You are reading Fiddleblack #19
Elijah beckoned the group forward, without looking back. He walked on through the desert heat as though their destination were just ahead. Only distant hills, away from their chosen direction, marked their movement. Holly wiped the sweat from her face. Everything was a blur. Maybe it was the waves of heat pulsating off the sand or the dryness of her throat. She could only think of the intensity of the sun above and how it reflected in bright sand—entering the eye above and below.
Of the half-dozen followers that had remained with Elijah since they began the pilgrimage, none seemed better off than she. Only Elijah was unfazed. He led the march forward, as though following an invisible trail. The group followed him clad in white loose robes, like nomads on a continent across the sea. Some walked with scrambling intensity, as though he might continue on without them. She wasn’t sure whether to take comfort or fear in his confidence. Elijah said that they would reach their destination at the end of the third day. They were halfway through the first.
The sun had positioned itself toward their backs, casting shadows eastward. Holly didn’t know when the sun would set but she imagined it would be only a few more hours. She knew that deserts became cold at night. Elijah said that, when they arrived, they would be like children again. Holly wondered if this meant she would want to learn again. Truthfully, she had never stopped learning. She remembered how curious she was about everything, how her teachers gave her stickers on her homework for a job well done. She thought of herself as an accidental learner, someone who stumbled on lessons by chance. Some days she imagined that somewhere, her life, like her homework would be marked with corrections, given a letter to rank it.
Last spring had marked the start of her new life. Holly had spent the last few years in and out of rehabilitation. She was unsure what the word meant exactly. It involved introducing herself to dozens of rooms filled with chairs forming a circle. None of it had worked on her the way it seemed to work with the others. While she saw people enter stiff and quiet and leave replenished, she felt no different. There was some means to find peace that was unknowable to her. She wondered if there were some secret mode of thought or act that was kept from her, something that would replenish her, make her no longer need. By the time she had grown tired of the place, she knew the routine so well she could fake her exit. The way the nurses and the staff bought it made her wonder if that was all there was to it. Maybe all contentment was just a mask.
On Holly’s first day out, she found her old contacts again. A brief explanation got her a couch to sleep on. At a friend’s apartment, they formed a circle and passed a pipe. At first, she resisted, thinking that maybe she had been cured, that all her lying was just an excuse. Within an hour, though, she had joined.
“For your new life,” her friend said as it came to her.
All of her friends spoke of her time at clinics with horror. They were relieved she was back to her old self, that they hadn’t turned her into some born-again Christian. They laughed about brainwashing. They all spoke with joy about how they had saved her.
One night, after a week moving from one apartment to the next, she found herself locked out. Standing at an impassible door, she decided to step away and not stop until she could find someone to save her again. This need for help was practical. Shelter and food, the animal state—not to be saved in the way that clinics proclaimed. Holly spent the nights roaming the street. In the morning, she found herself on the college campus.
From across the campus courtyard, Holly saw a man giving a speech to passing crowds. Most didn’t stop and many who did heckled him before moving on.
“It is precisely because we fear nothingness, emptiness, that plentitude hides in isolation.”
The words lashed an electrical current in her clouded mind though she didn’t understand what he meant. He was older than the students but young in her eyes. She was probably around the same age but he seemed more energetic, more aware. She stepped closer to hear the speech as most people began moving the other way.
“We tell ourselves that we look everywhere for salvation but we fail to look in the right places.”
A well-dressed young man called out to him as he left. “Read the Bible!”
He nodded and responded to the man, though he was already out of earshot. “Yes, it is a starting point but what do we see when we look at the life of Jesus?”
“One hell of a stretch workout,” someone called out. A few people laughed.
The man continued, ignoring or unaware of the response. “We see a life that strips away all excess. It is also a tenant of Buddhism to do away with all worldly desires.”
