Matt and I are in the sixth grade, sitting at the computer in his parents’ house on a school night. We’re drinking ginger ale, and one of the scruffy white terriers is sleeping under the desk. Our internet browsing is usually limited to flash animation sites and video game message boards but for some reason tonight is different. Matt goes to the Wikipedia page for lava, presses ctrl+F, and enters the little degree symbol he’s copied from elsewhere on the internet. Then he changes every mention of a temperature in the article to the words “like a bajillion degrees.” He has to do this one by one, because they’re all different numbers, and he can’t just use the replace function.
I watch and laugh, and I don’t ask Matt why he chose lava as the target for his vandalism. There are only two sources from which I can remember lava entering our consciousnesses in the temperate, non-volcanically active Mid-Atlantic town where we lived. One was video games, where we had to occasionally jump over pits of lava. Some kids we knew occasionally emulated this by throwing pillows on the floor of a living room and declaring that the ground was now lava. This meant that everyone had to reach some kind of destination, another room maybe, by walking on the pillows or coffee table or other available islands, usually culminating in some kind of final leap toward the safe zone. But this happened much less frequently than the electronic version. The other source was bible class at the baptist school Matt and I both went to.
The school was a nondescript brick building with a soccer field behind it, set back far enough from the highway it faced to allow for another small field where we ran during recess. The best part of this field was a large holly tree that stood by the guardrail between the field’s end and the highway. The tree was easily climbed, providing a good place to hide from chaperones and athletic competition. Once it became customary for a few of us to spend all of recess in this tree, however, its lower branches were sawed off over the weekend.
The church associated with the school waited across a small side street. The two buildings, twinned in their architecture, faced each other dryly. We were often led across their parking lots to the church for chapel services, walking past the tiny fleet of fifteen-passenger vans and rusty school buses that took up a corner of this otherwise sparse plain of asphalt.
Beginning sometime in the eighties, portraits of graduating classes hung in the school’s foyer. The three teenagers in the earliest portrait, posed against a rosy colored backdrop, all sported poofy hair and gargantuan glasses. Near the portraits there stood a glass case full of trophies won by beating other religious schools in basketball, as well as a seating area with a painting in which George Washington has dismounted his horse, removed his hat, and knelt in the snow to pray. At some point, a teacher saw me looking at this painting and told me that for Thanksgiving, Washington’s soldiers each received only a teaspoon of vinegar and a tablespoon of rice. I remembered wondering what the vinegar was for. A fake tropical plant leaned on the wall next to the painting.
If you walked to the back of the lobby, you came to the doors to the gymnasium, where we would eat lunch and I would routinely check the lost and found shelf for basketball shoes to claim. Outside, behind the gym, was a long shed with a garage door on the front of it. It contained a jumble of cobwebby traffic cones and partially functioning lawnmowers, rusty saws and rubber kickballs. I would occasionally convince other kids to join me in the gap between the shed and the building, where we would watch for rats.
Overall, the school smelled of rubber and mildew, and seemed to lack windows on the first floor, where I only ever remember it under the flat and humorless glare of fluorescent tubes. The mascot of the school, however, was the flame, a symbol they supposedly chose because of its association with light.
For all the temperatures Matt changed that night in his parents’ house, what neither of us knew was that the tungsten wires in fluorescent tubes heat up much hotter than lava, well past a bajillion degrees, and we were walking under them nearly every day.
Our bible class teacher was Mr. McDermott. He always tucked a tee shirt into jeans, with a cell phone clip on the belt, and treated his class as a place to casually indoctrinate us into a conservative mindset. His lesson plans seem now to have begun by watching Fox News and ended by making some loose biblical connections. He told stories about coming to the top of his stairs with a gun whenever someone entered the house at night. It was understood by family members, he explained, that they should announce themselves. He told us about corporal punishment in Singapore, digressed about the bamboo rods that were used, gesturing with his hands like he was testing a baseball bat. He asked the boys in his class if one of them would offer up an example of a woman they found attractive, so that he could make a point about lust, or something.
“Burning is the most painful way to die,” he began one of his lessons. “And drowning is the scariest.” He continued by telling us how medical technicians remove scar tissue from the arms of burn victims using rakes, how they have to learn to ignore the victims’ pleads for them to stop. He continued by describing drowning as a process that begins only after the realization of what is happening, the inescapability of the situation as it takes over the drowning person’s consciousness. I remember a hushed tension in the room throughout this lesson. No one snickered or goofed off in the corner as Mr. McDermott’s eyes roamed around and locked with ours, as he made raking gestures down his forearms. “Going to hell is like drowning in a lake of fire” he told us.
