About the Writer
Lyle Roebuck is a native of St. Simons Island, GA. He was educated at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His fiction has appeared in The Arkansas Review, The Roanoke Review, Straylight Magazine, Redivider, and A Torn Page: 2012 Summer Short Fiction Anthology. He lives in Chicago, Illinois..
Those in the cathedral district knew Azul DePerila as the transient who called himself a bishop, a man who wandered the neighborhood at all hours. On Wednesday night of Holy Week, he was outside Christ the King as the moon shone between twin spires, covering the memorial garden in a band of light. The garden was a small, rectangular plot, bordered on three sides by an iron fence and by the church on the fourth. The cathedral stone looked the same by moonlight as it did by day—the color of sand. The nave and its edifice had been rebuilt a century earlier, following a fire that cleared half of the city, yet the bell towers’ original spires remained, fixed and black, like scorched spindles in the sky.
It was a living garden, maintained such that the plots of former congregants were indistinguishable from one another, and one could not tell by looking how much space was left. In a city where there was not enough room for the living, there seemed to be less for the dead.
Charles McManus, who had given a lot of money to the church, complained regularly to the sexton, Marvin Adler, that the same plots were being used for the internment of multiple sets of ashes. Dr. McManus kept an eye on the garden, as if to guard the spot reserved for him next to his wife, Betsy.
“I can’t get near it without him askin’ me,” Marvin once told Azul. “It’s a livin’ garden, so of course them plots is reused. He don’t wanna hear that. What I don’t tell him is that he ain’t gonna get no closer to Betsy than when he’s leaning on that gate.”
It was the same gate on which Azul was leaning, alone on the sidewalk. It was late, and cold. He brought out a flask from his coat, took a drink, and wiped his mouth across his sleeve. After putting away the flask, the tips of his fingers followed the chain around his neck to a paperclip cross in his left shirt pocket.
One block behind him, the cathedral office complex stood as dark and still as a brick of black ice. Azul spent his days in and around the place, and he took satisfaction from being the last to leave. The first shall be last and the last first, he thought. As he arrived at the corner, he turned his ankle on the curb. Pain shot up his leg and he cried out, grabbing for his foot.
He moved gingerly, wishing the pain could make the rest of his body feel better. On his way to Damon House, a woman leading her cocker spaniel approached. It was a dog-friendly neighborhood, a pet-friendly city, which made Azul think of his childhood on the farm. Although he would never share it openly, his favorite liturgy was the Blessing of Animals in October, on the feast day of St. Francis. At the time of year when livestock were being shipped off for slaughter, city creatures were paraded to the front of the cathedral to be prayed over by the Dean: dogs, cats, snakes, hamsters, birds, and fish, all brought to enjoy a blessing or a biscuit.
With his right hand, Azul touched his ring finger and thumb together. Then, with his middle fingers up, he fashioned a cross in the cocker’s direction. It was his habit to do this—to offer the Bishop’s blessing—and in a city with so many dogs in need of walking, it kept his arm busy.
People often shied at a hand raised in their direction. Occasionally, they would wave, mistakenly returning a gesture that had nothing to do with them. It was not that Azul didn’t care for people, but one needs to be willing to receive something when it’s offered. There was, Azul understood, an equal reluctance among others to give or to receive blessings.
The Bishop slept later than usual the next morning. He had a fever, and his ankle was swollen. The nurse, Sister Agnes, checked on him in his apartment, as he referred to the small second-floor room in which he slept. A crucifix hung on the wall above a mattress and a metal frame. An assortment of pill bottles sat on a table by the bed. They talked while Sister dressed his wound. Coils from a radiator pinged, then hissed, then went silent. By the time she finished, Azul was asleep again.
Downstairs, Sister Agnes passed Father Rinieri, who was leaving for the cathedral.
“How is His Grace?” the monsignor asked.
“He has a fever.” The nun shrugged. She carried a plastic tub half-full with black water.
“He came home late. No shoes. Then straight to bed.”
