Andrew McCallum: Saint Andrew
island man-at-sea island slave island island island conqueror-of-a-language-far-and-lost-forgotten island in an archipelago of goodness-knows-where fish-and-bird island island of salt and sun-soaked island dark island star island loss-of-that-distant-star-in-the-nighttime-of-the-history-of-man (or the comet’s comma) island strange island in-a-faith-rooted-in-force-and-fire island names-of-angels-holy island holy-island-of the-dead-beheaded-island island – saint andrew pray for us
When Saint Andrew died in martyrdom, he decided to come to live in this island. After convalescing for nearly a year, waiting for his bowels to grow back into the cavity from which they had been wallaced with red-hot pincers, he resumed his preaching.
But the natives did not care much for the holy words (for by that time the words had been sanctified) which he repeated ad nauseum. In desperation Aindrea (as he was called affectionately by the islanders) was obliged to concede that, if they were to be accepted, his beautiful prayers must first be gradually converted to the idiom of the islanders.
At first the situation did not seem too serious; but over the centuries, his prayers slowly but surely ceased to be what they had been and became on the lips of the islanders mere formulae, more rooted in habit than in true devotion.
To the Saint this was cause for great disappointment and sadness, until the political boss saw fit to enshrine his words in the collective memory of society by building a cathedral.
The building rose on the highest promontory of the island, where it dominated the four winds and from where the blue immensity of the sea was lost in a single circular horizon.
At times the religious fervour of the people overflowed almost without limit, and then the corresponding sections of the cathedral would take on strange shapes in sympathy with the deep feelings of the fervent. At other times, boredom and disbelief dominated the structure of the cathedral.
Thus the building became over time an accurate record of the various historical periods of the island. The wars of independence, the years of epidemic and famine that preceded a union of the failed state with its southern neighbour, great eclipses and tidal waves, neo-classical and vernacular architectural traditions: all were present in the monument to faith and the miracle-man.
The building also became over time the only activity of the inhabitants of the island. No one devoted himself to anything else, and even the fish – the staple food in that place – jumped willingly into the deep-fat fryers that they too might cooperate in the construction of this beautiful temple. Never was there a more religious epoch in the entire history of humankind.
Now, on the scale of holiness there are two chief parameters by which the stature and influence of each of the divine personages of the world is measured. The first relates to exclusivity. In this sense Saint Andrew was honoured even though his account may be credited by only one. In his island, he was the only saint worshipped; something impossible to find elsewhere in the world. However, the second parameter was not taken into account even by the Saint himself and was eventually the source of his people’s misfortune.
This misfortune involved a census which was carried out by the religious establishment from time to time. In a distant country the head honchos decided on the basis of this census which religions were in fashion and which were not. The big problem for Saint Andrew was that his island was not taken into account in this census, quite simply because no one knew it existed. Despite the number of letters that had been sent in small bottles or tins placed in boat-shaped pieces of wood to which sheepskin bladders had been attached and inflated, no one considered that small point on the map to be anything other than a typographical error or an ink stain or a dead insect. The only response to the letters from the wider world was a subscription to the weekly El Pais, which was published in faraway continent where in moments of nostalgia Aindrea remembered having long ago lived, and a flock of parrots that flew in from distant lands every Sunday, religiously, to bring the Saint his only link with the civilised world.
Every morning Saint Andrew read El Pais from cover to cover, while his dog dozed beside him, wagging its tail. Because Aindrea had a dog. When and from where it had come no one knew for sure. When you live cheek by jowl with holiness, reality is not what you see but what you believe. So the appearance of the dog was just another everyday miracle. For the same reason, no one was too surprised when, on a sunny Sunday in July, Saint Andrew started screaming wildly and running like crazy all over the island. Many thought that it was his birthday (on the 27th, not the 30th, by the way); others that someone had finally hit the last nail on the head to complete the nth extension of the cathedral. The truth is that the news Aindrea read to them from El Pais shortly thereafter was to change their lives forever.
The information related by the paper was terrible. For some bureaucratic reason, the religious establishment had decided to withdraw Aindrea from the pantheon of saints. His worship is very small, and his history is confused with legend, the statement said tersely. In other words, he was no longer holy. Motives? Explanations? None was forthcoming. The bull had been issued. No further discussion would be entered into.
It is not necessary to describe the tremendous shock that gripped the islanders. Throughout the centuries, worship had been their only occupation, prayers to the Saint had been like daily bread; and now, all of a sudden, it had all been taken away from them. Everyday life had become meaningless as reality took hold of the island, starting with the fish, which would no longer be complicit in their own holocaust.
It is also pointless to relate the fate that befell Aindrea. As everyone struggled to learn to live in the new conditions, no one had time for a degraded saint…
…until a good many years after the fall, when everyone had grown used to the new secular world. The misfortune came so suddenly that no one had time to prevent it. By the time it was realised what was happening it was too late. The island began to sink, and to sink so quickly that some families barely had time to escape their own homes. Necessity dragged the people back to the old cathedral, which, being at the highest point of the island, offered refuge and sanctuary, at least for the few remaining hours.
Aindrea returned to his old flock, but he could not do anything for them. The population had grown so greatly that there was barely room inside the cathedral for all of the old faithful. Reluctantly, they left their belongings outside; and they could only watch in horror as, in a matter of minutes, everything was swallowed by the sea.
Andrew (do not forget that the ‘Saint’ had been removed) could not believe that not only had he been deleted from the hagiographies but also now from all future martyrologies as well, and that the island was about to go the same way as his holiness. He favoured the blame of a scientific explanation: ice melting at the poles due to global warming, he told the survivors.
The old faithful all looked at each other and decided unanimously to save their skins by abandoning their former Saint to his prayers and their cathedral, which had been converted in such a short space of time into a beautiful monument to futility. They climbed into their coracles and followed the trail of the parrots (for all this had come to pass on a Sunday) towards the distant horizon.
Aindrea’s dog (also now degraded, from an everyday miracle to a mere ‘man’s best friend’) looked into the glazed eyes of the former saint, and found no difference to what it had always found there. It continued to believe in him and followed him up the winding staircase of the cathedral steeple.
When he reached the top, Andrew experienced an epiphany. He cast off his saintly attributes with his cloak and his sword and his whip, and became a poet.
In the distance, his old faithful sadly waved goodbye. He responded with a refrain:
along the coast road by the headland
the early lights of winter glow
I’ll pour a cup to you my darlings
raise it up – say cheerio
But the howling of his dog was not entirely appropriate to the lyricism that overflowed his heart. So he decided to interrupt his song and finish it another day.