Chris Taylor is the author of the novel I, John.
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The morning that we found Jesus on the beach stays in my mind. I have never understood why. It was not the most impressive day in my memory, but it has become one of the most persistent. Finding him on that beach was miraculous, or so we thought at the time. Now it haunts me.
I see angels, and I see other things that are not angels. At least I see and hear beings who are not like us but who think and act and move, without bodies like ours. A few of them are brilliant and astonishing. Some are dark and fearful. I think that they are different beings, but they might be differing versions of the same kind of thing. And there is Adriel, whom I have heard and seen every day since we found that empty tomb.
Seeing creatures and hearing voices doesn’t mean they are real. A great many people see things that do not exist outside their minds. Of course, even if I couldn’t see these beings, couldn’t hear their voices, it wouldn’t mean that they weren’t there.
In the beginning was the word. That is how it began, just words and a man who walked down the shore and found us in our father’s boat. That’s the truth of it. He walked around talking to anyone who would listen, and he found us. Why we got up and followed him, I wonder.
Look where it got us. Look where it got him.
My father’s boat—we spent so much of our childhood in it. I can barely remember what he looked like, my father, but I do remember his beard, his hands. And I remember his eyes, looking at me when Jesus called us to follow him—my father was staring at me like he was gauging the strength of a net. He nodded, I thought, at least it seemed to me later that he had nodded, had offered us that small blessing with the quick understanding of a father. He could read water, read the sky, read the fish swimming, and he read my brother and I, though he was looking at me. My brother James was always like a fish jumping for a light, holding back just for me and for our father to decide. James was the oldest, but while he often walked ahead of me, he somehow always seemed to be following me.
So our father, Zebedee, looked at me and nodded, and James and I put down the nets and walked away with Jesus. It was never the same afterward. Maybe that is why I remembered that moment. Something in me knew that it was important, that it marked a change. There are moments in our lives that matter, not that there are moments without value. It is just that some moments are like a point when we are touched by God. We are brought into contact with something greater than ourselves, outside ourselves, that resonates with the spirit within us. We never returned, not really, not to stay. Our father’s boats were finally given to the servants, and sometimes I felt regret and doubt for leaving that life. We had not understood when we walked away with Jesus that we would never return. I don’t know whether my father knew it, but we did not.
Maybe that is why I agreed to look after Mary in the end. I was an irresponsible son who walked away from my father and our family business, and looking after her offered me a sense of redemption. Not that I had any choice. He had found the strength to speak while hanging on that cross. “Behold your mother!” What was I going to say? No, thank you, I have other obligations? Maybe that was the reason he said it, made that effort as he hung there to place Mary in my care and me in hers. It was a gift, something that would heal the sense of guilt inside me that he knew I carried, though I never spoke of it. Perhaps he had known how much I missed my father just from my voice, or from the way I sometimes spoke to James, or perhaps Jesus simply knew.
I loved her, of course. Who could not love Mary? If James and I were marred by what we saw that day, watching him suffer, watching him die, then she was more so.
And he was certainly dead.
I was left remembering all of it, at least I was left remembering those days. They were in my mind with the vividness of dreams, the ones that somehow seem more real than memory. Not that all of it was the same. Some moments stood out more than others, as with any memories, and not always the moments that I would have thought. One might think that the crucifixion was my most vivid memory, but it was not. Oh, I remembered that day, certainly, but it was not what haunted my dreams or crept into my waking thoughts. I remembered blind men, and Mary. I remembered Peter’s great bobbing head as he made his way through the crowds. I remembered the bread that Jesus gave us.
Most of all, I dreamed of that morning at the shore.
Smoke was rising from a small fire on the beach, and I saw him standing next to it. He was looking over the water toward us as we made our way to shore. I thought I knew him, even from that distance, but I couldn’t place him.
No one was talking. Peter’s boat was creaking, leaking slightly from having seen little use for the last three years. Maybe it was good that we had caught nothing. We probably would have torn the nets and sunk the boat with us in it. A fine bunch of fishermen we were. Perhaps we had forgotten how to fish, forgotten how to live like regular people, make a living.
