The Man At The Church

 

 

 

I have the habit of going for a walk in the morning, walking silently, in safe solitude, simply breathing, legs stretching out, arms keeping time, feeling a different rhythm of life. It helps me deal with the increasing agitation I experience on hearing the daily news of wars, corruption, of people alienated from each other, from themselves, of a dying world.

My routine takes me up the paved road to the top of the hill, the hill that dominates the small Ontario town in which I live, which lies spread out along the river that winds its way south to the great lake. There, looking down over the valley below, sits a church, a cathedral almost, St. Mary’s, the Catholic church which dominates all the other churches in the town by its majesty, as if to show the protestants what a real church should look like. Sometimes, when the mood strikes me, I stop to look at it, to admire it, for though I am not a religious man, the ceremonies, the architecture, the art and iconography of the church are to me mysterious and beautiful. The rest of it creates no interest for me. I find my salvation in the nature that surrounds me, not in the mythology of its creation.

Or so I thought, until something happened that caused me to reconsider the mysteries of the world.

One day, in early June I think it was, the year of the great spring rains, I decided to get up earlier than usual to take my walk. I couldn’t sleep. The sun was rising. It promised to be a dramatic overture to the day; a blue sky covering green hills awash in bird songs sung in many different keys, accompanied by the soft rustling harmony of countless leaves whispering in the warming breeze.

The locals of the town were beginning to stir. The occasional vehicle, a pickup truck, a run-down car, passed me by on the way to market or work, but no one else was walking along the street that led from my house to the main street, then up the hill heading towards the edge of town and the tower of St. Mary’s that held the big bell; the bell that rang out several times a day calling the faithful to prayer.

When I got to the top of the hill and stood in the shadow of the entrance to the church with its big wooden double doors, flanked on each side by a Norman tower graced with several stained glass windows, the left tower with the spire and cross at its top, the right containing the bell, I paused in my walk, put my hands in my pockets, looked up to the bell tower and wondered just how big that bell was. It was while pondering this question that I heard the clunky thud of the church doors opening and closing and on looking over I saw a figure coming towards me dressed in the black habit and black beard of a Jesuit, which struck me as odd as there were no Jesuits in the parish that I had heard of.

I could not see his face. It was hidden in the shadows of the old fashioned cowl he had covering his head. He approached me slowly with a steady step until he stood in front of me. For some reason, the angle of the sun, the weight of his cowl, I could not see his face apart from the black beard, tight, grim lips, the tip of a hooked nose above the moustache. The rest vanished into the darkness of the hood he wore despite the warming of the day.

I greeted him with the usual “Hello; nice day, isn’t it?”, or some such thing that we say without thinking when meeting strangers. It gets muddled in my head now, but there was no response. The figure stood in front of me without moving, very still, like one of those human mannequins tourists are delighted by in Europe, a Marie Antoinette, a silver clown, or a marble Dante with his book. He seemed very solid at first, but then I noticed that his form shimmered in the light as do those mirages of dark water that lie across the road in the summer heat and vanish as soon as you see them.

The silence of this apparition, for so it seemed to be, unnerved me. I stepped back, took my hands from my pockets and prepared to retreat. But the form continued to stand there without a sound or movement. Now more unnerved, I challenged him with, “Are you all right Father? Can I help you?’

There was no sound, no movement, except for the subtle, almost undetectable, shimmer I referred to before, but then a voice that seemed to come from some distant place, some distant time, cried out, as if wailing at a death, “What have you done? What have you done?” And with that, the figure raised his right hand and pointed it, while turning his body, calling out all the while, “What have you done?”

He spoke in French, a language I understand, but with an accent I had not heard before. I still am not sure if I understood him correctly, but I was so transfixed by the voice and the movement as I followed his hand pointing at the world around us, that I seemed to comprehend him nevertheless and was surprised when a sudden feeling of intense melancholy swept over me. Tears filled my eyes, and I fell to the ground at his feet, overwhelmed by sudden grief.

He stopped turning, looked at me, lowered his hand, and bowed his head. He began to turn away from me. I reached out to try to stop him, but my hand passed through air. I struggled to my feet, wiping away the tears that still bathed my eyes, trying to restore my equilibrium, but he did not stop and kept walking back towards the doors, his shoulders and back bent, his head lowered and, through my own tears, I saw signs of a man sobbing uncontrollably. I managed to shout out, “Who are you?’ perhaps an unfair thing to ask when I was not even sure who I was.“Your name?” And protested, “I’ve done nothing, just lived.”

