A TALE OF THE FAR FUTURE.
Continuing the story that began here.
I was walking through a leafy forest with Rahab on my arm, and I was just explaining to her that the crocodiles along the path were tame ones and nothing to worry about when one of the crocodiles jumped up and said, “I’ve got it!”
“What have you got?” I asked the crocodile, but suddenly the forest was filled with blinding light, and Rahab and the crocodile vanished.
“I’ve got the answer,” Wright said. He had turned on the overhead light. “They can think it, but they can’t say it.”
“Who can… What?” I was angry now, because I had been having a good time with Rahab in the crocodile forest.
“ ‘Not the thought but the word condemns the speaker.’ That’s in Wit & Wisdom 12:9. And ‘Who can stop a passing thought? But God takes account of deeds.’ Book of Jane 5:14. It’s all through the Primary Testament. Their God can hear what you say, but he can’t monitor thoughts. See, they could think what they wanted, but they couldn’t tell me, or God would hold them accountable. That’s the answer.”
“I think that’s the question,” I grumbled.
“It’s the answer,” he repeated. “All they need is some way to communicate and make decisions without God finding out about it.”
“So you woke me up to tell me you’re going to pull the wool over God’s eyes? And how do you propose to do that?”
“Oh, that’s simple. It’s all in here.” He waved the Primary Testament under my nose. “We can get started right away.”
“No we can’t,” I said.
“Because it’s the middle of the night!” I yanked the blanket over my head and turned away. “And I want to get back to my dream about Rahab.”
“You mean the deaconess?” There was a pause, during which I could hear the heavy machinery in Wright’s brain changing subjects. “You don’t mean that you’re—”
I sat up and tore the blanket off my face. “I very much am,” I said.
“But you won’t get anywhere with her.”
“Now look here.” I leaned toward him and punched a finger right into his chest. “You’re not going to keep me from the love of my life. Not this time. You got away with it with Rebecca and that woman on Pevunghia whose name escapes me at the moment, but you’re not going to get away with it now. Do you understand me? You will not interfere this time!”
“I just thought—”
“Listen!” If my finger could have drilled straight through to his heart, it would have. “You will promise not to say another word to me about Rahab, do you hear me? Not one more word. You will not interfere this time. If you can’t agree to that, then I resign effective now. Do you understand me?”
“Perfectly,” he replied.
I expected him to put up more of a fight. I expected to have to repeat my threat more than once. But I was glad I’d stuck up for myself. I was not about to lose another love of my life to Wright’s machinations.
He continued: “I suppose I’ll go back and make some sketches. You can sleep, and we’ll get started when you’re ready.”
He left, and I lay back down.
“Lights out,” I said.
But of course there was no voice control in that primitive Bethelite hovel, so I had to get out of bed and push the button.
I woke up the next morning quite late. It was about ten local time, and Wright never lets me sleep in past seven when we’re on a job. I had, for just a moment, an irrational fear that something might have happened to him, and simultaneously an irrational hope that something might have happened to him. But since he was nowhere to be found in the guest house, and I didn’t know my way around the settlement well enough to go looking for him, I decided that I wouldn’t worry too much about him. So I went into the tiny kitchen for a hot breakfast, which I didn’t have because the oven didn’t work.
Wright came in about an hour later, and he walked right past me without saying a word. That’s not unusual, but the fact that it was normal didn’t mean I wasn’t annoyed by it. He sat in the wicker chair, picked up his sketch pad, and started drawing some doodle with his finger (he lost the stylus years ago). And of course I waited till he was really concentrating on something or other before I decided to interrupt him. I never said I wasn’t petty.
“Been busy?” I asked in an unnecessarily loud voice.
“Oh, you’re here,” he replied with such apparently genuine surprise that I wondered whether he had actually forgotten he had brought me with him. “What do you know about architecture? You’re not an architect, are you?”
“No,” I answered quite truthfully.
“Didn’t think you’d be any use. I need to bring in an architect, too, then.”
“What do you want with an architect?”
“We need to build a Godproof room for the council and the treasury. God doesn’t like it if you get too rich, either, so they need a Godproof treasury.”
Now, I’m used to hearing Wright spout utter nonsense like that, so I have a standard default response prepared, which is sarcasm. “So you think you can just call up an architect and say, ‘I need one of your Godproof rooms, please, the standard model will be fine, and could you have that ready by Tuesday?’ I don’t think you’ll find many architects who can design one for you.”
“I don’t expect the architect to design it. I’m going to design it. I just need the architect to make sure the structure doesn’t fall down. —Here, this is something you can take care of. Get me an architect and a bunch of builders and equipment to make a building roughly like this. Send this sketch and tell them the details aren’t negotiable. Get them on a fast cruiser and have them here in two days standard.”
I stared at him for a long moment. “And who’s paying for all this?” I asked at last.
“Oh, the Council will pay. It’s all worked out. I met with the special committee this morning and told them I could solve their problem if I could build something like this.”
I looked down at his sketch pad. “They’ll think you’re mad, you know. The architect and builders. They’ll think you’ve lost your mind.”
