Rapture

By Sally Gwylan

Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1 here

Thursday, April 26, corner of Powell & Michigan--

I haven't lived through so miserable a set of days since my brother was killed. My feet are swollen yet again & I can hardly think for weariness, and yet I still cling to some hope for our cause if not for myself.

Last night I slept in Union Depot, if sleep it can be called, jerking awake each time a train rumbled in, and was then rousted out onto the street before dawn by an officious porter. Though I couldn't bring myself to eat, I got myself to work & through work without being let go, and tonight Lucy has offered me a place to sleep.

And now I'm bound once more across town to Mr. Freytag's pharmacy, to persuade him to write down his findings so I can take them to the Committee as support for my warnings about the manna, as I should've thought to do yesterday. Or perhaps the pharmacist will come himself.

The streetcar is very late.

The young man I spoke to late yesterday afternoon at the Committee's unofficial headquarters -- Mr. Beebe, who assists Mrs. Parsons, the editor of the weekly Prometheus, and so is well placed to disseminate the information -- appeared prepared to believe me if I could demonstrate that Mr. Freytag backed my claims. The assistant had heard of the golden manna phenomenon already, as newspaper accounts have remarked on it, treating it as harmless showmanship.

I gave the young man the last sample of the stuff that I had with me, with strict warnings which I also wrote on the envelope, as it was the only evidence I could show at the time. He locked the sample in a desk drawer & promised faithfully to warn anyone who planned to venture into the auditorium to avoid the glittering dust. With that I made myself content. As everyone there was at sixes & sevens over the arrests and whether their offices would be raided, a hearing was the best I could hope for.

It seems two other men, though not Dunnegan, are in jail along with Kropotsky, charged, so the Tribune gleefully declared in this morning's edition, with conspiracy to plant a composition bomb in the podium at Glessner on the last day of Owings's revival, when Mr. Pullman -- who yesterday cut wages yet again, with his workers already near to starving! -- is scheduled to be sitting beside him on the dais.

I have no doubt the charges are true. Josef & I quarreled over the ethics & efficacy of propaganda-of-the-deed more than once, and though I think history bears me out that such violences serve us ill, he would not be persuaded. When I recall what moral crimes those two villains have committed in their greed I can't fault Josef & the others for wanting to strike back. Still the notion that they'd consider employing a bomb where bystanders might be injured shakes my understanding of who Josef is. Or rather, who he was. Though perhaps the manna changes little of a person but their beliefs.

My brother Fergus was such a bystander, a high-spirited lad of ten jeering the bluecoats as they charged a line of striking foundry workers. In the melee a bullet found him. No-one wanted him dead, but he died all the same. We can't afford to be so careless of lives as are those who rule us.

I believe but for the events of this week, Josef would have been in a cell alongside Kropotsky & the others. As things stand it's almost certain he will instead bear witness against his comrades. And not just Josef but Hynek as well. And now perhaps Nathan. The last of my true companions has fallen away.

I find my hand falters. Each thing seems harder than the last, yet I am resolved to continue this record.

And still the streetcar hasn't come.

Yesterday evening, after failing to find Nathan at the upholstery shop or the Prometheus offices either, I stiffened my spine & went home. I smelt Gretchen's cabbage stew as I climbed the stairs, & heard her bubbling laughter mix with the sounds from other tenants' flats. The smell stirred my hunger even through my anxiety & queasiness. My feet, swollen though I'm accustomed to stand all day without difficulty, ached miserably in the buttoned confines of my boots on those steep steps.

They fell silent when I entered -- all four of them. I knew as soon as I saw Nathan's glowing expression what had happened, not the specifics of it, but the important thing. The torn envelope lying on the table gave an unnecessary confirmation. Gretchen bounced Samuel on her knee, whispering nonsense to him in the silence. The baby gurgled in response, oblivious to the tension in the room.

Nathan wouldn't answer me directly when I asked him why, just assured me blissfully that all was well with him, but Josef stood carefully to answer me: Nathan had come in waving the envelope, saying I had claimed they'd been doped. So Josef decided to try the stuff & see; he tore open the envelope and waved it before Nathan's face.

