The priest and the shaman
[ fiction - july 08 ]
With a pretty face but a tendency toward heavy thighs, fat arms and a roll around her tummy, sixteen year-old Eliana had gradually stopped eating. Last June, with the swimming season at the door and scant bikinis and muscled boys in mind, she first eliminated pasta from her diet. Then in July she cut out potatoes and starches, and most sweets in August. By September Eliana was as slim and trim as she'd wanted to be in June. So, already thinking about the next summer, Eliana began to see food as her number one enemy.
In October, her parents took her to the National Health Service doctor in Sondrio. The doctor listened to her heart, ordered blood and urine tests, prescribed vitamins and counseled her to begin eating pasta again. "Pizzochori are good for the blood," the man of medicine said of that weighty Valtellina pasta.
But by November, an emaciated and skeletal Eliana was down to 35 kilograms and still losing. As the cold season arrived in the Alps Father Romano took to dropping in at their house for a glass of wine and a chat with Eliana about faith and the healing power of Christ.
Eliana assumed her mother had asked him to try to bring her to her senses. But she knew what the priest really wanted to say.
Was she punishing herself for some sin?
When did she last confess?
Did she let boys touch her?
Did she touch herself?
Had she gone all the way?
That's what her parents probably thought too. None of them could know what she had done or not done. Who knows what is in my mind, she thought? For Eliana was alone, in her own private struggle. She knew she was incurable, and lost.
It happened that Eliana's father, Guido, had been a schoolmate of Piccolo Ernesto, as everyone had once called the man who was reputedly a sorcerer. In desperation Guido decided to turn to his old friend, the mystic. Ernesto was in fact not so little as to deserve the name piccolo. He was thin and wiry, with a dark narrow face and a heavy beard. But even as a boy he had been different in his indifference to mainstream things. At the village school he did well but seldom spoke. His teachers said he was a dreamer. Already then he stood out also because he looked different too - Piccolo Ernesto started shaving when he was 13.
Guido had remained friendly with Ernesto until he left Montagna for Mexico to study. At the time no one understood why Piccolo Ernesto went to Mexico since it was not exactly an in-place for people of this Alpine village. But after his return a number of years later he had more or less detached himself from society - he was by then less different from others than indifferent. Guido noted that he looked like a person whose dreams had come true. He was as if transformed - he had become another person. The world no longer touched him. He seemed content to live within the boundaries of his self. He often had the expression on his face of one who is listening to his own internal voices.
Today, even though they no longer had anything in common, Guido continued to think of Piccolo Ernesto as one of his oldest friends. Yet when they met they did little more than shake hands and say buon di, come va.
"Will you come and see my Eliana?" Guido asked Ernesto when they met one day on Via Piazza near the Town Hall. The signs of worry weighed heavily on his cheeks, his eyelids and on his perpetually turned down mouth.
"What's wrong with your girl, Guido, old friend?"
"She's wasting away, Ernesto. She won't eat and only weighs thirty-five kilos."
"How long has she been like that?"
"It all started last spring. We thought it would pass but it's gotten worse. Will you come?"
"Why me, Guido? You should take her to a doctor down in town. Take her to the priest."
"I did. The doctors in Sondrio are mystified. Padre Romano doesn't help. It's in her head, he says, not in her soul."
"But why me?" Ernesto cocked his head and gazed fixedly at his boyhood friend. He wanted him to pronounce the name that people in the village called him.
"Isn't that why you went down there? To the land of magic! Don't you know secrets? Aren't you a, an, er ..."
"Sorcerer, you want to say."
"I guess so."
"Please, Guido! I learned a few things there. But I'm no sorcerer or faith healer, as people seem to think. Nor a visionary either."
That same evening Ernesto dropped in at Guido's house in the upper village. Ernesto recalled his friend's old house, dark and cold corridors, wood stoves, small windows. Now it had picture windows and all the conveniences. The family had just had supper and was sitting in the living room watching TV. DVDs and CDs and RCVs were everywhere. Wispy and diaphanous Eliana was sitting near the big window and staring into the darkness outside.
"Buona sera, Eliana," Ernesto said after the rest of the family discreetly left the room.
The girl didn't look at him.
"Did you have dinner?" he said, smiling complicitously at the girl who in this moment looked about 11.
