Σάββατο, 1 Ιουνίου 2019

The God Of Familiar Pastures

Published in Issue 13, Volume 11 of Schlock! Magazine 


The Penitent came to the Holy Mountain on Good Friday, bounding across the steep rocky slopes in defiance of gravity. He weaved across the crumbling rooftops of abandoned monasteries with infinite grace. Father Procopius was the first one to see him, as he exited the temple with the Epitaph rocking on his shoulders. Johnny the junkie, his nephew and only other person with whom Procopius shared the monastery shouldered the rest of its weight, clumsily struggling with the hewn wood balanced on his shoulders.

The Penitent appeared gigantic at first, his immense size stretching from one end of the horizon to another. It was a thing of impossible, alien beauty; a creature with a body that seemed to be made out of molten glass, translucent and radiant and infinitely malleable. In the blink of an eye, it began to decrease in size: first, it was as big as Mount Athos. In a heartbeat, it was as tall as a cathedral. By the time the Penitent's webbed toes crunched on the churchyard gravel, it was at eye-level with Procopius, a halo of light as radiant as the sun hanging above its featureless head.

Johnny began to howl at the sight of the Penitent. The Epitaph rocked violently as he let go, the effigy of Christ inside rattling. Stretching one hand gracefully, the Penitent grapsed the Epitaph and stopped its descent. Peace it said without speaking, raising one arm with five fingers outstretched, waving hello like a child. Procopius' heart jumped in his chest.

"We wish to finish our procession. Then we will talk." he spoke, marvelling at how level his voice sounded, even at the sight of the alien. He had seen others; footage of strange creatures broadcast from distant planets, blessed with strange intelligence. But he had never seen an other-worlder up close before. The Penitent's broadcast was measured, understanding. Procopius shouldered the Epitaph on his shoulder, its weight signigificantly reduced. Johnny skampered in the distance. The Penitent took his place without question. Taking the first step, Procopius began to sing the Epitaph dirge:

To the grave they set you
Oh Christus,
And the Hosts of angels hail,
Praises sung to your Descent


Procopius sang the psalm, keeping the tempo with every step. He sang with all his might, but still it was only his voice that echoed across Mount Athos. Two decades ago, the monastery processions would stretch along Athos, the gilded lanterns of the monks girding the harsh rock in a spiral of flickering lights. The singing of the pious would make Chalkidiki shudder, as they stuggled up the craggy narrow paths to the top of the mountain, there to lay Christ to rest. But mankind had long since lost interest in the God of the Earth, choosing instead to climb on gleaming vessels and head for the new pastures of the cosmos. Some had chosen to make their homes in the underground cities of the Moon. The criminals and the unwanted had established themselves in the domed colonies of Mars. And the dreamers, the visionaries and the daredevils had boarded black arks that skirted beneath the surface of space itself, heading for the distant pastures of the super-Earths.

Woe, Light of the World!
Woe, oh Light of mine!
My tormented Jesus
Cried the stricken Virgin

His brothers, the other monks, went the same way. Procopius saw them all go, saw the tinted windows of the monsteries go dark like empty sockets, the procession dwindle in numbers every year. Some said they would board the arks to bring the word of God to a new flock so they could strengthen their resolve as they toiled beaneath an alien sun. Others said they'd look for God themselves, perhaps hoping that Heaven was a place floating freely in the cosmos. The rest -these offered no excuse- left when the Church's coffers began to run dry. But he stayed. For three long, lonely years he stayed to take care of Johnny the junkie, the blight of his brother's life. For three long years, Procopius kept the faith alive, performed the rituals and fasted as he was supposed to, going through the motions even as the cancer in his bowels gnawed at him. Not once had he doubted the sanity of his actions.

Procopius climbed the final steps, setting the Epitaph at the top of Mount Athos, the Penitent mirroring his motions flawlessly. It kneeled before him, bowing its head, perhaps following some subtle hint or a deeply-rooted instict. Procopius sang the final verses, as he removed the effigy of Christ and placed it inside the symbolic grave hewn into the living rock:

We honor thee, oh weeping Virgin
we honor thee, oh Christus
we stand vigil at your Son's grave,
oh God above.

With the ritual done, Procopius turned to the kneeling Penitent, studying its inhuman beauty, its unworldly form. Only now, with his duties completed, did he grasp the strangeness of situtation: the  uneathly creature that had come to him on this day of mourning for...what? What could a thing like it want with an lonely old monk?