Hynek turned to me, protesting that the manna was no drug, but the Hand of God, and the lamplight pooled in his pale eyes.

It's a parasitic infection which affects the brain, I said flatly, against my sudden fear of Hynek's passion. Spores, I told them, not caring to explain further.

Nathan looked mildly interested & asked if that was what the pharmacist had said. No-one else reacted. I raged at them that they were ill & they didn't even care.

Gretchen laughed & after a moment the others joined her. We aren't ill, Josef said, and Gretchen said, Look at us. Look at Samuel. She held him up to me and asked if he'd ever looked better.

The baby waved his little fists, still a wizened monkey of an infant, with the rash that has plagued him reddening his cheeks. But contentment filled his dark blue eyes. He has never been contented from the day of his birth, and I realized what should've been clear all along, that he'd breathed the manna in as well. Josef touched my sleeve & tried to draw me down to sit with them at the table, but I wouldn't. If I had wanted to I couldn't have, for my knees wouldn't bend.

Giving up, he sat again, turning the chair & straddling it as he often does, his strong arms resting along the back of it. The sight of him that way -- intense and troubled for me, the scar from when he worked as a hostler's boy drawn up tight -- made me tremble but I knew I had to hold fast against my feeling for him.

You've got this thing the wrong way round, Anna, he said. As to a child he explained that because what had changed them was good, the how of it was of no great moment. If I would but open myself to the Light of God's Truth--

But outrage lit a hot flame behind my eyes. I couldn't bear that word from him, & told him so. The truth is in our lives, in the miserable little rooms where we huddle like unthinking beasts & in the filth of the streets & the hunger & dead children, in the wage cuts & the owners' arrogant display of their stolen wealth. It's in the beatings & bullets & hangman's gibbet when we fight back or just come too close & watch like Fergie did. That's hard truth, and a few days ago they knew it as well as I, I told them. But now they'd folded their hands & swallowed Owings's pious claptrap, singing Glory & Hosanna all the while.

Before I finished Hynek was on his feet, shouting that Owings was a good man, a man of God, a true prophet, and I was not to slander him. And so it went from there. Cold & perspiring at once, I tried to curb my temper long enough to remind them of what they already knew, or had known: that Owings was ever the bosses' man, even before the scandal with Mrs. Acker & his near-exile in Madagascar; that Pullman & McCormick & Field pay his accounts while he hoodwinks the poor and waves God at them like a scarecrow. And now steals what little freedom they have left! But they wouldn't listen. We shouted -- not Nathan, who only looked bewildered, and Samuel fell to crying til comforted at his mother's breast, but Hynek & Gretchen & Josef & I -- til the neighbors pounded on the walls to silence us, til I allowed myself to accept that they indeed couldn't listen, with Owings's neat little doctrines embedded in their minds.

Kropotsky & some others have been arrested, I told them, letting the words dangle between us.

Hynek & Josef glanced at each other. Kropotsky and the men were going to assassinate Reverend Owings, Josef said simply, and then there wasn't any more to say at all. Except that as I left I heard Gretchen declare pityingly that they should have saved a little of the manna for me.

And so I spent last night in the railroad terminal, too miserable to think of writing. I won't go back to the flat, even to claim my belongings.


Hope that I may avert further disaster from the manna is slipping through my fingers. Mr. Freytag's shop was shuttered when at last I reached it, though he told me he stays open til eight. Remembering his passion the last time I saw him, I should have known he'd be gone.

I asked the storekeepers to either side where I might find him, but neither knew. The one on the right, a Hungarian butcher who smelt of rancid fat, added that he'd seen the pharmacist leave last night carrying a small carpetbag & looking expectant, as though he planned a weekend in the country or some such outing. It is, however, the middle of the week.

Neither man knew of any relatives Mr. Freytag might have gone to visit. He lives in a room behind his shop, and no-one comes to see him but customers & sometimes of an evening a few rough-looking men.

