Dedicated to a great Azerbaijani poet, Vaqif Bayatli Oner
The news of Pope John Paul II’s visit came as a breath of mystery from afar, yet also close at hand, so different from the monotonous news that filled the newspapers.
The silent photo of the Pope, taken in the fashion of a different world – in a white, flowing vestment and the crown of the Catholic Church – revealed a phenomenon, unlike the near identical black and white faces on the pages of the newspapers.
This was the phenomenon – the legendary clergyman, whom I loved and had so far seen only on TV at open-air violin concerts in that corner of paradise, the windless courtyard of the Vatican, or preaching sermons in magnificent, crowded squares, at this time in his life, elderly, sick and helpless, was heading in my direction – to a country far from Christianity.
The media’s vagueness at the time about the purpose of the visit and contradictions in their news reports left no doubt of the reliability of my mystic musings on this historic event.
Some sources said that the Pope was visiting the country on the official invitation of the head of state. The head of state was said to think the involvement of the authoritative spiritual leader, who held great sway in the Christian world, would help to resolve the wretched problem of the war that had beset the country in recent years.
However, official sources said that the Pope was visiting the country on his own initiative, without any formal or informal invitations from the state. The main purpose of the elderly pontiff’s visit was to make an appeal from here to Muslims and Christians around the world and urge them towards unity, mutual tolerance and mercy, according to state media. “The Pope intends to appeal to Muslims and Christians throughout the world from this very country," said the Vatican's Apostolic Nuncio in the South Caucasus, Claudio Gugerotti, in an interview with the press.
Why from this very country, which until now has been ignored, forgotten, dismissed throughout history as an odd Muslim land, caught up in a vortex of dirty oil and politics? I anxiously racked my brains, looking for the reason for this sudden visit in foreign radio news bulletins and the Pope’s special websites. When I couldn’t find the reason, I realized how right I had been in my “naïve” thoughts over many years that this “clear” world in which we live is a brilliant Enigma of endless mysteries.
In those days it seemed that I alone could understand that the Pope, at a time in his life when he was weak and helpless with barely the strength to walk and talk, intended to appeal to the world community and effect change in this country, which maintained its devotion to the traditional laws of harsh materialism.
“My appeal is a prayer. The prayer that I address to God I say together with Mary, Mother of God. Actually I say this prayer together with all of you. This is a prayer that one man says for another. This is a prayer for all people in this world, a prayer for the living and the dead.”
I remember that these words from a service conducted by the Pope restored the familiar balance that I had lost, maybe long ago, in my childhood; I felt that I was with my children and my parents whom I had lost at a young age within this great prayer – I had a sense of calm under the protection of the Pope’s merciful words; I had a sense of the inexplicable boundlessness of the world.
* * *
On one of those tense, mysterious, anxious days I happened to meet an old friend – there had been a time when we were captivated by his touching poems at select literary soirees, then we had suddenly lost sight of him in the twists and turns of our literary life. After greeting each other as former colleagues, I tried to cut short our conversation and leave, as I felt he was annoyed at this historic visit, but unfortunately I couldn’t escape my old friend. That this meeting at the colonnaded entrance to an important building wasn’t a chance encounter but a portentous incident with the potential to change our lives, I didn’t understand until later – after the honoured guest had completed his work here and left the country for his distant, quiet cathedral.
That day we met quite by chance on the windswept pavement outside his office, as he was striding towards the official black car waiting for him in silent lustre on the opposite side of the street.
He was oddly embarrassed when he saw me, stopping warily as though weighing up whether to greet me or not.
After our colleague moved to an important department of state, whenever he met us – his former fellow hacks – he would be gripped by a kind of awkwardness and puzzling embarrassment; either he would try to march away as though he hadn’t seen us or, like a criminal caught with his fingers in the till, would reluctantly come up and talk about his work as if he was reporting to me. I put this behaviour down to one thing – his or our secret sins against Literature over long agonizing years.
During that portentous meeting while I was trying to share with him my mystic thoughts on the Vatican official’s mysterious visit and my unconnected views on the proof of the Pope’s holiness, he listened, looking at me with his tired eyes as if from a distance and said: “There was a time when he was called Lyolik. Do you know that he used to be an actor? Then he took up writing and eventually became the Pope.” He stared at me from beneath his brows, gauging how far he had upset me.
Even though I realized that he had relished upsetting people, especially literary types, exposing their weaknesses and ridiculing them long before he took up his important post, I couldn’t comprehend then or now what consolation this angry pleasure could bring to his luckless poet’s fate.
He forgot all about the black car and driver waiting for him across the road, and strode with me along the pavement. As if carrying out orders, he spoke in strict succession about the Pope’s secret intervention in world politics and about the influential sign of his “cunning finger" that causes major changes in global reforms. I was staring at his small shoes that didn’t go with his strapping body, regretting my "inappropriate flights of fancy" and thinking about the reasons why this person whose divine poems we had once enjoyed should harbour a hidden rage over the Pope’s visit.
He had turned into a jittery, watchful official who flinched at the sound of his own voice since going to work at the important institution, which was already some way behind us as we walked together. I put this change down to the institution’s restricted environment, where an army of hard-working officials with faces like the contours of foothills marched rapidly down the gloomy corridors from morning till night.
When I had observed this “herald of freedom”, who used to burst from excess of feeling, at various official events in recent years – sitting at boring, lengthy international conferences and meetings, wearing spectacles and headphones for translation, his tie tightly knotted, always writing neatly with extraordinary restraint on a white sheet of paper like an A-star pupil, I could better understand the incredible, unexpected, mysterious potential of man. In the secret pores of my soul I believed that sooner or later he would grow sick of these boring meeting rooms and run away, would swap the suffocating narrowness for the invincible freedom of a poet, cut open the belly of the dead fish and jump out.
However, after many months and years, I tried to find traces of boredom on his face, suffering and sadness in his eyes, but instead I saw the signs of prosperity, happiness and material comfort and I realized my total ignorance of Literature and the individuals it had chosen, and suffered a worse shock at this revelation.
…We had already crossed into other streets and were now strolling down one of the city’s central tree-lined avenues.
Trying to hide how upset I was and at the same time to mollify him and dilute the angry, obstinate sarcasm that distorted his face, I began to tell him everything I had read about the Pope – that he was the first Bishop of Rome to go into mosques during his visits to Muslim countries; that he helped hundreds of thousands of homeless and poor people from his own personal funds; how his prayers sounded like poetry; how he concluded all the encyclicals and other official documents sent to congregations under the Vatican’s jurisdiction with moving, poetic prayers; how he read poetry during boring liturgies, turning them into genuine literary meetings.
As he listened to me, he chewed his lips, hiding his resentment, and as we walked, he stared at his feet. His feet were strange; I had noticed them before when we used to get together to listen to him reciting selected poems. They were out of proportion to his body and because they were so oddly small, the mystery of these divine poems was somehow lost.
… I remember the Pope conducting a service in St Peter’s Square. He was praying with his face to the wall, his back turned on a huge crowd, when he suddenly cut short his prayer, turned to the massed ranks of people and said, “Don’t be afraid!” That day I tried to explain to him that for this devout believer humanity was elevated so high it was out of reach. He appreciated mankind and the countless spirits who had left this world decades and centuries ago far more than movements and religions.
However, he remained resolutely silent, his face betraying an inner struggle to prevent something vitally important within himself from collapsing with a domino effect.
I told him how, with his love of literature, the Pope had managed to create an unusual atmosphere in this ancient bastion of faith, how, with his perception of the divine, greater than all religions and movements, he had shaken the church laws built in stone down the centuries, and in so doing had amazed the Vatican and the worthy College of Cardinals. I did my best to describe this poet-priest whose arrival in the Vatican had let to the creation of a different atmosphere through new, unwritten laws of Literature.
