Short Fiction ~ Shijo Varghese
The boy had a hunch that the moment would freeze in his memory and return later to haunt him when the vicar darted in to his house on his bicycle, his white cassock swelling in the air and its ends flailing against wind as he whizzed past and came to a sudden halt that would jerk him out of his seat and toss his greasy hair on to his forehead. He jumped out of his vehicle, propped it against the twig fence and as it started to flop down, pulled it off the ground and settled it on its stand. He wiped sweat with a neatly folded white kerchief that he drew out of the left sleeve of his cassock, grinned as he looked up and with a flick, he threw the twig gate half-open as he blundered through it.
‘You didn’t come in the morning!’ He leaned on to the cotton tree and struggled to catch his breath.
‘Push it under the shade of the tree,’ said the boy as he dropped his pencil to the picture he was drawing and screwed up his eyes against the evening rays of the sun, blazing behind the minatory frame of the vicar, who now was straining his neck to look through the wooden window frame of the room next to the veranda.
‘It’s alright. Where’s your dad?’
Lying idly in the room near the twig fence, dad had espied the vicar bolting past the twig gate just when he had been thinking of savouring his quotidian dose of alcohol that he used to relish after his daily siesta and had reached his hand under the cot to feel the chill of the bottle. Struggling to find the hem of his garment that had unfastened during his nap and trying to sit himself up, he managed to put the bottle he had laid his hand on back under his cot just in time.
‘Why didn’t you come in the morning?’
‘Praised be Jesus Christ’
‘Forever and ever. Why didn’t you come?’ He grimaced with anticipation as he caught sight of dad in the room through the window, and let out a violent volley of soggy sneezes. The boy ran to the kitchen to see if mother was home.
‘That rascal of the boy was late again to wake up in the morning. Settle somewhere down, vicar.’
The vicar pulled out his white handkerchief to wipe his nose. He looked for a respectable chair in the veranda and, failing to find one, perched on the tip of a bench whose other end lifted up and wobbled in the air precariously as he sat.
‘The rascal of the boy…?’
‘The rascal of the boy was late to wake up; I broke his back with a kick that he is sulky even now. Be careful not to sit on the bench like that. Sit in the middle, the leg is shaky.’
‘Did you think about what I said?’
He grabbed hold of the picture the boy was drawing, looked keenly at it, and throwing it back to the table, wondered if the image of the bearded man on the paper was really Christ’s.
‘Ask him, vicar, I don’t want to answer for him. Don’t sit at the end of the bench like that. You will break it.’
‘Stop telling me that, for God’s sake. I won’t break the damn’d leg. Don’t you have a respectable chair in the house? Where is the boy!’
The boy stood in the kitchen torpidly, holding a glass of water that he was planning to offer to the vicar and looked through the kitchen window at the mass of dappled, misshapen, verdant leaves of a stooped down tree in the backyard with an instinctive awareness of his mother’s imminent apparition.
‘Sit here, boy. How did you chance upon that book?’
The boy climbed up the hill, on the top of which lived an old woman, a distant relative, in her ancient decrepit house that wearily gazed in perilous tranquillity at the brooding mercurial river down the hill. The old woman, before finally confining herself to the attic, used to wander through the dingy cells of her house with a paraffin lamp, which was of no help because she had misty scales in her eyes, night or day, it was always dark inside, searching for a button or a rosary or her teeth set. One day, with the paraffin lamp in her hand, she clambered up the attic, from where she refused to descend, and stayed there curled up—a preposterous cryptogram of tenacious human will—half-sitting in her bed and half-reclining on the gnarled pillows that were too grimy to tell from the weather-beaten clay-plastered wall, where they were stuck forever. The attic was full of things—old cloths, wooden toys, books and writing materials—of her son who, according to her last memory of him, had been shoved down from the attic and driven away in a police jeep, never to be seen or heard again. Her other sons forgot her—she gave birth to five sons—not because they did not love her, but because she refused to see them or eat their food, which they used to bring up to the foot of the ladder and keep there, only to be removed later because of the flies, ants, birds, and stench, and eventually they stopped visiting her altogether, partly because the boy, who, in the course of his meanderings, would make deliberate digressions to reach the old woman’s attic, sometimes with some wild berries, sometimes with breadcrumbs, tap at the wooden rail or shout, and when she responded with a grunt or a cough, ask her if she agreed to exchanging a pen, or a toy, or a book for a fruit or two crumbs of biscuits; and if she agreed to it, again with a grunt or a cough, he would throw the fruit or the crumbs to her through the grills of the handrail and the old woman, with great effort, would manage to push down with her leg or hand a pen, or a book, or a wooden toy in return. Once, the old woman dropped a paper parcel. Time and damp had blanched its brown colour and partially erased the name of the receiver but the book inside had not lost its freshness. As usual, the boy went to the backyard, climbed the large breadfruit tree and hid himself among its broad dark leaves.