Against my intuition that Mr. Freytag was bound for Paris & would not return, I begged the butcher to give him a note for me. He grinned evilly & recommended I see an old woman two streets over who, he said, could cure "what ailed me" better than could the pharmacist. Repelled almost to nausea by this, far more than it deserved, I walked away.

In truth I don't know where to turn.


Friday, April 27, Lucy's place--

Mr. Stannis has paid me off. I spilled a whole pot of glue on a stack of signatures, spoiling the pages. As he counted out my money he seemed more satisfied than angry.

The odd thing is that I don't feel anything at all about it.


Sunday, April 29, Lincoln Park--

The morning breeze off the lake is steadying to both my stomach and my bruised nerves, in spite of the pungent odor of fish & refuse it carries. Though far from my home ward, the park is a good refuge for the moment.

--Perhaps in part because it is far from there. Word has gotten round that Hynek & Josef informed to the police, and it seems I, as an associate, have been tarred with the same brush. Few of our people will speak to me. To my despair this includes the Prometheus staff & those on the Committee. I'd hope they would still exercise due caution with the manna I gave them, but see no basis for it.

All I have done has gone ill.

Lucy's father may be another who disdains me now because of my former comrades -- or it is simply that he fears that now that I'm unemployed I cannot pay my board. Whatever the case, he's asked me to find another place to stay. Indeed, though I've been grateful for their forbearance, all those strangers packed in so close simply points up how alone I am, more alone than I've been since I left home after Fergie's death.

I won't think just yet about where I'll stay tonight, or what I'll do when my money runs out.

The contentment in little Samuel's eyes haunts me. It was in essence the same look they've all shown, but less disturbing on an infant not yet ten weeks old, innocent of any oppressive theology as words hold no meaning for him.

Neither did Mr. Freytag, alone in his shop, come under the spell of Owings's poison. I believe the image on the calendar was what impressed itself on him, that and his own memories, an apparent foundation for--

Oh, damn this everlasting queasiness! An eddy in the offshore breeze, and I gag on the sweetness of the lilacs that line the path. Whyever should lilacs, of which I'm fond, make me retch & weep at once? Why should appetite desert me and my body feel like a beached & bloated whale just when I need all my faculties to face the trials ahead--

Oh, I am undone. That detestable butcher was not far wrong. Indeed now the thought occurs to me, my body assures me it's true: I'm carrying a child, Josef's child.

Without Josef beside me, without my comrades, however can I bear this?


Well, I am here, and the vast room echoes dully around me as the auditorium fills. Unease sits like a lump in my middle and I must work hard to keep my breathing steady. What I've chosen to do feels like self-murder.

I intend that it will not be so. I've prepared as well as I can, with beeswax & cotton waste to stop my ears, and a black shawl wrapped round to hide this. And a credo I've written out myself, on a scrap of butcher paper so I could get the phrasing right, & tucked into the pages of this journal.

When the manna lowers the barrier of my selfhood, it will be my own words I absorb along with that sweet content.

I arrived as early as I could and claimed a seat off to the side, on an aisle so I may leave when my task is done. The air has gotten thick with the scents of sweat & tobacco & perfume, and people of every sort are filing past me, vying for seats near the front. To this moment I've seen no sign of Gretchen or Hynek or Josef, but I won't count myself lucky until the crowd is settled in place.

But I have seen a face or two that looks familiar, lone men in work garb with watchful eyes & scarves tied loose round their necks. One carried a roll of cloth beneath his coat that is the right size to be a banner; I can't think how he managed to smuggle it past the Pinkertons at the door! Neither man noticed me. With my head & shoulders covered by the shawl I must look like an old-country peasant, which is to say no-one to be concerned about.

That's more than I can say about them. The Committee, or a few revolutionists acting on their own initiative as Kropotsky's group did, have some plan in train. I applaud their dedication, but oh, I wish they hadn't chosen tonight!

The seats are full and the aisles nearly so. A man is speaking from the podium -- Mayor Hopkins, someone said. Behind us the doors are closing, one by one.


