by Jeffrey Ford
Out at the end of the world on a long spit of land like a finger poking into oblivion, nestled in a valley among the dunes, sat The Church of Saint Ifritia, constructed from twisted driftwood and the battered hulls of ships. There was one tall, arched window composed of the round bottoms of blue bottles. The sun shone through it, submerging altar and pews. There was room for twenty inside, but the most ever gathered for a sermon was eleven. Atop its crooked steeple, jutted a spiraled tusk some creature had abandoned on the beach.
The church’s walls had a thousand holes, and so every morning Father Walter said his prayers while shoveling sand from the sanctuary. He referred to himself as “father” but he wasn’t a priest. He used the title because it was what he remembered the holy men were called in the town he came from. Wanderers to the end of the world sometimes inquired of him as to the church’s denomination. He was confused by this question. “A basic church, you know” he’d say. “I talk God and salvation with anyone interested.” Usually the pilgrims would turn away, but occasionally one stayed on and listened.
Being that The Church of Saint Ifritia could have as few as three visitors a month, Father Walter didn’t feel inclined to give a sermon once a week. “My flock would be only the sand fleas,” he said to Sister North. “Then preach to the fleas,” she replied. “Four sermons a year is plenty,” he said. “One for each season. Nobody should need more than four sermons a year.”
They were a labor for him to write, and he considered the task as a kind of penance. Why he gave sermons, he wasn’t sure. Their purpose was elusive, and yet he knew it was something the holy men did. His earliest ones were about the waves, the dunes, the sky, the wind, and when he ran out of natural phenomena to serve as topics, he moved inward and began mining memory for something to write.
Father Walter lived behind the whalebone altar in a small room with a bed, a chair, a desk, and a stove. Sister North, who attended a summer sermon one year, the subject of which was The Wind, and stayed on to serve Saint Ifritia, lived in her own small shack behind the church. She kept it tidy, decorated with shells and strung with tattered fishing nets, a space no bigger than Father Walter’s quarters. In the warm months, she kept a garden in the sand, dedicated to her saint. Although he never remembered having invited her to stay on, Father Walter proclaimed her flowers and tomatoes miracles, a cornucopia from dry sand and salt air, and recorded them in the official church record.
Sister North was a short, brown woman with long dark hair streaked with grey, and an expression of determination. Her irises were almost yellow, cat like, in her wide face. On her first night amid the dunes, she shared Father Walter’s bed. He came to realize that she would share it again as long as there was no mention of it during the light of day. Once a season, she’d travel ten miles inland by foot to the towns and give word that a sermon was planned for the following Monday. The towns she visited scared her, and only occasionally would she meet a pilgrim who’d take note of her message.
In addition to the church and Sister North’s shack, there were two other structures in the sand-dune valley. One was an outhouse built of red ship’s wood with a tarpaulin flap for a door and a toilet seat made of abalone. The other was a shrine that housed the holy relic of Saint Ifritia. The latter building was woven from reeds by Sister North and her sisters. She’d sent a letter and they’d come, three of them. They were all short and brown with long dark hair streaked with grey. None had yellow eyes, though. They harvested reeds from the sunken meadow, an overgrown square mile set below sea level among the dunes two miles east of the church. They sang while they wove the strands into walls and window holes and a roof. Father Walter watched the whole thing from a distance. He felt he should have some opinion about it, but couldn’t muster one. When the shrine began to take form, he knew it was a good thing.
Before Sister North’s sisters left to return to their lives, Father Walter planned a dedication for the relic’s new home. He brought the holy item to the service wrapped in a dirty old towel, the way he’d kept it for the past thirty years. Its unveiling brought sighs from the sisters, although at first they were unsure what they were looking at. A dark, lumpen object, its skin like that of an over-ripe banana. There were toes and even orange, shattered toenails. It was assumed a blade had severed it just above the ankle, and the wound had, by miracle or fire, been cauterized. “Time’s leather,” was the phrase Father Walter bestowed upon the state of its preservation. It smelled of wild violets.
There was no golden reliquary to house it; he simply placed it in the bare niche built into the altar, toes jutting slightly beyond the edge of their new den. He turned and explained to the assembled, “You must not touch it with your hands, but fold them in front of you, lean forward and kiss the toes. In this manner, the power of the saint will be yours for a short time and you’ll be protected and made lucky.”
Each of them present, the father, Sister North and her sisters, and a young man and woman on their honeymoon who wandered into the churchyard just before the ceremony got under way, stepped up with folded hands and kissed the foot. Then they sat and Father Walter paced back and forth whispering to himself as was his ritual prior to delivering a sermon. He’d written a new one for the event, a fifth sermon for the year. Sister North was pleased with his industry and had visited his bed the night he’d completed it. He stopped pacing eventually and pointed at the ancient foot. The wind moaned outside. Sand sifted through the reeds.