He kept silent. The look of displeasure on his face made clear that what I said could not change anything. As for me, I was moved by my own words and coughed frequently to hide the emotion welling up in my throat. Whether from excitement or talking so much, I got confused and began to shorten my stride.
The important address that I had been in such a hurry to reach and the urgent work that I had to do had lost its relevance. Now my former poet friend and I “were just out for a walk”.
“The old man is a real man of letters and he found a good place to show off his poetry,” he said after a long, tense pause, without looking at me, a sarcastic smile on his lips.
His sarcastic attitude towards people of letters – talented but poor, helpless poets and writers – always made me inexplicably anxious. With some kind of intuition, I grasped that not only did these gentle, “awkward” people who had built their lives on literature, irritate him, they also disturbed him somehow in that important institution, in his worthy office with its tight-fitting door upholstered in leather on both sides. I realized that he suffered badly from something related to “artistic expression”.
At our last meeting a few months ago, another chance encounter on the same narrow pavement outside that important institution, as I recalled the old days and old friends, I flew from the “short radius of the Earth” to the vast horizons of the Word. Smiling again with that secret sarcasm, he interrupted me, “Stop this comedy! What magic? This is nonsense!” But later he seemed crushed I realized that he was afraid of the Word, of its power to destroy him.
And now he was still experiencing that fear. His quivering lips grew pale. Though he walked easily and slowly, he gave off a sense of agitation, of trying to suppress something.
A while later, we had gone a good distance from that from that important office building.
He was so busy with the businesslike destruction of my “euphoria” that he seemed to have forgotten the important place he had been going to or the important work he had been about to do or maybe he had decided to put them on the backburner.
“What you are talking about is just creativity, the artistic material for a writer’s imagination,” he said as though stamping an official document. Then strangely sorrowful added: “Looking for a miracle in this world is like looking for a bird under water.”
I wasn’t ready to give up. I reminded him about the Pope’s public apology to all Muslims for the Crusades that had shocked the whole world; about his apology for all the troubles in the history of Catholic Church, for the schism in relations between the Christian West and East, for the wars of religion and the inquisitions, even for the Catholic Church’s condemnation of the great medieval mathematician and astronomer Galileo Galilei and for his sentencing to life imprisonment as a “heretic”, how he took upon himself the blame for all these unforgiveable sins. I reminded him how Pope John Paul II had expressed regret at the way the Galileo affair had been handled, and after three hundred and forty years had issued a declaration acknowledging the errors committed by the Catholic Church tribunal, which condemned Galileo’s discovery that the Sun does not revolve round the Earth and other planets but the Earth and all the other planets revolve round the Sun, and observed the changes in his expression out of the corner of my eye.
He looked at the shop windows and trees as we passed, as though he wasn’t listening to me, then suddenly asked, his eyes flitting round, “How can someone be liberated from something after his death?” He gave a bitter smile.
Then I told him my hypothesis about the possible continuation of the punishment assigned in this world in the next. He was infuriated by something in this hypothesis and walked the rest of the way with his face turned away from me in order to hide his anger.
I thought about the fear gnawing within him and what consequences it could have for this worrier; I felt we were to blame for letting this unfortunate man go, one half of him belonging to Literature and another to the important institution with narrow corridors. Sometimes I remembered his wife, a poisonous woman whose face looked as though it had been run over by a car and who wore a permanent expression of dissatisfaction. She had played the leading role in all that had happened to him.
Long ago at public events and official receptions I had felt the negative energy coming from this woman. He treated her with hidden caution and tremulous reverence as something dangerous or deadly poisonous. I felt the same when he recited his verses full of fear and inner tension, dedicated to her shoes and gloves, as though reading an important state document. His habit of spending long hours in that lonely place, in the solitary confinement cell that was his office, I put down to his horror at being alone with this poisonous woman, but after a while I attributed everything that sought to destroy a gentle poet’s spirit to the oppressive laws of existence.
Stepping close, I remembered his distant past – how he hadn’t been able to pay for light and heating in the family flat in the long winter months. His crumpled shirt and trousers had been a sign of the daily domestic misery in the small but pretentious apartment. He would gaze at us, a sorrowful owl surrounded by the ruins of destitution. And I would realize that there were other reasons for the many sins running from his hidden wounds, his hidden fears, not only into his shirt but into his face. But I couldn’t think about those reasons… to be honest, they were too much for me. When I tried to step towards those “unknown reasons”, I felt poisoned by dark, stale air full of torture and suffering.
We had come to the end of the avenue and reached the seafront. My friend resembled a bronze statue, either from chain smoking or the streaks of silver beginning to play in his hair, and moved with such silent steps that I thought he was trying to hear my thoughts rather than my words.
I continued talking about the Pope… Determined to put a stop to his unbearable sarcasm, I remembered the Pope’s famous exorcism – the devil was said to have emerged from a radio, a girl fainted from fear, and rolled on the floor, yelling horribly. The Pope’s saliva freed the girl from the devil’s trap.
“The devil rules this the world… and when we least expect it, he doesn’t miss the chance to bring us under his influence.”
The Pope’s comments about the devil finally changed the expression on my friend’s face. He acquired a strange air of responsibility and that’s where I ended the conversation.
That night we met again, not on the fateful stretch of pavement outside the important institution but in the semi-dark of my shivering, feverish dream. I dreamt I was in his extremely stuffy office and on his instructions filling in a strange chart, rather like a builder’s sketch, with very small symbols and letters. The letters and symbols were tiny, so I became breathless and weak at the knees. I wanted to jump up and run away from that oppressive room that smelled of paper and dust, but I couldn’t ignore his orders and had to complete this task of national importance.
At last I managed to finish the miserable table-filling process. “My friend” stood up, a file full of mysterious tables tucked under his arm, and said with a triumphant smile, “Congratulations, the personnel order has already been signed. Tomorrow, you will start work at the Ministry of Taxes as a Chief Inspector.”
Then he left.
Next morning I rolled over in bed, trying to make sense of the tiny symbols with wings like insects which I had drawn until my vision blurred. I thought about those strange visions until I was heartily sick of them, but could understand nothing. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon, when I was getting rid of the annoying money collectors from the electricity board and watching short reports from the Milli Majlis that I suddenly remembered the dream’s horrible ending – my “friend’s” unexpected proposal and my oddly relaxed reaction to my new appointment.
* * *
Preparations for the Pope’s visit were under way at the state level too. Arrangements were made for the welcoming ceremony, for a meeting with public and cultural figures and for the Pope to preach at a mass in one of the city’s largest sports halls. The presidential residence – a palatial affair in a scenic park high up in the city – was readied for the spiritual leader. However, the day before the Pope was due to arrive, the Holy See Press Office said in a statement that the Pontiff would not stay at the Presidential Residence, but in a small, anonymous hotel in a quiet suburb. No reason was given for the decision by the Vatican or local officials.
The same day rosy-cheeked foreign priests began to appear in the city, rustling through the streets in their long robes with heavy chains round their necks.
The Pope’s security service was reported to have already arrived in the city. They were in the main streets and the crowds on Fountains Square and were even spotted in the narrow alleys of the old quarters. Like many others I didn’t understand why these genial people who had arrived from some other stratum of the world were walking around in a country embroiled in endless squabbles and from whom and what they were protecting the Pope. What were the magnificent Vatican fortress and hundreds of iron helmeted Vatican Guards protecting the Pope from at all times and in all places? I only began to understand this later after that notable, seemingly accidental, meeting with my poet-civil servant friend.
* * *
I thought about my poet-civil servant friend who used to walk to work on cold, windy days from his one-room flat in a poor suburb of the city, wearing just a thin jacket. I wondered how he had managed to move to the sheltered side of the world, on the orders of which secret powers. I remembered his sons with their devoted dog’s eyes and his wife, bad-tempered from the poverty and stress of her cheap life. I imagined how his poor family would get their own back for his failure to provide a good life for them, how on dark evenings they would beat him with his “useless” poet’s pen, then with nervous greed chew instead of bread the piles of “nonsense” he had written with that pen for months and years.
* * *
He was still writing poems then. He confessed his exhaustion from loneliness and upset for whatever reason, and with an orphan’s cry called on God and people to help him in his troubles.
But the polished words, used so skilfully, were not as alive as they had been before, they didn’t touch the heart. They seemed to have passed by God and all the upset and aroused nothing but bitter pity for his weak helplessness.
Sometimes I wanted to clasp all his weak, feeble words in my arms and hide them, to find ways to protect my tortured friend from this useless collection of words, and I couldn’t understand the reason for this inexplicable need.
It was then that I fell hostage to a different kind of sense and feeling that pounced on me with a miraculous independence. It all started on an ordinary day that followed an ordinary routine. I suddenly felt the specific majesty of the household objects that surrounded me on all sides; I understood the impact of these harmless objects that presented no external danger and realized my powerlessness before these lifeless little nothings that we use in our daily life.
I had sensed the force of those objects myself a while earlier, on a muggy day when I was bringing out my summer clothes and packing away my winter ones. I felt an incomprehensible, inexplicable, helpless desperation among the piles of woollen jackets, leather caps, gloves and trousers on the floor waiting to be packed. I fell asleep for two days off and on as if I had been caught in an earthquake of clothes or suffered sunstroke.
Some time before that, instead of the grief and sadness I would feel when all the jewellery I had received on milestone anniversaries disappeared from my jewellery box, I was astonished by a new breath of freedom that surrounded my body. Then I realized that for long years the expensive jewellery had been choking me, like a heavy collar.
Sometime later, the odd sensations that I had started to get from these lifeless objects were gradually replaced with constraints resembling claustrophobia or fear of the certainty of death, and with my left brain I realized that though these "paraphernalia" seemed to depend on us, in reality we were subordinate to them according to mysterious objective laws.
The strange, fear-like feelings that I received from these taciturn objects were the superficial signs of a conscious, cold war, which they were waging against humanity. I had first realized this at my poet “friend’s” birthday party in his three-storeyed, opulent mansion that had been erected remarkably quickly in a panoramic spot after his appointment to his new job.
I remember that I felt bad because of the plentiful supply of food on the huge white, fifty-seater table surrounded with antique high-backed chairs. I felt queasy at the glittering display of plates of various sizes and dimensions, and my head spun because of the height of the enormous sideboards that leant against the walls like giant twin wrestlers. A fatal current ran through my body, and I felt as though I had fallen into a trap. Then I realized that I was hostage to the things that surrounded me.
That day I observed how my poet friend behaved with the charming dishes that had been so tastefully laid on the table – he was very careful with the long-stemmed crystal glass that lent a different hue to the wine; he hardly touched the meal with his knife and fork, as if they were suspended in the air; how gently he put his glass on the table after each sip, as if the foot of the glass would rumple the tablecloth; his wife passed modestly before the stately cupboards full of dishes – I actually saw how these people treated their belongings with timorous responsibility as if they were dealing with cruel, haughty, higher beings. That evening I realized for the first time the invincible, mysterious power of those domestic objects, seemingly lifeless and motionless on the outside, their superiority over all other all things in their durability and immortality.
My morbid fear of things was like a continuation or maybe the beginning of my poet-friend’s hidden fear of Literature.
Sometimes at the intersection of these fears I could see clearly that my friend and I were afraid of each other, two opposite poles that contradict or complement one another like body and soul, mind and feelings, openness and secrecy, or somehow excluding each other according to some mysterious law.
* * *
A fine drizzle was falling on the city on the day that the Bishop of Rome, the successor of St Peter, the legendary Pope John Paul II, arrived. Though it was the last month of spring, sleet or hail sometimes replaced the drizzle. Someone in the sky was scattering hail on the ground like seeds in a field.
The evening of the holy man’s arrival blue lightning struck the capital. Looking up at the sound of thunder, the people witnessed an unprecedented sight – miraculous celestial fireworks.
