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The Edessa Legend


ISSUE:  Winter 1981

The death of the king was on everybody’s mind. It was on the airwaves and in all the papers and in Time and the Pathé News and so, naturally, even the children, or those attuned to Grimm and the Morte d’Arthur and the fables and rhymes of Aesop and Mother Goose—sad stories (broken crowns and pledges) of the deaths of kings—were touched or, at least, affected by George’s death. One of these, an American, was Ellen Carroll.

In the confessional, waiting to be heard, she was thinking not of her sins but of George V. All week long, in fact, the death of the king of England and the grief of his widowed queen were all Ellen Carroll could think of, night and day. Sad-sounding words and phrases kept recurring. “Succumbed to a chill”; “Buried with parents—Windsor”; “Six royal heads in attendance,” (which she pictured like kings on cards, each with a crown and curls and clothes like motley); and saddest, along with the coffin, which the cook said was “made by a carpenter who lived in the village,” “At the funeral the crowds were greater than any that ever gathered in the streets of London.”

With so much on her mind, she had completely neglected her prayers—one of the things she would now be obliged to confess. Alone in her bed at night Ellen said “Six crowned heads” instead of her three Hail Marys and the Act of Contrition. Or she tried “in the village” a while. “A carpenter who lived in the village.” It had a magical, fairy-tale ring. In fact, Ellen was sure it occurred not once but a couple of times in Once Upon A Time, that lovely work of Katherine Bates and Margaret Evans Price, with “Briar Rose” and “Furball” and, on the cover, an armored knight, mounting a stone escarpment to a rosy keep. In the village kept recurring, along with succumb and chamber and herald and coach and forest and phrases and words that were similar in many respects to those she’d encountered in hymnals and the Roman Missal her mother was trying to wean her away from the rosary with. You assisted, her mother insisted, at Mass, or followed, and she saw no more reason for “beads” than for the lunch pails, umbrellas, and school bags practically all of Ellen’s classmates took for granted. “Don’t be foolish,” her mother would say if Ellen had ever asked (which she never had) for mentholated drops like the ones the girls in front of her counted and fondled and sucked on all day long.

In any case the king was on her mind. And in her dreams. She was not sure why. But she’d wake up scared or in tears, and his death and the crowds in the Abbey and the queen in her famous toque and the adorable royal children, (“Roserot” they made her think of), and the six sad kings with crowns on filled her with a deep and graphic dread.

She could not examine her conscience. Because her head was so full of the king and all the rest of it, she could hardly remember the formula: I-have-sinned. She had the feeling of slipping or falling, going under, and she was afraid, above everything else, of the flames of hell. Dimly, she sensed that her troubles were all connected—the king and waking up and hell and crying; that all of her worst forebodings were subtly linked. In the suffocating dark the notion seized her. With a sinking feeling, she began to perceive the truth: her chain, as she saw it, of terror had something to do with the sin she had committed on or about the day of the king’s demise.

She already knew it was mortal, (grievous matter; sufficient reflexion; full consent of the will), and that unless she confessed the details and asked to be forgiven, she’d be liable to burn forever in the fires of hell. What she didn’t know, yet, was that no priest on earth could forgive her, because none had the power. And yet, somewhere inside of her mind, in its darkest, most secret province, the truth sort of flickered and faded—on and then off, like a lamp with a loose connection— but constant, and very much brighter between midnight and three or four. It affected her mind and her bladder and the course of the day and the night and destroyed her dreams. There was something. Although she couldn’t precisely define it, she knew that there had to be something which, night after night, awoke and, (especially since the death of the king), filled her with fear.

She was seven years old. And, since that was the age of reason, she knew there was no way out: at seven, in the eyes of the Church, you were able to tell the difference between right and wrong. Or you were eligible, the way Ellen saw it—as she waited in the dark to be heard—to smoulder forever in hell with killers and thieves and the men in the white fedoras whose photos were next to the king’s in the Daily News. “Kittenappers,” the cook said, and that she’d better be home, in the house, by five at night.

Now, Ellen thought, was eternity—or an inkling of what ever-after was all about: waiting in sweltering gloom for the sound of steps. The monsignor, who was fat and an ogre, was overdue.

