"Manhattan is as far away from your God as you ever imagined you could be. It's why you moved three thousand miles from home."
"Your mother died before you were old enough to remember her, and your father was a stranger to you and your younger sister both--a stone-faced, religious figure who watched and controlled your every move. For love, you used to tell yourself. For love. You were baptized and raised in St. Mark's Lutheran Church, a three-storied, multi-basemented labyrinth of cement and stone overlooking a sliver of the San Juan Straits: it was a second home, but no different than the first. Prayers and scripture at meals and gatherings, evenings of moral lectures and study, lengthy church sermons in the candlelit nave as you squiggled against hard granite pews like a pinned worm. Escape took the form of public school classrooms and part-time jobs in musty fabric stores--but as you transformed over the years into a young woman, the leash grew as taut as your father's palpable, unspoken fear. For what, of what, you never asked and he never said."
"When it became clear that there would be no college in your future, no future in your future except church and church and church, you excused yourself from scripture study one lovely afternoon in your eighteenth year, taking a purse packed with a single maxi-pad and many small bills, leaving your coat behind. The hallways were bright with summer sun and chalkboard dust, and the overhead lights shook slightly from repair work in the basement--a sixty-year old foundation problem that had yet to be fixed. You walked down the stairs, past the restrooms and outside, through the gravel parking lot into the leafy suburbs of Tacoma. Shivering with ice-blooded fear, you walked swiftly without looking behind you, anticipating the squeal of tires, the blare of horns. No one came. Then again, why would they? Every year the church bled members faster than it sank into the damaged ground. You made it to the bus stop, then the train station, and then you were gone."
"Twenty-two years later, you twist into sleep every night with all the lamps switched on, and wake every morning in a room suspended by twenty-five stories of concrete and steel girders. As pale and colorless as your skin is, it is always with relief that you greet the cancer-bright sun pouring through curtainless windows. Surprise, as well: sleep reminds you of home, of church, of some subterranean chapel of your soul. Every night you fight against falling back down again. Every morning you arise, above ground and alive. Outside, a constant drone of machinery and metal surrounds Manhattan like an archangel's invincible shield: the night terrors of your childhood fade and you are safe for twelve hours more. Most of those hours, like today, are spent at the reception desk of the company you work for, encased in the comforting artificial hum of air conditioners, the electric clicks and purrs of the phone, the rip of the letter openers through tape and envelope flaps. You reach for a battered box with the word morgenstern scrawled in black marker on the side, and stab it open like an infected wound as you think about what you'll have for lunch."
"Bits of moldering paper spill onto your neat desk, flecked with stony grey grit that catches in your lashes and bites your eyes. Old photographs, memorandums, bulletin drafts and personal notes--six decades of the history of St. Mark's, a secret saga that no one driving past the pretty building and clipped lawns could ever have imagined or known. A faded Polaroid flips out onto your palm. Two ancient women in the sunlight church basement, naked, hairless, blind. The teeth of their lipless mouths have fused into monstrous smiles, the ribbed walls of calcium growing over their chins and down, joining their exposed ribs. The lower halves of their bodies have grown together, legs and hips joined in an Escher configuration of impossible curves doubling back into themselves, as if the women are birthing a colossal vertebra, barely contained beneath the radiant translucence of their porcelain skin. You turn the photo over. Two names, written in your dead mother's spindly cursive, ten years before you were born: Margo and Ruthie Johansson, church potluck, 1964. The first!"
"Some sticky birth plug of memory squeezes and pops out of your soul: all you've done to create this clean adult life bleeds away, leaving behind the young woman you used to be, more naked and alone than when you were first born. You push back from your desk, and the papers slither over the edge and down, whispering a language you never thought you'd hear again. Liese: say nothing about what's in this box to anyone, an unsigned note by your foot reads in neat print. Erika, your older sister, is the only one who knows where you are. Father passed last week. I need you. Come home."
"Ten hours later, engines rush you across a country gripped in autumn gold and brown. America undulates below, shimmying in the long shadows of mountains and clouds, as if the manmade layers of city and suburb are recoiling from the touch of the feral lands upon which they rest. You watch ice cubes rings melt in the plastic cup, and slip them one by one onto the tip of your tongue, sucking away every last drop of cheap white wine. Boozy, irrational daydreams set your heart galloping--visions of linoleum-lined underground classrooms crumbling inward, sucking you into the sunless grottos of the earth. As the plane crosses the ridge of the High Cascades, you see how the land has ossified under the thin skin of forest and soil. Mount Rainier is a clavicle crowned in frost and snow; all the bones tumble together as they descend in jagged foothills to the pelvic shores of the Puget Sound; and then they sink into the Pacific."
"Words bubble out of you like magma, tuneless snippets of a long-forgotten hymn. "Morningstar in darksome night, who the sad earth makest bright--" You whisper the phrase in an endless loop, staring out the window, watching the world rush by."
"Where the skeleton ends, you cannot see. But you know where it began. You know when."
Livia Llewellyn, Excerpt from Morgenstern der finstern Nacht
Written Exclusively For an Illustro Obscurum Collaboration