Title: Afraid

Author: Elizabeth Knox

In: Sport 6: Autumn 1991

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, April 1991, Wellington

Part of: Sport

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Sport 6: Autumn 1991



Venice in spring. 10° Celsius. A place where reality has worn thin. The crust of the earth is only thirty metres thick%mdash;and undermined by the wells of Mestre. The city has 'a certain slant of light' that 'depresses'. Or perhaps not a slant, but a flatness, pallor, a glassiness. Here, it is said, someone discovered, then lost, a pattern of tessellated mosaic capable of driving men mad. There's a retentive lunacy in the names of its streets: 'Alley of Curly-Haired Women', 'Filled Canal of Thoughts'—or, more famous: 'Calle degli Assissini' or 'Ponte dei Sospiri' (The Bridge of Sighs is also that hairy suede emptiness between a man's anus and testicles). Venice—a wasps' nest made of spit and shavings; or a great funeral barge, sailing down the centuries, carrying plague and treasure, heaped around Saint Mark's stolen corpse.

A night walk

I went out the two security doors of the hotel's annex, into the blind alley. For once the windows above me were shut, no one leaning out conversing page 11on either the vertical or horizontal axis. I passed under the black wooden beams over the entrance to the alley and turned left. The street was crooked, broad for Venice, about fifteen feet across. It was lined with Trattorias, Alimentaris, shops selling film and cameras. During the day there were stalls festooned with flags, stripped shirts, sailor's caps, straw boaters with long black ribbons, and strings of beads: pearls, pyrites, tiger's-eyes, lapis lazuli, coral, jasper, and glass mosaic. The street was quiet now. I passed the church with scarred brickwork, grass on its cornices and a tower full of flat-toned bells, like a head full of cracked teeth. I crossed a canal, left, over the first unadorned marble bridge.

Each turn I took was a door closing securely, biting the air behind me. I entered another broader street, beside a canal. The tide was high; it gulped at submerged steps. A tenth of the solid world was at anchor, in motion, nodding out of unison. I skirted the edge of a piazza, past a stone well capped by a heavy iron lid. The piazza was sectioned by steel sheets suspended in frames—they looked like backstage thunder machines, but were only the city's hoardings brought out at election time for the campaign posters. The homeless of Venice, a group of cats, eyed me; dirty tortoiseshells and tabbies with kinky tails, tailbones showing like peas in a peapod. I turned into a narrow street. Here there was little light—the moon diffused through the pelt of mist that lay over the whole lagoon. The street was very narrow; I could stretch my arms across it. There were narrower streets—like the one two days before that had forced me to close my umbrella as its spokes were scraping the stonework on either side.

Another bridge, marble, arched, its steps coated in asphalt. On the corner an ornate iron lamp. Then oddly, growing and dying, muffled by buildings, the throb of a barge's engine. In the next street someone was leaning out a third-storey window lowering a cat in a basket. The basket touched down and the cat jumped out. The basket was taken up again and the shutters closed. I called the cat, 'Puss, puss . . .' but it only looked back at me warily and without comprehension.

I suspected I would find myself walking a loop if I took the next left hand turn, so I walked on a little further knowing that, doing so, I'd almost certainly get lost. I turned at a corner decorated by a shrine, a painting of the Virgin and child, topped by a plaque remembering some martyred partisans. The shrine was adorned with wilted Easter flowers and two candles, flames guttering in jars filled with red wax. It was another very page 12narrow street. Above, the hands-breadth of sky was only slightly lighter that the eaves. Then came another canal, a gust of choleric silt, and another bridge, this one not upgraded, the edges of its stone steps worn into ripples, a depression in the middle of each as though centuries of traffic had compacted its atoms.

At the head of the next street there was a statue, a high relief sculpture of a man, battered, pitted by ice and blanched by acid—and the victim of some home-handyman restoration. Someone had covered the syphilitic hole in the centre of his face with a wedge of tin. The tin was rusted, I reached up to touch it and flakes of rust dirtied my fingertips.

This street brought me out adjacent to a wider canal. I turned my thirtieth corner, went along the embankment, passed a bridge on my right hand. I found myself before a high Gothic arch, a tunnel beneath a gatehouse, and a closed door. The door was ancient, anaemic wood, criss-crossed with narrow bands of studded iron, the studs long ago worn down to nipples. I took hold of the door's iron ring handles and pulled back, then leant forward. As I did so the door gave a little on its bolt and I put my eye to the gap that appeared. I saw the stonework of an enclosed passage, a curved wall covered in condensation, sidelit by some unsteady, artificial light—fire, candle, lamp.

Of hidden thoughts, and of heaven

Behind me someone said, 'It's locked.'

I walked out from under the arch. There was a man standing on the bridge. He wore a long pale coat and, at the moment I turned to look at him, the lit ripples of the canal were reflecting on one side of his face in tigerish stripes. How had I failed to notice him when I passed?

'How do you know to speak to me in English?' I asked.

'By your shoes.'

I looked at my shoes: ox-blood leather, high gloss, with rounded, roomy toes. 'There are Germans wearing shoes like these too.'

'But you don't look German.' He had turned to face me and was leaning the small of his back against the balustrade. Giving me his attention in invitation. I was too timid to come closer.

'So,' he said, 'There's this bridge, and the way back.' He was a native English speaker, but I couldn't place his accent. He said, 'I wonder what you page 13are doing out on the streets in the middle of the night. Venice isn't exactly well-endowed with night-spots.'

I had begun to worry about being alone with this man, when a light went on in a window high up the wall behind me. I saw him turn his eyes up to the light, without moving his head, then look back at me with confiding good humour. It was like that electric moment in The Third Man when a light goes on and there is Harry Lime, an apparition, smiling at his old friend: Well, as you can see, you haven't been told the truth. He said, 'Don't be edgy, it's just a nasty side effect of a very nice prescription—mystery, that is.'

I walked up on to the bridge beside him. The light went off and something seemed to spring back into place around him. Force at rest—that's what it was. I stood beside him, leaning into this invisible volume of being. I looked up at him, he was taller than me, and standing a step higher on the arch. 'I've been sick,' I said. 'My fever has me on a long lead now, and is taking me for a walk.'

He watched me and waited. The shape of his head was less distinct; his movements had pulled some of his long hair free of the collar of his coat.

'I'm leaving Italy in four days. My white whale is about to sound and disappear into a deep trench.'

'Are you quite sure it is a white whale and not a white elephant?'

'I'm like the horse in Caravaggio's Conversion of St Paul—sluggish and envious, my eye suspiciously rolled back to watch the man lying at my feet, spread-eagled in ecstasy in a great noontide eclipsing light. And all I'm thinking is, "This will never happen to me." I never wanted God before. How could I want something I was sure didn't exist? God doesn't exist in the southern hemisphere, but He does here.'

'Sure—He's in retirement in some small villa in Tuscany.'

I shook my head. 'No. He's everywhere here, looking out of the paintings and buildings and the seven separate shades of seven different colours in the sky above the causeway between Mestre and Santa Lucia. He keeps retreating ahead of me, around the next corner.' I pointed at the dark arch, the locked door. 'I'm out walking because I can't sleep. Because I've four more days to find God.'

'And you're afraid you won't.'

'I'm afraid I'll stop wanting to.'

He laughed and I said sulkily, 'God doesn't exist anyway. So I won't find page 14Him.'

'Should He exist?'

'I don't know. But this desire should. Anyway, I wanted to do something organised while I was thinking, something like magic, so I set out to turn thirty left hand corners.'

'Left hand? Are you sure it's God you're looking for?'

A clipped-nail moon had cleared the television aerials and conical chimney pots, and was shining its filtered radiance on the canal. Light caught his face in watery flashes.

'On the Sistine Chapel ceiling Michelangelo painted God separating light from darkness and casting Lucifer out of heaven. In that painting God, set against the light, and Lucifer, set against the darkness, are the same. They have the same stormy grey hair, the same beard, same clothes. But Lucifer has his back turned and his buttocks bared—you know: kiss my arse. His body and draperies make an eye shape, the buttocks are a cataract-covered iris.'

'I see. Like a total eclipse; really nothing could be more revealing.'

I stroked the satiny marble of the balustrade. 'I have even more trouble believing in the devil than in God. But I'm looking for something, something I saw in the mosaic ceiling of the Baptistry in Florence. It wasn't just a picture of the time when people believed like I can't, it was that time, suspended above ours, like a shell around our world. The realm of the fixed stars they believed in, with the light of heaven shining through its many apertures.'

'Sounds as though you want God's grace. I'd rather have a job to do than God's grace.'

'Why are you out on the street in the middle of the night?'

'Look, have you ever heard the unofficial biography of Christ?'

' The son of a Roman soldier ?'


'Tell me.'

The Hebrews had no one jealous God Yahweh, but instead a collection of gods and goddesses. Not that this made them any less ripe victims of Imperial Rome. In a time shortly after the tribes of Israel had surrendered unwillingly to the sovereignty of Rome, a son was born to a couple in Nazareth, an elderly carpenter and his young wife, who was descended by a decayed line from an important Israelite king.

page 15

The child, Yeshua bar Joseph, was trained in carpentry by his father. But he was always too restless and enquiring for the trade and was wont to wander off and be found nosing around the libraries of various temples. Really, he was a bit of a disappointment to his father, but his mother doted on him.

In his late teens Yeshua left Nazareth to travel. He drifted around the east, Babylon and Egypt, Sumeria and even as far as India. Travelling, he made his living by acting and story-telling. Sometimes, when hard pressed, he would court favour, or food, or a bed for the night, by healing people. Generally he was inhibited and secretive about this talent. Whatever his intentions were on each occasion he resorted to it—to pacify some unfriendly locals, or just to take away the suffering of the person in front of him—he could always feel vistas of future opening up before him like hungry, uncrossed deserts.

On his journey back home Yeshua made friends with a number of other wandering Jews: a public letter writer called John; a trio of siblings who sang and danced and collected songs and dances, Mary, Martha and Lazarus; and a couple of actors cum political agitators, Simon and Mark. When he joined these countrymen Yeshua stopped performing his miracles altogether, afraid of setting himself apart from them. They led such difficult, conscribed lives, his healing made him feel too able for their company.

On their return to their homeland the friends settled for a time in Galilee. There they performed to tavern-keepers, fishermen, shepherds, tax collectors, their plays mainly political satires about the concupiscent King and vacillating Roman Governor. Yeshua wrote many of these satires, and often took the leading role. He had such great personal charm that he won a large following of admirers and hangers-on—mostly from the poor and politically disaffected. Although he was loving and frank with all his friends, and with strangers, all Yeshua's friendships stayed on the far side of intimacy. He didn't want to get so close to anyone that they could gauge the discrepancies between him and other people. As it was, when his widowed mother joined him in Galilee, even she—who had held his hand as he took his first steps—could sense the potential power in him. He was like a great rock, balanced precariously on top of a high mountain, surveying the world, camps of friends and enemies, all beneath him.

Yeshua and his friends, fired up by their success in the provinces, decided to go to Jerusalem to perform their plays. Their reception was enthusiastic, page 16but not universal. The King and various priests were thoroughly incensed and wanted the Roman Governor to do something about Yeshua, if not all his colleagues. In an audience with the King, one of the priestesses of Astarte pointed out that Yeshua was a perfect candidate for the yearly sacrifice. The sacrifice commemorated the death of Astarte's lover Atis, who was torn apart by being lashed to the branches of two bent trees. It was the main spring rite in Jerusalem. Yeshua, the priestess observed, was a perfect candidate: handsome, healthy, reputedly chaste, talented, and a descendant of a royal line. In these difficult times the spilling of royal blood was necessary to mollify the goddess.

On a blazing hot, still afternoon—a Thursday—Yeshua received a warning to leave the city. He and his friends were at the house of a cousin of Matthew the tax collector. Just after the noon meal, the household and guests were sitting about drinking watered wine and arguing politics. A messenger arrived and asked to see Yeshua. The messenger, the servant of a Roman official, was Hebrew, but clean-shaven, Romanised—a young man with his red hair cut short and curling around his brow. The messenger delivered a package and left. Yeshua unravelled the cloth wrapping and found a bag of coins—thirty silver talents—and a length of rope. There was a scrolled strip of vellum with the coins and rope, on which was written: 'Leave the city. These are now the only means by which you may leave of your own free will. After tonight I cannot accept any responsibility for your fate.' Yeshua hid the letter and gifts and went out into the walled yard of the house. He washed his hands in the fountain. Its water was as warm as blood. There was a fig tree growing by the fountain, but it had no fruit and cast only a thin shade. Yeshua looked back into the hot shadowy house at Martha speaking while everyone else listened, their robes limp and sweat varnishing their faces. She talked and they listened as though her talk and their listening would change something, as though they'd be recorded and repeated, as though their minds were energy that would neither change nor migrate to another part of the universe. The water dried sticky on his hands and, impulsively, Yeshua reached out one hand and, touching the trunk of the barren fig tree, he cursed it. The blow was casually malicious, but lethal. It was many days till the women of the house noticed the fig was dead (dead leaves had fouled the fountain when a servant went out to fetch water to wash a corpse). They said it was the heat, or the wrath of the goddess at a tree without fruit during her fertility festival.

page 17

That night, Yeshua was arrested, taken to the temple of Astarte, and dedicated for sacrifice. But his friends loved him enough to defy the goddess. They talked up a storm in the city's marketplace, raised a mob, broke into the temple, and spirited Yeshua away. They took him to the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus's family. The house was in mourning, shuttered and secluded. Lazarus had died of a sudden illness during the day of Yeshua's imprisonment. His family had readied a tomb for him in the valley of catacombs on the road between Jerusalem and Bethany. The sisters of the dead man wrapped Yeshua in the grave-clothes they had washed and scented for their brother. While the servants of the house took Lazarus's body to a secret burial in the Potter's field, Yeshua left Jerusalem in the midst of mourners, on a bier and shrouded head to foot.

The Roman Governor was beset by priests and courtiers demanding that Yeshua's friends be arrested. The Governor was afraid that the riot would lead to more unrest, so he had Yeshua's male friends sought out and taken prisoner. This was a miscalculation of the part of the Governor. Contrary to his plans these arrests precipitated an overnight rebellion in Jerusalem. It was a bloody uprising and the legion suffered heavy losses in putting it down. When the rebellion was quelled the Governor publicly executed, by crucifixion, a number of its 'instigators', including Yeshua's friends.

Martha, Mary and Yeshua's mother, knowing he would try to return to Jerusalem as soon as he heard about the uprising, shut him in Lazarus's tomb for three days. When they released him they tried to persuade him that he should accept his losses as they did, that his friends were gone and he should look to his own safety. But grief seemed to have driven him insane—grief or the entombment. He swore that, as a healer, he could restore his dead friends to life. With the women he returned to Jerusalem, and stole the corpses off the grove of crosses lining the road to the summit of Golgotha. They hid away at the house of Matthew's cousin, and there Yeshua tried to restore his friends' torn, sun-blistered, disjointed, parched bodies to life. For a time it seemed he might succeed; the welts faded, the watery blisters melted back into their skin, their wrenched joints straightened. One even opened his eyes. Peter, who was always so attentive, loyal and obedient, opened his eyes and lay all night, trying to focus, idly, like a very young baby. But, at cockcrow, Peter closed his eyes again and stopped breathing. The three women washed the corpses while Yeshua sat to one side (and a servant, fetching water, found the fountain fouled by fallen leaves, as black as rotten page 18seaweed). Yeshua sat, silent, with a cloth over his head. Eventually he got up and, looking at Peter's body, said, 'He's like a hail-spoiled apple; it looks perfect but is spotted with bruises beneath its skin.' He said to Mary and Martha, 'Take care of my mother.' Then he wrapped the cloth tighter around his head, and left the city.

Shortly afterward a plague fell on the house of the Roman Governor, and spread to the city's garrison, killing and crippling many. The Governor fled, taking with him only his favourite manservant, the red-haired, clean-shaven Romanised Jew. The Governor and his servant carried the plague back to Rome. That summer half the population of that great city perished. All the patrician families were decimated. The empire became bankrupt, the legions rebelled, and Rome fell.

As for Yeshua, he walked out of his life and into a desert. A wilderness of sand and thorns, unplanted, not with the cedar, nor the myrtle, the oil tree, the fir tree, the pine and the box tree together. A habitation for dragons and a court for owls. From that wilderness he went still further, where the dunes crested above him like breaking waves, whose inside surfaces he scaled, defying gravity with his greater gravity. With so much grief, he was a super-heavy body, like a collapsed sun, a starter-kit black hole.

Yes, he walked up dunes like the gold mosaic-adorned domes of great temples, arching and burning above the world he had known. He passed from the Still There, the world of his people, into the Always There, the world of self-made men (but until he came, there were none). And when he had forsaken the Still There he lost something forever, because although it was a lesser and sadder order, it was marvellous in the way that skin is more marvellous than sound.

How can I find words to describe where he found himself? And here I am, muscling my way into his story looking for words.

I stayed quiet, looking along the canal—around its dog-leg corner a sliver of watery distance, the lights on the Lido, and a lemon-rind dawn horizon. After a moment, sifting himself out of his story, the stranger went on.

In the place his grief and self-disgust and denial of death had taken him, Yeshua grew into the emptiness, into the low pressure, like one of those deep water fish which swell when hauled up into the air. He grew strong enough to break time and time's desires; so returned to reshape his own life, page 19beginning thirty centuries before his birth—with a world of green meadows, white mountains, dark blue lakes fringed with frothy white lilies, and with angels. There he began to hoard souls as they left earth, so that one day he could collect the souls of his friends. He made promises to the people of the tribes of Israel, sent his voice through burning bushes and columns of smoke. They called him their God, Yahweh. He awaited his own birth, planning a life for himself in which, this time, the sacrifice would be his, in which he could offer eternal security from death to his beloved friends, in which he would be irresistibly strong and his great love would guarantee their lives.

He sent his mother an angel to tell her she had conceived God—to God. He was born, an infant honoured with gifts and enemies. He was baptised. He spoke words and many believed Him. He healed the sick and raised the dead, came to Jerusalem and quarrelled with the Rabbis; turned the money-changers out of the temple. He had a last meal with His friends before the fast of Passover, and He sweated in the garden. He was betrayed, imprisoned, lashed, questioned, mocked and taken to an appointed place of execution and nailed to a cross between two thieves (two bent trees).

Everything had been different. He had lost His own earthly treasure. His friends' lives in the land of the One Jealous God were so different that, when He met them, He would scarcely have known them. Mary, who had been lithe and joyful, was tired and sick with shame when they first met; John and Peter and Simon, all so pious and stay-at-home. They would watch Him as He spoke, their faces reverent and compliant. They were careful not to stand too close to Him unless offering protection in a crush. It was as though they were studying His life, not living theirs. Not that this Yeshua clearly remembered His former life. But He was haunted by sadness, even sitting on the shores of Galilee, watching the coals of the fire crumbling and savouring the taste of baked fish. And there were times when His loneliness terrified him—when He faced that cave with the stone four days upon it, His sense of remembered defeat was so strong it had Him in tears.

And Yahweh? Eventually they came to him—the women, the disciples—came to the one who loved them. They gazed at him, their faces wiped clean with peace. They called him 'Father'. They did not know him.

Above us, along the eaves, pigeons had begun to warble, a sound like someone rubbing a pane of glass. I stared at the stranger and he smiled back page 20at me with high good humour, like someone who has won a bet. He said, 'So you see, the folly of over-extending your reach.'

'If I don't find what I want I'm going to feel like a failure. I'll get on a plane home but my heart will keep on faithfully flying its holding pattern, waiting for a signal from some celestial air traffic control. I'm more likely to come into money—for more air tickets—than I am to come in to land.'

The water of the canal was grey now, not black, and the sky between the eaves was cream. He had his hands tucked into his armpits and I could see the grain in his steaming breath. 'I don't think I can find my way back,' I said.

His answer was prosaic: 'If we cross this bridge and turn right, we'll find ourselves on the waterfront, I think.'

We walked down the far side of the arch together. He was right. We came out on to the wharfs where the tugs were moored. The sun was rising and the mist turned melon pink. I looked at him, expecting red hair and a smooth shaven face. Well, his face was smooth, but his hair was black and his eyes dark blue (but not fringed with frothy lilies, or with angels). We turned right again, towards San Marco, from where everyone is able to find their way. As we walked he told me: 'Before you leave the city you must go to the Cappella Cortigiani and look at the statue in its porch. It was sculpted by Angelo Santisilia, a Neapolitan, the finest pupil of Leonidas Allori. When his master died Santisilia became a drunken drifter for some time. But he kept his hand in. The statue was his only uncommissioned work. It isn't a sacred subject; but everyone loved it, that's why it's in the porch of the Cappella.'

'Is it in the guide books?'

'I don't know.'

We stopped by the Doge's palace and looked across the mouth of the Grand Canal at the sun on a golden globe atop the wedge-shaped custom-houseand at the domes and decorations of the Salute, its marble crystalline white. The wind was trying to stir the pigeons into the sky and behind us a waiter was cranking up a restaurant's aluminium awning. The man beside me took my arm and, still staring at the Salute as if trying to outface its whiteness, he said, to it: 'Loose her; let her go.'

I stand with my husband in the porch of the Cappella Cortigiani, our backs to the stretched, dusty afternoon sunlight. The statue is on a plinth. It is of page 21a man, down on one knee, his knee and foot level with my mouth. Like the statue of St Jerome in San Zanipolo it is sculpted of white marble flawed by cysts of red. On the shoulder of St Jerome the red marble seemed like liver-coloured birthmarks; on this face and bared breast the flaws are blood. Judas—not a sacred subject—is down on one knee, his robe loose. He has just unfastened his rope sash and holds it before him, looped around one hand as if he has begun to made a knot. His head is turned to one side, listening. His shoulders are bent inwards in a cringe, and his muscles are forced—upper arms striated, marked my runnels, like the muscles of Rodin's models. He is youthful, his face shaven, his hair in ratted curls. From somewhere above him—the shade of a tree the sculptor has imagined—flowers have fallen; they are rendered, as delicate as carved ivory, one in his hair, one caught in a fold of the robe, and one on his wrist. By his foot rests a deflated bag and spilled coins. There is something about his pose, his furtive distress, his youth, that has made people want to comfort him—his foot and knee have that polished, many-times-touched look. But the coins (the talents) are still sharp and distinct—the spilled money that no one touches.

On the night train to Paris, I was rocked in my couchette, the compartment utterly black. I had taken a Halcyon tablet. In my sleep I felt the changes of gradient as we reached the pass through the Alps. I heard the hollow sound of iron bridges, and in the tunnels the voice of the train constantly referring to itself. I heard the trumpeting of cuttings and felt the fringes of giant herds ofwind grazing the sides of the train. I was too groggy even to get up, go into the corridor and look at the black window, the reflected corridor lights, and my own face.

We left Italy.

Black and White Photographic Illustration