What does a father do when his son wants to go live in a tunnel down in the basement?
|THE CALLING OF SAMUEL CALLO
“This is insanity! I forbid it!”
My wife, the boy’s mother, her thin face scowling, eyes intent on the potato pieces splashing into the stew pot from the narrow, much-sharpened blade.
Our oldest son, Samuel, stood resolutely facing us, his voice trembling with emotion. “I mean to do it father. I’m old enough. I have the right!”
“It’s a filthy hole in the ground. He wants to bury himself alive!” The hook arm groaned with the weight of the vegetable-filled pot as it swung it out over the flames. For emphasis she added another pine log to make a shower of sparks, before she said, “No son of mine is going to live like an animal in the ground! I forbid it!”
“Samuel, listen to me.” I tried to sound calm and reasonable. “Digging in the cellar as a kind of exploration seemed to me an odd request at the time. But I gave my permission, because your Mother needs a cooler place for her winter roots. And you were very careful to place supporting timbers to protect against a cave-in, but this idea?”
My younger sons, standing serious faced in the curtained alcove that held the winter bedding and greatcoats, nodded in agreement. Jackon held the curtain back, saying, “See Father, he’s already taken his bed.”
“Don’t let him go, Father. It’s not right. We’ll be stuck with all the heavy work!” Ned, the middle son sputtered in desperation. “We’d never have helped him if we knew he wanted to live down there!”
Hearing my wife’s sharp intake of breath, I moved quickly taking Samuel’s arm a bit too firmly, spinning him around and heading him towards the rear of the house where the cellar steps led down. “Samuel and I will work this out.” I hissed at him, “You will show me this so-called place of exile right now! You’ve upset your Mother beyond all reason.”
“She is only thinking about appearances. I guarantee you, once I’m gone, she’ll never mention it or me again.”
“Samuel, she’s your Mother.”
“Jackon and Ned will give her enough problems, without my adding to them,” he said, guiding me down the narrow stone-covered steps into the damp-earth and root scented cellar. He lit a lantern for each of us after we stepped down under the heavy floor beams. Samuel led me to the timber-framed opening of his tunnel on the far side of the subterranean space that cut into the hillside under our family’s home.
When the boy hesitated, I said, “Samuel, I’ll see it all. Now!”
Without a word he adjusted his lantern and ducking his head, slipped ahead of me into the tunnel. Barely twenty yards into the confined space, Samuel stopped to open a makeshift gate of flimsy branches and a couple boards.
Stepping through, I realized we had passed into a natural cave. “What’s this?”
“This is what I have discovered, Father.” His voice took on an air of excitement I rarely heard from Samuel. “This is the ancient dwelling place of primitive men. Somehow I knew this place was here!”
“It’s amazing, yes. But it’s still deep under the ground.” With dismay I could see seeping water reflected in the lantern light, the smell of moldy earth strong in my nostrils. “How could you consider the idea of staying down here?”
Samuel moved farther into the cavern, turning to hold his lantern high. “I once lived here in another life. I am certain of my connection to his place. I have to stay here to reclaim my soul! I belong here!” His voice echoed around the damp stones, adding to the strangeness of his impassioned words.
“Your soul? What in God’s name are you talking about?”
“My place in this world, Father. I have to find it!”
“Your place is not down here hiding away from the light, and your family.”
A strange calmness and certainty seemed to settle over the boy as he spoke. “I dreamed of this sacred place months before I knew that it lay hidden almost under my very feet. Once I realized I had to dig under the house, I had no doubts. It was here waiting for me! You see, Father, I have memories of being a powerful mystic, a kind of holy man that protected and guided his tribe. It happened a very long time ago, and so much that is forgotten…that I must absorb back into my being…into my soul.”
“Samuel, this is crazy. You cannot…”
“I’m not going back up there. I will not go back, no matter what you say. I have a dry place to sleep and fresh water to drink. All I ask of you is to let my brothers place food for me right here in this cavern under the canvas cover.”
