“Adjuva”, my short story about Crusading, medieval theology, and revenants, is up at Lakeside Circus! This one is quite special to me; it’s one of the few stories which I’ve written that I could not have even conceptualized without being a Byzantinist — without being a historian, which in some ways is a thing that talks to the dead. I am very happy that this story found a home so that I can share it.
He wakes up parched, his mouth full of desert dust, spilling out the corners of lips too chapped to bleed.
It doesn’t in the slightest help.
Outside, it is raining, sheets of droplets puckering the surface of the Bosporus. There is no way save providence or deviltry that Michel is still alive; by the looks of the city beyond the window it is the year of our Lord two-thousand-something-with-skyscrapers, approximately enough, and he remembers being a man already thirty when first the pilgrim knights came into the desert that is Jerusalem.
A few story notes:
I wrote a version of this at white-heat in the deep winter of January 2012, in the University of Chicago library; it was the second story I wrote after I decided that I was going to be serious about writing, that I would send my work to magazines, that I didn’t need a co-writer or a shared world to hide behind, that I was not only good enough but goddamnit I was going to have fun — and then I spat out 2500 words of some of the most personal, emotional, high-concept, requires-a-goddamn-Masters-in-Crusade-Studies-to-read stunt-writing fantasy I apparently was capable of producing.
I used to call this thing “Vladimir and Estragon Go On Crusade”, seriously. It is my love-letter to Crusader chansons and the Gesta Francorum and the first trip I ever took to Turkey and all the unhallowed dead.
Then I proceeded to not sell it to 11 magazines. Somewhere around magazine #8 I knew it was broken, and even knew why, thanks to an astute editor and a kind personal rejection, but was flat-out unable to fix it. By that point I had sold my first story, and was thinking of applying to Viable Paradise. And what was wrong with this story wasn’t a technical skill problem (I could, and did, fix those) but a problem of emotional payoff; I needed there to be an ending to this story which showed progression and change, and yet it was a story about the doom of repetition, and the nature of sin.
It was a theological problem, and up until early 2014 I very truly could not solve it because I could not bring myself to write an ending where surrender was not only permitted but correct.
This is a very Catholic story — I’m a very Jewish person, for all that I don’t practice as much as I could — and sometimes I felt like I was wrestling with God, trying to find a way to let Michel have a way out that did not strike me as ethically monstrous.
I had to be a different person, in a different part of my life — in 2014 I finished my dissertation, I had a romantic relationship which wasn’t innately fraught, my life became a little psychologically more gentle — I felt less in need of god-wrestling, in short. I will likely take up the practice again when it’s the right time. But having a part of my life which contained un-disastrous serenity did give me a chance to find an ending to this story which admitted to some kind of grace.
… well. Personal theological confession time over, have the thematic soundtrack for “Adjuva”: “Hebrews 11:40”, by The Mountain Goats. I’m going to get my perfect body back someday / if not by faith then by the sword / I’m going to be restored —