[First three chapters]
In mythically ordinary fashion, Jessica Franklin Turner passed from this earth just shy of her one-hundredth birthday. Despite her great age, this greatly surprised her extended family, owing possibly to her remarkably youthful appearance. Her features were seasoned rather than deteriorated by age, her step spry, and her mind quick. While two of her four offspring wondered why she had not persisted until achieving a full century of life on this planet, the others decided rather confidently that she did not want a letter of congratulation from a president for whom she had not voted.
Jessie breathed her last after the family meal on Thanksgiving day of 2017. Her children and grandchildren had ordered her to let them clear the table, clean the dishes, and put away the leftover food, consigning her to a resting spell in her favorite chair. Seth, her husband, had passed away some years earlier, following his own father and mother and their ancestors before them. She began to reminisce inwardly on those who were no longer present as those of her own descendants who were paying attention took note of the familiar expression on her face. This normally signified an opportune circumstance for a story or two, and the younger among them began by asking for accounts of Josiah, other relatives of somewhat recent familiarity, and Eli and Posey Sample. But, as on other occasions, the discussion eventually settled on the subject of Jacob Leviathan. After two or more hours of recounting his exploits, Jessie settled back in her chair and closed her eyes.
She felt a gentle tug on the long sleeve covering her right arm. It was Nathan, the third born of the third born of her own third son.
“Nana,” he almost whispered, “when did Jacob die?”
Of all the members of the extended family, he was by disposition the most likely to ask such a question. At the age of thirteen, when a young man’s mind is normally and by rights devoted to more frivolous concerns, he was possessed of a strange preoccupation with loss. He had, as his great grandmother had noted, a special temperament. Uniquely gifted and uniquely sensitive, he had up to this point in his life encountered difficulty with the expectations of others, a fact attested to by his low grades at school and some premature gray hairs on the heads of his parents.
“Well, Nathan,” Jessie began uncertainly, “I can’t say for sure that he did die. He left no earthly remains. I suppose you could say he just left. You’ve heard the story before, and I know you remember. I don’t think you’ve ever forgotten anything I’ve told you about Jacob.”
“Yes, Nana, but when did it happen?”
She turned to him and smiled in a way reserved just for him and then looked up and off into some undefined distance.
“It was back in…”
“It was in…”
She paused again and seemed to look even further into whatever landscape she alone was beholding. Then she smiled again, and the lamp went out of her eyes.
Modern cities stand upon the foundations of older ones, newer constructions forming a contemporary sarcophagus around the remnants of previous architectural eras. In historic buildings, bridges, sewers, statues, and fountains, in the very strata beneath all this urbanity, are preserved connections to the past and, in rare circumstances, portals to dimensions difficult for the urban mind to comprehend. These obscure passageways to the unseen need not occur exclusively in natural surroundings as they did in the Ozarks of Jacob’s day. In a midwestern city somewhere north of the Ozarks, a portal of this type appeared, but one can only guess as to why its time and date of doing so occurred then and not earlier. The occasion of its opening was not preceded by atmospheric portent of thunder and lightning. Rather, it occurred under the ominous silence of fog in the dark of night. This was suspected in retrospect by only one man of trained mind and practiced eye, an educated man at an age and station in life which qualified him for general disregard. True to the point of annoyance, his warnings fell on the deafened ears of twenty-first century society.
In this particular city, on one unfortunate and foggy night in early December of 2017, there transpired three tragedies within the confines of a run-down neighborhood near the heart of the city. A homeless drug addict died in an alley, felled by narcotics purchased with the money from a stolen wallet. Just three blocks away, the man who had sold the tainted concoction was shot in the head by a rival as he unwarily counted his ill-gotten gains. And in the middle of an otherwise deserted street, a young runaway was beaten to death by the man for whom her frail and malnourished body had yielded insufficient profit. Her pleas for help had drawn many faces to the windows of a crumbling apartment building which towered over the scene of her demise, but this plethora of witnesses had timidly looked away and drawn their curtains. During the window of time in which these events took place, and perhaps as a matter of judgment, the corridor opened.