Eliana shrugged. She didn't have to talk. She knew her father had arranged it all. Besides she was afraid of Ernesto who everyone said was a stregone. She didn't want anyone messing around in her hopeless life. What could he know about her? The doctors and the priests and the schoolteachers didn't have a clue.
"Maybe you didn't like the food on the supper table?" Ernesto suggested, noting the potato chips and a half glass of wine on the glass coffee table.
"Maybe," Eliana murmured, glancing at Ernesto for the first time.
"Not all food is good for us at just any time. Some food is not good for us today but it might be good for us tomorrow."
Eliana peered at him as if thinking, 'so he is what they say he is.'
"Did you know that?" he said.
"I think I did. Not many people know that. Food is depressing. So idiotic."
"Here's what I think," he said so softly that she leaned toward him. "You believed if you kept eating you would get fatter and fatter and finally die of obesity. Is that true?"
"Maybe," she replied, now straightening her back and staring at Ernesto who was gazing directly in her eyes.
"You know, Eliana, it's crazy, but it's always hard to really believe what is happening to us while it happens." Ernesto thought she looked like she was ready to jump out of her skin but he continued anyway, wondering if she even understood him. "And then, when we realize what is happening, it's too late to change. The hardest thing is knowing ourselves. But sometimes we have to. Sometimes we have to change or die!"
Now Eliana looked at him sharply. Fear replaced the curiosity that had been in her eyes three seconds earlier.
"Die? I'm going to die?" she said as if the man of magic had pronounced a death sentence.
"No, but you have to meet yourself."
Since Ernesto had avoided civic events, never went to mass or the café, and had spent most of his time alone, so everyone thought he was also unsociable. After an elderly plumber who'd been in his apartment about some repairs described a strange house of darkness and candlelight and masks on the walls and books everywhere, villagers began speaking of him as a stregone.
But Ernesto was mysterious. He cultivated a narrow circle of friends, all of whom were suspect, and few of whom were from Montagna itself. Who his visitors were remained a mystery. Some people thought in terms of a secret Masonic lodge - "It wouldn't be the first one!" Padre Romano said knowingly.
Piccolo Ernesto lived in a spacious but rundown second-floor apartment on Via Piazza facing the Chiesa di San Giorgio. If one passed down his narrow street on any winter night and looked up at his apartment, one might see the flickering of candles and spectral shadows darting back and forth behind the windows. As much because of the candles and his big library that no one knew much about, rumors circulated that he was into black magic. So it was natural that after mainstream medicine and Catholic religion failed to halt Eliana's deterioration, Guido thought of Piccolo Ernesto, old friend and probable shaman - a word that village people had only recently learned.
On the evening after Ernesto's talk with Eliana, Guido rang the bell of his friend's apartment and climbed the steep dark stairs to the second floor. The building, he thought, should have collapsed generations ago. But it had resisted. It was night and a cold northeast wind was blowing. Guido had seen the smoke curling from the chimney.
Ernesto stood in his doorway, candlelight flickering behind him.
"Buona sera, Guido," he said, offering his hand.
"Buona sera, Ernesto. I came to thank you for last evening. I don't know what happened but I thought you might like to know that our Eliana began eating today."
Ernesto invited him in. A row of candles illuminated the front part of the room facing the piazza and the Chiesa di San Giorgio. For Guido the candles burning in darkness was a miraculous spectacle. It was the kind of light inside which are performed unexplainable transformations and shiftings of objects and mutations of people. The second room toward the back was big, with a desk, bookcases and tables and objects that Guido couldn't identify. On the walls hung paintings and a quartet of illuminated masks.
A dining table toward the rear was set for two people. There was a bottle of wine in a bucket on a serving table.
"Tell me about it," Ernesto said, standing near the bookshelves, with his hands linked behind his back. Piccolo Ernesto was the same height as Guido.
"I wasn't at home but when lunch time arrived, Eliana told my wife she would like to eat the leftovers from last night. She said she thought the food of last night would be good for her today."
"Well, that was an easy conversion!" Ernesto said, rising on his tiptoes and giggling.
"Will you come again?" Guido said, his eyes veering to the bookcase.
"I'll come when it's necessary," Ernesto replied, his eyes following Guido's.
"I'm not much of a reader as you must know but ... Ernesto, tell me, are you really a shaman as people believe?"
"Well, here is my Mexican collection, there you see Castaneda's books, and just as everyone here suspects these shelves are filled with texts on shamanism."
