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John Blue meets life-changing people in Dante's Woods

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  1. 1. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’nosis John R. Wible i
  2. 2. Copyright © 2016 John R. Wible All rights reserved. ISBN-13: 978-1522961611 ISBN-10: 1522961615 ii
  3. 3. DEDICATION This is dedicated to my wife, Susan who has always provided necessary balance to my life; to my daughter, Amy who has always believed in me; to my Sunday school class and other members of my church, Gateway Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama who have supported my efforts of service over the years; and to those dear friends who have known me as I really am and have still loved me. iii
  4. 4. TABLE OF CONTENTS TABLE OF CONTENTS...............................................................................iv ACKNOWLEDGMENTS..............................................................................1 FOREWORD..............................................................................................2 Canto I - PROLOGUS.................................................................................4 Canto II ITENERE.....................................................................................10 Canto III INFERNO...................................................................................20 Canto IV PURGATORIO...........................................................................31 Canto V INTERMEZZO.............................................................................39 Canto VI PARADISO ?..............................................................................42 Canto VII VALE IN SILVIS DANTE.............................................................49 EPILOGUS – CONTINUOR SATRAPES.......................................................51 VERBORUM............................................................................................55 De SCRIPTOR:........................................................................................60 iv
  5. 5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I wish to acknowledge the loyalty of my friends who have read my Christmas works over the years and who have encouraged me to keep writing. I also acknowledge you, my reader, who will take a chance on me by spending your time reading this work. May it uplift and challenge you. 1
  6. 6. John R. Wible FOREWORD For over thirty years, I have written and extended to my family and friends a Christmas poem. In recent years, the poems have grown into short stories. Christmas, 2015 marked a milestone in which the short story grew into novella length. It was at this point that I decided to publish it as such. The following pages represent that work. Two books concerning Dante Alighieri formed the ideas that coalesced into this work. First, of course, is his famous Divina Commedia, written between 1308 and 1821 in his native Tuscan language. His work helped establish the Tuscan dialect as what we know today as modern Italian. The work became so popular that they soon translated it, and it was most widely read in the lingua franca of the day, Latin. It is for that reason that I have chosen to use a number of Latin phrases (translated of course) to set off the chapters of the work. Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Change Your Life, published in 2015 constitutes the second work that influenced this one. I commend both to the reader. At book’s end, may I direct your attention to the Verborum, the Glossary? When you come to an unfamiliar word, a quick look at the glossary will aid your reading of this work. Perhaps, this will take a little work, but I promise you that it will be worth it. To that end, here is my pledge to you. If you read the book and are not satisfied, I will personally refund your purchase price. (Do not write Amazon!) One more word. If you would like to see an online version of this work or listen to it audibly, please direct your browser to There you will find links to both. Thanks for reading. Montgomery, Alabama, Summer 2016. 2
  7. 7. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis 3
  8. 8. John R. Wible Canto I - PROLOGUS Pride, Envy, and Avarice are the three sparks that have set these hearts on fire. -Dante, Inferno, Canto VI, lines 74-75. “Lebanon,” that is all it said, and it was signed, “ .” John Blue puzzled over the txt. msg. that just came in from his bank. “Why in the world would there be a charge from Lebanon,” he thought,” staring blankly into his Starbuck’s® cappuccino; “And why would there be no way to follow up – not enough information?” This was troubling. “The Middle East is blowing itself up by the day, and I get a Visa® charge from . . . Lebanon . . . really?” Immediately, he called the bank and after listening through the usual phone tree messages about how much they could save him this “holiday season,” he got a live human being. He asked about the charge, but to no avail. The person on the other end said, in somewhat broken English, “I am being very, very sorry; Mister John Blue, but we are having no other information.” “Well,” he thought, “that was that, ‘we are having no other information.’” Now confused and troubled, he had to let it go in favor of more pressing matters – Sunday school lesson preparation was ‘way behind. Opening his Bible, John Blue began to read over the Christmas story in Matthew. It was, after all, that time of the year and he had to get crackin’ on his Christmas lesson. “Matthew One is always a good place to start,” he thought, and he went there on his laptop. This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant [in Lebanon] . . . “Wait a minute, did I read that right – in Lebanon? This is getting creepy – no, creepier!” He looked it up in another program – but it read the same way, “. . . in Lebanon.” “Now I know the Messiah was not born in Lebanon,” he said aloud. He resorted to his old Scofield Reference Edition of the King James Version, “the one, after all, that is ‘authorized,’” he mused. Fingers flying, he leafed to the page. There it was - now in black ink on 4
  9. 9. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis white vellum paper – in Lebanon. He looked up Lebanon in several Bible dictionaries. One stated: The cities of Lebanon were centers of the pottery, glass, and bluegrass dye industries; their harbors also served as warehouses for products imported from Syria, Persia, and environs. Passing hurriedly over that obvious definition, he researched the word in archaic Hebrew script to see if there was a hidden meaning he and every preacher he ever heard had missed. But nooo! It was getting late, and the rack monster was calling to him. He yielded to it and dozed off. The dong-donging of the doorbell greeted him the next morning. The bell was his mail carrier bringing him a letter for which he had to sign. It was from the “United States of America, Office of Strategic Services.” Office of Strategic Services Coordinator of Information Dear Mr. John Blue: In the government’s ongoing efforts to prevent terrorism in the United States, OSS has been monitoring communications to you from a person or persons known only to us at this time as “Moe.” We have concerns since these we thought that someone sent these communications from Lebanon. As you know, Lebanon borders both Syria and Israel which in turn border Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, the West Bank Palestinian Territory, and the Gulf of Aqaba, all areas of strategic importance to the United States and thus to this Office. Upon further investigation, we determined that the communications originated not in Lebanon in the Middle East but from Lebanon, Kentucky. 5
  10. 10. John R. Wible Specifically from an address registered to the, I Am the Cab Company, Moshe ben ja-min al Masriq, owner. Sir, this Office believes this matter to be of national security importance, and we have begun to surveil the location. However, we have observed nothing of significance. We, therefore have an unusual request of you. We are asking that you travel to Lebanon, Kentucky and make contact with Mr. Moshe ben ja-min al Masriq. Please report anything you find back to this Office. Sincerely, D Colonel and Coordinator of Information, OSS Call Murray Hill 8-9933 “What kind of James Bond stuff is this?” John Blue blurted out to the mail carrier, “The Office of Strategic Services of the U.S. government – really?” “I don’t know, sir. I just deliver the mail . . . I don’t write it,” retorted the somewhat taken aback carrier. “I’m sorry,” John replied sheepishly. “I guess I over-reacted. It’s not every day you get a letter from some spy agency.” “Maybe it’s somebody’s joke, John,” the mail carrier interjected trying to lighten the moment. “We deliver a lot of weird letters from crackpots these days.” He paused a second then continued. “Do you want me to take this to the postal inspector?” John Blue now found himself in a quandary. He mulled a multitude of misadventures. “I guess it’s like my old Coach used to say, ‘It’s like throwing a forward pass. There are three outcomes and two of them are bad.” How to untie - or to cut - this Gordian knot – to even attempt to untie it – or to forget it, and to go back to the books; Is this real; Is it happening; Am I dreaming; Is this some sort of joke by one of my funky friends at the FAC; Or . . . should I play along? National security? 6
  11. 11. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis John Blue was intrigued as intrigued as the time the FBI agents in East Lansing mistook him for a Mr. “Balue” from Florida, their witness in a fraud case, and started carting him off to some interrogation. “Well,” he decided, “I eventually ba-lue that off and refused to pa-lay. Maybe this time – I will.” And he did. “No,” he told the carrier, “I’ll accept it and see where this leads.” “Okay, suit yourself, make it so, 007,” the carrier impishly threw away over his shoulder as he got back into his truck. “Where this leads - where this leads – where this leads – where this leads.” For some reason, those last three words set up a feedback loop in his brain. “What am I getting into?” John Blue Googled® the OSS and “Col. D” and learned that the OSS was some old government bureaucracy that was charged with “gathering strategic intelligence data for the United States with the ongoing mission to keep America strong.” A veteran of government service himself, John Blue knew bureaucratic gobbledygook when he read it – and that surely qualified He looked up “Col. D,” apparently a cover name they had used for some inane security reason. He discovered that Col. D had been the director of the OSS since being “appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Roosevelt? How is that possible? He looked further and found that Col. D was the only American service person “to have received all four of the United States’ highest awards: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal.” Further and more shockingly, John learned that Col. D was born on January 1, 1883. “Eighteen Eighty-three? That’s got to be a misprint,” John blurted aloud. “He served in World War II and World War I – and even as U.S. attorney in New York” cracking down on prohibition violators – even raiding his own member’s only club? “How is that possible? This guy’s got to be – what – John counted on his fingers - 130 plus years old? Man, if this guy is still even alive and if anybody ever represented America – no American bureaucracy - this has to be the man!” John was intrigued; He was frightened; He found himself torn between reason and the search for truth. For the present, his sense of intrigue got the better of him. That being the case, in a bold stroke of sheer bravado belying his own age – meager in comparison to that of this Col. D, - he decided to call the offices of the OSS at the number listed in Col. D’s letter. He noticed that, as everything attached to this incident, the phone number was very peculiar – Murray Hill 8-9933. Knowing that “There is no way in the name of Alexander Graham Bell to dial that number,” instead, he dialed the long distance operator and asked her to connect him to the number. 7
