He Was Weary of Tears and Laughter. He felt perhaps he had been a priest too long. His despair had grown until it seemed, suddenly, bewilderingly, he was an entity, separate and alone. His days had become a burden. The weddings and baptisms which once provided him with pleasure had become a diversion, one of the myriad knots upon the rope of his faith. A rope he was unable to unravel because for too long he had told himself that in God rested the final and reconciling truth of the mystery that was human life. In the middle of the night the ring of the doorbell roused him from restless sleep. His housekeeper, old Mrs. Calchas, answered. Word was carried by a son or a daughter or a friend that an old man or an old woman was dying and the priest was needed for the last communion. He dressed wearily and took his bag and his book, a conductor on the train of death who no longer esteemed himself as a puncher of tickets. He spent much time pondering what might have gone wrong. He thought it must be that he had been a priest too long. Words of solace and consolation spoken too often became tea bags returned to the pot too many times. Yet he still believed that love, all forms of love, represented the only real union with other human beings. Only in this way, in loving and being loved, could the enigmas be transcended and suffering be made bearable. When he entered the priesthood 40 years before, he drew upon the springs of love he had known. The warmth of his mother who embodied for him the home from which he came, bountiful nature and the earth. The stature of his father as the one who taught him, who showed him the road to the world. Even the fragmented recollection of the sensual love of a girl he had known as a boy helped to strengthen the bonds of his resolve. He would never have accepted his ordainment if he did not feel that loving God and God's love for all mankind could not be separated. If he could not explain all the manifestations of this love, he could at least render its testaments in compassionate clarity. But with increasing anguish his image seemed to have become disembodied from the source. He felt himself suddenly of little value to those who suffered. Because he knew this meant he was failing God in some (continued on page 111)
Miracle (continued from page 67) improvident way, a wounding shame was added to his weariness.
Sometimes in the evening he stopped by the coffeehouse of Little Macedonia. There the shadows were cool and restful and the sharp aroma of brandies and virulent cigars exorcised melancholy for a little while. He sat with his old friend of many years, Barbaroulis, and they talked of life and death.
Barbaroulis was a grizzled and growling veteran of three wars and a thousand tumbled women. An unrepentant rake who counted his years of war and lechery well spent. An old man in the twilight of his life with all the fabled serenity of a saint.
"Hurry, old noose-collar," Barbaroulis said. "I am half a bottle of masticha ahead."
"I long ago gave up hope of matching you in that category," the priest said.
Barbaroulis filled both their glasses with a flourish. "Tell me of birth and marriage and death," he said.
"I have baptized one, married two, and buried three this last week," the priest said.
Barbaroulis laughed mockingly. "What a delightful profession," he said. "A bookkeeper in the employ of God."
"And whose employ are you in?" the priest asked.
"I thought you knew," the old man said. "Can you not smell sulfur and brimstone in my presence?"
"An excuse for not bathing more often," the priest said.
"You are insolent," the old man growled. He called out in his harsh loud voice and a waiter exploded out of the shadows with another bottle of masticha. Barbaroulis drew the cork and smelled the fragrance with a moan of pleasure. "The smell of masticha and the smell of a lovely woman have much in common,"he said. "And a full bottle is like a lovely woman before love."
"Your head and a sponge have much in common, too," the priest said. "Wine and women are ornaments and not pillars of life."
"Drink up, noose-collar," Barbaroulis said. "Save your sermons for Sunday."
The priest raised the glass to his lips and slowly sipped the strong tart liquid. It soothed his tongue and for a brief illusive moment eased his spirit. "The doctor has warned you about drinking," he said to Barbaroulis. "Yet you seem to be swilling more than ever before."
"When life must be reduced to an apothecaries' measure," Barbaroulis snorted, "it is time to get out. I am not interested in remaining alive with somber kidneys and a placid liver. Let the graduate undertakers who get me marvel at my liver scarred like the surface of a withered peach and at my heart seared by a thousand loves like a hunk of meat in incredible heat."
"You are mad, old roué," the priest said. "But sometimes I see strange order in your madness."
"Even a madman would renounce this world," Barbaroulis said with contempt. "Why should anyone hesitate giving up the culture of the bomb and the electric chair? We are a boil on the rump of the universe and all our vaunted songs are mute wind-breakings in the darkness of eternity."
