His father’s breathing rattled in every corner. The four faces around him waited for the breaths to end and they turned in unison to the pilgrim when the first of the light shone knife shaped beams through the curtain.
“You could at least stay and bury your father”.
He paused a moment by the door, not to answer the four faces or to see if one more breath would come, but to notice how the light shone on the dust in the air. Each particle illuminated so that he saw himself in a bright mist of light. He ignored his sisters, but to the firefly dust he nodded in farewell. The four faces twisted and raged as the pilgrim swung a cloth bag over his shoulder and stooped his head under the doorway.
A neighbour’s daughter followed him all the way out of the village until the cobbles grew sparse and dusty and he could see where the path split the forest. He turned and waited. When she caught up she placed a small coin in his hand.
“When you find the tooth of Mary Magdalene, buy me a candle. And pray for me, pray for me.” Her eyes went behind him and she said, “Don’t you think the mountains look like sheets over bent knees?” She watched until he disappeared into the pines. For a week he walked to only the sliding sounds of his feet against grass and basalt.
At the place where the roads fed into the highway the pilgrim stumbled back at the sight of other people, great crowds of others. He turned back and his bag caught on a thorn bush and tugged at his shoulder, releasing a tangle of thorns from the branches. The pilgrim knelt down behind the bush and pulled at the thorns, trying to work his bag free. He ripped the fabric away leaving a small hole. Swinging the strap back over his shoulder he saw handprints of blood on the fabric and stared at his hands, slick with red. He felt no injury and rubbed his thumbs over his palms looking for a wound. The thorns were looped over his arm and the red tracks of blood marked everywhere that they had touched him. He drew the tangles off his arm and held it lightly, letting it sit on both his palms and saw that it was not a tangle of thorns but a crown. Thick blood dripped out of each thorn. He threw it and scrambled away on his hands and the crown fell onto the dusty road where it lay bleeding. The pilgrim twisted around looking for grass which he wiped his hands and arms over, back and forth, until they were clean of blood. After a breath he edged away from the crown in its pool of blood and slipped into the stream of pilgrims.
The finger bone of St. Thomas was enthroned in gold and glass, trussed together with decayed skin, black with age. The pilgrim walked towards the relic, past the penitent, past enclaves filled with ornate reliquaries: the new homes of saints. People sat before the bones muttering in Latin. A woman keened loudly, tossing ashes on her head. The pilgrim sat before the reliquary, waiting. A man next to him was crossing himself and the pilgrim turned to him.
“Would it be soft, do you think? Could I move the joints?”
The man’s hands paused between Son and Holy Spirit.
“If I took it out, I mean. Or would it just crumble?” The pilgrim closed his eyes and mimed tossing a handful of bone dust in the air. He imagined how the sun through the windows would catch the dust and light it up inside the cathedral, refracting through a cloud of St. Thomas. As the dust fell on their heads it would bring light down with it and maybe Thomas would like that. Maybe he would prefer it.
The pilgrim opened his eyes and tapped on the glass. “Do something”.
On the way out of the cathedral, the pilgrim stopped and held his hand over a candle. High at first, then lower, testing, lower again, until a spot in his palm burned pink and he snapped his hand away.
The pilgrim left the highway for a lonelier road. After hours of no one he came to a point where the road snaked off in two directions, both ways stretching out their arms and disappearing around bends. A donkey grazed opposite the intersection. The pilgrim clutched at the straps of his bag, turning his head each way. The donkey shook his head to the right and said,
“That way for Mary Magdalene. Left is only death.”
The pilgrim stared down the road. The donkey watched from under his great lashes.
“What kind of death?” the pilgrim asked the donkey.
“What kind do you want?”
The pilgrim looked inside his cloth bag.
“I’m sorry, I have nothing to give you.”
The donkey lowered his head to the grass at his feet. “What could you have that I would need?”
The pilgrim traced his eyes along the road to the left, squinting his vision at the point where the road disappeared. A sound rolled around the mountain at the faraway bend, tumbling down the road towards him; the agonal rattle of his father’s breath. The pilgrim spun to the right and pitched towards Mary Magdalene.
