Saturday, January 8, 2011
The Death of a Prophet by James Baldwin
...He followed the doctor out of the door. He stared at the doctor's moving back and looked away, for the doctor's jacket was white and the motion made him sick. He felt that he was being slowly, irrevocably trapped.
They entertain a small room with curtained windows. There was a shaded bulb high in the ceiling. There was nothing in the room except a bed and a chair and a screen around the bed. The shaded bulb was black-gray in the socket.
“He's been quite ill,” the doctor said.
He nodded but he did not move. The doctor looked at him kindly for a moment and motioned for him to follow behind the screen. He moved slowly behind the doctor. At the edge of the screen the doctor stopped; he looked at the doctor, wondering what was wrong, and realized that the doctor was being tactful. He did not feel that he should be present at the last meeting of father and son.
So he reluctantly stepped behind the screen. He was overwhelmed by the bed; but he did not look at the bed directly. As though he were wading in deep water he held his head very high and braced his body. He saw the white bedposts, he was aware of the body's outline on the bed; then, with a wrench, as though some strong hand had grasped the back of his head and turned roughly, as though his father were forcing him to look down on the evidence of some misdemeanor, he forced himself to look down on the bed. There lay his father, black against white sheets.
And his gorge rose. This could not be his father. The heavy skull pressed into the pillow; the deep eye sockets pressed into the skull. The eyes were open, black, and varnished, the straight nose flared and trembled above the purple lips. The mouth was open and foam-flicked. The neck stretched like a phallic column, obscene and secret, with a very slow, indifferent pulsation. The skeleton, beneath the twin, inadequate coverings of the white blankets and the black skin, rose in sharp, sardonic edges, like blunted knives pushing through leather. The wrist was now a polished bone, the fingers were of ebony, with blue nails. From beneath the blanket a wild thigh and ankle showed.
It was his father that he watched dying; and no more would this violent man possess him; this arm would never be raised again. The ragged edge of sound which now issued from his throat would be silence soon or singing behind far-flung stars. Now he was the man, the conqueror, alone on the tilting earth.
He felt thrown without mercy into everlasting space; or as though some door on which he had been knocking with all his weight had been, without warning, rudely opened; and now, like a two-year-old, he sprawled on his face and belly and burning knees, into an unfamiliar room, screaming with that unutterably astounded, apocalyptic terror of a child.
He moved nearer to the bed and murmured Daddy. And the sound stopped, the skeleton became perfectly still. Then it seemed that there was no sound to be made anywhere on earth. Now communication, forgiveness, deliverance, never, the hope was gone. He's gone to meet the Lord.
He laughed to himself at the phrase and again called his father. A voice said, Here now. Here now. He felt hands on his shoulder and he tried to break away, screaming for his father. But he knew, in the awful, endless silence at the bottom of his mind, that it was himself who cried and himself who listened, that his cry would never be heard; it would bang forever against the walls of heaven and he would live with his recurring cry, the force of his anguish powerless to defeat the force of time and death.
He wanted to run, to hide, to run out of the world and be forever hidden; but hands were holding him, a white face overwhelmed him, shooting out gray-green lights like signals for his destruction. He beat against the whiteness until his arms seemed bleeding in their sockets. Then the hands stapled his arms behind him; he sweated with the pain; and the gray-veined, marble floor opened up and dropped him a long way down.
They made him drink cocoa and rest and they wiped his forehead with an evil-smelling ointment. He took from their hands the brown paper bundle of his father's cloths and walked the long corridor to the door. The door crashed behind him and he ran down the walk to the iron gates which reared and glittered against the black, descending sky..
But the stars were out and the moon, a crescent, hung fanged and evil, gleaming through the passing clouds. He walked the railroads platform, carrying the bundle of his father's clothes, waiting for the train to the city. Far behind him stood the hospital buildings, sprawling and sinister and all the windows dark.
Tomorrow a wagon would arrive from the city to take his father's body away. For three days he would lie in state in a shabby velvet funeral parlor; men and women from the church would come and look down on his father and whisper a leave. They would look on his son, his oldest son, and warn him of the enormity of the danger in which he placed his soul
Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me. He paced the platform, carrying the bundle, listening to the sharp crack of his heals on the wood. He lit a cigarette; the brief flare lit up the night around him and he held the match until it burned his fingers and then dropped it and ground it beneath his heel.
A cloud uncovered the moon again. He watched it move slowly across the sky, impossible, eternal, burning, like God hanging over the world.