My 2006 NaNoWriMo novel. Woo! Note: since I am posting as I go along, the storyline is backwards. To read this, start from the oldest post and read to the newest.

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Location: Los Angeles, United States

I am an awkward, stubborn, slightly insane woman who would rather talk Plato than Prada, rather watch Frank Capra than Carrie Bradshaw, and rather listen to Norse myths sung in Icelandic than anything currently on the radio. Yeah. Told you I was weird.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Note: to anyone reading this, this is the last chapter. To read from the beginning, go to the first post. The chapters are in reverse order. Here we go....!

Chapter 8

Angie's Journal Entry

I have discovered that I am terrified of things I don't know. I've always prided myself on my ability to handle mystery and paradox, and anything mystic. But that's not the same as the unknown: mystery and paradox, image and symbol, are known to me, almost like a native language.
I don't know grace, and it terrifies me. I can't see love, and it frightens me. I can't see myself as accepted, and don't know who I am if I can be accepted.
I feel like I'm standing at the edge of a lighted room, a comfortable room, with soft pillows and warm lighting; a room I've lived in all my life. And now I stand at the edge, where it disappears into an impenetrable darkness.
One of my favorite poems contains the line, "There is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness." That's the darkness that surrounds my little room, and I'm being called to step out into it.
Can I do it? Can I risk the unknown grace, the unseen love, the accepted me? I don't know. I feel as if I will disappear if I take that last step. But if I stay where I am, I have already disappeared. God grant me the weakness to fall into You, and not the strength to stay firm in myself.
To: Jason Slocum
From: Ryan Trent
CC: Pizza guys
Subject: Pizza and movie night change?

Hey everyone--it's getting to be the middle of the semester, and I doubt we'll have time this month to do our usual pizza night this month, with midterms coming up. So, I propose that we take a trip top Ruby's on the pier in Huntington Beach instead of the regular movie and pizza marathon. I think we'd want to leave here around 7, we'd be there by 8, and head home around 10. Sound good? Let me know by Thursday!


Despite the warm sprin sun, the wind blowing off the ocean was quite cold. The walk down the pier would be rather long, and I was glad I'd brought my sweatshirt. There were about ten of us sprinting down the wave-printed asphalt to the entrance of the pier. A swath of concrete steps led down to the sand; a few volleyball nets were set up, and there was an enthusiastic game going on at one of them. Seagulls hovered just off the sides of the pier, and the wave crests shone pink in the fading light.
You can see the diner at the end from the moment you step onto the pier, but it's always farther away than it seems. I was quietly glad for company on that long walk. The guys were laughing and joking, and several of them ran ahead of us, trying to scare the pigeons and seagulls.
I veered off to the side, and looked down. I could see the massive pillars supporting the pier. As I watched the ebb and flow of the waves, I could see the encrustations of mussels and barnacles that surrounded them. Here and there, a blaze of color could be seen, starfish that had attached themselves to the abundant shellfish on the columns.
I looked up, and saw that the group had gone on ahead of me. I trotted to catch up with them, and we were seated in the diner.
I was an old 1950's style diner, with big band music playing over the speakers. The menu mostly consisted of burgers, with a few health-conscious options thrown in.
We all ordered burgers, and a whole tray of assorted milkshakes. I'm fairly sure we raised more than our share of noise, but no-one seemed to mind too much.
I have to admit, I enjoyed it. I don't often go out with large groups--they loud, disorganized, and usually vulgar. But this was good--we were loud, but not raucus, a bit loose, but not chaotic, and though the whole thing seemed like a great joke, none of us was vulgar or rude.
I slipped out, putting a twenty on the table. "Hey, guys, I'm going to go look at the ocean for awhile. Let me know when you're ready to leave."
I walked out of the door and around the side of the octagonal building until it stood between me and the bright lights of the City.
Looking out to the heart of the ocean, no lights were visible, and I couldn't tell where the night sky left off and the sea began.
As I looked out into the darkness, my heart longed for something, something beyond sea and sky. I stepped up on the first rung of the protective rail, instinctively moving towards whatever it was that called ot me from the darkness. I looked up and saw a single star, floating over the waves. A stella maris, star of the sea, shining in the night.
I turned, and faced the lights of the City. It shone brightly, casting a warm glow into the sky. It stood there, always changing, but an image of an eternal City.
I almost jumped over into the waves. I wanted to. The waves sounded soothing, rocking the whole world to sleep. The darkness promised rest, cessation of sorrow, and assured me that no-one would ever disrupt that sleep.
But then the Stella Maris twinkled bove, and I knew. No matter if I cast myself into the heart of darkness, I would never be alone. The star would shine, and the Spirit would move over the waters.
A bright spear of light stabbed out into the darkness, and I heard Ryan and Stephan calling out to me, as they prepared to go back to the campus.
I looked back out at the sparkling star, then I heard the angel's song. It spoke of conflict and battle, pain and wounding, of light, and hope, and a sword piercing the heart. No rest, no solitude.
I turned, following the song, and walked back towards the City of God.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Chapter 7

Angie's Journal, entry
I remember one time, when I was camping with my family. We were in one of our favorite campgrounds, on a little known mountain in New Mexico. After several years of seeing signs for a hiking trail to nearby Hermit's Peak, we decided to finally hike our way to the top. We set out in the morning, and hiked for hours. Most of the trail was pleasant, with crunching leaves, and trees on all sides. I was enchanted with the little orange columbines that grew wild, like little shooting stars poking up through the leaves.
As we got higher, the trail began a series of switchbacks, which left us exhausted. I've never been in particularly great shape, so by the time we got to a plateau near the summit, I was completely wiped out. I elected to stay there while the rest of the family went the last quarter mile to the peak.
The plateau was a huge surface of rock,. Overgrown with scrub brush and moss. A boulder rested a few yards from the edge of a drop-off, setting a few feet above the surrounding rock. To be sure I didn't slip and fall, I scooted up next to the boulder, and sat there, looking out over the tree covered ridges surrounding the peak.
As I sat there, two eagles slipped out from between the peaks, and began soaring over the hills; though they were higher than the hills, and far above the plain below, they were also far below the rock I was sitting on. Maybe they were hunting, but they never dipped down, or struggled to go higher; they just sailed in and out of the peaks, looking for all the world as if they were just reveling in the glory of resting on the wind.
Then they began to call to each other. I can't describe what that sound was like, echoing off the rocky peaks. It was wild, and sad, and unbearably joyful. It pierced the heart, and made you want to leap off the mountains and ride the wind with them.
How do you tell people about that? Your life was changed because you sat on a high rock, and listened to birds squawking to each other? What could that possibly mean? How could that possibly be eternally significant?
Part of me wants to explain it away; Oh, you know, Nature reflects God, the eagles are a reflection of His strength and wildness, of kingship, etc. And that would be true. But it wouldn't be the whole truth.
If those eagles had attacked a sparrow, He would have known, and sorrowed in the death of the sparrow as He rejoiced in the strength of the eagle. And it is all significant.
I found myself walking towards Stephan's studio one evening. I'm not sure why; maybe I just wanted company. I hadn't bothered to call ahead to see if he was there, so I was glad to hear Gregorian chant blasting from the open door of the painting barn. That likely meant that he was in there alone, since most of the other students weren't too fond of his taste in music.
I poked my head into the studio, and saw the curtains of Stephan's studio were drawn aside. I walked up, and knocked on the doorframe. "Anybody home?"
"Is that you, Jason? C'mon in!"
I stepped into the tiny room; Stephan was kneeling on the floor, rummaging through an old tackle box full of oil paints. "Hang on, just gotta grab a few of these, I'll be right there." A moment later, he sprung upwards, hands full of paint tubes and brushes. "I thought I had a few of these left. I don't have time to make a paint run tonight." He held up the paint tubes. "Alizarin crimson, Aquamarine, and Veridian green. Three of the best colors ever invented." He dragged a second metal stool into the cubicle, and gestured for me to have a seat. "So, what brings you here?"
"Um....either a search for meaning, or boredom and lack of anything better to do." I laughed, only half-joking.
"Well, I don't guarantee that an artist's studio us a good place to get any answers, but you're welcome to hang out. The rest of the department is on a retreat, but I had to work this weekend, so I decided to stay behind. I need the money."
"But you don't work tonight?"
"Oh, no, just in the mornings and afternoons, depending on the day. Hey, you able to be here for a while?"
"Um, sure, why?"
"I'm trying out a new way of capturing ideas. Quick painted impressions of a person's spirit, in acrylics. Have no idea if it works yet, but it's been fun, so I'm keeping it up. Care to sit for me?"
"Oh, just take a seat, and I'll paint you. Or, rather, I'll paint my preception of you, if you want to get really precise."
"Um....yeah, I guess I have time." I shrugged off my jacket; the barn was pretty warm. "Where should I sit?"
"Oh....Good question...I would say out in the main room, but it only has flourescents, and I refuse to paint anyone under those lights unless I absolutely have to. I've got halogen in here, and while it heats things up a bit, it casts a much nicer light all around."
I dragged the stool over into the corner, as Stephan shoved papers and book out of the way. I took my seat again, a little self-conssciously. Stephan pulled out a fresh canvas, and propped it up on his easel. "Ok, relax, I'm not doing a portrait. It's easier for me to paint if you talk to me while I work." He scooped up a handful of acrylic paints from a box, and spread them out on his work table.
"What about?"
"Well...emotional talk is best, it lets me see you more clearly. Do you mind..." He paused. "I hate to ask this, but can you talk about your losses this past year? I know that's pretty personal and if you don't want to..."
"No, that's ok, I can talk about that. I may ramble a little, though."
"Ramble all you like, as long as you talk."
"Ok." I settled back in the chair and thought about where to begin.
"I guess in some ways, losing Hannah was the hardest. It was such a horrible way to die, and she was so sweet. She couldn't see anything good about herself, even though we all could. She couldn't find a way out, but wouldn't tell anyone else that she was trapped. When I think that she did that to herself..." I paused, swallowing hard. "That's pretty hard to understand."
"Yeah...I can imagine. I think I met Hannah once or twice, but didn't really know her."
"She was really sweet. When she died...I guess I thought that everything I'd feared about life was true. What meaning is there in that? Why live in a world where people can do this to themselves? Death takes everything in the end. Angie and James worked really hard to bring me out of that." I stopped, a sudden realization hitting me.
"You know, I've never thought about it before, but...why did they try so hard? It wasn't that they couldn't handle something thinking differently...Angie and James were pretty different from each why did they spend so much time trying to convince me that the things I'd feared weren't true?"
Stephan was silent for a moment, brushing paint onto the canvas with a controlled frenzy. Then he looked out from around the canvas, and postulated "Maybe because they could see that you didn't want to believe that it was all pointless? You don't really seem like that type to me, not naturally, anyway." He scooped up another color from his palette and swabbed it onto the canvas.
"Maybe...." I was still unconvinced, but decided to leave it for another time. "Anyway, they both really took me in. And I guess it worked, for a while. I was beginning to think that Angie might be right, about being holy, and living in the city." I realized that I probably wasn't making sense to Stephan, but he didn't stop me, so I kept going, just saying what came to me. "I didn't agree with everything she said, but I was starting to think that there might be something to it. But then when she died...When she died, it all seemed so pointless again. I mean, does a holy person die on the freeway because they were driving when a maniac was on the road? What would the iconographers do, portray her holding the airbag from her car? The light pole she wrapped the car around? The little red Jeep that hit her? The symbolism's terrible, you don't make saints that way."
Stephan squeezed a blob of yellow paint from a tube onto her palette and swirled it into another color, bringing his coated brush up to the canvas again. "You don't hang a Messiah on a criminal's cross either, or put a saint in a pit to fight lions for the entertainment of the crowds either." He swished the brush through a jar of mineral oil, the color spiraling off the camel hair; he wiped it on a rag, and went back to the palette. "The saints have always been a little disreputable that way."
"But that's just patently rdiculous."
"Because..." I shifted around impatiently. "Why would anyone come to Los Angeles to be holy? It's a terrible place!"
"And therefore, most in need of holiness."
"But surely not conducive to it."
"Well, you'd pretty much have to leave the world to get somewhere conducive to it. We lost that a long time ago."
"But..." I settled back down, frustrated.
"Sorry, sorry, playing devil's advocate again, I tend to do that." Stephan flashed a quick smile before turning back to the canvas. "But it makes for a great painting. So, where are you now?"
"I don't know. I don't want to move into 'the world', it's horrible. People are mean, cruel, nasty, brutish, and fearful. I'm not overly fond of them. But...I don't think Angie and James have left me capable of being where I was, either. I don't think I know where I am."
Stephan nodded slightly, intent on his painting. Outside the little cave-like studio, the choir blared out chants at full-volume, shaking the floor with words of flame and light.
I leaned forward, and put my face in my hands. "I don't know, Stephan, I don't know. I can't be with people. We're capable of such awful things, even when we don't mean to do them. Even our efforts at goodness go so terribly wrong. But..." I took a deep breath, almost choking on my next words. "But I don't think I want to be alone anymore, either. If I really didn't want to be with people, to join the world, Angie's leaving wouldn't have ripped such a hole in me."
"Do you want to be hurt?"
"No-one wants to be hurt."
"No, people don't want to be hurt needlessly. To love is to hurt, and most people just have to figure out what's worth loving, what's worth hurting for."
"Is anything worth hurting for?"
"I don't know. I think so. But I haven't had the same hurts you have either, so I can't put myself in your place. But I will tell you this." He dropped the brush into the pot of paint thinner, and turned his full attention to me. "I only grow when I hurt. And if growing means burning up from the inside out, then I will light my own pyre myself."
I caught a glance of the brilliantly painted phoenix on the wall above his head. Its head was thrown back in a silent scream of agony. But as I looked closer, I saw the corners of its mouth turned up slightly, and the scream suddenly revealed itself as a cry of joy.
Stephan turned the canvas toward me carefully, avoiding the still-wet paint. I saw the hills outside the City, and myself standing in the middle of them. On my left was darkness, the wild desert outside the city limits. An angel with a flaming sword stood there, barring my way, and a single star shone brightly overhead. To my right, the City stood, the buildings lit up and shining through the darkness. Not all of the windows were bright, and there were shadows in the alleyways, but it still stood.
And I stood in the middle, turned towards the City, but looking back over my shoulder into the beckoning wilderness. Lines of text were painted into the scene: inside the darkness, fiery letters spelled out "Do not look back," and "pillar of salt". In the city, black letters appeared: "dressed like a bride" and "descending from Heaven."
I didn't like it. It was uncomfortable, and I wanted to look away. But my eyes were glued to the image, and I couldn't glance away until Stephan put it back on the easel.
"I take it you're not fond of it." He raised a hand to stop my protests. "No, that's ok, you don't have to." He grinned.
"But it is a good painting, it's interesting..."
"And you'd prefer not to see it again. And again, I say, that's fine. I got some great ideas from it."
"I should probably get going, I need to study."
"Oh, right! Studying, I forget about that. Yeah, sure, go right ahead, thanks for sitting for me!"
"Sure, no problem."
Stephan walked me to the door of the barn, and grabbed my sleeve as I turned to go. "Don't be offended by that painting. It's really just a sketch, a rough depiction of some ideas I got."
"No, really, man, it's ok. I'll have to think some more about it, it made me think."
I looked back over my shoulder as I walked away. Stephan stood framed in the doorway, the light from the room behind him sweeping out into the night like flaming wings.