For the first time I noticed the large wooden box with a heavy lid of framed canvas.
I had no words. The preparations and the tone of finality in his voice left me too shocked to respond.
“The boys are not to try to see me or talk to me…ever. Just place the food and leave. I will come for it when no one is here. I forbid contact of any kind; from you, Mother, or anyone.”
“But, the darkness?” I stammered.
“There is an adequate supply of candles and torches. I’ve been putting some aside every few days.”
“For how long do you intend this insanity to continue?”
“Until I have learned all that I can learn, and I am whole again. Time is not important.”
“But your mother and I…”
“You will be better off without me. I cannot pretend to be part of your world when this call is stronger.” He walked back to stand beside the wooden gate. “I think it’s time to say goodbye. And remember, they are never to try to see me.”
When I didn’t move, he continued, “Father, please. Say I love them, but I cannot be with them. And if any of you try to find me, I will block the tunnel and you’ll never see me again. Now please, go back up to your warm and comfortable world where you belong.” He held the gate open.
What could I say? What could I do? Physically dragging him back would not be a solution. Perhaps in a few days he would see the impossibility of his scheme and return on his own. I paused at the gate. His calmness unnerved me.
“Samuel, I love you.”
“I love you too, Father.”
“You can come back up whenever you want.”
Either my son was an extraordinary human being or insane. I could not argue with him. “Goodbye,” I whispered.
“Thank you, Father. Goodbye,” he said, closing the gate behind me.
It took me a long time to walk out of the tunnel and climb back upstairs to break the news to my family.
Samuel was only half-right about his Mother. She did mention his name again. It was nearly six months later, and the boys, usually Ned, faithfully placed the food my wife prepared in the canvas-covered box. Each day a place was set for Samuel on the work counter without comment. The boys had learned never to mention or discuss their absent brother, but the few times the duty was forgotten, the food lingered on the counter, drying, collecting flies and the appropriate degree of guilt in the neglectful brother, usually Jackon.
On this particular day after church services we stopped to greet friends in the warm spring sunshine. I had just remarked to a fellow clerk that our workload never seemed to lighten, when I heard one of the neighbor women ask my wife about Samuel. It seemed everyone noticed that our son had not appeared at services for quite some time. Her answer stunned me. For she announced in a quivering, dramatic tone that our son Samuel had accidentally fallen down the cellar steps. “He struck his head on the stone, cracking his skull open and died on the spot. I’m sorry, but I’ve been too grieved to speak about my loss,” she said, wiping tear-filled eyes.
The resulting sympathy and attention caused my wife to blossom before my very eyes into the image of a tragic figure, bravely carrying on for the sake of the her other two sons and husband. I turned away and, with my gaze averted, hurried toward home fearing the reaction of friends and acquaintances. Ned and Jackon tried to follow me, but I sent them back saying, “Walk with your Mother. It’s not seemly that she should be alone.”
“What do we say, Father?” Ned asked. “We all know Samuel is not dead!”
“Say as little as possible, and let’s hope this incident is forgotten as quickly as possible.” I knew it would not be, for in the mind of our community my son Samuel, died that day. In the weeks that followed I would neither confirm nor deny the comforting inquiries of co-workers and neighbors, but rather insisted that I could not speak about the matter.
Ned, especially, had great difficulty accepting the situation. Often, outside his Mother’s hearing, he would confront me about trying to bring Samuel back. “Can’t we talk to him? Tell him what everyone thinks and make him see he has to put an end to this horrible falsehood.”
Summer dragged into Fall, and I thought the boy had gradually given up on the idea of contacting Samuel, until one night when we were all awakened by a deep rumbling from under the house and an extended tremor that rattled dishes in the kitchen and sent the water basin and several statues of the Mother of God crashing to the floor. Thinking it was an earthquake, I gathered my family outside in the cool night air while Jackon lit a lantern. After a few minutes, I sent the boys inside the house to ascertain the damage.