Holly watched as he explained his new theology to passing undergraduates, expecting him to give up or snap back at the hecklers. He appeared as a boulder in rapids, staying put even as the flow of everything broke around him. Until five minutes ago, she had not thought anything in the world could be so determined. She still couldn’t make sense of him, but Holly had always imagined that part of religion was the lack of understanding—making oneself comfortable in confusion. He finally noticed her watching from nearby. To her surprise, he stepped away from his chosen spot and approached.
“You’ve been standing there for a long time,” he said. “Longer perhaps than you realize. You have the look of someone who has stood still for so long that their shadow anchors them in place.”
Holly had become an expert in polite greetings. She could distinguish between different kinds of practiced smiles, the stylistic differences between rehearsed and approachable body-language, and the ulterior motives behind each. A smile disguised religious pamphlets, a shift in body language invited the target to help the rain-forest. A tone of voice demonstrated a charitable I’m here to help you routine. This man disguised these traits well or lacked them entirely. If she encouraged him, he would try to preach to her. This, she knew, was his motive but he lacked the same hesitation that she had seen in others.
He smiled. “I am Elijah, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Holly extended her hand to greet him.
At sunset, their pace slowed. Elijah pointed to the length of their shadows in the sand. “Soon we will step over these anchors and into the true light.”
The shadow as an anchor. Elijah’s sermons confirmed what she had experienced in circles. The body becomes weightless because it loses its shadow. The shadow is the brand of the physical form. When she sat to listen to his words, she wondered if he had been in the same places. She had known people who compared the clinic or the drugs to a religious experience. She always took their word for it since she had never had one herself. Now she wished those people could be here, not only to share in this moment but to clarify what was genuine. Maybe they could help her lose her shadow.
The man in front of Holly stumbled and fell on his face. Dust settled around and over his white robes. At first Holly wondered if what he had done was intentional—if he had let his body and his shadow become one so that all his weight might collect together. When he did not move, she turned him over. The man breathed heavily, his face laminated with sweat. Dark spots gathered where the robes touched his skin. The name of the traveler escaped her—Alan? Owen? Names shuffled forward but none stuck to the man’s drenched body. He had said little during the drive to their starting location. His march through the desert was eager but unnoticed until now. Holly looked up and saw Elijah and the others continuing on.
“Wait,” she called out.
Elijah stopped and the train of people behind him halted. He turned and looked at her and the man. Stepping over to them, he cast his shadow over the man.
“What’s wrong?” Elijah asked.
The sweat-drenched man mumbled something Holly couldn’t understand.
“Get up.” Elijah said.
He muttered again—a single word, neither yes or no.
Elijah knelt down and touched the man’s face and then turned to her.
“Give him some water,” he said.
Holly took out her water bottle and tried to pour it into the man’s mouth. This was Elijah’s moment, she thought. He knew of some secret in the water that would wake the dead. This man would be his first Lazarus. Much of the water spilled over the man’s face or soaked into the sand around him. He coughed.
“Can you stand?” Elijah asked. He looked at Holly and then back at the man.
The man tried to sit up but fell back. He muttered again, eyes closing. This time Holly could understand. “How much further?”
Elijah stood up and looked out into the distance, not in the direction they had been traveling. For awhile, he stared at the same corner of the horizon. Holly looked in the same direction, hoping to see whatever it was he saw, but all she could find was rock, sand, and the fading daylight.
“Elijah,” Holly said.
He looked down at her and stared. She had thought to ask the same question but instead looked away. The man was unconscious now.
Elijah looked back up at the horizon and then turned away.
“Come on, we have a long way to go.”
“He isn’t waking up,” Holly said.
“Then the journey isn’t his to make,” He said.
The first time she was with Elijah he whispered to her.
“You will be Eve.”
They were in the spare bedroom of a rented house. It was their home and their church. All of the tenants were his followers. Two of their roommates were college students. Sometimes, when everyone else was asleep she would flip through their textbooks and their assignments. Elijah found her one evening as she looked through a world history book. At first he passed in silence, but he returned a few minutes later.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
She did not look up from the chapter—the fertile crescent. The birth of civilization in the midst of a desert.