Chapter 6

Angie's Journal: entry
Oh God, sometimes I don't want to be here. It's too much for me to take. People are horrible, mean, sinful, and petty; the worst thing about it is, I'm as bad as anyone else. I hate that. I'm tired of trying to fight my depression, I'm tired of fighting so hard not to give in despair, and I want the fight to just end. I want it to go away. I want to die, and for once, be able to really rest. When was the last time I really rested? When I was five? Four? Younger? I don't know. I don't remember what rest feels like, it's been too long. I don't want to fight anymore.
But then, what happens if I do give up? Part of me says that I didn't choose this fight. I didn't ask to be a manic depressive, I didn't ask to have a "sensitive artist's temperament," and I sure as hell didn't ask to be born.
But another part of me says that that doesn't matter. It makes me think of a story, though I haven't yet written it out. Picture it: all the souls of eeveryone who will ever be born is gathered in front of God. He takes some of them aside, and explains that they have been selected to bear unique burdens. This one will be crippled, that one insane, this one a sound mind trapped in an unresponsive body. Some prone to lust, some to anger, some-like me-to despair. He shows each one what his life will be like, and the reward that will follow it the soul is faithful even in the hardships. Each soul, seeing the face of God, will of course agree; no burden is too much to bear for Him!
But then, upon birth, each soul begins to forget. By the time the child is self-aware, he has completely forgotten his vow. Some choose to discard the unremembered vow, living lives of dissipation, despair, or abuse. Some end their lives, voiding their promise. But some, even though they remember no more than the others, hold fast, for no other reason than that they should. They remember no promise of award, no heaven awaiting them, and they do not even remember the face of God. But they hold fast.
This is not a true story; but I think I want to live as if it were. I want to live as if I'd made a vow to bear every burden, and suffer every trial. To hold fast amidst the storm, no matter how the winds blow. Though the struggle may kill me, I will not lay down my banner until I have fought through or died trying.
Oh God, have mercy on me, a sinner. I am not worthy that Thou shouldst come under my roof, but speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed.
I read through Angie's journals slowly. Journal entries aren't something coherent, something you can take in all in one gulp. I kept them in my book bag, and read a few pages here and there. Some were enlightening, some were profound, some were downright dull (I didn't particularly care about how much homework she'd had a year and a half ago), but I was determined to read it all. It was the last bit of her that was left in the world, and I wanted to know it.
Very little of what she wrote was comforting. She was harder on herself than on anyone else, and often thought that her life had been a failure.
I wanted to think of her as a saint, but was she? Saints don't usually rock out to Green Day and the Rolling Stones (if you'd never seen a girl in an ankle-length skirt and a head covering playing air guitar while stuck in traffic on the 101, let me assure you that it is a strange sight). Saints don't wear badly tie-dyed shirts, or make skirts out of tablecloths. Saints don't die in random crashes on the freeway.
I almost think I could have handled it if she'd been martyred. It would have been simpler.
Angie's Journal, entry
Am I wrong about Los Angeles? I want to believe that it's still the City of the Queen of the Angels, but I begin to doubt it. There was a newscast on tonight; another Southland murder, a man killed in an argument. One man owned a dog, who kept digging into the other man's yard and frightening his children. After asking the owner to restrain the dog numerous times, he finally began to shovel cement under the fence to try to fill up the hole. The dog's owner got angry, and they began to argue. In the heat of the fight, the second man took his shovel, and hit the dog owner with it, killing him instantly.
You'd think that mere sanity, decency, civilization would keep this sort of thing from happening, but it doesn't. In times like this, the City scares me. Are there any saints here? Are there even ten righteous men?
I can almost see the City, blazing like a torch, melting away in the face of the wrath of God. Our Lady has gone, because we have put the Whore of Babylon in her place. What have we done?
To: Jason Slocum
From: James Peyton
Subject: walk?
Hey, want to run down to the park today? I haven't seen you around much lately.
"All I have written is but straw." Aquinas after a mystical experience
To: James Peyton
From: Jason Slocum
Subject: re: walk?
Sure, sounds good. I think I could use a good run. Meet you at the tunnel at 3?
"Surrender don't come natural to me; I'd rather fight you for something I don't really want thatn take what you give that I need."
I arrived at the tunnel a little before three, and took the opportunity to stretch a little. My muscles were tense and knotted, and I had a hard time getting them to stretch out enough for me to feel safe running.
James trotted up beside me, and greeted me. It looked like he'd jogged from Lyman dorm, so he was already warmed up. We set a nice steady pace through the tunnel, and weaved along the path in the smaller portion of the park. The winter rains had made the whole enclosure green, and the trees were producing leaves as fast as they could. Before too long, you wouldn't be able to see the skeletal branches anymore.
We ducked into the tunnel at the far end of the park, and came out onto the pedestrian track in the main park. The horses were out in their paddocks, and several were being ridden around the dusty track at the entrance to the park; they looked happy in the warming air. Life rippled through their muscles and streamed from their manes; they blew it through their pink flaring nostrils.
We passed several people out walking dogs, and one or two young mothers with children. The children rolled down the small slope, shrieking delightedly at being topsy-turvy. They reached out to pat the dogs passing by, and one little girl sang a tune loudly to anyone who would listen.
After running several laps around the park, we slowed down, and walked one lap to cool down. James seemed preoccupied, looking up at the trees; we walked in silence for a while. Then, before we crossed the cement bridge at the farthest end of the park, he stopped, and said, "I miss her, Jason. I wish she hadn't gone."
I nodded, unable to speak for the moment. This park, teeming with life, seemed a little odd for a conversation about death, but James kept talking. "It doesn't seem right, does it? That I'm still here, being useless and abstract, and muddled. I don't appreciate any of this, not near enough. I spend more time thinking about the teleological purpose of leaves, than I've ever spent looking at a leaf. And I'm here, surrounded by leaves, and she's gone. She died on asphalt, without anything green within sight. There's just something wrong about that, isn't there?"
"There's a lot wrong about all of it." I wiped a hand across my face, brushing sweat away from my eyes. "There's a lot that's just wrong with everything."
"Yeah, well, that's life, I guess. 'Vanity, all is vanity,' as they say." He slumped against a metal railing, and rested, hands on his knees. I saw the sweat drip off his face, and splatter on the ground, like the first few raindrops before the storm. "Everything used to make sense, you know. In high school, I was the smartest person I knew, and could figure out in minutes what was going on in any given situation. Chess was a definate favorite of mine. But as I grow's just not so simple anymore. This thing might have happened for reasons x, y, and z, but what does it mean?"
We were silent for a moment, muscles quivering and loose, threatening to drop us to our knees at any minute.
"Does any of it mean anything? I mean, do we really know it's not just an accident, a sequence of causes and effects?" I didn't meet James' eyes as I spoke, looking off down the stream as it flowed toward the campus.
"I don't know. It could be. But it could simply be a pattern too big to see, a pattern that brings everything in to itself and to each other. Like a spider's web, with strands too thin and fine to be seen unless the light glints on them, but strong as steel, and as unbreakable as diamonds." He sighed, and straightened up, looking almost straight into the afternoon sunlight. The beads of sweat on his face shone like gems, and his face was as ruddy as a fire. "At times like this, I never can tell which is true; both are equally possible." He turned to cross the bridge. "But in my sane moments, I know that the truth is that it's something of both. Like a torn web, maybe. But the pattern is still there, and someday it'll be made complete again." He spun on his toes, and began jogging across the bridge.
I hestitated for a moment, still reluctant to join him.
"Hey, are you coming or not? You're welcome to go back on your own, but it'll be a better run if we stick together!" He jogged in place for a moment, waiting.
I looked up at the sun, sinking slowly towards the west, then leaned forward, and jogged across the bridge to join him.

