Washed Away

The tall preacher lays his palm upon the man’s forehead. With his other hand the preacher cradles the man’s nape. All around them the Snake River flows easily, aglitter in the dawn. The preacher speaks loudly, clearly, so that the rest of his followers may hear as they watch from the bank of the river.
“May yesterday’s sins be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ.”
The man takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. The preacher lowers the man backwards into the gilded water, pausing a moment as the man disappears into the sky on the water, and then raises him, holding him steadily as the man breathes out and blinks rapidly into the bright light of a new day. His white long-johns are soaked through. Droplets of water stud him like diamonds.
“Thank you, preacher,” the man says.
“Thank the Lord, Billy,” the preacher says. His black robe is like a raven perched amidst the river. “Forgiveness is His alone.”
Billy nods and then crosses himself, trudging now to the bank of the river to join with the others, drying in the sun. He sits down, his mousy hair wet and lank. He smiles through his wet beard as if a boy again, and the rest of the followers return his smile with childlike joy.
The preacher looks upon them with the look of a shepherd for his sheep. Then, with a gesture, he invites the next member of his flock forward into the waters to be baptized for the new day of pious devotion.

The sun rises higher and the day grows hotter, dustier. The flock harvests the crops they grow near their settlement of tents and wagons and palisades. Some men go fishing for trout in the river to add to the evening’s meal. The preacher stands solemnly nearby, a bible in his hand and his cool gray eyes watchful of his flock. The sun bakes skin and earth unto a clay. The preacher vows that he will mold the clay as God molded Adam.
Billy approaches the preacher, his breeches and hat dusty with the work of the day. The young man’s eyes squint perpetually, the sun having cracked wrinkles prematurely beneath them. The young man’s bare torso is as gaunt as Christ on a Catholic crucifix.
“Preacher,” Billy says, “I wanted to apologize.”
“Oh?” the preacher says. “There is no need. That is why I baptize you every morning. Your sins are washed away.”
Billy lets his eyes drop to the sagebrush and other shrubs scattered across the expanse between himself and the mountain-hemmed horizon. The preacher seems taller than the mountains themselves, and looms over all things.
“It’s not my sins I’m worried about, preacher. It’s those of…of my wife.”
The preacher gazes toward the womenfolk as they busily pick green beans. Sarah stoops among them, her red hair ablaze in the afternoon sun.
“And how has Sarah trespassed against God?”
“Sarah avoids you, preacher,” Billy says. “She doesn’t take baptism every morning. And for that, I am sorry.”
“She will see the light,” the preacher says. “With time. She will make a goodly wife.”
Billy sighs and looks away. His voice is despondent. “I like to believe so, preacher. But…”
He falls to silence.
“But?” the preacher says.
“But I fear she is going astray,” Billy says, his voice trembling. “She…disappears sometimes. Goes missing. At night…”
“And you believe she is meeting with someone else among my flock?” the preacher says, his gray eyes grim.
“No, no!” Billy says, hastily. “I would never doubt my neighbor. I know we are all Faithful here.”
The preacher turns his gray eyes upon the young man, his gaze burnishing and unblinking; steadfast as the sun itself. “Then what do you suspect?”
Billy looks to his wife kneeling among the green beans, then lets his eyes drift away in defeated silence.
The preacher’s voice is softer.
“Billy? If you suspect something, you must speak it, if not to unburden yourself, then at least to unburden the air. Unspoken suspicions are phantoms that grow in power and darken all that they touch with their shadows.”
“I don’t know, preacher,” Billy says, heavily. “Maybe it is just a phantom in my head.”
The preacher nods. “Do you know what dispels phantoms?”
“What?” Billy says, looking up with expectant hope at the preacher.
“The sun,” the preacher says. “And honest labor beneath the sun.”
“You’re right, preacher,” Billy says. “I need to work off this restlessness.”
Billy returns to the crops, taking up a hoe and weeding alongside the other members of the flock. The preacher watches him for a long moment, then turns his eyes elsewhere. Like bloated deerflies his black pupils wander about slowly, restlessly, from person to person, coming, at length, to Billy’s wife, Sarah. Her hair is as blood among the beans. She glances up, notices the preacher’s gaze, and turns quickly away.

