Workers of Iniquity

“It’s empty,” Arliss says, striking a kitchen match on his butt, which is a trick I seen too many times now.


“You sure?” says I. Because Arliss lies just about all the time. Once he told me why. We was driving through Pensacola. Arliss was sitting in the back seat with Howard, that dog we stole from somebody’s yard in Raleigh. Arliss called it a rescue operation. But that wasn’t true neither. He just liked the way this little furball was barking to beat all and jumping like it had springs in its legs. He done it like Arliss does everything. Smooth, just dropping his hand over the fence and catching that little yapper mid-jump. It took him two states to decide on “Howard,” though. Until then he just called it “Pooch.”


Anyway, like I said, we was in Pensacola, and I was reading road signs aloud for Arliss. He says it’s good exercise for his mental faculties. Arliss don’t ever listen to the radio. His mama was always listening to the radio, and Arliss still hates his mama even after all these years. But I’ll tell you something. I knew his mama and she was the sweetest lady you ever met. Arliss can be that way, though. He can hate the woman who give him birth and love a dog that pees whenever it gets excited, which is pretty much always.


So I read this one sign in front of a church in Pensacola that said, “Is Touching Yourself Worth An Eternity In Hell?” Arliss made me stop the car. He sat there thinking like he does, and then he told me to get out and rearrange the letters to say, “Ill Horny Tweeter Shun A Ninth Felicitous Orgy.”


“I got to break the glass to get at it,” I yelled back at him. “There’s a lock on this damn thing.”


“Go ahead. God don’t mind. He got plenty of other things to worry about.” (more…)

When the Waters Came


When the waters came, we sat in the twilight and listened to the voices. “Love” and “dear” and “forever” rode the evening air like birds in sure flight over a pathless sea.




When the waters came, we drew close and touched hands. Blood rose to meet blood, pulsing, quickening.




When the waters came, they came like the welling of bittersweet sorrow, like some faint memory emerging from a fathomless depth, silent, inexorable, and in starlight they had the luster of pearl, of waking power gently overlapping the broken but enduring land, making all form formless, rising and rising and finally converging with the sky there on the vanishing horizon, so that we grieved for the old tree that sheltered us at the edge of that rainswept pasture, and we grieved for that special stone our child clutched in his tiny hand, and we grieved for the nameless stream we crossed that day, you wild with laughter as I handed the boy across, your eyes dancing, raindrops like tears of joy on your face, “It’s all right, darling, I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” all this back when the world was young, continent newly riven from continent, with volcanoes flaring like beacon fires in the distance, with forests primeval and fenceless grasslands and myriads of herds and numberless flocks taking wing and blotting out the sun, everything radiant with promise, nothing to be forgotten, not ever, in the days before the waters came.




Yet the waters came. They came without surcease, without pity, and when the drear gray of dawn arrived, its frail light left our hearts cold, neither fearful nor hopeful but for the moment merely resigned, resigned to the way of things, how they come and go, arriving in Sunday dresses and Christmas stockings and parade floats and birth announcements, then departing with a sigh and a shrug, unsure what to think or feel, what it meant, and thus resigned we gathered a few belongings, old photographs and locks of hair, leaving all the rest to lie as they lay, and we set out, resolute, together, the ground rising ahead of us, the top of the hill closer with each step, until at length we stood on its crest, staring first in amazement at what had just moments earlier been purest mystery, then looking shyly, steadily, boldly into each other’s eyes.

Children in a Field | Poem 2004 | Painting 1960

Children in a Field | © 1960 Fairfield Porter




by Angela Shaw


They don’t wade in so much as they are taken.

Deep in the day, in the deep of the field,

every current in the grasses whispers hurry

hurry, every yellow spreads its perfume

like a rumor, impelling them further on.

It is the way of girls. It is the sway

of their dresses in the summer trance-

light, their bare calves already far-gone

in green. What songs will they follow?

Whatever the wood warbles, whatever storm

or harm the border promises, whatever

calm. Let them go. Let them go traceless

through the high grass and into the willow-

blur, traceless across the lean blue glint

of the river, to the long dark bodies

of the conifers, and over the welcoming

threshold of nightfall.