"But are you a shaman?" Guido asked, staring at an engraving hanging between two bookcases - four witches dancing. "After all, you performed a kind of magic on Eliana!"
"But is it magic?"
"Guido, spread through our Alpine world there are many so-called shamans hidden away in villages and living ordinary lives. Yet they perceive things others cannot see. It's nothing more than personal development. And it's older than medicine and religions. It's a question of our spirit ... that is our self. Actually we humans are a spirit with a body - not a body with a spirit. Eliana doesn't yet understand this."
Ernesto continued his sporadic visits to Eliana. They spoke in secret. And after that very first day she continued eating, selectively, and more often than not leftovers. Soon her weight returned to over 50 kilos and her little belly returned.
Her mother's conviction that her cure was nothing short of miraculous soon reached the ears of Father Romano, at which point another story began.
It was evening, just after the Angelus. The good priest, dressed in his black robe, had only to cross the street and ascend over the sacred Egyptian porphyry stones of Via Piazza about 20 meters distance until he stood at the portals of what he thought could be either another enriching religious experience, or a descent into risky infernal regions.
On one hand there was the miraculous cure of Eliana, and, on the other, the witchcraft of Piccolo Ernesto.
The holy man was perplexed as to how to approach this new manifestation of Christ's healing powers: Ernesto was certainly a shaman. Yet was he too not made in God's image as was the Russian who last spring made the village idiot speak? In God's image as was Roberto lo scemo, and Eliana too. Though the end result of their ministrations seemed about the same, Father Romano's doubts centered on method. In the case of the painter tying Roberto's shoelaces and commanding the hitherto idiot to speak, it was evident that God was speaking through the devout Russian - even though he was Orthodox. In the case of the shaman, things were to say the least confused.
Granted, God indeed acted in mysterious ways.
But Piccolo Ernesto had never set foot in his church and made no secret of his agnosticism - he believed in trees and strange gods like Unihipli and he used Magik to perform miracles. But who was to say that the real God did not act through him?
In conflictive trepidation Father Romano listened to the soft padding steps of the potential saint approaching the door inside. He felt pangs of fear and disorientation. This visit was hardly Christian, he was thinking when the door opened and Piccolo Ernesto stood before him.
Dressed in a white robe and with his long hair and beard and his gaunt face and his big eyes, Piccolo Ernesto looked like, he looked like, oh no! No! But yes, he looked like Him!
It was his pale eyes, Father Romano thought, so pale that for a moment you might take him for blind. Then he understood that Piccolo Ernesto's eyes were looking into him. Penetrating into his very soul. Father Romano could literally hear the echo of something in those eyes, of a thing that he knew existed, but that he had no name for. He thought of God - I-am-what-I-am - and knew he was right.
The two holy men gazed at each other for seconds that to Father Romano seemed like an eternity. Then, God's image bowed, stepped aside and asked him in.
"Buona sera, Padre. Sono molto onorato." I'm honored by your visit.
Father Romano looked around the rooms. The fire crackling in the fireplace at the rear cast dancing shadows on the bookcases. The priest felt ill at ease. He knew he was near divinity. In confusion he gazed at the books but saw only different colors and sizes. He wondered if they were arranged according to height or color. In any case, it seemed to him that disorder and chaos reigned here in Piccolo Ernesto's library with the popping fire and the dancing shadows.
In the same moment the bells of San Giorgio clanged furiously just over their heads. Eight long rings. Piccolo Ernesto winced. Father Romano gazed at him, insensitive to the clangor. Ernesto seated the priest in a deep poltrona facing the bookshelves. He served him a glass of port wine. When the repetition of the eight o'clock bells again shook the walls and the priest sipped his wine unperturbed, Ernesto covered his ears theatrically and grinned at the holy man.
"What is it?" Father Romano said in his thick dialect. "Che ghet? Te fal mal i ureggia? Do your ears hurt you?"
"The bells, Father. Can't you do something about them? They are driving me crazy."
"Oh that! Ah quel! Sun cuntent che te sè inacurgiut! So glad you notice them. Unfortunately I had to change to automatic ringing. Modern times, you know. No bell ringers available anymore."
The first sounds Ernesto remembered from his childhood were the clanging of the bells of San Giorgio. Regularly the 500-year-old houses and buildings surrounding the Chiesa di San Giorgio quiver and shudder under the pounding. It is when Angelus clangs. It is when midnight on the mountain strikes 12 times. And no sooner than the light sleeper's heartbeat begins returning to normal, 12 bis comes rolling over you for its encore. Twelve more times ding dong, clang clang clamor. Oh, those are special heart-felt times in Montagna. But by then most villagers are already in dreamland and do not hear as much as a ding, the Montagna nocturnal music, the pulverize-the-stranger clangor.
