I wrote this story after reading a story on the Economist about a prisoner who decided to start a congregation and spread the word of God. (The photo I attached is from that article.)
The story became quite long (~4,900 words), and I don’t think that’s a good thing. It was a painful process because the story started to stink towards the middle but still, I enjoyed writing it. I admit that I am satisfied with the ending. It ends a lot like Animal Farm.
The conversation between Clay and the Catholic became a bit of a bore. I was going for the same feel of the conversation in “The Bear” of Faulkner but it didn’t come out nice. Alas, it’s the incapacity of translating great ideas into simple words. I might fix it in the future, though.
Sitting in his cell reading the Book on the wooden board serving as a table, Clay was inspired by the Holy Ghost. He felt it. He was saved, and the Lord had asked him to go and spread the Good Word to the other inmates. He was given the mission, like those twelve elect men before him who received the fire on their heads, to proselytize. A mission given directly from God Himself.
His former cellmate, old Cujo, had died a week ago. The inmates joked that he got tired of the prison food and decided to die. He left behind under the cot in his cell that yellowed Bible, King James version. When Clay found it and opened it, smelling musty and earthy like the old man himself, he was hooked by the word of God. He swore it was the Holy Ghost that hooked him. Now he thought it was no coincidence that he found the Book. God had left it there for him and it was his duty to spread that word to those pagan inmates.
Absorbed in his meditation, he did not hear the jangling of keys and footsteps approaching. “Alpheus,” the guard said. He opened the cell door. “Look who we got for you here. Some fresh white meat.” He removed the handcuffs and pushed the new inmate in. “Play nice, got it, chief?”
“You know me, chief,” Clay replied, smiling as innocently as he could but achieving the opposite effect with the tattoos all over his face. The new inmate stood by the bars of the cell, rubbing his wrists.
“Don’t just stand there,” said Clay. “What’s your name, pretty boy?”
“What you in here for?”
Clay laughed. “A tough guy, are you now?” He spat on the ground.
The new inmate tightened his jaw, exposing the sinews on his face. Clay lunged at him before the inmate realized it and clubbed him between the legs causing him to bend forwards from the virile pain. At this, Clay raised his knee to Moe’s face. He fell on his butt, bleeding on the nose.
Clay inclined towards him and wrapped his fingers behind his neck. His breath smelled like a canal. Moe closed his eyes and breathed through his teeth.
“I said what are you in here for,” Clay whispered.
“I tried to rob a store”
“You dog, you.”
“But got caught doing it.”
“Oh, now see there. That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Moe shook his head, the space for swiveling on his neck limited by the colossal hand wrapped around his neck.
“You better get this clear,” Clay said. “Around here one gotta learn to show some respect to elders like me, got it?”
Moe didn’t answer. Clay tightened his grip around the neck and Moe cried out. “Got it?” he repeated. Moe started to sob. “Yes.”
“Even Jesus had to get angry sometimes. It’s a religious anger, for a righteous cause. He did it to teach a lesson, as I do to you.”
He released Moe from his grip and slapped him lightly on the face. “Looks like you’re in need of some Jesus yourself, pretty boy.” He walked up to the Bible on the table of the cell and held it up. “You ever read this?”
“I’ve read some parts.” Moe was wiping the blood off with his shirt.
“Consider yourself blessed to be in my presence, then. I’ve spent the past month studying it all. I can teach you what there is to know. Sound good to you?” Clay asked.
“Yes, sir,” Moe replied.
“Don’t call me sir. You will be my first proselyte. From now on you are not my servant but my friend. Jesus, said that, you know. Nice, huh?”
“God has chosen me to be the pastor of all these pagans. To spread His word. He has chosen me.”
“But how did you know?”
“What was that?”
“Come here,” Clay motioned to him with his fingers. Moe stood up, face still covered in blood. Clay grabbed him from the back of the head and jammed his face in between the bars. Moe shouted from the pain.
“Look,” Clay said, breathing heavily, his face less than inch away from Moe’s. Moe looked around and saw the inmates in the other cells. They were looking back at him.
“You see that?” Clay asked.
“Yes,” Moe replied.
“Pagans. All of them. All of them in need of the Lord in their lives. And God has asked me — me? Yes, me, humble old Moe. God sure works in mysterious ways, doesn’t he? — God has asked me to be the bearer of Jesus. To start a new congregation.”
He pulled Moe away from the bars. “You’re just in luck to be the first member.”
Moe tried to think fast for something to say in his confusion, but Clay had already let him go and was staring up at nothing as if possessed by the Ghost. “Yes, a new congregation,” said Clay, addressed to no one in particular. “That’s precisely it.” He put his hands together and looked up. “Thank you, Lord, for your inspirations come at no better time.”
He turned to Moe. “We have to think of a name for the congregation. Something to distinguish it.”
“You have a point.”
“Well I can’t name it after myself. That goes against humility. Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart. Jesus said that.”
“He was right.”
“The Clay Congregation,” Clay said, putting spreading his hands out as if to put the name in the air. “It’s a pity. It would have had a nice ring to it.”
“It does sound good.”
“How about Black Bomb Congregation?”
“Yeah. What do you think? Because the Book is the bomb and we respect the blacks. It sounds good too.”
“I admit it does sound generic. How about the Loud Trumpet society? Since we want to proclaim the word of the Lord to all people without prejudice.”
“It has a biblical sound too. Loud. Trumpet.” Clay again spread his hands in front of his face as if levitating the name in the air.
“I guess it will do,” Moe said.
“I’m glad you like it. Well, it’s a good start. Let’s see if the other inmates are going to like it.”
The jail cells opened for the afternoon recreation. The inmates separated into gangs outside in the yard and Clay was the head of the largest gang, Maharlika, chosen on the basis of his size and unhuman appearance. He brought Moe along. The faces of the gang members were furrowed in displeasure at the approach of Clay and Moe, though it was hard to tell if it was to intimidate the new inmate or because of the perpetual acrid urine smell pervading the yard made worse by the summer sun.
“Some fresh meat,” said one of them. He was large and muscular, larger than Clay, even, as if alimented by some extra source of food unknown to the other prisoners.
“Yes, sir,” said Clay. “You’re going to like him, Serge.”
“Pretty as hell, too,” replied Serge. “Let’s see how long that face is going to remain untouched around here.” The other gang members laughed. “What’s your name, boy?” Serge asked.
“His name’s Moe,” said Clay.
“Hoe, you say?” asked Serge. The other gang members laughed again.
“Very clever, Serge,” said Clay. “He will be the newest member of the gang.”
“Well I never,” said Serge.
“For all you know,” said Clay, “Moe will be my chosen Moses to save you from the land of suffering and sin to bring you to the promised land of eternal happiness.”
“The hell you saying, Clay,” said Serge. Clay slapped his face and Serge brought his own hand to his cheek and stared at Clay silently, face neutral. As if already accustomed.
“My brothers, you are talking to the new man,” said Clay. “Behold, I have buried the old man and been born again and have come to you all to spread the Good News and help you all to be born again yourselves. Amen.”
“Good God, Clay,” said another inmate, a torso covered with tattoos as if good enough to serve as shirt. “What has gotten into you?”
“I am glad you asked, Sart.” Clay brought out the Bible and held it above his head. “Behold, the Holy Ghost has come upon me to teach his Word written in his Book.”
Serge threw up his hands and shook his head in exasperation. “Enough with this bull, Clay.”
Clay walked up to Serge and slammed the book onto his face. Serge stumbled back from the impact of the hit. Clay kicked him in the groin and slammed him some more. Serge tried to protect himself but it was useless. Clay gave it to him. After each hit, more blood started to come out of Serge’s face. Soon, the face was covered completely with blood that it was difficult to tell if the features were still in their original position. All the other inmates stood by and watched, as if participating in some solemn religious sacrifice. When he finished, Clay spit on the body and then slicked back his hair.
“Bring him to the infirmary,” he said. Two of the gang members picked him up and dragged him by the arms to the building in the yard. The body was not moving.
“Look what he made me do,” Clay said. He wiped the Bible on his shirt and leafed through the pages. “He got it all bloody.”
He told the men to listen to him. He told them that God hath spoken to him and hath saved him, and hath given him the calling to spread this salvation to them. But, just like the Lord had to spill his blood to bring his salvation to the world, then men will have to spill their blood, if necessary, for the good news to spread. That anyone who stopped him from fulfilling his calling and their conversion ought to be shattered by the staff of the Lord. And he, Clay, hath been anointed to be this hand of God. That he hath not chosen to be it, but that the spirit of the Lord hath chosen him to be it, to go and bear the fruit of his efforts.
He took Moe and put him in front of them. He told them to behold him, the first convert of the Loud Trumpet congregation, and upon Moe he shall build the congregation. That they had no other option to turn to, nowhere else to go, because it was he, Clay, who had the words to eternal life.
“You are turning the gang into a congregation?” asked one of them.
“I am turning the members of the gang into the people of God,” replied Clay.
Most of them thought it sounded reasonable and the rest were forced into the congregation by pressure. On that day, the thirty-three members of the Maharlika gang were converted into the Black Bomb congregation. Like Pentecost itself, said Clay to himself with a proud smirk.