Father Walter’s Sermon
When I was a young man, I was made a soldier. It wasn’t my choosing, I don’t know. They put a gun to my head. We marched through the mud into a rainy country. I was young and I saw people die all around me. Some were only wounded but drowned in the muddy puddles. It rained past forty days and forty nights and the earth had had its fill. Rivers flooded their banks and the water spilled in torrents from the bleak mountains. I killed a few close up with a bayonet, and I felt their life rush out. Some I shot at a distance and watched them suddenly drop like children at a game. Within two months, I was a savage.
We had a commanding officer who’d become fond of killing. He could easily have stayed behind the lines and directed the attack, but, with saber drawn, he’d lead every charge and shoot and hack to pieces more of the enemy than the next five men. Once I fought near him in a hand-to-hand mêlée against a band of enemy scouts. The noises he made while doing his work were ungodly. Strange animal cries. He scared me. And I was not alone. This Colonel Hempfil took no prisoners and would dispatch civilians as well as members of his own squad on the merest whim. I swear I thought I’d somehow gone to hell. The sun never shone.
And then one night we sat in ambush in the trees on either side of a dirt road. The rain, of course, was coming down hard and it was cold, moving into autumn. The night was an eternity I think. I nodded off and then there came some action. The colonel kicked me where I sat and pointed at the road. I looked and could barely make out a hay cart creaking slowly by. The Colonel kicked me again and indicated with hand signals that I was to go and check out the wagon.
My heart dropped. I started instantly crying, but so as not to let the colonel see me sobbing, I ran to it. There could easily have been enemy soldiers beneath the hay with guns at the ready. I ran onto the road in front of the wagon and raised my weapon. “Halt,” I said. The tall man holding the reins pulled up and brought the horses to a stop. I told him to get down from his seat. As he climbed onto the road, I asked him,” What are you carrying?” “Hay,” he replied, and then the Colonel and the rest of our men stormed the wagon. Hempfil gave orders to clear the hay. Beneath it was discovered the driver’s wife and two daughters. Orders were given to line them all up. As the driver was being escorted away by two soldiers, he turned to me and said, “I have something to trade for our freedom. Something valuable.”
The colonel was organizing a firing squad, when I went up to him and told him what the driver had said to me. He thanked me for the information, and then ordered that the tall man be brought to him. I stood close to hear what he could possibly have to offer for the lives of his family. The man leaned over Hempfil and whispered something I could not make out. The colonel then ordered him, “Go get it.”
The driver brought back something wrapped in a dirty towel. He unwrapped the bundle and, whisking away the cloth, held up a form the size of a small rabbit to the colonel. “Bring a light,” cried Hempfil. “I can’t see a damn thing.” A soldier lit a lantern and brought it. I leaned in close to see what was revealed. It was an old foot, wrinkled like a purse and dark with age. The sight of the toe nails gave me a shiver.
“This is what you will trade for your life and the lives of your family? This ancient bowel movement of a foot? Shall I give you change?” said the colonel, and that’s when I knew all of them would die. The driver spoke quickly. “It is the foot of a saint,” he said. “It has power. Miracles.”
“What saint?” asked the colonel.
“That’s a new one,” said Hempfil and laughed. “Bring me the chaplain,” he called over his shoulder.
The chaplain stepped up. “Have you ever heard of Saint Ifritia?” asked the colonel.
“She’s not a real saint,” said the priest. “She is only referred to as a saint in parts of the holy writing that have been forbidden.”
Hempfil turned and gave orders for the driver’s wife and daughters to be shot. When the volley sounded, the driver dropped to his knees and hugged the desiccated foot to him as if for comfort. I saw the woman and girls, in their pale dresses, fall at the side of the road. The colonel turned to me and told me to give him my rifle. I did. He took his pistol from its holster at his side and handed it to me. “Take the prisoner off into the woods where it’s darker, give him a ten yard head start, and then kill him. If he can elude you for fifteen minutes, let him go with his life.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, but I had no desire to kill the driver. I led him at gunpoint, up the small embankment and into the woods. We walked slowly forward into darkness. He whispered to me so rapidly, “Soldier, I still hold the sacred foot of Ifritia. Let me trade you it for my life. Miracles.” As he continued to pester me with his promises of blessings and wonders, the thought of killing him began to appeal to me. I don’t know what it was that came over me. It came from deep within, but in an instant his death had become for me a foregone conclusion. After walking for ten minutes, I told him to stop. He did. I said nothing for a while, and the silence prompted him to say, “I get ten yards, do I not?”
“Yes,” I said.
With his first step, I lifted the pistol and shot him in the back of the head. He was dead before he hit the ground; although his body shook twice as I reached down to turn him over. His face was blown out the front, a dark smoking hole above a toothful grimace. I took the foot, felt its slick hide in my grasp, and wrapped it in the dirty towel. Shoving it into my jacket, I buttoned up against the rain and set off deeper into the woods. I fled like a frightened deer through the night, and all around me was the aroma of wild violets.
It’s a long story, but I escaped the war, the foot of Saint Ifritia producing subtle miracles at every turn, and once it made me invisible as I passed through an occupied town. I left the country of rain, pursued by the ghost of the wagon driver. Every other minute, behind my eyes, the driver’s wife and daughters fell in their pale dresses by the side of the road in the rain and nearly every night he would appear from my meager campfire, rise up in smoke and take form. “Why?” he always asked. “Why?”
