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Tom Bentley - his Writing, his Art


Wars and Rumours of War

"The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches - and the seven candlestocks which Thou Sawest are the seven churches ...."

This is going to take forever, thought Robert. Why can't he just tell me all that stuff like before - why do I have to read it out loud?

And why seven everything, he thought. Why not seven hundred? Or seven thousand?

Every night his grandfather made him read to him in bed. Most of the stuff he had to read was about money. Like the stock-market report. But now he had to read from the Book of Revelations.

I got it really good when he just told me. Like the serpent ripping into pieces and spiralling down into a bottomless pit and the false prophet and the battle with the beast. That was a good bit. And Alpha and Omega - the beginning and the end. Those guys are great! But "sawest" this and "sawest" that? Reading just makes it boring.

Boring boring boring. Seven churches - seven stars - seven angels go to mars.

"Why do you want me to read this stuff when you don't even like churches, grandpa?"

"Cause there's things to learn from it - that's why."
"Like what?"
"I'm not tellin' ya."
"Why not?"
"Cause you gotta learn for yourself. Ya gotta read the words so you can figure out the signs."
"Why don't you just tell me the signs like before?"
"Because you gotta learn to look for yourself."
"But I liked it better when you told me."
"You don't want anyone tellin' ya nothing Robert. Ya gotta find out for yourself."
"I liked you telling me about the guy coming outta the east and fighting and the two-edged sword and the horses of fire. Tell me the bit about wars and rumours of wars."
"Read it yourself."
"Danny's dad reads him the Hardy Boy books."
"Well hardy-har for Danny's dad!"
"Hardy what?"
"Hardy-har!"
"For who?"
"For Danny's dad."
"Oh."
They both lay quietly for a moment. Then his grandfather spoke.

"You finish Revelations and I'll get ya somethin' else from the library. Maybe Moby Dick. Or T. S. Elliot. Or maybe this Italian fellah who wrote The Divine Comedy."

"Yeah - let's get the comedy one - I want something funny. Is it really funny?"

"Breaks me up every time."
"Let's get it!"
"If that goddamn Mrs. Beatty can find it. Told me last week she didn't know if the bible was in circulation and what was I doin' with a library card anyway seein' as I was blind. I said it was a best-seller so it sure as hell better be in circulation cause I need the damn thing to prop up my wheelbarrow. And you get on with finishing Revelations Robert - I ain't paying that bitch no late fine for a goddamn bible..."
"What about the Italian guy?"
"Dante?"
"Did he write lots of funny stuff?"
"Dante wrote about great battles."
"Funny battles?"
"He wrote about heaven and hell. And the universe - flyin' around up there like nobody's business."
"And all the stars bashing into each other and stuff, right?"
"The heavens whirl around us, he said - in all their glory. That's what this fellah said - glory. And still man's eyes are cast upon the ground."
"What does that mean?"
"He was telling ya to look up. Get your heads outta your asses and look, he said. The sky goes on forever - you're part of it. You're a tiny part of infinity!"
Robert's grandfather was always talking about infinity.
"And when ya know that Robert - then anything is possible."
"But then this Italian guy wrote The Divine Comedy, right grandpa?"
"After he wrote the Hardy Boy Series."
"Did he?"
"When are going to stop believing what people tell ya, Robert?"
"Tomorrow - I'll stop believing what people tell me tomorrow, okay grandpa."
"Okay."
He reached over and turned off the light because his grandfather always forgot.
"There's signs up there, Robert. You gotta look up..."
His grandfather wouldn't stop talking...
"Into the eternal darkness, into fire and into ice."
So he rolled into the darkness and tried to sleep.
"Their sighs, lamentations and loud wailing resounded through the starless air, so that at first it made me weep ... whirling through the air forever dark ..."

Every afternoon after lunch, Robert sat at the kitchen table and watched his grandfather take a jackknife from the back pocket of his overalls. He'd cut an apple into wedges and a hunk of cheese into thin slices. Then he'd throw salt over the table hoping some of it would land on the pieces of apple. Robert always closed his eyes in case his grandpa missed. He didn't mind salt in his hair. Just not in his eyes. When the first piece of cheese and apple went into his grandpa's mouth to start the slow chew, he knew it was time to read him Alley Opp from the funny papers.

