“Cathedral” by Michael Sheehan
One of the most difficult things to do in fiction is to bring together two competing storylines in a way that doesn’t feel predictable and yet makes perfect sense to the reader. It’s one of the best readerly pleasures, especially when we’re in the hands of an accomplished writer. We wonder, as we read, how the two storylines will converge. And when we reach that point of intersection, we want to go back and reread the story, to try and understand how the writer has accomplished this feat.
Michael Sheehan’s work is always a joy to read, with unexpected turns on both the structural and the sentence level. In “Cathedral,” he marries two storylines as he brings together the larger themes of nature, art, and spirituality. This is a story to read and reread, a story that deepens and reveals more each time through. And as satisfying as the ending is, there is such beauty in every sentence along the way.
The pamphlet they got from La Fonda said the trail was only 3.5 miles long, but they’d been at it for almost four hours by the time they realized something was off. They had seen no cathedral and worse, the trail had disappeared somewhere a while back there, the last half hour or even longer really only a type of careful wandering along imagined routes or scouring the ground for signs of previous footprints.
The drive up to the ski basin was, as the pamphlet promised, “inspirational,” as in for artists, as in for lovers, as in a series of ever more beautiful views—of glimmering seas of high-altitude aspens, painterly clumps of ponderosas and pinons, large red rocks jutting out like warts on a witch’s nose, the sky behind it all a canvas, bright and gesso and feather-thin—opened up hairpin after hairpin until they found the gravel lot, the trailhead, the putative stepping-off point for “The Cathedral of the Woods,” a site specific installation by a German-born Santa Fean that the concierge had said was not to be missed, a clunky and stupid phrase that kept replaying in Maren’s head as she followed Jeff beneath the quiet of the trees.
They had done Canyon Road—like more than once—had eaten sopapillas and had burritos smothered in chile, Christmas-style, had fucked every night after drinks and dancing and dinner. Jeff’s aunt had gotten them a private bath and couples massages at 10,000 Waves and they had tried awkwardly to have sex in the heated water beneath the twilight and the emerging stars, whose distance from this mountain hot tub seemed paradoxically greater, despite how much more clearly she could see them.
After something like a mile on the trail, maybe as much as two, Jeff had wanted to step off unto the underbrush and fuck there, too. Make love, he’d said.
“It’ll be beautiful here,” he’d said, or something to that effect.
“No,” she said flatly. She didn’t know why she refused. Sex, in the public outdoors or elsewhere, should not have made her feel the almost disgust, the like near rage, that his pleading brought on.
They were situated at a bend above the thin stream of water that passed along from snow thaw, headed—though she did not then know it—ultimately to join the Pecos river on the farther side of the Sangres, away from where they’d parked.
“No one is out here. We can,” he reached to take her hand.
“Jeff, stop. I’m not having sex out on a trail in the woods.”
“Look,” he gestured to a vague spot higher up, thick with moss and fern. “Let’s go over there. No one will see us,” he leaned in and kissed her and she let him, then didn’t.
“Can’t we just hike? Can’t we just enjoy this for a moment?”
“That’s what I’m saying. What do you think I’m saying?”
He kissed her again, pushed her hair behind her ear then trailed his finger along her neck to her collarbone and shoulder. “I want you so bad right now.” He slid his hand lightly down along her breast.
“I said stop. Jesus Christ. Let’s just find the thing, please.” She pulled away from him and met his at-first-pleading-then-rejected-and-sullen look. He continued on, sulking, saying nothing, as the gravel trail turned to dirt, turned to leaf-strewn dirt, turned to mulchy leaves and underbrush, turned to flattened grass and underbrush, until they reached the inevitable moment where they had to comment on the attempt to find the trail.
“Where the fuck is the trail,” is more or less what Jeff asked, though not to Maren, not to anyone, more of a generalized pronouncement of frustration that she knew was as much about him not getting his way as it was about them not finding their way.
