Excerpt (chapter 4)—Elijah Newman Died Today: A Novella
Smell, he knew it was said, was the sense most apt to evoke powerful emotions associated with the past. Olfactory memory did not so much produce a remembrance of what had been, it put one there again, in the flesh, as it were, as if the past were fully present, not as a past merely represented, but as a singular present undergone for the first and only time. Such memory could come close to enacting a repetition. Perhaps it was not surprising, then, that of all the things which could have conceivably come to mind, it was recollection of the smell of the eucalyptus trees that should saturate him now, transporting him to the seaside cove, where he would walk along the bluffs alone, contemplating what it meant to be anything at all. It was a place at which he had in time established a routine. He would drive out to the ocean on the single lane highway, alongside artichoke fields, the route nestled between rising oak hills in the distance, the wind blowing through the car’s open windows, the sun shining in his eyes. He would clear his mind completely, trying to see the landscape for what it was, without any trace of himself, his thoughts, desires, memories, hopes, or fears intruding. Rendering himself translucent, he would almost disappear, a ghost hovering over the roadway, able to observe the surroundings, as if they had never been seen before, or would again. When his attention to the visible would wane, and his self-consciousness would restore itself, and so he would become an item of reflection for himself again, he would realize that if he were to die right there and then on the road by the sea, hardly anyone would notice. Even fewer would seriously care. It was not a despairing or self-pitying thought. The thought did not anguish him, nor did it offend any sense of pride he might have. It was instead merely uncanny, sublime even. Understanding fully that the world would go on as before when one was dead, as if one had never existed, was deeply humbling. To one moment feel as if one were everything and the world itself nothing, only then to feel as if the world were everything and oneself were nothing—it was an eerie phenomenon whose insight gave him to understand something universal and timeless about humanity. Like Hyperion, he felt it too. By the time he would drive down the oceanside switchback and park at the cove, he was so disassociated from the dance of life, that it almost was as if he were wholly anonymous, a purified consciousness without any semblance of worldly identity tethering him to civilization.
The squawking of the seagulls and crashing of the waves against the tidepools would intensify the anonymity. But every time, it was always that smell, the salt of the Pacific mingled with the eucalyptus groves atop the bluffs swaying beneath the cobalt sky, that would hollow him out from within, rendering him as if nothing, an invisible specter entirely at one with the wild being around him. He would remove his shoes and socks, roll up his jeans to his shins, and stand in the frigid shallows, gazing out to the horizon where the swirling white foam of the breakers met the gigantic, white puffy clouds puncturing the sky’s blue expanse. Once his feet were too numb to feel, he would leave the water, sit down on the soggy sand, the coarseness of the pebbles against his palms reminding him that he was flesh and bone, and observe the gulls patrolling the shore for sandwich scraps or crumbs. Often, he would speak softly to the birds. And even though they did not reply by speaking, he felt that they at least listened. A deep restlessness would soon overtake him, and he would feel unable to sit where he was, so he would climb the dirt trail from the cove to the bluffs above. These solitary journeys to the sea, which he undertook years before he had yet met her, were times of great melancholy, even if he could not precisely identify what the source of its paradoxical sweetness was. Sitting up against the trunk of a tree beneath the canopy of shimmering leaves, facing the open sea, he was intensely aware of his finitude, more so than most others his age, he assumed, his sense of mortality making him question why he should even care at all about the future, as it was destined to fade away anyway. The immense beauty before him, he knew, one might well argue, should be an adequate consolation, since it was always possible to be grateful for the time one had to delight in all the seaside’s splendor, but then again, it too would one day no longer be possible to experience. The roaring sea, the trees, the rocks, the sand, the birds—all would abide, long after he was gone. Death, it seemed, cast its pall over everything, for everything more persistent, more subsistent, than himself, was a somber reminder of his comparative insignificance.
Glancing again out the window across the aisle, and seeing they had now descended into the clouds, he yearned to be able to be on that beach once more, to be able to enjoy it justly, in a way his former ingratitude for creation would not this time spoil.
Excerpt (chapter 13)
He had already been intending to continue praying before the pilot requested that they all do so. And he wouldn’t let the superficiality of the pilot’s attitude to prayer dissuade him, either. In life, he had discovered, what others did, and why they did it, was no reason to alter one’s own habits and convictions. The situation on the plane was no different. He could feel that the woman and man in the row beside him were speechless, simultaneously euphoric that they once again had dodged death, yet at the same time haunted by what that meant, given the fact that the preceding sequence of events had shattered whatever conception they may previously have held about God’s ways. Whereas before they had been ignorant, yet not known it, now they knew they did not know. Registering the full puniness of their own understanding in comparison to God’s ways must have been terrifying, so much so, in fact, that neither of them had the strength to conceal their loss for words. There was no more idle chatter, only a telling silence.
If the distance between others and God could be so apparent, he realized that he should take care to make sure he himself had drawn as near as possible to God. Self-examination was never a bad thing.
“Lord, I love you. I want to live. I want to see my wife again. I want to see Sardinia. I want to go back to Anna Lucia and stay in the yellow cottage and feed the manatees. I want to have children one day. I want to show my son how to be a good man, and to follow you. I’m sorry if there is still anything wicked in me. Please, forgive me, for any of my hidden faults. I need your mercy. I need you. Lord, I pray that we survive, so anyone on this plane who is not yet ready to meet you, will have a chance to think about today, and to seek you. Let the plane land in Tallahassee. Let us all learn to fear you, and to not take our lives for granted. Christ Jesus, you are king. I know all things are possible through you. Thank you for your patience with me, for all the years that I was evil, and you showed me mercy. Please tell my wife that I love her, so that if we don’t make it, she knows that I was thinking of her, and how much I loved her. Let her rest in you, and know how much you love her.”
When his heart had spoken, and he had said enough, it was time to listen. Prayer was not only speaking. It was hearing also.
“Lord, let me hear what you desire me to hear.” He cleared his mind, and stilled himself, preparing his heart, so that whatever word he was given might resound within him.
He received an answer, orienting the direction the course his inner life should currently take, in the form of a recollection of natural beauty, not this time of the sea, but of the desert. Or, rather, not so much a desert, but rather a forest oasis within one. Unquestionably, it had been the most beautiful drive he had taken anywhere his whole life, even more beautiful than Big Sur or Carmel. Images of Arizona came to him, and just as earlier it had been as if he were among the eucalyptus, so now it was as if he were there. Next to the narrow highway, a road not unlike the one he would travel to the cove on the Pacific, was a river. He had not been aware of its name, but he had thought it was the Colorado. Passing through the open country, he came across a forest of white aspens, stretching out in both directions as far as his eye could see. He became alert for deer. The road began winding gently, circling downward into a yawning valley, the small town below tucked away amid a forest, not of aspen but pine, the red rock vistas visible in the distance. It had been summer then. He considered pulling over and going for a swim in the river, or renting a tube to travel the rapids. He had even toyed with the idea of renting one of the cabins along the river for a few days. Instead, though, he drove through without stopping, making a promise to himself that one day, as soon as possible, he would return, the next time along with her. Although he was partial to the summer, he knew it would be just as beautiful, perhaps even more so, in the winter after a fresh snow. When they had initially been diving toward destruction here aboard the plane, he hadn’t remembered this resolution to someday again visit the desert. Now that he had recollected it, he hoped one day to fulfill it.
The many faces of creation, he realized, the sea and the desert and everything else, were an icon of God’s essence, a spectacle displaying the triune God’s multitudinous energies, his love, his mercy, his kindness, his grace, his wisdom, his power, his holiness, his faithfulness. Not just natural splendors, but revelations of his secret wonders. If what was manifest now in this world were nothing to be compared with even Eden, it made him ponder what the glory of the kingdom of heaven must be. He could reflect upon nature’s variety of beauty indefinitely, and still never come any closer to exhausting its riches. There would always be more he could have recollected, more he could have imagined, more he could have hoped to one day see, or to see again. Something about this inexhaustibility pointed to an even greater infinity, an inexhaustibility of a different degree or magnitude, a beauty of an even higher order. Though it was an excess he could not at all envision, he knew it was the beauty of the Lord.
