I did not always work in the blue cave. For forty years, I was a fisherman. A meager catch generated a period of rest before rumbling stomachs signaled “it’s time again!”-time to cast out my net with weights sewn into its edges.
Now, I work in the blue cave; I am not a fisherman; I imagine sirens on an invisible isle’s rocky coast; what else can explain the magnetic force to which I fall victim? I feel pulled in with the receding tide. In an anxious attempt to lessen the danger of these trips, I never return to the sea alone. My wife’s laughter is a protective distraction, but when the inevitable cannot be held back, then she must be there to save me from falling off the little boat and drowning. She gives the oars direction; what muscle atrophied in my arms accreted in hers, and now she rows in practiced and assured sweeps.
Before dawn, in what has become daily rite, I ride my donkey to the blue cave. My donkey is so sweet-tempered that it is pleasant to share her company on a quiet morning. Also, to sit on her back gives some physical relief; I am beginning to suffer a muscle injury from shifting my weight to my toes to avoid contact between the sores and the rocky path.
If you asked anyone else where the blue cave is, your inquiry would be received with some confusion. A name has been given to the space it shelters; a little church was built into it before I can remember, even before time and memory existed and people had to find other things to measure diligently. The name, “Church of St. Peter” is hard to make out; the inscription was blasted into perpetual softness by Aeolian stoneworkers.
The facade, the only wall that had to be built, juts out just slightly from the mouth. At this entrance of cave and church, there is a heavy door; above it is a fresco of Christ, bald, and on each side of it is a stained glass window. Inside the blue cave, there are three rows of light-colored stone benches and one center aisle and a stone altar. In the apse is a doorway; it is almost invisible because it is half a meter wide and the plane of the door is perpendicular to the southern wall (behind the altar.) A piece of stone, hewn so that there is a distinguishable upper face, is wedged there at roughly the same height as the altar, and on top of this ledge is where the priest stores the cup and the diskos. For this reason, one would assume that this is not a real doorway, but only a shelf in a narrow alcove.
Higher in the center of the apse there is a niche sheltering a stone sculpture of Jesus in the agony of the crucifixion. On the left side wall, there is a mosaic of the calling of Peter and Andrew. On the right side wall, there is a depiction of the miraculous catch of fish.
The cave ceiling is configured so that some areas slope lower than other parts; the tiles are arranged so that these natural formations look like pink and white clouds sculpted in relief on a bleeding sky. Peter holds the key in the heavens.
Now to the floor, I tell you, look to its watery depths! Noah’s ark is passing through a narrow channel; it is flanked by rocky cliffs (the stone benches) and trod on by giants who unwittingly cause the little figures to quake as they sidestep towards the nave to receive Communion. In the nave, there is a tiny whale; he carries a miniscule Jonah in his stomach. Baby Moses’ head peeks out of a basket in the Nile; the river flows between the front two benches on the left side of the church. Look to the middle right and see the Israelites’ safe passage through the Red Sea, as Moses lifts his staff in triumph and looks to the heavens. This scene is left of the Egyptian soldiers’ tragic fate. Near the entrance is Joseph in the well. Scattered throughout the blue tile are tiny boats with delicate sails, fish of all different sizes, some larger than the boats, and waves composed of slivers of indigo pebble.
At the base of a stone baptismal font are painted clouds; the water itself reflects more from the ceiling so it looks as if the clouds are layered in the “air” which is really the water. Reach your hand into this holy reflecting pool and you will feel as if you are dipping into a liquid sky and expect to pull out a bit of cloud fluff with you.
I unlatch the heavy door of the blue cave; (my donkey grazes outside and, as if by silent agreement, he knows not to wander too far while I do my work); and I begin by taking a cloth and holding it so that only my fingertips touch it, and gently wiping the dust off the stained glass panels. At this early hour, it is too dim inside the cave to see the colors of the glass.
My wife tells me the windows are jewel-colored, but I have never seen sapphires or tanzanite or zircon. No, I think- they are like the sea! There are deep greens mixed in with the blues, and when a cloud outside moves and causes the light to shift, the visual effect is that of a tree’s leaves rustling against the background of a blue sky. I ask my wife to describe the windows to me as she changes the dressing on my hands. She says that in the morning Mass, which begins at the seventh hour, when the old priest processes down the aisle the windows are faintly lit, and then, moments before the closing prayer, they are radiant and the stone altar bears the reflection of light passed through the glass; it becomes a kinetic, fractalized ocean. Oh, it has been four years since I saw this gloried brilliance!
But it must be so. I at least have enough self control for this kind of sacrifice. Just imagine, if I were- ever again- to enter the Blue Cave during the Mass… The fear, the shock other people would have to endure when the inevitable occured!