I moved to Santa Fe in 1996, and those first years were often lonely. I was far from home, didn’t know many people, and many nights, having nothing better to do, I’d drive the winding road to the ski basin, parking at pullouts to sit and smoke and see the stars. The pine woods reminded me of my German childhood, an experience so long gone it had become almost mythical. I have loved the Sangre de Cristos every moment since I moved here, have spent many hours—alone and in company—losing myself among the trees, among the red earth, among the streams, at a high altitude looking out over what might as well be the whole world. Do you understand what I’m saying if I tell you it was a holy experience? The last, least expected holy experience.
They had stepped off the trail not far from the trailhead to smoke the joint they’d brought along, the remains of which along with the lighter were now in Maren’s jeans’ pocket.
These mountains were called the Blood of Christ mountains and the highest peak among them was called Baldy, which she had misread earlier as Badly. Blood of Christ in Spanish is a much more majestic and less creepy name for mountains. They were supposed to have three more days of Santa Fe after this, and had reservations at Geronimo for Friday night. It was Jeff’s idea, since he had gone to St. John’s and had worked for years in Santa Fe’s food industry before moving to New York where they’d met. She had never really been much for hiking but then this wasn’t really supposed to be a hike as much as another artwalk, an experience, curated or created.
They walked the trail, but saw no cathedral. They assumed—though there had been no pictures or description in the pamphlet—it would be pretty obvious when they finally did see it, but after an hour or hour and a half they began looking along the sides of the trail, looking more carefully at random accidental shapes made by fallen branches and scraggly new-growth. They stopped to smoke again, then fought about having sex somewhere out of sight, and by their third hour on the trail the wide, obvious gravel had gone single-track, then flattened grass, etc.
“Do you know where you’re going?” she’d asked.
With an unintelligible response, Jeff doubled back, past her, looking down and tracking the trail until he found what he believed was where they’d misstepped and continued on anew. They did this several times, this doubling back, this second guessing, until it was terribly, terrifyingly obvious that none of these were the trail, were a trail even, and that the way forward had sunken beneath the landscape.
“Let’s just go back,” Maren finally said. She checked her phone again; no reception and it warned her she only had 20% battery remaining. She’d cycled through annoyance (at his sulking), boredom and curiosity (as they’d gradually lost the trail beneath them), concern (had they really lost the trail), anger (Jeff had lost the trail), fear (what would they do), anger (this whole stupid idea, and why were they still plugging on, plodding pointlessly out after something they clearly had missed—despite the concierge’s stupid phrasing, not to be not to be), anger (Jeff was still silently stalking ahead of her, the unfellated frustration of her would-be partner, and they were not making any headway because he was too stubborn to speak and she was not going to let him off the hook, was not going to be the one to break the stupid silence), and resignation (because what else was left but just to give in to Jeff’s sulking, to call him at his bullshit and say enough is enough let’s quit the farcical marching, stop with the purposeless point-making, game over, argument forgotten, time to go home).
But then they did go back. Tried to go back. They reversed course, or turned and walked in what seemed to be the direction they’d just come from, but no trail arose, no signs of the well-marked way they’d started out on, nor even any signs of their own very recent passage. Maren had the stomachless feeling of falling she hated from rollercoasters as the landscape failed to remind her of anything. Was that just in her head, or was this tree really unlike any they’d passed? Wouldn’t she have remembered a little incline, which this decline suggested they had to have climbed? It felt like the space they were standing in suddenly opened up, stretched out, the trees and the rocks and the dirt and the mountain no longer one single entity but instead an endlessness, a hall of mirrors, each direction simply a sighting of distance, unbroken by any possible navigable mark.
The Cathedral had two geneses. The first was personal: my second cousin had died, a horrible accident, and I returned home, to my parents’ home, my second hometown, for his funeral. The second genesis was, I suppose, spiritual: I had the chance to sit in Sagrada Familia shortly after it reopened. I wanted to create and curate an experience like that, like those two experiences, finding myself at home, among the familiar and the unfamiliar, and also to see natural forms elevated to the transcendent, or to see that they were so elevated even in nature. That light through trees could be an awesome thing—that feeling both at home and lost could be tremendously powerful. As Gaudi said, “originality consists in returning to the origin.”
“You said that you were in love with my ass.”
“I am in love with your ass.”