The vicar gawked at the boy for a minute or so and sank back to the solitude of his swivel chair staring for another minute or so at the ceiling as the boy stood against him at his table, his head hung in guilt and fear, the fury of which had abated after the tumultuous moment that his instructor had caught him, red-handed, reading something no pious, God-fearing child would attempt to read ever, let alone inside the holy sanctuary of a catechism class. The instructor, an upright and estimable Christian, with a vain smirk on his lips, spoke at length about how his impassioned appeals to the young boys and girls to abide by the words of Jesus or to be wary of the devious devices of the devil, who, from the very beginning, was a murderer, a liar and the father of lies, were falling on deaf ears. Neither the boy nor the vicar listened to what he was saying as the boy was anxiously anticipating the hiding he would get from his dad that evening—which incidentally he would, but for another reason—and the vicar was trying hard to recollect a Bible verse proper to the occasion.
‘Do you know what you were reading?’
‘A book? Just any book? Do you know you were reading an accursed book, a book of the devil, the most malicious, pernicious and calamitous Satan?’ The instructor was seething with the zeal for the Lord God of hosts as his face contorted with fanatic intensity and his eyes popped out of their pits that he personified the most malicious, pernicious and calamitous Satan himself. The vicar’s thoughts were tangling into a disconcerting mass of Bible verses that he could not snap out of their labyrinthine maze to pick a singular verse proper to the occasion and therefore he decided against declaiming any.
‘Calm down, instructor. Will you go and take care of the children in your class? They must be very distracted now. Let me handle this.’
The vicar was a jovial man with a long scrawny face, which was darker than the rest of his body, and a long scraggy neck, around which his white cassock clung snugly to the protrusive clavicles and deep jugular notch, and raced down to his feet like a frothy cascade from under a rocky ledge. A long fat droopy nose sat between his sunken cheeks like an inflated toad. When he smiled—as he just did perfunctorily at the boy—his eyeballs slid into the caves in the skull and eyelids squeezed into narrow slits.
‘Why do you keep coming back to me, boy?’
The boy inclined his head, not so much out of guilt now, but out of fear, because men of consequence gave him the jitters when they smiled that way, especially when he was at the wrong side of the table, at the receiving end of justice, or at the mercy of luck or chance, such as when he was caught drawing a caricature of the chief instructor, or found loitering about at the girls’ changing room, or woken up from a sound nap during the Holy Mass by the sacristan. He had been at the vicar’s table many times in similar circumstances.
‘What is it this time?’
