“Thresholds”: All Saints Day, 2020

When I started planning my own contribution to the Thresholds project, I knew from experience to pick a publication date right away. I started looking at holidays and astronomical events. Halloween was the obvious choice, but somehow I didn’t want to do a Halloween story – I have too many memories of neon-orange pumpkins, sugary candy corn, black-clad witches and goblins, grotesque masks at CVS, neon green and bright purple to leave much mystique and grandeur in that holiday. I decided to do All Saints Day instead, a holiday I knew almost nothing about beyond the name.

My most recent short stories have been dystopian, science fiction, and fantasy, so I decided to experiment with another of my favorite genres, mystery. It’s very difficult to cram a full detective story into a short story format – even Agatha Christie’s are a little cramped – so I wasn’t completely successful, but it was fun to try.

My brief, unofficial, scattered research of All Saints Day showed me that this day is just as mysterious and otherworldy as Halloween, or even more so, since it deals with transcendent mysteries. Sources like this one taught me that this feast honors all saints of the Church, the living and dead. Other sources like this one suggest that this Christian holiday is meant to replace the Celtic, pagan festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) on October 31, when Druids lit bonfires to celebrate the end of harvest, beginning of the darkness of winter, and night when the dead could come back to visit the living.

Bonfires and moonlight, restless sea and brooding sky…my imagination began to churn. I liked the idea of a night filled with holy fear; not the dark, hopeless terror of pagans trying to satisfy ruthless, capricious gods, but the sacred fear and reverent wonder of Jesus Christ and His Church.

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter II [speaking from a demonic perspective]: “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate.

Day/night, living/dead, autumn/winter, invisible realities and visible illusions… The theme of this project is thresholds, a physical and metaphorical term for a boundary, liminal space, beginning and ending and in-between. The tale took shape. My partner, Karlee Lillywhite also gave me “artifacts” that sparked new ideas:

  • Gregorian chant
  • Woolen shawl
  • Decomposing apples

In the end, I spun this story between discussing the theology of music and re-enchantment in class, walking in golden woods and on windy clifftops, going on coffee dates and skimming scholarship on fantasy and faith. Enjoy!

Note: I recommend listening to INTROIT: Gaudeamus omnes in Domino as you read this.

All Saints Day, 2020 

…gaudent Angeli,  
et collaudant Filium Dei… 

It was the evening of November 1st. On the beaches, gales whipped the waves into a foaming fury. No one heard the silent keening or saw the dark mass huddled on the eastern shore. 

In a church in town, echoes and shadows danced among the columns. Drafts of chilly air made the candle flames shudder. A girl with wavy hair dyed black and a pale, freckled face exhaled softly. Kat’s breath fogged up her glasses through her face mask. She inhaled white rose perfume, musky cologne, and the smell of old stone walls and wooden pews. The small choir group separated from the congregation by plexiglass screens sang with voices of north wind and night. 

Exsultate justi in Domino… 

Someone touched her arm, making her jump. Her new housemate, Dan, stood in the aisle wearing his gray mask, eyes wide with urgency.  

“What?” she whispered, glaring at him. Other household groups, spaced six feet apart on either side, glanced at her. Dan turned to leave, beckoning her to follow. 

Sighing, Kat followed him outside into the chilly air. 

The streetlights were glaring after the warm golden glow of candlelight. “What’s going on?” Kat asked, pulling her mask off of one ear, then the other. Dan shivered in a thin argyle sweater, coatless, his neat blond hair ruffled by the wind. One shoe was untied. “I thought you had to study tonight.” 

“Do you know where Naira is?”

“Uh, I thought she was staying in tonight, too,” said Kat. “She said she was tired. Did you hear her go out?” 

“Yeah, I heard her take out the trash an hour ago,” Dan said. “But she didn’t come back in. Her curry burned on the stove. Her phone’s on the counter. I found this on the ground outside.” He held up a woolen shawl, crimson and gold.  

“You think something happened to her?” asked Kat. “Did you ask the neighbors?” 

“I asked everyone in the building,” said Dan. “It was awkward, but I just…it felt weird. No one saw her or heard anything. She can’t be visiting anyone — we’re still not allowed past the threshold of other houses.” 

