Rapture

By Sally Gwylan

Part 1 of 2

All is vain unless the Spirit
Of the Holy One comes down;
Brethren, pray and holy manna
Will be showered all around!

--revivalist hymn, words by George Atkin, 1819

 

God or Human Freedom; now, let all choose.

--Mikhail Bakunin


Excerpts from the journal of Anna Kenney,
leader of the Great Scouring;
mother to Josefa Kenney Djemek, called Jos the Apostate

Saturday, April 21 [1894], Groszny Lane tenement--

Hynek isn't back yet, though it's near midnight. Having caught his mother's worry from her milk, little Samuel won't be comforted, least of all by Gretchen pacing the carpet with him at her shoulder. His pitiful cries have revived the queasiness that dogged me this morning. I'd pray for the babe to exhaust himself into sleep, were there anything to pray to; I'm that tired.

Braving the rain, Nathan went round to Kropotsky's shop to see if Hy might have stopped there after the leafletting. Too proud to display his own disquiet, my black-eyed Josef's pulled the pillow over his head in our closet bedroom, miming sleep. I thought to join him, but there's no point to it. I won't rest, and Josef has been cold to me since our quarrel over my bourgeois purchase -- as he terms it -- of this journal.

So I sit here scribbling by our communal gaslight, worrying & nursing my stomach-ache & keeping my skirts tucked out of Gretchen's way.

(I don't see what is bourgeois about a journal. This one's plain enough, the cheapest of decent quality I could find. But Josef thinks of little beyond our cause. He doesn't see that to free ourselves we must listen to our hearts as well as our heads. Either that or his heart has a great deal less to say than does mine.)

In truth if Hy has been arrested there is never a thing we can do for it til Monday but wait and hope. He may well have been taken up or worse, firebrand that he is. The cursed Chicago bluecoats are always eager to exercise their clubs on our anarchist heads. Remembering my brother Fergus's death, I can't help but fear for him.

But surely they wouldn't risk harm to the sheep gathering to Reverend Owings's revival call? Have the police collar our men & seize their literature, yes; have them roughed up on the way to the station house, certainly -- but nothing more. Glessner Auditorium isn't the site of some hard-fought strike, nor the Haymarket for that matter.


No news of Hynek at Kropotsky's, and two other leafletters are unaccounted for as well. Nathan reports that no-one saw them after they'd dispersed into the crowd to distribute the Committee's broadside condemning Reverend Owings's capitalistic dogma. There was no trouble other than the usual scuffles & name-calling, though the men Kropotsky spoke to left early, while the Reverend was still warming up the crowd.

It isn't like Hy to not come home if he were able.

Little Samuel is asleep at last & quiet, thankfully for all our nerves. Chilled through, Nathan rolled himself up in his blanket on the sofa where he's slept since joining the commune, & is already snoring. But Gretchen won't go to bed though I pressed her to do so. Dazedly she sits before her precious sewing-machine as though she could work at such an hour. She loves Hynek too well. As I fear I love my zealous Josef.

Oh, I'm too exhausted to think.


Sunday, April 22, Groszny Lane tenement--

Hynek has plainly lost all reason! What could that mountebank of a preacher have said to turn his mind so?

I've heard, as has everyone, the rumor of defections in other cities on Owings's new tour, though I made little sense of them. But this is our own red-headed Hynek, steady as a bulldog in service of our cause, come home to sit at our table with his pale eyes shining, proclaiming that the Golden Manna Of The Lord Has Filled His Heart! Come with me tonight, he pressed us. Come and learn as I have learned that we have no need of striving after earthly things!

Earthly things like housing fit for human beings & enough food for the children & streets not reeking of garbage & dung & animal carcasses, I suppose. Like restored wages for those of us who have suffered pay cuts this winter, as I have & Josef has & Hynek himself has, not to mention all the sleeping-car workers of the good Reverend's favorite patron Mr. Pullman.

Josef & I at first tried reason, but Hynek wouldn't hear. Josef got to shouting turncoat & lickspittle at him & Nathan fled with his satchel full of papers under his arm & Gretchen, who after two months still suffers from the birthing, went so white about the mouth that I took Samuel from her and made her sit down. Then Hy went on his knees beside Gretchen, begging her forgiveness for the dishonor he'd done her, pressing for her to marry him to make it right!