Today he couldn't get on with his reading because his grandmother was talking too much. So he watched the huge Adam's apple wobbling up and down in the old-man throat. Chew - wobble wobble. Just like a turkey, Robert thought. Chew - wobble wobble. Chew.

"Go or don't go. It's no skin off my back", said Flo. "I know ya got a letter. Angus down at the post office says ya got a letter. And they sent one to the doctor too - tellin' him it was all arranged."

Bill Coutts ignored his wife and carried on with the business at hand. Chew - wobble wobble. Chew - wobble wobble.

"But I'll tell ya one thing - if ya don't go I don't want no whinin' about not bein' able to see. This is your last chance Bill. If ya don't get on that train you'll stay blind as a bat for the rest of your pathetic goddamn life."

Robert thought his granny was getting mean. He'd never heard his grandpa whine in his pathetic goddamn life even once.

Chew - wobble wobble. Chew.

"If I had my say I'd just have ya put down and that'd be the end of it. Pile up all that eye lotion junk that don't do ya no good anyways - start a bonfire. Then I'd bring in the neighbours and have a hell of a party!"

Robert figured his granny was grumpy and just wanted to have an argument, because he knew there wasn't any letter. He was the expert on letters. That was his job. That's why his grandpa made him read in the first place - so his granny never got to read anything. His grandpa didn't want her to know about his stocks and bonds and stuff. If there was a letter he'd have read it to his grandpa in their bedroom before lunch.

"Probably better for your health if you can't see anyway ya old bugger - don't wanna have a heart attack when ya look in the mirror." Flo slammed the dishes into the kitchen sink.

This is great, thought Robert. If she keeps talking maybe I won't have to go to school at all. He was usually late for school in the afternoon anyway. His teacher got used to it. She knew he couldn't leave until he'd finished Alley Oop. Besides - she was too afraid of Bill Coutts to cause a fuss.

"It's scaring the children concerns me Bill - walking all over town with that one eye floatin' all over the place.."

Chew - wobble wobble.

If his grandfather was eating an orange, Robert wondered, would it be called an Adam's orange?

"So if ya decide to be blind the rest of your life, do us a favour ya scary bastard - head down to the Co-op and get yourself a paper bag to stick over your head. Let the little darlin's get a good night's sleep for a change."

Boy is she cranky, thought Robert. Usually she left them alone to read the funnies, but today she stayed in the kitchen to bang dishes.

Robert started to think about the route he'd take home from school just in case he had to go. Problem was there were only so many new routes you could take home from anywhere in Biggar.

Every afternoon after school, Russell Matthews and his brothers waited for him so they could kill him. They'd chase him until he got to his front door.

Running down Main Street was always a pretty good bet because he could deak into the Five and Dime. He just wished that Rita woman who worked there would stop ruffling up his hair. Ever since the day his grandfather missed the apple big-time - and salt had flown out and landed all over the comic books - that Rita woman kept ruffling up his hair. She'd laugh and say she was looking for pepper or something dumb.

Maybe today I'll try running through Mrs. Curry's yard and then up the back alley, he thought.

Chew - wobble wobble. Chew.

Or maybe I should just take a kitchen knife and let them have it in front of the fire-hall.

Russell and his family were out for revenge. Robert'd knocked out Russell's new front tooth with a baseball bat and his mum was really mad. They were the poor kids living on assistance at the end of town and his mum couldn't afford to get any new teeth.

"So do what you want Bill, but this is your last chance."

Bill Coutts wiped the apple juice off his jackknife and folded it into his overalls.

Flo stomped off to the front bedroom for her afternoon nap. She sat on her bed and fumed. Why can't he just get on the bloody train? It's a cataract for Pete's sake - they yank 'em off all the time down there.

She heaved out a sigh. She knew she was wasting her breath. He didn't go last time - he probably won't go now.