I found that laughter dispersed him more quickly. One night, I told the spirit I had plans the next day to travel west. But in the morning, I packed my things up quickly and headed due south toward the end of the world. I tricked him. Eventually, the ghost found me here, and I see him every great while, pacing along the tops of the dunes that surround the valley. He can’t descend to haunt me, for the church I built protects me and the power of Saint Ifritia keeps him at bay. Every time I see him, his image is dimmer, and before long he will become salt in the wind.
The impromptu congregation was speechless. Father Walter slowly became aware of it as he stood, swaying slightly to and fro. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” he said, a phrase he’d heard from Colonel Hempfil. There was a pause after his delivery of it, during which he waved his hands back and forth in the air like a magician, distracting an audience. Eventually, two of the sisters nodded and the honeymoon couple shrugged and applauded the sermon.
Father Walter took this as a cue to move on, and he left the altar of the shrine and ran back to the church to fetch a case of whiskey that the Lord had recently delivered onto the beach after a terrific thunderstorm. The young couple produced a hash pipe and a tarry ball of the drug that bore a striking resemblance to the last knuckle of the middle toe of Saint Ifritia’s foot.
Late that night, high as the tern flies, the young man and woman left and headed out toward the end of the world, and Sister North’s sisters loaded into their wagon and left for their respective homes. Father Walter sat on the sand near the bell in the churchyard, a bottle to his lips, staring up at the stars. Sister North stood over him, the hem of her habit, as she called the simple grey shift she wore every day, flapped in the wind.
“None would stay the night after your story of murder,” she said to him. “They drank your whiskey, but they wouldn’t close their eyes and sleep here with you drunk.”
“Foolishness,” he said. There’s plenty still left for all. Loaves and fishes of whiskey. And what do you mean by murder?”
“The driver in your sermon. You could have let him live.”
He laughed. “I did. In real life, I let him go. A sermon is something different, though.”
“You mean you lied?”
“If I shot him, I thought it would make a better story.”
“But where’s the Lord’s place in a story of cold blooded murder?”
“That’s for Him to decide.”
Sister North took to her shack for a week, and he rarely saw her. Only in the morning and late in the afternoon would he catch sight of her entering and leaving the shrine. She mumbled madly as she walked, eyes down. She moved her hands as if explaining to someone. Father Walter feared the ghost of the driver had somehow slipped into the churchyard and she was conversing with it. “Because I lied?” he wondered.
During the time of Sister North’s retreat to her shack, a visitor came one afternoon. Out of a fierce sand storm, materializing in the churchyard like a ghost herself, stepped a young woman wearing a hat with flowers and carrying a traveling bag. Father Walter caught sight of her through blue glass. He went to the church’s high doors, opened one slightly to keep the sand out, and called to her to enter. She came to him, holding the hat down with one hand and lugging the heavy bag with the other. “Smartly dressed,” was the term the father vaguely remembered from his life inland. She wore a white shirt buttoned at the collar with a dark string tie. Her black skirt and jacket matched, and she somehow made her way through the sand without much trouble in a pair of high heels.
Father Walter slammed shut the church door once she was inside. For a moment, he and his guest stood still and listened to the wind, beneath it the distant rhythm of the surf. The church was damp and cold. He told the young lady to accompany him to his room where he could make a fire in the stove. She followed him behind the altar, and as he broke sticks of driftwood, she removed her hat and took a seat at his desk.
“My name is Mina GilCragson,” she said.
“Father Walter,” he replied over his shoulder.
“I’ve come from the Theological University to see your church. I’m a student. I’m writing a thesis on Saint Ifritia.”
“Who told you about us?” he asked, lighting the kindling.
“A colleague who’d been to the end of the world and back. He told me last month, “You know, there’s a church down south that bears your Saint’s name. And so I was resolved to see it.”
Father Walter turned to face her. “Can you tell me what you know of the Saint? I am the father here, but I know so little, though the holy Ifritia saved my life.”
The young woman asked for something to drink. Since the rain water barrel had been tainted by the blowing sand that day, he poured her a glass of whiskey and one for himself. After serving his guest, he sat on the floor, his legs crossed. She dashed her drink off quickly as he remembered was the fashion in the big cities. Wiping her lips with the back of her hand, she said,” What do you know of her so far?”
“Little,” he said and listened, pleased to be, for once, on the other end of a sermon.
Mina GilCragson’s Sermon
She was born in a village in the rainy country eighty-some odd years ago. Her father was a powerful man, and he oversaw the collective commerce of their village, Dubron, which devoted itself to raising Plum fish for the tables of the wealthy. The village was surrounded by fifty ponds, each stocked with a slightly different variety of the beautiful fan tailed species. It’s a violet fish. Tender and sweet when broiled.