  12. 12. John R. Wible Expecting to get the idiot treatment from the operator about the number, he was more than surprised when the operator said politely, “I’m sorry, Mr. Blue, that number is in Mount Weather, Virginia, and it long since has been changed to 1-800-935-6698. I’ll connect you immediately.” “Okay,” he thought, “At least we’re getting somewhere.” Moreover, apparently somewhere was Mount Weather, Virginia. “Wait a minute,” he thought, “I didn’t give her my name. How did she know it? Must’ve had caller ID or something.” He let it pass. While he was waiting for an answer from OSS, John Blue looked at his phone dial, “Hmm, that’s odd,” he cogitated, making an inquisitive face with his lips turned down in an exaggerated frown – and eyebrows lifted. He noticed that the numbers spelled out “1-800-WEKNOWU.” That’s – more than odd!” he reckoned. With typical governmental dispatch, a courteous but familiarly brusque young lady intoned with an unmistakable military enlisted half respect, half disdain, “Mt. Weather Observatory. How may I direct your call?” “Ah, yes this is John Blue, and I’d . . .” The “Wingnut” or “LCPL” interrupted him, “I’ll connect you immediately if not sooner with the Director’s Office.” “Amazing,” thought John Blue. It seemed that the bureaucratic wheels were rolling as rapidly as those on the Marrakesh Express only greased with WD-40. “Director’s Office, Mr. Blue, Eve here. I have instructions for you from the Director. He says . . .” Getting annoyed, John Blue cut off “Eve” in mid-sentence. “I didn’t call for instructions; I called to speak with Col. D.” Less solicitously now, Eve insisted, “I’m terribly sorry John; you seem to have lost the plot. No one but me speaks with the Director. No one has spoken with him in a long time. She emphasized the word long. “I’m not surprised,” John mumbled under his breath, remembering what he had read about the now apparently phantom Director. John’s usually cautious nature overrode his equally usual compliant nature and he insisted on speaking with Col. D personally. “That’s not going to happen,” replied Eve. “And why not,” John Blue shot back? “For a number of reasons into which we don’t have time to go now. If you know your onions, you’ll just take my word for it. The Director has reviewed this case personally and has specific instructions for you,” Eve emphasized in what John concluded was her “final answer.” Therefore, he relented. She finished, “Go immediately to the car park at your airport and a tall, blond man named Brian will meet you. He will hand you an envelope and sort your transport. That’s it. Now, bugger off, mate.” 8
  13. 13. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis “’Bugger off, mate,’ really? ‘The car park?’ ‘Know your onions?’ This is more than beginning to sound Bondesque,” John foresaw as visions of those FBI agents in Michigan and his near-kidnapping through his own stubbornness came flashing back. Nevertheless, at the instruction of Col. D delivered so matter-of- factly through Eve or whatever her name was, John Blue drove to the airport searching for the car park. Fortunately, he kept a go bag packed in his trunk should he be called out on an FAC or Chaplaincy mission. It didn’t have a lot in it, but it had enough he figured. Looking instead for Parking Lot signage, John found none. To his amazement, he did find the car park into which he turned and parked his 4- cylinder Toyota Camry, fanaticizing it to be a V-12 Aston Martin. “I’ll bet there’s no Walther PPK in that envelope,” he half thought, half uttered. Brian was waiting for him there. Brian was just as described, tall and blond – amiable even. He seemed familiar with and to John Blue as if John Blue had known Brian in another life or something. No matter, Brian, John Blue learned, was to be his pilot in a chartered aircraft headed to Lebanon- Springfield Airport somewhere south of Springfield and north of Lebanon, Kentucky. Brian politely carried and stowed John Blue’s go bag and hand handed John a manila envelope stamped “SECRET.” Then Brian climbed into the cockpit. “Contact!” he joked. A “national security adventure” was about to answer some asked and unasked questions for John Blue, answers not for him alone, but truly for “national security.” 9
  14. 14. John R. Wible Canto II ITENERE Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, where the right road was wholly lost and gone. -Dante, Divina Commedia, Canto I, line 3. John opened the envelope and found and hand-written note from the still- phantom-like Director. “Text me every night with a full report. The number is 999. D.” John Blue’s flight began without incident but quickly devolved into a NASCAR® like race with a line of thunderstorms moving in from the East. Trusty and competent as he was amiable, Brian was steady on the stick and bested the storm. Having so skillfully done, he brought to rest by the hardest the 1989 Cessna Citation II that he had recently bought from the State at somewhat of a forced sale. It had needed work before the flight but now . . . well, airworthiness certainly was brought into question. John Blue grabbed his go bag and deplaned, never more pleased once again to walk on the face of the Earth. “Flying,” he thought, “was for Brian – and the birds.” Walking on the Earth was more John’s style. That simple pleasure had surely been in doubt for a while, at least to John Blue if not to Brian. John Blue, after all, was a novice to most of this, while Brian was a seasoned veteran. John Blue stumbled into what he learned was a totally empty terminal - the “612 Building.” As always, he was dragging his baggage behind himself. Unbeknownst to John Blue, Moshe ben ja-min al Masriq was already awaiting John Blue in the ground transportation parking lot – or car park. Watching John walk away, smiling broadly – almost chuckling, Brian retraced his own steps and in an instant cruised the Cessna at altitude, joyfully making for home and family. “Hello . . . hello . . . hell-O, anybody around?” John Blue called with increasing volume . . . Only an unnatural silence responded to him. He waited. All John Blue could hear was the intermittent and disinterested humming of the water fountain motor underlying the echo of his voice. 10
  15. 15. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis After getting his bearings a bit, John Blue began to scan inquisitively around the room. His glance fell onto the mural on the scaly, textured, iridescent northern wall of the building. It pictured the four points of the compass star flanked by the words, “You Are in the Center of it All.” Someone had painted two walls a shade of red that he had never actually seen before. The ceiling was covered with a rug-like material the color of camel hair. “Camelhair?” John considered, “Why would I think of camel hair?” This terminal was the first - but not the last – oddity that John Blue would observe on the Kentucky leg of this “adventure of national security.” “A-oo-ga, a-oo-ga,” sounded through what appeared to be a curtain draped in the center of the wall to the East directly in front of John Blue. “A-oo-ga, a-oo-ga,” it sounded again and then again. By this time, John Blue noticed the portal or passageway in - or really between - the walls behind the curtain. He hesitantly walked through it realizing that he had a choice whether to walk through it. It seemed, however, merely a “Hobson’s Choice.” What else was he to do? The bright, high-noon sunny sky nearly blinded John Blue. This starkly contrasted with the misty - to gray - to black - to blue - to green - and back to gray which described fairly and accurately the sky in which John Blue, Brian, and their repurposed Cessna had just flown. The lot was empty save for what John Blue read was the cab belonging to the “I Am the Cab Company” painted on the cab’s front doors. The back passenger-side door popped open, and a Middle-Eastern-sounding voice bellowed from the interior darkness, “Esseiyyid would need a taxicab?” “Okay,” John Blue entered tentatively still dragging his baggage. “What about the bags?” “Not to worry, Esseiyyid, I will take all your baggage,” the voice intoned reassuringly. Two sturdy and tightly sleeved, well-worn hands, but not a head, reached into the back seat of the 1936 Cord 810 Westchester taxicab and the still only partially seen figure grabbed the baggage and stowed it in the massive trunk. Slamming the lid shut with a sturdy “boom- click” bounce, the still-headless cabbie opened the driver door, sat down, and gently closed it with a mild “click” all to the amazement of John Blue, who was gradually learning that he should not be amazed by anything he saw. “Shai . . . Esseiyyid would like shai? And pitta, I think?” “Sure, Shai,” John Blue nodded toward the cabbie’s rearview mirror. 11
  16. 16. John R. Wible “Shai, I’m sorry what did you ask?” “Shai . . . a . . . um . . . tea. Shai is a drink, not a driver . . . tea. Esseiyyid would like tea and pita bread?” At this moment, John Blue felt as if he was in a Vaudeville routine and he was the straight man. “If shai is tea, then who is the driver - who are you,” popped back John Blue, half expecting the driver to reply, “No, Who’s on first!” Back to reality, John Blue scanned the driver’s identification card on the dashboard and found no help as it appeared to be written in some Middle-Eastern script. “Exactly who are you and where are taking me for “shai?” “Chasers.” “Chasers is where you are taking me or is that your name,” John Blue continued as confused as a calf looking at a new gate in the pasture. “Chasers is best shai-shack in Lebanon. I, Esseiyyid am Moshe ben ja- min al Masriq, at your humble service; but you should call me “Moe.” Pita bread is good, too there I think.” “Moe,” mirrored John Blue to the mustachioed man of some Mediterranean descent at least by John Blue’s surmise. Immediately, the word, “terrorist!” splashed across the canvas of his mind. “Great, I’ve gotten into a cab with some Middle-Eastern terrorist!” “Moe is no terrorist, Esseiyyid is safe,” replied Moe to John Blue’s un- whispered words. However, John Blue was unconvinced and besides by now he was tired of the Vaudeville routine and was ready to look for answers. “Answers,” he thought, “I don’t even know the questions.” * * * Chasers may have been the best “shai shack” in town, but the tea was hot and spicy, not the house brands that John Blue was used to. Then again this was Lebanon and not home. “Shai is not hot, Esseiyyid, but it is spicy: cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, I think . . . yes, that is the recipe,” again answered Moe to John Blue’s unsaid thoughts. On the other hand, was he not unsaying them? Confusion continued. It was not assuaged by the pita bread and hummus with spinach dip. Dip or no dip, John Blue decided to get to business. “Moe, I’ve been getting some unusual correspondence, and the OSS has tracked it to you,” he spilled, realizing that he was lousy at interrogation and had now not only blown his cover (which never really existed anyway,) but he had also muffed any chance of getting straight answers from Moe? Then Moe surprised him. 12