After dinner—when the long day has settled its ashes on the horizon—the preacher reads to his flock passages from his bible. He stands tall while they sit low before him, wet with the sweat of their labors as if they have only recently emerged from their baptism in the river.
“You will know them by their fruits,” the preacher reads. “Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruits…”
Billy listens attentively, but is clearly distressed. His wife is not beside him, nor among the congregation. The preacher notices this, too, but says nothing. He reads until the fire dies out in the West, then wishes his flock a good evening and the sleep of the righteous. His flock scatters to their various concerns; some to chores, others to conversation and innocent pastimes.
As the preacher walks toward his tent he is intercepted by the wife of one of his followers.
“Preacher, that was a fine sermon,” she says.
“The Lord saw fit to make it so,” the preacher says.
She follows him for some time, quietly.
“I was curious,” she says as he reaches his tent. “Why not baptize your flock at dusk, too, preacher? Why let their sins follow them into their dreams?”
The preacher does not face her. His tent is as tall as he is, and is arranged on tall wooden posts. He does not look at the young woman, even as she peers boldly up at him. He parts the flap of his tent, holding it with one hand while he stands erect, tall, like a dark sentinel whose dark hair reaches the darkening sky and its nebulous stars. His eyes do not meet her, even still.
“So you may see the fruits of your sins bloom in the night,” the preacher says. “So you may dream the guilt that you harvest from sins and learn from them the lessons upon waking, otherwise you will waken in the next life not to Heaven, but to the flaming orchard that is Hell.”
She snorts, then leaves. The preacher retires inside his tent.

The moon is pale as a salmon’s belly. The wolves howl in the distant mountains to welcome the moon. The fires die around the settlement and the flock retires to bed.
A voice calls faintly to the preacher from beyond his tent.
“Preacher? Preacher, can I have a word? Please?”
The preacher rises from bed, then goes quickly to the flap.
“Billy?” he says.
“Yes, preacher,” Billy says, glumly. “I am sorry, preacher.”
“Give me a moment, Billy, and I will be out.”
The preacher pulls on his long-johns and then his black robe. He regards his bed for a moment, in regret, then opens the flap and exits his tent. Billy’s face is distraught in the moonlight.
“Sarah has gone missing,” he says. “Preacher, you have to help me convince her to take to the Lord’s path again.”
“She is likely making night-soil,” the preacher says.
“I’d like to believe that, preacher,” Billy says. “But she has been gone for so long now.” His eyes are as wide as a salmon’s with distress. “I’m afraid she is lost to me.”
“You must believe in the Lord’s guidance,” the preacher says, sternly. “In all things His hand works His will.”
Billy hangs his head. “I know, preacher…I know…but…”
“Do not persist in this mistaken belief,” the preacher warns him. “Or it will unmake you and all of the hard work you have done for this refuge of souls.”
“I know…preacher…but Sarah…she’s been acting strange for so long now…”
The preacher’s tone is curt. “Do you not think the Lord capable of changing hearts?”
Tears glisten on Billy’s cheeks. He trembles with indecision and doubt. His voice cracks as he speaks. “I know, preacher, but what if she has turned her back on the Lord?”
“Your doubt in the Lord’s influence is a sin,” the preacher says. He shakes his head angrily, looking from Billy back to his tent. At length, he sighs in resignation. “Come. I will baptize you again. This time, perhaps, you will feel the power of Jesus Christ and, then, the truth of these petty frets will be laid bare before you.”
“Yes, preacher.”
The preacher leads Billy to the river, his shadowy figure seemingly as tall as an onyx steeple in the moonlight. The preacher steps into the shoals, gesturing for Billy to follow. Billy hesitates but a moment, but then, too, steps into the shoals, feeling the steady flow pull at his sorrow-stricken knees. He stumbles as if burdened beneath a great weight, but the preacher steadies him.
“Billy,” the preacher says. “Doubt in your wife is doubt in the love of the Lord. Do you ask forgiveness for this human failing?”
Billy, sobbing, nods. “Yes. Please, God, I ask for forgiveness!”
The preacher puts his large palm upon Billy’s forehead, and cradles his nape gently with his other hand. The preacher pauses, hearing two wolves howl together in the distance. He then continues.
“May yesterday’s sins be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ.”
The preacher dips Billy backwards into the river. He waits a moment, says a short prayer, and twists his hands in opposite directions. This done, he trudges back to the bank and—robe weighed down with water—emerges from the river. Returning to his tent, he enters and takes off his wet robe, long-johns, and lays down next to the figure awaiting his return.
A new day dawns and Billy’s limp body is washed away by the river, his arms outspread as he floats along an easy flow mirroring the sky.

Caravaggio

The Taking Of Christ, by Caravaggio. Note the all-too-human despair in Christ’s face.

