'Dreamer', Caspar David Friedrich
‘Your funeral arrangements are underway, expenses to be borne by the community; the whole village will be there.’
They were conducting a vigil beneath his window at this very moment. Everyone knew Percy wouldn’t survive the night. He had performed ‘miracles’ in curing everybody else; but he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – save himself. The villagers prayed – though they believed he was some sort of miracle-worker, they were not praying for his life – a saint was more powerful dead. Snatches of hymns drifted up to his window, some were praying to him as though he were already in heaven, capable of the impossible. He was their very own martyr, having contracted the disease through contact with all those he had helped. Yet, he harboured no regrets, still less any grudges.
As far as the priest could see, Percy’s life had been faultless – ‘You have nothing to fear; there are already proposals for your beatification.’
‘Let me die first.’
‘Of course; however, I thought you’d like to know – the general agreement is that you probably are a saint. Those people below are praying to you, as well as for you.’
‘I wish I could do more for them… Perhaps I can do one last thing.’
‘Oh you will do even more than that, from your saintly seat in heaven, looking down upon us from on high.’
Percy shook his head ruefully. ‘Perhaps some day they’ll understand…’
The priest lifted the cross. ‘I shall give you the last sacrament…’
‘I don’t want it.’
The priest froze for a moment in shock; the shadow of the cross falling across the bed. Then he relaxed. ‘I know I am not worthy to give you the last rites; it was presumptuous of me, I’m sorry. You’re already at peace with God.’
‘You misunderstood me – I refuse the last rites. Just as I reject my Baptism.’
‘Why?’ the priest let the cross slip out of his grasp; ‘You have done God’s work all your life… You have put other people before yourself, you have consistently devoted your life to good. But though everyone, including myself, thinks you’re already a saint, you shouldn’t assume it without humility.’
‘It’s not a question of pride; or perhaps it is. I am nobody’s saint.’
‘You have earned Heaven, my son.’
‘That is irrelevant; or rather – necessary.’
‘Will you intercede for me, when you’re in heaven?’
‘Have you heard nothing I’ve just said?’ Percy’s voice was feeble. His strength was failing him. And he expected more visits that night – intruding between himself and his appointment with death.
The priest left without the blessing he so desired from the one whom all believed to be a saint.
A flutter announced the arrival of the Nightingale. The Nightingale took over the Lark’s offices at night; it called to Percy, its gently oscillating waves of song cradling him, soothing him, calling him to faraway unbounded regions of eternal drifts.
Percy steeled himself against the siren’s call.
NIGHTINGALE: Percy, Percy, the pearly gates have been thrown wide open for your entry; the chariot’s waiting…
PERCY: I’m not coming.
NIGHTINGALE: You can’t resist the end.
PERCY: I don’t intend to.
NIGHTINGALE: Plans are in place for a miracle of dazzling rarity; the chariot will appear in the sky as a fiery star, soaring in splendour. You may look down upon your people, and bless them; they will know they can rely upon your heavenly glory to intercede for them.
PERCY: What’s with all the pomp? There are precious few signs of God’s existence given to the people in every other respect; why should I alone be cause for any such singular event?
NIGHTINGALE: Do not question the designs of God. God moves in mysterious ways..
The Nightingale looked rapt. Its song fled into the night.
PERCY: And cliché further mystifies.
The Nightingale was a lot of things – infinitely. But here, its patience almost dried up. A dangerously angry tremor entered its voice.
NIGHTINGALE: Beware the wrath of God! Beware.
PERCY: Let him do his worst.
The Nightingale reappraised the situation, shifting its metaphysical point of view to see Percy in a favourable light. It decided Percy exceeded measure in one virtue.
NIGHTINGALE: Excessive humility may be cast off, now that you are hearing it from me: Heaven confers its graces on you.
A hop and a curse at the window signalled a further visitor.
CROW: Am I too late?
NIGHTINGALE: You have no business being here. There’s nothing for you here.
CROW: I think annoying you is reason enough; don’t you? Besides, it’s always been our tradition.
The angelic altercation carried on for a few minutes, independently of Percy; who finally cut in – ‘You are welcome too; never let it be said I turned anyone away from my door – or window.’ He sounded tired.
NIGHTINGALE: I don’t see why the pest should always turn up at the most sacred of moments, it’s inappropriately farcical.
Percy turned to face the Nightingale. ‘I didn’t invite you.’
The Nightingale looked stunned. A stutter entered its song. It bravely persevered in its now haltingly-haunting tune.
NIGHTINGALE: You believe in God, don’t you?
Percy admitted, ‘Perhaps. Avian angels sort of tip the balance.’
NIGHTINGALE: Your faith has been rewarded with proof, finally.
PERCY: I never asked for proof.
NIGHTINGALE: And that is why God has favoured you with it.
PERCY: That doesn’t make much sense.
CROW: Ooh, I like a good riddle.
PERCY: Even acknowledging the possibility that there is a god doesn’t alter my resolve.
Here, he addressed the Crow: So, what have you come to offer me? More years of life?
CROW: Um… No, I’m afraid your lease of life is done.
NIGHTINGALE: See, not much bargaining power at this stage; begone, pest!
CROW: Wait! Wait… Um. I can offer you… let me see; exquisite torments for all eternity, beautiful fiery pits with flames that… leap and lick your hair; buzzards that long only to get intimate, feeding on your entrails; lively flails that whip your flesh up into a dynamic large red boil; you’ve seen the pictures…
NIGHTINGALE: He’s not interested.
CROW: Well, kudos on your triumph, smarmy-beak. I’ll be hopping off then.
The Crow took a deep draught of the brandy set by the bed.
‘I’ll take it.’ Percy’s frail voice was barely distinguishable. The Crow toppled over into the glass, and emerged hiccupping. ‘Wh*hiccup*at?’
The Nightingale simply failed to take in the situation.
‘I’ll come with you.’
The Crow’s glee was all the greater for the unexpectedness of the triumph. It drunkenly strutted along the table, and then was tipped over the edge by one particularly mighty hiccup. Its elation vanished as soon as it hit the ground. ‘But – but *hic* you can’t; *hic* we have no power over you.’
‘Why are you here then?’ Percy’s patience, like the Nightingale’s, was potentially infinite; but his time was running out, and this frustrated him.
‘To torment the songbird, mostly,’ the Crow explained. ‘And it’s tradition – though he tries to lose me, he’s always been too simpleminded to evade my ruses. I simply turn up wherever he does. That’s what we do.’
The Nightingale muttered ‘This is blasphemy’ at Percy, in tones that suggested song-gone-sour.
‘Not really,’ Percy reasoned, ‘I’m exercising my right of free will – something that is allowed by you. No more than that. I have abided by virtue all my life, now I merely ask that I retain that right to choose freely.’
The Nightingale tried to argue. It didn’t make much sense to subject a man who had never been anything but good to eternal punishment. God was a just and merciful God, and could never countenance it.
Percy however, pointed out that, as far as he knew – which wasn’t much – God didn’t have a countenance. And that God’s ‘sense’ was common to none, by definition – ultimately inscrutable.
Percy spent his last hour arguing theology with a Crow and a Nightingale, ending in an impasse. The debates carried on after his death; for that time, his soul was bound to earth – a wispy melmothic wanderer. His spirit, in despite of insubstantiality, rendered warmth and comfort where it was needed, and gave imperceptible guidance to those who were lost.
The priest who had been at his bedside the night of Percy’s death had left the Church, to dedicate himself more wholly to humanity. The people who prayed to Percy found their prayers never went unanswered. For many years, he continued to look out for the community, as he had done in life. At the end of that term, another offer was made. Percy still refused salvation, a source of some regret to God and Nightingales; so – unredeemed – he was cast into the fiery pits of hell.
Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone