‘I’m tending to this dead tree,’ he tells me. Last time he was rolling the hard rocks down into the canyon and then back out again.
‘How can you tend to it? It’s dead.’
John looks at me for a long time, as if I’ve said something that he needs to try very hard to understand, as if I’ve failed to comprehend something fundamental.
‘Listen man. It’s my vocation. And I’m trying to keep upbeat about it, alright? So fuck off.’
It’s about a half-hour’s walk into the desert from my cave to the dead tree that John’s tending. There was a time it’d take you half a day, there were so many prophets and holy men leading disciples around, striking rocks and bringing water forth, conversing with the scorpions and snakes, giving sermons on mounts or even boulders if all the mounts were taken. Now it’s just me and John doing the whole ascetic privation thing.
There’s no one left out here to work miracles for, which is probably for the best, considering I’ve got all of half a miracle to my name and John’s not very good with people. Which is not to say that I dislike hanging out with him – he does provide a dry sort of companionship, once you’ve been around him long enough – but he’s an obsessive personality type, so he’ll only really talk to you if you can feign an interest in rolling rocks around or if you can come up with a new strategy for harvesting water to feed his dead tree. Otherwise he just ices you out and starts praying. It gets old fast.
He’s been living in the desert for a few years now. I can’t take more than a month or so at a time. The desert is hot, your skin chaps and there’s nothing to do. But when I get back to my cave on the outskirts of the city, things are better. Everyone always appreciates my sacrifice, the solitude and the austerity of time in the desert. The people feel better about me, I feel better about me, and when I start preaching again I get a huge boost in listeners, which is crucial as it’s competition season now and I really want to do well.
I’ve never lasted a full forty days and forty nights out here. I mean, I stay out that long, but I always end up breaking my fast. Usually, after a couple weeks or so, I’ll stumble upon a travelling merchant and stock up on milk and honey, or I’ll come across a plague of locusts and fill my haversack, and then I settle up on a quiet dune somewhere and I eat and purge and eat and purge until I’m out of supplies, or until enough time has passed for me to return to the cave.
For the most part I’m pretty quick about the purging, so I don’t put on much weight, if any. When I get back everyone still thinks I’ve been living on nothing but sunlight and the Eucharist.
I’m back at the cave for sunrise on the forty-first day and the war widows have already assembled. They have solid, simple faces, most of them withered and wrinkled from a lifetime of wind and sand, all of them inflected with serious spiritual devotion: high, arched eyebrows, easily-furrowed foreheads, righteous gazes. We do a quick service, then the women settle down to bowls of figs. Everyone’s buzzing about the competition.
‘I’m with father,’ says Maria-Madeleina with the self-assurance of a woman who knows herself to be more beautiful than those around her, ‘I don’t think it’s good to televise services. No one bothers receiving communion anymore.’
‘Well everyone wants to,’ says Mary-Rose, ‘but it’s just so hard to get a place at a decent sermon. Who wants to hear what some sub-deacon who’s never worked a miracle in his life has to say?’
There are a lot of nodding heads and murmured affirmations.
‘But sisters,’ I remind them, ‘Christ dwells within so few, these days, that we must look to how He might dwell within us as individuals. Which brings us back to the importance of the Eucharist.’
I am almost on the point of suggesting a second round when Mary-Rose and a few of the other Marys start complimenting my figure. They egg one another on, making increasingly incredible comments about my will-power and the miraculous nature of my faith until they’re all crossing themselves and praising my inedia again. I have an incorruptibility of spirit, they say, that is matched only by the incorruptibility of my waist-line.
‘Would that there were more prophets like you,’ says Maria-Madeleina, who, as always, is the most vocal of all of them. She envisions me wandering the dunes, staving off the temptation of nourishment, conversing with angels, huddling in my cloak while I spiritually reconstruct the barren landscape before me. The other widows become very excited.
