Short Story: “The Temptation of Saint Irony”

It’s the year of your Lord, 1437; it’s summer; the sun is at high noon, and you’re in the countryside outside Genoa. A tonsured monk in a black robe approaches you, reaching for the hem of your garment.

You step back. You don’t let him touch it.

The monk straightens up, but he’s not apologetic. He’s a small man, but bold; thin, and shorter than you. “The key,” he says, “is in the window.”

Being out of doors, far in the countryside, there are no windows anywhere, and so you ask the odd monk the following question: “Why do you direct so dark a saying my way?”

“It was in my heart to do so,” he says.

“You are a stranger to me,” you reply, “and you’re quite wrong. The key is in my left hand.”

On opening it you reveal that you are, indeed, holding a key there, curiously recalling the shape of a mushroom, but it’s not just the monk that’s surprised; it’s also you. You thought your left hand was empty when you began to open it. You neither know what impelled you to say that a key was in your left hand, nor how it got there. You just said it and it was there. Like magic. A magic mushroom.

“Is your open hand the window, then?” the monk asks you.

“I don’t know,” you reply, bewildered. “I don’t know what that could possibly mean—to have a hand that is also a window.”

“Your key is quite large, isn’t it? Are you St. Peter and is this the key to the kingdom?”

“Again, I don’t know. I have no memory of where the key came from. I don’t think I’m St. Peter, but I also didn’t think I had a key in my hand. I was wrong about that, so I might well be St. Peter.”

You both grow quiet at such a terrifying thought. The birds in the trees are still. In the country air, only the sounds of bees and flies fill the silence.

“If you are St. Peter, that would account for your red and gold robe,” observes the monk, finally. “And the crown on your head.”

“Crown?” you reply, putting the key in your robe.

“Feel,” says the monk.

You bring your hands to your head and indeed feel a crown there. “Yes, I’m wearing a crown, aren’t I?” You take it off and have a look. It’s a garish thing, and looks to be made of real gold. The shape reminds you of the Tower of Babel. “If I’m St. Peter, it would also account for the fact that when I look into the sun I see our Lady there, the crescent moon her footstool.”

“You have a word from God for me, I can feel it,” the monk says, kneeling in the grass before you, his confidence having peaked.

“If I’m St. Peter,” you reply, “I have a word for everyone.”

The monk grows insistent, taking hold of your feet. “What is it, then? I pray of you, speak!”

You pull your beard and look into the sun—to the Virgin sitting before the sun. She wears a deep blue gown verging to purple. She is the very night intruding on the day. The baby Jesus is on her left knee, naked, balanced precariously, as on a fulcrum. The Virgin’s eyes rest on her Son, her left hand cupping his back, jostling him about almost as if he were a pair of dice.

It’s then, to your astonishment, that the Virgin unceremoniously drops her hand and lets Jesus go wherever the Fates might dictate. His balance, being unsteadied, promptly falters. He tips decidedly to her left, tumbles from her knee, and—like Icarus over the western horizon—disappears into the sea.

So simply went the Son.

You are utterly confounded. Jesus is not supposed to fall off of Mary’s lap. It just isn’t done anywhere in art, and it should most certainly not happen for real. Yet this is exactly what you witness: a botched incarnation; God’s untimely death. You look to Mary’s eyes for hope, for meaning, but they remain turned away from you, to where her Son has flopped away from her, like a fish.

You conclude that you have your word for the monk, for everyone: “No one gets out alive.”

“Yes,” the monk says, “That’s right. No one gets out alive! I feel that to be very true; the truest thing of all!”

The monk eats the grass and mushrooms at your feet.

“Please,” you say, “that’s enough.”

The monk rises with grass and smeared mushrooms on his lips and kisses the back of your hand. He leaves traces of the mushrooms and a dark blade of grass there. You very slowly lick the blade of grass from your hand. Like the scroll that John ate in the Book of Revelation, the blade of grass tastes sweet and bitter at the same time, and cuts your tongue. You taste blood in your mouth. You think to yourself, “I too have now eaten of the Lord’s double-edged sword!”

The monk, satisfied, now turns his back to you to go. You watch his gown sway as he walks. He holds his head as if he is going mad, then slaps at it as if what little hair he has is on fire. He starts to run. The town is in the far distance. Air and heat gather in his gown, lifting it. You see his nakedness; his pale, pale ass; his pale thighs; his calves shimmering with each step; the white backs of his ankles. He’s getting smaller now, himself like Jesus, dropping to the horizon. You feel yourself diminishing somehow.

Up again to the sun you look, which has moved from its apex and is now, unmistakably, heading for its decline. The Virgin is no longer there. You feel for your crown. It too is gone. Your robes are no longer red and gold, but have turned to rags.

And the key is gone as well.

You feel the pangs of conscience, wondering whether what you said to the monk was right, and what mischief your message might cause in the hearts and minds of men. You don’t, after all, really know who you are, or what it is that you’ve experienced, or what was the right word for the monk. You just don’t know.

Others will come now. The monk will say he saw St. Peter in the countryside today, and those who believe him—and even those with doubts—will come out to have a look at you. Some will bring gifts, and you’ll have to decide whether to accept them. Others might wonder whether you’re of the devil, and whether you should be tortured, bound, and cast from a bridge.

Maybe you are of the devil, and this would be just. Or maybe you’re St. Peter, and to torture and drown you would be a mortal sin. Who can say? You feel your irony most deeply. You hope you’re not St. Peter, but St. Irony. That’s the name that suits you.

But whatever’s really going on—and whoever you are—you’ll be expected to put on a show when people turn up, or to at least say something to them. If you’re silent, they might grow impatient with you. If you play it right—neither saying too much nor too little—maybe they’ll conclude you’re truly a holy man, and build for you a rustic house in the woods to live in, and bring you warm bread and apples of mornings.

But will you really get exactly what you deserve? In real life, how often does that happen?

Just or not, you’ve got to make the best of your absurd situation—of the fact that you might be St. Peter with amnesia, mysteriously back from the dead, roaming the Earth for some purpose not yet known to you. And you’ve got to decide what to say if you never experience another miracle in the presence of others again and Jesus does not return in your lifetime.

A snake in the grass leads your eye to a mushroom growing on an old tree. You reach out your hand and eat it.

_____

Santi Tafarella, 2012

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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