YOU ARE BUT A PILGRIM VENTURING TO A STRANGE AND HONEST LAND
by Jared Yates Sexton
On the cab ride in the driver turned and said, Did you know Hope and Despair are sister and brother and you their distant cousin? We were driving over a bridge. The snow was falling and people were trudging down the walk holding newspapers over their heads.
I’m sorry, I said. I had been watching the people. What did you say?
I said, he said, that Hope and Despair are sister and brother and you their distant cousin.
For some reason I thought over my family tree to see if there was any truth. I was an only child though, the offspring of two miserably matched people who would’ve still hated one another had they been alive. The only glimpse of hope in my whole lineage was a cousin who had scored well on his Naval test and was chained to the belly of a submarine in the Pacific.
I’m not sure I understand, I said.
It’s an easy mistake, the driver said. He was still turned around, his head framed by the glass separating us, his hands busy with the wheel. Most think they’re abstract concepts. States of mind. Tricks of brain chemistry. But I’m here to tell you, he said, that they are very real and they are very concerned with you.
From his glove box he pulled a laminated flyer no bigger than a bookmark. I took it with hesitation and studied the print. The first sentence said DID YOU KNOW HOPE AND DESPAIR ARE SISTER AND BROTHER AND YOU THEIR DISTANT COUSIN? There was a picture at the top of two people tugging a rope. There was a woman and a man and they looked like hieroglyphic people who had been locked in eternal struggle.
Those are your cousins, the driver said. The pretty one is Hope. The ugly one Despair.
I looked at hope and her snake-like locks of dark hair. Despair had a nest of scars racing down his sharp-angled cheek.
What you didn’t know, the driver said, still paying no attention to the road or the crowd of cars he was weaving through, was that you had been locked in a constant family feud. Fought over by a universe as petty and emotional as yourself.
On the back of the laminated flyer was a phone number. Below that a question – WOULD YOU LIKE TO JOIN THE FAMILY?
What’s The Family? I said.
The Family, the driver said, is our humble attempt to understand the greater struggle. To find our kin. To commiserate among the likeminded and the frightened.
We were at the airport. The cab had parked itself at the curb leading into the main terminal. The driver was still there with his head poking through the divider. He was smiling, but not. He was grimacing, but not. I said, I don’t have any money.
That’s fine, he said.
I said, It’s a very strange time in my life.
That’s fine, he said.
I said, I’m sorry, but I have a plane to catch.
Catch your plane, he said.
After scrabbling out of the cab I collected my own bag from the trunk and carried it into the terminal. It was midday and throngs of people choked the space. Everywhere there was someone. They were pushing past one another, holding each other close, screaming into their phones, buying flowers by the ticket stand. I found myself at the counter. I slammed my information on the desk and demanded my boarding pass.
I’m in a hurry, I said.
That’s fine, the ticket officer said. She had straight black hair and a crooked tooth in front.
It’s a very strange time in my life, I said.
Isn’t it for everyone? she said and typed at her keys.
I have to get back to my wife, I said.
She had called the night before from Atlanta and said that the city had begun vibrating. She said she opened up the window to our loft and leaned out and listened. She said it sounded to her like all of the city, all of the towering buildings and beeping cars and hustling people and clanging restaurants, had whispered to her to jump, to fly out of the window and onto the pavement below. But I didn’t tell the ticket officer that.
You’re in seat 24F, the ticket officer said and handed me my pass.
Wonderful, I said. Thank you, I said.
Listen, she said. Did you know Hope and Despair are sister and brother and you their distant cousin?
What? I said.
Listen, she said and started again.
I have to go, I said.
Security next and I begged my way to the front. Some of the people in line were happy to let me through and others grumbled and yelled and spat. I shoved my shoes and belt and bag through the x-ray machine and walked through the gate. The alarm went off though and a man with security pulled me and my goods to the side.
We need to check you further, he said.
I’m running late for my flight, I said.
That’s fine, he said. This will only take a moment.
He waved a wand over my chest and arms and down the back of my legs and then the front. Sir, he said, do you have any metal implants?
Implants? I said.
Pins, he said. Needles. Artificial joints or valves?
No, I said. Nothing of the like.
Good, he said. He touched a button on the wand. You know, he said, the struggle continues whether you are aware of it or not.
The struggle? I said.
