Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 142
Lilith Doesn’t Like Happy Endings
Three days after his uncelebrated fifty-fifth birthday, when Ben Rollins went to the Get Out of Your Body and Become a Living Ghost workshop, he didn’t expect the techniques would work. The class wasn’t just a lark, though he enjoyed the idea of meeting someone special to meld with astrally, as the brochure teased. His attendance was primarily a last-ditch effort to defy the horror of pulling the plug on his comatose eleven-year-old daughter, Kaillie.
Ben’s ex-wife, Debra, had already given up. He couldn’t blame her. But even before Debra’s pancreatic cancer, they’d argued about Kaillie’s coma. Debra thought death would free her. Ben couldn’t stop searching for other paths, secrets medical science might have missed.
The idea of an out-of-body experience had always intrigued him. To soar free. Glide as an unimpeded silver form of pure spirit. Delicious.
And he had done just that.
He was actually experiencing the shimmering truth of an astral body.
By this marvel his hope had renewed.
Before Ben’s silvery ascendance, the instructor—Charlotte—had guided the class through a radical launching meditation to open chakras and free everyone’s etheric spirit.
The class’s participants included young and old. Most were what Ben expected: ungainly shapes, pierced and tattooed flesh, uncritical enthusiasm.
Yet, Ben’s etheric spirit seemed alone as he drifted past these earthbound dreamers. Only he had got out of himself, despite the group’s naïve optimism. And on his first try!
He hovered above the moped-riding showoffy gal. During the out-of-body launching meditation, she’d insisted on maintaining the splits with her eyes shut. Her frizzy hair looked pink as the dogwood tree blooming in the parking lot. She seemed vaguely familiar. Perhaps a photograph from one of those date-a-millionaire personal ads or a swank bar in downtown Seattle? Ben might have tried talking to her if he were ten—no, maybe fifteen—years younger, and he hadn’t already had sex once upon a time with at least five other women he thought were like her. Wild unconventional women. Except they hadn’t had those cheekbones. Nor been so buxom. Older. But pretty much the same. Ah, who was he fooling? Had those women ever appreciated him? Or just his money? Well, they must have at least enjoyed a bit of that Ben Rollins charm.
Before Ben floated onward, the moped rider’s eyes fluttered and her cheeks shifted like she was chewing. Did she smirk? No, her eyes had closed again. Maybe for a moment she’d struggled with concentration. Now you stay focused, tiger-man!
Ben trembled with the triple thrill of freedom, guilt, and mystery. He wondered why he was the only one who pulled off this trick to become a weightless wraith. Perhaps the others didn’t want it enough. He certainly had plenty of reason to crave the astral mode of transport.
He wasn’t due to visit Kaillie till tomorrow. Maybe he could arrive a little early . . . .
Staring at his silvery hands outlined by an aura of almost imperceptible white sparks, like a force field of TV static, Ben wondered how his state of being might transcend physics. Could he reach through walls? Could he extend translucent fingers past Kaillie’s frozen body into her living mind? Or would her psyche of numb synapses be a dead thing, a television station blaring a monotone note gone off air forever?
Even if Kaillie’s brain stayed silent in its impenetrable gray slate, perhaps her spirit would rise to meet his? What a relief it would be to find little Kaillie waiting for him in the hospital room, aglow with a glittery aura hovering over her hospital bed while her body lay in a comatose clump of tubes. Or was the astral body limited to only an active mind? Did braindead mean you were out of luck? What about the truly dead? His parents, his cousins, the friends that were dropping one by one, whether from too much fast living or the swiftness of a stroke or heart attack, or the slow creeping horror of terminal disease. Did they live on in etheric bodies? Could he visit all of them, clasp them in a silvery embrace?
What about Debra? Last year they’d walked past pieces of the old train wreck memorialized in bricks along the Burke-Gilman bike trail. She preferred meeting him outdoors rather than confined in a café or one of their homes. Debra had told Ben that he’d been selfishly keeping their girl alive. She’d humored him in his hope, but enough was enough.
Five years of hell. This must end. Give her peace without putting your ego in the way.
He protested. She gave the ultimatum that if he didn’t pull the plug on Kaillie in one year by May 25th, Kaillie’s twelfth birthday, then Debra would sue to force the hospital to end it all.
Deb, sometimes people wake up. It’s called life support for a reason.
It’s not life support. It’s living death. It’s time to stop the lie.
He took a deep breath, felt the burden of the moment. I can’t do that to her. Ben scraped the pavement with the leather sole of his Mephisto walking shoe. He stared at the twisted pieces of train-wreck metal— sinuous insects embedded in amber at the base of the steps that led back to the parking lot. And not on her birthday.
It’s the best thing you could do for her birthday.
Why this year?
Ben! Debra spoke furiously with her tears. Stared daggers into his stricken face. I’ve got terminal pancreatic cancer. If there’s one thing I want before I die, it’s letting our little girl go free. Promise me you’ll do it.
Who can refuse a dying woman? Debra’s physicians had little doubt of the fatal outcome despite months of treatment that Ben insisted on. While his wife plunged into odd morbid hobbies like taxidermy of birds and collecting carnivorous plants, Ben’s desperate rush into mysticism followed Debra’s ultimatum and bad news. Faith healers. Shamans. Seances. This out-of-body seminar where thoughts crowded Ben’s brain in a flush of realization as he ghosted about. If he were to help Debra and save Kaillie, he had mere days left.
Could a visit in the pureness of his astral being somehow offer healing to both his daughter and ex-wife that no doctor or couples’ counseling had ever provided? Before Debra passed away into the ash-dark universe, might his suave etheric-self melt down her sharp tongue and years of resentment after little Kaillie had submerged into the coma?
Reconciling with Debra could be one of many silvery-bodied reunions of spiritual healing Ben would have before Debra succumbed to the Pancreatic cancer that curdled her innards. But even if she emerged from the narcotic fog that enveloped her, another man held her hand. Debra had started dating months after the divorce. She’d urged Ben to do the same.
With both Debra and Kaillie in limbo, Ben could not bear these pains alone. He hungered for a new companion to share life’s pains. He longed for a clear path free from frustration and grief. Yet his shimmering etheric eyes did not reveal the way forward. He had neither guide nor map. After death Debra might not be reconcilable— a dumb phantom drifting in circles like some dirty stain of smoke in a corner. Nothing but outrage and hate. An effluvia of unassuageable remorse. Kaillie might lack the power to transcend her crushed skull and sightless eyes. Despite such doubts, Ben still hoped.
As he floated to the Seattle Spiritual Center’s ceiling, cottage cheese texture tickling his glistening forehead, Ben envisioned future reunions. Maybe this out-of-body thing meant Ben could see all his lost people. Maybe Kaillie would be wearing the same monster costume, rug of hair hanging over her eyes. Fake horns curving towards sky.
Bobbing like a balloon against that ceiling, Ben didn’t want to fool himself. If he were only dreaming, better to test things more before a longer trip. Don’t be a gullible fool, Debra had said, whenever he’d blab about the latest big change. A flying car? Are you flying out of your mind, Ben? Are you going to waste Kaillie’s college money with your pie-in-the-sky?
Ben won more than he lost when it came to investments. He was a multi-millionaire real estate mogul because of calculated risks. However, as with any new prospect, he understood the need for evidence before pulling the trigger. Don’t buy a house before you check for mold in the garage, dry rot in the baseboards. Trouble is the renewable resource that never runs out.
If he traveled outside, noted down someone’s license plate—like from that pink-haired chick’s moped—that would be proof this astral travel stuff worked.
Ben floated down from the ceiling towards his resting body, peering at the ridges of skull looming behind fleshy folds at the back of his bald head, which he kept shaved ever since his hair got so thin he’d been sunburned badly on top.
As he got closer to his body, he thought he saw the pink-haired woman’s startlingly blue eyes flick open, stare at him, then shut her eyes again. He felt the buzzing start that he’d experienced when he first got into astral form. To avoid buzzing back to his body, he turned to the window, sailed forward, pressed against—then through the glass! His fingers cooled with the rush of air outside. The glass had admitted and released him like he were nothing more than the invisible wave of light that painted the dogwood flowers their remarkable pink color.
Rotating in midair, Ben stared at Mt. Rainier. It loomed in the southern horizon— a wreath of disc-shaped lenticular clouds orbited the glaciated summit. After several decades of staring up at that sleeping volcano, Ben had finally climbed it when he was fifty.
The reality hadn’t been as enthralling as the idea of a beautiful summer climb. After hours of sweating and deep breathing in face-numbing cold on a forced march before dawn by the drill-sergeant mountaineers who organized the climb at 4—yes 4—fucking AM, Ben had stepped his right foot through crunchy snow straight into a crevasse. Weightless space yawned beneath his right boot. Fear hollowed his chest. He shifted to his left foot, and with the help of the climbing rope—and the mountaineering guides—he’d withdrawn his right foot from disaster.