“He’s sprained his ankle. I washed his feet before wrapping it, and he told me that today he was supposed to wash my feet, not the other way around.”
“Is he awake now?”
“No. Do you want me to wake him?”
“No, I’ll see him later.” Father Rinieri adjusted his tote, glanced up the stairs, and then back at the nun. “How are we doing on beds?”
“Better now that there’s no snow. Senior DePerila has had his own room for a month. He lives like a king.”
“The king of kings. Grazie, Suor.”
“Il piacere e mio, Padre.”
The Cathedral’s chapel, named for Saint Andrew, was below ground and accessible from the inside through an undercroft and from the outside through a door that faced the memorial garden. Azul sat in the last pew. After making an appearance in the parish counseling center, he attended noonday Eucharist, where tourists often stopped to rest and where the homeless sometimes waited just outside for help. On Sundays, too, they waited outside the cathedral’s massive doors, hoping someone sober enough to go to church might, while still in a state of grace, offer change.
Inside the chapel, a portly deacon presided over the service and washed several pairs of feet, including Azul’s, although he did not wash them so much as just poured water over them into a ceramic bowl held by a nervous acolyte. The deacon had white hair and a voluminous alb cinctured halfway up his body. He was from a country parish, Azul imagined, invited to this distinction by the Dean. For his part, the Bishop was incognito in a magenta clerical shirt but without a collar or other trappings of his episcopate.
“We must set aside worldly discomfort,” the deacon sermonized, “and focus on the great things about to happen.” Azul was unshaven for days and glad not to be known, lest he make the poor fellow nervous. The Dean would officiate at a larger service that evening, and Azul’s role would come later, as something they were building toward: Good Friday, the Vigil, and Easter.
They rarely burned incense in the chapel, but they did for Maundy Thursday. Before the sacraments were consecrated, shelves of sweet-grass and myrrh hung shiftless in the air. Half a dozen people were present, apparitional in smoke and candlelight. When he hobbled up to receive the Eucharist, he admired the altar boy, slouching and bored to death beneath a gilded mural of the Virgin Mother. On his way back to his pew, Azul could feel the incense like dust on the back of his tongue. He surveyed the faces of the others, but they all seemed solemn and the same—except for an old woman to his right. She looked so familiar he nearly stopped to speak. Even through the smoke, he knew her eyes. They were eyes in search of something.
Usually, Azul would have waited outside the chapel with an outstretched hand, but by the end of the service he had a headache and his fever was worse. His foot still throbbed. What a mess I am, he thought, making slow progress back to Damon House.
There had been a time when the manse was home to the state’s governors; then it became a museum, then a hospital. For years it sat vacant before the Church took it over. Azul walked haltingly up the path to the large, red doors. On the main floor was a parlor, empty except for a circle of folding chairs and a single chair by the hearth where Azul sat. Two of the residents, Clyde and Nate, were cleaning the fireplace, which had been used for the last time that season.
“Why in the name of Saint Lawrence would you build a fire?” Azul said. “Isn’t it hot enough?” He fanned himself with his hand before bowing his head and running his fingers over mats of gray hair.
“We ain’t buildin’ no fire,” Clyde said.
“I’m hot,” Azul said, “and not well.”
“An old woman was by here to see you,” Nate said. “Said she was your mother.”
“My—?” Azul’s face shot up.
“That's right,” Clyde said, sweeping the last of the ashes into a pan.
“We sent her to church.”
Someone has died, Azul thought, or is about to die. His sister had lived a hard life; or perhaps it was his mother. How many years had it been since he’d seen her? Fifteen? Twenty? And would she expect to find him like this, a man alone, living in a giant house that was always too hot or too cold? Was it his mother he had recognized in the chapel? She had shown no sign that she knew him.
“Impossible,” he said. “And why in the name of high heaven are you building a fire?”
“Senior DePerila, you have returned.” Sister Agnes appeared at the door. “A woman is here who says she is your mother.”