Dead, at last, in the Tuscany froth,
felled by the poison in the lead paints
which you lathered thickly, as if wroth
with your soul’s war of devils and saints;
ever on the run because your life
was as your paintings—passionate,
full of enemies, murder, and strife,
your soul made as if imps fashioned it
to earn their ladders out from the pits,
using wastrels for works iconic
while given to your violent fits:
your art and life were quite ironic.
With beggars and buggers you portrayed
the apostles and saints, your models
taken from the streets, their seedy trade
that of bathhouses and the brothels.
The shadows seeped darkly from your brush
to frame scant light and embolden the glow,
like whispers in a funeral hush,
your life a stark chiaroscuro.
You captured fear and doubt in the face
of Christ as he confronted his doom,
not as mere blasphemy, but to trace
the Doubt we must face within Death’s tomb.
You dove down into the pits of Hell
to ascend to Heaven from the bounce,
your life was an apostle’s tale:
sin and saint, poisoned paint, ounce for ounce.

“God-Given” Gifts

He visits museums and art galleries

to see the master works of sculptors and painters

(because they have a God-Given gift, too).

He goes to concert halls, opera houses, jazz clubs,

to hear deft musicians play songs

(because they have a God-Given gift, too).

He attends theaters and goes to the cinemas

to watch brilliant actors become other people

(because they have a God-Given gift, too).

He watches comedy shows and standup routines

to laugh at the witty jokes comedians tell

(because they have a God-Given gift, too).

He looks after the runaways, the prostitutes,

the transvestites and the vulnerable,

enticing them into his car, talking to them like

an old friend, kindly neighbor,

philanthropist in times of need,

taking them

somewhere remote, quiet, and alone,

and he bludgeons them, stabs them,

strangles them, rapes them, kills them,

chops up their bodies, takes

souvenirs

for his own home gallery,

disposes of the remains

and then he calls their relatives on the phone,

mocks them,

tortures them with his firsthand accounts,

relives his depravity through their fresh tears,

and he

leaves complacent clues at the scenes of his crimes

to taunt the cops,

watching the News media

to rejoice in his grand debut,

becoming famous as the anchors

talk him up to

Godzilla proportions of destruction,

and then, satisfied, he

lays low for a year,

waiting,

watching,

returning when the ruckus has subsided,

cultivating his celebrity once again

with a second season of murders,

elated as his alter-ego alias

passes along the lips of those who

pray against his trespasses,

and eventually he

betrays himself,

outs himself so he can be celebrated with

loathing, with infamy,

with international intrigue

through books, movies, cult status,

fan mail, declarations of love,

becoming a cultural phenomenon

as famous as Raphael or Elvis,

and all because

he has a God-Given gift, too.

The Lowly Holy

It is the thought of some people

that the grandest part of a church

is, in fact, the skyward steeple,

that tall symbol which does so perch

to watch over the flock each day

and to remind the flock of the cost

of salvation, and why they pray,

so their souls will not be thus lost;

yet, what would be any building

without support from pagan earth?

What foundation is unyielding

when winds test its structural worth?

Try to build the church upright, strong,

on the steeple so respected

and it tumbles at once, ere long

what little will be erected,

for the bedrock of all belief

(no matter how skyward-gazing)

requires the lowly earth beneath

to support a temple’s raising.

Religions

All the world’s religions are

desperate pleading done in the dark,

wishes on a shooting star,

imagination on a lark,

hopeful firing of nerve cells

in the daydream-drunk animal brain,

a bunch of foolish fairy tales

to try to keep us all calm and sane.

Yet, how we bleed our neighbor

to write in blood the laws of faith,

the fountain pen a saber

to encode the make-believe wraith.

The Demiurge

Before the priest can baptize
a beloved son or daughter,
before a child’s startled cries
from the chill of holy water,
we are baptized in ways old
before Christ and the Ancient Flood,
before such myths could take hold—
baptized in piss and shit and blood…
from out of the trembling womb,
just-so, anointed at each birth
and, just-so, unto the tomb:
piss and shit and blood unto earth.

The Answer

I have the answer,

easy to do, DIY,

How-To Self-Help Guru.

Just trust me with your

life.

Here ’s the answer:

Are you ready?

Are you ready to change your life?

You can.

I believe in you.

I believe you can change

(my bank account).

You have to trust me, though

You have to let me help you

by helping me with

my six-figure per annum.

The answer is so easy, so simple

(minded).

You believe me, don ’t you?  If you

don ’t

then you will never get any better.

You will remain a victim and a

loser

for your entire life.

The answer can change you, though.

It can make things right.

Rectify you and your world,

make you the arbiter of your own life.

And so simple…so easy

(to fool).

For a few dollars more the answer will

become clear.

Look, your life is a

fixer-upper.

It is not condemned.

For a low, low payment you can

renovate it, top to bottom.

