The Force of the Sacred
The Vow People are located closer to our world than the other places I visited. They’re on this side of Mount Tunder, which hermetically seals us off from the village where men rename women. Even farther away, that larger town where notorious dowries befoul the nuptial rite. Such degrees of propinquity are appropriate; in this seemingly natural or preternatural order, each is physically distant from us in proportion to how alien and repugnant to our own ways. At least the Vow People are not disgusting. In their world as in ours, a man’s word ought to be his bond as a woman’s hers. Having visited and studied all three communities, I tarried longer with the Vow People. Yes, they are an obsessive and frustrating people, yet I could appreciate if not wholly comprehend their norms, in total contrast to the revulsion that propelled my speedier departure from the others.
At the same time, the vows of the Vow People circumscribe a wholly different world bearing little if anything in common with how contracts, oaths, and so forth define our experience. Nothing there, not even the vow to love, honor, and obey, is legally binding; those who betray their vows do not face civil or criminal penalties. There are, however, profounder consequences. The least infidelity is taboo to such a degree that diseases, depressions, conniptions, carbuncles, cuttings, cripplings, hallucinations, foul odors, self-accusations, self-lacerations, losses of sight, losses of hearing, discolorations, and, yes, suicides have resulted among those Vow People who even unwillingly or unwittingly fail to meet their sacred obligations. For it is indeed the sacred of which we speak; a worshipful quotidian that no mere cult can regiment nor resolute social hygienist deprogram. Yet no one is compelled to take a single vow, ever, although those who take no vows are few and far between; I knew of only one whom I met during my tenure, a man called Caleb Davidson,
While infrequent, betrayals are periodic and inevitable. It seems that a very small but set number of betrayals is about to happen at any one point in time; there is always a set number of men and women who break a vow because they suffer bad luck, have an innate weakness or propensity, or are perversely and willfully disobedient. When these die off, others who are similarly afflicted take their place. I’m reminded of how, in our world, there is said to always be a certain invariable number of serial killers at large; no stable enforcement regime or collective socio-political felicitation can reduce the persistent risk. However, two important differences obviate the comparison. First, most serial killers in our world are male while, in their world, women break their vows with somewhat greater frequency. Second, Jack the Ripper commits horrible crimes in our world; by contrast, offenses in their world often seem trivial because the vows they’re breaking seem trivial.
This is an important point. On the one hand, all their vows are voluntary. No one has to pledge anything. No one has to marry. No one has to make commitments of any sort to anyone. One can have children and pledge nothing as to their care and security. On the other hand, one can take as many vows as one likes, governing any level of human behavior. One can pledge to pursue a noble mission of some sort; perhaps, in their society, to ensure by whatever practical or financial means necessary that no one among the Vow People shall want for food or shelter (not unrealistic, considering their small number and relative affluence). Or, one can pledge to take out the garbage every night or to mow the lawn once a week or to always use a particular brand of shampoo or to learn to play the clarinet. That is why, I’ve concluded, more women than men break their vows; their multitudinous domestic chores oftener lead women to commit themselves too dutifully and perhaps too casually to such everyday matters.
Yet, again the inexorable workings of the sacred! It’s only the vows themselves that matter—taking them, observing them, preserving them. Prayer matters, or, rather, praying matters, but the specifics are up for grabs. Hallowed be the humble juggler for juggling once he’s vowed to; woe betide him if he doesn’t juggle. He who vows to make rain in a drought is not one whit more praiseworthy for success or imperiled for failure. Every lowly thing can be exalted; grace abounds, is no respecter of persons; the first if they fail their vows shall be the last, the last the first if they honor them. So too, one man’s or woman’s meat is blessed, another man’s or woman’s proverbial poison likewise. If he vows to be faithful to his wife, that is good; if he vows to mount another man’s wife, that is good. If she vows to venerate, that is good; if she vows to execrate, that is good. If he vows to read a poem, that is good; if he vows he’ll squat to pee, that is good. If she vows to care for an ailing aunt, that is good; if she vows to gossip on a daily basis, that is good. If he vows to eat roast beef, that is good; if she vows to eat corned beef, that is good. If he vows to whistle, that is good; if she vows to sing, that is good. If he vows to fight, that is good; if he vows to dance, that is good. If she vows to sneeze, that is good; if she vows to cough, that is good.
