the short story project


Luca Van der Heide

What’s with capital letters



Me and Tommy are dropped on a lonely road outside of a lonely town with no name and “Hey Vic”, says Tommy, “What’s with capital letters?” I stare back at him, trying to guess what kind of answer he’s expecting, but he’s already pointing at a sign in front of us with a big smile. The sign is in black capital letters on white background, and it says: “LIFE HAS MANY CHOICES – ETERNITY HAS TWO – WHAT’S YOURS?” “Wow”, I reply. The sign is in front of a church with a lush yard and no fences anywhere, and around there’s nothing but fields and endless countryside and, far behind us, the first or last houses of the town. “Life has many choices, I know mine”, says Tommy, “What’s yours?” He starts walking backwards towards the church like he’s attracted by invisible forces and looks at me with wide crazy eyes and I know exactly what he’s up to.        


Now, me and Tommy have been long practicing and gradually mastering the art of sleeping in very unlikely places. It didn’t start by our own will, as higher wills were clearly at work: it just happened to be that the most inviting spots would manifest themselves to lead us into temptation. One time, for example, we stumbled upon the back of a charity shop where in between overflowing dumpsters two piles of clothes had formed comfortable hobo-friendly nests of precisely my and Tommy’s sizes. Another time we followed a trail of blackberry bushes that took us to a hunter’s hut, fully furnished with sleeping bags, classic butane camp stoves and old boots for the next day’s hike. Other times the sign was conveyed by a messenger, like that time a sailor told us there was only one spot that wasn’t flooded by high tide during the night – meaning, of course, we had to camp there. One way or the other the gods would get their message across, and we never failed to obey. We were far too involved now, we couldn’t even think of disobeying: in fact we had quite immediately given up on this kind of heretic thoughts and quite happily accepted the situation as our lifelong blessing or curse.


That’s why when the sign yells WHAT’S YOURS in our faces I know we don’t really have a choice, and I follow Tommy who’s turning and twisting and saying “Life has many choices, eternity has you, what’s two?” and “Choice has many lives, eternity has choice, what’s choice?”, and other nonsense of the kind. The church is one of those anonymous churches of the newest continent, no long history, no sense of aesthetics, cream-coloured walls and windows trying to imitate European churches, chubby bell tower on top, no appeal whatsoever. Far more appealing – especially to me and Tommy – is the nicely mowed lawn all around. We explore the yard until we find a spot between bushes that’s mostly hidden from the church and the road; there we set up our camp just in time for nighttime and as usual we go to sleep when darkness sweeps over us.   


We sleep the sleep of the blessed and we wake up in the stench and heat of the morning. In the tent I feel like I’m choking, but it’s not our own smell that’s woken us up. Both of us are sitting up in detention. A voice from above has called us. “Hey, hello”, it says, “hello, anyone there? Come out! Come on, come out!” “What?”, shouts Tommy, not coming out. “You can’t stay here!” “What?” “This is private property!” “This is what?” “Private property!” So now we both rise and slip out of our shelter and there in front of us, wouldn’t you know it, a priest. “What?”, repeats Tommy, who seems only capable of this one word, while I’m still incapable of words altogether. “Do you think this is a camping ground?”, asks the priest, whose face is plagued by old age and hate. Tommy recovers his speech and replies: “Good man, all’s good, ‘tis not a camping ground but ‘twas yesterday, and isn’t every ground a camping ground after all?” “Not the church it’s not.” “But life has many choices.” “What?” “Life has many choices, eternity has two, what’s you?” “Listen, I’ll give you ten minutes, you have to leave.” “And leave we will.”


As soon as the priest crawls back into the church, Tommy and I crawl back into our tent. There we sit rather pensive. We breathe. Then Tommy says: “D’you know what I want to do today?” “What?”, I say, fearing to know what. “I wanna sleep all day.” “In this tent? The heat, man, come on. The stench.” “Mm”, he says, “you’re right.” Instead, he decides to take his top off and he walks out in the fresh dewy lawn under the pleasant morning sun, and I look at him choosing an appropriate position – right in front of the church’s windows – sitting down cross-legged and closing his eyes in meditation. “Oh, no, he’s starting a war”, I whisper, “a war with the powers above.”


The priest is a man of his word. He comes out after ten minutes to check if we’re still there. And there Tommy is sitting cross-legged, contemplating the way to sweet nirvana. “What is this?”, says the priest, who has clearly never heard of the Buddha before. I figure it’s time for me to enter the scene, so I step forward and I fill him in: “That’s the Buddha.” “What do you think you’re doing? I told you to leave!” This priest, I swear, he’s the embodiment of all the opposite ideals of me and Tommy, sublimation of a life spent in the name of deep-rooted certainties and intolerance, in the habit of dispatching the faithful and the unfaithful where they belong, a small town priest who’s not aware of the existence of other religions or ways of life and, on top of that, smug by nature and enemy of the free people. “What harm are we?”, I ask, and he replies: “What?” And I understand there’s no chance of communication. So I say: “We’re going in ten minutes.” “You’d better!”, he yells, “This is private property! I’m gonna call the police!”


