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issue 19: july - august 2000 

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God's Breath
by David Ewen

 It rose from the ground and shimmied upwards, propelled by a lungful of energy, its lazy tail strung out behind. At the top of the fast hard climb it suddenly stalled and peeled off into a dive, swinging upwards again in an attenuated arc. Twenty, thirty times it swooped before becoming scrappy in its movements.
      Eighty feet below Father Irvine felt the rope tighten about his hands. His wheelchair rocked against its brake, tilting sideways, before the rope slipped from his grasp, burning his flesh as it did so.
      From behind the garden wall Sister Arlyn saw the crazy scything in the sky. She dropped her secateurs and ran towards the gate. Father Irvine was still in his wheelchair when she arrived, his head bowed towards his abraded palms. He turned towards the young nun panting at his side. 'Looks like I'm going to need a new kite,' he said with a smile.

Dinner was always served at 7 p.m. The fourteen nuns were all meat-eaters which made cooking much easier. Tonight they were having beef stew and dumplings. Sister Lindsey, the Mother Superior, spooned two dollops onto each plate and passed it along the table. The conversation was terse and functional and overshadowed by the chunky rain slapping against the convent window. Suddenly there was a new, frightening sound in the hall: a knife dancing on the floor at the feet of Father Irvine.
      'Are your hands still sore?' said Sister Lindsey, unfazed.
      'No, I'm just a little tired,' said Father Irvine.
      'A fresh knife, Sister Arlyn.'
      The young nun rose from her seat and fetched the piece of cutlery, laying it before Father Irvine whom she was seated next to. The rest of the nuns resumed eating.
      'Will you still be fit to go into town next Thursday?' said Sister Lindsey.
      'I've told you - I don't want to see any more doctors,' said the elderly monk.
      'I thought you might like to vote.'
      'For what?'
      'For your parliament,' she said wearily.
      'Did you know that the parliament building was designed by a Spaniard?' said Father Irvine, picking up his knife with a bandaged hand. 'It's based on an upturned boat. An upturned boat...' He shook his head and pushed a dumpling onto his fork.
      'Perhaps it's a symbol of a fearless, hard-working nation,' said Sister Lindsey.
      'Or one cut adrift and due to sink.'
      One of the younger nuns laughed and immediately regretted it. The Mother Superior stared at her for a second before turning back towards Father Irvine. 'Scotland would be better off on its own,' she said.
      'So would Grampian,' said the monk. 'We produce one quarter of the country's food, most of its fish, we have reasonable claim to its oil.'
      Sister Lindsey was unsure how to reply. She was about to say something when Father Irvine started coughing violently. 'Quickly!' she shouted at Sister Arlyn, 'we need to get him to his room.
      Father Irvine lay on the bed, curled upon himself like a baby bird. His body was pallid and degraded except for the bulbous nose which hung like a drip from his face. Sometimes Sister Arlyn imagined he was melting, draining away like a snowman. She would laugh at the thought until she remembered he was dying from lung cancer.
      'Do you want some water?' she said when he finally stirred. The monk looked at her questioningly. ‘You collapsed. It's two in the morning.' Father Irvine coughed again, gently this time, stifling the sound with his hand. As he took it away he noticed two neat globules of blood on the bandage, joined by a string of pinkish saliva. He closed his eyes again and lent back against his pillow.
      'Help me, please . .
      Father Irvine stared up at Jesus. The two men either side of him were dead, their mouths and eyes packed with the fine red dust which reeled around the crosses like phantom dancers. In the distance he could hear jackdaws, cawing in the hills high above Calvary, impatient for the dawn.
      'Help me, please,' said Jesus.
      
