Dear Mr. Shelward,
I am writing you on behalf of a group of investors informally known as Multi-Realizations. We are involved in outcome-oriented pre-planning and have been tracking your output for several years. We think your skills may make a contribution to one of our ventures. If you find yourself interested, and want to learn more about the possibilities of working with us, please respond in writing to this address...
The address was in What Cheer, Iowa. Never heard of the
place. I'll tell you. If the letter had come, say, three weeks
earlier I'd have put it in the get-to-it-later pile and I never would have.
My get-to-it-later pile was over six inches high. The bottom was
from last year, maybe the year before. But this was this week, and
as I said, I'd begun thinking about the need for another something to do.
And, as I said, I'd ever so much rather they come to me than I come to
them. So I did indeed respond. Short, sweet, polite as you
please. Yes, I'm interested, please tell me what you have in mind.
Eight days passed. I woke up each morning. I drank a cup of coffee with two drops of stevia. Then I drank three glasses of water. Then I ran for forty minutes. Then I went to the bathroom and performed my ablutions and eliminations. Then I worked on whichever of my second string projects caught my fancy until I thought of something else to do. One day it was a fiction piece involving a guy kind of like Tooly and a girl kind of like Betty, my ex. Except that "Tooly" was tall in my story, and didn't stutter. And "Betty" was nice, and wasn't always asking how the cash flow was going. Trouble with that story was I didn't know yet what it was supposed to be about. Just a picture of a nicer world, with nicer people in it.
Another day I worked on a database problem. This was longterm - trying to find a unified concept under which to arrange data that was superficially different but fundamentally the same. In the back of my mind was the thought that maybe I could solve the migration problem for once and all. That day involved a whole lot of sitting in a chair staring out the window. At what, I couldn't tell you.
And so forth. One day I really wanted some female interaction. But I didn't do anything about it.
I had spaghetti for dinner four nights in a row. Another two nights I had nothing. When you live alone you can do what you want.
The mail came between 12:30 and 3:30. Every day, not much of anything. A few bills. Junk. One day a residual check that took care of all the bills for this month and next.
The truth is, I didn't think about that letter from What Cheer. Not even once.
On the morning of the ninth day I cam back from my run and there was a message on the machine. I hate getting messages on the machine. They always take too long. The caller was ready to talk with a real person and then has to change gears, fumbles, lots of "Ums" and "uhs." And I have to sit there and listen to it. I hate it. Skin crawls with impatience.
So I did everything else there was to be done first. Only after I'd showered and shaved and pooped and dressed and eaten did I finally go over to the old piece of junk to deal with the blinking red light.
I pushed the button. Click, whirr, click, clunk, static. Then a woman's voice.
"Hello,Mr. Shelward.My name is..."
I missed it, sounded like Haideh Tara Kahee. But I certainly heard when she said she was from Multi-Realizations. All ears now, I heard her thank me for my quick response and would I call a local number at my earliest convenience so we could get on with seeing if we were suitable for each other's needs.
There is a certain quality of female voice that really turns me on. Hard to describe. Kind of musical, as if she's speaking with her full throat, instead of, say, quacking through her nose. I've heard it in many Russian women, and Persians. Sometimes that voice goes right through me, to my deepest being, it seems, and drives me mad, as it were, with supernal longing. Such was the voice on the answering machine.
It was a voice to get me to do things. If it asked me to drive across town and take out the garbage it might get me to do it. I punched the number right away. Big deflation. A male voice answered.
"Tony here." That was all. I was thinking, "This is a pro outfit? I'm supposed to be interested? There's something in it for me? Dog dropping soup. But there it was, might as well go on.
"Hi. I'm Ed..."
And he says "Shelmark. Right. Been waiting for your call. Are you free this afternoon?”
Well, that was moderately wierd. This guy was waiting? For me? And he wants personal contact right away, without telling me anything about anything? What am I, an idiot? Next thing he's going to offer me an introductory package, would I please give him my credit card number.
"What's," I asked, "this about?" Naturally.
"If you're free this afternoon you could come over to the West Side Memorial Church. We're having an introductory session for potential associates. Get some of your questions answered. Big rewards for the right people. Want to give it a try?"
While he was talking I was noticing that in typical scammer fashion he was telling me absolutely nothing about the work I'd be doing for his group. I hate that, and I told him so.
"No problem. We're interface engineers. We work on making cross-platform dreams into reality. We select specific people for specific projects. It's all short term. There's a base payment and performance bonuses. No benefits. Want to give it a try?"
