The Staves

by Jason Schwartz

This story was first published in The Quarterly, then later collected in THE GERMAN PICTURESQUE (Knopf, 1998).

The effigy was always burned rather gaily apparently. The band would play in the road. The ribbons and the banners, I suppose, would hang from the posts. There are, in passages in Saint Thomas, his hair and the bier, for instance—thus the pomp, thus the haw. In Saint Matthew—daffodils, the dot on the body, the question of the widow, a quaint explanation of the cloaks. In Saint Philip—a procession in Galilee, which is apropos, is it not?—though a bit curious, too, actually, given how, according to Saint Peter at least, the bones were arranged to form a cross. I hate to think of grave things—though it occurs to me that I have already confused various of the phrases, that I have perhaps mistaken one verse for another, that there is a moment at the conclusion of a sermon wherein an array of serpents appears in a potter’s field, the location of the sun invoked for this reason or that, and he is buried.

Observe then, reader—we are safe here. Do you see? The Pharisees were whipped and stoned—while, for instance, women called to the goats. The day, of course, ended, which is pretty safe for us—save the image, it seems to me, of the open gate—save the fact, obviously, of the leeches upon the priests’ feet. It gives me a fright—though the pommée and the bleat are, after all, so dire, are they not? The ridge apparent in the wood somehow reminds me, however, of that Dürer painting—the grand red stripe at the edge, the unfortunate boys, the tiny hat for naught. But please forgive me; I will try to make this quite clear. He was shaking so. He hid (as such). He spoke (possibly). The Gospels indicate he dropped the silver coins in the temple, that he hanged himself in Qumran. Or, on the other hand, no—indeed, certainly not, as he actually rode in an animal cart through a pass, as he actually fell in a field in Emmaus.

Thus—Maundy Thursday.

Thus—Good Friday.

The effigy was always marked, first of all, about the neck—mud, probably, or soot, albeit only a smudge, really, as per a certain parable—which is an oddly charming point, I think. But are we to believe such things, finally? That Saint Francis’s alb was boiled in a stew at a priory in Portugal? That a Sadducee’s bowl contains a lock (as they say) of the hair? That the straw represents the purse? That the powder represents the ashes? Behold, in other words, the body. There is an engraving (fourteenth-century, if I remember correctly—English, maybe) that displays a figure in, if you will, his eternal torment—and so a neat column of flames and a loop of beehives, for instance, are introduced in the foreground. There is one with horses, too, in the corner, in the bramble, in gallop, manes to and fro, it would seem, the horses facing one another, or, again, no—one is looking away. I love the olive trees (there is a sort of stateliness, is there not?)—beneath which, moreover, are lines of arrows and ovals that, arranged thus, indicate, why, not very much at all—as far as I can see, anyway. The inscription mentions how he was brought to the tomb—days in the wilderness, to begin with; the row of camels in the road; the hair cut off, the thumbs cut off, the tongue cut out.

There is a Spanish word for his footsteps.

The monks would walk in the morning, you know. The effigy was always marked elsewhere, also, on Holy Saturday, unless I have not understood the story properly—the wrists and the ankles, naturally; the reddish streak about the lips, of course. There are older stories—the sexton stood in the belfry; the cassock was drawn to the hip; the church cat was fixed; the puppet was cinched and then dipped in tar (by the vicar). How it wounds me, this notion—though I wonder if they were saved, on the other hand, something concerning Mary’s hair in May and the women walking with baskets of market—hew, imagine, crocks, a home—so merry, so merry. But in fact—the goats were all gone, higgledy-piggledy, down the hill, far away; and he appears, actually, in none of the drawings, anyway, except the one in Saint Bartholomew’s book—gargoyles for the birthday, and blots, only, for the wife on Saint Agnes’s Eve—the skulls and the like, even the smoke next to the lists of the names—whereas she died, as you know, oh, somewhat less well.

But to continue. I have never known quite why the bits of wax were placed here and there, near the altar, in the pew, for the Mass—and, either way, indeed, how does this explain the lovely ivy on the walls of the abbey? Saint Bathildes ate cabbage for lunch every day—with the prelate, who was ill. Saint Jerome sat in his cell—the engraving shows this (and, too, candlesticks and a statue of Saint Christopher). Saint Anthony looked away—this is in one or another of the lives. A cross was there by chance, just the hasps, or a shadow, a wisp of something on his hand, they say, the moment before his death—though they are uncertain on the subject of the sunlight—though they are uncertain as to the figure of the attendant, about whom they include a pun, as it happens. The body was perfumed and costumed, and the face was hidden—though maybe this is melancholy to consider.

In any event.

I like to think of the ceremony—hoods, filigree, the folds in the drapery, you see, the breeze in the trees in the arbor. Well, this sort of moment, yes—but I am wrong, of course. A cat was once thrown from the tower on East Sunday—and Saint Babylas refers to buzzards and to a spot of dirt in Spain. The effigy was always brought to the church steps at noon, certainly. I have always imagined a great billowing of the cloak in the wind—though this is probably silly of me, is it not? The ministrant would ring the bells. The band would march back and forth in the road. The ladder, I take it, would creak.

Reprinted, with the permission of the author, from A GERMAN PICTURESQUE, Alfred A. Knopf 1998.

Jason Schwartz is the author of a book of fiction, A German Picturesque (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). His work has appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Antioch Review, Conjunctions, New York Tyrant, The Quarterly, StoryQuarterly, Unsaid, and other publications. He directs the MFA program at Florida Atlantic University.