I feel ashamed listening to them, but also proud. Proud of the miracle I represent, the miracle that, while not ‘true’ in the conventional sense, is no less inspirational. I tend to tell myself, at times like these, that inedia is about eating less, rather than nothing at all, or that my purging is just a new version of the miracle, that there really is something incredible, even divine, about the way I can vomit on cue, can do it almost without a sound; that it’s a less elegant form of inedia but inedia all the same.
And perhaps this is the root of all my spiritual suffering. Not the pride I take from my false achievements, or the lying, but my attempts at self-justification. I know how real miracles work. I know no voice comes down from the heavens telling me to gather seven bushels of wheat, eat the bushels and then regurgitate them. I get this sick, prickling sensation as the widows smile at me, admiring, but I smile right back and nod and make little modest protests at their flattery.
Most of the widows start to filter outside after an hour or two, though they’re too excited to do anything more than linger at the entrance to the cave until I come and give them all another blessing and promise to include them in my sermon. ‘You’re the best out of all of them,’ they tell me, taking turns to touch the hem of my cassock, ‘we know you’ll win. This time next week you’ll be canonised and preaching from the top of a column and we’ll never get to see you again.’ One or two of them even start to weep.
We say a final prayer and then they scatter, beaming like light out of the mouth of my cave, streaming down the mountain as if into dark, deep water, and at the bottom they ripple their way into the city, illuminating it with my false works, glowing with praise and hysteria and rumour and I cannot tell whether I find it incredibly beautiful or incredibly horrible. Either way, it is far too beautiful or horrible to watch for very long.
Maria-Madeleina doesn’t leave. She puts on a Father Ramirez sermon and starts sweeping out the caves.
‘What do you want to listen to him for?’
‘I thought it’d do you good to catch up on what you’ve missed while you were away. So you’ll be ready for this weekend.’
Everyone is cheering so loudly that I can barely hear what he’s saying. I hate this, the deafening noise of unbridled, unfocused enthusiasm, and I get the slightly absurd notion that the sound of it is corrupting my cave, that the air in here will never be still again, that the noise will bleed down into the catacombs below us and disturb the sleep of all the saints buried there.
‘Is there anything to hear, Maria? Can you even make out what he’s saying?’
A gravelly voice, barely punctuating the formless roll of cheers and shouts, is intently praising something – the love residing in every man’s breast, or the love that can survive God’s test, or maybe a new variety of love that is better than all the rest.
‘There are never any good details in his sermons,’ I complain, ‘Not a one. Or at least none that he’s ever come up with himself. The man gets by on platitudes and plagiarism – platitudes, plagiarism and charisma. That’s it. That’s his aura for you. And I’m just sick of it. Aura, aura, aura. That’s all anyone cares about anymore.’
‘Father – ’ Maria-Madeleina stops sweeping.
‘Come on, Maria. Listen to that,’ the cheering has become so overwhelming that the sermon is now entirely inaudible, ‘we’ve all seen him do a Pater Noster. He’s just full of this slimy, sickly holiness — still finishing the blessing and he’s already down shaking hands and signing autographs and curing the sick.’
‘Well, he is a showman,’ she says, walking over to me, ‘and he’s fat. We can all see that. The sins of the flesh –’ she smiles fondly at my protruding ribs, ‘I know I’ll always have to eat, at least sometimes, but when I get hungry, when I feel greed, all I have to do is think of you. And it makes me strong and helps me to keep going. I can put the flesh behind me.’
She talks and talks. There’s something weighing on her, I can feel it, but she can’t open up yet. Everything she says is divergence, flattery, the filling of silence. She tells me who else will be on sermon this week, how Ammon is going to say the Aquileian Rite, that Kassia is planning to go into the city for a pro multis, about the new vestments that Sosomen the tailor has prepared for Ramirez. And we discuss whether or not it’s worth the effort for me to prepare a blessing with holy water. The aspergillia are all tarnished and we’d have to scrub for days.
She speaks lazily, as if the competition doesn’t matter, as if we both know I am going to win. She puts the other prophets down, takes my uncertainties and turns them into strengths, makes me feel like a larger, smarter, holier version of myself. We keep locking eyes, the both of us excited and a little flushed at the thought of my success, locking eyes and falling into long silences.
It’s only at the last moment, after she’s cleaned every possible corner of the caves that she brings up her son. ‘I don’t want him to hurt anyone else,’ she tells me, suddenly serious. Part of me deflates. And there we are, stuck in the end bit of the caves discussing her son for an hour and a half.
‘Tell him to come to sermon.’
‘But you know what they’re like Father, they’ll make a mess of things. I mean, they’ll just make a mess of things.’
‘Tell him to come to see me on his own then. On a weekday.’ I write her a note to give him.
‘Father – ’ she says. Then we get into a silence she stretches out in, bringing her head up to look lovingly at a point over my right shoulder, one of the reliquaries, I think, or perhaps it’s nothing at all and she’s just lost in her thoughts, but she stares and stares until whatever she’s looking at or thinking about has her welling up.
‘I want you to know, Father, that ever since you came back from the columns – I’ve had faith. Real faith. For the first time in my life.’ She looks me in the eyes, now, waiting.
‘God bless you,’ I say, doing her a sign of the cross.
‘No, God bless you, father.’
I watch her as she leaves, her shopping trolley clanging against the stones of the mountainside. She moves fluidly, as if descending underwater, her trolley floating easily down from one stone to another, her robes waving behind her like seaweed. At some point she senses me looking and flicks her eyes back up at me, pausing for a moment – a long moment. Then she takes her eyes down the mountain and after them goes the weeping white of her hair.
I say the compline, shut off the lamp and make my way to the upper-cave. With the slight light coming in from the crack I can make my way around the stones and the reliquaries to the old telescope. Then I let my cowl down and look out into the developing night. The clay of the city below is webbed with light, and faint laughter makes its way up through the smoke and the tangled wires of the buildings to where I stand, watching. My feet ache and I almost decide to take my boots off, but I know that I will regret that. My socks are soaked through. I look back out.
I see Dympna, begging in the bazaar in her indoor slippers and torn shirt, begging and cutting her hair, which replenishes as fast as she can cut it. But no one cares anymore, not even now, when miraculous acts are rarer than ever. No one cares about her miracle hair now that she has been brought low.
She goes on scissoring all the same, scissoring and shaking her empty heart like a change-purse at the people passing by, strangers whose faces are all marked with the same disdain, a disdain that sharpens along with Dympna’ desperation, yields nothing but the occasional insult or kick, and yet she only wails the louder, yearning and begging for a following, for believers to stoke the ashed fire of divine inspiration that smoulders in her memory, while to everyone else, to the walkers in the street and the prophets and the cardinals on their columns, there remains only darkness and shame and a slight sound of worn, heavy jingling as she shakes her empty heart.
This, I think, even as another part of me plots my next span of time alone in the cave, the next period when I can get away with satiating my hunger unobserved, this is why no one must ever know.
Mary-Rose and I have set up a kitchen for the needy. She bakes, I distribute. I must be in two places at once, she tells me, half-reverentially half-suspiciously; the food goes so fast.
But I can’t help myself. It’s hard being a saint, or trying to be one. When you don’t eat for a month it gets hard to think, to keep exerting the will. And the less you eat the more everyone wants something incredible from you. Something holier and bolder than what the next guy’s doing. It’s never enough.
There’s nothing I can control, nothing that can put me at ease. And so, over and over again, I binge. I inhale the last thin drops of air at the top of my mind and let instinct take over. I move without thought, I gather anything that’s to hand, eat it quickly, hardly chewing, more than I can hold, letting the weight of matter build and swell inside of me until nothing else will fit, and then I exhale and come back to myself and I cope. I stick my elbow under my diaphragm and hold two fingers down my throat until surges of it start to come back up.
And that’s when I enter the new feeling of emptiness, of absolute calm and euphoria.
That’s the feeling I’m after, finishing off a platter of seed-cakes, when I notice a man standing just in the entrance of the cave. He’s got a peculiarly vacant expression on his face, watching me, and I wonder how long he’s been there. My whole body stiffens. In his hand is the note I gave Maria.
‘You send this?’ he asks, throwing the paper in my direction. I watch the note rock itself to the ground. It looks relaxed.
‘I did,’ I say, getting up from where I’m crouched by the emptied seed-cake platters. ‘You must be Maria’s son, then?’
‘I must be Maria’s son,’ he says. It’s unclear if he’s agreeing or just repeating what I’ve said. But he has the note.
I didn’t expect him to be as old as he is. His features are worn, vulpine, his hair matted and bunched up in a layer of coils, a few of which fall to his lower back. He is wearing a long robe, old and frayed though not without a certain style, and a pair of crude sandals that must be homemade. And he keeps staring at me in that weirdly vacant way, like he’s decided not to let himself really come in here, like he’s keeping himself outside while his body deals with something particularly unsavoury.
I half-raise my arms in an awkward welcoming gesture, and when that doesn’t elicit a response I try the rhetorical route. ‘There are moments in every man’s life, my son—’
‘I’m not your son,’ he interrupts, his voice much sharper than I’d hoped.
‘I’m sorry. That’s just a – just a figure of speech. Because we’re all part of a family, in a way. Part of a much larger relationship.’
‘I’ve got my own son, you know. But he’s dying. And no one has any time for that. I went to the sermons where they say they’re curing the sick and my boy’s still coughing. I went to the columns and no would speak to me when I got there. When I try to talk to your old ladies they scare’ of me, they just run when we come and call us unclean.’
‘I think,’ I say, ‘that you’ll find some of us do indeed have the time.’ I rustle in the sideboard for a moment and pull out my pocket diary. ‘I’d be happy to perform a baptism, if you’d like. Or a confirmation, maybe? Are you free in a fortnight?’
He stares at me silently for half a minute or so, his eyes still glassy, and I start to worry that he may turn to violence.
‘Is your son why you’ve – why you’ve found yourself keeping such dangerous company?’
He spits. ‘You holy bastards just wanna live easy.’
‘What we do is a duty, not a privilege. It’s a mortification. A sacrifice.’
‘Some sacrifice,’ he says, walking over to the empty seed-cake platters scattered behind me. He wets a finger and gathers up a few crumbs. Then he lets me know he doesn’t need any of my help.
The day after our conversation I discover some of my things have gone missing. A knuckle of St Eustace. Some mandylions. A shard of the spear of St Longinus. It’s a serious set-back, but I’m inwardly pleased that there’s something between us. We both have something to feel guilty about, now. It’s like a contract.
When Mary-Rose arrives I’m stashing the empty reliquaries down in the catacombs. Whenever a big sermon comes up she makes a point of visiting to pray with me, but really she comes to judge my level of fatigue, and on the hard days she goes and steeps pieces of meat in my tea, brings me back the broth and tells me I need to keep taking in fluid even if I’m not eating.
When she sees the empty relic-holders she is incandescent. But I am glad of her company – it takes me out of myself. I have her pray with me until she calms down.
‘You can’t put up with this kind of thing, Father,’ she keeps saying, ‘they’re going to run you out of here. Things aren’t the way they used to be. You need to be firm with them.’ She’s speaking out of anger, but there is sense in it. Something has to be done.
In the upper-cave I move my hands to the basin of water and soak them for a moment. Then I massage the dull ache in the hollow of my eyes, and when my hands stop trembling I take the telescope and look back down into the town.
I know he’s there, and I am becoming increasingly worried about what he might be telling people. Last night, and this morning, even, I was convinced that I could play it off, that I could say I was consecrating leavened seed-cakes to symbolise Christ rising from the dead, but had changed my mind at the last moment and needed to dispose of the pseudo-Eucharists before they got stale.