Well, truth to tell, I was free that afternoon. I was free every afternoon that time. And I was young, well, not old, healthy, fit, adventurous, confident, etc. I was supposed to go to a church, I actually knew the church, the risk seemed minimal. Cross platform was interesting of course, though the dreams to reality part seemed like a bit of sloganeering. What the hey, I said yes.
The parking lot had more cars than you'd expect for a weekday
afternoon at a church. In fact, there was only one space available
in the close-in section near the back entrance where I was supposed to
park. Of course I took it. To my left was a big, white pickup.
In the driver's seat was a big, overweight guy. He spoke to me.
"You're Ed Sheldrake, right?" It was the voice on the phone. He fiddled around with some papers on the seat, picked up a folder like they like to hand out at presentations, handed it to me.
"Here. Got to room 106 and have a seat. The show starts in a couple of minutes.
"Uh, thanks," I said. Pretty wierd, I thought. He should be sitting at a table in front of that room signing in the attendees, but instead he's in a truck in the parking lot.
Well, I was there already, no point in not going in and seeing what the story was. I walked down the hall to room 106. Typical Sunday School room; bible story posters on the wall, metal folding chairs, um, more than 10, less than, uh, 20. Arranged in rows. Six people, couple of empty chairs around each one, so they must have each come in alone. Young blond guy, slim, short hair, collared shirt. Another blond guy, thicker, maybe older, doodling on his handouts. Heavyset girl, looked like late teens, chewing gum, reading a magazine. Another woman, older, might be her mother, but no contact between them. Yet another woman, best looking in the room, engrossed in her handout packet. And a dark guy with a beard who looked at me and nodded a greeting when I came in. None of the others looked up.
I nodded back and took a chair, near the dark guy but not too near. He made no further gestures in my direction, so I took the social bull by the horns and asked him "So what do you know about this?" All I got for my effort was a shrug and "Not much," so I opened up my packet. Had to be more entertaining than the company I was keeping.
But it wasn't. The packet contained half a dozen pages of what looked like promotional claptrap; smiling, well dressed people, a few of them racially diverse. Phrases like "new opportunity," "growth in understanding," "integrated systems," and other such nonsense. What it really looked like was an intro to a multilevel marketing scheme, except there was no pumped up enthusiasm. Not much of anything really. I never was able to read all the way through promotional crap. I closed the packet and looked up at the ceiling.
Ah, that was different! Between me and the dropped ceiling of acoustic tile was a network of thin, silvery, metal rods and wires. They intertwined with each other in a way that almost looked like a pattern, but not quite. And the whole tangle, only it wasn't really a tangle, converged, no, it was going to converge, at a point, where? It seemed like the point was somewhere high up beyond the wall at the front of the room. Except that I couldn't really see, the light was dim at that spot. It sort of looked like the stuff was disappearing in thin air. I found myself staring, trying to figure out what exactly I was seeing.
I didn't get the chance to come to any conclusions, because the leader came in. I knew she was the one immediately. The way she was dressed; business makeup, business hair, everything about her said group leader.
Underneath the gloss was delectable. I guess I told you I notice that kind of stuff. Always. My tastes are pretty normal. Tall, slender, shapely, tapering, posture, face, gait, everything. In short, she pushed all my buttons.
She walked to the desk at the front of the room and started talking.
"I won't waste your time. You're all busy people with other things to do."
Voice like a flute in a forest. It was the woman on the answering machine. Went right through me, just like then. I heard the voice, but I missed the first few hundred words.
"...entertainment value of shared imaginary experiences, with ancillary benefits that we are just starting to comprehend. We think that we have reason to believe that profound changes can be made on mental, emotional, and even physical levels. Any questions before I go on to the details?
The gum chewing teenager looked up and raised her hand.
"On the phone you told me there was a job and money involved, but you haven't said anything about that yet. I don't have all day. Would you mind getting to the point? Because I have some other things I need to do today.
Everything about this kid set me on edge. She was sloppy. She had a pimple on her neck. Her fingernails were bitten. She was fat, she had an attitude, and an accent, and I wanted her to have bad breath - would have fit the style.
I'm sorry. I get that way sometimes about people. Jump to conclusions. Can't help it.
Our leader smiled. "Of course. I'd have gotten to that later, but since you think you're in a hurry I'll tell you now." Was that a hint of a sneer in her tone? But she was moving on. It was to be a "shared dream experience." We would take a test run. The mediating apparatus was partially represented by those wires and rods above us. There was a base payment of, now this was wierd. She said how much, and it wasn't nothing. I know I heard her say it, but I missed it somehow, and then she was going on about vectors and time gradients and temporal nodes and provisional outcomes. She even mentioned "original energies of the Big Bang” in some context that made sense when I heard her say it, but it was in one ear and out the other. The voice.
