Jesus in his twenties

jesus

My magnificently talented friend Hannah Connolly (here’s her art blog and portfolio website) made this illustration for my story Jesus in his twenties. You can read it here — I thought it might be nice to put it up in downloadable format.

If you’d rather read it here, click through to see more:

THE DEATH OF THE UNIVERSE

“Want a pop?” the Death of the Universe asks, rising from the armchair. “I’m gonna go to the kitchen real quick.”

Jesus looks up from the lease, signed moments ago, and nods gratefully. It is the hottest summer on record; even in his new landlady’s cool, umbral flat the inside of his collared shirt is beaded with sweat.

“Oh man, yeah.” He realizes, too late, how childlike he sounds and runs a hand through his hair, embarrassed. “That’d be great. Thanks, Dee.”

She smiles and leaves the room. Almost instantly, the exact moment she is gone, the laws of physics change. The sofa cushions dissolve underneath him, and he drops, stunned, flat onto the floorboards. Parts of his body fall off him — one leg, from heel to knee, and an arm, fingertips trembling — and then reattach, like magnets. The television set begins to ascend with all the self-assurance of a cloud moving through muggy air. Jesus gets up, panicked, and busts his lip on the coffee table; his mouth fills with blood. 

He is submerged in the disorienting but familiar sensation of being attached to an emotional state, but now it is a million times more physical, dragging him down as though he were tethered to it. The world shifts underneath him, precariously, fatalistically; objects in the room disappear one by one. The potted ferns, the glass-paneled doors leading to the small balcony, the shadow produced by his own body. He looks to the heavens to find the ceiling, roof, and walls gone. Distance thins to nothing. Next door, the neighbor, sleeves rolled up, is hanging up her laundry; three hundred miles away, rain is beginning to fall over the center of the Atlantic ocean. He’s dizzy, but impossibly lucid too, as though understanding the size of the universe for the first time.

Dee returns, two cans of Coca-Cola under both her arms, and closes the door with the inside of her foot; she laughs out loud at Jesus, lying on the floor, clutching the leg of the table, the expression on his face, and, in an instant, all is right again.

“Sometimes the world isn’t quite real when I’m not around,” she says, a bit apologetically. She gets down on her haunches so that she is level with him and hands him the can. “Life only makes sense when death exists.”

However shaken he is he has to smile at a statement like that, the contrasts embedded in it; how it is so hard to take but so casually said.

Dee pops the tab on the Coke and takes a swig. He lifts himself up so that he’s leaning against the sofa, where she now sits, elbows on her knees. She looks at him with her dark eyes so like those of his childhood angels and reaches over to pat his head with an unpracticed but unfeigned gentleness. The image of the Archangel Gabriel suddenly comes to him: how he’d pick him up from school in beat-up sneakers and a jacket of ochre leather, and ruffle his hair with the same sort of hesitant tenderness. Like Gabo, little about Dee explicitly suggests the supernatural, but despite her human form there’s something illusory, dark, in her shape, like she is a landscape in a woman’s body, a pyramid in the desert, buried, hidden in plain sight.

SOUL

He explores the neighborhood around the house. The eggshell-colored camellias, the yellow clouds at sunset, the warning bell of the freight train, coming from somewhere in the opaque distance — these sights, sounds, enter and exit his consciousness and invite a breed of emotion, halfway between tenderness and discomposure, into his heart. It’s the kind of feeling he wouldn’t know how to describe but it is never far from his mind, and he revisits it constantly, as though it were a memory of love, or a memory of fear.

Soul, who lives in the room across from his own, accompanies him, sometimes, on evening walks. The first few times he notices her following him, not at a distance but at his side, as normally as if they were close friends, he thinks perhaps she is a ghost, which he sees so often in the glowing, red-toned midsummer; but then he spots her in the communal kitchen, scrolling on a smartphone and eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and realizes his mistake. It is an easy one to have made: Though Soul looks like a young woman, the same age as he, perhaps, she is a touch too transparent to be human. In the right light, and at the right angle, she disappears from view entirely, an illusion in visual continuity. But this doesn’t bother Jesus; from birth he has believed nothing can stay forever, and he finds comfort in impermanence that confirms distrust in the immaterialness of his world.