When Mary-Rose arrived I was on the point of trying it out on her, but then she started weeping. She reminded me of everything that’s expected of me, of the final sermon and how I had to be so careful, how I’d need every point of sacred contact available up there at the altar beside me, every single relic, if I was to have any hope of winning. It shook me.
I move the telescope frenetically, looking for him, darting from the ochre of the courtyards and flats and hillsides to the greens of fig-trees and cypresses breaking through the heat, down across the variegated awnings of the bazaar and the marble of the temples and then back up past the great columns in the centre square to the glistering of the port beyond, all of it throbbing with the heat of midday, silent and still and no sign of him.
Then I come across someone else – someone who’s been dead a long time now, who should, by rights, be lying somewhere in the catacombs below me. Cyprian. He’s standing in a field in the lower slums, dressed in his black zucchetto with the simar and hoop earrings, watching a group of children kick an old tire around in the dust. After a moment he turns and looks towards the upper-caves, disapproval in his eyes, and says something. But my hands start trembling again and the telescope shakes and I can’t make out the words.
When I find the boys again he’s gone.
Sometimes, when I get tired like this – and it’s been happening more and more as the run nears its end and the final sermon approaches – I catch glimpses of him. Young like when I met him, young and tall and hawkish, sitting on a stone at the far end of my cave, or walking out in the crowd, his hat bent down over his beads, low but not low enough to mask the distinctive yellow blotching under his eyes. And I’ve been hearing his voice, whispering at me over the tumult of the mass while I celebrate, a fragment of solace amidst all the hype and the cameras and the competition.
He’s what keeps me going, keeps me casting myself into the crowd.
I was young when I met him. There was a woman on the broad street. All my life she’d been there, ravaged and beautiful, cleaving to the side of a plaster-board wall not far from the wells, her hands either reaching up towards the sun or tucked behind her head in a thick, tangled mass of curling hair. Like all the other young men I couldn’t help but stare at her as I went to collect water. And one day she turned her head to me and gave me a look of irrefutable sexual interest.
She walked into the whorl of alleys leading to the gardens, looking over her shoulder at me as she went. I followed, trembling with inexperience, not knowing if I should call out to her or keep a respectful distance, but in the close complexity of the streets I kept losing sight of her and I was soon struggling to keep up. Somewhere in the twists of the inner city she took a turn that I missed and I panicked. I started hurrying down random passages, tears in my eyes, wailing and beating my breast and cursing myself for missing an opportunity that would never come again.
That was when I came across him, standing in a courtyard blooming with flowers and fig trees. He looked like he was waiting, his hands held behind his back, a digit pointing directly at me as if to pick me out of the trickle of people moving through the lanes behind him. From his fingers dangled a beautiful turquoise rosary. With my eyes on it I crept up on him.
‘Have you lost something?’ he asked, turning as he sensed me, and I remember thinking he had the alien quality of a classical frieze – his features austere and proportioned according to some long-forgotten aesthetic principle.
When he saw that I was staring at his rosary he held it out to me. ‘Take it,’ he said. ‘It’ll be more comfort to you than she would have been.’
‘What do you mean, she?’
‘The woman who just abandoned you. Your lover?’ He asked, tentatively. There was a nervous energy to his question, at once anxious and over-confident, and he kept bobbing his head around as he waited for me to respond, like a pigeon searching for scraps.
‘What?’ I asked. ‘Do you know her?’
He narrowed his eyes. ‘No – but I can see her in you. Was it an acquaintance who rejected your advances?’
I didn’t know what to say, so I just stood there. He watched me for a moment longer, his head bobbing, and then something like understanding dawned on him and he became still.