Forgiveness, said the creature without words, broadcasting a simple message to Procopius' mind. A world that spun around a hungry red star, its surface paved with gleaming cities. A race of things like the Penitent, reaching out across the length and breadth of the Universe and then...

...then the secret of Creation, unraveled at last. Young, questing minds pulling and pushing at the edges of the cosmos and finding the traces of the blueprint underneath. The knowledge for fine atomic manipulation, transmutation of base matter to anything. The Logos of the Creator bestowed to the multitudes, depriving matter and fortune and hunger and thirst of any meaning. Paradise, if only for a moment. The almost-gods, spreading out across the length and breadth of the Universe-their Universe- like a plague, sucking suns dry, extinguishing galaxies to sate their endless, pointless greed. Light-years worth of life and light folding into themselves, extinguished until finally everything becomes dark and cold. What is left of Creation cannibalizes itself in a frenzy of heat-death. Only the Penitent remains.

"Come inside." Procopius said to the Penitent, placing a hand on its shoulders. Its flesh felt cool and smooth like fine porcelain. "Don't stay out in the cold." The Pentitent followed in the monk’s footsteps, the two of them a solemn procession. When they returned, Johnny had disappeared inside the monastery. From the crashing sounds inside, Procopius knew that he was rummaging pointlessly through the pharmaceutical supplies again; perhaps looking for something to ease the devil that gnawed at his brain. Procopius led the Penitent through the Chruch and into the mess hall. Rummaging through the kitchens, he rustled a plain dish of bread and olives, with a jar of honey. Perhaps the pentitent had no use for food or drink, but he felt duty-bound like a host to do so.

"Can you speak? Like a man, I mean." Procopius said softly. The Penitent examined the monk for a moment, looked past the man's eyes, traversed the fold of his brain and then spoke in impeccable Greek through a newly-formed mouth.

"Yes"

"I have very little to offer you, in way of answers. If it's widsom you seek, then perhaps I am the wrong man to ask. As for faith, I can safely say that there are more pious men than I in the Universe. Why have you come here?" Procopius asked.

"To seek penance." the Penitent said "to find forgiveness for the crimes of my race."

"I cannot absolve anyone's sins, not even my own. That is God's work, not mine."

"You are the last of your kind in this place. The others have either abandoned their purpose or decided to tread the path of plenty. You are alone, as I am alone. I have nowhere else to turn to." the Penitent said, its voice like clinging glass.

"Then stay and be welcome. All I can offer is understanding." Procopius said. Johnny stumbled inside the mess hall, shaking like a frightened animal. Opening his mouth, the young man let out a shrill, animal cry and then collapsed on the floor. "And patience." Procopius said, as he made his way to his nephew and struggled to drag him by the armpits. The Penitent grasped Johnny's ankles and they carried him to his bed.

"It will have to do." the Penitent said, as they laid him to rest.

***

The Holy Light did not come from Jerusalem the next day. The
Archbishop himself had boarded an off-world ark along with the rest of his flock, abandoned the Holy Sepulchre and the city of God to the hands of the people that lingered. Procopius throught of the ancient bronze-cast candelabras smoldering pointlessly in the ancient tamples, the wax dripping down on the cave floor where Christ was laid to rest, the divine light sputtering as the
candle-wick waned. Two thousand years of tradition, sputtering and hissing and finally disappearing. His heart grew faint at the thought.

Treading lightly across the stone floors, Procopius headed from the inner sanctum. A tiny flame burned in the cast-iron vigil, the last vestige of the Holy Light left in all of Mounth Athos. Fresh candle in hand, Procopius leaned closely and lit up the  fuse with infinite care before setting it on the notch in the wall above the gilded Gospel book. Perhaps the Archbishop would have frowned at such shoddy practice, but then again the Archbishop had abandoned his appointe place so who was he to judge?

In the vigil, the last vestige of the Holy Light hissed, sputtered and went out with a tiny little sound. Procopius found this to be eerily appropriate.

“I can make more.” the Penitent said softly, peeking into the inner sanctum. “All you have to do is ask.”

“It is not mere fire. It's the light from Jerusalem.” Procopius said softly, biting his lip as he felt his bowels knot themselves in his gut. Closing his eyes, he felt the needle-sharp teeth of
the cancer as they raked across his insides. “A symbol of his testament with man.”
“I know. I went through your Scriptures last night, studied them in detail. I know how to create it. For me, it is a simple process.” the Penitent went on “I can make a pillar of Holy Light, synthesize it out of clean mountain air.”

