“And [Jacob] dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”
When all the people witnessed [Heb. saw ] the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance…”
“…And the eye of no creature is able to behold it, Not the eyes of flesh and blood, and not the eyes of His servants. And as for him who doth behold it, or glimpseth or seeth it, Hallucinations lay hold upon the balls of his eyes And the balls of his eyes emit and send forth torches of fire And these enkindle him and these burn him…”
Hekhalot Rabbati 4:3
“I saw the winds on the earth bearing the clouds.
I saw the paths of the angels.
I saw at the ends of the earth the firmament of heaven above.”
1 Enoch 18:5
The ladder came to Jimmy on a Thursday, on a hot night in early August. He had been sitting on the couch, watching TV after everyone else had gone to sleep, when it appeared in the middle of his living room: he blinked and there it was, blocking his view of whatever Seventh Heaven rerun had been playing then, effusing a tremendous light brighter than anything he’d ever seen before. But it didn’t strain his eyes. He could still make out its shape perfectly, each rung.
Jimmy rubbed a hand down his face and looked back up. Still, it remained. He stood and inspected it up close. It was made from metal, pure gold, and when he touched it, it was neither hot nor cold, and it was smooth under his hand.
He grabbed a rung. It fit his grip perfectly. The imperative hit him then, as if on cue, as if from some external source calling down from the top of the ladder:
in his ear like a singing trumpet. And so he put both hands to the gleaming ladder and he climbed.
It wasn’t long before the feel of the air conditioner on his skin gave way to a slow, pressing heat. Jimmy looked around and found that he was outside, above his roof, above his sleeping house, without knowing how he’d gotten there. Higher still and he watched the neat cul-de-sacs of his neighborhood, spreading across the flat landscape like veins, as they drew gradually away from him.
And still the ladder stretched, upwards and upwards and upwards, and so upwards and upwards and upwards he climbed.
As he rose, the temperature sank and the wind whipped against him, making the hair on his exposed arms and legs stand up. What felt like hours had passed, and the sky turned bright and dark and bright again, and he didn’t know if the day had broken, if the concept of “morning” and “day” and “evening” even had any meaning where he was. He took a breather and slouched against the ladder, and again, the voice from above came to him --
And so he continued.
A cloud set in eventually and the ladder shone through the cloud, lighting his way. He could barely see his hand in front of him. Just its outline, gripping the next rung. The air around him began to pulse with fire, licking forth like tongues but never burning him. And soon Jimmy passed through a hole -- a hole in the sky, that he felt around him rather than saw. It opened up onto a platform, and Jimmy spilled out onto solid ground.
His muscles ached. It hurt to move, but he crawled forward and collapsed when he couldn’t go on. Below him was a blue expanse, deep as lapis lazuli. It felt cold where it was pressed against his cheek and vibrated slightly with each burst of spitting flame.
GET UP, SO THAT I MAY SPEAK WITH YOU!
Jimmy sat up again, wincing, and settled onto his knees. He looked around for the owner of the voice but saw no one. Again, it called to him --
-- from the midst of the cloud? --
-- no, Jimmy realized, the voice was not inside the cloud; it was the cloud.
The flames within the cloud coalesced then, into a gouging light, and he had to turn his face away from it and close his eyes. When his eyelids shut, they pressed out tears. The voice pierced him like a beam, and said
FEAR NOT, JAMES NOVAK, בֶּן-אָדָם,
And Jimmy was so, so afraid. More afraid than anything. And the voice said, like a thousand voices,
YOU WILL ACCEPT WHAT I CHARGE YOU WITH
And Jimmy tried to answer -- the word that wanted to come out was yes, but what was pulled from him instead was a phrase he’d never heard, never said, but knew: he said הִנֵנִי; here I am . The words came from him like he was choking them out, and they were strained with tears, which were now streaming down his face. He could taste them. They did not taste like tears. They were far saltier. Briny, like seawater. And he recognized what they were, recognized them as deeper than that, beyond it, below it: the primordial waters of the Deep that existed before Creation, the frothing sea of the Beginning, before waters were separated from waters, leaking now from his eyes.
And with this revelation came others, peeling back in layers, telling him where he was. That the platform beneath him was the top of the earthly sky and the foundation of the heavenly firmament, and that it expanded in all directions for eternity.
There was a form coming through the mist. Jimmy could not see it head-on but it looked like a man, almost. Like the approximate appearance of a man. And looking at it was like looking at the sun. It loomed over him and tilted what resembled its head and considered him, for a moment, intently. Almost curiously. Its gaze was pure heat. It boiled his blood like water and it evaporated the tear-tracks on his cheeks into small lines of salt. And still he was alive, still he knelt before it. And it said
Something was tracing along his lips, a hand-that-was-not-a-hand. The voice, the Voice-that-was-the-Cloud of a thousand echoing voices, harmonizing with the crackling fire, insistent:
OPEN YOUR MOUTH --
Jimmy did, and as he did this he found himself overcome with emotion, tremors of fear and awe hitting him in waves. He sobbed saltwater, convulsing. Every body part was on fire and they all trembled, causing his muscles to strain further, singing twin songs of pain and ecstasy, white-hot, consuming him without devouring --
-- AND EAT WHAT IS GIVEN TO YOU.
And then Jimmy was choking on something solid. It went down sweet, smooth, easy, and it settled in his stomach like it was meant to be there. The cloud began to close in, swallowing him up like what it had given him to swallow, wrapping to his shape like a throat --
And then Jimmy woke up. The sounds of the still-blaring TV were still playing, the old Seventh Heaven episode picking up right where he’d remembered it leaving off. It was night, some time at night, some very early time in the morning, and the cicadas were croaking outside. He began to settle back into himself and everything was coming back into focus and he realized that it was a dream -- all of it, the ladder, the voice, the cloud, all a vivid dream.
But he was still choking.
It started as a small hacking and then grew as he emerged into consciousness. There was something lodged in his throat, stopping it up. He shot up from the couch and his knees screamed with pain, and his tendons burned like firebrands, and he stumbled to the sink.
It was on. He didn’t remember turning it on. And the water that came from the faucet was boiling hot, far hotter than it should have been able to reach, and the steam rose up and beat at his face. He turned it off and hunched over it and shoved his clenched fist inward and upward toward his gut, trying to dislodge whatever was caught in him.
And then he felt a pressure around his middle, like the Heimlich, but it wasn’t on him, it was in him. Like someone was trying to force the object out of him by squeezing his windpipe from the inside. He felt it pass his lips and it was big , and his teeth scraped against it and it strained the corners of his mouth. He continued to heave and heave until he felt like his insides were burning and he heard a thunk as the object hit the sink basin. He opened his eyes.
Instead of a piece of last night’s dinner, half-digested, inside the sink sat a small scroll made from what looked to be animal hide. It was wetting at the edges. Jimmy generated spit on his tongue to clean it out and instead tasted wild honey, filling his mouth, raw and syrupy.
There was something adhering to his face, too, small grains. He lifted a hand to his cheek and then his mouth. When he pressed his tongue to his fingertip, he tasted the ocean, the salt mixing with the honey. It had an undercurrent of smoke, too; the honey-brine. It tasted like fire.
He checked the time on the microwave. 3:11. There was foliage from the garden outside bothering at the window above the sink, tapping, hello, Jimmy, hello! You’re still up? To which he answered, silently, shamefully, yes . On the TV, Reverend Camden was having some kind of heart-to-heart with Simon and the sound of it drifted into the kitchen, the audio quality slightly faint, slightly grainy --
“--a lot of guys do really stupid things when they’re with other guys. Y’know, things they wouldn’t even think of doing if they were alone.”
He reached into the sink and picked up the scroll. Felt its heft, felt the roughness of the animal hide.
“And I just don’t want you to ever lose your… great ability to think and make decisions for yourself.”
And Jimmy unfurled the scroll and read the words on it: a single word, written three times, in a language he shouldn’t have understood but did anyway:
קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ
illuminated by the moon through the kitchen window. HOLY HOLY HOLY he thought -- he recognized -- and then the thought was brought into the bruise-black pitch light of the early morning, and he knew he had to dispel it.
The honey was hitting the backs of his front teeth, making him shiver, and he spat globs of it to the sink and turned the faucet back on and washed them away. They thinned out with the water and slid down into the drain. He ached all over still, and the scroll sat in his hands, real as real could be.
He took it with him, back to the living room, and he turned off the TV and ascended the stairs. Every step sent more pain through his legs. He opened and shut the bedroom door, quietly, so as not to wake his wife. He rested the scroll on the night-table and slipped into bed.
Amelia was breathing, softly, unassuming, and it kept time with the whirring of the ceiling fan. The sounds sent Jimmy back to sleep, and when it overtook him again it was deep and thankfully dreamless.
In the morning, the scroll was gone, as was the salt on his face. The pain remained.
“Then [Gideon] said to [God], ‘If now I have found favor with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. Do not depart from here until I come to you, and bring out my present, and set it before you.’ And he said, ‘I will stay until you return.’”
“Awake, O north wind,
and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden
that its fragrance may be wafted abroad.
Let my beloved come to his garden,
and eat its choicest fruits.”
Song of Songs 4:16
“An unclean man who went down to immerse himself: If it is doubtful whether he did immerse himself or not; And even if he did immerse himself, it is doubtful whether the mikveh [ritual bath] contained forty seahs or not; And if there were two mikvehs, one containing forty seahs but the other not containing forty seahs, and he immersed himself in one of them but he does not know in which of them he immersed himself, In such a doubt he is unclean.”
Mishnah Mikva’os 2:1
“If one put vessels under a water-spout, whether they be large vessels or small vessels or even vessels of dung, vessels of stone or earthen vessels, they make the mikveh invalid. It is all alike whether they were put there [purposely] or were [merely] forgotten, the words of Bet Shammai. But Bet Hillel declare it clean in the case of one who forgets. Rabbi Meir said: they voted and Bet Shammai had a majority over Bet Hillel. Yet they agree in the case of one who forgets [and leaves vessels] in a courtyard that the mikveh remains clean. Rabbi Yose said: the controversy still remains as it was.”
Mishnah Mikva’os 4:1
Jimmy Novak was a good man.
Or he tried to be, at least. Tried very hard. He tried to walk in the ways of the Lord. It was hard to tell sometimes, just which way the Lord was walking, so you often had to make your best approximation. But he thought he was doing pretty well so far, all things considered. He and Amelia did what they thought was right: they donated regularly to charities, ASPCA, Doctors Without Borders, that sort of thing, plus some local ones. He spearheaded fundraisers for the church. Gave blood. Went on fun runs. Used an internet browser that supplied clean water to starving kids in the developing world every time you searched something up.
And -- maybe most importantly of all -- Jimmy believed in the redeeming power of the Scriptures, and he kept to its word. He said grace over every meal. He was raised in the faith and he was raising his daughter in it, too. And he feared God and he sought spiritual union with Him. Always striving for that union. It was the most he could do for now, the most anyone in his position could do.
So it didn’t surprise him in the least to see the ladder. He knew those images: Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven, Ezekiel being fed the scroll and sent out to prophesy: “I ate the scroll, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey,” and so on and so forth. To see that mirrored in his own mind felt good, felt like he was doing something right. It served as proof of his devotion, the true depths of it.
There was still pain. That, he couldn’t explain. It hurt too much, too sharply for him to just blame it on aging. He’d been taking a lot of Tylenol the last five days, and now he was taking another. He was at work, on his lunch break, and he swallowed the pill dry. The spit in his mouth was just that: spit. He put the bottle back in his desk drawer.
He’d taken the lid off of his Tupperware of Cobb salad and was about to start in on it when he heard it --
And he knew by this word that he shouldn’t have known, אִישׁ, man , that this referred to him, and that this was a message meant for him --
And so he did, fork lifted halfway to his mouth. He put it back down cautiously and wheeled his chair around to see if anyone was behind him. Even checked in the strange, small places: in the wastebasket beneath his feet; behind the framed photo that sat on his desk, the one of him and Claire and Amelia a few summers ago at the Navy Pier; underneath the fern in the small terra-cotta flower pot that Claire had painted in youth group, decorated to look like a ladybug.
He stood, looking for the tops of his coworkers’ heads in the adjacent cubicles.
He sat back down and, sure that it was just his mind playing tricks on him, picked up the fork again. A piece of grilled chicken was still speared on it.
YOU SHALL NOT EAT
Jimmy contemplated this, and then set his fork down again and pressed his Blackberry to his ear -- an excuse, should he need one.
“Hello?” he asked. Quiet. A venture.
REJOICE, JIMMY NOVAK OF PONTIAC, ILLINOIS
AND GIVE EAR TO MY INSTRUCTION!
BLESSED ARE YOU;
BLESSED IS YOUR HOUSE!
YOU DWELL IN BRIGHTNESS,
FOR YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN TO FULFILL A GREAT AND RIGHTEOUS PURPOSE!
Jimmy soured then. “Excuse me?” He went to check his phone for the number, to see if it was a prank call he could trace, before he remembered that there wasn’t actually anyone on the other end. “How are you… are you hiding somewhere? Am I being Punk’d? You need to come out right now, because this really isn’t funny.”
I CANNOT SHOW MYSELF TO YOU
MY TRUE FORM IS INCOMPREHENSIBLE TO THE EYE OF MAN;
NO MORTAL MAY BEHOLD IT AND LIVE.