chapter 5

I couldn't take the City anymore. I had to get out, just for little while. I know Angie had loved the City, but it had killed her. I turned onto the 57 freeway, battling the afternoon traffic. It wasn't too bad for a Friday afternoon, but it dragged a little. From there, I swerved onto the 60, and headed into the outlying towns, and finally, to places where you could see spaces of bare ground between the cities. Taking a solitary exit, I turned south onto a smaller road, and headed straight for the mountains. I'd never been up here, but I'd always been told it was nice. Plus, I liked the name of the area: Idyllwild. Anywhere wild and rugged, and not a city seemed like a good idea at the moment.
I curved up into the mountains in a series of switchbacks and hairpin curves; I've never been prone to fear of heights or nausea, and it was a good thing. Even my stomach began to turn a bit at each curve. Instead of the thick vegetation I'd expected to see, I saw blackened trunks, scorched rocks, and a layer of ash. A wildfire must have been through here recently. Only a few ragged weeds had grown back. I felt almost sick at the destruction; I remembered something had been in the papers a few weeks ago about a fire set by an arson up in Idyllwild, I'd forgotten about it until now. A person, wanting to see a mountain burn, had set a fire and run, watching it spread and taking pride in the fact that he could cause so much damage.
Is that what the driver of the other car felt? That exultation as he swerved through traffic, dodging the police, getting away with going forty miles over the speed limit? Did he regret hitting her car, or simply laugh at being able to walk away?
As I drove higher into the mountains, I began to see trees and denser vegetation; apparently the fire hadn't reached this high. The deep red wood of refrigerator trees dashed past the windows, interspersed with the deep olive of the pine trees, and the occasional "lodge." As I turned onto yet another curve, I saw a turnout just ahead. On impulse, I pulled over and parked the car. A wooden sign said "Indian Vista," and a small trail lead up into a lookout point, covered with large granite rocks. One large rock, at least sixty feet in diameter, stood at the end of the trail. A path had been carved out around it. I walked around to the right of the boulder, and found myself looking out across many miles of landscape. A low cloud cover was moving in, but I could see several ridges of other mountains and hills. The clouds were sheared off at the top, creating an almost water-like effect, as if a great slow-moving ocean were washing up on the shores of the mountains.
A small sign below me, of the type ubiquitous in national parks, showed me what I should be seeing, had the day been clear. There was Mount Baldy, and there was another mountain I'd never heard of. There, off in the distance, was Los Angeles. I was grateful for the clouds merciful covering; I had wanted to escape the City, not be reminded of its dominance of the landscape.
The title of the sign read, "The chapparall needs fire!" It went on to explain that when all forest fires were put out, the undergrowth built up so much that when an unstoppable fire came, it would burn much hotter and destroy more trees. Since that discovery had been made, special teams had begun to go out and set controlled fire to burn off the brush, so that the landscape could be essentially maintained.
For a moment, I saw the landscape aflame before me, the trees wreathed in fire like St. Joan, the creaking limbs crying out. Then, a lush green spring creeping over the hills, a halo of sunlight over it all. Just a moment, and then it was gone, replaced by the clouds and dry trees I'd seen before.
I climbed up onto the rock, and sat there, enjoying the warmth of the rock, and the rays of the sun. The clouds moved slowly, hitting the slope of the mountain and curling back before advancing again. The trees swayed quietly, and birds called to each other. The afternoon slowly slipped into evening, and the sun began to sink. The final rays through the smog turned the granite a bright pink, and made the distant hills flush with color. I stayed until it got very dark, looking up at the stars. I'd never seen them so bright and clear. For the first time in my life, I could barely make out the Milky Way, threading through the night sky. I looked for Orion, but he was still below the horizon, not yet ready for a night's hunting. The moon slowly lifted itelf above the horizon, clouds seeming to drip off its creamy horns. It sailed through the stars, slowly rising.
I felt a tug, deep inside of me. I wanted to swim through that misty sea, straight into the moon. I wanted to throw myself into the wilderness, anything to avoid going back to the City. Anything to avoid being among people again.
Then the chill of the night above 5000 feet seeped into my bones, and I slid down the side of the rock. My feet stirred up small dust clouds and sent pebbles tumbling as I shuffled back to my car, and began the long drive down.

Chapter 4

I had considered sleeping through the sunrise service on Easter morning. I was tired, and hadn't I gone to church enough that week? But I decided to go anyway, just to avoid questions later.
Ryan was taking a car up to the church, and we all met in front of my dorm at 4:30 on Sunday morning. It was bone-chillingly cold, and we all shivered, even while wearing our coats.
There's something about 4:30 in the morning that is infinitely depressing. It's still a long time until dawn, but close enough that going back to sleep is unlikely. It's long before the day can become to warm up, and the cold is as intense as the darkness.
We piled out of the car and shuffled around to the back of the church, where a small group was gathered. A fire was lit in a small brazier, and candles were lit from it. After we'd all received the new light, we began to make our way towards the church, pausing for interminable readings and psalms. While I was eager to get inside, where I could sit down and possibly begin to get warm, something about the cold darkness was comforting; at least I didn't have to pretend like I felt warm and fuzzy and happy.
The mood didn't change much when we entered the church. It was as cold and dark as the night outside, and I strained my eyes to see the front of the church. Suddenly, all the lights in the church came blazing on. I closed my eyes against the invading brightness, but not soon enough; green and purple spots floated in front of my eyes. All around me, the people were ringing bells and singing; the church resounded with the clamour, and I couldn't block it out. I tried covering my ears with my hands, but the sound was too loud, too overwhelming.
I just wanted to go back to the darkness, to the quiet. I could even learn to stand the cold, if I could just be left in peace, and not assaulted by light and sound.
Fortunately, the majority of the sound soon subsided, and my eyes accustomed to the light. The service finished in the normal fashion with communion; as we walked out of the church, the sky was bright and clear with the coming morning.
You ever have one of those weeks when you just can't get comfortable? It's nothing in your body or your physical surroundings, just a feeling of unease that won't go away.
I went to my classes, but couldn't focus on them. I squirmed in my seat, and gazed out of the windows, and doodled on all my notes. I jumped whenever I was called upon to speak in class, and barely noticed when friends called my name.
It felt like what I imagine an amputee must go through; wanting, and needing, to scratch an itch on a limb that no longer exists. How would you lie comfortably after losing a part of you? Wouldn't you always feel it missing?
Let me hasten to add, it wasn't so much that I missed Angie herself, although I did. I could identify those feelings, and in time, come to deal with them. But it was something else, like a scent that wafts through the air, but can't quite be identified or located. Almost like the tang of water in the air before a rainstorm.
It took me a while to realize what it was. I missed joy. I missed hope. They had begun to take root in my soul, and when they were torn up by the roots, the wound was so deep, I hadn't even been able to recognize it for what it was.
I got several sympathy cards in my mailbox that week. I know that no-one ever knows what to say in times like this, and you don't really expect them to, but all the same, the general effect of the cards was to make me feel a bit sick. "I am genuinely sorry for your loss-Stephanie Fletcher" Did she really know what I'd lost? Was she as uncomfortable writing the card as I was reading it? I tucked it into a book, and stuck it back on my bookshelf. Perhaps a time would come when I could re-read it, and be grateful for it, but not now.
"Another angel has flown up to be with God-we will all miss her, and you in particular. This loss must be so hard, and I wanted you to know that I'm praying for you. Katie Ward." She wasn't an angel, she was a lamb. Do lambs fly, or are they simply slaughtered?
"She's in a better place now. How can Heaven compare to this world?" That was from my roommates. God knows they meant well. But Angie loved this world, she loved Los Angeles better than just about anywhere else in the world. She wanted the City of God, to be certain, but she was so enthralled with the City of the Queen of the Angels.
Angie's Journal: entry
On the very top of a hill, which you can see from another hill in Brea, there are a few lines of houses, all some variety of white, and all larger than any house I've ever lived in.That hill is the City of God. I started calling it that a few weeks after I starting driving that route to church. I began to notice that no matter what time of day you saw the hill, it was magnificent. The houses gleam like alabaster, the trees are like emeralds, and the atmosphere is...well, it's different.
The best time is at sunset; the lower-lying areas are mostly dim and shadowy, but the hill is still catching the most intense light of the day. The houses shine golden, and the western-facing windows pierce the sky with the reflected rays of the sun. I think it was at sunset when I first thought of that hill as the City of God.
Each time of day is different. When I go to work in the early morning, the slightest hint of light touches the eastern walls, and the air over the hill is a warm pink mist. At mid-morning, the houses are the color of pale butter, the air clear and bright, and the blue sky behind it all. Noon, when the trees are at their greenest, and the birds are singing. Afternoon, when a sort of waiting rest falls over the streets up there; people coming home from work, eating dinner, tying up the loose ends of the day. And then at night...There is a special comfort I feel when looking at the City of God by night. It lacks the color and washes of light, but there's a sea of the deepest blue that settles over the homes on the hill, and the windows are lit with a cozy light. Some houses are full of people, talking, eating, laughing. Some only have the members of a family, going about their lives in the evening.
I've never driven up to that hill. I don't need to, and I really don't want to. I know that if I get too close to it, I will be overtaken by the illusion of ordinariness. The fact that the people who live on that hill are ordinary people, with regular jobs, standard-issue sins, and the overall human condition would disguise the truth of the City of God in their midst. I am just like them, a regular human with boring sins and a very daily job. I won't be able to see the truth if I went up there now.
Someday, I will go over there. In the twilight, when the western sky is still slightly pink but everything else is deepest blue, I'll walk up the streets of that hill. The last of the light will have died as I walk up to the gate of one of the houses; all the windows will be lit, and the glass will shine like gold. I'll hear the sounds of people inside, laughing, drinking, being together. I'll pause for a moment at the door, turn, and look out at the valley behind me. It will be almost invisible in the shadows, but perhaps I'll just be able to make out the outline of my former place. Then I'll hear someone call my name from inside, the door will open in a blaze of light, and I will walk into the warmth and joy of the City of God, home for the first time.
As an inveterate eavesdropped, I tend to pick up on any conversation that takes place in my general vicinity. Also, these guys were talking pretty loudly, so it would have been hard to ignore them even if I'd been trying to. I was sitting in front of the library, killing time until class started in the chapel across the lawn.
One of them had picked up a copy of the school newspaper from the bin beside the book drop, and was skimming the headlines, his friend looking over his shoulder. "Anything interesting this week?"
", not really. Couple of national headlines, statistics about how much silverware is stolen from the cafeteria...Tribute to that chick who died a couple weeks ago."
"Yeah, well, they gotta print that. Little Miss Goody-Two-Shoes, who got to die early before giving up on any idealism about this whole thing. It's pure gold for a paper like this."
"So, you think she was really as innocent as they say? I bet she was hiding something; everybody like that is."
"Yeah, probably. I always wondered about that headscarf she wore; like she just had to prove she was better than all of us."
I didn't catch the rest of the conversation, as they had gone into the library, but I'd heard enough. I felt sick, and also tempted to run after them and knock their heads together.

