A confused tourist attempts to find solace and answers to profound questions in a cathedral. An alien or an angel disguised as a tramp offers advice and comfort which seers and burns.
Alien Encounter During Evensong
A short Story
by B. B. Riefner
Of course the filthy bastard is demented, Joseph Ansell thought watching the man moving about in unmatched tennis shoes. Tall and portly, he possessed unusual grace and a remarkable springy lightness as he half danced through the aisles straightening the hymnals and The Book Of Common Prayer. It was thoroughly meticulous effort, as he went back and forth from row to row like a bird dog working a field for game. Ansell began to imagine he once been a priest, at least tried to become one, or at the very bottom, had some religious training because of his self assurance.
Norwich Cathedral was almost entirely empty as the man came to where Joseph Ansell was sitting, and eased himself into the same pew, which creaked as he slid his abundant body along its polished oak until he was only a scant yard away. Ansell had been holding his breath ever since spotting the man at the far side of the building. He hated being approached by beggars or Jehovah’s Witnesses. By nature he was diametrically opposed to giving anything to beggars.
As the reek of the man slowly drifted unto him, Ansell regretted his decision to stop and sightsee. He did not have a weak stomach, but he despised strange odors and rank smells. Silently he cursed himself for not getting up and leaving immediately. That would have been his normal course of action. Usually he had few qualms about insulting or hurting other’s feelings.
The proximity made it natural to examine the man. Besides his odors, the outstanding features were his hair and beard which were both overly thick and filthy which he continuously ran his fingers through first his beard and then his hair. In the half light Ansell saw the dust showering down. The lower part of the beard was a dingy white, while the upper half, where it entered the blackened pores of his cheeks and upper chin, was a flaming red. His crown was a mousey gray sprinkled with bits of red. Both were just as shabby as his trousers, and he was so filthy his skin shone from the ingrained layers of dirt.
No one seemed ready to throw the man out otherwise he would not be sitting while his foul smells threatened to soil Ansell’s clothes. The layered odors covered every part of the man, and the hallo of rot was starting to drown Joseph.
The tramp carried a sleeping bag as clean as he was not, so Ansell speculated it was newly stolen but he also assumed that in a week or so it would be in the same condition as its owner. The man carried it as though it were a child, or held some fragile treasures bound up inside. He had carefully placed it beside him, opposite Ansell, when he sat, and his quick penetrating glance gave Ansell the idea that this outcast was afraid it would be pilfered. That amused him.
It was just as impossible for Ansell to ignore the man’s nose as his stench. The nose was large, fleshy bulb, puffy on its left side, and bent … No twisted … As if someone had tried to break it off in some long ago melee. Although it was not yet the veined red nose of a sot, it was never the less a nose which bespoke of many drunken hours. The bum turned to face him, smiling benignly, and keeping time to the organ music coming from the loft, by nodding his head. When the choir took up, he filled its dreadfully weak areas with a fine baritone. It was that tone which took Joseph Ansell’s thoughts back nine days.
The husband had that same kind of voice. Only he wasn’t singing as he bent over his wife Ansell saw them in the rental car’s headlights as he came around a sharply banked curve on a dangerously narrow back road in Southern Scotland. It was raining. It was always raining. Everything he owned was damp, wet or soaked. The car heater was on full blast, even though it was the middle of July. Ansell found it impossible to get warm except when he was huddled under piles of blankets in some little Bed and Breakfast, Inn or cheap hotel.
It was the sharp turn that forced him to slow so much the man bent over the woman could have reached out and opened the car door without injuring himself. The man was yelling so loudly there was nothing he could do but stop. God what a mistake, he thought.
The man stood over the jack knifed body of a woman, her back braced by his knees and legs. The lower parts of her were resting in a pool of icy water which seeped out of a shallow roadside ditch. Neither of them had on any rain gear, so they were both soaked. He got out, already not liking the way her head was slumped forward on her breasts. All he wanted was some sign of movement that would allow him get back in the car and move on. The man almost screamed.
“ Walking we were---just taking a little stroll---camped over there---it had stopped raining for a bit---Grace and I thought it would be nice---come on, Freddy, she said----walk a little and stretch our legs, darling. Then ---she called me name and fell---down into that ditch---she’s hadthese spells before.”
The deep purple cheeks were almost becoming. He had to force his fingers to touch her chin, which was Lilly white. As he raised it, her upper plate fell in his open palm. He thought he heard a sigh staring at the cheap set of dentures, trying to remember what he was supposed to do. It had been years since the CPR course. Still holding her head and teeth he asked, “How long has she been like this?”.
“About ten minutes. Perhaps only five. I really don’t know,” was the vague reply. Ansell sensed the old fellow did not want to answer questions. He wanted to ask them. Well, at least one Will she be all right? However, he had an infinite number of ways to ask the same question.