‘An alluring stranger,’ he said, moving closer to me, ‘led you to believe in the possibility of a sexual rendezvous, only to lose you before you had the chance to show her what you were worth.’ I took a step back but he grabbed my arm to prevent any further retreat, ‘and now,’ he insisted, his eyes peering through mine to something beyond, ‘now you are starting to realise that this is not the only companion that you’ve lost, that lovers and friends and family have been falling away for years, gradually but inexorably, as if there is something inside of you that no one can stand, least of all yourself.’ He pulled me in towards him, hissing, ‘There is a rot polluting your very essence, a contamination in your soul, and you know, as much as I, that loneliness and abandonment are only the mildest symptoms, that you are grappling with something so large and dark and vicious you can never hope to overcome it on your own.’
I’m not sure why, but I felt extremely fond of him from that moment, like I had just encountered a brother after a long separation. He embraced me.
‘There are paths to salvation,’ he said, holding me, ‘there are paths to salvation and I will guide you there.’
Cyprian was a very holy man. He taught me that if a person prayed long enough, if they developed their inner grace and fortitude, they could read people’s minds. Or at least get a sense for the memories playing across the surface of a mind. It was perfectly possible, he assured me, to encourage people to reveal the rest, and with patience and luck and enough time one could almost always divine something in anyone.
I had heard of prophets, and of the miracle-workers among them, but Cyprian was different. He was an old-school saint, one of those who had to pray and pray until their meagre talents were polished enough to attract a crowd. He had more in common with the washerwomen telling fortunes on rooftops than with the levitators and water-walkers who seemed to be everywhere in those days. It was fun to hang out with someone a little different. I was glad, to be honest, to have someone to hang out with at all.
By the time I met him the smallest detail was enough. He would gather one up while I wasn’t looking, alight upon some tell in the way my features moved and then he’d pull at the threads of a memory until he had me unravelled before him.
He’d watch the tremor in my pinky finger when I ground chickpeas for our supper and recount to me, as if lost in his own memories of childhood, how I used to steal little spoonfuls of hummus from my mother’s bowl and had once been beaten within an inch of my life for it, and how even now, thinking of it, the resentment and anger I felt was diluted with a sense of respect, even admiration. He noticed the way I bunched my robes to shield myself when I urinated and chastised me for the secrecy of my childhood, for the stolen figs stowed away in a broken pot until they fermented and were no good to eat, for the blame I’d lay on other children for my thefts, for the resentment I bore my persecutors, a resentment that I fed, greedily and spitefully, and clothed in the appearance of a righteous crusade. And in the mornings, after a nocturnal illusion, he would list the dates and times I had masturbated, describing the content of my fantasies, their duration and the measure of emptiness I felt afterward.
It was odd being with him. There was something comforting about his knowledge, but it could also be alienating. I swung between moments of utter adulation, where I existed in a kind of selfless bliss, and longer periods of crippling, overwhelming self-revulsion.
I couldn’t learn his trade, even when I prayed all night. Even when I felt entirely possessed of inner grace and fortitude I couldn’t tell much about anyone. Maybe what kinds of foods they liked, the name of a pet, but nothing that would ever stop people in their tracks and cause them to reconsider the state of their soul.
He was a saint, and I was his disciple. We wandered the streets and the ports and the deserts in search of converts, and when we met strangers I waited cross-legged in the dirt while Cyprian spoke to them, flattering and asking leading questions until he could reveal some shard of the misfortune everyone carries deep within. Sometimes people would follow us for a few days, more often they’d just go back to work.
‘If we succeed,’ he’d tell me over the fire at night, his eyes glowing ‘if we contribute to the unity of the Church, they’ll take notice,’ and then he’d point to the columns rising high over the city.
‘Are the stylites really still up there?’ I asked him one evening.
‘They’re cardinals,’ he corrected me. ‘And yes. Of course they are.’
‘They’re the ones that first recognised you?’
‘They beatified me,’ he said, his voice gruff, ‘but no – I haven’t been canonised yet.’ And then he fell into a gloomy silence that lasted for days.
