The boy dashed up to the priest. “Quick, Father. Fetch the key.”
The priest raised his eyes. He lifted his hands that had nested in his lap and let them drop to his sides. “What is it? Why the hurry?”
The young boy panted after his run. His bare feet were dirty from the dust of the dry forest path. “Faranji.”
The priest smiled to himself, and the smile came slowly to his lips. Faranji, yes. Always the foreigners. Always in a hurry. His parishioners came for a funeral or a baptism — both frequent enough in the cruel land where he was born — but they never hurried. He pressed his hands to his knees and stood. His rough-spun cassock fell to his ankles. His sandals were as cracked and dry as his broad brown feet. He shuffled into the dim room where he ate and slept. He took a key from a hook on the wall. The key was as long as his hand. A smithy had forged the key a century before the priest was born. The community elders had entrusted the key to him when he was a young deacon, fifty years ago. He retrieved the receipt book, an imposition by the government to record faranji visits and to deter unscrupulous priests who had formerly gouged the tourists. The government depended on tourism to fund the meager services provided the exploding population that had razed the nation’s forests to feed their kitchen fires.
The priest stepped out of the door of his home. His eyes readjusted to the glare of the afternoon. The denuded branches of the scraggly trees cast vague traces of shadows over the dusty ground. A rooster crowed. Impassive chickens scratched the hard clay of the yard, oblivious.
“Go fetch the deacon,” he said in his language. “He speaks English.” The young boy looked up into the rheumy eyes of the priest and smiled. Glad to be of use, he ran to look for the deacon who, unlike the priest, was less apt to be home.
The faranji, a family from England, had clambered out of the jeep, brought by a knowledgeable local driver. The tall, thin husband wore hiking shorts that exposed his white legs. The wife pulled back her blonde hair in a ponytail. The girl, gangly and self-conscious, looked around the clearing with adolescent impatience. The driver, who had parked in a cobweb of shadow, remained in the vehicle. “I will stay with the jeep.”
From his seat at the wheel, the driver pointed to a narrow, dusty path which followed a glistening rivulet that wound between gray boulders through a scrub forest. A herd of goats brayed, tugging at dry grass, and the bells around their necks clanged. Following the path, the family crossed the narrow creek, stepped over a crumbling wall, and ascended a low hill crowned by a copse of lofty trees.
As had happened before at other remote sites, boys precipitated as if out of the air. They bounded up and stopped to look at the new arrivals. The sanctuary rose before them, dappled by the shade of the surrounding trees. The church had stood here for ten centuries. The building had no windows; its only decoration were splotches of orange and green lichen. The afternoon sun grazed the vertical face of the church. Tall double doors stood at the top of a wedge of stone. The undulations in the stone confirm that the wedge had once been a staircase, now too worn to climb. Additional double doors opened on either side of the cubic volume. Wedges rose to these doors too, wedges that maintained the form of tall, steep steps.
One of the boys pointed to the sanctuary. “You want to see?”
The family nodded. The boy dashed off. The other boys stood and watched in the near distance. The family members looked to each other. The man shrugged his shoulders. The woman smiled and drew an old Brownie camera from her purse. The girl stamped her foot and twisted her thin torso into an unanswered question. The couple smiled to each other and ignored her.
On one side of the clearing, a tree branch had been lashed between two trees. The branch was worn smooth. A second branch had been lashed a little higher on the opposite side of the trunks. The man walked over to it, curious. One of the boys approached and sat on the simple bench the two branches formed. His face opened in a bright smile. The family smiled back. The man and woman sat. The girl fidgeted and walked to the far side of the clearing, then returned to sit between her parents. The trees rustled in the faint breeze and the birds tittered and chattered as the first breath of evening rose over the flat gray earth.
The boy who had gone to fetch the key reappeared like a forest sprite. He waved and pranced, his thin black legs and arms like a pinwheel. He dashed off again and returned, dragging behind him the deacon. The deacon wore blue jeans and a white shirt. He had short, unruly hair that stood on end. Dark eyebrows arched over his warm, liquid eyes. He approached. The three stood to greet him. He extended his hand. The husband took the deacon’s hand in both of his. He felt they had met before. Some common type, perhaps, whose immediate warmth sets him at ease.
“You speak English?”
“We all learn English now in school. If our country is ever to recover its former glory, we must learn to speak the international language.”
“No. Not French. We were never a colony.”
The four stood in awkward silence. No one knew what to say.
“Do you have the key?”
“No. the boy told me you were coming. The priest has the key. He will arrive soon.”
“The priest does not speak English. My generation is the first to learn English. The priest asked the boy to get me.”
“So, you are not the priest?”
“No. I am a deacon. Not a priest. Not yet.”
