Saint

Smell

The week before his execution was due to take place, I went to visit the saint. My trip took place in late evening, my way to the cottage faintly lit by moonlight intermittently brighter between clouds which thickened until, after a while, there was virtually no light at all and I relied more on sound to guide me. This was the sound of the saint’s laughter escaping the grim squat building. I tapped politely on the door, but it was too solid for such a light contact, so I rapped on the gnarled wood, firmly but still, I hoped, with some respect. There must have been hidden guards nearby, but it was obviously not difficult for them to make themselves invisible. A sturdy bolt rasped across the other side of the door and it was pulled away from me to reveal him.

He was a tall man, painfully thin with nevertheless a famished elegance in his smooth movements. His eyes, nose, cheekbones and chin were all sharp.

When he ushered me in, I expected to see that he had company. In fact, the room was empty, even of furniture.

‘Make yourself comfortable,’ he laughed, presenting the starkness of his living quarters to me. ‘You think that irony is not possible for saints?’ he asked.

I replied that I did not know and sat on the floor in front of a logless fire. He sat down next to me lit by the naked bulb hanging low over the two of us.

‘When I heard the news regarding my fate,’ he said, ‘I almost collapsed with relief. The only problem lies in being brought my destiny by judges all at once pedantic, pompous and above all mortal.’

‘You seem in good spirits,’ I said, knowing this to be a banality yet at the same time not feeling that I should have to say anything particularly illuminating.

‘People have invested in my every move, gesture or action a meaning quite separate from the physical reality they saw before them. When I was allowed objects of my choice at home, visitors gave them significance. So, a plant for them represented physical growth, the oven the passions engendered by the workings of the body and’ - he spluttered with laughter - ‘the refrigerator the equivalent of a cold bath. If an artist drew pictures of me, even if I had nothing around me but the blank space of a white sheet of paper, the observers would draw out entire spiritual texts from the angle of a single frown line. Is this a process you would wish to continue at this late hour of my life?’

I replied that I had not thought of it before.

‘You have a very grand folder in your hand,’ he said, ‘bound with a red ribbon. Am I to face further charges posthumously?’

I asked what group of persons or quality he would like to be remembered as being the patron saint of.

‘Mortality,’ he laughed.

‘Some people have said,’ I went on, ‘that there is nothing special about you at all except for an obvious dry wit.’

‘I have never claimed more,’ he smiled.

‘Which those who mentioned your plants, oven and refrigerator would take as humility?’ I asked.

He shrugged his narrow shoulders. ‘I cannot stop them.’

‘I have heard,’ I continued, ‘that the authorities are now prepared to overlook your rudeness at the trial. Would this be humility?’

‘What is humility?’ he asked, ‘apart from a refusal to call on superior powers to destroy one’s enemies?’

‘You bear your accusers malice?’ I asked.

‘They’ve been cooled by the light of grace,’ he said, which is not the light of heat like that of the sun or a table lamp or a searchlight which picks out those trying to escape. They are no longer angry at me, that is all.’

‘You heal animals?’ I asked, as though this was not public knowledge.

‘Pets,’ he replied. ‘Unfortunately, the dog of an important dignitary had its sixth sense closed off to my magic, so here I am.’

‘Have you tried to help people?’ I asked.

‘The touch of my hands only makes those with fever tremble more violently,’ he laughed.

‘And wild animals?’ I asked.

‘They would never allow themselves to be saved by me,’ he said.

‘You know that the dignitary has twenty such dogs,’ I said. ‘He has already replaced the dead one.’

‘He is in a position to do so,’ said the saint.

‘What are you in the right position for?’ I asked.

‘In this place,’ he said, ‘I am in the right position to wait. At ten o’clock on a morning seven days from now, I will be in the right position to be despatched.’

‘There is another possibility,’ I said, untying the red ribbon, opening the folder and handing him the single sheet of paper that was inside and bearing the red blob of an official seal.

As he read, his hand could not hold the paper steady.

‘What is to become of me?’ he said loudly, this time his utterance being without humour.

‘You are a free man,’ I said, ‘although if you wish to, or must, attend to ailing pets, then you must do so in another province. You are from this morning’ - for it was now just past midnight - ‘in exile.’

As he had read the proclamation, the blood had drained from his face and the skin there now matched the blandness of his off-white robe. Yet a little of the humour seemed to return in the form of a palm pressed mockingly against the area of his heart. Or maybe that was only my interpretation.

‘I will be travelling lighter than air,’ he said.

I urged him to keep the document as proof of official forgiveness should he be approached by border guards and walked him to the door.

The light from the now more powerfully illuminated moon allowed me, as I stood on the threshold of the cottage, to observe the lit form of the saint become tinier and tinier until it disappeared.