  17. 17. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis “This is all true as you say, Esseiyyid. Moe has invited Esseiyyid here to talk . . . to learn . . . to find answers.” “Invited … answers?” “Yes, Esseiyyid answers . . . and questions, too. You must walk with Moe deep, deep into the woods . . . Dante’s Woods.” “All will be answered in Dante’s Woods . . . or not.” All John Blue could think to do was nod in a yes-like gesture to Moe’s “. . . or not.” In the back of the Cord, John turned on his cellphone, dialed “999,” and thumbed on the following: “Saved alone.” Hundreds of miles away, Eve received the message and relayed it on to Col. D. “Try to get him back,” roared the pugnacious Col. D through the massive leather-covered door of his office. “No such luck, Sir. He seems to have shut it off. “Blast,” muttered the Colonel. John had indeed shut the phone off, forestalling just such an answer. Perhaps it was the flight, the fright, or the fragrance of the “cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg,” or whatever it was they put in that shai – maybe the spinach dip - that made John Blue uncontrollably sleepy . . . uncontrollably sleep . . . uncon . . . And then the lights went out. In his cinnamon-induced stupor, John Blue dreamed about Dante. Not everybody dreams about Dante, at least not unless seriously controlled substances or alcohol are involved, but then again, not everybody had seen what John Blue had already seen on this day - and it was just getting rolling. He had read Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia a long time ago, and all he could remember was something about The Inferno – Medieval Hell, not somewhere he wanted to walk – with Moe or with anybody else. Nevertheless – he would so walk – with Moe – and with others – three others. Questions would be asked. Questions would be answered. Questions would be questioned. Answers would be found, Answers would be questioned. Decisions would have to be made. As one sign on the wall, among a million others in Chasers proclaimed, “When all is said and done, more is said than is done.” A familiarly unfamiliar feeling forced itself into John Blue’s dream. No . . . not so much a feeling as much a sound – cacophonic yet sonorous at the same time – intimidating yet inviting. As John Blue’s fog lifted, he realized that what he heard – what had awakened him – was the now known “a-oo- ga, a-oo-ga, a-oo-ga” of Moe’s horn. 13
  18. 18. John R. Wible John Blue crawled out of bed and stumbled to the motel-room window. He peered out and stared directly into the headlights of Moe’s Cord cab. This was the second time today an unsuspected bright light had temporarily blinded John Blue. Recovering, he realized that darkness had descended . . . dropped like the Grand Drape at an ancient opera house. He looked at his watch and realized that he had slept all afternoon. Beginning to unbundle his brain, he tried to assess the situation, to size up the circumstances, to find his footing. Where exactly was he; How had he gotten there, and …? “Who in the name of Friar Tuck has dressed me in this ridiculous regalia?” he gasped as he glimpsed his reflection in the motel mirror. He was instantly convulsed in a milieu of shock, surprise, and even amusement! There he stood . . . in a full monk’s habit, complete with robe, hood, rope belt, and . . . “Sandals! I hate sandals!” “A-oo-ga, a-oo-ga, a-oo-ga,” interrupted his rant. “Esseiyyid, we go now,” called Moe leaning on the taxi door, “We go now . . . others waiting. Esseiyyid, we go.” “Others? What others? What other fools could there possibly be who are as astounded as I am to show up in this sideshow? Sideshow,” John Blue snorted, “If this is the sideshow, what, or who is in the center ring? He would soon find out.” John Blue turned on his cellphone. Ignoring several messages, he dialed “999” and texted: “Others.” * * * In the sizeable backseat of Moe’s Westchester, John Blue, ignoring, at least temporarily, he wanted to get past the obvious where and what questions and concentrate on the who and why. Then, as he settled back, he began to become aware of just how “scratchy this monk’s robe is,” he thought. “Virgin wool.” “What?” “The robe, it is woven of coarse wool - pure virgin wool. That is why it is scratching,” Moe, of course, said. John Blue was now becoming aware that Moe seemed to have a habit of that - answering unasked questions – almost reading thoughts. “I took care of all your needs, Esseiyyid. Some are greater than others, but one is more needful than the rest, I think.” John Blue accepted that answer as “all he needed," at this point. 14
  19. 19. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis “Moe, can I ask you a couple of questions?” began John Blue as he was now collected enough to remember why he had come there in the first place and to put aside, as maybe not that important, some of the obvious. He sensed that if he let Moe do the talking, he would learn a lot more. “Moe, I thought I had an agenda, but it seems to have lost itself somewhere back about the 612 Building. Since then, it’s been . . . well . . . interesting.” He stumbled for just the right word to describe the experience thus far. Interesting was all he could muster. “Interesting, yes, this circumstance is interesting – life, it, too, is interesting, is it not, Esseiyyid?” waxed Moe deftly, pushing the parlay past the conspicuous to the consequential as easily as he shifted the Cord’s dry- clutched Bendix transmission from third gear to fourth. Guessing that Moe probably knew that the government was onto him, John Blue decided to be direct. “Who, exactly, are you and why did the government bring me into all this.” There - he put the cards on the table. Would Moe draw, play, lay down, or bluff?  (E) None of the above. An unexpected answer forced itself forward. “Who is Moe? Should it not begin with, “Who is John Blue?” Who does John Blue think he is? Is John Blue himself or is he someone else – perhaps many someones else?” Totally caught off-guard but all the more intrigued, John Blue entered the battle of the question. “Who am I, who am I, I’m John Blue,” was his somewhat Rorschach reply, perhaps harkening back to Jean Val Jean’s line in Les Misérables. Moe was supremely up for the game – except that it wasn’t a game he was playing. Rather, he was maneuvering the conversation toward the seat of the situation, the middle of the matter, the center of it all. “Then, who is John Blue, is he himself alone? For whom does he speak, for himself – for many more himselves like himself? Even Sinn Féin, ‘ourselves alone,’ is plural, I think.” “Cerebral stuff, Moe.” John Blue didn’t yet get it, yet, but he was trying. “Here’s one for you. Does this himself matter or is it only the himselves?” “Yes,” was the not totally unexpected answer. John Blue was getting a read on Moe who, up to this point had been unknowable, but who was apparently now willing to reveal something of himself, not so much by his answers but by his questions. “Perhaps to get the right answer, one must ask the right question,” John Blue surmised. 15
  20. 20. John R. Wible “Yes, Esseiyyid, it is so, I think,” John Blue heard or possibly imagined Moe verbalize. Now, though Moe clearly stated, “Esseiyyid is correct. It is the questions that matter and Moe is taking Esseiyyid to the center of the questions.” “Yeah, I’ve been wondering about that,” half questioned and half stated John Blue. This idea of the “Center of it all” keeps popping up. I saw it on the wall at the 612 building, and you’ve mentioned it more than a couple of times. What does the ‘Center of it all’ mean?” “If Esseiyyid would look in the pocket of the seat-back, there a map will be found.” “Map of what,” John Blue shot back as he complied with the request, or order, or whatever it was. . . “Hmm, a Rand-McNally® map of the United States with Lebanon, Kentucky circled. So, why am I looking at a map of the US?” John Blue scanned the face of the map and even looked on the back. Obviously, Moe was leading him to see the un-obvious. He thought of the words on the wall at the 612 Building, “At the Center of it All.” Then he closed his eyes and pictured the compass he had seen beside the words. Opening his eyes again and staring intently at the map, he still saw only states and towns, lakes and rivers, and mountains and plains. To the north lay Canada, to the south Mexico, east, and west were oceans and in the middle was. . . At the Center of it All . . . was Kentucky – Lebanon, Kentucky to be specific. John Blue now combed the map for more data. There was a section on the back with “Little-Known Facts about Each State.” “OK,” he read, ‘Alabama was politically once part of Mississippi.’ Yeah, he knew that. “California, the Country Store in Baker has sold more winning California State Lottery tickets than any outlet in the state.” “Have to keep that in mind. Let’s see . . . Minnesota.” “Minnesotan, baseball commentator Halsey Hal was the first to say, ‘Holy Cow!’ during a baseball broadcast.” “Holy Cow? Assuming that last factoid . . .” “. . . Is significant,” interrupted Moe, “Yes, Esseiyyid, that is significant, but so are the others. Esseiyyid will see.” As fascinating as was his little Adventures with Maps, John Blue was anxious to get on with . . . well, whatever it was they would get on with – besides, he was getting hungry. Tea and crumpets had long since run out. 16
  21. 21. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis “Moe, are we by any chance going to that “small park at the intersection of – whatever roads it was?” Perhaps they were. * * * In about a mile, the nice US Highway 281, straight, well maintained, and smooth as glass - forked. Turning onto Kansas Route 191, the way became noticeably rougher and narrow - substantially less-travelled. At its intersection with “AA Road,” Moe whipped the Westchester into a gravel parking lot near what appeared in the glare of headlights to be a little White Chapel. Beside the White Chapel, John Blue observed a rock monument with a plaque on it. Was this the “Center of it All?” “Please to get out, Esseiyyid; our guests are waiting.” Moe urged. “Guests? Oh, yeah, the other fools you’ve dragged into this – what did I call it? Oh yeah – sideshow, this sideshow.” “Not knaves or fools, Esseiyyid, Magi - wise men, in their own way, wise men three and a Satrap, all pressed down, shaken together and running over for good measure.” Under his breath, John Blue muttered, “Wise Men? I wonder where they parked their camels – somewhere here in Lebanon no doubt. Better watch your step, Moe, he called out.” Moe just looked at him blankly. “Camels, Get it? Wise men, Camels - never mind,” John Blue sighed. When he got hungry, sometimes John Blue’s sarcasm got the better of him - and he was hungry. Moe led him into the little White Chapel. There John found the meager furnishings: four short pews facing a tiny stage overlooked by a timeworn, camel-colored tapestry of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. In the center of the tiny stage, about three feet apart stood two ancient ammud or lectern-posts. Three lone figures sat on the pews to John Blue’s left with their backs toward him, tow on each pew. John Blue could recognize none of them as they, too were wearing the same robe and cowl as was John Blue. Moe motioned for John Blue to sit on the right side. * * * All sat in a pregnant silence, not unlike waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain with the Word. Here, though, there was neither mountain nor Moses. 17
  22. 22. John R. Wible But then again, there was Moe, who coursed to the front as though he had done this a million times before. He slowly turned toward the men and opened his mouth to speak. “Ushpizim - Dear Guests,” he started, “This is John Blue - Adam. Like so many Adam, John Blue has reached this hidden place, this mistar, by one way or another. This is his secret place known only to him yet unsuspected by him because he has not yet seen it – not with his eyes – but maybe with his spirit. Each Adam has invited Ushpizim, his dear guests.” “Like each, he is no doubt surprised to find that it was he that invited you specific three by the act of asking somewhere in his spirit. Like all Adam, he has been taught, and has the hope that one, more, or all of you three can make answer to the question he already knows but has not yet asked even of himself.” “Ushpizim, do you know the answers – do you know the questions? Have you been taught that you do? John Blue alone must decide whether he will accept your answers. He must decide whether he will act on his acceptance of your answers. Many Adam do not know the answers; many think they know but sadly do not desire to know; many know but do not act on their knowledge. A few, however, find their way.” Having said this, Moe walked between the ammud, to the downstage wall where he parted the camel wall hanging. He looked at John Blue, indicating with his glance that he should follow. Moe disappeared through the arras. Like Moe, John Blue, followed by each of the Ushpizim, walked through the pillars of the ammud, through the arras and through the downstage back of the White Chapel. Outside and behind the White Chapel, John Blue saw a campfire encircled by five boulders. Seated on the center boulder was Moe. He offered John Blue a place to sit and one to each still-unidentified Ushpizin. “Esseiyyid and Ushpizin are hungry, yes?” “Yes, very,” replied John Blue, remembering it had been a long time since the “sort of tea and crumpets.” Saying nothing, the Ushpizin nodded, moving only their cowls so as not to reveal their faces. “May Moe offer Esseiyyid, some fish?” John Blue noticed that there were broiled fish on sticks stuck in the ground suspend over the fire like the superstructure of the flying buttresses of a great gothic cathedral. He had no idea how Moe had ended up with the fish and cooked them so quickly. 18