“Yeah, but, well, first of all: who says that, okay, and but fine, but second of all: you didn’t say I love you, you said I’m in love with your ass.”
“Are you fucking kidding me, Maren. You’re ambushing me.”
“It’s not an ambush. It’s not. I want to know, I think I already know, if you meant what you said.”
“What does that even mean?”
“You don’t love me, you love fucking me.”
“Jesus Christ. Come on.” When she said nothing he threw his hands in a sort of open arc from the chest, saying, “I love you, all right?” in what amounted to him basically throwing the words at her.
“No, that’s not all right. Not now. Not like that.”
“Then what do you want me to say? What the fuck should I say? What would make you happy?”
“Don’t say anything.”
“No seriously. Just tell me. I can’t tell you I love your ass, I can’t compliment you—”
“Compliment me? You like that I have a big ass. That’s your fucking compliment.”
“Where is this coming from?”
“Just, I don’t want to talk to you right now.”
They walked on in an uncertain direction, each too angry to take ownership over their imaginary compass. “You don’t love anyone,” she said, “you don’t know how to love.”
They continued, fuming, and Maren felt a loneliness and a panic settling all around her, over her as if a part of the landscape, something atmospheric. She checked her phone; no bars.
“Do you have any reception?”
He pulled out his phone and confirmed No Signal.
“It’s getting dark. Isn’t it? It seems darker.” Something about their situation felt impossible to her, imagined, inflated, unreal. But it was also scaring her in a very real way, especially as the no-it-can’t-really-be-happening gave way to the necessity to face the difficulty they’d brought upon themselves.
“Look, we can’t be lost.”
“We are lost, we’re completely lost.”
“I mean, the trail can’t be that far. We barely walked like a couple miles at most.”
She shouted, “Hello! Help us!” several times, then waited then resumed. He was silent. They continued in what definitely seemed the opposite direction they’d started out in, but it was hard to tell by the trees around them. She felt it, their directionality, but less and less.
“It’s a tourist attraction, this installation. There have to be other people close.”
She shouted again, unable to stop herself from crying as she shouted, full-throated and afraid.
Plato famously derided the artist as simply holding a mirror up to nature. Nature itself was more than any representation of it. My second cousin, I didn’t know him well, had worked a job hanging from hovering helicopters to repair electrical wires and distributors in high, old-growth forest. There was some malfunction, and he was let out but rather than being suspended in air to do his dangerous work, he fell to his death. All I had ever done was hold a mirror up to nature; my work was, at best, the prints of a distorted camera, a funhouse mirror. The only way to reach these incredibly tall and remote electric towers was from above; they rose among the trees, and he would hang there—on a platform attached to the helicopter—at the tops of the pines. I have to imagine he would do such a job for how alive he felt, above the trees, perched impossibly, given the momentary sense of flight. There was a terror and a beauty in that. I wanted to be honest, to break the mirror and get past the representation; the terror must be as real as the beauty, the experience beset by the very real possibility that each time out will be the last. That the experience does not permit return. “The wind, the wind, the heaven-born wind!”
It was now night. They had walked and shouted and cried; Jeff had attempted to console Maren but was as afraid as she was. He held her as they sat, rubbed her upper arms; she shivered against him. The dark seemed low and close, down among the trees. They stopped and sat, uncertain, cold, unable to see each other in that dark.
“We can’t be that far.”
“But we have no idea where we’re going. I’m fucking freezing.”
“Let’s just think, I mean, I’m trying to remember when we lost the trail.”
She lit her phone again, saw its dwindling battery, its lack of signal. He had been checking his as well, though they both knew they’d lost reception along the drive up, before they even began the hike.
“I’m hungry. My body hurts. What if no one comes? What if no one can find us?”
“Who would come to find us?”
“I don’t know, maybe the hotel? Jesus Christ, Jeff, I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. If no one comes.”
“Are we going to die out here?”
“We’re not going to die,” he said in a way that indicated an unseen eye roll.
“Did you do this on purpose?”
“No. Why would I get us lost?”
“You wanted to leave the trail—were you trying to, did you get us lost so we could have sex where no one would see us?”
