The Seats of Judgment

A contest had been arranged between the President and the Pope.  All of their mistakes and misdeeds had been legally documented on paper, and they would both sit on chairs side by side as stacks of this paperwork grew from beneath them and lifted them to enormous heights.  Whichever one of them was lifted the highest would be declared the winner.  A large, stately manor had been chosen as the venue for the contest.  The two chairs were placed at the foot of the grand staircase in the main hall of the manor.  I was part of a small group of spectators brought in to witness the event.  It was a pleasant, sunny afternoon and we were all dressed in our best suits and ties.  We stood around in front of these empty chairs, waiting for the Pope and the President to arrive so that the contest could begin.

Someone saw the cars pull up outside and they ran in to tell us.  We all perked up and looked towards the door.  Cameras flashed all around as the President and the Pope came into the room.  The President smiled and made a huge wave, as though there were a large crowd gathered instead of just a small group of spectators.  This gesture itself seemed to swell our numbers and there was a loud roar of applause and excitement.  I think we were all mostly rooting for the President to win.  The Pope’s entrance was more solemn.  He was accompanied by a cardinal in red robes.  His head was bowed and weak.  He tried to lift his hand to give some kind of blessing, but his old withered fingers trembled and he abandoned the effort and dropped his hand back to his side.  He made his way to his appointed chair with slow, struggling steps, and he had to brace himself on the arm of the cardinal as he carefully lowered himself down onto the seat.

Having taken their positions, the two men nodded to each other as a show of sportsmanship.  The President had a bit of a smirk on his face.  He knew he had the old man beat.  The Pope just turned away and hunched forward, studying the floor around his chair as though he wasn’t quite certain where he was and what was going on.  An official came forward with a silver whistle and a pocket watch on a chain.  He stood with the whistle poised between his lips as he stared down at the pocket watch, waiting for the right second to begin.  Everything was perfectly still except for the ticking of the watch.

The whistle blew and the contest began.  The paperwork quickly piled up under the President’s chair and he soared up high over the Pope.  He was still smirking at the Pope down below.  But then, to everyone’s surprise, there was a sudden rush of paperwork under the Pope and he began to catch up with the President.  The President looked over in alarm as the piling paperwork brought them nearly side by side again.  The spectators below had to lift their heads higher and higher to see the two men soaring up to the vaulted ceiling of the main hall.

When it became clear that they were going to break through the ceiling and take this contest to literally higher levels, I felt a sudden need to know which one of them was going to win, and so I took off running up the grand staircase, trying to beat them to next floor above.  The grand staircase gave way to a smaller staircase that turned several corners and wound through darkly paneled corridors.  As I came to a landing lit by a small window, I heard the crunch of plaster and wood as they punched through the ceiling of one floor and flew right on up through the ceiling of the next floor.  I could see chalky dust and haze through the door of the small room down the hall where they had punched through.  Papers that had fallen loose from both piles blew about in the debris, as though there were sins to spare in the reckoning of either man’s failures.

I mounted floor after floor, trying to get above them.  Finally, I came to what should have been the attic of the manor.  There was a trapdoor in the floor just above me.  But when I opened it and raced up though, I found myself in a sunroom in what appeared to be some annex across the grounds from the main house of the manor.  There were oil painting portraits on the wall and there was a large window along one side of the room that looked out onto a sunny garden courtyard.  Things were much quieter here than they had been in the floors below.  There was a small group of women all in black dresses sitting on chairs and couches clustered around the center of the room.  They had tea cups poised in mid-air and they looked over at me and considered the impropriety of my sudden arrival with a vast sense of scorn.

I was just about to say something to explain myself, when the ground below started to rumble.  The tea cups began to chatter against their saucers and the women in the black dresses began to look more and more alarmed.  They look at one another with wide eyes.  I knew that either the President or the Pope was about to come bursting through the floor at any second, right up under the coffee table.  There was no need to explain it now.  I just leaned against bookshelf across the room and folded my arms and smiled and waited to see which one of them it would be.

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20 thoughts on “The Seats of Judgment

  1. Wow! This is freaking awesome! I like to think that the president burst through first. That creepy smirk was finally wiped off his smug face by the hoity toity women falling on top of him followed by the pope.

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  2. This was wonderful.

    I suppose the winner depends on how they determined a mistake eligible for counting. If it was just THIS President or THIS Pope, then I am confident the President won.

    But if we're looking at the institutional office, then the Church probably has it won.

    Although… slavery. 140 years before women could vote. Native Americans…

    That's a battle for the ages.