“Why would they think that?” he asked. And it was a sincere question.
• • •
“Your employer is mad, you know,” the first architect I got in touch with told me.
“I don’t doubt it,” I replied. “Can you do it?”
“I’d rather clean toilets than have my name attached to this,” she said.
“We could let you do both,” I suggested, and she broke the connection.
The sixth architect I tried was down on her luck and agreed to take on the project as long as I promised to keep her involvement a secret. “He’s mad, you know,” she said, “but I need the money.”
“Glad to hear it. An architect who needs money is just what we want.” And that was it: we agreed to the arrangements, and she was on her way with as many construction workers as she could round up in a few hours.
Meanwhile, there was the lovely Rahab to cultivate.
“They certainly know their baskets,” I told her as we watched the thrilling action in the basket-weaving shop. Wright had refused all sightseeing tours (“Why would I want to do that?” he demanded, which I interpreted for Rahab as “He’s very busy”), and that left me free to spend as much time with Rahab as I liked, at least until the workers arrived and we could start building Wright’s folly. The trouble was that she insisted on showing me the sights when we went sightseeing, whereas the only sight worth seeing in the whole place was Rahab. I didn’t want a tour of the basket shop or the agricultural research center (where they were experimenting with three different kinds of dirt) or the sewage treatment plant or the chapels or even Founder’s Hill, a high rock from which we had an excellent view of the lower rocks. The only tour I wanted was a tour of Rahab, every hill and valley and all the secret places. But to get to that point I would have to show an interest in whatever she thought I should be interested in, which is why I ended up holding up a basket and saying, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, “Now that’s a basket.”
“We had to create an artificial marsh to grow reeds,” Rahab explained with obvious civic pride. “There’s no native growth that’s suitable for weaving.”
“Rahab, what do people do for fun around here?”
“We have games,” she said a bit tentatively. “It’s Tertiary Testament Trivia night at the South Chapel.”
“That might be a little too exciting for me. I mean, what do people do when they want to, you know, get to know each other?”
“I guess they go somewhere and talk.”
“Rahab,” I said in a lower voice, “would you like to go somewhere and talk?”
She looked into my eyes, and it seemed to me that she saw my desire there. “All right,” she said after a moment.
Things were definitely heading in the right direction.
It was late afternoon, and the orange sun was low in the violet sky as we left the streets of dumpy buildings and walked out into the desert, past a few irrigated fields and into the endless rocks. With the long shadows and orange light, even the lumpish beige rocks of Bethel could be almost picturesque. It was as close to a romantic setting as we could get, so I started to turn up the romance.
“You look beautiful with the sun in your hair.”
“ ‘God sees the beauty of a faithful soul,’ ” she replied almost automatically. “Aphorisms 26:39.”
“And I see the beauty of the body that carries the soul. God created you very beautiful, Rahab. He must be very proud of his work.”
“ ‘The beauty of the eye passes away like the dew.’ Wit & Wisdom 3:7.”
“But surely that’s all the more reason to enjoy it while we have it. A drop of dew may be gone in an hour, but what a world of sparkling loveliness God gives us in that drop! Should we not enjoy it just because it will be gone soon?”
“But certain kinds of beauty, like— like the beauty of a strong young man, can lead us to… immoral behavior.”
“Surely God made that beauty to be enjoyed.” I could see the longing in her eyes, and I decided then and there that this prize was worth the ultimate sacrifice. “Rahab, I can’t help it if I look at you with desire. But I’m willing to play by the rules and devote my life to you.” I fell on my knees in front of her, badly bruising one knee on a rock I hadn’t noticed. “Rahab, my beautiful, incomparable Rahab, will you be my wife?”
• • •
I stormed into the guest house, slammed the door, and stopped in front of Wright in the wicker chair.
“You knew!” I bellowed at him.
“What did I know?” he asked with exaggerated innocence and an unforgivably smug expression.
“You know perfectly well what you knew! Deaconesses are celibate! It’s in that Primary Testament thing!”
“Rules & Regulations 9:16: ‘For the deaconess is—’ ”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You told me not to,” he said very calmly.
“What gave you an idiot idea like that?”
“ ‘You will promise not to say another word to me about Rahab, do you hear me? Not one more word!’ ”
I stared at him, boiling with rage and incapable of any reply, because he had given me not only a verbatim recitation of what I had said, but also a very good imitation of my tone of voice.
“I’m sorry you didn’t get anywhere with her,” he continued quite calmly, “but I did tell you that would happen.”
He had told me, hadn’t he? For some reason that made me even more furious. “This is not a defeat,” I said, setting my jaw in the steely-determination position. “This is a challenge. And I accept the challenge.”
“Good. It will give you something to occupy your mind while we work on the construction tomorrow.”
I stormed off to my bedroom, where I sat on the bed in the dark for a while, fuming. I refused to give Wright this victory. I knew a thing or two about women, and I could tell Rahab was susceptible. I would just have to keep pushing, that was all. Religion is all very well, but I relied on her deepest human urges. She might be a deaconess, but she was a woman first. And a woman was something I knew how to work with. I sat and rubbed my bruised knee and schemed.
• • •
The architect and builders arrived in the middle of the next morning, and of course I had to sit in on the architect’s first meeting with Wright, if only to keep her from murdering him. I wanted that pleasure for myself.
“You have columns here,” she said, pointing to Wright’s enlarged drawing on the wall of the guest house.
“Yes,” he agreed.
“And you have a wall outside them.”
“And a wall inside them.”
“So you have columns that no one will ever see.”
“That is correct.”
“Then why do you have columns? It’s perfectly easy to hold up the roof with the wall. Why columns?”
“They’re a fence to keep God out.”
She looked at him blankly for a moment, and then asked, “Can I get my whole fee in advance?”
“No,” Wright answered.
There was a brief pause, and then she continued.
“Now, you’ve specified concrete, but it would be much more economical to use native stone, don’t you think? There’s an infinite supply of it, and we’ve brought the cutters for it, and I—”
“It’s got to be concrete,” Wright told her, “because of the sand bugs.”
“Ah, yes, the sand bugs. What exactly are sand bugs? Is that some sort of reinforcement system?”
Wright turned to me. “Hey, um…”
“Pulaski,” I filled in for him.
“Right. Go out and get me a couple of sand bugs.”
I was about to argue with him, but I realized no good would come of that. So I went over to the little kitchen and found a heavy cup and saucer (all the pottery the Bethelites made was crude heavy stoneware) and took it out past Wright and the architect, who were arguing over the interior color scheme of the treasury section, and out into the warm midday sun. Sand bugs, huh? They were everywhere, except when you were looking for them. I was so engrossed in looking for sand bugs that I was quite surprised when I found Rahab instead.
“Oh—hello,” I said, standing up (I had been kneeling and staring very intently at the sand). “I’m looking for sand bugs.” I realized immediately that there was no way to say that and sound sane.
“Sand bugs?” The doubt of my sanity was unambiguously expressed in her tone of voice.
“Mr. Wright needs a couple of them.”
“Oh,” she said, and it was clear that the reputation of the great genius Wright answered all questions. “If he wants to start a colony, he’ll need all three sexes.”
“I don’t think he wants a colony.”
“Look in the shade next to the house,” she suggested. “They look for somewhere cool this time of day.”
Rahab was right. It took me a moment to see them, because they’re the same color as the sand, but the shady spot on the southwest side of the house was crawling with sand bugs. They’re little five-legged things, radially symmetrical, about the size of my thumbnail, and they can move pretty fast when they’re motivated. But after a few tries I had two of them in the cup, with the saucer as a lid to keep them in.
“Thank you for the help,” I told her, with my patented eye contact-and-light-smile combination that was meant to suggest much more than I actually said.
It seemed to be working. She looked a bit flustered.
“I— I came to ask you if you’d like, if you’re not busy I mean, if you’d like a tour of the pumping station after evening prayer.”
“I’d—” I stopped. She could do things with her eyes, too, and they were sending a clear message. “I’d love a tour of the pumping station,” I said. It was a close thing: I’d been about to tell her, although probably in politer terms, that I’d rather eat live sand bugs. But I could see in her eyes that she was much more interested in being somewhere with me than in playing tour guide.
“Um,” she began hesitantly, and then got up the courage for her question. “Is it true that you and Mr. Wright are building a room to keep God out?”
“I’m not supposed to answer that question,” I told her. “The special committee told Mr. Wright that he wasn’t supposed to tell anybody about it.”
“Oh,” she said. But she had got the answer clearly enough. “Well, then…I’ll see you after evening prayer. I’ll stop by here.”
As she left, I thought how relieved I was that she didn’t expect me to do any actual praying.
When I brought the sand bugs back in, I set them in their cup in front of the architect, the saucer still on top. “Sand bugs,” I announced.
She lifted the saucer and immediately dropped it again. “Ew!” was her only remark.
“What we need to know,” Wright explained, “is how many of those we can embed per cubic meter without seriously weakening the concrete.”
“These things?” she asked. “In the concrete?”
At this point I stopped paying attention to the conversation and daydreamed about Rahab instead.
She met me as scheduled, and we took our tour of the pumping station, which certainly looked like a pumping station to me. And it was delightful, because the machinery was entirely automatic, which meant that no one worked there, which meant that we were alone. And after she had explained to me how the pumps worked (they worked like pumps), Rahab asked me,
“John, why did you ask me to marry you?”
“Because I loved you,” I answered simply.
“But of course now that you know that deaconesses—”
“I still love you,” I told her, and I gave her the eye contact.
She smiled briefly. “Of course it’s impossible. But…”
I waited, still focusing on her eyes.
“But,” she continued at last, “no one has ever looked at me the way you do.”
“Rahab, I could spend my life looking at you.”
She stared into my eyes with a hint of moisture in her own. At last she turned away.
“These are… These are valves,” she said, pointing to some valves.
Concludes in Part Three.