“No. Maren, I was following the trail. The trail basically stopped.”
“Would you even admit it if you had tried to get us lost?”
“Yes, I would. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter anyway because right now we have to keep moving.”
“Where? I’m fucking freezing and you have no idea where we are.”
“Here, I’m going to try clicking the like panic button on the car keys. If we’re close enough, we should be able to hear it.” She could feel him fumbling around and then holding the key fob out and pressing it with frenzied intensity. He moved his arm rapidly side to side, then switched hands and continued. No car sounds came. It was not silent down among the trees, in that dark, but none of the sounds were familiar. Nothing was identifiable.
“We have to keep moving, Maren. I don’t know what else to do. If we move you’ll warm up.”
“The first thing you’re supposed to not do when lost is keep wandering around. You’re supposed to stay in one spot so people can find you.”
“No one is going to fucking find us,” he was shouting, “because no one knows we’re here. No one is looking.” He stretched his body away from hers, lifting his head, “Hey! Hey!”
“Let’s start a fire.”
“Why? No. We can start walking and I’ll keep pressing the keys until we hear the car.”
“What if we don’t hear the car?”
“It’s better than sitting here and freezing to death.”
“I thought we weren’t going to die.” She started to cry, truly afraid and, in that deep darkness, feeling alone even pressed against his body.
“We have to go, Maren. Come on.” He was crying, too, she could tell. His voice quavered, his hand, where it touched her arm, was cold.
“I don’t want to be here,” she sobbed. “Why are we here?”
“We have to try. Come on, the longer we sit here the longer it takes to get back.”
“I hate you so much. I hate you for bringing me here, I hate you for getting us lost.”
“I didn’t get us lost. This just happened, it was an accident.”
“It was not an accident,” she pushed him away, beat his chest with her fists, “you wanted this,” she connected her right solidly with his face, some part of it, his mouth she guessed. He jumped, cried out, “Fuck!” then shoved her back. The darkness was such that she could make out movement in the depths of it, but could not see him, could not see where the trees were. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he said but she could tell from the sound that he had turned away.
“Jeff,” she reached out into the darkness but felt nothing. She groped, touched the ground in front of her, cold, reached for his legs. She felt a sapling, something she thought was a small pine, then a thigh-sized trunk, smooth, hard, cold. “Jeff!” She stood, struggled to her feet against that trunk. She could hear him moving, and he was moving away.
“I’m going to find the car,” he said.
“Don’t leave me here! Jeff! Don’t leave me!”
I thought of Goldsworthy’s work, its existential emphasis, the way its impermanence showed something, I felt, true about us, about our lives, the fleeting nature of our experience. But this wasn’t what I wanted. The erasure, the erosion, it was not the passing away I wanted to show but the inhuman permanence, the way nature outlasts us, how we disappear in the face of its scale. The effect of Sagrada Familia had been one of immensity, of an inhuman height, a vastness; I’d felt this in the Sangres. My second cousin had been suspended, a tiny figure, among the tallest trees on earth. I wanted to create that sense of exposure, of smallness, of simultaneously being made to feel vanishingly small against the backdrop of the vastness and the slow time and yet also feeling, despite or because of that external vastness, most truly oneself; to become so small one disappears into nature and thereby becomes a part of everything.