It was, of all places, a drainage ditch that ran through a large park separating the aforementioned neighborhood from a more prosperous business district to the west. Unseasonably warm weather feebly gave way to an advancing cold front as a light fog settled into the low places. Beneath this vaporous cover, what looked like a shiny pebble was rolled along by the sluggish, shallow current that gurgled over a broken slab of concrete at the bottom of the ditch. The appearance of this object disguised its soft, organic nature. Shortly after midnight, a subliminal gushing sound heralded the ushering forth of a modern curse upon age old weaknesses in the human condition.
The miniscule abomination struggled as it climbed out of the ditch and moved off among the trees and shrubs of the aging park. Over the ensuing days and months, its diet would graduate from roaches to mice to rats, and always after feeding it would return to the ditch to take advantage of coloration that blended with the concrete of this artificial channel. In the surrounding urban environment, solutions were applied to more obvious problems, thus perpetuating a cycle of recurring and dire emergency. Hidden within plain sight of those who were not looking, this creature would exact a grisly toll once grown to maturity. For the near future, oddly eviscerated vermin would lie scattered and decomposing beneath bare bush and tree.
A small zoological garden was housed in the northern portion of the park, while at the southern end, in the middle of a grassy area, four sidewalks converged on a circular path around a distinctive fountain. The latter was, for office and shop workers on their lunch breaks, a popular location in warm weather. During the noon hour, assorted individuals and clusters of people could be seen in various poses of eating, reading, and conversation. Most even threw away their trash when through with their hastily consumed meals. On balmy spring evenings, young lovers might steal a kiss or two by this local landmark which later at night would be frequented by denizens of less honorable intentions. At these darkened hours, there was more than enough activity to elicit terrible retribution for the fruit of the wayward mind, but, as is the way with evil, cause and consequence did not typically follow in rapid succession. In this way, ignorance often goes unenlightened and behavior uncorrected, and so the iniquitous perish slowly. But there are places and times for swifter judgment, and the rule for the dispensation of these is known only to a higher mind.
The fountain was graced by multiple water spouts arranged so among statuary as to exhibit a sense of personality. Scattered spray fell between and outward from stone figures of men, some on horseback, some on foot, and all in dire combat with serpentine and crocodilian beasts. The scene thus portrayed was a near chaotic jumble of swords, javelins, sinewy limbs, scaled forms, and flowing manes. As such, it was an entirely appropriate location for social converse and private imagination. In all too short a while, however, it would conceal a horrible truth, and this fount of retribution would punish the law-abiding as well as the criminal with indiscriminate severity.
There are children who arrive out of time in society, the world having changed out from under them before they are born. By nature drawn to eternal ideals, they are regarded as walking anachronisms by some and mere misfits by others. The former come by their opinions when the observed swim against the popular moral tide, the latter when they are swept along by it. There is, therefore, little place of safety for such people, even in compromise, and they are correspondingly designed for conflict. In fact, they attract it to themselves, even when silent and at rest. This, then, is the category of humanity into which Nathan Turner fell on the day of his birth.
Born to Benjamin and Rachel Turner in the spring of 2004, he was an oddly principled child, opposed to wrong, but not always to the extent of doing right. From an early age he was especially disposed to confronting authority when he considered it, accurately or not, to be applied unfairly. This placed him first at cross-purposes with his parents and later with teachers and principals at the many schools he attended throughout his academic career. Whether not enough student or too much, he never graduated from the same elementary, middle, or high school in which he originally enrolled.
His first washout came at the end of first grade when school officials deemed him too immature for promotion. In actuality, they did not know what to do with him for he simply did not fit any of their fixed definitions of student achievement. Recognizing that he was an exceptional boy and difficult to manage, his parents then placed him in a private religious school in hopes that a more disciplined environment would prove helpful. This arrangement lasted until the middle of seventh grade, owing to repeated failure to adhere to the strict behavioral standards of that institution. Next was a parochial middle school from which he barely graduated into the parish high school. It was during this time that his great grandmother died, depriving him of one of his steadiest social anchors.
