Once St. Francis met a poor naked beggar who said, “Please, sir—you are a holy man. Can you give me some money so I can buy food and clothing?”
“I have no gold or silver to give you,” Francis said, “But what I have, I give freely.” Saying this, he removed his cloak and placed it on the beggar's shoulders, whereupon the beggar flew straightaway to heaven...
—from The Little Flowers of St. Francis
When a pickpocket meets a saint, all the thief sees is the saint's pockets.
I shot up like a rock from a catapult and just held the cloak tight around me, afraid to let go. Zoom! So long, mountains! Whoosh! Hello, clouds! Then I looked down and even the clouds were tumbling away like stones down a well, and I looked up and caught the whole universe in a glance. Stars, planets, and for one dizzying moment I saw that the earth wasn't really at the center of anything. Then the universe broke open like a wall and white light flooded all over me and I was in a place I knew was heaven, and a man walked up to greet me while my head was still spinning with the question, Where did the universe go?
He smiled for a long time, and I smiled back. He looked puzzled for a moment, then brightened. “I'm sorry,” he said. “You use speech! I'm Homobonus. Welcome to Heaven!” He extended his hand and I grabbed it. It felt odd, like cool putty. Heaven itself seemed to be a blank expanse with no ambient odors or sounds.
Homobonus was a tall man with pale skin and a smile so wide it looked dangerous to his cheeks. “That's a lovely cloak you have,” I said. Its beauty was almost an emotion. Its colors shimmered and twisted, so light that it seemed to express in a single swirl the ineffable transience of everything, and the incalculable value of it anyway. I could have stared at it for hours.
“Thank you,” he said. “It took me ages to make it. You can make anything up here if you work hard enough.”
“Really? There's hard work here?”
Homobonus shrugged. “You don't have to do it, but it's so much more rewarding here. I really shouldn't say any more. You won't stay long.”
“You're an Early. I mean, you have a pulse and...and blood...and a brain...” he seemed to run out of words. “The physicians will pull you back any second now, and you'll return to your life a better person, with warm memories of your near-death experience. You'll see.”
There was some uncomfortable silence.
“So,” I said. “What did you do?”
“I am, or was, a cloth merchant. It's tough to explain, since there's no time here. Or rather, all times are coterminous with...” he sighed. “Oh, don't bend your brain with it. What's important is that all your loved ones are here waiting for you when your time comes.”
“I don't have any loved ones,” I said. “I'm a beggar and an orphan. A thief, too. I've lived alone on the streets since I was a child.”
“No loved ones?” he said. “Well. That happens sometimes. Then just remember that Heaven is a place that fills the longing in your heart for all the love you've never had.”
“Oh,” I said. “That will be nice then.”
We waited a bit longer, and Homobonus frowned. “You should have gone by now. Hold on. I have to check something.” Then he vanished. He didn't go anywhere—I could sense his presence in the exact same place somehow—but he was doing something that apparently he had to be invisible to accomplish. Then he reappeared. “I'm sorry. Something unprecedented has happened. I'm going to take you to see Mary.”
And that's how I met the Queen of Heaven.
Sweet Mary! Her face was so beatific and loving that when she smiled, it was almost redundant. But not an unpleasant redundancy; it was as if her smile said, “If you think all the love in the world is a lot, there's even more where that came from!” I loved her instantly, and I knew I would stay smitten forever. I'm only human.
I barely remember the setting. We appeared someplace, it felt like a cathedral with high ceilings and dark distant walls. All I recall was seeing her across a flat floor of pale gray clouds. She walked toward me, and the people surrounding her parted to let her pass. It made me feel like the most important person in the universe. She was coming to see me! Little beggarly me! And yet her caring expression was proof that I deserved it. As she approached, I noticed her body was different from the others I'd seen. She was exquisitely beautiful, of course, so beautiful that even blinking in her presence could cause pangs of loss. (How terrible to have to miss even a slice of a second of her!) But her beauty was not the sort associated with erotic statues and alluring clothing. Her beauty was the beauty of all women—a pure femininity, a perfect distillation, so that every curve of her hips, every angle you could see her breasts or lips from, all seemed to inspire the primitive awe the first man must have felt when he saw the first woman and said, Thank God that the universe is generous, and that I am so lucky.
“Welcome to Heaven,” she said, and she took my hand. That's when I knew what was different about her. She was physical and real. I could actually feel the callus on her palm, and her whole body was warm and pulsed. The very fact that she had skin make me proud to be human, and a possessor of skin myself. I smiled back at her, so overwhelmed that I might have fainted if I'd had the strength to close my eyes. There we were, we two humans, surrounded by a sea of shades, like the spotlight of a dance. This really is a match made in Heaven, I thought. Then she pulled me closer.
