IMAGE: Valeria Amirkhanyan
Katherine Zlabek's story collection, When, winner of The Journal’s 2018 Non/Fiction Collection Prize, is now available from The Ohio State University Press. Her work has appeared in Boulevard, The Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. Ricochet Editions published her chapbook, Let the Rivers Clap Their Hands, in 2015. She currently writes in Madison, Wisconsin.
Do I strike you as dramatic when I tell you that the following paragraphs—which include lion fights, bus bombs, stonings—are all to prepare you for an essay about love? The relationship I have with my partner is a dark pit of curiosity. I cannot find the pit’s end, though I do know some of its contours. A curve I often contemplate is where my partner and my faith meet—where one love meets the other.
“He may not be safe, but he is good,” C.S. Lewis wrote about the lion Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I read the book when I was ten, which was also when my sister and I went through our Speed phase. At least once every day that December, we watched Keanu Reeves save a busload of people from a bomb. The passengers want nothing more than for the bus to slowdown so they can get off and get back to their daily lives—work, families, take-away coffees. Reeves’s character knows that speeding through barriers, crushing rows of parked cars, and flying across unfinished bridges is the only way out. Destruction is the path toward good. Lewis’s book seconds all of this—triumph requires battle, death. There is a witch, the evil kind, who lures children with comfort. She can summon precisely what they want. One child desires Turkish Delight, and a steaming tray of it appears on the witch’s lap. The children, I recall, do not understand how a lion—an animal known to pounce and rule through violence—can be protector and king, which is when a creature explains to them, “He may not be safe, but he is good.”
St. Paul writes about his shipwrecks, his snake bite, his jailings and beatings and abandonments—the time he was blinded, the time he was left for dead. Rejoice, he says, because of these pains, this testimony, rejoice.
I know that you may not believe in God, that your concept of God may be different from mine, or that the idea of believing in God may seem puerile. Humor my belief for this essay. This belief, at this time: Christian, a daily Bible reader of no particular denomination, one who moves too often to join a church, and so remains largely unchurched, save for my Catholic gradeschooling and the frequent visits my mother and I paid in childhood to basements or community centers where dancing and speaking in tongues were common occurrences. The multitudes my faith contains make me liberal and progressive, a believer in miracles, in the unheard-of, in the not-yet-contemplated, in justice and radical love.
Lewis meant his lion to represent Jesus. If I am to believe an agnostic professor I had many years ago, the hero always represents Jesus if the hero is willing to sacrifice themselves. This applies to Keanu in Speed. It applies to my partner, who one night when I was late returning home, went looking to face the trouble he was sure I’d met under bridges, down unlit alleys. When I was picture-book age, the age of the children in Lewis’s Narnia, I found it impossible to understand how this Jesus, who I’d been told was goodness incarnate, could flip the tables of the temple market-men in a rage, in the middle of what had seemed like an otherwise very nice day. But at that age I was thinking goodness equaled kindness, niceties. If Jesus triumphed over death, over hell itself, it was not done through kindness. It would not have been theoretical, or in word only, or performed with self-interest, or closed with a handshake. The triumph would have been radically executed, using all means necessary.
Let’s assume this is true, however unlikely it sounds: a relationship can both define a life and create instability in it.
Let’s assume one more thing: if a relationship, through time and pressure,
can define a life in the way that coal becomes a diamond, I do not want to become coal again. I do not desire coal’s uncertainty.
The word relationship, here, is meant to extend to all relationships: romantic, platonic, familial,
Last Halloween, my partner J and I watched Rosemary’s Baby—a movie where Mia Farrow’s character is drugged and conned into carrying Satan’s child. For weeks afterward, my partner walked around, saying, “I am Rosemary’s baby,” in a slow, rasping voice. Sometimes, he would follow this with, “But really, I think I might be.” This line was always delivered with the same depth as someone mentioning they liked mayonnaise better than mustard.
I am dating someone who jokes about being the spawn of Satan. J thinks so
little of the spiritual world that it doesn’t matter to him whether or not this is a joke. When I’m bothered by his indifference, he believes there is a glitch in my otherwise solid sense of humor.
A friend, M, will call. The conversations run long and melancholy—between the two of us, many things go wrong, or don’t happen at all. M is a writer and a Christian, and one day she ends the call by saying, “We’re lucky we believe in miracles.”
The thing is, if a person believes in miracles, it follows that a person will likely also believe that evil exists, or that there can be an absence of good. This is a controversial subject: whether evil exists and, if so, how it presents itself.
My mother, since I was a child, has kept bookshelves filled with missives on spiritual warfare.
She says she used to attend exorcisms. She has never described these in detail. There were buckets involved, and vomit, and the need to pray that the demon didn’t enter those around once it was flung from the tormented soul.
I’ve never known what attitude to have toward the mention of these exorcisms. I can’t imagine
them without the aid of horror films.
But yes, my friend was right. We are lucky we believe in miracles, though it can be frightening
to acknowledge this.
I am aware that many books contain chapters on how to be in love with someone who subscribes to a different set of beliefs. I have not read them. What I am wondering is how to be in love with someone who does not know how to acknowledge my beliefs.
If faith were catching, he would be, always, in the other room with a can of Lysol. From time to
time, as a prophylactic, he acknowledges the allure of darkness.
He can’t make sense of it when I say that this other love enables me to love him more—that the
original love enriches the second. I understand that it doesn’t sound good. If he were to say that marathon running was his first love, and that I was his second—that marathon running allowed him to love me more—I would struggle. I have never asked him to rank his loves. I know only that when I say he loves me in the same way he loves the dog, he says it isn’t true, that it is far from true.
He has told me many times that he would kill for me. That if anyone hurt me, the person would suffer beyond measure. Is this love? It is, perhaps, love’s appendix. A harmless sentiment until it is infected, inflamed.
I feel the danger come in waves. It is, by turns, spiritual, physical. In all the basement churches I visited with my mother in childhood, I do not recollect a moment when a snake was brought out to test our faith. God tested Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his long-awaited son. The devil tested Jesus while Jesus fasted in the wilderness—offered him all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would turn from God. These were tests, only tests, as the radio announces every so often. They want to know whether you’re able to save your own life, or whether you’re willing to be saved.
Most of the snakes I’ve seen, I’ve seen while hiking with J.
We began hiking on the Florida Trail, on a section just outside Miami. I have never witnessed
another human on that trail, a fact that still disturbs me, as though we invented the trail—now a memory of the trail—to have a place to suffer. On the trails we ducked deer, followed fresh panther scat, strategized plans for pythons, and watched alligators swim in narrow waterbeds. We never packed enough water. The terrain was part desert, part marsh—or this is how I remember it: like I had fallen asleep while walking and woke in a new climate every half hour. Our first trip out, we suffered mild heatstroke and tried to fix it with beer and fried bits of alligator. If we could do something incorrectly, that’s how we did it. It is still how we do things.
On our last Miami hike, a fire truck greeted us at the trailhead. Wildfires were spreading in the
area. I can’t fathom how, but the fireman said we would be fine on our planned thirteen-mile loop. It took five miles of hiking through sand and sweat for me to set aside the fear of being barbequed. I could see so little smoke that it might have only been Miami smog. We approached shade. Grasses grew thigh-high under a canopy of trees, and the sun shone through leaves tracing lace-like patterns underneath. This is what I remember: it was beautiful, the weeds seemed stolen from a fairy tale—when, two yards in front of us, a rattlesnake’s head rose above the growth. It was a museum-quality snake: a body thicker than an arm and a head wider across than a fist. It moved through the weeds as though it were part dragon—the curve of the neck, its head surveying a kingdom. This was our first snake, and it nearly destroyed us. J threw a rock at it, and it took some time until the snake set down its head, hiding itself in the lattice-light again, which was when J said it was safe to pass.
We could not see the path through the weeds. The snake was no longer rattling, bearing its
fangs, and rearing its horse-head, and, I said, we did not know that it had gone. We argued, both of us ranging through the years we’d known one another for emotional ammunition, before we turned around, and I do not suspect he will ever forgive me for not trusting his instinct, for failing the test.
Five years later, we still argue about the snake in the path.
This is really an argument about which side I will take, who I will believe, and how this will
affect, in every sense, our path forward.
Many times, I have written up a list of reasons why I should leave. I will feel he has put someone
at risk, damaged the trust I put in him to do right, worked tirelessly at creating difficulty for some alleged wrongdoer, and each time he asks for loyalty—that I trust in the righteousness of his actions, see his side, be his companion in whatever battle he has taken on.
The problem seems both existential and otherworldly, always repercussive.
Matthew 5:13 reads: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its savor, how can it be
made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”
The question I have been asking: how does salt lose its flavor? The lion Aslan, Reeves in Speed,
St. Paul and his sufferings in and out of prison—the danger is clear, physical, violent, and they acknowledge it, fight it, if need be.
Salt faces no such obvious danger. I assumed, before writing this, that salt lost its flavor through
a slow leeching, something repetitive done in a negligent way. I imagined it on a shelf, accumulating mildew and dust in its dark shelter, becoming tasteless—the shaking of it pointless. Science says that salt cannot lose its flavor, but that when it is exposed to certain other elements or circumstances, it can become an altogether different thing.
Imagine the difference if the verse had read: “You are the swords of the earth. But if the swords
lose their sharpness, how can they be made deadly again?”
As is, the verse, in noting something so prosaic, so domestic, points toward a quieter danger.
One assumes, all day long, without attention or notice, that the salt will be good come suppertime. We assume the same about ourselves.
It seems important to note that this verse immediately follows the Beatitudes, that section in
Matthew where Jesus informs his listeners who is blessed: the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted. In other words, the state of feeling wretched will not, on its own, cause salt to turn. So, submit. Endure the world’s pain, but hold faith, the Bible says, or all may be lost.
Talk of danger and fear, talk of relationships, is always talk about submission. To what are we willing to become vulnerable, and what, who, will be given our full submission?
Will we turn the other cheek? Will we sacrifice our safety?