By morning the rain had stopped. Snow lay like mildew across the mountains. There were few jagged peaks, few ostensible dangers, but looking towards the sprawling,
      cliff-bitten tundra, Sister Lindsey could appreciate the scale of the Cairngorms; the ease of getting lost in mist, the difficulty of escape. She turned away from the window and walked back towards her desk.
      'We can't force him to go into hospital,' she said to Sister Arlyn who stood before her, hands clasped reverentially.
      'But that's where he belongs,' protested the young nun.
      'I agree but we have an obligation. Caring for the sick is something we've always done. The Sisters have looked after men from his order for hundreds of years.'
      'He needs a nurse, a proper nurse.
      'He knows that.'
      Sister Arlyn became distressed, 'So why doesn't he ask for one?' she said. 'Why doesn't he go into hospital?'
      'Maybe he's in denial.' The Mother Superior sat down at her desk. 'I watched my father die in the same way; watched him cough himself inside-out. He kept working, kept joking, kept on as normal until the blood came. Then I watched him turn into a child, just like me... ten years old... clinging to life like it was some kind of favourite doll. It wasn't brave: it was a tantrum. He had nothing to hold onto in death because he had nothing to hold onto in life, only politics, God bless him.' She stood up and approached Sister Arlyn. 'Do you know why a newborn baby cries? Because its first breath burns. For most people the last one's no easier. When my father started whimpering, that's when I stopped. You've got to be strong Sister Arlyn. For Father Irvine.'
      Father Irvine stood before Jesus, regarding his fret then his hands, then his fret again.
      'Please, help me,' said Jesus.
      The monk took a step backwards and started to undo the rope around his cassock, still staring at the crude iron pegs pinning Jesus to the cross. He let the garment fall into the dust and remained where he was, quite naked.
      'What are you doing?'
      Father Irvine was jolted from his reverie and found Sister Arlyn dragging his wheelchair backwards. You could have gone over the edge,' she said desperately.
    
