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Authors: Jeffrey Ford

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BOOK: Crackpot Palace
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I imagined a land of babies, but babies who could talk and walk around, run, drive cars even, play Davy Crockett, read the Sunday funnies to each other, wear top hats and dress in tuxedos if they wanted. And with them would be pets. I loved pets.

I'd had a little orange bird my parents had bought me, which I kept in a cage in the living room by the front window. It sang every morning and at night. I'd called it Q and sometimes I'd let it out and it would fly around and then go back to its cage. One day, for a drunken barbecue, my mother made forty deviled eggs, and the smell of those eggs killed the bird. The smell almost killed us too. Q hung upside down from his stick perch. We buried him in the backyard and I made a cross out of twigs to mark the grave. It took me almost a whole week and a half to forget about him. But now I saw him again while sitting in that old wooden house, the snow covering the world outside the window—his orange, puff-ball self, flitting around in the land of Limbo, landing gently on the heads of gentle babies, making them laugh.

Sunday school carried on, yelling, ruler banging, kids with more wrong answers, and then it was over, and I knew that God could, if he wanted, be merciful. We went to the little red house for about a year or so, until my mother was too hungover for church on Sundays. Then Jim was assigned the task of taking me to church, and we'd walk all the way up Higbee Lane and cross the death-defying Sunrise Highway, and go farther and farther to Our Lady of Lourdes.

We took that trek exactly three times, and on the fourth Sunday, as we passed a side street on our way up Pine Avenue, Jim said, “We're going this way today.” I was stumped, because the way he was pointing was in the other direction from the church. I nervously followed him. We ended up at the deli, where he bought a quart of chocolate milk and a package of chocolate chip cookies. When we left the deli, he directed me to a spot behind the stores where no one ever went. We sat on empty milk crates and he divvied up the cookies. We passed the chocolate milk back and forth. At one point he took one of the cookies and held it up like the priest did with the host and mumbled some mumbo jumbo and we laughed like hell.

And then, not so long ago, I read that the Vatican, as if on a whim, abolished Limbo. Q and the other pets and the dead babies, where did they all go? The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

Relic

O
ut at the end of the world on a long spit of land like a finger poking into oblivion, nestled in a valley among the dunes, sat the Church of Saint Ifritia, constructed from twisted driftwood and the battered hulls of ships. There was one tall, arched window composed of the round bottoms of blue bottles. The sun shone through it, submerging altar and pews. There was room for twenty inside, but the most ever gathered for a sermon was eleven. Atop its crooked steeple jutted a spiral tusk some creature had abandoned on the beach.

The church's walls had a thousand holes and so every morning Father Walter said his prayers while shoveling sand from the sanctuary. He referred to himself as “Father” but he wasn't a priest. He used the title because it was what he remembered the holy men were called in the town he came from. Wanderers to the end of the world sometimes inquired of him as to the church's denomination. He was confused by this question. “A basic church, you know,” he'd say. “I talk God and salvation with anyone interested.” Usually the pilgrims would turn away, but occasionally one stayed on and listened.

Being that the Church of Saint Ifritia could have as few as three visitors a month, Father Walter didn't feel inclined to give a sermon once a week. “My flock would be only the sand fleas,” he said to Sister North. “Then preach to the fleas,” she replied. “Four sermons a year is plenty,” he said. “One for each season. Nobody should need more than four sermons a year.” They were a labor for him to write, and he considered the task as a kind of penance. Why he gave sermons, he wasn't sure. Their purpose was elusive, and yet he knew it was something the holy men did. His earliest ones were about the waves, the dunes, the sky, the wind, and when he ran out of natural phenomena to serve as topics, he moved inward and began mining memory for something to write.

Father Walter lived behind the whalebone altar in a small room with a bed, a chair, a desk, and a stove. Sister North, who attended a summer sermon one year, the subject of which was “The Wind,” and stayed on to serve Saint Ifritia, lived in her own small shack behind the church. She kept it tidy, decorated with shells and strung with tattered fishing nets, a space no bigger than Father Walter's quarters. In the warm months, she kept a garden in the sand, dedicated to her saint. Although he never remembered having invited her to stay on, Father Walter proclaimed her flowers and tomatoes miracles, a cornucopia from dry sand and salt air, and recorded them in the official church record.

Sister North was a short, brown woman with long dark hair streaked with gray, and an expression of determination. Her irises were almost yellow, catlike, in her wide face. On her first night amid the dunes, she shared Father Walter's bed. He came to realize that she would share it again as long as there was no mention of it during the light of day. Once a season, she'd travel ten miles inland on foot to the towns and give word that a sermon was planned for the following Monday. The towns she visited scared her, and only occasionally would she meet a pilgrim who'd take note of her message.