There is a strength in submission that J is more likely to call fear or weakness.
When I told you about the rattlesnake on the hike, I said the argument was about the side I will
take, and how we will move forward. There is more. J believes the argument is about whether I have the strength to complete the path—whether I will brave the snake, whether I trust that we will power our way through the snake’s bite.
When I turn the other cheek, he thinks I have done myself an injustice.
J has an attachment to the world, and he is prepared to fight for it. I hold onto the world so
lightly that an untrained observer would worry about my being suicidal. A hypothetical we return to again and again: if faced with a seemingly hopeless situation—an attacker, death in the woods, advanced cancer—would I fight or would I accept it? Whatever I do, I say, I don’t want my last thoughts, my greatest efforts, to be straining to preserve the self. I do not want to be breathless and bloodied, wondering, have I saved myself yet? As though that was all I was put here to do.
J is why I return so often to Lewis’s quotation, “He may not be safe, but he is good.”
My partner is good, but he will hesitate. He is good, but he will try to act bad. He is good, but
he will make certain people earn his love—will expect perfection from them. He will be coy and shielded, as though he is in it for the long haul in a competition I can’t name.
He may not be safe, but he is good. My partner is not safe, but I believe him—am pulling for
him—to be good. Our future rests on his actions being righteous beyond their rightness for himself.
In meditation, a central practice is the acknowledgement, the noting, of thoughts before setting
them aside. The mind need not attach to the thought. This is a kind of submission. Most practices and faiths intersect: do away with physical things, work toward nothingness, die to the self, love others, discipline the self, listen to silence, rejoice. In my faith, I often feel like a rock, or a bar of gold, or salt—that in my faith there is some degree of immutability, that I am involved with my faith on a molecular level. But how can one tell, in the act of submission, in the loss of control, in the act of noting and setting aside, whether one is becoming more of what one should be, or being taken much further away?
What does danger have to do with this story about love, these questions about salt? What does it have to do with the story of how two people love one another, and how we worry about losing ourselves when that happens? The fear of losing the self is natural. With God, it becomes more complex. In my faith, it is desirable to lose the self to God, or to sacrifice the self for another—but there is a distinction in the preposition. Lose the self for another, but not ever to another. Lose the self to God, but not to the world.
It seems, at times, that the comfort the world offers may be an evil. That comfort is the fresh
Turkish Delight that appears in the witch’s lap, the bus that slows down when everyone wants it to slow, the stonings avoided by keeping quiet. It seems, at times, that if I continually agitate my thoughts about the intersection of my love for J and my faith in God, I can prevent the thoughtless existence, the comfort that causes even salt to go bad. I exist, I feel, at times, like a Rorschach blot: one half reaching from the center to God and the other half reacting away from J.—the comfort I feel with him, my frustration with his all-consuming fight, his affection for darkness. The same half-image repeated in reverse on both sides of a center line, the black ink that blots itself to join the two.
In all of the gospels, a woman anoints Jesus. Reports vary on the specific action and the specific woman. In the general imagination, she is considered to be Mary Magdalene, a woman thought to have lived a sinful life. I read somewhere that when Mary broke the bottle of perfume at Christ’s feet, it was really her heart she was breaking over him. Inside her heart, there had been pain and fear, and when she broke it—because she broke it—the fear she’d harbored turned into perfume, nectar, a scent pleasing to God. Whatever she gave, she gave all of it, caressing it into Jesus’ feet with the hair of her head. She used all of that perfume, broke the container, so that there could be no return to what once was. This is what made it a beautiful gesture: the destruction, the submission, the nothing-left-ness.
The disciples were told, when preaching the Word, not to prepare anything ahead of time because the Holy Spirit would provide the right words when it was appropriate. They were, because of their faith, a conduit connecting the people with God. Strength of faith was what mattered. The self did not matter so much outside of this willingness. Christian art occasionally depicts the writers of the gospels as transcriptionists with some more heavenly power providing the words: a dove—the Holy Spirit—dipping into the ear, or something like a phonograph bridging, twisting itself down to them, words being whispered from some other plane of existence: a figure—animal, saint, supernatural—in a bubble overhead. In all of this is the getting out of the way, the nothingness.
We know this. It is familiar to us. The Hail Mary pass, the buzzer shot, the last resort, the miracle
—the trust that something else will take over after a hard-fought battle, after we’ve exhausted ourselves. But what if the best option is always the last resort?
Let’s say there is a snake in the path forward. Two travelers startle away from it. One, inspired, throws a rock—the quarterback hoping for a connection. The other traveler tosses salt on the ground, hoping it will be good for something, even if it is only good to be trampled. Behind them, a puff of smoke, signaling the witch has gone with their comforts. They watch as, mile by mile, the trail they’ve just hiked disappears, is swept up and replaced with Queen Anne’s lace, swamp, the sound of crickets scratching their legs, as though the trail was only dirt brought by the wind, which, of course, is what it always was, and—also—all the travelers are. Dust. Also dust—the raging lion and the renegade bus. Only salt, only flavor, only all they have. The snake remains.