So I began to imagine hell as a lake of lava where it was always night and no stars could shine. Demons would row around on gondolas and poke drowning, burning people with their oars. Then I began to imagine hell as a place without a sky at all, as more of a formless void where there wasn’t really a clear up or down. Later I read a book in the school’s tiny, unused library in which a character gets a chance to visit hell. In a kind of out-of-body experience in which he can’t interact with anyone, the character watches people in hell go through an endless cycle of working toward and nearly achieving their earthly goals: money, physical beauty, or some other cliched vice, until it is ripped away from them at the last second and they writhe in the flames before beginning the process anew.
I was scared of hell, but when I think about it now, the emotion I felt for it seems like fear mixed with wonder, with the disbelief I must have felt on some buried level. Hell was strange enough and represented widely enough that I must have known it couldn’t be real— that the fiery, invisible beings out in the world weren’t demons but extremophiles. Nothing can live in lava, but some things come close.
In 1981, a group of scientists waded into the water at Porto di Levante on the northeastern side of Vulcano, the last island in the Aeolian archipelago. The island, composed of several volcanoes risen from the sea, was said to be the chimney of the workshop where Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, forged weapons for war. The island is still volcanically active, with steaming fumaroles and natural hot springs where tourists bathe in mud. Everything down to the drinking water on the island smells and tastes of sulfur.
In small boats, the scientists pressed further offshore toward submerged geothermal vents. There they lowered swimming rovers, clad in heat-resistant titanium, to dive toward the bubbling water with their whirring propellers. At the seafloor, the rovers scooped clumps of sand into their holds and ascended.
Whatever they were looking for, what the scientists found clinging to individual grains of sand was a microbe resembling a kumquat with a streaming mess of orange tails. The water where the sand was retrieved was boiling, which means this microbe was a new kind of extremophile. This is the name for microbes that make homes out of places too extreme for other forms of life, places too hot or deep or irradiated to even visit. The scientists named the kumquat Pyrococcus Furiosus, meaning “rushing fireball,” for its fast rates of swimming and reproduction, as well as its unsettling preference for extreme temperatures. It was promptly taken back to a laboratory and studied.
The rushing fireball zips through the water by flailing its tails like a battery of whips. Once, a teacher at the baptist school described a weapon called a cat o’ nine tails to the class, a multi-corded whip supposedly used to punish Jesus before he hung on the cross. This teacher described the jagged shards of glass tied to the ends of the weapon’s cords. These allowed it to create claw-like lacerations, which must be where the cat part comes from. He told us that the actor who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ filmed the cat o’ nine tails scene by lying across a board where the actor playing the torturer could strike without hurting him. Supposedly the actor with the whip missed once, and the actor playing Jesus talked about the intense pain of that strike in an interview somewhere. But the rushing fireball probably doesn’t know pain. How could it? To not only live in boiling ocean water but to thrive there, blasting around exuberantly after bits of floating nutrients. A writer named Liz Langley, blogging for National Geographic, wrote that extremophiles like the rushing fireball “would pick hell for a vacation.”
The experiments that have since been conducted on the rushing fireball have mostly focused on modifying its respiratory system so that it will consume carbon dioxide and create biofuel as a waste product. The microbe’s ability to thrive in high temperatures and pressures, and therefore to survive unfazed through what must be a brutal process of genetic tinkering, made it a prime candidate for these experiments. It didn’t take long for people to get from finding this strange bug in the sand near some bubbling fissures to taking it to a lab to making it crank out butane for however long it will last.
One of the reasons the rushing fireball may be so heat-resistant is that its body contains tungsten, the same metal from the fluorescent lights, allowing it to get much closer to a bajillion degrees than the rest of us living things can ever hope to. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but I don’t really know. You’d have to ask a microbiologist.
Then again, microbiology isn’t really what I’m after here. It’s more like this; in an interview from 2013, an editor of Columbia Poetry Review asked the poet Joyelle McSweeney what inspired her. She answered “extremophiles.” She explains further that “extremophiles accept damage and come back from the dead,” which makes them sound a little like Jesus, only easier for me to believe in.
I started at the baptist school in the middle of the fifth grade. I had been going to public school until, in what seemed like a sudden and unexplained decision, my parents pulled me and sent me to the baptist school. I think it had more to do with my brother, who was two years younger than me and having trouble with bullies or bad teachers, and my parents must have thought that a tiny religious school would be free of these things. I don’t remember our family being particularly religious, and certainly not baptist. We went to a methodist church irregularly, and never talked about religion at home.