Robert opened the newspaper to the funnies. Alley Opp was in a jungle tree pulling at a vine and talking to the dinosaur below.

He read..."These vines are just the thing to make a swell animal trap! Yezzir, Dinny, ol' Pal - you're gonna get a big surprise when ya see what ol' Alley is gonna do with these!"
That was pretty simple, thought Robert. A lot easier than the Book of Revelations. Then he explained what he saw in the next three boxes. There were no words. Just a WHUMP and an ARGHHHHHHH.

"Dinny yanks down on the vine and Ol' Alley falls right outta the tree and crashes - WHUMP! Then Alley has stars coming out of his head. So he picks up his axe and chases Dinny right out of the forest - ARGHHHHHHH!"

Bill Coutts got up to go into the bedroom he shared with his grandson at the back of the house.

"How come you didn't laugh, grandpa?"

He walked out of the kitchen.

"Maybe if you went to get your eye fixed you could see the pictures and see how funny it is", Robert yelled after him.

Bill Coutts turned around in the door frame.

"Don't you start too. Go to school - you're gonna be late."

"I'm always late."

"Good boy - keep it up", and he disappeared into the bedroom.

That night, Robert finished another chapter from the Book of Revelations. He'd had lots of trouble with the "holdeths" and the "haths".It made him mad as hell. And he was already mad enough at his grandpa.

"So how come you like the bible and stuff but we don't go to church?" he asked.

"I don't like the bible."
"Yes you do."
"I like the Book of Revelations."
"But how come we don't go to church?"
"Cause it's full of people who are too goddamn scared to see what's starin' em straight in their goddamn face."
"You're scared to see!"
Robert held his breath. He knew his grandpa must have got a letter from the doctors and didn't even let him read it. He was really mad - it's okay to read Revelations but it's not okay to read a letter!

Bill Coutts turned over on the bed and yanked the covers up. Robert reached over his grandfather's large body and turned off the light.

He always forgets to pull the switch, grumbled Robert. Not everyone's blind you know. He should just go get his eye fixed - then he could read for himself and I could sleep.

Robert listened to old man sounds coming from the ancient body next to him and smelled the mustiness of the bed clothes. What's he so scared of anyway? Why's he so scared of seeing? I got more to be scared of than him - I got the Russell Gang on my tail.

He remembered the close call he had that afternoon and decided he'd better think up a new route home for tomorrow. Then he heard his grandfather breathe deeply and roll over onto his back. He knew he was going to tell him stuff.

"What do ya see out the window, Robert?"

"I see stars, grandpa."

"Yes - stars. And you know that past those stars are more stars. It goes on forever. There's no concrete block at the end of the universe - just forever."

Robert looked past the plastic curtains into the night. He knew there was more to come.

"And inside your head there's just as many stars. But we forget to look. Just like we forget to look up, we forget to look in. Inside my head I see those stars. I don't need to look out your goddamn window."

His grandfather's voice sounded angry.

"So don't you go tellin' me I should get my eye fixed, Robert. Or I gotta even look with my eyes. I'll see the universe any goddamn way I want. It ain't none of your business how I see things. Just like it ain't none of my business where you look and what you look with. We all march to a different drum beat."

"But the universe goes on forever grandpa. You gotta look past the concrete block.

For infinity and all that."
"You're damn right you gotta! But you can listen too. You can close your eyes and listen. You can hear the universe. Feel it. It's on the inside too."

"But you can't see me."

"Yes I can. And it's not up to you to tell me what I see and what I can't see. It not your business. Or your granny's business. It's my business."

"I'm going to close my eyes for a whole day so I can see what you see, grandpa."

"Like hell you are!"
Robert's head was starting to pound.
"Nobody can see what somebody else sees. You gotta look for yourself - and never believe what you see the first time. You gotta look twice."

"Okay, grandpa."

"Anything is possible. There's a whole goddamn universe out there for chrissake - there's things ya can't even imagine. But you gotta keep your eyes wide open. Look for the signs. Your signs - nobody else's. And not just with your eyes - listen for 'em."

