The following excerpt from The Everlasting, Copyright © 2020, by Katy Simpson Smith, is reprinted here with permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers:
Behind the stairs to the crypt Felix had placed a three-legged stool on which he could sit when the abbot was chastising monks above, and he was settled here now, listening to the muted maledictions while he looked fondly on Brother Bernardo, so recently his friend. Bernardo sat politely in his nook, hands folded in his lap, head drifting slightly to one side. If it drooped any more tomorrow, Felix would prop it up. When he’d peeled back Bernardo’s eyelid a few days ago and stared deeply within—his sister once told him heaven’s reflection could be glimpsed there—he’d accidentally squeezed it to get a better view, and the pupil had changed shape, become some sort of devilish triangle. He quickly closed the lid and crossed himself. God wouldn’t let Brother Bernardo wander around paradise with one goat eye.
Faith was a cure for curiosity. So Felix didn’t wonder how Bernardo would find the other monks up there, or if distance even existed, or whether friendship meant anything where there was no such thing as non-friendship, likewise happiness. He was caught in a little limbo of his own, between the mild promise of heaven and the bustle of men: the ones upstairs, doddering around in their brown wool robes, and the ones busying through streets, the city, the misty fields of home—not misty; there’d been a terrible drought the summer he left, was asked to leave, forty years ago, and the grasses had crackled like fish bones. Now his hours were spent with these remnants. Lonely was too grand a word.
Felix’s stomach made a petulant noise. His friend was beginning to smell like Monday stew. Soon his face would be as dried and hollowed as Brother Giuseppe to his left, and his chest would collapse like Brother Timothy to his right, but for now Bernardo was the most robust of all the corpses perched on their thrones in this poor stone church on the hill where Remus once set up his challenge to Romulus, and lost.
“You coming to dinner?” The voice traveled down the stone steps.
Felix switched his head from one propped hand to the other.
“He’ll still be there in an hour,” the voice said.
Felix slapped his old knees and hoisted himself toward the stairs. “You’re right. Too much self-denial and one slips into pride. Beef today?”
Brother Sixtus laughed and reached out a damp hand to pull him the rest of the way. “Roasted cow,” he said. “Is that what they call it?” They hadn’t had red meat since they’d joined the monastery, but this was a pleasant joke to make. “Only four hoofs, so some of us will have to go without.”
“You haven’t heard of the six-hoofed steer out of Briton?”
“That many, and I’d wager it’s a swimming cow.”
Oh, and when a joke got rolling! “Back and forth across the straits to France all day; leanest meat you’ll ever eat.”
“Gave birth to a calf with two more, I heard, and then no one could tell it from an octopus.”
“In that case, give it to Brother Henry to fry up after all, because you’re talking about a fish.”
Past the nave—dark and cold, candles by the altar shivering like orphans—the cloisters rang with spoons on bowls, half-sung songs, and Henry with the pot of stew and his iron ladle, the rust flakes from which he called seasoning.
The newest brother sat next to Felix, his thin hands peeping out of his sleeves; he couldn’t have been past fifteen. The rest of the brotherhood must have looked like wizards to him.
“How does Brother Bernardo?” The boy’s hair so blonde it was almost white, thinly brushed over the tops of his ears.
“Oh, doing well.”
“He has a stink?”
“He was a good man, but he was no saint. Bless him, and all of us.”
“Bless us all.” The boy still wouldn’t look at Felix, but had now taken his spoon and was stirring wanly.
“You’d care to see him?”
“My mam died in winter. Couldn’t put her in the ground some time, so I seen her well enough.”
Felix lifted the bowl to his lips to catch the last of the broth, thinking of the passage of soup from his throat down to his twisty innards, soaking through his stomach to his muscles and his bones, each of them slurping in turn, building their mass with salt and herb and maybe a hint of mackerel, so that the outside world became his inside self. When he was younger, he’d felt such a wall around his person: a wall delightful to be breached, but the more treasured for its fixity. Now everything was just floating recombinant particles. Who could say what was Felix and what was not?
“Do you have dreams then?” the boy asked.
He meant did Bernardo’s corpse come sneaking into Felix’s nighttime memories—of the farm, of his fair sister, of her friends lined up on a bench plaiting each other’s hair. He once dreamed some boys outside had kicked a ball into the cloisters and before returning it, Bernardo had prodded Felix into a game, the arch into the transept serving as goal, and Felix had scored triumphantly, flapping his arms above his head. And the boys were somehow inside the cloisters then and set up a great cheer.
“Have you confessed this week?” he asked the boy.
“Oh, nothing troubles me either,” said the boy, rather quickly. “But things tend to pop up, don’t they, the worrying things, or the things we seen when we was small. I just think all that awful flesh and maybe—you know.”
“I remember seeing a goat slaughtered when I was young. Did you see something like that?”
“A goat, no,” the boy said. “Not a goat.” And with his eyes on his shoes, he took his bowl back for a second helping and went to sit by the abbot, Father Peter, who never laughed.
After dinner the brotherhood divided into cleaners and singers, and Felix, as he often did, chose the former task, finding relief in busy hands. Stack the bowls, wipe the tables, sweep the floor, scrub the pots, toss the dirty water on the cabbages, chuck the oily sand in the outhouse, gather the carrot tops and wilted chard and gristle in a basket and visit them upon the happy chickens, who bump their hips in a scramble to the door, their heads leading their legs by a seemingly dangerous margin. And all this to the singing brothers’ tune, a quiet chant if the weather was wet and cold, or a full-throated foot-stomper, their more restful chore never begrudged, for Felix found the greater pleasure in listening. And anyway, his own warble wasn’t pleasing, as his mother was careful to tell him on his first attempt to join the chorus of voices in the country church. He must have been six. “Ohh, my love,” she’d said, and put a hand over his mouth. “Let’s allow the angels to have their turn.”
It was too dark to see the broom now, so Felix affixed a new candle in his holder, a small brass cup with a ring for his thumb, and took it to the outhouse to sit for half an hour with his begrudging bowels. When he crossed back to the church, Brother Benedictus was kneeling closer to the altar than was customary, and when Felix raised a hand in greeting, he shuffled back. No harm in wanting to touch God. And yet neither Benedictus, nor the newest novitiate, nor most of the brothers had any interest in traveling to the subterranean reaches of this holy space to watch God at his most visible. The last keeper of the putridarium had died two years before, and Father Peter scrambled to find someone willing to tend the corpse of the tender. Felix’s singing was poor, his manuscript illumination haphazard, his understanding of the chemistry involved in baking perilously inexact. But he was not squeamish, and he believed as his mother had told him, that the body was a manifestation of God’s love for us. (This had been included in her list of reasons why young boys should refrain from abusing their most special parts. The penis also belonged to God, and should never be handled with more than sober devotion, as one would hold a ewer of holy water. This image proved very peaceful to young Felix when he masturbated.) So the Father had blessed Felix—some said punished him—with the crypt key.
On his first visit below, he’d vomited. They looked like a seated council of ghouls, mouths hanging, flesh distended, waiting for someone to speak. His tasks were to defend the bodies from desecration in case of heathen raid and to mark carefully the progress of the bodies’ purgatorial decay so he might converse with monks who had fears about mortality. In practice, the Father discouraged him from loose corpse talk; he said it made the brothers ill.
Now his predecessor was third in line, a tumbly haystack of bones in a stained old habit, and Bernardo was his new treasure. As he let his supper digest, Felix peered again with wonder at the dead man’s eyes. Where did they sink, and on what timeline? Did the fluid leach out first, and the filmy sack collapse like a popped balloon? Or was there some solid core, an olive pit, that the eye would eventually shrink to? Would blue irises turn red as veins dissolved and blood ran wild? There was no running wild. Just a steady seeping—an occasional audible drip—as Bernardo’s fluids left the openings gently made in his bottom and passed through the hole in his stone seat, his toilet throne, and fell to the packed dirt below, sunless and cold.
His former friend had been what a kind man would call plumpish, and his arms had funneled that weight like pastry cream into the bags of his hands, leaving a crease at the wrist. He’d been tenderly packed, Bernardo, his limbs as clearly jointed as a doll’s. But the fat was draining. Perhaps Felix shouldn’t keep lifting aside the habit to observe the changes in the decomposing form, but he had to know when the ankles needed a well-aimed lancing. Exploding feet were frowned upon. Bernardo, lucky man to be blind to his mortification. Felix would be the keeper of his honor, and would never cringe, only chuckle. For there is also great humor in our embarrassments, humor in thinking we are anything more than a collection of fluids, of gases that find ways to noisily escape, of bile and pus and goo.
The wick in his candle had inched down to its nub, and the wax puddled in his brass saucer. He carried it gingerly up the stairs so it would last through the darkness, but it guttered at the top step. Benedictus was gone, and the nave was a void. He knocked into a table and banged his knee, that pucker in the knee to which banging causes a debilitating shock, the funny bone of the leg. He staggered. There was an echoing flutter in the back of the church, and Felix turned to catch a shadow moving. Another truant child snuck in, perhaps, or a woman who’d lost her means. Felix didn’t hear the creak of the big wooden door; the shadow must have been a bat, or a fancy, or a ghost.
This church was a cake of corpses, the current stone sanctuary built where a clumsy brick one once was, which in turn stole the site from a Mithraic temple, which claimed the sanctity of the original dirt because some lustful god once tricked a virgin here, one or both in the shape of a heron, or was it a stoat. So while elsewhere in this stackable city people came and went, moving unpredictably through homes and shops and streets, here at Santa Prisca they appeared with the bells, confessing their most perverse sins while their dead piled up, knowing just where to find them.
Once Brother Lucius claimed a spirit kept him up at night sucking his toes, and swore this was because his cell was above the crypt. Father Peter told him all the cells were above the crypt, and any other room he entered in this city was above some other crypt, and no other monk had complained of wet toes.
“It’s not a sucking so much,” Lucius had said, now alert to the eroticism, “but a licking, as of a friendly dog.”
“Do you giggle?” Father asked.
“I am in too much fear.”
With a prickle on his neck, Felix returned to the cloisters with his saucer of wax. This time of year, his cell’s small window didn’t afford enough light to cut the room’s chill. Stone walls lead to stone bones, that’s what his father said, who built his first house from wood and two years later shook his head as he watched it burn. Cursed family; Felix had brought them no ease. Even up on the bed and wrapped in wool, Felix believed the pine legs soaked up the cold from the floor and conducted it to his aging joints. It was a reminder. He crawled back down and kneeled on a cushion his sister had made and began his count of sins. First always was his secret, which he never named but passed over with an encompassing I am sorry for myself, and then the daily litany of slights, cowardice, impure thoughts, haste. He would repeat all these to a confessor, but forgiveness is a private creature, born at home.
Once the sins were named, the gratitudes began, and this was almost his happiest time of day, to think back. Brother Vitalis losing a tooth in his soup; the goose that landed in the courtyard and pattered around in circles until someone realized it couldn’t fly out, and Brother Leo wrapping it in his pudgy arms and carrying it outside, tossing it in the air like a gift back to God; the mysterious settling of fluids that led dead Brother Bernardo’s pinky finger to suddenly crook, making Felix feel as if he were being summoned, or offered a private promise; the salt on the bread at lunch, rougher ground than usual, its sharp edges jolting his tongue.
The final formal prayers were accompanied by Felix’s ragged whip, a careful homemade thing that beat the time on his back, the knots serving as emphasis, as Amen. He was careful not to treasure this, not to harbor pride for his bloody devotion, but merely to keep time, to remind himself with a red drumbeat that his body was not his own, and to offer its impermanence with humility to his Lord. The only lasting thing about Felix was his soul, and this no one on this earth could see or judge. Amen.
The brothers were in a flurry: the collection box had been stolen. The abbot asked each monk to consider which of the parishioners from the previous day might be called squirrelly.
“There was the one who was gnawing on a chicken bone,” Lucius said.
“I saw that,” said Marco, “and I had another ask me to pray for his departed wife, and when I asked when she’d deceased, he said tomorrow.”
“What about the child hiding under the font who wasn’t a child at all but a very small man?”
“I gave him a roll of bread,” said the youngest brother, Mino. “He looked hungry.”
“If only we’d taken the chicken from the first and given it to the small one.”
Father bowed his head in defeat. He must have been a poor kind of noble to have wound up at Santa Prisca.
“I saw a shadow,” Felix said. “It was after I’d come up from the crypt, just before last prayer. It moved along the back wall, and I thought it was a ghost.”
“We’ve gone over this,” Father said.
“If it wasn’t a ghost, it was either a very large bat or a medium-sized man.”
“Either of which could’ve carried off the box,” added Marco.
“But it didn’t have a handle for a bat to grip with its claws.”
“I imagine it would wrap its wings around the box and then scuttle off on foot.”
“Have you ever seen a walking bat?”
“Brothers,” Father said. His upper lip carried a habitual twist, as if he were bitter, or trying not to sneeze. No one minded that the abbot was cold and told no jokes and sometimes had noisy visitors at night who could not have been monks because they were women. An abbot was like a statue with a pointing finger: there to remind you of duty, not to be judged by human laws. “Brothers, the box is lost. Dominic, you have permission to find us another. I would request you all take turns watching the new box when it has been installed.”
“Ought we to lock it to its post?”
“There’s an idea!”
“Then someone would take the post.”
“And we’d be out a post.”
“A new post costs less than a new collection box.”
“And brothers,” Father said. “Try to remember the value of silence.”
Felix carried the slops out to the chickens, who didn’t understand the morning’s delay. The day was foggy and cool, and the farm of his childhood seemed painfully far. A rusty-crowned chicken chuckled as he bent to offer a crust. You couldn’t pet a chicken the way you could a cat. Oh, that soft spot at the base of old Johanna’s ears, all silk, undisturbed by the fleas that burrowed in the fur beneath her chin or between her shoulder blades or in the open plain of her lower belly. He brushed the chicken’s tail feathers with the back of his hand; the sensation wasn’t the same. If he’d been a farmer, he could’ve kept all the cats—traveled the country looking for crones dangling sacks off bridges and saved the writhing kittens within—but he couldn’t be a farmer.
The day he left, his sister had handed him a wrapped cheese and said something to the effect of “We’ll always love you,” or “Behave,” or “I’ll love you if you behave”—he wished he could remember the wording—and it wasn’t until the donkey cart had rounded the bend, the curve of the road obliterating the village of Fara in Sabina, that he thought of how he should’ve answered, but then to leap off the back of the cart and go dashing home, hay flying from his bottom, seemed too absurd, even for him. So he’d sat placidly for most of the day as they tumbled down the evenly terraced Lazian hills, past women in smocks leaning on fences, through loose herds of goats that barked at the driver’s whip. Felix had left the figs in the bucket by the back stoop. There were at least four people he hadn’t bid farewell to. He wanted to learn to draw, but never had. Nor had he fashioned for his parents any sincere apology, and now, barring Methuselah, they were surely dead. He could’ve jumped from the cart in a tumble of courage—at this moment, or at that moment, or, wait for it, this moment—but he sat there, watching the road pass under the back wheels until he became queasy and turned around. The driver, son of some other language, never spoke.
Rome appeared on the horizon like a vast looted quarry—the city of devils, of scam, of holy Peter the fisherman. Behind one of those hills was the basilical bulk of St. John Lateran, golden. Why wasn’t he bound there? The cart left him at the Porta Flaminia and he picked his way through streets that twisted left when you thought they were going right and down alleys that ended in a wall of blue flowers. He pushed at them with both hands, searching for the door, touching only vines.
A cobbler was sitting outside his shop with a boot and a last and a mug of beer. Felix only stopped because he mistook the last for a real human foot.
“Don’t like you how one makes it?”
Felix squinted. He’d met Romans he could mostly understand, but this man came from somewhere south, where the garble only sounded halfway to his own tongue. “I’m looking for the church of Santa Prisca?”
“South keeping,” the cobbler said. “Hill the Aventinus.”
The summer was hotter here without nature’s interference—no drooping branches or clouds of gnats or lone hawk eclipsing the sun in its lazy swoop. Just buildings with angles and more people than he’d ever seen. He was conscious of his clothes, mother-made from wool so rough it seemed to have part of the sheep still in it. A young man passed on the street, shielding his eyes with his hand, and Felix imagined he was looking into a mirror of himself, his Roman self: handsomer, with proper garb, with a stride that disregarded the pace of others, with a hand blocking the sun in a way that said, I have no need of trees, or your poor hawk. I am my own engine.
“You monksing?” The cobbler’s hand licked in and out of the leather boot like a snake. “Close door, talk all the God?” He gestured toward the sky. What an expressive hand; now it looked like he was playing an upside-down lute.
“My father sent me,” Felix said, though it was more accurately his mother, or rather it was a family decision that arose from a lengthy private confabulation that was eventually reported back to him by his sister. “I’ve no dowry, though, so they might not have me.”
“Money in the Christians.” The cobbler shook his head. “A story telling themselves, all’s that. A story just. My prayers?”
Felix stayed out of politeness, not because he was afraid of the monastery.
The cobbler put his left hand, his free hand, up to touch his eye, then slowly moved it to his heart, then dropped it to his stomach, and finally used it to pat his groin. He smiled at Felix.
“You mustn’t forget also to pray for others.”
“No needing comes when death.” And having lost the smile, he turned his attention back to the shoe, which he slipped onto the last and pinched around the edges, his brown fingers looking little different from the hide.
Felix passed the bricks and stone alike with equal awe, the triumph of the Forum in its exhausted collapse as impressive as the crowded apartments, dingy and rich with foreign smells: African spice and fruits he’d never seen. A garden appeared through the rungs of a gate like a prize, and the greenery struck him, only gone from his home a day, as exotic. The trees were not lush but spare—faded pines, dusty and bunched at the top—and the river was not blue but brownish-green, the color water should be at its very bottom. The Circus Maximus was less a field than an abandoned cemetery of broken benches, pierced by obelisks. It was as if the countryside had been fed poison. Climbing the final hill brought him to fresher air, and when he saw the vine galloping out of the cracked cloisters abutting the church—his church—he took it as a white flag from God. He was nineteen years old and believed his spirit was being pulled on a lead by a benevolent hand, saved from his worse self.
Katy Simpson Smith was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. She is the author of We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835, and the novels The Story of Land and Sea and Free Men. Her newest novel, The Everlasting, is out now. She lives in New Orleans, and currently serves as the Eudora Welty Chair for Southern Literature at Millsaps College.
Music by CatLofe