And then she was going on about formation of a series of teams "so that progress could be made in multirealizations on a global level.”
That seemed pretty grandiose. But for all that, in the midst of the distractions her physicality was giving me, I managed to notice that not once had she mentioned anything about selling anything, nor about personal growth either. I raised my hand.
"How much did you say you'd be paying?"
She told me. It was definitely not nothing. In fact, it was a very interesting sum for what she had said - twice now - would be about two hours of work, and that done sitting in a chair with our eyes closed. And then, if they and we decided to go ahead, there would be other jobs as part of an ongoing project. By contract, no less.
I looked around. The grownups were sitting with blank expressions. I guess maybe they were used to that kind of hourly wage, but that would make them a pretty elite group. The teenager had sat up straight in her chair. She was definitely interested now.
It really was an offer I couldn't refuse. An average of two weeks of income in two hours. And when she handed out consent forms and release forms, and a piece of mylar entitled "Conditional Contract," which stated in writing what was to be done and how much and when we were to be paid, I went ahead and signed it. We all did. If there was a catch I couldn't find it, and evidently neither could the others there with me.
We took a pee break, and when we came back the blinds were drawn. They were not ordinary blinds. They fastened on the sides and bottom, and no light came in at all.
Plastic bags were handed out. Each contained a black plastic bracelet. We were instructed to put these on our left wrists, with the flat button on the back. The lights would be turned out, we would count down from ten to zero, then we would press the button. We were supposed to try to remember our thoughts and experiences - there would be a questionnaire at the end. Any questions?
Yes. The older woman wanted to know how long again. About an hour and a half. Anything else? No. Time to begin.
It felt a little stupid, counting out loud in the dark with a bunch of strangers, but I did it, then I pressed the button. Nothing happened for a moment, then a silvery glow began above me among the wires.I looked up. The glow resolved into a thousand points of light. Or maybe a million. Then one point started to get brighter. It got so bright I had to look away. Then I had to close my eyes. Then it didn't matter that my eyes were closed. The light seemed to be coming through my skull, hitting my retinas from the back. Still brighter. I felt like it should explode me, or suffocate me, this light, or dissolve me. One should not be able to exist in the presence of such light.
Then I was standing by a swimming pool filled with murky, black water. A cold wind was blowing, and a woman in gray sweats was standing at the edge. The water roiled and four kids popped their heads out.
"Can we come out now?" one of them yelled.
"Another ten minutes," the woman called out, and the kids went down below the surface again.
The woman turned to me and said "They're going to be attaching limpets. They need to develop their stamina." And before I could say anything the scene shifted.
I was walking along a dirt road on a bare, rocky hill. My sandalled feet kicked up dust as I trudged. I saw them peeking out from the hem of my brown, homespun robe. The same kind of cloth covered my head. In my right hand was a rope that trailed behind me, attached to a donkey. Sweat trickled through my gray beard. It was hotter than Hell.
I reached up my unoccupied left hand to wipe my face and saw the black plastic bracelet.
I remember thinking that this was going to be a hell of a product, whatever it was.
I reached the top of the hill. Below was a village of mud-brick huts, with a small stone building in the center. I didn't have to wonder. That was where I was going.
Details popped into my head. You don't go around reminding yourself: "I am Joe Blow, 36 years old, a salesman, divorced" and so forth. You just know those things, so you don't rehearse them. In this unusual situation I had to do that, and that's how I found out that I was Yannai bin Yusuf, that I was the youngest of the elders of the town of Nusrat i Galil, and that I was on my way to a council meeting. Various things to deal with. Temple dues increased - how to raise them. New taxes from the kings, it seemed there were new demands from the Romans. Some vandalism (talk about anachronism!) to an irrigation ditch. Other things. And a possible adultery.
This last was no minor matter. Should it be proved the penalty would be death for the pair.
I made my way down the hill into town, exchanging ritual greetings with the people I met. Everyone knew me, and I knew everyone. I saw Yusuf bin Itshak, and Merut bint Shamma, and Elassar bin Yehonatan, and Yeshua ben Yehudah, and Yoel bin Mordechai, and Mordechai ha Mishmari. Mordechai was an elder as well, and we went together toward the hall, exchanging pleasantries and carefully not discussing council matters.
I tied up my donkey under the tree beside the hall and we entered the cool dimness. What a relief after the hot sun! I took my place around the central hearth, Mordechai beside me on the right, Moshe bin Salman Amran to my left.
"So," said Mordechai. "What about this Maryam bint ______business? She's claiming innocence, but how can that be? She's obviously pregnant, but claims no man did it. Sounds like a bunch of crap to me. If she was my daughter, I'd kill her myself.
I didn't catch her father's name.
Moshe responded in like vein. "It's been terrible since the Romans came, with their pagan immorality and their rapacious soldiers. The young people are corrupted and everything is bad. In the old days she'd have been locked up in her father's house and this never would have happened."
Now, I'm a modern. If fornication out of wedlock was a capital
crime I'd be dead, oh, I don't know, at least five times over. And
my sister too. And my wife. Probably my parents as well.
I immediately thought about the "Let he who is without sin" bit.
Has to be one of the three most famous sayings in the Bible. Everyone
knows The Ten Commandments, even if they can't tell you what they are.
And they know the "I am the way." And they know this one, the "Let
he." All the people I know are "Let hes. I actually try to
stay as far away from people who like to condemn, I don't know how they
can stand it, being better than everyone else all the time. What
am I supposed to say to them? Whose shoes are you walking in today?
Makes me mad. But I was the youngest of the elders here. My job was to keep my mouth shut.
Eliezer bin Zvi hobbled in. The eldest. He would preside. He carried a big stick in his right hand in the old manner, and was born up on his left by his second wife, Tuva. Pretty woman. And my wife dead four years back. Woe and sin. Eliezer sat, and in his ready voice called the meeting to order.
We dealt with the ordinary business. No surprises there. You can't do anything about Temple dues and Royal exactions except to figure out how to collect them. About the damaged ditch we did some rumoring and supposing about who did it. The thought came to be that it was likely to be the work of that brat kid, Shanana bin Elwissan, who had a history of mischief since he was 5 years old and had started out his career by tearing down olive branches to feed to the goats in his care. I was delegated to go and speak to his father.
"So," piped Eliezer, "let us move on to our final item. I will say to begin that I do not have an opinion yet on the subject of Maryam bint ______, but i will say that in the event that a decision is taken, and if she is judged guilty, that the decision should be forwarded to Yerushalayem for review. It is too weighty a fate for us to take without verification, and as I live I shall do that should it come to pass. Please, Yigael bin Yannai, you know the story. Please review it for us.
Yigael stood up. He was thickset, dressed higher than his station, a man who wanted more than he had. "The girl," he said, "was found to be pregnant before the wedding, but the parties got married anyhow. It is a scandal. The girl claims an outlandish divine intervention, and claims to be both virgin and with child. She mentions her cousin, Yelishevet, whom she claims was also touched by the Almighty and thus birthed a child after a long life of barrenness.
Yigael was enjoying his public speaking. He raised his hands as he spoke, illustrating his points with one finger doodling loops through the air.
"I need not remind this council that this type of visitation from heaven is simply a foreign idea. The Greeks tell these kind of stories all the time. And we know what kind of people the Greeks are! They walk around naked and eat pigs. And they call themselves cultured. They tell stories of their gods tricking women into fornication. That is their religion!”
"And over on the coast, there they have all their women opened by strangers, and the strangers are all called "God," so that to them all of their women have been "touched by God." It is a mere blasphemous joke. But then they burn their own children to their Gods, so that they take their utter vileness and redeem it with murder.
"Now Maryam bint ________. She comes to us and tells us one of those stories. 'God did it.' God strike her dead! If God had anything to do with it just cut me up and cook me for dinner. I am utterly disgusted.”
"Thankyou," he finished, and sat down.
So much for objectivity. Eliezer spoke.
"Thankyou, Yigael bin Yannai. We will hear now from a principal in the affair, Yusuf bin Yakub bin Mattani, husband of Maryam."
A tall man walked in. Spotless clothes, oiled beard, a touch of gray, scent of aromatic perfume from Damascus. Yusuf appeared to be a man of the world. Certainly he was comfortable with the council. Bowing deeply, he began.
"Elders, some of you are my teachers, some my colleagues and business partners, some I would hope I could presume to call you my friends. You have known me all my life. With many of you I share the glorious ancestry of our great king Daud. It is our pride and our responsibility to uphold his memory and to redeem his sins. Maryam, my wife, is also of this lineage, and she too feels the weight of our blood.
"Elders, I knew her not when we were married, but we had met in her father's house, and she had of her own will accepted me and obeyed the wish of her father. As a normal suitor, despite my greater years, I would commonly visit her in her father's house. They knew me, I knew them. We had no secrets to hide.
"One day I was working in my fields and a feeling came over me. Terror and exhaltation at the same time. I thought perhaps an earthquake was coming. Without thinking I ran to the house of Maryam's father, and there I found her, kneeding dough for bread, covered in flour and sweat. She was glowing. I loved her. I took her in my arms. She told me that she had been touched by the Almighty and that there would be a child. I told her that I would stand by her always. I believe what she said is true. Our town is blessed and not cursed. I will raise the child as my own. We will leave. My wife will live."
His eyes shined. He bowed again. There were no questions. He bowed one more time and walked out.
Eliezer's thin voice sawed at the silence. “We wanted to hear from Maryam's father, but he is in Alexandria on business. He has left us this written statement, however, in which he writes that he has full confidence in his daughter and his son-in-law, and that he stands with them in all their endeavors." The old man waved a small scroll in the air.
"And I will also state," he went on, "that in a private conversation I had with him shortly before the wedding, he told me that Joseph was an ardent man! I thought nothing of it at the time, but perhaps he was insinuating something. If he was, that's certainly a different sort of sin than what we think we're talking about, and mercy would apply, I'm sure you would agree."
No one said anything, though Moshe beside me seemed upset. I was beginning to develop good feelings about old Eliezer. He spoke again.
"We also have to speak before us Yelishavet, wife of the priest Zahar, cousin of the girl, come from Yerushalayem in her defense."
A woman walked in. Late forties. Handsome, self-possessed. She wore expensive, city clothes. She would not have travelled without a guard, who undoubtedly waited outside. She bowed before the council and began.
"Wise elders, I will only tell the truth. My husband's high honor demands it if my heart did not. Maryam is my cousin whom I have known since she was a baby. She went with her father to the Temple and stayed in my house, playing with the baby that the Almighty granted to me so late in my life. She told me her story. I examined her. Both of her assertions seem to be true. She is with child and she has not known a man.
"We are all of us here beyond the age of innocence, and we all know the various things that could be done to satisfy both of these facts, though why someone would want to do them is another question entirely. However, I know the girl, and I feel that I can honestly tell you that she does not merely believe the story she is telling, but she has made me believe as well.
"You know that my extraordinary child was heralded by a visitation - not to me, but to my husband, and in the Temple, no less. No one doubts our situation. The flavor of Maryam's story tastes the same to me as mine. There should be not talk of guilt. She is blessed among women. Let her live and see what happens."
A click and a vibration on my wrist from the black bracelet. A dip in the scene. A young woman stood before the old men. She did not enter the room. She was there. Pimple on her neck. She began to speak. In verse.
I don't know what happened.
I know what I think happened.
I admit that something happened.
But I don't know what it was.
I will not protest the judgement.
I am a good girl.
I stayed at home.
I did what my father told me.
He told me I would marry.
I did not think to disagree.
I didn't know Yusuf.
My father told me he was a good man.
He said age brings wisdom.
Yusuf would not abandon me.
My father spoke truly.
In the midst of the day I kneaded bread.
In my father's house I labored.
A light poured into me as I held the dough.
I was filled up.
A voice told me to be calm.
No one touched me.
I felt a locking in my womb.
I saw the great and terrible future.
Then it was gone.
I stood up bathed in sweat.
Yusuf came running in.
He told me he'd had a feeling.
He looked at me and laughed.
He took me in his arms.
"The Lord Bless," he said. "You are alive."
Yusuf says he does not need to believe me.
He says he knows.
Other nations make this claim, he says.
Even they make a business out of it.
Trafficking in so-called heavenly interventions.
Yusuf will stand by me.
He is satisfied.
He says this is a divine business.
He says he's old enough to know.
He says he can't wait to see how it turns out.
She bowed, turned to go, then she stopped and turned again to
face the circle of old men.
"Yelishevet bint______, my cousin, whom you all know was blessed, will attest my state." Then she was gone.
Eliezar stood and said: "Discussion?" A bell rang. The scene disappeared in darkness, then the lights came on and there we were in our chairs in the room.
No one said anything. They handed out envelopes. There was money inside mine, and a short note: we'll be in touch. Someone opened the door. We got up and left, got in our cars and drove away.
Three weeks. I tried calling the original number but its been disconnected. If they don't call I don't know what I'm going to do.