The couple nodded. The girl, disinterested, wandered to the edge of the clearing. The couple sat down on the branch again and gestured for the deacon to join them. He raised his two palms to show he preferred to remain standing. The boys withdrew. One picked up a stone and threw it at the billy-goat that was leading the herd up the low hill. The goat turned in haste. The bell on his neck clanged, and he scurried back to the shallow stream. The breeze of late afternoon refreshed the clearing and sent shadows dancing across the wall with the orange and green lichen.
“This church, it is very old.”
“Yes, our guidebook says it has been here for over a thousand years.” The woman extended the book towards the deacon, opened to the appropriate page.
“Few people come here. Faranji, I mean. Like you.” He blushed, fearful he had offended.
“I’m not surprised. It was quite a drive to get here.”
The silence that followed was not uncomfortable. Rather, it was strange. Time here ran at the pace of centuries.
“Will the priest come?”
“The boy, he spoke to the priest first. The priest sent for me.” The man checked his watch.
The boy said, “I go find priest.” He ran back up the path behind the church. The deacon smiled and shrugged.
The boy re-appeared, dragging the old priest by the hand.
The priest held up the large, heavy key. He placed it back in his pocket and withdrew the tablet with the government receipts. He filled out the form in triplicate, using the back of the deacon as his desk. He wrote with a firm hand the script of his language, crabbed and dense. The man pulled out his wallet and extracted the correct fee. The priest accepted it in a ceremonial exchange of mutual acknowledgment. The priest spoke to the deacon who translated, “He apologizes that he does not speak English.” The priest turned and walked to the side door of the sanctuary.
He climbed the steep worn steps, one step at a time. At the top of the stairs, he extracted the heavy key from his cassock and inserted it into the gaping keyhole in the massive door. He turned the key three times and pushed open the door. The priest lowered himself down a second staircase, one step at a time. This staircase, the mirror of the first, descended to the dirt floor of the sanctuary. Light did not stream through the doors, as the man had expected. Rather, the light seemed to rise from the ground, slowly filling the sanctum.
With a comic gesture, the man play-acted the chivalrous knight and gestured for his lady to precede him. The woman inclined her head and lifted her imaginary skirts. She climbed the steep steps and descended after the priest into the dim chapel. The girl rolled her eyes and sprinted after her mother. The man followed them in broad strides.
The sanctuary breathed in the light. Their eyes adapted to the dimness. The priest handed the key to the deacon who followed a familiar path. First to the front doors. He climbed its eroded stairs and opened the double doors. The sanctuary took in another deep breath. The deacon slid down the wedge and traversed the worn dirt floor to open the third set of doors. The sanctuary came to tremulous life.
A cheap, soiled carpet runner, deep red, extended from the main doors to the altar. Undistinguished paintings, some wrapped in cloudy plastic, had been stacked against the altar. Plastic mats lay scattered about.
The sanctuary walls, plastered in white, bore images painted in red, yellow and black. Painted on a lumpy pillar, a trio of rigid angels, taller than the priest, faced the family. A line up of six oval eyes gazed past them into infinity. Stiff rectangular wings, striated in red and black, rose above the angels’ heads. The wings reached towards the shadowy ceiling. The angels had long noses and rosebud lips.
The deacon apologized. “I am sorry. We cannot turn on lights. There is no electricity here.”
“I am so grateful. We have seen other churches where the priests have bolted fluorescent fixtures over the wall paintings. None, of course, as magnificent as these.” The man gestured in wide arcs.
The woman took pictures without purpose. Photography could not transmit the vitality of this sanctum: the trace of incense, the chatter of birds, the distant clang of the goats’ bronze bells, the somnolent rising light. A sense of disorder pervaded the church. In a photograph, the disorder becomes picturesque, but the disorder was not pretty. The lack of care communicated something else: the futility of the generations that quickly pass, the timelessness of these churches, timeless for as long as they stand. The sanctuary was the living thing. The fleeting generations brought no more meaning than the flies that had hovered over the bananas at breakfast. A family, a deacon, a priest and four idle boys contributed no meaning. The church had no meaning beyond its persistence.
The priest had dedicated his life to this sanctum. He had tended it, with desultory calm, as had his uncle before him and his uncle’s father before that. The man and wife felt the sanctuary’s atemporal power and the blessing it bestowed on them. Years into the future, the daughter realized what she had failed to see that day.
The man turned to the deacon. He looked into the deacon’s deep-set brown eyes with the warmth of a long friendship. “I feel like I have been here before. There is something familiar. I can’t put my finger on it. I don’t know how that can be.”
The deacon looked back from beneath his dark eyebrows. After a baffled silence, the man suspected he has erred. He retreated to small talk.
