to lash out at Alethia. Another night without sleep, combined with this madness, made him ill-tempered and impatient. But he knew—with that kind of deep down in your belly sort of knowing—that Alethia was telling him the truth.
“I’m not sure I know why I’m calling. I wish I did. Maybe if you could tell me why other people call you that would help.”
“Oh, Ian, I wish I could. But that wouldn’t be right. You see, people trust me with things—important, scary things—and I can’t betray that. I could no more do that than tell someone else why you called.”
This conversation was maddening. Everything led back to where it began. Ian was a child riding atop the carousel’s winged-horse going round and round. He paused, took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Are you there? I mean, are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I’m thinking.”
“Thinking is a good thing sometimes, Ian. Not always, but sometimes.”
“Why isn’t think always good?”
“Hah!” blurted Alethia with a smile. “Now there’s a question I can answer!”
“Well, thinking is a good thing. But sometimes your thoughts get you in trouble if you believe all of them.”
“Wait. What? Why wouldn’t I believe my own thoughts?”
“Well, just because you think a thing, doesn’t mean it’s true, right?”
“I guess not.”
“Trust me on this one, Ian. Not to make a pun, but think about it. One minute your thinking about the past and you’re living with regret. The next minute, you’re thinking about the future and you’re anxious. Then you worry it might rain, or that you’ll be late, or that you won’t have enough money. Or you tell yourself a story—you think—about your disappointments and your victories and how someone mistreated you, but you don’t know the whole story. But you believe your thinking anyway. And your life just ticks away while you’re thinking”
“Jesus, Alethia. You’re a woman of few words—until you’re not.”
“Like I said, Ian. You finally asked me a question I could answer. You have any more?”
“So I’m supposed to figure out why I called, right?”
“So maybe, there’s a question I have to figure out before I can ask it. Is that possible? Assuming you can answer, I mean.”
“Yes, meaning you can answer it or yes, I have to figure out what the question is first?”
“Both, Ian” whispered Alethia.
“You know, I really wish I’d just left that ’effin piece of paper where it was and let somebody else pick it up. What if I had done that?”
“Then, Ian, you would have missed something important. Sometimes, it’s the smallest, seemingly most insignificant things in your world that are the most meaningful. They are like little divine appointments.”
“I’m not really a religious guy, Alethia. I’m not sure I believe in that sort of thing.”
“You don’t have to be religious to see the order of things, Ian. To revel in mysteries. You just have to pay attention. You have to pay attention to yourself, to your thoughts, and to others. You have to look for what matters, Ian.”
“So what matters, Alethia?
Ian interrupted her. “I know. You’re sorry. You can’t answer that, right?”
Ian hadn’t noticed, but traffic had slowly been gaining speed. His was finally nearing the State of Georgia’s prescribed limit of fifty-five miles per hour on this part of the road. As the traffic was clearing, so was his head.
“Alethia, can I call you again some time? My exit is just ahead.”
“Of course, Ian. Goodbye. Call me anytime.”
Ian drove the remaining few blocks in silence. He was still exhausted from not sleeping, but the anxious voices in his head were strangely quiet. He felt a dim flame arising from the embers of his mind. As he paced across the parking lot, he went through his final ritual before entering the office. He buttoned his collar. Cinched his tie close to his neck. He patted his pants pockets. Yep. Wallet’s there. Then he patted his jacket pocket. Phone? Check. He slipped his car keys into the outer pocket of his jacket, finding the yellow scrap of note paper that had plagued him for the last week.
Approaching the door, Ian saw the trash can. As he opened the glass doors, he lobbed the note at the open can, watched it swirl into the basin and disappear as the building breathed cool air onto his face. He punched the elevator’s up button and waited. For a moment, Ian thought he would go back and retrieve the note—maybe keep it as a memento. But the elevator doors opened and he stepped inside still pondering his conversation with Alethia.
With the elevator doors closing, he caught a glimpse of a young woman glancing at a yellow scrap of paper.
“Did anyone drop this?” the woman asked, waving the ragged note. “I found it in the parking lot. It has a long distance number on it.”
Author’s Note: If you haven’t read chapters 1-3, scroll back and you’ll find them in the three preceding posts.
Ian didn’t sleep that night. Haunted by the wraiths of what if, he kept turning the events of the last few days over in his head. What if I don’t call? What if I do? What if this is a scam? He kept trying to solve for all the variables, find the most probable outcome, and minimize his risks. His mother had called it wrestling with God. Only he wasn’t Jacob and come the dawn there would be no blessing.
Spreading a thin layer of shaving cream across his face, Ian saw a much older man than he’d seen in the mirror a week before. “You look like hell,” he said to himself. But somehow he managed to drag a razor across his face and remove the stubble along with a bit of his fatigue. He splashed his face with cold water after he finished and slapped at his cheeks, coaxing some color into them. When he finished dressing, he poured himself a second cup of coffee into his favorite mug and headed for work.
He had told himself he would call the Alethia during his morning commute—just be done with it. But he was rationalizing why he should wait a little later in the day when his cell phone rang. He knew it was Mike because he had assigned his friend with Vader’s March as a ringtone. The bom-pom-pa-pom, pomp-pa-pom, pom-pa-pom of the dark side roared through his speakers. He spilled half a cup of hot coffee into his lap.
“’Sup dude?” asked Mike.
“Well, if you must know, I’m cursing you at the moment. I spilled hot coffee in my lap when the phone rang.”
“Don’t be a hater, bro,” said his unfazed friend. “We still on for racquetball tonight?”
“I dunno, Mike. I didn’t sleep at all last night. Not any. I’m exhausted. I look like a Bassett Hound with a case of chronic fatigue syndrome.”
Ian hadn’t expected it, but Mike actually showed some genuine concern for his condition. He told Ian he had been worried about him. He knew Ian hadn’t been sleeping. But he hadn’t wanted to mention it. It was part of the man-card thing.
“Are you still wondering about that phone number?”
Ian paused. He was in no mood for any of Mike’s tough love. But Mike’s faint compassion gave him enough courage to take the chance.
“Yeah. I am.”
“Look, I know you’re gonna do whatever you gonna do, no matter what I say. And that means you’re gonna call her. So just do it. Get it over with and see if you can’t get some peace about this thing,” Mike said with an unfamiliar restraint.
“I will. I was thinking about it when you called.”
Inbound traffic was worse than usual that morning, moving like a sloth through the trees of Atanta’s asphalt jungle. The congestion boxing him Ian, both on the highway and within his own thoughts. So he picked up his phone and punched up his contact list. He pressed Alethia.
She wasn’t in his list of favorites.