My mother told me to pack what I needed for the mountain. What will I need for the mountain, I asked her. I’ve never been up the mountain. She patted my head and said, “I’ve never been either. We’ll need to bring some food.”
“Will it be cold?”
“What do you have to be warm with?”
So I went with my family, carrying my little pack full of food and a canteen to the staging area in the dusty yard behind the temple the next town over. Fearing much boredom, I decided to grab my radio set as well, which in those days I liked to remind everybody I’d built myself from parts.
The temple wasn’t anything special, in fact, it was missing its doors and some chunks out of the roof. But it lay right at the base of the mountain, where the foothills are so bumpy they get rid of the horizon.
I hoped the mountain was ready for people, because it was a real crowd of them there at the temple. The priests and shamans and holy men were in their lightest costumes, good for hiking, while their various novitiates and apprentices and professional almsgivers bore the garment bags with their superiors’ most splendiferous vestments inside, necessary for the ceremony at the summit. There were innumerable oxcarts: one would carry the PA system, which was currently set up next to an impromptu altar of flowers and bamboo at one end of the yard, another dragged a tankard of water, several others were reserved for the old and infirm. Parked next to the carts was a fleet of litters, saffron red and sundown-sand gold inlaid on dark, splintering wood. Some were private, some for rent. The litter-bearers had to constantly keep an eye out that the bullocks didn’t chomp down on any hanging tassels.
As the poet says, where come human beings, so too vendors. Bananas, fried lizard, yogurt drinks to mollify the heat, all advertised with the passion of songbirds. My older brother put a coin in my hand and told me to go pick up something buttered and roasted.
What was missing, on the other hand, were any weapons as far as I could see. I had never known a gathering without them slinking along the edges of things, in the hands of men who liked to do the same.
People from every part of the island were there, from all sides of the war. Family members who had not seen each other for months or years, outside of stolen wilderness rendezvous, spotted and embraced each other. This wasn’t for us. We once had some cousins on the other side of the frontlines—on the other side of the valley—but they weren’t going to be joining us up the mountain. The men who burned down their hut, years ago, had also locked them inside. So we just stuck to ourselves and the people we knew, biting into our grilled corn on the cob. My brother rapped me on the head for not getting any chicken with it.
Our mother occasionally slipped a disposable camera from her bag and snapped a picture. She said she wanted to show the images of the historic pilgrimage to our aunt who worked abroad. One of my little sisters, with a single squinty glance at all the perfectly normal people hanging around the grubby temple grounds, protested that it couldn’t be historic, because it wasn’t happening in the past.
Out of the tarp-flap doors of the temple emerged the ones my mother called the poohbahs. The clerics, the doctors of theology, the archdiviners. Over their necks they all wore the same flowered garlands of blue and yellow. They gathered behind the little altar at the edge of the dirt field, but nobody thought to form an audience until the Bishop came out to join us. He looked the same as his pictures: middle-aged and flat-nosed, with neatly combed hair, an upper lip like the beak of a sea turtle’s, and sunglasses too big for his face. In his subdued, powder-blue suit jacket I thought he looked like my school teacher, though nowadays I would maybe say a bank teller. I had heard his voice many times, vaulting through the humid night air into my radio set, and wondered before he spoke if it would sound the same now.
My curiosity was not unique. The people wanted to match the bodily man to the ghostly voice that steeped the whole island like tea, to locate in his idle mannerisms the gargantuan hands that moved needful bags of rice from temple to temple across battle lines. We listened in silence to his short remarks. He adjusted a microphone near his lips.
“Friends,” he said. His voice was calm, very much his own, and carried well by the cheap speakers. “Friends, thank you for coming. Today, we are going to achieve something. We have the chance, while the ceasefire rules, to do so. Listen. This island has a problem. We do not love ourselves. I have been trying very hard, for many years, to get us to love ourselves, to love each other. But it hasn’t worked. Today, at the top of this mountain, if we will not love ourselves, at the very least the sun will love us. And then, maybe, we can learn from its example. May the ceasefire never cease. May it be made permanent. Now Brother Jojo here will give a service before we start on up.”