“Ok,” said Kat, pushing her glasses back up her nose. “That does sound weird. Let’s go see if she came back while you came here.” 

They set off towards the house. A strong wind ruffled their hair. They passed closed cafes and the iron gates of one of the colleges.  

“I’m sorry I pulled you away from the service,” said Dan. “The singing was beautiful. It’s All Saints Day, isn’t it?”  

“Mm-hmm.” Kat kept her eyes on the ground. 

“Celebration of the whole Church, right? All the saints?” 

“Yep,” said Kat, nodding without looking at him. 

“That’s cool. Does your family follow the liturgical year?” 

“No.”  

Dan glanced at her, frowning, and then turned back to the uneven cobblestones. They waited for a car to go by, yellow headlights spilling on the pavement, and crossed the street to their housing block, stone with bright red doors. Dan unlocked the door, and they went in. Kat saw Naira’s wool coat hanging from a hook and her black boots on the mat.  

The kitchen light was on. Though the window was open, letting in a chill, the air smelled like burnt curry. “Naira?” Dan called. Naira’s iPhone lay on the counter. 

“She’s not in her room,” said Kat, coming down the stairs a few minutes later. Dan was scrubbing the blackened bottom of the curry pan in the sink.  

“This isn’t like her,” he said. “She doesn’t go out late or leave things on the stove.”  

Kat leaned against the mock-granite counter. “So she went outside to empty the trash,” she said, “and didn’t come back.” She and Dan looked at each other. 

“She’s a black belt in karate,” said Dan. “This is a very safe town.”  

“Let’s look outside again,” said Kat. 

“So she came out here,” said Dan, walking from their door to the trash cans, “and I found her scarf here.” He pointed to a patch of pavement.  

Kat walked up and down the street, studying the ground. “Asphalt and cement, so no footprints, obviously,” she said. 

“You’re Nancy Drew-ing it?” Dan asked, examining the sidewalk in the other direction. “I have five younger sisters,” he said when she looked at him. “I know all the girls’ books. It was self-defense.” 

“Yeah,” said Kat. “I used to read them.” She studied him. “That explains the Prince Charming.” 

“What?”  

“Uh, it explains why you’re so – why you – act so charming,” said Kat. “Asking questions…Naira and I couldn’t figure out if you were flirting or just that nice.”  

“Oh,” said Dan. “Uh, yeah, I’ve gotten that before. My female friends sometimes warn me about being creepy. Sorry.”   

Their phones chimed. Kat flipped open her iPhone; Dan opened his Android. 

“Drat, it’s another COVID update,” said Kat. “Dear students, I regret to inform you that the number of COVID cases in Fife has started rising again … high population of elderly…we are instituting another voluntary lockdown for students starting at 7 pm today.” 

“Please do not visit any pubs, coffee shops, or restaurants this week,” Dan continued.  “Please do not socialize with anyone outside your household, and avoid crowded areas where social distancing is compromised.”  

They looked at each other. “Naira’s so careful about the rules,” said Dan. “Her asthma…” 

“We need to find her,” said Kat. They were silent for a moment. “How do you track someone if they don’t have a phone?” she asked. “Satellite footage? Bloodhounds?” 

“Traffic cameras?” said Dan. “Wait. Bloodhounds. Dogs. She went out at 5:30 – that’s when Mrs. Morison takes Sausage out.” 

“Sausage?” 

“Her dachshund. Let’s ask if she saw something.”  

“Naira? The Indian girl with the pretty hair?” Mrs. Morison asked. She held her scarf protectively in front of her face with her right hand and her red door open with her left. “Yes, I saw her earlier when I took Sausage out.” Her Scottish “r”s and “oo”s were rich like dark chocolate. “She barely stopped to greet me, asked if I’d seen a child run by.” 

“A child?”  

“Aye, a wee lad running by. She said he was alone, going toward the cathedral. I said I hadn’t, so she took off in that direction.” 

All three of them looked left down the street, where the ruined cathedral stretched toward the sky. Through the black iron gates, yellow spotlights lit up parts of the structure: an archway, towers, a few walls, and gravestones on either side. 