“Come on,” she said. “I want you to meet the others.”
“Others?” It came out as a leak of air. Were there more women to see? How much more happiness could I take?
“The other Bodily Assumeds. I was transported without dying. So were you. That's why I was sent to see you. But there are others, and I want to introduce you to them.”
So she pulled me through something cloudlike and the next thing I knew, I was on a spring-struck hillside, with extravagant trees and a vociferous brook, and there in the clearing in front of us were three old men in robes. Except for the men, everything looked breathtaking, including the robes.
“These men,” said Mary, “are Enoch, Elijah, and Mohammed. They were all assumed into heaven without dying. Now there are five of us!” She smiled again. I never got tired of seeing it.
“Let us know if you have any questions,” said Elijah, who looked like the youngest of the lot, even though he had no hair and his smile caused wrinkles to circle his entire face.
I hesitated. I had thousands of questions, but the main one on my mind was a rather rude one, viz., are you people the best Heaven can offer? I was disappointed that these oldsters seemed to be my closest contemporaries. But I was new, so it didn't seem quite polite to say anything.
“Er,” I said, “How long am I here?”
“Forever, it would appear,” said Elijah, with another wrinkle-intensive smile. “Congratulations, and welcome to Heaven!”
“You mean I'm in?” I cried, rather shocked. I was a beggar and a thief. How could someone like me get into Heaven?
“You're a part of us now,” replied Elijah. “By the grace of God, you have been sent to Heaven without really being prepared for it in any way. That's a real first.”
“We all led holy lives,” said Enoch, with a whispery voice that would have been drowned out by a light breeze. “We were taken by virtue of whatever goodness we possessed. You, however, just had the luck of meeting a very generous—”
“—and unorthodox!” broke in Mohammed.
“—saint,” finished Enoch, with a supercilious look at Mohammed.
“You are here by grace,” said Mary, and on her lips it sounded like You Are Great. “More grace than God has ever shown any human being.”
“Normally,” said Mohammed, “you have to exhibit some sort of interest in God at some time in your life. Devotion. A good deed or two. Something above what any human being might do out of enlightened self-interest.” Mohammed seemed a little obsessed with the rules, or maybe I was misunderstanding something.
“I was good!” I protested. “At times, I mean.”
“Well,” said Elijah, looking a little embarrassed, “not really. Anyone who spends any time in the presence of the Holy One sees quickly how imperfect they are. No one before you has ever gotten into Heaven without at least realizing that much basic theology. So you're really unique. In the one-of-a-kind sense.”
“Do I have to learn about God, then?”
There was a silence, and Mary (poor Mary!) even gasped a little. “You mean you don't know God already?”
“No. Should I?”
Enoch frowned at the glade, as if there was something flawed in it. “In heaven, everything is permeated by the odor of God, suffused by his enriching presence. You can't not know him. Are you sure you don't feel any kind of presence?”
“Inner peace?” pressed Mohammed. “A sense of rightness? Benevolent love?” Suddenly he seemed to find me fascinating.
I tried, but all I felt was the perfect air temperature and the silence of the grove.
I didn't even need to explain that, though; everybody could tell it before I even formed the word “Nothing.”
“He'll learn,” said Mary. “How could he not?”
“Maybe he's blind,” said Mohammed. “Doesn't even have a religious sense. For a person like that, baffling mercy might be the only way to be saved.” He reached out and touched my cloak. (Well, Francis’s cloak, but it was mine now.) “Maybe he’s the most morally tone-deaf person in human history.”
“Hey,” I said, but I wasn’t sure what else to add. These people all knew the rules. I was brand new here.
“Not even a sense of God, and he's in Heaven!” said Elijah. “I don't know about you, but I think it's marvelous. What grace!”
“The question remains,” breathed Enoch, “what do we do?”
“We love him, of course!” said Mary, and she grabbed my arm, protectively hugging it. My elbow brushed against her left breast. I practically fainted from joy
Enoch raised a woolly brow. “I'm not sure it's the answer to everything,” he said. He looked at my face, and—this was an odd moment—he saw something in it that made him smile. “I guess it can't hurt to try, though,” he said. “Are you ready, young man?”
I nodded, and Elijah, who seemed the spryest of the bunch, yelled “Splendid!” and clapped his hands. “Let the party begin!”