"But during the night, Padre!" Ernesto says, looking into Father Romano's guileless face, which he thought was Montagna. "Can't you still them during the night?"
"Too complex! Besides, my parishioners need them. We all need the bells. People like the security of good solid church bells. Especially during the long nights when danger comes."
Flames, yellow and orange and red skipped across the room. Father Romano peered at what looked like cigarettes lying in a long row on the raised hearth. A sweetish smell filled the rooms.
"Are your secrets hidden here?" Father Romano said innocently but fearfully. This was not the altar or the confessional in his church. This was no visit to a parishioner. This was somewhere between heaven and hell.
"What secrets do you mean, Reverendo?"
"The secrets of your magic ... to heal the girl Eliana. How did you do it?"
"Heal her? Oh, Padre, come now! I didn't heal her. I just asked her if she wanted to die. She said, no ... and did the rest herself."
"Do you believe God then intervened and healed her?"
"No, Don Romano, you will pardon me, but I do not. The help of any god is of course always welcome. But I believe her survival instinct helped her to begin eating again. We'll soon see how she does. I, uh, Padre, forgive me but I don't see what God has to do with it."
"Well, since He created us, is He not responsible for us?" Father Romano spoke defensively because he'd always had his doubts about praying for one particular person rather than another. He did it. He'd always done it, but more for the survivors than his conviction of its efficacy. A miracle was another matter.
"I don't know about His responsibility," Piccolo Ernesto said. "But I believe He needs us men." Uh, Padre, may I offer you another wine?"
"Oh, that is always welcome on a cold night in Montagna," Father Romano said, holding out his glass. "God needs us! What in heaven's name do you mean?"
"I mean to say that God without men, without the world He created, is not God. Without his creation, what is He God over? Like a king without a kingdom. Some philosophers believe there is a place where God and man meet on even terms - at the place where man reaches for the infinite in God and God reaches back to the finite in man."
"I-am-what-I-am," Father Romano murmured uncertainly.
"What's that?" Piccolo Ernesto said, as if surprised at the interjection.
"God!" Father Romano said.
"Oh, yes. That's His egoism speaking. Man has always been a meeting point between earth and God. Half human, half divine."
"Che cosa!" Father Romano said and took a long drink of the port wine.
Eight powerful clangs and one short marked the half hour.
"Eccellente!" the priest then said to mitigate his curt reaction. "This is really a fine port! Uh, if I understand what you're saying, Ernesto, it is of course pure blasphemy. For we are, as the Bible says clearly, made of clay. Man is of the earth and the Other is the Lord of heaven. But however you look at it, God may choose to use you as a vehicle for His healing grace. And a miracle is after all a miracle!"
Oh, to touch the wounds! To feel them in himself. To be the miracle. The miracle of the flesh. Father Romano searched in his sometimes failing memory for a support. Not by fleshly wisdom but by the grace of God! But what did that have to do with it? All flesh is not the same flesh came back not exactly apropos.
"The flesh is weak," Father Romano muttered forgivingly. To sin a little is just human. Do a little wrong from time to time. Just human. Like a drink now and then. No harm in that. A weakness, of course, but human. A question of degree. But that is the problem. At what point does a human weakness, a little aberration, when does it become evil?
"I must agree with you there, Padre. And in the same way, a mystery is a mystery."
"Eh? And what mystery do you mean?" Padre Romano said, in his mind good turning into evil, and glancing warily at the array of books and fearful of broaching any theological subjects with this diabolical Piccolo Ernesto. Only God knows where the God's-image-shaman would carry this conversation. Some things were better not to think about. Like where we really come from and where we are going. Theology was one thing, the Holy Scripture another. He should quote a few more verses from the Bible to this atheist but he knew Ernesto would have disturbing if not damning replies to anything he might recall from the Holy Scripture.
"Well, for example, we might remember that for ancient peoples existence was all a question of time." Ernesto spoke so softly that Father Romano instinctively leaned toward him, his elbows on his knees, his glass out in front of him.
As if sensitive to his every movement, Piccolo Ernesto too leaned forward ... and, devil of a tempter, filled the outstretched glass.