Strange to find weightlessness now a relief.
He sunk down to the moped—a spiffy fifteen-grand Vespa mode. He read the digits and committed them to memory.
Excitement fluttered through his belly. He couldn’t wait for confirmation on this test.
Now was the time to try to go visit Kaillie in the hospital. Dream or not.
While his etheric body whisked over power lines, Ben’s body of flesh stirred too, an itch twitched his nostrils. He scratched himself and discovered dual consciousness did not distract.
Once at the hospital, he drifted past nursing stations. Ah, there was Kaillie’s room. Her curls intermeshed with a tangle of breathing tubes. Her cheeks looked bloated like somebody holding their breath underwater. Something to do with the drugs that kept her body working. He reached to touch her forehead. Her dry skin warmed his silvery hand, but she gave no sign she knew he was there. Not even a flutter of eyelids. No intimation that her own etheric body might spark and levitate up to join him.
Back to us. Wake up.
Ben’s etheric body jerked as he hovered over his daughter at Northwest Hospital.
Ben’s astral form was reeled in—a tape-measure retracting. Buzzing rush. Dizziness. Back to being plain old Ben. He blinked his eyes. Charlotte had switched on fluorescent lights to encourage the class to come out of their meditative states. Ben rested his face in his hands and gave a long sigh. The astral wannabees were chattering like querulous seabirds.
The Goth couple blabbed about entering an underworld of multi-colored ice crystals where they picked fruit hanging from a frozen waterfall. Hippie gal talked about sitting on top of the building with her grandmother’s ghost, catching up on the last twenty years. Old fart insisted he’d hightailed it to the Himalayas to see a Tibetan monk who told him he would be the first man to prove to medical science that we were energy beings that happened to inhabit fleshly shells for an arbitrary time.
The only one besides Ben who didn’t claim anything about some amazing astral expedition was the pink-haired woman who put back on her yellow cowboy boots and said, I hadn’t felt ready, when Charlotte asked her about her spiritual odyssey.
And how about you? Charlotte asked Ben, whose face sagged as he looked away.
He took a big breath. Determined not to curse. I was floating around here. I thought that was cool enough. Then I went to the hospital, and. . . it didn’t make a damn bit of difference to my daughter. I don’t see why all you people spout that bull—that mumbo-jumbo— when I didn’t see a single one of your ’etheric bodies’ floating around.
Except for the pink-haired woman, the class gave a collective hiss and joined Charlotte in lecturing Ben about irreverence. They said they were sorry he had a sick daughter, but that was no excuse to be a negative force in the universe. No doubt that held him back from astral freedom. His negative energy would not be welcome in future sessions.
Charlotte suggested he meditate alone for two months before even considering working with any group again and surely not theirs again unless he was prepared to apologize and atone.
When he shook his head at Charlotte and walked out, Ben stopped to speak to the pink-haired woman.
Your moped license plate PRK9333?
Her blue eyes widened, and he got a whiff of Jasmine as she looked up at him and brushed back her pink hair. Yes.
I saw it in my astral body. Ben nodded and left the woman smiling as he walked away.
Ben got in his Tesla X 2021 and adjusted his belongings. He glimpsed the pink-haired woman astride her purple moped, which did indeed have the numbers he remembered. Did he impress her with knowing her license plate? Or had she thought he was creepy? Or was it because he drove a one-hundred-and-forty-thousand-dollar car? Whatever her reasons, she waved and smiled as he drove away.
Embittered by his astral projection class, Ben considered going in person right away to visit Kaillie, but realized that would just have sent him even deeper into a depression. Maybe just stick to tomorrow like usual. He went every Sunday. And he’d keep going till May 25th— Kaillie’s birthday and day of doom decreed by Deborah.
Instead of the hospital, he parked near the Third Door, an eclectic bar that was a forum for artists and musicians. And wealthy donors. He chose the collector’s specialty of the month—a $450 jewel bottled by Domaine Dujac in 2012. A Vosne-Romanee red from Flagey-Échezeaux to be precise. He drank two glasses without stopping to savor this delight of Burgundy until the third glass. He sighed and sank back into the anonymity of his corner booth.
Ben swished the wine around his mouth. Drinking alone, he often wished he could link up his mind with a companion and share his feelings, thoughts, and experiences—a mutual transfusion, where woman and man could know each other totally. To strike the same chord at the same time. It would make things much more meaningful.
As the wine’s warmth suffused his cheeks, Ben recalled John Donne’s poem, A Valediction Forbidding Mourning. He wished he too might run his soul into some golden twine, to aery thinness beat and tangle up like two serpents slithered around each other in a perfect braided union—that had, after all, been one of his motivations for trying the astral projection class. Pure soul-mate intimacy without miscommunication. God, he was a naïve romantic despite everything.
But he’d been the only one to get out of his body. Maybe he should practice more by himself, and explore this astral business some more.
Screw Charlotte for kicking him out. Charlotte the Charlatan.
Having started his fourth glass, the wine’s heat hummed in the back of his head. He stared at the mirror across from his booth. He smiled at how somber he looked, glowering as though he’d been plotting the apocalypse.
And then, as if he’d magically transferred to some late-night B-movie, he saw the sardonic smile of that pink-haired woman reflected back at him. And she was truly beautiful.
Whether the wine or residual belief that he’d experienced something paranormal at the astral-travel class, Ben thought at first that he saw the spiritual form of this omnipresent stranger—perhaps she had lifted from her moped and floated through the foggy night, honing in on his irascible vulnerability while he sulked alone with the juice of dead grapes.
When he turned his head, he caught the whiff of Jasmine perfume. Not an astral floating vision. Her bright yellow cowboy boots were firmly planted on the pub’s stone floor.
Mind if I join you, astral-traveler?
How’d you find me? Ben took another sip of wine.
Old-fashioned stalking. Followed your fancy car.
Gotcha. Go ahead and sit down. Ben spread his arms in a welcoming gesture. Care for a glass of Vosne-Romanee? I highly recommend it.
Definitely. She slid beside him. The soil and fruit of Burgundy is always a great comfort. If I’m not drinking blood to keep me young, this is the next best thing.
Ben raised a glass in mock-toast of her dry humor. The broad knew her wine. But how crazy was she? Bat-shit bonkers or just enough to be adventurous?
Glad you’re not really one of those vampire gals. I’m open-minded, but I draw the line at the jugular. Ben tapped the side of his throat.
Don’t worry. She smiled, crossed her legs, and the edge of her boot’s sole nudged his calf. You’re not going to end up a dried husk on the side of the road.
That’s reassuring. The Seattle Times won’t have this headline then: ’Man Walks into Bar, Meets Pretty Astral-Traveling Vampire With a Taste for Expensive Wine.’
That’s a complicated headline. Perhaps you have trouble being direct?
No one has told me that before, but I’m open to any criticism from a qualified vampire.
I’m qualified, but I’m not a vampire. I’m channeling the original succubus.
Aha, so it’s an even more complicated story then. Maybe more fun too?
You like complications. She brushed the tip of her thumb over her red lips.
Ben gave a half-smile and made air quotes. ’Man Meets Pretty Succubus: Gets Sucked Dry.’
Wouldn’t you be so lucky? She didn’t look offended.
Luck be a lady, right? Ben wished the wine had an infusion of wit to help him along.
Of course. Your headline should be “Man Walks Into Bar, Meets Demoness of His Dreams.”
Something about her eyebrows raising at opposing angles stimulated Ben’s memory. Had he met her before? No, but perhaps he’d seen her around before the astral class? Maybe it really was a portfolio picture from the millionaire dating service?
Demoness? Which one?
So . . . go by ’Lilly?’
The gal who wanted to be on top of Adam? Your Mom some sort of feminist?
I am motherless. Begotten of earth, stars, fire, and the great void beyond.
Intense upbringing, huh?
Lilith merely stared unblinkingly into his eyes.
He looked for the waiter. Hey, another glass over here?
The waiter poured her what remained of the bottle.
Lilith leaned forward as she sipped her wine.
Ben congratulated himself for great discipline because he avoided looking at her cleavage. Instead, he focused on the freckled tip of her nose as she smirked at him.
Do you have the balls to go back out of your body? Or was peeking at my license plate as far as you dare go?
Ben almost coughed out his wine.
Lilith explained she’d indeed noticed Ben drifting about the room. He asked her why she didn’t also astral project. She didn’t want to scare him. She’d done it so many times before, and she knew he was an astral virgin. She saw his longing, the child-like wonder of emerging from that clod of earth without the burden of flesh. He understood. He was grateful.
Who reached out first? He felt her searching fingertips. They held hands under the table.
I know this sounds like a cliché, but have we met before? I can’t help feel that way.
I am the original companion. All men hunger for me in the night.