(From Poetry, September, 2004, Vol. 184, No. 5)


© Emily Schiffer


That was the scar
the old woman was then holding in her hands.
She traced it out and recognized it. She dropped his foot.
His leg fell in the basin, and the bronze rang out.
It tipped onto its side. Water spilled out on the ground.
All at once, joy and sorrow gripped her heart. Her eyes
filled up with tears, and her full voice was speechless.

                                    (Od. 19.467 ff., Johnston, trans.)


Here in Homer’s Odyssey, the hero has finally reached home after two decades of war and wandering. He’s altered beyond recognition, however.


The plot has it that the alteration is artificial. Athena disguises Odysseus as a down-on-his luck vagabond, the better for him to spy on Penelope’s wicked suitors and plot against them.


Or you, Homer’s readers, may choose to think otherwise — to acknowledge the plot device, while nonetheless understanding Odysseus’s physical transformation as the natural, even inevitable consequence of his harsh experiences at Troy and during his return voyage.


In the present scene, Penelope has invited the beggar to speak with her. She wants news of her husband. In the course of their interview, the queen instructs Odysseus’s childhood nurse to wash her guest’s feet. But he fears (rightly, as it happens) that Eurycleia will see and recognize a telltale scar on his knee. He supposes (wrongly) that she will give him away.


What’s this all about?


In our world — this world outside the poem, I mean — we don’t lose contact with our partners for two decades. Not in the way that Penelope and Odysseus are separated. And we don’t have faintly familiar-looking strangers turn up on our doorsteps, either, with tales of once having encountered a loved one in a far-off place.


What we do have is something like the converse. Namely, spouses and partners and even intimate friends from whom we’ve never been separated for long, not physically, but who have nonetheless become strangers to us.


You know what I mean. Time passes. That familiar face is there in front of us, day after day. And while we weren’t paying attention, while we went about the mundane business of our lives, while we thoughtlessly took so much for granted, that familiar face gradually took on the character of a mask, behind which so much became altered.


So. On the one hand, Homer’s vagabond is indeed Penelope’s one true Odysseus. On the other hand, your supposed Odysseus may now be, figuratively speaking, a vagabond, a homeless beggar, a man or woman with a yet untold tale of misadventure and woe:

But once
I was wealthy and lived in my own home,
in a rich house, too, among my people.
I often gave gifts to a wanderer like me,
no matter who he was or what his needs
when he arrived. I had countless servants
and many other things that people have 
when they live well and are considered rich.
But then Zeus, son of Cronos, ruined me. 
That’s what he wanted, I suppose. 

(Od. 19.75 ff., Johnston, trans.)

“Once I was young,” he or she might say, if asked. “I had my life still ahead of me. And I was beautiful, you know? I had that beauty that so many young people have. That vitality, that eagerness, that openness to life. I … I … I don’t know what happened. I’m not sure how I got here.”


And the scar?


For Odysseus and his old nurse Eurycleia, the scar on the knee is not a disfigurement. It’s a token of identity, isn’t it? It’s autobiography. It’s a strange sort of language that this particular man and woman speak.


I ask you, therefore, why it should be different for us. Yes, our scars, yours and mine, are remnants of past injuries. Our pain and suffering, that is. Wounds do leave marks. They do pucker and discolor the skin, and no one should be blamed for wanting to hide them.


But maybe what was true for Eurycleia can be true for us, too. Maybe it’s by their scars that we can recognize our long-lost husbands, wives, partners, parents, children, siblings, and friends. Maybe, if we want to welcome them home, we start with the scars?


“Ah, there you are. I see you now. You’re still carrying that scar from when your mother wounded you so deeply. And the one from when your fiancé broke off your engagement. From when you ran out of money and had to drop out of college. From when you got passed over for promotion. From when you became estranged from your child. And, look, there are new scars here.


“Tell me. Tell me about the old ones again, and tell me about these new ones. Tell me, because these scars are part of you, the life you’ve lived. Tell me about them, and then let’s celebrate these patches of unblemished skin. Let’s rejoice in all of it, the wounds that have healed, the blows we’ve avoided, and what we’ve managed by luck or skill to preserve from harm.


