The Pit

The crucifix towered on the edge of the high cliffs of a pit at the end of the earth that fell into the sea, into a cove with a great churning corry. Night and day the whirlpool thrummed and soughed, the winds moaned and screamed. The sides of the pit were two crescent shaped promontories, again of sheer cliff, that gave the ends of the earth the appearance of a clamp or wrench, or two scythes curving towards each other. They may have whipped him lightly, if at all. They did not nail his hands or his feet. Instead, they secured him to the crucifix with ropes made from old whips and chains, but in such a way that hanging was not very torturous, though it was not painless. Ravens trained by augurs brought him food and water. For days, he listened to the horrifying song of the pit and its whirlpool, an incessant sound that magnified at times but never subsided. One by one, they came—pilgrims and outcasts, naked and clothed. They would murmur to the wind or weep before throwing themselves headlong into the darkness of the pit and its cold ocean spray. On moonlit nights or days of clear weather, centurions, legionnaires, the occasional augur and senator, even slaves would come to picnic below the giant cruxifix, eating roasted lambs, loaves of fragrant bread, black olives and figs. They drank heady wines, mocked the hanged man, laughed hideously like hyenas, sang paeans and hymns to their conquests, proclaimed their laws and lectured on their superior science and justice, before packing up to return to they city with its endless dramas, public hearings, lavish banquets and chariot races. The man hanged in silence. The pilgrims and outcasts returned, mumbling and weeping, or silent as the stones on the moor. Some prayed or sang before leaping; others took out parchment and wrote lengthy epistles. Some even burned their books or lit themselves on fire before jumping into the pit. Once, a beautiful maiden in a white chiton approached. He had never seen anyone so beautiful. They conversed, and he saw that she was a poet and an astronomer and a deaconess of the sacred way. His heart burned with love for her purity and beauty as she picked flowers and discoursed on the meaning of the constellations and the eternity of grace. Then, she suddenly plumbed the depths of her body with a dagger and threw herself away into the abyss. The hanged one wept until he lost consciousness. Perhaps he even briefly died. Travelers later reported that they had passed through this desolate country, and had seen the punished criminal still alive and still fed by ravens, speaking strange words to passersby. When they asked a ploughman or a cart driver who it was that sang proverbs and prayed old songs of hope and joy, they laughed and said he was an antiquated type of madman. And what type would that be? the travelers would inquire. A priest, they whispered, but one could hardly hear them for the roar of the wind and the waves in the pit.

The Courtyard

It was a cool, warm spring bursting with almond blossoms and rosemary under cloudless blue skies. A postman had fallen gravely ill, and the postmaster ran off to the hospital built of old, blond stones to make inquiries. None of the luscious nurses seemed able to answer his questions. The damnable priest was nowhere in sight. Outraged, the postmaster stepped into a courtyard of plane trees, stone saints and a plashing fountain to have a smoke when he stumbled upon the missing priest, who had been nonchalantly carving and was now sanding pieces of wood. “I was looking for a miracle-worker and all I find is a woodworker!” the postmaster exclaimed. “It’s not that improbable of a combination. The Good Lord generally knows who to send and where to send him when the time comes,” said the hard, stony priest. The postmaster strongly suspected a peasant childhood followed by army service. “And I am neither a miracle-worker nor a woodworker, though I know men and women who have been both,” the priest added with a little laugh. “Your postman has been admitted to palliative care with no hope of leaving. I was informed that I would be informed when I was needed.” The postmaster lit his pipe and watched the sun and shadows dance as a gentle wind stirred the plane trees. A nurse pushed an empty wheelchair along one of the colonnades, its chrome spokes throwing sparks of sunlight. When she had disappeared beyond a dark arch, the mystery of the wooden pieces and the faraway look in the priest’s eyes captivated him once more. “To be sure, you must see this a lot,” he said, trying to explain the quiet, the idleness and the lack of urgency. “Some seasons more than others,” the priest admitted. “Sometimes they want me to camp out by the bedside. Sometimes I only learn of the matter when they are purchasing the coffin or digging the grave,” the priest explained, fastening  pieces of wood into place with screws. “The widows who have nothing to do like to keep an eye on things. When someone falls ill, they will rush to the hospital and commune with the dying. Only after they have been seen by the orderlies, nurses and the doctors will they send me a telegram. When I arrive, they love to wail and bemoan my absence in the hour of trial! They then make sure I only stay long enough for a prayer. And they are absolutely offended if a patient manages to write to me or telephone me directly without informing them. I always keep those telegrams.” The postmaster shook his head and puffed out cherry-sweet smoke like a locomotive. “Are the widows here today?” he asked. “Most certainly,” the priest laughed, adding some finishing touches to his strange devices. A woman in black with a white cap arrived, gave a familiar smile and nod to the postmaster, and delivered a telegram to the priest. The priest read it silently, and passed it on to the postmaster without comment. “Deceased!” the latter exclaimed in horror, shaking his head.  “Will you be coming upstairs?” the postmaster asked. “No,” the priest replied in a slow, thoughtful exhalation. “I have a delivery to make to a young one,” he added, standing up and holding the finished crutches. “Good day,” the priest mumbled, striding off past the fountain towards the opposite colonnade. It was far too warm and pleasant for it to be a day of death.