'I'm sorry, I must have fallen asleep.'
      ‘Why didn't you lock your wheels?'
      'I thought I did. I couldn't have put the brake on properly. It's quite stiff. It needs some oil.'
      Sister Arlyn swung him around and headed back towards the convent. You're lucky. I was just coming to get you for lunch.'
      'What is for lunch?' he said calmly. Sister Arlyn was still angry and didn't reply. 'It's apple-pie for dessert, isn't it?'
     'Yes,' she conceded. 'With raspberries.'
      'Will you help me build a new kite?' he said without pause.
      'I don't know anything about kites...'
      'I'll tell you what to do. We just need materials - some twine, some glue, some polythene.'
      ‘We don't have any polythene here.'
      'We could even paint it.'
      'I'd have to ask the Mother Superior.'
      'She doesn't need to know.'
      'She'll see you flying it.'
      ‘We could paint her face on it. She could watch over us all.' Sister Arlyn suppressed a little smile.
      At lunch a radio broadcast replaced the sound of the weather. The newsreader described a serious car crash involving two German tourists. There was some cheery news about plans to build a new sports stadium on the outskirts of Aberdeen and then an election update. The Nationalists were said to be trailing Labour by four points in the opinion polls.
      You can switch it off now,' said Sister Lindsey to an elderly nun. 'It looks like we'll need your vote, Father Irvine.'
      'I meant what I said about independence for the region,' he said. ‘Why should we share our wealth with the Central Belt when the Nationalists refuse to share Scotland's wealth with England?'
      'Because we're all Scots, that's why.'
      'I'm sorry but it means nothing to me. It's just a line on a map.
      'Have you got no sense of history?'
      'Scotland has traditionally been at war with itself'
      'Not since the days of St Columba. "That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer in the ruins of Iona." Dr Johnson's observation.'
      'St Columba came from Ireland. He was a Gael, not a Pict.'
      'He was a Christian,' said Sister Lindsey firmly.
      That evening Sister Arlyn approached the Mother Superior about Father Irvine's desire to build a new kite. Sister Lindsey continued to light candles in the chapel as the young nun spoke.
      ‘You mustn't encourage him,' said Sister Lindsey. You saw his hands.'
      'He said they're healing.'
      'An infection could kill him.'
      'He's dying as it is,' said Sister Arlyn with mild irritation.
      'I've told you, we're all dying. That's no reason to get hysterical.'
      'It's only a kite.' Sister Lindsey stared at the young nun, taken aback by her dissent. 'He said he wants to feel God's breath,' continued Sister Arlyn.
      'And what does that mean?'
      'I think he just wants to be outside.'
      'He can go outside. But no kite.'
      When Sister Arlyn told Father Irvine this, he seemed distraught, inordinately so. She had waited a few days before doing so and chose a sunny afternoon in the garden, hoping the pleasant weather would detract from his disappointment. It didn't, yet he seemed reluctant to explain why.
      'Do you think Jesus was a good carpenter?' he said. 'The Bible doesn't say much about his day job, does it?'
      You sound disrespectful,' said Sister Arlyn.
      'Do you think it would be it was a family business. "Joseph and Son"?'
      'It would be God and Son,' said Sister Arlyn, piqued by the danger of the conversation.
      'That's really living in the shadow of your father, isn't it? God makes a man, Jesus makes a chair. Maybe that's why he started doing miracles; to get his old man's respect.'
      Sister Arlyn composed herself. 'It's not God's fault you're ill,' she said.
      ‘Yes it is. He made us mortal.'
      'And Jesus offers us immortality.'
      'I don't feel let down. I feel like I've let Jesus down.'
      Father Irvine proceeded to describe a recurring dream. He could offer no elucidation but admitted it left him feeling guilty. In his dream he came upon Jesus after his crucifixion. Rather than rescuing him, he tied his cassock to the cross and flew it like a kite, using his belt to control it.
      'Jesus was terrified at first but then he started to relax and enjoy himself' he said. 'He forgot about his fear and the pain in his hands and feet' Father Irvine smiled but became solemn. 'And then the wind changed direction and he got tangled up in a tree. Every time it happens and every time I feel so guilty, so ashamed. Me, naked. Jesus, stuck up a tree…’
      Sister Arlyn started chuckling.
      ‘You're right,' said Father Irvine. 'It's not such a bad sin.' The rain had returned by Election Day but Sister Lindsey was as cheery as she had ever been. She bullied the mini-bus along the narrow sodden mountain road, making the nuns feel uneasy. 'So are you going to tell who you're going to vote for?' She looked across at Father Irvine, seated next to her.
      'Does it matter?' he said.
      'Not as long as it's the Nationalists,' she said, laughing.
      Father Irvine craned his head towards the back of the bus. 'Is there anybody here not voting for the Nationalists?' Nobody raised their hand. He faced the front. You should get a job as a whip,' he said. Sister Lindsey laughed again.
      The polling station was a school in the centre of town. After everybody had voted, Sister Lindsey called them together by the bus which was parked outside. From beneath a vast golfing umbrella she told the group they had exactly two hours to themselves in town.
      Most of the nuns went shopping, others went swimming, and some stayed on the bus to read. Father Irvine and Sister Arlyn found themselves in a tearoom, sharing a pot of coffee and a hunk of carrot cake. They spoke about many things, including Father Irvine's decision to become a monk.
      'My dad was annoyed I didn't work in his garage,' he said. 'He thought I was a "poof'. So did I for a while. I never felt attracted to men but. . .I was suspicious of my calling for a long time. One day I was a young lad, smoking fags, drinking my dad's beer, chasing girls. Next thing I was heading into a monastery to settle down with God for the rest of my life. It felt right, but it didn't seem right.' He poured some more coffee; it tasted so much better than the boiling water he'd been forced to drink. 'Then I met Father Tom. He said there wasn't a day that went by that he didn't think about having a family, but that made his commitment to God even stronger. Feeling awkward was part of the deal.'
