There were twelve of them. Twelve Benedictine monks from the abbey at Fontgembar. Eleven wizened, bent old men, faces soft and gentle as the Smiling Angel of the Reims cathedral, and one strapping man in his fifties, with dark, darting, deep-set eyes. And all of them dressed in their black sackcloth garb. At ten after midnight, in the abbey’s great hail (where they had come to listen to the President’s address), the abbot, Dom Meichior de Groix, had drawn himself up to his full, impressive height, and standing in his cloister stall, straight as an arrow for all the weight of his eighty-seven years, he had turned to his brethren with roughly these remarks:

“Three years ago, brothers, when we rebuilt the sacred and timeless walls of this deserted abbey, in spite of those floods of hate stirred up by our venture, we had no idea what purpose the Lord intended us for when He made us conceive our endeavor. Today, at this moment, the Christian West confronts its most perilous hour, and that purpose seems almost clear. We stand here alone, the last twelve monks to devote our lives to prayer and contemplation in an Order that has let itself lapse and decay into everyday concerns, into social action and misguided commitment; an Order that first denied, and soon forgot, that man is given his brief stay on earth only to earn his eternal salvation. Now if that sounds like vanity, may the good Lord forgive me …”

Off in the shadows, by the light of the flickering candles—there had been no electricity since the day before—a figure strode out of his stall, and knelt at the old abbot’s feet. It was Dom Paul Pinet, youngest of the monks, and prior of Fontgembar. He gazed at the ground, and tried not to let his eyes show his feelings.

“But father,” he said, “what you’re proposing is nothing but vanity, I assure you. In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for all mankind, I beg you for the last time. Please, don’t go through with it.”

“Brother Paul,” replied the abbot, “if God, despite all expectations, has kept me alive to see this momentous day, He must have had a reason. Now, I know that you’re going to frown on my decision. I know that you’re going to consider my orders childish and futile. If you wish, I’ll release you from your vow of obedience. Temporarily, I mean …”