"You assemble the boil and the flatus," the priest said, "from the condition of your liver and your heart."
"When will you admit, noose-collar," Barbaroulis laughed, "that the limousine of faith has a broken axle?"
"When you admit," the priest said, "that the hungry may eat fish without understanding the dark meaning in its eye." He finished his drink and rose regretfully to go.
"Leaving already?" Barbaroulis said. "You come and go like a robin after crumbs."
"There is a world outside these shadows," the priest said.
"Renounce it!" Barbaroulis said. "Forsake it! Join me here and we will both float to death on exultant kidneys."
"You are a saint," the priest said. "Saint Barbaroulis of the Holy Order of Masticha. Your penance is to drink alone."
"What is your penance?"
The priest stood for a moment in the shadows and yearned to stay awhile longer. The taste of the masticha was warm on his tongue and his weariness was eased in the fragrant dark. "Birth and marriage and death," he said and waved the old man goodbye.
• • •
On Sunday mornings he rose before dawn and washed and dressed. He sat for a little while in his room and reviewed his sermon for the day. Then he walked the deserted streets to the church.
There was a serenity about the city at daybreak on Sunday, a quiet and restful calm before the turmoil of the new week. Only a prowling tomcat, fierce as Barbaroulis, paused to mark the sound of his steps in the silence. At the edge of the dark sky the first light glittered and suspended the earth between darkness and day.
The church was damp from the night and thick with shadows. In a few moments old Janco shuffled about lighting the big candles. The flames fingered flickers of light across the icons of the white bearded saints.
He prepared for the service. He broke the bread and poured the wine for the communion. Afterward he dressed slowly in his vestments and bound the layers and cords of cloth together. He passed behind the iconostasis and through a gap in the partition saw that the first parishioners were already in church awaiting the beginning of the service. First, the very old and infirm regarding the ornaments of God somberly and without joy. They would follow every word and gesture of the liturgy grimly. Their restless and uneasy fingers reflected the questions burning in their minds. Would the balance sheet of their lives permit them entry into the city of God? Was it ever too late to take solace in piety and assurance in sobriety?
After them the middle-aged entered. Men and women who had lived more than half their lives and whose grown children had little need for them anymore. Strange aches and pains assailed them and they were unable to dispel the dark awareness of time as enemy instead of friend.
Then the young married couples with babies squirming in their arms, babies whose shrill voices cried out like flutes on scattered islands. In the intervals when they were not soothing the infants, the young parents would proffer their devotions a little impatiently while making plans for the things to be done after church.
Finally the very young girls and boys, distraught and inattentive, secured to the benches by the eyelocks of stern parents. They had the arrogance of youth, the courage of innocence, and the security of good health.
When the service was over they all mingled together for a milling moment and then formed lines to pass before him for bread. Old Janco began snuffing out the candles in the warm and drowsy church. The shadows returned garnished by incense. The church emptied slowly and the last voices echoed a mumble like the swell of a receding wave. In the end only he remained and with him the men and women standing in the rear of the darkened church waiting to see him alone.
"Father, my daughter is unmarried and pregnant. A boy in our neighborhood is guilty. I swear I will kill him if he does not marry her."
"Father, my husband drinks. For 10 years he has promised to give it up. Sometimes there isn't money enough to buy food for the children's supper."
"Father, all day I look after my mother in her wheelchair. I cannot sleep at night because I dream of wishing her dead."
"Father, my child is losing his sight. The doctors say there is nothing that can be done."
"Father, ask God to have mercy on me. I have sinned with my brother's wife."
"Father, pray for me."
Until the last poor tormented soul was gone, and he stood alone in the dark and empty church. For a terrible instant he yearned for the restful sleep of death. In the sky outside a bird passed trailing its winged and throaty cry. He knelt and prayed. He asked to be forgiven his sins of weariness and despair and to be strengthened against faltering and withdrawal.
• • •
There was a night that summer when the doorbell rang long after midnight. He woke from a strange and disordered sleep to the somber voice of Mrs. Calchas. Barbaroulis was dying.
He dressed with trembling hands and went into the night. His friend lived in a rooming house a few blocks away and the landlady, a grim-faced Circe, let the priest in. She told him the doctor had come and gone. There was nothing more to be done.
