The Pulse: Alberta
On Becoming Alien
With no-one else to turn to, Beatrice came to Prester John for advice. How could she get out of this hell, this Vulcan with its red hot hammering on her tired nerves?
Prester John knew exactly how she felt, and told her that together they would fight against this crass dungeon of a world. Together they would build a realm of fantasy far from the sight of the Bongo Bingo Parlor and the new Vulcan Trek Shopping Mall.
He saw this realm in his mind’s eye, deep in an ancient kingdom where everybody went naked just as they did in the Garden of Eden. Here, far from the wooly-headed ladies of the Wednesday night choir, jet-dark Nubians raised their chalices to the hot sun god, and the sweet liquid of their offerings ran down their smooth Rastafarian torsos.
Prester John became so enthusiastic about this new realm that he started a weekly pamphlet, called Watchtower on the Nile, dedicated to its unique history and culture. In the latest edition he published an excerpt from a letter he found deep in the charnel vaults beneath the sacristy. It was from the Emmanuel of Constantinople, and read:
At the foot of Mount Olympus bubbles up a spring which changes its flavour hour by hour, night and day, and the spring is scarcely three days' journey from Paradise, out of which Adam was driven. If anyone has tasted thrice of the fountain, from that day he will feel no fatigue, but will, as long as he lives, be as a man of thirty years. Here are found the small stones called Nudiosi which, if borne about the body, prevent the sight from waxing feeble and restore it where it is lost. The more the stone is looked at, the keener becomes the sight.
If Prester John had to pinpoint this realm on a map, he would say it was somewhere in India or Ethiopia. He even thought that he could see his old church, his kirk, on the top of Mount Ras Dashen, in the northern highlands:
Prester John spent most of his time wondering about the magical events that took place in his little kirk high in the Semien Mountains. What did they do on Lake Tana to its south, with its little shrine to Saint Stephen on the island in the middle of the lake? Was there barefoot skiing without boats? Was there bread-baking without ovens? Was there much laying on of hands?
It bothered Prester that little Jeremy from the parish would not look at his letters and maps. Instead, Jeremy kept showing him a book by a man named Charles Darwin. Prester consulted the recent papal bull on this man called Darwin, and found that he was both crazy and dangerous. According to his theory, mockingbirds and finches created the world, and monkeys were attempting to take over the planet. Prester was pretty sure that the Rapture was about to take place, as he had recently seen signs that a man who looked like Moses himself had started mating with monkeys:
Prester was terrified by these visions of the future, but what bothered him most was that his congregation was defenceless against the coming onslaught of simian gibberish.
His congregation appeared so confident, but they were in fact no more than children. Even with their Texas Instrument calculators, they had difficulty counting the number of angels dancing on the pin of his head. How were they ever going to understand the Transubstantiation, or the Trinity that was in fact a Unity? He tried to teach these things to them, yet they paid no attention. They would start dozing fifteen minutes into sermons on the cosmology of Augustine. And yet they would sit in front of the TV for hours every evening, as if electrified by the revelations of Barbarella, the family secrets of Darth Vader, and the deductive logic of Spock. This gave him an idea.
After three years of ministering in vain, he decided that if he couldn't beat the Divine Will into them, he would join them. He would combine the True Cross with Television, proving to them once and for all that the Church was both hip and stylish. Ordering his materials from Rio de Janeiro and Dayton Ohio, he put a thirty-foot neon Jesus on the crossbeam of a giant antenna. He put the starship Enterprise in the parking lot. This way they would have visual proof that, contrary to what Jimmy Hendrix kept telling them, there was indeed some way out of here.
Captain Kirk now pointed the way to Paradise. He set the entire town on a divine course, one that took them far from the Vulcan Mall with its slutty little tramps and its bingo parlour filled with old ladies and smelly cats. The spunky Captain kept them enraptured, and promised that there were even greater things to come. He also gave them a hint of what would happen if they didn't heed his prophetic words: they would end up in the arms of a blue-green tri-sexual Orion slave girl named Marta:
Soon a space ship would come, and the great Kirk would drive it. With his help they would all escape from the evil of this world and also from the evil that would come from the other worlds of darkness. Someday the Prince of Light would deliver them from the Galactic Confederacy and the wicked plans of its dictator, Xenu. Prester told his flock that this Xenu was as rotten a man as God had ever created. 75 million years ago he flew billions of people in his DC-8 to Earth, where (according to the secret annals of Scientology, which Prester was now reading with great alarm) he arranged them meticulously around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs.
But the townspeople of Vulcan would never suffer such a fate! Instead, they would zoom away from the impending disaster, attaining escape velocity with Tom Cruise as their pilot:
Once they slipped beyond the ephemeral grasp of this world, they would find other planets, other ways of life, until at long last they found the ultimate Planet, in which everything was poised between Evil and Good, between Sauron with his duplicitous reasoning and Gandalf with his long hard staff; between the back-stabbing Sheriff of Nottingham and a band of rebellious young woodsmen in tights.
Beatrice enjoyed that part, but wasn’t so keen when Prester put an apple on her head and aimed his arrow four inches above her eyes. He reassured her that this sport of love was safe, for he had personally tipped the arrows with miniature couplets addressed to Cupid.
Everyone in Vulcan considered Prester John to be an idiot. Who could possibly fall for his ridiculous mix of religion and science fiction? Perhaps a few Mormons in town might listen to his ravings, yet that was only because they wanted to amend his version to include Joseph Smith and his ten golden tablets.
