The Quest: A Novel
T he elderly Italian priest crouched in the corner of his cell and covered himself with his straw pallet. Outside, screaming artillery shells exploded into the soft African earth, and shrapnel splattered off the stone walls of his prison. Now and then, a shell air-burst overhead and hot metal shards pierced the corrugated metal roof.
The old priest curled into a tighter ball and drew the pitifully thin pallet closer. The shelling stopped abruptly. The old man relaxed. He called out to his jailers, in Italian, “Why are they bombing us? Who is doing this thing?”
But he received no answer. The older Ethiopians, the ones who spoke Italian, had gradually disappeared over the years, and he heard less and less of his native tongue through the stone walls. In fact, he realized he hadn’t heard a word of it in almost five years. He shouted in snatches of Amharic, then Tigregna. “What is it? What is happening?” But there was no answer. They never answered him. To them, he was more dead than the ripening bodies that lay in the courtyard. When you ask questions for forty years and no one answers, it can only mean that you are dead. But he knew they dared not answer. One had answered, once, when he first entered his cell. Was it forty years now? Perhaps it was less. The years were hard to follow. He could not even remember the man who had answered, except for the skull. His jailers had given him the skull of the one who had answered him. The skull was his cup. He remembered the man and his kindness each time he drank. And the jailers remembered when they filled his cup; they remembered not to speak to him. But he asked anyway. He called out again. “Why is there war? Will you release me?”
He stared at the iron door on the far wall. It had closed on ayoung man in 1936, when Ethiopia was an Italian colony, and the door had not opened since. Only the small pass-through at the bottom of the iron door was ever used. His sustenance came in and his waste went out once a day through that small portal. A window, no larger than a big book—really just a missing stone—above eye level, let in light, sounds, and air.
His only possessions in the cell, aside from his tattered
, were a washbasin, a pair of dull scissors that he used to cut his hair and nails, and a Holy Bible, written in Italian, which they had let him keep when he was first imprisoned. If it weren’t for his Bible, he knew, he would have gone mad many years ago. He had read the holy book perhaps a hundred, two hundred times, and though his eyesight was growing weaker, he knew every word by heart. The Old and New Testaments brought him comfort and escape, and kept his mind from dying, and kept his soul nourished.
The old man thought of the young man who walked through the iron door in 1936. He knew every detail of the young man’s face and every movement of his body. At night, he spoke to the young man and asked him many things about their native Sicily. And he knew the young man so well that he even knew what went on inside his mind and how he felt and where he went to school and the village he came from and how old his father was. The young man never got older, of course, and his stories were always the same. But his was the only face the old man knew well enough to remember. He had seen that young face in the mirror for the last time close to forty years ago and not again since, except in his mind’s eye. He wept.
The old priest dried his tears on his dirty native
and lay back against his cell wall and breathed deeply. His mind eventually came back to the present.
Wars had ebbed and flowed around his small prison and he imagined that the world had changed considerably in his absence from it. Jailers got old and died. Young soldiers grew old as they paraded through the years in the courtyard of the small fortress outside. When he was younger, he was able to hang from the sill of the window much longer. But now he could no longer gather the energy to pull himself up for more than a few minutes a day.
The shelling had jarred loose many things in his mind. He knew that his imprisonment was at its end; if the explosions did not kill him, then the guards would, because he knew they had standing orders to kill him if they could no longer continue to guarantee his incarceration in this place. And now he could hear the sounds of fleeing garrison soldiers. And the jailers would soon open that never-opened door and do their duty. But he
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