Bleeding Light

By Rob Benvie

Bleeding Light
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A howl into the void, a ghost story, and a bit of a metaphysical hellride.

A misanthropic ghostwriter roams an island off the Kenyan coast. An Arizona teenager awaits the next stage in a secretive covenant. A renowned poet retraces her past amid a baffling netherworld. An international ... Read more


Overview

A howl into the void, a ghost story, and a bit of a metaphysical hellride.

A misanthropic ghostwriter roams an island off the Kenyan coast. An Arizona teenager awaits the next stage in a secretive covenant. A renowned poet retraces her past amid a baffling netherworld. An international arms dealer’s son drifts through time, atoning for the death of the man he loved.

For readers who take their contemporary fiction with a tinge of the otherworldly, Bleeding Light is about mystical experiences, the symbolic fabric connecting us all, and desperate people seeking affirmation—through religious, cosmic, chemical and other means—of a world beyond their own. It’s a grimly funny and often trippy take on transcendence in a hypercommodified age.

"A darkly gleaming marvel. Searing, creepy and mystical—as if Don DeLillo had set out to steal Paulo Coelho's flock. "—Sean Michaels, Scotiabank Giller Prize winner and author of The Wagers

Rob Benvie

Rob Benvie is the author of Maintenance and Safety of War . His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Dazed, Vice, Joyland, The Puritan, CNQ, The Best Canadian Essays anthology series, and has been produced widely for film, music, and television. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, he now livesin Toronto.

Excerpt

Part One: The Man in the Storm

He came out of an immediately forgotten nightmare to find the world awhirl. Gripping the arms of his seat, he fought to regain his whereabouts, aware of the stifling roar and a combined stink of perspiration, burned coffee, and some citrus-scented air-freshening agent. An intercom dinged, followed by a muffled voice warning of a bit of brief activity, ladies and gentlemen. Inventory of such elements reminded him: he was on a jittery Air Kenya DHC-6 Twin Otter, plowing through a patch of clear-air turbulence, which had launched his Beefeater and tonic into his lap.

Dabbing at his crotch with a paper napkin, he turned to the window. The corrugated contours of the Eastern Sahara lay below, desolate and infinite. It was morning; the previous night’s transatlantic bolt was now behind him. Still fighting sleep’s drag, he shut the shade.

Hey, bud. Keep that up.

Webb twisted in his seat. A man, white and shapeless in a mauve golf shirt, sized XL, sat in the row behind. Curled in his arm was a child sporting a plastic tiara adorned with glittered letters: cutie pie.

My daughter wants to see, the man said.

Webb turned back around, unable in his present wooze to summon the requisite energy to tell the guy to fuck off. As the tiaraed child whined complaints, Webb retrieved his headphones from the seat pocket before him and slid them on. He pressed play on the Samsung hand-held digital recorder, returning to the drowsy murmurings of Dred Hausen.

For our birthdays our mother would prepare a viscid vanilla froth glazed with an icy boysenberry sauce. This sauce was so gum-numbingly sweet, it made those unaccustomed to its flavours gag on the first bite. It truly was something to behold—truly disgusting. Of course, my mother was herself a disgusting human being.

With the plane’s conniptions subsiding, a sulky flight attendant came wheeling a cart down the aisle, offering packaged pretzels. Webb paused the recording and requested a fresh drink, only to be told beverage service was unavailable during descent. Punctuating this point, another announcement came over the intercom: Touching down in Nairobi in approximately twenty minutes. The attendant moved on. Webb closed his eyes and compelled himself to not think about what lay ahead.

Jomo Kenyatta was an instant ordeal. At the gate’s termination, a jerky escalator flowed passengers into passport control, where a mob of hundreds swarmed four booths. The collective mood was exhaustion: dour parents wrangling toddlers, overheated tourists laden with sacks of duty-free chocolate and cologne, soldiers in short sleeves manning every row, assault rifles at the ready—all equally debased in unconditioned air and the harsh inspection of fluorescent light.