Ifritia, called “If” by her family, wanted for nothing. She was the plum of her father’s eye, her wishes taking precedence over those of her mother and siblings. He even placed her desires above the good of the village. When she was sixteen, she asked that she be given her own pond and be allowed to raise one single fish in it that would be her pet. No matter the cost of clearing the pond, one of the larger, she was granted her wish. To be sure, there was much grumbling among the other villagers and even among If’s siblings and mother, but none was voiced in the presence of her father. He was a proud and vindictive man, and it didn’t pay to cross him.
She was given a hatchling from the strongest stock to raise. From early on, she fed the fish by hand. When she approached the pond, the creature would surface and swim to where she leaned above the water. Fish, to the people of Dubron, were no more than swimming money, so that when Ifritia bequeathed a name on her sole charge, it was a scandal. Unheard of. Beyond the limit. A name denotes individuality, personality, something dangerously more than swimming money. A brave few balked in public, but If’s father made their lives unhappy and they fell back to silence.
Lord Jon, the Plum fish, with enough room to spread out in his own pond and fed nothing but table scraps, potatoes and red meat, grew to inordinate dimensions. As the creature swelled in size, its sidereal fish-face fleshed out, pressing the eyes forward, redefining the snout as a nose, and puffing the cheeks. It was said Jon’s face was the portrait of a wealthy landowner, and that his smile, now wide where it once was pinched, showed rows of sharp white teeth. A fish with a human face was believed by all but the girl and her father to be a sign of evil. But she never stopped feeding it and it never stopped growing until it became the size of a bull hog. Ifritia would talk to the creature, tell it her deepest secrets. If she told something good, it would break out into its huge, biting smile, something sad, and it would shut its mouth and tears would fill its saucer-wide eyes.
And then, out of the blue, for no known reason, the fish became angry with her. When she came to the edge of the pond, after it took the food from her hand, it splashed her and made horrid grunting noises. The fish doctor was called for, and his diagnosis was quickly rendered. The Plum fish was not supposed to grow to Lord Jon’s outsized dimensions, the excess of flesh and the effects of the red meat had made the creature insane. “My dear,” said the doctor in his kindest voice, “you’ve squandered your time creating a large purple madness and that is the long and short of it.” The girl’s father was about to take exception with the doctor and box his ears, but in that instant she saw the selfish error of her ways.
After convincing her father of the immorality of what they’d done, she walked the village and apologized to each person privately, from the old matrons to the smallest babies. Then she took a rifle from the wall of her father’s hunting room and went to the pond. On her way there, a crowd gathered behind her. Her change was as out of the blue as that of Lord Jon’s, and they were curious about her and happy that she was on the way to becoming a good person. She took up a position at the edge of the water, and whistled to the giant Plum fish to come for a feeding. The crowd hung back fearful of the thing’s human countenance. All watched its fin, like a purple fan, disappear beneath the water.
Ifritia pushed the bolt of the rifle forward and then sighted the weapon upon a spot where Jon usually surfaced. Everyone waited. The fish didn’t come up. A flock of geese flew overhead and it started to rain. Attention wandered, and just when the crowd began murmuring, the water beneath where Ifritia leaned over the pond exploded and the fish came up, a blur of violet, launching itself to the height of the girl. Using its tail, it slapped her mightily across the face. Ifritia went over backward and her feet flew out from under her. In his descent, Jon turned in mid-air, opened his wide mouth, and bit through her leg. The bone shattered, the flesh tore, blood burst forth, and he was gone, out of sight, to the bottom of the big pond with her foot.
She survived the grim amputation. While she lay in the hospital, her father had the pond drained. Eventually, the enormous fish was stranded in only inches of water. Ifritia’s father descended a long ladder to the pond bed and sloshed halfway across it to reach Lord Jon. The creature flapped and wheezed. Her father took out a pistol and shot the fat, odious face, between the eyes. He reported to others later that the fish began to cry when it saw the gun.
The immense Plum fish was gutted and Ifritia’s foot was found in its third stomach. Her father forbade anyone to tell her that her foot had been rescued from the fish. She never knew that it stood in a glass case in the cedar attic atop her family home. As the days wore on and her affliction made her more holy by the minute, the foot simmered in time, turning dark and dry. She learned to walk with a crutch, and became pious to a degree that put off the village. They whispered that she was a spy for God. Dressing in pure white, she appeared around every corner with strict moral advice. They believed her to be insane and knew her to be death to any good time.
Mina held her glass out to Father Walter. He slowly rose, grabbed the bottle and filled it. He poured himself another and sat again.
“Did she make a miracle at all?” he asked.
“A few,” said Mina and dashed off her drink.
“Can you tell me one?”
“At a big wedding feast, she turned everybody’s wine to water. She flew once, and she set fire to a tree with her thoughts.”
“Amazing,” said Father Walter. He stood and put his drink on the desk. “Come with me,” he said. “There’s something I think you’ll want to see.” She rose and followed him out the back door of the church. The sand was blowing hard, and he had to raise his arm in front of his eyes as he leaned into the wind. He looked back and Mina GilCragson was right behind him, holding her hat on with one hand. He led her to the shrine.
