Xenolith, Page 70A. Sparrow
Chapter 58: The Ruined Chapel
After a night of feeble zephyrs that failed to stir the sour air inside the granary, an assertive south wind arrived to tease the trees and raise the dust. Fingers of smudge, the vanguard of an encroaching cloud front, crept overhead and sullied the pure expanse of blue.
A skeletal shrub, ravaged by goats, bobbed and scraped against a mud wall. Mired in dew, a dragonfly rode the sway of its last remaining leaf. Frank and Tezhay waited for Harm, who had yet to emerge from the main house, as the wind scythed arcs through the marsh below.
“Today maybe you meet exile, Doctor Frank,” said Tezhay. “You happy for this?”
Frank shrugged. He wasn’t sure how he felt about going to Raacevo, but ‘happy’ didn’t quite capture his feelings. He was curious maybe, but it was tempered by a fear of sharp objects wielded by horsemen, not to mention a lingering anger over his stupidity for squandering his only chance of escape. Frank suspected that Tezhay would surely be happy to be rid of him – his pudgy, American ball and chain.
The impulse that had sent him back through the portal still perplexed him. It reminded him of the hopeless crush that had afflicted him in High School; the one that had sent him trudging into a January night with sweaty hands and a churning stomach, seeking the privacy of a pay phone to call a girl who was moving out of state and out of his life – forever, as it turned out. He marveled that such feelings could resurrect at this late stage and send him chasing after a long dead wife. He had thought the place in his heart that spawned such creatures had long since calcified.
The voice of Harm’s father boomed across the farm yard. They had seen no trace of Harm, himself, since he brought them a breakfast of boiled eggs and goat cheese before the sun had even risen.
“He tells him to be safe,” Tezhay translated. “Stay from big road because too much soldier.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Frank.
Both he and Tezhay stank of marsh. They had shared a thin shingle Frank had found to scrape off their mud clods, but the foul silt still permeated every fiber of their clothing and hair. Unless they could wash, they would be shedding stench and dust for days to come.
Frank noticed a faded script covering one side of the shingle; like pencil marks lightly erased. In the dimness, he had mistaken the shingle for an ordinary scrap of wood. He shook off some of the dirt and placed it carefully down on the sill where he had found it, hoping he hadn’t befouled part of the family library.
Harm dashed out of his house, apologized breathlessly to Tezhay as he ran past, and disappeared into another hut in the compound.
“What now?” said Frank.
“He get us some veil,” said Tezhay. “The kind Idala give us, they don’t wear in lower valley.”
“I’m not wearing any damned veil,” said Frank.
“You will,” said Tezhay, with finality. “Your beard too red. Not like Giep’o.”
“I can’t help it,” said Frank. “I was born this way.”
“With beard?” Tezhay smirked.
Harm brought them a pair tattered, off-white veils decorated with dull green, chain-link. Tezhay forced one into Frank’s reluctant hands. “Make sure it covers,” said Tezhay. “Remember, we not in Nalki territory anymore.” Frank grudgingly complied, tying one pair of strings over his ears, and the other behind his neck.
Harm’s father and sister walked with them to the edge of the cleared land to see them off. The sister looked glum. Frank sensed that she would rather be guiding foreigners than weeding. She had been out in the fields since there had been light enough to see.
As Harm bounded away down a narrow path that rounded the back side of the hummock, Frank stooped to rip off some soft leaves and tuck them under a sandal strap to cushion a raw spot. If the stones lining the track weren’t so jagged, he would have been inclined to follow Harm’s example and go barefoot.
They descended around the hummock and into a patchwork landscape of fields, windrows and woodlots. To their right, the main road gashed through the red dirt. Beyond it, the land dropped off quickly into the hollow holding the river. Harm led them along a narrower track that ran parallel, separated from the main road by one tier of fields. Tendrils of smoke marked several clusters of dwellings too small to be called villages. But Frank was glad to see that not all of Gi was ghost towns and ruins.
“Today, you see Raacevo, Doctor Frank,” said Tezhay. “You excite?”
“I suppose,” said Frank, who still felt spooked after the cavalry encounter in the marsh the day before. Visiting the place where Eghazi’s decapitators garrisoned was not exactly a salve.