Wobbling in the international visitors’ queue, Webb found his shirt instantly saturated with sweat. On an adjacent wall, a sign was mounted bearing the Ministry of Tourism insignia and insistent red text: overseas visitors must present proof of yellow fever vaccine. He realized he’d left the proof-of-vaccination card provided by the travel clinic back in Los Angeles. As the line edged toward the security booth, Webb grew uneasy—a refusal would mean what? Forcible quarantine? But when his turn arrived and he handed his passport over, the yawning guard barely gave it a glimpse before stamping it and waving him through.

Agnes was there to meet him at the arrivals gate. Before he’d even introduced himself, she was ushering him through the throng, waving over a man in a Fila sweatshirt to haul his suitcase. They knifed in single file through the teeming terminal and to the exit, where they were blasted with the humid, even fouler air of outside. It was already evening. The parking lot was a scene of chaos, raging with honks and pleading voices, Mitsubishi matatu buses circling, men clustered in strenuous arguments. The hired man moved through the fray without hesitation, with Agnes close behind. Webb fought to keep up.

Only once in the refuge of the van cab did Agnes welcome him to Nairobi. As Dred Hausen’s administrative assistant in Kenya, she’d been entrusted as Webb’s chaperone throughout his stay and would be at his full disposal. Webb knew little about any of this; in the weeks up to the trip, his only correspondence with anyone at DHG had been a few cursory emails regarding his travel visa and flight itinerary.

Webb sank into his seat.

Let’s get some AC, maybe?

In what Webb assumed to be Swahili, Agnes spoke to the driver, who muttered something back without diverting attention from the surrounding pandemonium.

The fans are working poorly, Agnes translated.

The driver pounded the horn as the van broke free of the lot’s jam, peeling up an on-ramp and onto a road marked A104. Webb dug out his phone and checked for messages. There were none.

How was your flight? Agnes asked.

Transcendent.

I imagine you’ve visited far more interesting places than here.

Webb sniffed.

I guess.

Few of us in Kenya enjoy the opportunity to travel indiscriminately, as Americans do, she said.

I wouldn’t say indiscriminately. I think you overestimate our access to leisure.

Agnes turned back, processing this.

Nairobi is awful, she said.

Webb had to agree: it was. The roundabouts writhed with sputtering motorbikes and minibuses, taxis crammed by three into single lanes, any order to traffic’s flow amputated. The roadsides were a succession of skeletal plots and abandoned framework, ragged tarps cast in sooty utility light, everything seemingly half-built or half-demolished. As they pressed further through the nocturnal city, the floodlit shacks lining the highway surrendered to drab towers and asphalt plazas, billboards for Celtel and Nivea and 7 Up, slow floods of pedestrians on unlit sidewalks.

Webb again thumbed his phone, a message to his assistant Ellen: just landed. resend dhg contract + terms. asap.

North along Limuru Road, the scenery again shifted. Here long stretches of choppy woodlands alternated with shopping concourses and embassy estates, hotels framed in ornate shrubbery, gated subdivisions. They veered onto a twisting, unpaved private lane, passing imposing fences and walls of shadowed forest sundering away the city. The driver eased the van down the road to its termination at a metal security fence easily eight feet tall. A uniformed guard with a holster slung around his shoulders appeared from a booth; he gave them a nod, and a second later the gates parted. As they passed through, the guard locked eyes with Webb and saluted. Webb did the same in return.

It was almost nine o’clock by the time they rolled up to the Hausen compound. The house hid behind a wall of baobabs and hanging vines, no sign of lights in the windows of its vast stone face. Agnes hopped out without a word. Webb followed her lead. The driver withdrew his suitcase from the trunk, placed it on the ground, then climbed back in the van and pulled away.

Bag in hand, Webb followed Agnes down a short flight of stone steps and along a path to the backyard, where a small brick shed sat separate from the main house. Agnes worked the door’s electronic security panel; then, once inside, she snapped a series of switches to reveal a low-ceilinged, carpeted single room. This, she explained, was the groundskeeper’s residence, but since Samuel was off tending to his sick mother in Eldoret, Webb could stay here for the night before they headed to Lamu in the morning.