“She will be all right?
“She will be all right, won’t she?
“Do you think she is going to be all right?
“She’s going to be all right, right?”
“You think she is going to be all right?”
“Tell me is she really going to be all right, right?”
Joseph cut him off. “Lay her down flat. Go back to the campground and get some help.”
“But she’ll be in the mud then!
“She’s soaked already! Go. Get some blankets---Something waterproof---And get a doctor for God’s sake!. The last he yelled as the old man tried to trot, but gave that up after a few steps, Then dragged himself through the curtain of rain.
After that it all turned horrible. He pressed down on her jaw so her mouth would open and delivered a sharp blow to her heart area. Then he cleared her mouth of the thick packets of phlegm and mucous which delayed the frightening eventuality of placing his lips over her mouth.
I knew she was dead. Probably had been since she fell down in the ditch. A ten minute delay, even five was usually too late. All the facts about administering CPR flooded over me just like the pouring rain. But I knelt in the cold Scottish night, on mud, placed my lips over her half opened mouth and felt her lower dentures slide about. I took a deep breath and blew it into hermouth. Immediately my left cheek was covered by exploding mucous. I’d forgotten to pinch off her nostrils! Forgotten the most basic, rudimentary action! How could i be expected to save someone when I could not even remember where to start?
It took the old man over ten minutes to get to the camp and find someone who would return with him. He hadn’t brought anything, but he was out of the car and bending over Ansell as soon as it came to a halt. There were two other people, but Joseph could not stop long enough to see who they were, or ask if they could help him. He was almost exhausted by then. Never the less he continued turning his head slightly to one side, taking a deep breath , then placing his mouth over hers and expelling into her lungs. Each time he gently pushed on her chest with his right hand, it collapsed. Gasping he asked, A Anyone knew how to give heart massage?. No one answered so he kept administering the ‘Kiss of Life’ , waiting for more people to arrive while the headache over his left eye rapidly expanded.
“You did the right thing. Really the only thing you could have done.. Ansell was startled by the bum’s reassurance. For an instant he thought he was making it up, but when he looked
at the man he was sure at some time he had stopped thinking about what had happened in Scotland less than two days ago, and begun telling it to this despicable creature.
What did I say aloud? He asked himself. Did I talk about getting sick to my stomach when I felt her flesh getting soggy from the rain and my spit? Did I say anything about how she reminded me of a loaf of stale bread soaked in water, and slowly losing its shape? God, she got so mushy there was nothing to grip! Did I tell him how badly her bowels and bladder smelled when they collapsed, or how it started with just a faint whiff of urine, that gradually seeped up to me through her clothes in spite of the wind and rain’s best efforts to either dilute it or push it away? Jesus, it just got stronger and stronger! Did I tell him how it got so bad it was like an envelope over my entire face? How that turned an act of mercy into utter torment?
“I’m sure she was already dead when you got there. Simply too long between you and the attack, don’t you think?.
So there was no longer any doubt! He was embarrassed and nauseated at the thought of confessing, the only term he could find, to this unsanitary hulk! However, the Hulk went right on in his gentle, cultured accent, trying to assure Joseph to calm his fears, and above all to soothe the anguish which had caused him to seek out the cathedral.
“You said there were other attacks. Can’t imagine a husband not knowing what to do, can you? Almost murderous of him not to get some kind of training, wouldn’t you say? Especially forewarned and all that … After all, Heart attacks and strokes are just like earthquakes aren’t they?.
Ansell wondered where the man had gotten his education. His manner of speaking, the gentleness and softness, the choice of words, and most of all the poetic rise and fall in tone, led him to some wild speculations. He had read about men, even doctors, who just dropped out of highly paying jobs to become bums, vagabonds, whatever they were no called, trying to avoid or at least ignore his fears that either he was speaking aloud or the bum was reading his inner mind, his thoughts leapt backward again.
The ambulance arrived thirty minutes after the husband got back from the campground. A small crowd slowly meandered in, and gathered in a semi circle. It reminded him of a operating room. Someone finally came forward and took over the mouth to mouth. He staggered to his feet, and was caught in a huge wave of hyperventilation. A terrible headache began to sear its path across his forehead, exactly like the ones he got when he ate ice cream too rapidly. It felt like a thick, frozen nail being pounded directly into his brain.
“Half an hour for the police and ambulance? There’s no chance she could survive that length of time, is there now?. The way the man knew the precise order of events left Ansell doubting his sanity. Was he telling this man now, or had he told him all of it already? Was this
really happening in the first place? He stared at the bum, who smiled almost professionally. If he was ever to understand what was really happening he had to speak to this pile of vile smells.
However, the effort needed to admit he had told this most intimate event to an utter stranger, a physically loathsome bag of stench, was too much for him to put aside. So, he sat, slowly allowing his head to fall back against the top of the pew, thinking how much he must have looked like Grace just then.
