The Sword of Paracelsus: Fourth Journal Entry

Dungeon 001

Day 197


Today the tapping on the other side of the wall got louder and seemed to come much closer. 

When I heard it, I laid aside my own poor tool and put my ear to the damp stones.  I held my breath while my heart kept time with the steady tick-tick-tick.  But on this occasion there was no need to strain.  The sound was clear as a winter dawn, sweetest of my dim memories.  And with it came an even clearer mental picture:  a chick inside an egg; a tiny, wet, bedraggled prisoner patiently picking away at the last thin, frangible barrier between constraint and freedom, night and day, dark and light.

In the Signatura Rerum Jacob Boehme speaks of the Philosopher’s Stone as the New Birth.  I begin to understand why.  The fire-flash of the Flagrat is the end of the first desire.  Sulphur is the dry hunger, Salt the working life, Mercury the walm and wheel of the moving spirit.  The goal is heaven, which, as I now see, must be as death in the soul. 

I suppose I listened for an hour or two—perhaps longer—before resuming my own work.  Then I went at it with gusto.  By the time my meager supper came two more stones were free of the clinging mortar …               

*  *  *  *  *  *

“Child Down!”

Pilgrim 2 001

               Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul,

                  Like a weaned child with his mother;

                  Like a weaned child is my soul within me.

                           (Psalm 131:2)



“Man up!”

It’s a slogan for our time ­– a mantra for devotees of the New Machismo, followers of the cult of Navy Seals, Green Berets, and two-fisted, gun-toting TV cops.  And why not?  It’s a man’s world after all.  If you want to make your mark in it, you’d better “man up.”  Even if you’re a woman.

That’s how some of Jesus’ early followers felt about it, anyway.  At least in the beginning.  Guys like James and John, for instance – the so-called “Sons of Thunder.”  A couple of self-styled toughs who couldn’t wait to call down fire from heaven on their enemies.  Apparently they had the impression that following Christ was a matter of joining up with “the few, the proud, and the strong.”

Then there was Peter.  The “Big Fisherman.”  Don’t let him catch you whining like a little baby.  Humiliation?  Forget about it!  Rejection, defeat, and death?  No way!  A guy doesn’t get ahead like that!  When he heard that kind of talk, Peter knew exactly how to respond:  “Man up, Jesus!  When the going gets tough, the tough get going!”

Men love to get together and act like big men.  Feminism is largely about a woman’s prerogative to play the same game.  Pre-teens and adolescents, too, are dying to get a piece of the action.  But the littlest children know nothing of this.  Content, non-competitive, and unconcerned with “cool,” they are easily captivated by small wonders.  They react to life spontaneously and express their thoughts and feelings as the situation requires.  They are free to be themselves.

More to the point, children know what it means to trust.  They have to trust because they have no resources of their own to fall back on.  As a result, they are not above letting go and allowing Someone Else to carry them.  Like Michael Darling, the smallest and youngest of Peter Pan’s unassuming protégées, they understand intuitively and instinctively what it means to soar on wings of faith.  As J. M. Barrie describes Michael’s initial encounter with the Eternal Boy from Neverland:


        “They were all on their beds, and gallant Michael let go first.  He did not quite mean to let go, but he did it, and immediately he was borne across the room. 

        “‘I flewed!’ he screamed while still in mid-air.”

                                    (Peter Pan, Chapter 3, “Come Away, Come Away!”)  


“The symbolic association between childhood, innocence, and regeneration,” writes author Jackie Wullschlager, “is age-old, lying at the heart of the New Testament and of Christian thought; Christians worship their God as a new-born baby …”[1]  It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this observation.

When God chose to enter the world as a helpless infant, He was showing us something about the nature of His kingdom and the power by which it operates.  He was identifying Himself with weakness and incapacity.   He was embracing vulnerability and demonstrating the importance of becoming utterly dependent upon the Father.  In the process, He sacralized childhood and exalted little children to an unprecedented degree.  For as it turns out, little children have a great deal to teach us.  When it comes to the things that really count, they possess a distinct advantage over their grown-up counterparts.

That’s why Jesus never told anyone to “man up.”  On the contrary, He exhorted His followers to “child down.”  When, true to their manly inner impulses, the disciples were going at it tooth-and-nail in a dispute to determine who was “the greatest,” their Teacher threw them for a loop by pulling an unexpected stunt:


        “Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”


This, too, is a crucial part of what it means to be a Pilgrim.