Would he like to go to her place and work on more astral projection? He would.
He brought over a forty-year-old bottle of Glenlivet, his wallet, and a change of clothes.
Upon the skin of her back, Ben discovered pictures and glyphs—strung together like guitar tablature—constellations of red and black ink whose significance looked occult. Ben ran his thumb from the top of her spine, where the picture of a red-eyed owl stared from between her shoulder blades, down to the base of her spine where within a nine-pointed star was an overlapping sign of male and female, except this female sign had horns poking from the oval.
After an hour of sex to clear the air, as Lilith put it—and during which she asserted the dominant position preferred by her legendary namesake— Ben was amazed how the world contracted to a single moment. Perhaps the concentration and release of the sexual act itself, or the sheer comfort of lying in the middle of Lilith’s deluxe swan bed. Ben’s mind hummed at a cycle that produced a feeling of universal harmony he’d never fully believed in.
Ben lay with Lilith. And it was damn good.
On their backs, they stared at the skylight that glowered darkly with only a subdued sparkle of blurry stars beyond.
It was as though he’d never before been at peace. His memories receded till they were faded flickers of stars. In shadowy nebulae, he forgot briefly he had a daughter on life support.
If we were only away from the city lights. Algol is brightest tonight. Lilith told Ben how Algol was named after her divine namesake in the Talmud. Told him too that her mother had evoked the demoness Lilith on both the night of her conception and her birth. The weird tattoos, Lilith had obtained for herself.
I thought you said you didn’t have a mother.
She drew in her breath. Almost a hiss. The true Lilith inside me has no mother. But speaking for myself, the human Lilith, yeah, sure I had a mother.
Sorry for your loss. Ben stroked the glossy thickness of Lilith’s pink hair.
We lived in the black forest of Germany. Two witches among many others.
Lilith switched on a tall scarlet lamp and opened up her crimson purse. She picked out a picture of a long-haired woman with a sharp nose. Ben noted this woman’s earrings, one of the same designs that decorated Lilith’s back: The female sign with horns on the oval.
My mother’s name was Susan. She blew her head off.
That’s horrible. Ben’s hand caressed the recess of Lilith’s upper arm.
No, it’s wonderful. Lilith put away the photo. She chose her death. How many can?
Ben thought of Kaillie. He sucked in his cheeks and pulled his hand back.
Lilith looked at Ben. Tell me more about your daughter.
Ben opened his wallet to show Lilith pictures of Kaillie and Debra. He explained the dilemma of his ex-wife and his only child—he talked of life and death, despair and hope.
Lilith nodded. These are things I can actually help you with. But you have to let go of your preconceptions about what life is or is meant to be, and what death is as well.
I’m ready to believe anything if it will help.
Lilith widened her blue eyes and for a moment the thought struck Ben that her eyelashes were stretched as wide as the vigilant gorgeous nectar-laden tentacles of a sundew plant. Debra had one of those on her kitchen table to catch house flies. I know you are. Your hungry hope is a bright star I could follow through a dark abyss.
You a poet?
A mystic. You’ve heard of the great chain-of-being?
Yes. Old school medieval. God on top, then angels, humans, animals.
There’s a more literal chain too. A connecting cord, greater than that which ties your material body to your etheric one. A bond which braids together spirits of the living and dead.
One big happy quilt of souls, huh?
You joke since you’ve never experienced it. But I can tell you that the one inside me has linked countless lonely wanderers in happy communion. No one of value drifts off into the void without being tethered, anchored, and braided together with the others. Lilith the Mighty has redeemed the spirit world. She was once a lonely shadow, betwixt and between heaven and hell, mortal and angel. But now there’s no loneliness on the other side, when you’re on the side with Lilith. Lilith’s face grew bright like a waxing moon, and Ben wondered how.
I thought the legendary Lilith was supposed to be this awful child-killer and man-hater.
Lilith leaned over and kissed Ben on the throat. Aren’t we lucky she’s not so bad?
He scented beyond her jasmine the aroma of roses and honey. Ben embraced Lilith and smiled. It’s one big happy party after death, huh? I could deal.
But you’re afraid of letting the girl die when she may be already dead inside?
I’m afraid of giving her up to hopelessness too soon. It’s a cold universe.
You can find warmth in other people. Lilith smiled sweetly. Or the right demon.
That’s always been my hope. He tensed, feeling uncomfortable with Lilith for the first time. Was she sincere or some lunatic? Both? Did she truly have powers to help?
Surely you don’t subscribe to the nonsense about euthanasia as a sin?
No way. I don’t believe in the damnation of suicides. He poured himself a glass of the Scotch and looked at the grandfather clock in the corner by the window, the slow swaying pendulum. Lilith watched Ben as he drank down the full glass.
Speaking of damnation, you’d better watch that drinking, or you’ll be damned before your allotted time. She rolled onto her stomach.
A hot pull in Ben’s gut drew him closer to her warm body.
Fair enough. Ben traced his fingers over the nine-pointed star on her smooth firm back.
Ben told Lilith his ideal of romantic parity. How he wished he could pour like sunlight into the mind and heart of another, fill and be filled with pure being and joy. He hummed an ommm before Lilith responded with bubbling laughter.
You can dress it up with flowery language, but it all comes down to cocks and pussies, doesn’t it? Maybe if we had one of each, you’d have your ideal equality.
Ben grunted. He had hoped for something beyond cynical speech from her.
Ah, you want a meeting of the minds, don’t you Ben? Hey, breathe more slowly and relax, Lilith said, as her own breaths grew deeper.
Don’t worry, I consider myself a true sapiasexual. But you have to open up more than you have ever done. So, let’s get on out of bodies and wind our minds through the astral world. You’ll see colors you’ve never seen, fill your mind with shapes unimagined. I will show you hidden ways by which a spirit can commune with a trapped soul. Even one caged in a sick body. This shit will blow your mind.
Last time I heard that I ended up on a bad trip. Ben laughed, but Lilith merely continued the deep breathing. But to be honest yeah, I’m all about sharing our hearts and souls. I’d love that.
Ben felt her warm body and breath fill the room as he too tried to relax despite his heated desire. He concentrated on astral projection.
Whether it were Lilith’s confidence or something about the paralytic feeling in Ben’s limbs from the combination of wine, Scotch, and fatigue, after a mere minute of concentration, the back of Ben’s head buzzed. He knew he would shortly lift out from his body.
And then he did, nestled up against the glass while below he saw a flashing shape rise from Lilith’s body.
A shower of gold coalesced into her face and body and rose towards him.
Sparks of colors—it was true, some he could not describe—danced around them.
Startled not to see her as an exact duplicate of her human form, Ben reasoned she’s done this so many times before she had funky tricks.
As he was enveloped in this sparkling essence—the miasma of gold—a gentle whisper assured him that he must first empty his pain to be ready to receive pleasure and secret wisdom.
Just let go. You don’t need that pain. Let it all go, Ben.
But what would he be without his painful past?
After a moment’ agony of hesitation, he poured forth his memories.
He began with the worst. Halloween 2000. Trollaween— the Fremont Arts Council dubbed the holiday, which began with trick-or-treaters at the bulky troll sculpture beneath the Aurora bridge. The year marked where millennial fever had begun to fade: Neither a miraculous nor mechanical apocalypse reduced the horizon to a pale horse or blood-eyed robot of doom. Debra, brown hair dyed red, dressed as Laura Bush, while Ben cloaked himself in black and carried a scythe. Death was always in style.
Kaillie was five and frisking about in her monster costume, the three-horned orange hood of faux fur pulled over her curly brown bangs.
Raarg! She bared gap-teeth at strangers who laughed and begged her not to eat them.
Walking up 36th Street to the Aurora bridge, as Debra paused to straighten her hair, Kaillie broke away from her father’s right hand as she saw the great troll looming ahead under the bridge. She was so eager to meet this big-nosed fellow monster.
Debra’s warning yell did not stop the black SUV zooming out from Winslow Street. Just as Kaillie was growling and roaring into the middle of the asphalt. Ben dropped his scythe, jumped ahead to try to grab his daughter, but metal had already mangled her body and sent what was left of her soaring fifteen-feet into a cluster of plastic bins for recyclables and tumbling down to the concrete driveway below.
The blame that they exchanged injected viciousness into the grief that consumed them. The tormented accusations of who was at fault and what might have been lacerated their guts.
But above all, over the months that followed, it was the burden of the coma.
Always the coma. Would it ever end? Could she heal? Or was she a vegetable forever?
And Ben always showing up in a dark blue blazer on Sundays. Wearing what Kaillie had called his money tie because of the green dollar signs that stacked up along its satiny length.
Debra had called him stupid and selfish when he’d insisted they absolutely must not take Kaillie off life-support. There were always those cases you read about. Miracle recoveries. Miracles of body. Miracles of mind. Wonders of medical science if not God.