Those who break more than a single vow presumably pay proportionately severer penalties. I say “presumably” because no one has ever identified the kind or calibrated the degree of suffering that results from any single instance of infidelity. The individual’s own predilections and susceptibilities are always uniquely determinative. But such multiple violations could hardly be uncommon if only because vows are often interdependent. If a woman who vows to be faithful to her husband also vows to vacuum the carpet every Wednesday, she’s likely to break both vows when she can’t vacuum the carpet because she’s busy being unfaithful to her husband.
The ways of the Vow People are by turn harshly just and lavishly permissive. For example, there were cases, not in our lifetime but in past eras, of those who were punished for breaking the law yet praised for having kept their vows to do so. Today as in past days there are those who vowed to let their children go hungry or drink alcohol to excess every evening or engage in specific perversions or insult community leaders to their faces. If not praised for these outrages, nor are they chastised. I cite these specific vows as examples because, while with the Vow People, I met a man who vowed all four and has apparently been as good as his word on all counts. His name is Harley Grabble, a bearded leering wretch, insolent to neighbors and strangers alike as I certainly learned when I spoke to him—I with researcher’s pen and notebook, he with hands on hips, lurching aslant and well en route to the utter inebriation that was his nightly destination. “What can you possibly learn by studying us?” he asked, grinning.
I ignored the question. “What if someone were to take a vow to be as abusive of you as you are of others?” he asked.
“That would be their problem, their right, their vow, their….oh, f**k ‘em!”
“And what will you do when your vow of inebriation becomes life-threatening?”
“The other guy will just have to defend himself.”
I didn’t know if his obtuseness was real or a joke. “No sir, I mean threatening to your life, to your health.”
“I don’t worry about that,” he said with a dismissive nod.
The community’s treatment of him intrigued me. Some seemed to cluck their tongues in silent disapproval when they chanced to walk past him on the street. Yet others were actually deferential, as if Grabble enjoyed some special dispensation by virtue of his particular vows and by virtue of some indispensable cog he thereby supplied the social machinery. I was reminded of how, in our world, similar leeway is given in some quarters to not incomparable reprobates because they paint pictures or write stories or play the saxophone.
As Grabble would not favor me with a serious answer to my question as to what would happen once his avowed drunkenness became life-threatening, as it surely would, I asked Deanna Fish, one of the fifteen Vow People called “Takers” who are empowered to officiate over the taking of vows, if there was any recourse for someone in such a perilous situation. Was he really obliged by sacred writ to drink himself to death? What if he changed his mind and decided that life was too precious? Fish was an invaluable source and guide throughout my sojourn, a matronly lady with kindly eyes, heavy-set but rather majestic for the swoop of her shoulders and the rather ministering impression she makes as she bends slightly when standing and discussing. There is recourse, she told me, and here, it seemed to me, the Vow People follow or try to follow some middle course between the letter and spirit of their law. Persons can request a judicial determination as to whether their vows may be remitted. Three Takers adjudicate; the majority opinion rules. Yet the criteria applied is inconsistent. For some Takers, a serious reason (like self-preservation) is needed and often enough. Yet even such dire necessity would by no means persuade others. In fact, some Takers may see it as a further sanctifying of the vows themselves were they to allow the most fateful, woeful consequences to eventuate. Here it gets complicated. A realm of higher, I’d say esoteric thinking has evolved among the Vow People. Some Takers have described in tomes, accessible to but not often consulted by the laity, a sort of evolutionary dynamic. In this, an unremitting adherence to the vows shapes and reshapes the community to a moral climax, a kind of socio-political imago that, because that imago derives from an insistence on absolute fidelity to the vows, produces a world that in its substance is equally sacred as the process that produced it. Such a dialectic qualifies our previous observation as to how the taking of vows, not the actual vows themselves, is the one reigning sacred principle. We qualify it because, at least for some Takers, the sacred action can in God’s good time ensure sacred substance. Doing and being thus converge.