“The library. Will you see her?”
“Of course. I'll come with you.” Azul stood and limped toward the door. “And Sister, please, help me persuade these devils that a fire is the last thing we need!”
The library once housed books. Although shelves remained, blankets, boxes of medical supplies, and rows of canned food now filled them. Sister left Azul at the door. Inside, the floor space was crowded with frames and mattresses of the kind in his room.
“Mama?” he said.
“Azulejo.” The woman stood.
The Bishop made his way to her and they embraced. It was her he had seen at noonday Mass. Azul was no giant, but his mother was especially small, shorter than the chapel deacon but with a sturdy frame forged from the work of running a farm. “Sit,” he begged, allowing her to continue to hold his hand until she raised it to her lips. “Please, sit.”
“You’re not well!” she said. “I saw how carefully you were walking.”
“I wouldn’t want to trip on a bed.”
“It was the same at Mass today.”
Azul felt that she would not sit unless he did, so he pulled up a cot.
“It’s true. I’m not well,” he said, “but this is a busy time.”
Creases like crumpled sheets deepened on his mother’s face.
“Let others deal with that,” she said. She was sitting on the ledge of a bay window like an ad hoc throne. Through the leaded glass behind her, Azul could see new cherry blossoms and the first blush of spring coming on.
“Why have you come after so long? Is it Sienna?”
“Sienna is fine. I have come for you, Azulejo. To save you.”
“From yourself,” she said. Her brittle hands seemed to draw the words from her mouth.
“I can’t be saved.”
“You paid your debt, Azulejo. There are very few at home who recall it.”
“I must get back to church.”
“We have a church at home. In the country.”
“Many of them are dead.”
“And how are you, mia madre? You are not dead. You remember.”
“I am fine. Nobody remembers, and besides, you paid for it.”
“You remember.” The Bishop rose with an air of sovereignty. “It seems unfair, doesn’t it—that you are the one who comes to see me? In jail, and now here at my estate?”
“I haven’t seen you in years.”
“What kind of son am I?”
“You can be a good son if you come home.”
“You can stay here as long as you wish, but I cannot come home with you.”
“Will you think about it? After Easter?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s after Easter?”
“Oh, Azulejo!” His mother’s face fell, and she seemed to search the room for someone else to call her son.
“I prayed in the country, and look where it got me,” he said. “I can pray here. Here, I am needed. But you are right, I’m not well.”
“I need you.”
The Bishop held his face in his hands as if he might try to remove it. “If you need me, why do you say it’s me you came to save?”
“Come home and see the doctor. Nobody remembers.”
“We have doctors here, and a bitch nurse, but I must sleep now.” Azul staggered to the door. Chills ran through his body, and he heard his speech beginning to slur. “Please, no more! But come back tomorrow, and we’ll talk again.”
The Bishop had recently been put on Clozapine, and he took two before lying down. He slept for what remained of the afternoon and into the night. When he woke up forgetful, he took two more and chased them with Black Velvet, refilled his flask and headed out. It was hours before sunrise as he made his way toward the cathedral. Azul did not much care what time it was. There was not a soul out.
Three blocks from the church, Azul saw the first flèche extending above the Romano estate. As he got closer, both spires were visible, lit by taller buildings. The pain in his head was gone, and his foot felt somewhat better.
“Ride on, ride on in Ma-a-a-a-jes-ty!” he belted. As the street began to taper, the Bishop imagined how fish feel when they sense a narrowing stream. It was colder than the night before, so Azul ducked into an alley and rummaged through a dumpster until he came up with a large trash bag. He emptied its contents and vested himself through a hole in the bottom—now a shiny, black chasuble covering the top half of his body. On his way out of the alley, Azul hummed more hymns, startling a skunk out from between dumpsters. Cornered by the wall, it panicked and turned tail.
As the Bishop raised his hand for a blessing, the skunk let go with a spray across both his knees before seeing its escape. “You, too, are welcome at God’s Holy Table,” the Bishop said, as fetor like burnt rubber overtook him. “Aughh!”
