Thaddeus, One of the Desert Fathers, Monks of Fourth-Century Egypt
Imagine these nothing-tasting lentils are not lentils, but something new, a fruit your mouth can’t even recognize. Imagine berries a pink brighter than the sunset overflow from your wooden bowl, and when you drop them onto your tongue they pop with tart-sweet juice. Imagine you’ll never run out because they grow like an explosion all over a bush, in a place where plants can thrive, a place made of more than sand. You can pluck the berries whenever you like because the bush belongs to you, because it’s yours. You own something and no one can tell you how to use it or criticize. You can drape a blanket over it to hide it from other people—you can have a secret, and the bush stands on your land, in front of your house because you own a house and it’s more than one room and you can shut the door and tell other men they can’t come in, but you can open your door to women, and dozens of them slink by every evening and you can open your door and call to them and they won’t leave until morning and one day you open the house to a woman and she becomes your wife and her eyes are like lamps and the shape of her cloak is the shape of her breasts and she gives you a bowlful of those berries and never lentils because she is too vibrant for lentils, she throws lentils on the floor and laughs and her hair falls long, long down against her arm and her hair swishes behind her like a flag when she walks, and when she falls back onto your bed, her hair whooshes like a sail.
I won’t listen to this, Troubler.
Imagine she falls back onto your bed, Thaddeus, because you have a bed instead of a sleeping mat on hard sand. And straw stuffs it and softens it because you need softness for what happens there. And she is a sail and you are the wind and she presses her hand into the small of your back to draw you closer because she wants you to touch her and her cloak is the shape of her breasts and you can whip the cloak off just like you can pluck berries from the front yard.
I will think of this place where providence has brought me. I won’t let you veer me away from this desert air in my nostrils, from these prayers.
Imagine she makes herself beautiful just for you, so she holds a sharp-edged mirror to her face and she pretends not to see you in the doorway one morning, but smiles and then her hand brushes against the mirror and it slices her palm and she winces and you rush across the room to take care of her. You dip the sponge in the water jar to wash the blood away, and you mix a salve from olive oil and your spittle and trace the cut with your finger, a quiet line, slow as a rowboat adrift. And her hand cups your spittle and the worst of you can heal each other, and when her breath returns to its normal rate, the rate you fall asleep to each night, you fold her fingers down over the cut and kiss her fist and you think, This is why I am alive, to take care of her.
And someone needs you, someone you can see and hear, and she says, “Help me” and, “I’d be lost without you,” and someone cares whether you wake up and feed yourself or lie in bed all day or starve to death. And your final thought each night centers on someone else and every day is a day of noticing each other. Listen, Thaddeus, I speak of good things.
I will pray, but.
Remember those years your baby brother needed you. You fed him while your father harvested in the field. Remember the month he cried if any other person tried to hold him, remember how his hand clasped your finger as if to own it. Take your right hand now and grab your pinkie and remember. ‘Ada—he said your name before anyone else’s, remember. It can happen again. Imagine your wife’s belly rounds like the moon because part of you has met part of her and now a whole other pair of lamp eyes will enter the world. Because this brand-new human will be a combination of the two of you, and this is like waking up before the sun, before the sun has even been invented. You have sewn a life, yes, you have created an entire person, you have made arms, you have made fingernails, you can point to the complete body growing inside her moon belly and say, Mine, say, Me, and that makes you God.
I know your intentions.
Remember that you moved to this horrible place because you wanted “to mold the world toward good.” If you really meant that, raise a child. You can teach him to welcome strangers and he can walk with you when you bring bread to the poor on the edge of the city. He can learn stillness from his beginning and then be a light to the bustling World. Think of that, what a gift you can give. Oh, Thaddeus, generous but misguided, go back. Go back to a place where things can change. This centuries-old sand will always blow back and forth from one dune to another, and you can invite it to sting your eyes and clog your breathing your whole life, but it will keep blowing and never even know your name. And when you die, what will all your sleepless prayers amount to? Your skin will fall away, will crumble and become only more sand to blow from dune to dune. But a child is a version of you, a child keeps you alive even after your body is nothing, he looks like you and says, “My father taught me this.” How many dozens of lives will change when an entire city feeds the hungry because he has spread your lessons throughout the streets?
