Sunday, October 23, 2011

One Invisible Cross Less

[Part 1 of the "Daemons" series]

FATHER PIO cleared his throat with half a bottle of water. He leaned forward and looked hard at Clara, his bony fists clenched against the glass cover of his desk. Sweat filled the wrinkles on his forehead. Except for the distant rustle of leaves, his heavy breathing was the only sound to stifle the momentary muteness in the room.

“No! People like you have no right to desecrate the image of God! Who do you think you are?” His muffled voice constrained the force of his exhortation.

Clara sat still while she eyed the huge portrait on the wall behind the priest, as if her gaze pierced right through his cassock and flesh so as to fix itself on the canvas where the sunset cast a reddish hue. Between Clara and the painting, Father Pio was no more than a silhouette for the past thirty minutes, a voiceless preacher whose mere presence mocks all things divine. For a while, the words of the prelate were mere blurs to her ears.

“Blasphemy is never art,” the Dominican coughed, “and artistic freedom does not include the freedom to offend religious feelings. There is no such freedom, young woman. What you did was neither art nor the expression of freedom. It was perversion, Clara, perversion!”

Suddenly, his words became lucid to her mind. Clara met his bespectacled eyes. She was searching for faint signs of the visionary who once saw through those lenses almost fifteen years ago. Her stare suddenly made her unspoken indignation clear. As if to dodge an accusation that was yet to be thrown, Father Pio briefly bowed his head.

“You are already thirty, Clara, but you have yet to prove that you have already grown wiser,” he went on, wiping the sweat that dampened his patrician nose with his bare hands. Had it not been for the perfunctory blinks, one would have thought that two hastily sketched lines took the spot on his face where his eyes should have been. “It is you who does not understand. You do not know what other people can do to you for what you did.”

“You speak as if your church still maintains the Inquisition for heretics!” Clara countered. She felt the throbs in her temples as though each pulse was waging its own little insurrection against her mortal shell. Recoiling from her sudden outburst, she focused her attention back to the portrait. It was the image of a happy clergyman newly decreed as the archbishop of the diocese of Nueva Caceres, golden scapular on one hand and the Holy Bible on the other. Clara could still recognize her signature, a circular smudge of white acrylic near the lower right edge of the canvas. She perfectly knew who the younger man was, the idyllic subject of the painting, but not its older persona, the portrait incarnate who was now standing in front of her, tirelessly unfurling an unsolicited sermon on a Tuesday.

Father Pio finished drinking the water from the bottle but his thirst felt far from having been thoroughly quenched. “People change, even priests. The Mother Church, however, should be a constant,” he said after noticing for the first time how the portrait held Clara’s attention hostage. “It should always be there, sometimes at all costs.”

Clara fished a cutout newspaper article from her handbag, placed the small sheet on the table and pointed her finger at it. The priest read the headline and looked at her with no hint of surprise. “Your fascist interpretation of religion gravely injured my art and my career, old man,” she blankly confessed.

Without giving him the benefit of a rejoinder and a farewell, Clara stood and walked away. Neither prayer nor miracle could have stopped her. Before she reached for the door knob, Father Pio stretched out his arms and hands as if he was nailed to an invisible cross. With fragile limbs ravaged by gout, it was a strained gesture decrying its own biblical allure.

“My child, you have to listen!”

But the moment she shut the door was the last time he would see her in the next six months.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

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