NaNoWriMo ’08. The day of EPIC!!!
Powers and Principalities
One day I saw the sun setting behind a flower growing on the side of the road. It was a simple flower, the sort that’s always planted beside streets in Southern California to give it that feeling of tropical paradise that normall doesn’t exist in a desert without lots of water and a maintenance crew. But the flower itself was lovely, and with the sun behind it, it seemed to glow with an inner light. Even the dark green of the leaves seemed to be luminescent, the veins providing a contrast to the green light of the leaves.
This is like that flower. Everything I see is shining from within, a light that is warm like the sun but isn’t coming from any particular sun. The faces of the people that are walking toward me are full of light. I’m almost afraid to look at them, they seem like avenging angels. Only after a more careful scrutiny do I see the headphones snaking down across their necks, and notice that they are still carrying the textbooks for a full load of college classes. Some of the girls are even wearing those sweatpants with the word “Juicy” across the butt. But their faces are still glowing.
And they don’t see it. None of them can see this. I feel like I’m in a dream but I know I’m awake.
I don’t know why it happened today. Maybe it’s because she’s been dead for a year, but I don’t think so. It doesn’t hurt as much anymore, having her gone, but I still miss her every day. But life goes on.
Today started out normally. I woke up to the second alarm from my clock. Some days it’s all I can do to drag myself out of bed in the mornings, but today I just slid out from the tangled sheets and started the day. I don’t even know if I had anything in particular on my mind except the test in Dr. Russell’s class today. Prying information about Homeric thought and culture from the minds of college students is not high on my list of fun things in life, particularly when these star students have been up till 3 in the morning playing Super Smach Bros.
It took me longer than usual to knot my tie—my fingers were still half asleep, but I made it out the door on time. Fortunately, the campus is only a five minute bike ride from my apartment, and at 7 am, there’s not much traffic to contend with. Rocinante, my bicycle, is a little clunky, but she’s reliable, and doesn’t ask for much to keep her coasting along. There’s a great little wire platform behind the seat where I can fasten my bag—I have to watch some of the corners, because if I hit the dips wrong, the bag could go flying. Dr. Russell’s a pretty patient guy, but I don’t think he’d appreciate it if I brought in a stack of graded papers soaked through with gutter water.
As I turned into the campus entrance, I saw Stephan coming out of the small chapel that was just across the way from the administration building. He spent a lot of times in there in the mornings—it was usually pretty quiet, save for the sound of lawnmowers and the occasional over-amped stereo from a passing car.
“Stephan!” I called out to him, squeezing gently on the handbrakes so Rocinante didn’t send me flying. “You ready for the freshmen?”
He looked up and rolled his eyes dramatically. “I’m never ready for freshmen.”
“Tired of looking at bad drawings?”
He walked briskly beside the bike as we passed the library. “Not so much that; a lot of them are decent draughtsmen, though most of them do need a lot of help. No, I’m tired of seeing freshmen come in, already jaded, thinking they’re hot stuff because they can draw, and never thinking beyond the first few questions that come to mind. They know that art is a good thing, and that it can be an incredibly powerful human expression…but they never go beyond that. It takes all I can do to shake them awake, and even then, only one or two a year are able to shake themselves free and actually learn to see things.”
I nodded, slowing to a stop as I dismounted the bike. “Tell me about it. Try getting kids who’ve always been the smartest person they know to not only question what they know, but how they know it, and why, and to what purpose. It’s like pulling teeth, I swear.”
Stephan ran his fingers through his already disheveled hair. “Got a test today, I assume? You’re not usually this dour in the mornings.”
“Yeah, yeah…you’re one to speak.” I grinned, and shouldered my battered messenger bag. “Hey, I get done with the first class at noon, want to meet up for lunch? You’ll need sometime to complain to after three hours with your little emo friends.”
“Only if you’re buying,” he shouted over his shoulder as he walked towards the small group of students huddled under the tree across the way. They all carried sketchbooks under their arms, and most carried large sketchbooks under their arms. Most seemed to be listening to music, or simply trying to stay awake, but one young girl was kneeling in the grass, pressing her cheek to the ground. She seemed amazed by the blades of grass, and was running her fingers through the thick foliage, scattering the dew with her fingertips.
