Beauty can be a weapon, but people can forget that beauty is not the only weapon. Religion can be a weapon. Money. The voices of a crowd behind you. Patti Alexander, despite small symmetrical portions of her face and a body that alternatively swelled or cinched like a gentle, static wave – Patti was not beautiful. Her body was heavy and brown, covered in so much black hair that her eyebrows met to form a single line in the middle of her forehead. She had a Roman nose that pronounced an ugly sophistication, heavy with intellectualism. Outlined with thick, black lashes, her dark eyes were intense and focused like they were all pupil. There was nothing soft there. Nothing feminine.
People normally want their holy women to be motherly. To be cradled against the ills of the world by breasts as light as pillows. Robes shifted by a soft wind and the fluttering of satin fingertips against your lips. But I worshipped Patti and she was the opposite; she loomed over me like a cold stone. Distant and ever rolling further away despite how long I followed the fall. I knew Patti was remarkable before I found out that she was the first person to know G-d. Truly. Many people have claimed to find something holy, but Patti had actually captured it. She kept the Supreme It, or ”Is” more appropriately, in a mason jar like a firefly. I know because I spent most nights bent down on all fours in between her bushes, peering down at her from a skinny, rectangular basement window.
As with all things, the path that led her to the truth was mathematics. It broke in a crescendo of tiny epiphanies, with a violence and clarity that comes from sudden loss. Rolled in as an expanse of numbers so thick it blocked out all light and sound.
I want to make it clear from the start that I did not and still do not purport to remotely understand it. I only saw it glowing in the corner of her basement, faint but pulsating, in a color that was all colors at once and thus not one at all.
It is amazing how you can see something with your own eyes and still not even come close to understanding it. To describing it. I do not have the right wiring to comprehend everything I saw. I just emanate with feeling; inexpressible, savage feeling. I suppose I’d call it ‘awe’. How sad.
Patti lived alone in a yellow ranch house on the cul-de-sac of Euclid Drive. Five days a week, she left the house for eight hours a day to work as a librarian at the largest library in the nation, if not the world. Other than that, she lived in her basement among the books and loose papers. She was one of those people who had very few friends but a lot of acquaintances. I was an acquaintance of hers; I was her next-door neighbor. I’d see her come home from work or walking across her square of lawn to get her mail. We’d say hi. Sometimes I’d make empty comments about how hot or cold it was and she’d half-smile. We once went to the same fundraiser for Governor Atreus but she came late and I was already drunk so I don’t remember much of the conversation. All I know is that she was much younger than me but not shy in the way that most young girls are. I watched her walk straight up to the Governor to tell him her thoughts on this place we occupy in the world. At first, he seemed taken aback as he smiled shallowly at her but, as the haze of my drunkenness thickened, I could swear I saw the moment he began actually listening to this strange young woman.
I watched her from afar for about a year before I started visiting her house at night. The first time was almost an accident. I was standing in my living room on a Sunday evening and happened to look out the bay window that faced out across my yard towards her house. It was the point of the day where all the yellows drain from the sky and everything seemed purple and grey. I had just got back from a meeting and my house lay still and dark. The only light I saw came from a slit at the base of her house, like a tiny horizon. Something quiet pulled me there, shoeless across the cool grass. What was she doing in there?
Each time, I would lean down in the dirt on my stomach, with my face in the brambles of scented acacia that flanked her house. I’d breathe slower and more deliberately. I’d watch her routine in her unfurnished basement: a grey cell with one table outlined by books and papers and words and numbers. The pencil she’d wind inside her wily hair when she was thinking. A single naked light hung above her head but there was a soft glow from the bottom of a shelf against the far corner. She’d sit there for hours tracing the lines on each paper with her black eyes. Occasionally, she’d try to organize her thoughts in lines on another paper.
What is the primeval source of being if not definition? Writers try to capture it with words, artists with images, the Egyptians with symbols, religions with rituals and sacrifices, with law, and formulas, and when nothing else works, we fall back onto a vague belief in ‘something more’, a belief in love. In G-d as words have allowed in their limited capacity. We have all been wrong. Patti found It Is in numbers, in the lines we make to understand internal workings of the abstract machinations of life. I’d stay there watching her for hours, until it was black outside and my body ached. When I got up, the front of my shirt and khakis would be damp. At home, I would take off my clothes and stand naked in front of the mirror, the mystery of Patti lumped in my throat as I looked at the lines and angles of my body. Eventually, I would close my eyes and swallow.