It wasn’t really a very old story. Dom Meichior de Groix belonged to one of those wealthy families in which high birth and high finance had been bedfellows for better than a hundred years. When he took it into his head to rebuild Fontgembar, up in the Esterel range, along with a handful of recalcitrant old monks—die-hard traditionalists, one and all—he had no dearth of backers. The sugar tycoons, the textile kings, the banking giants all opened wide their coffers. The amount .noised about was a billion old francs. Probably correct, though one did hear a figure as high as three billion. The bishops of France had no qualms whatever in pumping the sum up themselves, lending all the weight of their combined reverend voices to support their claims. “Where is all the money coming from?” they had asked in a pastoral letter of some notoriety. “Who are the financial powers behind Dom Melchior de Groix? And what right do they have to spend such amounts, when for months and months now other voices have cried out the misery and woe of the Ganges, of Brazil, and, indeed, of the whole Third World… ?” The press had jumped right in, of course, closely followed by public opinion en masse. On the air at Radio-East, Albert Durfort had come to the conclusion that “at that price the vow of poverty is a joke!” No sooner was it open and ready for its monks, than Fontgembar was swamped by reporters, photographers, and a battery of TV cameras, pointing like so many angry, accusing fingers. Beneath its towering walls camped thousands of young people, spray guns in hand, led on by their priestly legion, and splattering the buildings, newly restored, with their salvos of painted curses. In huge red letters. So big that one message could be read far and wide: “PEOPLE! THE SWEAT OF YOUR BROWS LINED THIS PLACE WITH GOLD!” Dom Melchior had made a courageous stand. But only one. He had opened the doors of the abbey’s great hail to an onrushing tide—writer types, film types, and those plainclothes-padre types, crosses pinned to their fatigues—and had stated, very simply, “I believe this is one of the most meaningful endeavors in which the Lord has ever allowed me to take part …” (“Sure, sure! The Lord!” several voices shouted. “Blame it on the Lord! Come on, who put up the money?”) The old abbot, seeming not to hear, had continued: “May this monastery, rebuilt and restored with so much love …” (More voices: “Love thy neighbor, right?” “Love my eye, it’s prostitution! A sellout to big business!”) “… do its share to foster the feeling for God in man.” (“Better to foster the feeling for man in God,” bleated Fra Muttone, obviously present, and itching to get in his clever two cents’ worth.) “Brother,” Dom Meichior replied this time, “you must know that man’s heart is moved only by beauty. Our wish is to live, within these fair walls, a life of true poverty, and to offer a strong Benedictine community a place in which to lead a life of prayer and contemplation. Yes, our efforts have met with a certain resistance. But hasn’t that always been true of God’s work?” His remarks were greeted with much hooting and howling, and the old monk found himself loathing the crowd. When he knelt for a moment or two before them, they were rather impressed, although no one was aware that he had, in fact, just mortified himself for his momentary lack of Christian charity. It was then, in the midst of an opportune silence, that the cruelest blow of all was struck. A voice speaking out—calm, somber, and controlled—obviously holding back to heighten the effect: “But father, you’re a total of eleven monks here at Fontgembar, and it’s clear that you’ll never be more. In time you’re bound to begin dying off, and no one will come fill the gaps. The Abbot Primate will see to that, I assure you. So we’re really quite a way from that ‘strong Benedictine community’ of yours, that you seem to be using as a pretext and excuse. Now then, let’s do a little figuring. Let’s take a billion francs as a reasonable minimum. For eleven monks, that makes more than ninety million per monk. Which strikes me as rather a high price to pay for a life of poverty! Believe me, father, that’s no little venial sin you’ve got there!” (The quote made the cover of La Pensée Nouvelle, against the background of Fontgembar’s gothic tower. Exactly the kind of punch Clément Dio liked so much.) The speaker was Dom Paul Pinet. A Benedictine himself, sort of a roving inspector for the Abbot Primate of the Order, he had just arrived, direct from Rome. His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, deeply shocked at Dom Melchior’s excesses, had insisted that stringent measures be taken. The community at Fontgembar, he had ordered, should be disbanded at once, and the abbot dismissed. The buildings themselves, and the vast surrounding lands, should be turned over to the people, perhaps as a kind of farming commune, open to the young of every background and persuasion. (That last idea had sprung from the fertile brain of Dom Pinet, fresh from his success in radicalizing the state of BahIa, in Brazil, by secularizing all the abbeys of the Order.) The day before, Dom Melchior had replied to these several demands with a simple “no” … Scarcely had Dom Pinet hurled his accusation, when the old monk fairly bellowed, in a voice that was hard to believe: “Out! All of you! Get out!” And get out they did, meek as lambs, to a man, wondering what had happened—as they stood there gazing at the gates, shut tight and chained—when, after all, they had come for just one purpose: to “liberate” Fontgembar. At that point, things took a rather sudden turn. “Let them croak!” one peasant-priest had decided. But a little while later, the monks numbered twelve. What had happened was this. A few months after his famous declaration (“… that’s no little venial sin you’ve got there!”), Dom Paul Pinet appeared at the abbey. It remains a mystery, even today, what two men as different as himself and the abbot could say to each other during their long discussion, or how they could come to some kind of agreement. The one, a monk straight out of the Middle Ages, utterly unbending, as sure of his God as he was of himself. The other, a militant, eager to tear down in order to build, a stranger to anything and everything supernatural, wearing the habit, but only on rare occasions, like those labor-camp pajamas ex-prisoners put on to commemorate the Holocaust (“Never again!”), out-and-out heretic in the eyes of Dom Meichior, for whom the Pope was the Antichrist incarnate. And yet, at chapter that evening, the ten old monks looked on in stunned amazement as their abbot asked them to approve a strange appointment. Namely, the choice of Dom Pinet as prior of Fontgembar, next in line to succeed him. Dom Melchior, in effect, would merely live out the rest of his tenure. No doubt he had buckled under the immense moral pressure that had set him apart, but hoping in his heart of hearts that God would pass judgment when all was said and done. Now today, it was clear that God was on his side: He had kept him alive, with one foot in the grave, for the moment of truth …

“No,” the prior replied, “I don’t want to be released from my vow. Events will work things out, believe me. Or divine will, if that’s what you call it.”

“Very well, brother,” the abbot continued. “You may sit down.” Then he opened the massive New Testament to a page marked with a long silk ribbon, and he said:

“Brothers, as this new day is born, I should like you to call to mind Apocalypse, chapter twenty: ‘Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection! Over these the second death has no power; but they will be priests of God and Christ, and will reign with him a thousand years…‘ Such are the words of Saint John, as he speaks of the grace that lights God’s chosen people on the harsh road of life, to life everlasting and the joys of perfect knowledge. But today, brothers, the end of the thousand years is upon us …”

Bending over the great tome, he read on, slowly: “‘And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison, and will go forth and deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, and will gather them together for the battle; the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up over the breadth of the earth and encompassed the camp of the saints, and the beloved city. And fire from God came down out of heaven and devoured them. And the devil who deceived them was cast into the pool of fire and brimstone, where are also the beast and the false prophet; and they will be tormented day and night f,orever and ever …’ And from chapter twenty-one: ‘And he who was sitting on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new! … He who overcomes shall possess these things, and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly and unbelieving, and abominable and murderers, and fornicators and sorcerers, and idolaters and all liars, their portion shall be in the pool that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”’ Brothers,” the abbot concluded, “the days of Gog and Magog are at hand. The nations, like the sand of the sea, have invaded the City. But the just will rise up. They will march with the body of Christ right to the shattered ramparts. … Do you think you can walk to the sea, brothers?”