Inside, he moved toward the altar, pointing. “There it is. Saint Ifritia’s foot,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” said Mina, stepping up beside him.
“Right there,” he said and pointed again.
She looked and an instant later went weak. Father Walter caught her by the arm. She shook her head and took a deep breath. “I can’t believe it,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “But there it is. You mustn’t touch it with your hands. You must only kiss the toes. I’ll stand outside. You can have a few minutes alone with it.”
“Thank you so much,” she said, tears in her eyes.
He went outside. Leaning against the buffeting wind, he pushed aside the bamboo curtain that protected the shrine’s one window. Through the sliver of space, he watched Mina approach the altar. Her hands were folded piously in front of her as he’d instructed. He realized that if she’d not worn the heels, she’d never have been able to reach the foot with her lips. As it was, she had to go up on her toes. Her head bobbed forward to the relic, but it wasn’t a quick kiss she gave. Her head moved slightly forward and back, and Father Walter pictured her tongue passionately laving the rotten toes. It gave him both a thrill and made him queasy. He had a premonition that he’d be drinking hard into the night.
After the longest time, Mina suddenly turned away from the foot. Father Walter let the bamboo curtain slide back into place and waited to greet her. She exited the shrine, and he said, “How was that? Did you feel the spirit?” but she never slowed to answer. Walking right past him, she headed toward the outhouse. The sand blew fiercely but she didn’t bother to hold her hat and it flew from her head. Mina walked as if in a trance. Father Walter was surprised when she didn’t go to the outhouse, but passed it, and headed up out of the valley in the dunes. On the beach, the wind would have been ten times worse. As she ascended, he called to her to come back.
She passed over the rim, out of sight, and he was reluctant to follow her, knowing the ghost of the driver might be lurking in the blinding sand storm. He turned back toward the church, his mind a knot of thoughts. Was she having a holy experience? Had he offended her? Was she poisoned by the old foot? He stopped to fetch her hat, which had blown up against the side of the outhouse.
That night his premonition came true, and the whiskey flowed. He opened Mina GilCragson’s travelling bag and went through her things. By candlelight, whiskey in one hand, he inspected each of her articles of clothing. When holding them up, he recognized the faint scent of wild violets. He wondered if she was a saint. While searching for evidence in the aroma of a pair of her underpants, Sister North appeared out of the shadows.
“What are you up to?” she asked.
“Sniffing out a holy bouquet. I believe our visitor today may have been a saint.”
“She was nothing of the sort,” said Sister North, who stepped forward and back-handed Father Walter hard across the face. His whiskey glass flew from his grasp and he dropped the underpants. Consciousness blinked off momentarily, and then back on. He stared at her angry, yellow eyes as she reached out, grabbed his shirt, and pulled him to his feet. “Come with me,” she said.
Outside, the sand storm had abated and the night was clear and cool and still. Not letting go, she pulled Father Walter toward the shrine. He stumbled once and almost fell and for his trouble, she kicked him in the rear end. Candlelight shone out from the shrine’s one window, its bamboo curtain now rolled up. Sister North marched the father up to the altar and said to him, “Look at that.”
“Look at what?” he said, stunned by drink and surprise.
“What else?” she asked.
And upon noticing, he became instantly sober, for the big toe of the holy foot was missing. “My God,” he said, moving closer to it. Where the toe had been was a knuckle-stump of sheered gristle. “I thought she was sucking on it, but in fact she was chewing off the toe,” he said, turning to face Sister North.
“You thought she was sucking on it…” she said. “Since when is sucking the holy toes allowed?”
“She was a scholar of Saint Ifritia. I never suspected she was a thief.”
Sister North took a seat and gave herself up to tears. He sat down beside her and put his arm around her shoulders. They stayed in the shrine until the candles melted down and the dawn brought bird calls. Then they went to his bed. Before she fell asleep, the sister said to him, “It happened because you lied.”
He thought about it. “Nahh,” he said. “It was bound to happen someday.” He slept and dreamt of the driver’s wife and daughters. When he woke, Sister North was gone.
Sister North’s Sermon
Father—By the time you find this, I’ll already be four miles inland, heading for the city. I mean to bring back the stolen toe and make amends to Saint Ifritia. She’s angry that we let this happen. You, of course, bear most of the responsibility, but I, too, own a piece of the guilt. It may take me a time to hunt down Mina GilCragson. I’ll try the university first, but if she’s not a scholar, I fear she might be a trader on the black market, trafficking in religious relics. If that’s the case, the toe could at this moment be packed on the back of a mule, climbing the northern road into the mountains and on through the clouds to the very beginning of the world. If so, I will follow it. If I fail, I won’t be back. One thing I’ve seen in my sleep is that at the exact halfway point of my journey, a man will visit the church and bring you news of me. If he tells you I am dead, then burn my shack and all my things and scatter my ashes over the sea, but if the last he’s seen of me, I’m alive, then that means I will return. That, I’m sure of. Wake up and guard the foot with your very life. If I return after years with a toe and there is no foot, I’ll strangle you in your sleep. Think of me in bed and in the morning when you shovel sand, pray for me. There are four bottles of whiskey under the mattress in my shack. You can have three of them. I spent a week of solitude contemplating your sermon and realized that you didn’t lie. That you actually killed the driver of the hay wagon. Which is worse? May the sweet saint have mercy on you. —Sister
Two days later, Father Walter realized he’d taken Sister North for granted, and she was right, he had killed the driver just as he’d described in his sermon. Without her there, in her shack, in the shrine, in his bed, the loneliness crept into the sand dune valley, and he couldn’t shake it. Time became a sermon, preaching itself. The sand and sun and sand and wind and sand and every now and then a visitor, whose presence seemed to last forever until vanishing into sand, a pilgrim with whom to fill the long hours, chatting.