      'And how did your dad react?' said Sister Arlyn.
      'He said he felt awkward. Black-affronted. He never really forgave me.
      Father Irvine coughed and wiped a tiny trace of blood from his lips. 'So why did you become a nun?'
      'Julie Andrews. I saw The Sound of Music on TV one Christmas. I must have been about seven or eight. I just decided then and there that I wanted to be a nun, even when I found out you didn't spend all day walking about, singing in fields.'
      'I used to enjoy the chanting,' he said. 'I had a good voice, even when I smoked sixty a day. It was quite rough. I was the Louis Armstrong of the order.'
      When they returned to the bus, Sister Lindsey already had the engine running. She never noticed the massive sheet of polythene hidden beneath Father Irvine's cassock, or the saw and hammer he had bought from B&Q
      Back at the convent Father Irvine set to work on his kite. He explained to Sister Arlyn that they needed to bow the cross-beam with some rope so the face would catch the wind. He told her about the aerodynamic principle that would help the kite correct itself She had never flown on a plane, far less heard of a dihedral, but could see the need for some sort of stabilisation. They also, she learned, needed some kind of tail to anchor the kite in the sky.
      They worked in his bedroom, out of sight of Sister Lindsey who believed Sister Arlyn was reading to the old monk. Even though he was only issuing instructions, Father Irvine found himself exhausted at the end of each day. One balmy evening, when the hills glowed like cinders and thousands of rooks milled overhead like insects, he was joined on the porch by the Mother Superior. For a few seconds she too said nothing and followed his gaze, out across the unfurling green of the glen and beyond to the Cairngorms which still wore their cornices like quiffs.
      'Solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant,' he said wheezily.
      'They make a desert and they call it peace,' translated Sister Lindsey.
      Father Irvine gestured towards the hills. 'This is where Calgacus defied the Romans,' he said. 'Mons Graupius. The rest of Scotland capitulated.'
      'Why are you so interested in the past but not the future?'
      'History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats.'
      'Johnson?' said Sister Lindsey, trying to place the quotation.
      'Elvis Costello.' Father Irvine gave a liquidy cough. 'Were you disappointed by the turnout last Thursday?'
      'Why vote for the right to vote and then not vote?'
      'Because people are greedy.'
      Sister Lindsey smiled respectfully. 'My father spent his whole life campaigning for home-rule,' she said. 'He'd have been heart-broken. The turnout was just half in some places.'
      'Maybe patriotism's as much a myth as the Loch Ness monster, just this big daft thing people want to believe in because they're too scared to believe in themselves.'
      'And do you believe in God, Father Irvine?'
      'Do you?'
      'Of course.'
      'How can you be so sure he exists?'
      'I've devoted my life to him,' said Sister Lindsey sternly.
     'Your dad devoted his to independence.'
      'I have faith, Father Irvine.'
      'I have faith in the sun rising tomorrow, even though I might not be here to see it. I have faith in those rooks being made from flesh and feathers. It's easy to believe in fact. It's the little nugget of doubt that makes faith what it is.'
      'Is that what you tell Sister Arlyn?'
      'Sometimes I want to tell her to leave here, find a boyfriend, have a family.'
      'Is that what you wished you'd done?'
      'I really don't think people choose to have family. When they're young they have all these ambitions. It could be working hard or not working at all but at the end of the day it doesn't matter what they want from life, it's what life wants from them, and that's more life, kids. At least we've made a genuine choice. We voted.'
      'For what, though?' asked Sister Lindsey.
      'For God.' Father Irvine looked again towards the hills. 'For God,' he repeated quietly to himself.
      By the end of May, Father Irvine's cancer had seized control of his lungs - a spectacular coup. He sounded like a coffee percolator; his fetid breath curdled in his throat, discharging with an ominous watery rasp. Sister Lindsey had called the doctor. The young GP stood at the side of the bed.
      ‘You would be more comfortable in hospital,' he said.
      'Sedated,' said Father Irvine weakly. 'I'd be more sedated.' The doctor sighed and looked across at Sister Lindsey, clearly exasperated. She could only shrug. His tone became impatient
      'Believe me, you'll be grateful for the care you'll get in hospital. And you will only get it in hospital.'
      Father Irvine reached across to a bowl of fruit at the bedside and tilted it upwards. 'Does anybody want a pomegranate?' he said.
      ‘You're behaving like a child,' said Sister Lindsey, her cheeks flushing. Father Irvine let the bowl down suddenly. A pomegranate fell to the floor and rolled across the room. Sister Lindsey turned to Sister Arlyn who was standing behind her. ‘You speak to him!' she commanded.
      'I've got nothing to say,' said Sister Arlyn.
      'I thought you were concerned for him?'
      'I am.'
      'Then talk to him!'
      The doctor shook off his embarrassment. 'Excuse me for saying this,' he said to Father Irvine, 'but you're still strong enough to hurt very badly. You'll need morphine. God won't be able to save you from the pain.'
      'I'd feel cheated if he did,' replied Father Irvine facetiously. Sister Lindsey could take no more.
      'I'm sorry doctor, we're wasting your time,' she said, motioning towards the door. 'Give him his supper,' she said to Sister Arlyn, following the doctor out of the room. The door shut behind them. Sister Arlyn picked up the pomegranate and placed it back in the bowl.
      'I was thinking,' said Father Irvine, 'maybe we should have built a box-kite. They're a lot more complicated but they're brilliant things, like a Chinese lantern but really efficient in the air. They don't even need a tail.'
      'But we wouldn't have been able to hide it under the bed,' said Sister Arlyn.
      Yes, and I probably wouldn't have seen it completed.' He let out a long, theatrical gasp. 'We'd better get the paint out.'
       
 The following morning was the last of May. The silver birch trees around the convent had already lost some of their vitality; the lime green leaves had grown dark and coarse. On the high tops the snow had receded, making the vast flatbacked mountains look like killer whales moving behind the mist.
      Sister Arlyn pushed Father Irvine across the wet pink gravel of the convent forecourt. The kite they had laboured to build rested on the footbar, its sections screwed together. It wasn't until they had reached the cliff-top and started to unravel the long heavy rope that Sister Lindsey spotted them. She pulled away from the landing window and walked hurriedly down the stairs, accelerating towards the door.
      The young nun released the kite eighty feet in front of Father Irvine. Her hair was shorn; the plaid which had once hung down her back now formed the tail. Father Irvine was naked. He grimaced as tried to control the kite. Blood seeped through the bandages on his hands as the rope again tightened. Both Father Irvine and Sister Arlyn were in a thrall to the shaking, twisting, refractory kite.
      It was only ten feet above the ground when Sister Lindsey drew near. The kite, she realised, was huge, at least eight feet wide and twelve deep. By now Father Irvine was upright in his wheelchair, liberated by the force of the wind. He must let go, she thought, he must, but the old monk held on doggedly. The kite started to climb, surging upwards like a giant ray. It lifted Father Irvine clean out of his wheelchair.
      As Sister Lindsey reached him she instinctively grabbed his legs, coiling her arms around his ankles. For a moment the kite's ascent was halted, but it seemed only to pause for breath. The pair were five, ten feet above the ground: too high to let go now. Father Irvine clung desperately to the rope and Sister Lindsey to his legs as the kite rose skywards, the St Andrew's cross painted on its polythene skin appearing brilliant in the sunlight
      The kite continued out over the crag, high above the tangle of heather and sedge grass, sweeping towards the clouds, towards the plump black mountains, and as it did so Sister Arlyn clapped wildly, bringing blisters to her palms.
 

2000 David Ewen

"God's Breath" appears in the collection The Canongate Prize for New Writing:  Scotland in the New Era, published by Canongate Books, Scotland., 2000. This electronic version is published by The Barcelona Review by kind arrangement with the publisher. Book ordering available through www.canongate.net

This story  may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author's bio
                                     

David Ewen was born in Aberdeen. He studied engineering at university and now works as a journalist with the Evening Express in his hometown. He has also scripted Norman Love: Burglar, voted Best Short at the Edinburgh Fringe Film and Video Festival.
navigation:                         barcelona review #19                    july - august 2000
-Fiction James Meek: These Lovers
James Meek: And the Days Grow Shorter
Lynn Coady: Jesus Christ, Murdeena
David Ewen: God's Breath
Patricia Anthony: Owl Says
Abel Diaz: Comfortable
-Essay Barbara F. Lefcowitz: Rope, Pockets, The Bidet
-Interview Patricia Anthony: Worlds at War
-Article July and August in Barcelona
-Quiz Toni Morrison
Answers to last issue's William Faulkner Quiz
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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