The Visit

By Grace Andreacchi - London, United Kingdom - 10 March 2013



He was tired. He had not known it was possible to be this tired, a weariness from which there was no escape, neither waking nor sleeping. Too tired to eat, too tired to sleep, in fact he slept but a little, lay still as a Michelangelo marble upon the great tomb-like bed alone with his prayers, too tired to think, though he had thought a great many things for what now seemed to him a very long time -- too long. Why had he bothered with it all? He was too tired to remember. As he lay there they came to visit him out of the darkness, dead people once loved or feared, but they rarely spoke now, only gestured to him, sometimes angrily, or perhaps it was only urgently. What did they want? He was too tired to discern their meaning, almost too tired to care.


He still remembered them all. The young Nazi teacher who had taught them to worship the sun in its seasons, and hung little sausages upon a May pole, tempting them to idolatry. The teacher had been handsome and intelligent, everyone liked him. The boys had scrambled happily enough for sausages, but nobody could seriously think of sun worship in the damp, ancient village that lay in a perpetual sleep under its blanket of soft grey mist. What was his name, that teacher? Herr Zeger? Zieger? He’d been sent to the Russian front and not come back. And his best friend Bastl, the boy who was always in tears about something. He cried on Good Friday because Jesus was dead, and then again on Easter Sunday because He was alive again. This was something between just the two of them. Joseph didn’t cry, although he had to work at it. His father would have been ashamed of him for crying. They were to be priests together, he and Bastl, when they grew up, and carry the Lord Jesus in their own hands, the greatest treasure the world has ever known. But Bastl was taken at sixteen to join the SS and never came back. Now he came at night in a sun-filled meadow not at all like the muddy patches where they had once played. An old teacup without a handle did service for the chalice, and Joseph saved a bit of bread from dinner for the “host.” Or they played at martyrs, daring the lions to rip them apart for the love of Jesus.


Jesus, that man of unshakeable sorrows. He didn’t give out sausages, but just Himself. Sometimes, when he gazed up at the Cross that hung above the altar in the little white-washed church, Jesus spoke to him. “I will give you water to drink such that you will never be thirsty again.” Why did Jesus say that? He wasn’t thirsty. He had everything he could ever want, yet he wanted something. What was it? What could it be? On the day of his First Communion they gave him a tall white candle. He held it close to his chest, and felt the warm little flame pass inside his chest where it was to live, safe and secure, it was there still this very night. What did he want?


There was a lady in the Bible, a foreign lady, and when Jesus asked her for a drink of water at the well, she asked him a question in return, and then he said that he would have given her “living water” if only she asked for it. What was this living water… He tried to picture it, how it would look. Would it have a colour? He thought not. A taste? There were stories too about a magic fountain guarded by lions, and a Prince who outwitted the lions and demons and every evil power and brought back a cup of that living water to save his father’s life. The Prince managed to rescue a maiden in distress along the way as well. Joseph wanted to do that too.


In the morning he rose early, his valet helped him to dress. He could no longer manage the heavy white woollen robe himself. The valet had the face of a peasant, the sort of face often seen in the campagna around Rome. His dark, heavy-lidded eyes were perpetually melancholy, as if storing inside them a multitude of sad secrets, his hands were gentle and knew their business. After Mass he ate what he could. He liked the taste of coffee in the morning still. Rome had the best coffee, he thought, blinking at the delicate white cup with its crest of tiara and crossed keys painted in gold, its tiny handle like the letter C written in a fine lady’s hand. He was too tired to walk very far. Two of the young men would come in and stand, one on either side of him, and half carry him to Mass, to breakfast, to his bath. When thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.


After he had breakfasted, the long working day began in earnest. Decrees and letters to be read, texts to be corrected, pilgrims to be blessed, visitors to be placated, sorrowers to be comforted, angels to be entertained, demons to be exorcised from the hearts of men. He was tired! Sometimes he felt as though he were trying to empty the whole of the sea with his little scallop shell, and the only water he ever drew vanished into that hole in the sand. He was thirsty now!


At last it was over. He sat slumped in his beautiful chair and allowed his eyes to close. The room was filling slowly with the wondrous strange lavender light of the winter sunset. How thirsty he was! He might ring the bell and ask for a fresh carafe of water…but this loneliness this silence would then be broken. Then he heard someone come into the room.


He looked up in surprise. It was not the wonted footstep of his secretary, the handsome Georg, the blacksmith’s son, nor that of Sister Elena who sometimes looked in to see whether there was anything…this was a lighter step altogether. He opened his eyes. There just closing the heavy door behind her was a girl, about ten or perhaps twelve years of age, dressed in a long loose gown and with a curious sort of blue headdress upon her head. Dark hair, long and luxuriant, fell in soft waves from under her veil. He wondered if she hadn’t lost her way, become separated from a party of visitors… She came softly into the room and sat down in the audience chair, there where so many cardinals and archbishops, so many presidents and kings, so many footballers and movie stars and local heroes, so many saints and sinners had sat before her. It was a grandiose chair, though not so grand as his own, and the child’s feet did not quite reach to the floor. He noticed that they were bare, and very smooth, light brown in colour, with lovely little nails like the petals of a rose spread out. She sat there and smiled at him with such radiant joy, he thought she might be some manner of dream but no, she was solid enough, he could even detect a faint odour, something of roses again and of fresh milk rising from her skin and hair.


He felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. The child merely sat there, swinging her naked feet gently, as if in her own garden, and continuing to smile at him. “Who…who are you?” he said at last. “I am Mercy,” she replied. Then she slid down from the chair and crossed the room to the sideboard where she proceeded to pour out a goblet of water. She brought it to him, stood there before him holding out the cup. “It’s for you,” she said. “It’s time.” He took the cup from her hands and drank.