“Harm too,” said Tezhay, grinning. “He say he not go Raacevo in long time.
“Is it safe there … relatively?”
Tezhay laughed. “In Gi, no place is safe. Not even here.”
A windrow of narrow trees with feathery leaves separated a grain field from the path. A small girl stood hugging one of the trunks and stared at them as they passed. The voices of older children carried to them from a perpendicular track.
“This place seems peaceful enough,” said Frank.
“Do you shit in your own bed?” said Tezhay.
“Do you make fire in your pantry?” said Tezhay. “Army needs to eat. These people grow their bread.”
“But I thought you said they used slaves. Forced labor.”
“Not here,” said Tezhay. “Giep’o make bad slave. Too stubborn. They rather starve. So now Venep’o are bringing own slave, to grow their colony.”
“These colonies, do they coexist then, with the locals?” said Frank.
“For now,” said Tezhay. “But some day this may all be colony.”
The cloud bank encroached, but the sun still blazed to bake the barren track. Moisture from Frank’s breath soddened his veil. He resisted the urge to rip it off. He awaited whatever respite the clouds would bring.
But he did take off his sandals when the rubbing of the straps became intolerable and let them dangle from his fingers as his toes sank into the soft dust of the roadway.
Tezhay paused beside a rickety fence. Someone had affixed a clump of scarlet flowers to the top rail. The winged and hooded blossoms resembled orchids. Behind the fence, their source, a tangle of vines, covered the entire wall of an animal shelter. Some blossoms, poised on the verge but not yet opened, looked like rabbits’ paws or dainty purses clasped in green faerie fingers. Their sweet and spicy fragrance permeated the air.
“Flower mean they sell drink,” said Tezhay. “You thirsty?”
“Sure,” said Tezhay. “As long as it’s clean and doesn’t have any dead toads in it.”
“No worry,” said Tezhay. “Is just beer, from honey.”
As they passed through a gate into a well-swept yard, Harm stopped and stiffened as a man emerged from under a pergola. His clothes seemed newer, or at least cleaner, than the rags that Harm and his family owned. A swatch of cobalt blue cloth was sewn down the front of a jacket that seemed too warm for the weather.
“No talk, no stare,” whispered Tezhay.
The man nodded sternly to a wide-eyed Harm, who shrank from the man’s staff as he passed. The man’s eyes swiveled to appraise Frank and Tezhay, but he kept on walking. Tezhay bowed and muttered a greeting. The man reached the track and turned left towards the marshes.
“Who was that?” said Frank.
“A Polu. Like … religious police man. He is Giep’o, but Sinkor convert. Eyes and ears for Hiloru.”
Tezhay led them through the pergola to an array of low stools carved from tree trunks, surrounding a fire pit holding mostly cold ash with a few weak embers. Tezhay clapped his hands and called out. A woman soon appeared carrying a dented metal pitcher from which a yellow froth slid down the side.
She and Tezhay exchanged words. She took the pitcher back inside.
“Where’d she go?” said Frank.
t people carry own cups,” said Tezhay. “I told her we have none.”
The woman reappeared with three shallow bowls stacked over the pitcher. She distributed them and leaned over to pour. The sleeve of her blouse hiked up slightly, revealing a scar on her wrist in the shape of a fish.
“That scar …” said Frank.
“What about?” said Tezhay.
The woman, mortified by the attention, pulled down her sleeve and clamped her hand over her wrist. Tezhay spoke gently to her, and convinced her to expose it.
“Someone carved the same shape on the bench outside the place we slept,” said Frank.
“Oh, is just a fish,” said Tezhay. “Is fashion for young people to make scar with knife and ashes.”
“But why a fish?” said Frank.
Tezhay inquired further. The woman again seemed discomfited and clammed up. Tezhay pressed. He turned to Frank.
“Take off your veil.”
Frank gladly complied. The woman’s widened. Then her face relaxed and words began to tumble.
“Ah, interesting!” said Tezhay. “This one has belief from Ur. She is Christian.”
“So it is a Jesus fish,” said Frank. “But … how?”
“From exile,” said Tezhay. “Exile bring. And this is why she has shyness. Venep’o don’t like Christian.”
