The Bag without any Bottom 3/3
To her, the icon resembled Eve, the mother of all and the mother of sorrows. She, too, poured out her heart to the image. She spoke of a parting with her first love, the death of her husband, the departing of her son to find his fortune, a son who had never returned. She wept, and for the first time, Ket’her wept with the penitent.
“What prayer do you say?” asked Ket’her asked her through his tears.
“I have no prayer,” she answered, “but I have a song.” And slowly she began to hum a tune; it had no words, but it seemed to Ket’her that there was a tiny flame in the melody, a flame which glowed like a lamp before an icon of the Virgin.
Gently the woman took the icon from Ket’her’s hands and held it before his gaze. He kissed it tenderly, and she did the same. They then exchanged the kiss of peace upon the forehead, he to hers and she to his. It was at that moment that the Abbot returned to his cell.
The look on his face changed quickly from one of disbelief to one of rage. He opened his mouth to roar and raised his hand as if to strike, but the woman calmly stood and placed herself between the master and his novice. Slowly, the Abbot’s hand dropped; the woman glided from the cell and was gone.
For a moment there was stillness. Then the Abbot came to himself, hmphed and blustered as if he were going to explode, and strode from the cell. A few seconds later, Ket’her heard the Abbey bell tolling furiously, calling all the monks to chapel.
Ket’her dreaded this assembly. He was the last to enter; as he did, a brother pointed toward an empty chair in the center of the nave. Opposite it, before the high altar, sat the Abbot in full vestments.
“You!” he thundered from his wooden throne. “You who are unworthy to bear the name brother — hear the charges against you! We saved your life as you lay dying in the forest. We tended to you and accepted you as one of our order. And how have you repaid our kindness?
“In your vanity, you have taken upon yourself the office of confessor, which one must labor years to obtain, deceiving yourself that it was pity and not pride which motivated you. What is worse, you have desecrated these holy grounds with pagan rites and rituals of the infidels!
“And then — crime of crimes! – you have permitted a woman into our Abbey, into the very cell of the Abbot, where she was witnessed kissing you, a monk consecrated to the life of chastity.
“For any one of these crimes alone you could be banished from this place; for all of them you will be fortunate to escape a fiery death at the stake.
“Speak, then, spawn of ingratitude! Our order’s blessed rule guarantees a defense, even for the likes of you. What have you to say?”
Ket’her at first stood speechless. Then, haltingly, he began,
“Reverend Abbot, brothers of the Abbey, all my life I have sought only one thing: that which is inexhaustible, that pursuit or person or passion which knows no end, and to which one could give his entire life — a bag without any bottom. Many times I thought I had found it . . . in race and culture, in commerce and riches, even in love. But each time the bag, although deep, turned out to be finite. I soon reached the bottom of each experience, the disappointing end of all that it could teach me.
“When you found me and brought me here, I thought that at long last I had found my heart’s desire. But it seems that the faith you practice also has boundaries, limits. Although we speak of compassion, we will only extend it to those of our faith; though we declare that all are children of God, only men as seen as truly worthy.
“I thank you, dear brothers, for saving my life. I thank you for the kindnesses you have showered on me, and for the learning I have gained here. But I cannot repent of the compassion that I, unworthy as I am, have shown to those who came to me uninvited. If there is a god, he alone brought them here, and to him alone will I answer.”
“If?” bellowed the Abbot, rising up enraged. “If there is a God? How dare you blaspheme in this sacred place! By your own words, you show yourself unworthy of God, and of this” — the Abbot pulled Ket’her’s icon from beneath his vestment — “his holy mother, whose image you will never be permitted to desecrate again . . .!”
At this he turned and smashed the icon into splinters on the stone altar behind him. All the assembly gasped.
“Now go, before your life is forfeited! With nothing you entered this place, with nothing shall you depart!”
Ket’her stood up. For a second, he meant sheepishly to withdraw. But then, in his mind’s eye, faces began to appear. He saw the men who had refused him a fair price for his home and his sheep. He saw those in the Great City who had snubbed him in his poverty. He saw the face of Zod, who had pretended to value him, but had stolen his only love from his side. Finally, he saw the face of Abbot Dominus, who had destroyed Ket’her’s only link to his mother.