“After your studies, what do you hope to do?”
“I hope to be here. I hope to be entrusted with this key.” He nodded toward the priest, who didn’t understand. “I hope to be the one who opens this sanctuary for the next fifty years.”
The man, taken aback, relished the simplicity of this response and envied one who can aspire to so little, and to so much. He turned full circle, taking in the extent of the dim, resonant hall, its dark cobwebbed corners and its painted walls, still vivid ten centuries after their creation.
“Are you ready?” the deacon asked.
“No,” the man answered. Responding to the deacon’s hint, he ambled reluctantly toward the doors where they had entered. He climbed the stairs and turned back at the threshold. He jerked his head. A nervous tremor dispelled a nameless premonition.
“Are you ready?” the deacon asked again.
The man did not answer. The deacon took his silence as a response. He crossed the sanctuary to close the furthest set of doors. The light dimmed, and the painted images receded. He returned to the central axis of the church and crawled up the worn stone ramp to the main double doors. He pulled them shut, and the sanctuary darkened further. Its power withdrew into the earth. The daughter sprinted in quick steps over the staircase of the remaining open doors and scampered down to the clearing around the church. The woman climbed the stairs, turned at the landing, and stood next to her husband to take a final photograph. The two looked back into the sanctum and breathed in its dark solemnity. The man did not move, transfixed. The priest struggled up the steps. The woman took the priest’s arm and helped him down the worn stairs to the clearing.
The man turned, in a sudden pang of sorrow, and descended the steep stairs to the clearing outside. He did not understand his grief. He blinked his eyes to thwart the strange, unbidden tears. He turned away from his wife, daughter and priest. Only the deacon saw. The deacon made no comment as he locked the last set of doors and climbed down the steps to join the others in the clearing. The man had recovered. He looked into the deacon’s eyes. Beneath the black arch of his eyebrows, his liquid eyes glimmered. He knew; he would tell no one.
Twenty years passed. The man lay in a hospital bed. He had contracted a rare degenerative disease with a long name and no cure. His wife sat beside him. She held his hand.
His dry lips whispered hoarse words, “Someone stopped by. I believe it was a woman.”
His wife rustled and resettled in the hospital chair. “Yes. It was your daughter.”
He shot a distraught look at his wife. “I knew a woman had come, but these visitors… they disappear in a mist. I just lose them.”
She squeezed his hand. His did not respond. “She brought your grandson.”
“He is all eyes, devouring the world. But he didn’t know who you are. He’s still too young to understand. I took a picture.”
She picked up the digital camera that she had placed on a side table.
The picture showed a cherubic child wearing a tee-shirt and shorts. Their daughter props the boy in her lap. His chubby legs are splayed. The daughter is beautiful, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, as the woman herself used to wear her hair before she cut it short. Only the child looks directly at the camera, not yet aware of his power to dissemble behind a grin. The bed-ridden man looked at the image on the screen of his wife’s camera. He winced to see himself so thin and pale.
She put the camera back on the side table. She settled into her chair. Images of their long life together flowed to her in successive waves. She focused on none of them. She looked absent-mindedly at the green curtains in front of the venetian blinds. The afternoon sky darkened to night. The cold white light of the streetlamps flashed on.
Days passed, as such days pass, repetitive and novel. His condition did not improve. Then the inconceivable became the inevitable. She received the call from the nurses’ station. “His condition has worsened. I suggest you come quickly.”
She rushed to the hospital and hurried to his room. The nurse had dimmed the lights. She stood, arrested at the doorway, then swept into the room and took the seat at her husband’s side. She was alone with him. He had entered a coma. His body twitched irregularly, a body no longer motivated by spirit, a body twitching in denial of death. She held his cool hand. She gave it a squeeze. There was no response. She sat back and watched the flickering monitors. One followed his breath, another his heart. The rise and fall of the fluorescent cursors continued; a beep confirmed each cycle. A number flashed on the screen, heartbeats per minute, and that number began to drop.
He is standing before the sanctuary they had visited twenty years before. Its three sets of doors open. The light rises from the ground within.
He is standing inside. The three angels stand before him, unchanged, indifferent.
He turns to see a man with short stiff hair. The deacon. His hair has turned white. He holds the key, smiling. His thick eyebrows are still black. His warm brown eyes are familiar.
“Are you ready?”
The man stalls, then whispers, “I don’t know.”
The doors slowly close.
The light sinks into the ground.
“Are you ready?” the deacon asks again.
The man nods yes, and he sinks with the light.
A nurse quickly came from the hallway station when the monitors’ repetitive beeping turned constant. She remained standing in the doorway. The wife saw the nurse, trembling and out of focus through her tears.