  23. 23. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis But then again, nothing Moe did surprised him. He ate as one long ago would have eaten. This was the best fish he had ever eaten. John didn’t know it, but he was eating Musht, a variety of tilapia galilea, commonly called Saint Peter’s fish. 19
  24. 24. John R. Wible Canto III INFERNO Hope not ever to see Heaven. I have come to lead you to the other shore; into eternal darkness; into fire and into ice. - Dante’s Guide, Virgil, Inferno, Canto III. After all were satisfied, unbidden, the first Ushpizin stood, now removing his cowl and robe. He looked distantly familiar in the flicker of the firelight being a somewhat thin man with a thin nose that seemed to reach a point in a precise manner. His hair was a bit close-coiffed and neatly parted on the left. He was immaculately suited in handmade, three-piece Edwardian fashion suit topped off by a longish lounge coat. His vest sported a gold watch chain and fob emblazoned, “University of Chicago.” Overlain by white spats, his high-button shoes glistened, even in the firelight of highly polished Italian leather. As any king should be, he was crowned, not by a gold wreath but by a silk top hat. He was obviously a rich man – an extremely rich man. “Perhaps the richest man in the world,” John Blue guessed. He strode out of the firelight in an elegant manner to the edge of the clearing where a circular front, closed cab, two-horse carriage awaited. The coats of the matched ebony- colored carriage horses glistened in the flickering firelight. “Let us go, Sir,” the most elegant of Ushpizin called out impatiently to John Blue. “We are wasting time. Time Sir is money, and I will not waste money. ‘Willful waste makes woeful want,’ my mother always said – and my mother was always right." “Okay, now I see. Money, bucks, wampum, bread, dough – Mammon,” observed John Blue under his breath, “So, that’s what will drive this realm, (in addition to the black-suited, derby-topped coachman.) Wasting no more precious time, he entered the coach with the Ushpizin. Take us out there, James,” he called to the coachman. “There,” wondered John Blue, “Where was there?” He was still working on here. His question was answered in an instant as James coaxed the carriage- horses into the black nothingness - rickety-tickety, rockety-tockety . . . bump. 20
  25. 25. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis The carriage emerged from the darkened wood onto a magnificently maintained road, suitable for even a horseless carriage. The road sign said, “Kykuit 798 Miles.” “I guess we’ll be here a long time before we get to there,” John Blue’s head sank in his hand. Once again, that eerie lethargica overtook him, the one with the cardamom after-taste. In what seemed merely mid-thought, John Blue was awakened by the rumble, bumble jumble of the carriage wheels on a difference surface. Wide-eyed now, in the distance John Blue saw an immense mansion-house standing about four stories tall. There were candles lighted in each window. There must have been a hundred or more – so many that the entire outline of the mansion-house was clearly visible even laid against an early evening- darkened sky. The “candle crescendo” echoed onto the waters of a great river behind the grounds. The mansion-house was surrounded by meticulously manicured hedges that stretched as far in every direction as the eye could see (especially in the dark,) coming to a point in the center of the front yard, and turning toward the road. As John Blue took in the scene, his gaze was fashioned on the tree- lined lane that lay in front of them on their night-flight toward the now- visible massive circular drive-around in front of the main door. It was to that point that James skillfully rested the bouncing buggy. He “de-buggied” and ran around to the side to assist the still-unidentified Ushpizin. John Blue “de-buggied” himself, obviously not holding center stage in this act of the drama. “Would you honor us with your presence at our Christmas dinner, Sir,” he intoned with an elegant yet condescendingly Knickerbocker nod of continence gesturing with his top hat toward the double French front door looming large behind the massive Roman arch of the front porch. John Blue took the bait and bounded up the marble steps to the massive porch followed immediately by the man and James who hurried to get the door for them. As James flung open the door, John Blue was yet again, the almost him, the light of the Christmas tree in the left-center of the hall flanking a spiral staircase. This was no ordinary Christmas tree – no, this was the quintessential Christmas tree, the tree all other trees wished they could be. It seemed to stretch to the roof. 21
  26. 26. John R. Wible Under it, in neatly nestled rows lay the presents – many presents, presents of every size, wrapped in paper of every color and description. Even the bows were exquisite. “If I were a kid,” thought John Blue, “I would think I had died and gone to Heaven!” Nevertheless – he wasn’t and he hadn’t. Turning toward their right, they entered the oak-paneled drawing room that lay behind the second Roman arch. John immediately noticed the detail of the woodworking on the walls. The ceiling must have been sixteen feet high and a prism-glass chandelier hung in the center lighting the whole room – and more, too if it wanted to. “Granddaddy!” greeted a veritable gaggle of giggling goslings - youngsters, rushing up to the man whom John Blue was beginning to discern. The man kneeled and greeted all the small children and rising, an elegant lady – obviously his wife, with a perfunctory kiss. John Blue noticed what appeared to be grown sons, daughters, their spouses, business associates, and some even un-accounted-for people who fit in rather well at the festive occasion. The Ushpizin was about to introduce John Blue when he was interrupted by the butler, announcing dinner. “Dinner is served, Sir.” Moreover, some dinner it turned out to be. Back across the entry hall, they entered the dining room. A dazzling, dizzying display of wonder decorated the dining room: stained glass, stenciled patterns, hand painting, carved woodwork, and lots of gilding. The central feature was a fully dressed Christmas-dinner table the length of which would, “have to be measured in cubits,” John Blue thought. The table was set with the finest of china (really from China) and English goblets at each place. There were “enough forks,” John Blue speculated, “for every mine worker to dig sixteen tons of number nine coal. Now why did I think of mineworkers? John prophetically puzzled” By a bit of snooping amid the merriment of the moment, John Blue spied a nickname penned in calligraphy upon the place card at the head of the table’s head, “J.D.R.” “As I thought, this Ushpizin’s not a king, he’s a Baron,” John Blue nodded knowingly to himself. Finding that he had been labeled as “Honored Guest” on the place card seated at Siege Perilous at the Barons’ right, he made his way there and stood behind his chair, noting that all the dinner guests did the same. 22
  27. 27. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis Like the Reverend Father of a newly born spiritual congregation, the Baron stood rather stiffly behind his massive oaken captain’s chair. His wife, from all the way down the table at the foot, asked in an accustomed way, “Dear, would you say Grace for us?” Our Dear Heavenly Father, we come to Thee on this, the greatest of celebrations, the recognition of the birth of Thy Son, Our Savior, Jesus Christ, whom Thou givest to us to take away our sins, both great and small. We thank Thee that in Thy divine beneficence, Thou has seen fit to so save us. We thank Thee for the blessings that Thou givest us from Thy bounty and receive them in a spirit of humility and gratefulness. We ask that Thou wouldest bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and our bodies to Thy service, in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. As they all sat down, John Blue turned to the Baron and remarked, “Wow, that was some blessing. You must be a very religious man.” “I should hope so,” was the sanctimonious reply. Stunned, John Blue fumbled to no avail for an appropriate response to such a profoundly holy statement. The meal was served sumptuously featuring all the delicacies that one could expect or imagine: cherry-stone oysters in beds of cress, consommé a la royal, broiled salmon, lobster sauce, Parisiénne potatoes, turkey, chestnut stuffing, cranberry sauce, boiled rice, creamed onions, shaddock sherbet, canvas-back duck, fox grape jelly, lettuce salad, French dressing, mince pie, pumpkin custard, nuts, raisins, fruits, and coffee. The conversation was a mix of familial frivolity banter, more serious, let light-hearted talk of plans hopes and dreams, and pleas of “please pass the oysters.” After an hour or more of feasting, John Blue, along with everyone else, he assumed, found themselves pleasantly filled with all the “good things of life” wrought by the hands of the Patriarch, the Baron. In a few minutes, the Baron turned to John Blue, who, not having any intelligent input into all these esoteric conversations had kept remarkably silent. “Would you, Sir, care to repair to my Kykuit Teahouse, our place to have serious talks? It is certainly time that did have a serious talk. There must be questions and answers, answers and questions. 23
  28. 28. John R. Wible “Of course,” John Blue nodded approvingly, assuming that such was the real reason he was here, apparently at a place called Kykuit, and not to eat “Oysters Rockefeller,” no matter, however, they had been so deliciously prepared. John Blue followed the Baron leaving the grand mansion-house following a torchier and hedge-lined path toward the Tea House. The Tea House was not only a place for conversation, it was itself, a conversation being a Japanese-style teahouse nestled in a Japanese garden, crossing over a gentle brook. Once inside, the pair seated themselves. The conversation was light at first with the Baron regaling John Blue about his upbringing, his absent, ne’er-do-well father, and his truly sainted mother. They were about to get down to business, whatever that business was when they were interrupted by the Butler who asked, “Would Sir and the Gentleman care for brandy?” “Brandy, queried John Blue, not able to resist a tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, what year?” “I believe it would be Cognac Jules Robin 1858, may I suggest that the Gentleman will find it quite satisfactory,” retorted the unflappable butler in a cultured put-down of his plebian guest. “Yes, quite,” John Blue returned volley, knowing that he had not “held serve” against a real professional. The Baron nodded, and the butler was off on his alcoholic errand. John Blue now began what he perceived as his interrogation of his subject, the Baron. “Back at the White Chapel, I got the impression from Moe that I was to learn what I could from you. So far, I’m somewhat on sensory overload. You appear to ‘have everything that money can buy,’ as they say, whoever they be or are.” “I suppose that is true, his subject began, But I have learned also that, as the also say, ‘money can’t buy everything.’ It can’t buy happiness, and it can’t buy the good will of your fellow man. It certainly can’t buy Gods favor.” “Well said, Sir,” John Blue was beginning when there came a knock at the door. It was Mr. Charles Millard Pratt, the Baron’s personal secretary. Pratt was solicitous man, long experienced in catering to his eccentric boss. “Was Boss a sufficiently strong word. What do you call the servants to a Baron,” John Blue wondered. 24
