The Only Meaning In All Of Things


“When I was preparing to be whatever it is I’ve become I was sent to work in a hospital. Comfort the dying. I remember the mortuary there—it was very Victorian. Neo-Renaissance. In the foyer there was an inscription in Latin. ‘Let smiles cease,’ it said, ‘let laughter flee. This is the place where the dead help the living.'”

The older man in the group got to his feet muttering.

“Bummer!” he shouted at Egan. His heavy face grew red with anger; he raised cupped hands to amplify his voice, and screamed. “Bummer!”

“I’ll describe a picture to you,” Egan told his congregation. “I’m sure you’re familiar with it. A group of men are standing over a pile of corpses. They’re smiling and they have guns. Some of them have tied handkerchiefs across their faces but not to give themselves the raffish air of banditti—because of the smell.”

The priest wiped his mouth with his sleeve and took a cautious step forward. “That’s the big picture, children. That’s how it is now. That’s why you see that picture every week in all the magazines. You know—there are variations, the people, and the uniforms come in different colors, but it’s always the same picture.”

Around them the silences and the darkness deepened. Ramon nuts pattered to the ground through a web of leafy branches, making a sound like soft rain.

“Now why,” Egan asked, “are we made to see this picture week after week until it’s imprinted on the backs of our eyes and we have it before us dreaming and waking?”

No one answered him.

“Will these dead help the living?” he asked. “Are we to seek the living among the dead? What does it mean?”

“And yet,” he said, “and yet—where?” He opened his eyes and peered at them across the firelight. “Because you can stare into the faces of the dead—I’ve been doing it for years, I ought to know—and you won’t see anything. Anything more than plain death, I mean. You can look as sharp as you like, you can pray for a sign, for something, for the slightest hint of something . . . more. Not forthcoming.

“You can look into the dead face of the world, try to catch it unawares—no good. You keep looking, you tell yourself you’ve seen something, some little imitation, you know, of something . . . living. The Living. But it’s no good. You won’t. It won’t reveal itself that way.”

He had been standing, swaying, dangerously close to the fire. The heat warned him away.

“I mean—you look outward. To the stars, to the farthest nebulae. Not a sign. Or you look in. Close your eyes and look down from the outside in and what have you got? Blisters. Skin, eh? Flesh, parasites, sour guts and a little concupiscence. Then we’re down among our several intoxications and delusions and we find our minds, the little devils, the devious protean things. Anything more? A glimmer?”

Some of them sat with their eyes closed looking in. Others stared at Egan or into the fire.

“Maybe yes,” Egan said. “Maybe, eh? Who knows down in that mess? But maybe there is something. A little shard of light. What is it?

“It’s the why and wherefore,” the priest said, “that little radiant thing. I’ve never seen it, you know, but it has to be there. It’s the life. The Life. There’s all this death and this dying and it’s the only difference. It’s the only difference things make,” he told them.

“There aren’t angels,” Egan said. “There’s none of that. Thrones. Dominions. All that business—it’s rubbish. But there’s life. There’s the Living among the dead. I mean, you can’t ever quite see it, can you? You’d hardly know it was there but it has to be, doesn’t it? It’s only mislaid.”

He was dizzy, his chest felt hollow. He steadied himself against the stone again.

“Because it’s there—everything’s all right.”

He tried to see each of them among the shadows and flickering light.

“You have to try and find it, see?” Egan said. “If you can’t find it you have to believe in it. If you can’t believe in it you have to hope you will. If you can’t hope then all you can do is love the idea of it. Love it at a distance if that’s the best you can do, children. Love it like a secret lover.”

He seemed perplexed by their silence. He walked around the fire into the semicircle they had formed.

“It’s the only meaning in all of things,” he said. “There aren’t any others.”



“The answer”—Father Egan was saying—”I think they have it on the prayer wheels. Do you know what it says on the prayer wheels?”

Most of them had gone to sleep. From among the group only the girl with the bandaged arm, the feverish girl and her boyfriend, the dark-bearded young man and the blond giant remained to listen. A few others had gathered around a fire at the base of the overgrown pyramid and were smoking marijuana and passing a bottle of colorless rum. Their laughter sounded a muffled echo off the ancient stone.

“On the prayer wheel it says, ‘The jewel is in the lotus.’ They turn the wheels round hundreds of times a day. The little flags flutter so the wind says it. The Jewel is in the Lotus.”

The feverish girl moaned and stirred in her lover’s arms. Egan stopped speaking and looked at her and saw that she had the dengue. He had had it himself several times. The girl, he thought, was like a lotus and the pain in her overbright eyes a jewel.

“The lotus,” he told her, “is sweet and fragrant, beautiful in life. But it’s fallible and it’s born for death. It’s sown in corruption. But the jewel—” He felt his arm go numb and when he tried to raise it he could not. “The jewel is undying and beyond time. Beyond measure. The jewel is the meaning, you see.

“You’re the lotus. Your dear bodies that you’re so fond of. You’re the lotus. The jewel is in you.” Egan laughed and brushed his sleeve across his mouth again. “The jewel’s in hock to you. And the whole world of mortality is the lotus. And the Living is the jewel in it. That’s the bright side.

“It is sown in corruption,” Egan declaimed, “it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power! On the bright side—everything’s fine. You’d think they’d have no business here whose place is on the bright side. Here—it’s a whirl.” He put out his hand and described a spiral with three fingers. “Whirl is King and it’s lonely and in shadow, but over there—well, that’s life over there, that’s where the Living belongs. But,” he said, “the Jewel is in the Lotus! Why?”

He looked at them each in turn.

“Why, children?”

They were all still, watching.

“Because,” Egan thundered, “they’re as lonely as we are! The Living is lonely for itself. For the shard of itself that’s lost in us, the jewel in the lotus.” He paused to draw breath.

“Isn’t it wonderful after all? That we’re secret lovers? Because why else would the Living be concealed within this meat, in all these fears and sweats, the Holy One among the dead? Why would he hide himself in Whirl to give meaning to a pile of corpses? Because the Jewel is in the Lotus out of loneliness and secret love. He doesn’t have any choice.

“It’s hard to see,” he told the young people. “You never know when you see the Living. The eye you see him with is the same eye with which he sees you.”

The girl with dengue put her hands on her companion’s shoulders and pulled herself upright.

“The bands broke,” she said, half singing. “The bands broke on Faithful John’s heart.” The boy who was with her tried to ease her back down; she fought him. “The bands broke on the heart of Faithful John,” she screamed.

Egan had sunk to the ground and lay resting against the stela. It seemed to him that he had made it come out all right. His hand was on his briefcase, over the bulge of his bottle of Flor de Cana.

“No, no,” he told the girl kindly. “That’s not the same at all. That’s a fairy tale.”

—Robert Stone, A Flag For Sunrise

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When I Worked

December 2014

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