The old priest is a kindly man but he is rigid and if it were not for my wife’s persuasion he would not have made a concession; this arrangement has worked out so well. Yes, it is certainly best that my blue cave visitations are solitary journeys; (I did not mean to exclude my donkey just now; he is so dear to me!)
Come inside the little church in the blue cave, put your hand on the strong, timeless walls of stone, hear your hushed voice echo. The temperature is always cool in here, each mosaic figure is preserved from the effects of the external climate. Noah’s ark will never exit the narrow strait; the Red Sea tidal wave looms frozen over Pharoah’s men; they do not know that they are suspended in perpetual pursuit. You might catch yourself holding your breath to unconsciously mirror the stillness around you. These closed environs give one the feeling that nothing here changes…. I know that is not true.
What I mean is that sometimes, when you are out at sea on a clear afternoon, the sky turns red and you have to row as fast as possible back to the shore before danger falls on you in the form of a terrible storm (like the one I remember, although it wasn’t real in the sense that
other people believe things are real) and when I am in the blue cave, I look at my hands and see the crimson spots spreading too rapidly through the just-washed white cloth and watch a drop of red fall onto the Nile as if in slow motion and then, I can tell you that there is no constancy here, that things do come upon you-but there is no need to ruminate about this, and after all, no one need be afraid as long as I come alone…..
Ahem. Well, by now you must be curious about what happens in the blue cave; I understand; it is human nature to be curious about the things that happen here, so I shall oblige you and tell you the details of my cleaning routine. After I dust the stained glass windows, then I sweep the blue tile floor; the church is so small that this takes little time. I use a soft cloth for the mosaics on the walls. Then I work on the stone- the benches, the baptismal font, so I begin at the entrance and I finish at the altar, and then I stumble over to the front left pew and- here I am again- I was not going to keep thinking about this but my mind is drawn to it, so I might as well tell you that this is when the inevitable occurs. Sometimes it lasts hours and sometimes only seconds; I really could not tell you how long they endure if it were not for the candle I bring with me. I will open my eyes and realize that the wax has completely liquified and I sit in darkness except for the faint beams of the rising sun beginning to reflect off the stained glass windows. Or other times, I will look and my candle has only shortened half a centimeter, and then sometimes it looks exactly the same as when I first collapsed onto the front left pew.
By now, my wife knows not to be concerned about the irregularity of my work schedule. If it takes too long for even the candle to be a useful indicator of the time that has gone, the old priest will come into the church to check my pulse and drag my limp body (wretched, I know) over the shelf in the hidden doorway and through a narrow tunnel and out an opening obscured by an outgrowth of rock projecting from the western wall of the blue cave. He then (I assume! I hope!) gently rests me against the wall, and this is where I awaken, with my donkey nudging my face. I will then press my ear against the wall and listen; and if I hear the opening hymn or the priest’s Latin recitations at any point after that, I will know it’s time to leave. So I clamber onto my donkey’s back, and this might take multiple attempts if I am dizzy from the blood loss, and then we go home. Of course, the procedure I have related to you, which only follows such worst-case scenarios in the blue cave, has-although it used to be frequent- not occurred for some time.
“How long has this been happening?” “The bleeding?” I say weakly. The old priest inclines his head sharply. “And the rest. I thought the visions had stopped.”
“Oh. Yes. You see, I thought….I’m sorry” I cannot think clearly. Where is He? He was just here with me. My head is ringing. I put my hand up to touch my head and I see red. I gaze dumbly at the open sore on my palm. The blood pools rapidly on my lap and at my feet, darkening my shoes. The old priest grabs the altar cloth, upsets a vessel, wine spills out. He holds a corner of the cloth to my throbbing hands and throws the rest onto the red floor.
Footsteps are growing louder; we look at each other and down at the puddle of blood now soaking through the altar cloth. The familiar black crowds into my vision. Everything blurs. I see something….someone? hard to distinguish. A woman? Yes. A shawl covers her shoulders; I think distractedly that the morning Mass will begin soon. She exclaims. My head lolls down and I stare at the sea of blood. Now- the crimson-stained cloth is a translucent violet. That scent.. Wine. Flooding the floor. On my hands and on my shoes. Sweat, reeking with acidity, pours down from the ring of markings around my head. I laugh and cry confusedly and fall fast into darkness. I wake up; I cannot open my eyes. I hear the voice of the old priest.
“I tell you, the wine did spill but that was half a cup’s worth. The rest was the blood. It changed. I swear it did.” I cannot hear anymore, I fade back into unconsciousness.