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  3. Beautifully dreamt and told.

    “a huge wave, as though there were a large crowd gathered instead of just a small group of spectators. This gesture itself seemed to swell our numbers”

    ——yes, this I've been noticing in dreams, that they revise themselves as we go through them, like successive takes in a movie.

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  4. Or like a patchwork of impressions, and our minds try to weave a narrative that makes them fit together but sometimes the seams show. There's a sense like something's been grafted in from a memory and there's a jarring moment where it feels out of place. Here, it's like the dream is using newsreel footage or b-roll. I'm sure I could think of other good examples of this sort of thing, but unfortunately nothing comes to mind at the moment.

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  5. Speaking of jarring… sometimes when you are just about to fall asleep do you ever see happenings behind your eyes? It's like something that is going on elsewhere or a movie you're watching for the first time. It's jarring, because you don't know what's going to happen next & when it does happen it is something so unexpected that you know it isn't the workings of your own mind.
    I don't remember much of what happens in my dreams, but I remember every bit of what I see taking place on that black screen behind my eyes. Just wondering if that happens to you behind your eyes when you shut them to sleep, too? And if you know if it's normal or not?

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  6. Oh sure. I think I know what you're talking about. Sometimes when that happens, I think I'm getting a good lead on a story idea, but then I kind of come to and try to remember it and it's lost. Very frustrating. I usually have a harder time remembering that stuff than I do remembering my dreams.

    Then sometimes too that's when you get that falling sensation that gives you a big jolt just as you're about to drift off.

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  7. I find that I am still impressed that you A) have such vivid dreams and B) that you remember them in such detail. Unless it scares me, I don't remember my dreams this well.

    Now, did you ACTUALLY wake up before somebody won or did you think that leaving it to our imaginations was more fun? I find that I wish both fell off of their towering heaps of paperwork and lost.

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  8. I think I went on to have other, unrelated dreams after that.

    A lot of what I remember after I first wake up is a big mess. Then I kind of sort through the pieces to see what I have that I can form into something halfway resembling a story. I had this long, rambling dream the other night that I wrote down EXACTLY as I remembered it. I thought about posting it in the comments here to show what I mean, but I don't think I'll subject anyone to that. It really is a mess.

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  9. Alright, well here you go:

    I was working in a factory and I was talking to my coworker, trying to remember the name of one of Michael Morre's documentaries. My coworker kept rattling off different titles, but I was convinced that none of them were right. I walked away from the coworker and out of one of the bay doors of the shop, and as I was walking alongside the building through the parking lot, I felt like I heard someone talking about one of my stories. In the story the main character wore a bright blue shirt that was always untucked and the detail figured prominently. The person talking about the story was complaining that I tended to write “with a broad brush” in using these kinds of details, making my stories simplistic, unrealistic, and lame. As I continued to hear this, I found myself purusing the aisles of a small convenient store. The store was attached to the factory or something. It was provided for the employees. The owner's daughter was working behind the counter and I was looking for a certain candy bar, which I couldn't find. The owner himself was across the store cutting meat on a slicer. I had a feeling that he was going to offer to train me on using the slicer, and that there would be a raise and promotion involved. I was all excited. The owner loaded a big thing of bologna into the slicer. I went over to watch. As I came around, I saw that on the other side of the slicer there was a giant turkey with its head in the metal industrial sink, which was filled with water that had weird clumps of meat floating in it. The turkey was eating out of the sink. I never knew that turkeys got that big. It was the size of a pony. I brought my daughter in to see it. Just as we were both smiling and laughing in our amazement at the giant bird, the owner's assistant came over and slit the bird's throat, leaving its blood to drain into the sink with the water and the floating meat. They took the butchered bird to a truck outside and I followed them out to the parking lot. It was dark outside. I noticed that there were these blue blinking lights embedded in the pavement. I started to point them out to the owner, but he didn't care and he went back inside. I noticed then that there were rusty spike strips all around where I had parked my car, and I knew I was going to have to be very careful when I got into my car to leave. I thought about moving it now, but I figured it didn't really matter. I'd have the same trouble getting around the spikes either way. I went back inside and now it was a pizza shop. I was working there part time until we moved. I went up to the counter and I saw that everyone behind the counter was watching something on the news on a tv mounted on the wall in the corner.

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  10. So what I would usually do with something like this is look for some particular part to focus on, such as the untucked blue shirt or the turkey. And then maybe come up with something like this:

    I was at the deli with my daughter, waiting for my number to come up. The number ahead of mine was called and a woman stepped forward and asked the man behind the counter for turkey. To my surprise, they brought out an actual live turkey from the back. The bird was bigger than I ever imagined turkeys could get. A man in a white butcher's coat open the door to let it through and the bird stood nearly as high as his chest. It was so fat and big around that it got wedged in the doorway. The man in the white coat had to give it a push from behind and it let out an angry squawk as it popped free of the doorway. My daughter asked me if turkeys usually got that big, and I had to admit that I never really thought about it. I realized that I had never actually seen a turkey in real life. I'd only ever seen pictures, and the pictures had always given an impression of something smaller. I looked closely at it, peering past the eyes and feathers to see the meal underneath, the roasted bird laid out on the Thanksgiving table surrounded by gravy boats and side dishes. It seemed to me that maybe I had seen turkeys that big.

    There was a metal utility sink filled with water and they brought the turkey over to it to let him drink out it. This was clearly part of their normal procedure and probably done to distract the turkey. They turkey lapped up the water eagerly, making gobbles and grunts of contentment. Its slopped its face around in the water. My daughter and I could see it through the glass of the deli case. “He really likes it!” my daughter said, smiling and pressing her face to the glass. We were both fascinated by this strange, somehow adorable bird and the way it was enjoying the water so much. I was grinning and about to say something myself about, when the man in the white coat suddenly reached down under the turkey's neck with a knife and cut its throat. It made a short gurgle in the water and then its head went still as the red cloud spread out in the water and the smiles faded from our faces.

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  11. Some of it is a more detailed description of what was actually in the dream than what I covered in the synopsis (the business about imagining it as a thanksgiving dinner, for instance.) Some of it is changes made for context (moving the scene to a deli counter.) And someone of it is just embellishment (the turkey getting wedged in the door … Maybe. I'm not entirely sure if that was in the dream or not. I kind of feel like I first saw it at the sink, but then I pictured it coming through a door as I thought about its size. At any rate, I often reach a point where I get confused about what was in the dream and what I embellished.)

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  12. This is hilariously whimsical. I love it. I don't think the current president and pope would bust through any ceilings, but if you took both positions over time, well, let's just say I would hate to be part of the post-competition cleanup crew.

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  13. Well, the office of Pope has been around longer, so they've had a bit of a headstart, plus they've had the dark ages and the Spanish Inquisition. On the other hand, the Presidency has had the Bush administration. So …

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  14. Yes, one has to write down the dream as soon as one can, or tell it to someone, in order to reimagine it as whole, instead of a string of often contradictory impressions.

    And yet I can think of two dreams I never told anyone yet, nor wrote down. They were childhood nightmares each of which took the same form, probably more than a dozen times. The first one is best described as a like a flayed carcase of beef but much larger, raw and bloody. I'd be walking around a bend and then I would see it. Then there was no going back, no escape but to wake up in terror.

    This was superseded probably when I was eight or nine, by a more subtle and abstract horror, in which I would somehow end up embedded in a spinning disk in space, from which there could never be any escape in all eternity. I would argue against this solitary fate, that if I had got on to it, surely I could by the same means get off it. Again, there was no escape but to wake up.

    And I suppose they were driven by fear of death which had escaped from the unconscious. Or was it my home and boarding-school situations, from which there was certainly no escape, only from one to the other.

    There, finally I've put these dreams in writing, about 65 years later. As if you were my dream confessor.

    Thanks, padre. Feel free to specify a penance.

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  15. Hmm, the side of beef one made me laugh a little, but I could see how that might be disturbing to a kid. Since you mentioned death, I wonder if you had heard some offhand remark about people being “made of meat” and had somehow incorporated it into yojr thoughts without really consciously attending to it. Or maybe you had gotten a bad cut or had seen a bad cut on soneone else and noticed that people had meat on the inside. I'm just speculating, of course. It's just seeing like the sort of thing that would lead to that being a troubling image. On the other hand, you could have had some upsetting experience completely unrelated to meat that just happened to coincide with seeing meat or having it on your plate, and the meat served as a substitute for the upsetting thing.

    Anyway, I make about as good a doctor as I do a padre, so I'll leave it at last.

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  16. But I liked the rambling nature of it. It seems more like what I would dream about, when I remember them. Things change suddenly or don't really make sense entirely but it does when I'm dreaming it. Except slitting the turkey's throat while he was eating. That caught me off guard, and I also would never (hopefully) see that in any dream.

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