Shortly, Jackon appeared in the doorway calling, “Mother, Father, it’s safe. You can come back inside. Ned has something to tell you.” Tight-lipped and appearing angry, Jackon stepped aside to allow us to enter, shivering in our nightclothes, to face a frightened, white-faced Ned.
“Tell them,” Jackon demanded.
“I’m sorry…this was not an earthquake,” Ned stammered, his eyes avoiding ours.
“Please, son. Explain.”
“It was Samuel,” he whispered.
“What do you mean?”
Beside me, my wife began to moan, deep in her throat.
Ned haltingly told his story. “Tonight, after supper, I took the food down to the cave, like I always do. But I had this thought. What if I could talk to Samuel and tell him how much we want him to come back.” His voice became very quiet. “I waited…in the dark. I waited to see if he would come for the food.”
My wife collapsed against me with a gasp. I guided her into a chair, fearing what the boy would say next.
“God forgive me…I saw him. I saw Samuel! He came out of the darkness with a single candle.” He paused, his breath trembling.
“Go on Ned. Did he see you? Did you speak?”
“Oh yes, I called out his name. Samuel, it’s Ned! I need to talk to you. He dropped the canvas lid, and held the candle up high so I saw him clearly for just a moment. It was awful!”
“What was awful? Go on Son.” I whispered.
“I didn’t recognize him with all that hair and he had a beard. His face and body looked white. He looked too old and so strange. He was naked! He cried out a sound…not words, just a horrible angry, crying sound like an animal! Then the candle went out and I ran for the tunnel, feeling my way in the dark.” Ned was openly crying now, his hands clutched over his face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t expect…that. I did it all wrong!”
“But the earthquake. What about that?” I insisted.
“It was not an earthquake. I just went down to look at the tunnel,” Ned whimpered. “I didn’t mean to let this happen!”
Jackon finally spoke. “What he’s trying to tell you is that our crazy brother has collapsed the tunnel. He’s buried himself alive!”
Almost hysterical, Ned ran to the door, “I’ll wake the neighbors. They can help us dig out the tunnel!”
“No!” my wife screamed, “They’ll be no digging!”
“But Mother, it’s my fault! We can rebuild the tunnel.”
Her words were hard and bitter, cutting through all of us like the ragged edge of the potato knife. “Your brother has destroyed himself by his own hand. It will end here. His memory is dead and buried…and it will remain so. Never again do I want to hear his name or anything about what has happened tonight. Never!” She rose stiffly from the chair, and holding her nightgown like a protective shield, left the room.
I never forgot Samuel, but the sharp pain of his passing, over the years, became a distant ache that, more often than not, I forgot entirely.
I moved up from clerk to Legal Counsel, and eventually received a Judgeship shortly before my wife’s death. She had never forgiven me for allowing Samuel to leave us. The night of his death under the collapsing hillside marked the beginning of a cold and separate relationship that endured the rest of her life.
I sold the old home and property, reliving those terrible memories one last time before returning to my comfortable apartments in the city of Islington, and my new assignment to hear the case that brought the power of the Church up against the most influential and successful merchant-banker in our world. The man, Ricard Clarion, had refused to pay the traditional tithe to the Church, which would have amounted to a great fortune. Instead, he challenged the Church fathers to prove that they represented God, and for that matter, prove that God existed. Lawyers and Bishops gathered in a hostile, strained palace courtroom to debate before my Judge’s Bench.
The weeks of impassioned argument stretched into months; God was great and all-powerful, God was compassionate, God did not exist! Merchant-Banker Clarion raged, the Church fathers threatened and defended, dragging out stories of old saints and miracles. “You must believe!” they cried.
The lawyers demanded evidence and proof. “Show us the God who gives you the right to claim our money! Give us one witness who truly can speak for God!” The impasse rose like the great seawall down in the harbor holding the elements of land and ocean separate and unyielding.
