Sunday, October 15, 2006

Stories - Maxey

Maxey - To Know All Things That Are In The Earth

Blog article: warning, it's long and full of spoilers.

Sometimes, writing involves a certain amount of time travel. My first
published novel, Nobody Gets the Girl, was the fourth novel I had
written. The next book I have coming out, Bitterwood, was the third novel I
wrote. So, my first novel is my fourth novel, my second novel is my
third novel, and, should I be fortunate enough to publish a third novel,
it will probably be my sixth. My career is a walking time paradox.

Similarly, when I wrote "To Know All Things That Are In The Earth," I
hadn't yet understood the life lesson that rests at the heart of the
story. I penned the first draft of this story last February, as part of
the Codexwriters.com "Codexian Idol" contest. It was an odd story
to write in some ways. Bluntly, I'm an atheist--anyone who has followed
my career to any extent at all has no doubt noticed a strong vein of
nihilism running though my stories. So, what am I doing writing about
the Rapture?

I confess: I miss the Rapture. I was raised a Christian and deeply
anticipated the rapture through much of my childhood. I spent many, many
hours imagining it. I could see it quite clearly in my childish
mind... the skies ripping open with an earth-shaking roar, heavenly light
flooding every shadow as angel bands poured down to gather the chosen. I
fervently prayed for the rapture to happen during tough times...
getting raptured up before gym glass would have been quite a relief to my
twelve-year-old self. Even after I stopped labeling myself a Christian, I
would find myself having little Rapture fantasies about what I'd do in
case I was wrong. I figured, in case of Rapture, I would run off into
the woods and hide for seven years to avoid the Mark of the Beast. My
dad had a good collection of hunting and fishing equipment. I felt
pretty sure I could make it. One night, when I was about 18, I was in bed
on a silent winter night. It was snowing. This was one of those dark,
introspective nights when newly minted atheists sometimes lie awake
contemplating the consequences of being wrong. It was about four in the
morning. Suddenly, the bed began to shudder. Then the whole house
shook as a terrible rumble broke the stillness. Bright lights cast shadows
on my wall as they approached the house. I sat up, sweat popping from
every pore. The Rapture! But, no, it was only a snowplow, getting an
early morning start on the roads.

So, I can trace specific moments of this story back two decades to my
close call with the Rapture. But, the central epiphany of the story is
something that I learned much more recently... after I wrote it.

When I wrote this story, my girlfriend Laura Herrmann was dying from
cancer. He had breast cancer that had spread to her lungs and liver; the
radiation reports described the tumors as "innumerable." And yet, it
was very difficult for me to understand what was killing her. The
tumors were tiny. They were tracking things two millimeters long and making
a big deal when they grew to three millimeters. Three millimeters
isn't very big. So why couldn't she breathe? I'm a science fiction geek,
I know a thing or two about biology, but I still found myself
completely at a loss to understand how she was dying. I never asked why. Why,
I knew. She had cancer. But, how was cancer killing her? Was there
anyway to fight it? Why wasn't surgery an option? What did it matter
if she had things smaller than houseflies growing in her lungs? Lungs
are big things right?

Wrong. On Labor Day weekend, four months after Laura passed away, I
went to the Atlanta Civic Center and saw "Bodies: The Exhibition." This
is a show where actual human cadavers have been treated with plastic to
preserve them. They are then flayed to various stages and posed to
reveal the inner workings of the body. It's a morbid idea, so, of course,
there was no way I could pass up a chance to see it. Finally, I saw an
actual human lung. The cadaver it was attached to was a woman whose
facial muscles were hauntingly similar to Laura's. It was easy to
imagine flesh over them once more. And, beneath the face and neck, I finally
saw the size of adult female lungs. They're not big at all. I
imagined them filling up all the space under the rib cage. In fact, they are
actually squashed up rather high in the chest. I could easily have
held them in one hand. Suddenly, the tiny tumors made more sense. There
isn't a lot of space to start with. This was further driven home when
I saw a lung actually riddled with cancer. While Laura struggled with
her disease, I would have given anything to have x-ray vision; I wanted
to know what was happening inside her. Here, I could see it. I had
been imagining the tumors as distinct objects, not really a part of her.
Instead, the preserved tumors looked like the bodies own tissues
knotting and knitting themselves. There isn't a clearly visible break
between the diseased cells and the healthy ones.

Finally, I saw a body where red plastic had been pumped into the
circulatory system, preserving it, before the rest of the body was dissolved
away. What remained was a ghost of blood. The shadows of the organs
were clearly visible in the highways of veins. Nowhere was more rich in
blood vessels than the lungs. Laura passed away from bleeding in these
tissues. Again, I suddenly understood how this was almost inevitable.
With all the blood passing through the lungs, it's understandable that
diseased cells will eventually damage the tiny network of delicate
threads.

When I left the exhibit, I felt as if the unanswered questions I'd had
about Laura's death had been answered. And, it occurred to me that,
I'd written about this moment months ago; the moment when being able to
answer "How?" provides a measure of comfort and relief that will forever
elude us if we only ask, "Why?"

I didn't consciously set down to write this story about losing Laura.
But, looking back, I identify with my protagonist strongly when, in his
frustration to understand, he plunges his hands inside the cherub's
corpse and begins to root around for answers. I wanted so badly to know
what was going on inside Laura; I think this is how those feelings made
it to the page.


jamesmaxey.blogspot.com

4 comments:

Jim said...

I wondered about the religious background of this story's writer. The irony is that initially I felt like the story was a bit too "preachy." But then I got to the end and found that the story's message was quite bleak. I liked the perspective and the approach to the topic.

MC Norton G! said...

"To Know All Things" is the best story about the rapture by someone who is not a Christian. I think it is the only one. I enjoyed it very much and loved the characters.

Secret Rapture said...

My inaugural address at the Great White Throne Judgment of the Dead, after I have raptured out billions!
Read My Inaugural Address
My Site=http://www.angelfire.com/crazy/spaceman

James Maxey said...

Jim, Fedge, James Maxey here. Thanks for your support. Sorry for the tardiness of my response. This issue of IGMS came out just as I bought an old house that I had to completely renovate in six weeks, so I haven't been on the internet much lately.

Secret Rapture... I followed the link, and I'm utterly baffled. The small text on a bottle of Dr. Bronner's Soap is easier to follow. But, thanks for dropping in as well.