He stretched his hand, poked the red book on his table with the tip of his left index finger with the dispassion of a physician examining a putrefying sore and turned it around so that he could have a good look at its title. He asked in a sombre whisper, from where the boy had got the book, partly to himself and barely audible to anyone that could have been there, and the boy, his heart trembling and palms sweating, like Ananias, who refused to barter his truth for a story, kept staring at the book and said that it was dropped down by an old mad woman living in a dilapidated house’s attic, from which she never left even for food, or for water, or for defecation, but where she lay in her bed, living on the occasional fruits or breadcrumbs from the boy. The vicar neither trusted the boy nor believed his story; and therefore, he made no further enquiry about the mad woman or her attic but kept asking him about the contents of the book and discussed matters concerning salvation of the soul; while, the boy, growing in confidence and encouraged by the trust the vicar displayed, asked him questions concerning sin and suffering, snakes and devils, wings of angels, Adam’s bellybutton, and Noah’s ark, to most of which the vicar answered dismissively but rather convincingly except for Adam’s bellybutton, which he thought was very clever of the boy to ask because he had never thought of it himself and replied that God in his omniscience and omnipotence could have done anything and man would never understand. The vicar, nevertheless, took great care to keep to a dry and severe monotone as he spoke, in order to keep the boy grounded and insecure, except at the end of the conversation when he smiled warmly at the boy, read from the Gospel of Mark, chapter three, ‘Verily I say unto you, all sins and every slander shall be forgiven unto the sons of men; /But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation’, and, smiling again, directed him to meet the Mother Superior as soon as he finished the Confiteor five times in front of the main altar.
The boy was hungry—it was noon already—and he greedily looked at the fruit-laden Lubica tree at the patio of the convent. A very young dainty nun in grey veil, grey guimpe, grey scapular, and grey gown with sensuous lips and delicate limps was standing under the tree and, beaming at the boy, said ‘temperance’; and the boy felt ashamed that he had looked at the luscious fruits with desire and that the nun had seen him looking at the fruits with desire and proceeded to the parlour to wait for the Mother Superior, who, the nun in charge of the parlour said, had just started to have her lunch, and therefore, the boy could sit there in the meanwhile until she finished, or leave for his lunch and come back in half an hour, which, the boy said, was impossible because he would have to walk four kilometres up and down and therefore he would wait in the parlour. As their conversation was progressing, the dainty nun in grey habit passed through the parlour and stopping by him said that she was just joking and he could have some fruits if he wanted, but that he should not forget that it was the Great Lent. The boy remembered that the nun, who in fact was only a novice—as was evident from the colour of her habit—was his sister’s classmate and had visited his home some years back, before her entering the convent. As the novice continued speaking to the boy, the nun in charge of the parlour—she must be her spiritual mother—grew impatient with her indiscipline and chastised her for her heedless behaviour. When she left, the boy looked out of the window at the Lubica tree and realized that he missed her already.
The Mother Superior was a fair, soft and plumb woman with kind eyes and matriarchal breasts and had an archetypal maternal air of cherishing and nourishing goodness about her. She pressed children to her breasts in a vice-like stifling hug, motherly hug, and kissed them on their foreheads; but she pushed the boy away when he lingered on for an extra moment.
‘The vicar sent me a note that you were caught reading a terrible book.’
‘I didn’t know it was a terrible book.’
‘What sort of terrible book? With the pictures of women without clothes?’
Arching her lips in scornful indignation, she looked at the book the boy was lifting up in his right hand and felt much relieved when she found on the cover of it the caricature of a battered bearded man with bulging eyes laboriously carrying a cross, black lines against red background, only to arch her lips again at the title above the illustration in bold black letters, Christ and Krishna Never Lived, this time in muted abomination, which was slowly turning to bemused curiosity in a soon-to-be-debunked optimism that, judging by the looks, it would be only a story book.
‘No, it is not. It says that there never lived a person called Jesus; and there lived no Krishna either.’
‘Forget Krishna, you know that Jesus did live.’
‘To say that Jesus did not live.’
‘I said he did.’
‘But you read it and you continued reading even when you knew it was sinful.’
That was right, the boy rued; he knew from the very first page what the book was all about, but he had this nefarious desire for the forbidden; he had a visceral rush to explore every ungodly word and every sacrilegious notion, and it seemed as spontaneous as a worm holing through wood or as natural as a flame gnawing at paper, or as enervating as a treetop orgasm.