YOUR FLESH WOULD TURN TO FLAME,
YOUR BONES TO COALS OF BURNING JUNIPER,
YOUR EYES TO SPLENDOR OF LIGHTNINGS.
I CONTAIN A RADIANCE LIKE THAT OF THE SUN,
AND MY WINGS ARE AS NUMEROUS AS DAYS OF THE YEAR,
AND MY HEIGHT TOWERS TO THE SEVEN HEAVENS.
Jimmy checked his Tylenol to make sure it was really Tylenol. (It was.)
ARE YOU NOT A MAN OF THE LORD?
DO YOU NOT LOVE AND PRAISE HIM WITH ALL YOUR HEART?
HAVE YOU NOT PRAYED FOR HIS PRESENCE?
“Have I -- you know, you should be ashamed of yourself,” said Jimmy. “I have no idea how you’re doing this, I don’t know if I’m dreaming, or just going crazy, but in this case this is some kind of elaborate prank: yes , I am a God-fearing man, and if you’re trying to use that to pull some sort of joke on me, then you’re a real sicko.”
YOU DO NOT BELIEVE
Not a question. Just a statement of fact. An assessment.
“I believe in God,” Jimmy said. “I believe in Christ. I don’t believe in -- whatever this is. It’s not normal. To hear a voice saying -- claiming to be God.”
YOU ARE MISTAKEN
I AM NOT THE LORD, NOR DO I CLAIM TO BE
HE IS THE EVER-BECOMING; THE UNENDING ONE; THE ALL-THAT-THERE-IS-AND-SHALL-BE
HE IS THE PRIME OF PRIMEVAL,
AND I AM BUT THE GUARDIAN OF HIS HOLY THRONE
AND THE KEEPER OF THE HEAVENLY DOOR.
MY SWORD IS DRAWN AT ALL TIMES AND REVOLVES IN ALL DIRECTIONS
I ISSUE FORTH FROM IT FIERCE LIGHTNING AND THUNDER;
NO CREATURE MAY STAY MY HAND.
“…Right. Uh, okay.” Jimmy sat back in his chair and pressed two fingers to the bridge of his nose. He went to cross his legs and stopped. They hurt when he bent his knee. “Let’s say I hear you out. Not guaranteeing I’m going to do that. But let’s say I did. And then at the end of it I decided you’re actually just some voice in my head. What then?”
OUR TASK MUST BE COMPLETED, JIMMY
I WILL NOT LEAVE YOU
WHY DO YOU DOUBT?
DO YOU NOT REMEMBER THE VISION I BESTOWED UPON YOU?
DO YOU NOT REMEMBER HOW YOU SANG, VOICELESSLY, IN PRAISE AND EXALTATION?
“Well, yeah, but -- that was just a dream,” Jimmy said. “We believe anything when we’re dreaming. I could have a dream about turning into a purple kangaroo and believe, in the moment, that it’s real, that, you know, that’s just my life now. That’s just how the human mind works.”
Silence from the voice. Jimmy chose his next words carefully.
“It’s not that I don’t want to believe,” he said. “I do. More than anyone, I want to believe. But you have to understand why I’m a little skeptical. I try to be devout, sure. But since when does God wanna talk to some random ad guy in Illinois?”
YOU HAVE BEEN GIVEN A GREAT AND RIGHTEOUS PURPOSE
“Yeah, you kinda… said that.”
ARE YOU READY TO TAKE IT UPON YOURSELF?
“One thing first,” Jimmy said. “All I want is a sign. Something, anything, just to prove to me that this is actually happening. That you really are coming here on God’s orders.”
AS YOU WISH
And then, before Jimmy could even process the voice’s words, the fern on his desk was engulfed in flame. He felt the sudden rush of heat on his face and he stumbled backwards, almost tripping on the base of his chair as he leapt up. He pressed himself to the wall of his cubicle opposite his desk.
The flame left as soon as it arrived, and the fern had been consumed. Claire’s flower pot remained intact, and scattered ashes lay on the soil and on the desk where it sat. A small trail of smoke rose from it, setting off the alarm.
Jimmy let out a shaking breath.
“Gosh,” he said.
He looked up, towards the smoke snaking towards the gridded ceiling, towards the panels of fluorescent lights, and he saw nothing. But he knew now that there was something with him -- a capital-S Something, a Presence, that lived beyond the temporal. He felt like a lightbulb that had just been turned on, buzzing to life.
“So this… this is. Real,” he said. “This is really happening.”
NOW YOU SEE?
NOW YOU BELIEVE?
He flipped through his mind, through other dreams he could remember. Had those happened, too? What else was real? What else had he since written off?
“And that dream I had. That wasn’t a dream,” he said.
IT WAS NOT
“So in the cloud, the voice I heard in my --” He swallowed, thickly -- “In my vision? That was you?”
“And the ladder, and the scroll. That was…” He ran a hand along his thigh, still sore. He saw now, plainly, that there was nothing to explain it except this: his dream-that-wasn’t-a-dream. “That was all real, too. All of it.”
Jimmy wrenched his eyes shut. Still the alarm, still going off, high and drilling.
I SEE YOU ARE AFRAID --
DO NOT FEAR!
YOU ARE NOT GOING TO DIE
I WILL MAKE SURE OF IT
“Um, thanks. That’s… reassuring, I guess.”
He walked back to his desk and ran his fingers through the ash. They uncovered little white streaks of the desk beneath and dotted his fingertips with dark smudges. He waved the smoke away with his hand and pushed the rest of the ashes into his wastebasket with a sheet of paper and the full weight began to set in, of this great and righteous purpose . He -- Jimmy Novak, who sold ad time for AM radio and drove a 2006 Kia Sorento -- was destined for a great and righteous purpose .
Well, not to sell himself short. He wasn’t just some ad sales guy. His official title was regional sales leader . But still.
Jimmy turned around. Standing in front of him, at the not-door of his cubicle, was Chris Trevino. Chris sat in the cubicle next to him, divided from him by a shared wall.
“Oh. Hi, Chris,” he said.
“Were you just… talking to someone?” Chris asked.
“Yeah, I was just. On a call. Speakerphone.” He talked to the Blackberry, which lay face down on his desk -- “okay, gotta go, bye!” -- and pretended to hang up. He turned his attention back to Chris. “So what can I do you for?”
Chris frowned and squinted at a spot on Jimmy’s face. “Are you… crying?”
Jimmy felt around his eyes, on his cheeks. A wetness stained his fingertips. “Oh,” he said. “Yeah. No, yeah, I was just… eating my lunch. And it was really, really spicy.”
Chris glanced at Jimmy’s uneaten Cobb salad. “Yeah, I’ll bet,” he said.
“Do you need anything?” Jimmy asked.
“So, uh, I don’t know if you noticed -- no idea how you couldn’t -- but the smoke alarm is going off,” Chris said. “And they want us to evacuate, just to be safe.”
Jimmy began to walk forward, towards Chris, and then the Voice stepped in again --
WHERE ARE YOU GOING
DO NOT LEAVE
So Jimmy stopped in his tracks. And Chris said, “Are you okay?”
And Jimmy said, “I’m fine. You know what? I’ve actually got some stuff to finish up here. So why don’t you go on ahead and I’ll be out in -- soon.”
Chris looked at him like he was high or stupid or both. “You heard what I just said, right? The smoke alarm is going off. Evacuation. Possible fire.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said. “It’s just -- it’s really urgent, so.”
“I --” Chris started, and then stopped. “I mean, I guess I can’t really stop you?”
“Thanks,” Jimmy said, and he meant it. “I’ll just be a minute. I’ll be right out.” He would not be “right out,” and he would not be just a minute. But he smiled at Chris, tight-lipped, until he relented, and he stood there and waited for him to leave, waited until the sound of his footsteps on the cheap office carpeting faded.
He sat again and wheeled his chair back inwards, towards his computer. He distantly heard the door to the reception area open and swing shut again. Remnants of the smoke lingered in his nostrils, but it didn’t smell like how he expected it to smell, acid-bitter. Instead it gave off a fragrance like perfume, like myrtle. Spiced, heady.
He said to the Voice, “okay. You’ve got me. What is it you require of me?”
ARE YOU READY TO BEGIN THE RITUAL?
“What?” he asked. “What ritual?”
YOU MUST PURIFY YOURSELF
HAVE YOU PREPARED THE מִקְוֶה?
“The -- sorry, can you just --” Jimmy jiggled his mouse to wake up his computer and opened the internet, fingers on the keyboard -- “can you repeat that?”
ARE YOU LISTENING?
TAKE ME TO WHERE YOU CONDUCT YOUR RITUAL BATHS
And hearing that word, bath , clicked it into place for Jimmy.
“Oh!” he said. “Well, why didn’t you just say so! That’s what this is, huh?”
He’d been baptized, of course. Twice. The first as a kid, too young to remember, too young to really know, and the second when he was nineteen, after he’d seen God and professed his faith.
Or maybe he hadn’t. Seen God. Maybe it’d been a mistake; a trick of the light.
Everything was coming together in his mind: a devout man, chosen for a righteous purpose, receiving divine instruction to immerse himself in water. Jimmy was being reborn. Really reborn. Like all the sermons and testimonies at church had told him about and prepared him for. He should’ve known from the start, that that’s what this was.
Was it like this for everyone?
“We actually don’t have those here,” he said to the Voice. “Ritual baths, I mean.”
YOU MUST IMMERSE YOURSELF
“No, I -- I know. I’m sorry,” he said, and he really was. “Um… we’ve got a bathroom with, you know, sinks and stuff? Does that work?”
TAKE ME THERE
Not even a please, not even a thank you. Although Jimmy supposed that an angel didn’t really have a concept of manners and etiquette. Human niceties probably meant nothing to it.
He got up and out of his cubicle, past everyone else’s cubicles. The sound of his footsteps on the rug gave way to harsh clicks as he entered the empty reception area, with its vinyl tile floor and its soft piano music that had now been overtaken by the steady beeping of the alarm. He stopped at the door to the elevator bank, where he heard Chris’ voice, muffled, penetrating through.
“Yeah, he said to, like, give him a minute?”
A laugh. A female coworker he couldn’t identify. “No way.”
Someone else: “He’s gotta be on something, right?” More laughter.
“No, come on, he’s like -- über-Christian. He would never --”
A fourth person’s voice overlapping -- “Hey, uh, should someone maybe call --”
“Right,” Jimmy said. “Sorry.” He kept walking.
The bathroom, like the rest of the office, was empty when Jimmy entered it. The door fell shut behind him with a thud that reverberated against the tile. The sinks in the restroom certainly weren’t big enough to fit him. Maybe God was working on a technicality and he didn’t really need to be immersed. Jimmy supposed that out of anyone, He was allowed to do that. But there was no time to think about it further, because the Voice was speaking to him again, telling him to --
REMOVE YOUR GARMENTS
It made sense, when he thought about it more deeply: his clothes were man-made things. They were, at their core, obstacles to true rebirth. Layers and layers in the way, blocking full access to God’s creation.
And so he did as the voice told him. He loosened his tie and laid it down on the sink-top, then undid the buttons of his shirt. His reflection in the giant mirror across from him followed suit. Off came the shirt, folded neatly and laid next to the tie. Then the belt, the socks and shoes, pants, underwear. As he stripped, he could’ve sworn he thought he saw his reflection twitch where he was still, blink when his own eyes were open. But when he scrutinized the mirror again, everything seemed normal.
He felt a billion eyes on him, invisible, on his every move. The room pulsed: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, and he lined up his own breathing with that of the Voice. His body, he realized then, was a good body; it did what it was meant to do. The blood rushed where it needed to. The lungs filled in and out with air, becoming saturated with it and releasing it again like sponges. Hair and nails grew and were cut and grew back. Little impurities that made him human, made him healthy.
Jimmy held his hand out in front of him. He flexed his fingers. The Voice held its breath and watched, rapt: watched the divots crease on the back of his hand where the bone traced its outlines, the quiver of his fingertips. And inside, too, it watched the processes of his body unfold almost hungrily, it saw tendons drawing and un-drawing, saw currents of blood coloring his skin ruddy, filling him with life.
All this, in the flex of a hand.
YOU ARE SUITABLE
-- the Voice said, and Jimmy saw himself, his Self, through the billion eyes, and he, too, was content with what he saw. He was suitable.
And he got it, then. What people talked about when they talked about experiencing God. And he reached for the faucet.
THIS WILL NOT BE ACCEPTABLE
He drew his hand back. “Sorry.” He wanted to ask why but decided against it -- after all, he was the one doing things out of turn.
The Billion-Eyes drifted over to the urinals, lined up in a row in the mirror behind him.
WHAT ARE THESE?
THE CERAMIC BASINS ON THE WALL?
“The urinals?” Jimmy asked. “Those are toilets.”
THESE WILL DO
Jimmy looked up. He had to stop doing that. There was nothing there, there would not be anything there, but it was a living sort of nothing, the negative space of it wild and vibrating with potential. “You want me to bathe myself… in a toilet?”
THE RITUAL MUST BE COMPLETED
“Sorry, but… is this really what you’re meant to go through?” he asked. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I kind of figured something like this would happen. Or I guess I thought it happened already. But I’ve never heard about anything like this at church.”
ALL WHO ARE CHOSEN MUST PERFORM THESE RITES, YES
“Huh. Weird,” Jimmy said. “Wonder why it’s such a big secret.”
The thought crossed his mind that this wasn’t normal. That it was reserved for a select few. Jimmy reminded himself to keep humble and he approached the urinal. The urinal that he would be bathing himself in.
Because what choice did he have? This was what he prayed for. What everyone prayed for. Spending your whole life reaching out to God, and now having Him reach back, finally, and tell you what to do, who to become -- this, this was what it all was leading to.
And if that meant giving himself what amounted to a whore’s bath in a urinal, then he’d do it. Others had endured far worse. He disagreed with much of what the Catholics said and did, but what the believers that they deemed saints went through, the unimaginable pain: teeth being pulled out, one by one; eyes gouged out of their skulls; skinned alive, beheaded, thrown to the lions to be ripped apart. What were a few moments of discomfort, compared to that?
“For you, I’ll do it,” he said, half to the Voice, half to himself. A reaffirmation, a reminder. “For Him. If this is what it takes to cleanse myself, to become a true believer, then I’ll do it.”
YOU ARE TAKING ON A MOMENTOUS TASK, JIMMY
I HAVE FAITH THAT YOU WILL DO IT WELL
And with this, Jimmy felt that he was doing as he should, and so he set out to do it.
When the fire department arrived, he was flushing the urinal and submerging his left foot in the basin, the right one already doused and dripping a puddle onto the floor.
“So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’”
“I just don’t understand,” Amelia said. “What were you thinking?”
Jimmy, sitting on the passenger’s side, was silent. He tapped his foot against the floor of the well, feeling the soft rumble of the car as she drove. Inside his shoes it was still wet, and his socks adhered to him. Everything above his ankles was still dry -- his hands were still damp and clammy, sure, but mostly dry. In the back seat sat a file box packed with everything he’d had to bring home from the office: the flowerpot, the framed picture, assorted office supplies. There were years of his life in that box.
It was later in the afternoon now, and the sun was past its crest-point, and if he sat at the wrong angle its glare burned in his eyes. They were still on the highway. On either side, flattened grass, spanning Illinois like a great ocean. Jimmy felt a gaping failure in his chest, one that threatened to swallow the rest of him up.
“I mean, what was it? Drinking? Were you --” Her grip on the steering wheel tightened -- “Jimmy. If you’re on drugs I need you to tell me.”
“They couldn’t find any evidence that I was intoxicated,” Jimmy said, weakly.
“Okay, but were you?”
“No,” he said. She glanced over at him, fear in her eyes. “No,” he said again, emphatic. “I’m just saying.”
So the Voice had plans for him. Big plans. Plans that it wasn’t telling him yet, not entirely. And maybe they came at the cost of his job. But when God talks to you, you listen, and when He tells you to do something, you do it.
They wrote in Hebrews that “without faith it is impossible to please Him,” and he’d never let himself forget that. It’s a muscle you needed to flex. And he was being given a big opportunity to flex it.
Jimmy rested his arm against the inside of the door and absently thumbed at the window controls. He felt a consciousness that he hadn’t felt previously, maybe not ever: an awareness of his fingertips flitting over the smooth plastic switches, tracing them but never pressing. Every pulse of his heart, and others, too, of all other entrails. Of his breathing, felt the organs working in tandem to bring air into him and out of him again, really felt them, each individual cog in the exquisite machine of his body.
“Then what? What was it? Why did you do it?”
More silence from Jimmy.
“I need to know,” she said. “I mean, a fire, at work, and instead of evacuating, you -- you head to the bathroom, and strip naked, and try to dunk yourself in a toilet bowl? What am I supposed to make of that?”
“It was a urinal,” Jimmy murmured.
Louder, different -- “It was -- a lapse. A momentary lapse. In judgement,” he said.
“But why?” She pulled off the highway at their exit and stopped at the stop sign. Seeing that no one was coming, she turned and they drove toward their neighborhood.
Jimmy twitched in his seat but said nothing.
YOU DID NOT FINISH THE RITUAL
YOU ARE STILL IMPURE
“They said you were acting suspiciously. If you had anything to do with that fire, you have to tell me,” Amelia said, although she sounded like she didn’t really want to know that answer.
“I didn’t,” Jimmy said. He wasn’t lying. He didn’t start it. The angel was free to come down again and apologize, but this was a fall he wasn’t going to take.
Amelia looked skeptical. And again, the Voice --
“Listen,” Jimmy said, “I can’t really -- I can’t do anything right now. I don’t want to talk right now. I can’t really think. Please.”
He wasn’t sure who he was speaking to.
Amelia seemed to soften at this, though. “Okay,” she said.
“Would you mind turning on the radio?” he asked.
“We’re almost home,” Amelia said.
“Yeah, I -- I know. I just. Want the radio,” he said. “Any station. I don’t really care.”
So she turned it on to whatever station had been playing. Pop music jetted from the speakers, bright, plastic. He wasn’t listening to it much but some of the lyrics made it through to him: I can’t see straight anymore … what’s the name of this club? The Voice was still there, around him, above him, listening. Amelia wrinkled her nose.
“Ugh. This kind of music is so… inappropriate,” she said. “Claire’s friends all love this song. I don’t think they realize what it’s about. I’m going to change it -- that okay?”
He realized she was waiting for him to agree. Her hand was hovering on the dial that switched stations, not yet turning it. He nodded and she changed it to another pop station. Something slower was playing, something calmer, with only a muted guitar supporting the singer, and the Voice left.
“Holy vessels do not have outer and inner sides or a part by which they are held. One may not immerse vessels within one another for sacred use. All vessels become susceptible to uncleanness by intention, but they cannot be rendered insusceptible except by a change-effecting act, for an act annuls an earlier act as well as an earlier intention, but an intention annuls neither an earlier act nor an earlier intention.”
Mishnah Kelim 25:9
“… If a vessel was immersed with its mouth downwards, it is as though it had not been immersed. If immersed in the regular manner but without the attachment, [it becomes clean] only if turned on its side. If a vessel is narrow at each end and broad in the center, it becomes clean only if turned on its side. A flask which has its mouth turned inwards becomes clean only if a hole is made at the side. An inkpot of laymen becomes clean only if a hole is made at the side. The inkpot of Joseph the priest had a hole at its side.”
Mishnah Mikva’os 10:1
“[Aaron] shall put on the holy linen tunic, and shall have the linen undergarments next to his body, fasten the linen sash, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy vestments. He shall bathe his body in water, and then put them on … He shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house; he shall slaughter the bull as a sin offering for himself. He shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of crushed sweet incense, and he shall bring it inside the curtain and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the covenant, or he will die. He shall take some of the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle the blood with his finger seven times.”
Leviticus 16:4, 11-14
When they got home, Jimmy told Amelia he had a headache, which wasn’t not true, and he went up to their bedroom and closed the door and shut the blinds. He stripped off what he could, his button-down and pants and socks, and sat on the bed in his underwear. He wouldn’t shower. He was afraid he would ruin things even more than he already had.
He rested his head in his hands, elbows balanced on his thighs. His skin was cold, too cold for August. He took a deep breath and spoke:
“I’m sorry,” he said.
The Voice was not there to tell him it was okay. He started again --
“Um -- I don’t know if you’re listening. Or if God is. I’ll just -- okay. Starting over,” he said. Another deep breath. He clasped his hands. “Father, I pray for the arrival of Your Kingdom, for You to subdue all rebellion to Your will, for the repentance of the unreached so that all mankind may sanctify Your name. I pray for the protection of my family and my community.
“First off, I -- I want to apologize. You came to me, You sent me a vision, and I doubted You. And I was wrong for that. You showed us time and time again in the Scripture that doubt is the enemy of salvation -- Peter sinking in the sea of Galilee, Thomas demanding to thrust his fingers into Christ’s bodily wounds just to prove that He had risen. And I disregarded what You were showing to me, and I’m truly sorry for that.
“And I’m starting to see now, what You want for me -- for me to experience salvation, real salvation. And I’ll do whatever You need me to do to achieve that. You are… a potter. I am but clay in Your mighty hand. And You can mold me, Lord, into whatever You see fit. I just --”
He opened his eyes. His head was resting on his clasped hands, and he was looking down at the inner crease of his elbow, the thin shadows in the backlit evening. “I’m not doubting You. This isn’t what this is. I just… want to know more. About this process. It’s so… unlike what the church has been teaching me. I mean, I’ve known Pastor Wright for years, and the entire time he’s been leading the church, he never mentioned anything about seeing angels. People’s testimonies don’t mention any sort of command or instruction . They don’t take off their clothes during baptism. Are their experiences false? Why have You appeared to me in this way?”
He almost asked why the Voice didn’t mention Christ. He held his tongue. They’d only really interacted a few times. There was still ample opportunity and he didn’t want to be hasty.
“Please grant me this insight. I want to -- I need to know. Not because I don’t think it’s real -- I trust You, and I know You have what’s best for me in mind. But because I want to gain a richer understanding of Your will and Your plans for me.
“I’ll do what You ask. All You have to do is ask it,” he said. “Thank you for listening to my prayer, which I make to You in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, amen.”
He tried to go to sleep then, waiting to dream, waiting for the angel to reappear. He couldn’t. He was still hyper-aware of his body, of his hands stumbling across the blanket, of every movement of his legs, and he couldn’t turn it off. After about half an hour, he dragged himself to his and Amelia’s home-office-slash-exercise-room and did some research.
He scoured his Bible for prophetic narratives, stopping whenever he caught the words “angel of the LORD.” Feeding Elijah in the wilderness before he spoke with God on Horeb. Calling to Moses from the burning bush. In Isaiah he found Seraphim swarming the Holy Throne, chanting to one another the words he’d seen on the scroll:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And he did research online. Refining and refining and refining the keywords:
What does it feel like to be born again?
What does it feel like physically to be born again?
“Salvation” “physical” “vision”
(That last one was the least helpful. Lots of links to Mormon sites.)
Amelia knocked on the door at some point. Soft, but enough to jostle him in his seat. She opened it and poked her head in. “I thought you said you had a headache,” she said.
“It passed,” he answered.
She nodded. Jimmy wasn’t sure if she believed him. He wasn’t sure if he cared. “Claire’s in bed,” she said. “She wants you to tuck her in.”
Jimmy blinked. “But it’s so early,” he said. He squinted at the time on the computer monitor. “It’s --”
Almost 8:45. He swallowed to find that his mouth was dried out. He hadn’t eaten or drank since this morning. The room was dark, with only a desk lamp and the sickly light of the computer screen to brighten it, and his arms and his hands looked washed-out. The exercise bike’s metal frame shone from its place in the corner diagonal to him, a dark shape lined with thin bands of reflected light.
“You had dinner without me?” he asked.
Amelia stepped into the room now. “I thought --” She glanced at the computer screen, at his search for visions, for angels, and paused, but she moved past it -- “I thought you were asleep. I didn’t want to wake you up,” she said. “It’s been a stressful day. For all of us. And I wanted to give ourselves time before we… talk about it.”
Jimmy nodded. Right. She wanted to talk about it. “Sure. Um -- tomorrow, maybe.” And then he’d push it back, tomorrow and tomorrow, until something broke, until one of them cracked. But he’d leave that until tomorrow to think through fully.
“I’ll be in with Claire in a minute,” he said. He closed his browser and shut off the computer, then pushed the stack of books he’d been reading against the wall on the desk. He got up and he and Amelia went into the hallway.
“I’m worried about you,” she told him. “What happened today -- it really scared me. Did something happen? To you?”
“Tomorrow,” he promised. “Tomorrow. We’ll talk. I’m just not ready tonight.”
She smiled weakly and kissed him on the corner of his mouth.
“Goodnight,” Jimmy said. “Might watch TV. If I’m not tired.”
By this, he meant research, and if Amelia was aware that he meant this, she didn’t say anything. “Goodnight,” she said, and went to their bedroom and closed the door behind her. Jimmy went the opposite way, to Claire’s bedroom.
She was reading a book when he opened the door, and didn’t hear him come in. “Hey, you,” he said, quietly, and she looked at him and put the book down. Her expression was unreadable. “What’re you reading?”
“James and the Giant Peach,” she said.
He sat on the edge of her bed. He thumbed the edge of the book where it sat, upside down, on the page where she’d left it. “Want me to take over?” he asked. Claire smiled and picked it back up and pointed to where she left off. He began to read:
“Once, as they drifted silently past a massive white cloud, they saw on the top of it a group of strange, tall, wispy-looking things that were about twice the height of ordinary men. They were not easy to see at first because they were almost as white as the cloud itself, but --”
“-- as the peach sailed closer, it became obvious that these ‘things’ were actually living creatures -- tall, wispy, wraithlike, shadowy, white creatures who looked as though they were made out of a mixture of cottonwool and candy-floss and thin white hairs…”
Jimmy clenched his jaw and kept reading. He put on voices for the characters, adopting a silly British accent for the Ladybird: “‘Oooooooooooooh! I don’t like this at all!’
“‘Ssshh!’” he stage-whispered as James. “‘Don’t let them hear you! They must be Cloud-Men!’”
The words came to him harder than before, struck him, a yell, and Jimmy startled. His eyes searched Claire’s room, empty save for the two of them. He settled on the stuffed animals lining her shelves, and lower, the ceramic angels on her desk, with the wide, sad looks on their faces, with the round eyes and noses like buttons.
“Daddy?” Claire asked, bringing his attention back to her.
He smiled at her, tight-lipped, to reassure her. “I’m fine,” he said. It came out strained. His thumb marked his place in the book. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to open it back up. “Just -- got a headache. That’s all.”
“Why didn’t you eat dinner with us?” she asked.
He rested his hand on her arm. “I wasn’t feeling good. Mommy was just letting me rest.”
“Mommy had to pick you up from work today,” she said. “She looked scared when you got home. And sad.”
Jimmy looked up, looked past her, at the wooden letters on the wall above her headboard, spelling out her name in swooping cursive, painted glittering gold. He loved Claire -- loved her for this, for her keen perception, her compassion, for her overflowing concern and love for him and Amelia. But there were things he had to keep from her now. It gnawed at him --
-- and ripped at him. But he kept steady.
“Well, I was just -- tired,” he said. “I was a little stressed. And we do silly things when we’re stressed out. But I’m okay now.”
“When I get picked up from school early it’s because I’m sick,” she said. “And I have to take medicine. You should take some medicine, even if it’s really gross and tastes like fake grapes.”
Jimmy wanted to cry then, because she loved him so much, in the way that children do, before they learn to see their parents as human: fallible, sinful, inevitably prone to mistakes no matter how hard they tried. He nodded. “I took a nap,” he lied. This seemed to comfort her.
“Speaking of sleep,” Jimmy said, and he placed the book upside down on his knee and grabbed both Claire’s hands and gripped them tight, “it’s time for you to go to bed.”
“But I’m not tired,” she said, in a fake whine that badly covered up genuine frustration.
“Tell you what -- tomorrow we’re going to sleep in, and we can wake up late,” he said, “and I’ll make breakfast, and I can make that French toast you like. With maple syrup. But only if you go to sleep now.”
Now she listened. She squeezed her eyes shut, as if to convince him that she was going to sleep, now, for him. Jimmy stood up. “And tomorrow we’ll keep reading. I want to know what happens with James and the Cloud-Men,” he said, “so don’t read ahead.”
“I won’t,” she said. Jimmy took the book and put it on her night-table, then turned off the lamp next to her head. Her night-light shone dimly, a spot of glowing pink in the outlet on the wall. “Goodnight, Daddy.”
“Goodnight, Claire,” he said, and shut the door, looking at her through the closing gap. She stared back at him. She looked to be considering him, deep in thought.
YOU MUST FINISH THE RITUAL
“I know, I know, give me one second,” Jimmy replied, whispering so that Claire wouldn’t hear through the door. He shuffled downstairs, away from her, away from his wife in their bedroom, and sat alone on one of the barstools in the kitchen.
The Voice sat with him. It said nothing.
“It’s a book,” Jimmy said to it then. “The Cloud-Men. They’re from a book. They… create… weather stuff. Hail. Rainbows.”
AS THE LORD CREATED AFTER THE FLOOD,
TO REMIND HIM OF HIS COVENANT!
O, REJOICE AT HIS PROMISE TO SPARE ALL FLESH FROM HIS WRATH!
“Well, in the book they’re sort of, um -- evil,” Jimmy said. “So. Not really like God.”
No response from the Voice.
Jimmy cleared his throat. He looked up, and the lights over the kitchen island hurt his eyes, and then he looked back down again, at where they reflected on the granite countertop, bright white spots. Like voids. “You said I needed to finish the ritual,” he said. “I’ll do it. I want to. Just tell me what's left. Whatever it takes to be saved.”
The Voice went quiet, as if it hadn’t expected Jimmy to say this.
“I will be… born again, by the end of this? Isn’t that what this is about?” Jimmy asked.
YOU WILL BE MADE PURE
said the Voice, and did not expand on it, even when Jimmy waited for it to keep talking. When he realized it wouldn’t be explaining further, Jimmy asked, “what do you require of me?”
YOU MUST PREPARE THE BATH
THE LINEN VESTMENTS
THE FIRE AND THE BULL
DO YOU HAVE THESE THINGS READY?
Jimmy opened his mouth to respond and then closed it.
“The -- uh. Would you mind… expanding on that?” he asked. “For clarity’s sake?”
YOU SHALL FIRST BATHE YOUR BODY IN WATER,
AND DON THE HOLY VESTMENTS
AFTER THIS, YOU SHALL LIGHT A FIRE WITHIN YOU AND THEN PUT INCENSE ON THE FIRE
YOU SHALL THEN BRING ME A BULL AND SLAUGHTER IT AND SPRINKLE ITS BLOOD UPON YOURSELF SEVEN TIMES
Well. He should’ve known that the explanation would just make him more confused.
The immersion -- the baptism -- that made sense. But the rest had to be some kind of metaphor, didn’t it? Jesus drew on metaphor all the time: the mustard seed, the budding fig tree. And now God was sending this angel to challenge him with some kind of puzzle. It was up to Jimmy to figure out its meaning.
He felt good then, so good, because of course God wouldn’t make this easy for him. He expected nothing less.
Fire. Incense. A slaughtered bull and its blood. The number seven? Seven stars, seven trumpets, seven seals… he put that thought on hold and returned to the first symbol, turning it over and over in his mind, considered it from all angles.
Fire inside . Inside him . The resurrection in Luke: Jesus appearing to the men on the road at Emmaus, converting them, and what they said when Jesus left to visit the disciples. He said it, out loud, was moved to say it, “did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”
YOU MUST BE CLEANSED WITH FIRE
OUR TIME IS SHORT
“Right, no, yeah, I’ve got it,” he told the Voice. “The fire. It’s a message. Telling me to hold steady to my faith in Christ. Being cleansed with fire -- my heart burns with devotion, and it cleanses me. It makes me pure.”
DO YOU HAVE FLINT? WOOD FOR STRIKING?
ANY METHOD WILL DO
“Any method will do,” he repeated. “Any method. Any… method.” While he was trying to figure out what this meant, the Voice said
-- and one of the burners on Jimmy’s stove sent up a hissing pillar of flame then, climbing a foot high, higher than the stove would normally allow --
And Jimmy’s mind fell silent. All thought -- the metaphor, its meaning -- stopped in its tracks.
“Oh,” he said. “You mean… fire fire. Literal, actual, fire.”
WHAT ELSE COULD I MEAN
“The enduring love of --” he started, and then paused as the realization came to him. “So does this mean… the, um. Vestments. The incense. The bull. I actually need all that?”
“And by ‘light the fire within me,’” he said, “you mean. Light a fire. In me.”
“Oh. Wow,” Jimmy said. “Um. With all due respect. I know you’re -- y’know, a heavenly being and all. But I’m a human. I can’t exactly… do that. Without dying.”
I HAVE GUIDED THE CHOSEN THROUGH THIS PROCESS BEFORE
DID I NOT TELL YOU THAT YOU WOULD NOT DIE?
THAT I WOULD NOT LET YOU?
Chosen . That word again. It sent what felt like an electric current through Jimmy. “Right. Yeah, no, I remember,” he said. He remembered, too, the promise he made to God, to himself: I’ll do what You ask. All You have to do is ask it.
“I don’t doubt you,” he said. “I’ll do whatever is needed of me. I’ll, um. Light the fire. Spill the blood that needs to be spilled, scatter it where it needs to be scattered. But I don’t have a bull. And I don’t have holy vestments, and I don’t have incense. So I need you to help me out a little bit. Just guide me onto the right path.”
WE WILL ADAPT
SUBSTITUTIONS ARE NOT UNPRECEDENTED
THEY ARE, AT TIMES, NECESSARY
I WOULD NOT HAVE DIRECTED YOU TO THE LATRINE HAD I NOT THOUGHT IT PERMISSIBLE
Jimmy let out a sigh of relief. “Okay. Great,” he said. “What kind of… vestments? Are we talking about here?”
TRADITIONAL VESTMENTS INCLUDE UNDERGARMENTS OF LINEN AND A ROBE WITH A SASH
“Well, I have undergarments already. The ones that I’m wearing. They’re not linen, but I don’t have linen anyway,” Jimmy said. “As for a robe…”
His eyes drifted up, through the living room, to the sliver of foyer visible, where he could see the edge of the coat rack by the front door. “I think I have something we can use.” He walked over to the entryway and sifted through what was there, and found the tan trench coat that he wore on cool autumn days and held it up to the Voice. “Does this work? For the coat?”
THAT WILL DO NICELY
Jimmy was doing well. Jimmy was being good. He slung the coat on.
“And I need incense, right?” he asked. “I’m not sure if it will work, but I might have a good substitute --”
He’d gone back into the kitchen now and opened one of the drawers, the top one stuffed with miscellaneous junk. In it lay a small pouch of potpourri that Amelia was given as a gift and never used because the smell made her head hurt. Even now, just opening the drawer, he smelled it, cloying. He took it and presented it to the Voice, too. The Voice scrutinized it, and he explained: “It’s, um, potpourri. A bunch of dried flowers and herbs and that kind of thing.”
IT IS INTENDED TO BE BURNED?
“No, you just sort of… let it sit in your house and it makes it smell nice,” Jimmy said. “Sort of like incense?”
THIS WILL WORK
GO OUTSIDE --
YOU WILL KNOW WHAT TO DO NEXT;
I HAVE SCOURED THE AREA AND DONE MY BEST TO PROVIDE FOR YOU
“Thank you,” he said. He took a box of matches from another drawer. The kitchen opened out to the backyard with a sliding door and he went outside, stepping onto the patio. Above him, the stars were blue pinprick hazes, their brightness dampened by light pollution. These were the same stars God showed Abraham, millennia back. They were still in the sky, numerous as his sons, God’s promise fulfilled. And it all circled back around quite nicely: here he was, years and years and covenants and covenants later, fulfilling his own obligations.
He heard a rustling around the side of the house and knew it was meant for him.
The raccoon had its face dug into an empty bag of tortilla chips when Jimmy saw it. He moved then, not his own steps but that of the Voice’s, towards it, and reached out and grabbed it. It began to snarl but it was cut off by Jimmy’s hand clamping like a muzzle over its snout, still dotted with chip crumbs, but not before it bit Jimmy, hard, and it drew blood, but it did not hurt. And Jimmy huddled himself over the raccoon until its breathing slowed and it fell into a sleep. His blood was matting into its fur and the gravel below him scraped his knees.
“Tell me what to do next,” he said, panting, body still hurting, ghost-pains all over, the dream of the ladder’s pentimento imprinted on him. “Show me.”
And it was bringing him back up, onto his feet, and sending him back out into the backyard.
I SEE YOU HAVE AN IMMERSION HUT
WE WILL PERFORM THE PURIFICATION HERE
“An immersion -- oh ,” he said, because he realized what the Voice meant: his shed, which sat at the edge of his yard. He pushed the door open and breathed in the dust. And there, stuffed between the kayak and the birdseed for the feeder on the patio, barely visible in the low moonlight, was just what he needed.
He and Amelia had bought the pool a few years ago for Claire. This was the first year she hadn’t even asked for them to bring it out. But it still lay there in a wrinkled plastic hump, and Jimmy dragged it out and wiped the dust off. The Voice watched him, silently, as he blew it up with the air pump. His hands became covered in grime; it mixed into the bite wounds and it stung. But the sting was a faraway feeling. Like he was feeling it secondhand.
As he crossed the yard to retrieve the hose to fill up the pool, he saw a movement in the house out of the corner of his eye. Upstairs. In Claire’s room. When he looked up at it again, the curtain was still and it had been closed.
He filled the pool with water. Again, like the office bathroom, he stripped, and again, he felt the Voice’s eyes on him. He washed the dirt and blood off his hands and it dissolved in the gush of the hose. And then he stepped in and he immersed himself.
The pool did not fit all of him, and so he curled in on himself like a fetus, and he still did not fit, with parts of his body rising above the water, shadowed outlines on a shadowed background. And he shifted and shifted again until the whole of him was wetted with the water, and once he was wet all over he stood up in the dark pool, in the dark shed, dripping, and listened for his next instruction.
DON YOUR HOLY VESTMENTS
Jimmy stepped out of the pool. His undershirt and boxers resisted as he pulled them back onto him and great wet spots spread across his back and stomach. The trench coat went on last, and the sash was fastened.
Out of the coat pocket he pulled the satchel of potpourri and spilled it into his hand and emptied it into his mouth like it was popcorn, fennel and juniper and rosemary, lavender and lemon tossed with oil of bergamot, all down his throat. His palm was wet and the inside of his mouth was wet and errant shavings stuck to his hand and to his tongue. He licked his hand and made spit inside his mouth and swallowed the remnants that did not go down easily.
He struck a match. It reflected off his skin, shining with hose-water. Everyone talked about salvation, everyone at church and on TV. And even he did, often. But none of them -- himself included, at least up until now -- knew the first thing about it.
Salvation, he saw now, was a lit match down his throat. Salvation was a kiddie pool in his shed and a trench coat and a Voice telling him how to ritually slaughter an unconscious raccoon. It was nothing like he thought it’d be and it made it that much more wonderful. And he murmured a small prayer then: “Lord, I am weak, I am mortal, and yet Your Word gives me the strength to conquer things that no man would be able to conquer. I am immeasurably thankful that I have been brought into Your Grace and --”
He stopped, feeling warmth. Or more than warmth: heat, stinging heat. The match was almost burned through, nearer and nearer to his fingers, and he tipped his head back, looking up for guidance. He saw nothing but the roof-beams. He flicked the match into his mouth and swallowed.
It didn’t hurt. It didn’t consume. He was being warmed through, right down to his gullet, and it felt fine. Pleasant, even.
A feeling like a breath drew in and outward, like it had in the bathroom. It was the motion of the universe, the exhalations of the great maw of the Voice. Invisible eyes burned on him and did not blink, did not rip their gaze from Jimmy, looking through him, again examining his innards, from the shaking of his hands to the push of his tongue behind his teeth to the pulsing of his esophagus as he swallowed. For a second Jimmy breathed with the Voice, with the oscillating planets and the rotating stars, with the swallowing of light into supermassive black holes, with the bursting of supernovae.
He looked to his left, and saw his toolbox, a metal, neglected thing. He emptied it out onto the floor and among the tools hitting the ground he heard the plastic clack he was expecting to hear. He picked up the box cutter.
The raccoon lay on the floor by the pool, small breaths pushing in and out and in, and he approached it now, knowing that the voice would guide his hand. He turned it belly-up towards him. He could not see it, could not make out its features, and yet he knew where to make the first incision, right along the throat. The skin lent itself up to him, parted for the knife, yielding, like softened butter.
He drained the blood out into the toolbox and laid the body on the surface of his workbench. He struck another match and threw it on the body, and the fire that consumed it was alien and bright.
Jimmy felt the Voice with him in this ritual, these mundane things he was holding made holy by his hands, by the angel’s Glory. The box cutter was a ceremonial knife. His coat, holy vestments. His entire being was awash in Grace, inside and out; his organs became little, imperfect temples, all of them.
He dragged his index and middle fingers through the blood in the toolbox and sprinkled it on himself seven times. It dripped down his forehead, off his eyelashes, crusted on his cheeks like tears.
He was being cleansed in fire, cleansed in blood. And Jimmy teetered, trancelike, on the brink of something he couldn’t quite see fully yet, and he saw images he had only read about before this, as if his brain was pulling back a curtain and revealing them to him: a man with a face like the sun, a two-edged sword, a slain lamb. It was not the Voice’s starlike hand pulling that curtain but his own. And the thought that came to him was not an echo of the Voice, but it was his own, and his own voice floated on the night air, it slurred and stumbled and it smelled like flowers. He felt almost drunk, better than drunk, careening towards a higher state of seeing, of Being, and he said
Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!
And when he opened his mouth again the same alien fire burned forth, like sparkling beryl, but his tongue was left intact and unhurt. The fire faded, leaving a trail of smoke that gave off a pleasing odor before the Voice.
THE RITUAL IS COMPLETE
NOW YOU SHALL FAST FOR FORTY DAYS AND FORTY NIGHTS
I SHALL RETURN ON THE FORTIETH DAY TO GIVE YOU FURTHER INSTRUCTION
And Jimmy, full of flowers and blood and fire, cried out his answer, high on Spirit, “yes, if it be your will, then yes --”
A scream tore through the haze, through his drifting ecstasy. Jimmy turned his head towards the source of it, towards the door. There stood Amelia, half-silhouette against the burning body. She stepped forward and Jimmy could make out the contours of her face, shifting in turn with the shifting of the flame, and her features were wrenched in horror.
“Jimmy, what are you -- what is all this?” she asked. “What is on your face? Is that -- blood?” She stepped half-into the toolbox, tipping it over, causing the blood pooled inside it to spill onto her bare foot, and she screamed again.
“Amelia,” he said, and no fire came out, and he held her around the shoulders and breathed a shaking breath. “Amelia, something… incredible has happened.”
She gripped his arms where they clutched her and she pulled herself away. Her eyes were shining in the moonlight. Wet. “Claire told me she saw you getting out the hose. Going in the shed. I -- I didn’t know what it meant, I knew something was wrong, but -- I wasn’t -- I didn’t --”
“No, no, nothing’s wrong. It’s okay,” Jimmy said. “Everything is okay. Everything is great. Better than great.”
He smiled. She looked into his eyes, searched him, and found no answer, no explanation, and was terrified.
“I’ve been receiving visions. From Heaven,” he said. “This Voice comes to me, an angel, and it tells me things. It’s been guiding me, giving me these -- instructions --”
“This is --” Amelia inhaled. She exhaled. Her breath smelled like toothpaste. “I mean. Jimmy. You have to realize that this sounds --”
“Crazy. I know, I know, I thought it was crazy at first, too,” Jimmy replied. “But it’s real. He -- it -- I don’t know, the Voice, the Angel, showed me it was real. It’s all so real. So that’s what happened at work -- it’s part of something bigger. It -- God , Amelia, God, He’s setting me apart for salvation. He wants to sanctify me. I’m being reborn .”
There was a new look in her eyes, a sadness. She said then, “it’s late. We have to go inside. We have to get you cleaned up. And then we’ll talk, okay?”
Jimmy stilled. And waited for permission.
YOU MAY GO
He nodded. And Amelia put out the fire and cried when the raccoon’s body, crisp and cracked, revealed itself from the midst of the flame, and she screamed again and her body became wracked with sobs. And she trailed blood-prints on the patio when she stepped on it, so she cleaned her feet with the hose. Jimmy watched her. She looked to be in a deep pain.
Again, the curtain in Claire’s room flickered, and she was there, and when Jimmy looked up at the window she was not there.
“But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’ [Heb. I BECOME WHAT I BECOME ]. He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’’”
“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
Jimmy’s skin itched.
Pastor Wright was looking at him, and Amelia was looking at him, and there was so much concern on their faces that it made him almost ashamed. Almost. He’d slept in his vestments and there was a dull pain in a spot at his side where he’d rolled over on the buckle of his trenchcoat sash one too many times. He knew he would do it again tonight, and the next night and the next, and that a bruise would soon be seeping into his hip-socket. He looked forward to it.
Amelia had made him put on clothes, real clothes, over his undergarments. Just a pair of pants and socks and shoes, but it felt like a betrayal.
“And how do you know it’s an angel?” Pastor Wright asked.
“Because it told me,” Jimmy said. “The Voice, it said it -- it guards God’s throne, it has this sword made of thunder and lightning. And it has plans for me.”
Pastor Wright furrowed his brow. “Um. Okay. So this voice --”
“The Voice ,” Jimmy corrected.
Pastor Wright looked at him strangely but continued. “This… Voice,” he said, enunciating it as Jimmy had. “It -- it wants you to do what ?”
“Purify myself,” Jimmy said.
“Okay, but -- but what does that mean?” Pastor Wright said.
The meeting was at Jimmy’s insistence. He and Amelia had gone inside last night and sat at the kitchen island, where he’d spoken earlier with the Voice, and Amelia begged him to see someone. Someone who knew how to deal with this, with -- she’d said what you’re going through . And she’d said the phrase mental health .
And Jimmy promised yes, yes, but please, first can we treat it as a theological issue, and then, I’ll go . It didn’t matter to him now, what earthy things were done to him, how some unrepentant doctor with three diplomas on his wall but a heart void of Christ spoke to him, what pills they tried to put him on. The next forty days and nights stretched ahead, a road, and then Something would happen, and nothing would matter anymore, because he would be rent to pieces and rebuilt anew.
In the meantime, he hoped to get some clarity on what exactly that Something could be. So, Amelia relented, and the emergency meeting was called. Pastor Wright was accommodating about it: he’d known the Novaks for years and opened a spot up in his schedule for them, although a lot of that could be blamed on Amelia’s panicked tone on the phone with him as she arranged the appointment.
“It means I need to… make myself holy. I’ve done these rites, I guess, immersion and such, but ‘purification’ is all it really says in the way of explanation,” Jimmy said. “And so that’s why I needed to talk to you. God sent an angel to help me achieve salvation, but beyond that I don’t know anything: I don’t know why, I don’t know what else it wants with me. And -- and I just need to know a little more about what I’m dealing with, because the research I’ve done on it hasn’t really turned up anything useful.”
“I can’t say I’ve ever, um, encountered this kind of thing before,” Pastor Wright said. “I’ve dealt with many congregants who have been born again. And it’s never involved communion with angels. Do you… know? That this is what the angel wants?”
In the corner of Jimmy’s vision, Amelia was alarmed. Pastor Wright reassured her -- “I just want to hear what Jimmy has to say about it, his interpretation of what’s happening,” he said. He lowered his voice. Jimmy strained to hear him but he heard -- “It may help us get to the root of his delusion.”
Amelia nodded. Jimmy was fine with this. He could put up with it. If Pastor Wright didn’t believe him, then so be it. He’d just have to work harder to convince him. How hard could it be to prove communion with the divine to a pastor? He’d taken on more arduous tasks in the past day alone.
Pastor Wright brought his voice back up to its regular volume and asked, “Jimmy, has it told you this? That it wants to help you achieve spiritual rebirth?”
“Not exactly,” Jimmy said. “It’s being sort of, um. Inscrutable. It says I’ve got a purpose. A ‘great and righteous purpose,’ it said. And of course who are we, as God’s servants, to refuse Him when He comes to us and tells us He’s got something in store for us? We talk about it in here all the time, you know? Responding to God, serving Him. So obviously I’m doing what it tells me, but --”
“You see now,” Amelia said. “You see what I’m -- what he’s saying, what’s going on with him.”
Pastor Wright nodded. And Jimmy was up, out of his seat, and saying, “no, no, there’s -- I think there’s something going on here. It’s coming to me for a reason . I’m just trying to figure it out. I need to know.” He approached Pastor Wright’s desk and leaned in. Pastor Wright recoiled upon smelling his breath but still Jimmy spoke to him, low, conspiratorial. “You said it yourself. This doesn’t happen to just anyone. It’s some task. Set aside for me.”
Amelia was tugging at his arm, hissing, Jimmy , and he stepped back. Talked to both of them. They bore down on him like a jury and he defended himself. “I just -- here’s my thinking. If I’m not being reborn, if it’s got this great purpose for me, maybe it’s -- bigger than me.”
He held his arms out, the universal sign for stay back , and he turned his back to them. Pastor Wright might not be able to help him, but maybe there was something here that could -- the walls of his office were lined with shelves, with books about theology and church leadership. Academic journals analyzing the Scriptures.
He looked back at Pastor Wright. “What do you know about prophetic calls?”
Amelia shut her eyes as if the office would go away when she opened them again. Pastor Wright said, “you think God wants you to prophesy?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know,” Jimmy said. “But I recognize the symbols. Ezekiel, right? The feeding of the scroll, you will repeat My words to the people of Israel , He sends Ezekiel to warn them of this… impending judgement He’s about to bring on, you know? What if there’s something similar happening now? Happening here? And I’m the one who’s been chosen to pass on that message?”
God had also told Ezekiel that no one would believe him, because the house of Israel was a rebellious house. He had warned Ezekiel not to become rebellious himself. Jimmy was beginning to understand the importance of that firsthand. He turned his attention back to the books. Nestled between the paperbacks on the theory of ordained ministry and the intimidating tomes on the grammar of ancient Aramaic was a thin book simply titled Old Testament . He unslotted it from its place on the shelf.
It was worn, decades old, from maybe the 1960s, and certainly not something to learn from: it was too obsolete for that; rather, it was something to keep around, fondly, the old dog you can’t bring yourself to put to sleep. He skimmed through its yellowing pages, through passages on the cultic practices of the ancient Hebrews, and settled on a section from Joel that caught his eye, and he read --
“‘But the promise that the Spirit will come is a prelude to the announcement that the day of the Lord is at hand: ‘The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come --’”
Pastor Wright’s eyes went wide. “Surely you’re not suggesting that --”
“‘The Lord will judge the heathen, while ‘the sun and the moon shall be darkened, and the stars shall withdraw their shining’ and ‘the heavens and the earth shall shake.’ But the Lord will protect his own people and give them great prosperity.’” Jimmy shut the book. “I mean -- right?”
Amelia’s fists were clenched in her lap, pale and bony little balls. Pastor Wright searched for the words, and he found them, and he said them slowly --
“Jimmy,” he said. “That is a very, very serious thing to say. That you believe God is tasking you with.”
“I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t seriously considering it,” Jimmy said. “Isn’t this what we’ve been preparing for? Judgement. The End of Days. Seven drops of blood to sanctify me, cleansing fire, a linen robe with a sash! It’s there, it’s all right there -- He wants me to deliver the news of His coming, of our deliverance from the Earth and ascendance to Heaven. We knew it’d come in our lifetimes. Is it really so crazy to imagine that it’s actually here?”
Pastor Wright was murmuring something. Linen, fire, blood, linen, fire, blood… “Jimmy,” he said, and he didn’t sound interested , exactly, but there was a sense of recognition in his voice; it probed. “Walk me through these rituals. That it makes you do.”
And Jimmy walked him through the rites, the vestments, the bath, the incense, the blood -- everything that the Voice required of him, and the substitutions he had to make. And Pastor Wright’s eyes lit up and grew wide.
“Have you read the book of Leviticus?” he asked. Jimmy shook his head. “Those are… very, very old rituals, that you’re describing. Concerning the purification of the Tabernacle when the Israelites were wandering the desert. It’s how they accommodated the Temple. For God to dwell in it.”
“Oh,” Jimmy said. “So -- um. What does that mean, exactly?”
“Well,” Pastor Wright said, “it’s, um. These rituals… they’re how people were meant to connect with God a long time ago. Before the birth of Christ. But it’s certainly not how we’re meant to connect with God now. The New Testament gave us a new set of teachings on how to do that, that made the old ways obsolete. ‘It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,’ and such.
“A real experience with God… it’s meant to go beyond the earthly realm. It’s about overcoming that realm, and not dwelling within it. So this thing that’s -- that’s putting your body through this, while ignoring your spirit,” he continued -- “I don’t know what’s talking to you, Jimmy. But it’s not God.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Jimmy asked. It came out louder, more accusatory than he intended, but he kept going -- “About how it’s meant to be? It goes against everything I’ve been led to believe. I don’t understand why I’m doing it. I don’t know what it wants from me or hopes to get out of me. Nothing we talk about in here could’ve prepared me for this kind of experience. But I don’t know how else to interpret it. I think He’s testing me. Trying to see when I crack. If I crack. He wants to see if I’ll be faithful, even if everyone around me is telling me I’m wrong.”
Amelia broke in now, anguished -- “And why is it you? Why does it have to be you?”
“Do you know what it called me?” Jimmy asked.
“Ben-’adam,” he said, “Son of Man. Revelation? The prophecy of the end of days, beginning with a vision of one like a son of man ! Clothed with a long robe and a sash!” He grabbed at his trench coat. “I don’t know what else that could mean!”
(It had called him beis-’el then, too: house of God . He didn’t really know what to make of that one: when he started to unravel it, it only tangled further.)
“And I don’t -- ben-’adam, Hebrew, right? I don’t speak Hebrew! I shouldn’t know that! But when it talks to me I understand, it calls me man , it called me son of man ! It calls me chosen and it doesn’t tell me what I’ve been chosen for . Could it be connected to Christ, could I be --”
“Jimmy!” said Pastor Wright. “That’s enough. Please, no more. I think we’ve heard all that we can take.”
He looked to Amelia. Her eyes were glassy.
Claire was waiting for them outside the office, up out of the seats in the waiting area, and she stepped back when they opened the door. She’d clearly been standing, listening, ear pressed up against it. They had to take her this morning since they couldn’t find a babysitter on short notice.
“Are we still going to make French toast?” she asked them. They’d forgotten. She hadn’t.
“Daddy’s feeling tired,” Amelia said, and took her hand. “I’ll make you toast. C’mon. Let’s get in the car.”
They walked ahead, with Jimmy trudging behind them. Claire looked back, briefly, and she looked afraid. There would be no French toast, no Cloud-Men in the world to come. But he would be saved, and he would make sure that Claire and Amelia were, too. And they got in the car and had to pull over halfway home so Jimmy could stumble out and vomit on the side of the road, stomach empty, and all that came out was bile, heaves of it, forming a gelatinous puddle on the dirt and the gravel.
They came back home. Jimmy went straight to bed and darkness came over him, thick, dreadful, and he fell into a deep sleep.
“… These are severe fasts, in which one may eat and drink only while it is still day, before the beginning of the night of the fast, and on the day of the fast itself they are prohibited to engage in the performance of work, in bathing, in smearing with oil, in wearing shoes, and in marital relations; and they lock the bathhouses so that no one should come to bathe on that day …”
Mishnah Ta’anis 1:6
“‘I cry to [Y]ou and [Y]ou do not answer me;
I stand, and [Y]ou merely look at me.
My inward parts are in turmoil, and are never still;
days of affliction come to meet me.
I go about in sunless gloom;
I stand up in the assembly and cry for help.
I am a brother of jackals,
and a companion of ostriches.
My skin turns black and falls from me,
and my bones burn with heat.
My lyre is turned to mourning,
and my pipe to the voice of those who weep.’”
Job 30:20; 27-31
“Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.”
“When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’”
When Jimmy woke up again, 14 hours later, a raging fever had taken hold of him. He ran hot, impossibly hot, and he shivered and his head throbbed with pain.
Amelia eased. Not too much, after his termination at work, after the events in Pastor Wright’s office, but she thought she understood now, assuming that the events of the past day were done in some kind of sickly fugue state. He heard her call Pastor Wright, apologize profusely for him, promise that he’d be back in church as soon as he got better. Meanwhile, his body temperature peaked at 105.
After that first day, it kept going, and Jimmy settled in to it, prepared for it to keep going for a while. He steeled himself. He was provided with things, plain white bread and water and low-sodium broth heated on the stove, some of which he wanted, some of which he did not, and none of which he needed, so none of which he took. He was like moss in those days, growing on his own. Self-sustaining like divine fire in the bush. He did not eat or drink, pretending it was because he felt too sick, and Amelia believed him. And he didn’t shower and he didn’t take off his vestments. The bruise on his hip settled into him like he’d hoped. The rest of his skin mottled, too, flushed out. In the spaces between the red patches, it took on a death-pallor. Bags blotted the space under his eyes.
And still the angel kept him alive. Kept him in a state of stasis: his hair and nails did not grow. He didn’t brush his teeth but they stayed clean and no plaque grew on them, and morning breath sat permanently in his mouth. The sweat-stains that built up on him faded from his clothes every morning, after every restless night, expanding across his skin and then ebbing back again, like the tide. He liked to think of it as a continuous regeneration. Tearing-down and building-anew. It didn’t feel good, but since when was annihilation supposed to feel good?
Every day Amelia went to work and Claire went to school and they would come home and he would lie to them about having eaten lunch, and come dinnertime he would pretend he’d had his fill during the day and was too sick to eat anything more. Amelia suspected something, certainly. There were no dishes in the sink, all the food was still in the fridge, just as she’d left it. But she said nothing, so he kept doing nothing.
And he never let her under the trench coat, at his caving chest, at his thinning stomach. Kept it wrapped around him like a shroud.
Claire had started reading to him a few days in. Sat on the edge of his bed with her books and narrated. She finished James and the Giant Peach for him. After James and the Giant Peach it was The Velveteen Rabbit, which took half an hour, and then Al Capone Does My Shirts, which took four days.
But like everything, the period of forgiveness faded. He plunged again into delirium, and Amelia had less and less patience for it. Jimmy started to make requests to Claire, giving her passages to read to him: Ezekiel's vision of the chariot. Daniel and the four beasts. Revelation. Sometimes he fell asleep to her reading and it eased his mind, but mostly he would babble to her about what the passages meant; there was no food in him and no drink in him and he would go off on tangents about Life-Beyond-Life, how he would be delivered and would deliver her and her mother in kind. Claire did not take to his ramblings. Amelia was clearly telling her things, things about him having lost his mind, because she did not believe him and he knew she did not believe him. Every day she sat by him and read, and the gap between them widened, like a chasm, like two halves of the sea.
And all the while, he thought of Rapture. Of the rivers of blood. Of the beasts climbing out of the boiling sea. He thought of rising, the light shining on his face. He thought of HOLY HOLY HOLY. He thought of Wormwood falling to Earth. He thought of his Angel, what it might look like: a wheel within a wheel, dotted with eyes and spinning in all directions; a four-faced, four-winged beast, seated atop fiery coals; a man, like him, with a trumpet, that would blast in his ear when it was time, and would lift him with strong arms up to Heaven.
He dreamed of it when he slept and he thought of it, consciously, when awake. He suffered and suffered and dreamed and dreamed and readied himself. He cried out in the night, wailing in Hebrew, and Amelia would take a blanket and pillow and move to the living room couch.
And the angel watched, constantly, perched above him like a bird on a wire, and never spoke. It lurked on his periphery, it edged under his nails, under his clothing, scanned him from the inside. It did this furtively, like it was an illicit thing. When Jimmy moved an arm, a leg, a finger, billions of eyes would blink and unblink in sequence, as if trying to replicate the movement through morse code, celestial synapses firing pure energy. He’d grab the bedsheet or a book or a pill and it would echo the grip, eyes coalescing around nothing: a pantomime, rippling.
But it never said anything, didn’t answer his prayers, which he made constantly. Made whenever he could think straight, even sometimes when he was delirious. He asked for different things -- for the fever to let up, for answers, for the End of Days to hurry up and come already. And it never responded. Just sat and observed him.
So about two weeks in, after two weeks of complete silence from the angel, Jimmy started to act out, as living things do when they get caged up for too long and get restless.
He didn’t go to the doctor, refused to, and besides he wasn’t leaving the house, let alone the bedroom much of the time. But Amelia and him settled on a compromise: an orange bottle of pills that he didn’t take. He flushed them down the toilet instead. Soon he became bored with this, and imposed a challenge on himself, to see how creatively he could dispose of them. One was thrown out the window of the office/home gym, and he searched the backyard to see where it landed and found nothing but grass still caked in flecks of blood. Another pill was slipped into a plastic bag and crushed with a rolling pin and sprinkled on the tomato plants; he monitored their growth to see if they had been at all stunted.
Jimmy knew, now. what you were meant to do when God tests you. He thought you were meant to endure it. But it turns out you’ve got to test Him right back.
Why would God put the tree in Eden -- smack dab in the center, too! -- if He didn’t want Adam and Eve taking its fruit? He took the boxcutter to his arm and carved shallow little cuts, scores like the ones on the surface of meat, and the blood beaded up, red as apples. The angel would watch with interest and make the cuts disappear by the next morning. He’d show Amelia, but he didn’t know what she’d do if she saw them. Where she’d put him.
Amelia stopped allowing Claire to read to him. She stayed away from the bedroom, too -- let Jimmy have it all to himself while she moved to the couch permanently, pulling it out into a bed. When he watched TV now, he wrapped himself in her blanket and smelled her. It was the only way he could touch her anymore, touch the things she had touched.
And then the angel disappeared. Briefly. A few days before the end -- the End -- on the thirty-eighth day of his fast, on the eighteenth of September. He prayed for it to come back. It didn’t respond. The next day, it flitted in and out, in and out. It was close by, he felt it, but it was not focused on him. There was something else drawing its attention, re-orienting its orbit. It spoke that day, the only time it had spoken for weeks and weeks, and it did not speak to Jimmy. But he heard it anyway, like a radio station just flickering into hearing range, laden with static:
DEAN WINCHESTER IS SAVED!
(Jimmy spent the rest of the day in the office, researching Dean Winchester, who he’d figured was a righteous man, who was maybe one of the Chosen.
What he found was that Dean Winchester was wanted by the FBI for multiple accounts of first degree murder, armed robbery, credit card fraud and impersonating federal agents. He asked for an explanation that night but, true to form, got no response.)
But it was almost done. It would return and tell him what to do next. It had been an uneasy forty days, an uneasy coexistence, him and his family in the house, but if it had to be maintained, then Jimmy maintained it, and he tolerated it: tolerated Amelia looking at him with fear and pity in her eyes, tolerated Claire stumbling over the names of ancient kings. Even on the worst days, he tolerated it, and he never let go, never doubted. Jimmy’s faith had strengthened with every day of his fast. The more he suffered, the more that was inflicted upon his body and his mind, the more ready he felt for what came after: forty days of physical, emotional, mental agony was nothing, would feel like nothing, compared to the eternity of bliss that awaited him and his family. And he went to bed on the eve of the fortieth day, alone, feeling like he was dying, and awaited rebirth.
“[Elijah] got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’
He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”
1 Kings 19:8-13
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
1 Corinthians 6:19-20
Jimmy woke up on the final day of the fast and he was still sick. He breathed in the morning air, labored, and the corners of his mouth poked into a smile.
He went downstairs. It was still early -- when he usually would have woken up and gotten ready for work. And this morning he crept past Amelia’s sleeping form on the pullout couch, into the kitchen, and made some coffee. He looked out into the yard, his trenchcoat heavy on him, and listened to the machine percolate. He dug out his favorite mug from the cabinet, his UW-Madison one with the picture of Bucky Badger on it.
When the coffee was ready, he poured some into the mug and inhaled through his nose. He didn’t intend to drink it. Just to be with it, watching the day settle outside like he used to. The coffee was robust, familiar, and it clogged his nostrils. There he smelled it, a simulacrum of a sip. There he stood, a simulacrum of a person. He had to pour it down the drain before he gave in to temptation.
“You’re awake,” Amelia said from behind him. He turned. Her eyes widened at the sight of him, jarringly lucid, holding the mug. “And you made coffee.”
“Are you still…”
“Sick?” he asked. His voice came out strained. “I’m definitely not feeling great.”
Amelia looked at him curiously. Surprised to see him talking so calmly. Jimmy supposed he was, too.
“But it’s the fortieth day. I’m not sure what happens now,” he said, and put his mug in the sink and washed it out. “I think I’m just meant to wait. For it to talk to me again.”
He put the mug on the drying rack and glanced back at Amelia. Her face had fallen again. “So you still think that…” she said, and trailed off.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I? It’s --” And Jimmy was cut off then, because his stomach wrenched in pain. He let out an anguished wail and doubled over, holding onto the countertop for purchase. Amelia stepped forward, cautiously, and he held out a hand to keep her back. “Please don’t take me to the hospital,” Jimmy begged. “Please don’t take me anywhere. Not today. I just -- want to wait it out. See what happens. After that you can do whatever you want with me. Okay?”
Amelia nodded, and looked down. She walked past him to the mugs and got her own; she poured herself some coffee. Claire was poking her head into the living room, afraid to come into the kitchen. Jimmy realized he may have woken her up when he cried out. He looked from Claire to Amelia to Claire again, and neither could look at him, and so he dragged himself back to his room.
