From The Relic (A Sea Story), by Jeff Lowe
The old man stepped out of his hired car into a throng of pilgrims crowding the street in front of the church in Bolonia. He knew that the driver, who spoke perfectly good tourist-trap English, had pinched more than the offered tip when he asked him to reach into his pea coat pocket for the fare, but the old man didn’t care. He had learned long ago to take a hands-off attitude toward the liberties people took with his condition. Besides, it was Christmas.
Despite his name, Chickamauga Antietam Charles was not a combative person by nature. But looking up those stone steps toward the church, knowing what lay within, he felt a grim determination mixed with a mysterious awe, and so he took a step, and then another. To screw up his courage he resolved not to pussyfoot, but gave each step a little stomp as he ascended. He imagined himself a prizefighter walking up the aisle through a jeering crowd and into the boxing ring.
But he had not gotten even halfway up when one of the pilgrims grabbed his sleeve and jerked him around. They were jabbering in Spanish, shoving him, waving their hands and pointing to the end of the line, far down the street.
“Leave me be,” he said. “I ain’t no damn pilgrim. What they’ve got is mine, and I’ve come to claim it. Now make way.” With that, he took another step, and the pilgrim who had grabbed his coat now shoved him hard enough to knock him down, then stood back and raised his fists, boxer-style, bobbing and weaving and taunting the old man. Others in the crowd raised a ruckus, egging him on.
The old man struggled to a standing position, and assumed his own boxing stance. His huge pea coat flapped about his wiry frame and as he pushed his sea captain’s hat back on his head and held his arms in a fighting position, his sleeves drooped down and the audience gasped and backed away. His antagonist dropped his guard and stared at the old man as if concussed. “El Santo Remero,” he whispered.
The name journeyed from one pilgrim to the next in whispers and shouts until the line melted away and the crowd flowed like lava around the old man with a sound that grew from murmur to raucous din. Soon the priest in his vestments pushed down through the crowd from the top of the stairs, yelling at people and jabbing with his shepherd’s crook to open a path.
When he got there the priest urged the crowd to back away and he gave the old man a look of stern authority and said something in Spanish.
The old man was wheezing, fearful of the crowd but more resolved than ever to do what he came to do, and he said, “I seen you on the TV, preacher. You got something that’s mine, and I want it back.”
The priest furrowed his brow and studied the old man. “You are American?” he said.
“Damn right, and don’t you forget it.”
“I am Father Carlos. What is your name?”
“I’m Jack Smith,” he said, pronouncing each syllable with a defiant clarity. The old man was secretly relieved that the priest spoke such good English, and even more relieved that he had not come to blows with the rash young pilgrim.
“Well then… welcome to Bolonia.” The priest hesitated before speaking again. “You will forgive my skepticism, Mr. Smith, but we have in the past had problems with people pretending to be… well, Jack Smith. You see, the world is full of imposters and… how do you say in America, ‘con men’ who scheme to profit from the suffering of others.” He swept his arm to show he was referring to the pilgrims.
“That’s your problem, not mine,” the old man said.
The priest frowned. “Well, sir, let me inform you how we have dealt with this problem. We have passed laws here. Laws that punish con men and imposters who would prey on these poor pilgrims. And you, sir, do not seem to have the—how shall I say?—the servant’s heart or the humble manner of El Santo Remero.” He said something in Spanish and two men among the pilgrims grabbed the old man by the arms while a third dug into the pockets of his pea coat. He pulled out a passport and handed it to the priest.
Father Carlos opened it, then glanced at the old man. “This says your name is Cheeka-ma-ooga Antee-et-am Charles. Not Jack Smith. I am calling the police.”
As the priest dug into his own pocket for his cell phone a woman shouted from the top of the stairs, and everyone turned to look at her. The crowd parted like the Red Sea for Moses as she descended. With her bright yellow dress and shimmering, gray-streaked auburn hair, she looked to the old man like a beautiful flower in a field of drab weeds. As she neared him she stopped and studied him from several steps above. Then she smiled, skipped down the remaining steps and threw her arms around his neck.
