The tale of a solitary priest in the valley of death.
For several days I walked. I set out from “my” tree and walked briskly in as straight a line as I could muster, notching the bark of the trees as I went. Then, when I judged I had covered a fair distance, I returned and set out in a new direction. This I did over and over in the sunlit hours, stopping only out of bodily necessity. At every failed excursion, I told myself that the next one must bear fruit. I would see the cave with the rocks at its mouth, and smell the fire, and see my brothers.
The woods were strangely quiet. I met with no danger. The only beasts to cross my path were plant-eaters, those Father Bianchi called “giant cows”. They ran from me, bellowing. I did not fear them. I did not even fear the others, then. Only my conscience tore at me.
I had not prayed in many days, except to save my own skin. Deprived of my breviary, I had too quickly forgotten its duties. It pained me terribly that I could not confess, or receive communion, or say Mass. But that I had let slip even those small obligations I could keep – why, that was unbearable. I thought of Francis Xavier in Asia, and Brébeuf captured by the Iroquois, and those of my brothers who, long ago, had come to this very continent and worked and died for the sake of the natives, and I felt like no Jesuit at all.
I began to pray the rosary. I spoke out loud, slashing absently at the undergrowth with my spear as I walked. The rhythm of it carried me so that I no longer knew where I went, or much cared, until mid-way through the third decade I realised that I had attained a clearing: a broad and muddy clearing with a river through it, and ahead of me the cave.
My heart seized. I ran, calling for them – for all three of them, forgetting for an instant that they were but two – but when I got to the cave I found it empty, the stones not so much rolled aside as scattered, as if by force. The ashes of the fire we had made were cold, and the shrivelled remains of our meal lay where I had thrown it. But Bianchi’s cassock, which he had cast over the fire to extinguish it, was gone.
“Bianchi!” I cried. “Dalmasso!” I left the cave and began to search the ground for some trace of their footprints. But I could see none, only churned-up mud and the imprints of beasts. I searched and searched, and called and called, while dusk gathered and plant-eaters of all forms and sizes emerged from the trees – at a cautious distance, naturally – for their evening drink. It was quite dark before it came to me that I was cold and exhausted, and that, for all I did not fear the plant-eaters, I had no wish to meet my coffin-headed friend again.
The cave was the only safe choice, although my soul revolted at the idea of spending the night there. But spend the night I did, lying on cold stone, with tired bones and an aching heart. I slept in fits and starts, and was troubled with visions. It seemed to me that Our Lady reproached me for my lack of care, and that her infant son, clinging to her, watched me with big sorrowful eyes. Perhaps I was dreaming, but I dare not wager that I was. At length she seemed to soften, and lifted her hand in a gesture of benediction and forgiveness – I sank into sleep then, and did not wake until the sun was high.
When I emerged into the light, the clearing was empty. There was no sight or sound of life save the birds, who sang so gaily that it only threw my desolation into sharper relief. I felt alone then in a way I have never experienced before that moment, or since. Grief drove its thorns into my heart – grief for my missing brothers, for my mother and father, for all the people I would never see again. I am not a man for tears, but I d–n nearly sank to the ground and howled.
This would not do, of course. I squared my shoulders and brandished my spear and, for want of a better plan, began to march back in the direction from which I had come, praying as I went, like a soldier of the church militant.
© Alix Montague 2015