  29. 29. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis “Sir, a matter requires your immediate attention. There has been trouble at the mine – the Ludlow mine in Colorado, the one where there have been some – ah - labor disputes.” “Hmm … a mine,” John Blue remembered his earlier thought of miners. “What seems to be the nature of the trouble?” asked the Baron. “Well, Sir, there seems to be an uprising, a riot of sorts among the … ah… miners.” “Is this about their pay again?” exclaimed a growingly more exasperated Baron. “Yes, Sir, and about their living conditions.” “Their living conditions? Aren’t company houses and a company store good enough for them? Why we provide everything they need to live.” The Baron did not like the sound of serious and the two men excused themselves for a moment leaving the room briefly. In the meantime, John Blue noted what he assumed to be the day’s paper, the New York Times. It was dated April 29, 1914. “April 20, 1914!” exclaimed John Blue aloud. But then, again, nothing that was happening on the adventure of “national security” was surprising to him. On returning, the two men were still talking. “What kind of staff does the mining company have on hand?” the Baron asked. “Not enough to handle the situation,” replied his lackey. “Then take a telegram to the Governor . . . ah . . ." “Shafroth, Sir?” “Yes, Governor Shafroth, I’m counting on him along with our men there to take care of this unfortunate situation.” * * * Am informed of labor uprising at the mine STOP Please be so kind as to activate a sufficient number of National Guard troops to put down same STOP Use whatever force or coercion 25 To: The Honorable John F. Shafroth, Governor, State of Colorado Regarding: Uprising at Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, Ludlow
  30. 30. John R. Wible necessary STOP Regards JDR STOP “Very good, Sir,” Pratt obliged. “Will that be all?” “Yes,” the Baron almost yelled, “We’ve got to put those miners in their place even if it means burning them out.” Then Pratt rethought the decision, “What about injuries or even deaths. How will this be received by the press?” “Hang the press!” stormed the Baron, “We’ve got to show the union organizers who is their boss. Then we’ll have the Foundation take over the reparations,” the Baron more calmly whispered almost through his clenched teeth, “or the damages.” “Very good, Sir,” Pratt back peddled both verbally and physically, once again leaving the two men alone in the Tea House. Turning to John Blue, the Baron stated, “Those miners are trying to for a union. The union will, of course, want higher wages, and better living conditions for the miners. That’s going to cost us a lot of money and might, in the end, make that business unprofitable, and we can’t have that. If there is anything I have learned it’s that everything must, in the long run, turn a profit – everything – everything.” John Blue recoiled for a moment at what he had seen as an incongruity within the mind of the Baron. On the one hand, he saw a great man of prayer who appeared to be quite spiritual. Yet on the other, he saw a ruthless businessman who would stop at nothing to turn a profit. “How,” he wondered, “could the Baron justify himself, could he resolve this dichotomy?” This brought him to ask, “Sir, you appear to be a very religious man. . .” “Religious?” interrupted the Baron, “I’m not sure you could label me as such. However, my Mother always raised me to read the Bible and to do what it says. I think I have always been faithful to that teaching. I have never smoked tobacco or drunk whiskey. I have served my church faithfully for a long time – everything from Sunday school teacher to janitor – yes even janitor.” “Janitor, Sir?” “Yes, even janitor!” “Sir, it appears that your spiritual heart is in what some would call the right place. Yet, tell me how you justify such harsh treatment of your fellow human being, the miners, and their families,” John Blue pressed. “Justify it?” Shot back the Baron in a soliloquy that would be worthy 26
  31. 31. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis of Shakespeare, “I don’t need to justify it or anything else to you or to anybody. What you are calling ‘justification,’ I call ‘weakness.” Look here, Sir, I’ll have you know that I am the richest man in the world, and I didn’t get to this point by being weak or by justifying myself to anything or to anyone. When I was just a young lad, I went to school to be a simple bookkeeper. My modest goals were simply to make one hundred thousand dollars and to live one hundred years. I have far surpassed the former and I plan very much on making the latter. My Mother always taught me that ‘nothing should be wasted – not time – not money.” The Baron’s rant continued, “BUSINESS IS BUSINESS! You may not agree with me, Sir, and it certainly is your right to be wrong, but if one is to be a success, one must separate religion from business. I can. I do what I have to do so as not to waste money. If that means that a bunch of coal-dusty miners and their miserable families live in undesirable conditions or if I have to buy up a failing company for pennies on the dollar then turn it around to make a profit for me and for my family, then I will do it. If it means that I will leverage whatever influence I have acquired to force my competitors out of business, I will do that, too. BUSINESS IS BUSINESS! never forget it - never forget it. I haven’t – I can’t,” he seethed again. John Blue observed, “That’s kind of harsh, Sir, isn’t it? So, you are saying that ‘spirituality is spirituality and business is business?” John Blue attempted to summarize for his own information and understanding. “More bad news from the mine sir . . . there has been an incident,” again interrupted Mr. Pratt, “But the mine personnel, our private detectives, and the National Guard have the situation in hand. Their handling was a bit drastic, but it is now handled. You may rest easy about the whole matter.” “I always rest easy,” the still-agitated Baron retorted. “Very good then, Sir,” Mr. Pratt solicited over his shoulder as he left the room with his head down and his hands folded, leaving the room in an uneasy silence. Amidst or perhaps because of, this silence in the room, the two remaining men assimilated what had just happened. During the silence, John Blue had time to contemplate what he had just seen. However, his contemplation was cut short by the now familiar “A-oo-ga, a-oo-ga, a-oo- ga” of ‘Moe’s horn outside the Tea House. Turning to the Baron, John Blue said, “By your leave, Sir, I suppose it is time for me to go. I will leave your miners for to you to handle.” I’m sure their situation is in the best of hands with you managing the situation. 27
  32. 32. John R. Wible “Yes,” said the Baron, confident that he had handled the situation in the appropriate manner, rising and shaking John Blue’s hand cordially. John Blue walked out of the Tea House and as expected, he found ‘Moe’s Cord-Winchester awaiting him. “Did Esseiyyid learn anything of note?” “Yes, as a matter of fact, I did,” answered John Blue – but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with what I now know.” Moe reassured him – somewhat, “Perhaps all will be revealed in time.” John Blue rode in silence for a while thinking about the conversation and the events of the evening. While the beauty of the house, the elegance of the meal and the graciousness of the family and invited guests, struck him, he could not get away from the complete and utter separation that the Baron had made between his spiritual life and his business life. After a few moments of silence, Moe asked back peering into his rearview mirror, “Did Esseiyyid find the evening profitable?” “Profitable?” repeated John Blue, “I suppose so. You see, that’s the thing – to the Baron, life is a ledger sheet measured solely in profit and loss. I find it very - interesting – no – puzzling, that he is so completely able to separate what; by all appearances is a deep spiritual life from his business. Can you make that separation?” “If Esseiyyid would permit Moe a humble question, would Esseiyyid consider it a profitable life, if he gained all the wealth in the world but in the end, found that his soul was kaph, the mere hollow of the hand, like an empty palm – a shell not even containing air?” The question intrigued John Blue. “What do you mean by ‘his soul is hollow’? Do you mean like a bucket that’s got a hole in it?” John Blue queried borrowing a line from an old country music song. “Perhaps, in a manner of speaking. If Moe may be permitted to answer Esseiyyid’s question with another question. If Esseiyyid peels an onion layer by layer, what would Esseiyyid have in the end? Would Esseiyyid have the irreducible core or would Esseiyyid ultimately have nothing? In other words, is one’s soul made up of a core wrapped in all the things that he is; or do all the things that he is become his core?” John Blue stood amazed by the fact that such a deeply philosophical question should come from a cab driver, but then again, Moe was certainly not your ordinary cabbie. He suspected that somehow in the little Middle Eastern head was the answer that eluded all the world’s sages. “Moe, I have 28
  33. 33. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis heard that question being posed by great philosophers, and they all have arrived at different answers, none of them satisfying.” “Esseiyyid,” observed Moe, “This question is not about the onion but about the core. Moe knows that there are many answers to this question but what is important to Moe, to you, Esseiyyid, is what does Esseiyyid believe the answer to be?” “Truthfully,” John Blue admitted, “At the moment, I really don’t know. Not only do I not know, I don’t have a clue.” “Very well, Esseiyyid, there is much more to discover, many clues to be found, but I fear, more questions than answers. Would Esseiyyid care for shai?” “I’ve had you shai before with some dizzying effects; perhaps I will pass.” “Esseiyyid, it will be a long trip, some shai might make the trip shorter,” urged Moe, “Besides, and shai is already made.” “OK, shai it is. Moe, you’re ‘way ahead of me!” With that, John Blue found in the console a warm pot of shai surrounded by demitasse cups. The set looked like rare Phoenician blue glass, perhaps hand blown. He secretly wondered how old it was. Time seemed to be rather flexible these days. Its beauty and the aroma of the spices steeping in the pot made the shai all the more inviting. John Blue carefully poured a cup, but before drinking it, he turned on his cellphone and texted, “Profitable?” to “999. On the other end, Eve received and relayed the message to the Colonel. His reaction was the same. Turning off his cell, John Blue quaffed the shai gingerly, and floated away to what he expected would be Shangri-La, the land of dreams. In that land, however, he found himself standing as a gladiator in the middle of a Roman Coliseum. Throngs of people ringed him in their seats and standing, screaming at fever pitch. “Off with his arm,” yelled a toga- clad figure seated with great pomp in the imperial box. Perhaps, this was John Blue’s apparition of “Great Caesar’s Ghost,” or perhaps it was the effects of the cardamom. In either case, at Caesar’s command, another gladiator entered the arena. He was fully armored in a gold breastplate over his tunic of red and helmeted likewise in gold with a red plume. He was armed with a scutum in his left hand; two pilas slung over is back, and a short pugio stuck in his girdle. Of more instant importance, however, he held in his right hand a 29
  34. 34. John R. Wible Gladius Hispaniensis, his fighting sword (which appeared to John Blue in that moment to be about six feet long!) The gladiator approached John Blue, who was rapidly turning into John Yellow, and with a single, sweep of his artistic arc cleanly severed John Blue’s left arm so quickly that the blood refused to flow. “Now the other arm,” Caesar ordered – and it was so; “and his legs, one following the other” – and it was so; “and his head!” And it was so! “Where is John Blue,” yelled someone from the crowd! Others took up the cheer, “Where is John Blue, where is John Blue, where is John Blue?” “No más, no más,” uttered John Blue in his best excuse for Latin at the time (which really was one of the few Spanish phrases he remembered and that from the lips of the Panamanian boxer, Roberto Duran.) “Non-tam, non-tam, not so much!” John finally breathed again in a sigh as a now-very-thankful-it-was-only-a-dream John Blue realized that he was in the cab as it rolled to a stop near the campfire. For some eerie reason, the fire had not diminished its intensity in the slightest no matter how long they had been gone (however long that was or wasn’t.) They exited the Westchester and returned to the circle of stones. Once again, John Blue beheld the four cowl-covered and robed Ushpizim, apparently including the Baron, seated in their now accustomed places. John Blue joined them. As if on cue, a second Ushpizin stood, allowing his cowl-crowned robe to drop to his shoulders then to the ground in a slow-motion fall that reminded John of chocolate flowing, lava-like down the side of Willy Wonka’s caldron. “That cardamom really packs a wallop!” John smiled at the timing of his own peculiar thoughts. 30
  35. 35. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis Canto IV PURGATORIO “It is in accordance with nature that money should increase from natural goods; Not from money itself." - Forese Donati to Dante, Purgatorio, Canto XXIII, line 4. Much to John Blue’s surprise, the second Ushpizin stood before him in an ill-fitting orange jumpsuit, beltless, and wearing “flip-flops.” His hair was disheveled, and his beard badly needed trimming. He was gaunt and pale in appearance. In his eyes, John Blue could see the far-away look of a man who had experienced a great loss – a great sorrow – a great and unpardonable sin. From the shadows, walked two middle-aged men wearing olive drab, military-style suits complete with blouse, Sam Browne belts, and garrison caps. On their breastplate, John Blue could just make out, “Cold Mountain State Penitentiary – Guard.” Moe, who had been standing all along, whispered to John Blue, “Moe will see you later. I promise. This will be hard.” “Great,” thought John Blue sarcastically to himself as he rose from his rock that had just began to seem comfortable. “It will be,” came the now-somewhat-expected verbal response from Moe to the non-verbal expression, “It will be - in the end.” As usual, this was not that comforting to John Blue. The two guards approached the now-standing second Ushpizin and John Blue. They held manacles and shackles in their hands with which they tethered the Ushpizin and John Blue. After so be-shackling them, the guards chained the two together and led them, hobbling into the darkness. John Blue heard the rattling of a truck engine, as it turned out, he heard the State’s 1949 International Harvester DT 466 Paddy Wagon. “Git in,” ordered one of the guards who climbed into the wagon with the two prisoners. The other man mounted the cab and drove it into the night. As the darkness inside was palpable, the three men in the business end of the vehicle sat in silence for quite some time. John Blue had no idea what the other two were thinking, but he was thinking that he wished he were somewhere else – he muttered, “Where is Moe with my shai?” Even without Moe’s shai, time stood stand still in the wagon. Before long, John Blue could hear the wagon turn onto a gravel road and then stop. He heard the voices of men outside, and then he heard the “creak- creaking” of what sounded like the opening - then closing of a rusty gate. 31
  36. 36. John R. Wible The back door opened, and the guard stepped out. He was joined by the driver and by another man dressed in a guard’s uniform. John Blue looked up and in the night, he could make out the shape of a concrete building that was impressive. It was Impressive to John because he wondered how a building that dilapidated and run-down looking could still be standing, let alone be used as a state prison. “Put yo’ head down, boy!” snarled one of the guards. Don’t look up, don’t look to the left, and don’t look to the right. You look at what I tell you to look at. You got it. John only nodded and kept his head down. He got it all right – but he didn’t want it. Shuffling through a maze of wire fence and rusted steel doors, the prisoners finally entered the inside of a place that they could neither better describe nor even imagined. They were in the building known to the State for a long time as Cold Mountain State Penitentiary. John Blue remembered probably the most famous phrase from Dante. ‘All hope abandon, ye who enter here.’ Such characters, in color dim, I mark’d Over a portal’s lofty arch inscribed. – Canto III, Hell. The guards, huffing foul, smelly breath and sweating more foully, pushed the unfortunate two down the hall that John Blue could now see was lined with cells. Inside the cells, he saw men, many men. They were jeering and “clang, clanging” on the bars with their tin coffee cups. At the end of the hall, directly in the center was a light green, windowless, unbarred door with a giant lock into which the guard inserted one of the multitude of keys that occupied his massive, circular key ring. He motioned for the two to enter – and they did – with the assist of the guard’s callous hobnail boot. The room was rather small enclosing only two bunk-beds stripped but holding linen and a moth-eaten blanket. The room contained a sink and toilet, both made of metal and both badly in need of cleaning and repair. John Blue noticed the “drip-drip” of the sink immediately and saw the puddle of water on the unpainted, concrete floor under it. The walls were of the same concrete except painted that awful shade of light green that reminded John Blue of the color of the walls of his old office, the color he liked to refer to as “State Green.” A single light bulb was caged into the ceiling. There was a small slot in the door, apparently for a food tray. This was not John Blue would call homey. “Homey,” John thought, “I wonder how long this will pass for home.” 32
  37. 37. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis The foul-smelling and ghastly guard removed their shackles and manacles and left, slamming the huge door behind him with an intimidating “boom, clash, click.” Now that - that put an exclamation point on the events of the last day. Exhausted, bewildered, and near anaphylactic shock, the two collapsed onto their unmade bunks. John Blue now found himself becoming used to finding himself baffled – this instance was no exception, and he tried to sort it out. “OK, I’m a prisoner in a state penal institution, apparently the mother of ALL state penal institutions, the ‘Cold Mountain State Penitentiary’ according to the guard’s uniforms. I’m in a cell - presumably a maximum- security cell, but WHO IN THE NAME OF CHARLES MANSON IS THIS GUY! Is he a homicidal axe murderer, a serial killer, a notorious pedophile, the Lindbergh kidnapper, the Count of Monte Christo, Hannibal Lecter, John Mason – Who? What?” “Preacher,” the other guy broke the spell of John’s thoughts. “I’m a preacher.” “A preacher?” John Blue half stated, half questioned. “If I’m right, we’re in a really bad situation here in some gosh-awful maximum security prison cell. Why is a preacher here, I mean, the last time I checked, they don’t put preachers in jail for bad oratory – do they?” “I killed a man,” was the reply, “And if you don’t mind, I’ve got a lot to get off my chest – and time is short. It will soon be midnight.” “Go ahead – shoot.” The words passed John Blue’s lips before he thought what he was saying. Rethinking his reply, he rephrased his reply, “I mean, tell me about it. I guess I’m an okay listener, after all, I am trained as a Baptist Disaster Chaplain – and this whole day would certainly appear to qualify as just that, a disaster . . . Oh, never mind, I got off into my own stuff for a minute – go ahead, tell me about it. Besides, who are you, anyway?” My name is John Bunyan Goode – Johnny B. Goode, the man, began. “Really, Johnny B. Goode?” more audibly than he had intended, John Blue interrupted. “Yeah, Johnny B. Goode. My mother thought it was a good idea. You see, she was a Sunday school teacher as had been her mother and she was the church pianist, and had been for a long time. I was raised around the church. Our house was two doors down from the church. Preachers came and went around our place. I guess I knew a lot of them, too. Some went on to great things. One was president of the State Convention; one became a famous evangelist; one went on to be a seminary professor; and so on – though, one did end up selling roofing. Selling – I guess that’s where the trouble all started.” 33
  38. 38. John R. Wible “Go on,” interrupted John Blue, now more mesmerized than by any other preacher he had heard in a long time. “I was selling myself. I really admired them, the preachers – their status – a sort of celebrity, at least to my way of thinking. All I ever wanted to be was a preacher. They let me be the music director at the church by the time I was thirteen – I was pretty good at it, too. One preacher even wanted me to go on and study music, but music director, that was second banana; I wanted to be the headliner.” “The headliner?” questioned John Blue. “I would have expected that there’d be some mention of faith or God or Jesus or something like that by now. Wouldn’t that be the headliner - main act?” “Yeah, that’s . . . that’s the problem. I was caught up in what I saw as the celebrity of it all. I know that to most people a small-town preacher isn’t a celebrity, but to me he was – and I wanted it. I wanted it bad. I sold myself on the idea that religion was the answer to all my little-boy and teen-age issues. Believe – all you gotta do is to believe.” “Believe? Believe in what, believe in Who?” John Blue did not understand. “I never really quite worked that out for myself. I developed what you’d call a ‘theology of the way.” “The Way – isn’t that what the early Christians called their belief in Jesus?” John Blue pressed the point. He wondered if he wanted to hear the answer. “Oh sure - I see you’re up on your preacher-lingo buzz-words, but that’s not it, it’s the way, as in “The Way We’ve always done it.” I let myself get caught up in the worship of that way. I sold myself on it – maybe to it.” “Religion, that’s the way: being good – doing right, going to church, inviting kids to Bible study, having prayer in schools, posting all the Ten Commandments, picketing abortion clinics, voting Republican - all that stuff – religious stuff. And let me tell you I was good at it. I could preach; I could pray; I could sing; I could play the piano; I could even take up the collection! I guess you could say I was a One Man Travellin’ Salvation Show!” Johnny had gotten out of his bunk and was pacing the floor in the tiny cubicle like a wild animal waiting for something – but what? He stared intently at John Blue for a long time – an uncomfortably long time then assumed a preacher stance, left side toward John, but body turned; leaning in from the shoulder, and left hand extended toward John 34
