The Quest - Chapter One
The elderly Italian priest crouched in the corner of his cell and covered himself with his straw pallet. Outside, screaming artillery shells exploded into the soft African earth, and shrapnel splattered off the stone walls of his prison. Now and then, a shell air-burst overhead and hot metal shards pierced the corrugated metal roof.
The old priest curled into a tighter ball and drew the pitifully thin pallet closer. The shelling stopped abruptly. The old man relaxed. He called out to his jailers, in Italian, “Why are they bombing us? Who is doing this thing?”
But he received no answer. The older Ethiopians, the ones who spoke Italian, had gradually disappeared over the years, and he heard less and less of his native tongue through the stone walls. In fact, he realized he hadn’t heard a word of it in almost five years. He shouted in snatches of Amharic, then Tigregna. “What is it? What is happening?” But there was no answer. They never answered him. To them, he was more dead than the ripening bodies that lay in the courtyard. When you ask questions for forty years and no one answers, it can only mean that you are dead. But
he knew they dared not answer. One had answered, once, when he first entered his cell. Was it forty years now? Perhaps it was less. The years were hard to follow. He could not even remember the man who had answered, except for the skull. His jailers had given him the skull of the one who had answered him. The skull was his cup. He remembered the man and his kindness each time he drank. And the jailers remembered when they filled his cup; they remembered not to speak to him. But he asked anyway. He called out again. “Why is there war? Will you release me?”
He stared at the iron door on the far wall. It had closed on a young man in 1936, when Ethiopia was an Italian colony, and the door had not opened since. Only the small pass-through door at the bottom of the iron door was ever used. His sustenance came in and his waste went out once a day through that small portal. A window, no larger than a big book–really just a missing stone–above eye level, let in light, sounds, and air.
His only possessions in the cell, aside from his tatteredshamma, were a washbasin, a pair of dull scissors that he used to cut his hair and nails, and a Holy Bible, written in Italian, which they had let him keep when he was first imprisoned. If it weren’t for his Bible, he knew, he would have gone mad many years ago. He had read the holy book perhaps a hundred, two hundred times, and though his eyesight was growing weaker, he knew every word by heart. The Old and New Testaments brought him comfort and escape, and kept his mind from dying, and kept his soul nourished.
The old man thought of the young man who walked through the iron door in 1936. He knew every detail of the young man’s face and every movement of his body. At night, he spoke to the young man and asked him many things about their native Sicily. And he knew the young man so well that he even knew what went on inside his mind and how he felt and where he went to school and the village he came from and how old his father was. The young man never got older, of course, and his stories were always the same. But his was the only face the old man knew well enough to remember. He had seen that young face in the mirror for the last time close to forty years ago and not again since, except in his mind’s eye. He wept.
The old priest dried his tears on his dirty native shamma and lay back against his cell wall and breathed deeply. His mind eventually came back to the present.
Wars had ebbed and flowed around his small prison and he imagined that the world had changed considerably in his absence from it. Jailers got old and died. Young soldiers grew old as they paraded through the years in the courtyard of the small fortress outside. When he was younger, he was able to hang from the sill of the window much longer. But now he could no longer gather the energy to pull himself up for more than a few minutes a day.
The shelling had jarred loose many things in his mind. He knew that his imprisonment was at its end; if the explosions did not kill him, then the guards would because he knew they had standing orders to kill him if they could no longer continue to guarantee his incarceration in this place. And now he could hear the sounds of fleeing garrison soldiers. And the jailers would soon open that never-opened door and do their duty. But he held nothing against them. Those were their orders and he forgave them. But it did not matter if they or the explosions killed him. His own body was failing him anyway. He was dying. There was famine in the land and the food had been poor for over a year. His lungs made a liquid sound when he coughed. Death was here. Inside his cell and outside his cell.
The old man’s biggest regret, he thought, was that he would die in ignorance–that as a consequence of the two score years of being held in darkness, he knew less than the simplest peasant did about his world. He did not regret the dying–that held no special terror for him–but the thought of dying without knowing what the world had come to in his absence was a peculiarly sad thing. But then again, his calling was not of this world, but of the next, and it should have made no difference what the world had come to. Still, it would have been nice to know just a little something of the affairs of men. He could not help wondering about his friends, about his family, about the world leaders of his day.
He wrapped the shamma around himself more tightly. The sun was fading from his window and a chill wind blew down from the highlands. A small lizard, its tail partly severed by a piece of shrapnel, climbed awkwardly up the wall near his head. Outside in the stillness, he could hear the soldiers speaking in Amharic about who would have to kill him if it became necessary.
Like so many other imprisoned and condemned men and women, like the martyred saints, the thing that had sustained him through his ordeal was the very thing that had condemned him in the first place. And what had condemnedhim was his knowledge of a secret thing. And the knowledge of that secret thing comforted him and nourished him and he would gladly have traded forty more years of his life, if he had them to trade, for one more look at the thing that he had seen. Such was his faith. The years in prison saddened him because they meant that the world had not yet learned of this thing. For if the world knew, then there would be no more reason for his solitary confinement.
He often wished they had killed him then, and spared him this living death for forty years. But he was a priest, and those who had captured him, the monks, and those who had imprisoned him, the soldiers of the emperor, were Coptic Christians, and so they had spared his life. But the monks had warned the soldiers never to speak to the priest, for any reason, or death would come to them. The monks had also told the soldiers that they had leave to kill the priest if his imprisonment and silence could not be guaranteed. And now, he thought, that day had surely come. And he welcomed it. He would soon be with his heavenly father.
Suddenly the artillery began again. He could hear its thump and crash as it walked around the walls of the small fortress. Eventually the artillery spotter made his corrections, and the rounds began to land more accurately within the walls of the compound. The sounds of secondary explosions–stockpiled petrol and ammunition–drowned out the sounds of the incoming artillery. Outside his window, the old priest could hear men screaming in pain. A nearby explosion shook the tiny cell and the lizard lost its grip and fell beside him. The deafening explosions numbed his brain and blotted out every awareness except that of the lizard. The reptile was trying to coordinate its partially severed halves, thrashing around on the reverberating mud floor, and he felt sorry for the creature. And it occurred to him that the soldiers might abandon the garrison and leave him here to die of thirst and hunger.
A shock wave lifted a section of corrugated metal off the roof and sent it sailing into the purple twilight. A piece of spent shrapnel found him and slapped him hotly across his cheek, causing him to yell out in pain. The old man could hear the sounds of excited shouts outside his iron door. The door moved almost imperceptibly. The old man stared at it. It moved again. He could hear its rusty stubbornness over the roar of the fiery hell outside. But forty years was a long time and it would not yield. There were more shouts and then quiet. Slowly, the pass-through door at the base of the unyielding cell door slid open. They were coming for him. He clutched his Bible to his chest.
A long, gaunt Ethiopian slithered through the pass-through onto the mud floor and the old man was reminded of the lizard. The Ethiopian rose to his feet, looked at him, then drew a curved sword from his belt. In the half-light, the old priest could see his fine features. He was undoubtedly an Amhara from Hamitic stock. His hooked nose and high cheekbones made him look almost Semitic, but the tight, black hair and dusky skin revealed him as a descendant of Ham. With his scimitar in his hand and his shamma, he looked very biblical, and the old priest thought that this was as it should be, although he could not say why.
The old priest rose, carrying his Bible, and his knees shook so badly he could barely stand. His mouth, he noticed, was quite dry now. He surprised the Ethiopian by deliberately walking across the small cell toward him. It was better to die quickly and to die well. A chase around the cell with upraised arms to ward off the blows of the scimitar would have been grotesque.
The Ethiopian hesitated, not wanting to do his duty in the final analysis and wondering now if perhaps he could circumvent it. But having drawn a short straw, he had become the executioner. What to do? The old priest knelt and crossed himself. The Ethiopian, a Christian of the ancient Coptic Church, began to shake. He spoke in bad Italian. “Father. Forgive me.”
“Yes,” said the old priest and he prayed for both of them in snatches of long-forgotten Latin. Tears welled in his eyes as he kissed his Bible.
A shot rang out above the dwindling sounds of artillery outside and he heard a cry. Another shot, then the sounds of automatic rifle fire.
The soldier said in Italian, “The Gallas are here.”
He sounded frightened, thought the old man, and well he should be. The priest remembered the Gallas, the tribal people who were as merciless as the ancient Huns. They mutilated their prisoners before they killed them.
The priest looked up at the soldier holding his scimitar and saw that he was shaking in fear. The old priest yelled at him, “Do it!”
But the soldier dropped his scimitar, then drew an ancient pistol from his belt and backed away toward the door, listening for sounds outside.
The soldier seemed indecisive, thought the priest, torn between staying in the relative safety of the cell or going out to be with his comrades, and to meet the Gallas, who were now within the fortress. The soldier was also torn between killing the old priest or letting him live, which could cost him his own life if his commander discovered what he had done–or failed to do.
The old priest decided that he preferred a quick and merciful death at the hands of this soldier; the Gallas would not be quick or merciful. He stood and said to the soldier in Amharic, “Do it. Quickly.” He pointed to his heart.
The soldier stood frozen, but then raised his pistol. His hand shook so badly that when he fired, the bullet went high and splattered off the stone behind the old man’s head.
The old priest had suffered enough, and the strange emotion of anger rose inside him. Here he was, after close to forty years in solitary imprisonment, and all he had wanted in his last moments was to die well and to die quickly, without losing his faith, like so many others did in those last seconds. But a well-meaning and inept executioner had prolonged his agony and he felt his faith slipping. He screamed, “Do it!”
He stared down the barrel of the gun and saw it spit another flame at him. And he thought of the thing that had condemned him. And the vision of that thing glowed like the fire from the gun, all golden and blinding–bright like the sun. Then everything went black.
He awoke to the miracle of being alive. The roof was mostly gone and he could see pinpoints of starlight against the sky. A bluish moon cast shadows across the floor, which was strewn with timbers and stone. Everything was unearthly still. Even the insects had abandoned the fortress.
He looked and felt around for his Bible, but could not find it in the rubble, and thought perhaps the soldier had taken it.
The old man crawled toward the door, then carefully out the pass-through. The soldier lay naked outside the door, and he saw that the man’s genitals had been hacked off. The stripping, the mutilation; this was the mark of the Galla tribesmen. They might still be near.
The old man rose unsteadily. In the courtyard, naked bodies lay in the blue moonlight. His insides burned, but he felt well otherwise. It was hard to feel anything but well, walking now under the sky and taking more than five paces in any one direction.
A cool breeze picked up swirls of rubble dust, and he could smell the burned earth and the death around him. The damaged concrete buildings gleamed white in the moonlight like broken teeth. He shivered and tucked his arms in hisshamma. His body was cold and clammy. He became aware that his shamma was caked with dried blood, sticking to his skin, and he moved more slowly so as not to open the wound.
It had been forty years, but he remembered the way and walked to the main gates. They lay open. He walked through them, as he’d done in dreams five thousand times, and he was free.