In spite of all our efforts, we were always in the shadow of another man. Wherever we went, Father Duong had already come and converted the convertible, made disciples of the disciplinable and witnesses of the rest. I remember Cyprian trying to impress a school-teacher by reminding him of a bird he had tortured to death as a boy, and though the man confessed, weeping in Cyprian’s arms, before his tears dried he was telling us how Father Duong had already forgiven him, how he’d gone into his dovecote and made birds out of the clay there and brought them to life.
It was a very frustrating time for both of us. I began cataloguing Duong’s miracles, hoping to learn from them, plotting them on a map in an effort to work out some pattern. Beside the fire at night I read them out as I noted them down:
-two short boards stretched for carpenters
-twenty virgins’ hearts read
-water controlled and purified
-foot of woodcutter healed
-rich young man raised from dead
Plains of Galimathea
-thirty bushels of wheat harvested from a single seed
-tree cursed which then withered
-demons cast out of two children
-coins taken from fishes mouth
-levitation, fifteen to twenty minutes
I’d read them until we both knew them by heart, hoping that Cyprian might foresee where Duong would go next, what he’d do. But we were checked at every point. Anywhere we went we met fresh reports of his activities, each new miracle more unsurpassable than the last – fantastic claims of bilocation, extraordinary abstinences from both sleep and nourishment – these seemed to astonish people more than anything else.
And it was then that I began to draw away from Cyprian. I stopped trying to read the past off the faces of those we met. Instead, I tried to stay up all night. I crumbled up my share of the bread and gave it to the hungry. The pangs made it easier to remain awake. Cyprian said nothing, but I knew he was pleased. People had started to watch out for us.
Too late I realised that I was setting myself up for disaster. I lacked the ability to restrain myself, to restrict my imagination, though I tried everything I could.
I ate handfuls of nettles and sharp stones to tear my insides, creating sores and ulcers that I kept open with phenol, but in the middle of the night I’d get up regardless and sneak off into a distant stand of reeds where I’d secreted some provender the night before. I came to relish the pain of it. For months I dedicated myself to consuming nothing but dirt and ash, but I couldn’t help but stir in some couscous from time to time, then dates and even eggs.
Whatever I did I kept failing, kept seeking out sustenance. It was easier, I eventually realised, to succumb for a moment and then set time in reverse. Purging was safe. It was easy. And it was something even I could control.
When the homily competitions started, when Cyprian lost and was brought low, he took me with him to the column to advocate my beatification. I needed more time, more guidance, but Cyprian was convinced I was ready to preach alone.
For hours we stood at the foot of the pillar, wailing and gnashing our teeth until we managed to get a cardinal’s attention. Then, to prove my worth, Cyprian made a vow to remember every person he had ever met with a prayer. He shut his eyes and I had to bury him a few days later.
But as the final sermon approaches I’ve been having visions of him; it’s as if he’s everywhere. All day long, as I look for Maria-Madeleina’s son, I see him, a brief apparition at a doorway, his simar flowing down an alley, his eyes glaring up at me from the sand, judging me. It makes me feel pretty bad about how far the whole fake-inedia thing has gotten. Like I’ve let him down.
It was Cyprian who remained in front of the columns when the stylites wouldn’t say a word to me. He thought I was ready for beatification, and so did I. And once it happened, once the people started to listen, I couldn’t help but take it as evidence of what I was meant to be: not an individual but something else, a conduit, both a sign and an instrument.
I’m supposed to transcend the body, and yet all I think about is food, day and night. All I am is body; I’m desire incarnate, a roaming vessel conniving for sustenance.
At first I thought being a prophet was a game. A game because of the pleasure in it, the thrill I’d get when I spoke and people listened, the rush when silence fell as I refused food and a smile brushed the lips of the crowd, as if my very inaction was the source of some replenishing spiritual wind.
But it became more than that. For days after my first sermon I was dizzy with joy and hunger. ‘They believe in me,’ I repeated to myself, walking at random, though with a growing sense that I was being drawn to some place in particular. That was when I found the caves.
