When the mists had begun to form over the western valley, Psalm was waking from his cellar-bed, behind the health food store. Surrounded and framed by the white walls of the room, his face was torn with sleep. He lay unmoving for a while, contemplating the ceiling and making angels out of the abstract shapes of the waterstained paint, before rising. His receding hairline and several days of unheeded facial hair were made apparent by faint strains of light stealing through a single window in the far wall, next to the door. His loose skin showed signs of overexposure and gave him the look of a man much older than he was. He rose quietly and reached for the Bible which could always be found on his improvised night-table, a wooden produce crate covered with green and black paisley cloth. He read a few inspiring phrases from bookmarked pages, as was his ritual, and then proceeded to clothe himself in his white canvas, long-sleeved shirt and pants, which were as worn and tired as their wearer.
He came to the island with a wave of “spiritualists,” disguising himself as a free-loving, free spirit and leaving behind an ill-fated marriage and a child whom he had loved dearly. He didn’t offer details about his family but it was his claim that he had written, but never published, an extensive discourse on metaphysics. It was his “life’s work.” He had said it was enough “just having written it,” and he didn’t give a thought to publishing.
A quiet sort of man, he kept to himself for the most part, much like the runt of the litter or the last born child. He slipped his manuscript out from underneath the bible, furrowed his brow then mumbled to himself in a tired voice, “Can’t believe I ever wrote this vile nonsense.” He threw the manuscript into the trash.
Morgan would soon be arriving at the store and at that time they would ride together, Morgan at the wheel, to the small local airport in order to pick up the weekly shipment of produce from the mainland.
As the sun peeked over the old buildings, deflected by the foliage of a few papaya trees and setting his green eyes alight, he smoothed his dirty, light-brown hair into a pony-tail, then walked slowly through the alleyway between the health food store and the post office. An image of his wife and child passed through his mind and he became tense and grimaced. He then turned left before reaching the street, dampened by a late night squall, just in time to meet Aristotle, his boss and owner of the store, who was busy unlocking the front entrance. The memory of his wife and child was painful. “Turn away,” he whispered to himself. He sucked in a quick breath and walked up behind Aristotle.
“Good morning,” said Psalm in an amiable and priest-like tone, covering his pain.
“Good morning,” returned Aristotle without giving away his disposition.
Even at mid-morning, the street, which wound its way high into the “upcountry” was peaceful and sedate and the town was possessed with the air of a typical Sunday, although it was Friday.
The town was made up primarily of two rows of shops to either side of the main street, built in the polynesian-colonial style and perpindicular to the turquoise, omnipresent sea. Omnipresent because the smell of it was always in the air, except on the rare occasion that the wind would blow from the south, bringing the smell of the cane mill. You’re never far from the sight of it.
The shops consist of two makeshift cafes, an ice-cream parlor which played host to the very occasional, ambivalent tourists who stopped there on their way to the eastern end of the island, a Japanese market, run by the Nagata family, a questionable television repair shop, and a barber shop pretending to be a salon.
It would be only a short while, because none could be accused of being an early riser, before the other merchants would arrive from their nearby homes for a day of slow but steady business. Always in favor of getting a head start, an honorable but unnecessary notion, the diligent Greek with his Christian sidekick entered the store under the sign which reads “Mana Foods;” Aristotle to prepare for the day’s business and Psalm to eat his breakfast of guava juice and rice cakes. Psalm, who had rid himself of his given name for the one offered by his former wife, moved quietly behind the cash register to enjoy his pauper’s feast and the silent company of his indifferent boss.
Upon entering the store Psalm had been welcomed by the familiar aroma of organic spices and vitamins mixed with the sweet smell of rotting vegetables. But after eating half of his breakfast and making a few sincere attempts at conversation, received by the Greek with patronizing grace and answered with kind but hollow platitudes, he retired sleepily to the hardwood bench at the front of the store, to continue his meal alone. Outside he took in the heavy morning air in large sleepy draughts, breathing in the sweet smell of burning cane coming from the nearby mill mixed with the salty brine from the bay, and awaited the arrival of his young partner who would, as usual, be a little late.
In his mind, this warm, moist morning was like the dawning of the first day. From where he was seated he was able to survey the great volcano to the east and follow its sloping sides down to the cane fields across to the mountains in the west. On most mornings Psalm’s mind would entertain the thought that “God’s light” was filling the countless ridges and depressions with scriptural illumination “beckoning” the people of the island to “come forth” and “rejoice” in the “blessing” of the new day. But beside all this he was a shadow on the bench, an at first smiling, then sneering, contradiction… his mind was screaming: “Christian/puritan/Christian/puritan/existential/christian/atheist/stop.”