[1] Wullschlager, Jackie.  Inventing Wonderland.  New York:  The Free Press, 1995.

The Puffin and the Albatross

Puffin & Albatross 001

 A Puffin and an Albatross,

          Just sitting down to tea,

Were startled by the sound of Grunion

          Running up their tree.

“Oh dear!” exclaimed the Albatross.

          The Puffin said, “Oh me!”


“Now calm yourself,” the Puffin said

          (The calmer of the two)

And let us try and clear our heads

          And see what we must do.”

The Albatross just sat and sipped

          His tea out of his shoe.


Across the streaming river wide

          The Grunion slyly surged,

Then up the boughs till in the leaves

          Their heads were half submerged,

And tangled mid the silvery twigs

          Their twinkling toes converged.


“My word!” declared the Albatross

          In undulating tones,

“I fear we’ve been invaded

          By a flock of migrant Krones!”

The Puffin simply sat and picked

          Her teeth with chicken bones.


“Three lumps or five?” the Puffin cried

          As down the trunk she sped,

Colliding in collusion  

          With a fat policeman’s head.

“No, thank you,” croaked the Albatross,

          And promptly dropped down dead. 



  (With apologies to Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear)


The Sword of Paracelsus: The Troll, Part 3

Sword & Stone 2 001

“Who was that?” cried Eny, pointing after the little man.

The shopkeeper looked up from an unruly heap of invoices and receipts.  “The name escapes me,” he said.  “Though I’ll admit that he has been in here quite a lot the past few days.  Someone said he’s a troll.”

A troll?  Immediately Eny’s mind flashed back to her adventures in the Sidhe.  In the Otherworld she’d seen giants, angels, shape-changers, and tough, spindly dwarf-folk.  But in all her strange wanderings she’d never come across a troll.  “You mean like the trolls in The Hobbit?” she said.

He laughed.  “More like Billy Goat’s Gruff.  I take it you’re new around here.  ‘Trolls’ live under bridges.  In this case, freeway bridges.”

She was out on the sidewalk in ten seconds.  It didn’t take long to spot him.  He had crossed the Boulevard and was making his way north along Gower Street at a surprisingly rapid rate.

Eny clenched her fists.  The light was red, and she felt as if it would never change.  When it did, she bounded off the curb like a hound after a hare.  Up the first block, past the Greek Deli and the falafel stand, past the dirty yellow apartment buildings she pursued her quarry.  She ran like a deer, but she was still about fifty yards behind when the little man slipped into the shadow of the church’s big brick gothic tower.  That’s when she saw the crow.

It was sitting in the same position as the day before—on a stone window sill just below a hanging lantern of wrought iron.  As she drew near, it fluffed up its wings, cocked its head, and clacked its beak threateningly.  Eny felt a chill go down her spine, for it was strangely cool in the shade, and she imagined she saw a glint of green in the bird’s beady black eyes.  For a moment she slackened her pace and almost slowed to a stop.  Then, tearing her eyes from the crow’s hypnotic gaze, she forced herself to push ahead, fixing her attention unswervingly upon the object of the chase.

The man in the hat had now passed the church grounds and was fast approaching the freeway overpass just beyond the corner.  Of course, she thought—the bridge!  With that, she picked up her feet and ran as if she were running for her life.  She just had to see where he’d go next.

She had almost reached the end of the block when seemingly out of nowhere something crashed into her ear with the force of a sudden blast of wind.  In the same instant another something—something like an ice-pick—struck her hard on the crown of her head.

“Ow!” she cried, tripping over a crack in the sidewalk and sprawling onto a patch of weedy grass.  Bewildered and stunned, she looked up in time to see a swift inky blot go darting and wheeling away into the high blue air.  The crow!  It had knocked her down, and now it was making off with a lock of her coppery hair!

Gingerly she reached up to touch the smarting spot on the top her head.  There was a warm, sticky fluid in her hair.  Licking the blood from her fingers, she got to her feet, picked up her backpack, and looked towards the freeway overpass.  The little man was nowhere in sight.

As if in a daze Eny crossed the street and plunged into the vaporous and echoing shadows below the bridge.  Except for the cars and trucks rumbling by, she was alone in that dim place.  He must be in here somewhere, she thought, her heart pounding fast.  He couldn’t have disappeared that fast.  But though she searched a long time, she saw nothing under the bridge that looked like a potential dwelling place for a troll.

