WINTER 2013 (Issue 77)
 

Jennifer S. Cheng

Children of Light

I.

I am an ash-colored girl. 

But this is not about fire and smoke; it is a story where X is always right and Y likes to sing romantic lyrics. Nothing’s gonna change my world, nothing’s gonna change my world…

X:  I know why the caged bird sings.

All birds fly over the concrete steeple into a space filled with white moths and velvet orchids. I once hit a bird with my car and it made a thump! just like that, a thump! and I knew I had hit a bird with my car. I imagined its torn up body, missing feathers, its round brown head and beady eyes still open as it fell heavily to the ground. Blood trickled darkly and mixed with the mud on its limp wings. Its bones crushed and feathers matted. Beady eyes still open. I couldn’t look back for fear it had flown away.

 

II.

“I like them, but I can’t buy them,” I say as I carefully inspect the shoes in the mirror, turning my right foot so I can see the view from the side.

“Why not?” my friend asks. 

I take a few steps backward and then back again, my eyes following my feet in the mirror distractedly. “I like to buy shoes that I wear every day.” In the back of my mind is an echo of words spoken to me on the chapel steps one summer evening—wrongness, sin, rebuke. After a short pause: “I’m not going to wear bright red shoes to church.”

And now he has to say, “I don’t know why you still go.”

And now I have to think, I’m not sure.

Every week I walk down a steep hill to the old military arsenal, where Sunday services are held in a towering stone structure with long slit windows and heavy iron doors.

 

III. 

Things that are true:

IV. 

Sitting there on the cold cushioned seat typical of doctors, asking all the big questions of the universe: Where does the body go, covered in unsightly blemishes? What if men and women could ebb and fall freely in the sky? What is it that presses down, demanding weight? And the answer was in front of me the entire time. 

 

The church on the corner of Angell and Campbell, when asked about their doctrine, they recite in resonant rhythm, white as snow, black as night. 

For the church on the corner of Angell and Campbell believes in the color red but only in reference to the blood that washed you white as whitest snow, so forgive us now our sins, forever and ever, amen.

 

V.

Death becomes a romantic thought and to wish it upon yourself is like hoping for rain on a lonely night of gray. She cried out and reached for her father, but there was only cold air and the sound of the television downstairs.

Wandering in search of something greater is like sliding through the powder of crushed shells with a soft shhhh, like girls who cover their ears when a voice breaks the stillness. There is always something suffocating and something bright. 

It was these somethings that led to my weekly meetings with the school counselor because my mother had seen me leaning out of our twenty-third-story window. Somewhere along the way between reading about a man who wept for the broken and embracing numbness in the face of adolescent transgressions, I had learned that the body is full of holes.

And yet that something bright. And yet that something bright.

 

VI.

They say depression is like falling without any hope of reaching a bottom. But I am not depressed. No, I am a child’s storybook hero, lost and looking for fairy dust. Here is the place where you are unable to escape no matter how hard you try to raise your arms, and so many faces appear the same, and yet you have the strangest inkling that if you could only peel away your skin you would find not ash but a gleaming core the color of a sea-soaked day. All it takes is a small incision to discover what lies at the center, and you have all the time in the world because you will never reach the bottom. And this is the way your mother, sister, friend, lover, teacher, doctor, neighbor, god find you: falling. 

I had always thought it was a cultural feeling, a by-product of having protective immigrant parents who also sang hymns, the effect of two prickly worlds trying to embrace one another. As it turns out, it has permeated the guarding walls of many structures of this kind, whether one or another or a mixture in between.

 

VII. 

Charts and diagrams so you will understand. Printed sheets with bold type and outlines, lists of rules and guidelines, every week, every month. Let’s put it this way: in English Literature at ten o’clock in the morning, the students learn that modernity was characterized by a desire to conquer and control, mechanization and the machine, analysis and criticism, rational calculation, and a focus on the individual. They will start with Charles Dickens’s Hard Times and go from there.

Can the Body bleed? Do gods have scars?

 

VIII.

At the exact moment when the sun fell behind the tower on the green, I could see my friend Grace with her dark eyes, in the middle of the road, traveling farther and farther away until she was a black speck to be ignored and forgotten. For when we were young we sat with our parents in pews made of wood, and the sound of our feet echoed through the rows as we stood and sat, words dripped from the ceiling like molasses, stories abounded. And when the man spoke to me on the steps of the chapel, instructed me on the ways of the body, I could feel my chest both filling and shrinking, the sheer deformity of my flesh and bones which tingled and deflated. Apathy is always the end result. If I have nowhere to go, then I denounce any need for anyone, with a desperate cadence, an emphasis of tone.

 

IX.

When the idea first arose that Gentiles could have a relationship with the God of Moses, there was a surge of opposition and protest. Men were beaten, stoned, driven out of cities. Some were arrested, brought to court, or killed, all for the sake of keeping the community of God clean and pure. 

Fifteen hundred years later, Johann Tetzel expressed that money could buy grace and remission from the temporal punishment of sins as long as one is of a repentant and contrite heart.

Prior to this, for two hundred and fifty years the church attempted to expel pagans and barbarians from the holy lands.

Luther was a man of bad tempers.

I like red shoes.

And the woman who had led a sinful life brought an alabaster jar of perfume.

 

X. 

I decide to ask the angels if their creator made me in my own image. To sanctify is a process, but toward what point? At what moment do I cease to be myself? Was the Tower of Babel a punishment or a blessing? 