“There,” he said to no one.
Psalm was given to drowsiness and would often close his eyes “just for a moment” with the intention of simply “taking the edge off.” Taking the edge off could take anywhere between fifteen minutes and two hours and during this time his soul/subconscious might take flight in a half-waking reverie or “vision,” other times he might sink deep into the depths of repressed thought. Never quite asleep, he was semi-consciously aware of his ability to exert some control over the course his dreams might take. Sometimes he was a bearded Moses parting the Red Sea to liberate his people. In a dream sequence such as this, a warm, divine smile would overtake his countenance and the casual passerby might be tempted to wake him in order to gain knowledge of the reason for his cheshire-like grin. If awakened, Psalm would often take this opportunity to attempt to convert this innocent victim.
In other sequences he might play the part of the traitor Judas, during which time his face would become pale and pointed, and it seemed as if at any moment he might breathe fire from his flared and quivering nostrils. In this case, the passerby would sidestep into the street and Psalm would awaken, edge in tact. In either case, he would give himself in to his assumed role but, when Judas, he would never go so far as to hang himself.
That particular morning he was Adam in the garden, before the fall, since the sweetness of the guava juice had induced thoughts of the many fruits one might find there. His Eve was his former wife and he was moving forward to engage her in a kiss when…
“Good morning Psalm,” said Morgan warmly, conscious of Psalm’s odor but graceful about trying to ignore it.
“Hmm… good…huh?,” Psalm struggled, “oh, good morning…you’re uh,” looking at his watch… “a little later than usual, aren’t you?”
“Good dream you were having, I could tell by your face.”
“Uh, yeah Morgan it was,” he returned, feeling the warmth of his dream leaving his
body, “we should be going.”
“Let me get some juice and the keys and I’ll be right back. By the way, is Aristotle
around? The truck needs some gas.”
“He should be,” said Psalm, finally seeing Morgan clearly.
Morgan entered the store thinking what a strange but amiable character Psalm was. This was true of many of the inhabitants on this “island of misfits.” It seemed to him that the island had the power to bring out the hidden individual in those who chose to live there.
They’d known each other now for a couple of years and had quickly become friends and Morgan, because of the shortcomings of his father, projected upon Psalm his need for a father figure. Psalm looked forward to their Fridays together. They usually spent this time talking of commonplace topics like weather or work. Psalm enjoyed the simplicity of this sort of conversation because it served to narrow, and focus, his scope of thought, if only for a short while. He admired, or better, envied his young friend. He was intelligent and easy-going and, most importantly, he was a good listener; all qualities that Psalm didn’t feel he himself possessed.
Morgan Blake seemed mature for his age. He was a self-assured young man who possessed, or was possessed, by a natural confidence and charisma which endeared him to all with whom he came into contact. He had attended a non-denominational private school and had, at an early age, become familiar with the classics of literature and philosophy. He combined this knowledge with a child-like curiosity which made him untiringly open to new ideas. His father William had never allowed his education to end with the school bell. In his modest library and out-of-doors he made sure that Morgan was well-versed in the inner-workings of nature and the importance of a close observance and respect for the natural world. Sometimes they’d get down on their haunches in the garden and get a good look at what was growing. And with guru-like sagacity, his father expounded the virtues of an ear-to-the-ground, open-hearted and keenly observant approach to life and nature.
“Come here Morgan,” William said to his then seven-year-old son.
“What is it dad?”
“It’s the beginning of something.”
Morgan looked down and saw the sprouts of what would be a tomato plant.
“It just looks like a weed dad.”
“Always remember what Emerson said… A weed is just a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.”
Remembering this ten years later, Morgan would wonder how his father had become a sergeant in Vietnam. Coming from a family of military men, his father was almost required to follow suit, but though he volunteered, William was never able to give himself wholly to it.
Before the war William had enjoyed teaching Morgan all that what he could because, in Morgan, he felt he might instill the ideals of an old transcendentalist Englishman, for whom he had been named and whom he felt was his not-so-distant spiritual relative. But now, unable to control his drinking and his tendency toward being a dictator and a womanizer, he’d become less than a perfect model for Morgan. The war brought with it experiences he couldn’t resolve.