Everybody in our little section of dirt hooted and hollered the moment the Bishop unbraced his thick hands from the makeshift altar, because it was a great honor—Brother Jojo was an itinerant priest from our very own district, a man I can say my whole family knew well. My father hosted him for tea many times, and later my mother did, too.
I cheered along with everybody else but kept my eyes on the Bishop’s back. He didn’t wait to witness Brother Jojo’s service, but instead stalked back into the temple. I imagined him loosening the collar on that no doubt very stifling suit jacket in the cool, private hallway.
Brother Jojo performed the rites quickly enough—my mother whispered a joke to my older brother about how even now, in this place of honor, he rushed through them, mechanical yet careless, the same way he’d done a thousand times under the broken ceiling fan of our puny country chapel. He filled the ram’s horn with cow’s milk from a slit plastic bag and sprinkled it over the faces of those up front. They in turn wiped the milk-and-sweat mixture from their own foreheads and sprinkled it over those behind them, and so on, until it reached us in the shade under the bare concrete wall of the yard. I’d heard how at services in the city it was always the rich people who reserve the prime seats. In our chapel in the valley, there usually wasn’t a second row. My mother had to discreetly wallop the back of one of my sisters’ heads when she visibly cringed and danced to avoid the arrival of the sanctified fluid.
Brother Jojo’s sermon, however, was not his usual exhortations to love, kindness, prudence, duty to your fellow man, or any of those other familiar topics which that ardor of his brought to life crawling on their hands and knees. Instead he spoke about the mountain, its meaning, and why we were climbing it.
“The mountain was created by God as the first land out of the whole smothering ocean of the world,” he began in that reedy, neutered-dog voice of which my older brother did such a good impression, now booming from the mic. “And He made the first people who lived upon it, the people who are gone now. And they were the mountain, and the mountain was them. These people who were the mountain were kindly, but lonely, just like the God who had created them. So they asked their Lord to give the mountain company. And thus God complied, as He did not want to upset His only friends and companions. He raised out of the sea this island, our island, all around the mountain, the valley and the lowlands, the beaches and the jungles and the badlands. And He filled the island with people, who are the island, as the island is the people. And those people are all of you I see around me now.
“But God grew jealous of His friends, the mountain people, who spent all their time with the people of the island. And so one day He called them up to heaven with Him. That is how the mountain came to be without people, empty ever since. So today, as the Bishop has said, we will go up to the top and perform our ceremony, and ask for the people of the mountain to come and live amongst us again, so we may drink long draughts from the cups of grace and kindness they will bring down to us from heaven—so to speak.”
I believe for every word the Bishop had spoken, Brother Jojo said ten. This was a story we’d heard a million times before. The only difference was that usually, when mentioning other parts of the island, Brother Jojo would make a joke about the people in the lowlands and the badlands and the other side of the valley especially—yes, even those people were created by God, on request if you can believe it, though who knows what He really had in mind. I was proud of Brother Jojo, but I was glad he was done for the day. There was the mountain leering down at us, in need of climbing like a dead bird needed poking.
The whole procession jostled itself into motion. The Bishop came out of the temple again, wearing his iconic unwashed stole-and-chasuble. Bullocks were poked awake from their morning naps, donkeys brayed as feedbags were ripped from their faces, the rich and the cherished crawled into their litters, the litters were hoisted by the strong, and there was a burst of scampering to get as close as possible to the head of the parade—as close as possible to the Bishop and his gang, who rode in the back of a converted army truck under seven thin parasols pooling their shade together. But when the hustling was over, everybody accepted their place and stuck to it. You couldn’t go faster and you couldn’t go slower—the ground just opened up in front of you, and was consumed behind.
The mountain scooped us up in a calm slope, then an aggressive one. As we hiked the dirt trail, sometimes smooth, sometimes rocky, I congratulated myself for having already eaten my little aluminum box of spiced, fermented rice for the day, instead of squirrelling it away under my mother’s advice like my siblings. They looked tired and wan from the very first confrontation with the shallow, stone-cut steps that stapled the mountain path.