Chapter 3

Angie's Journal
I thought of a story the other day. I'll put it in here, but I don't think I'll share it with anyone else...I'm not sure it's appropriate. But it's an interesting way to think about death.

The Forsaken One
When I was very young, I was small and delicate, newly brought upon the earth. I first began to dance along the paths of the world, and had many lovers. Everyone danced with me sooner or later. As the years wore on, more and more men came to me, willing or not, and we danced. I never grew old, but was always young, almost a child.
One day a man came. He reminded me of the first man who'd ever danced with me, and of all my lovers. He was strong, and we danced for three days. I desired him more than any other, and would have held him forever. But he left me, breaking me, and tossing me aside, like some roadside waif.
I was determined to show him that he couldn't break me, and I resumed my dance. I found myself growing, tall and strong, a woman and no longer a girl. I danced with all I found, but took most pleasure in those with his scent about them. One time, I danced with a third of the earth. But I fond that after a time, though I still grew, I was no longer so lively, nor so young.
I know now that I am old. Until he touched me, I was forever young, forever a child. He touched me, and made me grow, even fed me with the blood of his children, and now I have grown old. I feel the winter's cold upon me, and soon there will be none to dance with me, save only myself.
To: James Peyton
From: Jason Slocum
Subject: help
Hey. I need some help. I've got so many questions boiling around inside my head, and I just need to vent for a little while. Do you mind being a sounding board? If you do, feel free to just delete the rest of the email without reading it. I know Angie's death hit you really hard, too.
I guess the main question, the question that everything hinges on, is this: was she right? She came to Los Angeles to become a saint, and she believed that you could become holy and happy in the City. She believed life meant something, that there was more to life than mediocrity and decay.
Was she right? And why?
Thanks for any thoughts you can send my way.
"It's so hot inside my soul I swear there must be blisters on my heart."
To: Jason Slocum
From: James Peyton
Subject: re: help
Of course I don't mind giving you my thoughts on the subject. I don't know if Angie was right, but I think she was. The majority of what I've seen and experienced is consistent with those beliefs, and I think that provides adequate basis for belief.
That's on the intellectual level. On an emotional level? I don't know. Part of me doesn't want to live without her here, part of me wants to go wherever she's gone. Another part of me wants to stop caring. But...this is going to sound so callous, but you wanted the truth. A large part of me is happy for her. I know she'd be ok with it, and she's happy now. She's in the City of God now, and doesn't have to settle for the earthly city of Angels. She is a saint now, whether anyone down here ever recognizes it or not. And that's what she wanted more than anything.
I don't know if this helps; my guess is, probably not. But it's what I think. Today, at any rate.
"There were angels in the architecture, he said Amen, hallelujah!"
The church was dimly lit and almost gloomy when we gathered for Maundy Thursday Mass. The congregation was quiet and sedate, and the service moved smoothly. I hung back when anyone who wished was invited up to participate in the foot-washing ceremony. I didn't particularly feel like taking off my shoes, and the whole thing looked pretty sloppy.
The service ended with grand procession, everything from the altar being carried down to altar of repose at the front of the church. Candles were lit around the sacrament, and the people slowly filed past, bowing low before it. Finally, the mass of people had left, and only one or two remained, keeping vigil. I had promised to watch and pray between the hours of ten and eleven o'clock at night. I wandered around the empty rose garden for awhile, studying the bleak stalks of the rosebushes, studded with thorns.
When my hour came, I trudged back into the church, and took a seat in the front row, nearest the altar of repose. I was alone in the dark church, and the flickering candles were the only light. I tried to pray in front of the altar, but kept lapsing into silence. Finally, I got up, and passed the altar; going forward into the chancel, I knelt on the stone floor, on the great seal set into the rock. I couldn't pray, couldn't think, couldn't die anything but lie there, the cold of the stone seeping into me.
I didn't rise until I heard the door creak open in the back of the building, and the next vigilant take his place in front of the altar.
Good Friday found us in church again, for a noon service. The stone floor was cold, and the chill seeped up into the congregation. The crucifix hung bleak and bare at the front of the building. A bell rang briefly, and the priests, vested in black, walked into the sanctuary. The service was long and somber; I lost interest about fifteen minutes into it. Until the end of the ceremony, that is. The lights were turned out, and we sat in the dark for a moment; only the sanctuary lamp remained, resting on the edge of the altar, glowing faintly red in the darkness. Father Timothy placed a small cloth-covered square on top of the chimney of the lamp, and after a moment, that flame died.. Then, from all corners of the building, the men of church ran up to the sanctuary, and began to strip away all the adornments; I couldn't see most of the faces in the darkness, but I recognized one of the men as Marie's husband.
They bustled away the cushions, the candlesticks, and the crosses; the flowers were taken, and the linens for the altar. The last one reached up to the golden lamp that usually held the sanctuary light, and gave it a swing. It swung like a pendulum, the chain's ghastly skreeking the only sound. After a few moments, we stood, and left the church in darkness.
Ryan drove a car of people up from the school to attend the Seder supper at church on Friday night. It was an early Easter that year, and Passover fell at the end of March. We sat down around a large, round table, already set with all the things we'd need for a Seder supper. Wine, herbs, matzas, salt water, charoses, and boiled eggs were all arranged on a large platter in the center of the table. Candles in silver candlesticks were at one seat at the table, directly across from it, a white shawl and a few linens.
"Ok, so who's going to lead this table? We need one guy and one girl," Ryan said, pointing towards the two place settings. Erin raised her hand, and Ryan nodded to her. "Ok, great. Who else?"
"Why don't you lead us, Ryan?"
"For the simple reason that I'll be much better at playing the part of the inquisitive youngest child. Jason, how about you?"
"Uh...because I don't really know what I'm doing?"
"Neither does anybody else. Besides, you've been through all the preparation, you're at least as knowledgeable as anyone else at this table."
Reluctantly, I sat down at the head of the table, and fiddled uneasily with the shawl. Fortunately, I didn't have to put it on just then, because Marie clapped her hands, and announced that we'd be dancing before the supper began.
I didn't feel like dancing; dancing is a lively activity, and I mostly felt dead inside. But, like the first time, I felt someone grab my hand and pull me into the circle.
This time, instead of stumbling, my feet moved fairly naturally. All those practices after the preparation sessions had really paid off.
The dancing seemed to help a little bit; afterwards, I still felt hollow and cold inside, but maybe not so disconnected from everyone else. Also, concentrating on the weaving footwork helped settle my thoughts.
As we sat back down, some twenty minutes later, most of the others at the table were laughing and talking, and Ryan, of course, was singing some tuneless song and making up his own words to it. Erin sat down at the seat with the candles in front of it, and covered her head with a scarf that had been laid beside them. As the female leader of the supper lit the candles, and waved her hands over them, Erin imitated her motions. She was calm and graceful, unlike some of the girls at the other tables, who were giggling as they made half-hearted passes over the candles.
I draped the white shawl around my shoulders, and watched the head table for my lead. The male leader poured a first cup of wine (though we used grape juice, since many present were under the age of twenty-one), and said a blessing.
"This first cup that we drink tonight is the cup of Sanctification and Freedom. In a moment, we will dip green herbs into salt water; the greenness of the herbs will be a reminder of life. When we dip it into the salt water, we are reminded that life is always laced with tears. I encourage you, as you dip your herbs into the water, bring to mind the most joyful experience you have had in the past year, and the greatest grief."
I took up a piece of parsley from the platter, and held it for a moment. Joyful? Had anything in the past year been joyful?
Memories flew through my mind, some happy, some not: my first sight of the college campus, the little chapel packed the afternoon that Angie died, my mom tearfully saying good-bye as they drove away from my dorm, arguing with Stephanie in Literature class, Katie's smile, the oatmeal colored sweater James wore to the park, the pink sundress...One memory came to the top, like cream rising to the surface of milk. Angie and I had been driving, somewhere but I don't remember where, and we drove underneath a freeway overpass. I noticed that the overpass and it's walls perfectly framed the view, like James had pointed out in the tunnel that lead to the park. The sun was shining on the road, the sky was a deep forget-me-not blue, and the white trunks of the eucalyptus trees streamed upwards towards the sun. Long vines trailed down from the overpass, and swung freely at the end of the short tunnel. Angie was laughing in delight, she always loved the way the creamy eucalyptus trees contrasted with an azure sky.
There was no more to the memory than that. Just a moment, less than a second, under an overpass on the 10 freeway, in Los Angeles weekend traffic. A meaningless memory, in many ways, no profound insights came from it, nor any life-changing moments. was a miniscule point in time, when everything seemed to be the way it was meant to be, the buildings shining, the trees growing tall, and friends together, just living a common life.
I dipped the parsely into the salt water, and shook it a little, not wanting to drip the saline solution all over the tablecloth. The green leaves sparkled with little drops of liquid, like fresh dew on the grass. I brought the parsley to my mouth, and slowly ate it. It was tart and succulent, but the salt water made it almost bitter.
I didn't have to work to think of the greatest grief of the past year. My mind was filled with the image I'd seen of Angie's car, crumpled on the freeway, steam slowly seeping from under the hood. The bright yellow body bag. The sound of the phone, ringing. James, choking back tears long enough to give me the news.
Hannah's death had been horrible. But it had merely confirmed what I'd always feared about the workings of the universe. Angie had begun to make me believe that maybe there was meaning, purpose, more than just matter in motion, spinning into decay and dissolution. Her death was pointless, an accident of physics and timing.
The salt water trickled down my throat, as tears prickled in my eyes. I shook them away, and looked up. Erin caught my eye, sitting directly across the table. The candles' fluttering light was reflected in her eyes, and I saw two tears shining on her cheeks. I knew what her memory of grief must have been: blood on white sheets, and a cold, still face, drained of blood.
But then she suddenly smiled at me, a smile that seemed to dim the light of the candles with its glory. I wondered what her memory of happiness had been, that she could still smile this way. I glanced at the others, seated around the table. Their faces bore marks of joy, marks of sadness, the indelible scratches of the master artist's pen. Some were turned inward, lost in their own memories, while others, like Erin, were looking around the table, sharing themselves.
The leader spoke again. I realized that he'd been talking for while, speaking the words of the service, but I hadn't caught any of them.
"Now, we will be breaking the middle matzah in the stack you have on your table. There has been some debate in the Jewish community as to what the symbolism of the three matzah is. Some think it symbolizes the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But in that case, why do we break the middle one? Why break Isaac?" He smiled. "I prefer the messianic interpretation, in which the three pieces symbolize the Trinity...and in which the Son is the broken one."
He entered back into the ritual, carefully breaking the middle matzah, and wrapping half of it in a linen, then hiding it away. "Soon, we will celebrate the finding of the Afikomen, and the reuniting of the two halves."
I took the matzah stack from our table, and broke the middle matzah. It snapped in my hands, and little flakes of unleavened bread tumbled down my fingers. I wrapped one half carefully, and hid it in the props for one of the table legs.
I looked up to see the leader filling a second cup of grape juice, and I hurried to do the same. We passed the bottle of juice around the table, being careful not to splatter the white table cloth. The leader told us that this was the cup of deliverance, and then beckoned us to sit back and listen.
He began the story of the Exodus, prompted by the traditional questions asked by his seven-year-old son. The story was familiar, but seemed more personal in this setting. A journey from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from death into life.
As we came to the telling of the plagues, we were instructed to dip a finger in our cup, and splash a drop of juice onto our plates, one for each plague.
Death of the Firstborn
Each drop landed sudden and red on the white plates. My hand shook slightly on the final plague, and a large red stain began to spread on the linen table cloth. After drinking the second cup, we washed our hands, said a blessing over the matzah and shared it. Crumbs of the broken bread joined the red stain on the cloth.
"Now we remember our slavery. For traditional Jews, this would mean slavery in Egypt. For us today, it might be more helpful to think of this as deliverance from sin and death. We eat of the bitter herbs to remind us of slavery and death."
Have you ever had raw horseradish? It's one of the most hot, bitter things I've ever tasted. It sort of tastes like a wet, dirty sock that's been soaking in pepper for about three weeks. In other words, it tastes terrible. We tried not to choke while swallowing it. Not even the sweet apple mixture that came next couldn't take away the taste of it.
A meal followed, with a space of time to talk normally. Afterwards, Ryan, playing his part of the youngest child to the nines, scrambled around under the table trying to find the hidden half of the broken matzah. After a brief struggle, he re-emerged triumphantly holding the linen-wrapped bundle aloft. "Ha! I told you I'd get it. Now you have to ransom it back! What'll you give me for it?"
"Oh, come on, I don't have anything on me that you'd even want."
"Well, I can always claim it later. Let's about...a Simon and Garfunkel cd?"
"Aw, drive a hard bargain. Ok, sure, if you don't mind waiting a day or two for it."
"Fair enough." Ryan handed over the bundle, and I unwrapped it. I broke it and we each took a piece.
The leader of the ceremony poured a third cup of wine, and I did likewise. As instructed, I poured an extra cup, which we set in front of an empty seat at the table. "This is Elijah's cup, which we set out to welcome the prophet. He comes as a harbinger of the Messiah, and as such, is the prophet of hope. We ourselves drink the third cup, the cup of redemption, the gift the Messiah brings."
We drank deeply of the third cup, then began a time of singing. The songs were loud, and joyful, almost raucous; songs of praise, songs of thanksgiving for great good done. Finally, the leader drew the singing to a close, and bid us pour a fourth and final cup.
"This is the cup of thanksgiving, the cup of hope. Only after suffering, tears, joy, and all the rest of the parts of human life, can we truly drink this cup. I encourage you, my friends, drink deeply of this cup."
We paused a moment, cups lifted in the air. The juice looked like blood, a red-gold light shining in the depths of the cup. I lifted it to my mouth, and let it run down my throat.
With a shout, music began to blare from the speakers in the corners of the room. "The meal is finished, we are free, and now it's time to dance!" Everyone streamed from the tables to the center of the room, joining hands, and whirling into a circle, abandoned to the joy of life, love, and each other.