“Thank you, but I'll make do with what I have.” Procopius said, picking up the gospel. With trembling hands, he began to leaf through it, seeking the hymns for Good Saturday to begin his lonely ritual.

“I can cure you, too.” the Penitent said. “The thing that afflicts you, it is nothing to me. I can remove it with a touch if you will let me. I could restore the damage, if you want. Make you younger.”

“Why don't you take a seat? I'm about to start Mass.”

“You want to die?” the Penitent asked, prickling up his newly-formed eyebrows. Procopius saw his own expression in them, knew that the Penitent had picked it up from his mind.

“I want to live on my own terms. Deliver myself to God in my own time.”

“What good would that do?” the Penitent said. Procopius strode out of the inner sanctum, ignoring him. He began to sing the first verses of the hymn, preaching to an empty church. The Pentitent's shoulders sagged like a petulant child's. It stepped out of the hall in great bounds. Procopius watched the light of the Penitent's halo recede. The gnawing in his bowels became sharper, stronger. Perhaps the cancer had redoubled his efforts, feeding off his anger.

***

When Mass was done, Procopius replaced the fuse on the vigil and relit it with the Holy Light. The Penitent had not come back. The monk feared that perhaps he had somehow slighted it, treating it like an arrogant child when he should have shown some understanding.

Making his way to the cells Procopius heard a long, anguished cry. It pierced through the monastery, a keening noise that bore into his soul. He knew that sound, had heard it years ago; when he had visited his brother's house in Athens and tread through the blighted threshold on the day that Johnny first suffered his near-fatal overdose. The boy's room smelled like concentrated fear and old sweat. The boy's mother had burst through the door and held him even as Johnny spewed black bile on her lap, the needle still sticking out from his arm.

Procopius found the Penitent leaned over Johnny, cradling him in his arms.

“I didn't know! I didn't...” the Penitent pleaded. All around him, syringes were scattered in a crude circle. All of them empty. Johnny was convulsing in the Penitent's arms, shivering. His eyes had rolled back in his sockets. Procopius shoved the Penitent aside, cupped Johnny's head in his hands.

“Lay him down.” Procopius ordered the Penitent and leaned over Johnny's mouth. He began to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, stopping every now and then to pump at his nephew's chest. Blood pumped out of the puncture-points across the veins of his arms, the blood and the drugs mixing into a faint pink hue.
“Tell me what to do!” The Penitent pleaded, panicking. Procopius grasped one of its hands, placed it at the back of Johnny's head.

“Hold him.” Procopius muttered, blowing back the breath of life into Johnny's mouth, pumping, blowing, pumping again. Johnny began to convulse, his body shuddering, every muscle in his body jerking spastically. “Hold him!” Procopius howled at the Penitent, cupping Johnny's head in his hands. “No.” he muttered under his breath as he watched the boy's eyes shift back to focus for one moment, his mouth gaping wide before he spewed black bile onto his chin and then finally fell lifeless, to the floor. The monk's hands dropped to his nephew's chest. His lip trembled as the body slumped in the Penitent's hands, lifeless and still.

“What's wrong?” the Penitent asked, uncomprehending.

***

Johnny's funeral was a simple affair. The Penitent made a hollow in the rocky ground with a wave of its hand to put the plain wooden casket that Procopius had picked from the monastery's mausoleum. Procopius did not speak to the Penitent all through the procession, reading instead through his book of psalms. When it was done, the Penitent replaced the rock around the body, burying Johnny into the living rock of Mount Athos.

“You cannot bring back the dead.” Procopius said hoarsely, his voice breaking. “Can you?”

“No.” the Penitent responded, bowing its head in shame.

“Then what good are you?”

“I am not your God!” the Penitent protested. “Whatever you think I am, I am not omnipotent!”

“No-one is omnipotent.” Procopius said, his voice seething with rage. “There is no creature in this Universe, in any Universe, that isn't bound by death. I know I am not. I know that Johnny wasn't. And you? You who can make pillars of Holy Light? Are you immortal?”

“How could I be?” the Penitent said, shrinking before the monk's gaze. “How could anyone be?”

“Then you are a fool! A child! A monkey, toying with the foundations of the Universe! Your gluttony killed the place you came from, left you alone! Why would you do the same for my nephew? Why would you throw away his life like this?”