At last she glanced up and noticed a high concrete ledge on the right.  Above the ledge was a hole about four feet high and three feet wide—an opening like a small door in the wall:  an obscure, secret portal lurking in the shadows, both inviting and forbidding.  It was dark inside that door, so dark that nothing was visible within.  But something told her that he was there.

Climb up, said a voice inside her.  Climb up and take a closer look.  But try as she might, she could not pull herself up to the ledge.  For a moment she stood staring up at the hole.  Then, with a shiver, she took a step back from the wall.  At last she turned and ran back to the church.

Later that evening, as she and Moira passed the corner of Hollywood and Gower on their way home from the Lord’s Lighthouse, Eny couldn’t help but notice:  the pawn shop had vanished without a trace.

The Sword of Paracelsus: The Troll, Part 2

Sword & Stone 2 001

Atop the counter sat a brass cash register, and behind the register stood a slim, pale-faced man with a delicately curved nose, large, heavy-lidded eyes, and graceful high-arching eyebrows.  Wavy black hair fell over his shoulders in a rich cascade of curls and ringlets.  Even according to Hollywood standards, he was oddly dressed—in a long coat of dark-green cloth with wide gold-buttoned cuffs and a high starched collar.  He closed his eyes and bowed slightly as she approached.

“Where did you get that fiddle?” she asked breathlessly, banging up against the counter and leaning on it with both hands.

The man raised a black eyebrow.  “Fiddle?” he said, eyeing her down the length of his hawk-like nose.

“Violin!  The one in the window!  Do you remember who sold it to you?”

He smiled.  “Ah!  But he didn’t exactly sell it.”

“Well, whatever it is you do here, then.  Pawn, trade, barter.  What I want to know is who you got it from.”

The man laid a finger alongside his prominent cheekbone.  “Mmm.  Let me see.  I could check my records.  But would it be ethical?”

“What are you talking about?  I think I might know the person who used to own it!”

As she spoke, Eny became dimly aware of a faint melody fluttering somewhere in the background.  It floated across the field of her perception like a wisp of fog across a clear sky.  But she was too intent upon her purpose to let it invade the active portion of her mind.

“My records,” he muttered again, yanking open a file drawer under the counter.  “Now where did I leave them?  Ah, yes!  Not many ask such questions, you know.”

“About the people who sell—I mean, pawn stuff here?”

“I am speaking with reference to ethical questions,” he said.  “And is the reason for this deficiency far to seek?  I think not.  For when passion leads a man to do a thing, he forgets his duty.”  He sighed.  “Inconstancy, weariness, boredom.  Such are the commonest roots of human behavior.”

Eny felt as if she was about to burst.  “Can’t you at least tell me what he looked like?” she asked frantically.

The music was gathering strength.  Sweeping arpeggios mounted like flocks of birds to the ceiling.  Winged pairs of point and counterpoint darted from wall to wall.  Massive chords throttled the big plate glass window.  Cups and saucers rattled along the shelves.

The man bent over the counter and looked into her eyes.  “I’m afraid I can’t help you,” he said quietly.  “But then you don’t really need my help.”

Suddenly it hit her.  Someone was playing the piano at the front of the store!  Spinning around, she looked out across the cases of jewelry and the clothing racks to where the big black upright was rocking and swaying in time with the rising music.  The keyboard faced the window, and the instrument was unusually tall, so Eny was unable to get a good look at the person on the bench.  But there was one thing she saw very clearly—the flapping motion of his wide-brimmed hat.

With a muffled cry she dropped her pack and took two steps toward the source of the soaring harmonies.  Instantly the piano fell silent, the keyboard cover slammed shut, and the pianist was up and out the door …

(To be continued ...)


The Sword of Paracelsus: The Troll, Part 1

Sword & Stone 2 001

Eny could tell that Inaiah and Randall were watching warily as she stepped off the bus the following afternoon.  She could feel their eyes on the back of her head as the driver pulled away from the curb and the bus rumbled off in a brackish cloud of pungent exhaust.  Hitching her backpack up over her right shoulder, she smiled to herself and shook her head.  I’ll bet they still don’t know what hit them, she thought.