Hope is the oldest sibling, he said. She was born in a meadow on a sunlit day. Her mother and father stroked her hair while she cooed and squirmed. Despair came a month later in the midst of a flood that destroyed an entire civilization. The mother was aloft on a makeshift raft and pushed him into the world as all of the bloated animals and peoples bobbed by. She died as he breathed his first breath.
I looked at the man from security.
Why are you telling me this? I asked him.
Because, he said, it’s nearly time.
I left my shoes and belt and bag and ran barefooted across the floor and to my gate. All around me I could hear people talking to each other and into their machines. Their conversations were vastly different, their tones changing and growing as they continued. I reached my gate and found a phone near the boarding area. I dialed the numbers to my home and my darling wife answered.
It’s getting worse, she said as she picked up the phone.
What is? I said. What’s getting worse?
The sound, she said. Outside. You should hear it.
I don’t want to hear it, I said. I’m already hearing enough. Honey, I said. Are you all right? It’s been a strange day.
I’m fine, she said. I’m better than I’ve ever been. You should hear it though, you really should.
No, I said. Honey, something’s happening.
I have to go, she said. I want to listen some more. I’m going to the window.
Don’t, I said. Stay away from the window. I’m boarding the plane. Now. I’ll be home before you know it. Don’t go to the window, I said, but she was gone.
The flight boarded. I waited my turn in line and settled into seat 24F. I felt that I had broken into a sweat and soaked through my shirt and pants. My breath, which had been ragged since the incident in the cab, slowed and returned to normal. I closed my eyes and envisioned my wife, my beautiful wife, as she had been before I’d left Atlanta. She’d laid next to me. I’d looked at her and she at me.
We are so lucky, I had said.
We are, she said. The luckiest.
None luckier, I said.
But then, as I was remembering, the memory changed and my darling wife raised herself from the bed and walked to the window opposite us. She opened it and pointed to something out in the distance. She turned to me, in the memory, and said, You need to listen.
The plane lifted into the air. No one spoke. The captain never came over the address system. There was silence except for the hiss of air through the vents. Things moved faster. It felt as if we were flying at speeds unimaginable. I turned to the person next to me, the person in 24E, an old woman wearing a sweater with a squirrel on the front. I said, Is something wrong?
Of course something’s wrong, she said. There’s always something wrong.
The plane’s trajectory increased until we were nearly end over end. No one stirred except for me. No one moved except for me. I looked out the window and saw the ground growing farther and farther away and the pressure in my ears built until I thought the drums might burst. My god, I screamed, my god enough.
As if on cue the plane slowly leveled out and we were parallel to the ground again. The other passengers turned in their seats and looked at me. I expected them to be angry but they seemed serene in a way I’d never seen before. Then, in unison, they unbuckled their seatbelts and stood hunched over by their seats. The flight attendants joined them and crowded the aisles. Behind them, the pilot and first officer. All of their faces were different but somehow the same. And then, in a moment, a subtle ripple ran across them as if across the surface of a pond.
Did you know, they said together in perfect coordination, that Hope and Despair are sister and brother and you their distant cousin?
Their stare was so intense I had to look away. Out the window I could see that the landscape was changing somehow. It was warping. Transforming.
What you have seen for so long, they said, is a distraction. Life hidden by a powerless daydream.
I watched a cornfield below rise like a wave and then flatten out like the last breath of a tide. I turned back to the other passengers and realized I was surrounded.
It’s time to wake up, they said, their voices still in lockstep, their eyes unblinking. It’s time to see the true nature of reality.
The level of the plane changed again and I could feel the force of descent. The pilots were still standing there, their hands lifeless at their sides. I felt the shape of something in my pocket and I found the laminated flyer the driver had given me in the cab. My eyes were drawn to a line at the bottom – YOU ARE BUT A PILGRIM VENTURING TO A STRANGE AND HONEST LAND.
I looked outside. The world glowed now with the tint of a mad and dying sun. Where there had once been Atlanta, with its skyscrapers shouldering up from the concrete, was now a city with glorious temples and glass spires surrounding a smoking cavity of a pit full of rotting and decaying flesh. There were people dancing and making love in the streets and there were people flaying one another.
Welcome home, they said in one voice. Welcome, welcome, welcome.
Image credit: blu-news.org on Flickr
Jared Yates Sexton is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University and currently serves as Managing Editor of the literary magazine BULL. His work has appeared in publications around the world and has been nominated for a pair of Pushcarts and The Million Writer’s Award. He was also a finalist for The New American Fiction Prize. His first book, An End To All Things, is available from Atticus Books.