A cart slowed alongside the pilgrim and stopped on the road. The sun burned in his eyes as he looked up. A shadow was cast over the man’s face but he held his hand out to the pilgrim and he took it. The man pulled him into the carriage, flicked the reigns and the cart clattered over the road. He had eyebrows that grew straight out in a platform over his face, and his spine curled over like damp paper. When they arrived at the man’s farm they both picked up a heavy bag from the cart and carried them to the house. The pilgrim turned on the porch before entering the house and saw that the sun knelt on the horizon and the sky, shot with red streaks, looked like someone had sliced it open with a razor. He turned to the house when the farmer’s wife tugged at his shirt. She was half the size of the farmer with sparrow bones and tiny little feet that trod lightly on the earth. They held hands when they walked through the house. The three of them ate in silence and sat by the fire in silence until the tiny woman made a bed up for him. They didn’t ask the pilgrim where he was going, and when the pilgrim lay down to sleep he realised would never love anyone so much as he loved this silent couple.
The pilgrim stood outside the monastery watching people come and go, rolling their shoulders inside hair shirts, carrying bags of ashes. He shared his lunch with a girl who sat beside him on the dirt road. It was only bread and a canteen of water but she smiled at him and they passed the canteen back and forth. She told him her name was Sadness. He nodded and said, “Mine too”. The water was almost gone when they both drank to find their mouths filled with wine – a champagne that sparkled against the pilgrim’s tongue, so sweet his back teeth ached.
He took out the coin he’d been saving, slid it through the slot in the wooden box and picked up a candle. He gripped the candle in his hand and approached the egg shaped reliquary that displayed Mary Magdalene’s tooth. The afternoon light leaned up to the stained glass window, shooting coloured splats against the stone walls. He waited by Mary’s tooth and watched the colours creep across the monastery walls in the last hours of light. When the colours bled away the pilgrim moved to the tiers of candle flame and held out his own candle to light it. In the darkness of the monastery the little flame cast spots in his eyes. He stared into the brightness and wondered how long his candle would have to wait in the tiers. He kept it in his hand, and walked out of the monastery.
He stood on the highway overlooking the mountains. Their looming darkness made him shudder and he thought about crying but instead he stepped off the road. He half ran, half fell down the hillside, slipping where it was rocky, tripping where there were roots. At the bottom of the hill he plunged into bush and stumbled through until he found the vein of green that wound through the place where one mountain met another. For days he waded through green, following only the winding of the vein until it became rocks and lake. He stood shaded in forest, looked out on water, gripping his un-prayed for candle. His steps to the lake were slow, staggered, bare feet over pebbles. The pilgrim thought of his father for the first time since leaving home and wondered if his breath was still rattling in the corners, filling the edges with sound, and if the four faces still sat by his side. He thought about the quiet couple and wondered if they never thought about him the way he never thought about his father.
The water whispered over the pebbles and around the pilgrim’s feet. He stepped onto the lake. The shelf of stones fell away and the lake was immediately deep but his feet only sunk to the ankles. He was buoyed up in the water so that he could swish his feet above the depths. Fish swam alongside him, trailing behind in schools as he walked to the middle of the lake where the water was as dark as the storm forming over him. He stopped and bent to flick his fingers through the surface of the water. The fish nipped at the soles of his feet and he could feel their little mouths against the torn and blistered skin. He tried to imagine what would happen if the lake suddenly stopped supporting his weight, if the black water closed over his head and he plummeted to the bottom. He would be able to tilt up his head and see leagues of blackish blue stretching over him. His breath couldn’t rattle at the corners of a lake. He dropped the candle into the water and watched it bobbing in the black. A great shadow moved far below him. He shivered and moved forward.
When he reached the opposite shore he stepped off the water onto more pebbles. He didn’t have ashes so he dug for sand and heaped it on his head. He tore his clothes and strained his throat for keening. His hands scattered around, gathering a pile of pebbles and he put one at a time in his mouth, washing it back with the champagne in his water flask. The pebbles landed heavily in his stomach. He heard them clanking as they dropped on top of each other and when the keening couldn’t break past the stones he cried silently and kept shovelling bigger and bigger stones in his mouth until he knew he was full of them. He lay back against the shore, clattering. The storm cloud swirled only over him, as though it were his and had followed him across the water. His breathing rattled around the edges of the clouds and they shuddered. The rain fell on his face and he kept his eyes open so that the dark sky blurred. It rained on his body for weeks until he fell away from the stones, sinking into the sand, melting like sugar. Teeth and bones washed into the lake with the rain. When the sun came out there was only a small cairn of rocks, the pilgrim’s cloth bag and the echo of his breath. The quiet farmer saw beams break through the clouds and the light shone on Mary Magdalene, and St. Thomas and the pilgrim’s empty home lit up with dust.