Hundreds would die before the dying was over. They dug a pit ten feet wide and thirty feet deep to the south of the welcome center to burn them. The fire smoldered day and night, and the smell of burning flesh had become so commonplace, they hardly noticed.
Now it’s November, and in the lowermost chamber the priest rises. He is not tall; still, he must stoop to avoid smacking his head into the ceiling or against the stone teeth that bristle from the roof of the dragon’s mouth.
The Mass is ended, go in peace.
He leaves behind the chalice and the purificator, the paten and his stole. They are relics now, artifacts from an age receding into the past at the speed of light. We began as cave dwellers, the priest thinks as he makes his way toward the surface, and to caves we have returned.
Even the longest journey is a circle, and history will always cycle back to the place where it began. From the missal: “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
And the priest rises like a diver kicking toward the dome of the sky sparkling above the water.
Along the narrow passageway that winds gently upward between walls of weeping stone, the floor is as smooth as the lanes of a bowling alley. Only a few months before, schoolchildren on field trips marched in single file, trailing their fingers along the rock face, their eyes searching for monsters in the shadows that pooled in the crevices. They were still young enough to believe in monsters.
And the priest rising like a leviathan from the lightless deep.
The trail to the surface runs past the Caveman’s Couch and the Crystal King, into the Big Room, the main living area for the refugees, and finally into the Palace of the Gods, his favorite part of the caverns, where crystalline formations shine like frozen shards of moonlight and the ceiling sensually undulates like waves rolling in to shore. Here, close to the surface, the air thins, becomes drier, tinged with the smoke of the fires that still feed upon the world they left behind.
Lord, bless these ashes by which we show that we are dust.
Snatches of prayer run through his mind. Fragments of song. Litanies and blessings and the words of absolution, May God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins . . . And from the Bible: “I went down to the roots of the mountains; to the land whose bars closed behind me forever.”
Incense burning in the censer. Soft spring sunlight shattered by stained glass. The creaking of the pews on Sunday like the hull of an ancient vessel far at sea. The stately measure of the seasons, the calendar that governed his life from the time he was an infant, Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter. He knows he loved the wrong things, the rituals and traditions, the pomp and foppery for which outsiders faulted the Church. He adored the form, not the substance; the bread, not the body.
It didn’t make him a bad priest. He was quiet and humble and faithful to his calling. He enjoyed helping people. These weeks in the cave had been some of the most fulfilling of his life. Suffering brings God to his natural home, the manger of terror and confusion, pain and loss, where he was born. Turn over the currency of suffering, the priest thinks, and you will see his face.
A watchman sits just inside the opening above the Palace of the Gods, his burly frame silhouetted against the spray of stars beyond him. The sky has been scrubbed clean by a stiff north wind auguring winter. The man wears a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead, and a worn leather jacket. He’s holding a pair of binoculars. A rifle rests in his lap.
The man nods a hello to the priest. “Where’s your coat, Father? It’s a cold one tonight.”
The priest smiles wanly. “I lent it to Agatha, I’m afraid.”
The man grunts his understanding. Agatha is the complainer of the group. Always cold. Always hungry. Always something. He lifts the binoculars to his eyes and scans the sky.
“Have you seen any more of them?” the priest asks. They spotted the first grayish-silver, cigar-shaped object a week before, hanging motionlessly above the caverns for several minutes before silently shooting straight up, dwindling to a pinprick scar in the vast blue. Another—or the same one—appeared two days later, gliding soundlessly over them until it dropped beneath the horizon. There was no question about the origin of these strange craft—the cave dwellers knew they weren’t terrestrial—it was the mystery of their purpose that frightened them.
The man lowers the binoculars and rubs his eyes. “What’s the matter, Father? Can’t sleep?”
“Oh, I don’t sleep much these days,” the priest says. Then he adds, “So much to do.” He doesn’t want the man to think he’s complaining.
“No atheists in foxholes.” The cliché hangs in the air like a rancid smell.
“Or in caves,” the priest says. Since they met, he has strained to know this man better, but he is a closed room, the door securely dead-bolted by anger and grief and the hopeless dread of the doomed living on borrowed time. For months there’s been no turning from it or hiding from it. For some, death is the midwife to faith. For others, it is faith’s executioner.
The man pulls a pack of gum from his breast pocket, carefully unwraps a piece, and folds it into his mouth. He counts the remaining sticks before slipping the pack back into his pocket. He does not offer any to the priest.
“My last pack,” the man says in explanation. He shifts his weight on the cold stone.
“I understand,” the priest says.
“Do you?” The man’s jaw moves with a hypnotic rhythm as he chews. “Do you really?”
The dry bread, the soured wine: The taste lingers on his tongue. The bread could have been broken; the wine could have been divided. He did not have to celebrate the Mass alone. “I believe that I do,” the little priest answers.