As I looked at the majestic lightning, its forks dividing the night sky into uneven quarters, I remembered the freezing midday gloom, when the red-striped plane had slowly come into land at the airport, some kilometres from the city, and the trembling old man had appeared at the plane door some minutes later. I thought of his striking move, never before made in the history of the Vatican – convening an extraordinary meeting of the college of cardinals and adopting a decision on the Roman Catholic Church’s repentance before God and mankind.
I pondered what had made this man of God take such an unexpected step and seek to wash away the sins committed inside the Vatican’s majestic walls, where the relics of many saints lay. My heart constricted as I thought of this elderly believer with his hypersensitivity to sin here in this merry country where the notion of sin had long since been lost.
Everyone found it strange that this world-famous bishop should come such a long way in his old age, when he was ill and moved with difficulty and hardly had the strength to speak, in order to address the world community from this country. What made the legendary saint of Rome do this? What was the importance of this small land of swarthy Muslims to this pale, experienced old man?
People more or less in the know at that time were sure that the Pope had come to a country that had lost land and martyrs in political unrest in recent years both to make an appeal to the people of the world and to preach a sermon. Evidently, there were more substantial, hidden reasons than we knew for praying for salvation here in a country where almost all had become material, even the voice.
A great many local and foreign reporters, photo-correspondents and a vast array of film equipment were ready to cover the Pope’s welcoming ceremony at the airport.
State officials, experienced in such protocol, stood in a wide reception line with their usual preoccupied looks and tired faces.
There was complete silence at the airport as the Vatican’s red-striped plane landed and taxied down the runway; soon after the steps were attached, the white-robed Pope appeared at the plane door, helped by his assistants. The military band that had been standing at the ready behind the reception carpet struck up the Vatican’s solemn, sorrowful anthem and the state officials began to walk slowly towards the plane.
The spiritual leader’s poor health caught the eye during the live broadcast from the airport. He was unable to move without assistance and was leaning heavily in his special chair as it was taken carefully down the plane steps. He looked around with the cold gaze of a newborn bird and seemed keen to go back.
Pope John Paul II was said to have studied his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, with the same cold gaze when he met him in his solitary confinement cell. Mehmet Ali Agca had shot at the Pope from a building near St Peter’s Square and wounded him badly. Astonished to see the Pope alive, he said: “Why didn’t you die? I know that I aimed right at you.” But the Pope completed his prayers and left the cell with silent steps.
The content of that private meeting with the prisoner, which lasted several hours, wasn’t made public. As soon as he returned to the Vatican, the Pope signed an appeal for clemency. Commenting later, he said: “This world does not have the power to make a man happy.”
The Pope revealed the mystery concerning his miraculous salvation. He said that the Virgin Mary’s hand had changed the trajectory of Mehmet Ali Agca’s bullets; it was divine intervention that saved him in the final seconds.
These are all stories… At one of the official events during the Pope’s visit, held in a huge hall full of people, my writer-friend easily managed to find me and gazed at me from his “distant land” That evening with patience and restraint he tried to reinforce what he had said a few days ago. The calmness of his voice, the strange certainty of his facial expression and something more besides gave authority to his words. Surrounded by joyful music and vociferous people bursting with health, I realized my impotence and sense of pain associated with the Pope and gave in. At that party of the arty and literary set, I suddenly felt like an awkward provincial from a poor, tumbledown village, who finds herself in a luxurious, fashionable palace, and the atmosphere made me giddy. I left halfway through the evening and made my weary way home. All night in my dreams I had to surrender to my victorious friend. I dreamt I was oppressed by a deadly silence, crushed by my colleague’s reproachful glances. I found out the truth from evidence written on yellowing papers that he tore out of thick, dusty folders tucked under his arm. Certified with colourful seals and stamps, these documents said that Galileo Galilei had really made his greatest inexcusable mistake three hundred and forty years ago: it is not the Earth and the planets that revolve around the Sun but the Sun that revolves around the planets and the Earth. My vision blurred. I realized my big mistake; I had understood Galileo’s, the Pope’s and my own powerlessness.