In addition to the church and Sister North's shack, there were two other structures in the sand dune valley. One was an outhouse built of red ship's wood with a tarpaulin flap for a door and a toilet seat made of abalone. The other was a shrine that housed the holy relic of Saint Ifritia. The latter building was woven from reeds by Sister North and her sisters. She'd sent a letter and they'd come, three of them. They were all short and brown with long dark hair streaked with gray. None had yellow eyes, though. They harvested reeds from the sunken meadow, an overgrown square mile set below sea level among the dunes two miles east of the church. They sang while they wove the strands into walls and window holes and a roof. Father Walter watched the whole thing from a distance. He felt he should have some opinion about it, but couldn't muster one. When the shrine began to take form, he knew it was a good thing.

Before Sister North's sisters left to return to their lives, Father Walter planned a dedication for the relic's new home. He brought the holy item to the service wrapped in a dirty old towel, the way he'd kept it for the past thirty years. Its unveiling brought sighs from the sisters, although at first they were unsure what they were looking at. A dark lumpen object, its skin like that of an overripe banana. There were toes and even orange, shattered toenails. It was assumed a blade had severed it just above the ankle, and the wound had, by miracle or fire, been cauterized. “Time's leather” was the phrase Father Walter bestowed upon the state of its preservation. It smelled of wild violets.

There was no golden reliquary to house it; he simply placed it in the bare niche built into the altar, toes jutting slightly beyond the edge of their new den. He turned and explained to the assembled, “You must not touch it with your hands, but fold them in front of you, lean forward, and kiss the toes. In this manner, the power of the saint will be yours for a short time and you'll be protected and made lucky.”

Each of them present, the father, Sister North and her sisters, and a young man and woman on their honeymoon who wandered into the churchyard just before the ceremony got under way, stepped up with folded hands and kissed the foot. Then they sat and Father Walter paced back and forth whispering to himself as was his ritual prior to delivering a sermon. He'd written a new one for the event, a fifth sermon for the year. Sister North was pleased with his industry and had visited his bed the night he'd completed it. He stopped pacing eventually and pointed at the ancient foot. The wind moaned outside. Sand sifted through the reeds.

Father Walter's Sermon

When I was a young man, I was made a soldier. It wasn't my choosing. I don't know. They put a gun to my head. We marched through the mud into a rainy country. I was young and I saw people die all around me. Some were only wounded but drowned in the muddy puddles. It rained past forty days and forty nights and the earth had had its fill. Rivers flooded their banks and the water spilled in torrents from the bleak mountains. I killed a few close up with a bayonet and I felt their life rush out. Some I shot at a distance and watched them suddenly drop like children at a game. In two months' time I was a savage.

We had a commanding officer who'd become fond of killing. He could easily have stayed behind the lines and directed the attack, but, with saber drawn, he'd lead every charge and shoot and hack to pieces more of the enemy than the next five men. Once I fought near him in a hand-to-hand mêlée against a band of enemy scouts. The noises he made while doing his work were ungodly. Strange animal cries. He scared me. And I was not alone. This Colonel Hempfil took no prisoners and would dispatch civilians as well as members of his own squad on the merest whim. I swear I thought I'd somehow gone to hell. The sun never shone.

And then one night we sat in ambush in the trees on either side of a dirt road. The rain, of course, was coming down hard and it was cold, moving into autumn. The night was an eternity, I thought. I nodded off and then there came some action. The colonel kicked me where I sat and pointed at the road. I looked and could barely make out a hay cart creaking slowly by. The colonel kicked me again and indicated with hand signals that I was to go and check out the wagon.

My heart dropped. I started instantly crying, but so as not to let the colonel see me sobbing, I ran to it. There could easily have been enemy soldiers beneath the hay with guns at the ready. I ran onto the road in front of the wagon and raised my weapon. “Halt,” I said. The tall man holding the reins pulled up and brought the horses to a stop. I told him to get down from his seat. As he climbed onto the road, I asked him, “What are you carrying?” “Hay,” he replied, and then the colonel and the rest of our men stormed the wagon. Hempfil gave orders to clear the hay. Beneath it was discovered the driver's wife and two daughters. Orders were given to line them all up. As the driver was being escorted away by two soldiers, he turned to me and said, “I have something to trade for our freedom. Something valuable.”

The colonel was organizing a firing squad when I went up to him and told him what the driver had said to me. He thanked me for the information, and then ordered that the tall man be brought to him. I stood close to hear what he could possibly have to offer for the lives of his family. The man leaned over Hempfil and whispered something I could not make out. The colonel then ordered him, “Go get it.”

