Cathedral Close

It is eight o’clock.  From the great Gothic mass of the cathedral a tintinnabulation of bells proclaims the hour.

Skies of grey:  footsteps echo on the cobbles of the Close, and birch trees that line Cathedral Green’s flat acres of grass drip solemnly, the rain’s history whispered among their leaves. The shower has passed, they say.   Yes, but autumn remains.

The Close is wide, a mediaeval thoroughfare of heraldic grandeur beside Cathedral Green.  Birches stand like a guard of honor along one side, while little crooked shops built of tortured black timbers and white stucco bark and snap at the cathedral’s towering presence from the other.  They ogle passers-by through bottle-glass windows, do these emporia, their opened doorways lined with racks of postcards and souvenirs.  But a chill breeze plays in the alleys, and damp hangs pungently on the air.  There are few abroad today who might yield to such temptations.

I for one am in no mood to be tempted.  I walk this path each day on my way to work, and work, with the changes the last few years have wrought, is no longer the pleasure it once was.  I am a carver.  There was a time, not so long ago, when I took pride in my craftsmanship, when I was judged by the beauty of the finished piece, the quality and integrity of my art.  But this is no longer so.   Now, my day is punctuated by my manager’s repeated insistence that I finish faster, do more, simplify those details that require precious time.  Soon there will be no space for my art upon the wood; the furniture my Company makes will be faceless and bland, thrust into the world by jigs and machines that concede not a second to beauty.  Last week my lifetime’s occupation was threatened by a letter.  My ‘productivity’ was questioned.  My work rate must be ‘improved’.

This morning my wife, Renee, added her voice to the critical accord by telling me I am too timid – I should leave the Company, set up on my own.  I try to make her understand that it is not that simple, that I have no money to begin such an enterprise.  She calls me spineless.  With no bonuses to spend I know the privations of our poor condition hurt her terribly, and I understand why she strikes out.  But I hurt.  Deep inside me I hurt, and I do earnestly long for change.

There are others, though few, braving the weather this morning.  Amongst them one man stands out.  Marching towards me he is tall, with a determined stride and heavy hikers’ shoes which snatch at the cobbles.  He wears a blue jacket slightly darkened by the rain and on his back, beating against him with each step, is a red rucksack so well filled a lesser man might be borne down by its weight, but not he.   His lightly–bearded chin juts forward, his bright blue eyes stare past me undimmed by the chill, and his wide mouth is drawn back in determination.  He walks rapidly, closing the distance between us in seconds, and his very presence offends me, forcing the bitter gall of my own inadequacy up into my throat.

I am angry.  For a few delusional moments this man becomes the epitome of all I envy, all I hate; his commitment, his focused intent, his strength.  He is all that I am not and I see it in his eyes.  He knows my weakness.

Deliberately – I do it deliberately.  I step a little to one side, setting myself in this man’s path.  As we pass, I lean in.  My shoulder buffets his; his rucksack swings aside and I know the jolt must have hurt his arm at least as much as it hurt mine.   Instantly I am consumed with guilt.  My anger is vented and sorrow, apprehension, even fear take its place.  For me the encounter is over but somehow I feel his eyes on my back, demanding that I turn.

So I do.

I look around to find he has stopped.   He is looking at me with a challenge in his eyes.  I mutter an apology but he shakes his head.  The word is not enough, the offence was too calculated, too severe to be allowed to pass.  He has started walking back in my direction, his eyes never leaving mine.

Two paces away he stops to face me, and this time his expression is questioning: is this the fight I wanted?  Is this the expiation I seek?  Frightened now, for I am not a fighter by nature, I glance around in hope of escape but he moves as my eyes move, stepping before my gaze, his body wound up like a spring, his hands half-raised and spread in an unspoken invitation.

“Sorry – I’m sorry.”  I repeat those meaningless words.  Really, my mind is travelling:  why am I here?  How have I got myself into this position, a poor, frustrated loser on a cold autumn morning, marching forward into nothing when I know – my very soul knows – the time for change has come.  I could, I should take Renee’s advice.  I should make my living by carving and selling my own work, I should take her away from this.