* * *
Guests invited to the gala evening with the Holy Father at the Presidential Palace – eminent representatives of science and culture, senior public officials and members of parliament, prominent politicians and journalists – cautiously entered the brightly lit hall, which held nothing but a few armchairs on the stage, as if they were in the familiar room for the first time; they stared at everything with great interest, maybe because of the brightness of the light, or as if it was difficult to recognize one another, and only after taking their seats did they begin to greet one another with embarrassed faces.
As if at an invisible signal, everybody in the hall suddenly rose to their feet and with a storm of applause welcomed the Pope, who was helped onto the stage by the head of state.
The Pontiff took a few weak steps towards the centre of the stage, staggered and raised a trembling hand in greeting to the guests. With the support of two young priests he sat down in a red, high-backed armchair.
The head of state opened the ceremony with kind words about the Pope. He spoke about the main political problems besetting the country – lost land and finding homes for refugees and internally displaced persons and expressed his hope that representatives of all faiths and religious communities and influential religious leaders all over the world would speak out. He also touched on important work done by various communities.
The old Pontiff couldn’t hide his exhaustion after the long journey. As he listened to the speech, his eyelids drooped and his head nodded onto his chest; from time to time he would lift his head with a start as the vigilant young priest at his shoulder bent and whispered in his ear and he would look around bleary eyed, and see the people as though for the first time, then again he would be lost in the valley of his thoughts. Sometimes, he seemed to be shaken in his boundless dreams; he would cover his face with his trembling hands, longing to get away as soon as he could. The people on the front row could see him moved to tears for some reason. He would try to fight them back, but they would get the better of him and trickle down his cheeks.
“He’s lost his mind. He’s crying,” somebody whispered behind me.
“He’s not crying, his eyes are watering,” his gruff-voiced neighbour put him right.
It was the Pope’s turn to speak after the head of state.
The Pope remained seated, gathered his strength and began.
His illness had made his tongue numb, so his speech was jerky and indistinct. While the Pope was speaking about God’s infinite mercy, about the need for patience and compassion on Earth and about the powers of merciful Literature to save the world, strange waves flowed from the stage into the semi-dark hall, gently whisking me away to an unknown place – to my forgotten childhood – to that time when I could see and know the world with pure eyes.
The stifled yawns and muffled whispers coming from the middle and back rows showed that the audience, accustomed over many years to the tension of dry, official meetings, did not accept the elderly Pontiff.
I stealthily tried to wipe away my tears, shed without sorrow or pain. I couldn’t comprehend what miracle had helped me grasp the inexplicable kinship that I had felt only through the television screen for so many years and the divine mercy that embraced me, a child yearning for its mother’s touch.
Breathing in the Pope’s broken, indistinct words like air, I tried to understand why he had come here, to this windy land. Was it a strong desire to protect us all from something that we didn’t know, or to save us from some unknown, crushing pain or might it be because of me – might it be to confirm the truth of my overly naïve, oblique feeling of the need to live, not die. Hard as I tried to investigate this, I couldn’t get a clear result.
As the Pope talked, his thoughts would frequently break off and he would stare into space as though he was reading his speech there and was anguished by it.
Suddenly, he interrupted his speech which was more of a prayer than a cleric’s talk. He raised his feeble hand above his head, gathered himself up and said weakly, despite his efforts: “Do not eat in the presence of the hungry!” He swayed slightly in his seat, paused, then said slowly, “And if you do eat, invite them to your table.”
A feverish man had summoned his final strength to utter this call to help someone. His voice spun in the air above the confused audience, hanging over the first rows.
The Pope’s call was followed by a strange disappointment in the hall. There was an unforeseen glitch in proceedings and the red stage curtain hung still. Then a children’s choir was hastily pushed on stage, interrupting the lull.