And you will see him every day because he will grow up in the house where you live. There—when you wake, when you sit to breakfast—another human face. Every day, not just a few times a year when another hermit visits. Someone to talk to beside the ravens. Or an empty bowl.
What you hiss of doesn’t exist, Tempter. The thought of a child is not a child. The ravens, the sun’s heat—these are reality.
Imagine money. Imagine a brown sack jingling with coins. It hangs from a rope around your waist so that you can own anything you see. Sandals with thick soles to protect your feet, or mutton, or a necklace for your wife. You can buy a bell. Because it is useless, because of the joy of wastefulness, and when you strike it, you will belly laugh. And you can strike it loud throughout your own yard covered in bright pink berries and no hermit will ever drop by without notice and demand justification for your actions. Or you can bury it in the ground so that no other eyes ever land on it. You can bury the bell like you buried the birds. Remember the first one, the little dove in the little tree. So gently you caressed the leather you had formed into the slingshot. You daydreamed about it for days, you knew well what you did when you placed that first stone into the strap. And the second, and the third, and you felt what you did when you pelted the one on the second highest branch and it fell from the tree, and when you approached it and the red circle on its chest grew like the sunrise and you dropped another stone into the sling. And then you knew how to kill and you controlled death and that made you God. And it was a secret and you wore the wickedness around your belly, but if someone discovered the bird they’d steal your secret away, so you fist-shoveled the sand and stroked the beak between your thumb and forefinger and pressed your palm against its chest to bloody your hands. That blood oozed through the sand, it’s been stretching itself outward for years, out, out to the desert, past the crooked mountain, past the caves, to a little shack with a doorway so easy to breach. It coos to you beneath the sand. It wants you to open it.
And the buzzard?
Yes, the buzzard. The buzzard with its back turned, the rock you threw so well because you remembered perfectly after all this time. Extracting blood then covering it, it’s a skill woven into you, this is you, Thaddeus. And a monk is something else, different. The other hermits have never hurt an innocent—they sweat compassion, and prayer, they like it more than they like eating, they do it asleep. This is why they are so happy alone. In the wheat fields of childhood they hid from other boys so they could pray in solitude, they never took care of younger brothers, never spoke to the new woman in town. It’s not judgmental to say they chose ignorance, you have to feel sorry for them. But this is why they were meant for this life. It comes easy for them who don’t see.
If they knew how hard it is for others, they wouldn’t blame them.
How could they? They’ve never really wanted anything more. They never noticed the World’s beautiful women because they always kept their eyes closed in prayer and they’ve never lain awake until dawn considering how they’d explain the sunset’s colors to a son or daughter. To them, earthly life is a trial to endure with gritted teeth, because they can only think of the next life, which may not even exist, which may be only the blackness behind eyelids. So how could they share high ideals like yours? Because Abba Elijah has never killed anything, he would judge your buzzard choice as sin, judge you as sin. He’s too perfect to grasp that you wanted to create a thing, to own a thing, to finally do something just right, and yes you raised the rock just right, and yes you made it yours and yes it was like sex and now the buzzard lies forever still, a new legacy to never be undone by wind, you have done it, it will never fly from you. Listen to me, I understand: You only wanted to change a life. Abba Elijah and the others would hate you if they knew, but not me, not me, they, yes, but I, I love you. Listen to me.
If I resist you, you will flee from me.
Then you would have no one.
If I buried my sandals like bird wings, I couldn’t leave.
Her hair is your flag and she offers you a bowl of tart-sweet berries.
____Grab the stone from the corner, another buzzard waits outside the door.
____Name your son Mine. Name your son Virgin Beginning.
Brad Aaron Modlin wrote Surviving in Drought (stories), which won The Cupboard contest. Everyone at This Party Has Two Names won The Cowles Poetry Prize and features the poem “What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade.” His work has been the basis for orchestral scores, a springboard for an NYC art exhibition, and the focus of the premier episode of Poetry Unbound from On Being Studios. A professor and The Reynolds Endowed Chair of Creative Writing at University of Nebraska, Kearney, he teaches (under)graduates, coordinates the visiting writers’ series, and gets chalk all over himself. Giving readings in-person, he remembers comfortable shoes. On Zoom, he’s barefoot. This story is from his current manuscript.