Passages from his forthcoming book, scheduled to appear this fall.
The Fifth Sun by Gaither Stewart (Punto Press, forthcoming)
Excerpt from chapter 18, pages 84-91.
Read and enjoy
Time was the devil. Strange that they never listed Time among Satan’s names but he knew he was right. Evil Blasphemer. What bullshit. It was Time. The old priests at the residence told him he’d have to leave sooner or later. But they were generous, and Christian. They would hide him until he decided. He could rest, they said—for a while at least.
Nights, he roamed the city like the night jaguars of his dreams … his former student hangouts in Testaccio, the deserted streets of Primavalle, in search of Pietro, in search of vengeance. His new knowledge of himself was his revenge. Revenge against everyone and everything—Church, family, society, tradition. When mornings he floated like a gray-faced phantom down the long corridors back to his cell and saw his former comrades rising for another day in the army of the World Church, he understood he was living outside of time. His oldest friends Paco and Filippo looked at him strangely. Diego, the rebel. The maverick. The heretic. Their world, his former world, looked so different from afar, from outside their time. The same people, the same earthly time, the same physical space, his former reality. All of it now looked contorted. Had he ever been truly part of it?
The world appeared strange. As it must have been before the creation of the Fourth Sun. “Black nights passing,” he whispered to his reflection. “The black of Aztec nights, black like the war inside me, returning, departing, returning. Black is back. Black is back.”
His odd speech hung on his red lips in the mirror, on his strange kissing lips. When Sarah called today the city was golden. The sun reflected yellow and brown and ochre off the palazzos along the Lungotevere. But he saw only black. He conjured his black images. Let them go free, he thought. Liberate them—black sin like black conquest, black depression and black revenge. Eternal black sin. The black sin with Pietro, the sins performed in the black night of his room, the black sins he has performed forever inside the smoking mirrors in all his dark barren rooms. His naked shadow in the mirror, body lean and dark. Within the black of his black sin. The black sin of the black Church. Triumphant Spanish black. Mexican black. Childhood black. Puebla churches black. Black altars. Indian priests in Spanish black. Inquisition black. Aztec black. Mexican satrap black. American black. Loveless black.
He pressed the doorbell embedded in the wall, hating the palazzo portal, hating the servile wait in the cold for them to open to him, the false Mexican priest.
“Maybe I shouldn’t come,” Pietro complained.
“Shush. You must come,” Diego said, pressing the youth’s arm. “She’s like my daughter. She will be pleased that you’ve forgiven me. That all is forgiven.”
“These places make me nervous.”
“Once we’re upstairs you’ll see it’s much like anywhere.”
The buzzer sounded, loud, offensive, insulting. He felt a sudden urge to hurt her.
“We won’t stay long, no?”
“Only long enough.”
Pietro looked around the elevator cage in wonder. Diego detested its brass handles and bars. He gazed at the reflection of the back of Pietro’s head in the mirror over the bench where old ladies usually sat with their packages on the slow ride up to the higher floors. He watched his dark hand glide down the curve of the boy’s back.
“But this wasn’t in the bargain,” Pietro said.
“This is something extra, a reward.”
Sarah opened the oaken door. They stood immobile. Diego’s mouth twisted in a sardonic grimace; Pietro, red-faced and awkward, kept his hands in his pants pockets, his left foot thrust forward; Sarah’s hand was in her hair, her teeth clenched.
“I suppose dear Dorothy is in Vermont,” Diego said in his sardonic Italian, with an inflection of intimacy.
This was not the scene Sarah had imagined. Wrong scene, wrong characters, wrong time. There was to have been a poignant atmosphere of pain and suffering with echoes of contrition and nostalgia about the past slipping through their fingers.
Diego guided the strange boy into the salon as if he were the host. “That’s Dorothy,” he said to the boy, pointing to a tall photograph among a gallery of framed portraits on the grand piano. “Dorothy, Sarah’s mother, you can see how attractive she is. And here’s one of Sarah herself. In London, when she was a student.” Diego’s face was wreathed in a smile, his grip on the boy’s arm unrelenting. “And here I am, Pietro. In my white sweater. At the top of Terminillo ready to schuss down the mountain. Handsome devil I was, eh, Pietro?”
The boy stared at him.
“But where is Mishelle, Sarah? Where is the god of light? Mishelle should be here on the grand piano with the rest of the family. Only Mishelle is missing.”
Sarah followed him with wary eyes, unsure if she should be hurt, indignant or furious. The boy let himself be led about the room, dragging his feet and from time to time trying to liberate himself from Diego’s grip.
“Ma cosa vuoi? Me ne devo andá,” he mumbled. I have to go.
“Ma no, ma no, Pietro mio caro. Sarah is going to play something for us on the grand piano. Isn’t it lovely? Come Sarah, do play something. What about singing one of those Schubert Lieder that I like so much. Like Ich denke Dein? Or maybe Liszt. Yes, definitely Liszt. The Rhapsodie Espagnole For Pianoforte. You know I love that piece. So complex but so rewarding. You’ll hear, Pietro … come and sit on the divan close to me while she plays.”
“Me ne vado,” the youth shouted, yanking his arm free and running down the corridor. Diego leaned on the piano, a diabolic smile on his lips. The front door slammed shut.
“I was right at the boxing,” Sarah hissed. “It was cruelty in your eyes.”
“It’s all cruelty, my dear. All of my life was, is and always will be cruel. I should apologize. But somehow I can’t, not anymore.”
“But why did you do it? It was childish. And cruel to that boy.”
“It was a spur of the moment thing.”
“Well, Father, do sit down, there in your usual place. I will play for you, just as I used to.” The tips of her fingers bored into his chest, pushing him down. “Go on, sit there.” Sarah sat at the piano, her back to him. After a pause she began a hotel lobby rendition of Strangers In the Night, from time to time tossing her hair and looking over her shoulder at him with a sensuous smile.
Diego observed her from under lowered lids. What had he done? Was he cutting his final bridge? But wasn’t that the reason he was here? He watched her quick hands, her swaying body, her uplifted face. He fixed on her exposed white throat—it was beckoning for his kiss.
Then, in the same instant he felt it. A sudden impulse came over him, a terrifying impulse. He should rise from the couch, walk up behind her, wrap his hands around her white white throat and strangle the life out of her. He felt his dark hands around her pale throat. What total pleasure. He wouldn’t be able to stop, ever. Her neck imprisoned in his hands divulging everything to her before life left her. If he could do that, he could do anything. His whole future seemed to hinge on his hands around her throat. It was as if he were standing on the top of a skyscraper assailed by the urge to jump. He was at the top of a pyramid, his face painted blue, waiting, waiting. The obsidian. The high blue sky. His desire, he knew, was written in his face, an intense joy, or intense horror. Surely it was written in his eyes. How would it be? To feel her life crushed in his hands, to feel it oozing out through his fingers. To be free of her, free of his past. To strangle her and cut out her heart together with her vaunted freedom. To crush her spirit and rip out her freedom with his own brown Aztec hands.
She had started a jazzed up version of La Cucaracha when she heard his moan. She leapt to her feet. He swayed, his feet apart, his face ashen, horror in his eyes, clenching and unclenching his hands.
“I deserved it,” he said in a voice of the terror from a dream. “Forgive me. I’m out of my mind these days. I’m someone else. I’m tired. Alone all the time.” He turned and stared through the open terrace door at the dome of the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, once his favorite. The dark churches, Baroque churches of gold and silver and stealthy priests creeping over their marble. “It’s as if I’d left the world. Or it me.”
“It was mean of me too.”
He shuffled toward the terrace. He felt his own gait awkward, the short steps of a parish priest in a black cassock walking about an empty darkened church. He stared at the sky, his lips moving. When he came back into the room, visible exhaustion had replaced his deranged expression of seconds earlier. As if he had overcome an existential crisis by an act of will.