There was a light, she had heard, which friends—Mary Elizabeth Downey and Mortimer Sullivan—swore he would switch on to check if, say, theft were confessed. They— Downey and Sullivan—assured her that the light was how Benedict Doyle was finally trapped. Maybe, thought Ellen, in panic—yet she couldn’t help wondering. According to her sister, Alexa, who was in the class Benny Doyle belonged in (he’d repeated the same grade twice), Doyle had been caught in the act: lighting up tiers of candles, without once inserting a dime in the slot marked OFFERING. Nearly one whole hour he’d been at it, on this winter’s day, when the cloth under Charles Borromeo, the patron saint of the parish, went up in flames.

Ellen shuddered. Just the thought of it. Flames. And she envisioned her parents, listening, and the two beloved faces, frowning, as Alexa came home and reported the shocking news.

Benny was thrashed—not only for stealing and stealing from God, Himself, but for endangering the church, as well. Nearly burning it down. Then, the sister in charge of the thrashing said, after it was finally over, she was glad that his mother was dead and so couldn’t observe—which didn’t make much sense, either, because when Doyle, who was lazy and lied, wound up in trouble daily, the same bully claimed she was watching: “Your mother who’s probably in heaven is looking down!”

In a way, it was Mortimer’s fault—the jam she was in—for, first, catching Scarlet Fever and then giving it. . . Ellen felt faint. She could not say the name of Gabriel or hear it in prayers or the classroom without feeling sick to her stomach and crying, again.

She could hear them, outside, in the pews and the aisles, coughing and shuffling around and she didn’t see how it had happened that she had been chosen, at random, then shoved in first. They were still saying prayers for his soul, as they’d done on the day of the Mass—the Mass of the Angels. Quietly, Ellen sobbed.

In her desk was her father’s hanky—still perfectly folded and clean—she had taken from the pocket of his suit and carried to school. She wished that she had it now—not for the obvious reason, but just for the smell; for the same reason she had gone to the trouble of smuggling it past her mother’s and the cook’s inspection and Alexa’s annoying scrutiny, (as though it were eggs or a toad she’d been trying to manage): so, all through the day, she could sniff it and feel consoled. It smelled like tobacco and, vaguely, of Quogue and the sea on a summer’s day, and it made her glad—as though her father, or merely his smell, was all the buffer she needed to be safe or saved.

Again, it was all mixed up—the immaculate linen hanky with the king and death. If only she’d remembered to snatch it at the part where they all knelt, quickly, for “The Word was made flesh and dwelled amongst us,” and nobody ever noticed, in all the din and commotion, what anyone else was up to! But by the time she remembered, they were being lined up to march to church to confess their sins, and anything left was left, and that was that.

“May his soul,” she was hearing, “and all the souls . . .” Ellen covered her ears. She blocked out the awful words she could not forget, and she wiped her nose on the sleeve of the camel coat she’d been tricked into trying on (after begging, in Best’s, for the pink with the beaver trim) and softly wept.

What had been awful was hearing his name at the part where the Dead are remembered. “Remember,” the priest said in Latin, “our brother—” and at the sound of his name— Gabriel—all the Syrians present, including Gabriel’s parents, lamented, as one. It scared Ellen half to death. She wanted to go up to his mother, under all her veils, and tell her—she didn’t know what. Things about Gabriel, her son. Things she remembered.

She remembered his house and the paintings—huge lugubrious oils, including this one of a king who had written Christ. “Did He answer?” she’d asked, and Gabriel, smiling, nodded. “Do you believe it?” she’d asked, ashamed. And he’d answered “Yes!” And she made him tell her over (a dozen times!), of how the king invited Christ to visit Syria and of how Christ declined, but promised that, after His death, He’d send His twin. And, here, for no good reason, they’d rock and laugh, and he’d reached out, once, in the strange, seductive gloom, and touched or sort of pushed her. It froze her heart. It froze her heart and kneecaps and all of the places Ellen imagined her soul was, just to think of.