The lout.

Gretchen shut her eyes & bit her lip the way one does when news is too shameful to bear. I turned from the sight to find Josef's dark uncertain eyes on me, asking without words if my mind & heart still held that honest love cannot be bound by laws or baubles such as rings. I reached a hand to him in reassurance. He smiled at me in that dear lopsided-mustache way caused by the whip-scar on his cheek -- his first smile in days -- & left for his meeting. I would've followed but for the baby heavy against my shoulder. Not to the meeting, to which I'm not invited -- some sort of action is being planned, though I ask no questions! -- but to speak to Josef out-of-doors for a little time, to finish mending the rift between us.

Instead I've retired to our closet, wasting lamp oil in the day writing this while little Samuel whimpers beside me through the shouting from the other side of the door.


Well, Hy is gone. Gretchen stayed calm through much pleading & preaching, but at last shouted that he had indeed betrayed her & all the comrades as well, and he should go.

From the sound of it she's done crying. I'm glad of it for between the smoking of this cut-rate lamp oil & the babe's soggy diapers, the air in here is near unbreathable.


Tuesday, April 24, Groszny Lane tenement--

Gretchen & my Josef are lost as well!

My hands shake as I write this, but I must write. Nathan's gone to Dunnegan's meeting. Our rooms are forlorn and stuffy with no-one in them & I can't rest for the impossible thing I've seen. So if I write perhaps it will make some kind of sense to me. Tho' I can't imagine how!

What happened is this: I came home late as Mr. Stannis had kept us after work hours for another of his cursed lectures, and then Dunnegan stopped me on the boardwalk outside with an urgent message for Josef & Nathan to meet him and the others at Kropotsky's shop at nine tonight.

It's gone nine now & Josef never got word, but I suppose that doesn't matter.

When I reached our rooms I found only Nathan bending near-sightedly over his papers in the fading light from the airshaft. Gretchen had gone to find Hynek at Glessner Auditorium, he told me, to get money for Samuel's care. Josef went with her to ensure there would be no trouble.

I told Nathan what Dunnegan had said, then bolted cold stew & went after them.

The auditorium blazed with the new electric lights and was full to overflowing. There was never a chance I would find Josef in that seething mass by venturing into it, so I went round back & climbed the stairs up to the outside walk. A small crowd pressed up near the open windows to listen, but not all the sashes had been raised. I chose one of these closed windows for my vantage point.

As I searched the mass of people below me for Josef's gipsy curls & defiant red scarf, the Reverend's words deviled my ears despite the barrier of the window-glass. A small man whose gestures & intonation burned with fevered zeal, Owings exhorted his audience to Pray! Pray for the Holy Spirit to lead them into the ways of righteousness!

And as he shouted, the air inside the hall began to sparkle, golden motes drifting down. I doubted my eyes, but others were seeing it too, looking up, gaping, and it was then I spotted Josef's set jaw & bold mustachios pushing through the crowd at the back, with Gretchen drawn but determined just ahead of him, the babe wrapped up tight in her arms. Rather than hurry down to find them I stayed watching the dustfall a moment longer.

Soon all faces were turned up to the glittering motes. Some shouted, a babble of Hallelujahs & Glorys. I believe I saw vents in the sculpted ceiling from which the dust issued, but the stuff spread out quickly, & surely the people below couldn't tell the source.

Flash & humbug, I thought.

Sweet manna! Owings's voice rang out. Rejoice for the Lord is with us tonight! & the people in the hall raised up their arms, their heads tipped back as though the golden fall were a shower of welcome rain. Every face filled with wonder.

Even -- this is what haunts me, this is the impossible thing -- my rebel Josef's. Gretchen too, the both of them stopped in their tracks and gaping with childish awe as I have never seen either do before & certainly not at such a conjurer's trick. Cold went through me like a gale off the lake -- even now my hands shake with it.

Unable for a time to turn away, I watched & listened as fever took the crowd, some losing themselves so far as to fall to the floor in fits of jerking limbs. Josef & Gretchen did not do so, yet their open-mouthed gullibility was near as bad. Owings's words pounded the glittering air, sin & pridefulness & render unto Caesar, on & on, a hammer forging his auditors into the shape he desired, til at last I could take no more and stumbled home.