They thanked Mrs. Morison. As the door shut behind them, they started walking down toward the cathedral. “She saw a child,” said Kat. “So she followed him to make sure he was okay.”  

They reached the sidewalk in front of the west entrance. The ruins were surrounded by a stone wall that reached chest-height and had an iron grill on top. The black iron gates were locked.  

“Naira!” Kat called. The heavy wind stole most of her volume. “Naira!” Dan called too, but when they paused to listen, they only heard the rush of the wind and the faraway pounding of the waves. 

“Scott and his flatmates are going to check Castle Sands,” said Dan, checking his phone, “Flat 6 is going down South Street, and the philosophy people upstairs are doing Market Street. I think we should look for her here. Maybe she fell and hurt herself? They have a couple of open vaults in there.” He put his hands on the iron grill at the top of the wall, hoisted one leg up, and jumped over.  

“I don’t…” Kat looked around.  

“I’m a volunteer warden, remember?” Dan called. “I have a key, but climbing over is more fun.” 

“Well, we have a good reason,” said Kat.  She climbed the wall and hopped over, too. 

The grass was slick with rain. They went down the stone steps to the western entrance, where the door’s archway and the vaulting remained intact. They crossed the threshold into the nave, of which only the wall on their right remained, lined with high-arched windows. They wandered towards the presbytery at the other end, checking various open vaults Dan knew about, around the stumps of the arcade piers, and then left into the north transept and around the graves and crosses on the lawn. They checked every corner, calling to Naira with no answer. 

“Some of these are unstable,” said Dan, looking around at the gravestones in one corner, dark gray granite with light green lichen. Kat pursed her lips and looked away. 

“You okay?” asked Dan.  

“I’m – it’s fine,” said Kat. “We had some deaths in my church this week.” 

“People close to you?” Dan asked. 

“Yes.” Kat looked towards the presbytery. “Wait – do you see a light over there?”  

On the other side of the site, the ocean-facing side, a light hovered among the gravestones: something small, flickering, and golden, unlike the glaring yellow spotlights.  

“Yeah,” said Dan, quietly. “That’s a lantern.” He gestured for her to walk in that direction. The grass muffled their footsteps. They dodged around several empty, open graves with stone coffins, through the foundations of the chapter house to St. Rule’s tower. When they reached the grassy area in front of the tower, Dan stopped so quickly she bumped into him.  

A man with snow-white hair and beard and a black coat stood at the door to St. Rule’s tower, holding the door open with his left hand, iron keys jangling in his right. Hooded figures were disappearing into the tower. “Thanks, Pearson!” the last said cheerfully.  

“Just an hour, mind!” said the man, closing the door after them. 

“Pearson!” said Dan in a voice of deep shock, walking towards him. “What are you doing? No one’s allowed in the tower! You can’t social distance in there.”  

“Hello, Dan,” said Pearson, showing no surprise as he pocketed his keys. “And who’s this with you?” he asked as Kat approached. She smelled the rich, autumn-wood smell of pipe smoke coming from him. 

“We’re housemates,” said Kat. “Are you a warden?”  

“Aye, of a sort,” said Pearson, nodding. In the eerie light, his face was pale: laugh-lines around the mouth, frown-lines on his forehead, light crow’s-feet around his eyes. “I coom out for holidays like this one. It’s tradition, Dan,” he said to Dan, gently. “They’re the SOMA, you know.” 

“The what?”  

“Society of Mystical Astronomers,” said Pearson. “They read poetry on cloudy nights. Usually in the castle, but that’s booked for a midnight masquerade tonight. Do you like poetry?” he asked Kat. 

“Sometimes,” said Kat, smiling a little. “I like the Irish poets. Seamus Heaney. Yeats.”  

“It’s a good night for it,” said Pearson. “The thresholds are thinner.” He looked up at the cloudy sky. “He reached a middle height, and at the stars, / Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank. / Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank, / The army of unalterable law.”  

“Pearson, we’re looking for our other housemate,” said Dan. “Naira. Have you seen her?”  

“Pretty girl with dark hair?” said Pearson. “She dashed through here a while ago. Said she saw a child running by. Headed towards the sea.”  

“We need to find her,” said Dan. “Thanks.” He touched Kat’s arm, and they walked quickly towards the other gate. 