Peter was mending a hole in the net. He dropped the netting shuttle, and I could hear him muttering and cursing as he felt around in the coils of rope for it. He had a curse for everything, all manner of language rearranged to suit the target. When his muttering died down, the only other sound was made by waves gurgling on the side of the hull.
“Friends, have you got any fish?”
I heard his voice over the water. Friends, he said. Something about the voice was like it was speaking inside me instead of from the beach, a crazy idea.
No, we told him. Nothing. No breakfast here. Go away.
“Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will catch some.”
All of us stared over the water at him, at the small fire, the smoke. That voice, I thought. We each turned and looked over the side of the boat. Nothing, no ripples, no flash from fish swimming in the morning light. We looked at our nets, piled in the bottom of the boat, wet and empty. Nobody spoke; we just started moving, pulling a net up, throwing it over the side.
The ropes pulled tight right away. We must have snagged something, I thought, and I leaned over the side to see into the water. Fish, schooling, a flashing churning shoal of fish, were filling the net, drawing it down. The others started pulling on the net ropes, straining against the weight. I was holding a mast tie, leaning out the other side of the boat for a counterweight, and I looked back to see him on the beach. He stood perfectly still, watching us, and I thought he smiled. That was when I knew him.
“It is the Lord,” I said, leaning out over the water. The boat lurched as Peter grabbed his tunic and jumped into the water, swimming for the shore. The rest of us struggled to get the net into the boat, fish piled gasping at our feet. As we made for shore I again held a mast tie and leaned out over the water, this time at the bow to listen and watch. It seemed to me that their voices murmured across the water, Peter and Jesus, but I could never tell what they said over the sounds of the oars and of the others talking in the boat before letting their words die as they also looked to the shore and to the one sitting with Peter on the beach.
There was a bump and the sound of sand dragging against the hull, and we were ashore. We left the boat and the fish, not bothering to cover them with our net or to wet them as was our wont. We stepped onto the sandy beach still unbelieving but wanting to believe, waiting for our vision to clear or the moment to resolve itself into something other than what we perceived.
Jesus was sitting by a fire, his arms around his knees as though simply sitting there was natural, was what he always did. He is dead, I thought to myself. I watched him die, slowly, crucified. Most of the others had run, not that I blamed them. I stayed. The women were there and somehow I could not leave them, could not leave him.
“Mother, behold your son,” he had said. I thought he meant himself. “Son, behold your mother,” he had added, and I knew he meant me, though at first I thought he meant to call me his son rather than Mary’s. Later I was not so sure he did not.
In years to come it was the sea that I thought of, blue green at the surface that day, black in the depths and shoaling with silver fish unseen from above.
You may also enjoy reading an excerpt in the Amazon Kindle preview—it is a longer excerpt, all for free, and in a nicer book format. You don’t even need to buy a copy (though you could…) Here’s the link.
I,John is published by Falling Creek Publishing, available through booksellers everywhere.
ISBN 978-0-9906426-9-5 — Clothbound (6x9in)
ISBN 978-0-9906426-1-9 — Trade Paperback (5.25x8in)
ISBN 978-0-9906426-0-2 — e-Book (except, of course, the Kindle version which carries Amazon’s ASIN B00N43YCKO)
Library of Congress Control Number 2014914427
The Rivers of Goshen* is not the sequel to I,John. Instead, it is a modern gothic story set in the rural South. I wrote this novel some years ago, but then I left it in a drawer. I didn’t like where it went or how it ended, and it took some time to determine a better ending and a better way to get there. Some things just take a while.
The Rivers of Goshen will be available soon. Here’s an excerpt:
Jorge Chavez walked along the side of the road, the Sunday morning heat making his shirt cling to his skin. Dew from the grass and weeds wet his jeans to the knees and covered his sneakers with seeds.
In this country, everyone he knew called him George. He tried to tell them how to say his name, and they always failed. He had even tried writing it down for them. Each time, they would look at the slip of paper, think for a moment, then say ‘George.’ He didn’t understand, but he had gotten used to it.
