By Way of Carmel

by N. Josephs



Felix already knew that he was never, in this world, going to be warm again. In the heat of the summer his hands and feet reddened and froze, and hiding his icy fingers in the sleeves of his habit helped not at all; while his feet dragged slowly and heavily about the stone stairways and corridors, the ups and downs of the ancient building containing, now, so few of the brothers. Even when, on the hottest days, he replaced his habit with a decent black suit, and a black shirt with a white clerical collar, and pointed black shoes and black socks, and a broad-brimmed black hat, still he felt as if he were encased in some iceberg impervious to the vicious rays of the sun that were beating down on everyone else.

     Winter turned the monastery into an icy hell – surely not what was intended, however much it mortified the spirit. The great green porphyry columns installed almost two centuries earlier, transported from Caesarea down the coast to their place in the reception chamber, among the frayed armchairs and naïve embroideries of good women, gave off a freezing vapour, and were surrounded, as far as Felix was concerned, with an icy aura. Cold he felt, cold he was, spirit and marrow, body and soul. His nose remained pink and prominent, the flesh melted off his bones, and his weariness was so intense that it was all he could do to complete his duties and his devotions. Huddled beneath his modest covering at night in his spartan chamber, he imagined sleep, a blessed oblivion, descending and warming him through, but his feet remained unthawed, and his gaunt form shuddered on the bed.

     Then there was the matter of the lump. He had first noticed it, of all inappropriate times, when he was kneeling in the chapel, hands folded against his chest in prayer. Inadvertently, his thumbs had pressed there against his ribs, and this foreign body got in the way. For a second his mind, too, had frozen, and he had felt as if he were dangling over a limitless space. Then he had shifted his hands, ever so slightly, away from his chest, and continued his private dialogue with his Maker. Later, he had felt the lump again, even explored it warily with his fingers, and there it had remained, inconspicuous, but growing without a doubt, growing and invading and overtaking him. Ah, well.

     Kind women came to visit him, bringing small gifts, disregarding the understanding that the brothers in the order should not accumulate worldly goods. He thanked them courteously, accepted gratefully, and in return he gave them his blessing and the tokens left by previous visitors. He became a conveyor belt of goodwill, passing on and receiving back, bread upon waters, abstention, round and round. And as time went on his body took up less and less space in those musty armchairs in the reception hall. The other brothers watched him carefully, and took upon themselves small extra duties that had formerly been his. And they prayed for him.

     The doctor came – a kind Jewish Irishman whose father had known his, Felix’s, father when they were neighbours, farmer and country doctor, hacking around the green lanes of Galway in the mud. The doctor’s fingers, almost as bony as his own, prodded him carefully, and noted how tight the skin was stretched over his bones.

     The doctor spoke to the abbot, that jovial, pear-shaped Spaniard who, in turn, summoned Felix and, with extreme kindness, told him – there was no question of disobedience – that it had been decided. Felix was to return to Ireland, to their retreat in Dublin, where the sisters of the Order would take care of him.

     “Perhaps your strength will come back,” said Father Gaetano, “and you will return to us. Meanwhile, pray for us, Felix, as we do for you.”

     They made a farewell party for him, a small affair on a summer night, sitting in their trellised arbour looking out beyond the lighthouse to the moon-silvered Mediterranean. The Arab ladies who tended the kitchen of the monastery made pasta asciutta. The brothers drank their own wine and talked quietly among themselves and to their guests, Jews, Arabs, Christians, who had been invited to the gathering. The pipe smoked by the Dutch brother, Aloysius, glowed occasionally, lighting up a gaunt cheek here, curls of grey hair round a tonsure there, a flash of a woman’s smile, a stain of tomato sauce on an empty plate. They discussed how to set the country to rights, and elaborated for their visitors on the meaning of “discalced” which was in the name of their order – Discalced Carmelites – meaning “unshod”; and just before midnight they took their guests up onto the roof of the monastery to look out at the sea extending to infinity on three sides of the promontory of Stella Maris, and to watch the bell in the cupola swinging as it tolled the hour. Then down they all trooped and raised a last glass of wine in salute to Felix. It had been a fine evening, everyone agreed.

     So, with little more ado, Felix said “shalom” to his Israeli friends, promising them that “your prime minister, Mister Eezhack Rabeen, will bring back peace to the country. He is a fine man”, and left.

     In Dublin, away from the harsh gutturals of Hebrew and the glottal stops of Arabic, he was comforted by the softness of the Irish brogue; comforted too by the kindness of the sisters who took care of the retreat, of himself, of anyone who had need of their services.

     A letter came from one of the ladies who had befriended him and taken him to her home from time to time, for tea and little sandwiches and fruit cake. How good those sandwiches had been, and how he had savoured that steaming russet tea, though politeness forbade him to exceed his limit. – “No gentleman ever takes more than two cups,” he had said to his hostess as he thanked her for her hospitality, “and please could I trouble you to take me back now. It is getting late, and the others will be waiting for me.” The letter said that the Carmel was missing him, that they had been promised plenty of rain for the winter, and she sent greetings from her daughter Dizza.