“Mi Santo Remero,” she cried, and a joyous shout went up from the crowd, while many of the pilgrims dropped to their knees and crossed themselves.
She let go of his neck and looked deep into his eyes. “I search for you many years,” she said. “I never can find you. I have friends, young people, look for you on, how you say, Internet, and no. Nothing. There must be a million of Jack Smith in America. So finally, my son, he is doctor, he say old people like us watch television, and so, we put on television, and… here you are!”
“You speak… English?” the old man said.
She laughed. “Now, yes, a little. Not… how you say? Not in past. I learn for you. For you, Jack Smith, my hero, my Santo Remero.” She turned and held his arm above the elbow. “Come,” she said, “we go into church.” As they ascended, woman on one arm, priest on the other, Maria said, “You must meet my son. I name him for you. He is doctor. He has hands to save people. Like you, my Santo Remero, like you. He is out helping young woman with difficult birth now. You see him after.”
As they ascended the steps, many of the pilgrims reached out to touch the old man’s pea coat, then crossed themselves. This bothered him, not just because religious “mumbo-jumbo,” as he called it, always seemed foreign and weird to him, but he knew from experience that beggars and pickpockets go together like stray cats and fleas, and these pilgrims had a beggarly look about them. It was bad enough they had things in the church that belonged to him. There were things in his pockets—and not just the lottery cash—that he needed and he didn’t want to part with. He began to worry that, not only would he fail to reclaim his things, they’d seize what he had left and use them for relics, too.
Maria’s touch and voice were making him giddy, though, and the chip on his shoulder seemed to shrink with each step, from a brick to a pack of smokes, a single cigarette, a butt, an ash, a wisp of memory. After six steps he felt light, as if Maria and Father Carlos were carrying him up the stairs, and if they let go he’d float up into the blue Andalusian sky like a balloon.
With a worshipful bow, two pilgrims swung open the tall oaken doors and the three entered the church. Maria and the priest knelt and crossed themselves while the old man stood and blinked to adjust his eyes to the dim light. As they walked together slowly down the aisle between the pews, Maria hugged the old man’s arm and spoke in a stage whisper—so close to his ear he could feel her warm breath—telling him story after story of surgical and miraculous healings that never would have happened without him, her Santo Remero.
He recognized the door to the sacristy from having seen it on the documentary and suddenly he felt heavier. His shoes began to scrape on the floor and he found himself being pulled along, more like a reluctant donkey than a balloon. The sacristy door was open. He stopped at the threshold and hesitated as if at a cattle guard.
Suddenly his heart started to pound and he found it hard to breathe. “Maybe I shouldn’t have come,” he said, choking, and he turned away from the door.
Then he heard the guitar play. The notes were pure, the sound sublime. He stopped and listened. He started to cry. Gently, Maria placed her hand on his cheek and pressed his other cheek to hers. Their tears mingled. He turned and she guided him slowly into the sacristy.
The young man with the guitar bowed his head toward the old man as he played. Maria said, “this is Emilio. He is Santiago’s grandson. You remember Santiago, yes?”
The old man nodded.
“Santiago came to me in a dream,” she said. “He said, Maria, the cabin boy wanders the earth in sorrow and loneliness. You must find him. Tell him of our love for him. Tell him of our…” she looked at the priest.
“Gratitude,” the priest said.
“Tell him of our gratitude,” Maria said. “Bring him home to Bolonia, Maria. He is a saint. He is our saint. Heal his sorrow. Show him, Maria. Show him the holiness of his sacrifice. Show him the truth.” She slid her hand down his arm to his wrist and gently squeezed. “I look for you many, many years. I pray for this moment.”
She took her hand from his arm and grasped the corner of the box lid. The priest put his hand on the other corner. The old man wanted to say “wait,” he wasn’t ready, he wanted to retrieve the little bottle from a secret pocket in his pea coat, the little bottle with the faded handwritten label. It had stayed there, hidden for decades, through feast and famine, sobriety and drunkenness and delirium tremens, and now he needed it, now was the time for it, but his palpitating heart was lodged in his throat and he couldn’t say a word.
(End Chapter 2. Go to Chapter 3.)