A long murmur of approval rippled through the group. Ten addled old men, all but dead. Ten pious little robots, worn out by an excess of genuflections, vigils, plainchants, and fasts, catching a sudden glimpse of a meaningful demise. Both a final deliverance and a justification of long years in the cloister. “Yes, yes! … Forward, march!” they squealed, all aquiver. A few, farther gone than the rest, no longer knew what century it was. Others, shivering at night on their hard wooden benches, dreamed of an all-compassionate God, ready to welcome them with arms outstretched. Yes, march on, march on, to the end, at long last! … A dumbfounded Dom Pinet shook his head, struggling to make them listen to reason:

“But it’s madness!” he shouted. “It’s senility! Vanity! You can’t force God’s hand. You haven’t had a sign. He won’t answer you, believe me. He never has. Not for madness like this. You’re out of your minds to dream up such a harebrained scheme. All you’ll do is lose faith. You’ll see, God won’t be what you all imagine. What on earth do you hope to accomplish? Do you think you can wave the Host in the air, and hold off a mob? Like back in the days of blind superstition, when the Black Plague would mow down the bishop in his cathedral, just as he prayed to God to protect him!”

He was mumbling, bogging down in his arguments, deeper and deeper, unable to believe he had stooped to such discussion. It almost made him blush with shame.

“Have you finished, brother?” the abbot asked him.

Dom Pinet hung his head in defeat. Yes, of course he had finished. What more could he add, to buck this wall of absolute folly?

“In that case,” Dom Melchior went on, “since you are the youngest of our number, and the strongest, you may carry the Host. I’m afraid I haven’t the strength, and the rest of our brothers will need all they can muster for the long, hard walk. Luck is with us. The moon is out tonight. It will light our way. … Exaudi nos, Domine. Hear our plea, O Lord, Father omnipotent, God of the ages, and in thy mercy send down thy holy Angel from Heaven, that he may guard, support, protect, and defend all these, thy children, here before thee. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.”

Outside, a deathly calm gathered around them. Down in the valley below, the little town was plunged in darkness. No more street lamps burning all through the night. No more headlights snaking their usual endless path over the winding highway. None of the array of familiar sounds that, even in the still, small hours, show that life is merely resting. No signs of life at all … First they passed through deserted hamlets. Winegrowing villages, nestled against the mountain. Solid, fortress-like villages that had bristled with pikes and slings in days of yore, when the Barbary pirates would foray against the coast, while the tocsin rang, and the priest and women prayed, and the menfolk would fight until victory or death. Now their grandchildren’s grandchildren had up and fled. And all that they left in their wake—sole relics of their stay on earth, besides the unyielding vines of the past—were a forest of TV antennas on their roofs, two pinball machines, three table-football games, and the traveling exhibition of satirical cartoons from the weekly La Grenouille on display at the Youth and Culture Center. The one building, by the way, whose doors and shutters they hadn’t bothered to bolt up tight. Proof that they didn’t think too much of the place and deserted it with pleasure, or perhaps that they fed it to the flames to save the rest. Strung out across the front was a streamer proclaiming: “WE’RE ALL FROM THE GANGES NOW!” (The things the children did those days to have their fun! Instead of kicking a ball around, or hunting for mushrooms, or dressing their dolls!) And right underneath, on another streamer: “FREE FONTGEMBAR! DOWN WITH MILLIONAIRE MONKS!” Yes, sweet little kids… Their parents had stood by while the brats (and those who pulled their strings) dabbled with hate to their hearts’ content, stepping in just in time to bundle their offspring into the car and beat a retreat.

Along the highway, the old monks trudged on, hardly able to put one foot before the other, voices quivering out a Gregorian chant to help them keep pace. No less silly a tune than the ones Boy Scouts march to, but more apropos, and one they knew by heart: the litany of the saints. Droning on and on. Sancte Petre, ora pro nobis. Sancte Paule, ora pro nobis. … And the dozens and dozens expunged, long since, from Rome’s official pantheon: Saint Nicholas (little children), Saint George (the dragon), Saint Anthony (lost belongings), Saint Puicheria (fertility), Saint Melorius (calm waters) … Leading the procession, Dom Paul Pinet. Teeth clenched, fingers clutching at the monstrance, he suspected the abbot of adding to the list, and even of dreaming up a few new saints, the way he had dreamed up a God to his liking. (“Saint Baptitian!” the old monk would intone. “Ora pro nobis!” the doddering band would answer.) Which is just what Dom Meichior was doing, in fact, inventing as he went, and laughing up his sleeve, as if he were putting one over on Churchdom’s priggish powers that be. Were they passing a fountain? A patron saint of fountains seemed in order, and Saint Baptitian was born. Was his foot getting sore? Well, who cures ingrown toenails? Saint Podiatron, who else! … It was really great sport. Saints no one had ever heard of. Very much in his style. (After all, hadn’t he filled a whole hall in his abbey with tawdry horrors, those hideous statues that every church for miles around had dumped in the trash, votive offerings included? He had cherished and preserved them, paid them visits every night. And from time to time he would kneel down before one and pray, with a smile, while Dom Pinet would look on in silence, assessing the toll that senility had taken. Then one day, finally, the prior had asked him, “Just how long do you intend to keep those monstrosities?” And Dom Meichior had replied: “Until they’re replaced. Yes, they’re ugly, I admit. But our men of the cloth have no taste in art these days. They’re too proletarian even to notice. That isn’t the reason. It’s the saints they were trying to kill, not their statues ) Next in the litany came the legion of Our-Ladys-of-this-and-of-that, drummed out of the corps as Marian deviationists, longtime foes of the party line. Then all the archangels of legend and myth, those wielders of sword and of flame, whose wings had been butchered to bits, ad lib, by the surgeons of the great ecumenical cause. Real or fictitious, they were all called up to serve. … As the band reached the outskirts of a town close by the coast, the abbot felt he could do with a moment to catch his breath. He gestured for a halt. But none of the old monks, feeble though they were, would sit on the ground in the presence of the Host. (Besides, if they had, they would never have gotten up.) Instead, they just stood there, agog and atremble, all slobber, spit and sputter. Like a scraggy clump of leafless black trees, swaying in the wind …