Webb considered the place before him. There was a pullout couch, a mini-fridge, a coffee-ringed table on which a portable television sat. A folding door opened to a compartment containing a toilet and sink. A fetid smell of cigars prevailed.

For fuck’s sakes, he said.

I’ll get Wangui to bring down some towels, Agnes said.

Dred’s not around?

Not presently. But he knows you’ve arrived, and looks forward to your meeting.

Thank him for that. So much.

Agnes nodded, saying nothing.

I assume there are actual bedrooms in the house, Webb said.

Agnes again nodded.

But I’m stuck down here on this bullshit hide-a-bed. I suffer from a repetitive stress injury, you know. This will murder me.

I’m only following instructions.

Despite Agnes’s dispassionate manner, there was a preoccupation there, behind her unfaltering eyes, her unfluctuating tone—concerns currently suppressed in the officiating of these tasks. Against the room’s weak light, Webb found himself staring. She noticed, and he turned away.

Is there anything you need to settle in?

Webb scratched his face.

Settle in? Do I have the time zone right?

I could fetch you something from the kitchen upstairs.

Something sweet, like a Gewürztraminer, would be swell, he said. Actually, scratch that. Make it gin.

I can get you some bottled water.

Agnes. I’ve had a very long day. I barely know what continent I’m on. While I recognize that much of my agreement with Dred was left up in the air, several terms were not. And one thing I was told was I’d have everything needed to execute the job. Unless things lead me to understand otherwise, I’m going to accept that in a literal fashion. So, however it unduly imposes upon you…I need a drink. Drinks, plural.

Agnes folded her arms.

I’ll call Samuel’s brother. He helps with maintenance. Maybe he can fetch something from the grocer’s.

Fantastic.

But after that, try to sleep well. Or as well as you can. Welcome to Kenya.

The grounds worker arrived soon after Agnes departed, handing over an unlabelled jug of almost-black wine before dashing off without a word. Despite downing two milligrams of alprazolam and draining the jug along with his daily Risperdal, Webb was up late watching Discovery World on the miniature TV, a show about the ecosystem of the East African Rift. One segment followed a half-dozen young antelope on a homeward trek as they became separated from the rest of their herd and then attempted to navigate around a barricading pride of lions. For days the antelope paced the arid terrain, the lions always in sight, the camera tracking them across the sweeping vista. A war of attrition unfolded between stalker and prey, an intimacy forged: the antelope seemed to recognize the inevitability of how, despite their most determined efforts, the scenario would play out. The program also took several asides to touch upon the geological activity of the region, showing in a side-split animation how the valley’s tectonic plates were gradually separating into two distinct protoplates—the continent itself was fracturing. On the third morning, the antelope, seeing an opportunity while the lions lay lounging, collectively dashed for a break in the rocky reef facing them. It seemed they might manage to elude their predators. But as the lions finally roused and took up the chase, the antelopes’ course became erratic with alarm. They tripped over themselves, losing sight of their goal, and soon the lions were upon them. From a distance, the only two antelope to successfully evade their hunters observed the bloodshed. Then they moved on, eager to rejoin the herd.

Reviews

"Bleeding Light brings us to the edge of where experience mingles with the transcendent, divine intonations take mysterious forms, vapors condense into light. ... There is a chasm here that Benvie is exploring—“How to reconcile substance with the insurmountable,” as the novel puts it. .. This question is at the crux of this novel—the common ground all of the narrative sequences share. How do we reconcile the transcendent with the mundane? The answer to that lofty question appears to be what some of these characters are willing to kill for. "—Terence DeToy, Tuerlemot

"A darkly gleaming marvel. Searing, creepy and mystical—as if Don DeLillo had set out to steal Paulo Coelho's flock. "—Sean Michaels, Scotiabank Giller Prize winner and author of The Wagers

"Bizarre, terrifying, and wise, Bleeding Light nearly gave me a metaphysical crisis like the crises befalling its disorienting brew of madmen, poets, and visionaries. This swirling and masterful novel is sharp, deliriously patterned, painfully dark and darkly funny: lined with prose that demands to be read and reread, Bleeding Light is everything I hope for in a novel. "—Liz Harmer, author of The Amateurs and Strange Loops

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