The woman touched Tezhay’s arm to regain his attention. She spoke rapidly.
“She ask if you are Christian,” said Tezhay.
Frank took a moment to ponder that. He had certainly been raised a Catholic, and he had attended masses regularly with Liz when they lived at the mission. But in the years since her disappearance, any remnants of faith he once retained had crumbled.
“Yes,” he lied, lifting up his bowl to drink. He paused before the bowl touched his lips. “What’s in this again?” he said, staring down at something that looked like foamy urine.
“Is like beer,” said Tezhay. “But sweeter. Not so bitter or strong.”
Harm had already guzzled his down so Frank sighed and took a gulp, and found it pretty much as Tezhay described: like a watered-down, bubbly wine with overtones of dirt.
The woman continued to chat excitedly with Tezhay.
“She say, before Venep’o come, there is a temple here. A temple for your Christ.”
“Really? A church?” said Frank.
“Is burn by Cuasars,” said Tezhay “They take away the man who teach them … the … priest. Many people still come, she say, for see ruins and pray. Even more now, she say than before when priest was here.”
“Yeah. Martyrs have always been good for that line of work,” said Frank.
He touched his chest and felt for the gold chain that had adorned his body for so long, it seemed part of his flesh. He reached under his collar and pulled out his crucifix.
The woman’s jaw slackened and she nearly dropped her pitcher. She stooped forward, seized his hand and kissed the simple cross. She jabbered a Lord’s Prayer at him, in something devoid of syllabic structure and barely recognizable as English. The adoration in her eyes made him cringe.
She glanced up her front path to the track, grabbed a shawl off a peg and snapped a few brusque words to a younger woman in the next room. She tugged at Frank’s wrist.
“She want to show you something,” said Tezhay, rising and motioning for Harm to follow.
They followed her through a cluster of dwellings, past a garden onto a narrow, but well-worn path. It led across an orchard to a clearing beside a small creek. A small shack with a freshly thatched roof sat in one corner, opposite the remains of a larger structure. One singed wall remained standing. Before it, someone had scratched an icthys into the clay.
The woman called out, and an elderly man hobbled up from a stool beside the creek. He approached cautiously, but warmed to their presence after the woman made an effusive introduction. He came and bumped shoulders with both Frank and Tezhay. The woman kept staring at Frank, anxious to gauge his reaction to what looked to Frank like any other burned wall.
“Very nice,” said Frank. “Very interesting.”
Tezhay took Frank’s elbow and steered him towards the little hut. “Come, the old man has something to show.”
The old man fiddled with a tangle of twisted metal rods that apparently served as a lock. He swung open the door and let them enter. A small window of rippled glass provided the only light. The interior was spartan, with a single, throne-like chair, cushioned with a mat of woven straw and a thick-legged hardwood table. A tattered hammock hung in the far corner.
The man kicked aside straw from a patch in the middle of the floor, exposing a slab of grey slate. He lifted it, revealing a cavity containing a box and dozens of thin wooden shingles covered with script. The woman made sign after sign of the cross at the sight of them.
The old man carefully removed and opened the box. It contained several fragments from what appeared to be English Bible, mildewed and mud-stained, leather binding long decayed. The print barely contrasted against the browned paper. At least half of the book seemed to be missing.
The cover was absent, but a copyright page floated free on top of the stack. It read: King James Version Pew Bible. Holman Bible Publishers. Nashville, TN. August 6, 1992.
“Wow,” said Frank.
People started to gather at the door of the hut. The old man conferred with the woman. She bowed her head and queried Tezhay, glancing back at Frank.
“They ask, will he read?” said Tezhay.
“Sure, but … it’s in English,” said Frank.
“Is okay. I translate,” said Tezhay.
Frank took the box from the old man and placed it down on the table. He pulled one of the thicker fragments out from under the copyright page, its paper crumbling at the corners, and set it flat on the table. He skimmed the first passage.
“Oh … this won’t do,” Frank said. “This is some rough stuff here.” He looked through the other fragments. “What happened to the New Testament?”
“What difference?” said Tezhay. “Bible is Bible. No?”
“Just read,” said Tezhay, patting Frank’s shoulder. “Is okay.”
Two small boys and a girl squeezed past the people crowding the doorway and lined up against the back wall. Frank cleared his throat.
“And Hazael said, why weepeth my Lord? And He answered, because I know the evil thou wilt do unto the children of Israel: their strongholds wilt thou set on fire, and their young men wilt thou slay with the sword, and wilt dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their women with child.”
“Skip that part,” said Tezhay. “Is too much like Sinkor.”
Frank turned the page. “Thus saith the Lord God to the mountains and to the hills, to the watercourses and to the valleys—”
Tezhay held up his hand. “Let me translate.”
More people crowded around the door way, straining to see.
“Go on” said Tezhay. All eyes turned to Frank.
“This page is a bit smudged,” Frank said. “But, I’ll try my best … um … I will bring a sword upon you, and I will destroy your high places, your altars shall become desolate and your idols shall be broken. And I will cast down your slain men before your idols, and I will lay the carcasses of your children before your idols, and I will scatter your bones around your altars.”
“No, no, no, this no good either,” said Tezhay. “I no translate. Find something not with killing of children. Go on. Turn page.”
A murmur grew among the throng at the door. The children tried to find their way back out, but found themselves trapped. Frank riffled through a few pages, searching for something more suitable.
“This looks better,” he said. “But parts are obliterated with mildew or something.”
“Read what you can,” said Tezhay.
“Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers … um … I will put hooks in thy jaws, and
… um.. I will bring thee up out of the midst of thy rivers, with all the fish of thy rivers which stick unto thy scales ….”
“That is good,” said Tezhay, translating rapidly, as excitement rose among the onlookers. “Keep reading.”
“I will bring a sword upon thee and will cut off from thee man and beast, and the land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a waste, and they shall know that I am the Lord. The river is mine, and I have made it … uh … I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations… and I will disperse them through the countries … I will bring again the captivity of Egypt and … It shall be the basest of kingdoms, neither shall it any more lift itself up above the nations and I will diminish them … and they shall know that I am the Lord God.”
A cheer erupted in the crowd when Tezhay finished, added by the oomph of histrionics he added to his translation.
“Do they have any clue where Egypt is?” whispered Frank.
Tezhay gave a wry smile. “I no say Egypt. I tell them Venen.”
Frank placed the fragment back in its box, prompting a smattering of moans.
“I think they like some more,” said Tezhay. “Find one good one. It will pay for our drink, maybe.”
Frank sighed and flipped through the fragments, looking for something brief. Corners and edges crumbled at his touch. One short passage caught his eye because it had a lot of simple nouns. He picked up the sheet and read whatever was there: “To wit, the two pillars, and the pommels, and the chapiters which were on the top of the two pillars, and the two wreaths to cover the two pommels of the chapiters which were on top of the pillars—”
Tezhay, looking baffled, put his hand over the text. “Please. Not this one. Find one more simple one. Just one more and we go.”
This time Frank took more care, and actually read what was written on the pages. He settled on a passage from Leviticus, just a single sentence:
“If a stranger lives as a foreigner with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.”
“Perfect!” said Tezhay, plunging into a translation.
Frank made a sign of the cross, kissed his fingertips and touched them to the fragments in the box. The gesture impressed the caretaker and pleased the crowd. Those at the door parted to let them exit and then formed an adoring entourage that followed them back towards the main track. Harm had to push his way through to rejoin them.
“It work,” said Tezhay. “She say our drink is free.” The bar maid smiled at Frank.
As they passed the animal shelter and its wall of blooming vines, a notion nagged at Frank.
“What was the name of the priest who lived here?”
“Okay, I ask,” said Tezhay, turning to the crowd. They responded in ragged unison, kissing their palms and making signs of the cross: “Fadeh!”
“Father? Father who?”
“No father,” said Tezhay. “They say his name is Fa-deh.”
“Any chance it was Leo?”
“No, they say Fadeh,” insisted Tezhay.
They rejoined the track. A short ways beyond, the man they had passed on the way in – the polu – leaned against a tree, watching. Whispers flew. The crowd dispersed.
“Fix your veil,” hissed Tezhay.