A trumpet blew somewhere, and now we were at a party, the most amazing party I'd ever been to. Famous people from all across time were there, cheek to jowl with people so nondescript that they hardly seemed to exist, only their very normality was somehow intensified in a way it wouldn't have been on earth. The whole gathering took place in some fantastic building, with a spiral staircase that rose to a distant rotunda like a ladder to another Heaven. You could get vertigo looking up at it. The style of the mansion was a mishmash of styles from Babylon to Byzantium, and I loved everything I saw, from the paintings on the walls, which practically reached out and slapped you on the back, to the carpets on the floors, which were the only thing in the whole place that seemed to stand still.
The people were another matter. They tried. God knows it, I'm sure. I was surrounded by beautiful women—women so breathtaking they would have made the average man tear his pants on his erection. They poured out delicious wine that would make an angel start hugging strangers and weeping on their shoulders. When anyone spoke especially well, bursts of color curled in midair and sang with the chimes of bells on the wind. Just looking over this sea of heads, all these conversations formed a fireworks display of call and response, and every second seemed to display a new elegant tracery in the air above.
But none of it could impress me. What good was any other woman in comparison to Mary? What wine could intoxicate as deeply as her glance? What conversational pyrotechnics could ever be as moving as the memory of her hug? But we didn't speak that night. She was forever swamped with well-wishers and hangers-on. She never seemed to tire of the attention. I would have been kicking them all in their groins after thirty minutes of such solid adulation.
I thought of mingling with one of the famous people, but I had never been a student of history and wouldn’t have known what to say. I thought of finding Enoch or Elijah, but after the discussion in the grove I knew I would be too spiritually deficient to talk to them. Speaking of deficiencies, I noticed that my bare feet were wet from walking on top of clouds. Also, I couldn’t actually create colors or bells with my own words. I didn’t know if this was a knack I hadn’t picked up yet, or if it was something that would forever mark me as an alien. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to know. Instead, I focused on getting drunk. I tried every drink I could grab, and they all slid down my gullet as smoothly as if they’d been predestined, but I never got more than slightly dizzy. Still, the drinks were so delicious that for a while it kept me artificially happy.
Homobonus came over. “Hello!” he said.
“That's another lovely cloak you're wearing,” I said. It was blue, and floated around his body like an exotic protective flame.
“Thanks. It's actually the same one. It looks different indoors and depending on the surroundings. I put a lot of myself into it.”
“Well, I guess you were wrong. I might be here for a while after all.”
“That's great!” he said, as if he were just now hearing the news. That puzzled me.
“Didn't you know that already? Aren't you all-knowing?”
“Sort of,” he said. “Another drink? No?” He took a deep breath and smiled clearly like some great teacher I'd never had. “I knew you were staying here, but I forgot it so that it would be fun to hear it. You can do that, you know. You can set yourself any challenge you like, to make life here as interesting as you want.”
“But how do you just forget?”
“I probably asked God to make me forget, shortly after I knew. Obviously, I don't remember. Anyway, I figured it must be no fun for you to be surrounded by people who know everything, so after I realized this—I think it happened to me tomorrow; that time complication again—I asked God to retroactively make me forget almost anything you might tell me.”
“What do you mean 'almost anything?'“
“Well, that keeps it more interesting, doesn't it? If you knew already that I didn't know anything you were about to tell me, we'd never experience the lovely moment when two people realize they have the same odd bit of knowledge or the same strong opinion about something fairly trivial. By asking God to change my memory randomly, I've left that option open for us.”
“I see.” I wasn't sure how to feel about this, and I guess it showed.
“None of us can help being basically omniscient and powerful, since this is Heaven. But I'm making do with the options open to us, so we can function in a way that's more comfortable for you.”
“Um, thanks,” I said.
“It's quite thrilling,” said Homobonus. “In a way, I'm actually following in Jesus's footsteps, turning my back on my omnipotent birthright and becoming...well, more like you.”
“Just a dumb human, you mean.”
“How you talk! Not at all. More like...well, whatever you are. You're certainly not human anymore, even if you're not quite like the rest of us.”
Not like the rest of us. That was true enough. I thought again of Mary. Could she ever return my love? I decided not to think about it.
So there I was, in the middle of Heaven, and I felt lonely. What was I to do? I would have prayed, but evidently I couldn't feel God, so I wasn't sure I'd hear him anyway. I finally just broke down and asked Homobonus, “What do I do about my loneliness?”
He looked sad, and I liked him a lot for that. First sad face I'd seen in paradise.
“You can talk to God.”
“No, apparently I can't even feel him.”
“Reach out to God, and you'll feel Him all right. All you have to do is try.”
I considered it, but as strange as it sounds, even being interested in God seemed too conformist to me. I wanted to stay special that way.
“I can't do that. What else?”
“You could talk to me. I'm determined to be your friend.”