“He’s not all there,” said Dan softly, when they were out of earshot. “He’s not supposed to have keys, even. I like him, but…” 

“He reminds me of my grandpa,” said Kat dreamily. “He died last month.” 

“Oh,” said Dan. “I’m so sorry.” They were quiet as he fished out his own keys and let them out the iron  gate in the stone wall on the other side. A sea breeze hit them immediately. 

“Do you know what they call the two parts of the Church?” Dan asked suddenly as they turned right on the coastal path, toward the beach.  

“No.”  

“We, the living ones, are called the Church Militant,” said Dan. “The dead are the Church Triumphant.”  

The sea lay before them, dark and rippling. The waves were roaring tonight, receding from high tide. The yellow, white, and green lights of the houses and caravan park twinkled all the way up the coast past East Sands.  

“Do you see something down there?” said Dan suddenly. “By the water?” 

In the faint gleam of streetlights and dim glow of the sky, they could make out a dark patch on the beach.  

“Let’s look,” said Kat. They ran down the rest of the sidewalk over the bridge that spanned the river inlet and down to the sand, slipping and sliding.  

“Naira?” she called. The faint echo of an answer came through the wind. They ran the rest of the way down the beach, huge at low tide. Something fishy and seaweedy hit Kat’s nostrils as the wind shifted towards them, blowing her hair back.  

They reached the dark mass. “Oh,” said Kat, stopping. “It’s a whale.” 

The creature was the size of a car stretched into something long and narrower. It lay on its left side, fins splayed. “Oh, no,” said Dan. “It’s beached.” 

“Hey,” said a tired voice from the sand. Naira sat there, one leg stretched in front of her. A little boy with curly brown hair sat beside her, staring at them. 

“Naira!” Kat knelt beside her. “We’ve been looking for you! What happened?”  

“I saw a kid run by,” said Naira. “This one – his name is James. I followed him down here to make sure he was ok, and I saw the whale – he was sneaking out with his friends and they found it. I fell and hurt my ankle – I can’t put weight on it at all – and I left my phone. I can hear it trying to breathe,” she said shakily. “It’s going to get crushed under its own weight if we can’t get it back in the water.” 

“I’m calling the police,” said Dan, pulling out his phone again. 

“People are coming,” said Kat, taking off her coat and putting it on Naira. Voices echoed from up the beach; groups of iPhone flashlights wobbled toward them. In a few minutes, they were surrounded: people from Duke’s Court, St. George’s, George’s Place, and a few students from South Castle Street. 

“Don’t touch the whale!” Naira called. “It might have bacteria!” 

“Oh, the irony,” said Kat, massaging Naira’s hands to warm them up. 

A half hour later, even more people lined the sidewalk and clustered on the beach. The police cordoned off a perimeter around the whale as marine biologists from the university gathered around in lab coats and rubber gloves. 

“I really hope this doesn’t cause an outbreak,” said Naira, shivering and looking over the crowded beach as a paramedic examined her ankle.  

Someone lit a bonfire against the stone wall that bordered the beach, its red-orange blaze a fiery echo of the lights on the coast. The surf pounded as a team of researchers, police, and other volunteers started pushing the whale back into the sea with grunts and shouts of encouragement, a team of spotters rushing in to replace anyone who got tired.  

People cheered: the whale was only a few feet from the pounding waves. People slipped, slid, groaned, pushed until it was inches deep, a foot deep, pushed up by a wave and pulled back as it receded. Kat’s tiredness wove a dreaminess over the scene, so that individual moments swam by: Naira being carried off to the hospital for an X-ray; James being found, scolded, and carried off by his mother; the whale-pushers wading back through the surf, talking and laughing in ragged, triumphant voices; a small group of people in front of them suddenly beginning to sing. It was the group from the church.  

Gaudeámus omnes in Dómino, 
Diem festum celebrantes
Sub honore Sanctorum omnium: 
De quorum solemnitate gaudent Angeli, 
Et collaudant Filium Dei. 
Exsultate justi in Domino: 
Rectos decet colaudatio. 