But Randall and Inaiah were the least of her concerns as she shuffled along through the smog and stifling heat, past the bus stop bench and the dingy storefronts on the Boulevard.  Her mind was too full to allow them anything but the tiniest corner of her attention.  It was brimming to the top with unrelenting music.  The music had been with her all day long, coloring all her thoughts, pressing upon her consciousness like the memory of a recurring dream.  She could not get the strains of the Fantasie Impromptu out of her head.  Nor could she free herself from the haunting image of the little man in the big floppy hat pounding away at the piano keys like an undersized Horowitz or Rubenstein.

With a twinge of regret, she realized that, until she’d heard him play, she had almost entirely forgotten about her music—forgotten the power, the joy, the enchantment of her first love.  With a shiver, she thought of her own fiddle lying neglected in the corner of her room at Aunt Grania’s.  She hadn’t touched it in weeks.

Just then she looked up and saw her reflection in a storefront window.  The hot September breeze had mussed her hair, tossing it into an asymmetrical pile on top of her head.  Dismayed, she stopped to rearrange it; and while she stood there smoothing it down, she noticed something else, something that peered out at her from behind her image in the glass—something in the display case on the other side of the window.  Eny caught her breath.

It was a violin.  A red violin in a black alligator case with silver clasps and blue velvet lining.  The wood was deeply and richly grained.  The fingerboard was inlaid with ebony and ivory.  The head-piece was intricately carved in the shape of a roaring lion.  The black tuning pegs were edged in opalescent mother-of-pearl.

Her heart nearly stoppedat the sight of it.  She knew that fiddle.  She would have recognized it anywhere.  She had played her own instrument alongside it too many times to forget the mesmerizing quality of the tones it was capable of producing.  As she gazed upon it open-mouthed, the image of a face rose once again before her dazzled mind’s eye—the face of Simon Brach.

Glancing up to find out what sort of a shop it was, she saw two lines of large yellow block letters painted in a double arch across the top of the window.  PASCAL’S MUSIC & PAWN, read the top line.  Below that, We Buy Instruments.  Instant Cash.

A pawn shop? thought Eny.  There wasn’t any pawn shop here yesterday!

She shouldered the door open, pushed her way inside, and hurried past a big black Wurlitzer upright piano, a stand of polished trumpets and saxophones, and a jumbled display of guitars, mandolins, and banjos.  Navigating her way through a maze of glass cases exhibiting a profusion of watches, toasters, coffee pots, alarm clocks, bracelets, earrings, and gold and silver necklaces, she came at last to a battered wooden counter that spanned the rear portion of the shop …

(To be continued …)

The Sword of Paracelsus: Third Journal Entry

Dungeon 001

Day 63



A word, I believe, of Boehme’s own coinage.  A flashing forth in the darkness.  An ardent fire-breath in the poisonful Mercury and Black Bile of the heart.  In the bitter Astringency of the Turba, a boiling, upsurging sude of sudden brightness. 

I have seen this flagrat here in my dungeon.  Strange as it sounds, it is here in my prison that I have felt the first faint flutterings of the spirit of freedom.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  Certitude, certitude, and the birthing of the painful longing that gives birth to all things.

Is this not the irony of ironies?  The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear with hearing.  And yet to those who hunger and thirst is given the great blessing.  I did not believe this until I came here. 

All my life I chased after words and their meanings.  All my life I prized language, yet I never really knew language.  I did not recognize the paradoxes words conceal:  that death is life, weakness strength, and sorrow joy.  Until I was plunged into the dark fire of this pit, I did not see the brightness behind all things.       

Today, as I chipped away at the mortar between the stones, there came to me a revelation of a most unexpected kind.  Mingling alternately with the dull strokes of my own rude tool I heard a distant sound:  a tap, tap, tapping.  A gentle, steady, patient beat, faint but clear.  A regular ticking clock-work sound, as if some man or machine (and hoping past all hope I dare believe it might be man) were gradually picking its way towards me from the other side!  Blessed thought!  It spurred me to redouble my efforts, and soon another block of stone broke free.  There are now five that I can remove and replace at will.               