Where I write and wait, hoping that Nathan will return before the others do.

It was never the preacher's words that turned Josef's sharp mind, or Gretchen's either. In a space of five minutes -- less -- they were rendered sheep. Afterward they drank in Owings's poison but when first I saw them they paid him no more mind than one does a buzzing fly.

The golden dust, manna as Owings called it, must be the cause of this unthinkable transformation, as nothing else could be. A drug perhaps? One that renders men vulnerable to Mesmerism? Surely large quantities of such an euphoric would be too expensive, even for Owings's wealthy backers.

Something else then, yet I can't help feeling I am near to the truth.


A thunder of footsteps on the staircase, and Josef's deep laughter. And Gretchen, sounding giddy.

Hynek as well. His Czech accent is unmistakable.

I feel ill.


Wednesday, April 25, the Clark Street free library--

This morning I caught Lucy R. on her way to the bindery and asked her to tell Mr. Stannis I was sick & couldn't come in. I'm sure I looked the part, for Lucy, dear soul, patted my arm and told me to hurry back up to my bed. Indeed I've not felt quite right for several days -- heavy & queasy-stomached -- but still this was a lie & I hated the necessity of it. If I'd simply not shown up Mr. Stannis -- who has, I think, begun to catch on to my organizing attempts -- would surely have used my absence as his excuse to dismiss me.

When Lucy'd gone I waited in the urine reek beneath the stairs til I was sure all of the other girls had passed, and then hurried round to Kropotsky's harness shop.

Kropotsky was out back in the shed, sorting hides. He demanded at once to know why Josef hadn't come to last night's meeting. I suppose my grief & lack of sleep caught up with me then, for I burst into tears. At length I managed to tell him that both Josef & Gretchen had followed Hynek's path.

When he said nothing, just stared at me stony-faced, I was afraid he thought me hysterical & assured him I was not. But he said other comrades had fallen away in the past few days, that the rot had set in here as it had elsewhere when Owings had preached. That Josef, of all people, had succumbed, was foul news indeed to him.

Before I could respond Nathan joined us, his mousy hair like jackstraws & his cheeks more than usually pale. Much distracted, he held out the note I'd left him, saying he'd come as soon as he could get away from them & whatever could have happened to cause this?

So I told them both what I had witnessed last night.

Kropotsky turned away declaring that Josef was weak; all the turncoats were weak. Neither drug nor Mesmerism could turn a man's mind so if he were not already unsound. Disdainfully he scrawled down what I'd come for, the address of a pharmacist who could be trusted.

Nathan followed after me as I made my way through the puddles & the wagon-traffic to Glessner, though I could see my observations had not impressed him. I believe he clung to my presence because it was at least familiar. Recalling my own hasty retreat to bed last night rather than face our comrades, I couldn't fault him. In the dark hours that followed, alone in the bed -- for by default Josef ceded it to me -- I had determined to find evidence of what I'd witnessed, and stop the spread of this miasma if I could.

We found a Pinkerton guarding the alley behind the auditorium when we got there, a cold-eyed bully-boy who was deaf to the tale of woe I spun for him. But Nathan begged us a ride inside a horse-van from a union brother who was delivering a piano to Glessner. While the teamster argued with the guard over his manifest, his boy opened the van doors for us, and we slipped out into the backstage shadows.

I left Nathan to prowl on his own and found my way up to the auditorium. The cleaning crew had already mopped & polished the floor of the vast room, which at first dashed a considerable amount of cold water on my hopes. They had, however, ignored the ledges of the wainscoting. Holding my breath I swept dust from them into three old pay envelopes I'd unearthed from my papers this morning. Some of the dust glittered in the sunlight, so I'm sure I got what I came for. Two of the envelopes crackle now in my pocket in the hush of the library, an uneasy sort of reassurance.

The third envelope I pressed on Nathan when I bade him farewell outside the upholstery shop where he works, with repeated warnings that the contents should not be breathed. The samples were hard to come by, and it seems wise to not keep them all in one place. Nathan humored me, tucking the envelope into his breast pocket. I'll claim it from him later, or have him take it to the Committee if I discover anything of value.

Now if luck holds I will get the stuff analyzed. Mr. Freytag, the pharmacist whose name Kropotsky gave me, has his shop a few blocks up from the library. He wasn't there when I called at half past ten, but a note in the window said he'd return at two, which it is now, or nearly so.