"Our life too," Ernesto continued, "our existence in the here and now is a question of time. Are we here, one wonders, or are we dreaming we are here? That is the real issue."
"The book of Genesis is clear," Father Romano said, beginning to harden his g's and slurring his s's and a brief flash of unstable hilarity in his eyes. The port was certainly exquisite. "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.''
He held out his half empty glass for a refill and settled back in the security of the enveloping poltrona, content with himself, too.
"You might find amusing another version of the beginning of things as believed by the ancient Huichol peoples in Mexico. Westerners think of history as a constantly ascending line, one development following the other in logical order. For these ancient Mexicans time is more complex. They see history as a series of closed cycles. Each cycle - or each world, or each sun, as they call it - is independent of the other. Four previous suns have disappeared in cataclysms, after each of which the gods had to create everything again, both the sacred sun and sacred man. Today we live in the fifth and last sun, eternally under threat of extinction. So for all that time of many cycles and many suns, many gods are required."
"Hmmm. Yes. Of course. Hmmm. But many gods?"
Father Romano's dark eyes were now slits of suspicion and misunderstanding. This was just the kind of conversation that undermined his firmest convictions. He had learned from experience when to be bold and when to be timid and withdrawn. Despite his resolve he'd fallen into the theological trap. Better to stick to bells and miracles and the smell of incense and holy images - and yes, I'll have another glass of that excellent port wine - rather than venturing into unchartered territories trod by the likes of Piccolo Ernesto.
He repeated to himself the warning he once heard pronounced by his Bishop, to be ever on the lookout for miracles but to keep his distance from sorcerers.
"God is One," he muttered, now in his timid mode.
Again Ernesto sat in silence as nine o'clock struck the village.
Then, Father Romano: "God works in strange ways. He works miracles through unexpected persons ... like the healing of Eliana. Like the healing of Roberto."
Miracles were Father Romano's source of grace. And the promise of glory. His mind was full of his own simplified mythology - the miracles of water to wine and fishes for thousands and the raising of the dead. O death, he recalled, where is thy sting? Celestial happenings. Real life events that Father Romano couldn't explain tended to fall into the comfortable category of miracles, though, as he admitted, there were minor miracles and there were major miracles. Miracles happened all the time, we just don't recognize them or we call them by other names or science gives them other names, space rockets and radar and wonder drugs. With a look of innocent wonder in his eyes he used freely expressions containing the word miracle like 'this watch is a miracle of precision.' Or, 'this year's wine harvest is truly miraculous.' In a similar vein his relationship with literature was limited to his research for the word miracolo. He liked to quote in his sermons any sentence from Leopardi or Pirandello or Carducci using that divine word.
On a more practical level the fact that the village idiot began speaking after the Orthodox painter tied his shoelaces for him was without the shadow of a doubt a miracle. And Eliana's recovery too was miraculous.
In a way he was sorry that the Russian painter hadn't performed the miracle on Eliana too. Or that Piccolo Ernesto hadn't healed the village idiot first for that would have meant two miracles by one person. Quasi sainthood! Ah, dreams! He could imagine it. Canonization in Montagna! Calls to Rome! The decorated altar in St. Peter's! The purple in his old age! I'll drink to that!
"But Padre, I only suggested to Eliana to think about food."
"That's what you think, figliolo. You were the instrument for the divine intervention of God!" How could he have thought Piccolo Ernesto was his adversary? Piccolo Ernesto was an ally. If he could get out of this chair he would embrace him.
"Why do you think that, Padre?"
"Faith, figliolo. Faith. You must take it all on faith. The fact is God created the world because He wanted to. Not because He had to. And if He wants to He can limit or extend or modify the nature He created. He can suspend the normal course of things and let something supernatural occur. That is divine intervention, figliolo. A revelation of God. A proof of the divine origin of Christianity.
"Padre, do you mean to say that belief in miracles is an act of faith?"
"Naturally, figliolo! An act of faith. Uh, yes, I will have just a bit more port before I go back into the night."
"Padre, we are in agreement on so many things," Ernesto said, carefully filling the glass to the rim. "Wondrous things. Some people only believe what their eyes can see."
"Shallow people, figliolo!"
"I too, Padre, am a spiritual being - which admittedly is not the same as religious. Eliana, for example, must meet her spirit which is her real self."
"Faith, figliolo! The faith that moves mountains. There's never too much faith. Nothing counts without faith."