"Okay grandpa."

"The world's changin' - nothin' will be the same when you grow up. And ya gotta be ready. There'll be earthquakes and wars and rumours of wars..."

Robert closed his eyes as tightly as he could. Red and white dots floated inside his head. He thought he could see the beast opening the heavens with its sword of fire.

The next day Robert sat trying to finish his rice pudding. His grandfather was wearing a white starched shirt. There was a suitcase packed at his feet. His granny was clearing up the dishes from lunch.

He was too worried to ask his grandpa why he changed his mind about catching the train. He asked him what he should do about the Russell Gang instead.

"Stop runnin'", said his grandfather.
"But they'll pound me."
"Surprise 'em."
"How?"
"Stop runnin'. Turn right around - make your face look scary as hell - and start chasing them."
"How do I make my face scary?"
"Ask your granny - seems to work for me."
"Granny?"

"Imagine the Dow Jones average crashed", replied Flo. "Then pull your lip up over your head like you're gonna scream and pop your eyes out. You'll look just like the scary bastard sittin' across from ya."

Robert's granny laughed from all the way down in her belly.

"What'll they do then grandpa?"
"They'll be so goddamn surprised they'll turn on their tails and take off into oblivion."
"Ya - once they pound the shit outta ya", warned his grandma.
Robert started to worry again.
Flo folded her apron. Then she left the kitchen to go for her nap.
"Good luck, Bill", she said.
Bill Coutts got out his jackknife and Robert opened the funnies to Alley Oop.

Robert ran into the house and through to the back room. He had a bloody nose, his elbows were skinned, and his grandpa was gone. Oh great, he thought. What a stupid time to get his stupid goddamn eye fixed. He laid down on the bed to stop the blood from pouring into his mouth.

When he'd come out of school, they were waiting. All four of them. Russell was whistling and spitting through the gap in his front teeth. Whistle and spit. Whistle and spit. His brothers were flexing their muscles like they thought they were in some kind of motorcycle gang or something.

Robert shot off like a bat out of hell around the back of the school, straight through a grade four girl's soccer game, and then back into the building and out the front door again thinking he could lose them in a route of stupidity. But the Russell Gang were right on his tail.

So he took off as fast as he could over to Main Street - speeding past the fire-hall, the movie theatre, the bakery and making pretty good time to the Five and Dime. But they were getting closer. He could feel hot breath wheezing through the gap in Russell's front teeth.

Then a picture of that Rita woman popped into his head. "Rita", his brain kept saying. "Rita - Rita - Rita." His body sped up even faster as he listened to the inside of his head. He could only think of Rita.

"Rita, Rita - Ruffle my hair. Rita, Rita - Ruffle it good. Rita, Rita - Ruffle my hair. Rita, Rita - Ruffle it ..."

Just as he was heading into the store's front door, his grandfather's voice took over on the inside of his brain. "Stop running", it said. "Stop."

Robert squealed to a halt in front of the Five and Dime, catching a glimpse of the Rita woman standing close to the window. He'd stopped running. He'd stopped!

Then he heard his grandfather's voice again. "Turn around Robert", it said.

So he spun around to face the Gang. They were about five feet back. They'd stopped too. They were looking at him suspicious like - as if they wanted to pounce but were making sure he didn't have a secret weapon like a knife.

It's working, Robert thought. It's goddamn working.

"Now make your face scary as hell."

Robert opened his mouth and pulled his upper lip back over his front teeth. Then he raised his eye brows and stretched his forehead muscles back to the unchartered regions of his scull. Finally he poked his eyes out as far as they could poke.

The gang stepped back in amazement.

Then Alley Oop took over on the inside of his head. "You're going to get a big surprise Russell Ol' pal when ya see what Ol' Alley and Ol' Robert are gonna do to you and your dinny-dinks!"

Robert walked towards the enemy.

The Russell Gang laughed so hard they could hardly keep their swings straight. Still, they managed to knee him in the stomach, kick him in the side, and push him over so his elbows ploughed into the pavement. When he looked up, Russell landed him a whopper right on the nose.