The world would invent more cures. Why not wait?
When the doctor said on more than one occasion, she’s not coming back,
Ben had shook his head.
Maybe not just yet. But one day my little girl will open her eyes again.
After the divorce came Debra’s pancreatic cancer. Unlike Steve Jobs, they couldn’t arrange a transplant to give her more time. She didn’t want to fight, but Ben insisted she did.
Even though they were divorced, she listened to him this last year, and it pulled her deeper into hell.
He recalled those winter months. Bile bursting from her mouth. Wails in the bathroom.
Misery dwelt in her hollowed arid eyes until she refused more treatment.
Those dry eyes of agony and accusation that stared out from skin wrapped like wax paper around her boney face.
Ben regretted he had made others suffer for his sense of goodness in the world. He couldn’t make amends to Debra. If he kept his word and pulled the plug on Kaillie by May 25th, Debra might not even hear him tell the truth through her perpetual morphine haze.
He shouldn’t have his essence mixed in with anyone. This soulmate stuff wouldn’t work.
As his astral self cringed in chagrin, new images formed that came not from his life and times but from Lilith’s brightness whose essence he now partly shared.
With these images also came the deep knowing. As if he had dreamed her life.
A forest appeared. The Schwarzwald, the Black Forest. But in Switzerland not Germany. A campsite with women and girls—Lilith and her mother, Susan, among them.
Moss-crusted hut amid trees. Magic done in this hut. Years ago, men had imprisoned spirits in clay. Compelled wild succubi to enter dolls.
What the men had raised then razed the flesh from their reckless bones.
But that was all more than a century ago.
Mother and daughter do their adept work. Deer flesh and bloody skins hang from hooks. Susan’s skin pale, her limbs worn from physical and spiritual labors.
Lilith—fuller and vital—bites into raw venison.
Susan scrapes two chalk circles upon the black floor. A nine-pointed-star in one circle and a pentagram in the other, Susan and Lilith sit in the circle with the pentagram.
Lilith marks the back of her own neck with charcoal, though her mother does not see.
Lilith knows full well what power she seeks.
Despite the overcast sky, something darkens and congeals in the circle of the nine-pointed-star.
A ropey shadow reaches out.
Susan’s terror stretches her face and shakes her arms, but she stays seated in the circle.
Lilith stands. A grand desire paints her face.
She leaves the circle.
Her mother shrieks.
The shadow twines around Lilith legs until it finds the charcoal mark.
Then it enters her.
And it has remained.
Susan had sought in this hut to receive the guidance and power of her daughter’s namesake, not for the daughter to become fully filled with the essence of Lilith, the demoness.
The hut is veiled by a spell except for brief moments when Lilith wants others to see.
Susan becomes a slave to the daughter.
The daughter becomes a slave to the demoness in her mind.
Susan brings men to Lilith. The men do not leave the hut.
A baby is born each month. Two on the ninth month. Lilith’s womb is quick.
Lilith checks every baby for any delicate shoots of horn, tailbone for stunted nub of tail.
She cries with the infants, for her breasts are always dry.
Lilith ends each month by dashing each baby’s head—whether boy or girl—into the floorboards. Egg shell shards of skull and melon pulp clumps of brain.
She persists for years.
One day in the woods, Susan comes upon a hunter relieving himself behind a tree.
She takes the gun propped against the bark. Shoots the hunter and herself.
Lilith burns their bodies and boils the blood.
Drinks the hot elixir and inhales the oily incense of flesh and bone.
Sitting down upon the blood-sodden wood, Lilith marks her own new glyphs and thaumaturgic circles. Inverts the hateful seals of Solomon. Calls to her not only brothers and sisters but spirits of her past lovers and victims.
Braids them into the fibers of her frictive core of relentless craving. Bolder now, she washes herself in a mountain stream. Strides out into the world again to catch up with the times.
Lonely in Paris, despite orgies with figures of state, artists, musicians, worshippers—some of the most ardent of whom are apostate priests—she thinks of a quieter more meaningful life: The empty home of the woman whose body she inhabits and whose crumpled mind is crushed up between certain neurons, where she has let her dwell as spectator.
After making their internal bargains, Lilith allows this woman to emerge. She lets her often be her translator, her emissary—secretary—to the world beyond.
They arrive in Seattle, where the woman was born, beneath the great decaying mountain of weathered stone and by the deep sound.
Lilith enjoys once again all delights of flesh and blood.
But bodies alone do not mind and soul sustain.
And so Lilith came to Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Kabalists, Wiccans, and dallied—as Ben did—at sundry groups who sought to project soul from body. Or to merge with others in some transcendent unity of being.
She weaved new dreams among these desperate seekers, looked in her nets, her webs, to find companionable souls.
The tribe of those who could do this thing—project the etheric body—were few.
So few that Lilith rejoiced to find Ben whose talent had lain hidden in a life of undiscovered spiritual ambition.
Ah poor Ben. He’d been so burdened with daily grief, puerile play, petty work. For what were millions of dollars compared to countless souls and dimensions which they could explore?
And then she proffered him the bargain.
If he accepted her in her ages of terror and beauty, she would gift him powers and insights not received by mere mortals in thousands of years. Not only would he reunite with his daughter through the arts that Lilith would share with him, but together Lilith and Ben would breed a race of quick-eyed god-children, and Lilith would accept them all.
Do not fear, gentle Benjamin. Her days of child murder were a closed chapter.
A legendary footnote.
Ben and she would share a limitless paradise.
If he would cooperate.
But Ben was retreating already.
He recoiled from Lilith’s golden embrace.
He chased the silver cord of his being back to his coward’s body.
As he recovered his senses and sat up on Lilith’s bed, she had already stirred, reclining on her left side, watching him with a sardonic smile.
Don’t tell me, you’re not all about sharing our hearts and souls anymore?
Ben put on his clothes in a rush.
The light of your need calls to me across the deep night. You cannot hide, my little Benjamin, Lilith said.
Ben fled the house. His Tesla hummed its quick retreat.
* * *
At Northwest Hospital, for an hour he knelt before the bed of his vegetative daughter.
His eyes remained dry. He’d run out of tears years ago. But his chest burned with anguish. Had it not been worth the chance that she might recover? Should he have signed the no extraordinary measures waiver long ago, which would have allowed her pulse to slow, the ventilation to stop its rasping perpetual waves?
He could still change the order. Honor the promise to Debra, who said that his wishful thinking was cruel to everyone. But Kaillie? How could he know what was right for her?
Was he truly a monstrous father? Abominable in selfish desire for her resuscitation, sucking hope from his girl’s blood and breath? Was that the hungry light that called to Lilith?
For a moment his etheric body had risen outwards, and he had gazed with his silver eyes into his daughter’s expressionless face. His lips had pressed against her cheek, but there was no feeling of communion. No more than if he had kissed a bare wall of rock.
And then suddenly he saw a shimmer of gold and a rainbow-colored cord glinting from the back of his daughter’s head. What did this mean? Did it lead to her spirit which wandered somewhere far beyond the hospital corridors? Or was her etheric self trapped within the confines of her head? He retreated to his body and took a deep breath. What—if anything—could be his next step?
It’s amazing what can be done, with a little practice. The helium-high voice of his daughter spoke. Ben sprang up and looked at her. She couldn’t have spoken, could she? Finally?
Though the words had come from Kaillie’s lips, her eyes remained closed. Ben pulled up on her lids, and the pupils sat dead in the middle as always, sightless blue discs suspended in the opaque jelly of white blankness. He moved his hand left and right, but Kaillie was not watching.
Her lips moved again, It’s just me, Ben. Your favorite demoness. But don’t you want to be with her? To comfort her where she is so afraid and alone? I can show you how to do that. To get inside. To know what she really wants for her birthday present.
I’ve taken a real liking to you, Ben. I want to work with you and your talents.
I said, get the hell out!
Ben shook his fist in his daughter’s face, but that face again remained motionless.
Sir? Is everything ok here? A limp-haired nurse stood in the doorway.
Does it look okay? Does it? Ben stomped past the nurse who backed away, staring.
Departing Kaillie’s room, Ben glanced left and right at the beds of recumbent men and women, all of whose flat drooping faces he recalled from previous trips. Before reaching the elevator at the end of the long white hall, which smelled faintly of cleaning vinegar, he saw in the last chamber a new occupant. A dark-haired young woman he recognized as exceptionally attractive even with the translucent oxygen mask obscuring her lower face. A true sleeping beauty, wasting her days like the rest, in a meaningless but stunning prison of a body. The IV line running some watery nectar to feed her like a farmed plant.
* * *
A week later, the knock came at midnight. Ben suspected who it was.
When he opened the door, he did not see Lilith at all but the flowing black hair and pale skin of a beautiful stranger whose head bobbed in the breeze.