“Tell me.”


Buffalo Gap National Grassland © Cyril Albrecht


Ἔστιν οὖν τραγῳδία μίμησις πράξεως σπουδαίας καὶ τελείας, μέγεθος ἐχούσης, ἡδυσμένῳ λόγῳ χωρὶς ἑκάστῳ τῶν εἰδῶν ἐν τοῖς μορίοις, δρώντων καὶ οὐ δι᾽ ἀπαγγελίας, δι᾽ ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν. (Aristotle, Poetics 6)


“Master Aristotle, how does one spell ‘catharsis?”


Cheeky child.


“You know perfectly well how to spell it, Alexander.”


“I suppose. But I don’t know why you say tragedy stimulates the bowels.”


Incorrigible. So hard to resist the urge to beat this boy within an inch of his life.


“That is not the kind of ‘purging’ that a tragic play brings about in the audience.”


“And yet in the Laws, the immortal Plato …”


“Hush, child.”


Alas for his father Philip. What will happen to Macedon when this princeling becomes king, I cannot imagine.


“Now, as I was saying, Alexander, the great events of tragic drama arouse pity and fear in the spectators, and in this way …”



Once, years ago, I hit a deer. It was dark, and I was driving fast on two-lane blacktop. From stage right, a large buck leaped into the light of my high-beams. It then veered ninety degrees and raced down the double-yellow line ahead of me. Animal and car were now on the exact same path, the gap narrowing by the second.  I braked hard. The front end of my car dipped. In the footlights, the deer’s antlers rose and fell, rose and fell.


(There is an old story about a hunter who became a deer. In the woods he stumbled upon a leafy grotto so picturesque that it did not seem real: nature imitating art imitating nature. And standing in the cool water on a hot day was a naked goddess. The virgin goddess of the hunt, in fact. She turned, saw, blushed. Lifting a handful of water, she cast it at the hunter. Through his wet hair antlers sprouted. His neck lengthened. Fur grew over his body. Soon, too soon, his own hounds noticed. He, or it, fled. The terror was unspeakable. Hunter, predator, seeming rapist had become hunted, prey, victim. Can so much turn on one chance encounter?)


Too late, with a slight tilt of its powerful body, the deer began its exit, once again stage right. In the end, it was a glancing blow. Driver’s side mirror torn away, windshield glass cracked by one antler. And in that moment before life and death parted ways — the one on a course to now, the other into the darkness of that night — our faces were separated by mere inches.



I saw a movie recently, The Rider. A young cowboy named Brady Jandreau, who once suffered a career-ending injury in a rodeo when a bronco stepped on his head, plays a young cowboy named Brady Atkinson, who suffers a career-ending injury in a rodeo when a bronco steps on his head. In the film’s most difficult-to-watch scenes, we see Brady visiting his close friend Lane Scott, played by Lane Scott, who is paralyzed and being cared for in a rehab center. Brady and the fictional Lane watch videos of the real Lane competing in bull-riding competitions and hamming it up for the camera. Near the end of the film, Lane uses hand signs to spell out for Brady the words “Don’t give up on your dreams.”


In The Rider, Brady Atkinson is a brooding, intense young man whose squinty-eyed profile against the South Dakota grasslands is iconic. For his part, Brady Jandreau, already somewhat jaded, now has an agent and is auditioning for other movies. And the real Lane Scott? Tragically injured not by a rodeo bull, as I had assumed, but in an automobile accident.



There must have been a moment in human history when, for the first time ever, a person had the realization, “This right here is like one of those great stories.” I wonder what time of the day or night it was when this thought first occurred to a human being: “I myself am the hero of this story.” In that moment, the mythical emerged from myth. In that moment, imagination was born, and humankind began its rapid ascent from animal instinct toward godlike contemplation of self.


So, it’s not that we turn to art to be cleansed and emptied out, as the literal-minded philosopher had it. Just the opposite, in fact. We look to art to be filled up with story, stories that we can tell ourselves about ourselves.