“John baptized with water,” said Clay. “And the one greater than him, the Lord, baptized with the Spirit. I baptize with a baptism of fire.” A member of the gang had smuggled a box of matches and a candle from the infirmary. Another member had fashioned the letters LT about as big as a coin from a thick metal wire, and sticking out of it a wooden handle. Moe made then line up outside of the cell that he and Clay shared.
Clay lit the candle and stuck the metal wire into the flame. Each inmate came one by one and when they approached Clay struck the metal on their forearm, under the crease of the arm, and held it there for two seconds. The oily smell of fat mixed with the rusty, metallic smell of blood filled the cell. Some men screamed and writhed but Clay kept them into place with a strong grip on each man’s forearm. When Clay pulled the metal out, each submerged his arm into a vat of water. It produced steam. When each pulled his arm out the letters BB were imprinted in a welt as if living inside were two subcutaneous worms.
After the baptism they decided to start the proselytizing. They requested more copies of the bibles from the warden, which was easily supplied since in the offices there was a huge supply of unwanted bibles supplied by Christian groups. And they went out in pairs to preach the word to each inmate. “Are you saved?” they would ask him. It provided an answer to the emptiness the inmates were feeling, a sense of meaning, a sense of belonging. And many joined and were baptized. Those who refused were beaten up. Evil is cleansed with blood, as the Reverend Clay would say.
The head warden heard about what Clay was doing and called him into his office.
“What are you doing, Clay?”
“What do you mean, chief?”
The chief sighed. “Care for a cigar?” he asked.
“No thank you sir,” Clay replied. “That does harm to my body, and it is the temple of the Holy Spirit.”
The chief sighed again and lit a cigar. “Look. Over the past ten days, eleven inmates have been rushed to the infirmary, knocked out cold. One of them — Serge, of all people — had to be brought to the hospital to be put into intensive care. And everyone has pointed it to you as a cause. What can you say about that?”
“Sounds about right.”
“You do know that we can put you into The Hole when we please, right?”
“You have no power over me.”
“We’ll see about that then.” The chief pushed the table and stood up.
“Do it, and see me treated like a martyr. The truth will be set free, chief. My cause is beyond me. It is bigger than I.”
The chief stopped at the door. He shook his head and took another puff from his cigar. “What are you trying to do Clay?”
“I am doing what God has asked me to do.”
The chief laughed. “God asked you to hurt people? What kind of a God is that?”
“He asked me to make disciples of all men. He asked me to convert these pagan inmates. He asked me to bring Him into their lives. The harm to others is not the goal, but a means to achieve an ultimate end.
The Chosen People had to spill blood to vacate the Holy Land. The good Lord and his apostles had to die to spread the true Faith.”
“How do you even know? That you were called.”
“The Ghost descended upon me.”
“You saw him do it?”
“I felt him.”
“You felt him? That doesn’t sound very convincing to me.”
“It is a matter of faith. Things in the realm of faith go beyond reason, and have to be grasped blindly.”
Clay looked at him calmly. His face, tattooed and lean, made him look like some severe and unshaken carved idol representative of man’s imaginings of a creature from the underworld. He told the sheriff that faith in God is of another realm that surpasses the thinking of man. That between man and God there exists a chasm, and God, in his infinite goodness and love, chose to cross this chasm and reveal himself to man. That man by himself is unable to cross this chasm. By himself he is unable to even speak of or approximate God. That to the external eye, the decision of faith in God is but a stupidity. But the person who makes the decision of faith makes a blind leap, but it is through this blind leap that he is able to see under a new light.
“Listen,” the chief said. “I am a non-believer myself.”
“I respect your decision.”
“But I think there is something inherently wrong in harming people to propagate a belief.”
“We do not harm people to propagate a belief. People inflict harm on themselves by not believing.”
“This cannot go on, you hear?”
“The truth is what sets us free, chief. Nothing can be done to stop the Will of God. That which is put in the darkness will be brought to the light.”
“I swear, I will put you in The Hole. Let’s see what you think about that darkness.” He pointed his finger at Clay.
“Do it. And see what will happen. These people — my people — see me for what I am. I am the representative of God for them. Harm me, and you unleash a havoc upon yourselves.”
The chief rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. “I will allow you to continue with your preaching. But please, respect the freedom of the other inmates. That’s all we ask.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“Every man should have the capacity to choose what he believes.”
For the first time, Clay smiled. The wrinkles produced made ink and shadow indistinguishable on his face.
“When man is faced with the Truth he has no choice but to embrace it. Because it is the Truth. But because of the fall of our common father Adam, our capacity to recognize the truth has been obscured. It is the duty of those who have escaped the shadow and now see under the Light to pull the men towards that Light. ‘Compel them to enter,’ the good Lord said in a parable.”
“And me,” said the chief. “How come you haven’t done anything to me?”
Clay smiled even wider. The chief shuddered. “Soon,” said Clay.
They had summoned Clay into the warehouse. When he entered, the old man was there, his head wrapped in an armlock by one of the members of the congregation, one arm wrapped behind him by another member, and other members locking his torso and leg. He looked like a grotesque caricature of some many-limbed Hindu god. His other arm was outstretched before him and one of the members had a pair of garden shears open, ready to cut off one of his fingers.
“Profess the faith,” the one holding the garden shears said to him. “Profess our faith.”
The member closed the garden shears on his finger by a slight angle. The man shouted.
“Stop,” called Clay. “What is this man’s problem?”
“He’s a Catholic. He’s been speaking out against our teachings.”
“A Catholic, eh?” Clay smiled and placed his face near the man’s. “What’s your name, sir?”
“Jose? It is a pleasure.” He turned to the members. “Release him.” The finger of Jose was cut and was dripping with blood. “Clean him up and bring him to my cell. The two of us are going to have a good chat.”
When Jose entered the cell, Clay was waiting for him. “Take a seat,” Clay said. “I’d offer you a drink but the circumstances don’t permit it.”
There was a silence and then Clay said, “You know, our congregation and the Catholics have a lot in common.”
Jose didn’t answer.
“It’s true. We both come from the same founder.”
“Christ only instituted one Church.”
“I agree with that. But the question in, which Church is that one?” Clay smiled.
“The one established by apostolic succession. The one that has kept faithful to St. Peter.”
“Faithful, you say?” Clay pulled up his leg to cross it. “Tell me. One looks at the news of the clergymen, the abuses, the violations, the scandals, and one gets the impression that if there is anyone who has kept faithful to Peter, it is not your church.”
“Yes, but — ”
“Allow me to finish. What our congregation aims for is a redirection. To be, precisely as you say, faithful to what our Lord truly said in his Word as we read it in the Scriptures. A correction, if you will. Or a renovation, better said.”
Jose said: “I do not condone the abuses that have been done by the members of my Church. In fact, on behalf of the Catholics I apologize for what has been done. You’ve pointed out that these members are sinners. I include myself, I, put in this prison for a sin I have committed and one I do not deny. But I say to you that this precisely is the very proof that my Church is the one true faithful Church of Christ.”
Clay roared in laughter. “You Catholics are an entertaining lot. Stubborn, but entertaining, I must tell you that. Now tell me, please, why you say this is a valid proof?”
And Jose, “Because despite all our faults — and you have pointed out, there have been grave ones — we still continue to stand. That despite all the crises, despite the corruption of the very Popes themselves, there has always been — and there always will be — a rejuvenation of the Catholic church. It is a miracle in itself.”
“That is a weak — ”
“Please, sir Clay, allow me to defend myself. What I want to say is that the Church is no institution of man. It is not some invention or society made by men gathered together in a belief. The Church is the very extension of Christ himself. The members of the Church merely participate in his body. Christ, as he said, is the vine, and we, the members are the branches. And we enter more deeply in this communion by partaking of his very Body and Blood, in the central sacrament of Communion.”
“I have to admit, that all sounds very nice,” said Clay. “Clearly a fabricated story, but it sounds pretty good.”
“Fabricated?” said Jose. “I am sorry, sir Clay, I am not narrating fiction here.”
And Clay, “Then tell me, my dear Catholic. Where in the Bible is it written all the things you have just told me? I have never encountered in any of the four Gospels the Lord proclaim that there is to be a hierarchy in his Church. That men will not be created equal. That all men should partake of a white circle of wheat and cheap wine.”
And Jose, “Because all that Jesus predicated is not found in the Bible. The Bible never says in any of the pages that it is the definitive book, that it contains all that is necessary to follow Christ. One of the evangelists himself said it, that if all that was done and said by the Lord were to be put into writing, the world will not be able to contain all of those books.”
Clay stood up abruptly and Jose stopped talking. Clay looked out of the cell with his hands clasped behind his back. “Please keep explaining,” he said.
And Jose, “I mean to say that the Sacred Scripture was never meant to be the definitive text. It was used as an aid for the preaching of the Apostles. It is not the life of Christ written down per se, but the result of the preaching of the Apostles about the life of Christ, later put into writing to aid the very preaching itself.”