Lit by a fire within, Ket’her raised dark, smoldering eyes toward the Abbot. Purposefully he strode slowly toward the high altar. The face of the Abbot began to change; Ket’her saw fear twitching at corners of his mouth, and dread fill his eyes like tears. The Abbot began to tremble; every monk was frozen in his place.
Ket’her raised his hand as if to strike the Abbot, but held it in the air. The Abbot, shaking with fright, leaned back in his throne, which toppled sideways down the great steps, leaving the Abbot cringing beneath it, his arm shielding his face as he whimpered.
Ket’her threw off his monk’s habit and walked from the chapel in silence. At the Abbey gatehouse, he exchanged his sandals for a pair of boots, donned a woodsman’s tunic over his breeches and set out once again into the world alone.
He wished to avoid the town, neither did he want to plunge into the forest. He decided to follow the creek that fed the Abbey’s well, to see where it might lead him.
For many days he followed the stream, which soon became a river. Ket’her followed on through flat, muddy bottom land, until at last, forty days later, he and the river reached the sea.
Ket’her had never before seen the sea. To him, it was like the surface of the clouds he had seen when he’d herded his sheep in the high mountains, only the sea was even more vast. It seemed to have no end.
As he walked along the seaside, in the distance he saw figures sitting beside a weathered cabin on a bluff. Ket’her, very tired and hungry, turned toward the cabin.
At the top of the bluff sat a woman, and at her feet a circle of children. She did not seem to notice Ket’her; she was engrossed in a story she was telling.
“Children,” she said in a voice like light, “have you ever heard the story of Solomon and the Demon of a Thousand Names?”
Ket’her stopped short. On her right hand, the woman wore a puppet, made of an upside-down bag. On it she had painted eyes, a nose and a mouth, and around its head she had wrapped red cloth in the shape of a turban . . .
The woman began to tell the tale in a strange voice, a voice that Ket’her recognized as his own. Indeed, she told the story exactly as Ket’her had so often done, with the same inflections and pauses. At first, Ket’her thought that he was being made a fool of, but there was no mockery in the woman’s voice, and the children loved it.
When she had finished, the children applauded, then filed off down the bluff. Only then did the woman turn her face to Ket’her, who knew her immediately. She was the penitent who had come to the door of the Abbot, it seemed a very long time before.
“What is your name?” whispered Ket’her.
“Ket’hera,” answered the woman.
“What is that on your hand, Ket’hera?” asked Ket’her, barely speaking.
“It is the bag without any bottom,” she replied. “Come and see.”
She handed the bag-puppet to Ket’her. He reached in his hand. Inside, he thought he could feel the soft wool of the sheep, just as he had when he was a boy . . .
He dug deeper, and thought that the scent of his mother’s cooking rose from the bag, and that he could feel her long, silky hair brush across his fingertips . . .
He placed both hands into the marvelous bag; his muscles ached as from exertion and work and the making of profit . . .
The bag rose to his shoulders; Ket’her swore he could hear the ancient songs of his people rising from its depths . . .
Finally, he climbed into the sack as into a sleeping bag, for he was very weary. As he held the bag closely to himself, he thought that he could feel Fatyma’s heart beating softly against his own . . .
And still his feet felt no bottom to the bag.
“Life, life itself?” Ket’her murmured sleepily. “Is this the bag I have sought?”
Ket’hera’s quiet laugh was the opposite of disparaging.
“No, life is merely its holder,” she replied. “You, yourself are the bag without any bottom. For your own endlessness was this all created.”
She slid easily into the bag beside him, kissed his forehead and both his sleepy eyes, and rested her head gently upon his chest.
“Tomorrow is another day, Brother Found,” Ket’hera whispered.
Wayne-Daniel Berard teaches English and Humanities at Nichols College in Dudley, MA. Wayne-Daniel is a Peace Chaplain, an interfaith clergy person, and a member of B’nai Or of Boston. He has published widely in both poetry and prose, and is the co-founding editor of Soul-Lit, an online journal of spiritual poetry. His latest chapbook is Christine Day, Love Poems. He lives in Mansfield, MA with his wife, The Lovely Christine.