Drained of its inhabitants, the town had managed to preserve their hatred. Everywhere you looked. Outside the parish hail: “MONEY = MORTAL SIN!” On the walls that ringed the villas where the bosses used to live: “KILL THE CAPITALIST BOURGEOIS PIGS!” Unlike the other less pretentious houses, with their doors and shutters all carefully closed, these villas had the look of a battleground about them. Broken windows, ripped off their hinges. Furniture hacked to pieces, strewn about the grass. Mattresses slashed, stuffing bulging from their guts, pathetically dangling from ornamental railings. Flowers trampled in the gardens. And this time the troops of Panama Ranger weren’t the least bit to blame. The people. No one but the people. They had watched as the rich, first to pick up and run, crammed their autos (too big) with their baggage (too much), while they (too many) packed their own cars (too small) with belongings (too few). And their blood, in short, had begun to boil. So much so, that before skipping out themselves, they had eked out one hour to take their revenge. Grim revel, though. They were in rather a hurry, too. (No time to laugh and sing, or to dance the old Revolutionary rounds while the bonfires fed on the rich man’s wealth, the way people did back when it all began, in the days of the Terror.) Hearts full of hate, bellies full of fear. And only time enough to go through the motions. No strength to clutch at the myth of the Ganges, turn it into a sword, or a battering ram, or a bulwark of faith. Just a sly parting kick, with no risk whatever, and off to the north, every man for himself, and the rich can go hang. (“Wait, who’s gonna give us jobs, goddammit?”) Heaven knows how much talk had gone on, those last weeks, in the plants where they earned their bread after a fashion, and not a bad fashion at that! The walls were still dripping with their fresh-spewed slogans: “WORKERS, GANGES REFUGEES, UNITED FOR FREEDOM!,” “BOSSES OUT, PEOPLE IN!”) And in the end, utter panic. Stampede. Empty streets …

“I wonder,” said the abbot, standing in the moonlight, gazing at the walls and their verbal barrage, “why they didn’t make the most of their chance once they had it. When you make a great show of believing in something, you go all the way. That is, if you’re really a man.”

They had started up again, stumbling and staggering over the pavement. From time to time one aged brother would fall, palms scraping against the sidewalk, bleeding, and the abbot, apparently still going strong, would help him to his feet. Another’s forehead was covered with blood. “Ah, martyrdom!” sighed Dom Melchior with a smile, as if it were some kind of blessing from Heaven. … The old monks were following blindly along now. They had stopped their chanting, saint after saint, and would ask now and then, whining like so many tired little children: “How much longer, father? Are we almost there?” Once past the factory just beyond the town, as they reached a grove of fragrant pines, Dom Paul Pinet, at the head of the procession, stopped abruptly in his tracks. He turned and faced Dom Melchior squarely. And there followed what must have been the strangest exchange in the annals of the Church, between an abbot, standing with his miter on his head, and one of his monks, Blessed Sacrament in hand, that holy white wafer in its sunburst of gold. “No!” exclaimed the prior. “Enough is enough! How long will you keep up this silly charade? It’s beneath you, father. And beneath me, too. Why, it’s making a mockery of these poor old souls, dragging along like a bunch of tired sheep. And for something you’ve dreamed up out of whole cloth! Well, I see through it all. And I see through you. Tell me, father, when did you lose your faith?” The abbot smiled. His reply was soft and calm:

“Please, Brother Paul, be careful what you say. Don’t forget, you’re carrying the body of Christ.”

“Then here! You take it! It’s your turn now. We’re almost there. And besides, what’s the difference?” (He was holding the monstrance out at arm’s length.) “There’s nothing in there anyway. Just a lot of foolish nonsense!”