“I like to learn,” she said.
Elijah crossed the room and sat next to her.
“The desire for knowledge,” he said, “is the filling of a void. The void is left by the true knowledge of the universe that human consciousness can no longer perceive.”
She read for a little longer until Elijah held up a coffee can and proposed a trade. He was straightforward, business-like in his desire. It was the first time she understood him. Drugs were common in the house. Holly figured they were common in every house but she had never seen Elijah take part before. She was certain he did. Sermons aside, he was human and to be human was to escape it for as long as possible.
She watched him from the bed as he dressed. “So that makes you Adam?” she asked.
“In a sense, we are all Adam and Eve.” He pulled his shirt over his head.
“That’s not what you said before.”
He looked at her and smoothed his wrinkled shirt and looked around the room. After patting his back pocket he sighed and looked back at her.
“A misunderstanding,” he said.
“Is that what I am?”
Elijah looked away. “That’s not what I meant.”
In the weeks that followed, she visited his room again. Elijah asked that they keep it secret. In exchange, she took three bags from his tithes—what he called the diverse stashes he received as offerings from the other residents. At first, she would open them alone after he had fallen asleep. She would step over the upturned potted plant in the hall that no one had righted and cross into the living room. She would turn on the old television with a bad tube and let the Technicolor light swirl in front of her until sleep or chemistry made the room go blank.
One evening, after they had finished, he sat up and looked at her. This change in routine snapped her awake. She feigned sleep until she could hear him snore but that evening she could sense his shadow over her.
“Elijah isn’t my real name,” he said.
She yawned. “So what?”
“I want someone to know my real name.”
“So that if I fail, at least one person will know my soul.”
She laughed but felt his body tense next to her.
“Do you want to know?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said.
He sighed. She saw the silhouette of his head pivot around the room and then back to her.
“Oh, so like Abraham?”
“Like Abel.” He went to his stash and laid it out on the bed. A multitude of treasures. Canisters of dried leaves, crystalline stones. She thought how he owned a small sampling of a planet. Pieces of vegetation, pieces of stone. He set his pipe and passed it to her.
The sun descended, inching closer to the bare horizon. The glare on sand and rock set the western sky aflame.
Holly remained still. “You’re not leaving him here, are you?”
Elijah halted and stood for a time. His head neither pivoted back in her direction nor did it seem focused on any one point in the horizon. Then, snapping out of some thought, he started to walk again. His direction slightly crooked from the line of their footprints.
“He might die,” she said.
“What is a pilgrimage without a martyr?”
Holly looked at the face of the unconscious man. She didn’t know him. He had a face like countless young men she’d passed on the streets. It was one, she imagined, that separated bystander from significance. Elijah proclaimed that everyone was an Adam and Eve—that the potential of the Earth lay in everyone. This man would never make the news, save for some tragedy, he would never hold a position higher than somewhere in the middle. If he had made it to paradise, Holly, thought, his salvation would have gone unnoticed. It seemed all the more unfair to leave him.
“It’s not worth it,” Elijah said. “Come on.”
“I’m not leaving unless we bring him too.”
His mouth crowded with potential replies. He finally formed one. “He’s too much to carry. It was his choice to come here.”
“He followed you, Abe.” Over Elijah’s shoulder, she could see the others waiting for him. They staggered on flat ground and drank from their dwindling water. One took off her hood. Her face, glistening with sweat, was like the man lying in the sand. Holly wondered if her own face was the same—if the desert sun eroded all their features.
Their faces were the same in her memories. Each one—whether housemate or partner in some folding-chair circle—featureless heads moved around movie-sets in her head. Only Elijah’s face was distinguishable. She recalled the profile of his head, sitting in the driver’s seat. Behind him, the masks of the others settled snugly over their heads—save one.
One evening, Elijah sat up in the middle of the night, waking Holly. He muttered to himself and paced the room, heedless of the piles of laundry and debris. She called his name, both names, several times before he quieted, stilled, and looked up.
