Thursday, July 16, 2009

the arab

The Arab hesitated, and then twisted the handle to the gate. No result. It was locked, as he had feared. This is called expected disappointment, a phenomenon that originates from an excess of hope or an excess of self-loathing. The Arab suffered from a paradoxical combination of both.

The Arab was six feet seven inches tall and had whisper-pale eyes. Not even he could remember why they called him "the Arab". His last name was Kallinski and he could not remember his first name.

Picking at his yellow-white beard stubble, the Arab turned away from the gate to the Duchess' estate and walked down the hill towards the village. He remembered the accordion player in his hometown cafe, and his eye rims glowed salmon-pink with incipient tears.

Below him, the village. A man towed a trailer full of indignant black-faced goats from a whining mud-splattered Fiat. The butcher and the greengrocer pulled rattling iron blinds down over their shop windows. Lamps began to go on in the town's low houses, making puddles of light in the seeping vibrant blue of late spring dusk. The church bells rang out the end of mass, not the beginning--a curious tradition of the village dating from the war against the Turks. Or was it the Teutonic Knights? Or was it the Aragonese? The Arab couldn't remember, but the deep bronze clang and vibrating hum of the bells did make him think of something else, though he didn't know what it was. A sort of pulling him towards the village. The knowledge of a task left undone, or the last words in an interrupted conversation. The lingering consciousness of something whose form has melted away, leaving only its undefined but insistent presence.

He arrived at the main street and began to walk through the village. Wrinkle-framed eyes of disapproving peasant grandmothers drilled from behind curtains but were incapable of tearing into his air of indifference. He approached the tavern, where two farmers with bulging pink cheeks and tremendous mustaches divided their attention between beer mugs, cigarettes, and the occasional word. He felt the flask in his pocket. Still quite full, no need to go in.

The pull on him became more suggestive. He quickened his step until he arrived at the church. Entering, his lungs filled with heavy damask incense air and his eyes sparkled with reflections of golden icons glittering in the light of the hanging oil lamps. The church was empty and damp. It was not long, but its four aisles in the form of a Greek cross were high, the walls covered with mosaics, gold, silver, ruby, lapis lazuli, agate, and sapphire showing lives of saints and martyrs--stories of devotion, violence, and suffering running up the heaven-sent walls until they reached the distant vault above. A priest came out of the sacristy and tidied the heavy books at the lectern, the altar candles casting weird shadows from his cylindrical cap and long black beard.

The Arab sat down, his gaze on the Virgin and child, their wood-dark faces surrounded by a blaze of gold. Their expressions cold and fixed, staring out past him towards eternity. He had a flash of understanding, then shed a few tears. Forgetting everything, he felt his head become heavy. He stretched out on the bench and fell asleep. His heavy snoring resonated off the mosaic on the Byzantine dome that floated above him, mixing with the ghosts of chants and whispered supplications of the faithful. He was at peace.

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