Meanwhile, the vermin—my former word for them—continue to thrive.  In the chinks between the corner-stones the baby rats squeal with delight.  Their cries no longer fill me with the tincture of anger or despair.  Instead, I smile at the sound.  I smile because I know the tiny creatures are gobbling their food—my food—under the watchful eye of mother-love.  And so the love-lubet rules over the fire-lubet …            

* * * * * * * * * *        


Pilgrim 2 001                

        Technique says:  “People must become machines in order to be treated technically by the hundreds of techniques which  converge on them …”       

                  Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word   


Technique, it might be argued, is author Jacques Ellul’s term for what we have called the kosmos.  It is true that he frequently gives the word a narrower, more specialized meaning:  “technology.”  But far more often he uses it to denote the entire sweep and scope of “the system:”  that artificial but all-inclusive complex of patterns, processes, ideas, and methodologies that has come to characterize the world in which we live and of which technology per se is but a particular material manifestation.[i]

Technique is not simply about the proliferation of machines.  It can be more accurately described as a mechanistic attitude or a mechanical way of doing things.  It’s the state of affairs that prevails when the machine becomes the model, the template, the paradigm for everything else.  It’s the religion of Number, the philosophy of the calculable and measurable, a mindset that leaves no room for the intangible or the poetic.  Its goal is absolute efficiency.  Being entirely human in origin and design, it is therefore inherently anti-human in tendency and purport.

In his quirky utopian/dystopian novel Erewhon (“Nowhere” spelled backwards), Samuel Butler imagines a society so keenly sensitive to the dangers of technique that its leaders decide to destroy all the machines and abolish technological advancement altogether.  The reason for this dramatic step is set forth in a statement found among the fictional nation’s historical annals:          


        I fear none of the existing machines:  what I fear is the extraordinary rapidity with which they are becoming something very different to what they are at present.  No class of beings have in any time past made so rapid a movement forward.  Should not that movement be jealously watched, and checked while we can still check it?                 

(From Chapter XXIII, “The Book of Machines”)


More than a hundred years after the penning of Butler’s book these words have a more ominous ring about them than ever before.  They find a striking echo in Neil Postman’s relatively recent observation that            


        The uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity.  It creates a culture without a moral foundation.  It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living.

(Technopoly, Introduction)


The irony is that in outlawing technology, the people of Erewhon do not succeed in escaping technique.  On the contrary, the novel’s protagonist – a visitor from the “real” world – finds the governing structures of that society so oppressively systematic and mechanistic that he is ultimately forced to flee the country in an attempt to preserve his life, his sanity, and his very humanity.  And therein lies the true moral of the tale.

That moral has to do with the broader implications of technique.  For as it turns out, systems can dominate people even without the aid of machines.  And when the point is reached where the requirements of efficiency trump the needs of the individual – when that which was once a useful tool becomes the undisputed master of its maker – then we may be sure that a perilous line has been crossed.

This is the dilemma we face today.  Postman and Ellul predicted it.  Nicholas Carr (The Shallows:  What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains) and Sherry Turkle (Alone Together:  Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other) have, among others, documented it.  We are all living with the fallout.

“The Sabbath was made for man,” said Jesus, addressing the technique-obsessed Pharisees, “and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  His dictum demonstrates that the dehumanizing threat of technique is bigger and runs deeper than the question of digital devices and the rapid rate at which they are “becoming something very different to what they are at present.”  It reminds us that religion, too, can be a machine.  So can governments, nations, corporations, organizations, professions, media, entertainment, sports, politics, fashion, finance, investment, advertising, marketing, and the hundred other slick, sly, and seductively pragmatic schemes of so-called civilization that whisper to us from behind the curtain, promising not only power and prestige but even a richer and more satisfying experience of God Himself.

There’s a reason certain academic disciplines have been labeled “Humanities.”  When was the last time you heard a Presidential Commission or an Educational Task Force lamenting the fact that our kids are falling behind the rest of the world in their poetry, music, and painting scores?  It’s unlikely you ever will.  Not while technique rules the world.

But the Pilgrim diligently seeks another way.


[i] For more on this, see especially Ellul’s The Technological Society (French La Technique, 1954).


The Sword of Paracelsus: Azoth, Part 3

Sword & Stone 2 001

At the bottom of the basement stairs he shoved the door open, and stepped into the dungeon.  It was pitch dark inside.  Crossing to the workbench, he fumbled for the desk lamp and switched it on.  There on the table lay The Life and Times of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.  He threw himself into the chair and opened the heavy volume.

The first thing to meet his eye was a large illustration:  a sixteenth-century woodcut depicting a short, bald, grim-faced man wearing a high lace collar and holding a long two-handed sword.  The sword had a spherical pommel and an ornate crossguard.  Both blade and quillion were inscribed with what appeared to be strange letters.  Beneath the picture was a caption:  Azoth, the fabled Sword of Paracelsus.

The Sword of Paracelsus!  Morgan had to read the words over to make sure he’d seen them correctly.  Paracelsus had a sword?  A “fabled” sword?  A sword covered with weird markings?  He’d never heard of that before.

The wheels of his mind whirring, he reached under the table and retrieved the blue bundle.  Once more he undid the wrappings and drew the shining blade into the light.  It was impossible to be absolutely sure—the picture was a bit fuzzy and far too small for the characters inscribed on the blade to be legible.  Still, thought Morgan, the sword in the woodcut and the sword he was holding in his hand might be one and the same.

Scanning the surrounding text, he discovered the following sentences near the bottom of the following page:


       For many years Paracelsus never took off a giant sword he wore—not even when he slept.  Various accounts have been given of the nature and significance of this sword.  Some report that it possessed the power to deflect the hatred of his enemies.  Others say that in the sword’s hollow pommel Paracelsus kept a miraculous powder capable of transmuting metals, healing diseases, transporting bodies from one place to another. 


Hollow pommel.  Miraculous powder.  Morgan’s brain was spinning.  He thought of his grandmother lying in bed.  So much had happened over the past few months.  He hadn’t thought about the Philosopher’s Stone for a long time.  Lately his keen interest in finding his father had driven every other concern clean out of his mind.  But now he couldn’t help wondering:  what if the Elixir of Life were to fall into his hands when he wasn’t even looking for it?  What if Paracelsus had actually succeeded where so many had failed?

He held the hilt closer to the lamp.  If the pommel were hollow, there must be some way to open it.  It must have a seam or a crack or a hinge somewhere.  He eyed it closely.  He ran his fingers over it.  It was as smooth and even as a ball of glass.  Opening a drawer, he drew out a big magnifying glass and looked closer.  Still nothing.

Maybe it screws off, he said to himself.  Placing the crossguard firmly between his knees, he gripped the golden orb with both hands and strove with all his might to twist it off.  When that didn’t work, he clamped the hilt in a vice on the workbench and pulled at the pommel until his hands were raw.  After that he wrapped it in cloth and attacked it with pliers.  It never budged.

At last he thought of consulting the book.  Perhaps he’d find instructions of some kind somewhere in the text.  It was worth a try.

Putting the sword aside, he plunged into the musty old volume, searching feverishly for something, anything at all, about the construction of the sword’s hollow pommel and how it might be opened.  There was nothing.  Instead, the passage he’d been reading turned an abrupt corner and proceeded to discuss Paracelsus’ theory of toxicology.

He skipped ahead, ten pages, fifteen, thirty at a time.  He scanned the subject headings for clues.  He jumped to the index in an attempt to locate the information he was seeking.  And then it happened.

As he turned over the last fascicle, something slipped out from between the pages and tumbled to the floor.  Morgan stooped to pick it up.  It was a small notebook—a slim, narrow, thin-ruled, staple-bound notebook with a faded green cover.  Flipping it open, he found it filled with writing.  Its pages were covered, front and back, in a neat, closely written cursive script in blue ink.  At the top of the first page stood the words, Notes, Thoughts, and Ponderings:  January 19__ to October 19__.

Morgan recognized the handwriting.  It was his father’s.

The Sword of Paracelsus: Azoth, Part 2

Sword & Stone 2 001

“Mom,” said Morgan at the dinner table that night, “did you know the Knowleses are back in town?”

Mavis Izaak put down her fork and looked up.  “Not quite,” she said.

“‘Not quite?’  What does that mean?”

“Not quite all the Knowleses.  Baxter and his mother are back.  Mr. Knowles has … well, he’s still in New York.”

Morgan felt his heart skip a beat.  “Then it’s temporary?”

Mavis lowered her eyes.  “I’m afraid not.”

He studied her closely.  It was plain that she knew more than she was saying.  As a matter of fact, he had the oddest feeling that she was actually embarrassed, maybe even ashamed, to say anything else.

“I don’t get it,” he said.  “Something about it must be temporary.  I mean, if they’re here and he’s there, then—”

Mavis stopped him with a glance.  “They’re splitting up, Morgan,” she said, her cheeks coloring delicately.  “His parents are splitting up.”

“They’re getting a divorce?”

She nodded.

