San Juan de la Cruz (Enlightenment)

by dschapman

The sky opened up on the sidewalks and I was caught in the rain with my pants down. I hadn’t been so wet since I was only a little boy, too stupid to even care about comfort, too glad to even consider the dangers. But I was wet now. My feet rubbed against my leather shoes like wet rubber on rubber, cells slid around and split open, mud bubbled up through the dirt in my toenails. Cold, warm water running up me, tendrils of water and cold through my hair, wool and linen moist and flattened, a flood stumbling up through my footing. I was going to spend the day painting fences, some in white and some sky blue, but I could never work in a storm like this, and so I sat down on a pile of bricks on the side of the street and waited, wettening. I began coughing and I could not stop coughing. Just a cough, I thought. I was making a joke. The rain kept coming and I couldn’t stop hating it. It reminded me of the rain like I know it. Rain like I’d written, unreal, untroubling. The familiar taste of copper air. Is that a scarecrow under the tree, or has there been another lynching? Fields so full of soaking cotton. My eyes so red and full of water. I don’t even dance. It isn’t that I wouldn’t like to. It isn’t that I don’t even care. It is that I don’t even dance. Have the church bells been rung in a while? I sure haven’t heard them. Has anyone heard from the king? I sure haven’t heard from him. I haven’t heard from anyone else in a while, either, to be honest. To be honest, I haven’t heard anything at all, except for that ringing, except for that quiet hum, have you heard it? It can be warm and atmospheric, it can be empty and loud. Sometimes when I listen it disappears; sometimes when I listen it responds with a swell. Who could that be, speaking? Isn’t there a sea in every conch shell? Don’t two strung tin cans connect and carry sound between them? I have heard the roar in the distance before. I have heard the creeping thunder. I have seen whole skies give way to sheet lightning, immense and cosmic and purple, bright white blinding light, parallel heavens and tangential darkness, intricate electric threads through monstrous clouds over broad and snow-laden fields, a frame of etching frost on the window pane, an unhinged shutter clammering loudly in the barnloft; the familiar taste of violent air. Nightness beading up in the rafters, edging up against the doorstep. Oh dichosa ventura! This flight can’t last forever. It will all come catching up to me, exactly as everyone always knew it would, exactly as I thought I could stop it, and I will fail. But lowering your standards doesn’t make it any easier to stomach the truth. So I maintain high standards. It is better this way. It is better in the storm to be angry, than acceptant. Anger leads to struggle and death. Acceptance leads straight into death. And where does death lead? Ask the downpour. It will know. Back unto earth. Splashing down all around us. Seeping into my eyes and my pockets. Trickling between my lips and down the back of my throat. I have knocked on the doors of the monastery and asked them for shelter, but they turned me away with their laughter. I went instead to town hall. But it was too full for me. It was much too full. And everyone was drunk, and I do not drink. I walked away through the torrent. People eyed me suspiciously. I wondered what I could do to appease them. Something re-assuring I could say. Something to astonish them, to please them, to ensure my own esteem in their graces. I measured my alternatives. I singled out the good from the bad then I mixed them back up again. I singled out the bad from the good. I mixed them all up and I tied them all together and flung them from the world’s oldest bridge down into its deadliest river. I laid my legs across my neighbor’s legs, I admired her, I asked her please to pleasure me. She obliged me. I convulsed.

Over the edge and under a spell. I woke up in a puddle with my hands behind my back. My eyes moved anxiously behind closed eyelids. I could not open them. I stood up and went the mirror, what I hoped was a mirror. I could see nothing. I reached in a drawer for a penknife and tried to cut them open. I bled – I could feel the bleeding – but still I could not see. Still I could smell and I smelled the morning air. Still I could feel and I felt the sun on my skin. But hell if I could see a thing. Hell if I could open my eyes.

But I refused to give up living. So I lived on. And over time, I could see again. I saw in my blackness a new proceeding, a new genesis. A lone white flower, opening up; petals revealing, memories receding. I extended my life to the life around me. It was an open invitation. I was invited by the mountain to climb her and so I wandered through the mountains to find her. I was invited by the cave bears to sleep with them and so I went to sleep in a cave with the bears, by the rattlesnakes. I was invited by the canyon to dive from the cliffside and so into the canyon I dove, head-first, soul reeling. I landed in a river and sank with the fishes before bobbing back to the surface and floating downstream. I passed condors and vultures and I watched from afar while dying mules died, faltering, falling on all fours. I passed dying men on dying mules. They beat the mules with leather whips while the stubborn mules died and then they’d desert them. I watch an old man struggling to walk up the hill, out of the canyon, from whence I came. It was harder for him than it was for me. Why is it so trying to walk up hills? What is upwards that its different from forwards, harder than down? I wonder how he got down here. I wonder why people come down here. Why would I ever come down here? I continued downstream, into the valley of the shadow of death, leaving behind me all my sundered trepidations. I crashed against a bed of rocks, waves lapping gently at my ruined eyes, and I stood up, bruised and broken and gracious. I am standing here in the shadow of the valley of death. I am standing here in silence, praying, crossing my chest with quivering hands. I am waiting here, praying, for authority.

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