Soul likes to carry around a small, outdated digital camera; her taste in photography is what she self-deprecatingly calls “sepia-tone Instagram tacky,” meaning dimly-lit, impersonal images of the flowers, the bicycles chained to lampposts, and Jesus’ dark ponytail, which she sometimes tugs on to get his attention. Her expression, when he turns to face her, is immobile but her touch is gentle, and unassuming, and it reminds him powerfully of his mother, affecting him like balm to a wound.

Once, he shyly suggests they get a passerby to take their picture together; immediately, Soul shakes her head. (She doesn’t tell him, but she was told her once that photographs steal souls and she’s never been able to quite shake the fear.) Usually the directness, the finality, of this refusal would disconcert him — Jesus has always been more sensitive than he would like to admit — but around Soul the possibility of being hurt, of feeling painfully, somehow seems to have been removed, wholesale, from the pressures of emotion. Life is simpler, more mechanistic, with her, and easier to bear. Is this what a relationship between nonhumans looks like? Is this, he wonders, how the Earth and moon think of each other?

DAWN AND DUSK

Ox returns one rainy night. She drops her suitcases down and immediately gets to work repairing everything that is broken in the apartment block. Sleeves rolled up to elbows, she fixes the A/C on the third floor, and then moves onto the washing machine, the flickering light bulb over the entrance, and the kitchen sink, clogged with grease for three weeks. Jesus wakes to the sound of her off-key singing and he lays awake in the cool violet light of very early morning, listening to her; he feels renewed, like his heart is traveling, and he forgets his exhaustion.

Her brother, Pike, returns that morning. Unlike Ox, he brings nothing with him but the clothes he wears: a navy cable-knit sweater, gray slacks, and rubber flip-flops embossed with the name of a seaside hotel on the Mexican coast. He finds Ox immediately, sitting on the kitchen floor; she winks at him, and then reaches up to briefly, but meaningfully, squeeze his hand, before her attention returns to the plumbing. This is the first time she has seen him in thirty-six months.

Jesus meets them at breakfast. Neither of them are particularly impressed by his introduction of himself as the son of God.

“So what?” says Pike, not maliciously, but not kindly either. He sits on the counter, ankles crossed, a toolbox in his lap, as Ox combs through the pipes under the sink. His eyes, dispassionate, and yellow as sand dunes, survey Jesus, from top to bottom, in one long look.

Despite himself, Jesus bristles. He’s ashamed by what he wants to say but he says it anyway. “Well, who are you then?”

Before Pike can respond Ox takes the handle of a screwdriver out of her mouth and smiles big. “Does it matter?”

(Dee tells him later that they are the dusk and the dawn, second-gen twins descended from a long line of famous meteorological phenomena.)

After dinner that night, the five of them around Dee’s coffee table, Ox tells them about their maternal grandfather, El Niño, shooting through oceans with languid regularity, and his romance with the Atlantic hurricane. Ox is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of storyteller. Her voice and stride flow back and forth along a gradient of prophecy and delicacy, like dense coral, porous, sensuous, but also concentrated, impenetrable, diamond-like. She stands up, gesticulates, walking around while she talks, resurrecting scenes from her prodigal memory with her physicality, her presence that fills the room like smoke into a vessel. She can make Dee laugh out loud (a true rarity.) Even Soul pays rapt attention.

But it is Pike that Jesus finds himself looking at most often: his aromatic limbs and hands, his almond-eyed presence that is honey and amber, the clarity, permeability of his expressions, which are unambiguous and unconcealed, and tempered by his silence like iron submerged in saltwater. For Jesus, who has always thought himself incapable of romantic love, this new, sudden interest is a revelation, as well as a source of terror.

Pike is aware of the attention, and bothered, in a vague way, by it. He doesn’t like this boy, he’s decided, or how his hands twist in his lap, when he’s sighing and fidgeting and has his head tipped back, looking at him, at Pike, his brow furrowed like he’s undoing the Gordian knot. When he can’t take the self-consciousness anymore, he leans over Soul, seated between them on the couch, and meets Jesus’ stare.

“Keep your eyes to yourself, son of God,” he whispers, heatedly, but quietly enough that it’s a private exchange. Jesus is so surprised he forgets to be embarrassed and smiles foolishly, brightly. In front of them, Ox is pacing, hands held in front of her, palms upturned, saying: “He loved her so much, the year she left there was no wind over the ocean.”

Pike turns away quickly; outside, the setting sun flickers imperceptibly.