But nobody, absolutely nobody, was in a bad mood. You could even see the shamans smiling, which they liked to say they never wanted to let the spirits catch them doing. There were many children, and unlike the adults stuck into their places along the line, they all moved about freely, like electrons up and down a copper wire. After a quick nod of permission from our mother—she looked like she was about to say something, but as we already had our permission from the nod, we felt we didn’t need to hear exactly what it was—my siblings and I ran off to join them. Our group poked around the edges of the road, picking up interesting rocks, which to our minds assuredly were fossils, and just as soon dropping our contributions to modern paleontology in the dirt whenever we decided to give one another a good chase-around. The lizards of the mountain, popping curious heads out of their burrows after so many years with only the occasional hermit for company, soon learned terror in the shape of forty spindly arms and legs.
Sometimes I broke off to wander alone. That’s how I came to get a good look at the people from all the other parts of the island. I was expecting to find on their faces various shades of grim—that’s how they looked whenever spied through binoculars crossing open ground across the valley—but instead they tended to be smiling and laughing and joking. In fact it was me that a man from the lowlands pointed at—a farmer by the looks of him, with a bucket hat and gappy teeth—and asked, laughing, “Why the long face, boy? Get a load of this kid, somebody tell him a joke, or something, anything!”
I just ran away.
Among the people of the badlands, I found out that nobody owned any oxcarts, but walked everywhere themselves. Among the people of the jungles, I found not a man taller than I was. And among the people of the lowlands, like the rude farmer, I found out that they liked to drink while they walked, even over rough terrain up a sacred mountain in the presence of the holiest men in the world. You could see the butts of one or two guns sticking out from the matting of their donkey’s saddles. Not automatics, but the old-style hare-hunting contraptions that used to be so common. I wondered if the people of the mountain ever used guns, so long ago. If they didn’t, that might have been what people meant when they said they were so much kinder than we were. Because all the people I knew were already very kind: my mother, my teachers, my friends. Even my father never became unkind after his time at the front lines, where they gave him a medal once and not for shooting rabbits either. Maybe there was a difference between being kind and being kindly.
Eventually some of us kids got brave enough to zip up to the Bishop’s truck at the head of the line. If mom could have seen us then, she would have yelled bloody murder for sure.
The Bishop sat there, frowning under his heavy vestments, alongside the other important people of the Grand Temple. They sat as soldiers would have done in the same truck, with the two rows on either side, shoulder to shoulder, facing one another.
When we reached the truck, which rumbled on at a walking pace, the big kids like me escorted it from the road while the smaller children latched onto the bumpers. One girl clambered up inside the truck bed, where she was promptly trapped in the lap of a hair-stroking prelate.
“Father, Father,” called a fishing-village boy I had befriended just this morning. “When you do the service, will the mountain people come down from heaven right there, or do we meet them on the way back down? Or will we have to wait longer? And what will the cup of greasy kindness taste like? Like medicine? Or like soda? I don’t know if I wanna drink it.”
Seeing the Bishop’s face up close for the first time you will immediately notice what gets lost in the distance. It was like watching a scrap of storm, but only through a mirror. I don’t believe the man ever hid what he was feeling, but let his reactions pass over his face as they would. In response to the boy’s question there formed first irritation, heavy in the clenched teeth and squiggling brows, and then a genuine smile.
“This boy will find work as a scientist quite easily one day,” the Bishop said, his words aloft and showering over everybody. “He wants to know the details of everything exactly in the particulars.”
Then the Bishop spoke to the boy himself. He possessed that trait as well, where you always knew exactly for whom he intended his words, and if that wasn’t you, then it was your fault for eavesdropping and not his for being indiscreet. Having worked in the civil service for twenty years now, I sometimes wonder that a man like that could have risen through the ranks of a bureaucracy.
“I’m sorry, my son, if this disappoints you, but the people of the mountain will not appear as men and women whose hands you can shake and invite over for dinner at your mother’s house. They will appear in our hearts only. Does that make sense to you?”
The boy said it did, but of course he would.
Then the irritation, like sand in the ears, returned to the Bishop’s face, and he cast a scathing glance at a skinny cleric two seats over and across from him.
“Brother Ignon, have we not been endeavoring to teach past this mindset of literalism? Have I not set that as a priority, so that the people will learn to see things with a clear eye?”
“But the people like the stories, Father.”
The Bishop snorted, like the sand had somehow migrated to his nose. As the member of an enforced audience, I waved flamboyantly at Brother Jojo, who signaled back a flick of his hand and a brief smile.
“I can tell you some stories, Brother. Is that what the grown-ups think will happen, too? Aliens coming down from the clouds in flying saucers? I feel foolish for how we went about things this morning, then, if that’s the case. I’ll be making some inquiries when we get off this mountain, I can tell you, about what goes on in the Sunday schools. And Brother Anscero, get that girl off your lap, it’s improper.”
The little girl was handed to me, despite the fact that I didn’t even know her name.
With the whim of a cricket’s passing, the Bishop turned to gaze at the increasingly lovely view of the island below. All other eyes followed his.
“So war-torn it does not appear,” said Brother Jojo, twiddling his parasol, his eyes hard. “The higher up the mountain we go, the easier to pretend it is a paradise.” I was shocked by the assertiveness of this comment. Was this the same man whom Dua Lula weekly humiliated, telling him how tired she was of his boring sermons, and could he change them up next time with some newer, more interesting sins she didn’t know she shouldn’t be committing? Even more shocking to me was the Bishop’s answer, which came as a deep heartfelt sigh of agreement.
He noticed us children again, and smiled the smile of a man who is enthused by things other than close football matches, pig roasts, or permissive chaperones.
“Where are you all from?”
He was astounded, he told us, that we came from all different parts of the island.
“And here I thought you were a gang of nursery mates your whole lives long! But you hardly know each other. And with your fathers fighting each other for so many years. Maybe we don’t need to go up the mountain today after all—the children already have the spirit that we seek.”
He said this with great whirling enthusiasm, his flapping vestments almost spinning off of him as he turned towards Brother Anscero. If the Bishop were saving you from drowning, you would hope he wasn’t struck by an illuminating opinion to share with the captain of the rescue boat just as he was about to hand you the life preserver.
“Your Lordship, they may do. But have you considered that it is for the fathers’ sakes that we ascend today,” said the empty-lapped prelate, with a tone not unlike my teacher’s whenever she spotted the error in my maths. “And not for that of the children?”
“I wish you were not so wise, Brother, then I could afford to give you the pleasant retirement you deserve,” mumbled the Bishop by way of deflation. It shouldn’t be possible to hunch your shoulders under vestments. But for the Bishop it was.
“It’s my greatest regret in life as well, your Lordship,” said Brother Anscero, with a very strange expression on his face. Eyes dead and lips pursed—yet you could see he really had a grin on somewhere.
It was exactly then that I decided either I was going to speak to the Bishop once in my life, or I wasn’t. I handed the little girl over to one of my new playmates and piped up, trying to think of a question, any question more pragmatic than that other boy’s. I imagined I was talking to the voice inside my radio set, curled up under the covers at home.
“What will it be like at the top of the mountain, Father?”
The Bishop looked at me, and all of a sudden I knew what it was to be a fan or a lamp, waiting to be noticed, needed, and switched on.
“What do you mean? It’s a mountaintop. You can see everything all around. You’ve been to the top of a mountain before, haven’t you? This one’s just taller than the rest.”
Everyone was staring at me. I should have been devastated by this answer, but I wasn’t. My older brother later told me he wasn’t particularly surprised by my thick skin—I asked dumber questions at school, apparently.
“I mean, Father, what will the ceremony be like? Will it be different than normal?”
The bishop’s eyes sunk into his cheeks, it seemed, as he gave my follow-up serious consideration. Then they perked back up.
“It will be different by virtue of taking place on the mountaintop. Which is a very holy place.”
The truck jerked to a stop and we looked all around.
A tree trunk had blessed our path. This kind of blessing, causing very annoying delays, became more common the higher we moved up the mountain, where some sections of trail had to be blazed all over again.