Other Takers have different instincts. For them, every instance deserves separate consideration. Larger meta-ethical factors don’t weigh in. They may allow a Harley Grabble to disavow alcohol for no other reason than that they feel sorry for him. Or they may decline to remit a vow because they fully expect the supplicant to break his vow anyway—which might be a desirable outcome if the consequences of that infidelity (hysteria, buboes, whatever) are not as bad as the consequences of fidelity (cirrhosis, child degradation, whatever). In any event, it’s always the luck of the draw for anyone seeking remission, as the members of the judiciary panel are chosen by lot from among the Takers. When I asked Deanna Fish how she tended to rule in such cases, she reminded me of how infrequent they are. She has not, in fact, ever sat on a panel and “honestly, I don’t know how I’d respond,” she told me. “First I’d look into the person’s eyes, I suppose.” “What would you be looking to see there?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Can one vow to break one’s vows?” I asked. She didn’t answer, she was nonplussed, a polite uncomfortable smile on her kindly face. “If so, could not such a vow destroy your entire culture?”
“I don’t know how to answer,” she said gently.
“Has such a vow ever been taken?”
“I don’t know,” she said again.
“Would another Taker know? Has it ever been discussed?” She didn’t volunteer to ask a colleague and I let it go. I had apparently stumbled on an alloy in the collective metal, but I wasn’t there to challenge their ways or convert them from their faith.
It was only right before my departure that I saw an infidel in distress, a woman called Hadley Atwood. Here was an example of the Vow People at their cruelest, or rather their culture at its cruelest, and, it might be said, at its most absurd—both the common usage of that term as well as its literal meaning of “from a surd”—for Atwood’s transgression was unintended and unavoidable. A younger woman, I’d say in her mid-twenties, she had vowed to help her adolescent sister with her algebra at least three nights a week until the end of the current school term. But the algebra teacher suffered a sudden fatal heart attack and no substitute was available for another month. So class was suspended and Hadley Atwood’s vow was perforce broken. I saw her crouching in a doorway, a handful of neighbors looking on piteously as the young lady hissed, “worms, worms, worms are coming.” A dead terror had invaded her unblinking eyes. “Her parents are inconsolable,” remarked an onlooker.
Such examples of how fate avenges even unintentional infidelities led me to wonder why anyone would ever intentionally dare break a vow. There’s a pride that goes before destruction, advised another Taker called Ezra Lesser. Some spirits are just haughty; others, especially the young, think they’re invincible. From what I gleaned, youths here are exposed similarly as in our world. As we periodically lose a certain number of our children to heedless behavior such as drug abuse or to highway mishaps, so too do younger Vow People engage in reckless vow-taking and pay the price. There is community support as Takers often counsel youths or enlist other community members to do so, early on before the children are old enough to take formal vows. Some years ago the Vow People took up a collection and built a youth center.
There are fairly common instances when only subjective judgment or intuitive conjecture can determine if a vow is being kept or not. If, for example, someone takes a general vow to live a good and honorable life or, conversely, if Vow People like Hadley Grabble pledge to live a wasteful and abusive one, who’s to say whether they’re compliant or not? Under such conditions, why do a few Vow People decline to take vows at all? What have they got to lose if, given the nature of their vows, fidelity is mere supposition or abstraction? Some innate or evolved defiance of the world they live in or the cosmic order they were born to? I promissa non conplere writ large as non serviam? Or maybe there’s no such tendentious intent if they’re psychologically incapable of making any sort of commitment or frozen by depression in inaction or simply terrified of the consequences of taking a vow and then not being able to keep it. These generalized vows suggest a further and in some ways chilling imponderable. There may be Vow People who vow to live a good life and don’t, but are too piously self-complacent to believe or admit to themselves they haven’t. So, do they get off scot-free? Conversely, self-doubting, self-loathing souls may feel themselves painfully incapable of living good lives despite their pledges to do so. Are they doomed to be punished—psychosomatically, as it were—because they neurotically lack faith in their own fidelity? Or are the vows in and of themselves so potent in their sacrosanctity as to unloose a veritable hound of heaven, an impersonal and inexorable truth, flushing out the pious hypocrites and exonerating the unjustly self-condemned?
It was hard for me to decipher in what category Caleb Davidson belonged. When I ventured to ask, his bitter smile was uninterpretable; the way his crystalline blue eyes bulged suggested that any cause, philosophical or physiological or circumstantial, was equally possible. “Hard to say,” he said. “Why is it hard to say?” I asked. “Can’t say,” he said enigmatically, and nothing in his bland tone revealed whether he couldn’t say or wouldn’t say. Actually, the Vow People are on the whole relieved to have people like Caleb Davidson disclose their abstinence from vow-taking, whatever the motive. As no one is compelled to take vows, no one is compelled to affirm that they have or have not done so, or of what their vows consist. Outliers can therefore remain unknown to the community for the duration. A subtle tension in this world developed as a result, a palpable suspicion that such people are amongst us: Vow People who have never taken vows, insidiously embedded, negation’s fifth column. That sense of insecurity is only relieved when they do self-acknowledge.