Finding a seat for the journey home in this overcrowded streetcar wasn't easy, & writing while being jostled is harder still, yet I must note down what happened while it is fresh in my mind. Though in truth my own agitation gives my hand as much trouble as does the squirming of the starched clerk wedged in beside me, or the swaying of the car--

Oh, I am too careless in handing this stuff on to people! In the brief time I was off fetching a packet of filter paper for Mr. Freytag from his supplier, a stray breeze blew the manna up in the pharmacist's face as he was testing it -- though truly I'd warned him to shut his window! -- and the effects sent him into a fit such as had afflicted some of Owings's audience. When I returned I found him all of a heap on the floor with his nose bleeding on the pages of a torn calendar & his counters quite disordered. I was sure he'd been attacked but when he'd recovered enough to speak he said no, he'd breathed some of the powder, and had begun to feel very strange.

Some of the dread I felt last night seized me then. Fearing the effect my words might have, I said nothing, but helped him up.

He still clutched the calendar -- absently, I thought, until he ignored the handkerchief I offered him in order to gaze in evident wonder at the lithograph that headed the pages. Peering over his shoulder, I saw only a view of Paris, the well-known ruins of the Palace of Tuileries.

Blood from his oozing nose fell on the tinted paper. Mr. Freytag dabbed at it, and then examined his reddened fingertip for a long moment. Blood, he whispered in his thick accent -- then & now, always there is blood. His eyes were those of a man transfixed.

A shiver went through me, baffled though I was. Now I think he referred to the Paris Commune. He's old enough to have fought on the barricades there, forty-five at least. As old as my estranged Papa.

Keeping his calendar by him, Mr. Freytag turned to his counter & placed a smear of the blood on glass beneath his microscope. After a several minutes of fiddling with the instrument he stiffened in excitement, then begged a few drops of my blood, as a comparison.

I'd gone too far to balk, though I dearly wanted to.

He added a few grains of the manna to one of the drops he'd squeezed from my finger, but left the second plain. Bending to his task, he looked at the two slides, back & forth a long while, humming under his breath. I wrapped my fingertip & watched an old man hawk cheap tinware from a pushcart across the street.

Shouting in his excitement, Mr. Freytag leaped up from his stool. He dragged me over to view his discovery, but, apprehensive as I was, I could distinguish little through the eyepiece: a blur, some slight motion.

A micro-organism, he stated, smiling happily -- parasitical, he thought. Renewed nausea washed through me and I pushed away from the microscope, thinking what this might mean for him, for Josef & Gretchen & Hy & all the rest. Thinking in truth of the pestilence swimming in that drop of my own blood, though thankfully not in my veins.

Mr. Freytag stood beside his counter smoothing the damaged lithograph as he continued. The manna, he said, is formed of spores -- tiny creatures that seal themselves within hardened shells when conditions are not right for them. Blood provides the right conditions, however, dissolving the shells into what must be a potent drug, inducing rapture and, if my report was true, leaving the mind exceedingly vulnerable to suggestion. And triggering epilepsy in some; Mr. Freytag claimed the connection between religious ecstasy and this disorder has long been posited.

He noted without concern that he'd never before been subject to any sort of seizures. Dried blood still marked his face, and his clothes were disordered, something of which he showed no awareness. Claiming he'd never felt better in his life, he charged me to go quickly, as disaster was almost upon us! -- & warn Kropotsky that in the hands of the monopolists the manna is very dangerous.

I was out of the door into the street when he cried for me to wait, and begged to know if I'd ever walked in the gardens at Tuileries, insisting there was never a place more lovely.

I told him no, I hadn't, and turned & fled.

What a coward I am.


Kropotsky has been arrested! The bluecoats raided his shop this afternoon, his wife told me, her eyes dull as dead coals as she stared through me.

This is horrible luck. I will wait here a while longer at the Prometheus offices, and hope that Nathan will come by after whatever errand took him so early from work.


Read part 2 here.

 

Copyright © 2004 Sally Gwylan

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Born in Texas, Sally Gwylan now lives west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a handbuilt, off-the-grid house with two cats, a dog, and a mess of red wigglers. She's had stories published in Asimov's and The Infinite Matrix (one each).