It was a Saturday. Amelia had gotten into the habit of going out on weekends -- she wanted to be out of the house, wanted Claire to be out of the house. So he watched the car tear out of the driveway from the bedroom window, heading God knows where, to the park, to wherever. After that, he pondered what to do with today’s pill and checked on the tomato plants (still growing, still fine). He took the pill out of his pocket and considered taking it, and he buried it in the yard before he could follow through, getting dirt under his nails. This time he wasn’t sure if it would disappear the next day.
He couldn’t feel the Voice. Not when he was getting coffee, not in his room, not out here in the yard. He spent the rest of the morning outside, wasting away on one of the chairs on the patio. It was the most time he’d spent outside in weeks. And he started to worry: maybe he had made it all up. Maybe he had done things that he could not take back. Broken something irreparable. But he quashed the worry and by the afternoon he’d taken to his room again, where he pored over Revelation, searching between the lines in the hopes that he’d missed something. The morning’s calm was giving way to frustration, which gave way to anger.
Claire and Amelia returned at some point and the sun set at yet some other point. When it was dinner time he sat at the top of the stairs without Amelia and Claire knowing, heard them say grace, and mouthed along with them: “Bless this food, oh, Lord, and ourselves to thy loving service that we may always continue in thy faith and fear to the honor and glory of thy name. Amen.”
He listened to them eat, talking about their day, talking about Claire’s school projects, talking about Claire’s friends. He heard Claire push back her chair and take her dish to the sink and turn it on, heard Amelia dismiss her, and went to his room.
One more hour, he told himself at 8, with four hours left in the day. And then it’ll come. He had a physical sensation like he wanted to jump out of his skin. He felt himself grow hot but he did not take off his coat. He paced around his room. He checked the clock. Every minute passed like a day and yet he was always running out of time.
One more hour, he told himself at 9 with three hours left in the day.
And then 10 hit. 10:15. 10:30. 10:45. 10:55. 10:57. 10:58.
At 11:07 at night, Jimmy wrenched open the window and climbed out. He stood on the roof, with the shingles digging into his soles, and clambered up top and searched the stars.
“Where are you?” he asked. “Why haven’t you come back?”
No answer. Not even a Presence, felt but unseen.
Louder, then, “ why haven’t you come back?”
Still nothing. Still the stars turned and the planets orbited and Jimmy stood on his roof and yelled at the sky.
“I did everything you asked,” he said. “I bathed myself. I did that purification ritual for you. I wore nothing but these vestments for forty days, and I didn’t eat, and I didn’t drink, and I feel like I’m going to die. And it cost me my job, and my pastor thinks I’m nuts, and my family can’t even look at me, and I’m still sick , and --” His eyes blinked out tears, blinked them back. They were just tears. “And you aren’t telling me anything! You aren’t answering me! What am I supposed to think?”
It was still quiet, and in response he got louder still: “I’ve done my part -- I need you to do yours, like you promised me!” He was still feverish, his skin was sallow, and still he looked to God, still he begged for guidance. The neighbors were coming out of their houses now, standing on their porches, watching him. Jimmy saw them and ignored them. They would be washed away, all would be washed away, if only the Angel showed up again.
“You think this is funny?” he screamed. “You do this often, just pick some guy to screw with because you know he won’t say no to God? You’re all sitting up there in Heaven playing some cosmic joke on me? Oh, dress Jimmy up in his boxers and overcoat, starve him, make him look like a complete wackjob, that’ll be hilarious! Well this --”
He was stripping himself of his coat -- “-- is what I think --” -- and threw it, off the roof, into the front yard -- “of your fucking garments!”
And then it struck him.
A Nothing, before him. There was a shapeless shape -- a Shape-That-Was-Not; an Un-Presence. Colorless, formless, unfurling in front of him; a night-blossom. And with it came an overwhelming silence. All sound within the Nothing cut out; even the wind, even the crickets croaking in the mid-September night. And he heard its silence. It was all he could hear.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
WHY DID YOU NOT HEED MY WORDS?
DID I NOT TELL YOU I WOULD COME TO YOU WITH FURTHER INSTRUCTION?
“Fuck off,” Jimmy said, and it felt liberating. “You don’t get to say that. You don’t get to tell me anything . I put up with so much for you. I sacrificed everything for you. Now take me to Heaven. It’s the least I deserve.”
And the Nothing said, sounding confused, if a celestial Voice communicated in the form of a silence could sound confused,
And Jimmy made a futile gesture.
YOU WILL NOT BE “TAKEN” ANYWHERE
CERTAINLY NOT TO HEAVEN
And Jimmy felt like his body was made of glass and someone had just taken a sledgehammer to it.
“What?” he asked. “I don’t -- I’m not following.”
WHAT CONFUSES YOU
“The -- this is the Rapture. The End of Days. Hasn’t this been what it’s leading up to?” he asked. “I mean -- what else is this -- the baptism, the cleansing -- if not that?”
The Nothing tittered; it swarmed within Itself, and it sang --
HAVE YOU NOT REALIZED?
THIS IS YOUR PURPOSE!
I PLAN TO COME TO EARTH
FOR THIS I MUST INHABIT A MORTAL BODY:
O SON OF BLOOD AND FLESH, SON OF DIRT AND CLAY!
O, HOUSE OF THE HOLY!
FOR YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN;
YOU HAVE BEEN SANCTIFIED;
YOU HAVE BEEN PREPARED FOR MY ENTRY!
“No,” Jimmy said, and laughed, disbelieving. “No, no, no, that’s -- that’s just not correct. I’m -- what do you mean, vessel --”
And he took a deep breath and he regrouped, and he said, carefully, “I have been doing research. A lot of research. And I know how this is supposed to go. This is where it happens. You’ve been preparing me so that I can go to Heaven for being a good believer before the Rapture comes. And so me and my family -- we can meet Christ.”
THAT IS NOT WHY I HAVE COME
It was dawning on Jimmy now that the angel may be making sense. He didn’t want it to, but it did. Beis-’el. House of God. The purification of the tabernacle. Jimmy’s spirit would not be ascending. It would not be taken, leaving the rest of the world behind to drown in seas of blood. Pastor Wright had been correct: this was not about the spirit, not even remotely. This was flesh, all flesh, all the way down.
“So, just checking here, just to make sure I’m all clear on this -- I’m not being reborn,” Jimmy said.
YOU ARE NOT
“And I’m not being saved, or brought to Heaven to meet Christ.”
YOU ARE NOT
“Are the End Times even coming?”
WE HOPE NOT
THE APOCALYPSE IS BEING SET INTO MOTION AS WE SPEAK;
WE WISH TO PREVENT IT FROM COMING TO FRUITION
So not only was the Rapture not coming in his lifetime, Heaven was doing all it could to actively stop it .
“This has to be a mistake,” he said. “None of this makes any sense. Dean Winchester -- wanted felon Dean Winchester -- gets to be saved and I’m left here to be some angel’s mobile home ? How is that fair?”
WE ALL HAVE A PLACE IN WHAT IS TO COME
YOU ARE AN INTEGRAL PART OF THIS PROCESS
“Well, I don’t want to be,” Jimmy said, before he could stop himself. “I -- I need to talk to someone. If the apocalypse is coming then I’m not actually supposed to be here. Can I -- I have to talk to God. Let me talk to God.”
COMMUNION WITH GOD DOES NOT COME ON OUR TERMS
“Okay, well, you go and you tell him something from me, then --”
YOU ARE NOT LISTENING
“Can’t or won’t?”
AND EVEN IF I COULD, IT WOULD BE…
IMPRUDENT OF ME
A thought occurred to him; a question: had this angel even met God? Was it in the same place he was -- waiting and waiting for a direct answer and receiving only an intermediary?
And with that question came more, a flood of them. He wondered if it felt frustrated (assuming it even had the capacity for feelings). Did it ever stand on the firmament, demanding to see God, or did it remain in its station at the throne, its billion-eyes always looking ahead and never behind at what sat upon it, the only words out of its Mouth-That-Was-Not-A-Mouth HOLY HOLY HOLY , carried on the wind, roaring like thunder?
What did it do with its doubts, if it was even possible for it to have them: did it stand before its higher-ups, silent but for praise, or did it air its grievances?
Did it comply?
(He supposed, ultimately, yes. If it was here, before him now, talking to him -- giving him instruction that had been handed down along the orders of angels like a game of telephone: then yes.)
But would he?
(Yes -- for he, too, was here, before it now, talking to it: then yes.)
The angel had said that they all had a place in what was to come. He wondered what, exactly, the angel’s place was, that it was made to come here and inhabit him. And he wondered if it wanted to take on that role just as much as Jimmy did.
But he was tired. And so he asked none of these things. And instead he said, “okay, so, what happens now? Did everything go okay? Are you going to be able to inhabit me?”
The Nothing said,
I BELIEVE SO
Jimmy did not find this to be a comforting answer.
“What do you mean, you believe ?”
The Nothing hesitated before answering.
A HOLY VESSEL CAN BE MADE IMPURE BY MERE INTENTION.
YOU ARE A SACRED OBJECT,
TO BE USED ONLY FOR SACRED PURPOSES.
THIS IS HOW I AM TO VIEW YOU,
HOW I AM TO INHABIT YOU
Silence. The Voice sounded almost… ashamed.
“I take it you didn’t see me that way,” Jimmy said.
IT IS NOT THE APPROACH I HAVE TAKEN WITH YOU,
YOU ARE A PERSON, JIMMY
YOU ARE A MAN.
YOU ARE A PROFANE THING:
YOU HAVE FLESH; YOU HAVE ORGANS.
YOU TOUCH, TASTE, SMELL.
VIEWING YOU AS A HOLY VESSEL,
OBEYING THE RITES NECESSARY FOR PURIFYING HOLY VESSELS --
THIS KEEPS US BOTH SAFE
IT PREVENTS CONTAMINATION
“So what’s the issue? You got attached? You like me too much, or something?” It was a joke. As much as he could joke right now. If the angel liked him, this wouldn’t be happening.
I DO NOT “LIKE” YOU, JIMMY
I AM HERE FOR YOUR FLESH AND NOTHING MORE.
BUT THAT IS PRECISELY THE PROBLEM.
IT IS THE FLESH, THE HUMANITY, THE EARTHLY THINGS, THAT INTRIGUE ME. AND I HAVE FORGOTTEN TO SEE YOU AS YOU SHOULD BE SEEN.
YOU SUIT ME WELL. PERHAPS TOO WELL. MY PREVIOUS VESSEL, SHE --
-- DID NOT FIT ME IN A WAY I FOUND COMFORTABLE
The name that the angel had given him, אִישׁ, re-entered his mind. Man : man, as opposed to woman. Man, as opposed to God. He almost felt bad for it, knowing it could feel uncomfortable in one body and at-home in another, and that it had spent at least some time in a vessel that it disliked spending time in.
I SAW HER AS SOMETHING I HAD TO INHABIT.
YOU ARE SOMETHING I WANT TO INHABIT.
I AM NOT SUPPOSED TO WANT THAT, JIMMY
I AM NOT SUPPOSED TO WANT
Jimmy waited for the angel to finish the thought. It didn’t; or rather, the entire thought had already been finished, self-contained: I want. For wanting’s sake. I-want-what-I-want and I-will-want-whatever-I-will-want.
PURIFICATION OF AN ANGELIC VESSEL IS A DELICATE PROCESS --
A BRIEF ALTERING OF THE DIVINE DESIGNATION;
AN EARTHLY THING MADE SACRED.
EVEN A BRIEF LAPSE IN JUDGEMENT WILL OPEN UP THE VESSEL TO A HOST OF IMPURITIES, MUCH LESS ONGOING DEVIATION FROM STANDARD PROTOCOL.
YOU ARE CLEAN, YES. I HAVE MADE SURE OF IT.
I HAVE OBSERVED THE CORRECT RITES.
BUT I FEAR MY INTENTIONS MAY HAVE…
I HAVE CHANGED YOU TOO MUCH
AND AS I HAVE TAINTED YOU,
YOU MAY TAINT ME.
YOU MAY HAVE BEGUN DOING SO ALREADY.
“Oh,” Jimmy said, uselessly. “Can we fix it?”
IT IS TOO LATE TO FIX THIS.
THE CRACKS RUN TOO DEEP.
“So -- so what does that mean, does that change anything?” Jimmy asked. “Is it dangerous?”
I DO NOT KNOW.
IT MAY HURT YOU
IT MAY HURT ME
BUT WE BOTH HAVE A ROLE TO PLAY.
YOU ARE A DEVOUT MAN, JIMMY --
He had heard those exact words before, many times. From his pastor, from other members of the church, to indicate that he’d done something well. Something good.
This time, it did not feel like a compliment.
-- YOU KNOW, MORE THAN ANYONE, THAT WE MUST DO AS WE HAVE BEEN COMMANDED
Jimmy was silent.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS?
Jimmy thought, and he answered:
“I just want to know: did I do it right? Not just the stuff from the last month. I mean all of it. My whole life. The -- the prayers I made, the things I did.
“Was I --” no, not was, “ am I good? Was I able to become holy? Despite the screw-ups, the -- the intentions, or whatever it was that happened?”