* * *
As soon as the elderly Pontiff had ended his visit – once he had been taken back to the airport and flown off to his home country, freakish changes in the climate began across the country. That evening heavy rain began to fall continuously in remote mountain areas. It resembled a tropical downpour, something unseen since the first human settlement in those parts. The rain poured for days, creating a giant stream that flowed down from the mountains and flooded the villages below. The torrent destroyed everything in its path – houses and cornfields were under water – sparking a mass panic in the provinces.
Though the weather did not change so much in the capital, towards evening the low rumbling of thunder could be heard behind the thick clouds that had blocked the sky for days. As night fell, the situation changed. The city's sewer network couldn’t cope with the rainfall and water flooded the streets, floating cars like boats. Weather forecasters said the abnormal rainfall after the Pope’s departure was historically unprecedented.
I was busy including all that had happened after the Pope’s departure in my novella, which I had started to write with divine accuracy. I carried around with me like a holy relic all the material that I had gathered on the Pope’s life and his visit; in the evenings, listening to the approach of the thunderstorms, about to strike behind the clouds and unveil an important secret, I didn’t know why but I would feel an inexplicable sense of victory. Sometimes as I wrote I would be moved to tears and cry like a child.
The story would be about the rainfall that the Pope had brought with him – about the intention of making drastic changes, about the desire to give new life to everything green and living, washing away the suffocating, grey dust that had piled up over the year, and about the roar of thunder putting the fear of God into people.
I worked incredibly hard, fearing that the story would slip out of my hands. I tried to make notes about all the natural anomalies that were sweeping the country. I almost lost my head from the continuous flood of information, the fountain of thoughts and feelings pushing, flowing and jostling into my brain.
My novella was full of rain. As I sat and wrote, the rain came down from morning till night, sometimes tapping gently on the windowpane, sometimes beating out a battle cry on the metal roof. As I continued to write, it sometimes seemed to me that my rain of words would not allow the Pope’s rain to stop.
It reached the point that I could manage the rain and my own rain of words with the same ease. Wandering the streets, I could stop the rain if I set my heart on it, and then make it rain again.
Every other day the meteorologists would forecast the end of this “rain cyclone”, as they called this “mindful rain”, and I would be overjoyed when they got it wrong. The rain with its smell of freshly mown grass wasn’t rain in heavy clouds brought by the north winds, as the forecasters said; I understood that these were rains brought to this country by the ailing Pope in order to change something here…
The unremitting gloom of the sunless sky, the empty, slippery streets, the terrifying rumble of thunder from the depths of the dark sky – a mysterious murmur from another world – had sent the country into a mass depression. But one thing was clear: something had truly changed; something had come to an end.
The North winds blowing steadily throughout the year had stirred up the sea, while dust storms had turned the trees and flowers grey. But now their colours changed. In areas washed clean by the torrents, the foundations of new, white buildings began to appear.
Even the people seemed to have changed after the Pope’s merciful rains.
An inexplicable tranquillity began to appear on the faces of the capital’s pampered residents, displacing their customary world-weary air as they thronged the streets.
Something had changed too in that important public institution’s tall building. As though shying away from something, the building seemed to have taken a few steps back, while the broad pavement in front of it had oddly narrowed. The building had shrunk too.
The emptiness of the wide pavement with its deep puddles after the incessant rain, the stillness of the huge, golden-edged entrance doors grown grey and dull in the damp, the rows of blank windows which usually glowed as darkness fell, showed that the Pope’s rain had made a difference here too – in this important state department that had made a nasty official of my tender hearted poet-friend who used once to write verse and weep.
I was practically writing my story in my sleep in order to finish it as soon as possible. During the dark nights I would worry that my writing was the imagination of a sick writer, and would remain helpless before the perfect arguments of my poet-friend who appeared in his special uniform at the decisive point in my dream.
At other times, in gloomy dreams I would see my poet-friend, horribly afraid, lost in the Pope’s rains. He was followed by my writer-friends, who were gripped by a different fear and to save them from something I would say, choking with agitation, “Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid!” I didn’t know why but I was terrified too.