“Because I was needed!” the Penitent howled, falling to its knees. “Because I wanted to be needed!”

“Then you should know” Procopius said, leaning into the Penitent, staring into its almond-shaped eyes “that I don't need you. I'll never need you. I would rather have the cancer eat away at my bowels for all eternity than to ever have you hand anything to me on a silver platter. When I die, I will die on my own terms.”

And with that, the monk began to walk toward the monastery, fighting back his tears. Behind him, the Penitent curled itself up into a ball, shrunk in size until it was barely larger than an infant. It shuddered and convulsed, like a kitten fighting off nightmares. The sight of it made the monk’s heart go weak with pity. He called to it:

“I have no need for your moping either! Come, help me with evening Mass!”

***

The Penitent sat solemnly, watching with sheer fascination as
Procopius sang the hymn of Good Saturday, bearing the tiny flame of Holy Light across the church. The monk anointed the thresholds with the sign of the cross, lit the chandeliers and the rows of virgin candles. When he was done, the entire church was lit up, the flickering lights shining through the tinted glass windows against the encroaching darkness of the night. Procopius assumed the Abbot's place in the pulpit and read from the Gospel the story that he had heard a thousand times, of the Ascent of Christ up the rocky slopes of Hades to the world of the quick; the angel that greeted the mourning women, the word of resurrection spreading like wildfire.

The Penitent leaned closer, eyes wide, taking in every moment. Procopius lingered, the words sticking to his throat. There was a fire in his brain, all-consuming and terrible. A black egg of hatred was hatching in his heart for the Penitent, but he knew that the egg was as toxic as the cancer eating away at him. There was bile in his throat, but a lifetime of bitterness had taught him to fight it back. Johnny had been lost to him, but then again Johnny had been lost for a long time now, given in to the needs of a wasting useless body that hungered for poison. The boy had been abandoned by his parents and Procopius had been in turn abandoned by his brothers to keep vigil. Out of every creature in the length and breadth of Creation, he had nothing left but the Penitent. And even it, for all its awesome power, was little more than a child in need of guidance.

Singing at the top of his lungs, Procopius spoke the hymn of joy, the words of resurrection:

Christ has risen
from the dead
The kingdom of Hades conquered
Through sacrifice he gave eternal life
to the multitudes

The Penitent stood up as Procopius embraced him. There were no fireworks tonight, no joyous choir. The Holy Light didn't pass from hand to hand all across the length and breadth of Greece. But there was a small chapel on Mount Athos and a monk's voice and the Penitent and it would have to do.

***

On the dawn of Sunday, the Penitent asked the question that had been bothering it, as it leaned over the fire where Procopius was roasting a leg of lamb:

“Why would you be a monk, if you are not a man of faith? You told me when I first saw you, but I knew when I looked into your mind.”

“What does faith have to do with anything?” Procopius answered, looking into the Penitent's eyes.

“Everything, I would guess. Why else would you stay here, alone on
a mountain? Sing hymns on your own when your brothers have fled to seek God elsewhere? Why sacrifice your life to something that you don't really believe in?”

“Because others believe. Because God believes in others. I am only the middle man, a mediator. Look around you.” Procopius said, sweeping all of Mount Athos and Chalkidiki in a single motion. “All this around you but all this in here as well,” Procopius said, plaing his plm against his chest “this is Greece. This is what people think of, when they think of God. When a single part of it ceases to be, a tiny part of God goes with it as well.”

“And what will happen? If you are gone and there is no one to replace you?” the Penitent asked, worried.

“Someone will come, to fill the void. Someone who will know what this place means and they will look through the Gospels and search through the rituals. Who will speak the prayers and make their own processions.”

“Someone pious?”

“Someone good.” Procopius said, splitting the lamb with the Penitent. “Here, eat. I have brought wine as well. Today, we celebrate the Resurrection. Tomorrow, we can worry all we want.”

The Penitent looked down at the plain clay pot where the steaming bit of meat lay, took the wine glass in its hand, examined the sweet nectar against the sunlight. Procopius ate like a man destined to die; his eyes taking in the craggy rocks, the sea far away, the sky and the night beyond the blue where his brethren and his people had gone to, seeking new pastures.

“I am not pious. But perhaps you can show me how to be good.” The Penitent said.

“It's a start.” Procopius agreed.

They had their meal in silence, looking out at the Greece around them, above them, inside them. They didn't find God there, but others would. And that would be enough.


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