As soon as he goes back into his holy den, I go sit with my back against Tommy’s, who’s now several levels above the reach of earthly matters, and I close my eyes in meditation. And there I wait until the priest comes back, exactly ten minutes later – I figure – and from the safe space behind my eyelids I hear him shout: “What the hell is the matter with you?” And after a moment of reflection he preaches the following: “You hippies have no respect for anything do ya, y’ just go around doing whatever the heck you want and you think everything’s due to ye, God, help me, if it’s not a plague.” Then he sighs deeply and pleads under his breath: “And what’s a good Christian supposed to do?”, while we’re there sitting nice and tame in the grass in perfect religious silence.


What happens next is unexpected: the priest disappears. He locks himself in his church and just pretends we don’t exist and hopes we go. And when we emerge from meditation the yard is silent and deserted, the church looks abandoned, so we pack our things and go. I guess maybe at that point we feel some compassion for the old priest, and just in case he’s spying us from behind one of his windows, I turn briefly to give him a friendly smile and a wave. But as we walk down the road I see Tommy smirk and I know he’s not thinking of compassion but of victory, and for the rest of the day he’s in a very peaceful and holy state. Soon he’s dancing and singing and so we spend the day, dancing and singing by the side of the road, waiting for the heavens to hand us a ride.  


We’re dropped next to a river somewhere in the woods. It’s evening. Before leaving, the driver – who’s clearly an expert on the subject – tells us in the river lives a kind of frog the color of red wine or blood that if you’re lucky gives you horrific hallucinations and if you’re not, death. This makes Tommy happy. He blesses the car as it leaves us alone on one more lonely road and on we walk, looking for the right spot and finding it in a pretty little clearing among the trees that’s soft enough for our backs to be laid upon and, what’s best, faces the river. As soon as our pegs are in the ground and the spot is conquered, Tommy takes off his clothes and descends into the freezing water, moaning of pain and pleasure with every step. I’m content to look at him, smiling as he makes love with the currents, shrieks for the cold, disappears under the surface for far too long. “Tommy?” Silence. The river flows. “Tommy?” More silence. The river still flows. I’m about to strip myself and attempt a rescue when he emerges. He walks out of the water white like foam, he touches my cheek and says: “Don’t you worry, child, we are blessed.” “Are you hallucinating yet?” I look for any unusual marks on his body but I don’t see any. Tommy’s right again, I think. I shan’t worry. He jumps up and down until he’s dry, I dine with crackers, and as usual, we go to sleep when darkness sweeps over us.


We wake up in the middle of the night. Water. Have I dreamed of water? It’s the noise that woke me up. No, it’s the water. My fingertips are touching water, water is pounding on my shelter, water from above but from below too, water washing in. Frogs are swarming on my clothes and on me, leaping around and croaking, but that’s only my imagination; what’s real is torrential rain, coming down in a roar, and what’s even realer is how soaked are our sleeping bags, our backpacks, our tents; I feel raindrops dripping down on our foreheads and I hear Tommy waking up with a scream because he also dreamed of frogs and he realizes what’s going on and shouts “Out, out, out!” It’s a full-on storm. The river is coming to get us. With the fury of survival instinct we gather all our things, shove them inside our packs, the wind is bending our tent so much we are enveloped and blinded but we do it, we do it and then dive out and walk with water at our ankles under unforgiving rain until we reach the woods and find shelter under a tree. I look back, curl up. Tragedy, I think. Tragedy, catastrophe.


We’re cold and scared and soaked wet. We’re clinging to our packs, looking at our only home being destroyed by the elements, and there’s nothing we can do but witness it. I feel like crying and I have many reasons to, and yet it’s not because our tent is done for, nor because I know we have to wait out the night before we can get help, and it’s not because of how much I’m shaking and not even because I can’t feel my face from the cold. “There you go”, I mutter. “We have played with the powers above and this is what we get, we are dumb, we are dumb and we’re not hateful enough, and hate, goddammit, hate is always well heard, and well loud.” “What?” “It was the priest.” “Ah.” For a while there’s silence, then I say: “I think… this is it. It’s over, man. We can’t go on sleeping-” “YOU HAS ANY CHOICE!”, shouts Tommy. “LIFE HAS ETERNITY! YOU HAS LIFE?” And under that biblical storm, wet and cold to our bones while our tent is ripped to pieces, we have a good ironic giggle at the whole thing and wait for dawn to come.        

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