  39. 39. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis Blue pointing directly at him. John Blue imagined the finger entering his body and touching his very heart! “Now then, let me ask you a question,” Johnny continued, his voice beginning in a hush and increasing in volume and intensity until it reached a wave-like crescendo, a cascade of contention, a waterfall of words flowing down like a river and echoing off the six hard surfaces in the tiny room. “What if you met a girl, and she was everything a man could want, and you married her because it was convenient because she - because it - had a lot of advantages, but in your heart, you didn’t love her – would that be a good thing? Would that be a righteous thing? What if there was someone else you loved more - and what if that someone was yourself? Would that be a good thing? Would that be a righteous thing? Can you, for God’s sake give me a good answer for that, because I sure would like to know before I die! “I’m not sure,” John Blue stammered and hesitated an answer, “You’re asking for absolutes, and if it’s in love, you’re talking about - a feeling that comes and goes, ebbs and flows, rises and falls - I don’t think there are any absolutes, it’s all relative.” Johnny backed down his preacher mode. “Well, maybe in that kind of love it is relative, feelings being what they are. Maybe that was not a good example, but what I’m trying to say is that I loved it more than I loved Him. He was not my Savior, it – religion - was.” Eventually, John Blue’s mind left what was a very stimulating conversation, and looked into this guy’s heart. Then he began to wonder what this sermon and blowback had to do with their current circumstance. “I am trying to see the relevance to this.” “Here’s the relevance,” shot back Johnny B. Goode, “You are, or become, what you think. I read that somewhere. If you think that religion ought to become your prime mover, you could say it eventually becomes your god. In the worship of your god, you should do anything he – it – commands. If you think you’re his servant, nothing is impossible, nothing.” Johnny continued his story, beginning to show his evangelistic fervor again. “I went on to seminary and became a preacher, an evangelist. Being a gifted speaker, I started to draw a crowd. I, we, started to play to packed houses. The houses got bigger and bigger. We went from tents in supermarket parking lots to the biggest churches in the town, and then to the big stadium,” he orated, expanding his arms into a huge wingspan the size of an eagle’s. 35
  40. 40. John R. Wible We were the big time: radio, TV, and even our own movie company. We, I, we had an empire – an empire that had to be protected . . . That’s where it all started to unravel.” His voice softened, his eyes watering. “You get used to the celebrity, people coming to pick you up at the airport, people buying your meals, the best hotels, the best of everything – everything. However, everything costs money – lots of money. I had to start juggling the books. Nothing big at first, just fixing cash-flow problems.” To “Scotch” things up, I started using my contacts to sell bonds, church bonds – you know, you can make a lot of money selling church bonds to gullible congregations. Nevertheless, that went south. I had to fix the fix and fix the fix that fixed the fix – if you know what I mean. It had all gotten out of control.” “Then that’s when my accountant, the one who was supposed to fix the fix decided he needed to fix me. He said he was going to the IRS, maybe going public, I didn’t know what he was going to do. I got scared – real scared. I could see my empire crashing around me; I could see myself defrocked and weeping on my own TV show; I could see myself in Maxwell Prison doing two to five for income tax evasion. My savior had become my adversary! I had to fix this – myself,” Johnny now proclaimed through clenched teeth and a locked jaw. “When you get to and become the big time, you meet a lot of people, some good – some not so good. Sometimes the not-so-good people though are the people you need most. As I said, I had an accountant to fix things, but I also had a guy to fix people. He fixed it – he fixed the accountant. He set him up to take the fall for the finances, but when it became apparent that the fix wasn’t permanent enough, I had him fix it, fix him permanently.” Johnny now grew pensive and stared around the room as if he didn’t known who was listening. “The plane crashed killing all on board – all including the accountant. The records were burned in the wreckage – so I thought I was cleared – but I wasn’t and it all eventually fell completely apart.” Johnny philosophizing now, “It’s funny how when you begin in basically the right direction but get just a little off, you eventually realize that you weren’t in the right direction in the first place. Was religion ever my savior or was it always my adversary. I don’t know. Maybe I was my adversary, or at least my pride was my adversary. When you get to where I’ve been, it gets harder and harder to tell your friends from your adversaries. 36
  41. 41. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis Whatever the case, me . . . my pride and my adversary are going to light up the night tonight when the warden’s clock strikes midnight. Then, my time will be over.” The preacher’s voice that had begun in a trumpet’s flourish ended in a muffled ruffle – the methodical and measured sound of distant drums. – Drums beating mournfully for him. Just as Johnny B. Goode finished his oration, the great rusted, twisted door opened, and John Blue could see two men standing there – a guard and a real chaplain. “John B. Goode,” the guard’s words split the silence, split the night, “It is time to carry out the sentence of law.” John Bunyan Goode slowly rose and walked toward the door. The chaplain took him by the arm, and they began to walk down the long green hall. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . .” and then the chaplain’s voice was drowned out by the “goodbyes” of all the other prisoners in the cellblock and the “clang, clang, clanging” of their tin cups on the bars. John Blue just sat there amid the surreal picture that had just painted itself. It seemed that he had just heard his own story repeated – not in the detail and the fact, but in the tenor and the import. All grew silent. “A-oo-ga, a-oo-ga, a-oo-ga,” Moe vocalized, his voice getting louder as he walked up the long green hall toward John Blue’s now-open cell door. “I told you that I would not leave you. It is time to go.” John Blue didn’t even take time to wonder how; he just noticed that as they walked out, there was no sound or movement from the other prisoners. It was as if time and space froze as if by someone outside of them. Somehow, that didn’t surprise him. Doors silently opened themselves in front of them and just as silently closed behind them. There was no “slam”; there was no “clink”, and there was no “clang” – just . . . silence . . . and stillness. Savoring the silence, John Blue walked alongside Moe until they reached the Cord. He allowed Moe to open the rear door for him and crawled in. “The way to downfall is a broad path accessed by many a very wide gate, is it not Esseiyyid?” observed Moe confidently unbidden, but in perfect appropriateness. “Does Esseiyyid desire that way or the other Way?” John Blue remained pensively and uncharacteristically muted. Then in a moment, and in a different, more solicitous voice, Moe offered, “Does Esseiyyid want a cup of shai?” 37
  42. 42. John R. Wible John Blue sat back into the padded seat, took out his cellphone and texted, “Released” to “999.” He imagined that the reception would by now have become the usual for the Colonel and Eve. Turning off the cell, John Blue did not hesitate. “Yes, I believe I do.” 38
  43. 43. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis Canto V INTERMEZZO He listens well who takes notes. Dante, Divina Commedia, Canto XV, Line 99. John Blue savored the shai; he had grown accustomed to the taste of its spices: cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. And the effect, well that was another story. “Moe,” John Blue broke the silence, “I’m tired. Can we just sit somewhere and talk awhile?” “It will be as Esseiyyid says.” With that, John Blue drifted away. This time, there was no screaming crowd or Roman legionary trying to kill him. What he had just witnessed was enough intensity for his subconscious. When he awoke, the Cord was stopping in front of Chasers in what passed for downtown Lebanon. John Blue and Moe went in, John’s ankles still sore from the shackles. Unfortunately, it was “Karaoke Night.” John Blue was not in the mood for Karaoke, “I hate amateurs,” he observed. “Does Esseiyyid know the source of the word amateur?” Moe yelled over a very mediocre soprano belting out Feelings into the karaoke mic. “It comes from the French amor, meaning love. An amateur is one who does what he does for the love of the thing while a professional merely does a thing for gain to be gotten.” “Which is Esseiyyid? Does Esseiyyid live life for the love of life or go about for the gain to be gotten?” “Whaaaaat,” yelled John Blue not fully hearing the question or perhaps, not so much wanting to consider answering it?” Moe nodded in the direction of the karaoke machine and in an instant, all went silent. “Which is Esseiyyid? Does Esseiyyid live life for the love of life or go about for the gain to be gotten?” “I’m not sure I can answer that,” John Blue yelled, then dropped his voice in the silence. His reply showed that he was a bit miffed at being put on the spot, especially a loud spot. After all, this was supposed to be his fact- finding trip. “I guess it depends on what the definition of gain is, doesn’t it?” “Perhaps, Esseiyyid, but how would Esseiyyid define gain and is there a place for the getting of gain while in the pursuit of the love of life?” Moe repeated – and compounded. 39
  44. 44. John R. Wible “Whoa, slow done,” John Blue urged, “One question at a time.” “A thousand pardons, Esseiyyid, Moe only desires to guide Esseiyyid to the heart of the matter, the center of it all.” “And what exactly is the heart of the matter?” John Blue stalled, realizing that he was as philosophically out of his depth as a hack politician at a scholar’s convention. Moe sighed a deep sigh. “May Moe rephrase the question? Who is the heart of the matter? With the first Ushpizin, was the heart of the matter, Esseiyyid, or was it something outside him? Does Esseiyyid remember the first Ushpizin? What did he value in life? What or who was at the center of his life? Did the center of his life bring him happiness … or concern?” “I think I see what you mean,” yelled John Blue, again realizing that the music had stopped, and he was yelling to the whole establishment. Dropping his voice, he continued. “He was the richest man in the world, but I guess you’d say he was hollow inside, “kaph,” I think you called it. He seemed to have a quirky Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hide thing going on, trying to balance his own interest with being good.” That could not have left much room for anything or anyone else at the center of his heart, could it? “Esseiyyid has well said,” observed Moe, There is no spirit of love there, I think, only a spirit of duty. There is a hollow man – an empty soul, a kaph. Moe does not like to see such men. Moe hopes Esseiyyid is not such a man. However, what of the second Ushpizin, who was at his center? At that moment, the karaoke machine, interrupting, fired up again, this time with a rather large fellow whining Please Release Me, Let Me Go! “Oh, please …,” muttered John Blue. For a moment, neither he nor Moe spoke (or more precisely, yelled.) The loud-voiced but quiet-brained time allowed John Blue to consider the Reverend John B. Goode. John Blue felt a knowing twinge of sorrow for him. “The Reverend thought he had started out right, but maybe because whatever or whoever was at his center got pushed aside leaving no room for anyone or anything else except himself. But then again, maybe he didn’t start out right in the first place. Moe, what do you think about the Reverend?” “Moe thinks that pride precedes a fall, and great pride precedes a great fall. The Ushpizin fell greatly, greatly. Perhaps it is that this fall was preceded by great pride. Such pride that only death could release him from it … from himself, could it not?” 40