“The other day I reconstructed an Aztec poem I once learned at my grandfather’s house. It goes like this:
I inhale the perfume;
My soul becomes drunk.
I so long for the place of beauty,
The place of flowers, the place of my fulfillment,
That with flowers my soul is made drunk.”
“Lovely, Diego. It sounds like a love song.”
“It only sounds like a love song. It is a song of longing, but of longing for the warrior death. Warrior death sung in terms of sensuous beauty. Warriors who die heroically become like the rain, the dew and the flowers. Death is their fulfillment.”
“Hmm. Well, yes, you have been alone too much.”
“I have to have something. Today I don’t have anything but crazy thoughts, temptations, terror, emptiness. I only look backwards. Back past my parents and my grandparents. Centuries back. Still, I know I can’t go there. Sometimes I think my real roots, the places I long for, exist only in a dream.”
In spite of the initial balm to her spirit from his strange poem and his confessional tone, Sarah was uneasy. At his despair. At his gait. At the indolent slope of his shoulders. Their roles had been reversed—Diego, the eternal slab of granite, was splintering; she, a transparent layer of mica, felt resilient and flexible.
“Let’s forget it for a while,” she said. “Let’s relax and talk. Or let’s play games like we used to. What about the mirror game? Remember? When we stood in front of the mirror and read our faces.”
“I remember. Come along to the corridor. No, no, don’t turn on the lights.”
In the penumbra their shapes hung in the mirror like marionettes. Gradually the jagged silhouettes of two strangers emerged: Sarah peered at the longhaired woman framed by the figure of a dark man dressed in white behind her. Instead of the timid girl of the first mirror games, today she let herself go.
“Your face, you see, is the window of yourself.”
She started, though she’d known he would say it.
“My face alone?”
“Also mine. Our apertures open us up to the world.”
Their bodies, their features, their colors continued to take form. She imagined them returning from the world beyond the glass, back to reality.
“My mouth,” she said, brushing her lips with her fingertips.
“With these big teeth crowded inside.” She spread her lips and bit her teeth together. “They’re false. And the lips? Too thick to be sensuous. And the long nose, it’s strong but haughty.”
“The eyes are the key. Through which others see into you when in the morning you’re open like a flower, when you’re ready to be seen.”
“I get goose pimples. I saw Robert Jay’s eye drawings … He … but they’ve narrowed, my eyes. They’re slits. It’s hard to open them wide. Squinted, I can see better from the inside out.”
“You’re afraid, Sarah. You want to see everything and reveal nothing. But you see less—because of that squint. Because there’s no reflection.” He touched her hair and brushed her ear and the delicate nape of her neck, fixing his eyes in hers. She turned her head. Their mouths were close. The perfume of his breath went to her head. Only his physical proximity existed. “Stay here with me, today, tonight, these days,” she said directly into his mouth.
While Diego napped she meandered from terrace to kitchen, from kitchen to terrace. The city simmered in the Mediterranean heat. Toward evening the clear air made her conscious of what she was doing. Later Diego came out on the terrace whistling, his brown face shiny, his eyes alive. The tips of his ears sparkled in the setting sun.
“What do you do to your ears to make them shine like that?”
“Maybe it’s an old Indian custom,” he said. “I’ve always done it.”
They watched the sun sink behind Monte Mario. Shadows clung to the hills sloping down toward Piazza Clodio. The sky above was a shimmering field of orange up behind the Hilton Hotel.
“Huitzilopochtli!” Diego exclaimed. “Like the sunsets behind the Sierra Madre.”
“My feet are cold. They’re always cold at sundown.”
“It’s nervousness,” he said, leaning over the parapet.
She shivered—he seemed to know her most secret thoughts.
“Sometimes when I stand on high terraces or even on an empty piazza I say a prayer. But not a prayer to the Christian god.”