Barbaroulis lay in an old iron-postered bed, a decayed giant on a quilt-and-cotton throne. When he turned his head at the sound of the door, the priest saw that dying had refashioned the flesh of his face, making the cheeks dark and tight and the eyes webbed and burning.
"I was expecting Death, the carrion crow," Barbaroulis said. "You enter much too softly."
"Did you wake me for nothing?" the priest said. "Is your ticket perhaps for some later train?"
Barbaroulis grinned, a twisting of flesh around his mouth, and the husks of his teeth glittered in the dim light. "I sent for you to get it," he said.
"The bottle of masticha," Barbaroulis said. "My mouth is parched for some masticha."
"The custom is for communion," the priest said.
"Save it," Barbaroulis said. "There is a flask of masticha in the corner behind the books. I have hidden it from that dragon who waits like a banshee for my wake."
The priest brought him the flask. The great nostrils of Barbaroulis twitched as he smelled the sharp aroma. He made a mighty effort to raise his head and the priest helped him. The touch of the old man's expiring flesh swept the priest with a mutilating grief. A little liquid dribbled down the old man's chin. Breathing harshly, he rested his head back against the pillow. "A shame to waste any," he said.
"Tomorrow I will bring a full bottle," the priest said, "and serve it to you out of the communion chalice. We might get away with it."
"Drink it yourself in my memory," Barbaroulis said. "I will not be here."
"Where is your courage?" the priest asked gruffly to cover emotion. "I have seen men sicker by far rise to dance in a week."
"No more dancing for Barbaroulis," the old man said slowly and the mocking rise and fall of his voice echoed from the hidden corners of the room. "The ball is over, the bottles empty, the strumpets asleep. Pack me a small bag for a short trip. Only the lightest of apparel."
"A suit of asbestos," the priest said.
"I have no regrets," Barbaroulis twisted his mouth in a weird grin. "I have burned the earth as I found it. And if word could be carried far and fast enough a thousand women would mourn for me and rip their petticoats in despair."
"Are you confessing?" the priest asked.
"Just remembering," Barbaroulis said and managed a sly wink. "When I see your God," he said, "shall I give him a message from you?"
"You won't have time," the priest said. "The layover between trains will be brief."
The old man's dark parched lips stirred against each other in silent laughter. "Old noose-collar," he said, "a comfort to the end."
"Saint Barbaroulis," the priest said. "The Holy Order of Masticha."
"What a time we could have had," Barbaroulis said. "The two of us wenching and fighting and drinking. What a roisterer I could have made of you."
"What about you in church?" the priest said. "You might have become a trustee and passed the collection plate on Sunday. Who would have dared drop a slug before your fierce and vigilant eye? Gregory of Nazianzus would have been a minor saint beside you."
Barbaroulis laughed again with a grating sound as if bone were being rubbed against bone. Then the laughter faltered and a long shudder swept his body. His fingers, stiff as claws, curled in frenzy upon the sheet.
The priest watched his terrible struggle and there was nothing he could do but grip the old man's hand tightly in his own.
Barbaroulis made a sign with his raging eyes and the priest moved closer quickly. A single moment had transformed the old man's face into a dark and teeming battleground of death. His lips stirred for a moment without sound and then he spoke in a low hoarse whisper and each word came bitten slowly from between his teeth.
"I have known a thousand men and women well," he drew a long fierce rasp of breath. "I have loved only one." His voice trailed away and the priest moved closer to his lips that trembled fiercely to finish. "A priest who reflects the face of his God."
Then his mouth opened wider and his teeth gleamed in a jagged line. For a moment he seemed to be screaming in silence and then a short violent rush of air burst from his body.
The priest sat there for a long time. In death the old man seemed to have suddenly become half man, half statue, something between flesh and stone. Finally the priest rose and closed his eyes and bent and kissed his cheek.
He left the room. The street was black but the roofs of houses were white in the glow of the waning moon. A wind stirred the leaves of a solitary tree and then subsided.
His friend had been a man of strife and a man of contention. But into the darkness the old man had borne the priest's grief and his sorrow. In his final moment Barbaroulis had fed his loneliness and appeased his despair. And as he walked, he cried, and the great bursting tears of Lazarus ran like wild rivers down his cheeks.