Dom Melchior didn’t budge. He stood with his eyes riveted to the Host. Finally he answered:

“Don’t you think I’ve known that all along? No, I haven’t lost my faith, Brother Paul. I really never had it. Like a lot of our finest priests these days. And even some of our finest popes. No question, Benedict XVI has faith. It’s eating him up. Just look at the havoc he’s wrought in its name. At least, what passes for faith in his mind. Because real faith, the kind that moves mountains, I mean, simply doesn’t exist. It’s all just a pose. All pretense and sham. That’s why it’s so strong. Faith, you say? No, Brother Paul, I only wish I …”

His sentence hung in midair. All at once a man loomed out of the pines, from his resting place after a long trek on foot. A young man. Corduroy pants, suede jacket. Pretty curly blond hair. Winsome good looks, despite the fatigue that furrowed his classic features. “If you want, father, I’ll carry the Host the rest of the way. Or until you’re ready to carry it yourself.”

“Are you a priest?”

“Yes, I am.”

“What’s your name?”

“Pierre Chassal.”

“Abbé Chassal?” exclaimed Dom Pinet, who hadn’t taken his eyes off the young man. “Not you! You haven’t come all this way to recant! Not today, of all days!”

A few years before, Abbé Chassal’s name had been a household word. A young priest destined for a brilliant career, he had married a beautiful, chic young thing—at the archbishop’s palace in Paris, no less—daughter of a prominent Parisian family, and in no time the couple’s name was on everybody’s lips. Toast of the new, progressive Church. As a spouse of the cloth, little Lydie had developed a style all her own. Photographers loved to take her picture, erotic as could be—long hair down the back, long skirts, black boots—and all the more, since everyone knew how she lusted after Pierre’s priestly flesh. As for him, he reveled in his untoward role. “Lydie,” he would say, “is my pathway to Christ.” And what’s more, he meant it. Enough to write it in papers and books. Enough to repeat it over television and radio. Standard-bearer of the updated Church, he had set out (with the archbishop’s blessing, by the way) to rebuild the priesthood, revamp the Church, and refashion faith itself. Many followed his example and took themselves wives, though rarely with his flair. Cheap, ugly, vulgar types, for the most part, these padre chasers. And Pierre’s Lydie reigned supreme. Then one fine day, silence. Our famous couple had dropped out of sight, and no more was heard about Abbé Chassal. Cleric turned cuckold, he had holed up in an obscure little parish on the wrong side of town, and promptly gone to seed …

“Yes, today,” the young priest replied. “Today we’re all recanting, more or less. Trying to find out where we really belong.”

“But this … this charade!” Dom Pinet objected.

“I’ve played plenty of charades in my time. This one will make up for the rest. May as well go out in a blaze of glory.”

“What are you doing here?” Dom Meichior asked.

“I came south like a lot of other priests, father, to hail what I thought would be mankind’s redemption. To welcome the million Christs on board those ships, who would rise up, reborn, and signal the dawn of a just, new day. … We were five in my car. Not far up the road, we ran out of gas. So we started to walk. As we passed through the town, looking for something to eat, we saw you go by. I told the others: ‘Look, you go on. I’ll catch up later. I’m going to follow them. I want to watch the past gasp its last …’ Well I did. I followed you. And what I saw touched me.”

What he failed to mention was that, all along the way, he was touched no less by his own situation than he was by the doddering Benedictine band, staggering off to the last crusade. And he would moan as he walked: “My Lydie! My Lydie! Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Well, not quite, but almost …) But each time an old monk would stumble, each time the blood would trickle from a forehead, down a sunken gray cheek, his Lydie would fall further and further into the background, until she was all but forgotten, and Abbé Chassal was finally at peace.

“Did you hear what Dom Paul and I were saying just now?” the abbot asked him.

“Yes, I did.”

“And you weren’t put off?”

“No, it helped me understand myself better.”

“You mean you’ve lost faith too?”

“I suppose so. That is, if I had it to begin with. Still, I’ve never felt happier than I do this morning. Or more content. I guess I chose the wrong pose before. All that pretense and sham …”

“Kneel down, brother, and I’ll give you my blessing. Then our brother Paul will let you take his place. He’ll be leaving us now. He still has his own brand of faith, but he seems to have stopped believing that the Host is the body of an omnipotent Christ. So we’ll let him go off and welcome the Christs he believes in. And we’ll keep the one we have. He suits us best. If, at the last minute, no sign from Heaven saves us, what does it really matter, after all? At least we won’t have broken faith with ourselves. Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus …”

When the young man stood up, Dom Pinet thrust the monstrance into his hands, turned on his heels, and went striding off without a word.

“Brother Paul,” the abbot called after him. “Aren’t you going to embrace me before you leave?”

The prior froze in his tracks. He arched his back, as if bucking a gale.

“Let’s not cut corners,” Dom Melchior continued. “Let’s act out the play just the way it was written. We’re all that’s left of the latter-day Church. No bigger than the handful when it all began. Since you made up your mind from the start to betray us, you may as well play out your role to the end. Come, give me the kiss of peace. Come, be my Judas …”

The latter-day Church stood whimpering about, with hardly a notion of what was going on. One was idly wiping his bruised and bleeding feet, raw from all the walking. Another was mumbling scraps of disjointed prayers that had managed to escape from the shipwreck of his mind. A third was smiling a beatific smile, while his neighbor—with no idea where he was or why—was crying his eyes out like a little lost babe. And one by one they would groan the same question: “How much longer, father? Are we almost there?”