     He wrote a little note in reply – “…I think of you and your daughter, and remember the biblical quotation ‘She is a true daughter of Israel. There is no malice in her’.” But by the time it was done, the effort of finding her address and getting it posted was too much for his frail self to tackle, and he was already embarked on his last great journey.

     He dwindled and wasted, and prayed and rested, and thanked everyone and apologized for causing trouble. And in the end the Mountains of Mourne swept down to the sea, and the pipes called to Danny Boy, while Macushla’s sweet voice called to Felix, and the Rose bloomed in Tralee, and Eileen Aroon smiled at him, and Felix, smiling in return, was borne away in effulgent light to where he would never be cold any more. From Galway to Carmel in California, from California to Carmel in Israel, and round and back again to Galway: a modest life and an unpretentious departure for a second son. Requiescat in shalom.


     A Friday afternoon in late spring, and very hot indeed. I was reluctantly doing the ironing, and sweating copiously, though all the doors and windows were open. I’ve never learned to keep everything shut when the weather is hot. So from all the neighbouring houses were wafted to me the smells of chicken soup and roasting meats, as Sabbath meals, hot Sabbath meals were being prepared traditionally, in the weather’s despite. Ironing too was in the weather’s despite, but we’d run out of shirts, and drip-dries are so hot in summer – like being encased in sausage skin.

     I looked up to wipe the sweat off my forehead, and was confronted with the spectacle of two odd bodies making their way up the path. So I switched off the iron, and went round to the inner side of the latched screen door and opened it. The male odd body, whose head was inclined to the right, was wearing clerical garb, and spectacles, and carried a black hat. He twinkled at me.

     “I,” he announced, with a strong Flemish accent, “am Mr – (I’ve never been able to recall the name), and I come from Denmark. And this lady” – indicating his companion – “is from Ireland.”

     The lady was leaning on a walking-stick, and her head was inclined slightly to the left. They looked like book-ends, the two of them, and she wore a lilac printed cotton dress and a lavender cardigan. Thick lisle stockings encased her poor thick legs, and her feet were tightly laced into sensible black shoes. She had a fine growth of grey curls round her mouth and chin, complementing the soft grey curls on her head. Her eyes were wide and grey and solemn, little-girl eyes, and she said to me earnestly, in a rather breathy brogue -

     “We don’t wish to intrude or be a bother, but we’d like to talk to you about the Lord’s good works.”

     Then they both stayed quiet and regarded me, patiently, expectantly. I thought a bit. I sighed. After a little while I said, honestly –

     “If you don’t mind, I’d much rather not.”

     She repeated that they did not want to offend. The cleric’s smile grew mightily broad, fairly blazed at me.

     “Di-rrect!” he said, with seeming delight, “di-rrect!” and nodded so hard that his spectacles flashed signals at me in the sunlight.

     I asked what had brought them to my door, of all places. I do not live on the road, and there are a lot of steps between me and it, all carefully camouflaged in shrubbery. They ignored the question. It appeared that they felt they had a mission to spread the word. I wondered if they knew that, in this country, proselytizing is a punishable offence. They were such innocents.

     I apologized for not inviting them indoors to sit down and rest, explaining that my husband was sleeping. Which was a lie, for I knew he was hiding behind the Friday paper in the living-room, listening to every word.

     “Let him sleep” said the little pastor, with a benign wave of his hand. “Let the good man rest.”

     I offered them a cold drink, which they accepted gladly. Mango juice it was, and the lady told me it was the most refreshing, the finest drink she had had in Israel so far.

     We talked of their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his third, her first. I found out where they were staying – on the other side of the Carmel, at the monastery’s hostel, and I began to be anxious that they might miss the last bus and have to walk. Buses stop early on Fridays.

     I asked the lady where she came from, and she told me she lived in Dublin, but was originally from County Galway. We spoke of Stella Maris, and finally I asked hesitantly whether she knew my old friend, Father Felix, who also came from Ireland.

     “Ah, of course I knew the dear man,” she said sweetly. “He passed away, you know, last year.” I told her I’d had no reply to the letter I’d written him, so I assumed that he had died. I talked about the times he came to tea with us, and how he had once met my daughter Dizza (which means felicity) – how he’d shaken her hand and introduced himself – “Felix to Felicity, Felicity to Felix,” he had said – and how he would never take more than two cups of tea.

     “I didn’t know him well,” said the lady, “but there is another brother in the Order with exactly the same name, so I never forgot it” – she mentioned his family name – “who told me he made a good death.”

     The pastor said briskly that they must be on their way. I told them where to get the bus, and begged them not to walk any more in the heat. They thanked me, and blessed me, and left. 

     “How on earth” asked my husband, coming out of hiding, “did they get here in the first place?”

     “Visitation, perhaps?” I said. “And not necessarily from earth.”

     He snorted.

©2010 N Joseph

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