Hope ya'll are enjoying Prophet of the Sun. Leave a comment and let me know what a good interval between chapter posts might be .... I like to have at least a few days to give people a chance to read (and to build some suspense), but I don't want it to be so long as to lose people.
A boy, scalp-shaven save for a braided tassel of hair dangling from the left side of his head, looked upon a crimson sky. Swirling black clouds spit cinders that grew into skull sized balls of flame. Between the explosions the boy heard cries and shrieks arising from the city. His eyes widened, his soft skinned jaw grew slack.
A black line snaked from the river below. The line doubled and tripled and quadrupled in width, growing into a phalanx of frogs, pitiless in their advance through the city. They poured over the walls, splashed in the basins, knocked over his mother’s perfume bottles and jars of ointments. They crowded through the hallways, and when he walked, they squished wet and jelly like under his feet. His enraged father, kicked them about, jabbing at larger ones with his spear – impaling them one two three four. His brother, the senior by far, dressed in leopardskin robes, chanted while holding a basin of libation above his head.
And darkness came over the household and the steps and down the street and across the land. No natural darkness, it chilled beyond the skin to muscle and bone and even the marrow– an enduring chill. His pulse throbbing in his ears, the boy looked to his father’s eyes for some sign that this horror might end. He saw only floating disembodied circles, straining to open wide enough to capture the hint of glow that emanated from the slave ghetto. He saw nothing of his brother – only hearing murmuring of prayer from where he stood.
A slice of air, sounding like an exhaled breath, whipped past the boy. He saw his father kneel before a crumpled form cradling its figure head, – its leopardskin robe stretched by the contortion of its body. “My son, O Thutmosis my son!”
Calvin woke in confusion -- his heart thumping against his ribs. Am I that far gone? Have I become as hard as pharaoh? Calvin, feeling the drilling pain behind his eyes, blinked four times, as though he could dispel the nightmare and the pain both. He rolled over to look at the bedside clock, an old fashioned radio alarm with the numbers that flipped. Half past noon. He ran a dry tongue over his lips -- he needed asprin, Tylenol, a replacement head – anything.
Stumbling out of bed, he scratched his chest and rubbed his scalp as he walked to the guest bathroom. He pulled the little metal tab on the side of the mirror only to find empty metal shelves. “Hey John,” he shouted, immediately regretting that he had done so, “you got any painkillers?” This time he spoke a little softer so as not to jar the pain too much. “My head feels like it’s declared war!” He turned on the faucet. Cupping a hand, he scooped cold water on his face once, twice, then sipping some on the third time around. He turned off the faucet and unfolded a washcloth, lying atop a step-pyramid of symmetrically folded oversize bath and hand towels.
Calvin had a natural propensity for remorse – he felt guilt about his anger; guilt about his rudeness to his friend; guilt about his out of control drinking the night before. He held the sides of the sink, staring down at the drain. He wished that he could re-do the previous night – wished he could re-weave the strands of the last three months of his life. His mind stuck on this wish, circling around it like a dog leashed for so long he’s worn the grass down. Calvin felt disembodied, as though his life were a movie and the credits were ready to roll and the popcorn would be swept up and discarded. His body had no reality for him as his own – it was a prop, a thing to be discarded.
He had no idea how long he stood there, holding the sink wishing his wish, lost in his movie, but the pain in his head stabbed with clarity. He closed his eyes, exhaled long and slow through pursed lips, opened his eyes again, and released his grip.
Calvin walked to the back staircase and called “John, you down there?” No answer. He descended the stair to the kitchen. In the center of the breakfast table sat a bowl of fruit – oranges and apples hinting at dietary redemption for the previous night’s foolishness. Wine bottles were arrayed on the counter, empty and hollow -- their best contents spent. The kitchen, decorated in a country yellow that made Calvin’s head hurt all the worse, looked otherwise undisturbed. No empty glasses in the sink. No cereal bowl. No note indicating that John had left. Calvin bit his lower lip, not wanting to delay in making amends for his sour behavior, but his headache compelling him to seek food and some painkillers.
Calvin opened the fridge, took out milk and Ducky Dawdle Orange Juice (“I’ve loved it since I was a kid” John had always said). He poured a glass of juice and a fixed a bowl of the most sugary cereal he could find. Following instinct, he opened the cabinet right above the microwave – there he found a neatly arranged row of plastic containers: Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Ginko Bilboa, Ginseng Extract, Multivitamin, Asprin. He gulped down two asprin with a large glass of water. Then, after finishing his hasty breakfast, he peeked into the garage – John’s truck was gone.
Calvin ascended the stairs and detoured back to the library. Hurlburt’s diary still lay on the couch where John had left it. Calvin picked it up and thumbed the pages, breathing the aged-paper smell that was released. He held it reverently, as though he could capture John’s enthusiasm simply by osmosis. Then he gently replaced it on the shelf from which John had taken it.