“I have the answer,” he said.
By the time of his vision, most of the house residents had moved and the landlord threatened Elijah with eviction. Elijah’s followers, mostly from the college, had dwindled. Only a dozen or so remained. Most had simply drifted on, consumed by whatever their lives demanded. Some had found a new means of worship, either returning to familiar churches or to some other self-proclaimed prophet.
One evening, a man in their congregation got up in the middle of Elijah’s speech. Elijah stopped and looked at him. He stood silently, waiting for an explanation from the deserter. The man stared back. The room waited to see who would speak first. The deserter had lived in their house a few months ago. Holly recognized his face. She remembered how, some evenings, she heard him speaking about Elijah, questioning his sermons. She thought it was the confusion everyone felt. All things are difficult on the verge of truth.
The man called out to the group. “I’m getting out of here. You all should too.”
Elijah tensed. His shaking hand reached into his pocket.
“You’re a fraud,” he said. “This whole religion is ridiculous.”
The congregation whispered amongst itself. Elijah said nothing. The man turned to leave but Elijah called out.
“Wait,” he said.
He crossed the room, keeping his eyes on the unbeliever. The room parted for him and the whispers died down as he approached. One hand was still in his pocket. Elijah reached out to touch the man’s shoulder. Without warning, the man’s fist connected with Elijah’s right eyebrow. Elijah’s hand never left his pocket, even as he went to the ground. Holy rushed toward the wounded prophet. She never found out what became of his attacker. Some of the followers claimed that he said a few more words of condemnation, others said he fled without a word.
Later, as she pressed ice to his head, she asked Elijah what he had in his pocket. He showed her a folded pocket knife.
“It was my father’s,” he said.
He had never described his past to her before. The word father was foreign to him. He might as well have descended from some other world but she knew he was human, even if enlightened.
“May I see it?” she asked.
He pinched the blade with his finger, drawing it out slightly but then closing it again. There was something inscribed on the blade but he clasped it shut before she could read what it said.
“Another time,” he said.
“When we reach Eden.”
Elijah described his vision, first to Holly, then to the house, and in a final public sermon. Elijah’s vision was of fire. He dreamed that every city on Earth was aflame. It was not the apocalypse, he said, but rather just a vision of what things really were. Where people sought comfort was where the flames grew hottest. Televisions roared with embers, quiet parks were secret wildfires, churches were engulfed in a welder’s torch. All that fire and no one knew they were really burning. To escape he had fled the city, stayed clear of towns and all their fiery amenities. He only found relief from the heat in the most desolate place. A desert stretched around him. This location, safest from the burning, was imprinted in his mind. There, he said, they would all find their Eden. The foundation of a new Earth.
The western horizon was dark purple and the east showed stars when Holly felt the chill air. The unconscious man had not awoken but wasn’t any worse than before. Elijah and the others sat in a circle away from her. As they passed a pipe around and depleted Elijah’s stash, the others asked him how long until they arrived at their destination. He was silent for awhile. When he finally spoke again, he said they would arrive by tomorrow afternoon. Holly remembered that this was only the end of the first day. This discrepancy was intentional, she thought. Maybe this place didn’t follow the laws of the Earth. A three day’s journey could become one. She imagined him performing a miracle of shortening three sweltering and freezing days, all with a Messiah’s assurance of just a bit further.
She tried to imagine what he would say to them tomorrow, when the desert stretched out around them. Because the cold struck her hard, she thought how to keep warm that night. In her bag were only a few thin blankets. She believed at the time that Elijah would keep her warm. In the circle, he pointed at the stars and proclaimed that here the constellations were different. She remembered reading somewhere, maybe as a girl in school or in the evenings, years later, flipping through her housemate’s textbooks, that there are constellations that can only be seen from certain parts of the world. They are too close, she thought, to where they had come. Any difference in the stars was tiny. They were seeing what could be seen back home.