Every one of the strangers, maybe four a year and one year only two, was asked if they brought word from Sister North. He served them whiskey and let them preach their sermons before blessing them on their journeys to the end of the world. Sometimes an old man, moving slowly, bent, mumbling, sometimes a young woman , once a child on the run. None of them had word from her. In between these occasional visits from strangers, lay long stretches of days and seasons, full of silence and wind and shifting sand. To pass the long nights, he took to counting the stars.
One evening, he went to her shack to fetch the second bottle of her whiskey and fell asleep on her bed. In the morning there was a visitor in the church when he went in to shovel. A young man sat in the first pew. He wore a bow tie and white shirt, and even though it was in the heart of the summer season, a jacket as well. His hair was perfectly combed. Father Walter showed him behind the altar and they sat sipping whiskey well into the afternoon as the young man spoke his sermon. The father had heard it all before, but one thing caught his interest. In the midst of a tale of sorrows, the man spoke about a place he’d visited in the north where one of the attractions was a fish with a human face.
Father Walter halted the sermon and asked, “Lord Jon?”
“The same,” said the young man. “An enormous Plum fish.”
“I’d heard he’d been killed, shot by the father of the girl whose leg he’d severed.”
“Nonsense. There are so many fanciful stories told of this remarkable fish. What is true, something I witnessed, the scientists are training Lord Jon to speak. I tipped my hat to him at the aquarium and he said, in a voice as clear as day, “How do you do?”
“You’ve never heard of a connection between Saint Ifritia and the fish?” asked Father Walter.
The young man took a sip, cocked his head and thought. “Well, if I may speak frankly….”
“You must, we’re in a church,” said the father.
“What I remember of Saint Ifritia from Monday Afternoon Club, is that she was a prostitute who was impregnated by the Lord. As her time came to give birth, her foot darkened and fell off just above the ankle and the child came out through her leg, the head appearing where the foot had been. The miracle was recorded by Charles, the Bald. The boy grew up to be some war hero, a colonel in the war for the country of rain.”
The young man left as the sun was going down and the sky was red. Father Walter had enjoyed talking to him, learning of the exploits of the real Lord Jon, but some hint of fear in the young man’s expression said the poor fellow was headed all the way to the end, and then one more step into oblivion. That night the father sat in the churchyard near the bell and didn’t drink, but pictured Sister North, struggling upward through the clouds to the beginning of the world. He wished they were in his bed, listening to the wind and the cries of the beach owl. He’d tell her the young man’s version of the life of Saint Ifritia. They’d talk about it till dawn.
For the longest time, Father Walter gave up writing sermons. With the way everything had transpired, the theft of the toe, the absence of Sister North, he felt it would be better for the world if he held his tongue and simply listened. Then, deep in one autumn season when snow had already fallen, he decided to leave the sand dune valley and go to see the ocean. He feared the ghost of the driver every step beyond the rim but slowly continued forward. Eventually, he made his way over the dunes to the beach and sat at the water’s edge. Watching the waves roll in, he gave himself up to his plans to finally set forth in search of Sister North. He thought for a long time, until his attention was diverted by a fish brought before him in the surf. He looked up, startled by it. When he saw its violet color, he knew immediately what it was.
The fish opened its mouth and spoke. “A message from my liege, Lord Jon. He’s told me to tell you he’d overheard a wonderful conversation with your Sister North at the Aquarium restaurant one evening a few years ago, and she wanted to relay the message to you that you should write a new sermon for her.”
Father Walter was stunned at first by the talking fish, but after hearing what it had to say, he laughed. “Very well,” he said and lifted the fish and helped it back into the waves. When he turned to head toward the church, the driver stood before him, a vague phantom, bowing slightly and proffering with both hands a ghostly foot. “Miracles…” said a voice in the wind. The father was determined to walk right through the spirit if need be. He set off at a quick pace toward the sand dune valley. Just as he thought he would collide with the ethereal driver, the fellow turned and walked, only a few feet ahead of him just as they had walked through the dark forest in rain-country. In the wind, the holy man heard the words, “I get ten yards, do I not?” repeated again and again, and he knew that if he had the pistol in his hand, he’d have fired it again and again.