Alexander the Great is supposed to have slept each night with a copy of Homer’s Iliad nearby.


Whenever Brady Jandreau settled on the back of a wild bronc, clutched the reins, and waited for the gate to open, it was a mythical cowboy very much like Brady Atkinson — stoical and indomitable — whom he was emulating, just below conscious thought.


Finally, the real Lane Scott, from his wheelchair at QLI Rehabilitation Center in Omaha, Nebraska, is reported to have improvised at least one line of dialogue for his character Lane Scott. The latter asks Brady how he is doing with the brand-new metal plate in his head. Lane listens to his response and then signs, grinning a big grin, “J-u-s-t  r-u-b  s-o-m-e  d-i-r-t  i-n  i-t.”



At night on a backroad in rural America, circa 1990, one of two things happened.


A deer ran out in front of a car and got hit.


Or two earthly creatures had a sudden and violent encounter, in which was figured the divergent paths taken by their remote ancestors, the one mostly unaltered from then until now, and the other speeding ever faster and faster into an uncertain future, both blessed and cursed with his Promethean gifts. And in that chance meeting on the boundary between human and nonhuman, past and future, heaven and hell, the man caught a glimpse of what was and is no longer, and at the same time, what might be but won’t.




Only the Watchman

Credit: Serge Brunier (2008)


Scene: rooftop at night. There stands the Watchman, looking east.


Beyond the horizon, a wooden horse is mantled in flame, and a baby, beautiful as a star, tumbles through space.


“Will this never end?” he asks. He means the watching.


No answer from the gods. No answer from the darkness.


Beneath his feet, the palace sleeps. Around it sleeps the city. In the countryside, farmers and their wives are sleeping. Their oxen sleep, their sheep and goats, too. All the trees are sleeping, and in them sleep birds. Hill and dale, river and bay: fast asleep. The fragrant air itself is drowsy with sleep. Only the Watchman is awake. He and the vigilant stars, those cold fires in heaven. Each night, in perfect silence, they describe their perfect arcs, and in their fairy light, the Watchman is a shadow in a dream.


Across the sea, a headless corpse lies upon the shore, a body without a name. Seeds of fire swirl and drift across a great plain. Women, in their terror, clutch at a mute icon and pray for a swift death.


Loneliness, he thinks, is a death-in-life. A motionless vortex. Once when he was a child, he woke from sleep into a seeming paralysis. He willed his arms and legs to move. For a moment, until they answered, his mind was trapped in its own body. He rose and went straight to his mother. She held him as he breathed in her familiar unfamiliar smell. Heart thudding, eyes shut tight, he saw stars like glowing embers. They flared into life, danced, faded. “Shh, shh,” she said, stroking his hair.


At the foot of the palace wall grows an ancient olive tree. From above, its leafy crown is the purest black. Starlight pours into it and disappears forever, leaving no trace. It’s the mouth of a cave, he imagines, a branching cavern of countless rooms. In every room is a memory. Every memory is both true and false. Discern the truth and pass into the next room. Prefer the lie and pass into the next room. It doesn’t matter. Each memory is the god of its own underground chamber, and you are just a tendril of mist, floating through the labyrinth.


The chill on the rooftop deepens. It’s the hour of night when he straddles yesterday and tomorrow, past and future. In these moments, he sees the membrane thinning almost into nothingness, the impassable barrier, that is, between him and Everything Else (even himself). Always, pity rises in him. He feels tender toward the doomed world. “Lovely, lovely,” he thinks, those terraced fields clinging to the hillside. Beautiful, those trembling hands as the girl ties back her hair. Unforgettable, those unnoticed acts of individual courage — one person’s “I refuse” in the face of ravening despair.


Four seasons. Four seasons have wheeled round since he first climbed to the roof, sent here by a woman who thinks like a man. “Watch,” the queen said. And so. Short naps on his arms like a dog. Fear of discovery flapping its soft wings against his face. Doubt. Time passing and passing and passing like a shuttle drawing a sable thread through a warp of solid black. And more than once, tears. Tears for what once was and can never be again.