Holly unpacked her blankets and huddled close to the unconscious man. The heat from his body, more than his faint breathing, convinced her he was still alive. She remembered his face from the ride to their starting location. He said little. She might not have recalled him at all were it not for a song that he had whistled in the backseat as the hours and miles went past. She didn’t recognize it but could remember distinct parts of it. Next to the unconscious man, Holly tried to whistle the song herself. She hoped that it might rouse him in some way, that he might be revived by her recollection. She tried to approximate the tune but gave up after only a minute. At least if he died tonight, she thought, his heat would transfer to her. She imagined it as a kind of reincarnation. Maybe this was the real meaning of Elijah’s prophecy, that life was merely heat seeking new places to burn. She had slept for some time before awakening to Elijah’s voice.
“What are you doing?” he said.
His shadow blocked the starry night above her. Holly shivered as she sat up from where she’d slept. The unconscious man was unfazed by her movement.
She touched the man’s shoulder and shook her head. He did not move but there was still warmth and breath.
“What are you going to do if he doesn’t wake up by morning?” he asked.
She looked at him. Even in the dark she could see how unblinking he was, the dilation and lines of blood in his stare.
“I should ask you the same thing,” she said.
“We have to make this journey together,” he said.
“All of us?” she said. “Him too?”
“If he can make it.”
“What is his name?”
His eye moved to the unconscious man and back to her.
“Why do you want to know?”
“Do you know it, Abe?”
He stiffened and his hand went into his pocket.
When Elijah announced his plan to the congregation at the house party, the room went silent. Holly heard the whispered conversations as she moved throughout the house.
That sounds dangerous.
He’s going to get himself killed.
One of the guests stopped and asked if she was going. She said yes and the people around her quieted. Some tried to talk her out of it. They said that Elijah wasn’t trained for the wilderness, that none of them had the knowledge or the training. Holly asked these skeptics if his sermons, his lessons and teachings, meant anything to them. There were nods and an emphatic “yes” among the true believers, few that there were, but no one else came forward. It was not so surprising when she thought about it. Elijah was her mystery. Whatever divine will drove him to his fate had also made her wish to follow. As the house emptied and the muted party crept into silence, she sat alone in the living room. Elijah spoke of a need to rest after spreading the news. The floorboard creaked above her as he moved in darkness and settled into rest. In the time she had known him, his secrets trickled out to her. He had taken her from bafflement to a name not spoken by others. The indecipherable object gave way to the signs of its roots—not enough to see them but enough to know where to dig. As she made her way up the darkened stairs toward the room, she thought that this was the source of his power. He had led her from the obscuring mists of her life to the verge of a new world. Holly believed that Elijah, that Abel, would help her cross it.
Elijah had rented a van using “donation money.” The other travelers were a collage of followers and housemates from her time with the group. She had known their names at one time or another but as the van traveled the miles to their destination, she couldn’t recall anyone with her. No one spoke in the hours as the scenery changed before them—as green land changed to dry scrub. If she could see the world aflame like Elijah had, she would feel the magic of this moment as the fires ebbed but it felt only like the road trips her parents had taken her on as a girl. She imagined next that they would pull off into a road leading to the Grand Canyon or some other monument.
They stayed at a run-down motel and bought their last supplies at the nearby gas station. Elijah had asked Holly to come his room. When she arrived, he shut the door and began to undress her.
“Not now,” she said.
“Don’t we have a journey tomorrow?” she asked. “We might not even need this if we find what’s out there.”
“Of course,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy earthly pleasures for one more night.” He kissed her neck. “My Eve,” he said.
Holly saw the journey ahead. He taught that all of life’s perceived pleasures were a diversion. A new Eden awaited in the desert. A new world would be theirs to create, free of worldly troubles—the choking fires of his dreams. His hands on her shoulders contradicted what she knew of pilgrimages.
“What if we can’t find it out there?” she asked as he closed in on her.