Chapter 2

I don't remember what happened that afternoon. I vaguely remember everyone coming to the little chapel. Ryan, James, Erin, Stephan, and a lot of others. I don't remember what was said. I wish I could. I wish I could have paid attention, been a comfort to some of the others, but I couldn't.
It felt like I'd finally begun to warm up, to feel the sun again for the first time in years. And now, the person who'd been pushing the clouds away was gone. And gone how? By a stupid driver, trying to get away from the cops for a speeding charge, and he walks away from it.
Journal: March 18
I don't know what to think. I wasn't in love with her, wasn't even attracted to her in that way, not like with Hannah. But life was finally starting to make sense, to show some purpose. I was beginning to think that she might be right, that life meant something, that being good had a meaning. Is this all being good got her? She wanted to be a saint, and became a statistic, fodder for a handful of news stories about cracking down on traffic violators.
Is that really worth it?
From: Jessica Payne
To: Jason Slocum
Subject: Hi, I know you don't know me

Hi, I know you don't know me, but I'm Angie's roommate. I'm sorry to be contacting you like this, but I was afraid that if I called you, I wouldn't be able to make it more than five words without breaking down.
Angie didn't leave a will, she didn't have time to. But I've got her journals, and writings from the past two years here, and I think she'd want you to have them.
She really cared about you, Jason. She wanted you to be happy. She wanted you to know what life is all about. And I think you should have her journals. Let me know if you want me to drop them in your mailbox, or just bring them over.

"When we've been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun"

From: Jason Slocum
To: Jessica Payne
Subject: re: journals
Hi Jessica, I think I've met you once in the cafeteria.
I don't know what to say about the journals. I don't know if I'll be able to read them. I don't know if I can get through it. But...At the same time, I do want to know what she would have said eventually. I never agreed with everything she said, and some of it was really crazy, but she always made me think.
So...yeah, just drop them in my mailbox. Thanks.
"When everything feels like a movie, you bleed just to know you're alive."
I found the journals in my box the next day. There were three of them, soft cover journals that had been wildly decorated. Collage, paint, fabric, all mixed together and pasted on to the covers. I flipped through one of them; multi-colored inks, primarily a black felt-tip pen, lots of doodles. I stuck them in my bag to read through later.
I needed somewhere quiet to read. Quiet, and open. I didn't want to be inside, or near people. I decided to swing by the cafeteria to grab lunch; after stuffing an apple and a sandwich into my bag, I headed outside, down the drainage ditch, and out to the park.
It was colder today than it had been in a while; clouds covered the sky, and a chilly wind blew. I was glad I'd kept one sweatshirt out of winter storage.
I stumbled down the slope to the secluded spot I'd found before, and dug the apple and sandwich, now slightly squashed out of my bag. I had no real appetite, but ate anyway. After finishing my lunch, I pulled out the journals, and began to flip through them.
Journal entry: Angie Parr
This is my first journal entry after coming to LA. Huzzah! I don't have much time to journal right now, but I wanted to scribble down something that came to me earlier today:

Like a light on a hill, the City shines forth
The Queen of the Angels presides over her court
The saints and angels sing over the valley,
And everything here is touched with the holy.

I had made the mistake of not visiting Hannah's grave until long after she was buried. I was determined not to do the same with Angie. That weekend, I went back to the cemetery; it wasn't far from a stop on the bus line, so I was able to get to it pretty easily. As I walked down a sidewalk in a residential area, I saw a bouganvellia plant spilling over the cinderblock wall. The flowers were a deep magenta, and very lovely. I broke off a small spray to lay at the grave; Angie would have liked them, I think.
When I arrived, the afternoon sun was shining, and the grass was deep and green. I sat down on the sod in front of the headstone, and was silent for a while. I looked at her gravestone:
Agnes Parr
"Then with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs, Bethel I'll raise.
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee."
I vaguely remembered that we'd sung that song at her funeral; James had mentioned that it was her favorite hymn. But I never knew her name was Angela. Angela, angel. It seemed like it should have been her name, here in the City of Angels. But then, as she had pointed out, it wasn't the City of Angels. And instead of Angela, she had been Agnes, Lamb.
It didn't look like anyone else was nearby at the moment, so I gradually felt free to speak out loud.
"Hi, Angie. It's me. I came to visit, and, um, thought you might like these." I gingerly set the spray of bougainvallia on the ground. I could still see some raw earth between the strips of sod that had been laid down. "I guess I'm not really sure why I'm here. I'm so confused...You almost had me believing you, you know. You wanted to be a saint. But saints don't die as casualties in high-speed chases, not pointless, accidental, meaningless deaths. They don't end up in body bags on the 5 freeway."
I had been afraid that I would embarrass myself by breaking down in tears, but actually found myself unable to feel anything at all. All the glory of life, the joys of the City that had seemed clear before while Angie was talking had faded into stale mediocrity and stinking alleyways.
"I have to admit, though, now I know why you talked to your saints. It's hard to be here and not talk to you, crazy as it still seems to me. There's no reason why you'd be more present here than anywhere else, but I can't seem to help it. It just seems...natural."
I'm not sure how long I sat there, talking complete nonsense. It was late afternoon when I got up to leave, and the sun was beginning to sink in the west. The last of the light suddenly caught the flowers that lay on the grass; the yellow light made them suddenly look as bright and deeply colored as spilt blood.