High school was a time of somewhat better academic progress punctuated by challenges to double standards exercised by teachers in the treatment of their students. Observing, a favored student getting away with the transgression of any rule in a classroom, Nathan would then violate the same rule, albeit in more obvious fashion. This practice finally got him expelled by the middle of his sophomore year, and he found himself back in the public school system of the city where he lived.
Students adept at disruption normally have little difficulty in making friends with similarly principled individuals, but this was not so with Nathan. Disinterested in sports or popular music, he was also ill-suited to a life of technological convenience. His nervous system responded to a present and three-dimensional reality rather than the flattened imagery of television screens, computer monitors, and cellular phones. With his perspective grounded in the immediate place and time, he was annoyed to distraction by peers who gazed constantly into their palms and walled themselves off from his attention. Seeing the ears of classmates plugged with headphones after the ringing of the afternoon bell further aggravated this sense of frustration and alienation. Over the ensuing months, he developed from an unobserved outsider to an object of adolescent malice. Too proud to discuss the problem with his mother or father, he bore up under the load as best he could. Miles and decades from the hills of his ancestry, the lad withered inwardly.
Some solace was to be found in physical exercise. His father paid him an allowance to plant some shrubs in the back yard and do some landscaping in the front after school. Noting his son’s enthusiasm for hard work, Ben conducted a sort of experiment. One day, two large piles, one of heavy stones and the other of dirt, were deposited next to the driveway along with a shovel, a wheelbarrow, and several packets of seeds. When his father arrived home after work, he gave the lad his instructions. The stones were to be moved behind the house and arranged into an elevated vegetable garden. The placement and configuration of the garden were left to the discretion of his son. In this, the father showed a certain amount of wisdom. He would have shown more had he assumed the role of co-laborer in the project.
Nonetheless, the results of Benjamin’s experiment were encouraging. The boy went beyond doing well in the accomplishment of his task. A glimmer of manly confidence began to enlighten his eyes, and his back and arms grew strong. Since he was now of age, his father conspired with a friend who owned a small construction business to secure Nathan summer employment carrying hod for a team of brick layers. Seasoned workers find amusement in the unsteadiness of teenagers under heavy loads, and the men for whom Nathan worked watched slyly, waiting for him to break. True, he did wobble a bit at first, but over the course of the summer, his step became strong and sure beneath the awkward and heavy loads he carried. With this group of practical men, he found the first measure of acceptance he had known outside his family. But it would not be enough to assuage the daily insults he was about to suffer during his upcoming year of high school.
The breaking point came in early March of his junior year. Verbal abuse had graduated to shoving in the hallways and surreptitious slaps to the back of the head during class. These he tolerated out of a poorly understood matter of personal ethics, but seeing it done to someone else was an entirely different matter. His patience decreased with every incident he observed until the day he saw a small freshman shoved up against a locker by a member of the football team.
“That’ll be a dollar,” were the only words to emanate from the oversized body.
A surprisingly strong grip turned the bully about as he caught sight of the tall but slender form of Nathan Turner.
“Mike, you shouldn’t have done that.”
A bellowed “stay out of it” was thereupon accompanied by a hard punch to the chest. The loud reverberation attracted more scrutiny from surrounding students along with a collective moan, but it also betrayed an underlying solidity as Nathan’s defiant body moved backward but little. This was the point at which a more mature and reasonable mind would recognize that a mistake had been made, that an area of personal danger had been entered, but such thoughts often go unheeded by those unaccustomed to determined resistance. The crowd swelled in numbers and drew close in anticipation of a lopsided fight.
The expression on Nathan’s features was dead calm.
“You’d best leave him alone,” he responded.