She felt his grip loosen at her words. For a second, she didn’t know whether he would embrace her or slip away.
“It is cooler here,” he said. “There are fewer fires. We are close.”
The cool air of the desert evening, though not prophetic, made him easier to believe. She let him in close, for what could be their final time on earth. Yet even as Elijah pressed his face into her, he stared over her shoulder. She wondered if he saw fires burning brightly all around him or if the smoke of their smoldering filled the air.
The man had not regained consciousness by morning. As far as Holly could tell, he was still alive but his breath, already so quiet and faint, had diminished even more. Elijah came to her as the others prepared to move out.
“He’s not getting better,” he said. “Are you coming now?”
“No,” she said.
“What is he worth to you? Paradise is just ahead and you’re too afraid to reach it.”
“Abe,” she said. “Where are we going?”
Elijah looked out onto the horizon and then back at the others. He traced lines with his foot in the sand. He opened his mouth and formed several shapes before speaking.
“We will find respite from the flames,” he said.
“The image is clear in my mind, I will know when we arrive.”
“Which direction is it, Abe?”
Elijah drank from his water. Holly could see his bottle was empty now. For a moment, she thought she could glimpse his faith again—an invisible force that let him walk unburdened in the desert by the weight of water. But as his drying mouth formed shapes, testing replies, she saw how much he sagged. The weight of his water was in his robes—in the sweat that poured from his skin even as the morning was still cool. His robes were ballasts. It was as though he were anchored to the Earth. Even the dying man laying on the ground looked light by comparison. His weight would drag her, drag all of them, down.
“You don’t know, do you?”
Elijah took out his folded knife and tossed it into the sand in front of her. His eyes followed its path as it fell to the sand. It’s metal mass struck the ground.
“I won’t need it where I’m going,” he said. “Maybe it will save you.”
He turned to walk back to the others.
She held out her hand. “You never answered my question.”
He stared at her as she picked the pocket knife out of the sand and brushed it off. She flipped it in her hands a few times.
Elijah smiled. “I’ll miss you in paradise, Eve.”
He turned again without hesitation and walked back to the others. She sat on the ground by the unconscious man and watched as the exhausted band moved further into the distance. As the land became hot again, she thought she could see shapes lying in the distance but took it to be the play of rising hot air. It was only an hour later that she remembered the pocket knife in her hands. The unconscious man had died in that time but she didn’t mourn. Even as he lay in the sand at her feet, his death seemed far away. It was as though she were watching this moment on television. She might feel sad or frightened but the danger was far away. She was only a witness and, when it was over, she would go on with it merely in the back of her mind.
Above her, the silence of the air gave way to the shriek of raptors gliding far overhead. In the glare of the sun she couldn’t mark the wingspan or the colors. She recalled the colorings and shapes that distinguished hawk from vulture but this knowledge was no use to her here. Maybe they were simply hunting, she thought. Some hint of their journey barely registering as a speck in the expanse of their search. If the eyes that whirled and buzzed overhead were meant for her, they had not found her yet. The shadow of wings passed overhead, in the direction of Eden.
Holly flipped the pocket knife a few more times in her hand before pinching the blade to draw it out. She wanted to see her reflection and know for certain if her face matched the dead man beside her. The glint of the sun obscured the mirrored surface for a second. As she tilted it to get away from the light, she saw an inscription on the blade:
To Frank ~Love Dad
Holly laughed at the name carved into the metal. Overhead, the raptors shrieked again. She thought about waving her hands toward the sky, toward the sound. Instead, she put the pocket knife in the dead man’s hand and stood up. The world was bright around her save for the shadow wheeling large and fast overhead. The world was silent except for the glide of wind on wings. She pretended not to see or hear any of it. The desert stretched on in its emptiness.
Eric Notaro currently lives in Durango, CO and is a Visiting Instructor of Writing at Fort Lewis College. He is a recent graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks MFA program in Creative Writing. His stories have appeared in the journals Zone 3 and Twisted Vine.