  45. 45. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis “Yes, I mean no,” stuttered John Blue unsure how to respond to the phrasing of ‘Moe’s question. For all his wisdom, Moe did sometimes reflect his Middle-Eastern mindset and manner of speaking that was a little hard for John Blue to follow. “All is well, Esseiyyid,” reassured Moe, “Moe knows.” And the karaoke machine blared, “To know, know, know you is to love, love, love you; and I do . . . love you.” It was a sort of mellow moment for John Blue. He was beginning to understand . . . but only beginning. There was more … he knew. In the time that it takes the wind to think about blowing the last leaf of autumn circling the night into winter, Moe had whisked John Blue back to a darkened White Chapel. Walking into the darkness of it, John Blue and Moe the passed the pillars of the ammud, through the arras and through the back of the White Chapel. As John Blue had expected, maybe even dreaded, they found the fire and the four Ushpizim just as they had left them whatever-unit-of-time it was ago. 41
  46. 46. John R. Wible Canto VI PARADISO ? Open your mind to what I shall disclose, and hold it fast within you; He who hears, but does not hold what he has heard, learns nothing.” - Beatrice to Dante, Paradiso, Canto V, lines 40-42. Moe addressed the assemblage: “One last Ushpizin must make himself known. Can he lead John Blue through the Inferno and the Purgatorio to Paradiso? We shall see.” With that as a bidding, the last Ushpizin stood his cowl and robe floating to the ground as though a brown snowflake. He was a tall (exceedingly tall,) barrel-chested man dressed in a red denim half-unbuttoned shirt and well- broken-in jeans. His face was rugged with a scruffy beard. He wore a leather vest, boots, and a yellow bandana around his neck. He was crowned by a light-colored, well-worn, six-inch crown, pinch-front, triangle-creased, silver-belly cowboy hat, ringed in sweat, partially hidden by the yellow, cavalry-style hat cord with the acorns definitely tier, combat veteran-style. “Now this is a man! reckoned a slack-jawed John Blue in total awe of the imposing figure that stood before him. “Follow me, Pilgrim,” the tall cowboy ordered in a deliberately slow lilting drawl that caused him to swallow then spit out each word with the confidence of someone who had done this before. As he began to walk into the darkness, his walk, more like a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other “lumbering,” as were his looks and drawl, ignited instant recognition in John Blue. John Blue incredulously inquired, “Is that you? Are you …?” “Call me Marion,” the Ushpizin interrupted, “Even though I hate that name, here I’m who I really am, not who or what you think I am. But be that as it may, Pilgrim, I may have some answers for ya.” John Blue and Marion walked into a wood. Marion was dressed for a hike in the woods in his boots, jeans, vest, and hat, but John Blue – well, not so much – dressed in his scratchy wool monk’s robe and . . . “Sandals! I hate sandals,” John Blue thought as he guessed that by now he along with Marion were stepping into the final ring of what Moe had called “Dante’s Woods.” He wondered what would happen this time. “If the last two times are any indication, then this one’s bound to be interesting,” he thought. 42
  47. 47. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis Would he see all the living allegories that Dante Alighieri saw and word- pictured? Would he hear truth, as did Dante? Would Marion protect him from untoward occurrences, as did Virgil for Dante? Would Moe? As they walked, Marion reached into his breast pocket for his accustomed pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes. Finding none and muttering something unintelligible under her breath, he then reached into the back pocket of his well-worn jeans and pulled out what appeared to be a plug of chewing tobacco wrapped in a leather pouch. From the front pocket of his jeans, he retrieved a pocketknife and cut off a hunk of tobacco, offering a piece to John Blue. “Don’t swallow it, Pilgrim,” he drawled almost with a hint of glee really hoping that John Blue would. John Blue hadn’t chewed tobacco since he was a football manager in what he liked to call, “a previous millennium,” but he took it and bit into it. It bit back. This was stronger than the old Beech-Nut he remembered his coach giving him. One chaw and his mouth started to burn. Another and his eyes began to water, a third and his head started to swim. With that, he spat it out, and then spat again – and again, wiping his saliva–filled mouth on the sleeve of his monk’s robe. The scratchiness of the wool irritated his already inflamed lips, and he spat still again – several times. Marion just laughed at him. “Green-horn,” he snickered. By now, Marion and John Blue and had reached a clearing, a natural clearing where no tree had ever grown but where the grass was lush revealing fertile soil. Torches lighted the clearing eerily. “Strange,” John Blue noted to himself. He spied four horses tied to a tree: One was white, one roan, one black, and one was pale. Marion mounted the white one, swinging his massive right leg over the saddle skillfully, revealing a surprisingly small boot size for such a tall man. He motioned for John Blue to mount up. John did – but not as skillfully, revealing – well – sandals. “I hate sandals!” John thought, imagining how comically ridiculous he probably looked holding on the saddle horn with his robe hiked up to his waist and his cowl flapping in the wind behind him beating him in the back of the head. Marion effortlessly glided away leaving John Blue behind. However, John - John hadn’t ridden a horse since the summer he rode all over Old Baldy in the Sangre de Christo Mountains of New Mexico at camp years, many years ago. 43
  48. 48. John R. Wible Soon he found, though that riding a horse, like riding a bicycle, as they say, is not something you forget. In a few minutes, he was cantering cheerily alongside Marion. Splitting the saturnine silence with a lack of anything important to say, John Blue nevertheless chattered nervously in an attempt to talk over the clippity-clop of the horses’ hooves. “What are the horses’ names,” John Blue called out, unable to come up with anything intelligent to say and somewhat anticipating an answer, given the bizarre and surreal setting. At that, Marion slowed suddenly to a walk, almost a dead stop with John Blue joining him, clumsily. Marion turned in the saddle to his right and peered for a minute at John Blue, his brow deeply furrowed. “Lame!” he retorted. “Lame?” The horse is named Lame?” echoed back an incredulous John Blue. “Naw, Pilgrim, the horse ain’t named Lame. You know, nobody ever asked me that before. I guess this here white one is Duke and the pale one you’re on . . . I’ll call her Buttermilk.” “I suppose the other two are Silver and Scout,” John Blue quipped with a sarcastic smile. “I would have thought they’d be named something like . . . oh . . . Conquest, War, Famine, and Death or Pestilence maybe?” “Pestilence? What kind of a cowboy would name his horse Pestilence?” shot back an insulted Marion turning abruptly in the saddle to his left, and spitting tobacco on the ground. “Sounded like a good name for this one I’m riding, or trying to ride,” defended John Blue, “But then again I guess it all depends on your point of view.” At this, John Blue figured it was time to forget frivolity and to get serious. He began to philosophize, but Marion just stared at him blankly. “That brings me to the subject I guess I came here for, and it probably isn’t horses’ names. . . What is the answer to the question that I didn’t yet ask?” Marion continued just to stare at him blankly, cocking his head in a motion that reminded John Blue of a Jay Bird looking at a bird feeder, slightly sideways back and forth one way and then the other as if he’d never really thought about that before. He spat again on the ground, turned his head back to the center and began to look off distantly. Eventually, after an uncomfortably long pause, he matter-of-factly said, “Plastics.” 44
  49. 49. Dante’s Woods: A Wood Called K’Nosis “Plastics?” John Blue repeated. “Plastics?” “Naw, Pilgrim,” laughed Marion, “I was just joshing ya. It ain’t plastics; it’s truth, justice, and the American Way!” “Truth, justice, and the American Way,” John Blue repeated, thinking as quizzically as he had for the plastics answer. “If you’re here for that, you’re gonna end up fighting every politician in the country. That sounds like something Superman would say.” “Superman? Superman flew with children, John. It’s a fairy tale. This is real,” corrected Marion. Somehow, though, John Blue wasn’t particularly comforted by that thought. After staring briefly at each other, they began again to pick up the pace and to trot briskly through, and out of the woods. Finally, they ascended the side of an arroyo that overlooked the lights of a small city. There they paused as if overlooking the plains in an old Western scene painting by Charlie Russell. “I guess it’s who we are or what we are or what we want to be,” started in Marion. “I think it’s the ideal of every Red-Blooded American. We all want truth, we all want justice, and, I think we all want The American Way. That’s it, The American Way.” Passing over “truth and justice” as too open-ended for a conversation on horseback and zeroing in on “The American Way,” John Blue followed up that line of thought. “So what do you think is “The American Way”?” “You know, it’s the American Dream – a wife, a nice family, a nice house, a good job, a secure retirement, friends that like you - that sort of thing.” Marion pontificated. “So, how do you get those things?” John Blue queried, pressing the point. “You get it the way I did,” said Marion, “by working for it. If you work hard, you’ll get it. If you work hard, nothing is outside of your reach. ‘If you can conceive it, you can achieve it,” parroted Marion unknowingly of the 1937 granddaddy of all motivational books, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. “So, what you are saying,” summarized – no, maybe paraphrased John Blue, “is that you can achieve ‘The American Dream,’ by working hard and earning it?” “I guess you’d say that,” replied Marion, “You earn it – like a paycheck, you earn it.” 45
  50. 50. John R. Wible But aren’t you telling me that life is all about ‘The American Way’ and that the means toward that end is working hard and earning it?” “Sure,” said Marion, sounding not unlike a 1980s Smith-Barney commercial, “You earn it.” John Blue latched onto the point, really trying to understand what Marion was saying, maybe even trying to help Marion understand what Marion was saying. “But, ‘The American Dream’ is a concept, it’s not a thing. How can you earn a concept? If it can be earned, that would imply that it could be bought. If that is your definition of success? Can you buy it? You can’t buy success, can you?” Marion continued to stare at John Blue, giving the appearance of never having really thought this whole thing through. “I guess in a way, you can – you must,” he said after a moment’s contemplation, “either with money or with sweat.” At the mention of sweat, John Blue fixed his gaze on Marion’s sweat ring around his hat. He must have sweat a lot in his life. “So, life is all about earning ‘The American Way?” John Blue now completely pulled up short and stared directly at Marion, who had no answer for him. “Does everybody want ‘The American Way,’ The American Dream”? “What if you’re not an American? What if you like where you live now, but you just want to go somewhere to earn enough money to live? What if you don’t want all that ‘The American Way of Life’ brings with it? What if you like your way of life? Does your everybody include all those people from all those wherever too?” John Blue began to feel himself in charge of the conversation, and he was moving in for a final match point. Unfortunately, he didn’t know what that point was yet … John Blue’s inquisition was suddenly and decisively cut short of the “kill” because at that moment, out of the corner of his eye, John Blue caught the shadow of something moving – something slithering and iridescently sinister. “Don’t move,” interrupted Marion regaining the self-confident voice to which John Blue had become accustomed, “It’s a sidewinder.” Like a flash of lightening out of a clear blue September sky, the Crotalus Horridus, a Timber Rattler struck at the feet of the horses and John Blue’s noble steed “Buttermilk,” churned her feet like a supercharged barrel- type 110-volt butter churn on 220 leaving Marion and Duke behind in the wake in their great gallop! 46