Dom Pinet heard them, gave a shrug, and ran off down the road. Headlong flight. Clean break with the past. The old life ends, the new one begins. And he ran like a madman, as if the twenty centuries past, now over and done with, were hounding his tracks. As if he feared he might still be caught … The road led down to the sea. Panting, he reached the first cottages that lined the shore, and stopped to catch his breath. In no time he found himself surrounded by a crowd. A ragged young band, standing there leering, eyeing him up and down. (Some seemed to be grimacing, screwing up their noses, like a dog when he tries to place a new smell. They belonged to a group of people’s theater, who had given up language for animal gestures, and whose whiffs and sniffs were their sign for confusion.) One especially dark young lady—hair down her back, huge deep-set eyes—took one look at Dom Pinet, and jibed: “What a nice little monk! Why, I bet you’ve got the prettiest string of big wooden beads!” He took out his rosary, hardly thinking, and held it up to show her.

“Neat!” she exclaimed, and put it around her neck. A moment later, a smiling young giant had elbowed his way up front.

“See what we’ve got, Panama?” one of the men shouted. “A priest, of all things!”

“Good God! Just what we needed! Like we don’t have enough already! And this one’s not even in uniform… Say man, I bet you’re some kind of real priest, aren’t you? That kind that don’t fuck between masses, I mean. What the hell are you doing here?”

“The same as you,” Dom Pinet replied. “I’m here to watch the landing. There’s a big deserted abbey not far up the road, back where I came from. With huge fields and gardens. And I’m going to take our poor starving brothers there, as soon as they land.”

They let out a cheer, but their joy only seemed to sadden the monk.

“I know what you need, daddy,” said the dark young lady, taking his hand. “You’re not too old. And you’re still good-looking, with those big black eyes. Besides, I have a real thing for rosaries. Wear them all the time. Even when I’m making love. That way, there’s three of us. And my guy can give Jesus a nice big kiss between my tits. My name is Lydie. I’m nuts about priests. Come on, daddy, we don’t have much time. Let’s go make love. You’ve earned it.”

The crowd parted to let them through, in a great smiling show of fraternal affection. “Maybe I’ll have to,” thought Dom Pinet. “The old life ends, the new one begins.” Lydie gently squeezed his hand. Nothing nasty or ugly. All perfectly pleasant. But somehow he couldn’t respond to their smiles. His lips froze, hard as he tried. The current of joy refused to flow. The sap wouldn’t rise.

“What’s the trouble, padre?” asked Panama Ranger. “Why so nervous? We’re all your buddies. No one’s trying to give you shit. And if you’re still a virgin, man, no sweat. Lydie’ll show you how. Or maybe your robe’s in your way. Is that it? Well, rip it off, padre! Rip it off’! When the sun comes up, that robe won’t be worth a damn anyhow, believe me!”

Dom Pinet blushed.

“It’s… It’s not that,” he stammered. “It’s just that, in a couple of minutes … There are twelve old monks behind me, heading this way. A kind of procession. With the Blessed Sacrament, you know what I mean? And an abbot who looks like a bishop, with a miter …”

“What the fuck are they doing down here?”

“They say that the Host will stop the landing.”

The troop let out a round of guffaws. The concept amused them.

“Shut up, you assholes,” Panama Ranger ordered. “That’s nothing to laugh at. It’s kind of a nice idea. I like it. How about you, padre? Do you believe it too?”


“And them? Do they?”

“No, they don’t either.”

“Well, it’s too damn deep for me. But look, man, as long as no one believes it, why not let them go hang, and take care of Lydie? Who cares what they do? It’s no skin off your ass!”

“But we’ve got to stop them. They mustn’t reach the water.”

“Wait a minute,” replied Panama Ranger. “I’m beginning to get the picture. It’s like you haven’t had your shots, right? I mean, like you still believe, is that it? You’ve tried your best, but it’s kind of too late for you. So we’re going to have to help you. You want me to block the road? You want me to head off your conscience for you? All right, don’t worry. Your twelve old farts won’t get by. Now scram! Come on, padre, into the sack! If you play your cards right, you and the Hindus can come off together. Them off their boats, and you here in bed. Believe me, man, this is your day to be born. I can see you now up in that abbey. You and Ly.die, and a bunch from the Ganges. We’ll send you a gang to help you …”

From the nearby shore a metallic voice boomed out over a megaphone:

“Screw you all, goddammit!”

“That’s Dragases,” observed Panama Ranger. “Let the bastard have his fun! Soon he’ll be all alone, and that’ll be that.”

The reply shot back from every house around. Like infants trying their lungs, the boys and girls bellowed:

“Pig! Prick! Asshole! Filthy bastard! Cocksucker! Motherfucker! Murderer! Fascist!”

From the roof of Dragasès’s villa, a machine gun spat out a few quick rounds.

