The rosary, if counted a certain way, shows much about the hands and character of the man who counts them. The beads themselves may point the way to deeds that are unspeakable to a man of the cloth. A symbol is a matter of time locked in a moment and open to interpretation. It is a sign of what is to occur in a latitude that defies time, while we remain locked in space. We are tempered by clocks. The echo of words fades, leaving us alone as we try to harvest our beings from deeds we find unaccountable. An account. Isn’t that what we all want? Beyond the words are the gestures. Within the movements of the hands lies the revelation. The fingers do not lie. Look at your hands.
I am a man of the cloth. I am a small sick poisoned man with oversized hands and an awkward manner. I spit when I talk. People find me repulsive, most of all I find myself repulsive. I stare at myself in the violated mirror and wonder how I got here. The scars on my skin, the faded memories of my lost childhood. My mother said I should have been aborted. I agree. She tried to starve me but I ate the roots of plants, faeces and offal from diseased and wasted animals.
Nothing of beauty would come of me, she told me over and over again. Her words remained locked like a toxic mantra in my brain until prayer erased them with the melody of heaven.
Count the beads as twilight falls, does night overwhelm day or day corrupt the night?
I would stare for hours at the Renaissance portraits of naked women in my small town in the hills of Tuscany. I was an anomaly in a beautiful place. As a young man I’d watch the young women congregate in the square. I did not exist for them. The word scorn would enter my mind at midnight.
I craved their beauty. I craved touch, a gesture of kindness or beneficence from a passing stranger, even a blind man.
One day I cut myself with a brooch a local beauty let fall from her blouse. I dug the pin deep into my thumb, hoping somehow her looks would enter my body, as if I hungered for penetration by the flesh of the desired. I waited for hours to bleed, and it came so slowly I considered I had something else than blood in my veins.
Even the village whores called me an abomination. They turned their heads away as I entered them. I studied my image for hours in the mirror of our home. I found only the face of a man from whom no beauty would be born. I wore masks alone. I considered removing my skin and being the thing they saw. I was lost among the angels. For the angels were blind, seared by the sun. Such is the nature of forgiveness. The loss of sense. We deify the denatured. For their judgement is gone. I saw what I was to my town. The women only valued beauty, they needed it to breed handsome sons, who would join the parade of the vain and the wanted.
I considered the mystical nature of menstruation and the breaking of eggs, the specific forms of blood that lead to life.
And I drank Christ’s blood.
And so I became a priest. It was a simple matter of time and the only course open to me. I had great promise, spending hours studying the Bible, which I applied to my actions with a fervour, so I was told, that is rare in the modern age. I consider I may be a medieval man at heart, a relic from that era of devotion and lies.
I took my vows after the incident. I had married Rosa, who was almost as ugly as me. I used to wake up and shudder at her face in the twilight of our polluted bedroom. She had as much beard on her cheeks as I do. Her nocturnal flatulence was nauseating. She let loose eye watering wet farts all night long and I used to wonder how I had managed to enter her for sex. I longed for the whores. I desired their meretricious nonchalance, the used flesh of their corrupted bodies, the sewers of their open bodies.
Rosa and I produced a daughter, Anne, and she was more beautiful than any woman I had ever seen. I spent eighteen long years watching her grow, avoiding my wife, and educating Anne so she would enjoy the best life possible.
She had black hair that caught the summer sun and glowed, deep emerald eyes, the clearest skin, and her manner was gentle.
The local beauties resented her. She stole all the attention they’d become so used to and they gossiped about how she had come from the strange union of abominations.
I had to chase the boys away with a stick. Anne remained a virgin, intent on marrying and raising a family. Then she met Franco, the Lothario of the self-satisfied town. He was a seducer with no morals. I recognised that on sight. But I also knew Anne was tiring of me governing her life. With his swarthy looks and self-confident manner, I could tell he was winning my daughter over. I let them spend an evening alone together while I walked to town and back with my wife. When we returned we found Anne sobbing. Her dress was torn, her body bruised.
I went in search of the rapist. I found him at his mother’s house sipping coffee and laughing.
My accusations went unheard.
His mother, Flora, was a leading local official.
“He’s been with me all evening, don’t you enter my house talking of that whore of yours,” she said.
She had a small shrunken face and the skin of a walnut. She was a mean woman, and her hands showed that as she clutched her coffee cup and she dismissed me with a sneer. It was the sneer I’d seen on countless faces.
When I returned I found my wife screaming.
Anne had hanged herself with a scarf.
I buried her body in the garden of our simple cottage.
The next morning I woke to find Rosa cold beside me.
Anne was all we had. She was the only thing of beauty we’d made.
The rape was covered up by Franco’s mother. She knew many connected people in the town and church. It was impossible for me to fight them. They accused me of being simple.
There was nowhere for me to go. The world does not want the ugly, I stayed where I was born.
I secluded myself from life. I counted the beads of my rosary with prophetic eyes until dawn.
Many years later I became the priest of the local church of St Francis. Two generations of children had been born and grown in the time I’d officiated over the sins of the local parish, most of them infidelities well known to the population that thrived on small heartaches and betrayals.
I thought of Anne every time I baptised a new baby. I wondered who she would be now, married. I would have grandchildren. I never felt resentful.
Flora came to my church. She had to be seen to be a religious woman. Franco had continued in his ways until he’d made a local girl pregnant and got married. Still, he conducted affairs in the town.
I used to counsel Flora. What had happened all those years ago was never spoken of and she’d grown forgetful in her old age. The years had not been kind to her. I treated her the same way as I did my other parishioners. An ugly priest is acceptable to carnal narcissists. Flora had lost all her money when she’d invested in some business of her son’s. She was suicidal when she came to me in need of help. I spent hours talking to her.
“It is so hard being an old woman. All I saved for is gone. I have little to eat at times. I sometimes want to end it all.”
“You are a Catholic and it is a serious sin.”
“You’re a good man, thank you,” she said, drying her eyes.
“If you take your life, you are choosing hell, do you want that?”
“No,” she said, “no.”
“Would money replace your son if he was gone?” I said.
She told me all her fears. And I took them away from her.
It was shortly after that I was woken one night by the sound of breaking glass. I slept in a small room at the back of the church.
I’d been raising money for the roof and had amassed a sizeable sum which I planned to take to the bank the next morning. As I rose I heard the sound of chinking change.
Franco was in the office stealing the money. He looked at me and smiled. It was a vile look of such self-satisfaction that he looked ugly. He turned to leave and I hit him across the head with a chair and took him down to the basement.
The place was full of rats. I’d let them breed, who was I to take away an animal’s life? St Francis watches over all animals.
I lay Franco down and covered him with pastrami I’d been saving for a sandwich. I left him there. By dawn he was screaming, but no one heard, apart from me. It sounded quite beautiful.
The town put on a search for him when Flora declared him missing. His wife was beside herself and ran screaming to her mother-in-law. I helped, dutifully searching the local fields through the night.
“Thank you,” Flora said, taking my hand. I wanted to break every bone in her claw like fingers. She had the skull of a small sick bird and I wanted to make her choke on bile. I imagined holding her head under the holy water and drowning her. But she deserved to be suffocated with sewage.
Her tiny hard black eyes looked like cheap beads.
“I will do more for you,” I said.
Eventually the townsfolk got bored looking for him. Rumours circulated.
“He ran off with another woman,” one local, a loud mouthed lecher, said.
“He’s gone to make money abroad,” a pale local official said, clutching his hands and nodding sapiently.
Their self-appointed importance sickened me.
Flora came to me for counsel.
“I must find my son,” she said.
I looked into her face. She must have been a filthy young woman, I thought, a lying capricious self-seeking vacuum. And there she was, unchanged as an old hag. She was full of self-pity.
“Let me give you something to eat.”
“I do feel hungry,” she said.
I had some local honey and gave her a slice of bread with it.
As she ate I poured some honey on her back.
She chewed noisily, her cheeks full of food.
I watched the bread slide down her swollen neck.
“I know where he is,” I said.
“Yes, come with me.”
“Thank you, you are a good man.”
I took her by the hand and led her into the basement. She was frowning as I lit a candle and took her down the stone steps one by one.
“What is he doing down here?” she said. “Have you been feeding him?”
“I have, to the rats.”
I watched her as she started screaming. Her mouth looked like a syphilitic hole in the centre of her wizened face.
You see, she’d told me that she was terrified of them. She said she’d rather die than face a rat. I paid attention to my parishioners. An ugly man like me has to learn to listen.
“Do you see your son?” I said.
I pointed to the bones sticking up among the moving carpet of bodies.
“Let me out of here.”
“Remember what I told you about suicide,” I said, handing her a knife with an old rusty blade. “You have a choice, I think that’s merciful, considering how afraid you are of them.”
“You’re leaving me here?”
“I’ll give you till dawn.”
As I closed the door on her I saw her hacking at her wrist. Blood was showering the rats as they descended on her body.