Part Three: Chapter 1

Part Three: Sanctus

Spring was beginning to come. The winter rains had made everything green, and flowers were budding. The air was slowly warming, and I began to pack away my sweatshirts, and pull out the t-shirts again.
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear; even though I wasn't going anywhere that morning, I'd gotten up early and went for a run through the park. Angie had called to say that she couldn't take me anywhere that weekend, she was going up to the cemetary again. It wasn't that I didn't want to go with her, but she seemed like she needed to have that time alone. I'd emailed James, and we were planning to meet up at the cafeteria for dinner that evening, but I didn't have anything in particular to do until then.
I glanced at the clock; only 8:23. I grabbed my bookbag and a loose flannel shirt from my room, being careful not to wake my roommates. I don't know why I took care to be quiet, considering the fact that both of them slept through their blasting alarm clocks on a regular basis. But I shut the door silently behind me, slung my bag over my shoulder, and trotted out of the dorm. I knew the library wouldn't be open for a few more hours, and the cafeteria for another hour and a half. However, I could find a good sofa in the lobby, and get some studying done; I had a whole stack of textbooks that I needed to catch up on.
I sat down, pulled out the books and some paper, and dived in. But I had a hard time concentrating. Usually, large quiet rooms don't bother me; I generally prefer them to large noisy rooms and small noisy rooms. But for some reason, it was getting to me today. Everything was still and silent, but it didn't feel calm. Everything felt like it was...well, almost like it was waiting for something. It was just a little unnerving. I was glad when it was time for the cafeteria to open, and I could haul my studying off to somewhere less expectant.
Revelation 8:1: "When the Lamb broke the Seventh seal, there was silence in Heaven for about half an hour."
I went back to the dorm after breakfast; I figured I'd try studying in the lobby for awhile, if my roommates weren't up yet. As I walked into the building, I saw several people gathered around the television; it looked like they were watching the local news channel. I could see what looked like an overhead view of a freeway; given Southern California, that probably meant a high-speed chase, which would end, as always, with the driver stopping, and getting caught. I don't know why they always focus so much attention on them, they're all the same.
I was about to pass right by and go up to my room, when several of the people around the television gasped. I moved closer to the group seated around the set, and took a better look. The wild driver had veered out of control and hit another car. The other car. A blue Toyota, had skidded across the road and slammed into a lamp post. The driver of the first car got out, and started running; he didn't appear to be hurt by the collision. The driver of the blue car didn't get out. The police caught the runner within moments, but the cameras stayed on the crushed blue car; an ambulance was there within minutes, but it looked like they were too late. I saw them pull body bag from the ambulance, then the news anchor came back on screen.
"We do not yet have the identity of the fatality in the crash, but she appears to have been a young woman about twenty-one years old. We will keep you updated, and you can also check out our website."
I went back upstairs at that point. I was sorry for whoever had been in that car, but I had work to do. As I opened the door, I heard the phone ringing and reached to grab it.
"Jason? This is James."
"James! Hey, what's up? Are we still meeting tonight?"
"Jason, have you seen the TV? The chase?"
"Uh, I watched it for a few minutes, but not for long. Why?"
"Did you see the crash?"
"Yeah. That was sad, wasn't it?"
"You didn't recognize the car?"
"No....Should I have?"
"You didn't see the parking sticker on the back windshield."
An ice cube was forming in the midst of my stomach. "James, no, I didn't notice, what's wrong?"
Silence was the only thing I heard for a few moments, then a short sniffle and a deep breath. "Jason, that's Angie's car. She must have been coming back from the cemetary; she always takes the 5."
Have you ever been on the beach, maybe as a child, enjoying the warm sun, and suddenly a huge wave takes you by surprise, dragging you into the freezing cold water, and for a moment, it feels like your heart stops? That's what that moment felt like. Only it didn't stop, wouldn't stop. It just kept going on and on, deeper into the ocean.
"Jason? Jason, are you still there?"
"Uh...yeah....oh god, James, it can't be her..."
"It is, I don't want to believe it either, but it is..." I could hear him crying on the other end of the line.
"What do we do?"
"I don't know...I mean...I guess there'll be a funeral in a few days, but I don't know what we do now...I guess I should call a few more people, send out an email...we should be together now, not alone."
"Umm...yeah...ok....What time?"
"As soon as I can get in touch with everyone....say.....three o'clock? At the chapel? The little one, I mean, not the big one."
"Uh...yeah. I'll be there."
"Ok. I'll see you soon then."
"Ok. Bye, Jason."

Chapter 11

"Ok, class, we've been carrying on this discussion all semester, and while I don't think we've really arrived at any answers, I think we've profited by it." Dr. Kendall leaned on the lecturn, and looked at us over the top of his glasses. "However, I think today will be the last day we'll take up class time to talk about it, since we've gotten a little behind on the cirriculum. Ok, I think we have several schools of thought here, each pretty much led by one of you. Let's see...Mr. Johnson?"
Isaac started slightly, then called out, "Yes, sir?"
"You've been pretty vocal this semester. Can you summarize your view of holiness for us? As comprehensively, but succintly, as possible, please."
"Yes sir." Isaac stood, thought for a moment, then stated: "Holiness is an attribute of God, that can be bestowed upon a person both as a gift or as a reward for their efforts. It contains goodness, truth, and righteousness, and indicates that the person endowed with it is set apart for a special purpose." He sat back down quickly, but with a slight air of satisfaction.
"Well stated, Mr. Johnson. Now, since you've all heard Mr. Johnson's arguments for several weeks now, raise your hands if this is approximately the view you take on holiness." Dr. Kendall scanned the room, and several hands were raised.
"Alright, very good. Mr. Tyson? Care to do the same?"
Luke stood up almost lazily, a smirk playing around the edges of his mouth. "Sure thing, Dr. Kendall. Holiness is an attribute of God Almighty. Only a few select individuals, who hole themselves up in monasteries and are very careful to never do anything, and especially never do anything fun, get to be called holy. Objects are not holy because, hello, they're just things." He dropped back into his seat, the smirk fully evident now.
"Very well, Mr. Tyson, we all agree that you state your feelings openly without...ahem..toning them down...and who agrees with Mr. Tyson?" Several hands raised around the classroom, though fewer than had sided with Isaac. I noticed that Mandy Thompson was among them.
"Ok, let's see...Miss Ward? Would you mind stating your basic view of the nature of holiness?"
Katie stood up nervously; it was pretty obvious that she didn't particularly care to put forth her ideas again, but she looked determined, and spoke without faltering. "God is holy, and is the standard of holiness. Human beings become holy by following God and becoming like Him. Objects that have been set aside for holy purposes may become holy, but I'm not sure about that yet." She sat down, without rushing or falling, and met Dr. Kendall's eyes steadily. I thought I saw him give her a quick smile, but couldn't be sure about it.
"Ok...How many here are going to agree with Miss Ward?" Again, a few hands were raised-includng mine-- but not so many as for Isaac's speech.
"Mr. Slocum, I see that you agreee with Miss Ward, but you've been pretty vocal this semester. Would you care to state your own view?"
"No, I don't have anything particularly different to say. I'll stay in Miss Ward's camp."
"Alright. Now, I saw the hands that were raised, and the number does not match the number on my roster. This is not a question you can sit out, people, not in my class, and certainly not in life. So!" He clapped his hands together loudly, making a few people jump. "Mr. Tyson, you stand in that corner of the room. Mr. Johnson, you go over there. Miss Ward, you come up here to the front." There was a bit of shuffling as the three took their places, then Dr. Kendall spoke again. "Those of you who tend to agree with Mr. Tyson, go stand over there. For those of you who agree with Mr. Johnson, join him. If you find yourself most persuaded by Miss Ward's ideas, come up to the front and stand with her." Dead silence. "Now, people, and please be honest about what you really believe."
A bit of pandemonium ensued as the class tried to decide where to stand. I had a relatively easy time making my way to the front of the class, since, to my amazement, most of the traffic was flowing tht way. As the last few stragglers found their place, Dr. Kendall called for quiet.
"Some of you might find this result surprising." He gestured to the room: the majority of students were standing with Katie at the front of the room, a large group was gathered around Isaac, and only a few stood with Luke Tyson. "It may surprise you to know that this is prety much the same division throughout Christian history. The weight of tradition, belief, and experience is here," he said, pointing to the front of the room. "This doesn't mean that other views can't be considered. The role of the skeptic is valuable, and many holy people have challenged long-held ideas. But this is essentially what most Christians, in most places, at most times have believed. And you would all do well to remember that, even if you believe differently."
The silence that followed was long and intense, bordering on uncomfortable. Dr. Kendall polished his glasses, then looked up at us. "Ok, today's been a hard day for some of you. I'll let you take the rest of the class period off. You all need some time to process this, and I suspect that some of you need some time to recuperate. Just come back next week with a one-page response to this session, and be ready to launch back into the regular class work."
Most of the class streamed eagerly down the steps of the chapel building, but a few hung around by the doors to talk. Mandy looked angry, though that wasn't particularly unusual, and Luke was being more sarcastic than usual. Katie Ward came through the doors, smiling at a few of her friends who were with her. Mandy reached out and put a hand on her arm, turning her around.
"Well, Miss Perfect, are you happy now that everybody agrees with you?"
Katie stammered, "But not everybody-"
"Yeah, we know, we're not all good people like you, because we disagree." Mandy's pitched her voice into a nasally whine. "Ooh, teacher, teacher, they're all picking on me! I bet they don't even have their quiet times every day!" She snorted.
I'd seen enough by that point. "Hey, what's the matter?"
Luke spoke up then. "Oh sure, you want to be a good boy, so you think it's all as simple as that. Just pray, read your Bible, and go to Heaven with Baby Jesus."
"First of all, I'll wager that that's not what Katie thinks. Who's over-simplifying here? Secondly, did Dr. Kendall tell you not to think what you do? Believe what you do? Did he ever say that you're bad people?"
"No, but-"
"Right, Mandy. He didn't. And he won't. And I won't. I do, in fact, think you're mistaken, but I say keep on thinking, keep on searching, and I'll do the same. We may both find out what's true in the end, and I hope and pray we do."
The group was quiet then; not happy, just quiet. I put a hand against Katie's backpack, and gently steered her away. "Sorry about that."
Katie shrugged. "It's ok. This semester has made me a lot tougher; I guess I can be grateful to them for that. Besides, even if I'm basically right, what good is it every going to be if I never deal with anyone who disagrees with me?" She smiled, and turned to go. "Thanks anyway, though. I really do appreciate it."