Her hospital gown flapped in the wind and gauze tape dangled from her left wrist. It was the new occupant two doors down from Kaillie. Ben closed the door halfway,
Yes, it’s me! she said. And again, the lips moved while the eyes remained close.
Lilith? Walk that poor woman back to the hospital. Better yet, I’ll call an ambulance.
Aren’t you full of directions today? As for her, she’s fine. Medically-induced coma. An abundance of medical caution and all of that bla-bla. But Ben, why don’t you invite me in? I’m surprised when I’ve finally come to see you, I get left out in the cold and damp at midnight.
It’s not really a time for visitors, is it? Besides, you just walked out of a hospital. People aren’t supposed to be allowed to just do that.
People generally can’t stop me from what I want to do.
You would just barge into my house, wouldn’t you?
No, Benjamin. I’m old-fashioned. I haven’t been in your house yet. I need to be invited in if we are to really get to know each other as we began to last week till you got cold feet.
Get that woman back to the hospital.
Don’t you prefer brunettes?
I prefer you take her back. Promise to do that.
I promise if you’ll promise to see me tomorrow night. I’ll be my old self like you first saw me. Then we can talk about Kaillie. You do want to do something about Kaillie?
* * *
When she came back the next time, as they had agreed, it was with pixie pink hair, and the sassy stare that had gotten Ben’s attention the first day he saw her.
You’ve seen what I can do, Ben. You saw my colors about her head. I can show you how to reach inside her. She’s there just waiting for her father to show up. It’s different when two people come together out of choice. Let me in and leave your lonely pain behind forever. Two souls in one body. It’s not possession. It’s union.
Lilith’s speech tempted him sorely, for he had practiced in her absence. He could not only rise from his body but pass through walls without hesitation. He had more than once entered the hospital again and hovered around Kaillie. Unobserved, he had come closer and closer, hearing the scrape of her breathing administered by the merciless valves of the white-noise machine clunking beside her bed. But though he could feel her skin’s warmth, he could find no entry point. Something stopped him before he could proceed further. Something within him told him it was wrong to try. But he only wanted to say goodbye to her for the last time if that’s what she wanted. He’d smother her with the pillow if she asked her Daddy to do that.
Could Lilith truly show him the secret to uniting with Kaillie?
You know, my dear Benjamin, your name means to sit on the left side of God. Doesn’t that sound inhospitable? You know you’ve had a bitter lonely life. I’ll put you on my right side.
How do I know you’re not lying?
Haven’t I shown you that I can truly do anything I say?
He took a deep breath. He had no power like hers.
I can bring your daughter back to you. You know I can. Let me show you how.
You can teach me?
Her eyes were as stunningly blue as pure sapphires. I can and I will.
He must learn then. Despite misgivings that he was participating in a sinister tradition—breaking a taboo against consorting with unclean spirits—he invited Lilith across the threshold of his Queen Anne condo.
They stood on his redwood deck, admiring the violet alpine glow fading into grey on the glaciers of Mt. Rainier, while downtown Seattle lights sparkled beneath salmon hues of sunset.
And so, while Lilith gave herself a warm bath, having told Ben to prepare for her by being the first of them to go out of his body, he had complied.
His astral self drifted about the room and up the chimney. Did old Santa Claus pull off that Christmas trick by similar methods? Ben wondered.
Emerging from the chimney, he saw gold sparkle from his flesh-body’s mouth.
Lowering to look, he only saw the glint of spittle and the flash of an old gold cast filling, glimmering from a protruding bicuspid.
Where was Lilith?
Anxiety jerked him back inside his body, which felt somehow unfamiliar, as though he were a guest in another’s house.
Had she left? Was he on his own?
He yearned to learn more what he was supposed to do at the hospital with Kaillie. How to find the pores between hair fibers and nerves to enter her skull. Where to sink into memory, to follow the spiraling collage of dream inside her. Would she be startled to see her father, blazer-and-money-tie, walk into her private room of comatose repose—maybe barricaded behind a row of talking stuffed animals—and waltz with her while pink unicorns and purple ponies gamboled beneath the candy-cane moon?
Ben walked into the bathroom. The vacant eyes of Lilith stared face up in the tub. Blood from her slashed wrists drifted in sticky clumps, blurring the liquid boundary between splayed pink hair and roseate water.
Don’t worry, said a breathy voice in his head, I am free of that body. There is no pain. We’ll be together now forever. Bold little Benjamin.
Ben lurched forward, reaching for the ruby-slick carving knife that rested on the side of the tub near the motionless slender fingers of Lilith’s dead left hand.
A laugh of silver bells tinkled through his head, Benjamin darling, when the ties of this shared body are torn, we will still be braided souls. No weapon can divide us. No God, no devil, no heaven, no hell. Just you and me. Braided souls, forever.
Ben tried to scream. Only a puff of air escaped his lips.
He heard the roar of an inner sea. The chorus of rolling waves of strangers’ cries grinding past each other. Men, women, children’s voices, babies’ wails—troubled waters over which the breathy whisper of Lilith repeated, braided souls, forever.
Drowning in the molten fear in his lungs, he dived again and again into the swirling red fire and obsidian darkness. He struggled through the press of grating cries—mewling, shouting, pleading laments. He listened in the babble for those he had known, both living and dead. Kaillie, Debra, his brothers, his parents, his dear friends long passed on.
The legions surrounded him were all strangers.
Not a single voice of those he had loved so dearly called out. Though he would search for those he had lost forever—and he would become one more shrieking enraged voice of torment and despair—he knew he would never find them here.
Copyright © 2020 by Jason Harris.
About the Author
Jason Marc Harris graduated with a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Washington, and an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University, where he served as Fiction Editor of Mid-American Review. Creative work in journals such as Apex and Abyss, Arroyo Literary Review, Bull, Cheap Pop, EveryDay Fiction, Marvels and Tales, Masque and Spectacle, Midwestern Gothic, Psychopomp Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and Writing Texas. His novela Master of Rods and Strings will be published in July 2021 by Vernacular Books. He teaches creative writing, folklore, and literature at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 142
Requiem for John C. Holmes
A lanky, couldn’t-be-more-ordinary guy from Ashville, Ohio;
had served his country honorably, he advocated for whales.
His personal trajectories were so much divided,
but not everyone, thankfully, is a robot.
We, each of us, have multiple edges and sad faces;
in others, known or unknown, it’s willingly called humanity,
or at least perhaps called interesting. John embodied
the sentiment that men and women were not all created equal.
How does he compare to a radio star’s beautiful singing voice?
When you got right down to it, they’re pretty much the same.
Morals? Do any of us care? At end of day, in every
instance, anatomy can be seen simply as destiny.
He would have been like an old tree trunk
rotting perpetually from inside out.
Not good-looking, really. An office boy he wasn’t.
Copyright © 2020 by Robert Keeler.
About the Author
Robert Keeler was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and grew up in the jungles of Colombia. He holds a BS in Mathematics from North Carolina State University, an MS in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, an MBA from the University of California at Los Angeles, and a Certificate in Poetry from the University of Washington. An Honorman in the U.S. Naval Submarine School, he was Submarine Service (SS) qualified. He is a recipient of the Vietnam Service Medal, Honorable Discharge, and a Whiting Foundation Experimental Grant. He is a member of IEEE (technological society), AAAS (scientific society), and the Academy of American Poets. He is a former Boeing engineer. He has two published collections of poetry: Detonation (Wipf and Stock) and The Invention of the Snowman, which was published in 2020.
Paula D. Matuskey
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 142
I live in a generation of half-mast flags.
Where reason and logic fall prey to hate and violence.
Where possibilities of peace are erased by an irrational act.
Where a sense of order digresses to brutal chaos.
Where powerful men of grace with ideals and “dreams”
Are powerless to control their own earthly fate.
And where we as bystanders applaud their noble efforts,
But only in a quiet and discreet way.
Our chances for peace are fewer now for the loss of such men,
Whose presence here on this earth somehow forgave us our
God save us that we not be blinded by the waving of half-mast flags—
Or smothered by the shedding of sudden tears—
Or deafened by the drone of funeral drums.
Let us now be committed to the hope of peace,
Whether it be near or far.
That we may someday, someday, be worthy of these men
For whom half-mast flags must fly.
Written by Paula D. Matuskey on April 7, 1968,
after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Copyright © 2020 by Paula D. Matuskey.
About the Author
Paula D. Matuskey is a retired employee of Montgomery College who worked there just under 45 years. A long time Maryland resident, she and her husband moved to California in 2018 to be near their son and his family. She holds a master’s degree in Government and Politics as well as a graduate certificate in Biblical Studies.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 142
An interview with Joseph Ross (JR) and Robert L. Giron (RLG) about his latest book of poetry Raising King (Willow Books, 2020).
I know you started to teach Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (King) work in 1988, but what led you to that calling, if you will?
I was raised in a household where social justice was a familiar subject. My father, a laborer, spent some time as an organizer for the United Steel Workers in Southern California. He told me stories of organizing strikes and burning the cars of people who crossed the picket line. His thinking was clear: if someone was breaking the picket line, they were taking food from your family. This attitude taught me that justice was required for poor people, and other minorities, to get their rights and to be able to live a life of dignity. I was also struck early on with the idea of non-violence. These realities combined to create an interest in Dr. King and the civil rights movement. I think that even before I was out as a gay man, I had a sense of myself as different, as an outsider, and thus I developed a concern for others who were outsiders too.
What goal did you have for the section Stride Toward Freedom?
The goal for the first section of Raising King, the section with epigraphs drawn from Stride Toward Freedom, was to show the young Dr. King, to show his own doubts, because he had many, and to show his commitment to nonviolence. He writes Stride Toward Freedom when he is a very young man, in his twenties. He didn’t know the powerful white people in Montgomery, and he was newly married, just starting his family. Yet here was, thrust into the leadership of a bus protest that became national news.
What goal did you have for Why We Can’t Wait"?
In Why We Can’t Wait, I hoped to show Dr. King’s assessment of the consistent violence in 1963. After the March on Washington, people were optimistic and hopeful. Then, barely two weeks later, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama, killing the four girls. Two Black boys were also killed that day in Birmingham. He was more familiar with the violent backlash and he had experienced death threats and bombs at his home. I wanted to show the growing violence of that year and how he hoped to respond, without violence.
What goal did you have for Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? is Dr. King’s final book. He writes this after living with death threats for a few years, it’s also post-Nobel Peace Prize. I wanted to show his more mature and radical critique of American culture. It’s in this final book that he explores the triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. This critique cuts more deeply than most people know, if all they know is his I Have a Dream speech from the March on Washington. I hoped to show this King, the man who knew his time would likely end soon.
Martin Luther King, Jr.—Prologue
In the beginning
was a boat, swollen
with humans, history
would call slaves.
The men who loved
these boats thought
they knew Jesus.
They prayed Jesus,
they ate Jesus. Their
boat cut the waters
like a whip, leaving
a weeping scent
in its churning wake.
The moon lit
the water around
the boat, but the moon
did not light the boat.
The boat worked
through the waters
in the dark.
Now the boat is dust.
A man came
who was not a slave.
He was not the moon,
its light, or the water.
Like the boats before him,
he too cut the water.
But he was not
the whip. He had
bones the whip
could not reach.
But he was not
the bones. He had
light to cut
the darkness. But he
was not the light. He
met the darkness
when the whip became
The man stood
and the bullet came.
His bones are dust
but the man
Copyright © 2020 by Joseph Ross. Used by permission of the author.
In Christology you take on King’s voice. It’s an excellent poem and you hit the note of his essence. Here’s my question: How did you reconcile taking on his voice being a white gay man?
I take on Dr. King’s voice in several poems throughout Raising King because I wanted to dig deeper into his thinking about specific moments and ideas. I wanted to get a closer look into his thinking. It’s a little bit of the idea that urges writers to “write the book you want to read.” I know it’s a risk to write in the voice of someone whose life experience differs greatly from one’s own. I understand that concern. I also believe deeply that if more people know Dr. King’s life and work then we are more likely to build the just and peaceful world he imagined. His critique of American culture, his vision of “the world house,” and “the beloved community” matter today. But so few people know his life beyond the I Have a Dream speech. When I weigh those concerns, to me, it was clear that I wanted to make his ideas more known. So, you can see the conclusion I reached. I went ahead and stepped into his voice.
When writing in another’s voice, it’s crucial that you know that voice. You have to understand his ideas and his sentiments. The voice has to be true. To those who suggest that I shouldn’t have done this, I would humbly ask them to read the poems and see if they sound honest. Are they true to Dr. King’s vision? I hope they are.
In the poem Christology, I also wanted to show that Dr. King’s vision emerges directly from his faith in Jesus of Nazareth. Today, I think that many Christian churches have distorted Jesus’ vision with a conservative American vision. It can be almost embarrassing to call one’s self a Christian. Yet Dr. King was a committed Christian, he believed that the life of Jesus of Nazareth has something to say to us. Dr. King’s Christian faith is not primarily about sexual ethics in the way that some Christians think today. From looking at American Christianity today, one might think that Jesus of Nazareth was only about matters of sexual ethics. Dr. King’s Christianity presents a challenge to American culture, it doesn’t blindly affirm it, as some Christians today think it should.
Have you had any comments about that and if so, what have they been?
I have been asked in a couple of other interviews about writing in Dr. King’s voice and, as I say, I respect the concern. I do not think it is a concern to all poetry readers. But I do understand it.
I also take the voice of Coretta Scott King in three poems. Each section of Raising King, ends with a poem in her voice. To me, if we were going to hear Dr. King’s voice, we needed to hear her voice too. These three poems serve as a kind of Greek chorus closing each section. Dr. King couldn’t have lived the compassionate and prophetic life he lived without her. She has to be part of this too.
I strongly believe that an excellent, empathetic writer/poet/playwright/actor, etc. can transcend or overcome any wall or barrier of a different soul other than oneself. Have audiences recognized that?
I believe that too. I think empathy, joined with study, understanding, and compassion can lift up the voice of another, even when one’s life experience differs from that voice. We are all different and unique. Every human person has a distinct experience of the world. I know that I will never fully understand Dr. King’s life. No one fully understands anyone else’s life. But when I weigh making his life more known again not writing the poems at all, I chose the risk.
I think many readers have recognized Dr. King in these poems. Because the book has launched during the pandemic, the readings have been online. Yet many people have voiced positive responses to the poems. Several people who are scholars of the civil rights movement have endorsed the book, and Dr. King’s estate gave permission for his words to be used preceding each poem. So, I’m hopeful the poems are true to his voice and vision.
Which section was the most challenging and why? Which poem illustrates this?
The poems in the book’s third section were more difficult to write than the others because his ideas there are more nuanced and complex. In Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Dr. King writes about more complicated situations of injustice: the war in Viet Nam, the Black independence movements around the world, and his multi-layered critique of American culture. The complexity of his ideas here made those poems harder to write. A poem that illustrates this is The Giant Triplets. This poem resulted in five sections because I felt the need to write about each of the Triplets, racism, materialism, and militarism. These are not the most poetic ideas. They don’t give themselves naturally to an image. The poems in this section were tougher to write.
The poem Our Names speaks about select fear. What came to my mind now is the Black Lives Matter movement. Did you by chance have that in mind when you wrote the poem?
While I was thinking of the Black Lives Matter movement in many of these poems, I wasn’t specifically thinking of it in Our Names. In the early meetings when Montgomery’s Black ministers organized the Montgomery Improvement Association, they actually considered hiding the leaders’ names. Dr. King recalled this specifically in Stride Toward Freedom. They were warned against this by one of the ministers. The genesis of this poem is the actual fear, as you noted in your question, that they keep their names secret. But the deeper reality became clear to the ministers pretty quickly. They had to stand up and use their own names.
The Day of Days
“The Day of Days, December 5”
Stride Toward Freedom, p. 41
You plan and call and organize
and prepare for every eventuality
but you never know what will come.
“My wife and I woke earlier than usual”
and I was afraid. I was still saying
“if we could get 60%” I would be
satisfied. In my mind, buses rolled
by with Black people atop the bus
and hanging from windows, dragging
their feet. White men and women
filled the bus laughing, doubled-
over laughing. What was I
thinking would happen?
“I was in the kitchen” whispering
over a cup of coffee when
I heard Coretta cry “Martin, Martin,
come quickly.” I stopped praying
and ran into the living room
breathing like an army.
“A slowly moving bus” rolled
down our street like a hearse,
the casket still years away.
Coretta sang into my faithlessness,
“Darling, it’s empty.” I could
hardly believe it. Sometimes
believing and knowing have to
happen at the same time.
Copyright © 2020 by Joseph Ross. Used by permission.
The poem Sheet, Cross, and Flame about the KKK really strikes me as a very Christian poem—like Jesus who had to bless his enemies which led Jesus, according to Christian teachings, to say love and pray for your enemies. I’m wondering not so much about MLKJr’s up bringing but your own. What kind of religious background do you have? And how has it shaped your voice as a poet?
My religious background definitely shapes my voice as a poet. I was raised Catholic and served as a priest in the Congregation of Holy Cross for some years. The language of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, as well as the language of rituals, is embedded deeply in my voice as a poet. While today I have more questions than answers when it comes to faith, the language of scripture, rituals, prayers, and sacraments is still my language. My life has led me to my real vocation as a poet, but I will not sacrifice the language of spirituality to a religious institution. Many people love spiritual and religious language even if they do not love a religious institution. Think of the image of Mary standing beneath the cross as her son is executed. That is a powerful human image. I use it in the poem Our Lady of Sorrows Come to Birmingham 2 to voice the pain of Virgil Ware’s mother. He was a thirteen-year-old boy killed in Birmingham by two white boys on a motorcycle, just hours after the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed. That image, the pieta, reaches across cultures and spiritualities. That language lives in me, for certain.
