By Michael H. Kew
[“You defiled your sanctuaries by the multitude of your iniquities….” (Ezek. 28:18)]
[And He said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18)]
Pulsating, it rose in crescendo and veered to a different timbre. The melody soaked the scene, resonating from the light with hues more potent than the notes themselves. Lifting, dropping, vibrating like a climactic omen. The place shook in unison before and beneath. A small vestige of shadow appeared in the color.
Bright white burst into silence, and all fell in awe as He exhaled…expelling the source of that orgasm of sound.
The flameball arced through the heavens, swift as lightning, rolling in a thunderous shriek of anger, shock, and pain. Its source reeked of a new emotion: hate.
Writhing and steeped in spite with remnants of glory and brilliance, spinning off into the darkness, strata of divine obedience and empyreal beauty fell from Lucifer’s being. His transgression? No tempter for him, no blame—only one to account for and to. And his body touched the cold dirt of earth, raped of the light of praise, strength, solace, love.
Black, hollow, empty. A shell of what he had been, Satan slithered into the inky depths of his newfound netherworld. Leering to the heavens, the night flickered with sparks, which faded, one by one, as a third of all God’s siblings followed in Satan’s fate.
* * *
[And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Gen. 2:7)]
Blackness out…midnight. A forested setting…parchment paper and a small oak table. A spartan, intimate setting: wood fire, one door, one window, one chair. Wan, flickering candlelight bathes the shack perched cliffside two thousand feet above the sea. Burning logs wheeze and murmur in the stone hearth, flame playing faintly onto the room’s uneven, undecorated wood walls.
A dim alcove in nature shelters an ancient, pious man and his thoughts. To anyone else, this would be a cozy nook. Happy place. To him, this is a lonely place—a narrow place, a desolate place, a fearsome place…a place to confront himself within God through the written word.
Aside a ceramic cup full of red wine, he sits and writes earnestly with a quill, its loose strokes producing a rhythmic scratching which blends into the woodstove’s sporadic fire-pop and the wind’s moan in the chimney. The man grips his quill tightly, a mortal and immortal lifetime of emotion and observations flooding the page. This is a formal documentation, one he hopes mankind will read and digest. But not tonight.
His cursive handwriting is long and pronounced and somewhat regal, as one would expect from a man of his stature. Yet today, nobody knows who he is, this man of antiquity.
I am Adam. I am a carnal being. The land in the east and the blessing of God created me. The bone of my bones created her. I called her Woman, as she was taken from Man and became the mother of all living. So it began.
By consuming the forbidden fruit, God’s command was breached, and He sent us away. Elsewhere, I tilled the dirt I was taken from. We could not re-enter Eden as God used a flaming sword and cherubim to protect the garden.
I recall life after banishment. It was our inaugural cognizance of good and evil. I crept back to the land God made for me, but His presence, like wind, swept the borders of that place. As I drew nearer to it, I felt upon my skin the heat and warmth which afforded my soul extreme suffering. I could not bear His presence. I knew that if I could enter, I would be consumed from the inside out. That unholy seed, sown and sprouted from Satan’s insubordination, barred me from the good land and life the Architect had designed for man. I obtained knowledge of death, and embraced it. It comes for me now—I can hear it in the night, as a ravenous wolf outside the door of my heart and even this very place.
Yet, at nine hundred and thirty years of age, I am ready to disperse as dust once more. We challenged God’s very omnipotence. I dwell on this. Mine is a dusky, old life today, a pyramid of skin, heart, and memory in concert to project a lucid recollection of blissful times, perceptive and enlightened. Unsentimental sexuality was never part of the program, though it is axiomatic today. Wanton behavior belies winsome intent.
[“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” (Gen. 2:16-17)]
“Be fruitful and multiply”—yes, the divine command to procreate. Assertively sexual, Eve’s was never strange flesh—she came from me, after all. But it was she who was fool to temptation. The serpent spoke but twice, which was enough to corrupt the balance of Eve and I and our Creator. Upon the serpent’s encouragement, she gave me the fruit from the sun, seduced the faithful to fornicate, and it was good. We swallowed the fruit’s aphrodisiacal jelly and succumbed to lust. We seized the moment and experienced it intensely—this was the Earth’s first coital affirmance, and then there was Cain, though he came after much disgrace and internal trauma. As we then knew sin, we also bore Abel, Seth, and several others.
We believed God to be withholding the knowledge of good and evil from us. We desired to be like God, though we were of him as we were created in His image.
Pausing to re-ink the quill in the well on the desk, he knocks the wine glass onto its side; the drink spills, pooling on the flat surface, dribbling like blood onto the dirt floor and his bare feet.
The dust at his feet is from whence he came. These feet have stood the demands of time—they have sunk into the sands of Eden, burned from the exiled fire of Hell, and survived the test of a lost soul drifting from century to century.
He unhands the quill, leans back, sighs, slowly gazes up to the window behind him. God is here, the man thinks—He created this environment for a purpose. No, this man is not senile or desirous, and this is far from mere serendipity. It is an unsought and valuable circumstance.
Wind shrieks beneath the door, cooling the man’s feet, wet with wine. The whistling pane of cobwebbed glass reveals the cold, stormy darkness. Its gusts jar the ambiance—each begins with a low, subtle hiss, quickly accelerating to peak velocity before subsiding. The seeping wind stirs the smells of the room. He inhales the dankness of the place, its musty air, the candle, tobacco, the smoldering sap and woodsmoke. This is how God decided the man should spend his final days.
Vexed and woeful, he looks back down at the pages before him—perhaps twenty lie scrawled with ink; a stack of blanks await his word of the hand of God. God never left him. He had left God. He was unwillingly purged from his creator. God loved him immensely, deeply, unwaveringly. His unconditional emotion lay the foundation for a divine, rewarding existence. Eden was bliss.
The man’s white robe flows loosely over bony arms and sunken chest, drooping to his feet. His appearance is unkempt but fiercely focused as he smoked from a thin pipe of ivory given to him by an Ethiopian bushman in the thirteenth century.
The man’s face is pale and creased yet full of wisdom and the look of distance. His thick brows veer sharply atop each eye, joining on the bridge of his nose, a bulbous knob for blind perception. His hair, smooth and brilliantly ashen, fairly greasy and worn long, flows from the monkish shawl, meeting his beard at the heart from which he writes.
His heart beats heavier than most.
My secret of the universe is borne from a devotion to God and Eve and my emergence in Eden—our original nest. We were heirs to natural bounty and we had everything we needed. We knew not good nor evil until the fruit was eaten.
Nothing could harm us. Storm-free, the nightly starscape was engorged in detail, every dot on it tropically sharp, like nightside sailing across the middle of an equatorial sea, navigating with stars. Our time unfolded, blessed with a complex beauty, and our dress was nudity, of which we did not realize. Later, our genitals were sheathed with fig leaves. This was the “garb of Eden.” Yes, we were starkers but hid ourselves once shame prevailed. It was then when we were no longer like God. We sought wisdom but found only toil and vanity.
To absorb Eden was a lesson in patience, but that was all we knew. It was an unconscious beat. Serenity, water, and soil evoke the environs of erotic sin, and the serpent Satan knew all of this when he approached Eve:
[Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you, lest you die.’” Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die for God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. (Gen. 3:1-6)]
Eventual temptation and lust of the eye led to our carnality, which became eternal hell and vast consequence. This is how I have lived, tortured and silent. Cast from the presence of God, I bear an overwhelming, everlasting sense of loss from this fall. Essentially, Eve took me from Him. The serpent spoke, she listened, and here my tired soul weeps. His evil legacy, it has become mine. Its knowledge burns, scalding my soul to this day and possibly into my eternity.
Skin sags under green eyes, faded from extended reflection upon the world he was thrust into by his past choices. A witness to time, coursing away and beyond his obviously finite place in it, Adam had seen cultures shift, oceans rise, lands collide and separate, societies birthed and deceased, warfare of religious and economic decrees. He had seen it all but few, if any, knew this.
God had blessed Adam in spite of the curse he and Eve had caused to fall on his family and an entire world. He knew God still undertook for them all, despite the curse.
So he wrote.
* * *
[He who is of God hears God’s words. (John 8:47)]
Kate’s feet throbbed. The outskirts of Torrance were still many blocks away. Her black-and-white saddle shoes, a size too narrow, cramped further by sweaty white cotton socks, made walking painful. They were the only size of appropriate shoes her mother could find at K-Mart last night; on Friday afternoon her neighbor’s dog chewed her pair of oxfords to bits. An avid surfer, sandals were her normal footwear, but St. Mary’s prohibited them on campus.
Kate was sixteen years old. She’d missed the bus ride to school, and with no car or bicycle, walking was her lone option. Mother never gave her rides. But the school was only a few miles from her house, she reasoned, and sitting in a bus wouldn’t afford time to break these shoes in.
It was 8 a.m. on a chilled Monday in November 1997. The sidewalks were littered with orangey brown leaves of birch and maple, dead after two seasons of fluttering in the wind. Today’s wind was crisp, the cloudless sky a pastel spread in the swelling sunlight—dawn was an hour past. Rustic scents—the heart of autumn—captured her as she walked past homes and storefronts…woodsmoke twirling lazily from chimneys, fresh pumpkin and apple pies in Safeway, the potpourri and cinnamon spiciness of Sadie’s Candle Shop display.
At breakfast, her mother had again scolded her for not locking her bike, burgled from her garage last week. Because she knew Kate to be careless and immature, there was no talk of a driver’s license. The girl was on her own—sixteen was old enough.
Her long, curly blonde hair drawn into a ponytail, Kate shuffled down this bustling urban rush-hour avenue, shivering in her school uniform, a navy blue pleated skirt and white middy with a long blue neckerchief that matched the color of her eyes. Trucks and cars blared past, headed in the school’s direction. Kate considered hitchhiking, but last month’s news in Lawndale had featured her cousin Renee’s fatal hitchhike abduction case; the perpetrators were at large.
Like her walk, life limped. She hated the shoes, the school, the town, her mother’s dereliction and their grubby home, the rowdy neighbors, her lack of friends. Other people looked spirited, so healthy and alive. Kate felt neglected and effete, dazed and lethargic.
Time crawled since she’d last surfed. A few weeks ago, Patrick, the handsome nineteen-year-old up the street, was arrested while driving drunk; his truck was impounded. His father kicked him out of the house. Patrick was gone.
Despite her lifelong proximity to Redondo and Hermosa, Kate befriended no other surfers. None of her classmates knew the beach. A Navy mechanic, her estranged father lived and surfed on Guam; he gave Kate her first surfboard—a battered 6’2” Nectar—when she was twelve. But he was in Micronesia, not California.
Nothing was here for Kate, particularly her alcoholic Catholic mother. Reticent and unapproachable even on the sunniest of days, Mother was the one who paid the mortgage, bought the food, drove the car, and went to work as a telemarketer six days a week. Hers was a dismal template of how Kate did not want to live her adult life. She ached for a more loving path, an auspicious path.
Now…just a few more blocks to school. She kicked whatever pebble crossed her path, scuffing the damned shoes. Town’s edge evaporated behind her as she passed the last building, an Italian deli with dirty windows and an aura of failure.
Behind the deli, she approached the vast bridge spanning Clark Street, where she was hit with wind—a penetrating, stirring gust. But this autumn cold snap was so ineffectual, Kate thought, appropriate to her inviolate mood, exempt from catharsis. Lost in discomfort, she hugged herself for warmth and walked, eyes to the ground. Must be a better way, she told herself. I need to get out of this place… to get out of myself.
The pain in her feet was severe, each step indeed one closer to confined torture, heeding priests and nuns, faced with a doleful crucifix in each classroom. It was a loveless place, and she felt like a convict of a defeated, loveless life. Eventually her small fists clenched and the tears fell.
Her nose was runny, her eyes puffy and wet. Her face, pink with cold, was a picture of incongruity—natural classic beauty scarred by aimlessness and immutable malaise. She shivered and sobbed. The bridge, longer than she’d ever known it, became a path to academic prison.
She paused and glanced over the railing: cars below sped to other places—to better places. The cars weren’t headed to St. Mary’s or to Kate’s broken home. She wanted to be in one of them, driving away from here. She wanted to leap from the bridge and land in a truck, sitting next to a smiling surfer boy on his way to the beach. If mis-timed, she would splatter on the pavement and be done with everything. Death didn’t seem like such a bad thing, after all. She knew God, and even Heaven awaited. Hell may be somewhat like Torrance. How could she escape?
Suddenly the wind seemed to shift. It went strangely warm and a sweet aroma wafted through it…the scent oddly familiar. A phantasmic sound pulsed, a voice: calm, soft, seeming to be at one with the fragrance—a perfect match.
“You are my child now. Your place is with me.”
She stopped and looked around but saw no one. Was the wind, now strangely dry and heated, playing an aural trick on her? Was it the noise of the traffic below?
The voice spoke again, soft and confidential.
You are my child now. Your place is with me.
Again she looked—besides the passing cars, she was solo on the sidewalk. Nobody else could have heard this. Then the wind cooled; the scent evaporated with it in the change. She resumed walking, listening. Nothing but traffic and the chilly breeze. Was she delusional? Perhaps her Torrance-bound life was far too much to sanely bear.
Kate dripped into a daze for the first couple of hours. Mid-morning’s recess between Biology and History found her on the asphalt outside observing seven uniformed classmates engaged in a loose, lopsided match of volleyball. The sun was bright, the sky huge. The girls’ faces glistened with sweat despite the chilled air; their grins and giggles and back-and-forth leapfrogging exhausted Kate. Alone, she eyed the cracked pavement.
A hand came to rest on her left shoulder. It was Mother Francis’s.
“No volleyball with your friends?”
Kate looked up at her. “My feet hurt, Mother Francis. My shoes are too small, and I walked to school today.”
“Sorry to hear that. Perhaps your mother could buy you shoes that fit?”
Kate shrugged and pointed down at the shoes. “She bought these. It was all the discount store had—all she could afford, I guess.”
Mother Francis glanced away, wincing as if she scorned poverty despite being a nun. She came from Texas wealth, daughter of an oil magnate who now lived in Palos Verdes Estates, a brief drive from St. Mary’s. Her mother was deceased, but in the past five years, her entire family had relocated to southern California—her two brothers to La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe, her two sisters to Malibu and Laguna Beach. Contrarily, Mother Francis chose Torrance not for its ambiance or quality of life, but for St. Mary’s School—raised in a strict household, the Catholic church became her escape. Postulancy was consecutive.
“God spoke to me this morning,” Kate whispered.
This drew the nun’s eyes back down to hers. “And what did He say?”
“’You are my child now. Your place is with me.’”
You are my child now. Your place is with me.
Mother Francis was nonplussed then relaxed, assessing…filtering…Finally and authoritatively, she spoke.
“There is a verse in chapter four of the gospel according to Mark. It says: ‘If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. Then He said to them, Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given.’”
Kate closed her eyes. Take heed what you hear.
“God is telling you something important, Kate. Listen to Him and write it all down. Actually, what He said to you reminds me of something I read last month—it’s from a book I had borrowed from our rectory.”
“What’s it about? Can I read it?”
“It’s about the Garden of Eden, and, yes, I suggest you do. It’s in Narratives on Mankind—quite a deep and controversial book. I’m surprised we even have it here, and it’s certainly nothing to advertise, Kate. You’ll find it next to The Story of Civilization, a set of volumes by Will Durant. You can go to the rectory now. Tell Father James I sent you.”
Kate stood. The rectory was across campus. She ignored her feet and went.
Father James was at the door. Tall and gaunt, he looked how a Catholic priest proverbially should—robed, bespectacled, graying, pale, wiry, whiskery. His balding head resembled an eggshell, and he was barefoot, with long toenails. Eagerly affable and smiling, it was obvious he had spent much time alone.
“Mother Francis said she had sent you,” he said. “I’m Father James. Please, come with me.”
Wide and uncluttered, the rectory felt comfortable to Kate. Its light was diffused, its expensive-looking carpets thick and dark. Elaborate drapes adorned each window, and the walls were virginal, cornered with ornate pillars of dark wood. Vaulted ceilings disguised the air of heaviness—the place was vaguely snug but unmistakably clerical.
They ambled toward the back of the building, to two hidden oak bookshelves flanking a desk with a computer.
“Mother Francis says you’re looking for Narratives of Mankind.”
“She said I should read it because God spoke to me today.”
“He said, ‘You are my child now. Your place is with me.’”
“Excellent! Then you should find some references to His statement in this book. There are many voices in the world besides the Church’s, you see.”
He stooped and fingered through the titles on the bottom shelf, his spinal outline embossing the thin robe.
“It’s an amazing piece of literature. Hmmm...let’s see…here it is!” Father James unveiled a thick book of small font, with few pictures. He briefly eyed its featureless cover, then handed it to Kate.
“It’s a most interesting read. You may sit at this computer”—he stirred the air above the computer with a bony forefinger—“and read for as long as you like. I’ll be in the front room if you have any questions.”
She settled into a hard, creaky chair. The book’s pages smelled faintly of mold, and its words were barely legible, as if each page had been exposed to the sun to obtain this degree of fade. She flipped through the book and stopped randomly on a chapter titled “Eden” sandwiched between a dissertation on Greek religious philosophy and a long verse about gnomes by Tolkien. Here, she thought, this seems harmless enough—the first sentence was only three words.
This chapter unfolded from the mind of a deceased man named Adam, who wrote of Eve and the Garden Of Eden. The story was short and sad, almost pathetic, but Kate connected with it. The author wrote as a child of God in His habitat of forested, tropical bliss: The serpent, the temptation, the sin, the sex, the exile, the sorrow, the regret.
A warm breath of air washed over Kate’s face; she shuddered and dismissed it as a hot flash in this stuffy corner of the rectory.
Eden—what was it? She went to the room’s opposite wall, where the atlases and maps were. She looked at everywhere equatorial—Southeast Asia, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, Central America, Africa. There was Aden in Yemen, Edéa in Cameroon, Ed-Dueim in Sudan, but no mention of Eden.
Surely it must be a real place. Adam wrote of it. Perhaps it was an obscure village too small to warrant a dot on the map, or an island that both time and cartography forgot.
She walked over to the reference computer and typed Eden. A list of businesses…Eden Project, Eden Electronics, Eden Foundation, Eden Studios, Eden Bridals, Eden Camp, Eden Foods. She scrolled further: City of Eden Prairie, Minnesota. City of Eden, North Carolina. Scotland’s Eden Court Theatre. New York’s Town of Eden (“Garden Spot of New York State”). Australia’s Port Eden. Cumbria’s Eden District of England.
None of these places were tropical.
Then there was the Libertarian Society’s site, replete with its version of Eden’s flag (though there never was such a thing). The Society’s members sought to “create the independent, sovereign nation of Eden so that (they) might live freely and peacefully without fear of government intervention into their lives, whether that government is tyrannical or benevolent.”
It seemed idyllic to Kate, but more so if that description had included a loving mother, an interesting school, and a nice beach at her doorstep. The image of Eden in Narratives Of Man was that it was a libidinous outdoor boutique of curious animals, lush greenery, fresh fruit, and endless sunshine. It was God’s halcyon nudist colony, but with only two people in it.
At its core, Adam’s scripture was a mnemonic device. It was an act of writing only he could have done as an exilic expatriate. Kate related to this, although she remained trapped in dreary Torrance, was fully clothed, and had no man to offer fruit to or to conceive offspring with. She felt that God could be as close to her as He was to Adam—indeed, God had spoken to her that morning—but she wanted to actually find Eden before the agony of teen life threw itself over the rail of a cement bridge on the outskirts of town.
* * *
[The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed. (Gen. 2:8)]
Vernal 2004. The search for Nirvana beckoned. Curiosity and unease suffocated nubile Kate in her Arcata apartment, so she fled it one gray morning, hauling her surfboard and travel/camping gear to San Francisco’s international airport. During the long Greyhound bus ride south, she listened repeatedly to Peter Gabriel’s “Passion,” soundtrack to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
This was a metaphysical quest driven by her crepuscular mantra—happiness and peaceful understanding eluded her. The St. Mary’s era had segued into an anti-Catholic college stint rife with solitary dereliction, terminating with a degree in computer science from northern California’s Humboldt State University. There she drank wine alone and excelled in academia, plotting her future not in religion nor surfing, but in the burgeoning field of technology.
Still, Kate’s early twenties lumbered with a strained soul, seeking something but manifesting nothing. Formal education was done and her future was unknown. Restless, she craved a sojourn of purity. Dreaming hopelessly and soothed by the promise of simplicity, tropical idyll also seduced her for a utopian pursuit.
Kate and the old white man next to her were the plane’s only tourists—everyone else was black and looked local and spoke no English. It was a small aircraft, perhaps fifty seats, and it smelled of mildew and sweaty feet, foul to the fragrant plumeria flower behind her left ear, a gift from a blind lady in another airport.
She pressed her nose to the window. From above, the destination sparkled like a storybook isle. In fact, it was.
Though this trip had a historical dimension, time had the trick distortions of a dream. This was not a real place—the gift of airplane slumber and quiet fantasy tuned Kate for the island’s reality. It was unmodern, sunny and slow. It was off the radar, sunken into the periphery of an ocean theater long revered for its treasure, piracy, mystique. Misery and bliss were common themes.
It was a tortured culture, a displaced colony of lepers and slaves and exiles governed by harassed figures of European regime. It was highly functional but hardly hospitable in those days, more of a location for sea wars and infamous corsairs than enjoyment and seduction. Unsmiling men sought these shores not for paradise, but for tangible loot. In the end, it was an escape.
In reality, this place was beyond dreams. Uninhabited until two hundred years ago, it lay rooted silently in an equatorial sea which isolated all else. History’s first recorded exploratory voyage to the island revealed a bounty of fresh fruit, water, fruit, tortoises, coconuts, and birds—a shipmate said the island was “some earthly Paradise.”
Indeed it was a paradisical refuge from Kate’s bleak world. Mother was forgotten, friends were nonexistent, all school and society lost to the wind. She sipped from a bottle of water. The man next to her drank deeply of the flight’s free rum, claiming it to be the “very nectar of the gods.” For Kate, the heady scent of drink spurred college memories of hangovers, depression, sickness, vomiting.
The mental visuals could not taint her first glance at this place on the edge of nowhere in a brilliantly blue tropical sea.
A great mass of exuberant vegetation defined this place, a place of verdure, a place of repose. From a distance, the peaks appeared as velvety verdant summits wreathed in cloud, veined with streams and waterfalls, avoiding the traditional geography of a traditional place. Its white beaches were rockless and pretty, fronted by postcard lagoons, backed by humid, mossy woods saturated with layers of life, home to millions of insects and birds and small mammals. The inland parts were steep and impassable and appeared to have never been touched or interfered with. Few lived on this island; fewer visited.
Islanders who did live there were relaxed, unambitious, soft-spoken, with skin as black as licorice—so black it looked purple. They were stoic, even among adversity. They were affable and polite and lazy, dragging their feet as they walked. They had wide, flat noses and full lips covering horrible brown teeth. Smiles came easily and frequently.
The men were well-fleshed and unshaven, and the women were voluptuous, with enormous breasts. Dreadlocks and reggae were common. Islanders wore sarongs, sandals, shorts, T-shirts, hats, flowers behind their ears. Their faces carried that air of smugness intrinsic of islanders worldwide, knowing they are buffered from the world’s dysfunction by vast fields of seawater in all directions. They saw themselves as immune, untouchable, unimpressionable. Long gone were the days of raiding buccaneers and conquistadors in their big wooden ships, planting flags, corrupting natives.
Kate’s seatmate was John, who would not say where he was from, though he did say he was born on the island they were flying to. His relatives were all dead, and he had no friends. He was seventy-three. “But I feel much older.” Kate was twenty-three.
He was a gaunt, graying man with a sweaty face and dandruff on his lapel. He picked his nose with long, dirty fingernails, and his skin was scarred and wrinkled as if he had spent much of life outside. He grinded his teeth when he spoke, barely opening his mouth. His wiry lips looked like those of a fish, and his bushy, upturned eyebrows gave him the look of deviance. His eyes were bloodshot and fearsome, his pupils strangely oval, not circular, and his breath smelled like rot. Around his neck was a polished crucifix. He wore white tropical dress clothes, like Jimmy Buffet or Panama Jack, but the garments were wrinkled and soiled, and he reeked—almost offensively so—of musk aftershave, like a woman wearing too much cheap perfume.
He said he was an ex-religious philosophy professor and had saved his retirement fund to see the world “before I’m worm food.” This island was his last stop.
“What’s a lovely little girl like yourself doing traveling across the world alone?” he asked, grinning, radiant with rum.
“God told me to.”
John said, “God also has sent me to my birthplace to commune with Him and—”
He fell silent and looked out the window.
Kate confessed about hating her pious mother who forced her into Catholic school for twelve miserable years. It stifled her social and sexual development, Kate said, and caused her to despise her hometown, her teachers, and herself. She remained a virgin and had never been intimate with a boy or man. It was a sad existence that could have easily ended in tragedy. And here she was, halfway around the world with no itinerary or ties to anything.
They fell into conversation and, with John’s prodding, steered from requisite pleasantries to religion and the human condition.
“Women are bitches,” he said. “They lure us like they have a hook and bait for a fish. Of course, there are a few good women out there, but I’m wary of the black widow variety. Their sting is fatal to us, and then they devour us. As Nietzsche said, ‘God created man, then created woman; that was His second mistake.’ Nietzsche also said warriors should not mate with milk maidens.”
Close to landing, the island’s features became clear through Kate’s window. Coconut palms bristled from granite boulders at water’s edge; lushness filled the voids—cinnamon, casuarina, takamakas, banyans, hibiscus, orchids, vanilla, breadfruit, mango, bananas, pineapples, passion fruit, papaya, Nepenthe pitcher plants, bougainvillea. The sea was another world, undermined with colorful corals and millions of fish. She saw it wholly as a supernatural creation habitat of epic grandeur, conducive to abundant beauty, organic wealth, and God’s love.
“The world is an erotic arena,” John said. “Every living thing has sex to procreate. Men love sex all of their lives. Women eventually lose their heat and desire, and men look other places for it. Men get addicted to sex, and their brains fall into their loins. As Zorba the Greek said, ‘God made us this way, and it is not fair.’ He said we must love and enjoy women. It is also a game—it’s a hunt, and you women are the prey. Except as Hemingway said, ‘The female species is always the most dangerous prey.’ Women are the most delicate and most dangerous species. They like their inner feelings and are driven by love and mating.
“She picks superior genes to mate with, except when her brains go down to her loins—a nymphomaniac with brains in her pants becomes a prostitute and loves the nectar and ignores the consequences. Those women breed the bastards of the world and enjoy their pleasures and must endure their eternal miseries. The smart ones go for a rich prick, thinking they might as well get paid for it. They are never happy, like the monks who abstain, and many become homosexual.
“But temptation is always around the corner, and we blame it on the devil. By the way, has anyone ever told you that your curly hair looks like a bunch of snakes?”
He stopped talking. Kate leaned toward him and peered into his eyes.
“Why are you coming here, to this island?” she asked.
“I will die in its dust.”
* * *
[And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed. (Gen. 2:25)]
Mid-afternoon. Eric sucked on a cigarette, his eyes darting uneasily at nothing, fingering his thick black dreadlocks while slouching on the cement curb outside of the airport’s arrival terminal. His truck was parked in the small lot ahead. It was as if he was there waiting to meet someone yet nervous of their appearance.
As she walked outside through the terminal doors, the shock of Kate’s white skin and long blonde hair made Eric stand suddenly, smashing the cigarette with his foot, as if he were greeting the presence of royalty or a distinguished military officer. Eric was a tall, strapping man with a narrow, fierce face, two blazing bloodshot eyes, a square jaw, and stained teeth. He was unkempt, barefooted, and wore black cargo shorts below a filthy red, yellow, and green-striped tank top that read “One Love” across the front.
He looked like the dusky, serious Rastafarians Kate saw onstage at a famous reggae music festival she’d camped at on the banks of the Eel River in California. Late on the third night of that three-day event, a well-known Jamaican singer took a keen interest in Kate, and although their mutual attraction soared, she abstained and withdrew with the zip of her tent flap.
Eric resembled that man, which is why Kate noticed him immediately.
“Need ride?” he asked, eagerly.
Kate had lost John in the immigration line. She stopped and looked at Eric, lowering her luggage onto the cement.
“You speak English?”
“Yiss,” he nodded with a toothy grin. “Where you go?”
“I want to camp. In a forest, near a beach.”
Baffled by this, Eric said, “Why you sleep in trees when you come my house?”
“Because I want to. Do you know where I can camp?”
“Yiss. There a place not far. We go.” He motioned her toward his truck, then pointed at her surfboard bag on the ground.
“You know, for surfing—for riding waves on the sea….”
She slid her bags into the bed of the tattered pickup. Its tailgate was missing.
“Will my bags be safe while we drive?”
“Yiss. No fall out.”
Hunched over, elbows against his ribs, Eric gripped the steering wheel and squinted through the dirty windshield. He drove around pigs and chickens, slowly and distractedly, which was of minor consequence on the empty coastal track. It was potholed and bumpy, flanked by dense foliage.
He was a demure young man of twenty-six who spoke limited but adequate English, which he learned his from minister, a British expat. Eric’s local language was called Kreol, widely thought to be an inferior dialect since it was essentially a slave-era adaptation of French. But it was his true voice as he was born and raised here, not France, spending his life outdoors fishing and farming with his family, who lived on the island’s opposite shore. He had a wife named Tinaz (“she very fat”), a daughter named Sharen, a son named Mohammed Ali.
“Are you Islamic?” Kate asked.
“Why did you name him Mohammed?”
“Me very much like the boxing.”
Eric’s truck had a radio-cassette player; there was a pile of tapes in a brown paper bag at Kate’s feet. She fished out Israel Vibration’s Israel Dub and inserted it into the player. Eric raised its volume and they drove without talking for several miles.
The lane weaved in and out of dense sea-level palms and pandanus trees bordered by steep and impossibly lush mountains of green. It skirted waterfalls and the shores of three photogenic bays; the tide was out, and wooden fishing skiffs sat dry-docked on the flat white sand of each one, lending the place a look of neglect.
Kate saw the clear warm water of the lagoon and a broken line of whitewater out along the barrier reef. Further along, they passed a series of small, pretty coves fringed with coconut palms and granite boulders. Scenics dominated; during the drive, she did not see another car or human.
The road deteriorated to dirt. Forty minutes had passed. Eric stopped the truck in a turnout at a curve on the road’s right side.
“Here I take you. Camp.”
It was a slim patch of dirt backed by a forest of tall palms and strange plants. Unseen birds sang from within. It was an oddly familiar fairyland, a place Kate knew she’d dreamed of or read about.
Eric pointed to the left. “Sea is there. After the trees.”
She looked around and was pleased—the spot was secluded and serene. The valley was enchanting. The beach was footsteps away. Here, she thought, being alone and idle will be easy.
“How much do I pay you for the ride?” she asked, despite having none of the local currency.
“No pay. You my friend.” He smiled. “Maybe I see you again.”
He shook her hand and she stepped out of the truck, quickly gathering her gear from the truck bed and placing it on the ground. Then she leaned into the passenger window and smiled a relieved sort of smile.
“Thank you, Eric. I do hope to see you again.”
“How long you camp?”
“I don’t know.”
“You not scared alone?”
“I’ll be fine.”
He rattled away, leaving a cloud of dust and then ultimate stillness, with birdsong and muffled roar of waves. Lethargic, Kate stood on the dirt and gazed at the turquoise lagoon scintillating between the trees in front of her. I’ve made it at last.
She peered into the valley, then up at the mountains and sky. Dusk was near. She needed to find a campsite before darkness prevented her. The valley was already dim except for a strange vertical column of light in the middle of it, like someone shining a spotlight from the treetops. It was bright enough there to make camp and eat a supper of trail mix and dehydrated fruit.
Fruit bats circled above. Kate hesitated, then shouldered the luggage and trudged toward a transformation of spirit. The grove was primeval and alive—yes, she had been here before. The valley instantly evoked an atmosphere of visceral divinity, as if she had penetrated a time warp to an earlier period on the planet preceding the genesis of man.
She walked into the wide shaft of light and looked up, but was blinded as if looking straight at the sun. She rubbed her eyes and instead admired the forest around her, a place of magic: the understory was blanketed in ferns and philodendrons, jackfruit and vanilla; granite boulders were everywhere, splotched with bluey-green algae, moss, and lichens; a hidden stream gurgled nearby; a whistling black parrot, with dark gray feathers and hooked beak, loitered in the palm above her head; geckos and tree frogs clung to its huge boles and fan-shaped fronds. What type of palm is this?
They were tall, ancient trees, the biggest nearly a hundred feet, and some with large, bilobed nuts. A few lay scattered on the ground; Kate picked one up and it was heavy, perhaps fifty pounds. Another had a large crack in its side, from which oozed a white, gelatinous substance. Malnourished, she tasted it timidly with the tip of her tongue—it was sweet and mild—then she devoured the jelly, sucking it vigorously out of the nut until there was no more.
She dropped the nut and looked up at the palms surrounding her. There appeared to be male and female trees, both with erotic reproductive shapes. The male trees had large catkins, resembling penises, while huge nuts on the female trees, clustered beneath ten-foot-wide fronds, resembled a woman’s pelvis.
Her eyes lowered to the forest floor. The rug of dead leaves was good for her blanket and inflatable pillow. The air was so hot and steamy that she would definitely sleep nude. She stripped and stood in the warm light, feeling euphoric and liberated and intensely sexual. In her shadow she could see the outline of her breasts and nipples, the curve of her hips and buttocks, shoulders, and back.
The wind whipped loudly through the treetops. She kneaded her breasts and rubbed her clitoris and pubic area, realizing she had never before so desired the company of a man. Her heart beat furiously and she began to sweat as a tingling sensation shot through her entire body. Her panting grew heavy with soft moaning.
The desire to be penetrated ensued as a visceral ache, like an unfulfilled promise, a deep wanting, a deep torment. Heat and energy flooded the insides of her hips. She sensed an opening of her sacrum, a yearning to be complete and whole. It was an urge to create, to connect, a coil wrenching tighter and tighter inside her pelvis.
The air temperature rose and a flowery, fragrant wind whipped her hair, roaring loudly through the palms like a storm.
Then: a voice.
“You are my child now. Your place is with me.”
Light vanished and she was alone in darkness. Kate’s arousal was quelled by the silence of trees; her eyes adjusted and the valley looked surreal with its spookish silhouettes and panes of filtered moonlight. The wind was dead, like time had stopped.
Cessation of movement seemed prescient of the night to come. Is this a result of my suffering and privation? It was an unprecedented lucency. God had again spoken, returning her to that black day in Torrance.
She breathed deeply and slowly, feeling her heart relax, inhaling the tranquillity of night beneath this cathedral of palms—a celestial canopy. The bliss was palpable; the valley was a seductive place. Kate felt immune. The palms were prescient, the starscape hallucinatory.
It was early April. Time was telescoped in the middle of nowhere—an elusive world from a fairytale. She lay on the blanket, attempting and failing to sleep beneath the valley’s strange, late twilight. Here, moonlit nature afforded clarity to the sounds of the earth—a solace, murmuring.
Supine, she gawked at the male trees and their phallic catkins outlined by moon and stars. The urge to mate overwhelmed her, and she resumed masturbation, envisioning a man; his lips on hers, his sweaty, hairy chest and abdomen rubbing against her sweaty breasts and belly, his penis penetrating deeply. She felt the natural inclination to move her hips, like an animal. A fleeting thought struck her, how she could feel so electrified from the mere fantasy of a man’s touch.
The sensation was explosive and wavelike, commencing within as uterine contractions, coursing outward through her stomach and legs, sparking throughout her entire body.
The wind returned and intensified, rattling stiff palm fronds with an immense scratching sound. Directly above Kate’s head, a male tree leaned into a female tree, colliding in an apparent tryst of love-making, its catkins jouncing against the female’s nuts. Arboreal fornication in God’s land, Kate reasoned. All was possible.
* * *
[And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. (Gen. 1:4)]
She woke from postorgasmic sleep. The midday atmosphere was windless and dank, misty and pungent with tropical forest decay and ocean air. Naked and rested, with newfound strength, Kate walked to the water and saw that the beach was virtually unphotographable. Film could never do it justice, and it did not deserve a name: it was too perfect. She squinted at the white sand, glary in the dazzling sun, and the lagoon shimmered hotly, like a plate of glass.
Judging from this beauty, furious weather was unknown. Tree trunks were unscuffed, the beach sand pure and trackless, the lagoon a placid, greeny-blue pool of fish and coral—everything was pristine and inviting. It was the epitome of tropical paradise.
Surfing sprung to mind as Kate noticed waves crashing onto the lagoon’s barrier reef. But the waves had no form, breaking simultaneously over shallow coral. Kate decided to walk further and find a wave worth surfing. She returned to the campsite for her surfboard and sandals, but nothing else—she would walk nude.
Sun scorched her pale skin. Energized by its light, she walked steadily and confidently along the dirt lane she had driven on with Eric, and within an hour she approached a rift—a narrow tunnel—through the tangle of trees and vines. The ground was gouged with wheel tracks and hoofprints heading out to the lagoon. She passed a rickety wood cart attached to an dozy, sulking ox. Flies buzzed around its eyes and ears, snot oozing from its nose. Its fur was ruffled, faded, dirty; its left horn was broken, and the rope through its nostrils seemed painful. A wiry tail swatted Kate as she walked by.
Emerging from the jungle, she studied another arc of white-sand beach, hot and tranquil, its only sound that of the waves peeling around both sides of a narrow reef pass a quarter-mile from shore. Behind the surf, two dark men sat in a large wooden canoe low in the water, apparently sinking. They carefully paddled through the pass and across the lagoon toward shore; the vessel was packed to its gunwales with large fish, perhaps tuna.
These were the first humans Kate had seen since Eric. Shirtless and shaggy, wearing wet floral-print sarongs, they looked middle-aged, with knotted hair and gray beards. One man hopped from the canoe as the other tossed a small stone anchor into the knee-deep water. Both men grabbed a fish by its tail and trudged up the sloped beach toward Kate and the ox cart. They seemed impassive to her nudity. She said bonzour—Kreol for ‘hello’—as they staggered past, arms and faces glowing with grease and sweat.
The ox was unflinching as the men lunged heavy fish into the cart one-by-one. Its wheels and frame were rusted, and the wood appeared rotten, inept to support the weight of the men’s catch.
“What kind of fish are those?” Kate asked.
“Deese good feesh,” the first one pointed. His voice was extremely hoarse—talking seemed painful. “Deese good fo’ eat.”
“Where are you taking them?”
The men walked slowly back down to the canoe. Kate watched the waves. An hour elapsed before the canoe was emptied and the cart was crammed with a slimy, shiny heap of dead fish. They were big and plump and all looked alike. Drooling, the ox was indifferent. It was sedate and unmoving. It winced from the rope looped through its nose.
The men mounted the front of the cart, whipped the reins, had the ox reverse its direction, and limped back into the jungle toward the road.
“Orevwar,” the tall one croaked—Kreol for “goodbye.”
Kate waved at him, wondering if there was a town nearby, but it was of no real concern: this beach was heavenly. Its lagoon was clear and warm, lapping up onto soft, powdery white sand between spectacular granite rocks. Palms and takamaka trees bordered the beach, providing shade from the fierce afternoon heat.
The surf was good.
* * *
[And God will swipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away. (Rev. 21:4)]
She straddled her surfboard atop an incandescent mirror, her back and shoulders warmed by sun dropping into mountain silhouettes. Meditating, waiting for waves, her legs dangled in an exotic aquarium: snapper, angelfish, butterfly fish, chromis, fusiliers, wrasse, trumpetfish, pipefish, needlefish. Flying fish dashed across the surface, chased by barracudas.
On one wave, a large turquoise parrotfish surfed alongside her, as dolphins sometimes did in California. With every turn, the fish mimicked, drawing the same lines underwater. Like surfing with a mermaid.
Fairy terns flitted. Green turtles floated. The palmy beach awaited. Between waves, all was Edenic.
Vivid light evaporated and morphed from distinct saturation to a flood of pastels…sea and sky glowed violet and ocher as the play of light distracted her from an approaching swell.
Like the rest, this wave was perfect. Purply and tapered, it humped onto the reef and let her in. The tube’s almond eye reflected all to be seen. Facing the sun, it was resplendent of gold spinning around her. The mountains, the sinking sun, the beach fronted by a glassy lagoon—a dream.
Nobody saw any of this. The beach was a fantasy of clairvoyance, a nirvanic déjà vu. And her first surf session, after her first night on her second day, was a hallucination of ecstasy. It was all unblurred and ethereal, her years of suffering and privation being purged by the sea. Surfing brought her closer to God. Each moment was a month regained from her wayward life, and, back in California, she believed it was here—only here—where this could occur.
Her arrival and perception of place could have been a model of serendipity, but out there, adrift, she knew it was all a bequeathal of God’s altruism. It was no act of schemed proselytization—He had been with her from the beginning, reluctantly at St. Mary’s, faithfully throughout college. And now, tonight, He was here, as was she.
* * *
[“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened for you.” (Matt. 7:7)]
The ocean is endless and eternal, much like Nirvana, and only God accompanied Kate in the landscape of her unconscious mind. The sun had set…sea with sky.
Twilight was mute, psychedelic. On her surfboard, waiting for a final wave, Kate’s face and breasts gleamed in wet reflection of the afterglow. In an aqueous crimson baptism, her skin softened, her brow relaxed. All tension and mental knots fell away, pressure replaced with pleasure. Yet the onset of darkness startled her. Thoughts turned to shore.
Like a mirage after dusk, the wave came and she stalled into another tube, this one narrow, a teardrop. The ride was brief. She turned shoreward and began paddling the half-mile in. Large fish—perhaps the kind those fishermen had caught—blurped from the water around her, snatching baitfish, and her hands dipped into pods of them, the whole lagoon alive under the early, starry night reflecting cooly into Kate’s sunburned eyes.
She could see the beach and coconut palms, fuzzed in darkness. Orangy light, like that of a village’s, pierced through the trees a few miles to the west. That must be where Eric lives, and where the fishermen took their catch.
The sand was silk to Kate’s feet. Her paddling muscles ached. Her nipples and belly were chafed from surfboard wax. Wafts of hibiscus floated through the air.
Approaching the tunnel leading back to the road, she looked back at the faint whitewater lines winding around the pass. It was pristine and deserted, quiet and balmy, as she imagined many of the world’s beaches to be. But surely none of them could compare to this.
It was too perfect. It reminded her of the place she had read about that day in the St. Mary’s rectory, in the solemn scripture of Adam, so humble and real, wedged between rants of theologians and philosophers.
The tunnel was pitch-dark, so she walked slowly, patiently, afraid of nothing, feeling the cool, soft sand underfoot. The darkness was warm, redolent with fruit and flowers—a comfort. Here too she was immune: the tunnel was womblike, a passage alluding to a place above all others, and she made her way toward its source.
Kate felt protected, her spirit harbored in the fragrant night. She walked serenely, reflecting on Adam’s allegorical writings, which seemed to reappear for her upon the tunnel’s breeze. His observations paralleled hers of this island and the valley of great palms in which she slept. Indeed, God had spoken to her there last night.
Adam was created as God’s companion in His garden. The garden was warm. The serpent ultimately ruined Adam and Eve’s fellowship with God; they relinquished their idyllic nest and fell from grace after succumbing to the dark tempter rather than the light of truth. They were banished from His garden, the place that had encompassed everything perfect and beautiful on earth, and were never allowed to re-enter it.
Yet Kate was here: A woman somehow alone in God’s land. He made it that way. All the implications illuminated in her consciousness in distinct order. It struck her as simultaneously odd, yet perfect, how the light of reason always shone in the blackest phases of her life, rescuing her time after time.
Feeling reborn, she reached the tunnel’s opposite end, which connected to the dirt lane. She considered a walk to the west, to the lights, but felt her pale nakedness confronting a foreign black village would be unsuitable. The valley was her private garden. God allowed her to exist there, exempt from adversity, with plenty to drink and eat, including the aphrodisiacal coconut jelly.
Her hair was heavy and wet. The lane was silver with moonlight (or was it Godlight?), unraveling like an ethereal ribbon.
A specter appeared in the middle of the lane ten yards ahead. Dismissing it as a hallucination of night and expecting it to vanish, Kate walked toward it then stood still, looking for a face in the moonlight. She found it. The wraith was recognized: it was John, the old man from the plane, looking furtive and ghostly, with a strange whitish glow to his skin. He was sweaty and jittery and still smelled strongly of musk aftershave. He had a slight weave to his gait and breathed heavily, smacking his lips, obviously drunk; Kate could see the dirty, dagger-like fingernails of his left hand coiled around a bottle of rum.
His right hand raked his greasy gray hair, slicking it back, and he was in the same soiled, wrinkled white clothes he wore on the airplane. The front of his pants had an obvious bulge—an erection.
He took a swig from the bottle, then pulled a flask from his chest pocket.
“Breath freshener,” John said, sucking his teeth. “It kills germs the alcohol doesn’t!” He poured some into his mouth, swished it around, gurgled and spat. His crucifix necklace gleamed from the reflection of a light Kate could not see.
Suddenly she became aware of her nakedness and felt ashamed that John could see her womanhood. His breathing deepened, and he wiped sweat from his brow with a dirty shirt sleeve. His gaze slowly scanned her up and down, returning to her breasts and pubic region. Noticing this, Kate used her surfboard to partially hide her young body from his old, eerie mind.
“God made woman to tempt man,” he said slowly, looking directly into Kate’s eyes. “Woman has always ruined man, so God has always ruined woman. He gives women beauty then takes it away from them with age. You, my dear, are young and beautiful. You deserve this nectar of the gods.”
He laughed loudly and leaned back, guzzling messily from the bottle, spilling rum down his chin. He thrust the bottle at her face. She jerked her head back. He stood very close to her now; she could smell his awful aftershave and rancid breath.
“I’m sorry, I cannot,” she stammered. “I quit drinking…after college and all.”
He pursed his lips, smiling vaguely, revealing black, fangish teeth. He spoke quietly in a beastly voice. “Try a little rum to warm your soul. It won’t hurt you. It will help you. The book of Proverbs states, ‘Give strong drink to the one who is perishing; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.’”
She frowned and stepped back; he matched her movement and stepped forward. He held the bottle at her mouth. The rum smelled of death. Its clear cracked glass was smudged with greasy fingerprints, and its label was missing. Bits of cork and viscous saliva floated on top of the amber fluid, which looked undrinkable.
He guzzled again and raised the bottle to her eyes, shaking the bottle, agitating the rum. He continued to walk into her, breathing hotly onto her face. She stepped back until she was trapped between John and the impenetrable foliage lining the road.
He pressed his body to hers; she felt his erection on her crotch and the heat of his skin. His shirt was soaked in sweat. His offensive breath and aftershave made her gag. Beads of sweat dropped from his face and chin onto her chest, burning her breasts. He slipped his tongue between his lips, which to Kate could have been forked, like that of a reptile’s; he dripped rum onto it, which sizzled and evaporated. He belched deeply.
“Just a little sip,” John grinned, waving the bottle at her face, his nose an inch from hers. He slurred. “This is the nectar of the garden that God has given us to partake. It is the finest of…the finest of sacrament drinks.”
Kate was stunned. She could not speak. Her arm hurt from holding the surfboard, but it was her only defense.
Then John paused serenely, with a sudden aura of death in his complexion. He looked as if he were to die right then and there. Then he shook the bottle violently at her, his bloodshot eyes widening.
“Go on, bitch! Take a sip! This is the nectar of the gods!”
Her eyes distracted by the bottle, John discreetly touched her left breast. She immediately swatted his hand away, his sharp nails scratching the tops of her fingers.
“Don’t touch me!”
Instinctively she kneed his erection. He winced and dropped the bottle, shattering it on the ground, rum splashing Kate’s shins and feet. John was crippled; he lurched over and grasped his groin, groaning with pain. He hissed and lunged wildly at her with his left hand, slashing at her buttocks as she turned to run away. His nails scratched her soft skin, and she screamed louder than she ever had. She gripped the surfboard and sprinted from John as fast as she could. He was grounded in immense pain, panting and cringing, and could not stand up to chase her. She glanced back.
Gone. He’d vanished just as he had appeared, suddenly, silently, in the pale moonlight.
Kate ran all the way back to her campsite in the valley. When she stopped, she gasped uncontrollably, shocked at how far she had run, and how fast, and how she had not fainted. She had never run like that before, not even at St. Mary’s, when she had to run timed six-minute miles around the track. She always thought she was a poor runner, but this was not of herself. It was as if a supreme athlete had been placed inside of her, and that she could run for miles and miles without falter. She could run anywhere, quickly and steadily, and this was a euphoric sense of new strength and endurance, things she never had.
Registering fresh safety and relief, Kate stood motionless by her bags. The valley soothed her. Her heart slowed and beat normally, and a wave of comfort flushed through her body. The air was humid and full of metaphysical energy as she’d left it earlier that day. All was mute besides the sporadic whistle of a black parrot. Moonlight bathed the massive palms, fronds splitting the soft light, spilling it across the forest floor.
She walked to a nearby freshwater stream she found the previous day. The stream’s sloshing and gurgling sounded like laughter and happiness to Kate; she kneeled and splashed the cold water all over her body. A baptismal cleansing. She put her lips to the stream and gulped vigorously—her first drink of the day.
The coconuts had milk. She found a green one, cracked it with a rock, and let the clear, sweet liquid drain into her mouth, dripping it down her face and body to her toes and the fertile soil. This is the nectar of the gods.
She strolled back to her bags and laid down. The leaves and sleeping pad felt feathery. She closed her eyes and listened to the woods. The presence of the place enveloped her.
“My child now”—the voice seemed to come from within.
Eden, God’s garden. He led me here to be reborn, just as I am.
* * *
[Resist the devil and he will flee from you. (James 4:7)]
Months passed. Summer. Kate was in Torrance again, living with her mother. Days were sunny and warm, nights of stars and pleasant dreams.
Her mother was rarely home, occupied with work and a tall, skinny boyfriend from Hermosa Beach. Kate rejected the non-attention as being perfidy—she was an adult, on her own. Not that it was ever any different. Now she understood.
Mother’s boyfriend Bruce was a publican at The Drink, a seedy, smoky dive near the pier, frequented by drunks and lost souls, often staying in all day and night. There they consoled one another, talked and downed shots of bourbon, fumbling quarters into the jukebox, throwing darts and shooting billiards until 2 a.m. Mother, if she came home at all, would stumble incoherently through the door at 3 a.m., only to wake at 7 a.m. fully clothed with a cracking headache, due for the 8 a.m. bus into town to her telemarketing job six days a week.
Kate had removed herself from this. Natural light fueled her like caffeine—an emission of constant solar energy. Each dawn was a blank slate, a daily twenty-four-hour chapter of growth and upliftment. Her previous life had never known such truth and love. She welcomed everything and everybody. She was confident. It all made sense to her.
She was no longer cared of her body’s appearance and concealed it with boyish rags from the thrift shop. Gone were the pale-skin days of pants and long-sleeved shirts on the sands of L.A. Her beachwear was bikini. She was a bronzed, blonde goddess to the young men who pursued her. Her love life had at last blossomed, particularly with a thirty-year-old painter named Paul who lived alone in San Pedro. He understood Kate and had heard her rite of passage, vicariously reliving it with her, from here to there and back again.
They surfed together, explored together, slept together, laughed together, ate together. They drank postprandial wine and massaged by candlelight with oil and incense. They took road-trips. They drove to Oregon and hiked its majestic coast, an adventure Kate had yearned for but prevented from by inner weakness. They immersed themselves in a cosmic, cloudless week there. Paul swore the experience changed his life—it never could have happened without Kate, he said.
But Kate mentally did not need Paul for internal content. She required no one. Her redemption was her two healthy feet on solid ground today. Paul was but her first sweetheart and companion; rarely was she onanistic. All else was within her, twenty-four years after birth. Life had syncretized. Trust, hope, and the embracing of love were so obvious now.
One bright, surfless morning, Kate took a stroll into town, passing familiar storefronts with faces both fresh and faded. She wore her favorite leather sandals, tight white shorts, and a logoless white tank top with no bra beneath.
She stepped from front door and looked up: the sky was full of fortune and opportunity, infinite and anew, as it had been since her return. Soundness of mind paced her routine, adrift in the space between self-understanding and inner peace. Kate was independent. Torrance became a place of refuge and tradition, something it never was, eliciting reflections for her from which to flourish.
She walked down the same sidewalk she loathed each day of her scholastic youth and its idioms of hopelessness, confined to her remote mother and the nuns of St. Mary’s. Those were additional black memories; today’s sunlight banished them from Kate’s periphery.
Homes along the sidewalk were decorated with barbecues and plastic swimming pools and lawn chairs—accessories of summer. Scents of charcoal and sunscreen and visions of happy families pleased Kate, and, one day, she thought, she too would live in a home like these, with a loving man and perhaps a child.
She plucked an orange poppy flower from the dirt and slipped it behind her left ear, like tropical maidens did. Entering town, she walked past the old Safeway supermarket, now an Albertson’s, and the old candle shop, now a beauty salon full of middle-aged women. The avenue was clogged with traffic. Men hooted and catcalled at Kate. Waves of heat quivered above the asphalt and the engine hoods of cars, a stench of exhaust flooding the westerly breeze. Her brow and sides of her face were laced with sweat; the air temperature hovered in the low nineties. It was lunchtime; the peak of summer.
Each smell was similar but different: after all, this was the same soil and cement she had walked countless times before, in every season and every day. Yet a certain vibe resurfaced as she passed the Italian deli, its outdoor patio full of eaters. The vibe was not salty French fries or meaty, greasy sandwiches served with fizzy soda, nor the glistening pepperoni pizza being wolfed by the fat Filipino boy near the deli’s entrance.
It was the bridge over Clark Street. Here she was, and here she had been so many times, so many years ago. She stopped at its mid-point and squinted down at the six standstill lanes of every vehicle imaginable, shimmering in the midday glare. It looked like a parking lot.
The sun seared. Cars overheated. Drivers cursed and honked horns. The road’s center divider was littered with weeds and trash and shredded tires. A terrible, stressful scene, loaded with anguish and bad timing for everyone.
But up there, on the bridge, stood a young woman with a flower in her hair, dressed in white, smiling at all of this.
She turned and walked away, down the sidewalk, across the bridge, to a place in her mind she never knew existed, but was well aware of today.
A place of hope.