Before all the instruction in the nature of hell, my main concern at baptist school was that I now had to wear polo shirts and tuck them in. I cherished times when I could untuck the shirts, like recess or aftercare. These were the only times we were outside other than the walks across the parking lots to attend chapel, where we sang hymns and listened to a sermon every Wednesday. On these walks, we mythologized what we were learning. One kid told me the flames of the fire in hell were black, because there was no light there. Another kid told me that in every corner of every room you weren’t looking into, there were demons that appeared to taunt you, egging you on to commit acts of treachery. I don’t remember any instances of another kid directly admitting a fear of hell. Maybe I was the only one, but more likely none of us were fully aware of the emotional ecology developing in this environment. Many of the students at the school, including Matt, were from families heavily involved in the church. These kids had been going to the school every weekday since kindergarten, and going back again for a few hours every Sunday. It makes me wonder where the difference is between being immersed in something and drowning in it. Do you have to be aware, like Mr. McDermott argued? Do you have to realize what is happening before you’re really drowning?
Of course, you can only fear hell as far as you can ignore the more immediate fears that might get you there. My life was free of any knowable physical danger. I knew that car accidents were basically the only thing that could threaten me, even if Mr. McDermott was implying that home invaders and terrorists were realer dangers, and even if he was saying that the ultimate danger beyond all these was a spiritual one. Only in the vacuum of a safe and financially secure upbringing could I retreat so far into my specific fear of hell, but only in the particular religious environment I ended up in could I be led there. It seems incredible to me now that this man oscillated so wildly in the same class setting. He could move from the frivolous heights of complaining about teenagers using cell phones to the dark depths of eternal punishment and pain hinging on a single poorly-described moment in which you somehow secured your passage elsewhere.
This moment, according to the adults at the school, was when you “invited Jesus into your heart.” I felt like I was just leaving the door unlocked. If he didn’t say anything back when you talked to him through prayer, how were you supposed to know you were saved? If you said “save me” and heard nothing, shouldn’t you assume you’re still doomed? For some reason I never asked about this, but eventually a teacher addressed it during a chapel. He was talking about how you shouldn’t treat salvation as “fire insurance,” about how the point of it wasn’t just to get out of hell, which confused me because the motivating factor was clearly to get out of going to hell. He eventually went on to say that if you could draw a circle around the place where you were saved, that if you could whip out that specific memory, you were saved. I realized I could, because a basketball coach had taken a bunch of us individually into the balcony of the chapel at some point and talked us each through accepting Jesus. Of course I said yes, because I was scared, and because as far I as could tell this was the price. It felt like we were being saved because we were surrendering something. I’m still not sure exactly what.
Adults said lots of things, and I wasn’t always unaware of the falsehoods. Mrs. Ellis, the teacher who largely ran the school along with her husband, told me that the sun was a giant “dark vacuum.” We were standing in the grassy lawn between the school and the highway, tents pitched behind us for some kind of overnight camping event. She must have been the chaperone. I was talking with another kid about photons or something when Mrs. Ellis jumped in. “Darkness is matter,” she told me. “Light is just the absence of darkness.”
I felt a mild shock I feel, the kind I still feel, when someone casually says something glaringly incorrect. I couldn’t tell if she was playing with me, or if she actually believed it, but I had the sense that if I just accepted what she said without questioning it, that would have been the end of the conversation. I would have curled up in my sleeping bag that night believing something about the world that was untrue in a fundamental way. Even at the time, somewhere in the pit of emotions I could never put a name to, her assertion made me indignant, because it seemed wrong to intentionally sow misinformation, or to be so out of touch with reality that you believed things like this. So instead I said, “what about sunspots? Like where there are cool spots on the surface of the sun?” It was the best argument I had.
“That’s just where the darkness has risen to the top,” Mrs. Ellis told me. “The sun is a giant dark vacuum.” She went on to explain that sources of light—lamps, celestial bodies, campfires—were all just sucking up the darkness around them. Eventually they got full, and that’s why you saw things like sunspots. It even happened on the tips of burned-out lightbulbs, destined for the trash. Every morning, it would have followed, the sun came around the east side of the earth and sucked up the darkness that had settled there, but for the time being there was nothing but the weak inhale of the street lights in the parking lot. The darkness didn’t do anything to repel the mosquitoes buzzing around our arms.
I’m still not sure what Mrs. Ellis actually believed, but this was a school where we were made to sing songs that denied evolution, where we were told that homosexuality was a choice and therefore somehow wrong. I never argued my way out of the dark vacuum conversation successfully. I was always just a child talking to adults, and I had to let the convictions inside me harden into coals that lodged there even more firmly.