To: Katherine Ward
From: Amanda J. Thompson
Subject: class
Hey, Katie. Listen, I just wanted to apologize for what happened after class the other day. I still disagree with you, and I think your views are way too simplistic. But I guess attacking you personally isn't the best way to make my point. So, sorry about that, and hopefully you won't hold it against me.
"And the trees are all kept equal by hatchet axe and saw."

Chapter 10

To: Stephan Anastasios
From: Jason Slocum
Subject: money for painting?
Hey Stephan, when's a good time for me to bring the money for the painting to your studio? I don't want to just leave it there if you're not going to be there.
"Home is behind, the world ahead, and there are many paths to tread; through shadow, to the edge of night until the stars are all alight."

To: Jason Slocum
From: Stephan Anastasios
Subject: re: Money for painting?
I'll be in my studio Tuesday night, probably between 6pm and midnight. The door's usually unlocked, but even if it's closed, just knock and someone will come to the door. I'll be around off and on throughout the rest of the week, but Tuesday's the only remotely certain time.
"He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."
I stepped through the door of the painting barn, the smell of oils, turpentine, and many years of dust teasing my senses. Some random artsy band was playing on the stereo, but not so loudly that they interfered with the use of headphones and walkmans, for those uninterested in the particular album playing on the stereo.
I looked around, but didn't see Ryan anywhere in the barn; however, I did notice that the smallest of the studios was draped in black fabric, and I couldn't see who was inside. A parchment sign hung above the doorway, emblazoned with a heraldic phoenix. Taking a chance, I knocked on the doorframe. Sure enough, Stephan poked his head out of the curtains, and, seeing me, motioned for me to step inside.
As he pried his earphones out of his ears, he said, "che entratte."
He laughed, pointing to a sign that hung at the back of his studio, directly opposite the door. The Italian phrase was written there, along with the English translation: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
I smiled at the jest, and noticed that the walls of the studio, while swathed in black drapery, was covered with painted parchments with phrases in Latin and English, and various prints of medieval and renaissance paintings. I recognized several of Fra Angelico's angels, as well as a Caravaggio of Matthew, receiving heavenly dictation. Another artist's work was prominent, but I wasn't familiar with the paintings; most of them were lit only by candlelight, creating deep shadows and warm highlights.
"You like those? Georges de la Tour, one of my favorite artists. This one," he pointed to one on the wall right above his work table, "this is my favorite. See, it's the Christ Child bringing a candle to St. Joseph. See how the brightest light illumines His face, so it looks like it's the source of the light? And notice the look on Joseph's face, he seems worried, or frightened. Well, see what he's making? It's the beam of a cross...And I'm rambling again, and you didn't come to get an art appreciation lecture, I'm sure." He stuck his hands in his pockets, and grinned.
"No, actually, that's pretty interesting. I like this one, is this one of his, too?"
"Oh, yeah, that's one version of the Penitent Magdalen, he did several. But that one is my favorite, with her just sitting there, so still. When was the last time you think she got to be that calm, that quiet? And here her life's just been in danger, and saved by a teacher of the Law that condemned her, and He did not condemn her. The candlelight is small, and there are still lots of shadows; in fact, most of the area around her is dark, but the light has begun."
"I like that."
"Yeah, me too. He's one of my favorite artists."
"So what do these phrases say? I know a little Latin, but not enough to figure them out."
"Oh, let's see....this one. Domine, istud quod facio, non facio nisi ut inveniam te. Inveniam te postquam id perfecero. That means: Lord, that which I do, I do only to find you. May I find You after I have completed it." He looked a little bashful. "It's kind of a motto of mine. This one over here, this says, 'And I greatly desired to see the least little bit of Christ's flesh that was nailed to the tree.' This one is...well, I can never remember it exactly, but it's something like, 'He showed her His heart, and it was pierced with many small holes like a lantern. And from them shone the rays of the sun; no, brighter than the sun's rays.' They're from a soundtrack that was made for a film called The Passion of Joan of Arc, and they've stuck with me ever since I first heard the songs. I really relate to St. Joan, somehow, the visions she saw and the voices she heard, and the way she died. Something about the fire really speaks to me. Not that I have any great desire to be burned at the stake, but I feel like that burning is a part of my spirituality. Like a phoenix, that can only be reborn through its own funeral pyre."
That was definitely the longest speech I'd ever heard from him. He was usually so uncomfortable with words, but I guess he found it easier to explain how he felt about the words of others, which would explain the dozens of quotations pinned to the walls.
"That's amazing. I haven't really thought about relating a spiritual journey to mythology...well, not a Christian journey, anyway."
"Yeah, I guess not too many people do." He suddenly noticed that his hands were covered in paint, and grabbed a rag. Rubbing his hands vigorously, he nodded towards a stool in the corner of the studio. "Can you stay awhile? I'd be happy to keep talking, but I need to paint, too."
I checked my watch. "Sure, I've got some time. I'm done with my classes for the day, and I don't have much homework." I manuevered myself down onto te somewhat wobbly stool. Stephan stood in front of a black metal easel, meditatively swabbing paint onto a stretched canvas. I couldn't really see what he was painting; it just looked like gobs and gobs In the center of the painting I could make out something, ringed in bright orange flames.
"So, what's the painting about?"
"Um...hard to say right now, they tend to change as I'm working on them. But at the, it'll be an inter-working of mummy images, the phoenix, and the idea of rebirth." He scooped up a gob of what appeared to be a deep green and rubbed it into the canvas, followed closely by a red so dark it looked almost black. "So why did you choose to identify with the phoenix? If you don't mind me asking, that is...."
"No, not at all. Um, I identify with it, because it seems like changes in my life never happen easily, or smoothly. I have to make the choice myself to step into a death to self, one that consumes everything. Only then, when everything in me is ashes, does something new come. For me, the goal of life is to continually step into that fire, and be born from it."
I watched his hands guiding the brush, almost unconscious of its movement, yet completely immersed in the act of creation. Just when I thought that he'd forgotten I was there, he asked, "So, how do you see your own journey? Something mythic, or iconic, or maybe musical?"
"Yeah, some people are more auditory, and see their journey like a song. Like this." He shuffled through several stacked canvases and pulled out a small wood panel. "I don't think Angie would mind you seeing this, she posed for a portrait, and told me about how she saw her journey. It was a series I was doing at the time. Ah, here." He handed the panel to me; as I took it, I noticed that it was three panels hinged to form a diptych. On the side panels, golden notes floated amongst musical staffs, weaving through colors and forms. In the central panel, Angie stood, reaching her arms up, caught up in th movement of a dance. In the tips of her fingers, she clutched a silk scarf that flowed outwards from her. As I studied the painting, I noticed that the scarf moved in unusual ways, creating a dynamic space between itself and Angie's body.
"She said that her life was more like a counterpoint, like a bar of music contrasting and joining wih others, both heavenly and terrestrial."
"That's...really interestng." With some reluctance, I handed the diptych back, and settled myself onto the stool again. "I don't know what my journey is like, I'd never thought of it before."
" do you see it? Is it a process, a quest, a being in and of itself?"
I didn't respond right away, taking a moment to think about it. "I don't know...It doesn't seem like a separate being, that doesn't even really make sense to me, I haven't really noticed a repetitive process...maybe a search?"
Stephan nodded, eyes seeming to be focused beyond the four lines of the canvas' edge. I craned my neck around slightly, trying to see what was taking shape under Stephan's moving brush. I could see what appeared to be flames curling upward from the center, and a dark shadowy form surrounding it, but I was at the wrong angle to see any more.
"Have you read anything about the Grail legend? That might be helpful, I dunno."
"No, I don't know much about it. Can you fill me in on the basics? I don't think I'll be able to get to the library tonight."
"Sure. There are lots of different versions, but here's the basics of the one I know best. It's towards the end of King Arthur's reign, and he has no son. Guinivere and Lancelot have been lovers for years. The knights are all sitting at their places around the Round Table. Galahad, purest of the knights and the only one who can sit in the Seige Perilous, has joined the company. As they sit, feasting, a miracle happens. A vision of the Grail, carried by a woman dressed all in white, appears to them, and each finds himself eating the food he loves best. When the vision passes, a moment of silence falls, then King Arthur stands to his feet. He declares that a great doom has fallen upon the knights, since they can now do naught but seek the Grail, and few return from such a Quest."
I sat quietly, mesmerized. I'd never heard Stephan talk so freely, or thought that he would use rather archaic language with such skill. He continued to paint while telling the story, the whole of his existence consisting of the performance of word and image.
"The knights went their separate ways, in search of the Grail. I don't remember most of the stories, but only two are particularly relevant. The first is the tale of Sir Lancelot, father of Galahad, and once the strongest of the knights. Though Lancelot was physically strong, he was a traitor, for he loved Guinivere, the Queen, and was her lover. Once, when he was away from the castle, he fell in love with-some say he was enchanted by-the Lady of Shallott, Elaine. She bore him Galahad, but he left her, seeking Guinivere again. Elaine died of sorrow, and Galahad eventually came to King Arthur's court. When Lancelot went to seek the Grail, he went mad, for he was not pure enough for it. Only when he found a small chapel in the woods and repented, did he regain his mind. Even then, he was granted only a vision of the Grail, and not the Grail itself."
As he came to the next portion of the story, Stephan's face began to shine, echoing the flames shooting from the center of his canvas.
"The second part of the story is the tale of Sir Galahad. Galahad, Bors, and Bans kept company during the Quest, and after many trials, finally came to the Ship of Solomon, which carried them over many seas to the Grail-though some say the Grail was on board the ship itself. Galahad asked one favor of the Lord, to whom he had dedicated himself. He asked that he might be allowed to be taken up to Heaven with the Grail. When the three companions came, at last, to the Grail, which was the Cup from the Last Supper, which Joseph of Arimethea used to catch Christ's blood at the Crucifixion, and the Spear of Destiny, the lance used to pierce the side of Christ. The three approached the Grail, and all were permitted to see it, but only Galahad was allowed to touch it, by virtue of his great purity. He reached out to the Cup, and as he touched it, he gave thanks to God, and his soul was withdrawn to heaven. The Cup and Spear were taken up to Heaven, and no mortal man has seen them since."
For a few moments, all the could be heard was the soft swishing of Stephan's brush over the canvas. It seemed odd that an artist who loved a city like Los Angeles so much could be so obsessed with purity.
"Stephan...That kind of purity is impossible, isn't it? I mean, even assuming you know what you're supposed to do, it's impossible to do it every time, all the time. And you live in LA, for crying out loud! Like you're ever going to find it here!"
Stephan just smiled, eyes bright and black. "That's where the fire comes in. I can't keep pure by myself, and I never know what to dol. But fire burns it all away; it's one of the most purifying forces in the world. It's one of the reasons I love St. Joan so much. She had enough purity in her to be able to hear the saints and angels, but after she went through the fire..." He paused, almost reverently. "After the fire, she saw God Himself."
He took the rag in his left hand, and dabbed at the painting a few times, then picked up the canvas gingerly, and held it up against his chest so I could see what he'd painted. The background was deep and dark, richer than any plain black could be. In the center of the canvas stood the figure of a mummy, dessicated and rotten, swathed the bandages. His arms were crossed over his chest, but instead of clenched fists, his hands opened into a gesture of prayer. Between his palms, a fiery globe was suspended, almost pulsing with its own light. Inside the globe was the image of an unborn child, its blood shining through the translucent skin. From the child, and sweeping out behind the mummy, were wing of fire, reaching upwards into a shower of sparks.
Stephan gave a small smile, eyes blazing with the fires of of joy. "See? Purity is not some cold impossibility, but a blazing, consuming necessity."
As I walked out of the warm studio much later that night, the stars burned overhead, throwing down spears of light, and singing of joy beyond the flames.