He stopped, turned his head to look at me over his shoulder and with a voice that came from a deep abyss said, again, “What have you done? What have you done? Terrible things, terrible things,” each word a moan, or so it seemed, as he turned his head away and walked slowly back to the door of the church where his shimmering figure merged with the door and dissolved into the shadows as if he had never been.

The encounter so disturbed me that I felt paralyzed for some seconds until I regained my senses and, shaken, decided to turn back towards home. As I walked slowly back into the town, I reflected on the melancholy encounter, what it meant, that question from the past demanding an explanation from the present, about our destruction of the future. For that was what it was. Of that I am sure.

Upon relating what happened to my wife, my friends, my doctor, explanations were quick in coming. My wife looked at me oddly. Some said outright I was a liar and pulling their leg. Some religious people took it as a proof of God, a warning from the Almighty, some as the visitation of an angel. The Catholics quickly claimed it as a miracle, proof of the true martyrdom of Jean De Breubeuf in 1649, whose ghost this undoubtedly was. I hear the matter has been raised at the Vatican, and the students of the local schools now discuss the work of the Jesuits in the area three hundred years ago. The Protestants, in protest, proclaimed it to be God’s clear condemnation of the Roman church. The new agers stated categorically that it was the manifestation of some spirit of nature, mourning its steady destruction, and, of course the psychiatrists, my psychiatrists, determined, on clinical evidence, that it was an hallucination, a psychotic episode; that I had experienced a break with reality. I cannot comment on these theories. When I try, my attempts are considered just more evidence that my mind is unbalanced. And who am I to say it is not.

Several months have since passed. I have learned now to keep quiet, to agree with them that I was ill but now am welI. I was finally allowed home after a long period of analysis, allowed to return to the birds, the sky, the whispering leaves, to again walk past the church on a warm spring or summer’s day, as if nothing had ever happened. But, each time I do, each time I see those doors, when the light is right, the sky is blue, the leaves whispering, and no one else is there, I still see the man at the church, and hear that ancient voice moaning and asking over and over again, “What have you done? What have you done? Terrible things, terrible things.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Escape of Prisoner 4538

 

 

man escaping-night

A Story of Our Time

He ran fast, so fast his lungs were seared. He ran blindly. He ran like a stag hunted by wolves. Night drew him on, tugging him with urgent hands, beckoning him. He tripped on a root, stumbled, fell, heard the shouts, rose, then stumbled again. The ceiling of the sky sparkled as it watched him and the bright, full moon swept his panicked path with a searchlight’s brilliant beam.

The shouts faded, then grew in crescendo as he weaved in and out of the grasping trees. His heart raced, slowed, faltered, then steadied as he drove his body forward to freedom, to kindness, to the distant promise of the woman in white. His arms reached out to embrace her but she vanished with the shattering shout.

‘Prisoner 4538!’ The rattle of keys in the heavy steel door battered his eardrums like sharp shards of thunder as he buried his head under the single wool blanket that covered his body and the thin grey tunic that covered that.

‘Stand up, Prisoner 4538!’  A boot kicked him hard and he collapsed onto the concrete floor.

‘Please, leave me alone. Please…’

The two men standing over him stared down like two schoolboys planning to the tear the wings off a fly, the vicious smiles, the eager eyes.

‘Stand up!’

Strong arms reached down and pulled him up. The floor was cold. His feet were bare.

‘Who are you? Why won’t you tell me?’

In answer they shoved him in the back, down a long grey corridor, half-stumbling, half running, trying to keep ahead of the men who tormented him, his eyes blinded by the arc lights that lit the way.

The three stopped at a closed door with the single word “Interrogations” stencilled in black on the grey paint. One of the men knocked. He heard a muffled but sharp voice. The man who knocked reached for the doorknob, turned it, opened the door wide.  The second guard, hustled him into the room. He was shoved forward and made to stand before a man, in a dark grey suit, white shirt and black tie, seated at a desk. The man received the salute of the two guards with a nod of his head. He then sat in silence as he observed the prisoner.

He waved his hand at a single wooden chair placed in front of the desk. The guards pressed the prisoner’s shoulders, forcing him down onto the chair, then took several steps back and stood with legs apart, arms behind their backs.

The prisoner tried to sit upright in the chair but the seat was oiled, slippery and he kept slipping down to the floor. He tried to grip the armrests but they were oiled too. He gave up and rested in a state of imbalance while the man across from him continued to sit in silence, watching him squirm.