With a sudden shiver, he finally passed through the halted ghost of the driver and descended the tall dune toward the church. The words in the wind grew fainter. By the time he reached the church door and looked back, the driver was nowhere to be seen along the rim of the valley. He went immediately to his room, took off his coat, poured a glass of whiskey, and sat at his desk. Lifting his pen, he scratched across the top of a sheet of paper the title, “Every Grain of Sand, A Minute.”
When he’d finished writing the sermon, it was late in the night and, well into his cups, he decided on the spot to deliver it. Stumbling and mumbling, he went around the church and lit candles, fired up the pots of wisteria incense. As he moved through the shadows, the thought came to him that with the harsh cold of recent days, even the sand fleas, fast asleep in hibernation, would not be listening. He gathered up the pages of the sermon and went to the altar. He cleared his throat, adjusted the height of the pages to catch the candlelight, and began.
“Every grain of sand, a minute,” he said in a weary voice. With that phrase out, there immediately came a rapping at the church door. He looked up and froze. His first thought was of the driver. The rapping came again and he yelled out, “Who’s there?”
“A traveler with news from Sister North,” called a male voice. Father Walter left the altar and ran down the aisle to the door. He pushed it open and said, “Come in, come in.” A tall man stepped out of the darkness and into the church’s glow. Seeing the stranger’s height, he remembered the driver’s, and took a sudden step backward. It wasn’t the ghost, though; it was a real man with thick sideburns, a serious gaze, a top hat. He carried a small black bag. “Thank you,” he said and removed his overcoat and gloves, handing them to Father Walter. “I was lost among the dunes and then I saw a faint light issuing up from what appeared in the dark to be a small crater. I thought a falling star had struck the earth.”
“It’s just the church of Saint Ifritia,” said the father. “You have news of Sister North?”
“Yes, father, I have a confession to make.”
Father Walter led the pilgrim to the front pew and motioned for the gentlemen to sit while he took a seat on the steps of the altar. “Okay,” he said, “out with it.”
“My name is Ironton,” said the gentleman, removing his hat and setting it and his black bag on the seat next to him. “I’m a traveling business man,” he said. “My work takes me everywhere in the world.”
“What is your business?” asked the father.
“Trade,” said Ironton. And that’s what I was engaged in at Hotel Lacrimose, up in the north country. I was telling an associate at breakfast one morning that I had plans to travel next to the end of the world. The waitress, who’d just then brought our coffee, introduced herself and begged me, since I was travelling to the end of the world, to bring you a message.”
“Sister North is a waitress?”
“She’d sadly run out of funds, but intended to continue on to the beginning of the world once she’d saved enough money. In any event, I was busy at that moment, having to run off to close a deal, and I couldn’t hear her out. I could, though, sense her desperation, and so I suggested we meet that night for dinner at the Aquarium.
“We met in that fantastic dining hall, surrounded by hundred foot high glass tanks populated by fierce leviathans and brightly colored swarms of lesser fish. There was a waterfall at one end of the enormous room, and a man-made river that ran nearly its entire length, with a small wooden bridge arching up over the flow in one spot to offer egress to either side of the dining area. We dined on fez-menuth flambe and consumed any number of bottles of sparkling lilac water. She told me her tale, your tale, about the sacred foot in your possession.
“Allow me to correct for you your impressions of Saint Ifritia. This may be difficult, but being a rationalist, I’m afraid I can only offer you what I perceive to be the facts. This Saint Ifritia, whose foot you apparently have, was more a folk hero than a religious saint. To be frank, she went to the grave with both feet. She never lost a foot by any means. She was considered miraculous for no better reason than because she was known to frequently practice small acts of kindness for friends and often strangers. Her life was quiet, small, but I suppose, no less heroic in a sense. Her neighbors missed her when she passed on and took to referring to her as Saint Ifritia. It caught on and legends attached themselves to her memory like bright streamers on a humble hay wagon.”
“The foot is nothing?” asked Father Walter.
“It’s an old rotten foot,” said Ironton.
“What did Sister North say to your news?”
Ironton looked down and clasped his hands in his lap. “This is where I must offer my confession,” he said.
“You didn’t tell her, did you?”
“The story of her search for the missing toe was so pathetic, I didn’t have the heart to tell her the facts. And yet, still, I was going to. But just as I was about to speak, beside our table, from out of the man-made river, there surfaced an enormous purple fish with a human face. It bobbed on the surface, remaining stationary in the flow, and its large eyes filled with tears. Its gaze pierced my flesh and burrowed into my heart to turn off my ability to tell Sister North her arduous search had been pointless.”
Father Walter shook his head in disgust. “What is it she wanted you to tell me?”
“She wants you to write a sermon for her,” said Ironton.
“Yes,” said the father, “the news preceded you. I finished it this evening just before your arrival.”
“Well,” said the businessman, “I do promise, should I see her on my return trip, I will tell her the truth, and give her train fare home.”
For the remaining hours of the night, Father Walter and his visitor sat in the church and drank whiskey. In their far-flung conversation, Ironton admitted to being a great collector of curios and oddities. In the morning, when the doctor was taking his leave, the father wrapped up the foot of Saint Ifritia in its original soiled towel and bestowed it upon his guest. “For your collection,” he said. “Miracles.”