In any case, a watchman must watch. Some night soon, he hopes and he dreads, will offer up that bonfire on the horizon, signaling that they have done what they sailed away to do: to end history, and to begin it.



Strange Beauty


Twenty-five feet below Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Birmingham, Alabama, I found this tunnel. See for yourself. Rusting metal chutes jutting from the ceiling. Water seeping through the walls and trickling into black puddles on the floor. A blooming pattern of lime-green and ocher. Underfoot, a metal grid forever carrying the ghosts of furnace workers, swinging their ropy forearms, into the darkness beyond.


What strange beauty.


I’ve been thinking recently about some words from an old essay by Adam Parry on the Aeneid. They go, “It is as if Virgil were telling us that the way to resolve our personal sorrow over the losses of history is to regard these losses in the same mood as we would a beautifully wrought vessel of clear glass.”


They put me in mind of a scene described by Holocaust survivor Thomas Buergenthal in his memoir A Lucky Child:

As the train moved slowly through Czechoslovakia, making frequent stops, we began to see men, women, and children standing on the bridges we passed under. They waved to us and shouted, and then loaves of bread began to fall into our train.

Can you see it? Two lines, crossing but not quite intersecting. Above, faces looking down, arms extended. Below, faces turned up, arms reaching. Look now, loaves of bread falling, falling, falling through the empty air. Other lines, too — the invisible ones of a gargantuan family tree, millions upon millions of branchlets that you must trace back to their union with sturdy branches and then to their joining at massive limbs and finally to the trunk itself, where (behold!) carved into the bark are pictures of hunters and gatherers, standing amazed before a field ruled with furrows straight as a train track. Hoe, mattock, plow. And there, too, an image of the very first oven for baking bread, ancient precursor of the iron ovens at Auschwitz, to which Tommy Buergenthal’s train is headed, inexorably, ten thousand years later.


A mirage, then. All those straight lines are a mirage. Instead, a perfect circle. As perfect, in its way, as a beautifully wrought vessel of pure glass.


I read the other day that outbreaks of Ebola virus in humans are quite probably due to deforestation. Fruit bats from deep in the forest are attracted to the newly open areas. These bats bring the virus with them. Patient Zero in the outbreak in 2014, which killed 11,000 people, was a toddler in Guinea, who had been playing near a giant dead tree swarming with bats.


Photo by John Moore / Getty Images


For millennia, we’ve cleared the forests to farm, to gather fuel, to harvest building materials, and to dig for precious metals and minerals. We’ve hacked our way through the primordial forest to locate the Tree of Life. And in doing so, we’ve opened a Pandora’s box of deadly viruses, exterminated an untold number of potential cures for disease, and filled Earth’s atmosphere with greenhouse gases. That is, we went looking for life, and we’ve managed in doing so to hasten our own death.


What strange beauty, the symmetry of it all.


There’s a verse in Virgil’s Aeneid that reads, sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt (1.462). It means something like, “Here are tears for the way things are, and the plight of mortals touches the heart.” In Adam Parry’s view, the epic poet is inviting his readers to find consolation and hope in our willingness to look squarely at all of human history, both good and bad, with detachment enough to feel sorrow at what is undeniably sorrowful in our condition, even — though it may be difficult for any of us to reach this degree of detachment — to regard sorrow itself as a thing to be desired.


Longtime readers of Traces know that Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) is a touchtone for me. In the scene below, Malick captures something of the sensibility that Parry claims infuses Virgil’s Aeneid. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) stands in for us, the film’s audience, as he stands watching the Melanesian villagers with whom he has been living, and thinks about the death of his mother:



I remember my mother when she was dyin’, looked all shrunk up and gray. I asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I couldn’t find nothin’ beautiful or uplifting about her goin’ back to God. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it. I wondered how it’d be when I died, what it’d be like to know this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same… calm. ‘Cause that’s where it’s hidden – the immortality I hadn’t seen.

In that calm, even if it is a sorrowful calm, we can be open to the full range of our existence, from our births to our deaths, from our triumphs to our failures, from our great suffering to our wonderful consolations.


In that calm, we can honor those who came before, and those who will come after.


In that calm, we can live fully, capable of acting both for ourselves and for others.