“Remember our brother, Gabriel, who has gone before us.” How would she ever forget! It was heartbreaking and hard to believe with him—olive-skinned, chubby, and short—in the beautiful box with roses and a wreath with his name, right there where, the end of May, the whole second grade, (with the exception of Benedict Doyle), knelt to receive from the ogre the Body of Christ.

There were other things, too, she remembered: “Shoe-leather” candy that rolled like a scroll of parchment from a kitchen drawer; and the kitchen, itself, which resembled the nave of a church—sort of stony and dark without windows or very much light; and fabulous Persian carpets Gabriel went out of his way to keep her off of, even as she begged to be shown The King Of Edessa—that enormous, shadowy scene depicting (according to Gabriel) the Sons of God and Abgar, corresponding. And she remembered lace and camphor and glittery beige-colored gauze on the chandeliers. For some reason, the lamps and fixtures were always swathed and the shutters on all the windows partly closed. Neither Gabriel nor his parents had enlightened her as to why this was so although once, when she asked him, he’d murmured: “On account of the rugs.” His father, he’d explained, really worried on account of the rugs—an explanation which left her exactly where the two of them stood, sucking the delicious confection (sticky, like coppery soles): in the total dark.

And she remembered going up—Gabriel in the lead—to the room where Jeannie, his sister, was lying swathed—that is, bandaged, so only her mouth and eyes were showing. There was a cradle with Jeannie’s son in gorgeous robes. This time, Gabriel explained, it was just her nose. It was done, said his sister, Jeannie, just the week before. She had two black eyes, but she smiled as Gabriel knocked and invited them both inside to see her son. Their sisters—Ruth and Patricia— whose noses looked done to perfection—offered fruit. They were both very pretty, as Gabriel assured her Jeannie would be in time. But the son, she remembered, was tiny, with the tiniest hands and feet and minuscule coppery ears, like the sun-dried pieces of fruit in the palm of her hand, and his hair was like Gabriel’s—cute as a sealskin muff in the whiter than icebergs pillows that filled his cot—and his nose was exactly like Jeannie’s before it was done.

She thought of going out; considered just up and bolting when she heard—like “M’Lord! The King!”—the word “Monsignor!” But nothing happened. They all resumed shuffling and coughing. “Examine your conscience!” was heard, and then the clang of a metal gate being opened, then closed.

She examined her own. Or she went over the scene of the crime: this corridor, lined with coats and the pockets of one of these bulging—too tempting to pass. And so she’d stopped on her way to The Girls’, and plunged in her hand for the candy—apricots, sprinkled with sugar—with, like a bonus imbedded in one, a wafery dime. And she’d kept it. Chewed up the gooey fruit and used up the dime on a candle—exactly like Ben.

“I saw you,” Alexa said, afterwards, “leaving the church.” It was nothing, and yet Ellen could tell from the strange way Alexa had said this and from the strange way she had seemed to stare, in the days that followed, Alexa knew.

She blamed the king on Alexa. On the day of his death, her sister had written a letter—a note of condolence, she called it—to be sent to the queen. Both their father and their mother were impressed when Alexa showed them. “Dear Queen,” the letter began and went on to say how sorry she was for what happened. She got all of the stamps she requested and praise from both of their parents for figuring everything out—even the queen’s address—all by herself. The address, they agreed, was perfect:

QUEEN MARY UNITED KINGDOM

because as their mother observed, “United” conveyed the notion of many nations—of the whole world’s mourning, as one, for George V. Alexa looked slightly worried, but their father assured her it would get there and when he added to this “in a fortnight,” their mother laughed. Then, they both looked mischievous-guilty, but proud as well. Alexa ruled them. All she had to do was wander into their presence to make them beam.

Ellen could have killed her. For knowing. What she hated Alexa the most for was always knowing: when to get up and receive; where to find books and mysteries you could not put down; what an “Oh Henry” was and where to buy one; how to endorse, then cash a godparent’s check—(one of Ellen’s was dead and no one could recollect what became of the other)—the list was sickening. But the letter to the queen, with about 17 stamps on the envelope, took the cake. That was an expression of their mother’s—takes the cake—just one more she wasn’t sure of. Sometimes she got things wrong, or she mispronounced. But, at least, she was sure of the meaning, and she’d looked at herself in the mirror, as Alexa was pasting the stamps on, and watched her image repeating: “Takes the cake!”

