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11 August 2019


Prologue of my sci-fi novelette, Isolation, second in the series that starts with Abrasion, coming soon to print …


To understand a proverb and its interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings.


    Standing up from the single, rush-covered chair, the philosopher Arpaxos broke the chill silence with a sharp intake of breath through the nostrils. He took two shaky, sibilant steps across the marble floor, in the direction of the apse. He stretched out his hand toward the icon. At the sight of his dirt-stained fingers he drew back in a grip of shame.

    But why? This was no museum. No alarm would sound if he touched the art. In fact there was little sign this tiny room had benefited in 900 years from either curate or curator. The single portrait was tilted a little too casually against the back of the chapel where white plaster walls rose to a half-dome above the narrow, uneven shelf littered with spent matches, thin beeswax candles, and a dented plastic water bottle holding decanted oil for a makeshift lamp. Leaning a little more carefully against the image were three tamata: a hand, a ship, and an eye. The hand and the eye, stamped from real silver, were tarnished and dull. Miracles had been done here. Or had been looked for.

    In front of this collection, assembled like a hedge around the central shrine, modern analogues of these ancient concerns had been placed: there was a bricked device, itself the size of a small icon, which, when there was signal to be found could once have accessed all the images and answers the world had to offer. An unused airplane ticket lay flat next to the phone, a key fob for a Mercedes and worry beads next to it. Also there, a spent Medalion ESPlasm injector, which had recently, but only briefly, supplanted both the Internet and the Almighty as the answer to all our hopes and fears. These latter-day votives suggested that we preferred to mediate divine provision through devices of our own design. Where the tin sailing ship said, ‘Please watch over my son while he is on the open sea’; the phone said something like, ‘Please fix the damn internet so life will go back to the way it was and I can return to my private devotions.’ Any way you looked at it, it was an ambiguous move to bring a smartphone to the local altar.

    As for the image presiding over these petitions, it was no museum piece, but the likeness was technically impressive – the face gentle, expressive, strong – though its beauty had been somewhat mortified behind a veil of soot, and the wooden surface that bore it warped by the ages, while under the eggshell white of the dome, itself cracked in many places but never fully opened to the sky.

    The faded pictures of saints on the walls were more sorely abused by time and its attendants – mildew, earthquakes, and vandals each had left its mark. Centuries before, those vandals, in a brief campaign informed by deep reverence or deep hatred (no one knew for sure), had taken all the eyes. Arpaxos did not like to look at the pictures on the walls. He came for the Christ, though he had not yet acknowledged the degree to which he avoided the gaze of that one as well.


    He remained silent, still, not willing to leave without making some contact with the image. He settled on a more hygienic salute: lifting his right hand to mirror the sign the Savior made.

    Awareness of the surroundings slowly came back to him – the small, barrel-vaulted church, the wide barren slope surrounding it, and the cliffs above and below. The close echo of the mostly empty room gave a tin-pot resonance to the sound of the sea that came in through two small windows, and to the sharp wind that carved the impermanent rocks and brought ocean moisture to the hard grasses. At one time, a seashell held this sound to the ear of a curious child; the man must have grown smaller than the boy, or the shell larger, that the adult and all his dreams could fit inside.


    Turning suddenly, he moved to leave. Stepping past the thin steel door, disappointment came upon him as it always did whenever he crossed this threshold. Weakly, he sank into the depression worn in the old marble step, and leaned wearily against the doorpost. His hands were clenched. What he wouldn’t give to look into a living face, one not over-darkened by devotion.




image … Church in Flower, circa 1942, woodcut, by Spyros Vassiliou

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