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.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

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.


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