Rita came out of the Five and Dime and yelled at them to clear out. She told Robert to come in the store so she could get something for his nose but Robert took off in the other direction. He circled around through back alleys so nobody would see him getting home.

Last time I'll ever listen to my grandpa, he decided. Flo stood at the bedroom door. "Well at least ya still got your front teeth, sunshine", she said. "Did grandpa get to Rochester?" "No." "Did he get to Saskatoon?" "No." "Where'd he get?" "He got to the beer parlour." Robert saw how hard his granny was chewing the left side of her lip. "He'll go next time granny." "No he won't. Come in the kitchen - let me fix that nose." After supper, Flo went over to Mrs. Potts to read her cards. Robert sat and waited until it started to get dark. He didn't want anyone to see his smashed-up nose. Then he walked down the railroad tracks and cut over to the beer parlour. Sitting out front was his grandpa's wheelbarrow. It was holding the suitcase. Robert took it out and climbed in himself. He waited.

Men staggered out every once in a while and looked at the boy in the wheelbarrow. They left him alone because they knew he was Bill Coutts' grandchild.

Robert felt good. He liked the smell of smoke from the room behind him and the sound of men's laughter and the clinking of glasses. I can hardly wait till I can be a beer-parlour man, the boy thought.

He looked across to the train station and then over above the grain elevator. It was a beautiful night. The stars were just out. The wind was warm. Summer was coming.

He felt safe. He figured the Russell Gang were all piled into their one bed listening to that stupid whistling sound coming from the gap in Russell's teeth. He hoped they lived on assistance forever and had to eat fried leftover porridge for supper.

He looked again above the grain elevator and saw the Big Dipper. He counted the stars. Seven... seven bright stars. Why seven, he wondered. Are those the seven candles? Or maybe the angels? He tried to look beyond them to see if he could find the beast.

He thought about his grandfather looking at the universe. Looking out there any goddamn way he wanted. He thought about being blind. About listening. It's his business, decided Robert. He chose to be blind. He likes looking in. I just hope he knows he'll be blind forever. And that means forever. Forever and ever.

I like looking out, he thought. Past the stars. Past infinity.

The sky seemed to grow larger.

The darkness began to fill with light. Robert decided to keep his eyes open without blinking.

I can see the universe any way I want, he thought. Seven candles - seven stars - seven angels go to mars.

He looked over again at the grain elevator. It looked like it was falling. The way a tree looks when you stare too long at the top branch. He felt a bit dizzy and turned away. You gotta look twice, he heard his grandfather say.

Yes - the grain elevator was falling. Very slowly. It began to lean towards him. Robert didn't feel like being afraid. It was falling too gently.

Anything is possible, his grandpa said. There are things in this world you can't even imagine.

Robert wanted to see them. He wanted to see. He wanted to see past the concrete block. He wanted to see the beast. The signs in the sky. Earthquakes and wars and rumours of wars.

Infinity. He wanted to go past infinity.

He kept his eyes wide open.

The grain elevator bowed forward and lifted off the ground. It fell through itself and rose into a full circle in the air. The stars moved in streams of colour. The sky was full of signs.

Robert thought he could hear a rumbling coming from far off in the galaxy...an earthquake...or a white horse thundering towards the beast. The sky blazed with streaks of light. Meteors flashed signals to earth. Planets. Glowing shadows. Explosions of fire.

Any way I want, he thought.

He heard a strange whistling sound coming from a cluster of stars. He looked twice to figure out what it was. The stars looked like the front row of somebody's teeth. Then he saw a hole. Like a gap. And it got bigger. And bigger. A spray of star-bullets splashed out the gap and whistled through space.

It was the Russell gang! And they were riding with the Hardy Boys! It was a shoot-out in the universe. They were blasting their death-rays into the hide-out galaxies of the beast.

The heavens whirled above in all their glory.

Pow! Pow! Robert heard a huge scream and saw shiny white specks sparkling all over the universe. Russell had crashed straight into one of the Hardy Boys and smashed out the rest of his teeth. They twinkled in the darkness. Blood gushed out of his nose.