“But where's the challenge in that?”
“You could make it a challenge. Just talk to God. He'll set it up for you.”
“I told you. I don't want to talk to God. Why don't you make it a challenge?”
“Make our friendship a challenge? How does that make you less lonely?”
He had a point. I sighed. “What else is there?”
“Well...” and Homobonus frowned and looked very serious, and at that moment I detected the true weight of everything good in the universe, how thick and deep it was. “We could send you back to Earth.” He waved his hand, and suddenly part of the party disappeared, and part of the wall of the mansion, and I saw that Earth was below us, a huge blue crystal on a starry backdrop, and I felt like it was opening towards me.
My heart leapt for just a second. Of course! Simply toss off St. Francis's cloak and plummet back home!
But then I caught Mary's eye in the crowd. She smiled, and I knew she was smiling at me, with blue eyes that would raze a dozen castles and turn a mountain to glass. I knew, quailing in my heart, that I could never leave her.
“Fuck,” I said. But it didn't sound offensive. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK!” The word tinkled into the air like the music of bells and people grinned and nodded at me, as if grateful to have this forceful note thrust into the evening's atmosphere. “You see?” said Homobonus. “Just because it's Heaven doesn't mean there are no challenges. Talk to God and you'll see.”
I said nothing. I had already picked up the knack of musical speech without trying. There was something frightening about it, something horribly predestined.
I wouldn’t talk to God, I decided right there with the certainty of a headsman's axe. If I was going to live in Heaven, I wanted to do it on my own terms. And I wanted Mary to be the one I could be lonely with.
That party ended, but there were others. Always as often as I wanted, always with myself as the center of attention if I wanted it, more often as simply an observer of heavenly social life. When I could, I tried to visit Mary, but it wasn't easy. She had a lot of prayers to answer, and everyone in Heaven seemed to be her friend. She held thousands of informal audiences and I attended every one I could without looking like I was establishing a life up here. She held interviews with newcomers, and I listened to them until I knew all her answers down to the cadence of the breath over her tongue on every letter. But we never seemed to get any closer, although she was always kind to me. When we talked, we tended to talk as fellow Assumees, so I was glad then that I couldn't see God, that I had kept myself different and noticeable.
I went to parties in a frenzy. I knew people were accommodating me, and I let them try because I wanted to make this work. It was certainly better than the punishing winters I'd spent begging hungrily in the streets. And if St. Francis had sent me to Heaven, maybe I had something to offer. But of course getting along in Heaven wasn't my only motive. I suppose, really, I was trying to be my own interesting one-of-a-kind self, and still fit into Heaven. That way I could get Mary's attention. If I couldn't have her, nothing else in heaven or Earth seemed to matter. So I let everyone talk to me. I tried to laugh at jokes I didn't understand, and let them laugh at my jokes, which I knew were beneath their dignity to attend to, all evidence to the contrary. It would bore you to hear of it all–all the horrible fakery, the nights of drinks and jests and chatting and gaining people's confidence and never getting anywhere with Mary.
When I wanted to be alone, I was left alone. I would walk the streets of Heaven, which were politely deserted as I passed, and I would stare in amazement at St. Francis's cloak, which stayed always around my shoulders. Sometimes, even when I rubbed its rough fabric between my fingers and heard the rasp of my own fingerprints, I would wonder if I was still real anymore. Or maybe I was the only real thing left in the universe and reality itself had simply died.
Finally I couldn't take it any longer. I was so lonely, and so in love. I waited through hundred of audiences, visits, interviews, over who knows how many weeks or months. But eventually, when I was nearing the end of hope, I finally found the Queen of Heaven alone. We were in some small room at a completely different kind of party—muted, with walls close by and wood the main theme—and there, in front of a mounted globe and astrolabe, while she sat in a thick padded study chair, I found my tongue.
“Sweet Mary, Mother of God!” I cried. “I love you!”
She looked at me warmly. “I know.”
I looked away. Suddenly, I couldn't gaze into her face for fear of seeing pity there. I wanted to rush at her, take her in my arms. But I couldn't move my body. And I could only muster the courage to raise my head so far as to see the hem of her dress, and the drapery it formed over her perfect legs.
“I can't live without you!”
“You don't mean that!” she said, sounding light and appeasing.
“Well, it's not true, anyway. You're much stronger than you think.”
When she said it, suddenly it was true. I found I could move my legs. I could look up at her. And her eyes held no pity—pure understanding lay there. I have never felt so comprehended. It was like a lodestone. I rushed at her, arms outstretched—and then stopped, sudden and short, an inch from her body. Even sitting down, she was majestic, her head coming up to my chin, her intense blue eyes seeming to level the differences between us, her calm breath flowing past my neck. How could I not want this woman? And yet what could I offer, her, The Virgin?
It sounds ridiculous now, but I did the only thing I could think of. I dropped my pants. “Look!” I cried, pointing to my penis, which was on fire as it had never been. “I can give you what no one ever has!”
“I know what a penis is,” she said. She didn't even look at me. I looked down, as if on her behalf, and I was, as I said, very erect. Perhaps, I thought, she wasn't looking because she was frightened. It wouldn't have been her fault for being intimidated. If I may say it, I was at a lifetime best.
“Look at me!” I pleaded.
She did, fearlessly and alas! dispassionately. She smiled as if I'd offered her cookies. “I'm terribly sorry,” she said, “but I can't really help you. I don't need a penis.”
“How do you know?” I cried. “You've never even tried it!”
“Of course I have,” she said. “Just because I'm a virgin, technically, doesn't mean I don't know how to make my husband happy. I love Joseph very much. There's a lot you can do with the man you love that won't cause pregnancy. I never gave birth with a man's help, and I have always had a very happy marriage.”
Then came the worst moment. She actually touched my penis—gave it a friendly pat that I can still feel, ignominiously, whenever I will it. And she said, “I'd put that away if I were you. Not that anyone will be shocked by such behavior, since it's just a sex organ. But it's not going to do any good sticking out like that. If you want to, you can masturbate. God won't throw you out of Heaven for it, and the rest of us remember what it was like, so we'll all understand.” And she sat there, waiting for me to masturbate, I guess.
I turned and ran, my penis waving like a dowsing rod, then dwindling and finally flapping in the room-temperature breeze. There was no hope for my love now. Even if I met someone else up here, my heart would know it had been foiled. I felt more alien than I had since my arrival, and, while I was running, my mind desperate for something that felt like home, Homobonus appeared in my path. I stopped and put my penis away awkwardly.
“Hello!” he said, extending a hand. He was wearing his beautiful cloak. “I heard about what happened between you and Mary, and I'm stunned. She has never had anyone walk right up to her and wave their penis around. Never! In the whole history of her time in Heaven!”
“Oh, God!” I said. “I'm so sorry!” My stomach went cold and bitter with the thought of everyone forever after looking at me, knowing what I'd done and being disgusted.
“Not at all” said Homobonus. “It's very exciting! Do you see what this means? It meant that you've added something to Heaven that never existed before! It means that, despite everything you think, you really do have valuable ways of looking at things that can contribute to everyone's experience! Mary herself sent me to praise you for your actions!”
I was bewildered. Then, suddenly, I felt betrayed. What kind of place was this where a man couldn't even be obscene without being forgiven? Something inside me revolted.
I grabbed Homobonus by the sleeve (What fabric! Silk, down, and moondust!) and yanked with my left hand, while I punched him hard in the face with my right.
Or rather, I tried. My hand moved insubstantially through his face like sunlight through a prism, and he didn't fall forward. Instead, his suit flew lightly from his body and I fell over backward, the suit settling over me in a jillion butterflies mixed with lightning. I didn't even see his reaction. I curled, turned, and skedaddled, carrying the suit with me. I was exhilarated. I was in Heaven, and I had stolen something! Run, I said, Run!
I pressed my hands against my ears as I ran, for fear that Homobonus might call out, “I gladly give you this suit, my friend!” or “I forgive you!” I was tired of being forgiven. I wanted to be evil and perverse. It was easier.
But no call came. No breeze of forgiveness, no halo of blessing, not even a distantly perceived tear of pity. I ran to the edge of Heaven, where I look down now on the world whizzing away beneath me, and I wait for someone to intrude.
But no one has intruded. My great fear is that they know exactly what I want, and are letting me have it for as long as I need it. They know I don't want to be forgiven, so they're doing the next best thing—not letting me know they've already forgiven me. They know that I want to feel like a thief, so they let me steal Homobonus's cloak. But what they won't ever do is punish me. They won't ever hate me. And if it takes until the end of time, I'm going to sit right here, stare down at my old dirty home, with its backstabbing, rioting, torture and cruelty, and I'll wait and I'll stare and I'll wait and I'll stare, until I can decide whether I want to jump, hugging the beautiful robe to my chest the whole way down, and leaving Francis's cloak behind like the wrappings in the tomb. I'll only do this if I can go to Hell afterwards. Does God forgive suicide? I never asked, and now I have to know before I jump. But I don't want anyone to tell me. I'll sit here and think about it. I'm not going back. I'll wait it out. How long can Heaven last?