Part 1 of 52
After he’d died, they wound his body in a stale bedsheet and carried it to the garden of a rich man. They rolled aside the stone covering a hole and lowered Luthor’s body into the darkness, into the final resting place of all living things. And into that dark, dripping underworld Luthor was cast down among the fallen. In that boggy pit, there the dead would spend eternity explaining themselves.
Where everything is forgotten, Luthor Stokes sought the ear of a dead woman and asked her, “May I tell you something?”
Because here in the stomach of the world, the dead have to listen. So half-deep in this limitless, liquid dankness, Luthor tells his secrets to digest them. Luthor whispers into the decayed ear of this bloated, eyeless woman, “May I tell you everything?”
This, the place of coming apart, where smart people go to give up always being right.
Sealed in this reeking underworld, Luthor Stokes recalls the words of Samantha Deel, who used to tell him, “You should get used to being a ghost, now.” She’d say, “You’ll be dead a lot longer than you’ll ever be alive.”
What’s important is that you love Sam. Samantha. Sam the Magnificent. Samantha Deel, before you hate her.
Like this one time. Her church says No Open Doors. No matter how hot the morning, the front doors, you can’t prop them open. Only no one ever says how come.
Samantha is how come.
Not that she held a grudge against Jesus. But this is the ending you should always circle back around to. At a funeral, when someone broke that rule. This funeral of some kid, the reigning star at a STEM magnet academy, his name was Esmond Jensen.
Esmond’s mother had forced the door in his bedroom and found him. He’d tied a cord to the doorknob of his closet. Wrapped the cord around his neck. He’d knelt down on the carpet and leaned into the noose. Bowed out, so to speak. As easy as praying, he’d lost consciousness and died in the time it took his mom to boil spaghetti. Honor student Esmond. Piano virtuoso. Doer of all things impossible. Esmond Jensen.
The church where the Deels used to go, they’re saving up for air conditioning. And a new window. Before you throw in all the burning candles and the incense smoke, a billboard-big stained-glass window used to shine in above the altar. The place was an oven.
Used to be an oven.
A colored-glass Jesus descending from Heaven on glowing clouds, that window, crowded around by pink angel babies. Jesus floating up there above a world of stained-glass flowers in colors that scar your retina. Colors like a welding arc or the center of a burning road flare. The sunlight threw a rainbow shadow over the Deel family. It turned everyone radioactive blues and fireworks yellow. Samantha’s parents. Their extended community of faith seated in pews, faced in that same direction.
On the occasion of Esmond Jensen’s funeral. His being laid to rest. On that last day anybody ever propped open the front door, the breeze brought in something sparkling green.
Some tiny fairy buzzed up the center aisle, drawn in by flowered hats. Attracted by the urns that flanked the altar. Urns full-to-toppling with orange gladiolas. Pink gladiolas.
Some green spark buzzed through the haze of pipe organ music and incense. It unrolled a thin tongue to drink at the gladiolas. A delight, this flash of emerald green wings, it tried to drink at the plaster lilies in the arms of the Virgin Mary statue. It darted between gladiolas and potted chrysanthemums, upstaging Father Caswell and the altar boys.
No one heard the eulogy. They’re all pointing fingers. Whisper-shouting. Eyes pinned on this bright little angel.
A voice, clear and shrill with delight said, “A hummingbird!” And the shining miracle had a name. It jetted between the window of St. Agatha of Sicily getting her breasts cut off by Roman soldiers and the window of St. Lawrence burning naked on a giant barbeque. It soared higher, looking for a way out through the stained-glass Heavens.
The choir stopped singing. The pipe organ stopped. Parishioners ducked as the green light rocketed and dove above their heads.
Tiny as a piece of jewelry, it settled on the plaster halo of St. Patrick. Its beak hung open, panting. Its tiny heartbeat seeable under slippery, green feathers.
Samantha stood and slipped into the aisle. Her church shoes, called Mary Janes. Black patent leather with a buckle strap across the top part and a stubby heel, called a kitten heel. The training bra for a girl’s feet before real high heels. Her hands in crocheted gloves white as spider webs.
Samantha, in her pleated skirt, she crept up the aisle toward the altar where the bird waited. Crept past Esmond Jensen’s closed casket.
The bird launched itself at other flowers, the glass daffodils in the window, below the feet of Christ. That one hungry hummingbird pecked at the blazing hot yellow lilies. Licked its pointed tongue against blistering red roses. Up there, ceiling-high, a blast furnace that high. It bashed itself against the glowing everything of that wall of sunlight.