The Southern Way 

An old priest traveling southward met a young priest heading north at a lonesome place, where the way skirted high cliffs that fell into a dark oblivion. It was windy, and they rested behind a rock to eat, drink and converse. The old priest asked what had drawn the younger one into the way. I wanted to find safety and acceptance, said the young priest. The divine has no such words in its language, the old priest laughed. Then you do not believe in heaven! the young one exclaimed in horror. On the contrary, the old priest replied, it is because I do believe in heaven. I may not believe in earth, though. 

The Old Priest

The old priest received many letters begging him to come and visit. The wires were cold and the streets were broken, but it was safe to travel. It had been for years. One day, he received yet another letter. Grabbing his beads, little book and smokes, the old priest set out into the shadow of crumbling buildings and rusting girders, passing grand trees and piles of rubble. Some spring flowers had broken through the uneven pavement. A white cat followed him, desperately trying to get his attention. Halfway to the main courtyard of the town, the priest thought about returning. It would end the same way it always did. The letters meant nothing. As he thought these things, he passed into the great plaza, crossed the diagonal shadow of its tall clocktower on the warm cobblestones, and headed for the heavy door of an old building with cracks and burns. There were no chalk marks on the door. The priest checked the envelope of the most recent letter with the numbers on the sign above the door and then knocked. The sound of furniture struck out through the walls and there were footsteps on the stairs. Then a voice greeted him. The priest mentioned the letter, the beauty of the day, and the tin of coffee he had brought. The voice begged him to leave and not return. The priest wondered why this moment always came as a surprise. Slowly, he fumbled with some chalk in his pocket, and then marked the door. For a moment he stared at the brass numbers on the sign. I can hear you breathing, the voice suddenly said from beyond the door. Please stop.

The One Rug

Long ago, a nomad won an enormous rug from a princess after a glorious campaign. One could have sat four or five tents on it. Rolled up, it had to be carried by ten camels walking abreast, with ten servants to guide. Fortunately, the camels and servants came with the rug. The poor herdsman was now almost a prince. As time went by, the generous nomad offered the rug to host royal banquets for khans, concerts for itinerant musicians, weddings for blacksmiths, and prayers for priests from faraway lands. One day, a khan asked for a piece, thinking it to be enchanted. Another day, an unhappily wed girl asked for a piece by which to remember the handsome herdsman and to have at least something for a dowry. By and by, a priest begged for a square to carry with him on his trek along the silk, spice, and tin routes. A musician demanded some scraps as payment for a performance he had already been paid for. In this way, the rug shrank considerably. After several wars and circuits of the various trade routes, the nomad married a captive girl he freed from a slave market. She gave him many children, but they took up a lot of space. After she died, each child demanded his or her own piece of the rug to remember their departed mother and to have an inheritance. And then one by one, they departed, cursing the nomad’s miserliness for hanging onto his last shreds of fabric. Alone now, the old nomad barely had enough rug to lay on or wrap around his body. Like his scraps of rug, all but one of his camels remained. On the rug each night, lying on his back and staring at the stars, he prayed that heaven would allow him to keep this one last piece, for he had heard that the princess had passed on, and he wished to make a pilgrimage to her tribe and city, to offer the last scrap as a burial gift. And if that were not possible, then perhaps heaven would enchant this rug with the magic of old tales, so that he might fly into the stars and converse with celestial spirits and angels. And then he would sigh, remembering something he had heard somewhere. One cannot be many.