Holy Men in Unholy Times – Part Three
The cool, damp, air of early spring pulled heavily into friar John’s labored breaths. His legs grew weary, yet there was a unyielding passion that kept him upright. How many days had it been? This was no more than a passing thought now, such questions had become irrelevant. The only thing left that mattered was faith in the Lord. His faith was rooted in hope, and without that hope he would have fallen on weary legs long ago. The creature he had been chasing was always a day’s journey ahead, regardless of how quick John seemed to travel. All his information so far had been on the fevered lips of dying plague victims, and they were hardly the most reliable source of information. Even with all of these ill omens and doubts, John knew in the core of his being, the depths of his soul, his pursuit was not in vain. He was on a mission for the Lord.
He first noticed what he could only now refer to as his ‘calling’ about three weeks ago on a mission to a remote hamlet riddled with piles of decaying bodies. There was no one left who had the strength to even burn the bodies. That was his purpose, to be strong for those who were not. For the last two days he and Thomas, a young man soon entering the clergy, had been gathering wood in the outskirts of the hamlet in a lush grove of trees. The beauty of the oats budding, starting their season of regrowth, was a welcome pleasantry. The sharp contrast of life and death was not lost on John.
Leaving Thomas to tend to the growing burning pyre John made his daily rounds, praying with the living and blessing the dean. The job had once troubled him greatly, but months of service had dulled him to the horrors of the plague. He had recently taken up the guilty pleasure of gathering the stories of those about to die, and recording them in his journal. Most men lead boring lives, days of farming or hunting, or any other dull profession passed down in progeny for generations. There was one thing he noted however, these were not tales of holy men. Sins ran through the hearts of these men as a red river of hedonism. Rage, pride and lust; and these were just the foremost of their crimes. All sins can be cleansed in the eyes of the Lord, if repentance is given. These men knew their transgressions and reveled in them, daring retribution. By his count there were not but two families pardoned in the eyes of the lord, the ones who payed true penance for their sins. They had fared better than most, with the majority of children well on their way to survival.
There was a woman, a wife and mother to a faithful and upright husband whose death John counted as exceptionally tragic. This was the final house of his rounds that day. She was silent leading to her final hours, but not in the way of a woman to weak to speak. It was as if she had been keeping something to herself, not trusting speech to betray whatever secret she held. John had cleared the room in her final hours, only her husband remained kneeling at the foot of what they considered a bed, a pile of damp hay reeking of decay. They had prayed together, and as she began to fade john reached for the worn pages of his journal. She professed her testament to him. At the very end of things she snapped her head towards John, grabbing his full attention with fevered eyes. She spoke her final words to him, “He told me you would be coming. I could see him as others do not, he is not what he is.”
A quick questioning of the husband proved fruitless, he had seen no other person approach his wife. There was something about her gaze though, it was as if some visage behind her eyes spoke through her. He had gut feeling he was right, to some degree. There was something about that woman that he would probably never be able to explain. He decided on a whim he would ask others about this invisible man, named nothing except ‘Him’, that evaded all perception. He passed those thoughts from his mind to his journal to be remembered at a more prudent time. He did have a job to do, and he was not going to let Thomas finish it himself.
The sun began to hand low in the sky, bathing the world in a calming yellow hue. John counted this time as his favorite part of the day, nothing evil could happen when the world was so beautiful. Returning to the edge of the hamlet he noticed the significant progress Thomas had made on the funeral pyre. He was quite strong for his age, mostly because he seemed to be completely immune to illness. It was the reason he spent his days hauling the oozing dead onto piles of even more oozing dead. The smell didn’t even bother him. If Thomas had a ‘calling’ then he had found it, in the most disappointing way possible. But such is the will of the Lord, it is with him that Thomas kept clean among the filthy. He was a good child, and he would not deserve what was about to happen to him.
John called out, searching for Thomas to congratulate him on his hard work. There was a staggering silence, no a refreshing calm. John called out louder now, anxious for reasons he could not explain. There it was again, that gut feeling. He would grow to hate that feeling, as it signaled to him nothing but impending grief and death. Deep down, in a place that John had yet to recognize, he would also grow to love it. Rounding the back of the pyre Thomas form lay sprawled on a pile of kindling, a sharp branch puncturing his left arm. There was blood and vomit everywhere. Despite all of the terror the situation warranted, Thomas lazily rolled over to face John, tearing his flesh on the sharpened branches. He was silent in the same way the woman from the repentant family had been. He was undoubtedly going to die.
The gut feeling returned en-mass, causing John to add to the growing pool of vomit. He staggered to Thomas’ side, kneeling in filth to support what was left of the dying man’s strength. As John began to carefully position him in a way to minimize the bleeding he inadvertently made eye contact with him. His visage was intoxicating, and John knew he would not be able to look away if he tried. Thomas’ eyes burned deeply, colored orange as the yellow sunset reflected of his tears of blood. There was such a permeating emotion, one that John did not have words for, bubbling behind those eyes. After what felt like hours but had actually been seconds, Thomas’ spoke his last, “Him”. With what remained of his energy, he Thomas rolled off of the pile pointing passionately into the sunset. That is how Thomas of London died.
Following his outstretched hand John looked off into the distance. He could make out nothing when staring directly into the sunset, except for a lone silhouette in the shape of a lone man. Perhaps there was no silhouette, maybe John was making up what he wanted to believe to make sense of Thomas’ impossible death. Despite his doubts he knew down deep the reality. His gut had never been wrong yet. For the first time, he felt true guilt as he pulled his journal from his bag.
The next day John completed the pyre, cleansing the hamlet of sixteen bodies plus one. It was arduous work, but he had hardly noted any effort. All he could think about was this ‘Him’ and what he wanted, or what he truly was. This curiosity had been growing on him like ivy, pleasant to look at from afar but suffocating all the same. By the day’s end this ‘Him’ had fully consumed his mind. John could barely stand, or even cry out a prayer to the Lord. H noticed a darkness devoid of purpose closing in on him from every direction. He began to realize just what the good woman and Thomas were experiencing. John’s life was leaving his body, making room for the all encompassing ‘Him’. He could still hear Thomas’ voice whisper, “Him”. The memory brought back the passion he had seen in Thomas’ eyes, and through them. The passion behind those eyes called out to him in Thomas’ voice.
By the word of the Lord, Deuteronomy 6:13:
Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name
Go John, serve the Lord.
previous: Holy Men in Unholy Times – Part Two
more by BEN SHEARER
photograph by Jay Wennington
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