I wake again. The old priest is still here. “People are starting to suspect things.” “Nonsense, after this they’ll just think he’s a drunk.” That was my wife.
“This episode did not go unseen; it was right before the Mass began. I am not sure how many saw him.”
“It does not matter what they think. What about his health? Look what this has done to him. He’s not young either. Physically I do not know how much more he can take., the blood loss, the strain…”
“You still are against bringing your husband to a doctor?” A sharp look. “For the physical wounds! I believe the man as well as you do.If you saw what I saw today.. Of course no one else does but I do.”
“Exactly, no one else would believe this. A doctor would think I’m abusing him. They’ll lock me up. Or they’ll think he’s a lunatic, hallucinating, hurting himself; they won’t help him; they’ll just lock him up. And the thing is, they’re not seizures, you know they’re not seizures.” I dream. It rained in the garden and sweat fell like drops of blood….I wake with streaming eyes. I am just as curious as you, I say truthfully. I do not know why I am crying. All I know is it happens when I wake and when it starts I cannot stop for hours.
Some time has passed. I could not tell you how much. I slip into the other world more often, but I think it is controllable. That day, in the blue cave… Well, I can tell you the last time something like that happened was during the Mass, and the time before that- that was when I immediately left the nets and went to work in the church. You see, it wasn’t safe anymore- I nearly drowned that day, alone in the boat. I’m still unsure what exactly happened, how I did not die. I remember some fragments of that day so clearly…. Sometimes they come back, flood my
thoughts. A terrible storm….Forgive me…. I am distracted. My wife cleans the wounds in my feet. Dirt floors and the men look confused. Should not servants do this work? Why are you doing this? I weep. The floor is stone. I am with my wife and she holds my hand.
Another day. I cannot seem to climb onto my donkey; he waits patiently. There is the woman I saw in the blue cave. She ignores my friendly greeting. “Drunk” she spits at me. Her saliva sails to the dirt at my feet. He scoops up the mixture in his hand and reaches up to the man’s eyes. He sees. My eyes stream as I look at them; I see the sea, the blue sky, I cannot believe how good it is. I cry and cry and cannot stop. It is hard to tell when I am, who I am with at any time. Am I in this here or that here? Is it this now or some other now? I do not think I sleep anymore; I am always in this world or that one.
Another morning, still dark. I ride to the blue cave. I do not even finish cleaning the windows before I fall on the floor and crawl to the left front pew as the old blackness closes in.
I wake near the tunnel’s exit. I force myself to stand up, lean against the western wall and listen, hear the priest chanting. I feel a sudden urge to see the stained glass in the light. I slowly move along the wall, leaning for support. My donkey walks alongside me. A window is open; I cannot see the color from the outside. The old priest speaks; he breaks the bread; I hear the brutal snap and I fall. Jagged rock pierced my side; blood and water rush out and stream into the sea, they turn the foam pink. I know that something wet is trickling out of the old wounds in my head, it pools in a fold of my white shirt and is absorbed; I feel it on my chest. I tilt my head up to the sky and see red. A storm is coming. I drag myself into the water, get up, fall, push myself up, fall a second time, let the current pull me deeper, get my footing for the briefest moment and, for the third time, I tip backwards. My head is submerged- the water does not taste salty- I open my eyes and look up; dazzling light hits the river’s surface, refracts and meets my eyes; it is blindingly radiant. I reach down and feel sand- I push hard into the floor until my head breaks out of the water; rivulets stream down from my face; the blood from my forehead is gone; there is only water. I cough out some of it; a blurred figure is in front of me; I reach out and feel rough brown fabric; he reaches too; puts his hands on my head and shoulder and forces me down underwater. I swallow water and feel like I am choking; I feel the pressure lessen and I come up, I gasp for air and I am shoved down again. I stay under, dazed, the light becomes so bright I cannot see anything. After eons I float up to the top, stare at the sky; it is red again. Purple clouds are moving in. I put my hand on, in my side. I lack the strength to move my head down, to look at the wound. Now I am floating on my back. My arms are outstretched. My side throbs violently and I see red. “Dead,” the soldier gives a nod in confirmation. I hear a woman’s sobbing scream. “Dead!” My wife’s strangled, choking cry. I must say something to comfort her, if I can only get the words out, but I am fading quickly… He was shaken awake. The boat rocked violently. The salty spray hit his face. Wake up! Wake up! We are going to die. Can’t you see we are afraid? Hand outstretched. Shela, zegar. I died there, limbs locked in crucifixion at sea; face transfigured and light shone through the dark clouds, illuminated my small figure; my torment was over and my wife stood in the water and held my still body in her arms.