Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Whispering Beneath

I'm going to tell you a story. You're going to think I made this up just to scare you, but I didn't. This is true.

I first met Elijah when I was in seminary. We had some classes together, along with Jesse and Franklin, and after a while we all got to be friends. Studied together, hung out together, talked about sports and politics and personal goals. I don't know if you've ever had a group like that, but it can really help. You all sort of pull each other along, cover each other's weak spots. It makes a big difference, especially when you hit the rough spots - and seminary has plenty of rough spots. They're different for everybody, but they're always there.

Elijah, though... He was a just a big, friendly guy - curly blond hair, round face, round build. He wasn't fat, exactly, though he always sort of looked like he should be. In fact, he was actually pretty muscular. It was just a very rounded sort of muscular. And he had this big, goofy grin, and a sort of ease about him that helped put everyone else at their ease. He wasn't lazy, though; he was smart, and he studied as hard as any of us.

And then, in our final year, he just sort of... dropped out.

There was an accident. He was on his way back from visiting some family (up in Crosby, I think) hit a patch of black ice, and wound up in one of the lakes. He was clinically dead when they fished him out, and had been for a while; nobody was sure just how long. He stayed in a coma for at least four days... and then suddenly he woke up and asked to go home.

He wasn't the same after that. He was... I don't know... quieter, for one thing. Didn't ask questions in class, didn't talk much out of class. He lost that easy, relaxed way of moving and talking; what replaced it was something more watchful, more wary, more worried. He went into counseling, but it didn't seem to help; it just seemed to make him more nervous. And then one day he just wasn't in class any more. Professor said he'd withdrawn from the program. I talked to him on the phone once or twice after that - he'd gone to visit his parents - and I know Jesse and Franklin did, too. We were all just so busy finishing up, trying to get ready for the next stage of our lives, though. By the time we entered the ministry, we'd lost touch with Elijah completely.

And that was nearly it. I thought about Elijah off and on for years, then mostly forgot about him... and then technology caught up with us: email, message boards, blogs, social networking sites.

He found me on Facebook.

After I got over the shock, we spent some time catching up. I'd been putting in my time in a couple of different parishes here in Minnesota, and it looked like I might finally get my own church; I was pretty excited about that, but I was nervous, too. Elijah had moved around a lot, and finally wound up working for the Forestry service up in Alaska - manning an isolated tower in a nearly uninhabited region. I asked him how he liked it, and he said it was lonely... but it was what he needed.

Now, as it happened, I had some money set aside for a vacation, and I could afford to take a week or two off. The priesthood doesn't pay very well, but I'd never had trouble saving; I never married, and I didn't have any expensive hobbies. So I offered to come up and visit him - maybe bring some beer and catch up in person. Father Fogarty could spare me for a bit, and if I did get my own church I'd be very busy with it - so this was the best chance I was likely to get for quite a while.

Elijah was thrilled, so I notified Father Fogarty and started making arrangements.

I got off the plane in Anchorage, rented a car, and drove out to Elijah's place. (He'd told me it was on the outskirts of town, but it looked like wilderness to me.) It was mid-sized house, cozy, with three bedroom and a large central living room; apparently Elijah had gone in on it with a couple of guys from work, so they'd have a place to stay when they weren't out at their towers.

It was... well, let's just say that it was quite a reunion. We were three beers in - apiece! - when Elijah turned to me and announced that he had a favor to ask. "I'd like you," he said carefully, "to come out to the tower and try an exorcism."

That stopped me cold. Exorcism isn't something that the Episcopal Church much goes in for - and certainly not on something that sounded suspiciously like a lark. Elijah knew that as well as anyone; he'd been in seminary with me, even if he hadn't finished.

He must have seen something in my expression, because he said: "I'm not kidding. I need this, and you're the only one I can ask."

Well, I was still feeling guilty about the way we'd all just let him go in our final year of study. And I remembered what Elijah was like; I trusted him. Also, I'd just had my third beer, which meant that in our first hour together I'd drunk three times as much as I usually had in an evening. So, cautiously, I agreed to try it. "Why?" I remember asking. "Do you think the place is haunted?"

He shook his head at that. "It isn't that simple," he told me, "and I can't explain it. Could you just... trust me?"

I nodded. I could; I did.

So the next day we drove out there. The trip took half the morning, but it would have been worth it just for the landscape. We spent the time exchanging stories, and for a while it felt like we'd never parted. But when we got to the tower, Elijah suddenly became serious; he asked if I could go ahead and start the rite.

You have to understand, I'd never performed an exorcism before. I actually had to look up the instructions online before we left. I'd also never seen any evidence of genuine demonic activity. I felt the presence of God, of course, in my heart and in my life; but His touch was gentle, subtle, and natural. I saw His work manifest in the actions of people and the mundane events of daily life. The idea of evil spirits directly causing harm to people seemed... I don't know. Garish. Ludicrous. Out of place in the world of God's Creation.

But in a sense, that didn't really matter. Even if, as I suspected, there wasn't a single evil spirit around, it didn't matter. I could see just how important this was to Elijah. So I offered a quick and silent prayer that, whatever the situation, this would help him. And then I performed the first and only exorcism of my career.

When it was done, Elijah stood waiting - his back straight, his head slightly cocked. He stayed that way for almost half a minute.

And then he sagged, and I could see the disappointment on his face. "They're still there," he said. "It didn't work. They're still there."

"What's still there?" I asked, as gently as I could manage.

"The whispers," he replied. "Can't you hear them?" Then his mouth snapped shut and he glared at me suspiciously.

I waited, doing my best to look accepting. Whatever was going on, I hoped he would talk to me about it... but he didn't. Instead, he came over and put a hand on my shoulder and said, "Thanks for trying." Then he went over to his Jeep and opened the driver's door.

Not having much of a choice, I followed. We rode in silence for about fifteen minutes. Minute flickers of expression crossed Elijah's face; he was having some sort of internal argument, it seemed. I was deeply curious, but decided not to pry; it might do more harm than good.

Finally, he turned his head to look at me. "It's been like this ever since the wreck," he said quietly. "You remember?"

"I remember the wreck," I told him, hoping I was answering the right question.

He nodded. "I heard them when I woke up. I think I heard them when I was out. I've heard them ever since."

"What do you hear?"

"Whispers," he said. "Whispers in the ground." He checked the road, then looked at me again. "They're nonsense, mostly. A word here, a sentence or two there. Sometimes I'll hear... rants, accusations, pieces of argument... but there's no sense to it. No message. Or not for me, anyway, and they don't hear each other."

"Ghosts?" I asked, frowning slightly - not disbelief, but puzzlement. I really wasn't sure what to make of this, except that Elijah was absolutely sincere.

"It's not that simple," he said. "It's... they're... the dead. Not ghosts, just... the dead. Or maybe I'm crazy. Can't forget that; maybe something in my head is broken, and I only think I hear them. Nobody else can hear them, so how can I be sure."

I didn't know what to say, so I waited.

"It wasn't so bad, at first. It was just whispers, here and there. I didn't even know where it was coming from." Elijah frowned, remembering. "Once I realized it was loudest around the graveyards, I started putting it together. By then it was louder, and I was hearing more and more of them - even in places where nobody thought they were. I had to get out of the cities, and then the smaller towns, but... you know how hard it is to find a place where nobody has died? The dead are all around us, right down there in the dirt. I had to get way out in the middle of nowhere, and even there... there's this one spot, this one guy. I hear him. He's down at the bottom of a ridge somewhere."

I considered that. "Why don't you move him? Just dig him up and put him somewhere else?"

Elijah made a little sound that was half-laugh, half-gasp. "I can't. I don't dare. It's getting to where I don't dare talk. I mean, I can hear them - can they hear me? And what happens if I wake them up?" He drew a ragged breath. "It doesn't matter anyway. I've started hearing the animals too. Further and further back. I don't even recognize some of the sounds, anymore. Bird calls and growls and... how long ago did they live, if they don't even sound like real birds?"

He paused. "I was hoping you could help. I was hoping an exorcism would, I don't know, settle them down. Make them sleep a little deeper, maybe. Keep them quiet for a while. But it didn't work."

I nodded. That wasn't really what an exorcism was for. But then, Elijah probably knew that, even if he'd let himself forget or just gotten his hopes up anyway.

"I'm sorry," he said at last. "I'll try to be normal. Be your friend. And I'll be okay. It's not so bad when I'm working."

"It's okay," I said. "You are my friend. I'm sorry I couldn't help."

And that's the end of my story. Or maybe the end is six months later, when Elijah killed himself. He never found anyone else who could hear what he heard; I know that much. But what it was that he heard... that, that I don't know at all. Maybe it really was some sort madness, some damaged tissue or chemical imbalance in his brain that gave him progressive auditory hallucinations. Or maybe he heard something that's been there all along; maybe the rest of us are just... congenitally deaf. I don't know.

But I do know that they're down there, all around us: the dead. Layer on layer of them; years, centuries, millenia of them; laid down across the long, bloody history of the world, from the first faint stirring of life to the present day. The ground is saturated with them. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. So maybe they're just... waiting.

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