Ellen was too mad to cry. Then she thought about her theft and the corpse of Gabriel, and her hands, which had been very tightly clenched, began to sweat. It was all mixed up with her sin and George V.

She tried to get up and bolt. But the rotten nun, who’d cruelly invoked the mother of Benedict Doyle, barred her way.

“One moment, Miss.”

“I’m sick.”

“Monsignor’s come. He’s on the altar. Look!”

“I can’t.” Ellen wailed. “Cramps. I have terrible cramps.”

Lying. That was the big thing she learned at Charles Borromeo. Everyone lied through his teeth. Late for the Pledge Of Allegiance, a boy or a girl sang glibly, “I went to the store” and so Ellen, who usually arrived in a Packard Eight, driven by Thomas in livery or by her mother in tweeds, and who had not understood the connection between “I went to the store for my mother” and coming in late was flabbergasted, the one time she tried it, to see the effect. She was jeered at and threatened and shamed and, summoned at last by the principal, forced to confess. She had not drunk her tea and milk and so Catherine, the cook, had detained her while Alexa went off. Deserted, as it seemed to Ellen, in the clutches of, first, the cook and then the principal. She threw up all over. To avoid being cuffed and to get even with Alexa and Catherine she threw up all over the floor and pretended to choke.

“Cramps, indeed! Get in with you!” The nun delivered a cuff—a sort of halfhearted cuff because ever since she’d watered the aisles and been forced to walk home in the snow in her pee-soaked pants and her mother brought her back in the Packard and told her to wait, no one had dared lay a hand on or forbidden her to go to The Girls’ whenever she pleased. “If the Pope of Rome himself comes in,” said the same one who’d walloped Benny, “and you have to go, Ellen Carroll, get up and GO!”

Then a sudden change. “Why, Ellen, whatever is the matter? You’re pale as a ghost!”

For a crazy second she thought of rerunning for the store. “I forgot! I was supposed to go down to the store for my mother!” But she yanked herself free and fled.

She went home by the park; the same route she’d travelled the day of her pee-soaked pants, and sat on a bench. Seven. The age of reason. So she knew—or she should have known there’d be something wrong; some catch or exotic impediment to her exculpation. Only, what?

It began to rain, and she sat on a clammy bench and, softly crying, did her best, again, to sort things out. As usual, she began with the letter, Alexa’s note.

Then it struck her it wasn’t the letter so much as the stamps. Something about how they looked, all licked and pasted by Alexa, in perfect rows. She began to sob. Her stockings and shoes were wet and St. Charles’s had probably phoned and, as her mother so often said, there’d be hell to pay. At the very reminder—hell—she began to wail. Then she got up and ran, tore through the empty park to the gate with the big bronze lions and headed home.

By the look of the front of the house she could tell that her mother was some place, faraway. She could always tell at a glance or by certain gloomy vibrations when her parents—especially, her mother—would not be home. Then the Packard appeared from nowhere and the cook and Thomas, together, shoved her in.

“Once upon a time,” she started.

“Next!”

“I stole—” she stopped, struggling to remember how it went. The words they’d practiced, hours, I-have-sinned. “Bless me,” she began again. “Bless me, Father—”

“You the last?”

“I think so.”

“Speak up! Are you the last, I said?”

But she was holding her ears. Then, she closed her eyes. With her eyes squeezed tightly shut, she said, “I stole.”

“What?”

“I stole,” she said, a third time. And then she waited.

“And I asked you what?

“Nickels. Two.” It was the same thing and, yet, it was a lie—but it sounded better.

“You stole money?” he thundered. Everyone heard—even Ellen herself, with her ears stoppered up by her fingers. “Who from, may I ask?”

“A friend.”

Through the darkness, she was now aware of light. The light had flashed for an instant as he rumbled and blew his nose. “How much?”