Monday, April 30, outside the city--

The teamster whistles tunelessly on his seat up front, and clucks now & again to the horses. I've yet to see his face. I have no idea where we are -- some farm road, judging by the sway & jolt of the van. But I know myself in good hands, whatever my location.

A number of people have taken pains for my safety. This is a marvelous thing, and beyond my comprehension. They tell me that chaos reigns in Chicago, and that the police want me for questioning in Owings's death.

I've been lent a clean shirtwaist, a little large for me -- at least as yet! -- but welcome, as my small bag of possessions is still tucked beneath the bed I briefly shared with Lucy & her dour sister. And the dress I wore last night is stained beyond cleaning with Owings's blood. Blood also stains the cover of this journal, which was in my pocket then. I can smell it through the haze of dust.

Being sought by the bluecoats worries me not at all, an absence of anxiety like the giddy relief that comes with the pulling of an inflamed & throbbing tooth. But Owings's death, that's a burden on me -- not worry, but grief.

Waiting out last night's sermon in the midst of the crowd was a fearful agony, however foolish that seems now. In desperation I watched Owings shout & pound his pulpit, pouring his heart into his preaching. As infected with manna as any of his audience, which I'd not considered before.

A number of those around me had risen to their feet, & the violet-scented matron beside me shrieked, a sound which deafened me even through my ear-stops. Guessing the climax was near, I pulled my credo out & was holding it ready when Dunnegan edged past me in the aisle. He was clean shaven & clutched a dandy's straw boater to his chest to save it from the crush, but I was sure it was he. The bleak resolution I saw on his face brought me out of my seat and after him.

What I thought I might accomplish by this I don't know.

Dunnegan never looked behind. I slipped the credo in my pocket -- I'm sure I did; it must have fallen out in the press of the crowd -- and murmured apologies right & left as I pushed through in his wake. Owings's oratory continued unabated, and the closer we drew to the front of the room, the less good the ear-stops did me, til we were near level with the evangelist's polished shoes & every word was clear. I'd have to clap my hands to my ears when the moment came, and how then could I read my credo if I couldn't hold it?

Then the moment came & everything changed.

Glitter above us caught my wary eye, and a cry of triumph swept everyone to their feet -- a cry that became confused shouting as the Committee men with scarves across their faces leaped onto the dais, unfurling black & red banners. Pinkertons charged from the wings with clubs in hand & pistols at their belts, and the wealthy men seated there dived out of the way as the golden dust, the manna, rained gently down upon us all.

As I tried to absorb all this my searching hand found no stiff paper in my pocket. Stark terror tightened my chest so that for a moment I couldn't breathe, so distraught that I missed Dunnegan's raised revolver til a crack like thunder brought me around to see Owings stumble, hands high and groping. And Dunnegan's finger squeezed once more -- the bullet hitting Pullman, but not, I think, mortally -- before those nearest him in the crowd piled on top to stop him.

I've been told Dunnegan's neck was broken. He would have chosen it that way, I think.

The evangelist stayed on his feet for a few fumbling steps, then pitched backwards off the stage two feet from me. We caught him & lowered him til he rested on the floor, the people who stood around me and I, a unity of strangers with the sweet taste of manna on our tongues and the touch of it opening our minds to wonder.

Owings still lived, gasping, his eyes wide with pain. Close up he was a round, balding man smelling of sweat, ordinary but for the blood soaking his shirt & vest. He grasped for a hand & caught mine. I remembered well enough who he'd been, what he'd cost me, but that was past, was less than nothing in the moment. His pain was mine, was ours, and there was no fear at all.

I think I will never feel fear again.

Someone's hands pressed a bunched-up coat to his wound, though it seemed clear he couldn't live. Save them! he rasped, and his gaze pinned mine. The passion I'd seen before still burned in his eyes.

I knew it then for my own. What else had I been fighting for all this time, but to save the people?

Leaving him, I pulled myself heavily up onto the stage, where the fighting had dissolved into a muddle of wide-eyed men. The comrades who hadn't fled had lost the protective filter of their scarves. Manna had enfolded every mind, Committee men & Pinkertons & dignitaries alike. The banners lay draped across chairs where they had fallen, familiar in theme: Neither God Nor Master! Pay Us Our Labor's Worth! We Are Not Beasts!

I felt the those words sink into me, welcoming them as my own, all as I turned to face the shocked & murmuring crowd. My people; at that moment I felt that every one of them had been given into my hands.

Awe held them, not fear, but their untutored mass strength was dangerous in its own way. I began to speak. I'm not sure of all that I said. I know that I started with We Are Not Beasts! and those words led to others: We were not beasts to shoot & tear at each other, as had happened that night before our eyes and every day a thousand times out in the streets. Neither were we beasts to be worked to death, or to live in squalor & ignorance & disease & filth. We were not beasts to let our children die, nor to pass by the starving man in the street. The earth & all its goodness was ours, share & share alike as brothers in unity must do. We needed neither God nor master because we had each other.

And the cheers rose up and carried me along, an intoxicant that fed the rapture manna had given me. I'd but thought to tell them what I knew of the golden dust when wide dark eyes caught mine across the heads of the crowd, Josef standing near the back, with Nathan & Hynek & Gretchen crowded in close. Whether they had Samuel I couldn't see, but surely they did. Josef smiled in awe and welcome, but it wasn't Anna he saw, not me but his own salvation -- yet another messiah for a man who'd needed none before.

It made me stumble. I don't want to be seen that way, particularly not by Josef.

A hammering came on the doors behind them and people turned to look. The doors burst inward and bluecoats poured in, their revolvers & brass buttons catching the light. One of the Committee men grabbed my arm and dragged me running after him to an exit.

And so I am hidden in the back of a freight wagon with bolts & boxes of dry goods. The jouncing doesn't help soothe my morning nausea, but rays of the mid-morning sun slant in through the cracks, an ordinary miracle I can cup in my hands. Even here, I am not alone.


Tuesday, May Day, south of Chicago--

From his sickbed yesterday, Pullman signed an order restoring full wages for his workers, and shook hands with their delegation. I read this in a copy of the Tribune Mr. Beebe brought from the city, as the two of us drank tea in our hosts' parlor.

Also from the Tribune: Wagons of all descriptions have descended on the poorest wards of Chicago. People as varied as their conveyances are carrying away the refuse of years. Other wagons followed with loads of lumber donated by merchants, & with carpenters for the rickety tenements, & gravel for potholes.

The offices of the Prometheus have been raided and some of the staff arrested for conspiracy in the murder of Owings, though there's evidence Dunnegan acted on his own. My visitor, Mrs. Parsons's assistant Mr. Beebe, wasn't there & so escaped the city. The latest word is that the Mayor, who was at Glessner Sunday night, has ordered them released, but the commissioner resists.

Mr. Beebe also brought me an envelope covered with warnings in my own handwriting, the sample of manna I left with him. It has been slit open, & carefully sealed again.

We had someone examine this, he told me as he put it gingerly in my hand. He has mustachios like Josef's, though otherwise the two of them look not at all alike.

He said: We can reproduce the spores. Should we?

He's left me alone here to think. I don't know why it should be my choice! Except of course there isn't anyone else to decide -- though it occurs to me to wonder if Mr. Freytag had any of his sample left; if he took it with him.

That is not yet my concern. When I hear of the revival of revolutionary spirit in Paris, it will be time enough.

The men & women cleaning streets and shoring up rotten tenements are, through the rapture of the manna, my people, as are (strange fate!) Mr. Pullman & the Mayor. As Josef is, though what we once had is swept away. Owings gave them all into my care. The families who live in those tenements are mine as well, and I am theirs, through blood & sweat & struggle. We aren't beasts. We don't have to live like beasts. With the assistance of the manna, I can make this so. People will follow & our numbers swell to a multitude. The child I carry will grow up well-nourished & happy & unafraid--

And not free. As I am no longer free.

Neither God nor Master, but what am I? I reach for worry, but cannot find it.

 

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).