He was an awkward boy, very unremarkable in appearance and not particularly smart as was often remarked by his parents, and preferred to spend considerable time away from his peers because they thought he was awkward too. He wandered and sometimes was lost into green thickets near the river, from where he leisurely watched women, girls, children, men and animals, glistening bodies, hairy, speckled, warty and smooth, romping and rolling in water, fusing into sinewy corpulent mass and dividing, surging ripples coiling around wet flesh unceasingly. Sometimes he drew the swaying bodies on a piece of cheap paper or sometimes in his mind; either way, horripilated with excitement, he crawled up the steep winding incline that connected the thickets to the old woman’s residence on top of the hill, sneaked across the courtyard, scampered up the breadfruit tree and, perching perilously on the top branch, masturbated; and as the frenzy died down, he watched the sun setting, darkness rising, and pristine gossamer clouds of the evening turning blood red and black and realized that he had fallen again. In such a haze of vacuous gloom, he saw the old woman’s attic lit up in the glow of her paraffin lamp and longed to see his mother. When he did not go to the river, he read. Sometimes, scraps of newspapers, in which groceries had been wrapped; sometimes, old weeklies that his sister brought from her friends’ homes; and sometimes, books dropped from the attic.
The boy had not finished the first commandment when the vicar rustled past them in the parlour—Sundays he had his lunch from the convent—and the Mother Superior, noticing that the vicar had not noticed her sitting in the parlour, greeted him, ‘Praised be Jesus Christ,’ to which he turned his head, came over and greeted her back, ‘Forever and ever;’ and the boy fumbled with the rest of the commandments, however he tried, he could not go beyond two or three, and the vicar and the Mother Superior smiled through his struggle, finally concluding that the boy did not know his prayers.
‘Do you know how the devil works?’ the vicar leaned forward and smiled at the boy as he asked the question and slowly turned to the nun towards the end of it. Neither bothered to answer because any answer would be nullified by the erudition of the vicar, they presumed.
‘By deception,’ he said finally, and added that the devil tricked people, communities, and sometimes entire nations, like Russia, for instance, which was once a true Christian country, by selling them his ideas, planting in their minds little seeds of utopian notions—remember how Lucifer cajoled his fellow angels—such as liberty, equality and communism by means of bloodshed and revolution that would kill thousands of people and slay hundreds of leaders including kings who were anointed by God Himself, converting masses to irreligion and godlessness, plunging entire nations into anarchy and chaos, antitheism, atheism, and rationalism, all on the behest of that damned whiskered French rioter Marx, the antichrist—may he be granted mercy despite his unforgivable sins—whose followers, you could find them everywhere, even in this godforsaken village, mind you, were writing pamphlets, magazines and books, such as the one in the boy’s hand, in the hopes of shaking the foundation—built by, mind you, the Galilean on the solid rock of Cephas—of the Church, which even the treacherous Arabian Saracens of the Middle Ages could not shake, which was two millennia old, and which would last until the Kingdom came, forever and ever, Amen.
‘Amen,’ said the Mother Superior in dread of the bottomless pit of perdition to which the book opened its pages.
But the immense wisdom of the Holy Spirit, continued the vicar, guided the faithful in times of crises, by sending angels and the Holy Virgin Mary to warn three obscure children of Fatima, Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta, of the horrors that Russia should undergo, in the same year the Red Army had rampaged through the streets of the country; and the Holy Church, the indefectible church of Christ, which condemned communists as apostates in the Holy Decree of 1949, consecrated Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and, wonder of wonders, the USSR was brought to its knees, and the Holy Spirit showered Russia with his seven gifts—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of God, ah, yes, fear of God that scattered the devils to the ends of the world—and the boy was reading what one of those apostates had written, that accursed man, who was excommunicated for writing abominable books that no good Christian should read.
The Mother Superior was staring at the boy, who, it was not difficult to deduce from his face and body language, was fatigued, though not hungry anymore—he had lost his appetite and refused to eat from the fruits the dainty novice brought; the nun did not encourage him either since she thought that a little abstinence would only nourish his heavenly prospects. When the boy finally left, the vicar walked to the refectory with a heavy heart to have his cold lunch, which made his heart heavier, and the Mother Superior waited at the table. He finished his lunch in silence, raised his head and, looking at the picture of Salvator Mundi on the wall, said, ‘It is an alarming trend;’ and he explained that the boy was the third he had caught reading books in a matter of two to three months. A good shepherd should leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one, which is lost, said the vicar. The boy, however, had vowed never to read such books, said the Mother Superior.