Maren flicked the lighter; she’d burnt her thumb over and over. She scraped and clawed what seemed like leaves and sticks and kindling, what seemed like a few small fallen branches, but nothing would light. It was too wet or it wasn’t yet dead or something. Angry, she had smoked more of the joint when Jeff had left. Asshole. But now she was feeling high, or maybe she was starting to freeze, was numb. The high had sharpened into paranoia and a dumb fumbling repetition of the same action over and over. She tried to break a small pine sapling, but it only twisted and peeled, wet to the touch. She snapped the lighter and held it to a single leaf, finally got that leaf to catch, dropped it onto the pile of dirt and sticks and twigs and whatall she’d gathered, but it burnt quickly out, converted to smoke in her face. She blew on its ember edge, but only got another mouthful of smoke. So fucking cold. The dark felt not empty but terribly full, this nauseating and skin-cold sense that there were unseen objects, things, all around her. Like swimming in deep water, not knowing what was below you, what might brush by you, what that was you just touched. She was crying with frustration as much as cold and fear. She shouted again, and dropped the lighter, then panicked and swiped her hand, flat palm, across the area in front of her until she felt it again. She flicked it on, tried to make sense of the shadow shapes she could see from its weak flame. She pressed her back against a slim tree. The kindling wasn’t working. If she could just start a fire, at least she wouldn’t freeze, maybe someone would see the flame, follow the smoke. She tried to tear her jeans at the cuff, but it only hurt her numbing hands. She took them off, thought she could rip them, could find a spot to get a strip of cloth to use to light the fire. She couldn’t, it hurt too much. If she could just get the fucking fire lit. She tried to tuck the cuff of her pant leg up under the pile she’d managed, singed it with the lighter, got a brief flame going along the pants’ edge, but it wouldn’t last. As soon as she took the lighter away the pants went dark, the fire went out. She persisted, tried lighting the pants higher up, singed and burned parts of them for what seemed like many minutes before getting them to finally catch, though the pile she’d gathered didn’t turn into much of a fire. She was afraid to move far from it, but once there was a small flame going, she searched close at hand for something bigger to burn. She gathered more small sticks and leaves and added them, each bit of new fuel releasing a plume of smoke that darkened the fire’s dim light and filled the air with a static crackle and a thicker, closer night.
The medieval cathedral was a built environment, made by man as a metaphor: stone on the outside that swelled and was bathed in radiant light within. The rose window of Notre Dame is dun and matte from outside, but glows like blood inside. We are flesh, bones, bodies, but inside we are something spiritual, part of that holy self. Gaudi’s cathedral is a built environment, the playfulness and whimsy of his forms, the almost viscous exterior facades, and then those soaring ceilings of high-canopy columns, the suspended figure of Christ over the alter, the light from the windows. The metaphor is the same, but the experience becomes less artificial and more organic; it is possible to feel awe and wonder there at nature, an environment that rarifies our perceptual experience rather than to turn the gaze only toward god. I wanted to create awe, to fill the pilgrim with wonder, but I also wanted that sense of lostness, of smallness and fullness both, of disappearing and being found at the very same time.
She woke, cold, long before dawn. The darkness seemed to have changed texture, had a quality of grainy film, unfiltered water. She was so cold, her bare legs stung as she stood. Her pants were not completely burned, but enough that she could not wear them now. Fucking Jeff. She felt her way for a while, following sounds she thought she heard. The air lightened before her as she went, over hours, over long hours into daylight, though there was no warmth yet. She found a stream, and though her mouth ached for water she wet her head but did not drink it. She walked along its edge, certain the water must go down, must flow down the mountain she hoped to somewhere. After many minutes she could not keep track of, it did: she followed the stream to a point where it joined a larger river, the Pecos, which she could hear before she could see. Following it for a mile or so she saw in the distance the curve of a road fifteen feet above the opposite bank. She felt relieved and sick and happy and desperately tired, almost so tired she didn’t know if this was really happening. It was like she couldn’t feel her body. She slipped a little, crossing, but did not fall. The water was not deep but moved faster than she’d realized. She only had to walk the shoulder of that road around the bend, before she heard a car. She had no pants on and could see her clothes were dirtied, disheveled, but she wanted this to be over more than she was embarrassed or afraid of being undressed and flagging a stranger. It was an old Volvo and after passing her by as she waved and shouted it returned a minute or so later. The two men inside asked her simply if she was all right and she could not answer for a long, long time.
The viewer approaches the cathedral with an expectation of built environments, of the made. The word, ‘cathedral,’ means, at its root, ‘chair,’ as in the seat of the bishop. But at the end of the trail, high in the Sangres, surrounded by aspens, by ponderosas and redwoods, the air filled with pinon, the sky magnificent in clement whether and during storms, at the end of that trail they find not a built environment, no seat, but simply a point in nature that asks them to be there. To simply be there. To look up, to look for the cathedral and realize it is all around them; it has been all around them. It is within them and without them. In that momentary lostness, that feeling of being suspended out into nature at the end of a trail high above the rest of their lives, they will experience an immensity of the soul.