The only person who was comforted by the visions of Prester John was Beatrice, who spent hours in her bedroom listening to the song "Some Day My Prince Will Come." Beatrice wanted the clouds to dance, and the wheat fields to sing. She wanted the mice in the silos to clap their hands together and cry out “Cinderelli! Cinderelli!” Unfortunately, her fondness for these three mice blinded her to the trolls that skulked under bridges and to the red-eyed weasels that hid themselves inside the habits of travelling scholars.
Dying to drop her broom and go to the Prince’s ball, Beatrice felt her hands tremble at the sight of Antonio, dressed in black leather shoes and a shimmering Italian jacket of cobalt blue. His hair was the colour of the raven in the poem by Edgar Allen Poe, and his eyes were as piercing as those of her God, Lord Byron. And there he was, late one sunny May morning in 1999 in front of Ovid’s Farmacy, asking her if she wanted to take a stroll to the Cathedral. He wanted to show her the painting he had donated to the parish — the original triptych of Hieronyus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.
Antonio had lifted the famous painting from the Prado in Madrid decades ago, in what will some day be known as The Great Switch. He snuck into the building on the eve of the festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe, while the floors were quiet and the guards had left the building. He disabled the security system, plucked Bosch's masterpiece from the wall, and put a cheap Montmartre copy in its place. Easy as pie.
Yet he felt guilty about it: how could he deprive the public of such a delightful vision of Hell? He decided to make it up to them by hollowing out a vast chamber in mid air and filling it with black paintings about devils and witches' sabbaths and Saturn eating his children and other helpful instructional scenes by an obscure mad genius named Goya. The room stands there to this day, having prompted half the population of Madrid to hurl themselves from Medieval towers. All in a good day's work.
Antonio was particularly keen to show Beatrice the central panel, drawing her attention to the details at the bottom of the canvas — the man whipping flowers into the anus of a prostrate man; the man with an insect-like cluster of leaves on his head, his face buried in a strawberry and his hand digging toward the stem; the fruit-like insect, with its tail plunging into the rear end of a young man who was hovering over the body of a curly-headed man. And everywhere the conspicuous consumption of forbidden fruit.
These were the fine points of Art Antonio wanted Beatrice to think about — unless of course she wanted to remain a Puritan bumpkin who only knew how to fill out a bingo card or go to church and listen to stories about evil Babylonians and a cosmic Son who flew around the universe promulgating an obscure Prime Directive about peace, non-interference, and doing unto others as you wished them to do unto you.
Beatrice had never seen such a Work of Art before, although she had on occasion ran the shower head along the peach-like smoothness of her thighs and wondered why the tip of her tongue tasted like a strawberry.
What Antonio told her made her feel backward, as if she had lived her life enclosed in some tiny nutshell and had mistakenly accounted it infinite space. But here in this new Garden it was as if she saw things as they were for the very first time.
Antonio also talked to her about the great French masters, about Gerome and the way he could curve a woman's shoulder, making it smooth as butter, curved and sliding as the softness of her chin, smooth and curving like the ram's horns that grew like the curling waves of her hair, each thick rib spiralling like DNA, allowing her to enter into the form that all women desire but are forbade: that of the bacchante.
Beatrice felt that for once she was in the company of a man who knew about the real dimensions of Art and Culture, instead of the strange worlds of Prester John with all their pretty boys and archer Cupids in the forests of a faraway galaxy.
Prester John was no help in warning Beatrice about Antonio, for he was simply incapable of distinguishing imaginary dangers from real ones. According to him, the biggest threat the community faced was from comic books and t.v. shows, which stole their souls, and made them believe in totally unbelievable entities like the evil walking Penguin and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. He told them, “Au contraire, mes petits champignons, you must instead watch out for a talking Snake and a red-eyed Goat who walks on his two hind legs!” He saw this ambulant goat stalking the malls and schoolyards, offering candies on long dripping sticks to boy scouts.
Or sometimes the Evil One would take a female form and encourage Brandon to play spin the bottle. Brandon would then spend hours on basement couches, locked lip to lip with a girl who called herself Evelyn, but who was in fact a Daughter of Darkness — an incarnation of the Devil himself! Tom Jones even had a song about her. Brandon was the same choirboy who refused to help Prester John with the dangling drawstrings of his frock. Yet here Brandon was, doing his best to slide his hand around Evelyn's torso, to get at the hook of her bra!
Beatrice lost the thread of the good pastor's argument when he told her that he would rip Brandon from the clutches of the Evil Witch, who was in fact the greatest Warlock who ever lived — the great Shape-Shifter himself!
Prester was so preoccupied by the sins of other people's flesh that he barely noticed Antonio, who sported an impressive array of tassels and studs, silver hooks and branding irons marked XXX. Nor did Prester see that the painting Antonio had donated to his church would only lead his congregation astray. Instead, the priest put the monstrosity above the altar and stared at it all day.
Prester started filling the gaps of his monologues against sin with peaches, and upside down strawberries, and ten gallon drums of Cool-aid, and flying machines which would lift them to the Mother Ship. It was during one of these sermons — in which he warned his listeners to beware of alien strobe lights scanning their brains as he spoke — that Beatrice decided her mentor was completely insane.
One Sunday morning he ran into the church screaming The End Is Nigh! and Repent before the pink aliens come in the shape of giant marshmallows and slice up our planet with orange knives! Beatrice couldn’t take it anymore. She got up in the middle of his dire prophecy about infractions and black pulses, and walked out of the church. She made a vow: never again would she listen to the ramblings of holy men.