Jorge worked at Cliff’s Pool Hall & Tavern. There was nobody named Cliff, not any more, not that Jorge had ever met. Charlene owned the place. She was too old for her bottle blond hair, but she was kind and paid him every week, less the rent for the trailer where he lived. Jorge could see Cliff’s from his kitchen window. It wasn’t much of a view, but there was no great distance to cover to get to work.
Cliff’s was built of concrete blocks, painted dingy white. The early morning light made the place look like an adobe ranch house. At night the neon lights hid the peeling paint and the occasional ochre ellipses of urine stains, but daylight did them no favors. The flat topped building squatted in a pavement oasis, gaudy signs hiding the railroad tracks and trailer parks that stretched away behind them, billboards with pictures of waitresses in tight clothes, exaggerated cleavage. Six nights a week the rednecks congregated, celebrating the trinity of bluejeans, beer, and billiard balls, but the place was closed on Sunday. Every morning except Monday, Jorge came to pick up the bottles and to mop the floors. It was not his only job, but to him it was one of the easiest. When he had started working there, the place reeked of spilled beer, yeast venting from the soaked floors. Now when he finished mopping, the place smelled almost clean. Charlene had given him a key to the door and to the shed out back where he kept his supplies. Mops. Buckets. Cleaner.
Jorge walked across the parking lot toward the shed, laughing to himself as he thought of his wife who was home in Delicias, Chihuahua, with their children. She didn’t know that her husband’s name was George. He imagined returning home and pictured their faces, looking up at him. He would have to reintroduce himself.
“Hola. Me llamo George.”
Laughing, he looked up to see that the door to the shed was slightly ajar, the small padlock hanging loose on what was left of the mangled hasp. Nothing new. Thieves. People often broke into the little building, probably thinking that beer was stored there. Sometimes they were just looking for a place to have sex. They left behind empty beer bottles and used condoms, the detritus of redneck romance. Jorge opened the door and peered into the darkness.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, a moment longer to make out the shapes. At first Jorge didn’t understand what he was seeing. Then his brain put together the outline of the body, a young woman lying on the concrete floor, her clothes ripped away, blood spattered across the walls, more blood pooled around her. The woman’s eyes were open, the sunlight glinting in them. Jorge stared, his lungs frozen, and he felt that what he was seeing somehow wasn’t real. He felt trapped, as in a dream where his body will not move, won’t respond, his feet heavy as though dragging through water. His mouth was open, but he made no sound. He forced himself to breathe, a long, deep, jagged breath, to regain control of his throat, and then he started screaming. He screamed for a long time. There was no answer, no one near enough to hear him.
He turned away and dropped to his knees, hands on the pavement to stiffen himself. The rough, dark surface had already trapped heat from the morning sun, and the warmth seeped into his palms and restored some calm. As he began to think once more, he remembered that as a child he had seen a cow that had been hit by a car. Its eyes were open and staring, the same as the woman’s, and Jorge had not thought that it was breathing, but when he touched the cow it had jumped to its feet once more, terrifying him. Jorge had run all the way home, the front of his pants wet from his loss of control.
He thought he had better check to make sure that the woman was dead. He stood up and after a deep breath went back to the doorway, holding the frame for support.
Jorge stepped inside the shed and knelt to touch her throat. He felt no pulse. The woman didn’t move, didn’t breathe. He felt something sticky on his fingers, and looking at them he realized that her blood was on his fingertips, dark red and congealing like syrup. Jorge felt sick. He stood up too quickly, then stumbled out of the shed as shock combined with movement to make him lightheaded. Grabbing the doorframe he steadied himself, staring at the ground and making himself focus on the tiny pebbles embedded in the pavement of the parking lot. When he had regained his ability to breathe and was no longer quite as lightheaded, he looked back at her body.
She was certainly dead.