The Santa Fe Search and Rescue team found nothing on their first outing, starting at the trailhead as she and Jeff had, fanning out from there. They consoled her by saying it was a big area (meaning it didn’t have to mean anything that they hadn’t found him) but not that big (meaning they would find him). After getting in the Volvo, she had barely had thoughts. The men had taken her to Pecos and called the Sheriff. She was admitted into the hospital and was receiving fluids via IV drip; they said other than minor cuts and bruises, and the obvious trauma of the experience, she was fine.
Despite the prognosis, she was not fine, or at least not the way she had been; she was no longer the same. Already the experience had a deep impact, and she could feel its invisible and lasting mark. The worst was that she already felt free, released, independent. The art exhibit they never found broke them in two and she became something she wasn’t. She made it through the night, she made it out of the lostness, she had to literally find her own way. During the night, she had thought many things about Jeff and had come to understand—passionately, arationally—that she’d been in the relationship maybe only because that’s what you do and though it had not been going anywhere she had not known how to get out of it. Was it awful to feel this way, to think this way while he was still out there, while he might yet be found or might be found dead or might never be found? What did she want, even? What would she feel now if they brought him back to her, wrapped in blankets like a newborn and exhausted, suffering. Did she want him to never be found?
She spoke to her parents, a few friends, and very briefly—through much emotional turbulence on both ends—to Jeff’s mom in Dallas. She had very little news, hardly any explanation, and no way of answering why she and Jeff had split up. His mom’s anger and sadness and confusion felt accusatory, and thankfully then the call was over.
When she was lost, she had assumed Jeff made it out, had found the way back. For a time, this was reassuring: if he found his way out, he’d bring help back for her. But she also knew they wouldn’t know where to look because Jeff wouldn’t know where he’d left her, where she’d gone since. She pictured him back at the car; he’d have to drive back down to get cell reception. He had already left her once, the harder act of abandonment was behind him. He would drive down, he would call—when would he call? who?—and he would be sitting, while she lay against the cold earth, in the king-size bed in the room they’d shared. He’d get dinner, something soaked in green chile at Coyote Café. What would he be thinking of her as he sat and ate, as he drank a beer and looked out across the plaza to the silhouettes of the Sangres where he’d lost her?
But she could not stand to think of Jeff lost. Because her mind would not let her. When she tried, the thought that he was alive and still searching for his way back to her collapsed. Her only thought about him now was his dead body, his frozen, exposed body, curled into itself against the offending night. That was what she awaited, for the search and rescue team to find him, to refer to him as “the body,” or worse, as “remains.” She hated that phrase, human remains. Leftovers. If anything, she was the human remains, the person left behind, the one who would drag around after this as all that remains of the loss of Jeff.
Their first real date was to a play, a black box thing a friend of his had written and was directing and starring in. It was a fourth-wall breaking exploration of the selfishness and the self-creation of the writer, Jeff’s friend Bryan, pretentiously called “Causa Sui.” Later when they went out with Bryan and his boyfriend Lee, Jeff had said something complimentary that involved the phrase “palpate the audience’s discomfort.” She had not forgotten that. She did not like the play, had experienced palpable discomfort, but not of the artistic sort. Rather she had sat in that cramped theater feeling embarrassed for Bryan, for the whole, small cast. But they sat so close together she could feel Jeff’s warmth against her, their bodies pressed into each other in the dark while the play went on ten feet away. She had stopped paying attention to anything but the blurred border between them, the way she felt both alone and connected in the lightless interior of the theater.
MICHAEL SHEEHAN is a former fellow of the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and a graduate of the University of Arizona’s MFA program and St. John’s College’s Graduate Institute in Liberal Arts. He has been an editor for DIAGRAM and was Editor in Chief of Sonora Review, where he curated a tribute to the work of David Foster Wallace. His collection of stories, Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned, was published by Colony Collapse Press and his work has appeared in Electric Literature, Agni, Mississippi Review, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere.