Salt of the Earth

Autumn in Bavaria (1908) by Wassily Kandinsky

Hal couldn’t sleep. She didn’t know if it was a consequence of the baby or her thinking about it. Not that she doubted she had it now. The symptoms of the past four days were unmistakable — the swollen breasts, the nausea, the sensitivity to light, the weakness — and perhaps the insomnia.

If there was something she doubted now as she tossed and turned under those crumpled bedsheets in that vespertine darkness, it was the once overlooked, presupposed divine principle of transcendent absolute goodness and the resulting notion of its omnipotent overseeing providence in the affairs of man. She never had reason to believe this principle — she simply absorbed it as taught in the classroom or by her parents just as she absorbed that there existed the country Lesotho even though she’d never made the effort to check the map, let alone step foot there. But until the incident of three weeks ago and the recent discovery of its consequences, she’d never had reason to doubt the principle either.

This doubting had now triggered in her a sort of atheistic hopelessness, the closing off of a vertical dimension, the y-axis, as of learning that the sky was but a large convincing tarpaulin painted and draped many years ago and that in truth there was nowhere else for man to set foot on save that terrene sphere of ephemerality and sojourn. It had shut off her capacity for human relation as well, not that it triggered any form of hate

(no she did not hate anyone, not even that Randall Larkin the perhaps — no! not ‘perhaps’ but ‘surely’ — father of the child, that Randall Larkin whose sweating bobbing furious face she’d been seeing on the backs of her eyelids for three weeks running now, as of some incessant and menacing projection of her brain (just as she’d seen it that night with the hazy tunneled ethereal quality of vision produced by the drunken state (that reeking rapidbreathing face on top of her own, the dull fleshy weight easing slowly from her body now, and at last he pulling his pants back up, she remembering nothing else but waking up the next morning on the bed of her friend’s house, a throbbing pain in her head and a sharper one in between her legs) except paler and overblown and almost hideously unreal as of some devil) no, it was not hate she felt against him (and by extension the entire male gender as a general abstraction) so much as a helpless bitter disgust mixed with an almost compliant resignation, somewhat like how one would feel toward the old untrained housedog who cannot help but excrete on the hundred dollar rug again and again)

but distance, stoic aloofness as though the people around her were but opaque shadows without referents, mere shifting tinges on the ubiquitous backdrop of human existence, featureless nothings in a panorama of optical democracy, and she her own immanent world vacuous and pointless and isolated, left to fend for itself until it lapsed into its own expiration.

But there was the baby.

This she didn’t doubt — the baby was part of her own world now. Flesh of her own flesh. As she held her stomach with both hands she seemed to be able to see it in her mind’s eye just as she’d seen it on those ultrasound videos they’d been shown in their classes at school — the eerily matured head inclined and the small but defined fingers of those hands pressed together, as of some naked embryonic monk deep in prayer floating in that vast black void. That small heart beating of its own accord. A person within her own. A primal instinct seemed to now let loose within her a gush of affection for that child incipient, a fulguration of warmth amidst thE buildup of bitterness in her heart, much like how a white flower blooms in the middle of a grimy gutter. Flesh of her own flesh.

But she couldn’t keep it. She couldn’t.

It was the cold rational layer of cognition talking now, floated to the top of these insomniac ruminations as of a film of oil on a water’s surface after a period of agitation. It’d brought with it not images so much as impressions — integral sensatory experiences, flitting violently, simulative and distorted perhaps but real enough to make her palms and forehead moist and her neckhairs stand on end:

She sweating and trembling and wishing to somehow dissolve as the anonymous feminine silhouettes of her classmates loomed anonymous and faceless around her, snickering and whispering in that judgmental birdlike-chirping manner peculiar to adolescent girls in all-girls schools — Her mother covering her face, her shoulders jerking as she sobs in humiliation, interspersed with barely audible fragments of some lament about years spent trying to raise an upright and godfearing daughter — The bloodred and swollen face of her father, hands contorted in vigorous gesticulations as he engages in an impassioned sermon about the shame brought to the family name until at last he points his quivering finger to the open door of the house and says, “Out” — She sitting on some desolate roadside, dressed in rags and hand held out for alms, a bundle of swaddled clothes in her other arm inside of which lies the feeble and barely palpable because malnourished baby she’d so naively chosen to give birth to.

She couldn’t keep it. She had to do it. It.

Yes. There was no other way. It. The question now was not so much “how?” as “who?”

Meanwhile Hal wasn’t the only wouldn’t sleep that night in that household. On the floor exactly above hers at almost exactly the same time that she’d been immersed in those thoughts, her parents had lain staring up at the ceiling engaged in that conversation (an exchange of whispered phrases fragmentary and dissonant and almost incongruous to the external hearer, but nevertheless the understanding mutual and almost telepathic as though one intelligence were common to these two bodies) characteristic of longtime matrimonies.

“You’ve noticed?” the mother said.

“A little,” said the father.

“And?”

“So she’s gotten a little paler. I thought it might have something to do with school is all.”

“School?”

“Yeah. School work. You know how — ”

“Ha. She hasn’t been talking to me, Frank. Neither to you. To her siblings. It’s can’t just be school.”

“Adolescence.”

“Nope. Wrong again. It’s not adolescence. We’ve seen adolescence on Nick and Dana before. Hal’s is different. There’s no angst involved. She’s not angry at us. She’s not ignoring us on purpose. She’s just …”

“Aloof?”

“Yes. Distant. I don’t know. As if we don’t exist to her, I’d dare say.”

“So what do you think — ”

“I don’t know.”

He turned to her. “Wait. Wait. You’re thinking it might be…”

“Yes.”

They lay silent. She turned to him as well. “And you?” she said.

“I don’t want to.”

She sighed. “I never approved of her going to those parties.”

“Me neither.”

“But then you decided to let her. Because you said she’s old enough to decide for herself.”

“You agreed too,” he said. “Remember?”

“Yeah.”

They lay silent for a while until he said, “It’s only been four days. I’d give it time.”

“I don’t know.”

“What else can we do?”

“We can … well. We can pray.”

He laughed at this and so did she. “Let’s see if God listens to you or me,” he said. “Sinners that we are, don’t you and I know it.”

She took the pillow from her head and hit him with it. “Well I’ve lived twenty-one years of marriage with you, sir,” she said. “Twenty-one years and counting. I’d say it takes a good deal of sanctity and willpower to achieve at least that.”

She sighed and sat up and propped her pillow up and rested her back on it. “We’ve been raising the children up alright. Right?”

“Right.”

“We gave them a good education. Didn’t we? Sent them to good schools, willing to pay the money for it.”

“Right.”

“But at the same time we never imposed anything on them. We let them decide with liberty. I mean we were firm when we needed to be.”

“Right.”

“Wait. Maybe that’s where we went wrong.”

“No.”

“Yes. Maybe we gave them too much liberty, Frank.”

“No.”

“Yes. That’s it. No more parties for that daughter of yours. Straight home after school. Even Fridays. Weekends at home. Where we can keep a good watch on her.”

“That would be torture, sweet. We are parents, not inquisitors.”

“Better she be tortured by us than … than …” She groaned and threw up her hands in exasperation.

They were silent again, for longer this time, such that she thought he’d fallen asleep, until he said, “You know what my dad would tell me?”

“You snored too much?”

They laughed. “No,” he said. “He told me — a little before we got married — that raising children is a lot like making wine. We can only do so much to ensure it turns out well. But there lie a myriad other factors beyond our control — the weather, the temperature, the inherent quality of the seeds. Because of this sometimes we end up producing wine not quite as good as you’d expected.

“But then you can be sure of one thing. Wine gets better with time. Like children. At one point we’ll have to let go and maintain distance. Even if they fall. In fact, they will fall. But it is only by falling that one learns how to walk. Then our job is to help them back up and clean the wounds if necessary, but afterwards we’ll have to let go again.”

She didn’t reply.

“How about this, sweet,” he said. “There’s still a few hours of the night left. How about you and I go get some sleep? I’m sure by tomorrow we’ll feel better. And think of something better, too.”

“Alright.”

From her sitting position she slipped into the bed and he rose and kissed her on the forehead and turned off the lights and soon fell asleep.

But she did not. Instead she lay restless, tossing and turning on her side of the marital bed, in a spatial parallel to her daughter now doing the same on the floor right below her. As if just as blood in the veins and breath in the lungs was an extension of mother to daughter, in a manner analogous that brewing amalgam of sentience and passions and preoccupations now sparked in their synapses concomitantly. An elusive and heretofore unnamed connection established in all human distaff.

She knew what it was. Perhaps she didn’t quite know that she knew it. But she knew. She knew it by that intuitive sense — a sense just like sight and smell and taste — common to all mothers, a subtle and vague knowledge beyond the grasp of the cold scientific reasoning of scientists or even perhaps the deep personal knowledge of someone who knew Hal well — the father, for instance — that, seeing the sparse aggregate of indications and evidence and data, can make at most a tentative and open-ended theory, whereas the warm maternal intuition establishes a forceful certainty as of a first principle even before the very owner of that intuition consciously recognizes it herself. And it was because she knew it (even though she wasn’t yet aware that she knew it) that she couldn’t sleep.

It was this same intuition that now made her reach out and open the bedside drawer. An action almost perfectly in between the instinct and the intellect, the impulse and the will.

She opened it with a movement slow and infinitesimal, the creaking of the wood likewise infinitesimal, so as not to wake her husband. Her hand rummaged through the knickknacks and chattels in the drawer, grasping and feeling and then moving each object slowly and deliberately like some meticulous yet blind five-legged spider. In the darkness it was the sense of touch that now abrogated that of sight, cognition and recognition as if now both concentrated in the soft fleshy pads at the tips of those fingers. The smooth glass bottle of cologne. The thin rubbery wire of her cellphone charger. The cottonsoft pages of some pocketbook she’d long forgotten to continue reading, the characters and events within frozen in ultimate suspension. The hard and round eyeglass case. Soft and repulsive dust. Cruft.

And then she found it. It lay in one of the nooks of that drawer, deep under a pile of papers: the hard and wooden string of beads — cold and monastic like a clump of dried out mummified grapes yet now bringing to her mind a flitting-by of warm affectionate memories characteristic of objects long-forgotten: she watching with that childlike curiosity her own parents and grandparents sitting together in the family sofa holding those beads, muttering some meaningless but nonetheless curious monotone in a back and forth pattern as of a chorus, her grandparents eyes squeezed shut in those indomitable wrinkled eyelids as though in some minor miraculous ecstasy or beatific vision — Her own mother teaching her (she might have been six then) those same litanies and how to use those beads (those very beads that she now caressed in her hands in that nighttime darkness), the calloused manlike yet maternally tender hands wrapped around and guiding those small babysoft fingers, passing from bead to bead to bead as of some graphic metaphor of the slow but effectual elapsing of man’s chronologies — Her adolescent angst (she now had about the same age as Hal, the same turbulent and raw adolescence) as she, in the middle of that daily evening half-hour reserved (and to her, unjustly imposed) for the solemn saying and using of those tedious beads, one day stood up and proclaimed in front of the horrified faces of her siblings and parents the futility and emptiness of all that righteous and farcical droning to some indifferent, self-sufficient deity and then stormed to her own room, the door locked now from the stubborn incessant banging of her incensed father — She, a young single adult now, with eyes wet and swollen, sitting alone (having been the first to arrive among all her siblings) at the hospital bench after having seen the body lying in that steel bed in the morgue (the body that may have borne semblance to her mother but inspired no love nor even pity just by the eternal coldness present in its visage), receiving from the nurse a plastic tray which contained the final earthly possessions found in the deceased’s pockets, none of which calling her attention save those strung wooden beads now discolored and worn from all the pious thumbing which she would then take and keep (even though not use) to this very day, now in her turn a middle-aged and timeworn, timedulled mother of five, twenty-one years into her marriage.

In that darkness she lay on her side in an almost perfect stillness, her fingers now working through those beads in a movement half-conscious and ponderous yet familiar, as though not controlled by the rational will but from some prelearned impulse buried but not forgotten. A pattern etched deep into the muscle and sinews and flesh that even time cannot erase.

And in the same manner her lips too moved. They mouthed words she did not even know she still remembered (she not even aware they were words now, the whispered sounds barely meaningful) phoneme following phoneme in rapid automatic progression she knew not how, as of a first-timer watching a train hurtle out of a tunnel not knowing how many and what unseen sort of cars were still left inside, barely perceiving even the visible cars before they’d long whooshed by, the speed of the train surpassing the speed of cognition. She was only vaguely aware that those words were addressed to anyone in particular, what was left of her dwindling because somnolent rational thought now centered on a feverish and frenetic supplication for that girl who too lay awake right below her. And as those final vespertine hours dwindled she thumbed through those beads in a desperate fury, avoiding having to answer the now looming question in her heart: that silent darkness — was it but the cruel aloofness of the divine, or an unspoken and Godmade promise?

The bell announcing the end of the school day rang in a red, violent, metallic rage. Hal had hoped it would never come. She smiled bitterly. It was curious how on other days it had seemed as if that final school bell would never ring, the students forever trapped in a sort of lugubrious limbo of precalculus or elementary physics, whereas now, just exactly when she’d hoped that the passage of time would somehow renege, freeze up maybe, it seemed as if the bell —

“Ms. Cruz.”

Hal blinked. The old feminine figure of her physics professor congealed in front of her, her hands on her hips.

“What’s seems to be the matter?” the professor said.

“The matter?”

The professor didn’t answer. She didn’t need to. Hal had started to look around her. All the other desks were empty. The other girls had long gone.

“What’s wrong, Hal?”

“Oh. I just blanked out, Mrs. Frim. I’m sorry.”

“No, no. I don’t just mean now. Something’s up with you, isn’t there? And I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s noticed it.”

“Nothing’s up.”

“Nothing?” the professor said. The tense wrinkles on the professor’s face had slackened into loose flaps of flesh. It was no longer the stern nor authoritarian mask the girls were familiar with. It was pitying, almost desperate. “You’ve changed this past week, Hal. Drastically. You’ve gone pale. Morose. You haven’t been talking to anyone. You’ve stopped paying attention in class — yes, I notice. Your eyes are trained on the board but it’s as if there’s nothing behind them.”

“Yes, I’m — ”

“Let me finish. I had to talk to you, Hal. I’m worried about you. You probably don’t realize it, but it’s, I don’t know, unsettling. So are you sure that nothing’s the problem? You can talk to me. Please, Hal.”

Hal’s lower lipped quivered and to the professor it seemed that her eyes glistened wetly. As though her very soul were on the brink of erupting out of those ocular apertures. Held back only by the last inconsequential membrane separating the corporeal from the spiritual. But this lasted only a moment.

“Nothing’s the problem,” Hal said. Her face had darkened. She stood up. “I have to go,” she said. The professor sighed. She didn’t say anything more. Not that she could have. Hal had already taken her things and left without saying another word, leaving the professor alone in the room.

Hal now stood outside the schoolyard gate, her hand in her breast pocket caressing the folded sheet of lined yellow paper which served as envelope, bulky with the coins and bills of years of allowance savings (she never doubting that this money would be enough, with that financial ignorance typical of adolescents), her conservative all-girls school skirt blown like a flag by the howling wind typical of turbulent tropical Septembers. It was as if even her very clothes were now possessed of their own forceful resolution of movement, yet the owner within them herself couldn’t move, her shoes fixed firm on the asphalt, her heart thudding furiously and her fingers numb. It was not a question of where to go (the closest clinic that Hal knew of was a walking distance from her school) or how or why (she’d already thought about this the sleepless night before). To her it was but the perfectly logical deduction derived from a series of immovable and undeniable constants: she couldn’t keep it, ergo she had to do it. And yet how she hesitated and agonized.

When she took her first step and then the next towards the clinic, it seemed to Hal that it wasn’t she who moved — that she still planted stood in the same place, the ambient scenery that enveloped her shifting as the result of the earth’s turning on its axis like some giant wheel, the tree trunks and street posts being the spokes — such was the fury of ambivalence now burning within her, that each passing action lay precariously between animal instinct and voluntary desire.

Much later on, even with the objective distance of years and wisdom and maturity, even Hal would not have been able to answer why exactly she’d taken that small detour to the village church, not able to answer if she was at least aware that she was going into a church or not. It wasn’t that she had the habit of going to church — her parents never forced the her to go even on Sundays, they themselves not in any way devout practitioners. In any case upon seeing the big cross against the orange firmament of that late afternoon she stirred in the direction of the edifice, in the same way perhaps that a hungry commuter who’s been driving for hours swerves almost unconsciously from the road upon seeing a big yellow M up in the sky. As she climbed the stairs of the church she seemed to move in a sort of etherized trance, even paying little attention to the almost shouted pleas of a beggar woman sitting by a corner of the facade, one arm supporting a small white bundle and the other held out for alms.

The church was empty save a woman with a veil, so engrossed in her prayers she did not even turn back to look at Hal who had just entered. The smoky, spicy, not unpleasant but neither pleasant smell which reminded Hal of priestly processions and lengthy solemnities filled the church. The only light came from that cast upon a small silver tabernacle box at the front.

She made her way to the wooden booths at the back and opened the door. Small and dimly lit. A kneeler facing a black screen on the wall. Above the screen, a crude wooden crucified Christ. Almost before she realized it, she’d placed her knees on the cushion of the kneeler and waited. She seemed to hear the breathing and perceive the warm palpable emanation of all human presence come out of the screen. And then she heard the firm yet warm voice of an old man: “Yes?”

She couldn’t get herself to say anything. She stayed there kneeling, holding her breath.

“Is there anyone there?”

She exhaled. The words barely coming out in wisps of air, she said, “Yes, father. I’m here.”

“Very good.”

She was silent again.

“Is there a problem?” he said.

“I’m sorry, father. I — ”

“Is this your first confession?”

“No.”

“Ah. Well then.”

“The last one has been years ago. I … I practically don’t remember it. I don’t know how anymore.”