Yet here I am, and in a minute or less I am going to get floored by this powerful, righteous figure of a man who I challenged for no reason other than my own pain.

I move to resume my journey but he steps before me, cuts me off.  As I turn to retreat, he blocks me again.  Unspeaking, yet unyielding, he is too formidable for my defeated mind.  In the final humiliation that must visit all who are as cowardly as I, I drop my shoulders, feeling the tears come.   He nods, stepping towards me, that final pace.  I cringe from him, I am shaking.

But then he smiles.  He smiles and with one gentle hand he reaches out to me, gesturing with the other that I am free to pass.  Stepping aside, he takes my elbow to guide me that first step or two; then he is gone.

Renee’s face is smiling, staring down at me, and there are tears on her cheek, too.

A quiet male voice says:  “He’s back.”

Renee nods, acknowledges the voice with a sob.  Her hand finds my arm and strokes it softly.  “Thank God!”  She murmurs.

There are white walls, clacking heels; there are girls in nursing blue and the steady beep of a machine.  Tubes spring from my flesh in a dozen different directions.  The owner of the quiet male voice comes into view.  He is dark-haired, with frank brown eyes, and he seems too impossibly young to support the lab. coat he wears.

“You’ve had a cardiac arrest, Mr. Frobisher.  We thought we were going to lose you for a while.”

I feel a salt splash as Renee bends to kiss my forehead, saying:  “We have to leave you now, so you can rest.  You’re safe now.  What would I do if I lost you, my darling?”

The faces leave, the screens are drawn.  Alone, with only the beeping machine for company, I have time to think; and in that blessed peace at last I understand.

For a while I was, truly, lost.  I have been allowed back, given a second chance, but on one condition – that my life will have to change.   The bearded man who had seemed a complete stranger is no stranger to me now, though I have been more accustomed to imagine him dressed in black.

One day I will meet him again; and next time, I will know his name.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured Image: Chris Santilli from Unsplash

In a Monastery Garden

Another from the archives:

“Will you be comfortable there, Father? The bench is hard; can I bring you a pillow to support your back?”
The novitiate is over-solicitous, as those fresh to the calling tend to be, and he tests Father Ignatius’s patience at times. “A pillow, indeed? Now that would be an indulgence rife with sin, would it not? ” The old Abbot replies.“I wonder, Brother, would you ask Brother Thomas to come and see me when he is spared from his tasks? I would like him to sit with me here for a while, if he can. Oh! (As the young brother moves to depart) And you might ask him to bring a blanket, should he be able.”
The novitiate fades back into the green fog that is all the good Father can perceive of the monastery garden, leaving not a memory behind.
With a contented sigh Father Ignatius leans back on the hard timber bench while his rheumy eyes explore the mist, wandering across the lawns to those vague splashes of colored flowers which are impressions on his palette of memory, remembered rather than seen. There will be campion where Brother Paul always plants it, and perhaps it is already in bloom, a brave red slash along the border before the high wall, and there, too, the meadowsweet and flowering thyme, in softer, more subtle hues. From the orchard beyond the wall a gentle scent of apple blossom on the breeze – a breeze now chill to these old bones, though the sun is strong. And this is his garden, sight and scent, and this the hum of bees, and this, his world.
Left alone, his mind quickly fades to sleep. His breath cracks in his chest. Wafts of grey habit drift by, hither and thither, with greetings he scarcely hears.
“Good day to you, Father!”
“God bless you, Father!”
These, God’s children, some who will pause to touch his hand as they pass, some who will not. On the edge of rest he sighs in sorrow for them. Brother Thomas brings news often of the new King, so discontented with his Spanish Queen; of how his heart is tainted by violence and hatred; so that Thomas fears he would burn down this sanctified place. Father Ignatius makes a silent prayer for his King who, though god himself, needs his true God’s mercy.
He has dozed awhile, has he not? The sun has dropped lower over the presbytery roof, casting its long shadow like a cloak across the grass. How long has he slept? Has he missed Vespers? Why has Brother Thomas not come for him? Some more pressing business, Father Ignatius suspects, for his good friend will soon be Father Abbot in his place, an office he already conducts in all but name. Yet the bees still hum their own plainsong, and the birds’ jealous melodies of evening are scripture to eyes which can no more see the written word. So perhaps God will forgive him for his omission, this once? Father Ignatius settles his conscience with a word or two of prayer, and drifts.
Again? Has he yielded to sin and slept again?
I am cold.
“I am cold.” Father Ignatius says, but no words come, nor can he say to whom he would speak. From deep within something is reaching for him, and someone stands behind him, someone he cannot feel or see. There is a roaring sound in his head like the surf upon the shores of his youth, pounding and pounding. He sees himself, a child again. He sees the beach, and Marian whom he loved once, smiling her welcome, her skin fresh and shining in the salt spray.
A new journey has begun – a journey for which he has been preparing all his life.
Around Father Ignatius the mist is closing, a grey cloak that curls and swirls like speech, though it has no sound. Yet there is sound. Voices: strange voices that utter words of a tongue he scarcely understands.
“Through here. Try the door.” A young man.
“Look how old this wall is!” A girl or a young woman; nervous, by the tremor in her tone.
“It must be original,” The young man again. “The plan shows there was a garden here. See? The handle turns really easily…”
The girl, in wonder: “Oh, Luke!”
Father Ignatius’s half-blind eyes pick out a lance of light, stabbing, flickering, turning towards him! Suddenly, rapidly, they materialize; the young man who sends the light from his hand, the girl who clings to his arm. He is short-haired and beardless with a bright red tunic and hose for both his legs joined in a single garment. The girl is dressed with her legs immodestly exposed, wearing just a loose vest and a strip of cloth about her hips. For a moment, Father Ignatius sees as though the veils of age have been entirely lifted, and the girl sees him too. Their eyes meet, their minds unite. In her shock, she screams loudly, her shrill note echoing through the empty garden.
“Do you see him?” She breathes, “Luke, do you see?”
“No, I can’t see anything,” But yes, he can. His features are frozen in fear. and he has already begun to back away, his feet demanding he run. He drops his lance of light as he grips her shoulder. “We shouldn’t be here! Come on!”
The girl lingers, reluctant. She sees; she knows.
“Bless me, Father?”
After Compline, as the last traces of evening fade, Brother Thomas will discover Father Ignatius still seated at his customary place in the garden, one hand raised as if, with his last breath, he was trying to give a blessing. In the neglectfulness of youth his novitiate never passed on the ancient Abbot’s message. Filled with remorse Brother Thomas will drop to his knees to administer the last rites and as he does so, his knee will find something hard half-buried in the grass; a black cylinder. He will be amazed to discover that in response to his touch it emits a piercing light.

© Frederick Anderson 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured photo: Falco at Pixabay

Out of Darkness

The pavement is narrow here.  They elbow against him as they pass.  He remonstrates; they laugh at him, the children.  Nervous laughter, child laughter.

“I’m not frightened of an old man!”  One of them says.  “He looks like a paedophile, du’nn’ee?  You’re a paedophile, mister!  Dirty old ****!”

Maybe it is a conceit, he thinks, to assume the little boy’s remarks are directed at him.  I am old, he protests in the silence of himself.  That is my only crime.  The heinous effrontery of age, the obscenity of blemished flesh, of that crime alone, am I guilty. Yet it qualifies as another milestone on his descent into chaos, another small reminder that the narrow path to darkness is nearing its (and his) conclusion.  He turns for home, fleeing in his hesitant gait for the four walls that have become ever more a refuge with the advancing years.  Inside his house he need not face a hostile world, or openly parade his profane old age.  Here he may sit with his book, seeing, not the black of the words or the white of the page, but the crinkled parchment of his hands, their yellowing skin, the veins ever bluer, the brown freckles that grow and multiply.  He can study a new language, shutting his mind to the truth that he will never travel abroad again.  Is not learning a virtue in itself?