I have the blueprints right here.

When I tell you the answer you will

be amazed.  You will say that it is so simple, it must be a fresh coat of paint, and that ’s it.  But it isn ’t.  It is a transformation of the whole neighborhood.  Gentrification of your life.  The floor plan is a godsend.  You only need to pay me a little more and then I will give you the answer.  Yes, that is enough.  For now.  So what ’s the answer?  Well, it is so easy.  So simple.  Did I tell you of all of the people I have helped with my self-help answer?  So many testimonials.  (Not a single refund).  It is so self-evident, too.  So natural, like folk wisdom.  When I tell you, you will say, “How could I not see it before?  It is so obvious now! ” And it is.  Like staring at the sun, the answer is bright and enlightening and blinding.  It illuminates all things with its central role in the universe.  It illuminates the self.  Yourself.  It will help you help yourself.  For a few dollars more I will tell you more.  Just a few dollars. What is a handful of cash compared to a life full of dreams realized?  The answer is like a religion, and yet more practical than a religion.  It is the dais and the temple and the priest and the congregation.  It is God.  It delivers, too.  It is salvation.  It offers sanctuary and hope and love, saving you from despair and fear and loneliness and meaninglessness.  And yet so easy to understand!  Yet so profound!  The layman nods at it in comprehension, appreciating its simplicity.  The philosopher gasps in awe at its profundity.  It is a humble answer, and yet it answers all prides without balking.  There is a poetry in its brevity, yet it enumerates all possibilities with its exponential mathematical applications.  It is recursive, yet self-contained.  Science aspires to its truths while the humanities admire it.  For a few more dollars I can tell you more.  Just a few dollars and your life will transform.  It will enliven your life, and enrich it; imbue it like a celestial song upon profane drudgery.  Supple as melody and uncompromising as arithmetic, it is personal and universal.  As below so above, and it applies its miraculous nature in all things.  Want to become a mechanic?  It can help you.  Want to save your marriage?  It can help you.  All is done easily through it.  You just need to give me a few more dollars and the answer will be yours.  I am so generous with it because it is a gift that gives by the sharing of it, too.  For just a few dollars more.  Just to help me spread its transformative insight and better the world.  It is a paradox and a riddle and an enigma.  It is a method and a process and a natural propensity we all share.  It is the answer.  But you need this answer, and to have this answer I need money.

 Yes, that ’ll do it.

 So, the answer is…very straightforward.  Did I tell you about the time the answer helped a man pull himself up by his bootstraps and become a billionaire?  It is a skill, but it is an instinct before that.  You must hone it, and it will in turn hone you.  Christ knew it, and Buddha, and Churchill, and Roosevelt.  Both Roosevelts.

It is an essence.  It is integral

to the whole cosmos.  And

it can transform you

into your own self-help guru.

You first need to give me

a few dollars, though, and

I will give you the

answer.

It will change

(short-change)

your life..

The High Priest

A fly rests on the head of US Vice President Mike Pence as he takes notes during the vice presidential debate against US Democratic vice presidential nominee and Senator from California Kamala Harris in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Eric BARADAT / AFP) (Photo by ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images)

Behold! The most high priest
speaking false-tongued fictions
in a sprawl of corpses, a feast
to earn benedictions
from great Beelzebub,
the Hell Prince, Lord of Flies
who blesses maggot, worm, and grub,
and all death-fed likewise.

What They Dare Not Say

How is it that they can say

they believe in God and yet

also claim, “Life is unfair ”?  Nay,

such masochists oft forget

who created this flawed plane

brimming with cruelties so vast

that they dwarf the sins of Cain

and all of Man ’s wicked past.

How do they square the circle

and include the darker points?

Do they grab hold and jerk till

the halo grows and anoints

with its bright geometry

perfected through the numbers —

if so, go see Psalm 0’3

and know the Devil slumbers,

for he never does so much

as he is so often blamed,

nor was it curse, nor so such

why he was thereafter named.

“Life ’s not fair, ” the priest retorts

as if it is an answer

that exonerates in courts

or cures God-given cancer,

but let the twisted sermon

proclaim the truth unspoken,

let us find the whole worm in

the Fruit of Knowledge, woken;

let us speak the perfect truth

and say what fraud refuses

and know it as its own proof:

“Unfair is He who chooses.”

Strands

A religion clings like fine threads

from spiderwebs about our heads,

and though we fight to free the mind

from fears of spiders, we may find

that we still search with frenzied hands

to clear away remaining strands;

that we flinch, tremble, shake, and pray

long after the webs fall away,

for winds may tickle fearful ears

and spiders haunt our later years.