Albert Wendt takes us through the growing shoes of a boy to portray the transformation into manhood. Wendt illustrates in “The Cross of Soot” the transformative powers of travel; a young boy becomes a man as he embraces the wilderness and ultimately Christ. Wendt uses subtle biblical language to enhance his overarching theme of transformation. Our boy, who curiously travels through the portal of his imagination but literally into the woods, meets two men who introduce him to ink and Jesus. The cross of soot reminds the reader of ash. Ash has biblical significance because it is the start of fasting for Easter. Soot also is dark and opaque, much like basic ink used for tattoo. Wendt crafts an intensive but innocent story of transformation; he masks religious significance with a boy’s journey into manhood. But is it the tattoo or Jesus who evolves the boy?
Wendt uses language that is biblical such as, “Snaked himself under the wire fence and crossed over the steel pipe like a tightrope walker” (Wendt, 20). Snakes are found throughout the Bible, most notably in Genesis. The story of Adam and Eve, the snake tricks, invites, tempts Eve into biting into the forbidden fruit. He uses “snaked” frequently in the text, but why? Other than eliciting the biblical story, what does the verb suggests. It asserts moving like a snake, he slithers under the fence; this implies he has acquired some divine knowledge, the power of Jesus. Also “tightrope walker” invites contextual association to Nietzsche, sort of the antithesis of the ‘good book’. The tight ropewalker is someone whom Zarathustra respects because he embraces danger and death. Maybe the danger, if I infer properly, is from randomly acquiring a tattoo in wilderness. But I digress.
“The Cross of Soot” develops transformation, but this metamorphosis is not obvious to the boy, he is imbued by Christ but not conscious of Him. Wendt writes, “He paused on the other side and looked back as if he had forgotten something—as if he had crossed from one world to another, from one age to the next”(30). An obvious portrayal of change, but the boy experiences something more profound. He travels from or crosses “From one world to another, from one age to the next” (30). Jesus or his holy inky presence propels the boy through time and space, one age to the next, one world to another. The transformation the boy experiences changes his world and perception. But more importantly he grows to the next stage. Manhood. This resonates with his mother, who witnesses the change. Befuddled and conflicted, she sees a startling nuance. He looks her in the eye. Wendt expresses, “Noting with interest that for the first time her son was no longer afraid to stare straight at her when she was angry with him. He had changed, grown up” (30). She was no longer angry; in fact she was in awe of such transformation. The evolution he attributes to the sooty ink of a cross realistically comes from his realization of the powers of Jesus Christ. Transmutation stuns the mother and the son equally. Wendt ends the short story with the boy realizing the significance of the tattoo; “’Jesus’ he replied, examining the tattoo on his hand. ‘And he’s never coming back. Never. He left me only this.’ He held up his hand, proudly” (30). The tattoo reminds and reinstalls the power of Jesus. He is proud to be a man of God, and has no trouble or quarrel with a sooty cross on his hand; how he eats and writes, what he sees when he runs and travels. A constant reminder of the presence of Jesus, he might “never” return, but he certainly never left.