Visiting her became my hobby – something to do outside in the real world. Soon after I began frequenting her basement window, I moved my desk from my office to the bay window that faced her yellow house. My window to her window. I worked from home as a web designer and I would sit at my desk, my screen framed by the glowing scene of her empty house. She was gone, of course, most days at work but I could watch for her movements in the evenings and on weekends.
My latest client was Cyril al-Kawakib. He was an Imam and quite a powerful community leader. He hired me to make him a website for the new mosque being built in town. To help fundraise, to market it, and to preserve the history of its origins. It was quite controversial – the site where the mosque was being built was one block removed from the site of a relatively recent terrorist attack. The opening was supposed to occur in conjunction with a large celebratory parade and consequently a large protest against the mosque and the Muslim presence near this national historic site in general. While life had seemed to carry on each day in blind routine, underneath the surface there was a tension building – a taut line weighted on one side by al-Kawakib and the other by Atreus. Imam and Governor. Cyril and Warren.
At our first meeting, while we talked about the delicate balance this website would need to strike in order not to incite further animosity while still accomplishing its financial and cultural goals, Cyril told me that he knows that people’s feelings change with time but that time is relative. Then he said, “And stasis is just an illusion of time.”
I can’t say for certain how long things continued to build. When you work from home, you can lose track of the days. Patti continued her schedule like clockwork. She might not have acted like she noticed or cared about me watching her, unblinkingly, but there was an undeniable telepathic connection. We met in dreams. There was an intensity with which I felt towards her – a love intoxicated or maybe ensnared, the pressure in my chest like something inside is pushing outward to the light. All I felt were her eyes, I followed their path and the lines they created. This infatuation was rooted in mystery. It was like a pearl inside an oyster. Sometimes you have to pry your way inside to get to something good. Time ran unevenly; in patches of lugubrious lonely hours, blanched by the sun and occasionally punctuated by fleeting moments of her shadow looming large over my racing heart.
All the time Patti and I became more entwined in each other, there were increasing problems between the local government and the religious group headed by Imam al-Kawakib. There was difficulty defining what was right in this situation. There were issues of public funding and religious freedom and separation of church and state. There seemed to be two dissenting peaks and a large, immobile grey valley between. I lived in that valley of apathy but kept a hand on each mountain (one on my website and one on my Patti). I was an important man in my valley. King of the Hills.
One Sunday afternoon, I was dragging my recyclables and garbage out to the curb for pick-up on Monday morning and I looked up the street to notice Patti’s green bins waiting patiently on the sidewalk. Again, I cannot describe what pulled me there besides an insatiable urge to find out what was inside. There were the usual sights and smells – used coffee filters, bits of rinds and animals skulls (fish and what was perhaps a lamb). Snippets of paper which included: old notes that had been scribbled to illegibility, paper towels, and this week’s newspaper with an image of her in a group of people huddled around the honorable Governor. The image was above an article entitled Don’t Rain on Our Parade: Public Unrest about Mosque that quoted Atreus as saying that he wouldn’t let religious pressure dictate his political decisions, blah, blah. Patti’s grey smiling face full of numbers and lines and logic.
There were also an unusually large amount of pages covered in numbers, equations, and astrological maps. One scrap read –
THE NOUS –
The original Being initially throws out the nous,
which is a perfect image of the One
and the archetype of all existing things.
It is simultaneously both being and thought,
idea and ideal world.
As image, the nous corresponds perfectly to the One,
but as derivative, it is entirely different.
Hinges creaked and I looked up to see Patti standing at the threshold. We stood looking at each other in silence for a moment: her beneath the screen of her front door and me with a handful of her garbage.
She finally said, “I heard a noise. I had to investigate.”
I nodded. Placing her garbage back into the bin, I shrugged and told her, “I was only looking.”
I smiled and said goodbye. Patti said nothing, stood there watching me as I turned away and moved across my lawn back into my house. The distance seemed shorter than it had ever been before. When I was safe inside, I knelt down so that just my eyes cleared the edge of the bay window. I watched her stand there for a moment, with her door half ajar, stoic and graceful as a marble statue. Her smooth young face was again static and grey. You could see the thinking happening inside. Finally, she shut her door and her inside light flicked on. I shifted off my knees and pressed my back against the wall underneath my window. I folded up into myself and breathed deep, swallowing hard. Nous – her and me. We. Oui.
