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Bliss and Constriction by William VanDenBerg

Later, when he remembers it, he remembers the first swing only producing a small crack. What he remembers next is the hole the fourth swing made.

     After he broke the windshield, she thanked and warned him—we can’t trust violence, she explained.

     They met through mutual friends. You two, their friends said. So much in common—don’t know anyone more committed than you.

     She lived in a large house with many other people. The house was in a rundown, depopulated area outside of Chicago. The occupants had the same foundation of beliefs, but she took them further.

     To their furthest logical ends, she said.

     She’s kind of nuts, the other occupants said.

     In the first days of their relationship, she showed him the contents of her floorsafe: a fragment of a saint’s ankle bone, a stone from the wailing wall, an empty arm reliquary. She spread them out on her bed.

     She could only afford relics that were broken or parts of a missing whole. Which didn’t mean that the parts were broken, simply that they were parts.

     She told him she liked the sound of the Lake Michigan shoreline.

     Her bed was on the floor.

     He showed her page after page. His writing enumerated small but important differences in translations. That was his thing. Work or dress, pleasant or pleasing, care or keep.

     He kept notebooks—he wrote down everything and encouraged her to do the same.

     In his youth, he broke into houses.

     They stayed in bed until noon on Saturdays, wrists crossed, ankles intersecting.

     They began a collective notebook. We’ll put our rules in here, he explained. Their handwriting garbled like black wire. They both contributed—the ratio hovered around 50/50.

     One time, she ran her hand slowly down his face. After her fingertips left his chin, her hand fell and gently clasped his neck.

     From their notebook: Windows are sacred, boarded over windows profane. Obstruction under any circumstance is forbidden.

     It took them a long time to work up the nerve.

     In her early twenties, she spent time at a commune near Dayton.

     In his early twenties, he spent time at a commune in upstate New York.

     Day by day, they sussed out new structures of belief—they classified actions on a gradient scale of morality. They invented new positions to replace the profane ones: no head below the level of the box-spring; no placing the elbow on the neck; the wrists are a sacred part and must be treated thusly.

     For example: her back flat, her legs bent, naked on her desk. Him pressing his lips against her left shin, then knee, then the ridge of her hip.

     At the time, she thought about the holy ghost more than he did. But her concept was just that—the holy ghost had no location.

     So it was probably he who started talking about Brazil. He described the work being done down there as groundbreaking.

     She pressed her palms flat against the bedroom wall.

     From their notebook: The development of the individual requires abandonment.

     They described the process to their friends as parabolic growth. This was just before they explained that they couldn’t ever see them again.

     Their families were silent regarding the decision—gifts of money were the closest they came to consent.


     They arrived in Brazil searching for the sign of the dove on the doors of churches. The Cult of the Holy Ghost, a religious sect imported from the Azores.

     They didn’t speak Portuguese. They found a congregation where eight of the members spoke some English. He harangued them about his theories after the service.

     The child is coming, the doctor explained. Two months along, is what he said next.

     After a while, the congregant who spoke English best asked him to leave. Overwhelming decision made by all members of the church, he said.

     They lived in an industrial section of São Paulo. Their apartment building had been constructed a long time ago, before the factories moved in. When they went for walks late at night, when the baby was kicking, they saw no one else. The air smelled like sugar and bleach.

     The notebook changed. His entries grew more frequent; hers reduced.

     An excerpt: The holy ghost is a savior in and of itself; we’ve vastly undervalued its significance; when you hear its wings beating against the bedroom window, you’re hearing its voice.

     Also: The holy ghost is what escapes—it’s what you lose, over time, like a leak.

     And: The holy ghost is an animal crying out.

     They took a bus to a resort town thirty miles away. It was the off-season, so their hotel was cheap. He considered it a vacation.

     They walked on the beach at night. Children played in the dark sand. The surf crashed and a hesitant, cold rain flecked their skin. Red lights flashed in the water about thirty yards from shore. They didn’t know what the red lights meant. Her voice choked and she said that she needed to go back. He thought she meant back to the hotel—he thought she was getting cold. He took off his jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders.

     The children further down the beach were building a sandcastle.

     The red lights meant that it wasn’t safe to swim.


     After she left, he tried to continue the notebook. He got a smaller apartment in the same building.

     He wrote: The holy ghost is both a voice and a lack thereof.

     Then below that, again: The development of the individual requires abandonment.

     He went back to the church and didn’t say a word in any language. Now mute, they tolerated him.

     Months later, he took a train high into the Mantiqueira mountains. He had filled up two more notebooks by that point.

     From the last one: There’s a hidden lake where the Cult of the Holy Ghost goes. I’ve narrowed it down to three possible mountains. The high elevation acts as a magnet.

     At that point, he knew a limited amount of Spanish—he had the words of a four-year-old. He composed simple sentences in the margins.

     She received the notebooks in the mail several months later. The entry about the lake was the last. The final words were, The ghost is heavy in the water.

     The notebooks (even the new ones) had her name scrawled on the cover.

     They had his name too.

     Leah, they said.

     Chris, they said as well.

     She never looked for him. It wasn’t that she thought he was dead. It wasn’t that. She pictured him floating on his back in a lake the color of a pearl—that was just, in her mind, where he ended up.

     Shortly after the notebooks arrived, his parents contacted her. Where is our son, they asked.

     She had not yet told them about their grandson, born several weeks before. She bounced the infant on her knee a little bit.

     She told them that their son was in a pond on his back and that the water in the pond was the color of a pearl. She said she’d never been more sure of anything in her life.

     His parents were angry. When they started yelling at her, she hung up the phone.

     When the baby boy laughed, she kissed his eyelids.

     When she stopped, he laughed even harder.

William VanDenBerg is the author of Lake of Earth (Caketrain Press, 2013). He lives with his wife in Denver and can be found at williamvandenbergwrites.com.