“Ah. Don’t worry. You can start by saying ‘Bless me father, for I have sinned’ and then you say the sins you remember having committed — ”

“I want to confess a sin I’m going to commit.”

“Going to?”

“Going to. I haven’t done it yet.”

She heard the priest shifting on his chair.

“My daughter, I’m sorry, but that’s not how the sacrament of confession works. You can only confess the sins you’ve committed and are sorry for. The fact that you still plan to do it after this confession — well, it simply means you’re not quite sorry for it. Otherwise you wouldn’t do it.”

“Sorry, I … I don’t understand.”

“Let’s see. Imagine you had a close friend go up to you and say, ‘I’m going to slap you, but I’m sorry about it, please forgive me.’ What can you say about such an apology? Sincere?”

“No,” Hal said.

“No. Of course not. In fact it sounds like she’s making fun of you — the very apology becomes part of the offense. Well, in confession the same happens. You’re making an apology to the closest friend you have, God, whom you’ve offended. And how good He is: He, the Creator, ready to humble Himself to his creature — He, always there, eagerly waiting, ready to take you back. You only have to be sorry for what you’ve done.”

“It’s He,” Hal whispered. “It’s He who should be sorry.”

“What?”

“It’s He who should be sorry. Not me. He. Who put this in me? Was it not He? He alone? I didn’t want this.”

“What didn’t you want?”

“The baby.”

“The baby? Oh. I see. A baby. You’re expecting.”

“It wasn’t my fault. It was a boy. He did it to me, forced himself on me after a party. I was drunk. Damn him. And damn God for letting this happen to me.” With her elbows on the kneeler and her fists balled on her eyes she started to cry.

The priest waited in silence for the sobbing to stop. “Have you talked about it with your parents?” he said.

“No. They’ll give it to me if they find out what happened.”

“I see,” the priest said. He sighed. “I … Well, this isn’t easy. I’m won’t deny it. God acts with his own logic, often beyond the capacity of any man to explain. Rightfully so: what a small God he would be if he could fit in man’s puny head. The thing is, sometimes what God does to us hurts. But does that mean He does not wish what is good for us? That He isn’t all-good after all?

“I always of it like this … that the only way the sculptor can get the best out of a slab of marble is subjecting it to violent blows with the hammer and chisel. The more minute the details of the masterpiece, the more blows necessary. I’d like to think God, the great Artist and Creator, works with his favorite creature — man — in the same way.”

“I … I don’t see it, father,” Hal said.

“I think it’s only in suffering that man can remember God. Can you imagine a man for whom everything goes as he pleased? Such a man would forget God — worse, he’d believe himself god, and this terrible and tentative earth his heaven. Whereas the man who suffers, his love is purified: he learns to love God not for any benefit on his part, and he learns that his true happiness is not to be found on this earth. I’d like to think that’s why God, in his Wisdom, allows us to experience suffering.

“As for the baby: I don’t think you should follow through with the abortion. The moment there is human life it is not anymore up to us to decide its fate. Such is the sacredness of man, that even his very Creator respects his right to life and freedom — what more for us, mere creatures?

I do not say you have to keep the baby. I understand that you might be too young to care for it yourself. Give it to foster parents, for example. But in the end, you will have to be the one to decide — I can’t act as your conscience. But I do hope you choose to do what God wants. Because in the end, only in doing so can we ever find true happiness in this life. I … I’ll pray for you my daughter. It might not sound like much, coming from this old priest. But you’d be surprised by what I’ve seen it do. Well now. Go in peace, my daughter.”

When Hal got out of the church she stood on the steps and watched the leaves and briars of the trees on the sidewalks rustle with the wind. It looked like it was making to rain.

“Help, please.”

Hal turned to the voice. It came from the beggar woman sitting on the ground. She made a movement with her hand towards her mouth signaling that she needed something to eat. Hal saw the white bundle in the woman’s arm start to move. When she drew closer she saw what it was. An infant, not more than a few months old.

“Anything, please,” said the beggar. “Anything to eat. I beg you.”

Hal made to move past her but stopped. She took the folded yellow paper from her breast pocket and, without opening it, stooped down and placed it on the beggar’s outstretched hand. The corner of Hal’s lips jerked in a momentary smile and then she stood back up. Before even waiting for the beggar to discover what was inside, Hal had already started for home, running, as she hadn’t brought an umbrella with her, her skirt and hair flowing behind her in fluid unison with the flux of the wind. Lo, the wind did blow and how it blew, like exhalations of that divine ever watching closely and with delight on the slow-turning world.

Aspiring novelist. Frustrated theologian.