She feels the words before she sees the object. She feels the words although no one has spoken them. This is how a crowd brings things to single consciousness. Then she sees it, an ordinary commuter train, silver and blue, ungraffiti’d, moving smoothly toward the drawbridge. The headlights sweep the billboard and she hears a sound from the crowd, a gasp that shoots into sobs and moans and the cry of some unnameable painful elation. A blurted sort of whoop, the holler of unstoppered belief. Because when the train lights hit the dimmest part of the billboard a face appears above the misty lake and it belongs to the murdered girl. A dozen women clutch their heads, they whoop and sob, a spirit, a godsbreath passing through the crowd.
Sister is in body shock. She has seen it but so fleetingly, too fast to absorb—she wants the girl to reappear. Women holding babies up to the sign, to the flowing juice, let it bathe them in baptismal balsam and oil. And Gracie talking into Edgar’s face, into the jangle of voices and noise.
“Did it look like her?”
“Are you sure?”
“I think so,” Edgar says.
“But you’ve never seen her up close. I’ve seen her up close,” Gracie says, “and I think it was just a trick of light. Not a person at all. Not a face but a stab of light.”
When Gracie wears her retainer she speaks with a kind of fizzy lisp.
“It’s just the undersheet,” she says. “A technical flaw that causes the image underneath, the image from the papered-over ad to show through the current ad.”
Is she right?
“When sufficient light shines on the current ad, it causes the image beneath to show through,” she says.
Sibilants echo wetly off Gracie’s teeth.
But is she right? Has the news shed its dependence on the agencies that report it? Is the news inventing itself on the eyeballs of walking talking people?
Edgar studies the billboard. “What if there is no papered-over ad? Why should there be an ad under the orange juice ad? Surely they remove one ad before installing another.
Gracie says, “What now?”
They stand and wait. They wait only eight or nine minutes this time before another train approaches. Edgar moves, she tries to edge and gently elbow forward, and people make way, they see her—a nun in a veil and full habit and dark cape followed by a sheepish helpmeet in a rummage coat and headscarf, holding aloft a portable phone.
They see her and embrace her and she lets them. Her presence is a verifying force—a figure from a universal church with sacraments and secret bank accounts and a fabulous art collection. All this and she elects to follow a course of poverty, chastity and obedience. They embrace her and let her pass and she is among the charismatic band, the gospellers rocking in place, when the train lamps swing their beams onto the billboard. She sees Esmeralda’s face take shape under the rainbow of bounteous juice and above the little suburban lake and there is a sense of someone living in the image, an animating spirit—less than a tender second of life, less than half a second and the spot is dark again.
She feels something break upon her. An angelus of clearest joy. She embraces Sister Grace. She yanks off her gloves and shakes hands, pumps hands with the great-bodied women who roll their eyes to heaven. The women do great two-handed pump shakes, fabricated words jumping out of their mouths, trance utterance—they’re singing of things outside the known deliriums. Edgar thumps a man’s chest with her fists. She finds Ismael and embraces him. She looks into his face and breathes the air he breathes and enfolds him in her laundered cloth. Everything feels near at hand, breaking upon her, sadness and loss and glory and an old mother’s bleak pity and a force at some deep level of lament that makes her feel inseparable from the shakers and mourners, the awestruck who stand in tidal traffic—she is nameless for a moment, lost to the details of personal history, a disembodied fact in liquid form, pouring into the crowd.
Gracie says, “I don’t know”
“Of course you know. You know. You saw her”
“I don’t know. It was a shadow.”
“Esmeralda on the lake.”
“I don’t know what I saw.”
“You know. Of course you know. You saw her.”
They wait for two more trains. Landing lights appear in the sky and the planes keep dropping toward the runway across the water, another flight every minute and a half, the backwashed roars overlapping so everything is seamless noise and the air has a stink of smoky fuel.
They wait for one more train.
How do things end, finally, things such as this—peter out to some forgotten core of weary faithful huddled in the rain?
The next night a thousand people fill the area. They park their cars on the boulevard and try to butt and pry their way onto the traffic island but most of them have to stand in the slow lane of the expressway, skittish and watchful. A woman is struck by a motorcycle, sent swirling into the asphalt. A boy is dragged a hundred yards, it is always a hundred yards, by a car that keeps on going. Vendors move along the lines of stalled traffic selling flowers, soft drinks and live kittens. They sell laminated images of Esmeralda printed on prayer cards. They sell pinwheels that never stop spinning.
The night after that the mother shows up, Esmeralda’s lost junkie mother, and she collapses with flung arms when the girl’s face appears on the billboard. They take her away in an ambulance that is followed by a number of TV trucks. Two men fight with tire irons, blocking traffic on a ramp. Helicopter cameras record the scene and the police trail orange caution tape through the area—the very orange of the living juice.