The next day, I went to seven different antique stores before I found an astrolabe. It looked like it was made of worn brass, with dark etching in its corners, and the slight degradation of metal like a hand had held it innumerable times before. Molded to a specific touch. I sent it to her in the mail with a note that read – I read you in the stars – Mr. Lector.
I waited each day the mailman came and waned on dour Sundays. For two weeks, anticipation daily pinched and played with my feeble heart until it finally arrived on her doorstep in the small box I had covered with brown paper. In the evening, she picked it up coolly on her way inside like there was always something waiting for her to get home.
The anticipation came back; this time it happened when she moved in between her house and driveway. But, for days, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary. I made slow progress with the website and eventually left my house (my post) to meet with Cyril and show him the results. He was pleased but distracted; there had been some singular acts of violence against his parish by people opposing the mosque and its celebration. After an hour of listing out changes Cyril requested, I left.
It was night by the time I pulled in my driveway so I didn’t see her present until I had climbed up my steps and it was directly in front of my face. She had taken the time to nail it to my door. It was a used menstrual pad. The astrolabe hung off the nail that kept it on my door. She left no note – this plastic and cotton rectangle was supposed to say everything within itself. When I lifted it off, I felt that it still had enough gel on the back to stick to my hand. Some things have such soft lines like a puddle of blood, like the outline of a stain that seeped completely through. It was carnal. Ugly but beautiful, like everything unsaid and inside.
I don’t pretend to understand the inner workings of my fickle heart but I do know that I could not sleep that night. I held the pad close to my heart like a Bible and stared at the ceiling in the pitch-black. There was something tangible in my hands that men usually don’t see – a magical place that creates us all. My mind and heart were racing and I felt like crawling out of my skin. I sat up to turn on the TV. The first thing to come on was the news and within a few seconds, there she was, in a crowd behind the Governor. Her blank face was serious and unwavering. The camera moved, its focus always on Atreus and his emphatic expressions but she was omnipresent like a black vastness.
It was a sign. Her face drilled a hole through space and time to me and it was that something holy that pushed me across the midnight grass into the sanctuary of her basement. I broke the screen and the glass of her front door and reached through to unlock its mystery. I didn’t spend time wandering the rooms, because I knew the only important room was her basement, where she did all her thinking and all her creating.
I sat there waiting for her. Her usual clockwork was broken, she didn’t come home the entire following day and evening. I was still wide-awake, and I spent my time among her books and papers, reading everything I could, trying to take it all in. When night once again fell, I realized my exhaustion. Picking up the jar, I sat at her table and watched it move in amorphous rainbow undulations. Where were we in all of this? She was with him and I was here and everything was moving into and away from itself.
She got home soon after and called into the night, “Hello? Who’s there?”
“Is anybody there?”
Attracted to the fluorescence of her single bulb, she cautiously approached the top of the stairwell. I didn’t turn to look though I felt her moving closer. My throat tightened and I swallowed hard against the tears. She asked my name to the room and moved slowly down the stairs. Again. “Peter?”
“What is this?” The question came out too loud and I pointed daftly at the jar.
“It’s none of your business.”
“Did you make it?”
“It made me.” Easy, simple.
“What? What do you mean? Like G-d?”
“Your(e) god,” She retorted lowly, clasping her hands around the glass body. Moving away, Patti placed the jar gently back on the bottom shelf.
“Did you say your or you are apostrophe?”
She didn’t answer. Her black back was to me, her hijab curved over the light.
“Why does he even listen to you?”
“What – He?”
“Governor Atreus. “ I spat pathetically. “Warren.” I was sitting on her stool, sad and limp.
She turned around and her eyes surrounded me in a claustrophobic night. I moved uncomfortably on the stool, shifting but never losing her gaze. There was a hate, there was a power there. Inner sanctum. “It’s not sex if that’s what you’re thinking. [a hard pause] He sees value in my ideas.”
“This world is only made of ideas.” I said these words without knowing what I meant.
When she said – “Mr. Lector, you need to leave.” – I started to cry, a wet grown-man sob like quiet but heavy hiccups, trying to exercise something deep inside. Nothing in her softened. Her body was rigid, hard lines swelling thick and black. Her eyes, a midnight path in an autumn wood.
When I got home, I sat in my chair facing the screen of my life and hers. I have no idea how long I stared blankly at the screen before I realized that there was an email waiting for me from the Imam. There was a rally that night against the Governor’s decision to not permit the parade. In a haze, I moved in the night, not fully awake to the world around me. Inside the mosque, there was madness, blurred madness. There was anger and yelling and bodies moving together in a thick swirl of colors and excitement. Who was responsible for all of this? How do we make this better?
