The Conversion

Barry King

"In our current age and scientific culture, we now suffer a rash of abductions by grey, facet-eyed aliens in their glowing spaceships who probe our rectal cavities, presumably against our wishes."
Illustration of The Missionary, short story by Barry King
“The Missionary” Illustration © Megan James

WHEN THE MISSIONARY FIRST stepped off the ship and onto the soil of our town, he kept the eye hidden behind a standard-issue opthalmological patch. “Like a Barbary pirate,” he was to joke, later, when bar-rail after-hours drinks emboldened one of us to ask about it, now that he was no longer keeping it hidden.

Neon gave its facets a special light, a magical glitter. All of us remember how, on that night, alcohol imposed its distancing effects upon perception and memory so that it seemed less out of place, less as if his head had been moulded from different colours of plasticine, the bulge of it and the inset of his face now a seam of quartz and garnet in dark marble, slightly puckered, slightly proud of the high arch of his cheekbone.

But he was affable, the Missionary, and bore our curious stares with humour. “Good grace,” Mrs. Hendergast whispered to her companion, Miss Emily, as they watched him saunter with an easy, confident stride down Main Street.

Despite the unbearable heat and the glistening sweat on her face, Mrs. Hendergast tried to hold herself more erect, coaxing some loft from her weary back as the Missionary walked by their screened porch. Boxwood scent blended with the jasmine and musk of the Japanese fan she used to shield whispered observations from lip-reading eyes. “Good grace is always attractive in a man, Miss Emily,” she concluded, continuing to follow his slender form as it retreated into the distance. Miss Emily mutely nodded her agreement and followed the Missionary’s passage, the whites of her eyes glinting in the deep shade.

Miss Emily is a good listener. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Hendergast, she steals away some summer afternoons to a wooden bench inset in a hedgerow that runs the length of the Department of Biology. There, head slightly tilted and eyes firmly shut, she lets the Missionary’s voice fall gently into her ear from the window—open to allow a breeze to flow across the Formica desks, the linoleum floors, and cool the perspiring legs and brows of the students of biochemistry, their heads bowed and pencils swaying in the breeze. Rolling across the serried ranks of students and cascading to the eavesdropping ear of Miss Emily, the many-syllabled alchemical pronouncements of the Missionary flow, awakening, link by tiny link, a knowledge of the coupling of atoms, of polymers, of proteins and the sword-dance of enzymatic action. Miss Emily presses her knees together and breathes deep, holding her breath for a moment of bliss, her mouth silently forming the aspirant “alkene”, the hopeful “alkine”, and the descendent “ketone”, as the words flow over her gooseflesh.

If we peered in the window, we would see Elanor Wilkinson, already enveloped—in her imagination—by a clinical white lab coat. In our memory, she has begun to perceive the pieces of the grand edifice of knowledge slowly accreting in her. Each fact, each calculated instance covalently bonds to the next in the multi-planar complex of her brain. She trembles in a nearly-imperceptible harmonic as each iota neatly slots into its neighbours like the hexagonal facets of the Missionary’s scintillating eye, mimicking the hexagonal facets of cyclic organic aromatic compounds, drawing disjointed fragments to their greater whole: building a raft of order in a sea of molecular chaos.

At one distinct point in time, wonder creeps into her senses and she looks up, gently transferring the hexagonal cylinder of her pencil from her hand to her teeth—the barest hiss of cracking paint on the tips of her incisors transmitting through the bones of her skull—as the Missionary’s lecture becomes a singular cognitive music, playing to her alone. He, the conductor, baphomet-like, one hand on the textbook, the other communicating a symphonic code: meaningful, yet obscure to the uninitiated. Her eyes rise to meet it halfway and she feels a dream-bubble burst around her, replaced by clarity of purpose. She sees the compass before her now, her hands on the wheel of destiny, and success will roost on her shoulder all through the long journey to the Nobel, her course charted by peer-reviewed (and peer-lauded) articles of great insight and sagacity on the neurology of complex polymeric superstructures.

That evening, Clint, whom we have all known as Elanor’s “boyfriend” since their first public exhibition as king and queen of the Junior Prom, sits alone, nursing a light beer. Football and good looks no longer the ticket to success they once were, he finds himself fascinated by the Missionary: laughing, expansive, the eye glinting by the light of a lamp that imitates, in neon, the label on the bottle Clint turns in his hands, nervously drawing the cold from the dew-slick glass into his damp palms.

Drawn by the Missionary’s friendly face and honest laugh, Clint comes to a decision and rises to claim the seat of the Missionary’s departed drinking-companion. Conversation ensues, and Clint, his eyes fixed on it the whole time, not wanting to draw attention to it, (and somewhat fearful of it), asks the Missionary, “Where do you call home?” To which the Missionary replies, “Jamaica.”

Clint knows three things about Jamaica. To wit: 1. Bob Marley is … well … was, Jamaican. 2. They call dope ganja there, and, 3. If you pronounce ‘beer can’ with an English accent, it sounds as if you are saying ‘bacon’ with a Jamaican accent. He relates this third as an amusing anecdote to the Missionary, who laughs earnestly before growing slowly pensive, speaking in quieter tones, drawing Clint out: the life of a quarterback, a specific injury in his senior year of high school, the vagaries of college scholarships, and his intention to enter into matrimonial union with Miss Wilkinson, “when she’s finished with University, ’cause her dad really wants her to go.” Clint avers that once this paternal obligation is fulfilled, however, Miss Wilkinson and he will be buying a prefabricated mobile bungalow on the outskirts of town and bringing new life and wonder into the world, all supported by Clint’s assured employment at his father’s construction firm.

After three more bottles of light beer, when Clint finally gets the nerve to ask about how the Missionary came to have, “you know, that,” as indicated by Clint’s finger tracing in air the bulging form of the Missionary’s singular ocular orb, the Missionary only smiles and says that he “came into the world with it.” The Missionary goes on to attest that, to this date, no doctor has been able to explain how it grew in that remarkable way.

On his way home, Clint is still thinking of how a horsefly’s head moves to follow the shadow of your hand as you try to sneak up and swat it, when he has an unfortunate tumble at the edge of the roadway and spends one hour bleeding unconsciously and four days dead in a storm-pipe that channels water from Farmer McKinsey’s northern soybean field to his southern annex, on which he (McKinsey) has planted okra despite his (McKinsey’s) wife and children’s vocal protestations.

Farmer McKinsey ended our Sheriff’s fruitless manhunt with a call to the widely-advertised hotline number after investigating the smell of “something gone really bad,” which had managed to penetrate both his OSHA-approved breathing apparatus and the scent of the synthetic insecticide with which he was dusting the crop so detested by his nearest and dearest.

By coincidence, the estate of Marina Drakič, the previous dean of the Faculty of Biochemistry, holds the patent on that insecticide. She was the person the Missionary had been commissioned to replace after a similar accident also left her lifeless and bloodless. An unkind teaching assistant had noted that it was a death endowed with irony, as the depletion of oxygen to the cells caused by acute exsanguination is similar to the mechanism by which the insecticide affects the European corn borer, one of the few arthropod enemies of common okra (albeit when in a larval stage).

Now we all remember those early days—we remember how the Missionary arrived so soon after his predecessor’s unfortunate demise that he was able to attend the funeral, picking his way carefully in somber clothes past the rear pews and taking an empty seat at random, a small wave and a smile to the handful of faculty he had acquainted himself with at that point. Despite a gift for extemporaneous oratory which some of us (Miss Emily in particular) were later to discover, he declined to say any words on Dr. Drakič’s behalf, suggesting that he knew her only by academic reputation and it would be presumptuous for him to say anything other than to rue the loss that had so suddenly befallen our community of biochemists. Nevertheless, he made a sincere pronouncement at the reception afterwards that he would be honoured to attempt to make half the contribution she had made in her lifetime to their shared field of study. In retrospect, this proved to be a bit of self-deprecation on his part, but we would like to think it was not unkindly meant.

Ultimately, the task of composing the eulogy had fallen to a professor of psychology, who knew Dr. Drakič well enough to perform a passible, if stilted, benediction. This Professor Orsman (Jim to his friends, he would often say), having developed a personal aversion to the Missionary in the following months, made an observation or two about the nature of fear, which he was pleased to share one night with several strangers in the bar, not realizing that the Missionary was separated from him by a mere three inches of wood and cushion in the booth behind.