“Did you pick up your pills?”  His wife asks, knowing.

“No.”  Had that been the motivation which thrust him onto the street, put him out there?  “I forgot.  I can get them tomorrow.”

She smiles at him, her sad eyes filled with an understanding she is powerless to express.  She has been a good wife to him, faithful and selfless in her care as the storm clouds of his greater years gather above them both.  But there is no ‘both’ anymore, no unity.  Love, however deep, has transmuted into a bond of duty, and she moves around him in a different world, tidying, cooking for him, suffering the harsher edges of his fragility.  She has her own life, her ordered world.  She has her friends, she has her faith:  he has none.

He will not detain her long, she tells those friends.  Day by day she watches him fade, reads the terror in his eyes, the self-disgust.  Within the carapace of his four walls he treads the path to the end of each day, always aware how time is speeding past.  He is waiting for the one absolute certainty – afraid of it, unable to close his mind to it, reluctant, even in jest, to speak its name.  He goes to bed each night, carrying it like a raven on his shoulder, knowing it may strike before he wakes.

He seems to be in a restaurant that is not unfamiliar, although he cannot recall when he might have been there before.  There are many tables, spruce with starched table-cloths, red on white, and there are firm, reassuring upright chairs.  He is the only customer.   A waitress brings coffee to his table.  Once again, he feels he knows her too, although he cannot remember where or when they might have met.  She wears a uniform blue, he thinks, though he cannot say for sure.  Of just this he may be certain – she has the loveliness of innocence.  Such is the unspoiled softness of her cheek as she stoops to serve him he cannot forebear, but must reach up to stroke it with his hand.

He starts back, alarmed at his transgression.  He stammers:   “I’m sorry!  I don’t know what came over me!”

Her reply is gentle.  “It’s all right.  It’s meant to be.”

She does not draw back, the girl, but stoops so she is closer to him; so he can feel a brief zephyr of her breath upon his face.   Her eyes meet his, and they seem to say that if he kissed her that would be all right, too.

“I know you.”  He says, although if he were truthful he does not.

“Do you?”  Her smile is like a shaft of sunlight through rain, as she murmurs, “I seem to be affected by you.”

He begins to rise from his chair, until only inches separate their lips.

And he wakes.

For some hours into the new day the perfection of the girl is radiant in his mind; he cannot forget the sweetness of her voice; his heart is full and hopeful.   When next he dreams, might she be there, awaiting him?  And if she is, will their lips be joined in the honesty of that unaccomplished kiss?

But no matter how strong his desire, though he may deliberately put her image in his mind each time he finds himself slipping into sleep, she does not come again.  A week passes, then two.  He has pictured her walking hand in hand with him along the pathway to the beach, her bare feet splashing in the shallows, the wind in her hair.  All that, and yet he does not dream of her – or dream at all.

Then, one day when waking of itself is pain, he hears that voice again.  “You do not know me, but you will.”

The words are spoken so sweetly and so clearly he cannot do other than understand their meaning.  It is a promise.  For now he must be patient, keep her in his heart as an uncorrupted memory, because when the time comes he must recognise her face again.

In his twentieth year of another time, of maybe another place, he will be sitting in a restaurant with clean red tablecloths where he goes to read the research on  his thesis, and a girl will come to serve him coffee, and he will not know her, but his heart, his innermost soul will remember.  He will gently stroke her cheek and she will smile because her heart has remembered too.

With this certain image for his future tightly wrapped inside his mind he is ready at last to shake off the snakeskin of his years and begin a new journey.   When, later that morning, his wife discovers him she can feel no grief, because the expression those shrunken features wears is of peaceful acceptance.  He rests content.

Phtot Credit:  Alex Blajan at Unsplash

 

 

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