He ran over to the shallow ditch at the edge of the parking lot. The vomit came just as he knelt, rubbing his forehead with his bloody fingertips, leaving red marks across his face. When he realized that he had smeared her blood on his face he began to make a murmuring sound, something strange, a Tibetan insect hum. He wiped his hands on his pants, pulled out his handkerchief, tried to wipe the blood away. Seeing the dark red smears on the cloth he felt sick again, and he vomited once more into the ditch. Hearing the sound of an approaching car, he ran out into the road and tried to flag it down, waving his handkerchief, but the couple inside just stared at him and kept going. The driver was a man, his lips moving, his hand pointing, but Jorge couldn’t hear what he was saying. The woman had large eyes, a pale face, and her hands were on her mouth. The man was angry, but white men were always angry.
Jorge stared at the back of the car as it accelerated away. He realized that they had seen a Mexican throwing up in a ditch outside a beer joint. He had blood on his face. No wonder they didn’t stop. He sat on the edge of the pavement and looked down the road. When he closed his eyes, he could still see her. He leaned back and looked up at the sky, trying to erase her image, but he knew it was no good, that when he closed his eyes again she would be there, her dead eyes staring at him. He knew that she would be there for a long time.
He once heard of a man back in Delicias who had seen something so awful that he could not close his eyes. The man was very old, with deep circles and bags of skin hanging on his cheeks, and people said that he had not slept in many years because of the dreams. It was said that he planned never to sleep again. Jorge did not think that he could live like that, never sleeping, never dreaming.
But this is how it happens, he thought. You see something, not even knowing what it is. Curiosity makes you go closer until you realize that it is something awful, and once your mind gets a grip on it, you can never let go of it. Each time you close your eyes, you know you will see it again. You have to go through the rest of your life never closing your eyes, never sleeping, all through no particular fault of your own.
It was a test, he thought, a trial like those sent to make one into a saint.
Perhaps all of the saints had seen something terrible. Maybe they had seen something so awful that they devoted their lives to God, able to endure anything rather than remember what they had seen. In Mexico, a priest had a book with pictures showing how the saints had suffered. Jorge remembered one saint, tied to a table, his entrails being drawn through a slit in his belly onto a rotating rod turned by soldiers. Another saint stood, his arms outstretched even though his body was full of arrows. Jorge had wondered who would shoot so many arrows into a saint, and how the man had lived with the pain. My God, thought Jorge, to live through such torture without losing his faith that man must have seen something truly awful. For a long time the image of this saint had endured in Jorge’s mind, but now the girl had displaced him. Still, thinking of the saint was enough to rouse him, and he managed to walk back to the pool hall to find a telephone.
As he unlocked the door to Cliff’s, he was pummeled by the smell of the previous night’s beer and cigarette smoke. He looked around for a moment, trying to recall where a telephone was, then he remembered and found one behind the bar. Jorge dialed 911, but he was in such bad shape that he could barely manage any English. He spoke in Spanish to the woman who answered, and she put him on hold. Jorge listened, not knowing what else to do. There was still blood on his hands and a recorded voice of a calm man saying something over and over. Another woman came on the line, speaking to him very hesitantly in Spanish. When she made out the word for murder, she told him that she was sending deputies to the scene.
“Policía,” she said.
Jorge understood that help was coming and hung up the phone, but now he was troubled. The police were coming, and that might not be good. He thought he should have called Charlene, but he didn’t know how. When he needed to talk to her, he just came here. He walked back to the doorway of the bar, a bitter taste on the back of his tongue, and the smell of spilled beer rode the air currents flowing out through the door. He followed the air outside and sat on a wooden railway tie, one that had been made into a parking space marker. He rocked back and forth, staring at the leaves moving with the wind in the trees across the road, and he thought that if he just watched the leaves, he wouldn’t have to remember her face.
Jorge prayed as he sat, but he did not close his eyes.
The Rivers of Goshen will be available soon.
(* The original working title was Sins of Omission.)
One of my favorite words is liminal. It means those boundary places where we slip from one thing to another — beaches, twilight, dying. There are thin margins between those of us with ordinary means and those without. People without a place to live, without regular income.
We talk about freedom in this country. But freedom is an economic principle. We aren’t truly free unless we have the means to live. We aren’t free without the means to support ourselves, our families, the ones we love.
Life is complicated. People are complicated. Love is as complicated or as simple as we make it.
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