“Grace old girl!” her husband cried through the rain as Joseph leaned against the fender of his car, trying to get some control over his pain. “Grace! Grace darling! Don’t leave me now, old girl! We’ve got a few good years left, old girl! Grace! Open your eyes dear! Look at me darling! Come on now! Fight! Fight it Gracie! Don’t leave me now!” It was a chant, a selfish prayer. But the prayer went unanswered.
Two firemen and a truck filled with equipment pulled up and took command. He stopped watching their professional efforts because they were so advanced. God, did I help kill her? Did she have a chance until I got there and really screw things up? Did she really have a chance? Jesus Christ! Did I push her over the edge?
Joseph pushed the curtain of words aside and made his entrance to act two.
“I’m positive she was dead long before the first aid people arrived. You said the doctor told you later that she had been dead for some time..
Ansell tried to recall if he had ever found a pulse, but couldn’t remember checking. Besides he never could find them when he was taking the course unless the instructor showed him exactly where to look. So, he did not know if she was alive when he got there. And no, he wasn’t sure he had detected any life signs. And he told the doctor that at the inquest. And later he told the police the same thing. Both of them were extremely reasonable, especially the doctor.
Mr. Ansell, the young physician said after insisting Ansell sit in his car so they were out of the cold rain, which refused to stop.A There’s hardly any chance for anyone with her history, her age and physical condition could survive unless there is immediate professional intervention. She was terribly overweight. You could tell that, I suppose?
Not appearing to lay even the slightest blame upon him, the doctor went on. This was her third attack . The first hospitalized her for two days of intensive care. I am certain it was only a matter of time. Then the doctor filled in other aspects of the woman’s history. She continued to smoke, over eat and generally ignore all medical advice, and her husband had claimed she had just left it all Up to the Lord. The doctor did not show any distain for her faith in her Creator.
“You know,.he said, directing his thoughts at the bum for the first time, A Grace wasn’t the first one who died on me..
“Well, that certainly doesn’t make it any easier now, does it?. The man’s voice was very soothing, as Ansell agreed silently. When he spoke again, he found that saying it aloud did help.
“I was in Canada some years ago and a little old man, a retired baker for the Marriott Hotel people, had a heart attack in the campground. He just slumped over while he was sitting having breakfast. Had half a cup of coffee still in one hand when I got there. I worked on him for at least half an hour. Just like Grace. His wife stood there, crying, and afraid to ask if he was dead. It took the rescue squad forever to get there. I even went thirty miles to the town because his wife couldn’t do it.
Next day I drove her all the way back to meet her daughter when she flew in. They sent me a nice present that Christmas with a note thanking me for all did. It didn’t help me any.. At this Ansell bolted upright and banged both his hands against the thick wooden seat. The bum jerked his head to one side, displaying finely tuned reactions, as if he had boxed or was simply an excellent fist fighter.
“I’ve always thought I wasn’t good enough! That if I had really known what to do, the old baker would have lived.. Ansell paused and looked at the plain glass window filling the east wall of the building, before finishing. AI wouldn’t feel so incompetent if she had been alive when they pulled up..
‘Yes. I understand..
“Of course you don’t! Your’re just some damn bum looking for some money to get yourself a pint or two. You don’t fool me. I’m the free meal, right?. Then he caught himself and shook his head in disbelief. A Sorry---Please---I didn’t mean any of that. This has been bothering me since ... I lost the old baker ... I guess. Don’t get angry. I didn’t mean any of it..
“Of course. I understand. But you do see, I am a bum, and I am here looking for some money and a place to sleep. It’s bitter out there, isn’t it? Haven’t got a tent … Just the bag. The coppers will toss me in jail if the catch me sleeping in the raw. This place has a horrible reputation for really being hard on my kind. But I’m stuck. If I had a way out, I’d be anywhere but in Norwich, let me tell you..
‘It isn’t really the baker or the old lady. They weren’t in their prime. They would have died some other way and soon too. I know that sounds terrible. I’m not cruel. I really don’t know what I mean! No one gives a rat’s ass. Just relieved when it’s done. And no one really wants to get involved unless it’s for the money...like doctors and hospitals. The whole world is trying to avoid anything that reminds them of what is going to happen to them too---sooner or later.. The bum’s frown thrust Ansell back into Hell again.
Before it was all over, at least fifteen people huddled around. Actually it was the entire campground’s population. After they hauled Grace away a nice old couple took him to their caravan and made him a cup of tea, and gave him dinner. It was exactly what his neighbors did when his parents had died one by one. A dozen years ago.
Once the doctor left, the old folks insisted on sharing their spare bedroom, but next morning everyone, including his hosts, avoided speaking with him. It seemed they were all keeping their distance and accusing him of ‘screwing things up.’************************************