“Wait,” said Clay. He turned to Jose. “There is a problem with this. Now it comes out that the preaching of Christ is but a fabrication made by the Apostles. A sort of mythology, as you say. You yourself admitted cannot be.”
“No,” said Jose. “The events happened. The Gospels and the prophets and the prophesies and the testaments and even the historical writings of those who were not Christians are all consistent. There are no contradictions. Those that appear to be so are only transparent.
“Meanwhile the apostles who were simple men were willing to die for what they professed. And they died deaths gruesome and inhumane. And they considered it an honor. And they preferred it to denying what they had witnessed. It was no mythology. No man in his right mind would allow himself to be tortured for a mythology.”
“But listen now,” replied Clay. “Listen. The faith is no mythology. In this we are both in agreement.”
“No,” said Jose. “We are not.”
“We believe that the events narrated in the Gospels are true. That they happened. That they are not an invention. That there was indeed in a specific time and a specific place a man who said he was God and his actions and his miracles and his words confirmed it. That he had to Resurrect for the Catholic faith to be affirmed.
“That is not your case. You believe in a blind faith. A faith to which it does not matter if indeed what happened in the Bible has a historic basis. What matters is the content, stand-alone, taken as it is. That only the ideas in the Bible themselves are what are true. That it does not matter if they go against reason. That the ideas have to be embraced blindly.”
“But,” replied Clay. “We believe in the same thing do we not? We are based on the same essence. To follow the teachings of Christ. To follow his word. We are Catholicism. Loud Trumpet. We are Catholicism purified. We are doing away with the Pope. The hierarchy. The necessity of an intermediary between the man and God.”
“No. That is not the essence of Christianity. We are not following the teachings of Christ. We are following Christ himself. And it was his will that the hierarchy be established. It is no human invention, but a result of the Apostolic Tradition. The Pope is Christ on Earth. It was the Lord himself who mandated that the sins be forgiven through his assigned ministers.”
“Enough!” shouted Clay. He slammed his fist on the makeshift table and it overturned. His eyes were glazed as if afire with a white ember and his tattoos the ash trail. “Enough.”
“Our Lord himself said it,” said Jose. “The truth — ”
“Will set you free. Enough, I said.”
“There is a chance to turn back. If you let me help you. Please.”
Clay grabbed him by the throat and squeezed. Jose gasped. Clay put his mouth to his face as if to kiss him and sucked out an eyeball. Jose screamed and Clay did it to the other. The two eyeballs hung suspended by the two optic cords. Jose stood up and continued to scream until he vomited. He fainted and fell on the floor, eyeballs disarrayed like disarrayed pendulums of a newton cradle.
Clay called to members of his congregation and told them to bring the body to the infirmary.
In another cell, a member of the congregation talked to the other members in private. There were four of them in the cell and they spoke in hushed tones.
“Listen,” he said. He looked outside of the cell to make sure that nobody else was listening. “Reverend Clay has got it all wrong.”
“What are you saying?” one of them said. He was a teenager that had just joined the congregation.
“He read the Bible all wrong, that’s what I’m saying. Jesus told us we should love our enemies. He never said we should kill them.”
“But he already explained that, the Reverend did,” said the teenager. “Necessary evils have to be done to carry out the Will of God and propagate the truth. Jesus let himself be killed.”
“Yes, we’ve heard that,” said another. “But I have to agree with Toad. Remember what he said to Peter? In the garden.”
“Exactly,” said Toad. “He said that those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. Read the Acts. The Apostles never killed anyone to proclaim the faith. They never did violence.”
“You’re saying we should take down the congregation?” asked the teenager.
“No. Just a change of leadership’s what I reckon,” said Toad.
“The reverend will never listen,” said the one who had stayed silent thus far. “You’ll be punished if you propose that. Just see.”
“I wasn’t thinking of talking to Clay,” said Toad. He leaned forward and signaled them to come closer. “I say the four of us bring a new recruit to him, just the four of us. And then I stick this into him.” He revealed a crude knife to them. It was a piece of metal carved on a rock with a black band of rubber wrapped around the bottom to serve as a handle.
“You gonna kill him?” the silent one said. “You just said — ”
“I know it.”
“And so?” said the teenager.
“Listen,” said Toad. “After we kill Clay, we reestablish the congregation. No more violence, no more coercion. We focus on proclaiming the Bible in its purity.”
“I am in,” said the second one who had spoken.
“I am glad to hear it,” said Toad. He turned to the other two. “Listen, after we take Clay down, I’ll be sure to give you leadership positions in the congregation. How about it?”
The two looked at each other, and then looked at Toad.
“I am in,” said the silent one.
The three of them looked at the teenager.
“I am in,” he said at last. And that night they set the plan on stone.