Friday, October 19, 2012

Among the Faithful

Among the Faithful
Bobby Derie
Wet and tired, the Reverend crawled out of the sea, puking salt water and body aching from the travel to this strange shore. They found him on the soft-packed sand of the beach, antennae waving in curiosity, mandibles clacking as they took in his collar, the icon at his breast. Hands lifted the Reverend above the rising tide, over the dunes, and a broad plain of warm green grass towards a tiny steeple in the distance.
The building was square with a steep roof that rose to a pyramidal point, unadorned by any cross, and it was painted white. A yard had been carved out of the grassy sward, dotted with small gray obelisks, and a sea-shell path led to the double doors, and through the bare entry-hall. From his vantage point, the Reverend looked up at the wooden arches that held up the ceiling and thought of the ribs of a ship, turned upside down, or as something Jonah might have seen in the belly of the fish…
They laid him, not on the altar, or in front of it, but next to it, by a kind of podium, then retreated. The journey had let him recover a modicum of his strength, and now he drew himself up to survey the room. That it was a church, he was fairly certain, and laid out in roughly the Anglican manner – a central aisle for the procession, with the pews on either side. Though they were not quite pews, not as he had known them, for they were shaped for bodies that could never sink into a proper seat, and they were filled by multi-segmented bodies with glassy eyes and waving antennae.
The Reverend looked at where the cross should have hung, above the altar—and it was there, plainly carved and unadorned by suffering Christ, suspended by a pair of wires. The numbness of events took him. If there had been no cross, he might not have seen this as a Christian church. If there had been a mocking, beetle-crab Christ suffering on it, he might have accepted some fantastic parallel to Christian worship, or else a parody of it. Here now though, against that sea of expecting faces, he dragged his carcass to his feet, to stand behind the podium. He was as struck to the spot as a young man fresh from seminary, faced with his first congregation.
So he sang the opening mass. And they answered.
Where a human congregation would utter their amens and hallelujahs, the congregants murmured a buzz-clicking response, uniform and in unison. They chittered the proper rhythm as he led them through the Lord’s Prayer, and maintained silent during the admittedly confused and abbreviated sermon choked out from a throat still ravaged by salt-water. The Reverend paused before the sacrament of transubstantiation. The elements were plain and unadorned, a plate of unleavened bread and a pale carafe of musty wine. For a full minute, he paused in consideration, then made the signs and spoke the words, meditating a prayer toward God, and broke the bread, and tasted the vinegary wine. They filed forward, to kneel as best their forms allowed before the altar rail—towering slitherers, and thin dark-shelled dams with soft-shelled pinkish-white kinder in their arms, and the Reverend dispensed the bread and the wine and the blessings.
They filed out, when he had done, save for one with a brown shell, whose pale cilia had begun to turn from black to white, and with antennae that drooped low. In response to its gesturing, I followed it outside the church, on a well-worn path of hard-packed earth around the side to a small series of rooms with off-white plaster walls built into a hillock. The Reverend inspected it in a few moments—a bed chamber, as near as he could judge, with a wooden cradle supporting a round, cup-like mattress of woven reads, covered with sheets and blankets of finer thread; a kitchen with an assortment of copper pans and a flat-topped iron stove, the fire within fueled by woven twists of grass; a sunken tiled pool into which an artificial waterfall emptied, then drained out by grate in the floor, which he guessed as both toilet and bath; and a round chamber with a honeycomb built into the walls, most of the cubbies filled by scrolls—a study. When the Reverend was done with his explorations, he found the congregant had already left.
He counted that day as Sunday, and counted the days to the next Sunday, when the congregants returned, filing once more into the strange undulating pews.
The first days had been ones of recovery, and then discovery. He had walked to the beach, and stared at that endless ocean, finding no trace of his vessel, or any human craft, then returned to his rectory to experiment with what foods they had left him were good to eat. His efforts were half those of a bachelor, and half of the wary shipwreck victim; strange meats were burnt for fear of disease and parasites, and then merely out of preference, until after three days the binding diet got to him and he varied it a little with the local fruits and vegetables provided by the congregants, boiled to what he hoped was a mushy sterility.
There had been visitors—once, to drop off more food; a second time, to trim the encroaching grasses on the outermost markers; and a third time when a congregant made slow pilgrimage to a particular marker, obsessively rubbing its mandibles together, and stayed before it for a long time before leaving a small bleached skull at the base.
The scrolls in his study were of no language he knew, though he had little training in that regard beyond his ecclesiastical Greek and Latin, with a smattering of French from his schoolboy days. This might as well have been the hieroglyphs of Egypt or China for all his erudition, and nowhere in any of them could he find a map or illustration beyond a few photoplates that showed members of the congregant’s race in various poses.
His second sermon consisted of a series of questions, posed to the congregation, which none of them seemed to give any response to, though a few antennae bobbed more as the pitch of his voice rose. Unable to elicit an answer, he continued with the prayers and the blessing, and the service soon concluded.
When they filed out, the Reverend followed the line of congregants, along a road cut from the endless tall grass, to their village. It was a rather small affair. The majority lived in homes similar to his rectory, turning off from the main road into clusters of low-domed hills from which doors and windows peeked. Some trundled into the town proper, with square rectangular buildings of wood and brick, full of shops and offices. None there answered his questions, though they stopped to listen when he spoke, and bobbed their heads and turned away the minute he halted his speech. In time the day dimmed, and he returned to the rectory to burn and boil another supper.
He mapped the town in a week, but as the third Sunday loomed had made no progress toward an escape. His third sermon to the inscrutable congregants was once again filled with questions, and the admittance that he was a prisoner of his own ignorance.
For the first season, the weeks between Sundays became lonely periods of prayer, meditation, and contemplation, separated by the familiar rituals performed with alien congregants. He spent days and nights writing out what he could remember of the Bible, to read over those old words again as part of the lesson. In the village, he spoke of God and Christ to the smaller congregants he took as children, and when that failed to elicit a response tried only to teach them human language, but without much success.
The seasons changed. Dams he had seen swell brought chubby infants for blessing and baptism, and he made the sign of the cross on them while avoiding the tiny mandibles. Some were brought stiff and wrapped in silken shrouds, to be buried in the yard and he would emerge in a somber mood to commit the remains to the earth, and a small obelisk would be placed on the fresh plot.
There were Sundays when he spoke of the apostles as missionaries to strange lands, and how he envied their gift of tongues; and there were Sundays when he questioned his purpose aloud, whether all this was some cruel parallel to his cherished religion, a dancing monkey here for the amusement of alien folk who might go to church every week yet never know the teachings of Christ, to go through all the rituals and know nothing of the intent and mystery behind them, or the glory that might await them, yet they seemed so steadfast and content in their attendance—and to every sermon, every Sunday, they would buzz and click their strange amen.
The seasons became years. The children grew and approached him in pairs, and he performed the ceremonies of marriage. One by one the congregants would turn from hale, black and shiny of shell to brown and crinkled, their cilia bleached by time, their antennae hanging low over bulbous heads. Many Sundays he would visit them in their strange cradle-beds, when they were too weak to come for communion, and deliver to them the alien host and vinegary wine.
His last sermon was one of temptation. Now withered and grey, his collar worn and much-scratched, with eyes that failed him when he tried to re-read the Bible he had copied out as best he might from memory, and teeth that had become rotten nubs, he spoke of the temptations of his life. Not the temptations of the flesh, for the congregants were so strange to him he had never once been inclined to engage them in that way, but the temptations to give in to fear and despair. For he had wondered early on what might happen if he were to substitute the words and prayers, or carved strange images, or done anything but act like a priest, just to see what response that might elicit from the congregation of the faithful, but he had not done so. He spoke of how he had wondered, when first he was marooned on this strange shore, about whether to simply leave the parish he had found, to abandon the village without a priest and seek out once more his own kind.
Yet he had not. The Reverend had remained true to himself and his calling.
The final week after that final Sunday, when he was found stiff and still in his cradle-bed, the whole town turned out to crowd the carefully-cropped lawn around the building with the tall steeple. One among them chittered in the rhythm of a prayer-song, and the others buzzed and clicked their amen. Then the Reverend was laid down in the ground, among the faithful.

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