I: Coloring on the Walls
Blake Groswell’s house stuck out against the prairie as if it were a single small hill. Its prosaic light-brown exterior did little to distinguish it from the prairie’s desiccated foliage. The house consisted of two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and an unfinished basement. Its interior was just as mundane as its exterior: off-white carpets against off-white walls against off-white ceilings, without a single photograph or work of art in sight. There was no television and only one book—which Blake was forbidden from touching.
Blake would’ve described the house as being like a prison, if he’d had any sort of knowledge as to what a prison was. Blake didn’t know much about anything, as he was nine years old and had never left his house on the prairie. Although homeschooled from age six, he lacked any semblance of a real education. His homeschooling consisted of learning to manage the chores concomitant to prairie life: hunting and dressing animals; growing tomatoes, carrots, and squash; fixing pipes, wires, and broken walls; sweeping and mopping; doing dishes; chopping trees, splitting wood, and building fires; burning trash; and obeying his father’s commands without protest. Despite his sheltered, uncultured life, Blake was still an unrelentingly curious kid. To break the silence at the dinner table after the day’s “schooling” had ended, Blake would often pepper his father with questions, coaxing him to give away any sort of information.
“Papa,” Blake started the night before his seventh birthday, “why do the sky and the grass look so different? And the sun? And the house, and you and me? Nothing is the same when you really look. Even the carpet ain’t the same as the walls. Not really.”
“Well,” his father replied with a laugh after assessing the questions as harmless, “They have different shapes and colors.”
“What’s a shapes and colors, Pa?” Blake was vexed as to why his father found this so amusing.
“I’ll show you for your birthday, okay.”
“But I wanna know now!” Blake immediately lowered his eyes in shame and fear.
“What have I told you about talking back? You’ll know tomorrow and that’s that.” Blake’s father took the rest of his dinner and sent him to bed early for his indiscretion. Then he hopped in his pick-up and drove to town buy Blake’s birthday gift: a pack of crayons and some clean-white printer paper.
The next day the two of them got straight to work. Blake’s dad drew all the shapes he knew in different colors: a red square, a blue circle, a green triangle, etcetera. He then went over each shape one at a time with his index finger, repeating the process until Blake learned all of his shapes and colors. Blake had never been more amazed by anything in his life when his father put a few of the shapes together to make a small person on the page.
“Can we name him?” asked Blake, which for some reason made his father uneasy.
“Absolutely not.” Blake did anyways in his mind, choosing “Red” since that was his new favorite color.
In the days that followed Blake rushed through all of his “schoolwork,” eager to color. Every night he would stay up late drawing himself and Red on different adventures. On one page they were running across the prairie holding hands. On another they were sitting on the roof watching the stars. On one they flew in the sky with the birds and the sun. Blake wondered what Red thought about all of these adventures. Sometimes he would become extremely sad that he couldn’t ask. On those nights he usually imagined an extra adventure or two. Eventually, Blake ran out of paper.
“Blake get your ass out here,” yelled his father upon seeing the mural on the living room wall, “What the fuck is the meaning of this?” Blake sauntered out slowly from his room, fear spreading through his body like cancer.
“It’s me and Red,” he stated quietly.
“You and who?” His father was bewildered and furious. To be fair, the picture was rather unsettling: Blake and Red were shooting lightning from their fingertips at a lonely house, which blazed in a mighty conflagration that extended all the way to the ceiling and on towards the heavens. “You’re lucky I don’t beat you. You’re gonna fix this.” Blake’s father brought out a scrub bucket and materials to paint with, and set Blake to doing extra “schoolwork.” He then went into Blake’s room, gathered the pictures and crayons, and threw them into the furnace. Creativity, he decided, would ruin the boy.
II: No Humming Either
Now that Blake was nine, he had all but forgotten what Red looked like. He certainly still missed Red, however, and would often imagine them adventuring together in his mind. At night, after his father had put him to bed and he’d waited a sufficient amount of time, Blake would sneak out and climb on the roof to watch the stars.
“Red,” he would say, “What d’you suppose is out there in those stars? I think it’s probably other fellas like us, wondering the same thing.” Red didn’t reply, but that was ok with Blake. It was the thought that counted.
On one such star-gazing occasion, Blake jumped around with Red as they howled at the moon with the coyotes. Awakened by the cacophony, Blake’s father followed the noise outside.
“Blake,” he yelled, “What the fuck is the matter with you?” His father’s voice startled him, like a sudden gust of wind against a tight-rope walker, and he tumbled off of the roof. Blake screamed as his shin snapped, his leg caught in the triangle where the gutter joined the house. After rescuing his son, Blake’s father asked, “What the hell were you doing up there, anyways?” Blake only cried in response.
After a wretched, unholy night of suffering, his father finally took him to the hospital in the morning. It was the first time Blake had left his house.
On the way to the hospital the outside world amazed him, the scene outside of his window blurring before his eyes like it did when he nodded his head rapidly. What captivated him most, though, was the radio inside of the truck.
“What is that sound, Papa?” Blake asked, unconsciously nodding his head in rhythm to the guitar as if he’d been listening to music his whole life. It almost was enough to make him forget about his leg.
“That, my boy, is The Doors. It’s music.”
“I love it.” Blake smiled. He carried the song with him into the hospital, until his father told him enough was enough through gritted teeth. A cute blonde nurse, who made Blake’s stomach feel unsettled in a way he’d never felt before, administered x-rays, wrapped his leg in a cast, and brought him some crutches. She remarked to his father what a tough child Blake was, and at this he blushed.
On the way home Blake found himself still thinking about the nurse: her voice, the way she walked, and those deep blue eyes. Unconsciously he started to make vibrations in his throat like those sounds he’d heard The Doors make. “Stop that,” commanded his father, “If I hear you make any noise that sounds even remotely like music I’ll beat you.” With that command Blake’s father assumed he’d killed the song bird within his son.
But at night Blake sang quietly in his room: “People are strange, when you’re a stranger. Faces look ugly, when you’re alone…”
III: Don’t be Caught Talking to Yourself
So it was that Blake’s knowledge by age ten consisted of little beyond manual labor; he knew a few shapes, a few colors, and a few words to a single song. He and his father hardly spoke, and when they did it was about Blake’s inadequacy in some area of “schoolwork,” even though Blake always finished his chores swiftly and efficiently. In fact, he was usually done before noon these days, and could retire to his room until supper. He would sit on his bed, biding his time, speculating at possible answers to his insatiable curiosity. Perhaps the sky is made of water and so it is blue. Perhaps the sun is on fire and so it is orange. Perhaps there is a world where Red and I still adventure together. Perhaps I am here for a reason. It was the last one that troubled Blake most.
The nature of his own existence was quite puzzling to Blake. What was his reason for being? In this contemplation he found himself pacing circles about his room one night, like a broken wind-up doll. “Maybe I am only here to do my father’s chores.” He was unaware that his thoughts were throwing themselves from his mouth. “Maybe I am here to figure out why I’m here. Maybe I’m here for no reason at all.” The last words scared him a little as they floated from his mouth to his ears, but not as much as the sight of his door swinging open and his lights snapping on.
“Blake, goddammit, you should be in bed! What’s this nonsense I hear you talking to yourself about?”
“I can’t sleep goddammit!”
“Watch your mouth, or I’ll beat –“
“I wanna know why I’m here!” Blake interrupted his father, suddenly bursting into tears. “I don’t wanna feel like my being here means nothing!” Blake’s father was irritated by his son’s impudence, but profound empathy trumped the irritation.
“Get in bed, Blake. Tomorrow is Sunday, and I’ll take you to church with me. You’ll get your answers there.” He tucked in his son and turned off the lights, but paused in the doorframe, adding ominously, “You better not let me hear you talking to yourself again.”
IV: The Bible
Blake had no idea what to expect from church. All he knew about the place was that his father left him home alone once a week to go to it, and that whatever went on at church were the most important happenings of his father’s life. His father always came home in a relaxed mood Sunday nights, which meant Blake didn’t have to worry about being beat for some nit-picky misgiving in his household duties. When he was especially lucky, it also meant his father would be more responsive to his curiosity. One Sunday he had explained to Blake that the sky was blue not from water, but from the scattering of blue light because its waves were shorter than the other colors (though Blake’s father couldn’t tell him what he meant by “waves.”) Another Sunday Blake learned that the Sun was, in fact, on fire, and that it burned hotter than anything Blake could imagine. The more perplexing questions, however, had to be saved for church.
The moment the church came into view of his father’s truck, Blake was hooked. Mystifying, haunting architecture asserted its significance over the nearby liquor store and gas station. The inside was even more overwhelming. Stained-glass windows danced with light, creating colors and shapes of unimaginable beauty. An altar at the front of the church, embroidered in gold, embodied the pinnacle of intelligent design, and signaled to Blake that here would be the place where he discovered life’s meaning. Blake’s father was pleased by his son’s silence as the mass commenced.
Organs blared as a man dressed in fantastic green robing walked solemnly down the center of the congregation. The music and the man’s attire led Blake to believe that if anyone could answer his questions about life, it was the man before him.
The entire experience mesmerized Blake, from start to finish. During the singing, he noticed his father skimming his index across the words in the hymnal in synchrony with the music. Through careful attention, Blake was able to piece together what symbols seemed to coordinate with what sound. By the end of mass Blake made major headway in teaching himself to read. More important to him, however, was the priest’s wisdom. The man called “father” read from a heavy book in front of the whole congregation. When he opened it Blake’s father leaned towards him, and pointing towards it whispered, “That there is the Bible. That book has all the answers you’re looking for, so pay attention.”
At first it seemed Blake’s dad had lied to him. The story from the book was about the creation of the universe, and some guy named Adam and some girl named Eve. It explained how Blake got here, but still not why. When the priest elaborated on the story with a sermon, however, it was as if the Holy Spirit itself breathed enlightenment into the boy..
“The Garden of Eden,” the holy man began, “is a reminder of God’s original intentions for us. He wanted us to live together in harmony, both with each other and with the world around us. For every person was created in His image, and we are all brothers and sisters under God the Father. Let us leave here today with God’s work in our heart, and let it be seen in our actions, for each new day he gives to us is an opportunity to put his word into practice. You are here, each and every one of you, to make sure every person you meet knows that they are loved, and to make them understand that they belong here.”
So there it was. Blake was alive to spread love and understanding.
“Dad,” said Blake on the ride home, eager to put his newfound knowledge into practice, “I love you.”
“I love you too, Blake.” It was the only time Blake would ever hear his father say those words. And it was all thanks to the Bible.
Sundays gave Blake motivation to get through the week. Never before had he had something to look forward to on a consistent basis, so when he was at church he was as focused as a soldier on guard duty. He treated every word from the pastor’s mouth as if it were God himself speaking to the congregation.
Blake was especially fascinated by this God fellow. He could not imagine a power greater than He who possessed all of the knowledge, all of the answers—and all the control. In a way God reminded Blake of his father, whom he’d come to admire—after all, His law demanded fealty to one’s parents. Blake no longer loathed doing chores. It was all part of God’s will.
Even though the Bible delivered unto Blake the answers to questions he’d asked for so long, it also instilled in him a sense of ambiguous sadness. Blake yearned to translate his learning into action, but wasn’t allowed to interact with anyone but his father. Besides, he had no clue as to where a conversation began, or how to effectively carry one through completion. There was more to the sadness than this, though; Blake was both vexed and terrified by the Bible’s emphasis on death. It was his first time learning about death. Heaven sounded okay, like hanging out on a cloud with other people who believed the same things he did, but the fear of Hell spoke volumes louder than the promise of Heaven. The lake of fire, the eternal pit of torture—indeed, the absolute manifestation of fear—frightened Blake to tears. He couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that this God he’d grown so fond of was capable of creating such an evil destination for His own children. It was such a sharp contradiction from the love and understanding that had drawn him to the church in the first place, and he wished more than anything that he didn’t have to believe in it in order to be a good Christian. He didn’t think the existence of Heaven was worth the existence of Hell. Moreover, Blake was shocked by the magnitude of God’s wrath in the realm of the living: universal flooding, swarms of locusts, plagues, murdered firstborns, and a whole gamut of other unworldly atrocities. It just didn’t make sense that a loving God could behave so irrationally. So violently.
“Papa,” Blake started on the ride home from mass one Sunday, “I’m not sure I believe in the Bible anymore.” His father smacked him and his safety belt knocked the wind out of him as the truck came to a brusque halt, bouncing up and down twice, simultaneously, over some railroad tracks. “It’s just that…” he continued in a voice barely more audible than a whisper, “It’s just that a lot of it doesn’t make sense. Some of those stories sound impossible, and that Hell place… If God loved us, why would he make such a place?”
The rage that burned in his father’s eyes could have been God’s own wrath. “He made that place for people who ask too many questions. And if you don’t believe in the Bible, then he made it just for you.”
“But dad –“
“No buts. That’s the last I’ll hear of this nonsense do you understand me? God dammit!” He swore, as the trucked rocked forward with his foot on the accelerator, then back into place upon it release. “God dammit,” he said again, “you see what you’ve done now. The truck is stuck. Get your ass out and try to push.”
Blake felt defeated as he hopped out of the truck and sauntered around to the tailgate. He leaned against the vehicle with his shoulder, widening his stance and putting his back and legs into it. The horn of a locomotive sounded on the horizon. “Damn you Blake, push harder!” his father shouted back to him, frantically stomping the pedal to the cheap carpeting.
“It’s no use Pa! You need to get out!” The train roared closer.
“I said push, dammit!”
“Pa, please –“
“God dammit push!”
Blake fell face-first into the dirt as the back of the truck was suddenly ripped away. It screeched down the tracks for about three hundred yards before it caught fire and exploded, derailing the cab and causing the freight cars to fold like an accordion. One fell just behind Blake as he sprinted alongside the tracks, tears and snot streaking his face as he cried. “Papa, Papa please, I’m sorry Papa.”
At last he reached the front of the wreckage. He peeked hesitantly through the flames into the cab. Pieces of his father painted the entire scene a traumatizing red. Blake vomited, then layed down next to the tracks and cried.
He didn’t even notice when a large man stepped out of a flashing car and scooped Blake up in his arms. He was entranced by the thought that his father’s soul might still be burning.