A village priest/shaman enters into spiritual battle with the demons who haunt the soul of Zen cynic George Crane.
The sun was warm through the windshield. He drove fast and recklessly. He took curves on the wrong side of the road, passed in no-passing zones, pushed the little Fiat to its limits.
He pointed to a roadside shrine.
“Many people crash and die here.”
Aristotle Dimas was concerned about the state of my soul. And with that in mind he had offered to drive me two hours north of Athens to meet his spiritual father and confessor, Papa Christos, a charismatic village priest, an ecstatic healer and prophesier who spoke in tongues.
It was almost half past twelve, with the first shadows stretching silent and the water violet in that light. A brilliant, end-of-December afternoon. The sky was translucent. Pure azure. Tissue thin air. In Konstantinos we stopped for a snack at a taverna fronting the Aegean—the slow sea lolling, so calm, tepid, and flat it seemed barely alive, silent as a mime lapping the shore. The fried-cheese pies we ate, oily and heavy as lead, the Greek coffee we drank, two rounds of doubles, the cigars we smoked, black Backwoods aromatics, left me ready to meet God and all his minions.
Dark trees lined the road leading into Platistomo, a long corridor. And slowly the light changed. Above and behind us, as seen through the eyes and mind of a dreamer, reclining beneath the sky, snow-covered Parnassos, like the body of a woman—white shoulders, white breasts, white hips, white thighs.
The village was empty and still except for the chickens in the yards, a barking dog, and the sweet smell of composted manure. The café on the square, where we were to meet Papa Christos, was nameless. Its glass door and windows faced the church, the lovely old almond tree that spread its branches over a bench and the war memorial; a brass plaque engraved with the names of local boys lost to last century’s various wars and revolutions. Not many. Platistomo was, after all, a very small place. The door of the café was warped and scraped against the floor, so that you had to push hard both to open and close it with a great screech. The floor was worn. The ceiling very high. The tables and chairs, haphazardly placed, were all different, an odd mix of styles and colors. There was a dusty case displaying the candy and sodas for sale, cigarettes. The afternoon sun poured through the flat windows. Squares of sunlight that floated.
The place was almost empty. One coffee drinker with a burning cigarette hanging from his lips—a man so old and frail that he must no longer be living his life in years, seasons, or even days, but in moments, each one long and perilous—and the alarmingly thin proprietress, smoke escaping her mouth, sat close to the wood stove at the center of the large yellowed room. They didn’t talk. It was as if everything had been said, and there was nothing left to say. Nothing left to do, but wait. It was painful to watch, this quiet waiting for death. Even now, when I think of them, a sack of bricks fills my chest, pressing down.
The priest, a man of punctilious discipline, took his coffee in that café every afternoon, at three, after his nap. While waiting for him, we each had a coffee. Aristotle had a candy bar with his. There was the rich odor of coffee, sweet chocolate, and tobacco. There were silences filled with secrets, stories I ached to know and tell.
At three, on the dot, the door to the café scraped open. Dressed in priestly black, Papa Christos, a dark knight, made his entrance, cut the air, commanded and filled the space. His heavy, black, bulbous-toed working man’s shoes were dusty, the leather cracked. He was a heavyweight. Defrocked, he would have passed as a dock worker or a hit man, a bully or a mean drunk; a hard-looking man except for his soft eyes. He had an enormous permanently reddened nose with the branches of broken capillaries that heavy drinkers get. His fingers were crude, thick and spatulate. His face—fierce, passionate—was square cut and not exactly coarse but close; his neck thick and muscular. He looked as if he’d slept in what he wore and he smelled unwashed, as did his crusty hair and beard. They kissed the hand he held out limply, an oddly effeminate gesture, I thought. They kissed it in turn. When he offered it to me, I shook it.
Papa Christos sat heavily. He blew his nose, a vigorous honk, lit a cigarette and inhaled greedily. Grabbed his cup of coffee, enveloping it in a meaty paw, chugged it, slapped it dramatically down on the table. He began speaking straightaway, staring into me with unblinking blackbird eyes. I stared back not sure if I liked this guy, loathed him, or both. I am suspicious of anyone tied too closely to God. I have no use for the orthodox, bowing their heads before authority. I love what Lucifer, the most beautiful of the angels, loves in man—his independence, his courage; his desire for knowledge, for beauty, for freedom. If God wanted obedience, he should have created man in the image of a hard drive.
Aristotle translated. It was an odd conversation from the beginning.
“Papa Christos say you have many problems.”
I thought, what else is new? I said, “Yes.”
“Papa Christos say you are a leader of men.”
“Not that I’ve noticed.”
“Papa Christos say you are charismatic. That you are a four-point-nine.”
I couldn’t hold my smile.
“What does that mean?”
“Means you are very high. Most people only two-point-seven, at most.”
“What’s Papa’s number.”
Aristotle nodded slowly. With obvious pride.
“Papa Christos, he is five-point-oh. Highest.”
I nodded back.
“I guessed as much.”
“Papa Christos say you are writer. He would like to know what you want to write.”
I had my pat answer ready. Accommodating to all interviewers.
“A great book. Failing that, a damn good book, an honest piece of work or, a least, a book that wouldn’t make me shake with shame on reading it.”
Aristotle took a long time with his translation. Now the priest was nodding. Very serious.
“Papa Christos say your books will make history.”
I snorted. A snowball’s chance in hell.
“Fat chance,” I said.
“Yes, Papa Christos say. Very fat.”
The priest paused long enough to slug down another coffee and take a deep breath. His teeth, I noticed then, were yellowed and held the detritus of his last meal—something green, a bit of sausage, a load of gummy masticated bread.
The priest suddenly leaned across the table and jabbed two fingers at my midsection, on my left and right sides, speaking very fast.
“Papa Christos asks, do you have very much pain here?”
“No. None. Never.”
“Papa Christos say you have rocks in your kidneys.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, my hypochondriac self discomforted by the thought, and feeling suddenly the rocks.
Now the priest jabbed a finger into my chest, still talking a mile a minute.
“Papa Christos say your right lung is weak. Be careful. Don’t smoke too much.”
This priest was getting too close to home, I was thinking, and also thinking I wouldn’t want be too careful, not wanting to outlive my life, thinking how tired I was then, already, with the prospect getting old. And imagining my future—swollen-veined, arthritically slow moving, slow thinking, quick forgetting, when even the lord of the house has gone awol; of being too frail to do those things that give true pleasure, a time that I can now sadly conjecture will not be too long in coming.
Now Papa Christos was pointing toward my groin, making a kind of a wavy abracadabra motion with his hand and talking a mile a minute.
“Papa Christos say your prostate is three-point-seven-five. That is danger. Watch out.”
“I’ll do the best I can,” I said, meaning I would do nothing, but pleased with the idea that, for the time being at least, my charisma factor was higher than my prostate’s.
“Papa Christos ask what are your religion?”
Papa Christos shook his head.
“Papa Christos say that is no religion.”
“Tell him that at least on this we can agree. Tell him it’s not God, but life itself that needs worshipping.”
Papa Christos sighed heavily. He came to a dead stop and after a brief silence, as if to consider his options, began again.
“Papa Christos asks you to come to his church. He wants to bless you. Clean your soul of sin and some curses.”
Grace? Give me God’s grace. It couldn’t hurt, I thought, though God has always seemed to me to be a horror, an unpredictable psychopath. But then that would explain us, the children He made in His own image. Or Him that we made in ours.
“Efkhareesto polee,” I said directly to the priest.
Without missing a beat, the priest got up, his chair scraping the floor, and started for the door. I followed him across the square—under a high paling sky with a breeze blowing, through the play of light, the shadows the branches of the almond tree made—to the church. When we got inside, where it was cold as death, there was a family of gypsies waiting for him, six of them.
I sat and shivered while he dealt with their needs first. It didn’t take long—praise the lord—a quick blessing, a pat on the head for each of the four children, and they were gone.
“OK?” Papa Christos asked.
Papa Christos—lost in rapture and clairvoyance—waved an ornate gold cross, greasy with lip prints, that he had first pressed to my forehead and then to my mouth to kiss. I was watching his hairy wrists, one of which held the cross, the other of which was held—limp and boneless, swirling and weaving—above his head, exposing an even hairier forearm. His eyes were fixed beyond my head at some celestial pinpoint where millions, no billions of angels, archangels, seraphim, cherubim, and beatitudes, along with all the mad gods of the underworld, the buffoons, sex-crazed goat men, smug pricks, the witches riddled with warts and carbuncles, devils, and daemons must dance.
He was ordering them all to begone and at the same time forgiving me, cleansing my dirty old soul of sins, curses, and evils. In Papa Christos’ worldview, the Devil was actual and omnipresent. Lurking. Waiting. Insinuating. Always insinuating. Waiting to pounce on the weak, the godless. And he’d got me. I must, in the good father’s mind, have seemed damned. Easy prey.
Mine must have been a difficult exorcism, for Papa Christos looked somewhat unsteady, an exhausted muezzin chanting his delirious incantations, hosannas, and canticles, perhaps in Greek, though it didn’t sound like it. His voice was hoarse and cracked, his nostrils quivered, his mouth tightened, spittle foamed on his lips, and he spat my daemons—my disillusions, venom, and sins—out on the floor.
Hocus-pocus presto, and I was cleansed. My glass no longer full or even half full, but empty. Heaven. The optimist’s delight, an empty vessel waiting to be filled. And that is the brilliance of confession, of redemption. Freedom.
Free to sin again.
“Now Papa Christos say you must pray every day.”
I remembered to smile.
“I don’t know how.”
“Papa Christos say, just be simple. Just say help me God. That will be enough.”
An obstinate silence. I could never spit the words out. I’d choke on the hypocrisy. Laugh myself to tears. Even a simple genuflection was impossible. I’d long ago added prayer to that list of spiritual accomplishments, beginning with meditation, that I can’t do. My only true achievement has been acceptance of failure and doubt. There was no god, the universe was absolutely without purpose, life was a sideshow, a freak accident, a temporary speck of order in the overwhelming chaos. Entropy, not evolution, was prime.