This blur and buzz was beating itself to death against what it couldn’t understand. Flowers without nectar.
Seen up close, stained glass amounts to a huge jigsaw puzzle. That great tonnage of glass, jigsawed together and bound at the seams by soft strands of lead. Lead strips soldered at the joints to make a wall-sized network of black metal. A towering wall as thin as cardboard, but as heavy as stone.
Samantha crept up to where the hummingbird was battering itself into a heart attack. She slipped off one shoe and swung the heel to smash a glass tulip. Ruby slivers went everywhere and the vandalism sound. Air and light poured in through the new hole, only the smash drove the little bird higher. To where Samantha had to climb onto the windowsill to hammer her heel to bash out a glass nasturtium.
She hammered out glass peonies and baby glass lambs and chunks of sky, leaving jagged holes lined with a few colored glass teeth. Before Father Caswell could stop her, she left big sections of the window nothing but the network of metal strips that had bound the glass together. The webbing of thin lead outlines that had divided flowers from sky from baby lambs.
And as the hummingbird panicked and flew higher, Sam climbed. Not to swat the bird, but to set it free.
Back then, way back when, Samantha Deel could still hear people shouting at her, but she continued to climb. Only faster. Before gravity or hands could pull her back to the ground, on that ropey ladder of lead strips, that lace of soft metal. Like a lead spider’s web just strong enough to support the weight of one teenager. Anyone else, any extra weight would pull the whole stained-glass Heavens down around their heads.
The left-behind slivers of sapphire-blue sky bit into her hands until her crochet turned red, until it was Samantha’s blood smeared across the clouds and dripped down the heavenly sky. Samantha Deel like some demon crawling out of Hell to scale the beautiful everything of Creation and stain it all red.
Sam the Magnificent, a bloody spider, scrambling across its black web, chasing a tiny green bug.
The hands of her mom and dad reached up to drag her back or break her fall.
Her mom and dad shouted, “Samantha!” Shouted, “Sam!” Trying to call her back down to Earth. Dodging not to catch a sliver of Jesus in the eye.
Back then she could hear them. She hadn’t gone deaf yet. She climbed that soft, sagging network of lead. Like a pirate climbing the rigging of a ship. Always swinging her shoe to bust out another escape hatch. Always scaring the bird to fly higher among the scorching hot angels. Her fingerprints sliced to mush, she climbed into the masterpiece clouds and perfect rays of fake sunshine and shoe-smashed an angel’s lovely face so the hummingbird might live. She shoe-smashed a dove into a cascade of grey-and-silver dust that sprayed down on the altar and everyone.
Samantha busted out the brocade robes and jeweled crowns, and her bloody hands found new grips where the fake blood of the Christ’s hands had been. Her feet found toeholds where the fake blood of His feet had been.
And the fresh air gusted in. A breeze that blew out all their candles.
And the hummingbird was always higher, too high to save. Too scared for her to rescue.
Her legs dangled from the pleated skirt of her good-girl dress, her legs streaked with blood. And looking up, Father Caswell saw flowers. Flowered panties. Everyone saw Samantha’s flowers. No slip. No petticoats, not in this weather, not in this day and age. Making everyone look elsewhere.
The shattered pink and gold of sandals and halos sprayed down so no one saw how the sagging spiderweb was already giving way when Sam the Magnificent hauled back her arm. With one mighty swing she nailed Jesus Christ in His beautiful glass face. Busted not just His nose and glass jaw but His everything with the heel of her Mary Jane.
Apologies to George Orwell.
Apologies to everyone except God who knows a picture isn’t Him, it doesn’t matter how pretty.
But through where Jesus had been there was blue sky and the hummingbird escaped back to real everything to live another day. Breaking and exiting. For better or worse.
Now instead of being stained vivid blues and sulfur yellows, minus the stained glass shadow, Samantha’s mom and dad turned back to their regular color. As did Father Caswell. His hands and face. As did we all.
All the church’s hot air began to leak out that God-shaped hole.
All that’s left up above is the glass parts still intact. The glass sun shining through the glass clouds, hanging high up, waiting to come down guillotine style.
The bird escaped even as the buckling, sagging, stretched-out framework of Heaven began to slowly, slowly, ever so slowly deliver Saint Samantha into the hands of an angry mob. Splinters of angel dust glinted in her hair.
Since then, they’ve instituted the No Open Doors rule.
So, no, this is not how Samantha Deel died. But it’s what everyone whispered about at her funeral.
Stay tuned for Part Two…