He was unlike any of the clients she had served in three years while in the field. Even in the woman’s white fur coat he’d picked up earlier in a neighboring shelter, the old rag trimmed with the brown fur of an unknown mammal and hanging in scrunches to his ankles, David presented himself as a striking young man of breeding.
More intelligent than most, he needed no help in showering or toileting, which was a relief to her. At most he needed reminders. Left on his own he might forget to shower for days or refuse to take his medicine. But he was a delight in conversation even when at times he made no sense. Sitting in a corner and talking to himself, he was better company than her husband.
In the first few months staff helped transport him out into the community just to be out there. Later, he began working as a janitor for a small Catholic school. He took an interest in the church which pleased Janet greatly, even when he began asking odd, childish questions. She thought he was getting better. The new meds were Risperdal and Seroquel, twice a day. It seemed to help. The rational times were longer and more often, and he would occasionally make inspiringly wise statements. “A Libra can never be one thing or the other,” he once said of himself in a perfectly composed manner. “A Libra can never be sure.”
The very next day, while on an outing to a park together, the strangeness returned. He approached very seriously, eyes fixed, and pulled a piece of moss out of his ear. He smiled significantly. “The Earth hears,” he said.
One day due to staff shortage she picked him up at the school where he worked part time and he persuaded her to tour with him the school’s sponsor, the cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. The church was magnificent as expected, smelling of sandalwood and plaster, glowing in diffused light. Niches were carved out for the grim Stages of the Cross and for white statues formed of flowing folds of marble, somehow soft for all that, inverted in contemplation, and quiet. So quiet she had to whisper in the vastness. To the stairwell at the back of the church he led her, behind the pipe organ, where six ropes of various sizes hung from the tower through holes in a wooden ceiling. The thickest ropes could have been used to dock ships. Far above were the bells, she knew. “I will show you something,” he said as he climbed a ladder to the ceiling. The hinge that had held the padlocked trap door in the ceiling had been unfastened. Someone had taken the screws out. The hinge and lock he simply folded to the side to open the door.
“This is my place. It’s a real place,” he said on the way up into the tower. She objected. They shouldn’t go into the tower. It was her job to help him and to keep tabs on what he did. They had no business in the church tower.
But she followed him up into a cooler empty room stark of red brick and without windows. Nothing in the room but the ropes passing through ceiling and floor. Yet another room above. The bell ropes were suspended through holes in that ceiling some twenty feet higher. Again she pleaded with him to leave, knowing she had lost control of the situation. She was failing in her duties because of him, and for him.
So he continued and she followed, up another ladder into a large room where the great bells were anchored. Three bells, perhaps ten feet in diameter at the lip. There were slates in the walls on all four sides protected by metal awnings of green bronze. The bells were dark purplish-black iron. A sort of chicken wire had been strung across the slates so that the sound would go out, but the pigeons would not get in. But the wire did not do the job, and pigeons had made their nests here along the round wooden edges that made the windows sills. The floor was covered in pigeon dung.
But David wanted to go higher still, another room, more pigeon dung. The room was markedly narrower as they were reaching the top of the tower. Here a dead pigeon lay in a window sill. The window was a narrow opaque slab of yellow plastic glowing in sunlight.
David said he had first found the carcass in February. By March it had housed a hive of bees and it was the sweetest honey he had ever tasted. But there were no bees on the bird. Instead, early flies had found the carcass.
“Don’t touch that! It’s contaminated, David.”
“No,” he said patiently. He pulled a flask from his pocket and poured water over the carcass that he said became wine. And then he ate. He offered her the meat but she would not eat.
Helpless, she began to cry.
Jerald Matters is a behavior analyst and former newspaper columnist and editor. Other stories and essays have appeared in The Erie (PA) Times-News, Red Fez, The Evergreen Review, and others.