He was getting old—senile, her mother said—and going deaf. And once, in this very church, she called him a damned old fool which Alexa was afraid was blasphemy. Then Alexa said, (in private), that their mother had been in danger of—it sounded to Ellen like “Eczema” or “Anesthesia.”

“Ten cents,” she whispered in the smallest voice she could manage and still be heard. To her amazement, he doled out penance. She was done. Forgiven. “Ten Hail Marys,” he boomed. “Make an Act of Contrition.” But at “the pains of hell,” just as she was rushing through “penance and amend my life,” he stopped her. “You intend to make restitution?”

“Yes.” She’d been backing off.

“You hear what I said?”

“Yes.”

“Yes what?”

“Father—I mean, Monsignor.”

“No! What did you hear me tell you?”

“Ten Hail Marys.”

Her knees quaked and she started crying. Hard. She was afraid she was wetting her pants. “If the Pope of Rome—” but he nailed her. The light switched on. She was like a prisoner being drilled—a blackguard beyond the door and this one, the wheezing ogre, beyond the grille. There was no escape.

“Answer!”

“I can’t. I’m sorry!”

“You’re sorry, you say? I should certainly hope you are! Speak up!”

“I can’t!” She wailed. The shuffling and the coughing stopped. There was a dreadful calm.

“Then, listen!” he commanded, “Very carefully. Are you listening?”

“Yes.”

“You have been granted absolution on condition—Do you fully understand what that entails?”

Again, she lied. “I think so.”

“Then, repeat.”

She was tongue-tied; dumb.

“Now, look here—” He tried to stand. She was afraid he would fall through the panel and crush her dead. “You’re to make restitution, at once!” He pounded the wood. “Restitution, I said. Now, say it!”

“Restitution.”

“You know what it means?”

And she suddenly knew. In her terror, she realized, exactly, what that word meant. At the moment he was telling her and saying the terrible words she not only knew that she knew: she had known all along.

“This person—whoever it is—whose money you took? Go find him. As soon as you leave this church, go find him and say you’re sorry for what you’ve done. Do you understand? Because, otherwise, you will never be forgiven. Understand? Stealing’s a sin. You realize that taking money or anything belonging to another is a mortal sin. You’ve received your First Communion, so you know, I’m sure. What you’ve done is a mortal sin. Unless you make restitution . . . .”

The same day she wrote the letter. That afternoon. In it she said she was sorry, and she hoped he was fine. She got a dime—two dimes, in fact—from the cops who were parked by the lions at the gate to the park. One thing her parents drummed into her, and her sister, Alexa, too, was that if ever you were lost or in trouble, the police would assist. They would even provide you with carfare or give you a ride. And that much was true. After kidding her and asking her name, they’d finally come up with the dimes, and one of them winked.

She wrapped up the coins in paper and glued them between “Your classmate” and “Ellen Carroll.” Then she went to her mother for stamps. To her relief, her mother said “Here” and not “What for?” and she handed her six or seven from the pretty enameled drum on the top of her desk. She did not look impressed, but surprised, as Ellen sat down and pasted them carefully in place.

She wanted the envelope plain—to look like the queen’s. Simple, like that and dignified with not many words. So she put “Gabriel” and the initial of the Syrian surname she couldn’t spell and, then, a sign she had seen on a letter to Battle Creek, Michigan, which Alexa had stuffed full of tops from assorted boxes. The sign, she had learned from Alexa, meant In Care Of. Finally, on a line by itself, she put “The King.” Then, she went to the mailbox, alone, as fast as she could. And she dropped it inside and waited—as Alexa had done with the queen’s.

And it actually worked. She could feel all the grace pouring into her, swimming around. She could hardly believe it. Her letter, now Ellen was positive, freed her from sin. It was better than absolution or lighting a wick. Better than her birthday and Christmas and receiving her First Communion in a new white veil. It was like braving the dark with Gabriel, one more time, and skirting the shrouded lamps and Persian rugs, and tasting love—heavenly, tart like apricots pressed with wine—as nobody spoke and Gabriel laid their books down, side by side, with nobody near but “Christ And The King of Edessa” in the sweet other-worldly gloom of his father’s house.

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