The Bell

Posted: February 19, 2013 in Fiction
Tags: ,

“It’s not the act of death that bothers me,” she said, “it’s the unanimity.” And she laughed as she said it. Sure, I thought it a curious place for a laugh and I told her as much. But she shrugged her shoulders in that familiar form and the irony of what she had said fell off of me like a meaningless insult. I went on telling her the story:

There is no real concept of hell in the Old Testament. It’s a rather ambiguous place called Sheol. It’s there the Patriarchs went after they died. When the Nicene creed reads Jesus descended into “hell” it probably doesn’t mean what we think it means.

She thought for a moment and asked, “so it’s kinda like when we say the underworld?”

Something like that; yes, I replied.

“Do you think maybe the Hebrews got the idea from the Egyptians; you know when…”

Just then, a knock broke the intensity of our conversation. We stared at each other, almost as if we had been caught doing something wrong; or perhaps it was that we hadn’t heard a knock at all. Then the jolting sound of the doorbell followed by a distant knock echoed through the hall into my room. It was the front door we finally surmised. I was halfway to the door when I realized it was a Fed-Ex delivery.

“Something from Amazon.com for you, sir!”

He was a tall pale fellow, rather lanky. His hair was styled to be messy and jet-black almost as if he had colored it the night before and the true color hadn’t taken just yet. Considering the myriad tattoos covering his arms, I thought it quite fitting. It seems early 90’s ‘grunge’ has yet to die out, I thought to myself.

As I signed for my parcel, it struck me that his jovial nature and the excitement with which he had presented himself was at odds with his styled look.

“Last name?” he asked.

Oh, Al-va-rez I retorted.

“Is that with an ‘S’ or a ‘Z’?”, he clarified.

With a ‘Z.’

“Cool man, thanks!”  he said, jogging away.

And before I could say anything in return he was in his truck and off to his next delivery. As I made my way back to my room, Ariana called out: “I’m over here”

I stopped mid-step and turned over to where she stood.

“What are you doing in the kitchen?” I asked.

“I figured I’d make us tea, what do you think?” she inquired, already knowing the answer.

“Sounds very refreshing!”

“Is that the book? Huh, Huh. is it…IS IT??” she inquired playfully.

“Yes, yes, yes and yes it is. It’s finally here!” I said matching her silliness.

It was a book of photographs I encountered while browsing Amazon.com. Very specific pictures. It was a collection of black and whites of two 3rd century catacombs from Jerusalem and Rome. Early Christians used the underground necropolis for burying their dead. Some say they also took refuge. Some say they even had fellowship there; that the earliest expressions of the Eucharistic Mass took its form in that underground world.

Whatever the case, they left their mark in wall carvings and in frescoes and mosaics. What was of interest to me was the specific manner in which they depicted Jesus, the miracle worker. Whether it was Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead or Jesus multiplying the loafs and fishes on the Mount of Olives, invariably these early images placed in Jesus’ hand a thing which can only be described as a magician’s wand.

I had become interested in the correlation of Jesus and magic after reading a paper called “Magic and Meal.” In it, the author, a former Roman Catholic Priest, expounded upon the sociological difference between a “miracle worker” and a “magician.” He had come to the conclusion that there really was no substantive difference between the two. It was a matter of semantic nuance.

His analysis across many societies had persuaded him that the only real difference, in whether a person was called a miracle worker or a magician, was the difference between official and unofficial religious practice. That is to say, within an official accepted religion the harbinger of wondrous deeds was called a miracle worker and within unofficial and unaccepted religious practice, the harbinger of wondrous deeds was called a magician. Or as he put it: “we” practice religion, “they” practice magic. “We” say prayers, “they” cast spells.

With the dark smell of brewing tea hanging in the air and the gurgling cadence of percolation breaking the silence of the room, I tore open the package. The book was not of an impressive size. A sure clue that the photos within were not heavily laden with text from an editor’s hand. A chamber from the Roman catacombs of St. Callixtus adorned the cover. The frescoes that bordered the ancient loculi were small given the size of the book but enough was revealed to tantalize. Seeing my excitement and taking advantage of my inattention, Ariana grabbed the book from my eager hands.

“LET ME see it!!” she barked as she ran off in a giggle.

Annoyed, I gazed at her making sure she noticed the offense.  But it took only a moment for me to realize, yet again, that such attempts at passive aggression were futile. She had always found ways to cast them aside by rolling her eyes, like a moody teenager.  But this time she perked up and looked back at me square in the eyes.

“What?” she asked with utter bravado.

“This book will always be with you; but me you may not always have,” she said as she turned again toward the book.

Then she halfway looked up again, and through her hair she flashed a muted smile, wanting to know if I had picked up on the gospel allusion. In fact, I had.  As I approached the sanctum of her remark, I noticed she was paused on a certain page. And gazing at the picture of the Cubicle of the Sacraments she asked pointedly:

“Isn’t it more important to study what they said of themselves rather than what we say about them? Of all the images they could have used to commemorate their dead, why these? A Shepard, a communal meal,” and she trailed off, quietly looking through the book.

As she pointed to the frescoes which surrounded the four loculi hewn into a wall she continued:

“I mean, even if you find anything approaching “Jesus the magician” in these pictures, wouldn’t that just tell you about the people who made the paintings rather than Jesus himself?”

“That is one of the aspects I’m curious about myself,” I replied, “either way, it’s fascinating.”

“Well you’ll have to do that on your own, I have to go,” and she cast the book aside on the couch.

Ariana mooned about the room gathering her things thinking aloud.

“These catacombs are from the 3rd or 4th century. Even if it could be shown that what Jesus held in his hand was, in fact, a magician’s wand and not, say, a walking stick; it would still be required to account for how far back the idea went.”

“Hence the book!” I announced.

“Good luck with that one geek!” she spat off in her pithy humor and left, closing the door behind her.

The Bell

South Texas is a place where memories linger. Legend has it that the flat land, where one can see for miles around, allow the memories of its people to wander for there are no mountains to guide them upward into infinity. I had often wished to be born elsewhere. Rome or Greece, I had thought, would be the best place to be born. It was so rich in history and memory that to walk the roads under the Parthenon or the streets along the Colosseum on any given night was to walk where ancient people had walked. And that had always struck me with a gong of romance. It was a far cry from South Texas to be sure. Our history went as far as the arrival of the Spaniard in the 1500’s. As impressive as that can be, it was eons away from those great city-states.

I had come to the Bell Library in Corpus Christi on the cusp of a memory. Years ago I had come with a friend, Juan Solizeno had invited me to peruse the family history section of “the Bell” as he had come to call it. He was particularly interested in a set of papers collected in early 1760. The Englehardt Papers preserve, in four journals, the travels of Daniel Englehardt, whose journey along the Rio Grande, gives us the first glimpses of the families living along the great river. He details a number of family names, local customs, laws and other information that had remained unknown until Englehardt’s journals were discovered in the 1930’s.

“Here it is.” mumbled Juan. “This is why I love the Bell, a 18th century collection cherished and preserved as if it were from the first.”

“Here put these gloves on,” he insisted.

I obliged and while he removed the journals from the safe-box, I imagined we were archaeologists viewing the documents for the first time in history.

“I want to tell you of the first time I encountered these journals,” he said mysteriously.

“I was 34 years old when these journals were brought here. I was teaching English at the high school when the city hosted the event in conjunction with the library. It was a huge deal when the choice was made to house them here,” he recalled, savoring the residue of the memory.

“I thought it would be a good idea to somehow incorporate these journals into my lesson plans. So I would read them an hour each day after school and find ways to use them.” He continued: “One day I came across this page.”

He pointed halfway down the page. The irony of primary sources struck me like a death punch. I could not read the handwritten text. My eyes were not accustomed to deciphering quickly the cursive handwriting of Mr. Englehardt. Noticing my struggle, Juan took liberty.

Allow me: “…some miles south of the River, encountered a most curious regional aspect. head of the household proudly boasts his family as first to bring the printing press to the region. A quaint little ranchito called El Solizeno. All manner of material printed by their nimble hands…”

I looked at Juan with a puzzled look. That is your last name.

“Yes. Yes it is. This is where genealogy became real to me.  I had always been interested but with this my curiosity soared! It was the start of a long journey. A journey I continues to this day.”

“You know it’s funny. I remember sitting on the porch with my grandparents, my aunts and uncles when they would tell stories about our family. Most of the time it was boring and I wasn’t interested but there were times I couldn’t help but listen. One such story was about el jacal abajo de la casa.  Way back, when our great-great grandparents lived on a ranch in Mexico, there was talk of a shed or a shack under the house.  The details about what was in there differed from telling to telling Some say gold and silver, others say precious jewels. Based on this Engelhardt account, I think it was books they stored there.”

My recollection suddenly burst,.

“What are you doooing?” Ariana asked in her stylistic playful greeting.

“I’m trying to find a book.”

True to form she added: “That shouldn’t be too hard here in a library.”

“No silly. I’m looking for a book I found years ago while here with a friend. It was my first time here at “the Bell” so I wandered. I came across an archaeological report about a site on the Gulf Coast, here in Corpus. I seem to remember the remains of a shipwreck found.  In my rush to take in the facilities I only quickly read through it. But I recall it stating that Roman denarii were collected and that it might be dated to Roman times. The only evidence of a Roman ship on the shores of Corpus Christi. But that’s all I remember, so, I’m trying to find it and read the full report.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s