Calvin returned to his room, stripped his pajamas, and walked naked to the bathroom. He turned the tub’s handle for hot water and held his hand under the stream, the temperature changing almost imperceptibly, until the water was warm enough. He stepped into the tub, pulled the curtain and bent down to pull the shower knob. Steamy water wet his hair and ran down his body. He stood still for a time, eyes closed, enjoying the warmth like an embrace. The Spirit intercedes with groans too deep for words to express. His mind lingered on groans too deep – as though he might sink into the words and wallow there for a time.
After finishing his shower and grooming, he dressed and packed his duffel bag. Slinging the bag over his shoulder, he went back downstairs to the kitchen where he poured another tall glass of water. Still no sign of John. Calvin felt out of joint – like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces had been forced. He didn’t want to leave with the unfinished business of apology; he wanted to assure his friend that he truly was interested in crazy Allan Quartermain schemes.
Following instinct once again, Calvin opened a kitchen drawer – neatly ordered boxes of tin foil, wax paper, plastic wrap, and sandwich bags all stared up at him. He tried the next drawer beside it – a phone book, yellow legal pad, and a long thin container of ballpoint pens. Not even junk in his paper drawers – how does he do it? He tore off a sheet from the pad, accidentally leaving a small tear where the paper did not separate at the perforation just right. Sitting at the table, he wrote:
Thanks for your time – a good one as always. I’m sorry I was a bit of a jerk there at the end of the evening. Your Egyptian treasure hunt sounds like a great adventure. I’ll give you a call this week, and I promise I’ll listen better. I’ll let you know if I’ve had any epiphanies on my end.
He let himself out of the house, locking the door behind him. After fumbling with his keys, he got the car door open, hefted the duffel bag in. One last look up at the house before he closed the car door. He turned the ignition and drove home.
“Mike, I promise – I really didn’t mean to drink that much.”
“Cal, it’s OK” the voice on the receiver reassured, “given what you’ve been through, I think I’d have tied one on weeks ago. You’re not planning on making it a habit, are you?”
“No.” Calvin said, still embarrassed.
“Then don’t worry about it. Jesus is still pretty fond of you.”
“I know – but I still feel guilty.”
“Fine.” Said Mike with resignation, “You are guilty – guilty as sin. Confess, repent, move on.” A pause as Calvin switched the phone from one ear to another, “How’re you doing otherwise?” Mike continued.
Calvin paused again – he felt the need to report progress, but didn’t know what to say. Though it was not a trait natural to him, he opted for bluntness. “Awful.” He paused for a moment, “I don’t know how to be with myself – when I’m sitting in the apartment, I ache because they’re gone. When I jog, I make it about a mile, and then run out of steam – I just want to come back to the apartment and sleep. Three days ago, I found myself walking the aisles of Buy-Mart – just puttering about, picking up a magazine here, a DVD there. When I turned down the toys aisle – there was this Spider-Man action figure – it was what we got Calvin for Christmas this past year. It was all before me, fresh as if it were happening. He tore open the present – shouted “Wow, thanks Dad!” He ripped open the box and began to run around the house, pretending that Spider-Man was web slinging from the chandelier.” Tears burned behind Calvin’s eyes, and he struggled to keep them in. “I almost broke down in the store.” He said with a quiver, “I’m a mess.”
Mike’s voice reassured. “It’s OK to be a mess. You’ve lost your wife and your child – no-one expects you to keep it together. You yourself have said many times that everyone grieves in their own way – some folks take longer than others.”
“Yeah – well now I say ‘doctor, heal thyself.’”
Another pause. “Cal, what are you doing to take care of yourself?” Mike said, concerned.
“Oh, I still jog every day – just not very far. I talk to momma at least once a week – and my sister tells me she’s coming up for a visit soon. I’m hardly eating, but when I do eat, it’s mostly vegetables.”
“You able to pray yet?”
Calvin paused for a long time and then said quietly “No – no, I’m not on speaking terms with Him. Not yet.”
Calvin asked Mike how the church was doing in his absence. Mike reassured him that things were improving: the temporary supply minister was good, but not nearly as good a preacher as Calvin. On his end, Calvin smirked. He had tried to bear up nobly after the funerals. Everything seemed fine for a couple of weeks, but then crises slipped from whatever dark recesses in which they had been fermenting: The chairs of building committee and the worship committee began to openly undermine one another; complaints were whispered in coffee hour that the youth director was too “flippant”; once enthusiastic supporters whispered that Calvin’s preaching was “not what it used to be.” Mike, one of Calvin’s best friends in the congregation, had astutely observed the strain that was building during what should have been a time of mourning. He suggested to the elders that a sabbatical was in order. On the surface, Calvin was going away to heal. But he wondered if he would ever return…would he drift to a new line of work and lay the vocation of ministry into soft earth as he’d laid down his wife and child?
“And tell the elders – tell them I really appreciate their giving me the time off.”
“Wish we could do more. You call me if you need anything, OK?”
Calvin smiled, “Sure will.”
After hanging up, Calvin tried calling John again. No answer. It had been four days, and still no answer, no return call. He didn’t bother leaving a message this time. He hung up and busied himself about the small kitchen. Half empty coffee cups sprung up across the apartment like mushrooms. He collected them all on the countertop beside the sink, pots piled up, crusted with spaghetti sauce from last night. A few dishrags lay on the counter, damp and crumpled. A roll of paper towels stood in the corner, the bottom end swollen with absorbed water that had rebounded off the pots in the sink and spread across the countertop. Calvin emptied the dishwasher, put a few coffee cups in, then walked into the living room.
Instead of an office, Calvin had set up his laptop on a cheap coffee table made out of light white pine slats attached with thin tacks to a frame with legs. Every so often, one of the boards would rebel and pop out of place. Cal would have to get the hammer from the basket under the counter and bang it back into place. The table was big enough for him to spread out his Bible and a couple of commentaries. He had a stack of books on the corner: The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery; Exegetical Dictionary of the Gospels; Manners and Customs of Bible Times; Intermediate Greek Grammar. A disordered pile of CD-ROMs lay beside the laptop – on top of The Anchor Bible Dictionary: complete on 1 Volume.
He had bought a used couch from the Salvation Army – it was just wide enough for two to sit on: terrible for napping. He did this by design, for he was afraid that if he’d bought a long couch, the temptation to lie down and sleep would be overwhelming. Already it was hard enough to fight against the gravitational pull to stay in his bedroom and sleep. He still tried to lie down on the couch every now and again, and for that reason, one arm had become loose and wiggly, threatening to break off altogether.
On the floor, Calvin had a small TV, but no cable. He could only receive 3 channels well – one of them PBS, so he was satisfied. The circular dining room table was on the other end of the great room that doubled as living room and dining room. It was covered with mail, little flyers that kept getting stuck in his doorframe, newspapers, both from Asheville and from Cincinnati, and bags from the most convenient fast food restaurants near his apartment: Taco Casa, Burger Barn, and Hot and Fried.
Calvin returned to the couch, and picked up a book: Commentary on the Gospel of Mark by RS Blanchard:
Church tradition, dating back to Eusebuis, tells us that the apostle Mark brought the gospel to Egypt. Mark supposedly wrote his gospel in Rome as a summary of Peter’s teaching. Legend has it that when Mark arrived in Alexandria, his sandals broke – he went immediately to a cobbler to have the sandal repaired. The cobbler, named Ananias, drove an awl into his hand and cried out “God is one!” Mark was startled by such an unusual exclamation; he had not expected to find monotheism in Egypt. He healed Ananias and began to talk with him. He went home with him that night, and soon Ananias and his family were the first converts of Egypt. Most scholars believe this story is apocryphal at best.
Calvin looked up from the book, letting it dangle in his hands. He had been away from his church for two months, but he still felt a compulsion to write sermons. If he didn’t have it done by Friday night, he was fidgety all weekend. He could no more break the habit than a pack a day smoker. He used to enjoy feeling the thrill of knowledge coming together with insights on application of the Biblical text. He had once delighted in weaving jokes, anecdotes, historical and grammatical tidbits, and sprinklings of Greek or Hebrew into a presentation and then delivering that sermon. He remembered feeling connected with his congregants as he told stories and presented truth – as though for a brief moment in the midst of the sermon there was a union - time was lost for a little while and hearts were melded to one. But since Bethan and little Cal’s deaths, it all had gone stale and wearisome. There was no joy in the task. Now, it had degraded to nothing but a compulsion and he wished it would let him go.
The doorbell rang. Calvin rose and peeked through the eye-hole. Two men in uniform, round hats signifying they were either highway patrol or sheriff deputies. Calvin unlocked the bolt lock, and opened the door.
“Hello, officers, can I help you.”
“Rev. Poteat?” said the larger of the two – a thickset linebacker type. His hazel eyes set in a recruiting poster face.
“Rev. Poteat, I’m Deputy Collins and this is Deputy Parrish. May we come in? We’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“Certainly, officers,” said Calvin, stepping back and extending his arm toward the couch, “come in and have a seat.”
Deputy Collins went straight to the couch and stood waiting. Deputy Parrish, a slender man with a hungry look, took off his thick mirrored sunglasses to reveal sharp blue eyes and a bridge of freckles across his nose. He scanned the room, sized up Calvin, and moved to stand beside Deputy Collins while Calvin brought a chair from the dining room table. As he sat, both the deputies took their seats, Collins taking his hat off and holding it in his lap – Parrish leaving his on his head.
“Is there something wrong, officers?”
Collins begin “Rev. Poteat – you’re a good friend of John Carter’s aren’t you?”
“Yessir, I am – at least I like to think I am.”
“And you were at his house on Sunday night?” Collins continued.
“Yessir, I was. We were catching up on old times.” Deputy Parrish’s eyes narrowed just slightly.
“Have you talked with him since?” Collins continued.
“No sir. I’ve tried calling and left several messages, but no answer and no return calls.” Calvin had the feel of being a chess piece, so he broke in with a question, “Is there something wrong? Is John OK?”
“Rev Poteat,” Deputy Collins said, “John Carter has been missing for four days – and it seems that you were the last person to have seen him.”