Title: The Beginning of All Wisdom
Author: Elliott Silver
Feedback: Yes, please.
Timeline: Occurs after "Enemies Foreign and Domestic" and before "The Black Vera Wang" - in short, at the Helsinki summit
Author's Note: Thank you, Kansas.
Summary: The acceptance of realities is the beginning of all wisdom.
"Do you know why we're here?"
She hadnít spoken in almost an hour and her first words echoed in Uspenski Cathedral as if the world had fallen. As he looked at her, he thought perhaps it had. Sapphires and rubies ricocheted off the high vaulted walls and gold-leafed icons of the Byzantine-Russian church. The stained glass wept over her.
"To secure ties with Chegorin and the new Russian administration," Simon Donovan answered as he stood at the end of the pew behind her.
They had arrived 4 am eastern time, 11 am local time, the day before - 3 days into her new security measures - and he had watched her go through round upon numbing round of press conferences and senior staff meetings and brave attempts to organize Josh and Sam with Vivarin and coffee. He had watched her worry behind closed doors and smile in front of the press corps. He had seen her tour Senate Square in her 3 inch Manolo Blahniks and never take a wrong step. He had watched her breezily discuss the intricate fermentation of Koskenkorva with Prime Minister Lipponnen while President Bartlet spoke in animated, rumbling tones about "The War of the Roses" and Henry VI with Tarja Halonen, the first woman president of Finland. He had watched her face tighten as she tried to explain to the guards at the Presidential Palace who he was. Are you that important, the sabre-clad soldier had asked her in broken English. Ei, she replied in his own thick language and smiled grimly: no. He had seen that same smile when Presidents Bartlet and Chegorin had emerged valiantly glorious from the Hall of Flags, secure in their faith for an undestroyed world, and she had the task of announcing it to the world, jetlagged but rallying as she always did and always would.
She had waited until the last photo had been taken and the last hand shook before she struggled out of the Presidential Palace. She left him with the ultimatum he either come or stay because she was going, and then stalked into the 30 degree Finnish night and collapsed in the third pew of the glistening Uspenski Cathedral. She was breathing, just barely.
"No," CJ said, shaking her head, and she didn't look back at him. "Weíre here because Russia gave Iran the bomb."
"I didn't know that," Simon answered after a minute and in his deep voice she heard a rebuke for giving away such secrets so carelessly.
"It's true," CJ answered him. The stained glass shone in from the strobes of city light amid midnight darkness. Light worked so hard in Helsinki. "Chegorin claims it's a rogue faction from MinAtom."
CJ shrugged. "He played Jack Ryan games to get us here and we came."
"Khruschev played the same way in 1962," Simon reminded her.
"I'm not Jack Ryan and this isn't 1962," she said darkly but it was the Cuban Missile Crisis all over again, except in the most volatile region to grace the earth. CJ rose tiredly from the pew. She was so tired of shadows. She was so tired of being cold. She was so tired of lies and politics and never-ending questions that she didn't have the answers to.
"But you saved the world," Simon said quietly. He didnít have to say, again.
"Yes," she answered bitterly, and he could hear her heavy remonstrance. They had saved a world of burning schoolgirls in Saudi Arabia who had cried out as the flames licked from skin to bone, of MS hearings and reprimands, of heavy water plants in Iran that American bombers would blow up tomorrow at 4 am, and of stained glass that bled. In a world where truth was shown by distortion and color by darkness, CJ didn't know what to believe.
The metal candelabras creaked over their heads, casting runic reflections across the cathedral like the gilded letters of monks encrypting their secrets. Simon was the first person, save Toby, to argue back at her, the first person since Danny to truly irritate her, and the first person to share darkness with her in a cathedral in Finland eight hours and thousands of miles from home.
"They say the recognition of realities is the beginning of all wisdom." Simon stood straight in front of her, clothed in the brightness of bleeding light. His words seemed wise, but she didn't know her voice echoed in his head like synesthesia: I am half-sick of shadows, she had shouted at him the night before they left when reflections of his figure seemed to touch everything she did.
"Perhaps it is," CJ answered him wearily as they walked to the door, him a step and half in front of her. She recognized the realities of nuclear bombs and secret service protection, but she didn't want to accept them.
Simon pushed open the cathedral doors and they fled out to Katajanokka where icebreakers were moored on the quay.
Simon stopped so short in front of her she had to put her hand on his shoulder so she didn't run into him. It was the first time she touched him.
Above them, the night sky flared with glowing slipstreams of colored light.
"Aurora borealis," Simon explained and she glared at him darkly. But he was already scanning the crowd around them.
People were clustered out on the Etelaeesplanadi, gazing up at the blue and green electricity spanning across the night like liquefied lapis lazuli and malachite. The color-strung sky flared with illumination as if Uspenski, the cathedral consecrated for the Virgin Mary's Dormition, had been turned inside out.
Suominlinna, the great island fortress, was glazed in turquoises and celadons across the bay. It looked like it had been pulled half-fired from a kiln, the tinted gloss still wet and unset.
She had never seen anything like this before. And as she looked at the sky, she wasn't sure she ever would again.
"I want to see this from above the city," CJ said, suddenly breathless, as she led the way back through the streets to the long hallways of the Presidential Palace where they were staying.
She slid into her black rooms and the latch creaked as CJ threw open the glass sliding door of the balcony.
"You can't go out there," Simon told her immediately as he followed her, thinking of the wide open space of the Esplanade beneath the Presidential Palace, of all the red brick rooftops with their elaborate filigreed architecture that were safe havens for snipers and shooters.
"Try and stop me." And CJ defiantly stepped out on the cement balcony. Her fingers twisted around the black lace railing of wrought iron; fine bone curled frantically under white skin.
Without a word, Simon simply stood slightly in front of her, the mass of his body shielding hers.
Above them, the sky sizzled in indigo and magenta streamers; on the horizon pale strips of scepter gold and crown ruby curled as if burnt.
"You could die like this," Simon told her without looking back. It was the first time he had ever broken the Treasury Department rules enlisted to protect those in need. But he thought maybe she needed this, knowing that color threaded through even darkness, more than he needed to know she was safe. As he stood by her, he knew now that the rules broke as easily as glass.
"Can you think of a better way to die?" CJ asked and he could tell she was looking up into the ultramarine glow that had whisked over them like an upside down sea, simply by the tilt of her voice.
And as much as he thought about it, Simon Donovan couldn't. He would die for her, here and now in this frozen, barren country, if that was what it took, without her ever asking him to, save by that look in her eyes.
And when he didn't answer, she put a hand on his shoulder again and stepped up next to him so that they stood side by side on the tiny balcony of the Presidential Palace. When he didn't stop her, the colors slid over her like molten dreams, and when she looked over at him, her face reflected the sky.
She sighed and set both her hands on the flaking wrought iron. In silence, they stared up at the swirling maelstrom in the night sky as if they could divine secrets and prophecies from it, as if all the answers to all the unanswered questions in the world were up there if only they could be translated from color into words.
"Don't fall," he cautioned her as she leaned forward and CJ threw her gaze at him like a challenge. Her eyes shimmered and Simon could see all the colors of the aurora borealis refracted off her retinas.
"I won't," she answered, and as they looked into each other, they both knew it was a lie.
There was a long silence between them as they reached for each other without ever moving, and finally, looked away.
Boiling reds and seething yellows flounced over the nascent horizon in whirling jetstreams, coiled and writhing like Chinese serpents and medieval dragons. CJ understood how the ancient people had believed the lights in the sky to be omens of wars and disasters, catastrophes and plagues. To her the colors looked more like a nuclear explosion, where gravity ripped apart the world at its seams. She felt that way now.
"It looks like a nuclear blast," she told him as her fingers gripped the railing so hard she could feel the jagged edges of rust cutting into her palms and she knew if she let go, there would be real blood there. She thought about Chegorin's promises, the US bombers, and the Iranian desire for the bomb. She thought about booming mushroom clouds, classroom drills of desk legs like prison bars, and a steady, killing rain of radiation. She wondered if the world had looked that way to the schoolgirls in Saudi Arabia, as they burned alive for the unforgivable reason that in their panic to flee the flames, they had left their headscarves at their desks.
"It looks like stained glass melting," the agent beside her contradicted and Simon Donovan's hand covered her own on the railing. His skin was warm and she could feel the long trails of his life lines press into her knuckles. On Simon's face were sapphires and amethysts and ambers, the colors of the sea and sky when the sun rose. She took a long breath.
"They say when you see the aurora borealis, it changes your life." Simon's voice was deep and made colors flicker behind her eyes.
The sky was as beautiful as if he had flung his heart up into the heavens.
"They say the recognition of realities is the beginning of all wisdom," CJ replied as he stood beside her. His words tasted wonderful in her mouth; she had forgotten how the truth felt.
Kaiken viisauden alku on tosiasioiden tunnustaminen, Finnish President J.K. Paasikivi had said, as he led Finland in 1946, surely not the easiest times for a small democratic country bordering the Soviet Union. The times were no easier now, but with Simon's hand over hers, CJ believed in better things.
And as she looked at Simon, she felt the burning heat not of atomic fission, but the slow sweet slide of molten glass, the way it poured and slid into panes of the windows in Uspenski Cathedral. She felt the peace of the aurora borealis, of knowing that color interspersed even darkness. She felt the hope of two souls entwined in a single touch.
And when Simon looked over at her, his expression calm and certain, she read her thoughts in his eyes.
And they both knew the beginning of all wisdom was simply acceptance.
The Beginning of All Wisdom: Aurora Borealis Gallery
Pictures are high quality; download may be slightly slow, but worth the wait.
Return to Elliott's West Wing Page
Return to Elliott's Fiction Niche