By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 18 Mar 2023



          When Jonathan looked back at the priest he could see that the old man was hanging on his every word, and his eyes were full of water.  He felt sorry for this poor servant of God, for whom the mere mention of a holy spring brought tears to the eyes.  To have such piety, such belief, and yet no solid object for all that adoration, was a shame.

          "I would like to see this place, with my own weary eyes," said the man.

          "Then I’ll take you there, my friend," said Jonathan, "after my book is done.  It's only a few days journey from here."  Then he went on dreamily, "and if you’re to visit there, perhaps I’ll build some sort of shrine around the fountain and adorn the rocks.  It could use a stairway, as it's situated up a steep hillside, and brush would have to be cleared away.  I could do this with a few young assistants and some supplies.  We’ll build a cabin for your reception.  Indeed, if my work is well received in the capitol, a luster will attach to the spot and there might be other pilgrims besides yourself.  Who knows, it might even bring pilgrims to this town and some fame to this region.

          The prospect of such a pilgrimage kindled a rare and almost boyish excitement in the old man.  Jonathan too was caught up in the web of his own imagination, wondering about the possibilities of what he’d just proposed and the labor and materials it would involve.  He realized now that he was carrying his fabrications a little too far and had lost sight of his purpose of simply getting paper and getting out of town again.  But he wasn’t angry at himself.  The ideas he’d just concocted pleased him as much as they did the old man.  They stood in silence for a long while, staring out into space beyond the wall, as if the future were visible there.

          The old priest finally broke the silence.  He cleared his throat and begged leave of Jonathan, explaining that there were some matters he had to attend to before the ceremony.  He walked Jonathan back to his room and left him at the door, but not before reassuring him again of his warmest support for this project.  As Jonathan watched him limp away he couldn’t help thinking that the old man was rushing to convene his priests, to tell them excitedly of the great, good fortune that had befallen them, of the miracle that the whole world would soon marvel at, and of the fame and the flocks of pilgrims that would surely follow.

          He did just that.  He held a brief meeting to convince his staff of the piety of Jonathan's proposals, so that the project would be thoroughly aided.  His chief secretaries were, of course, too wary to be drawn in by this unusual display of enthusiasm.  They thought it just one more sign of senility.  But not so the junior priests.  They’d never seen the old man so moved and eloquent as now, and they drank in his excitement.  For all his foibles and age, they knew him to be no dupe, and they respected his judgement.

          It was not the custom of Church priests to speak in terms of miracles and visions, except for the single, great, founding one.  The Church did everything it could to repress new superstitions and saints and promote one simple canon of beliefs in all places.  It worked hard to keep up a momentum of zeal and so it talked constantly of its great projects, like the new highways, almost in terms of miracles.  But it couched its words carefully to make sure that such works were seen as emanating from the first miracle, and not innovations, or deviations.

          What it failed to see was that in maintaining a high pitch of religious zeal, along with stark ignorance in an almost bland world, it had united combustible elements that a spark might trigger into a violent explosion.  The people that had fallen a complete dupe to one messianic vision were prone and primed for the next.  There would be no rebuttal if one cropped up.  But far more dangerous, a new generation had been raised on only the oft-repeated tale of a revolution, a young generation, aching for the actual experience.

          But none of this was yet clearly formulated in Jonathan's head.  The clues were just beginning to appear, like cracks in a glass, or weak links in a system, where one well aimed blow might cause the whole dynamo to fail completely.  He was amazed at how quickly his fiction was gobbled up.  He entered his cell and closed the door, then lay on his cot, to ponder this puzzle more closely.

          He realized that he felt happy and even a little bit lucky at the way things were going.  This talk of visions seemed to strike a deep chord and get things done.  Now he could simply request all the paper be collected and brought to him, which was far easier than gathering it himself.  He’d been such a loner and pragmatist in the past that he always thought of doing everything with his own hands.  But if he wanted to undertake bigger things in the world, more hands were necessary.  He thought about the girl again.

          This idea of building a shrine, though it was an idle idea that popped into his head an hour before, seemed like just such a project, fit for young hands.  "Perhaps a couple of youths would be of good service to me," he thought.  "They seem polite enough and adaptable.  Who knows, I might even enjoy their company, and if not I can always send them back.  It's high time I find out."

          It didn't take long after these thoughts for him to rise up from his bed and call a servant to go fetch him the girl.  He wanted to question her now, to see if there was any inclination in her to enter a new service and a new mode of life, or only a stark fear of disobeying her elders.

          Meanwhile word had spread through the temple as fast as whispers could fly, that some vague miracle had recently occurred, and that a shrine was to be built in the wilderness not far away.  The nuns who could speak did double duty for those who couldn’t and spared no ears with the glad tidings.  Already a small flock of them surrounded the girl.  They asked her now of her relation to Jonathan, and of her knowledge of this project.  Before she could find words to reply, two servant rushed in and said she must see Jonathan at once.

          Now the flattery and excitement around her rose to a dizzying pitch.  A few of the younger nuns were even so forward as to clasp her arms and beg her to recommend them to Jonathan, if there were any vacancies to be filled in this holy business.

          Her own mind too was racing, and her heart pounding, as she was led through the halls to Jonathan's cell.  The door was open and he was sitting at the end of his cot when she arrived.  He was still trying to frame an impartial question to know her true sentiments.  He motioned her to the chair with his hand.

          Instead of taking the chair she took his hand, and knelt before him and kissed it twice before he could pull it away.  When he did this she remained kneeling in front of him, but now looked down at the floor as if something were wrong.

          This disconcerted him even more, but he tried to begin, "I would like to ask..."  He paused, at a loss for words.

          After a few embarrassed seconds she looked up again and spoke quickly.  "Master, I shall be happy to serve you in any way, if you will choose me."

          "Well, good then," he mumbled slowly, glad to be released from the difficult question.  "Sit down child," he continued.  "I think I have a post for you and several others.  But it shall be a few days travel from here."

          "Yes, I know," she broke in, "at the grotto.”

          Jonathan was baffled at how she could possibly know this.  He thought he’d just conceived the idea.  But he let that mystery go for now.

          "Will your family let you go?" he asked.  "You’ll be gone several moons, at least."

          "I think that my mother will be most pleased to please your honor, in whatever he thinks best," she replied.

          "Well, you’d better go ask her permission now," said Jonathan, eager to end the interview.  But then he spoke up again as she was stepping out the door.  "Remember to sit with the nuns at the ceremony, so you can get word to me of your mother's decision."

          The door closed softly and he lay down on his cot again to wonder about what had just passed.  He guessed the old priest must have gone straight to her after their talk, to promote the idea.  He’d been expecting a shy and reluctant creature who would have to be coaxed into such a strange proposition.  But again he saw how the project was somehow promoting and realizing itself.  He was still trying to fathom this abstraction when another tap at the door informed him that the townsfolk were now taking their seats, and that his presence was desired.

          The banquet, considering the party of six hundred people, was laid out and carried out in a surprisingly smooth and regal manner.  For all their cultural poverty, these people were rich in food.  The Church hadn’t destroyed one iota of the technology of food production, which had flowered in the years before the plague into one efficient, streamlined machine.  The few electric pumps and motors were replaced with hand cranks and gravity fed reservoirs.  The rest was genes and sunlight.

          Water was plentiful, even in these regions.  This was due, in part, to the artificial cloud cover producing more rain, but even more to the vastly diminished use and waste of water. Glasshouse factories that were designed to feed tens of thousands had been scaled down to feed thousands, and the spare parts were stored away for future growth.  There was grain and land to spare and large herds of livestock again, while the oceans swarmed with fish.  The whole earth had slowly regained an equilibrium and promised a long prosperity to a population still far too small to even begin to tax her.

          So now a great feast was lavished out onto these tables, served from numerous rolling carts by fifty youths.  Between each course the contests were held.  After the commencement service the old priest reported to the town the news of Jonathan's project, and conveyed in a moving speech how lucky they were, of all the world, to be partners in this business.  He finished by declaring that from the winners of today’s games, a small group of young men and women would be chosen, by the loudest applause of the spectators, to accompany Jonathan on his great enterprise.

          Jonathan had struck upon this notion while he was listening to the old man’s speech, and when he whispered it in his ear it was immediately announced.  A hymn of thanksgiving was loudly sung, and the games began, with an excitement and a cheering that dwarfed all others, as the contestants vied today with hidden resources, for a prize that would change their lives.

          After three hours of gymnastics, sprints, jumps, races, and wrestling matches, some fifteen athletes were singled out, and from their number, at Jonathan's request, two young women and three young men were selected, by the favor of the crowd, for the honor of serving him.  This was more than he wanted, but he too was a little caught up in the excitement of the contests and didn’t want to disappoint these folks by too few winners.

          They were adorned with wreaths and joined by the other girl, then paraded around the tables, to receive the blessings of the town.  The celebration broke up with more prayers and to everyone's satisfaction.  The tables were removed, but for many more hours the square was full of people talking about the events of the afternoon, and richly enjoying their holiday.

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B.A. in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkley. Writer, Blogger and retired Electrician.

Robert O'Reilly
Robert O'Reilly

I am educated in the Western Classical Tradition, B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Latin and Greek, English major, one year at U. of Toronto, studied under Alain Renoir and Northrop Frye, read most classics full time for many years after university in French, English, Latin and Greek to the modern day. I am interested in the near future of technology, what changes it imposes upon our heritage and character as humans. Short stories and Essays are my medium.

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