“The son of a bitch still has his teeth!” cried Panama Ranger.

From behind a garden wall he looked out onto the road, where they had all been standing a few minutes before. The first shots had scattered his faithful band, leaving ten or so lying wounded on the pavement. Whining, wailing, crying for their mothers. A few were crawling on their bellies—like snails trying to slither into the shade—and streaking a long trail of blood behind them. In the midst of all these sprawling figures, Dom Pinet stood erect, like a statue, hardly moving. He was clutching Lydie’s hand in his, so tightly that nothing could have pulled her away. She was trembling. Then screaming.

“For God’s sake, man,” cried Panama Ranger, “what the fuck are you up to? Are you trying to get the both of you killed? Is that it, padre?”

The machine gun let loose with a final volley, and everyone realized that this was one padre who had managed, at long last, to square himself with his conscience. His body slumped as the bullets ripped through it, then went limp and crumpled to the ground. His fingers opened and released Lydie’s hand.

“Lydie! Lydie! Get the hell down!” shouted Panama Ranger.

No need now. The shooting had stopped. Just up the road, coming right down the middle, marched the twelve old monks. They had spread out a canopy, and the abbot was walking beneath it, clutching at the monstrance. They were chanting. Sancte Paule, Sancte Petre … But this time only authentic saints. For the few steps they still had left, the handful of saints not yet expunged would more than suffice. They were almost there. Podiatron and Baptitian couldn’t help them much now, at the moment of truth. … They filed between two lines of young people, some of whose faces even seemed to express a new kind of respect. The more sensitive of the lot. The ones who were beginning to doubt themselves, touched by the sight of a hopeless cause. A sight that brings out the best in a young man. Theirs too was a hopeless cause, after all, though only a pitiful few came to sense it. And those, too late. But perhaps it was just as well that way, since even Dom Meichior himself had stopped believing, and was nothing more now than a child’s silly top, set spinning two thousand years ago, and wobbling, wobbling, about to fall …

Then the silence was broken, and with it that hint of sympathetic feeling that many had started to find unhealthy. The abbot stopped a moment before the body of Paul Pinet. Only the closest ones heard him murmur, “It were better for that man if he had not been born …”`

“Oh no!” someone cried out. “Not those words, thank you!”

Christ’s words, just before the Last Supper, moments after he had told the Apostles that one of the twelve was going to betray him. Now, no one is quicker to recognize the Gospels than a defrocked priest, since they’re always picking through them, Heaven only knows, to find some excuse for their own misbehavior. The speaker was a case in point. And he went on, shouting:

“Fontgembai- monks! Hypocrite Christians! Pious frauds! Capitalist lackeys! No-good old bastards!”

The quality of insults declined in clear progression. The latter-day priests rejoined their age, much to their own relief, as hoots and shouts broke out from every direction. The respite from hate had been very short-lived. When it clings to the skin and gums up the heart, it’s not easy to control it.

“Shut up!” cried Panama Ranger. “Let them by!”

Then he turned toward the villa, put his hands around his mouth, and called out:

“Dragases, you asshole! Here’s some reinforcements for you!”

Which sent his band into gales of laughter, as the twelve “reinforcements” stumbled off into the distance, like robots about to come unhinged. In the background, walking them along their way, the sarcastic twang of guitars, strumming out black tunes to a syncopated beat. And what fun it was to watch the old men stagger and reel, one after the other, slip, trip, almost fall, then catch themselves and push doggedly on, come hell or high water, like strange little antique music-box figures, all jerks and twitches. At the head of the procession walked Abbé Chassal. But he wasn’t stumbling. Hands joined, he was praying. Every now and again he would turn and glance back over his shoulder, ready to spell Dom Meichior, if need be. (No need, the abbot was still going strong, still holding the monstrance out high before him.) It was only as he turned to take one last look—as Dragasès’s sentries came into view—that he caught sight of Lydie. When the snide guitar escort had turned around at the border, bowing out with a mean little musical sneer, Lydie hadn’t joined them. She had stayed behind, and was standing alone in the middle of the road, confused, as if somehow there were something she had missed. It was then that he saw her. Then, too, that he promptly proceeded to forget her. The long nights of love in this woman’s arms, the masses intoned scant moments after, her image on the Host as he bowed at the altar for the consecration … No, none of all that had ever existed. Abbé Chassal was praying. To whom, he couldn’t say, or why. But one thing he knew. He had heard the call. It was finally clear that, if God exists, He had put Lydie here on this earth for one reason: to lead him astray. Lydie, the Ganges, his past transgressions, the illusion of man’s redemption—it was all blending now into one huge temptation, and he turned his back, calmly spurning it forever. (Not unusual, really. Hopeless causes—even bad ones, or ones condemned, at least, by the mass of opinion—always attract their last- minute champions, bound and determined for no apparent reason. The ones you would least expect, whose sacrifice wipes clean what seemed to be the evils, and justifies everything one wanted to destroy. And we wonder, “what if they were right?” But by then it’s too late. The wheel has turned … History is strewn with the corpses of those heroes, with never a monument to call them to mind. No doubt, in the realm of the dead, they’ve built themselves a world quite different from our own, but one where we too would feel very much at home, if only we hadn’t destroyed our moral fiber …)

“Glad to have you, gentlemen!” cried a voice from a rooftop. “But just how far do you think you’re going?”

Standing on his terrace, legs spread, arms akimbo—as if he were master of the whole wide world—Colonel Dragases stared at the weary little band. Clearly they had no intention of stopping. They hadn’t even looked up. They seemed unaware that the soldiers were there. He called out to warn them:

“Hey you! Father! You’re less than fifty yards from the water. If that mob lands all at once, you’ll be trampled to death. We won’t be able to help you. Don’t go any further. It’s suicide, believe me!”

But they walked on, like ghosts. No more chanting. No more whining. Gliding noiselessly along, bare feet hardly scraping the gravel-paved road. The sun had come up, and its sidelong rays, setting the gold of the monstrance ablaze, turned the Sacred Host into a floating ball of flame. Silence, heavy and complete, hung over the sea, the shore, the houses. And over the whole of the landscape beyond. Flights of seagulls flew by without so much as a peep; while down on the ground, the moles, mice, and rats were deserting their burrows and scampering off. All the fauna still left in this part of the coast were scurrying north. The spontaneous migration just before the disaster …

“My dear Colonel,” asked Jean Perret, “what does the book say a unit should do when the Blessed Sacrament goes by?”

“Time was, monsieur, you presented the colors and told the bugles to sound a review. But today, who knows? No one has any feeling for the tried and true theatrics. They want to be free to follow their conscience. Especially soldiers. So I guess you can stick your finger in your nose, or turn your back, or stop what you’re doing and kneel. Take your pick.”

“Well then, I think I’ll kneel.”

“You’re the government now, monsieur,’ said the colonel, eyes twinkling. (They were both enjoying themselves to the fullest, living their roles in absolute earnest.) “Whatever you say goes. I’ll see that the army obeys your orders.”

And he barked:

“Everyone down on your knees over there! And let’s not forget how we cross ourselves either! Forehead, chest, left shoulder, right shoulder. All right, men. Hop to it!”

Around the villa and under the trees, twenty hussars and a captain, genuflecting. On the left flank, another captain and six marine commandos, reciting the Paratrooper’s Prayer (“… and give us, O Lord, what no one else will touch …”). On the right flank, nothing. For the simple reason that the right flank had vanished. Abandoned rifles lay scattered on the path of its final desertion. One last lieutenant, hidden by a thicket, hesitated a moment, crossed himself, and ran off behind a pack of gigantic rats, northward. The ghost of the army had paid its respects to the ghost of religion …

Standing on shore, with their feet in the water, the monks had finally stopped. Twenty yards lay between them and the grounded prow of the India Star. Twenty yards of shallow water, clear and blue, translucent in the morning light, symbol of all that was left to protect the past from the future. The chasm between two worlds would be filled. The sole defense of the Western World was this saltwater Rubicon, this expanse that even a child of five could cross on foot, so long as he kept his chin above the waves. But Rubicons have little but emotional value. Their banks widen or narrow, as the case may be, depending on the cowardice or courage of their dwellers. And this one was no exception. No need to look further for another explanation …

The colonel had come down from the terrace of his villa, and stood waiting in the garden, leaning against the railing that ran alongside the beach. Close by, the undersecretary and the army. And up on the roof, the last machine gun aimed out to sea.

“Almost six o’clock,” he said. “The barbarians are late. You’ll see. As the years go by, things are going to get later and later.”

He turned around and pointed to a spot up the slope of the mountain behind them.

“You see that village? Well, when I order a withdrawal—which shouldn’t be long now, I don’t imagine—we’ll regroup up there.

Will you be with us, Monsieur Perret?”

“Of course. But why that village? Why not one of the others?”

“Probably because I like it. No other reason. I’ve taken a shine to it, all the way from here. See how nice its proportions are? How it clings to the land, how it looks like the kind of place you’d want to live in? We’ve got to finish our little drama somewhere. May as well pick a setting that’s going to make us happy …”

Up in the village, his eye pressed to the spyglass, old Monsieur Calgues watched and smiled. He seemed to know just what the colonel was thinking. And why not? Partaking of the same communion of thought, it was no surprise that they should understand each other, even at such long range. That was part of the Western genius, too: a mannered mentality, a collusion of aesthetes, a conspiracy of caste, a good-natured indifference to the crass and the common. With so few left now to share in its virtues, the current passed all the more easily between them.

On the bridge of the India Star, the monster child in his fancy cap suddenly began to drool. And the deck came alive, a billow of concentric circles. A thickening mass of human flesh, as every body rose to its feet. Then the next ship, and the next, and the ones after that.

The jig is up, said the colonel, simply.

Too well bred to indulge in a memorable mot! But that one said it all, and he tossed it off with a little mock salute.


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