Parting the Veil
by Phyllis Barber
Prophet by the Sea
[p.107]One late afternoon as the sun was falling, the prophet with white hair like the mane of a lion walked by the sea with his friend, Fernando. They talked of many things as the water rushed to the sales of their shoes and rushed away again.
“My wife,” said Fernando to the prophet, his head and shoulders curving in discouragement. “Mi Elena. She will not repent. Mi Elena hermosa.” He shook his head in sorrow as the wind played with his bead black hair.
“What has she done?” the prophet asked, stopping to watch a sand crab scuttle after the water.
“She insists, my dear Profeta, that she speaks not only with God, but God’s wife. God is not divided. God is everything together. And besides,” Fernando’s words tumbled faster, “that is your job to do the speaking. You are God’s mouth on earth.”
“Do you love each other?” the prophet asked as he watched a seagull swoop over their heads, its webbed feet posed for landing, its wings swept back by the wind.
“Of course, dear Profeta. We live to give each other comfort, but her ideas fly like birds from a flock.” He closed his eyes and drummed his chest with his fingertips.
[p.108]The prophet put his arm around Fernando’s shoulders. “Wanting to know God is a big task, and how can anyone know God who is always unfolding, even me?”
Fernando turned his cheek against the stiff breeze. “I listen to her. But tears find my eyes when I hear her wild parrot words. I want us to be together for eternity.”
At that moment, Fernando’s long, sad, and beautifully sculpted face reflected the bright orange that tinctured the bottoms of the massive gray clouds. His eyes searched, as if to see the finger of God writing an answer across the sky fast filling with varied ripenesses of peach and gray.
The prophet bent to scoop sand into both hands and let it trickle like fine salt to the beach. Then he rested on his heels, his white hair seeming like a shaded lamp at dusk, the way it glowed as the greater light diminished. Finally, he sat down, untied his shoelaces, removed his socks, and folded them into his simple brown shoes. He rolled up his pant legs, loosened his tie, and wriggled his toes in the cool gray sand.
Fernando returned from his consideration of clouds. “Please tell me what to do.”
“Sit by my side.” The prophet patted the beach with his hands. “Let’s build a castle together. I haven’t done that for years.” “Me neither.” Fernando stood stiffly in his suit and tie and Sunday best cologne. “But sand castles, my dear Profeta?”
“Why not, Fernando?” he said, scooping more sand into both hands and tossing it in the air. “Think how very old this sand must be and of the shoes and feet that have crushed it so fine.” “I can’t think of anything except there is so much to do.” Fernando paced back and forth on the beach, asserting his finger in the air with each thought. “So many people who need to hear the gospel, my wife to keep in the fold.”
“Come build a castle with me. We can dig a moat and maybe add a tower before sunset.”
“There is so little time, mi Profeta. “ And Fernando drove his fingers through his bounteous hair and bowed his head against the palms of his hands. “The sword of justice. It hangs over us.”
“I feel your anguish, my brother.” His eyes lifted to Fernando’s and spoke much more with their silence.
[p.109]Fernando stopped pacing and thrust his hands into his pockets. He squinted at the sun’s furnace burning up the last of the daylight and burnishing his black hair with red streaks. “Don’t distract me with those eyes, mi Profeta. If a man repenteth not,” he held up one fist, “he shrinks from the presence of the Lord and his pain and anguish is like an unquenchable fire, not unlike that fiery ball of sun balancing on the horizon this very moment.”
“Fernando, you are a fierce lion.” The prophet patted the sand again. “But for one moment, sit by my side.”
Fernando smiled, uncovering his straight, narrow teeth. “Leon de Dio.” He lifted his chin to the West, and his chiseled face, strong cheekbones, and bristled eyebrows were indeed leonine against the blunt slant of light.
“Look!” The prophet burst to his feet, brushing sand from the seat of his pants and keening his head toward the water. Something dark and slow and triangular was rising from the surf. Something amorphous, a creature of the twilight silhouetted in the shade between dark and light.
Fernando and the prophet watched speechlessly as the creature pulled itself slowly onto the beach, water rolling off its sides, water swirling at its feet, part dragon, dragging its belly, lumbering from side to side until it collapsed—its head in the damp sand, its back and sides caressed by fingers of tide.