‘Do you know why you are here, 4538?’

The prisoner did not answer, but looked around the room that was bare except for the desk and two chairs. He replied, ‘Why don’t you tell me?’

‘To confess. That is all. Are you ready to confess?”

“I’ve done nothing. How can I confess?”

‘I’m sure you can think of something. Everyone is guilty of something.’

‘I’ve lived my life, that’s all.’

‘A good life?’ The interrogator leaned forward. ‘What do you say?’

‘I worked, I loved, I survived, what am I supposed to say? Who are you?’

‘You. I’m your mirror. Are you afraid to look?’

‘You’re talking in riddles.’

He slipped in his chair again, tried to sit back up, but only slipped further down. ‘I want to go home.’

‘You can’t go home until you confess. The new order requires it. Everyone must confess. Everyone has to begin again. A clean slate.’

‘You sound like a priest.’

‘No, not a priest, you’re friend. I don’t offer salvation, only awareness.’

‘I have nothing to confess.’

The man stood up from the desk and motioned the guards to step back. He walked up to the prisoner, stood behind him. Then he leaned down. He whispered in his ear. ‘Do you want to know where you are? Can’t you guess?’

Prisoner 4538 moved his head away from the voice but it followed him,

‘Can’t you guess?’

‘No.’

The interrogator moved away from the prisoner, ‘Take him away, he is useless until he knows where he is. Take him back to his dream.’

The guards pulled Prisoner 4538 roughly to his feet and dragged him back to his cell. The hallway seemed to stretch out in front of them forever, the end lost beyond the vanishing point, beyond the endless doors on either side until they came to the door with his number on it, already opened.

He was thrown back onto the floor of the cell beside his collapsed cot. They slammed the door shut. He lay still. He listened to their steps moving away, to the silence of the space around him. He lifted his head, looked around. The cell was bare except for the single weak bulb that cast macabre shadows on the walls, the the pile of sticks that was his bed, a bucket in one corner. He lay back on the floor, began to sob, feeling desperate, afraid. But after the tears had washed his eyes, he lay quiet, began to drift, and saw again the woman in white with open arms waiting for him, as he ran faster and breathed harder as he ran, ever on, away from the shouts, the baying dogs, ever on to the pure light in front of him. He was almost there. He knew he could do it. He ran and ran and ran as hard as he could until he disappeared into the nights dark womb and the shouts became distant and confused.

The doctor put his pipe to his lips and slowly inhaled, then blew out a ring of blue smoke. He walked over to the window as he thought about the question. The leaves on the trees on the hospital grounds were turning; the reds and golds glittered in the autumn sun. The flowers still blossomed, squirrels still played in the branches, nurses walked patients along the paths, enjoying the warm golden light. The doctor paused as he reflected on what he was about to say. The he turned to the group seated in his office, the senior resident, the junior, the psychiatric nurse, all looking at him, waiting for him to speak.

‘You asked my opinion about this patient. I have examined him a number of times. It is clear he has suffered a psychotic break.

‘Patient 4538 is still suffering the delusion that he is a prisoner here. His delusion even extends to dreaming that he is escaping from the prison but then wakes up to be taken for interrogation. He thinks his dream is reality. But without any identity it is going to be difficult to treat him. We have no history.’

The junior nodded. ‘Just found by the police a few days ago wandering the streets, ‘looking for the good life”, they said. Totally disoriented. Said he had to keep running until he found it.’

The doctor looked out the window for a few moments as he drew on his pipe then, as he sat down in his leather chair, replied, ‘a sad case, thinking he can find the good life by running after it,

escaping everything, by refusing to examine himself. His delusion could be permanent. It exists in many people, perhaps most, but I have never seen anyone who has broken with reality like him. He will never recover I fear, unless we can find out who he is.’ He took another puff on his pipe as the others looked on in quiet agreement.

The telephone on his desk buzzed. The doctor reached calmly for the receiver, put it to his ear. “Yes?” There was a pause as he listened. Then his mouth opened. His pipe dropped from his hand.  His back stiffened.  He listened further, then said ‘all right, you’d better call the police.’

He put the receiver back. For long seconds he said nothing, then turned to the others and said, ‘He’s gone. The door to his room was locked but he’s gone. Just disappeared. Like he never existed. Well, I’ll be damned.’

And, as the doctor sat back in wonderment, Prisoner 4538 kept running, stumbling, falling, towards the gentle arms of the lady in white.