The angels drift on. 

 

XI.

In the third pew from the front, there is a boy with a shaky voice: a statement and a question.

I don’t know.

What is your vision?

Ten men in dark suits sitting in a row across the front have just finished giving a presentation of facts and figures.

The faces of the ten seem weary, tired.

The faces melt into one another.

He is thinking that this is his family, these walls were broken by his childish shouts, these figures were shadows behind his careful movements. And now years later he has ventured forth and returned, the prodigal son—except that the pulse caught in his throat circles and pushes, waiting for release.

The men do not answer. 

 

XII.

Here is a list of questions:

XIII. 

For two nights in a row I dream of almost hitting brown birds with my car while driving.  They fall from the sky in flimsy eggshell plastic cages, unable to defend themselves or too tired to do so. It is always daytime in my dreams.

The day before this I receive an attachment from the neighborhood minister in an email: a questionnaire for me to complete and send back before they determine my position at the church’s fellowship. 

The question posed to me: “Do you believe the Bible to be verbally inspired, authoritative, and fully-sufficient Word of God that is without error and/or contradiction – the only rule for our faith and conduct?” asks the church on high.

The answer I want to give: “Yes and no, with slight reservations about the word ‘only’ and a need for clarification about the use of ‘error and/or contradiction.’”

The only answer they anticipate: “Yes,” says the quite contented girl. 

 

XIV. 

The end of World War II marks the end of a sweeping world order built upon a standardization of mass production and global boundaries. In the face of greater failures of men and nations, the illusion of clarity becomes suspect. God on high watches closely as skies darken and rocks tremble, and a world once in control now begins to splinter, no turning back, no turning back.

To look beyond the idea of reality and celebrate the unrepresentable, as if to say: here are the spaces in between, here are the texture of cracks. There is no need to feel safe, for here are hues, tones, tints, and shadows. A whirlwind, after all was once faded and calm. 

 

XV. 

In Hard Times, the city of Coketown is covered in a blanket of dusty ash that taints the people who live there. The key-note, says almighty Dickens, is the abolition of Fancy in favor of Fact. 

The chord stuck in a clanging tone: “You shall have no other ambitions before me,” decrees the industrialized church, “I am the only way.” But atop from the window sill of twenty-three stories is a view of the wild ocean, rising waves, elusive shorelines, and hills full of trees with broad leaves that teeter and shake when birds fly by—the feeling of standing on the edge of something, waiting for a collision that will sweep me up or blow me over.

 

XVI.

For an entire month I feel like a child. I want to crawl inside the glowing warmth of my mother’s womb and close my well-worn eyelids, but everyone feels this way sometimes. I don’t know what to tell the gray-haired lady sitting across from me in the dimly lit room, waiting with an expectant look, as if I will tell her something that will explain everything and she will be able to tell me so, pat herself on the back, and send me on my way. I fumble around, trying to think of something to tell her. I give her stories of a friend’s betrayal, a fear of failing, of not knowing the difference between myth and reality. It is all true, and they are all lies as well. She nods and murmurs and makes noises while I stare at the ceramic petal pinned to the lapel of her coat. The truth is, I realize later, that I have no idea. It might have to do with the impenetrable autonomy of people, or maybe it’s just the rain.

And then I want to run; I am a beam of light. I want to do everything: swim in the coldest winter lake, catch the tiny star-shaped leaves falling across the street, find the elusive button I lost last year. 

Are you dissatisfied, confused, and unhappy with your life? Do you know where you will go when you die? X tells me that he knows the way to a life of happiness. He has a pamphlet. If only you believe, you will surely win.

 

XVII.

And finally the realization: my feet keep slipping.

Only why does this liturgy of broken bodies weigh so heavily into me?

 

XVIII. 

When the eye of modernity began to creep in the shadows of the Middle Ages, the Reformation was already on its tail.

The faces of the ten seem weary, tired.

The ghost of modernity leaves an imprint, but wants to hold nothing.

The church of the Middle Ages feared blasphemy.

The faces melt into one another.

They want to contain God in a box, or at least in one hundred thirty-eight pages of man-made boundaries. It is taught from generation to generation that the emphasis is on following the right rules.

There are those who feel the imperfections of their flesh, and they are the ones who hide their hands and slip through heavy doors, who cannot shake the world overflowing, who long for little storms of lightning and thunder.

The faces of the ten seem weary, tired.

 

XIX.

Yesterday, I walked past a door with a sign that read, “What is the contextualization of your faith?” I don’t know, but I take this to mean that something is amiss and I am not contextualizing anything. Because contextualization implies blending, blurring until parts are whole and I belong to an undone world.

I followed my parents through the doors every Sunday morning for as long as I can remember, and now that they no longer drag me there, I go on my own, lost among a mass of bodies where cardboard shadows do not wait.

Someone is watching in a suit and tie, and little girls crawl to the corner where they will go unnoticed. Large ferns will shade them from the sun, and they can play in their fantasy world alone until they are tired. And they grow tired, tired and numb. And this is how they lie: like an embryo waiting to be born in this colorless filter, this city of saints.

 

XX.

In the beginning there was God. I am drawn to the stories. But the church that medieval Europe constructed was built upon its contextual culture, and when Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin spoke to the world, the definitive model of medieval Christianity was disintegrated into shavings that scattered like sand. 

The Christian worldview was absolute for hundreds of years, and then it broke as beautiful shards of painted glass.