“Par Dios!” yelled Fernando over the sound of the wind and the waves as he struggled to run across the beach in his black patent laceup shoes that quickly filled with sand. As he ran, the ball of sun suddenly dropped into the ocean, leaving a fan of gold light flecked with fish scale clouds. And as Fernando finally reached the creature on the beach, the wrist of God snapped the fan closed, and it, too, dropped into the void and pulled the day behind it.
The prophet walked calmly behind Fernando, not as young and quick as his friend. As he pulled each footstep from the sucking sand, the night began to claim the sky. In this halflight, the prophet’s white hair glowed even brighter—a flame on a candle in a large window. A thin, luminous mist surrounded his body. Dark sticks of driftwood reached from the sand like arms asking to be held, but the prophet walked steadily toward the fallen creature.
“Es leon del mar,” Fernando shouted over the sound of the waves [p.110]pulling pebbles back to sea. “Leon marino.”
“A sea lion, Fernando?”
“Si. El toro grande.”
“He’s bigger than both of us together, Fernando.”
The massive animal’s breathing was labored. It rested its head and wrinkled neck in a shallow bowl of beach and glared at the prophet as he knelt by its side. But the bull was too weak to frighten any man or even another sea lion from its territory. Its silky black eyes seemed more liquid than substance.
Fernando tried to kick the sand from the cuffs of his trousers, then bent forward to look as closely as possible. His yellow-knit tie dangled above the sea lion’s head like a twisted rag. “He’s hurt badly. His neck is torn.”
The prophet stroked the exposed side of the bull’s head, running his finger down the length of the blunt nose and over the arch of its eye and down to its small flap of an ear. The sea lion tried to bark, but the sound was a weak gesture.
“This is the way of nature,” said Fernando, squatting to look into the prophet’s face. “He was probably fighting for his territory.” “All the kingdom for territory, then?” the prophet said as he felt the slowly heaving sides of the sea lion beneath his hands. “How human.”
“I can’t stand to see el muerte anytime.” Fernando turned his head to watch a wave disperse its foam on the beach. “Even if it is a part of life.”
“Death is only a moment, Fernando. You mustn’t be afraid.”
“But I am afraid, El Profeta. This sea lion reminds me the end is close. There’s so little time to accomplish what God has asked of me.”
“Death is only a door, Fernando. And time is bigger than a clock. There’s enough of it to do what you need to do, to accomplish what you’re here to accomplish. Trust, my friend.”
The prophet rubbed the loose wrinkles on the bull’s neck that looked like hills and tight valleys. Lightly, he tracked his finger across the broad gash at the side of its neck and down the length of one whisker. Then he put both hands on the bull’s head, closed his eyes, and lifted his face to the sky. His white hair blew like wings and danced with the brisk breeze. He inhaled the ancient smell of the sea. His breath moved with the tide.
[p.111]“In the name of the holy priesthood, bless my brother, dear God. Bless this creature, its eyes, its heart. Give it strength, in the name of Jesus Christ.”
“Jesus. Por favor.” Fernando placed his hands in prayer at the center of his chest.
Pushed and pulled by the magnets of heaven, the water came to and went from the shore. The men were still like a painting, their heads bowed over the animal, the prophet’s hands gentle on its head. Underneath the upside down bowl of sky where the first star was appearing, his fingers trembled like arrows from the quiver of God. The waves repeated themselves, as if they were the earth’s breath. Exhalation, inhalation, the great constancy. This passed through the prophet and through his hands to the great sea lion.
Gradually, the breath of the waves became the breath of the animal In and out. The huge bull turned its head, rolled back to its stomach, and struggled to lift onto its front flippers. It lifted its body out of the sand, until its neck was once again a massive triangle beneath its whiskers, its nose pointed to the heavens, and its head proud and strong. The sea lion barked crisply before turning to the water’s edge and the black stones washed smooth and round like beetles’ backs. It pulled itself over the slippery rocks and wet oozing sand to the water. “Now,” said the prophet, sitting back down in the sand as the dark shape of the sea lion sank into the ocean. “Before it’s completely dark, will you build a castle with me, Fernando?”
Fernando balanced on one leg and bent to untie his shoe. When the first black patent shoe dropped into the sand in the twilight, it seemed a small boat cutting across an endless sea.