The driver brought back something wrapped in a dirty towel. He unwrapped the bundle and, whisking away the cloth, held a form the size of a small rabbit up to the colonel. “Bring a light,” cried Hempfil. “I can't see a damn thing.” A soldier lit a lantern and brought it. I leaned in close to see what was revealed. It was an old foot, wrinkled like a purse and dark with age. The sight of the toenails gave me a shiver.

“This is what you will trade for your life and the lives of your family? This ancient bowel movement of a foot? Shall I give you change?” said the colonel, and that's when I knew all of them would die. The driver spoke quickly. “It is the foot of a saint,” he said. “It has power. Miracles.”

“What saint?” asked the colonel.

“Saint Ifritia.”

“That's a new one,” said Hempfil and laughed. “Bring me the chaplain,” he called over his shoulder.

The chaplain stepped up. “Have you ever heard of Saint Ifritia?” asked the colonel.

“She's not a real saint,” said the priest. “She is only referred to as a saint in parts of the holy writing that have been forbidden.”

Hempfil turned and gave orders for the driver's wife and daughters to be shot. When the volley sounded, the driver dropped to his knees and hugged the desiccated foot to him as if for comfort. I saw the woman and girls, in their pale dresses, fall at the side of the road. The colonel turned to me and told me to give him my rifle. I did. He took his pistol from its holster at his side and handed it to me. “Take the prisoner off into the woods where it's darker, give him a ten-yard head start, and then kill him. If he can elude you for fifteen minutes, let him go with his life.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, but I had no desire to kill the driver. I led him at gunpoint up the small embankment and into the woods. We walked slowly forward into darkness. He whispered to me so rapidly, “Soldier, I still hold the sacred foot of Ifritia. Let me trade you it for my life. Miracles.” As he continued to pester me with his promises of blessings and wonders, the thought of killing him began to appeal to me. I don't know what it was that came over me. It came from deep within, but in an instant his death had become for me a foregone conclusion. After walking for ten minutes, I told him to stop. He did. I said nothing for a while, and the silence prompted him to say, “I get ten yards, do I not?”

“Yes,” I said.

With his first step, I lifted the pistol and shot him in the back of the head. He was dead before he hit the ground, although his body shook twice as I reached down to turn him over. His face was blown out the front, a dark smoking hole above a toothful grimace. I took the foot, felt its slick hide in my grasp, and wrapped it in the dirty towel. Shoving it into my jacket, I buttoned up against the rain and set off deeper into the woods. I fled like a frightened deer through the night, and all around me was the aroma of wild violets.

It's a long story, but I escaped the war, the foot of Saint Ifritia producing subtle miracles at every turn and once making me invisible as I passed through an occupied town. I left the country of rain, pursued by the ghost of the wagon driver. Every other minute, behind my eyes, the driver's wife and daughters fell in their pale dresses by the side of the road in the rain and nearly every night he would appear from my meager campfire, rise up in smoke and take form. “Why?” he always asked. “Why?”

I found that laughter dispersed him more quickly. One night I told the spirit I had plans the next day to travel west. But in the morning, I packed my things up quickly and headed due south, toward the end of the world. I tricked him. Eventually, the ghost found me here, and I see him every great while, pacing along the tops of the dunes that surround the valley. He can't descend to haunt me, for the church I built protects me and the power of Saint Ifritia keeps him at bay. Every time I see him his image is dimmer, and before long he will become salt in the wind.

The impromptu congregation was speechless. Father Walter slowly became aware of it as he stood, swaying slightly to and fro. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” he said, a phrase he'd actually heard from Colonel Hempfil. There was a pause after his delivery of it during which he waved his hands back and forth in the air like a magician, distracting an audience. Eventually, two of the sisters nodded and the honeymoon couple shrugged and applauded the sermon.

Father Walter took this as a cue to move on, and he left the altar of the shrine and ran back to the church to fetch a case of whiskey that the Lord had recently delivered onto the beach after a terrific thunderstorm. The young couple produced a hash pipe and a tarry ball of the drug that bore a striking resemblance to the last knuckle of the middle toe of Saint Ifritia's foot.

Late that night, high as the tern flies, the young man and woman left and headed out toward the end of the world, and Sister North's sisters loaded into their wagon and left for their respective homes. Father Walter sat on the sand near the bell in the churchyard, a bottle to his lips, staring up at the stars. Sister North stood over him, the hem of her habit, as she called the simple gray shift she wore every day, flapped in the wind.

“None would stay the night after your story of murder,” she said to him. “They drank your whiskey, but they wouldn't close their eyes and sleep here with you drunk.”

BOOK: Crackpot Palace
5.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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