Chapter 9

To: Jason Slocum, Angie Parr, James Peyton, Erin Leason
From Stephan Anastasios
What: a solo show
Who: the artist, me
Where: University art gallery
When: February 12th-February 19th. The opening will be February 12th, at 7pm.
Title: The City and the Angels
"So, are you planning to go to Stephan's show next week?" Angie stirred her tea, dumping in a spoonful of sugar.
"I'd like to; I'm pretty busy, though. I guess since it's in the gallery, I should be able to get to it, but I don't know about attending the opening. I'm not much of one for gallery openings. Too many people trying to say original things about the artwork, while everyone else stands around and tries to figure out what they're talking about."
Angie laughed, shaking her head. "I can understand that. But I don't think you'll have too much trouble with this one."
"Why's that?"
"Have you seen any of Stephan's art yet? I mean, apart from the trails of scribbles on napkins."
"No....I don't think so."
"Well, his stuff's pretty different. Clear enough that anyone who wants to work a little at it can probably get what he's trying to say, but...ah, what's the word.."
"Obscure? Abstract?"
"No, neither of Profound? No...Drat. Anyway, enough that that you don't just glance at it and think you got it. You gotta work at looking at his stuff, but it's very much worth it."
"Oh, ok." I poked thoughtlessly at the remains of the food on my plate, cutting the skin of my baked potato into geometric patterns with the side of my fork. I still planned to avoid the opening of the show, but now I felt almost guilty about it.
"How're you doing today, Jason? I know things have been really bad lately, and I haven't been able to be any help." She looked away, then back again. "To tell you the truth, I think I was pretty arrogant to assume that I could help, and very arrogant to attempt to force you into being helped."
"What if I didn't need help? What if everything I was saying before was right, and the way you see things is the illusion? That'd be a cruel sort of help, to blind me with a silk hankerchief so I couldn't see the piles of corpses, when the blindfold comes off at death anyway. I'd see the corpses in all their horror just in time to become one of them."
"Jason, that's got to be one of the most melodramatic metaphors ever made." She smiled, and I had to laugh, just a little.
"Ok, granted, but the point still holds, I think. You know what I'm trying to say, right?"
"Yes, I do. But I still want to know why, when presented with a view of corpses and a view of living beauty, you assume the ugly vision is the true one. There's no logical basis for it."
"Wouldn't you use a prettier picture to trick someone?"
"To trick them, you'd use whatever picture they'd buy into the most, whether beautiful or ugly. And ask yourself this: who would be trying to trick you, why, and what would they have to gain from it? I know you'll be honest with yourself on those: as much as you hate delusion, you don't like putting one in front of your own eyes."
I nodded, and pushed my plate away, setting my napkin on top of the remains of my dinner. I watched little pools of grease spread across the surface of the napkin, bringing a strange translucency to the cheap paper.
Angie popped a white plastic lid onto her cup of tea and gathered her things. "I need to get to the library; I'm supposed to be at work at 12:30, and it's nearly 12:20 now. Walk me over?"
"Sure, I need to get some books anyway." I grabbed my tough knitted book bag and slung it over my shoulder. I wrapped a few cookies in a napkin and grabbed an apple, stuffing both into the bag, hoping that neither would get crushed by the other items in the bag.
Angie grabbed two oranges from the fruit bowl, and put one in her bag. As we walked to the library, she tossed it into the air for a few minutes, then pulled a pen out of her bag and began scribbling on the peel of the orange.
We chatted about grades and campus activities; she was, as usual, interested in the status of the ongoing discussion in my Bible class. As we entered the library, Angie went to her desk, and I headed upstairs. As I rummaged around in my bag, feeling around for the apple I'd dropped in my bag, my fingers closed around the dimpled cool skin of a citrus fruit. Pulling it out, I saw an orange, with crazy eyes and a stuck-out tongue drawn on it.
I laughed, said a quick word of thanks for Angie's sense of humor, and started to peel the orange.
The night air was chilly, but calm, and the sky was full of stars. As I walked down past the cafeteria, the deep blue overhead contrasted richly with the warm yellow light from inside the buildings. As I neared the bell tower, I could hear muted laughter and conversation, and a long rectangle of buttery light fell across the pavement. It looked like Stephan had gotten a good crowd to show up for the opening of his show.
I shouldered my way through the crowd around the entrance, and stepped inside the gallery. My first impression was of bright slabs of color on the walls, luminous as stained glass. A faint strumming of guitar strings could be heard over the sound system. I saw that one of the first things in the room was a large home-made book, brightly painted with various figures. I stepped up, and began to page through it.
I soon realized that Stephan was using the book to introduce us to the figures in the paintings. The pages featured differents part of the city; buildings, people, and landmarks, each introducing itself, and claiming "we don't know what we are." I flipped open another page, to a simple drawing of little red birds, who stated, "We are the finches, and we don't know how we are still here." Following them was a large white snake, proclaiming itself the Dragon, or Scientism, and threatened to crush all.
I closed the book, and began to examine the rest of the room. Another book, larger, lay on a pedestal in another corner of the room. Since no-one seemed to be looking at it at the moment, I decided to start my tour of the room there. This book was made of plywood, about one yard square, with comic-strip style panels on it. It seemed to have one simple story line. The pictorial narrative started at dawn in Los Angeles, as a figure in blue with a single star on its shoulder entered the city. As the figure passed a fire hydrant, the hydrant suddenly started up, sprouting legs, and began to follow. Page after page, more and more objects joined the figure in its silent trek through the city. Trees pulled up their roots, cars ejected their occupants, and finally, the buildings themselves ripped themselves out of the concrete and joined the crowd. I recognized the image as a progression of the rough sketch on the napkin that Stephan had shown me earlier. The final image showed darkness setting over Los Angeles, the population left alone in the night, and all the trees, buildings, birds, and cars following the Lady out of the City.
I'm not sure what it was about that image, but it stayed with me. My heart ached for the people who'd been unable to follow, and a rush of joy for the City, which had followed the Lady in blue. With a twinge of regret, I turned away from the book, resisting the urge to flip back to the beginning and start again, and moved to look at the paintings on the walls.
One depicted a tall building, covered in billboards, yet proclaiming there was no room for a non-commercial sign. In another, a huge tree hung in midair, with the Los Angeles freeway system feeding into it. The white Snake was wrapped around the tree, and dozens of small, blank, empty people ran along the freeways. The title posted on the wall next to it read, "The Tree of the Knowledge of Everything Except for Good and Evil." In one, the sky was dark and gloomy, and the white snake towered over the landscape. Its fangs were bloody, and beneath it lay the mangled form of one of the little red birds.
Two of the paintings were so evocative, that I was almost moved to tears. The first was painted in deep, rich, almost secretive tones. Under the shadow of one of the freeway overpasses, two of the Angels (a car and a building) were looking at a plant. At the root, where it sprang from the soil, the trunk of the plant was a luxurious blue, spangled with yellow stars. As it grew, it became green and fertile, and ended in a glowing purple fruit. Above the heads of the angels, one of the finches chased the Snake away. "The Tree of Life is Bearing Fruit in Downtown LA," read the sign on the wall.
The other was in brighter, sun-bleached colors. The Tree from another painting hung upside down in mid-air over the Hollywood Hills, strung on wire held by the little red birds. The Snake, looking quite worried, was wound about the trunk of the tree, while more birds hatched from eggs hidden in the branches of the tree. The Angels looked up, saluting the birds, and the large white letters on the hills read "Credo Ut Intelliga." I looked to the placard on the wall, and read, "If the Snake in the Wilderness Is Lifted Up."
I turned around to see Stephan standing behind me, smiling slightly. "Hey, Stephan, this is amazing!"
"You think so?" He scratched his head unconsciously, making his already unruly black hair stand up even more. "I'm glad; some people don't know how to think about LA as a spiritual place, except in a solely negative way. I dunno, I just love the City..."
I pointed to the listing for "Snake in the Wilderness" on the handout I'd picked up at the door. "Are these for sale? I noticed that there's a price listed for each of these."
"Oh, yeah, the paintings on the walls are all $75, but the prices on the others varies."
"Ok. Is this one sold?"
Stephan looked at the sheet, then at the painting. "No, I don't think so. I put red stickers jut below the ones that have sold, and that one doesn't have one. You want it?"
"Yeah, I do, actually. I really love it. Can I get the cash to you later, or would you rather have a check now?"
"No, don't worry about it now, you can drop it by my studio later. Know where it is?"
"Yeah, I think so. That'd be great; I really want to have this one...Aw crap, that sounds so materialistic and possessive, but that's not why I want the painting. I want it because...well....ok, this is awkward, but it's like it's a window, and I want to be able to see the view from it, and be able to see it more than once. I almost wish I could afford the whole show, because it makes the view fuller and clearer, but I'll have to settle for the one window."
Stephan grinned, and nodded. "Yeah, I know what you mean. I'm happy that you want to buy one of the painting. I've gotta go, but just drop the $75 by anytime." He went up and stuck a small red sticker just under the edge of the paintings, then disappeared into the crowd.
As I watched him go, I noticed another piece I hadn't seen before. It was a sculpture, a miniature skyline, completely white. Tiny people milled about aimlessly at the feet of the buildings, but one figure sat atop a building, alone. I almost missed the poem that was attached to the pedestal; I don't remember the whole poem, but the opening line seemed full of longing and hope, even at the edge of despair: "Lady, speak the word, the word that keeps the City from falling."
I became almost unaware of the room around me; the roof seemed to become transparent, and open to the stars shining over the city. Though I was surrounded by four walls, I felt as though I could see the city skyline, gleaming in the night, lit up like a beacon. It all seemed so fragile, like an enchanted palace, made of crystal and hung upon a Word.
Then someone bumped into me, apologized briefly, and moved away, leaving me back in the gallery, stars hidden, and the City miles away.