“It’s a very holy place, if somewhat under-weeded,” the Bishop continued, but not to me. “Next week, Brother Ignon, send me some hobos with good references. The madder the better. This mountain needs some saints to tend to it.”
A machete-wielding constable in a wide-brimmed hat came by to give a report on the situation. In the middle of listening, hunch-backed, over the edge of the truck, his domed cap almost touching the constable’s brim, the Bishop suddenly snapped his attention at us kids again.
“Now get! Back to your families! Tell them the Bishop will bring them up this mountain, he just didn’t say fast. Get! I am not just your spiritual father, I’m also the boss of this enterprise. I’ve got to make sure every little thing works out smoothly. Are you good little boys and girls, or bad ones? Get!” He turned back to the constable, who reflected his broad smile like a mirror.
In our obedience, we shouted our goodbyes and melted away. I was scandalized when the girl my age walking by my side practically spat all over me about how proud she was that her parish priest got to sit up top with the Bishop in the Bishop’s truck—she was talking about Brother Anscero. I pointed out to her that my parish priest, however, had the honor of giving the sermon at the bottom of the mountain. She was too much! Without blinking she said she was sure her Brother Anscero would get to do the same thing at the top. But we both knew that was a silly lie—up there the Bishop, and only the Bishop, would have something to say.
That evening the procession came to a stop on a stretch of low grade, and my brothers and sisters and I gathered around our mother in the darkness. Watching everybody roll out their little aluminum lunchboxes, I began to regret having eaten all my food for the day. I had nothing but a pebble in my cheek.
My mother, checking the roll on her disposable, announced with displeasure that all the shots were gone. Everybody’s eyes revealed the truth: one of my little sisters had slipped the camera out of her bag during the hike. I remember later, when my mother had it developed, most of the pictures were solid bursts of black, brown, and white.
In consequence, I got my sister’s dinner, which I ate without remorse—after all, she’d gotten my food a million times when I’d broken the fencing on the chicken roost or thrown stones at the neighbor’s dog for barking too loud.
“What I’ll do is, I’ll go around and beg for my dinner!” said this little sister of mine in aggrieved squeaks.
“So go beg,” our mother replied. She turned to me and my brother to put up the repurposed rods and frayed tarp wed brought for shelter.
My sister slipped away into the night. When the tent was up, and our little canned-stove light dimmed but not dead, she came back to show us her acquisitions: a bit of fish, a rice-crepe, and half a chocolate roulade still in the cellophane wrapping. She ate each item with tiny bites, her knees bent preciously beneath her, her eyes smug above her bouncing mouth. She didn’t offer to share, but we didn’t expect her to. It wasn’t a matter of taste—her dinner was far superior to ours.
“The people from the lowlands, they’re very rich and very generous, they gave me this stuff no questions asked,” was her after-dinner public service announcement, with some cream on the edge of her lip.
“Do you think you really taught her a lesson?” my older brother said to my mother, wiping the sweat of jealousy from his brow.
“Of course,” my mother said, “She had to beg for it.” And went into the tent to sleep.
I wondered what the Bishop’s opinion would have been, if he were crouched down in the tent eating dinner with us. I was sure he’d have one. But I couldn’t really imagine what he might have said, so I decided he would have decreed our mother a good mother, and pulled my radio set out of my pack.
My siblings—no matter what was in their stomachs—piled around me to listen. Some music, some sports, some comedy programs, that was our usual fare. And the news, for falling asleep to. I remember the days when we used to really listen to the news—to the reports on the battles and skirmishes—and followed along on our map of the island anxiously while my older brother cross-referenced the locations mentioned in our father’s letters. But now we just snored to the hiccups of the newscaster.
The best thing about my radio set was that nobody ever tried to grab it from me, like some other toys I’d had, and then not had. I was the only one who ever changed the station, even though I tended to heed requests. The dial felt better between my fingers than a pencil did. And I was the only one, when everybody was lying drowsy under their blankets, who ever remembered to turn it off. I had to buy every new battery myself, which were even more expensive then than they are now.
My brother announced that he would be keeping watch at the entrance of the tent, because he didn’t like the look of our neighbors the lowlanders. But his wakeful fire turned to ash before too long. The cavernous, mannish sound of his snoring joined the white noise of my set’s spotty reception and the wheeze of the winds which started to blow hard that high up the mountain. It was like the voice of the heavens yawning from boredom.
We were up early and moving in the morning, an ugly version of the risen sun lying in reflection upon the ocean. Overhead, sparrows gained and lost altitude like spendthrifts.
The dust was worst around dawn, swirling up in a cloud that seemed to swarm right at everybody’s mouth.
“It’s bad enough we have to breath in the bullock’s farts!” complained my mother, and laughed when my older brother pointed out the people next to us were giggling at her.
Eventually we came to another stop. There were no more trees, only shrubbery. Inopportune boulders were the problem up here. You could see the mainland very far away, like a mole upon the water. Only my older brother, who had been there in person, was determined to be unimpressed by it. I looked down the slope and saw that the line of pilgrims unrolled all the way down to the foothills.
“Half the island must be here!” one of my sisters said. And whatever the mathematics, you couldn’t pooh-pooh the impression. Nowadays, though, you ask people, around the office or at the juice huts, and it’s very hard to find anybody who will say they themselves went up the mountainside.
Bursting the little tissue of self-discipline I possessed, I pulled out my radio set again. Normally I didn’t have so much time to enjoy it—with school all day and my chores after that. But there on the mountain, besides the work of lifting up your legs over again and again, there was no work.
I switched it on. The dial was set to the same station as the night before, and I did not think to change it before the hypnotic words spilled out for all to hear: “Reports of a violent end of the ceasefire…armed caravans on the highway leading to the harbor…travelers taking advantage of the pause in hostilities disappearing in the jungles….the towns of the lowlands digging new redoubts….light shelling in the valley…all of our associated reporters stationed in the badlands gone incommunicado….”
I looked down the valley at the ocean as through the sight of a gun. No sound could possibly reach us, and I knew how hard it was to see the flash of discharge in bright, cloudless sunlight. I thought about our little farm left all alone, with only the neighbors to watch over it.
I was so distracted with worry that I didn’t hear what my mother was saying, which my brother later summarized to me as: you better fucking turn off that radio right goddamn now.
But even once her hand clamped down on the set, snapping the antenna in half, the cloud of whispers was already travelling like a man with a ticket and money to bribe, up and down the line.
About an hour later, I don’t remember how long, we got the word that the pilgrimage was over, and that everybody had to go back down the mountain. But nobody moved, whether they believed it or not. After all, down there was the fighting, and up here there wasn’t. All that happened was that the mass of people began to desiccate, tightening up away from anybody they didn’t know, everybody’s faces turned pouty, squinty, suspicious. Some rabbit-killers sniffed the fresh air.
Eventually, I suppose, the Bishop realized that people weren’t just about to up and turn around, and so his truck came rolling down through the procession like the handle on a zipper.
He spoke through a megaphone at our forlorn faces: “The ceremony will do us no good if there is fighting below—the spirit of the mountain people cannot return to a state of warfare. I’m sorry, my friends. We have to go back down.”
“We walked up all this way, we should do the ceremony anyways! At the top of the mountain, or here, before we go!” This cry might have come from one person in the crowd, or from the complaints of several beaded together.
I saw the sad, scrunched-up face of Brother Jojo, how he closed his eyes and sighed, then turned towards the Bishop, who visored his already sunglassed eyes with his hand.
“My brothers, my sisters, it’s pointless. Do you know the parable of the two sons? The one son the father gave his commands to. And the son said no, I will not obey. But in the end he saw the wisdom and carried out his father’s instructions. The second son showed respect and told his father he would obey, but in the end did nothing of what he was asked. Which do you call the better son?”
And so many voices, the parentage of half the island, called out “the second!” that the Bishop winced like a sick man getting out of bed. He didn’t say a word further, just handed the megaphone to Brother Ignon, who announced in a dull, hollow voice, like he didn’t want to be speaking on anybody’s behalf right now, not even God’s, that the Bishop would be conducting a service back in the foothills. The people bitched and moaned as loud as they pleased, and the Bishop patted the cabin of the truck. It drove down and away to the next chunk of pilgrims in need of shepherding.