It's the Divine Comedy, Robert thought. I'm in the Divine Comedy!

He saw light galloping into the empty black. Leaping and swirling onto jungle vines - ropes of glimmering hair swaying high in the star-dust. "Rita. Rita. Rita."

He saw gigantic dinosaurs running for their lives, star-salt spraying into the distant caves of infinity, and heard a WHUMP so loud streams of comets poured out of Alley Oop's head. "ARGHHHHHHHHHHH!"

Then he saw his own face floating over the moon. It was horrible - the skin stretched so far back it looked like it was ready to snap off his head. WHAAAPPPPP! The face whizzed through space like a crazy balloon. It was so goddamn scary even all hell turned on its tail and started to run. "Rita. Rita. Rita." "Rita. Rita. Rita."

Suddenly the sky shot purple and red. Hot lava spilled from the tops of mountains.

Robert heard the voice of the trumpet.

It's Revelations, he panicked. I'm in the Revelations!

The heavens whirled. The sky turned scary.

Black smoke floated in from all the corners of the universe. Stars began to fall towards earth. A lake of flames filled up the sky - and out of the fire - crawled the beast. It had seven hundred heads and seven thousand mouths.

Robert was frightened. He wanted to close his eyes.

Then he heard the rumbling again. Like thunder racing across the sky. When he looked past the lake of flames, he thought he could see a horse. Galloping. Galloping towards the beast.

And on the horse's back was a warrior. And behind them both was an army. Chasing. Chasing them with spears of fire.

Flames zoomed across the heavens.

The warrior opened his mouth and started spinning his head. Knives shot out of his throat. Seven million knives. The army screamed and howled. Arms and legs splashed blood all over space. The horse kicked up his legs and stamped at the flying heads.

Then one of the warrior's eyes caught on fire. And when he stopped spinning his head to see what was going on - the eye flew out of his head. Just like a bird. It flew into the air like a burning bird. And when the warrior tried to grab the eye, the army ambushed him and threw him into the burning lake. Seven thousand mouths reached out of the fire and brimstone.

Suddenly a light flashed in the sky. And out of the light - seven angels flew toward the beast - their wings flapping to the edges of infinity. They flapped and flapped and made such a huge noise, the army ran for its life.

When the angels got to the beast, they wrapped it in a chain and heaved it into a bottomless pit.

The fire died. The stars floated back into the heavens and curled around the dead eye. They carried it to eternity. The man on the horse was gone. The battle was over.

I am Alpha and I am Omega, Robert heard his head say to him. I am the beginning and the end.

Robert's head felt very large. And his eyes hurt. He looked down at his scrunched up knees in the wheelbarrow. He didn't want to look up anymore. He just wanted to look at his knees.

He knew he should be figuring out his signs but he was too tired. Tomorrow - he'd think about them tomorrow. Anyway, he was only a tiny part of infinity.

He wanted to close his eyes but was afraid of what he might see on the inside. So he listened to the sound of a steam engine pulling out of the railway station.

If I was blind I'd wear a really great patch, he thought. Like a pirate or a motorcycle guy. A black patch - or maybe yellow. I'd paint snakes on it. Or an eye. Yeah - an eye. Or maybe seven eyes. Yeah - seven. I'd paint seven eyes. Seven candles - seven stars - seven angels go to mars .

He fell asleep.

Finally, he felt his grandfather's hand on his back.

He got out of the wheelbarrow and picked up the suitcase. They started to walk home along the railroad tracks.

Robert liked the crunching sound of gravel that the wheelbarrow made beside the tracks. He hadn't heard it since last summer. He looked at the black steel rails catching the reflection of the sky.

Maybe I should ask Russell if he wants to play with me and Danny tomorrow, he thought. We could play cops and robbers. Or Alley Oop? Or maybe we could play Armageddon.

The old man stopped. Robert looked up at him.
"The heavens are whirling, grandpa", said the boy.
"I know", replied Bill Coutts.
"How do you know?"
"It's the Northern Lights."
"But how do you know?"
"I can hear them."


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