‘The sin of defiance will grow on man and devour him,’ the vicar said.
‘I’ll talk to his father this evening when he comes for the Via Crucis. A sound beating will do it for the boy,’ the Mother superior said as she sat at the table.
It had crossed the vicar’s mind too; however, he decided against punishing the boy, primarily because the boy was a regular in daily Mass and actively participated in pious associations; secondly, he had decided to talk to the boy’s father the next day when he would come for the morning Mass; and thirdly, he feared the beating may turn him into a rebel.
He thereupon knelt down, recited the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Glory be, all three times each, and read from the Scripture:
‘Therefore said he unto them, the harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest.’
He lifted his hands to heaven—so did the Mother Superior after him—and prayed thus:
‘Eternal Father, I offer you the body and blood, soul and divinity of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins, those of the whole world, and of the boy who blasphemed. For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us, on the whole world, and especially the boy. We who are sinners intercede through our baptismal priesthood, given by the power of the Holy Spirit and the Incarnation of Jesus, and through the sacerdotal powers, conferred to me by my ministerial priesthood, for ourselves and the rest of the sinners on the face of the earth. Not ‘we the perfect,’ not ‘we the holy,’ not ‘we the better than all of those people,’ but ‘we the sinners in the Church’ pray for mercy for ourselves, the whole world, and the boy who blasphemed, in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.’
‘Amen,’ said the Mother Superior.
The dainty novice had sneaked out of the building while the vicar and the Mother Superior were speaking at the refectory. She caught up with the boy in the narrow mud path leading to the road and stuck into his short trousers’ pocket something, which, he later discovered, was some Lubica fruits wrapped in an old newspaper scrap. She was in a hurry to get back to the convent and, before the boy could say anything, vanished into a copse of mango trees, leaving the boy to himself and to the Lubica fruits, which, now that she had aroused his hunger again, he ate one after another, savouring their nectarous tartness, leaving only four or five fruits, which, by the time he reached the old woman’s house, had become bruised and soft. When he arrived at the top, evening had stretched the daylight and shadows long into the porch of the house. The sky in the west had turned golden, with a few petty scarlet clouds like squished Lubica fruits skidding along, and in the east it had darkened, a thunderstorm looming in the distance.
The boy sat down on the threshold to catch his breath. He heard distant noises of men, women and cattle rollicking in the river. Dampness of the Lubica fruits sifted through the lining of his pocket and wetted his groin. When a big drop of rain fell on his foot, he stood up and entered the gloom of the old woman’s house, whose dark chambers were spectrally lit by the evening glow that had wriggled in through dislodged roof tiles. Crinkled streaks of the sullen sky were cast upon the puddles that previous night’s rain had left on the floor. The paraffin lamp was unlit; in the vaporous twilight of the leaden sky seeping in through the top window, the attic hovered in dark void, and the glistening rails of its ladder descended to the ground. The old woman must be asleep, the boy presumed, because there was neither a grunt nor a cough when he tapped on the rails, so he decided to climb up.
Rain scurried across the roof. The attic was too dark to make out the old cloths, wooden toys, books, writing materials of the old woman’s son, and the old woman herself; the gnarled pillows and the bed were too grimy to tell from the old woman who must have remained curled up, half-sitting and half reclining there; and were it not for all her grunts, coughs, pens, toys, and books, the boy sighed, he himself would not have believed that the old woman had lived in the attic. The boy said he had come to trade some food.
He was coming from the convent, he said, where the Mother Superior and the vicar censured him for reading the book he got from the attic, her son’s book, they called it a terrible book, and said they would report the matter to his father, who would surely cane him—a bout of self-pity suddenly rushed in and his lips twitched—and a novice gave him some fruits, which he should have refrained from eating because it was the Great Lent, but the devil got the better of him and he ate all except a few, the remainder he brought to her.
