For those who’ve read The Book of Paul, you know that Paul loves to wax philosophical from time to time, especially when he’s trying to convince William to DO HIS DUTY for Clan and King. Billy, our faithful narrator, is highly motivated by Paul’s blackmail threats and promises of power, riches and glory, but his ambivalence continues to infuriate Paul throughout the story. William chronicles their encounters in his journal entries which inform the reader of Paul’s true motives as each layer of the onion is peeled away.
This excerpt below is from one of William’s journal entries, entitled DUST! One of my favorites, it gives Paul the bully pulpit for a sermon about death that should give you some good shivers and plenty to contemplate. It also ends with my favorite Paul quote in the book. SPOILER ALERT: this chapter takes place well after the halfway point of the novel, so if you haven’t read the book and intend to, BE WARNED, there are revelations that will dampen the suspense. But for fans of the book, I’d love to hear your comments on Paul’s provocative monologue. Enjoy!
“DUST!” Paul shouted so loudly I thought the ceiling might crack.
“The Bible says God made Adam out of dust and breathed His life inside him. He made him born to die. All things turn to dust in time, they say. All except a few. My children died so I could live, and earn the wisdom of their sacrifice. Now I’ll pass it on to you. All of us are killers. Each and every one. We live by eating life. Time has robbed us of this knowing. Time and our shame of the truth. We let others do our killing. We pretend goodness is better than hunger. We fear death and the pain that accompanies it. We pretend they don’t exist.”
He paused and looked at me. “There once was a spiritual seeker who found a guru on the mountaintop. He couldn’t believe his good fortune and so he asked the question that had been burning in his heart: ‘Master,’ he asked, ‘What is the greatest mystery in life?’
“The wise man said, ‘The greatest mystery in life is that we see death all around us and we still can’t believe it will ever happen to us.’”
“I can see you found that amusing,” Paul said, smiling back at me, “but here’s a little twist. The wise man wasn’t so wise after all. It’s no mystery why we hide from death. We hide because we fear it. The greatest mystery of life is death. What force engineered this necessity? What is this thing we call ‘food’? We eat life, William. We eat life! And we eat it every single day!”
He stopped for a moment, then walked to the lectern and put his hands on a giant codex. It looked like it might have been made in the fifth century or even earlier. “When this book was made, people didn’t pretend they were above the occasional murder,” he intoned, rubbing the thick leather binding like Aladdin rubbing the genie’s lamp. “They didn’t put their noses up in the air each time someone lost their head. It was all out in the open. People would fill the public squares for a beheading. Torture was a science. An art! The bravest saints would know the rapture that awaited them when their final breath was torn away. There wasn’t the slightest pretense we were any better than that. Now we have marches and rock concerts, and petitions to stop it. And slaughterhouses and food factories that hide it. Wrap it up on a Styrofoam dish. Microwave it. We pretend death is everywhere except here.” Then he got very quiet. I had to strain my ears to listen. “But death is here. Now. In this very room, watching us. And death has many secrets to share.”
I felt the hairs on my neck tickle at my shirt collar. “What secrets?”
Paul looked at me with his head tilted. Probing me. “There are three ways to learn about death. The first is by talking about it, which leads to no real comprehension. The second is by watching it…and I can see by the look on your face you know exactly what I mean. The third and by far most effective route…is…?”
“By causing it,” I answered, despair filling me up like a giant test tube.
“Still squeamish, eh? It’s hard for me to remember now, but I had misgivings too when I was just a lad. Then I learned the folly of my ways and by hook and crook, I claimed my destiny.”
Paul paced around the room, squinting hard at me. “Tsky, tsk. Still wringing your hands, eh? Since I’ve once again failed to boil your bloodlust, I’ll appeal to your spirit of analytic inquiry. Stimulate that big useless gourd on your neck. I’m a scientist, like yerself, Billy, and my particular area of interest is pain…and death. Why does pain exist? Why are we killers? Why does life require life to feed it? What are we making when we reproduce? What story is the DNA telling? What are we struggling to become?”
“And you claim to have the answers?” I asked, a cough hiding my scoff.
“I don’t make claims. I make widows and orphans. But if you don’t think I have the knowledge you seek, why are you listening so raptly?”
“You are a fucking lunatic,” I said, rising from the chair.
He slammed me down again. “I like you, son, a lot more than you like yourself. But you’re full of shit. You say you want to know, but you don’t. You pretend not to know things you already do, because you’re so afraid of losing your most useless character trait!”
He waited for my question. When I refused to ask, he shouted, “Your compassion! You still want to be good. And what good has ever come from it? Has it made you strong? Happy? Has it brought you recognition? Wealth? Love? It isn’t you, Billy. Stop trying so hard. There are plenty of people who love life, but yer not one of ‘em. You love death. If you still have any doubts about what I’m saying, just look in your feckin’ suitcase.”
I wanted to defend myself. What could I say? He filled my silence easily.
“We all have to eat, Billy. Just try stopping. And that means we all have to kill—even those goddamn vegetarians. The only difference between killing an animal and a plant is that you can’t hear an eggplant scream. And the only difference between killing an animal and a human is the conversation you can have while you’re doing it. Everything you eat is alive. It’s all a sacrifice…and a sacrament. Even if you follow the path of the meek, one day you’ll be sacrificed too. To the worms…and to the Maelstrom.”
I’d heard that word before. “What’s the ‘Maelstrom’?”
Paul shook his head like he cursed himself for saying it. “Never mind, boy, the point I’m trying to make is still a simple one. Your compassion is useless. It’s in the way. Let it go! It’s the only thing that stands between you and true glory!”
“Glory? What the fuck are you talking about? Just tell me!”
“No. Bury your compassion and you will awaken to your true self.”
“I won’t kill her.”
Paul didn’t flinch. “Then you will die.”
“I’ll die anyway,” I said with surprisingly little fear.
“There are different ways to die, son,” Paul gladly pointed out. “You can go like all the other lemmings we sat with in the pews—robbed of the knowledge of their own divinity by the very church they swear allegiance to, completely ignorant of the buried truth their beloved Christ sacrificed himself to teach them, marked with the cross of mortal slavery on their foreheads. Or you can find another way. With me.”
I rose up and he pushed me to my knees on the pad in front of my chair. He held my shoulders down until I stopped struggling, staring up at him with absolute hatred.
“Too bad that worthless priest was mumbling today,” he said, sticking his thumb in the chalice and poising it over my forehead. “You would have heard the saddest words in all the liturgy…the prayer of the sheep. Hear it clearly now and ask yourself if you want to be like the rest of them, doomed to a fate you can never escape.”
He made a fresh cross on my forehead and shouted, “Remember, man, that thou art dust! And unto dust thou shall return!”
He let out another thunderous peal of laughter. I was so full of rage I couldn’t speak. “Get up and get moving. Think very hard about what I’ve said today. There’s nothing more I can do to aid you if you won’t help yourself. Don’t dirty my doorstep again, until you’re the one with the answers.”
I stood up, wiped the ashes from my brow and stomped to the doorway. “Do you know what your problem is?” I asked, turning around.
“Besides being crazy? Oh, what, pray tell? Enlighten me!”
“You wish you were the Devil.”
Paul laughed so hard he had to hold his knees to keep from falling over. I was almost out the door when he stopped laughing and called after me, “It’s really been a lovely time, Billy. But I’m afraid you’ve got it backwards: The Devil is jealous of ME!”
Have a Happy Lent everyone! See you tomorrow for a V-day celebration!