The poem When a Church Burns is laced with Christ references. Do you think that with time more people will see King in the pantheon of world messiahs, in the sense of affecting the world’s psyche. People who transcend their actions more than by their words to a point that we see them walking with Jesus Christ come to mind such as Gandhi, Sister Teresa, to name a few.
The poem When a Church Burns is definitely “laced’ as you say, with Christ references. What I’m working with there is the image of the church as the body of Christ. So, when one burns a church, if we really believe the church is the body of Christ, then one disfigures the body of Christ itself.
To your other point, I do think people see that Dr. King matters to the whole world. I don’t know if it’s messianic but in a limited sense it is. I think many people think that if Dr. King’s vision were in place, it would, in a sense, “save” the world. He certainly is seen in many cultures around the world as one whose life teaches us what it means to be human, as individuals and nations. Dr. King is in the calendar of saints of the Episcopal Church and of the Anglican Church.
Dr. King was profoundly impacted by Gandhi and his nonviolence. He saw Gandhi’s “march to the sea,” his “salt march” as an excellent example of what people united in a cause can do.
In "We" you reference Gandhi and use the metaphor of people becoming the salt is simply superb.
When one decided
to march, eventually
one thousand decided
to march and they became
The salt that can heal open wounds, with it stinging healing powers.
Like the proverb: Divided we fall, united we stand is powerful.
I hope people will remember that Dr. King was not super-human or floating in a world somehow above us. He was human. He made choices, some good some less good. But because he was human, we can learn from his life and the takeaway might be that we can all do what he did. We can all speak truth to power, we can all organize to create a better world. He didn’t have an extra gene or magic chromosome. He was just like us. That means that we can all work together to build a world that is more just and peaceful.
Is there a comment you would like to make that you feel needs to be mentioned that we haven’t already touched on?
Thank you for these thoughtful questions, Robert. I hope these poems help. I hope these poems remind us of our collective responsibility to build the “world house.” It is, as Dr. King would say, just us. We can make choices that uplift us all, or we can make choices that degrade us all. I agree that we need more Dr. Kings in the world. But we are here. We just have to choose and act.
I also see a longing in the United States for a more humble, competent, and just society. We have so much poverty, so many weapons, so much hunger. I hope these poems will enable others to see in Martin King a man who chose to live for love. If he did it, we can too.
Thank you, Joe. You have blessed us with a unique window into the life and inner thoughts of a great man and leader not only for his people but for the world. We so desperately need more Martin Luther King Jr.’s in our world today.
I see a longing for this country to turn from the vile hatred unleashed by our president, but I hope that your book will add to the current movement to bring the change that we need today.
Martin King Speaks of Ralph Abernathy
“I pulled off my shirt and pants, got into work clothes and went back to the other room to tell them I had decided to go to jail. ‘I do not know what will happen ... But I have to make a faith act.’”
I turned to Ralph Abernathy.
‘I know you want to be in your pulpit on Easter Sunday, Ralph. But I am asking you to go with me.’”
Why We Can’t Wait
I knew what he would say
before I asked him.
But asking is my religion.
He shook his head and
smiled, like he always does.
He spoke in the language
of brother. In the dialect
of love. He knew
the buoyancy of a decision
made. He knew I did too.
Once you say it,
the doing is easier.
Once you do it,
your body floats
Copyright © 2020 by Joseph Ross. Used by permission.
Nominated for a 2021 Pushcart Prize
The Mountain Top
“ . . . I have been to the mountain top. And I’ve seen the promised land. I might not get there with you but we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
—Memphis, April 3, 1968
An exhaustion rests on my skin
like sweat. Tonight I am
afire with this truth: I and we
are one. Whether I see certain
victory does not matter anymore.
Whether my children see it
is all that matters. That the children
of Memphis see it, is enough.
Tonight I am alive with this
comfort. I can let it all go.
The worst fear will eventually
come true. I will not know
its day and time until it is
here. Even then, I might not
know it. Tonight I am released
with this glory. My own eyes
have seen it. Tonight I am at peace
with this terror.
Copyright © 2020 by Joseph Ross. Used by permission.
About the Author
Joseph Ross is the author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020), Ache (2017), Gospel of Dust (2013) and Meeting Bone Man (2012). His poems appear in many places including, The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, Poet Lore, Xavier Review, Southern Quarterly and
Julia E. Sullivan
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 142
Pacific Northwest Territories
At the sound of Chocolate Bar’s deep-throated growl, Jack scrambled to his feet and grabbed the Hawken rifle leaning against a scrubby white bark pine. He found the dog crouched at the foot of a massive basaltic boulder, baring his teeth at a buff-colored mountain lion. The cat had been stalking him, all day, all the way up a steep ridgeline overlooking Hells Canyon, but Jack was surprised at the predator’s boldness now, venturing so close to his camp.
The cat let out a hair-raising howl, high-pitched and apocryphal, the kind of sound Jack imagined he’d hear the day he finally arrived in actual Hell. The dog’s growl was a low, dull rumble, like distant thunder gathering momentum. Jack’s mule, Hammertoe, shuddered and bucked at the end of her picket line. Her instinct was to run, but the picket kept her moving in useless, infuriating circles.
Jack wedged the Hawken’s worn maple stock between his shoulder and his cheek, aiming at the mountain lion’s chest. He felt the rifle’s long tang and cold trigger against his finger, but he didn’t pull. The cat was such a beautiful thing, so sleek and daring and dangerous.
Jack had loved mountain lions ever since the day he saw sitting on top of a giant saguaro cactus. For all their beauty, all the elegance in their movements, all the heat in their fiery eyes, cats sometimes made spectacularly bad decisions. Jack, whose life had been one bad decision after another, understood the astonishment, the bewilderment, the futile regret of that cat on top of the cactus, almost as if they were kin.
He hollered—“Hey! Hey! Hey!“ —and fired the gun in the air. The muscular cat took the warning and bounded away.
Chocolate Bar, about the same size as the cat, chased after her, snarling and full of bloodlust, but the dog couldn’t hope to match the mountain lion’s retreating speed. The big cat flew to the top of a rocky outcropping, fifteen feet or more in a single leap, and disappeared in the fading light just as silently as she’d arrived. Chocolate Bar ran back and forth from Jack to the high, bony shelf where the cat had escaped, moaning and sniffing every footmark she’d left. Hammertoe trembled, brayed, and reared against her taut picket line.
Jack stood in a patch of wild buckwheat, holding the hot-barreled rifle, breathing in gun smoke. “You’d have died gloriously if you’d caught her,“ he told the dog, “but you’d have died all the same.“
Chocolate Bar yowled and whined and refused to come when Jack called him.
“I’m not drunk,“ he told the insolent dog. “I missed her on purpose.“
Chocolate Bar stared at him doubtfully, but it was the truth.
Jack sat down on a dusty boulder, surrounded by mountains with names like He Devil, She Devil, Ogre, Goblin, Devil’s Throne, Mount Belial, and Twin Imps. Vertical walls of rock, covered with pictographs and petroglyphs, plunged thousands of feet from the high shelf where Jack had stopped for the night to the Snake River crashing through the narrow gorge below. He wondered how the ancient Indians had climbed those sheer canyon walls with their pots of ochre paint to record births and deaths and plagues on the face of the canyon wall. He wondered how a spider could hang on there.
He took his supper from a pretty silver flask. Eventually, the truculent dog settled down beside him. He pulled pine needles, sticks, pebbles, and bits of grass from the dog’s bushy tail and used oil to remove gobs of sticky sap from the thick black fur around his neck. Forgetting his grievance, Chocolate Bar rolled over so that Jack could scratch his tummy.
“Sometimes I think God put cats and women on this earth for the specific purpose of humbling men like us,“ Jack told the dog, picking up their earlier conversation. “He knew full well how they’d taunt us.“
The dog stretched and sighed.
“You mustn’t ever let them see your desperation, though,“ he said. “No whining. No moaning. No panting if you can help it.“
Chocolate Bar closed his eyes.
Three days earlier, Jack couldn’t have imagined he’d find himself camped in the wilderness, chasing Indians. Then again, three days earlier, his father’s house hadn’t been burned to the ground by the Nez Perce. Rescuers combed through the smoking wreckage with rakes and shovels, searching for Sally’s corpse, but it proved a futile task. If she was inside that house when the conflagration went up, her remains would never be identified. The fire burned too blistering hot, reducing every shingle, every beam, every stick of furniture to cinders. Door hinges, jewelry, silverware, even pots and pans had been melted. Window glass had liquefied and cooled in iridescent pools beneath the ash. All that remained were two stone chimneys, facing each other across the wreckage like forgotten sentinels.