When I set up in here, arranged my relics along the wall, draped my vestments over the stalagmites in the catacombs, I felt like I was coming home, truly part of something, a member of a community for the first time in my life.
I don’t feel like I’m part of much when night falls and I hear Maria-Madeleina’s son shouting up at me from the entrance of the cave. ‘You’re finished, old man! You’re finished!’
I am about to go down to him when I see a great crowd of people massing on the outskirts of town. They seem to be doing something violent, or something non-violent but aggressive. I can’t make it out. After a period of shouting they all group together in a huddle and flames appear among them, followed by screams and angry ululations. Then they start up the mountainside towards my cave.
I rush down to find my chief prosecutor giddy with laughter and lounging on one of the more comfortable stones. If I can explain myself to him, I think, I may yet have a chance.
‘I feel the flesh,’ I whisper to him in a panic, ‘when I break the bread. It changes into a body. No one else can understand that.’
‘You’re sick old man. What you do is sick.’
‘What I’m trying to tell you is that there are certain moments when eating is not eating. When eating is prayer. When it’s sacred. How could I eat so much otherwise? How could I eat so much and look like this? Don’t you understand?’
He looks away from me and wrinkles his nostrils, ‘I know what you do.’
‘What do you know?’ I ask, my flesh prickling.
‘I know,’ he repeats. Then his lips hinge open into a vicious smile. ‘I can see it in you.’
A kind of terror comes over me, but I also feel something else, something almost like relief. ‘You know,’ I repeat. ‘You know what I do.’
He says nothing, indicates nothing, but I get this dim vision of the both of us walking out of here together, hand in hand, preaching to the multitudes and calming them, the two of us watching out for one another, an unstoppable duo, taking sermon after sermon until there’s no competition left. It’s as if only now, at this moment, can my life’s work truly begin.
‘I can explain,’ I tell him, ‘just hold on,’ and I rush back to the upper-caves and look out. There are several large fires nearly upon us, dripping torchlights behind them as they rise out of the city. I shout out into the night, begging for a little more time, the chance for a confession, for unction. The fires respond with a morbid chant, the notes arrhythmic, hollow, staccato.
Suddenly I’m on the ground, and Maria-Madeleina’s son is slamming his heel down onto my back, over and over.
‘Please – ’ I say. He rolls me over with the toe of his sandal.
‘Where’s the cash?’ he asks.
‘I don’t –’ I manage.
‘You don’t what? Give me the tithes father! Your time is come. I told them what I know and now you’ve been brought low.’
I taste blood and bile and then a dark patch spreads over my vision. I lose grasp on the world around me for a moment, and I hear, faintly, the sound of someone heading for the back of the cave, where the catacombs are.
I crawl after him. ‘Oh my son,’ I say, shaking my head as I descend the stone steps, ‘my son my son my son.’
All the bodies buried down here are supposed to be incorrupt, but the odour of rotting flesh overpowers me and I slump down in the dirt, taking in great gulps of rottenness from some corrupt body interred here among the canonised.
I see Cyprian again, smiling up at me from an open casket. He is making a clear gesture of approval, his arms opened wide as if to embrace me, and I nod at him. Then I stop and close my eyes for a moment and focus on my inner grace and fortitude. I try to remind myself why I’m here. What I’m doing.
I think about His suffering very carefully. I let reverence push through me with all the weight of time behind it, the weight of nails being driven into hands and feet funnelled across the marrow of millennia, I pray and pray and open myself up and let grace overwhelm me, and then I feel it welling up at my eyes and when I open them the incorrupt bodies of all the saints are staring at me, stinking of myrrh and other spices, their jaws waxy and hanging open in great, gleaming smiles as blood pours from my hands and my feet and my eyes.
This story is shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize. The winner will be announced on 30 April 2014.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Luke Neima is Review 31's fiction reviews editor. He was shortlisted for the White Review Short Story Prize 2013