The Pope had written the words:
"Clear enough behind soft white smiles: the tongue. And beyond that: the breath. And beyond that? Nothing."
But when asked what he had meant by this, he said very little. He chewed the inside of his cheek. He wanted us to guess.
The Pope (he asked me to call him Tomás but I declined his offer) recalled his youth for me. "I was a magnificent dancer," he said, "back in Flores." He took a sip of his tea. "The women loved for me to sway them through the bars and out into the night."
"The women?" I asked.
At noon he ate a salad with a ginger ale, out on his patio. His assistants clustered about him, watching the artful stillness of his body, the immense breaths between bites. I sat at the table with him. He asked me about God, about all God's secrets. I guess I wanted to impress him, to surprise him. I told him that God loved rot and rust especially, that they were his first-borns, his most natural laws. The Pope stirred his drink with his pinky finger and did not look up when I'd finished speaking.
"Can I bum one of those?" he asked, pointing to the pack of cigarettes I'd brought. I slid them over. I was very nervous. Before flying in for this interview I'd been part-time at K-WLX for the last year, but still I needed to work four days a week at RadioShack. Holly told me The Pope was our ticket out of poverty. But sitting there with him now, watching him smoke one of my Winstons, I felt uncomfortable regarding him in this way. "Thank you," The Pope said, and blew a sheet of white into the air. "Ask me something?"
Sometimes, when an interview was going either very well or very poorly, I caught myself drawing on my notes. The drawings looked like this:
I looked up from my legal pad. My mind twisted in my head and my heart raced (I have a condition), but I retained my composure and asked my next question. "Do you feel, when you're lying in bed each night, like you have missed out on something important?"
The Pope smiled at once. He leaned back, draped an arm over the back of his chair. "I feel," he said, taking a deep drag and letting it out, "as if long ago I dove into the crisp water, and that now as I swim through this clean, clear water, I sometimes fail to feel the sun in its full force, or to hear the chants the birds all carry. Some things I can not meet from where I sit." Whenever he spoke he stroked the arm of his chair, as though that were his way of learning the world. "But you understand this. Your expression is: one foot in and one foot out. Isn't it?"
I thought about Holly, the snow of her body laid out across the bed, which with a touch became possessed with pink. Certain extraordinary suffering sends one leaping from the boat. Every night one of us wept, either she or I, though sometimes both. I felt monstrous letting us go on like that. But we were in love, and still could kiss like two defibrillators.
The Pope's smoke went out, so I relit it for him. He gave a great sigh. The cool air of the morning had dissipated, and the sun swelled to reveal a spectacle of wounds dashed across the old man's face. In such light, the white of his skullcap and robe had become furious and blinding.
I tried to ask another question: "Would you say," I asked, "that you had a normal childhood--Relatively speaking?" His assistants had brought out a large steel oscillating fan which clicked back and forth beside him, causing every ten seconds his wide white eyebrows to flutter.
"I fell ill a lot," he said. "As a child, my eyelids would crust together in my sleep. When I awoke, I'd be unable to open them. Sometimes I had to sit in that darkness for hours. My mother would take my hand and guide me to the sink, where she had prepared a bowl of warm water to pour over my eyes. My mother pouring bowl after bowl, to soften them up."
One of the assistants sneezed. The Pope smiled, still looking down at the table.
"She sounds very kind," I said, but he seemed not to hear me. He thumbed the petals of the centerpiece carefully: a heap of dusk-colored jacarandas pouring up from a thin white vase. The Pope lifted the vase. He tipped it back and forth, slowly, allowing bits of water to dribble away. The contents were not afraid.
He wondered aloud, "How do they get them that color?"
Together we watched the flowers, which trembled now and then in tandem with his hand.
He held them up to the light, allowing the petals their translucence. "Must be a dye," he said sadly, and set them down again.
I noticed that something had shifted in his assistants, their body language had stiffened and they had begun glancing at each other fretfully. I persisted with the interview.
"And growing up, who would you say was your greatest hero?"
He popped the tip of his cigarette against the leg of the table—pop, pop; like that—to extinguish it. "I think it would be best if we went to the swimming hole for the remainder of this interview," he said, running his finger across his jawline. And then he said, "We're not so good at goodbyes yet, are we?" and rose from his seat, prompting the swarm of assistants to suddenly scatter.
The last time I'd left the country, I brought Holly with me. I'd been assigned a story on the drug cartel, and together we had driven down to Guadalajara. There, a faint longing hung everywhere. Holly bought me a candle, I remember, depicting Christ in pain. She bought me several chocolates, which we ate while stuck in traffic. I was telling Holly about my dream, I remember. Along the roads, children would knock on our windows, trying to sell us tissue boxes for 25 pesos. The tissue boxes too depicted Christ in pain. At one point, we came upon a boy who did not seem to want any money. He stood at an intersection, screaming at the sky. The sky could not hear him. His voice got caught in the ugly heights of the buildings.
"Then the dream ends with me meeting my hero," I said. "Which one?"
"Gerard Manley Hopkins."
"The actor?" she asked. "
"But why were you climbing the tree?"
"I was feeding bubblegum to the ants." We had been sitting at the red light for what felt like half an hour. Holly dropped the car into neutral, and the engine idled low.
The boy stood right outside my window, screaming. Although the sun was out, a slight rain fell like static over everything.
"I don't think anyone actually knows you," Holly said to me suddenly. The boy went on screaming. Strands of his hair thrashed against his forehead.
"Well, actually," I said, "actually, I'm intimate with lots of people. All kinds of people, willing to share themselves with me."
"Necesito sobrevivirme!" the boy screamed, "Necesito sobrevivirme!" which I understood to mean, 'I need to survive myself,' but could not make sense of beyond the simple act of translation.
"Though I do lie to myself," I said. "Almost everyday I find I'm lying to myself." Holly smiled blankly at me. She was unwilling to understand, would not spend the effort. "Holly?" I said.
I looked out at the boy one last time before the light turned green. Thin, white lacerations were spilled across his face like nails along a hardwood floor. The sunlight collected in his oversized t-shirt, and turned him into a paper-lantern. He went on screaming, his voice curling about the savage wires of that city.
The Pope, small in stature and gifted all over with dents, glided through the hum of spring. Jagged olive trees wended along the walkway, hunched and marred by the years of pruners who'd cut them from the path.
The Pope had, by that time, made a lot of changes to the palace. Many were upset by his decisions to fire the in-house butcher and tear down all the window blinds.
He leaned toward me as we walked. "L'uragano," he said. "Around here they have this nickname for me."
At the swimming hole, the assistants had already set up several white umbrellas and deck chairs before we'd arrived, as well as a rolling cart which held a stack of phonograph records and a small wooden victrola. Large drops of sun fell through the trees.
He had wishes too, The Pope. I had only to ask what they were. "The weather's so nice today," I said.
He didn't respond. He touched the horn of the victrola, brass painted around the rim with little white morning glories. "Do you like Bach?" he asked. "How about Blind Willie Johnson?" He shuffled his records for a time, then put on something else, some compromise he'd made with himself, which seemed not to please anyone exactly. "As a child I sometimes sang instead of sobbing," he said, "My mother approved of this, and did her best to keep me at it. But the war held us all by the throat for so very long." He closed his eyes.
"The war—" I began.
"Nevertheless!" he said, and this word he pronounced quite slowly, and with great intention, "Music is the wind within the hurricane! In the end it can not be vanquished by means of fire, only made more ferocious." He held his hands high in the air, as though he were a conductor. They remained raised long after he'd finished speaking, craggy fingers pointing up to something, eyes closed tightly the whole time. Then he looked out at the body of water. "They told me it would be good cardiovascular training," he said, and removed his robe and hat, revealing swim shorts underneath.
The Pope had no jewelry, only a ribbon which he kept always tied around his wrist. It was pink and tattered, faded very badly at one end. He told me a little girl in Sierra Leone had given it to him, ten days before dying of an easily curable illness. "That girl understood darknesses I will never be able to imagine," he told me. "Such shadows are woven through the bloodstream of even fragile angels such as her. I keep this always, to remind myself of her face, of all the things I can not know."
Holly did not believe in God, and I had never thought to tell her that I did. The night before I left, she told me my temperament was milk-warm.
"Milk-warm?" I said. "Is that the expression?" She told me that when we went out to places, restaurants and bars, I never talked to anyone.
"I'm tired of having to smile at the waitress for the both of us," she said.
For the past week, she had refused to sleep in the bedroom with me. Every night except one, after she'd slashed her arms to ribbons; she curled into a ball and let me hold her til she twitched to sleep. I laid awake that night and thought of dying, of how calm it must be. I thought to myself, There is only so much in this world to be afraid of, but what there is to fear I fear.
I sat by the water in the navy blue tie and the shoes which I'd bought for this trip. The Pope played in the water nearby, giggling at the way the splashes rose and fell onto his skin. He floated on his back for several minutes, long enough that his assistants began to grow anxious. He spoke as he floated toward me, without opening his eyes. "What ails you, my child?"
"Nothing," I said, "Nothing does."
"No one really knows you," he said, "do they." Then he said, "The lips become a nest for all the things we can not say," and began swimming in tight circles, which gradually increased in size. Then, he stopped and, grinning, splashed me. "Bock, bock?" he asked coyly. The water bled into my dress-shirt and cooled my body.
"Do you ever wish God could advise you directly?" I asked.
"God gets in the way enough already," he said, "I don't want Him to say a word to me." His feet emerged and vanished over and over. "You know, I have a pacemaker. You really shouldn't get me so worked up about Him."Then he said, "I insist you try this. It's divine," and spit a bit of water out.
"Wonderful!" He said, and powered toward the center of the water.
Facing away from him, away from all the assistants, I slid my clothes over my body and left them in the pit of a rock. As I stepped toward the water, the silt beneath my feet sank away, shrinking me by an inch and a quarter. Then I leapt in, ripping the water apart with my limbs. I surfaced, and found The Pope right next to me. The leaves in the trees seemed to applaud.
"Wonderful!" He said again. "Wonderful." He stood and watched himself in the warped surface of the water. After a moment, he said softly, "Eventually we give the body away, one way or another." A gasp from the assistants, as a branch floated past him. Why did his smile seem to come from outside himself, I wondered.
So close to him, I saw for the first time a copper colored scar, draped over his shoulder and hanging down his back. It curled finally up his neck and disappeared behind the ear. I tried to imagine him as a kid with a rifle,crouched in a trench and pleading with God. I thought of asking about the war, but I didn't. I laid down on the surface of the water and I hummed to the distant music. I watched the heavens spread out above me, and thought to myself: half the world is made of sky. The clouds appeared to wrinkle against the wind. The trees lashed the skylike inverse lightning. Here is how it looked:
Every branch straying from itself in static ecstasy, and the sun writing poems on the leaves.
"Isn't it almost dinner time?" the Pope asked, but I pretended not to hear him. The sky was a rind of sun falling. I imagined what it would sound like, if I were close enough to the sun to hear it, the rush of red thunder, like a boiling lake.
Anecdote: The Pope surrenders himself once, to a girl named Maria. When he gets home from work each night, she massages his hands for him.
"Maria," he says, but quietly, and to himself. When he is with her, The Pope needs no interviews. In the dark, she lets him lay his head in her lap. The tips of her fingers ring just like church bells. 'Mi cielito,' she calls him. Her little heaven.
Walking back to the palace, a sudden wind swept through us, catching The Pope's hat and lifting it high into the air. Up in the sky it looked just like a kite. Several of his assistants ran after it, and when it finally landed they fought over it, tacitly, so as not to let him see them fighting. The one who finally ripped it away from the others—a tall, gaunt man — brought it to The Pope and bowed, smirking.
"Yes, my child," The Pope said, but handed the hat back to him and kept walking. We came to the entrance of the palace. Overhead, the night built up like a cough, and seemed to place us in another world entirely.
"Daniel," The Pope said, turning to this assistant, "prepare a room for our guest, please." The assistant glowered at me, and then turned and entered the palace. The Pope said, "I'll show you your room," but I did not know what to say. I certainly hadn't expected to stay here in the palace. I'd booked a hotel room for the next three nights. But The Pope smiled warmly, and I followed him inside.
On the morning I'd left for the trip, Holly made me breakfast and tried to apologize. "Stop crying. Please,"she had said. "Stop." She poured me another cup of coffee and then, into that, the cream. She did this very slowly, trying to fill it all the way to the lip of the cup without it overflowing. I touched the soft, swollen marks on my cheek. The night before she had thrown a drink in my face, a vodka on the rocks, and the ice had somehow left my face littered with tiny pink scratches.
We sat and we watched the coffee, the way the white clouds encircled themselves and converged into gray at the center. I could see vibrations on the surface, from our breathing. Then the coffee dribbled over and pooled on the tablecloth. "Damn it!" she said, and rose to get a hand towel.
That same morning, outside the airport, I had nearly stepped on a bird, huddled in the middle of the sidewalk. She appeared to be asleep, and stood with her head bowed into her breast, her little eyes closed. I knelt down beside her, to get a better look. All the feathers had fallen from her face, leaving an infant pink behind. I blew on her, in case she was dead. She trembled lightly, but kept her eyes closed. Her wings were ruffled and gray, though they came to a sudden blue tip. Rather than sleeping, she seemed to be waiting.
A janitor came up behind me and pulled out one of his earbuds. "It's dead?" he asked me, and knelt down beside me, removing his rubber gloves.
"It's breathing," I said. Immediately, and in a gesture that never would have occurred to me, the janitor calmly held out a finger to the bird,—and the bird, as if mesmerized, climbed onto the finger without opening her eyes. The janitor raised the bird up to eye-level. We watched the sun cast a golden film over her body. She shuddered and hiccupped. Then the bird opened her eyes, and looked at both of us. Something clicked in her ands he panicked, took flight—but a jagged, weary flight, lurching and much too low to the ground. Her body thumped into the windshield of a nearby car. She sat there a moment, stunned, and then took off again, disappearing into the trees.
"I guess it's not ready," the janitor had said, and put his gloves back on.
At nine o'clock, everything becomes quiet. Hundreds of nightlights line the palace halls, and with asingle flick The Pope ignites them all. Together they cast the most feathery blue glow. The Pope wears his long red night shirt, which looks very much like the white robes he's worn all day. Except that against the red of the cloth, his face seems very pale, a rush of blue at each of his temples. There are times when Holly asks me questions without answers. Times when dark circles form beneathher loving eyes. But at other times, she becomes my ancestor, my beloved child, and we touch each other like the leaves in the trees touch. Though there are more important things to think of now, I remind myself. How does The Pope feel about the current unrest in Venezuela? I ask him. "I feel," he begins, "that we are all part of thesputtering surface of a single great fire, and we long to return to the explosive depths of silence." I believe him, although he has missed a button on his pajamas.
"Do you want to hear a story?" he asks.
"Wonderful!" He bounces on his heels and walks over to a bookshelf. Two of the shelves, I realize, are devoted to picture-books. He pulls one from the shelf, a book called The Tawny Scrawny Lion. He puts on a pair of eyeglasses and tells me to sit on the rug.
"Once!" he begins, "there was a tawny, scrawny, hungry lion who never could get enough to eat." From down here on the rug, I can see The Pope's bare feet peeking out from beneath his nightshirt. I am sure I had more questions for The Pope, but at the moment they escape me. "He chased monkeys on Monday, kangaroos on Tuesday, zebras on Wednesday, bears on Thursday, camels on Friday, and on Saturday, elephants!" He turns the book around to show me the pictures. They look like this:
"The other animals didn't feel safe. They stood at a distance and tried to talk things over with the Tawny,Scrawny Lion." The Pope runs his fingers over an illustration, which makes a shhh sound. "Just then, a fat little rabbit came hopping through the forest, picking berries. All the big animals looked at him and grinned slyly. 'Rabbit!' they said. 'Oh you lucky rabbit! We appoint you to talk things over with the lion.'"
I can see, when he holds the book out for me, that The Pope bites his nails a lot. "Well," The Pope continues, "that made the little rabbit feel very proud. 'What shall I talk about?' he asked eagerly. 'Oh any oldthing,' said the big animals. 'The important thing is to go right up close.' So the fat little rabbit hopped right up tothe big hungry lion and counted his ribs."
Born in Asheville, Grey Wolfe LaJoie is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama. Their writing and visual art have appeared or are forthcoming in Shenandoah, Mid-American Review, Dream Pop, Carolina Quarterly, Jersey Devil, and here at Puerto del Sol.