As the police herded them back to their houses with warnings of forced isolation and fines, with the few words she heard and recognized – Gaudeamus (rejoice), Domino (God), Exsultate (exult) — echoing in her mind, she pictured the whale swimming back to the deep. Cloud-mountains sailed across the silvery patch of night sky where the moon hung. 

Reflections on the STC Conference 2019

Denver, Colorado in the rain.

In the gray days of February and March this year, I realized that the two conferences I wanted to go to in the spring were both in Colorado, both concerning writers, within a week of each other.

I returned home after the first one last week, the Imagination Redeemed conference. On Sunday, I flew out to Denver again for the Society for Technical Communication (STC) conference and returned late on Wednesday night.

The Imagination Redeemed conference was in Colorado Springs, that blooming valley in the mountains; the STC conference was in downtown Denver, where the brick-and-stone buildings were too short to block the rain-gray sky (unlike the dark skyscrapers of Manhattan – I couldn’t help comparing), and trees with bright green leaves or fresh blossoms dotted the sidewalks.

Though I didn’t plan to attend two conferences back-to-back, and my head spun with altitude sickness the first night and day, comparing the two gatherings was fascinating. Both organizations attract thoughtful, creative, and dedicated communicators who want to hone their craft and connect with people like them.

The STC is made of technical communicators, who help their coworkers or customers understand and use technical information: technical writers and editors, librarians, instructional designers, content strategists, and information architects from software, manufacturing, medicine, business and finance, and other industries.

As technical communicators (I’m a technical writer), we work with brilliant people – software developers, engineers, mechanics, architects, and others – to translate their complex knowledge into simple steps for audiences who benefit from their work. I attended sessions about integrating images and text, the power of story, career planning, best practices of knowledge management, and more.

The Imagination Redeemed conference focused on faith and beauty, imagination and worship; the STC conference focused on transforming the creations of geniuses into plain language and clear concepts. These gatherings represent two sides of my mind and heart that I’m cultivating in work and in play, united by a growing sense of yearning: I long to be a messenger, a world-maker, teacher, and healer through my writing, in my job and my own work.

Soon, I hope to write about how technical writing is so much more than the boring manual-writing I though it would be: how it’s as challenging, inspiring, and wonder-ful (in the old sense of the world) as studying English literature. For now, here are some resolutions as a technical writer to match the ones I made at the Anselm Society conference:

Tell stories for good – The STC conference reaffirmed what I already knew: that stories are powerful. From a technical writing perspective, stories help people understand complex concepts (think of how some people can remember all the plot threads in the Marvel universe) and remember important information. As a technical writer, I want to tell stories for good, to help people gain the knowledge they need to thrive.

Critical consumerism – One of the last speakers at the conference described how we can be critical consumers, thoughtfully examining the evidence to evaluate claims and rationales. Does the speaker’s conclusion exaggerate the evidence or ignore key findings? In the workplace and the rest of my life, training myself to examine evidence will guard me against misconceptions and manipulation.

Wonder in the ordinary – Several speakers emphasized the ancient roots of technical writing: from cairns marking paths in the mountains, to cave paintings, to medieval manuscripts, humans have been teaching each other to do complicated tasks since the beginning of time. I used to think technical writing was dull work, typing up thick manuals of small black text that no one wanted to read. Over this year, I’ve tasted the joy of learning how to uncover the creative genius of software developers and communicate it to non-experts: detective work as close to my childhood dreams of being Nancy Drew as I’ll probably get in real life.

It’s good to find wonder in your work; good to sit in awe of the mind of the Creator as you see the beauty of the human mind in lines of software code, or complex machinery, or the rhythm of a sonnet. In my technical and creative writing, I want to awaken that wonder in others.

My real vocation – A speaker on a podcast I listened to yesterday said that “you work to feed your dream, and then you work on your dream to feed your everyday work” (clumsy paraphrase). Am I a technical writer in the “real world,” to earn a living, or am I “really” a creative writer who has a day job so she can eat? Both – maybe not forever, but for this season, my real vocation is to become skilled at both types of writing.

But I’m back to New England again, at least for a few weeks. The cherry trees are blossoming in bright pink clusters; the rest of the leaves are peeking from the edges of tree-fingers; and I can walk along the beach at sunset with my sister and talk about life. Summer is stirring, and I have writing to do.

White blossoms on a branch.