Against his better judgment, he wrinkled up his nose and snorted.  “Doesn’t surprise me!  I wonder how they stood each other this long!”

“Morgan, please.”

“Now that big shot Baxter will find out what it’s like not to have a dad!”

Mavis said nothing.

Morgan stood up.  “Mom!  Why are you acting like this?  Why should you care so much about the Knowleses?  It doesn’t have anything to do with you!”

She looked up at him.  “But it does,” she said quietly.  “Everything that happens to our friends and neighbors concerns us.”

“Well, they’re not my friends!  As far as I’m concerned, the Knowleses deserve everything they get!  All of them!”

She frowned severely.  “I don’t want to hear any more of that kind of talk,” she said.  With a sigh, she glanced over at a steaming plate of food on the sideboard.  “Why don’t you take your grandmother’s dinner in to her?”

Something in her tone told him that it was time to quit.  Biting his lip, he went to the sideboard, picked up the plate, and carried it out through the dining room and down the hall.

Grandma Wilma Izaak had been living with them for several weeks—ever since Grandpa Charles had died of a stroke at the beginning of August.  She had to live with them, Mavis said, because she couldn’t take care of herself.  Grandpa had done everything for her while he was alive:  cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, driving.  What’s more, she had to have a room of her own because she spent all of her time in bed.  That wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t Morgan’s room.  He’d been sleeping on the living room couch for nearly two months now.

Grandma Wilma had been in bed for as long as Morgan could remember.  Nobody seemed to know exactly why.  She talked as if she were deathly ill, but all her doctors said they couldn’t find anything wrong with her.

That didn’t put Grandma off her story.  Nor did it keep her from describing her ailments in detail to anyone unfortunate enough to be within hearing range.  She was sick and weak and faint all the time.  On some days her legs hurt.  On others her stomach was “out of sorts.”  On still others she suffered from heart palpitations and anxiety attacks.  The complex constellation of her symptoms seemed to change, like the shifting colors of a kaleidoscope, with every passing day.  You never could tell what new malady she’d be complaining about when you went in to see her.

Balancing the plate on one hand, Morgan approached the door of the room and knocked lightly.  Without waiting for an answer he turned the knob and stepped inside.  Though the sky outside was still light, all was obscure in this somber chamber where the shades were perpetually drawn and the curtains always closed.  The air was still, cold, and heavy.  The whole place smelled of disinfectants, medications, and freshly laundered linens.

“That you, Morgan?” said a voice from the bed—a voice as thin and frail as dry eggshells.

“Yes, Grandma.”

Treading softly, he went to the tray beside the bed and set the food down.  He could barely make her out in the faint light.  Her head was propped up against two big pillows, and her thin, withered face looked like a raisin in a bird’s nest of frazzled white hair.

“I brought your dinner, Grandma,” he said.

“What is it, dear?  Your mother knows I can’t eat just anything.

“Corned beef and cabbage.”

The figure in the bed shifted slightly.  “Take it back,” she muttered.  “Get me some chicken broth.”

“But why?  This stuff is good.  Even I liked it.”

She drew back her withered lips and winced.  “If your gums were as sore as mine you wouldn’t ask.  That biscuit you brought me yesterday was hard as a binnick!  Go get me some chicken broth.  That’s a good boy.”

“But I—”

“And Morgan,” she said, clutching his arm and drawing him closer, “don’t forget what I told you.”

Morgan sighed.  “I know, Grandma.  ‘Perilous times.’”  He’d heard the sermon so often he knew it by heart.

“Signs in the heavens and signs on the earth.”

“And earthquakes,” Morgan volunteered.  “And famines and wars.”

“Earthquakes, yes!  We just had one of them!  A doozie, too!  Young men will see visions.  Old women will dream dreams.  I’ve seen him, Morgan, in my dreams.  Perilous times.”

Seen who? thought Morgan.  But he didn’t feel inclined to ask.  Why drag this out any longer than necessary?

Grandma, meanwhile, coughed feebly and ran her tongue gingerly over her gums.  Morgan wondered how anyone who believed so fervently in miracles could be so sick all the time.  “I’ll get you that chicken broth now,” he said.

“Wait!” she said, lowering her voice.  “One more thing!”

Morgan sighed.  “What?”

“Your father knew all this.  He never said so—not in so many words.  But he knew.  He still does.”