Azul staggered, coughing, back into the street. “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain—” he leaned over a mailbox to keep from falling—“of tri-um-phant—glad-ness.”
He had heard of skunks in the city but had never seen one, at least not so close. They were common at home, in the country. Perhaps it was an omen, or perhaps it was one of his mother’s tricks, that witch. Or perhaps Sister Agnes. They both wanted him gone from here. When he looked up the street, Azul spotted the betrayer again, waiting to lead him. “So go then,” he ordered. “Take me where you will.”
The polecat sauntered on, pausing only to check that she was being followed. By the time they arrived at the front of the cathedral, other animals seemed to have appeared out of the shadows to join the procession: dogs, a pot-bellied pig, twin monkeys, and something resembling a sloth. They all paused as Bishop DePerila turned the corner and made for the chapel.
The spare key was where Marvin had hidden it, and where Azul knew it would be: in a cylinder disguised as a sprinkler head and planted in the memorial garden. Inside the chapel, the walls were cast in shades of gray with barely enough light for the Bishop to find his way through to the undercroft.
“Were you there,” he crooned, “when they cru-ci-fied my Lord?” Azul felt his way through the dark choir room and up half a flight of stairs to the sacristy. The pain in his head was back, and the chills too. Inside the sacristy, he lit a candle, and the space flickered with gold objects that seemed to give off a light of their own. Still keenly aware of the noxious musk, Azul slipped out of the plastic bag and donned a magnificent oxblood-red cope that had been laid out in advance. The brocade, like an ancient treasure, glittered and weighed heavily on his shoulders.
“Were you there,” he sang between swigs of whiskey, “when they nailed him to a tree?” Azul found a white linen miter and put it on. He seized the silver crosier and, leading a wake of stench, made his way through the undercroft to the narthex at the rear of the cathedral.
“Were you there,” Azul stammered, “when they laid him in the tomb?”
As he stood in the back of the cathedral waiting to open the doors to the nave, his head swam, and suddenly the Bishop was exhausted. The world seemed to be chiding him for a life of misdeeds, as if it were a mother warning the part of her child she still trusts to look out for the part of him she does not.
“Were you there?” Azul mumbled, and the stone gave back a sad, indistinct sound. What would he find in his perfection, the Bishop wondered. Not his mother. Something else.
When he opened the doors to the nave, the cathedral burst to life. Pointing the way to the sanctuary and an empty throne, perfect silence yielded to perfect sound. Perfect darkness to perfect light. Organ pipes twenty-five feet high blasted triumphant chords, and a glare like the sun streamed down from tapered, wooden rafters.
Azul stepped forward, pausing at the baptismal font. Every pew was packed, jammed end-to-end with animals: rhinos and pelicans, rats and snakes, songbirds and goats, wildcats and hippos. From near the center, a pair of giraffes bent their necks to admire what was coming. On his left, two cows sluggishly wagged their heads; and when he turned back, an ostrich ambled over to drink from the font, which was home to twin goldfish.
The cathedral was an ark of noise and movement, a joyous zoo, and from the organ, strains of hymnody pitched higher and faster to keep pace. All discomfort left his body, and Azul seemed to float up the center aisle. Even the pain in his foot was gone.
He had never witnessed anything with such clarity, not least of all the details of his life and how quickly he had sped through it. Only now could he see how rich each moment had been, rich for what it was, and how every gesture he had ever made was a blessing upon himself. The Bishop raised his arm to acknowledge his flock. Animals bobbed their heads at him as he approached the end. As the light above him dimmed and the chords fell away, a judgment seat prevailed just beyond his reach.
Several hours later, Marvin Adler presided over an emergency situation—but by the third day, only a trace of the offense that had met him the morning of Good Friday remained: Azul DePerila sprawled and vested at the foot of the sanctuary—imbued with odors potent enough to ward off death itself.