On the word faith, Father Romano hiccupped and covered his mouth briefly with a tiny hand, blushing to himself at his repetitious use of faith. After a moment's silence the holy man abruptly put his empty glass on the floor and pulled himself out of the poltrona with the assistance of Ernesto's strong arm. Then, leaning forward and in short priestly steps he carefully crept toward the door, muttering to himself all the way.
"And a very goodnight to you, figliolo," he murmured several times as they navigated down the tricky stairs together.
Nothing like a spiritual evening together with another man of the cloth, he thought, suppressing the tempter Pride he felt rising up under his cassock. Sometimes it was like experiencing God directly, but that too was another poison arrow from the tempter Pride. Crush him! No falls on the way to glory. Hold to the path of Peter the Rock. His was to be a dangerous path; his bishop had once warned him when he had started out. The pride of the solitary village priest. He hoped his faith was not just sense of duty, and instinct. No confusion of faith with duty! Though that happens too, duty and loyalty transformed into faith. Or was it the other way around? Anyway! No wonder he sometimes felt he was not good enough for glory but not bad enough either to fall to the tempter.
"Keep the faith ... and God bless you," he said at the street door.
Piccolo Ernesto stood in the doorway and watched Father Romano start up the street away from his church. A slight stagger now and then, a halt, and then onwards up his hill of calvary.
The old man walked in the reigning silence that seemed like noise. Ernesto watched his ascending figure and was aware of the sounds from upstairs of people doing things and a TV turned down low.
Then from his open window he watched the shaky figure weave his way up the porphyry stones of Via Piazza. He started when just over his head they began, the bells, the infernal bells. As always, he counted. Ten! How fast the time had passed! Where was the holy man going, drunk in the night?
Ernesto smiled. Thank God he hadn't revealed the truth to the good priest.
The truth, he thought. Forever elusive. Forever tempting us. Forever hovering just out of reach. The evening before Eliana had come to him to reveal her truth.
'Signor Ernesto,' she'd said, now rounder and plumper than ever before. 'I can't deceive you any longer. I'll go mad if I don't tell someone. It happened in September, when I was still slim. The boys at the discothèque looked at me and everyone wanted to dance with me. I danced with them and even kissed a few, but no one ever did...it. I swear.' Nevertheless, she somehow got pregnant.
In the Montagna night Father Romano ascends Via Piazza and turns uphill toward the Camposanto. No day passes that he doesn't think fondly of his bones resting forever in the village cemetery. Not in the dark and frightening Church of the Dead but instead in the Camposanto perched on the spur of the mountain overlooking the valley. This was the heart of things, for they were all here, his people.
He walks along the wall and stops at the holy site where the Russian healed Roberto. He strokes the spot on the wall with the palm of his hand. The miracle took place right here. He sighs and looks down at the dark valley speckled with tiny lights of cars flitting around in the night. He sits on the wall as the Russian does each day, his feet dangling over the valley. Pleasant sensations fill his body, as if he had passed into a region something like ... like what, he wonders? A strange thought has come to him spontaneously - he feels as if he were suddenly in something like limbo. Is this the way it is supposed to be, he wonders? A place where neither good nor evil exists? Neither seem now of great importance.
Listen! Listen to the sounds! The mountain above is dark. The valley is dark. Only those miraculous little cars glittering and glimmering in the night.
Unexpectedly, he becomes aware of the comforting music of the bells of San Giorgio. Who knows how many times? If they would only go on forever! His church! He smiled. A rare experience!
Piccolo Ernesto is lucky in one thing, he still hears the bells!
Father Romano suddenly feels in himself unexpected reserves of understanding. It is the bells, the night, wise Piccolo Ernesto, the holy site. It is life itself. He feels a sense of a peace and freedom, both wild in his wondrous expectations and tranquil in his familiar old certainties. He recalls the very same feelings of when he was a young priest on his first trip to Rome and feels the shivers down his spine.
On a winter's night in Montagna sounds are muted and transformed. You hear footfalls on the cobbles and on the stones, stones, stones. They are drawing near and at once moving away, away, away. Now they are coming up the ancient road toward the Church of the Dead, which is full of our dead of centuries and centuries. Dead with gaping mouths full of teeth and their very souls bared.
And perhaps, he thinks, as his eyes close, and he lets himself doze, they are genuinely free. The next morning he is unprepared, verily, to hear of the new miracle.