Excerpt (chapter 14)
Beautiful memories of places he had been, or imagined he one day might have gone, ought not be allowed to obscure the experiential fact that sometimes the greatest joys were to be found at home, right among what was the everyday, the routine. To see travel alone as a good was to overlook that the new could be found even in the apparently familiar. It was merely a matter of attitude, of attention. “Give thanks in all circumstances,” Paul had told the Thessalonians. What mattered most, ultimately, was gratitude to God, which was Paul’s point. But gratitude toward God could be exercised in the appreciation for one’s immediate surroundings, regardless of how familiar or otherwise mundane they were, or had become.
It was a lesson he had learned, and would continually seek to reinforce, as the summer nights unfolded at home. He would sit in a plastic chair he had placed on the grass in the back yard. That the chair itself wasn’t much, just an item he found when a neighbor had meant to toss it out on garbage day, didn’t matter—it being uncomfortable was good, in fact. The reason for sitting outside wasn’t to get comfortable in a lavish chair, but to absorb what was all around him. The uncomfortable chair made it easy for him to pay attention, lest he close his eyes and nod off. Dusk would fall, the sky an arctic blue, the whisps of the clouds visible between the roofs of his house and the neighboring house toward the street, the brilliant full moon hovering above the tree line off in the distance behind him. Soon, the lightning bugs would emerge. There would be only a few, and then, in the blink of an eye, they were everywhere. And it was not just they who would awaken then to night. There were the crickets, too, nestled in the grass who announced themselves, and, above them, the cicadas in the trees. He would listen to the latter’s night calls, their symphony of small creaturely noises pulsating rhythmically like the beating of a heart. He would tilt back his head, his gaze following the ivy which was wrapping against the trunk of the yard’s stoutest tree, the one whose branches hung over the chain link fence separating the neighbor’s grass from theirs. He would take off his shoes and socks, gently curling his toes in the grass. The breeze would quicken, he would hear the wind flutter the leaves, which took on the appearance of feathers floating in one place, and he would be reminded again of what it had felt like as a boy to play outside on summer nights until the street lights came on and it was time for dinner. Then, amid the stillness, the critters momentarily would pause their song, and there would be a gentle silence, a sweet reminder that he had just been privy to nature’s hymnal, its song of praise to the Creator of all things. He would sit contently in that chair, his entire being attuned to the grass yard, which by then felt like a secret garden. Before he knew it, night had consumed the dusk completely, and Ella would open the house door, smile, and put on the porch light, asking him how much longer he would be.
“What’re you thinking about out here?”
He smiled. “Just romanticizing the world.”
She laughed kindly, “My own little Novalis.” She paused. “I love you,” she said.
Praise for Elijah Newman Died Today
“Death, like God, is an impenetrable mystery. Before it, we are compelled to either remain silent or turn it into a work of art. In Elijah Newman Died Today, Steven DeLay has managed to do both, an accomplishment that will reward readers, inspire envy among writers, and challenge each of us to inspect our relation to death and the divine.”
–Jamieson de Quincey, author of Murder as a Work of Art
“Steven DeLay has an instinct for what is most essential in fiction: the issues of life, death, and how the God-man situates the two. Few authors today possess the conviction needed to write a work like this. I, for one, am glad DeLay does.”
–JP Madrox, author of The Blood Cries Out for Vengeance
“Great books teach us how to live. We don’t read such works and set them aside. We carry them with us, take on their weight, allow them to anchor us to existence. Don’t let this novella’s size fool you. Elijah Newman Died Today is a weighty affair. Like a millstone hung around the neck, it forces readers to examine their lives and confront their sins, reminding each of us that it is never too late to repent and find peace.”
–Matthew Clemente, author of Posttraumatic Joy: A Seminar on Nietzsche’s Tragicomic Philosophy of Life
About the Author
Steven DeLay is a writer living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. An Old Member of Christ Church, Oxford, he is the author of Everything (2022), Faint Not (2022), In the Spirit (2021), Before God (2020), and Phenomenology in France (2019). He is also the editor of Life Above the Clouds: Philosophy in the Films of Terrence Malick (2023) and editor of Finding Meaning: Philosophy in Crisis (2023) based on the series of online essays, “Finding Meaning,” at 3:16 AM.