A sneer crossed the face of the ill-mannered lout. He leaned forward and drove a hard blow upward into his opponent’s stomach, and that was the last thing he remembered. His fist nearly bounced off of tensed abdominal muscles, causing relatively minor pain to his intended target. The ensuing response was so rapid that onlookers later found themselves in profound disagreement concerning the details, but a flurry of savage blows to the head left the larger boy unconscious on the floor.
Trembling and pale, Nathan surveyed the damage and then stared in disbelief at his clenched fists. He felt sickened by what he had done and for the moment could not remember why he had done it. Fellow students backed away from him more out of fear than respect. In that moment of revelation, he was truly frightened by his own capabilities. So, apparently were the school personnel who sent him home early. That afternoon, he cried at the memory of his fists slamming into another human being’s face. Later, there was a phone call informing his parents, that he would not be returning to school for the rest of that year.
That evening, Benjamin and Rachel held a hushed conversation behind the closed door of their bedroom. Hearing muffled voices, their five children could not discern what was being said, but they knew what it was about.
“Benjamin,” his wife whispered emphatically. “This isn’t a matter of punishment. I’m afraid of losing our son.”
“Well, so far all you’ve done is disagree with everything I suggest. Do you have anything else in mind?”
The silence that followed indicated two things to Ben: first, that he had settled on a poor choice of words and, second, that his wife did, in fact, have something in mind.
“I think we have to do what your grandmother suggested the summer before she died.”
Benjamin frowned. He had tried to ignore this topic for almost four years.
“Rachel,” he paused.
“The boy just isn’t ready, yet. He’s too young.”
“He’ll be seventeen next week, Ben. He’s almost a man.”
Her husband thoughtfully rubbed the back of his neck with his left hand and nodded.
“Then I should take him.”
Rachel insistently shook her head.
“I was afraid of the idea at first, just like you. I thought I’d never say this, but he has to do this alone. Just look at him. All these years, and he’s never found his place. All you could do is get in the way. Our boy needs time to reflect.”
It has been said that greatness skips a generation. What might be closer to the truth is that it can fade with successive generations only to come back with an extreme vengeance. Those with exceptional experience earnestly train their offspring and shield them from repeating the mistakes of the past. So it continues, on down the line, each generation taking more for granted benefits received while becoming less familiar with the lessons that produced them.
In the raising of children, the accumulated wisdom of experience teaches those in parental authority when to relax their grip. Not all listen to this voice, but Seth and Jessica Turner did. Recognizing that her four sons responded to different emotional currents, each in accordance with his own character, Jessie insisted on little but was adamant concerning that on which she did insist. There was absolutely no dislodging her from a decision once made. Honorable and respectful behavior was required of all. Faith was taught by example and without coercion. Choice of academic and professional direction was left to the discretion of the individual. The completion of one’s education was not, but with education comes economic opportunity and the inevitability of geographic dispersal.
Jessie’s descendants were of good fiber. The Turner men were lean, imposing, and endowed with surprising strength, the women fair and agile. Nathan’s parents were good, moral people, but they had become removed from their colloquial roots and overly burdened with the cares of modern living. Their third son, by mysterious circumstance, had sprung directly from the original seed, and they were at a loss as to how they should respond to this. Still, the primordial germ of Benjamin’s ancestors resided in his mental constitution, and Rachel did not shy away from this heritage when she married into the family. Jessie’s advice to them had been based on her own experience and on something she had observed in her great grandson’s eyes whenever she spoke of Jacob. It was a notion that had lain dormant after its utterance. Now that advice resonated within her grandson and his wife. The decision essentially was made, but they decided to reconsider it after a night’s rest.
Just before sunrise on the following morning, they awakened their troubled son and informed him of their decision. His face brightened at the news as Ben put a hand to his shoulder and reaffirmed their support. His mother bent forward and kissed her son, still seated on his bed, on the forehead. A tear welled up in her eye, and she turned away to wipe it. Benjamin slipped a folded piece of paper into his son’s hand. The young man instantly recognized the handwriting. At long last, Nathan Turner would journey to the one place where he could most effectively address what had been, up to this time, a rather dissatisfying existence.
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