It was simple. I offered up the sacrifice. I stood up. I said, “I know who is responsible for this. I know where to find her.”
Patti was not beautiful. And she didn’t have religion or many friends and only limited access to power through the conduit of Governor Atreus. All she had to protect herself was her intelligence and her proximity to an ultimate truth. But smarts cannot overpower brawn. And truth rarely can protect itself against fear. Patti had played a game not realizing.
The crowd, or I should say we, – we removed her from her home but she broke free. We followed her, first to the shore and then we chased her down to the Seafood Factory. I was the apex, the head leading these bodies – shoes pounding on the pavement, we moved as one, flowing towards Patti like she contained a wide-open space inside her. We got her quickly cornered on the dock where the hot smell of oil and secret animal insides from the canning of oysters became faded by the wind from the sea. Motion-sensor lights outside the factory struck her like a spotlight.
Isn’t it funny how things are pretty arbitrarily? Pearls are just calcium deposits of some amorphous beings that live inside old rocks. Sweet salty insides. What makes these stones pretty? The gloss? The white in a dark world?
Patti turned to face the crazed, breathless mob with her face like an inkblot against the emerald water. It was silent for a moment except for the breaking waves. Finally, she screamed “What?” and she kept repeating it as the hands began to fall on her in an angry, cresting swell. I paused; the crowd had more momentum and it rushed around me cordiform. Something inside me had broke. I was breathing very heavily and blinking repeatedly. Stasis is an illusion of time.
To kill someone instantly, with a shot or a snap or a force that stops the heart or blows out the last breath, is a blessing. It is Mercy incarnate. The mob used the dull, discarded oyster shells to basically rub the skin off of Patti’s face. Like the smooth, round rocks you’d use to skip on a lake, these shucked shells bludgeoning the flesh until it gave way, until her legs and arms stripped bare to the bone. I was there, outside it all and I did nothing. I could do nothing. There was no way to penetrate the force of that circle around her, the nucleus. I stood frozen but pulsating like G-d in a jar. She was too far away; she was covered by a shell of indignant arms.
But where was the heart? The Core of her flesh? All I saw was what they left – her arms, her legs and her head.
What I remember most were the screams (all guttural, no words) and the blunt, wet sound of a thousand hands falling on her body. Inside, I asked – Am I hallucinating? Is this real? I blink and the world gives way. Stilted frames. I can’t focus hard enough. Everything fades to grey. Where am I? How can I orient myself when everything is always moving? Growing? Did I ingest some chemical – is it inside me now, altering flows and levels, eschewing the colors and shapes in front of me? I can feel the light pulsating from inside the circle. I can feel my finger pointing.
I hear her voice – it’s far away – “Peter.”
I can see time slipping away – it beats to the pulse of a glowing foreign heart.
“Peter – this can’t be real.”
This can’t be real.
Finally, there, framed by the cage of her ribs, the brown-red and purple, sat her innocuous heart. It shivered against the cold fire from whence it emanated. A torch, a crown. Cloaked in a tattered blue body. Shells strewn around her like dull jewels enveloping their queen.
She wasn’t the first and she won’t be the last. At night, I tell myself that she was merely a pearl, a pearl on a long string of pearls, one for each star in the sky, and I can hold them all in my hand and I can pull them any which way I please. But what I like best is to feel their small round bodies press down hard on my throat, a million cold stones pushing me deep, deep into the dark. Eventually, I close my eyes, relax my throat, and swallow against my noose.
I have G-d now – glowing, ephemeral, a self-sustaining light. It’s covered with dust in my basement. After the crowd dissipated, I went back to Euclid and removed all the papers and bindings from her house. I grabbed the jar too. It Is All now Patti’s library. It Is Alive in the pages and numbers and symbols and lines. It Is All surrounded by her writing and what was left in her garbage (a fragile skull, three broken pencils). I don’t have the fortitude to find all the secrets inside but I do what I can. I protect Knowledge in my basement with a keyless lock and unblinking eye. A shrine to my dark mystery, a Mary of dirt, a virgin cleansed by the sea.
Or the exact opposite.
Jesi Bender is an artist living upstate New York. Her writing has appeared in ZOUCH, Split Lip, and L’Allure des Mots among others. For her complete creative CV, please visit www.jesibender.com.