Witnesses saw an Indian fleeing the scene. Nobody mentioned a hostage, but that didn’t mean the Indian hadn’t taken Sally with him, in which case she might still be rescued. After sending the heartbreaking telegram to his father, who was meeting with the Governor in Boise at the time, Jack went out on his own to try to find his step-mother. Now he was camped on the ridge overlooking a stretch of Hells Canyon which the local band of Nez Perce would have to traverse if they wanted to join the other hostiles in White Bird Canyon.
Sally was the only mother Jack remembered, and though she could drop the temperature in a room ten degrees just by walking in, she wasn’t exactly unkind. When Jack’s father laid him low, Sally would bring cold compresses into Jack’s room and ask about his “fall.“ When his father spent the night with one of his whores, Jack would sit beside Sally on the porch and pretend not to notice her muffled whimpers, amplified by darkness.
Jack and his stepmother shared, if not affection, then at least the kind of connection that bound strangers together who had lived through the same catastrophe. They’d both met the devil, smoking a meerschaum pipe. They walked the same tightrope, suspended above the same black abyss.
Jack’s father, Robert Peniel, wasn’t a bad man entirely. When Jack was a boy, his father would rise early each morning to start the fires, which would be blazing by the time Jack stumbled out of his room with his clothes in his arms to dress before the kitchen hearth. Peniel would be scalding his throat with coffee by then, measuring flour and lard into a bowl for biscuits, which he always insisted on making himself. Biscuits were too important to trust to Sally, who made them hard and dry, “like turds,“ Peniel would say in an oft-repeated rant.
Breakfast would be a gluttonous affair, with eggs fried in butter and thick slabs of bacon slathered with maple syrup and peaches fixed with cloves and soaked in brandy. Peniel’s biscuits came out of the oven steaming hot so the honey melted and ran down Jack’s chin.
Peniel, who’d barely slept the night before, would read aloud from the Lewiston Telegraph, whose publisher was a friend, or from well-thumbed volumes by Tennyson, Keats, Wordsworth, Whitman, Shelley, and other sensualists, with his spectacles perched on his shark-fin nose. The man could be charming when he wanted.
Those early hours always felt like an unspoken apology for whatever outrages Peniel had committed the night before, but after the pattern repeated itself a certain number of times, Jack realized it was nothing of the sort. Those seemingly happy mornings were the bare minimum that Peniel had to do to keep Sally from leaving him and taking with her the cloak of respectability the marriage to a southern white woman provided. It wasn’t happiness; it was blackmail. Still, Jack enjoyed the food.
Jack learned early in life that sometimes it was best not to ask too many questions. A lie was oftentimes preferable to an unpleasant truth. A good lie had to be delivered brazenly, unashamedly, with its shoulders thrust back and its chin tipped up, the way Jack’s father did it. It needed a few small bits of truth woven into the tapestry so that one could use those pieces and parts to construct an image that resembled something that might have been true under other circumstances. A lie had to be alluring. It had to seduce you, irresistibly. There had to be artistry in it — beauty, almost.
Jack only ever knew one person who didn’t seem to understand, let alone appreciate, the benefits of prevarication. Motsqueh and Jack were six years old when they met at an orphanage where Jack’s father had left him for a while. The two boys sat beneath a giant cedar tree for hours, companionably mute, until they were called for a cold but plentiful supper. The next day they played “quiet“ again, but this time Jack’s friend broke the silence, forfeiting the match.
“Take a breath,“ Motsqueh said. “Now let it out . . . Now take another breath . . . Now let it out . . . Now take another breath but hold it.“
Jack held his breath for one, two, three seconds.
“Now let it out. See? That didn’t hurt, did it? My mother died just like that. She was breathing and then she wasn’t. The next breath never came.“
“I didn’t see my mother die,“ Jack said.
“Maybe she’s not dead.“
Motsqueh was like that. Tell him the mountains were created by an invisible trickster named Coyote, or that Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary, and he believed it unhesitatingly, but tell him that the paint on the porch rail was wet, or that someone you knew had died, and he had to see it for himself, or at least interview three eyewitnesses.
If Motsqueh had been around after Jack went to live with Sally and his father, he never would have believed the nonsense about Jack’s “falls.“ The two boys could have played quiet, and Jack could have told his friend everything, and Motsqueh would have told his older brother, Tiloukaikt, who would have done something about it. Maybe the two Cayuse would have helped Jack hide in the mountains, where he wouldn’t have had to bend over for anyone. But Motsqueh died of measles when the boys were only eight, and his brother, Tiloukaikt, killed the doctor with an axe, and was hanged before a cheering crowd. One day Jack whispered his secret into an empty tobacco tin, quickly tapped on the lid, and buried it next to Motsqueh and Tiloukaikt in the ground, which seemed to help, at least for a little while.
After Motsqueh died, Jack found that he was one instead of two, and though he hadn’t studied his numbers much at that point, he understood that one wasn’t half of two. One wasn’t even one billionth of two.
The more Jack thought about Motsqueh, the more other people disappointed him. At boarding schools, apprenticeships, church socials, Jack always found himself standing slightly apart. He was the fish in a jar. The white crow in a flock of black ones. The pine scion ludicrously grafted onto an apple tree. He was always carrying things—a block of clay, a plaster mold, an empty bucket sometimes—as a buffer between himself and the people he might bump into on the street. He stared down at his shoes a lot. When someone tried to be friendly, he stared down at their shoes.
As the years rolled by, Jack found that things were easier, and so much more lyrical, when the whiskey flowed. Sure, his art had suffered. Sure, he’d lost Jessica. Sure, his hands shook and his stomach hurt almost all the time. And yet the whiskey kept him company. It covered up an overwhelming sense of loneliness that sometimes felt catastrophic. It made him forget that his name was Jack and that he slept alone in a cavernous studio with only a kiln and a forge for warmth at night. Like a beautiful woman or a worthy lie, good whiskey demanded his appreciation. Then it kicked him in the teeth.
“Damn it all,“ he said out loud. He reached for the Hawken, poured powder down the barrel, added a patched iron ball, and pulled hammer back to half-cock. He laid the gun in a rocky crevice, within easy reach.
When the Nez Perce outbreak began, Jack promised his father he’d drive Sally’s carriage to Fort Lapwai and leave her there in the care of friends, but instead he passed out on his straw mattress with an empty bottle in his hand. A messenger woke him with the news that his father’s house had been torched.
The idea that Sally had been kidnapped rather than killed was a notion hatched by desperation more than rational thought. He sensed the cresting of a massive wave, and only this tiny, mad idea—that Sally was still alive—somehow kept it from breaking over and smashing him to bits.
He stripped to his stocking feet and cotton union suit and lay beneath the darkening sky with the Hawken rifle close. The canyon was noisy with tree frogs and boreal toads, screeching hawks and hooting owls, and the Snake River grinding through the deep gorge down below.
Lying in the unquiet dark, thinking about Sally, he fell into a hazy dream in which he’d somehow rescued her, and delivered her safely back to Lewiston. In the dream, he could hear people murmuring that perhaps they’d misjudged him all those years, that perhaps he wasn’t as frivolous as many of them had believed, that sometimes he acted as white as any man. He was wearing a hat that he’d constructed entirely from orange peels, and this, too, seemed to impress the people in the crowd. Even his father seemed pleased with him for once. But naturally, and in due course, he woke up alone in the wilderness, almost embarrassed by the absurdity—the transparent neediness—of the dream. Chocolate Bar looked at him with such sympathy, Jack couldn’t help concluding that even the dog found him pathetic.
“You probably dreamed you caught and killed that mountain lion,“ Jack said, “but you don’t see me pitying you for it.“
Chocolate Bar stood up and stretched.
“Half of life is hope, and that’s the half that sustains the rest,“ he said. “She might still be alive.“
The dog ambled to a tree, lifted his leg, and trotted off.
Copyright © 2020 by Julia E. Sullivan.
From Bone Necklace which will be published by Brandylane in 2021.
About the Author
Julia E. Sullivan is a lawyer and an avid horsewoman. She began work on this material in 1999, after visiting the Big Hole Battlefield in Wisdom, Montana. She spent years researching the Nez Perce War in the National Archives (reading the handwritten war correspondence and military reports); consuming past and present published and unpublished accounts and histories of the war; and finally, working with the former Chief of the General Council of the Nez Perce tribe. She published a scholarly article in the Idaho Law Review based upon some of my research back in 2004.
An early draft of Bone Necklace titled Blue Star Horse was a finalist in the 2015 Pacific Northwest Writers Association novel competition and a subsequent draft was long-listed in the 2016 Exeter novel competition.