For a moment, the sun broke through the early morning marine layer, and the whole scene was lit up. A beam of light struck her blond hair, and I could have sworn that her face, though turned away from the sun, was suddenly full of light. Then the clouds closed back up, and she rose to her feet as Stephan called the class to order. The knees of her tattered jeans were damp, and I could see large grass stains streaking across the blue denim.
I walked across the plaza, and almost ran into the sliding glass door. It was sluggish, and rarely opened when I expected it to. I usually approached it at a slower pace, but I was eager to get a few moments alone in Dr. Russell’s office. It was one of the few places I could get any peace in the building. Northman Hall was one of the older buildings on campus, and tended to be a bit of a sprawling maze. Notwithstanding, it was always full of students, either studying, talking, or trying to find some place to make out without danger of being caught by a professor. Sure enough, as I climbed the stairway, I could see a student curled up on the lumpy blue couch, surrounded by textbooks, trying to read as much as possible before the main rush began in an hour or so.
I hurried down the hallway, and unlocked the door to Dr. Russell’s office. I flicked on the lights, and turned on the small fountain he kept on a table near his desk. I wished I could open the blinds on the window that looked out over the plaza. It’s a nice view: the plaza is a basic stone grid, but several of the blocks are bare earth with a few trees and plants growing. In the corner under the office window sat a stone fountain. It’s an ungainly thing, and I always think a well-placed kick would tip it over, but I’ve always liked the sound of the water burbling across the smooth stones. However, I’ve learned from sad experience not to open any blinds if I want to be alone in the office.
It’s a good time to take care of last minute paperwork, and get myself in the right mindset for class. Dr. Russell is a great professor, but he likes his T.A.’s to be very active in the class, to challenge students to think, and he insists that I be there completely prepared for every class. I never know when he’s going to use me as an example in a Socratic debate, so I like to come to class well-armed with thoughts and texts from the book under discussion.
A well worn green book sat on the desk in front of the computer—the spine was creased and threadbare, but still held the pages together. I flipped open the cover to check that it was the correct text. Phaedo, yes. Good. I settled down to read.
Stephan was already standing in the line to order when I made my way down to the campus snack shop. The place was crowded but the lines were moving pretty quickly, so it only took us about ten minutes to get our food and find a table.
“So, survive the freshmen?” I asked Stephan as I dipped my quesadilla in a small dish of sour cream. “Looked like it was a field trip today or something.”
Stephan took a huge bite out of his hamburger, and chewed thoughtfully. Swallowing, he responded, “Yeah. Well. Sort of. One of my big deals is getting them to actually look at things. Most just want to think about what they think things look like.”
“Looked like that one girl was getting into it. “
“Who, Corrinne? Blond hair? Totally obsessed with the grass this morning? Yeah, I have some hope for her, but she’s not that great at drawing. I love her spirit, but I’m not sure that the Art department is really the place for her.” He sighed, and looked out the window. “I wish I didn’t have to watch the spirit get squashed out of so many people. Kids are great at keeping that sense of wonder, but we all end up falling for the desire to be cool.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. I hate seeing them come in to class, more concerned about convincing Dr. Russell that they’re smart, rather than actually asking a question and learning anything.” I took a sip of water, and prepared to continue my pent-up tirade, but Stephan wasn’t paying attention—in fact, I was sure he hadn’t heard a thing I said. He was still staring out the window, eyes flickering from person to person, watching the crowds go by. “You ever wonder…what it is that we’re blind to? I mean, we’ve both moved past these first levels, but…what is it that we’re blind to? What questions do we never ask, and who wants to know the answers?”
A lot of people think that Stephan is dreamy and impractical, but I guarantee that anyone who takes the time to listen to him will not regret it. He’s also one of the finest artists I’ve met. We had some difficulties during freshman year, but we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well, and I know when to just shut up and listen.
“We assume what we see. We’re both trying to get our students to see more clearly, to see reality as it is, rather than as they assume it is. “
“Yeah, well, that’s why we keep learning. Neither of us is exactly complacent about what we currently think we know.”