The next evening the sign is blank. What a hole it makes in space. People come and don’t know what to say or think, where to look or what to believe. The sign is a white sheet with two lonely words, Space Available, followed by a phone number in tasteful type.
When the first train comes, at dusk, the lights show nothing.
And what do you remember, finally, when everyone has gone home and the streets are empty of devotion and hope, swept by river wind? Is the memory thin and bitter and does it shame you with its fundamental untruth—all nuance and wishful silhouette? Or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces, something holy that throbs on the hot horizon, the vision you crave because you need a sign to stand against your doubt?
Edgar feels the pain in her joints, the old body deep in routine pain, pain at the points of articulation, prods of sharp sensation in the links between bones.
But she holds the image tight in her mind, the fleeting face on the lighted board, her virgin twin who is also her daughter. And she recalls the smell of jet fuel. This is the incense of her experience, the burnt cedar and gum, a retaining medium that keeps the moment whole, all the moments, the swaying soulclap raptures and the unspoken closeness, a fellowship of deep belief.
There is nothing left to do but die and this is precisely what she does, Sister Alma Edgar, bride of Christ, passing peacefully in her sleep, the first faint snow of another dim winter falling softly on the unknown streets, flurries, crystals, shaped flakes, a pale slant snow disappearing as it falls.
In her veil and habit she was basically a face, or a face and scrubbed hands. Here in cyberspace she has shed all that steam-ironed fabric. She is not naked exactly but she is open—exposed to every connection you can make on the world wide web.
There is no space or time out here, or in here, or wherever she is. There are only connections. Everything is connected. All human knowledge gathered and linked, hyperlinked, this site leading to that, this fact referenced to that, a keystroke, a mouse-click, a password— world without end, amen.
But she is in cyberspace, not heaven, and she feels the grip of systems. This is why she’s so uneasy. There is a presence here, a thing implied, something vast and bright. She senses the paranoia of the web, the net. There’s the perennial threat of virus of course. Sister knows all about contaminations and the protective measures they require. This is different—it’s a glow, a lustrous rushing force that seems to flow from a billion distant net nodes.
When you decide on a whim to visit the H-bomb home page, she begins to understand. Everything in your computer, the plastic, silicon and mylar, every logical operation and processing function, the memory, the hardware, the software, the ones and zeroes, the triads inside the pixels that form the on-screen image—it all culminates here.
First a dawnlight, a great aurora glory massing on the color monitor. Every thermonuclear bomb ever tested, all the data gathered from each shot, code name, yield, test site, Eniwetok, Lop Nor, Novaya Zemlya, the foreignness, the otherness of remote populations implied in the place names, Mururoa, Kazakhstan, Siberia, and the wreath-work of extraordinary detail, firing systems and delivery systems, equations and graphs and schematic cross sections, shot after shot summoned at a click, a hit, Bravo, Romeo, Greenhouse Dog—and Sister is basically in it.
She sees the flash, the thermal pulse. She hears the rumble building, the great gathering force rolling off the 16-bit soundboard. She stands in the flash and feels the power. She sees the spray plume. She sees the fireball climbing, the superheated sphere of burning gas that can blind a person with its beauty, its dripping christblood colors, solar golds and reds. She sees the shock wave and hears the high winds and feels the power of false faith, the faith of paranoia, and then the mushroom cloud spreads around her, the pulverized mass of radioactive debris, eight miles high, ten miles, twenty, with skirted stem and smoking platinum cap.
The jewels roll out of her eyes and she sees God.
No, wait, sorry. It is a Soviet bomb she sees, the largest yield in history, a device exploded above the Arctic Ocean in 1961, preserved in the computer that helped to build it, fifty-eight megatons—add the digits and you get thirteen.
Whole populations potentially skelly-boned in the massive flash—dem bones, dem bones, sing the washtub women. And Sister begins to sense the byshadows that stretch from the awe of a central event. How the intersecting systems help pull us apart, leaving us vague, drained, docile, soft in our inner discourse, willing to be shaped, to be overwhelmed—easy retreats, half beliefs.
Shot after shot, bomb after bomb, and they are fusion bombs, remember, atoms forcibly combined, and even as they detonate across the screen, again and again, there is another fusion taking place. No physical contact, please, but a coupling all the same. A click, a hit and Sister joins the other Edgar. A fellow celibate and more or less kindred spirit but her biological opposite, her male half, dead these many years. Has he been waiting for this to happen? The bulldog fed J. Edgar Hoover, the Law’s debased saint, hyperlinked at last to Sister Edgar—a single fluctuating impulse now, a piece of coded information.
Everything is connected in the end.