In the interview with Columbia Poetry Review, Joyelle McSweeney was asked to describe her poetic process. She answered that her process “is to collect phrases and yoke them by violence together, forcing them into such extreme pressures that they buckle and release unholy noises. This creates a fabric of sound which conforms to the dismaying contours of contemporary life.” When she said “dismaying contours” I think she was referring to the kind of things I didn’t have to worry about: war, isolation, poverty. Contours where the violence becomes more overt, more damaging. As you mature, you learn that demons and ghosts can be fun to fear because they distract you from fearing poverty and violence. As I’ve matured, I’ve realized that Mr. McDermott’s descriptions of hell weren’t the scariest things that came out of his mouth. I survived my fear of hell because I eventually stopped believing in it; that’s the luxury of an abstract threat. Whatever dismaying contour of life we’re looking at, there’s a way to squeeze it until it screams.
I remember standing in that chapel with its wood paneling and fraying pew upholstery, watching the choir instructor highlight the notes each of us should play with our bells. We couldn’t read music, at least not all together as a class, and the cacophony eventually drove the instructor to this more direct method of notation. We just had to follow the lyrics under the music notes. When we reached a syllable under a note she had circled in pink highlighter, we let our forearms drop as if we were swinging hammers. I remember the phrase “make a joyful noise” being sung at some point. So rather than the oft-favored routes of death metal or conversational blasphemy, maybe this essay is my unholy noise. Maybe “like a bajillion degrees” was Matt’s.
An extremity is the furthest point from the middle in any given direction. An extremity requires a scale: heat or size or ideology. A point on the scale becomes extreme before it reaches the very limit, but where is that point? Where is the beginning of extremity?
When people talk about extremists, they’re usually talking about people they deem dangerous: people who throw molotov cocktails or people who indoctrinate children. When I watch a film like Jesus Camp, which examines the programming of an evangelical summer camp, it doesn’t seem like I’ve actually had all that extreme an experience. When I think back on fearing something as abstract as the afterlife, it seems like I actually have had an extreme experience, one in which I’ve been astoundingly secure. Either way, hell is an extreme idea. The notion that whatever comes after death, instead of being nothing, is the most painful and frightening experience imaginable, checks out as a quintessential example of an extremity. But then there are those that gravitate to extremes, who would laugh and backstroke leisurely through a lake of lava.
When I think of extremists, I tend to think of the aesthetic kind: countless artists who seek out the limits of experience, who reject convention or embrace dissonance. Examples far exceed the bounds of this essay, but one artist I do think of is Joyelle McSweeney. Until I read her work, poetry had been about beauty, not physical and structural violence. But this may be a false dichotomy. In the interview, McSweeney says that extremophiles “are also dandies, hoisting complicated plumes, flanges, divots, veils, skirts, stipples, etc.” Extremophiles, it seems, should be as decorated as they are hardy.
Some of the creatures McSweeney may be referring to:
1. The pompeii worm, almost half a foot long, sticking its head out of the same kind of boiling sand as the rushing fireball, only in the Pacific instead of the Mediterranean. It wears a coat of blue, bristling bacteria all the way up to its mane of flowing red gills.
2. Sea monkeys, the familiar science project pet, skating in their suits of armor around extra-saline waters.
3. Xenophyophores, a conglomerate of slimy amoebas that converge and cover themselves in sediment scraped from the floors of oceanic abysses. When enough of them pile up they resemble a frilly green brain, thinking hard under all that pressure.
All these creatures developed through millions of years of evolution, existing at whatever edge they were faced with: salt or heat or pressure, dying in large numbers, always bending that limit slightly further out.
Another of Mr. McDermott’s lessons came after someone asked a question about Christian death metal. “Christianity and death have nothing to do with each other,” he replied. I couldn’t think of two things that were more related, but it would be a couple more years before I realized death metal is much more ridiculous than it is scary. It would be a few more years before I learned that people referred to the vocal style of death metal as “cookie monster vocals,” robbing it of any of the menace it intends.
What do creationists think of extremophiles? Mr. McDermott had banned The Land Before Time in his house over a scene near the beginning which he said depicted primordial soup, the mysterious ooze that bore the first microbes. Other than this digression, all they seemed to talk about were dinosaurs and apes. One never made it onto the ark and the other was never roosting in our family tree to begin with. We were told over and over, but we remembered because we rang bells and sang songs about it.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Erich Brumback is a writer, teacher, and video transcriptionist currently living in the Willamette Valley, where he is working on a collection of essays
This is the pedestrian bridge I used to cross on warm evenings during my last semester of college. A sort of counterintuitive way to relax, I would linger here with my fingers threaded through the chain-link barrier, watching the stream of northbound headlights roar along beneath me.