“Yes, but haven’t you noticed? Every time you scale a mountain, overcome an obstacle, answer a question, what’s waiting for you? Another peak, another obstacle, another question. And not just another question, but another kind of question. Not another thing to see, but another way to see. It’s like dimensions. After a line, a square. After a square, a cube.” He paused, staring silently out of the window, as I thoughtfully chewed the last of my meal. After a moment, he shook himself slightly, and grinned. “Sorry, got distracted there for a minute. Anyway, I have to run. I’ve got another class in a little while. I really like this class, and I want to get there early. “
“Ok, bud, have a good day. See ya tomorrow.”
I was still thinking about Stephan’s questions as I walked back towards Northman. And that’s where it happened. I had paused under the bell tower for a moment, and looked down the walkway towards the library, and everything changed.
Even to say that it changed is deceptive. I wasn’t aware of a change, but suddenly I noticed that it looked different. Everything…well, everything glowed. Even the most dull, uninterested faces had an inner light, and some faces glowed so intensely that I could hardly bear to look at them. The trees, the flowers, even the grass looked like stained glass with the full morning sun shining in.
And then it was gone.
Like I said, I don’t know why it happened. Maybe I’d gotten too wrapped up in Stephan’s questions. Maybe I was thinking about Angie. Maybe I was just tired. Or, of course, I could just be having a nervous breakdown.
Angie has been gone for a year. I’m still not sure how to wrap my mind around that. I’d been thinking about her for the past few weeks. The coroner’s office gave me back the engagement ring, and I never could bear to get rid of it. Maybe it’s morbid but I’d taken to carrying it around in my pocket. It was one last connection that I couldn’t yet bring myself to sever.
I walked into Dr. Russell’s office, rapping a knuckle against the open door as I entered. He looked up, his brown eyes distant with that slight wariness he always held until he recognized the intruder. He was a man of medium height, his salt and pepper hair slowly receeding across his scalp. He could be extremely generous and kind, but his demeanor always had a gruffness to it that was offputting to many people. I can’t count the number of times I’d heard freshman or sophomores complain about his lack of sympathy—usually by the time they were upperclassmen, most had realized that he truly did care about them, and wanted them to become the best thinkers that they could be. It was a thankless job, but he kept at it every year, and I respected his commitment.
“Good morning, Mr. Peyton. I apologize for my lateness in class this morning, I appreciate the fact that you took the initiative to begin the discussion.” He shuffled a few of the papers on his desk, before unearthing a manila folder. “Ah, here we are. I’ve finished looking over these essays, and they’re ready to be returned to the students.” He paused, and removed his glasses as he studied my face. “You look a bit off. Are you getting sick? I’ve heard that there’s a flu bug going around.”
I shook my head, and tucked the folder in my bag. “No, I don’t think so. I just had something weird happen. I think I just need to get home and rest. Is there anything else you need me to do today?”
“No, I’ve just got the seniors later today. You go home. We’ve got midterms coming up, and I need you healthy to get us through that.” He turned back to his computer and, squinting irritably at the screen, began typing again.
I made my way downstairs and unchained my bike; as I kicked back the kickstand and set off, I saw the girl from Stephan’s art class walking towards Northman Hall. She still had grass stains on her knees, and she seemed to be watching the clouds. Angie would have liked her, I think.
I coasted down the sidewalk towards the exit, but at the last minute, turned off and stopped in front of the chapel. I’d never really spent much time in there. It was a popular place for students to stop and pray, or think, or sometimes just study. It had always been a popular place when I was a student, and each incoming class had a few students who seemed to live in the chapel. I’d been too busy as a student to spend much time there—I preferred to be with other people than to sit in silence, generally speaking. After Angie died, I stayed away even more—the chapel was built and dedicated to the memory of a professor’s young wife who’d died at the age of 22 sometime back in the 1960’s, and I just didn’t want to deal with the kind of grief that that would be likely to summon up in me. I’m not sure why I stopped, but I felt an irresistible draw.
The doors skreeked gratingly as they swung open, and I winced. I wasn’t keen on announcing my presence if anyone else was in the chapel, but fortunately, the room was empty. The room was tiny, with room for no more than 12 pews, 6 to a side. It would seat perhaps 60 people, no more. The far end of the chapel was made of frosted glass, and the afternoon light was streaming in diffuse patterns across the floor. I watched dust motes floating through the air, gleaming with sudden animation as the light caught them.
I didn’t want to pray. Not that I had a huge quarrel with God. I didn’t blame him for Angie’s death—he wasn’t the one driving the car. But somedays I just want to keep my thoughts to myself, and today was one of those days. I wanted to make sense of what I’d seen, and talking to God rarely brought any answers, just more questions.
So what had I seen? A trick of the light? No, the sun was in the wrong position, it couldn’t have had that effect. Stress? Always possible. It’s amazing, the tricks that your mind can play on you when you’re tired. I’d been working 10 hours days for several months, and spent most nights staying up late reading. For some reason, I’d been reluctant to spend any time alone with my thoughts. I could feel something niggling at the back of my brain, and didn’t quite want to see what it might be.
I won’t deny that the chapel has a calming effect. Even with the noise of lawnmowers across the street, I could feel some of my muscles beginning to relax. Without intending to, I found myself slipping into an unconscious prayer.
You took the light from my life, and now I don’t know what to do. I don’t begrudge you for taking her, but I wish I knew what to do. I feel like I’m stuck in a rut: I never even left the school, because I can’t think of anywhere else to go.
I could feel the nudge in my head grower strong, and tried to drown it out. No. That’s not what I want. I don’t know what I want, but it isn’t that.
“I just want a normal life,” I burst out, my voice sounding surprisingly loud in the quiet room. The dust motes floated through the air, making the beam of light from the window look almost solid by their presence. I looked around the room to make sure that I was still alone—it had almost begun to feel as though there were another person there.
I stood, and hurried out of the chapel, taking a deep breath as I came out into the spring afternoon air. A passing group of girls giggled as I burst through the doors, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to go home.
I stopped at the grocery store on my way home, and picked up some stuff for dinner. I’m not normally a moody person, but today seemed to really be getting me down. The best cure for the doldrums, for me, is to cook. It sounds strange, but I really do love the challenge of fixing a good meal. Stephan shared the apartment with me, and was always more than happy to share whatever I cooked up.
I locked the chain around my bike and went up the stairs to the apartment. The narrow stairwell was difficult to navigate with armload of groceries and a large bag, but I finally managed to get the key in the door. The moment I stepped inside, I could tell that Stephan had gotten home first—he’d lit his favorite incense, and a thin hazy cloud hung over everything.
“Stephan!” I yelled, setting my bags on the table. “Did you unplug the fire alarm again?”
He didn’t respond, except to turn up the chant cd he was playing. I grinned, and put water in a pot to boil. I didn’t mind Stephan’s incense, chanting monks, and Byzantine icons that covered the apartment. Stephan was one of the most fervent people I’d ever known, and I enjoyed sharing an apartment with him.
After a while, the smell of sautéed garlic, mushrooms, and olive oil began mingling with the incense, and I heard Stephan’s door open. “Making dinner?” he asked, raising his voice to be heard above the music. “Yep,” I hollered back. “Be ready in about five minutes, you coming?”
“You had to ask?” He turned off the CD and wandered into the kitchen. His eyes had that distant look he always gets when he’s been painting for awhile, and there were large patches of paint on his hands. “Don’t forget to wash your hands—you’re going to die of paint poisoning one of these days.”
He washed his hands in the sink as I finished dumping the cooked noodles into a bowl. “Been that kind of day, huh?” he asked. I nodded, and moved the noodles over to the small table in the corner. “Yeah, pretty much. But it’s over now, and the weekend’s here. Time to eat well and rrelax, I think.”
Stephan sank quietly into a chair, and looked at me. “So what happened today? You seemed a little off at lunch, but you usually don’t cook when you’re just ‘a little off.’ Is it about it being One Year today?”
I set a plaate of steamed broccoli on the table, and shook my head. “No, I don’t think so. It’s…Well, let’s get dinner started first, then I’ll explain.”
In a few minutes, we both had plates heaped with steaming noodles, alfredo sauce, sautéed mushrooms, and fresh broccoli. Stephan calmly twirled noodles around his fork, and said, “Ok, so what happened today?”
I sighed, and tried to think of how to explain it. “I was walking back from lunch, and happened to stop just under the bell tower. I was looking down towards the liberary, and everything…sort of changed. I mean, it was like everything was just lit up from inside, like stained glass or something. It’s hard to describe. It only lasted for a few seconds, and I couldn’t tell you whether it just suddenly appeared or disappeared, or what. I dunno, I think maybe I’ve been working too much lately. I have some vacation time coming up, maybe it’s time to take a couple off weeks off, look for a better job, all that kind of thing.”
Stephan didn’t respond right away, but just sat, thinking and looking into space. I’ve grown accustomed to waiting a long time for an answer, and knew that it might be a while before he responded. I was feeling better anyway, now that I’d gotten home and cooked dinner. The weirdness of the day had somewhat passed, diluted by the normalcy of the rest of the world. No more strange lights, or glowing people.
“Do you really think it was stress? You’re not the type to react that way. As long as I’ve known you, you’ve enjoyed challenges, and you’re always pushing yourself to do something. I don’t really think that’s it.” He spun a piece of garlic bread across his plate, soaking up olive oil and alfredo sauce. “James, I know you’re probably going to think I’m nuts for saying this, but I wonder if you really saw something.” He laughed, and took a bite of the bread. “No, sorry, that came out wrong. I don’t mean that it was in your head or anything. I mean, I think you saw something real.”
My first response was to laugh, but I could tell that Stephan really meant what he said. “But…I don’t know, isn’t that a little odd? To say that I had, I dunno, a vision or something? I mean, you’re the one who’d be the more likely to have a vision. I’m just not the type.”
Stephan shrugged. “Well, if it’s meant to mean something, I think it’ll be made clear. I wouldn’t focus on it too much. Wait and see.” He picked up his plate and set it in the sink. “Got grading to do?”
I nodded, trying to finish up the last of my meal. “Yeah, we had a test today.” I pushed my chair back, and wiped my hands on a dish towel.
“Ok, you go do that. I’ll clean up here. I need a break from the painting anyway, I’m in danger of overworking it.” He turned on the hot water, and began filling the sink.
I grabbed my bag, and headed back to my room. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was one of my favorite places in the world. Two tall bookshelves stood against the wall, on either side of the bed. My desk was under the window, and a blue faux-Persian rug lay on the floor. I pulled a stack of papers out of my bag, and tossed it onto the bed. Settling down into my chair, I pulled a red pen out of my pencil holder, and grabbed the first test paper.
As I worked my way down the stack of papers, I could feel my eyes getting heavy. A glance at the clock confirmed that it was nowhere near as late as it felt, so I sighed, and continued marking the papers. After a while, the words began to make less and less sense. After all, surely a freshman wouldn’t be writing things like “To the Homeric Greek, gods were not personal, but archetypes of things in the natural world. Mars, god of war, enters the world through the human heart, the warlike spirit. Aphrodite enters through the loving heart, Zeus through the kingly spirit, and Artemis through the pure of heart. Watch the gate of your heart, for this is the House of God.”
As I stared blearily at the paper, the words seemed to rearrange themselves on the page, forming strange patterns. A strange rustling seemed to come from behind me, and I turned to see a tall cloaked figure sitting on my bed. It was swathed in blue from head to toe, and its face was hidden, though I could feel its eyes watching me. Its diaphanous robes swept out behind it, as if caught in a strong wind, and the edges of the fabric seemed to disappear into nothingness. I opened my mouth to shout, to call Stephan into the room, to do anything, and found myself starting awake.
I looked around the room, not seeing anything out of place. I could feel a trickle of saliva on my chin, from sleeping with my mouth open. I could even feel a ridge on my cheek from where it had been resting on the pen on my desk. I shook my head slightly to clear it, trying to wake up completely. I don’t usually dream during naps, and this dream had been so vivid I would have sworn that I was awake.
I stood and stretched, loosening the muscles that were cramping from sitting at my desk. As I crossed the room, I glanced out of the window. Under the streetlamp on the corner, I could make out a dark shape. It stood close to the fence and I mistook it for part of the foliage for a moment. I had a moment of panic as I wildly thought that it might be the mysterious figure in blue. Then it looked at me, and I could see that the figure was simply a young man, dressed all in black. A pale face turned towards my window. A faint smile crossed his face, and he gave a small bow, walked into the darkness, and was gone.