The Vertical Fields

By: Fielding Dawson (1930-2002)

The Story

On Christmas Eve around 1942, when I was a boy, after having the traditional punch and cookies and after having sung 'round the fire (my Aunty Mary at the piano), I, with my sister, my mother and my aunts, and Emma Jackman and her son, got into Emma Jackman's car and drove down Taylor Avenue to church for the midnight service: I looked out the rear window at passing houses, doors adorned with holly wreaths, I looked into windows-catching glimpses of tinseled trees and men and women and children moving through rooms into my mind and memory forever; the car slowed to the corner stop at Jefferson and the action seemed like a greater action, of Christmas in a cold damp Missouri night; patches of snow lay on the ground and in the car the dark figures of my mother and sister and aunts talked around me and the car began to move along in an air of sky--at bottom dark and cold, seeming to transform the car, my face, and hands, pressed close to the glass as I saw my friends with their parents in their cars take the left turn onto Argonne Drive and look for a parking place near the church; Emma Jackman followed, and I watched heavily coated figures make their exists, and move down the winter walk toward the jewel-like glittering church--up the steps into the full light of the doorway--fathers and sons and mothers and daughters I knew and understood them all, I gazed at them with blazing eyes: light poured from open doors; high arched stained glass windows cast downward slanting shafts of color across the cold churchyard, and the organ boomed inside while we parked and got out and walked along the sidewalk, I holding my mother's right arm, my sister held mother's left arm (mother letting us a little support her)--down the sidewalk to join others at the warmly good noisy familiar threshold: spirits swirled up the steps into the church and Billy Berthold handed out the Christmas leaflets, I gripped mine. I looked at the dominant blue illustration of Birth in white and yellow rays moving outward to form a circle around the Christ child's skull as Mary downward gazed; Joseph; kneeling wisemen downward gazed; I gazed down the long center aisle at the rising altar's dazzling cross and we moved down the aisle, slipped in front of Mr. and Mrs. Sloan and my buddy Lorry, Mr. and Mrs. Dart and my buddy Charles, Mr. and Mrs. Reid and my buddy Gene and his brother Ed--we then knelt away the conscious realization of our selves among music in the House of the Lord, I conscious of a voice that, slowly, coarsely, wandered--the I (eye) in see, hear me (I), we were on our feet singing, and the choir swept down the aisle, their familiar faces moving side to side as collective voices raised in anthem I held the hymnbook open and my mother and sister and I sang in celebration of God the crowded and brightly decorated--pine boughs and holly wreaths hung around the walls with candles high on each pew, I glanced at the gleaming cross--my spine arched, and far beyond the church, beyond the front door, beyond the land of the last sentence in James Joyce's _Dubliners_ a distant door seemed to open away beyond pungent green of pine gathered around rich red hollyberry clusters, red velvet, white-yellow center of candle flame, white of silk, gold of tassle, and gleaming glittering eternally cubistic gold cross and darkness of wooden beams powerfully sweeping upward--apex for the strange smoky penuma that so exhilarated me, I who smiled and reeled in a vast cold cold gaze down at myself listening to Charles Kean's Christian existentialist sermon in time before the plate was passed and the choir had singing, gone, and we were outside, I standing by my sister; my mother and aunts were shaking Charles's hand, I shook that solid hand warmly, and I walked down the steps, my mother and sister and aunts again, again, once again it rushed through me taking my breath, my spine arched toward trees and streets walking slowly breathing deep I moved down the sidewalk, eyes crystallizing streets yards houses and all lives within; my perception forked upward through treetops into the vertical fields of space, and a moment later, in the crowded back seat of the car, as Emma Jackman started the engine, I breathed vapor on the rear window, and with my finger, I signed my name.

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