Morgan froze.  My father?  This was something new.  He peered at her intently through the dimness.  “Still knows?  What does he know?”

“Perilous times,” she repeated, nodding vigorously.  “John knows.  I saw him.”  She fell silent and motioned him away with a wave of her hand.  “Chicken broth,” she said.

Morgan backed away.  Bumping against the bedside tray, he picked up the plate of food and stumbled out the door.


*  *  *  *  *

(To be continued …)

The Sword of Paracelsus: Azoth, Part 1

Sword & Stone 2 001

Baxter Knowles was back.

How this had come about, Morgan didn’t know.  Why it had happened, he could not explain.  Heaven’s reasons for permitting such a disaster to occur lay beyond the scope of his limited understanding.  There was nothing he could do about it.  He could only hope that the tyrant’s return from exile, like Napoleon’s, would be short-lived.

Meanwhile, the facts had to be faced.  He had seen Baxter on the schoolyard.  He had heard his voice echoing through the halls like the voice of a young Mussolini or Pol Pot.  He had even witnessed his election as captain of one of the football squads in Physical Education.  Vehemently as his mind recoiled from believing any of this, he couldn’t deny it.  In his imagination he pictured the citizens of Needles proclaiming a Jubilee.

One bright spot mitigated the bleakness of the situation.  Because there were an odd number of boys in gym class, and because Baxter had drawn the short straw when it came to choosing up teams, Morgan, who was always last to be drafted, had escaped falling under the dominion of his nemesis.  And since his team had thirteen members and his captain couldn’t put everyone on the field at the same time, he had been granted a blessed reprieve:  he’d been sitting on the bench for the past three days.

He was sitting there now in the bright September sun with a book in his lap—The Life and Times of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, Also Known As Paracelsus—when a commotion on the playing field forced him to look up from the page.  He noted that the rest of his team was shouting frantically.  Even his bench-mate was on his feet and yelling at the top of his lungs.  Casting his eyes around, he saw the other team’s quarterback doing a wild “victory dance” in the end-zone.  But it was neither this, that, nor the other that had roused him to attention.

What had stung him like a pin-prick in the backside was the unmistakable sound of Baxter Knowles’s voice.  He could hear it distinctly, raised above the tumult on the field like the whirr of a buzz-saw.  The mere tone and timbre of that voice set his pulse to racing.  It made his intestinal tract begin to churn.  He got up and moved a little closer to find out what was going on.

What he saw made the sweat break out on his forehead.  It was a scene all too familiar to him from his own miserable past.  On the ground sat a boy he recognized as new to the school—a small, dark boy with delicate long-fingered hands, a thin, sensitive face, and black hair and eyes.  Baxter, who was surrounded by his usual gang of cronies, was berating the boy in words that poured over Morgan like a storm of hail mingled with blood and fire.

“What’s the matter with you?” shouted Baxter.  “You let them tear a hole in our line!  I told you to block, dork!  Didn’t they teach you how to block in Madagascar?  I oughta—”

All at once, and without warning, the voice fell silent.  In the same instant Morgan became aware that Baxter’s eye had fallen upon him.  The ranting bully had ceased his raving and was staring at him over the heads of the other boys in the crowd.

Morgan froze.  His pulse pounded in his ears.  A bead of sweat dripped down his nose.  Now I’m going to catch it, he thought.  He winced.  He braced himself for the expected verbal assault.

But it never came.  Instead, Baxter’s face went red to the roots of his strawberry blond hair.  His handsome gray eyes clouded over.  An embarrassed grin brought out the dimples in his fleshy cheeks.  Without a word, he dropped his gaze, turned around, and walked away.  Then the bell rang and the rest of his gang scattered.

Tentatively, Morgan edged his way over to the dark-eyed boy and offered him a hand.  “My name’s Morgan,” he stammered.  “And believe me, I know what it’s like.”

Ten minutes later, when everyone else had gone, he was still standing at the edge of the field, staring out into the street through the chain-link fence.  Never in his life had he seen Baxter Knowles behave like that.  His brain hurt just trying to make sense of it.  However he stacked it, it didn’t make sense.  So deep was his reverie that he would have missed his next class had it not been for the sound of a blaring horn.  Stirring himself, he looked up to see George Ariello driving by in his old rattle-trap of a truck.   

“Hey!” called George, grinning broadly and waving from the cab.  “How’s the fishing?”

*  *  *  *  *  *

(To be continued …)