Some people still wanted to see the top. And maybe they went. But what good did it do them, without the Bishop there? For most of us the graceless tantrum of reality, crying from down below, was irresistible. So with worn-out looks, even on the faces of the bullocks and the donkeys, we put one foot in front of the other on the long way down the mountainside. The sun did not love us.
I had a chance to meet him again, just last year. One of those accidents of scheduling. My boss asked me to join him on a delegation to the Bishop’s mansion, across the courtyard from the Grand Temple. This wasn’t so strange, as it was just as much an office for his staff as a home for the man. After innumerable rounds of waiting rooms splitting us apart and coughing us up together again, I made a wrong, lonely turn into the Bishop’s personal study.
He did not take me for an intruder, instead closing the book he was reading, which he seemed determined to hold in such a way that I could not casually make out the title on its spine, and bidding me to take some biscuits from a little tray next to his seat.
After a lightspeed biscuit, I introduced myself. He stared at me as if he knew I had a secret to share. Given recent developments, that might have been nothing more than an early symptom of his dementia peeking through. His face, hands, and neck were incredibly wrinkled, his hair looked as if blasted with white powder, and his upper lip no longer suggested a sea turtle’s so much as a tapir’s.
“Father, do you remember when we all went up the mountain to perform the ceremony of the mountain people?”
“Or rather, not perform the ceremony,” he said with a complacent chuckle. His glasses were perfectly clear and the lenses very thick, not built for gazing out under the beating sun but peering deep into tiny, squiggling slips of ink.
“Do you remember you…it was called off, because somebody turned on the radio, a little boy, and the news came out about the ceasefire being broken, and then we all had to go back down?”
He nodded along, as if I was summarizing the oft-told history of a well-known empire. Then he glanced down at the folder I clutched defensively to my torso. Possibly he thought I had some memo for him to sign.
“Well, Father, that boy was me. I was the one who ruined the ceremony.”
He looked up at me suddenly, at my face, then at every other part of me.
“I have felt an incredible guilt…all these years…that I did not think to…to not….”
But as I was choking on these difficult words, he had gotten up on his unsteady legs and gone over to a large globe on a dark-wood stand in the corner.
“What do you want me to do about it? Forgive you?” he asked. “I cannot.”
This wasn’t how I thought it would go at all when I’d decided to open up my genius mouth. His coldness and wrath bit me like a snake. I almost wanted to forget all about my mistake, to defend a little boy just playing with his favorite toy.
He turned toward me, his eyes hopped up on skepticism
“Why should it have been any different if you hadn’t done that?”
“Well, I…if we hadn’t heard the news, we would have gone up to the top, we would have completed the ceremony, we…the sun would have loved us.”
“But it would have been the same, the fighting on the island, if we had known about it or not,” he said, shaking his head. A front of pure scorn descended down his face. “Is this the kind of mind we have working in the civil service nowadays? Hm?” He took a bite out of a biscuit, before flinging the uneaten half down with its siblings in the tray with a sharp flick of his wrist.
He sighed as he chewed, and took a step closer.
“Now you listen to me, young man.” He was shaking a short, blunt finger at me, which in time turned, imperceptibly slowly, into a hand on my shoulder. “It’s a good thing we never did that cockamamie ceremony on the mountaintop. The war would have gone on an extra five years if we did. No, it was a very good thing. Don’t consider it a sin, my son. You saved a lot of people from finding out that the sun would not love us, no matter what earthly thing we did.”
It was at this point I was collected from the Bishop’s study by a frowning assistant. As I was bustled out, I took one awkward glance back at that perfectly scrutable face, its eyes hard but jellied, like off-color eggs too rotten to run. He was asking an aide to crack a bottle of wine.
It had been a long time since somebody had spoken to me so sharply. But I felt all right—even proud, proud of myself—as I imagined Brother Jojo must have felt sometimes, after the wringer. He was caught up in a car bomb some years ago—I should visit his grave, I thought. Or maybe his family.