Go back to Neumann's Journey Part VI


Part VII: Neumann meets the anchorite

Still bobbing his head, the preacher raised his hand and gestured to the door at the back of the stage. Neumann squinted till he could feel the muscles freezing up in his brow, and was about to complain that there was nothing to see, when the door popped open at last and an official stepped through with untempered pomp. He was enveloped in what Neumann took to be a cloud of incense wafting from the ornate urn he had tucked against his chest. His white-flannel suit and sparkling tie were befouled by the powdery dust, and his collar was black where inky beads of perspiration had trickled down his neck. He was followed at the same lugubrious pace by a second official, who bore on stiffly outstretched arms a red tasselled cushion and ceremonial masonry trowel. Neumann found himself wondering just how long the procession would be and whether he had not somehow become involved in a bizarre theatrical performance. He could feel the anticipation building among the watchful crowd. Only the porter had his back to the show, as he was busy emptying bags of sand and powdered cement into the wheelbarrow.

Neumann was rather let down when the door closed behind the two men, and remained closed. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see a bleating farm animal being led across the stage, or a team of acrobats. The two officials marched toward Neumann with inscrutable gravitas, one stopping at the baptismal pool while the other continued on to the annex. When the latter arrived he got to his knees as though proposing marriage, and with lowered head presented the gleaming trowel to the evangelist. The old man, engrossed as he was in the task of laying his bricks out in neat a line across the doorway, refused even to acknowledge the official’s presence, and the other was obliged to keep his awkward pose until his arms began to quiver from the strain.

His counterpart was on his bulging hams, scooping up water with the funerary urn. It filled with a belch and let a thick black tongue of silt roll out across the surface of the pool. Neumann lost count of the number of trips the man made to the wheelbarrow, but the evangelist squatted all the while, with simian ill grace, squinting out of one eye at his row of bricks, while the official beside him struggled to remain upright. At last the other’s arms gave out and the trowel slid from its cushion, falling inches from the old man’s nose before landing with a clatter in the doorway. The evangelist managed an improbable look of surprise when he found the gleaming tool lying there, some moments later; his drooping lids flapped open as he snatched the blade from the floor and waved it threateningly after the official, who had long since climbed to his feet and disappeared behind the stage.

The porter, meanwhile, up to his elbows in the mortar he had been mixing with bare hands, took a step back and heaved a fistful of the stuff at the wall beside the evangelist’s head. The old man quit slashing at the air and leaned over to examine the results, pressing his face so close to the dripping paste he could have been plastering himself in place. At length he pulled back, his stained mug reporting the pattern of wet grey to the waiting porter. Evidently satisfied with its consistency, the other edged the wheelbarrow closer and sloshed a bucket’s worth onto the old man’s feet; tittering, twenty-threeski-doo, before saluting Neumann and trotting heavily off the stage.

Neumann turned to watch the porter shamble down the aisle. The congregants, he saw, were already filing out the door, the preacher, arm-in-arm with his blushing hospitality girl, gaily leading the way. Only the guard, who still cast a prodigious shadow across the pool, appeared content to stick around for the rest of the performance. He was about as animated as a marble column—if somewhat thicker around the middle—and Neumann was struck by the thought that he might suddenly topple over and crush him beneath his suffocating frame. Neumann took a few steps toward the annex as a precaution, then snapped his fingers in the guard’s direction. Getting no response, he impatiently stamped his foot and called out to him in a voice loud enough to draw a glance from the congregants milling near the entrance. Frustrated still, he cast about for something to throw, thinking if nothing else, a rock to the head should get the man’s attention.

As he bent to pick up a brick, however, he caught sight of his trilby lying stricken near the wall by the foot of the abandoned wheelbarrow. Neumann shot an accusing look at the guard before darting over to recover his property. Fortunately for whoever was in charge, the damage was slight and reversible. Brushing the dust away and popping the dents he donned his hat and turned to address the evangelist.

The man was bricking himself into the annex with singular purpose, and Neumann waited in vain for a lull in the activity. “I say,” he announced at last. Then he repeated with greater authority, “I say.”