They laughed and Ironton received the gift warmly. Then, touching his index finger and thumb to the brim of his hat, he bowed slightly, and disappeared up over the rim of the dune.
More time passed. Every grain of sand, a minute. Days, weeks, seasons. Eventually, one night, Father Walter woke from troubling dreams to find Sister North in bed beside him. At first, he thought he was still dreaming. She was smiling, though, and her cat-eyes caught what little light pervaded his room and glowed softly. “Is it you?” he asked.
“Almost,” she said, “but I’ve left parts of me between here and the beginning of the world.”
Sister North’s Sermon
“No, only pieces of my spirit, torn out by pity, shame, guilt, and fear. I tracked Mina GilCragson. She’s no scholar, but an agent from a ring of female thieves who specialize in religious relics. The toe was sent along the secret Contraband Road, north to the beginning of the world. I traveled that road, packing a pistol and cutlass. And I let the life out of certain men and women who thought they had some claim on me. I slept at the side of the road in the rain and snow. I climbed the rugged path into the cloud country.
“In the thin atmosphere of the Haunted Mountains, I’d run out of food and was starving. Unfortunately for him, an old man, heading north, leading a donkey with a heavy load, was the first to pass my ambush. I told him I wanted something to eat, but he went for his throwing dagger, and I was forced to shoot him in the face. I freed the donkey of its burden and went through the old man’s wares. I found food, some smoked meat, leg-bones of cattle, and pickled Plum fish. While I ate, I inspected the rest of the goods, and among them I discovered a small silver box. I held it up, pressed a hidden latch on the bottom, and the top flipped back. A mechanical plinking music, the harmony of Duesgruel’s Last Movement, played, and I beheld the severed toe.
I had it in my possession and I felt the spirit move through me. All I wanted was to get back to the church. Taking as much of the booty from the donkey’s pack, as I could carry, I traveled to the closest city. There I sold my twice stolen treasures and was paid well for them. I bought new clothes and took a room in a fine place, The Hotel Lacrimose.
I spent a few days and nights at the amazing hotel, trying to relax before beginning the long journey home. One afternoon while sitting on the main veranda, watching the clouds twirl, contemplating the glory of Saint Ifritia, I made the acquaintance of an interesting gentleman. Mr. Ironton was his name and he had an incredible memory for historical facts and interesting opinions on the news of the day. Having traveled for years among paupers and thieves, I was unused to speaking with someone as intelligent as Ironton. We had a delightful conversation. Somewhere in his talk, he mentioned that he was travelling to the end of the world. At our parting, he requested that I join him for dinner at the Aquarium that evening.
That night at dinner, I told Ironton our story. I showed him the toe in its small silver case. He lifted the thing to his nose and announced that he smelled wild violets. But then he put the toe on the table between us and said, “This Saint Ifritia, you speak of. It has recently been discovered by the Holy of the Holy See that she is in fact a demon, not a saint. She’s a powerful demon. I propose you allow me to dispose of that toe for you. Every minute you have it with you you’re in terrible danger.” He nodded after speaking.
I told him, “No thank you. I’ll take my chances with it.”
“You’re a brave woman, Ms. North,” he said. “Now what was the message you had for your Father Walter?”
As I told him that I wanted you to know I was on my way and to write a sermon for me, an enormous violet fish with a human face rose out of the water of the decorative river that ran through the restaurant next to our table. It startled me. Its face was repulsive. I recalled you telling me something about a giant Plum fish, Lord Jon, and I spoke the name aloud. “At your service,” the fish said and then dove into the flow. When I managed to overcome my shock at the fish’s voice, I looked back to the table and discovered both Ironton and the toe had vanished.
I had it and I lost it. I felt the grace of Saint Ifritia for a brief few days at the Hotel Lacrimose and then it was stolen away. I’ve wondered all along my journey home if that’s the best life offers.
Sister North yawned and turned on her side. “And what of the foot? Is it safe?” she asked.
He put his arm around her. “No,” he said. “Some seasons back I was robbed at gun point. A whole troop of bandits on horses. They took everything. I begged them to leave the foot. I explained it was a holy relic, but they laughed and told me they would cook it and eat it on the beach that night. It’s gone.”
“I’m so tired,” she said. “I could sleep forever.”
Father Walter drew close to her, closed his eyes, and listened to the sand sifting in through the walls.
Story originally published in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities: Exhibits, Oddities, Images, and Stories from Top Authors and Artists,
Edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff Vandermeer
Reprinted by permission of the author.
Jeffrey Ford is the author of the novels The Physiognomy, Memoranda, The Beyond, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Girl in the Glass, The Cosmology of the Wider World, and The Shadow Year. His story collections are The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, The Empire of Ice Cream, The Drowned Life, and Crackpot Palace. His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals, magazines and anthologies, from MAD Magazine to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (2nd edition), edited by Joyce Carol Oates. His work has been translated into nearly 20 languages and is the recipient of the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Nebula Award, and the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire.