The Brazen Bull


Phase one usually doesn’t harm a soul. It’s the thinking phase, the inceptive hovering over the face of black waters. Nothing is spoken and no promises are made—there is no law and no one to break it, no light and thus no understanding of darkness. Nothing is right and nothing is wrong. A voice says “light be.” Suddenly a veil splits from top to bottom and it is this perpetual tearing of the immaterial that carves its way toward the farthest reach of eternity. This is phase two, the vocalizing of the concept that causes a new world to envelop the old. If this stage is initiated, the one in charge is responsible for making sure that the original idea is sound and, most importantly, something that produces life.

If human beings engender a concept to produce life, they rarely do it on purpose. One can speculate whether they would be capable of perpetuating themselves were it not for the pleasure-seeking impulse that guides them instinctively toward sex. In and of themselves, humans rarely approach phase one with the kind of purity attributable to One; let us call him the “First.”

Phase three orders the “produce” of phase two so as to create a life-perpetuating cycle. With the First it was probably an age-long process of assigning which organisms would become fish, land-crawlers, flyers, beasts of prey and burrowing creatures. To achieve his end, he placed them in a context which we would call “time” and then set them to work. By all accounts, he saw that this was good.

Then the First creates men and women, gives them a piece of himself, and stands by as they excommunicate him from the order of things. In this new order, human beings take it upon themselves to carry out the three-phase process of thought, speech, and action. This is how all things move toward death.

 * * *

I am hidden in a crowd of Israelites and Canaanites. That is, until they bow to a statue with the head of a bull, its jewel-encrusted arms outstretched and sloping back toward a hollow, bulging abdomen from which tongues of flame curl like whiplashes and lick the dry night air. Reluctant to bow, I retreat behind a nearby boulder and, keeping close to its shadow, peer out at the ranks of worshipers. The chalky feel of the rock reminds me that I am both here and now, and that the fire churning in the statue’s belly is hardly the stuff of dreams.

Drums boom and trumpets sound as a robed, priestly man ascends three stone steps toward a great plinth set before the towering bull. The priest or king carries what looks like a naked baby—I see something like plump feet kicking out at nothing, while stubby-fingered hands grope for the softness of a mother’s skin only to clench at a thistly beard or a piece of linen covering a flat, foreign chest.

A woman kneels at the steps and buries her face in her arms, and I watch her shoulders heave and her body quiver. The drums thunder to drown out the baby’s deafening screams; the people begin to make a sound as of wind among treetops. The robed man holds the baby aloft before the bull’s flat nose. Above the nose rests a pair of impassive eyes, and I remember with a tinge of irony that some artisan-slave with a liberal ingenuity must have carved them that way. At first I wonder if the man holding the baby is Solomon or Ahaz, but that question slips from me just as the baby slips from the bull’s upraised palms and rolls down the bronze arms toward the belly of fire.

The flames spit, crackle, and glow. The bull smiles in the play of light and shadow. In spite of trumpets and drums and whirring voices I hear the child’s scream as if it were echoing the suppressed cry of rage that splits my heart.

And then I see it: this is phase three of human initiative, ordered and set by the precedence of thought and speech. “Oh God in heaven,” I cry within myself, “how did it come to this?” But I already know the answer. It’s because phase one did not hurt anybody, and phase two was just freedom of speech in all its explorative beauty. And after much critical thinking and a series of discussions, someone decided that it would be in the people’s best interest to burn babies alive, while the command “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek” was labeled as an antiquated piece of advice—take it or leave it.

I turn away as the priest lifts another child toward the glowing altar.

* * *

When I wake from it, I’m still in the car. Driving of all things. The last thing I remember is pulling out of Jake’s driveway, and then something started talking to me about phases. We’re almost to my place now. He’s in the passenger seat, carrying on a serious discussion as if I’ve been listening the whole time. “The problem,” he says, “is that we can’t really determine when life begins. And if we try to, we may as well be playing god. Know what I mean?”

I realize that he has come to the end of his point and that it’s time for me to respond.

“No,” I say. “I don’t.”

I can still see the brazen bull, but his lifeless eyes don’t see me.

“You don’t?” He folds his eyebrows at me. “But I’ve just explained it.”

“Why are we talking about this?” I ask.

“Because you brought it up,” he says.

“Did I?” I turn onto the road that dead-ends at my place.

“Yeah. You said it was a simple matter of right and wrong, life and death. So I was explaining how it’s much more complicated than that. Were you even listening?”

I pull into my driveway and turn off the ignition. We sit for I don’t know how long, both of us waiting for me to say something. This is phase two, I realize. We’re making ourselves feel better by talking about it and talking about it until we renounce anything resembling a concrete resolution.

Sitting in the quietude of his impatient stare, I don’t have to try very hard to hear the thundering drums and the blasting trumpets. And to see the bright, blazing stomach with its tongues of flame coiling around a naked baby feels like really seeing for a change. Then, it comes to me as if from somewhere else—I believe the First has given it to me. I see Eve as she rationalizes eating the fruit and Adam as he rationalizes sharing it. I see Cain as he justifies his anger toward his brother. I see human history as the complicating of simple matters, and I know with whom it began: a garden snake speaks of wisdom and the way to know both good and evil.

“Well,” he says, “were you listening or not?”

I speak without looking at him. “Yes,” I say. “I heard every word.”

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The Ninety-Eighth Conduit


Highway 98 will guide you along the emerald coast, out of one thriving condo-city into another, past the wealth and splendor of Destin all the way to a beat-down corner of Jack’s hometown where it changes its name to 15th Street, as if ashamed of what is has become. I’m in the back seat, trying to be invisible. Jack, who has recently become a case worthy of my objective analysis, is sitting in the passenger seat with his hands resting lifeless on his runner’s thighs. Elsa—blonde, beautiful, blue-eyed, intelligent—is our designated driver because the car belongs to her parents.

We are heading east and nearing the threshold of Destin, the only city I’ve ever known to capitalize on creation and still achieve a utopian equilibrium. You can’t say anything bad about Destin. To pass through it without stopping, you almost have to plug your ears and blindfold your eyes like you were sailing past the isle of sirens.

“So,” Jack says to Elsa, “are we done? You and me?”

I don’t blame him for bringing it up. It’s been like waiting for water to boil since we pulled out of the condo at Blue Sands. Jack’s been itching for her to say something because, after all, she is the one whose fire has cooled. Like any killer, she is the type to let things die without asking if they’re really dead. Jack, the more sensitive one, has a harder time letting things go.

“I don’t know,” she says. The sadness in her voice makes me wonder if she isn’t as much a victim of her habits as anybody.

Jack smiles. “You don’t know?” He laughs softly, warmly. “That means it’s over.”

Yes, Jack. You’ve come to it at last.

A month ago I had warned him that it would come to this or worse. Two weeks ago she had lain in his arms as a supple body of delicate warmth; often he had latched to her like a newborn to its mother, as perverse as that must sound. So, I wasn’t surprised when he finally told me that he didn’t care what I said—that he was tired of being lonely. “How do you think I feel?” I had wanted to say, but I just kept silent. Now that the moment has arrived, I find that I cannot pity him.

“I’m sorry,” Elsa says. Her cheeks are streaked with real tears, and so I do pity her. She knows what she has done, but it’s not entirely her fault.

We halt at a red-light just as we’re passing the Destin shopping outlets. I take this opportunity to float up, out of the car, and hover for a moment over the face of oblivion: it’s a parking lot, but from where I float it looks like a circuit-board with electrons in a constant, orderly state of flux. One electron almost bumps into another, and the two sit like two shock-frozen insects for a good thirty seconds before finally starting up again. To the south, I hear the waves breathing. I think: only human beings would imprison themselves on the fringes of heaven. Remembering my charge—the boy Jack—I return to the ninety-eighth conduit, into the electron-capsule where Elsa is still crying and Jack is staring coldly out at nothing. I get there just as the light turns green.

“Please don’t cry,” Jack tells her. “You’re not the one who’s to blame.”

So he knows the deal, at least. He knows that he must bear the consequences of risk as any sober-minded man ought. I resist the impulse to shake my head, fearing to give up my invisibility. It’s the situation that’s pitiable.

“I’m sorry I hurt you,” she says. Her tearful eyes follow the curve of the road.

“I let myself be hurt,” he says. “I just wish you would have told me it was over. You owed me that much.”

“I was afraid,” she says. “I didn’t know what to say.”

“I know,” he says, “and it’s all right. It’s done and that’s all that matters.”

Yes, it is done, but whether for the last time remains uncertain. Perhaps now Jack will learn that what he really needs is already his, and that all he has to do is ask for it. But who can say? At the moment, I’m still invisible, hardly a consideration in his plan for self-reconstruction. He is still thinking in terms of the conduit, of his most recent failure as a signpost on the “inescapable” highway.

Looking at the GPS screen beneath the dashboard, I see a multicolored outlay of the coast. It shows our position in the conduit, to the left of a green margin, to the left of a blue margin—highway 98, the coast, the Gulf of Mexico.

Heaven is less than a mile south of us, and all it takes to get there is a right-hand turn off of the road most traveled. I’ve been telling Jack this since he was a baby, and so I don’t bother to tell him now. I am confident that his wounds will heal, and that he’ll remember me soon enough. So I stop, let the car pass through me, and watch Jack and Elsa fade into the distance. I know Jack by the distinct, blazing color of his heart—it is all I’ve ever seen in him since the dawn of time.

In need of a little free air, I decide to float up high enough to get the same view I had on the GPS screen. Far beneath me, the electrons are channeling through the conduit like blood platelets in an artery, coagulating in places and bleeding out in others. Condos, like fortresses, line the white sands that mark the threshold of my kingdom. Again I realize what I’ve known for a long time: that most people aren’t really looking for heaven. They’d rather fight for parking spaces outside the gates.