In this declamation, it was Professor Orsman’s belief that mankind has an innate and powerful reaction to any deep-seated fear of the unknown. This reaction, Orsman claimed, manifests itself in dreams, which follow a common formula. This formula occurs time and time again through the ages. Save where Babylonians once dreamt of priapic bug-eyed daemons from the Seven Hells, and Mediaeval peasants of night-time violations by black-eyed, black-hearted, black-winged seducers and seductresses, in our current age and scientific culture, we now suffer a rash of abductions by grey, facet-eyed aliens in their glowing spaceships who probe our rectal cavities, presumably against our wishes.

This, Professor Orsman said, using the impeccable logic of the semi-intoxicated, is similar to the reaction one has when first confronted with the strangeness of it: that there is an understandable but profoundly unsettling unconscious reaction to the odd ocular protuberance of the new Dean of Biochemistry, one which manifests itself as a mass hysteria, a shared madness out of proportion to actual events.

When questioned, Orsman went on to explain that where one culture might see a daemon’s eye and another an insect or an alien, all these views are mere projections, and the mind is simply filling in a hole in its knowledge, as one might patch battered drywall so as not to think about what creepy-crawlies might be lurking behind. Such holes in the subconscious, Orsman asserted, are the only place where the terrors faced by our primitive ancestors now dwell. This is why they affect us so strangely and with such seeming verisimilitude, causing us to confuse our nightmares with suppressed events in our waking life. He suggested, darkly, that an investigation into the actual nature of the eye, to subject it to scientific scrutiny, would be the only sure mechanism to eliminate its affect upon us.

Jim Orsman’s obituary tactfully did not mention his intoxication, only the fact that his car failed to make that critical turn at the northern edge of Farmer McKinsey’s southern field. But unfortunately, that is where all verifiable similarities end: we might have been able to compare the wound on both Clint and Jim—the figure-eight shape of intersecting entry points, the profound and variegated bruising around them—if it were not the case that Doctor Helen Markum, our coroner, had her stroke in the midst of examining Professor Orsman’s cadaver.

By the time Dr. Markum’s state-licensed replacement had driven in from a nearby city (ours is a small town—we have to make do, you see, with what is sent us), it was impossible to determine if the general liquescence of the internal organs had been due to bacterial or chemical action. All that could be determined was that an unknown agent had managed to decompose Professor Orsman’s body, even in the adverse conditions of the morgue, between the time it had been removed from cold storage and its return to the same.

A reasonable explanation was found: Doctor Markum’s resident had understandably neglected to put Orsman’s corpse into refrigeration for several hours, as he was the one who discovered the coroner prostrate by the examination table and stayed by her side until she was admitted to intensive care, sixteen floors above, after which he had gone home to recover from the shock, leaving Orsman’s body to the ravages of thermodynamics and enzymatic action.

It never rains, but it pours, as the saying goes; but, after the hurly-burly promulgated by this rash of deaths had blown over, our town returned to something approaching normal. The bar filled up every evening with people arriving singly and leaving in pairs by midnight. A raft of students entered the University every year, and at the end another raft was disgorged into industry and academe. And all through this, the Missionary carried on with his appointed tasks, settling into our community as if born to it. People around here even got used to the eye, and though no explanation for it ever gained universal acceptance, the town came to rally around the Missionary and to let their disapproval be known to strangers who arrived and could not help but comment on it and how strange it was.

And it’s only right. We are a tight community, our town, all well knit together. Especially so, thanks to Dr. Wilkinson’s magnanimous donation to the public domain of the patent rights to her transpersonal inter-harmonic molecular neuromatrix, that “raft of rafts” that has come to unify us completely in mind, while allowing our bodies to labour separately for the greater good.

That is the story of how it began, from it, to the School of Biochemistry, to the University, to our town, to the outside world, and so on, to shores beyond the circumference of Earth, where it continues to spread.

We share (can no longer help but share) a deep sense of identity, share intimately each other’s sorrows and joys—most recently the joy of our own Elanor Wilkinson. We felt, every one of us, her flush of pride (with a little fear) as she gripped the smooth Scandinavian woodwork of the lectern and looked out at the Nobel Committee, the audience populated with other laureates (these days, nearly every one protégés of the Missionary), reaching out from this converted populace across the world, the system, the galaxy, forming a raft of order in a sea of molecular chaos.

Together, we weave a growing kelp-like oneness against the chaos of mankind’s dark, chthonic history, a multifaceted Sargasso against the roiling ocean of circumstance on which we exist, briefly and transiently, our measly sparks of consciousness converted by the Missionary’s proxies into a single beacon, glinting in the eye of abyssal depth.

©2015, Barry King

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