The day Darwin told his grandfather about his intentions, they faced each other like two players at a chessboard among the volumes and volumes of worn leatherbound copies, stacked ramshackle in bookshelves or in precarious towers he sometimes used as end tables to set his dingy reading glasses. Even slouched in his armchair, his grandfather towered above him. The bushy grey beard concealed his lips, and, when he spoke, Darwin often imagined the tips of those chin hairs singed by his words.
“Don’t tell me you actually believe all that nonsense?” he snapped.
Those slate grey eyes rolled in their sockets. The musk of knowledge emanated from the dusty books and the dim lamplight reflected off the framed diplomas tacked to the walls. His grandfather huffed and shook his head as if struck by a fit of comedy.
“Who would have thought a boy named Darwin would want anything to do with God?” The laughter creaked from his lungs and did not sound so much as laughter, but resembled more of the noise a rusty hinge might make after years of being unused. “Your father would be utterly appalled to hear such damn foolishness.”
It was in this moment he realized he had forgotten his grandfather’s actual name and had to sneak a glance at the diploma on the wall to remind himself. As a boy, he had assumed his grandfather’s legal name was ‘Sir.’ His father never spoke to him by another name.
“So what do you plan to do in the service of God? Heal the sick? Save the world from eternal damnation?”
“I want to devote my life to something greater than myself.”
His grandfather leaned forward and snatched the brandy glass off a makeshift tower of books. A copy of Kierkegaard tumbled, splaying the pages open. With a violent shove, he drank the brandy in one gulp and tapped his fingers on the cloudy glass as he examined his kin.
A reaction of both fear and indifference managed to manifest in Darwin, and, with the old man’s rapacious eyes on him, he let his eyes wander to the collection of frames cluttered around the tops of the bookshelves. A film so thick covered the glass, he could not see the faces in the frames. Only blurs of the past, distinct to catch only a flinch of memory.
“Hey,” the old man barked.
Darwin returned and saw his grandfather’s pickled finger jutting from the clasped brandy glass. With a sweep of his hand, he gestured toward the area around him. Pages and covers and globes and maps crowded the walls and filled the room with an aroma Darwin could only define as time.
“You see all of this?”
“This is time immemorial. Every last atom of it.” His grandfather’s timbre propelled as if his words held the epiphany of the ages. A tone of authority and stubbornness. The cushion of Nana’s armchair resembled a desk before the sweeping, gnarled hand. “Within these pages, boy, are the greatest, most absolute beliefs conjured by the human mind. Written down and printed, immortalized and influential. Ready to be devoured by fruitful minds who, in turn, will expatiate and, perhaps, enhance the very ontological core of the human condition. Not fantasy of plagues and resurrection or…or ascensions into the clouds. But of science. Of fact! Words rife with a power more tangible and applicable than the power of an imagined deity. God lies within the human mind. The dilemma is man does not know how to fully unlock his own potential. The few who succeeded are etched into history. They are the faces of knowledge. Does God have a face? Only the face man has created for him. You see what I’m saying, boy? Man and God are synonymous.”
He flung his brandy glass across the room and snatched a green covered book from the middle of a tower. The top books clattered to the floor as he sifted through the pages. Insistently, he stabbed at a passage with his index finger. “See? See here? Take Kant for example. ‘Alle unsere Erkenntnis beginnt mit den Sinnen, und der Erlös dann für das Verständnis, und endet mit der Vernunft. Es gibt nichts höheres als die Vernunft.’ Do you understand, boy? Do you see this ideology is greater than all of us? How it surpasses the need for fairy tales and virgin births?”
Darwin sighed and adjusted against the abrasive cushions. “I don’t speak German, Opa.”
The old man grumbled in his native tongue under his breath and slammed the book shut in puff of dust. He gripped the book by the spine and used it as his instrument of instruction. The spine and binding nestled deep into his palms. If Darwin had not known his ideology, would have confused his grandfather for a man of the cloth. Darwin stared as the faded words poked between his fingers and noticed the brass metal of his wedding ring.
“Why do you still wear your wedding ring?”
His grandfather’s slate grey eyes narrowed. A more vociferous tone evoked from his marrow and erupted. “Are you hearing me, dummkopft? ‘All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.’”
Darwin’s eyes wandered to the shelves again, away from those fiery eyes.
“How come you keep the picture frames when you can’t see the picture behind the glass?”
His grandfather paused and then turned to the frames atop the wooden bookshelf. He remained in that pose for a brief moment, eyes fixed on the forgotten frames above the countless books. He turned back. The fire was gone from lips and the urgency of his convictions washed away as he sunk back into his armchair.
Darwin stood and leaned forward to hug his grandfather. His youthful arms wrapped around the brittle hairs of his head, and he could smell the fragrant musk of the books on his skin, his hairs, his breath, as if the ancient odor imbued his bones. His grandfather lifted his hand with the same didactic finger and gave three, lethargic pats on Darwin’s arm.
“A Christian named Darwin,” his grandfather said flatly. The lamplight illuminated the dancing flecks of dust spewed from Kant’s words. The worn and sullen face stared forward as he raised his shaky hands to his face and pushed his blurry, smudged bifocals onto his nose.
Darwin stood and smiled.
A solemn disbelief moved Opa’s head as he repeated in a hoarse whisper, “A Christian named Darwin.”
Darwin turned, hearing the faint Germanic mumblings lost among the towering shelves. The lamplight seemed to flicker as his grandfather’s shrunken figure remained in the high-back chair.
N.T. McQueen is a writer and professor in Kona, Hawai’i. His books include the novel The Blood of Bones (Adelaide Books, November 2021) and Between Lions and Lambs (City Hill, 2010). He earned his MA in Fiction from CSU-Sacramento, and his writing has been featured in issues of the North American Review, Fiction Southeast, Entropy, and others. He has done humanitarian work in Cambodia, Haiti and Mexico and teaches writing at several colleges and universities.
Photo is in the Public Domain.