“Diego, you’re lucky you can pray at all.” She had never trusted prayer, neither those who pray nor even the idea that there was a god who listened to them. The whole affair seemed absurd.
“They would call it a pagan prayer. It’s not. It’s a prayer to the great creator. To the good one. To the … well, to the Absolute. I don’t give Him a name. I look up toward the center of things. I squint and concentrate, long, hard, until I break out in a sweat. I zero in on a center beyond the cosmos from where everything comes. It’s a great cosmic triangle. All-encompassing. Its sides are the flat Earth and the two lines that radiate downwards from the great center. Inside the triangle limitless power resides. My energy, my intercourse with Him, or It, is capable of harnessing some of that power. The power to transform things. To perform impossible things. I try to link that energy with known things on the bottom side of the triangle, the usual things people ask for in their prayers—health, luck, family.”
“Do you pray for me too, that I’ll learn to believe? Perhaps in this power you believe in, even if you don’t want to really pray.”
“You remind me of the words of a Mexican Cardinal who became the Archbishop of Guadalajara. He said man looks at himself, looks at the world and somehow forgets God. He doesn’t deny Him, doesn’t combat Him, but he ignores Him.”
It seemed Diego no longer felt the necessity of battling her. It was the peace that arrives after years of war—he, the teacher in control; she, the pupil striving for independence. His seduction would have signaled victory for her. But what kind of victory? Maybe they were antagonists in their story but they’d always been on the same wavelength. He’d been patient with her. She’d striven for love, once for sex, but until now she hadn’t understood the meaning of affection. Tonight she perceived patience, and total permissiveness. He was Diego—yet not the same. It was not his internal upheaval that made him another person. It was his air of submission, his new humility. His docility and resignation. She took his arm and laughed, recalling an old romantic image of her carrying his bow and quiver of arrows, his canteen and food, ready to clean and heal the wounds of the tired warrior.
“What’s so amusing? Do you still think we look like the perfect couple?”
“I was thinking that I should pack my bags and abandon it all—Michele, my mother, my studies, the city, and you too—and just go. Escape. But go where? That’s the question. Maybe to the top of the world.”
Sarah left her bedroom door open. It was early. She said she was tired. She tried to read but her attention was fixed on his sounds in the next room. First, the shower. She perceiving the rivulets of water rolling down his dark body, his hands running up and down his thighs. He pacing the room naked, his hairless Indian legs, his head high, his eyes slits. Later, his every turn in the bed sounding like spiritual thrashing. It was not hallucination. He was there in her mother’s bed, his body twisting sensually. I’m not a nun. I’m no saint. I’ve never been. I’m not married to Michele. If I go to him, nothing will happen anyway. And if it did, it would never be real. What kind of betrayal am I thinking about? Nothing to do with my love for Michele. She was unsure what she wanted from the new Diego. It was shallow to want only victory, revenge for his twelve-year rejection of her. As if it were a matter of pride. She told herself she felt genuine compassion. Hadn’t she just seen into the depths of him? Then, a troubling thought—she had to be free of him, even if it meant destroying the thing that was Diego and Sarah. She reasoned and rationalized but in her guts she knew there was a simple truth.
“I have to touch him,” she said aloud, leaping to her feet. She pulled down her T-shirt, spread her legs defiantly and looked at herself in the long mirror. “How could he resist?”
The room was dark. She slipped into his bed and put her head on his shoulder as she did with Michele. It seemed natural. He didn’t react. She lay motionless, crazily aware of the revving of a motorcycle and the distant barking of a dog breaking the silence over the rooftops of Piazza Farnese. Diego was naked. Stiffly, he slid his arm under her head lying against his neck and touched her hair. Sarah crossed her right leg over his smooth legs as she had done in her daydreams. She stroked his narrow chest. His body was motionless, the muscles of his thin shoulders tensed. He hardly breathed. She touched his face, it too hairless … after Michele. His forehead was damp and hot.
“It’s fear,” she whispered. “It’s always been fear. If you’d only talked to me everything would’ve been different. We would’ve stayed like we once were.”
“I wanted to tell you but I couldn’t,” he whispered. “I’ve always known what you were thinking. I know what you’re thinking now.”
“You must hate me,” she said into the crevice of his neck.
His arm under her head was rigid, the hand on her hair inert, his body frozen. Maybe she had read his mind too, he thought. He was tempted to tell her the mad impulse he’d felt while she played the piano. “I was afraid of the women at home. I loved them for their patience and their suffering but at the same time I hated them for their weakness. I adore women for their sensitivity. For their strength and their resignation. I loved the Indian women for their endurance and for the beauty of their faces.”
He edged his legs from under hers. His body was covered with sweat. He cleared his throat and went on in a sandpaper voice: “I was afraid of the women because of their mystery. Women know terrible things. Women are night creatures, like the jaguars I loved and feared. Spirits sent by a wild god. Above all I think I was afraid of their sexuality. They’re the black night I had to escape.”
Sarah felt his struggle. She raised her head so he could withdraw his arm, and in turn enveloped him in her arms. His body was as light as a breeze. He was a boy. Him in her arms was enough. Not the victory she’d imagined. But enough. It could end here. It was victory over him but most of all over herself. She was again the adolescent who in her loneliness had studied herself in her mother’s mirrors, always astonished that she was looking at herself, wondering what it was that made her Sarah.
It was then that she began thinking that her wonder at the reflection of herself was her madness.
“My life has never belonged to me,” he said in the dark, then rolled to his side with his back to her. His shoulders and back shook. “I never chose anything. My life just flowed by like the life of butterflies. Like nature. What I did or did not do belonged to my family, to the Church. They planned it all—schools, Rome, seminary. But they never saw me.”
He sat up in the darkness. This time there was no resistance when her arms went around him. When his body trembled she touched his face with her fingertips. It was covered with sweat and tears.
“Then you, too. You wanted to possess me as their Church possessed me. I hated you for it. But you were my family and I loved you. And hated you too.”
“No, Diego, my angel. I needed you. I’ve never wanted to possess you.”
“You never accepted me as I was,” he said, freeing himself. “But how could you? I myself didn’t know who I was. But now everything will be better.”
In the regular reflections cast by sweeping searchlights from the Quirinal Palace, his silhouette beside her alternately appeared, dimmed and reappeared. “My rebellion took a long time. They planned that too. I don’t know if I’ve won or lost but I’ve begun to feel free. Enough self-sacrifice. I want me. I can even choose to sin. To abandon everything. I don’t even think about disbelief in Him anymore. I want to count. Not as part of the Pope’s army, nor even of God’s army. I want to count personally. I want my autonomy. I’ve been living in a dream, not in real life. In their dream. Sarah, can you understand? It’s as if I were searching for the original time our Huichols believe in. As if I were seeking my original freedom, my freedom of before Europe, before Mexico, even before that. Beyond Christ, beyond the saints, beyond Moses, beyond the floods. Maybe beyond Adam. I feel like Adam searching for a new start. Adam, who doesn’t believe or disbelieve. The rest is meaningless. I want to take part in what is and in what once was. I dream dreams of another god, the god of before the creation.”
Sarah drew him against her. “Strange that just when we begin to learn who we are, it sounds like goodbye.”
He moved away, rolled onto his back and pulled the sheet up to his chin. “Yes. A better goodbye than either of us imagined.”
“Well, whatever happens, you’ll always be part of me. And you, please Diego, I implore you, Diego, always remember me … and us.”
Back in her bed, the night noises from Piazza Farnese and Campo dei Fiori had never been louder. On a lower floor the elevator doors banged shut. Someone shouted from the piazza. The dog on the roof was still barking. She was content. She believed she had known all the time how it would end.