When the wall had grown to about chest height, Neumann marched over to the evangelist and insisted he would not be repeating himself again. The other stopped his work in mid-row, and Neumann was flattered to think he had impressed his will on the man. But then he suddenly ducked from view, and Neumann wondered if it wouldn’t be necessary to repeat himself after all.

He was preparing to do just that when a filthy, cadaverous arm appeared in the vicinity of his ankles, causing such a drop in systolic pressure that he fell to his knees in a fog. For a few blind moments he batted at that hideous appendage with his hat. Then his head cleared enough to remember the brick he’d meant to launch at the guard. It was in his reach, but the other was first to snatch it up and Neumann cringed in anticipation of the blow.

When he was able to look again, the arm was gone and the evangelist was on his feet, blithely mortaring another brick into place. Neumann glared at the man, and then at the guard, who gave no sign that he had even witnessed the incident. Neumann supposed the man would keep his stony silence, but there was little doubt he would answer to his superiors, and Neumann vowed to bring the whole sordid affair to their attention.

When he turned back to confront the evangelist, he spied the man peering through an opening at the bottom of the wall.

“I say,” Neumann offered plaintively.
“I say,” the other mimicked with a nasal whine.
“Look here—,” he insisted.
“—Look here,” was the obnoxious reply.
Then, in near synchrony, each demanded of the other, “Stop this at once.”
“Me?” they protested in unison. Neumann clapped his mouth shut.
A moment later, the other demanded to know why he was cowering like a filthy animal behind a wall, and Neumann nearly swallowed his tongue from the surprise.
“Ha!” they scoffed as one.

Neumann was confirmed in his judgment that the old man was a lunatic. The only question was why he had been left to lock himself in that tiny cell with nothing more than an oversized mannequin to keep him out of mischief. He turned again to the guard, wondering how he could possibly remain indifferent to the evangelist’s maddening provocations. The guard, however, had apparently seen enough after all, as he was following the last of the congregants out the door. Neumann raised a frustrated fist to the man’s back.

“Nyaa!” the evangelist yammered idiotically, and Neumann swung back to the nose that was still poking through the hole in the wall.

“I’m looking—,” the other interjected before Neumann could open his mouth.
“—for Mr. St Pierre,” he finished defiantly. Neumann could no longer be certain who was interrogating whom, and so resisted the urge to say anything more. The old man tried to wait him out, but Neumann wouldn’t be caught off guard and the other was forced to concede the effort. Neumann’s pleasure in this small victory was short lived, however, as the chatter that followed was more insufferable than even the obstinate silence had been.

Then the old man suddenly confided, in hushed tones: “The Lord brought Death to trial for murder—but He couldn’t make the charges stick.”
Neumann considered such a scenario highly unlikely, but he refused to be drawn into an argument over it. He stood up to leave.
“The Dead, Death claimed, were killed by Dying—he had naught to do with it!”
Rising to the bait, Neumann started to object, then stopped and reconsidered. He knew without thinking that Death was guilty as charged, but he couldn’t deny that Dying might have had a hand in it. “—The two were in cahoots!” he volunteered.
“But Dying took the stand and swore he wouldn’t take the fall: the teeth belonged to Life—Great Neptune couldn’t wash clean all the blood from those claws!”
You’re wrong, Neumann wanted to yell: it’s Death that lurks with his long shadow and insatiable appetite for pain. But he stopped cold. He had always suspected Life of just this sort of treachery—upon ‘pain of Death’, they say. Ha! Upon pain of Life! Death knows nothing of suffering. It’s true, Life was to blame!
“But Life denied the accusation. He said Dying was a myth—”
A myth! Indeed!
“—whose testimony should be stricken from the record—”
“He’s guiltier than—”
“forthwith!” The evangelist was suddenly on his feet.
“—I see you’ve met the anchorite.”
The old man flapped his lips, but the words were a whisper in Neumann’s ear. He could almost feel the breath on his cheek. Then a hand fell on his shoulder, and the shock once again left the room thick with the swirl of fog.


Here ends Neumann's Journey Part VII

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