The Nothing rotated a few degrees. After it tilted, it said,
DO YOU WANT TO KNOW IF YOU ARE GOOD?
OR DO YOU WANT TO KNOW IF YOU ARE HOLY?
And again, Jimmy was overtaken with silence.
God was real. He had confirmation now, that God was real. And, as if to answer his prayers, God had reached out to him, and told Jimmy through this angel that He needed him for something. Him, specifically. Called him to a higher purpose, for which he would suffer greatly and, as it turned out, would only be rewarded with more agony.
And God did not care if he obeyed the New Commandment, if he spent nights poring over Scripture. He did not care about the fun runs. About the internet browser that donated water. God did not care about any of it. Jimmy felt a hole, yawning, inside him. An emptiness, opening up, that he thought he might fall into.
“Tell me your name,” Jimmy said to the angel. “You’ve been talking to me all this time and I still don’t know who you are. I think I deserve to know who’s going to be walking around in my body.”
The silence rippled. Like the hitch of a breath.
Jimmy repeated the name under his breath. Rolled it around on his tongue. He said it out loud. The Un-Presence blinked in and out of existence.
Jimmy said the name again, louder, to the Face of the Nothing. And then Jimmy said, “I hate you,” because he did not know what else to say. Because he wanted to say it. Because he could say it.
YOU WILL STILL PERMIT ME TO INHABIT YOU?
And Jimmy opened his mouth to respond when he saw something move below, in the yard. Amelia was there, wheeling a rolling suitcase behind her, making her way to the car. Holding her hand was Claire, who was wearing her backpack and carrying a duffel bag. She looked half-asleep. “Amelia?” Jimmy called down to her. “Where are you going? It’s late.”
“That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said in a month,” she said. “I’m taking Claire. We’re going to my mother’s.”
“For how long?” Jimmy asked.
“We need to leave,” she said. “We’ve been putting up with this too long. You’re on the roof, you’re yelling about some angel in nothing but your dirty underwear. I just can’t deal with all of this anymore. You’re sick, Jimmy. It’s in your body and it’s in your mind and you refuse to get better --”
“Wait --” said Jimmy, and he jumped, and Amelia screamed. But he floated down, from a two-story drop, like he was a feather, in front of her, in front of Claire, in front of the neighbors. Someone yelled from their porch -- “do it again!”, jokingly begging for a backflip, and Jimmy ignored them, and the angel said
And Jimmy said, up, to the angel, “yes.”
And Amelia said “how did you -- who are you talking to? What are you seeing?”
So Jimmy shouted to it, “please, please show her, I need you to give her something --”
And from his open mouth came a lashing alien fire followed by Nothing, the Nothing, spilling forth towards Amelia and Claire. Claire, now alert, sobbed. A scream, from another house; something profane. Amelia’s mouth gaped open. “What -- how…” she asked, “Jimmy. What is that? How did you do that?”
“Do you see now?” he asked. “You see now, what it’s doing. Why I’ve been doing this.”
Someone else, one of their other neighbors, had gone inside, had dragged their family out to watch. Others were peeking through curtains. Standing on lawns. Jimmy would not show them anything else.
“Well, what does it want?” Amelia asked. “Are we going to die? You were right all along, weren’t you, this really is the End --”
But he was gripping her shoulders now, and saying, “Amelia, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ve learned so much. It’s told me so much, and I want it to stop, I don’t want --”
And he broke down then, into tears, and his hands were shaking on Amelia’s shoulders, and Amelia’s hands were shaking as they came up to clutch his wrists. And Claire’s hand grabbed the hem of his shirt and he looked down at her, and her eyes were so sad and glassy, like a deer’s. “I’m so tired,” he said, “and I can’t stop it. None of us can stop it. I have to say yes but it’s not really a choice, it’s just --”
“Say yes to what?”
Jimmy looked up, away from Amelia, away from Claire, and said “yes,” yes, yes.
GET IN THE CAR
YOUR FAMILY SHALL COME WITH YOU
Jimmy’s Kia was parked in the driveway. Amelia had started using it; it was nicer and newer than her Hyundai, and Jimmy wasn’t driving it. And he opened the backseat and strapped Claire in and got in the car. Amelia slid into the passenger’s side. Claire was crying, quietly. Was Daddy okay, was he going to die. Jimmy only listened for the angel.
He understood it, now. He hated it still, but he could recognize the root of its pain, because that was where his own sprang from as well, two date palms growing from a single pit. It all hurt: desire hurt. Revelation hurt.
Revelation was, at its core, an unveiling. That’s what it meant: to uncover what had previously been kept concealed. And so it left you vulnerable. All the more susceptible to whatever the world chose to inflict on you, or whatever you chose to inflict on yourself. Or maybe these things didn’t normally hurt so much. Maybe it was just him and the circumstances he was in, where being trapped in the angel’s agonies just amplified and twisted every experience into something far more painful than it should’ve been.
He’d spent forty days in the prison of himself. This angel had been in its own since the second day of creation. It was a very long time, to spend wanting something. To spend knowing the consequences of wanting something. And the past month had taught Jimmy that there was nothing worse than finally getting what you want.
This angel had suffered for billions of years and now it was going to suffer some more, in ways that were going to be new and different and horrible. Jimmy knew it was sick but there was a part of him that was excited to see it through. He would give his body to this angel and take everything from it; he would let it use him to destroy itself from the inside. And if he went down with the ship, he was happy to drown.
And so he would go wherever he was compelled, wherever the spirit compelled him. And he told the angel this: “Tell me,” he cried, “tell me what’s left. Just let it be over.”
YOU WILL TAKE YOUR DAUGHTER
YOUR ONLY DAUGHTER, CLAIRE, WHOM YOU LOVE,
yes; yes; yes
AND YOU WILL SACRIFICE HER AS AN OFFERING IN THE PLACE THAT I SHOW TO YOU
“Yes,” Jimmy breathed.
Amelia tensed. “What did it say?”
Before he could relay the information, the screen of the GPS flickered on. The car had not started; he had not yet put the keys in the ignition. A set of coordinates, three and a half hours away. He looked at Amelia. She handed him the keys. They felt strange in his hand now, alien. He hadn’t driven in weeks. He used to drive every day. To work and back, to church and back. He did not know where, exactly, he was going now. He did not know if he would be coming back.
“Mommy? Daddy? Are we still going to Grandma’s?” Claire asked. Jimmy inhaled, hard, through his nostrils, and exhaled.
“Go to sleep, Claire. We’ll be driving a long time,” he said.
“Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.”
“And I lifted up my hands in righteousness and blessed the Great Holy One,
And I spoke with the breath of my mouth and with a tongue of flesh,
which God has made for the sons of the flesh of man, that they might speak with it.
[And he has given them breath and tongue and mouth that they might speak with it.]”
1 Enoch 84:1
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
They arrived at Charles Mound a little past three in the morning. Jimmy stopped the Kia at the base of the hill, near the gate. The sign ahead of them gleamed, fluorescent, in the headlights:
Please Park Here on
Gravel Roadway and
Continue By Foot
“Jimmy,” Amelia whispered, “I think this is private property. I think we’re at someone’s house.”
“It’s where it took me,” Jimmy replied.
“What do we do now?”
“Now you open the glovebox,” Jimmy said. And so Amelia did, and there sat Jimmy’s trench coat, folded neatly, and she lifted it out and held it in her hands. The bloodstains were still on it.
“But this was…”
“I need it,” Jimmy said. “Please give it to me.”
And so she did. And he got out of the car. “Wait here,” he told Amelia. She nodded. He went to the back seat and unbuckled Claire’s seatbelt. “Come on,” he said to Claire. “Come with Daddy.”
And so Claire did.
And he made Claire wait, wait as he opened the trunk and pulled out the bungee cords that he used to tie things to their roof, wait as he checked the pockets of the trench coat for the box cutter and his fingers closed around the plastic. And they walked past the neat rows of corn that grew above their heads, past the high yellowing grass, up the driveway, under the shadow of the trees. A pond glinted in the moonlight. And he opened the rusted gate for her and took her up the road. The dirt gritted beneath them with each step, the grass above it having been scrubbed away from years of tire tracks on tire tracks.
“Daddy?” Claire asked. “Where are we going?”
Jimmy was quiet. When he spoke, it was almost covered up by the rustling of the leaves. “Somewhere nice,” he said. “Somewhere pretty. Where we can see the stars.”
Claire swung their joined hands as they walked. Jimmy remembered when she was small -- smaller -- and he and Amelia used to lift her up and swing her between them, and for a moment her tiny body would fly.
Jimmy used to do lots of things. He stepped on a sharp rock now, and it hurt and the bottom of his foot began to bleed, and dirt adhered to the wound.
The ground switched from gravel to grass eventually, overgrown with dandelions, and became much more open. They passed the dark, solid shapes of the barn, of the storehouse, and they reached a darkened house -- a home, for a family -- with a glade among the trees with warped trunks, and the survey marker embedded in the ground. A sign was planted in the ground, in the glade, and it read as follows:
Welcome to Charles Mound
1235 FEET ABOVE SEA LEVEL
It was Sinai; it was Ararat; it was Har-Tsion . And Jimmy looked up and saw the stars again, like blinking eyes, and they could not tell him whether what he was doing was the right thing or not.
He guided Claire to the sign and dug the bungee cords out of his pocket. He felt around for the stakes, groping for them in the darkness, and tied her wrists to the stakes, and she was breathing very hard but she did not fight.
“I love you,” he said. “I love you, I love you. I’m sorry.”
And he pulled out the box cutter, and unsheathed the blade, and Claire screamed. Loud. And a dog somewhere on the property, somewhere nearby, woke up and began to bark, and the lights in the house flicked on. And someone was yelling, and Claire was still screaming, high and clear like a bell, like a bleating lamb, and Jimmy grabbed Claire by the arm and held her still, and yet she thrashed and thrashed under his grip, please don’t no stop Daddy NO --
He would not be delivered. There would be no boiling sea, no four creatures, no blood moon, no blinding light and no eternity of bliss. All there was was this: him, his daughter, the knife, and the Angel, on someone else’s hilltop.
And Jimmy stopped. He looked up, his breath caught in his throat and his tears in their ducts; he dropped the box cutter onto the grass and it became lost among the flowers, and he awaited his instructions.
YOU HAVE PROVEN YOURSELF
YOU HAVE OBEYED ME
YOU ARE A SUITABLE VESSEL
And the Angel gave him an order then, his final order, the Order of Orders --
LET ME IN
And so Jimmy cried out, a blasting trumpet made from ram’s-horn, hollow, expecting to be filled again with the Breath of the Angel like the four winds, sounding out blessings into Eternity,
And so the Angel came to him, closer, and he felt the Angel brush his face and it felt like an electrical storm, localized against his cheek, the Glory whipping onto him, the worst pain he had ever experienced, and Jimmy spoke to him --
I AM HERE
I AM READY
FILL ME WITH YOUR GLORY
And so he heard the word of God then, thick in his head like alcohol, spewing out his mouth like alcohol, as the Angel entered him; i am not in the fire i am not in the clap of the thunder i am not in the roar of the earthquake i am I-AM-THAT-WHICH-I-AM AND YOU WILL BECOME FILLED WITH MY PRESENCE;
and Jimmy said again I AM HERE;
and Jimmy said I WILL BE YOUR SERVANT, I WILL BE YOUR VESSEL, EMPTY ME OUT AND LET MY FLESH BECOME YOURS TO USE FOR WHATEVER PURPOSE YOU NEED, FOR I AM BUT AN INSTRUMENT FOR THE LORD TO MAKE USE OF AS HE WISHES!;
and Jimmy said הִנֵנִי
Claire hurt. Her arms hurt from where they were tied behind her back and her voice hurt from screaming. And she watched her father spasm before her, watched him bend like a willow tree and fall to his knees, and babble in a language she’d never seen him speak but one that he seemed to know fluently. His limbs were contorting in all directions, and he was moaning in a voice that barely sounded like himself.
And the dog was whipping into a frenzy, frantic barking sounding across the darkened hilltop, and the door was opening and shutting and someone was coming to find them, stepping onto the porch, down the front steps, onto the grass, and asking, “hello? Who’s there?”
She heard the cock of a gun.
And there was a blinding light. It blasted out of her father’s every pore, out of his eyes and nostrils and mouth, out of the sleeves of his coat. The person in the grass, from the house, shouted a dirty word, one that her father had told her was impolite to say. And when the light withdrew, she found that she couldn’t scream anymore; couldn’t cry. It had all emptied out of her. She could only watch now as the dark figure in front of her, fallen on his face, got back up.
And she said, tentatively, “Daddy?” and the figure turned around to face her. The head cocked, like a dog’s.
It was like her father but different. Like someone pretending to be him. She recognized the eyes as his, but they did not belong to him anymore: there was a new light in them, like stained-glass marbles; freakishly, intensely blue and flashing when the moonlight hit them. They were unfamiliar, so unfamiliar that they became ugly to her, the ugliest things she’d ever seen. And they were filled with all of time, going back to the creation of time itself -- in the irises she saw the first evening and the first morning, saw fish crawling onto land, saw trees rocketing into forests in a matter of seconds. She saw the rise and fall of empires, saw birth and death and life, all unfolding, all at once.
She looked and became filled with a great fear and she trembled a great trembling and she kept looking. And what looked back at her was no longer her father.