Finally, in desperation, a minor prelate came forward to say, “There is one man alive today who might speak about God, but he will not come to this Congress. However, if the esteemed Judge would consent to visit this man in his humble monk’s cell in the lower level of the cathedral, he might be persuaded to give witness for the greater glory of God.”
I readily gave my agreement, being willing to do almost anything to break this impasse between Church and Law.
The following morning, the Bishop of Islington met me at the great bronze doors of the Cathedral. He guided me to the stairway landing that would take me down to the monk’s quarters. “Vows of poverty and a life of devotional prayer leaves them reclusive and totally void of any of our conventional comforts,” the Bishop said. “You must go on from here alone. More than one visitor at a time is strictly forbidden.”
The stairway led down several flights, ending in a long dimly lit corridor smelling of incense, mold and urine. I had been instructed to speak to no one, but to go directly to the fourth door on the left.
The heavy wooden door was partly open. I knocked, calling softly, “Hello, it’s Judge Callo.”
The monk was not there. Entering, I waited in the dreary, but dry, single room, sitting carefully on the straw covered stone shelf that served as a bed. Poverty for the sake of God goes beyond reasonable survival. A metal pot, partly rusted held his watered soup of roots, leaves, and I feared a dead mouse. No one should live like this! The waiting was becoming tiresome. I poked around using the candle that had been left burning, and found several manuscripts bound in leather wrappings. Opening the tightly knotted cords of the first, I uncovered a beautifully hand-lettered title page proclaiming The First Congress of Islington on the Existence of God. Turning the pages I was surprised to see a complete transcript from the very first day of the debate; all the arguments for and against; the speeches as they were spoken. How could anyone reproduce, word for word, all those days of debate? At the beginning of each man’s argument someone had drawn a likeness of the participant. I was overwhelmed at the amount of effort required to produce this remarkable document. Before I could examine further, I heard someone approaching; their footsteps echoing along the damp stones of the corridor outside.
The monk was tall and thin. The hooded cowl shadowed his face except the neatly trimmed beard and lips. “God be with you, Judge,” he said in a coarse whisper. Then seeing my clumsy attempt at retying the cords on the manuscript, the monk lifted the pages, holding them out to me. “You understand we are intensely interested in the debate that threatens to seal the fate of our God?”
“You know why I’m here?” I asked.
“I know you are a desperate man who must listen to the unreasonable arguments of fools and manipulators.”
“Then why do you keep such a perfect record of the arguments?” I said, indicating the manuscript.
There appeared to be the briefest of smiles. “Perhaps each man is accountable for his falsehoods and exaggerations.”
If he implied a threat, I did not want to know. “Please good monk, if you, or one among your order can speak the truth about God, will he come to the Congress to testify? I believe you understand the importance.
“I have been preparing for such an event all my life.”
“Then you’ll speak before the Congress?”
“If you order it,” he said with a slight nod.
“I so order,” I said, amazed there would be no protest or hesitation.
“Tomorrow…and thank you.
“God be with you.” The interview ended, and I found my way back up to the fresh air and light.
Word spread quickly, and the courtroom filled to capacity with an air of expectant skepticism. A procession of some twenty, brown-hooded monks accompanied him. He wore a new, white robe; his freshly shaved chin was almost as white. He came forward alone up the center aisle to the witness stand, taking his place with deliberate slowness.
The clerk intoned the call to order before addressing the witness. “You who take the stand to speak before this Congress will state your name and purpose here.”
There followed a breathless hush as the monk’s thin, long-boned hands reached up and slowly pushed the cowl back until it fell open onto his shoulders. The shaved head gleamed almost pure white as the head lifted with his eyes suddenly locked to mine. The words he spoke shook me to the core of my being.
“My name is Samuel Callo, and I have been invited by my father to speak to the Congress about the existence of God.”