While the Takers are naturally bound by confidentiality as to who has pledged to do what, Ezra Lesser favored me with a vivid description of the rite by which vows are formalized and made binding. Having advised any one of the fifteen Takers of their intent, Vow People are assigned a time and place; they do not get to choose a preferred Taker. There are no permanent sanctuaries; the rite may transpire anywhere, though usually it’s someplace where privacy can be secured and noises from the outside blocked out. All internal and external light is shut off. A half-dozen unlit candles encircle a bouquet of a dozen flowers, four roses for passion, four chrysanthemums for clarity, and four gardenias for plenitude. A lit candle is handed the vow-takers; they light each of the six other candles while answering six questions: Are you here to take a vow? Do you know what the word ‘sacred’ means? Do you know that vows are sacred? Do you know that your vow is more important than you? Can you imagine the punishment that meets disobedience? What is your vow? Do you believe in God? There is no right answer to the final question but it is asked anyway.
Takers comprise a much smaller segment of the population than comparable clergy do in our world. They are immensely busy as vows are often getting taken every day. This is their life’s all-consuming work, there’s time for no other. (The community supports them with provisions to meet their reasonable needs.) Once a Taker, always a Taker; they may not ever resign for “civilian life.” With some exceptions, it is a self-selecting population as children or young adults who seem to evince a proclivity, or some personality trait, for this sacred service are identified and cultivated by the current officiants. Ezra Lesser, for example, told me he’d been a somewhat dreamy child; he’d ask the grown-ups questions such as “Why is the sky so blue?” or “What happens if the sun and stars should doubt? Would they immediately go out?” His parents talked it over with a Taker called Timothy Lou and soon, with young Ezra’s assent, the grooming began.
Celibacy is encouraged but not required. Takers take their own vows like everyone else and there is some historical record (but no examples in our lifetime) of Takers failing to maintain their vows. They seemed to suffer similar afflictions as the laity for their disobedience but who knows how lighter or heavier the judgment had they not been Takers. A single Taker is empowered to perform the vow ceremony for other Takers. He or she is a kind of Pope among priests. He or she is known only to the Takers. He or she presumably takes vows of his or her own but even other Takers do not know how or even if those vows are solemnized. Presumably, again just presumably, his or her infidelity would be punished in ways hardly imaginable to those who have not been so uniquely exalted.
I must confess to a powerfully ambiguous affection and respect for this community. It is hard not to admire fidelity however it’s manifest, and certainly when it is raised to such a level of categorical imperative. It is hard not to admire those so bound to the sacred that neither police force nor justice system but their flesh and blood enforce its dictates. Yet I fear for them. I fear for a culture that has so irrevocably put itself at the mercy of its own soul.
As if he had read these last words, Ezra Lesser contacted me just weeks after I returned home. His letter and the poem that accompanied it read as follows:
I hope you are well and that your visit provided something of lasting value. I must, however, inform you that our dear mutual friend Deanna Fish has suddenly and inexplicably fled the community. We do not know why or where. It is not improbable that she may at this moment be within shouting distance of your world. I don’t know why we think that, possibly in order to alert you just in case it’s actually true. If so, please deal with the situation as well as your fine lights allow.
I have known Deanna all my life. I am terribly upset. I miss her. I am terribly worried about her. It is a devastating blow to all of us because no Taker has as far as we are aware ever done anything like this. Somehow I feel that she is now at the mercy, of what I do not know. I will pray for her every day.
She sent no note of explanation. She seems to have left all her possessions behind. Even her wardrobe is mainly intact from what we can tell. All she left was a strange poem. I cannot make out its significance. Maybe you can. It reads as follows:
Frankly, what hell I
do not know I found,
hiding with dragons,
slipping in grasses.
We crawled to glory
of never knowing
what day it has come.
The swamp stayed hidden—
in my heart of hearts—
prayed for it to come,
prayed it go away,
prayed it come right back,
prayed it leave again.
Back to the grasses,
out of the grasses—
lizard keep your peace
yet squirm still to light.
In far oasis
wait again my change.
Let me know your thoughts if you have any.
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