‘Bring them,’ said the old woman in a funereal rasp, which, the boy thought, sounded like a bird’s preening its wings.
‘Shall I light the lamp?’ The boy’s eyes had grown accustomed to the dark and spotted the paraffin lamp.
‘Hush,’ she said and asked the boy to bring her the fruits. The boy brought them close to her bed and placed them on the floor within her hand’s reach; a lithe hand snaked out and, clutching one of the fruits, mashed it between fingers.
‘Light now,’ she said. And the boy lighted the lamp and saw that the old woman had grown younger, a lot younger than when he saw her last, the day she had clambered up the attic; her wrinkles were smoothed, she had more black hairs in her head, and her rheumy eyes no longer had misty scales on pupils. She had grabbed something in her fist and when she opened them, there were three cockroaches, all dead. She pressed each one between her fingers, squeezed the guts out of them and ate one after another.
‘You don’t eat the fruits?’ asked the boy.
‘I bait them with fruits. Breadcrumbs are better. They last longer. Yield more,’ she said in a coarse hush entangled in phlegm. ‘Light out. Eyes hurt.’
The inky black rain outside was spitting twisted silver strands of light through the top window and the boy grew nervous as the pitch dark conjured up the long prehensile hand of the old woman ensnaring more cockroaches.
The book, she said, the boy could keep; he reminded her of her youngest son, who was shoved down from the attic and driven away in a jeep by two white-clad men.
‘They took him to the police station?’ the boy asked.
‘A seminary,’ the mad woman rasped again, ‘Stay. I’ll teach you to catch cockroaches.’
He ran home, drenched in water and fright, as wind flung down clobbering globules of rain blinding him and anyone who was stranded outside that night. A stream of torrential abuses greeted him at the door—the downpour screened most of it from reaching the neighbourhood—and a whooshing cane violently met his flesh—long, crimson welts crisscrossed his calves as he lay on his stomach staring into darkness—for coming home late and for forgetting his catechism books in the class, which were sent through a neighbourhood girl. The rain did not let up until the morning; the boy, however, on an empty stomach did not last that long. Dad did not wake him up for the morning Mass.
‘A priest is a blessing to his family,’ said the vicar, sipping from the glass of water.
Certainly, thought dad, the old father and mother of a priest were mentioned in Solemn Masses, invited to parish meetings as guests, given seats in the front row during prayers, his brothers were respected among their friends and acquaintances, his sisters were married off to respectable families, even to relatives of bishops—a priest of a nameless family made his people respectable in society, a decent reward for a convenient sacrifice. The boy heard leaves rustling, cows mooing and a sickle clanging to the ground and sensed his mother was back.
The vicar shook hands with dad after dad replied, throwing a glance at mother, that if God willed so, who could stand against it, to the vicar’s discreetly contrived words that they should not grumble about returning one to the Lord who blessed them with six—five boys and a girl, all hale and hearty by God’s grace—and that the one who relinquished his son or daughter to God’s service should receive a hundredfold here and should inherit eternal life. Mother said nothing. She stroked the boy’s hair and he turned his head and looked into her ground down eyes.
‘Whose picture were you drawing?’
The boy did not answer. The vicar grabbed the picture on the table, walked into the kitchen, threw it into the fire—he had taken some time to see the boy was drawing the portrait of the writer—and watched with an uncanny sense of victory the fire licking the long bearded face that so deceptively looked like Christ’s countenance. He threw the book too, but its wet pages sputtered, smoked and suffocated everyone in the kitchen.
‘It’s a new beginning,’ the vicar said with a smile. The boy nodded his head in relief. The sun was setting and it was time for the Via Crucis; and therefore, the vicar heaved himself up onto the bicycle and darted back to the church, his white cassock swelling in the air and its ends flailing against the wind. The boy looked long into the road and resolved not to go to the river.
Shijo Varghese lives in Kochi, India. He is an artist and writer and his stories and poems have been published in various online journals. He is teaching literature at Sacred Heart College, Kochi.