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Reply All, the third collection of award-winning and widely anthologized short stories by Robin Hemley, takes a humorous, edgy, and frank look at the human art of deception and self-deception. A father accepts, without question, the many duplicate saint relics that appear in front of his cave everyday; a translator tricks Magellan by falsely translating a local chief’s words of welcome; an apple salesman a long way from home thinks he’s fallen in love; a search committee believes in its own nobility by hiring a ...
Reply All, the third collection of award-winning and widely anthologized short stories by Robin Hemley, takes a humorous, edgy, and frank look at the human art of deception and self-deception. A father accepts, without question, the many duplicate saint relics that appear in front of his cave everyday; a translator tricks Magellan by falsely translating a local chief’s words of welcome; an apple salesman a long way from home thinks he’s fallen in love; a search committee believes in its own nobility by hiring a minority writer; a cheating couple broadcast their affair to an entire listserv; a talk show host interviews the dead and hopes to learn their secrets. The ways in which humans fool themselves are infinite, and while these stories illustrate this sad fact in sometimes excruciating detail, the aim is not to skewer the misdirected, but to commiserate with them and blush in recognition.
Indiana University Press
"In an exciting return to fiction, Hemley, touching and funny, creates sympathetic characters who are deeply flawed but just as deeply human." —Booklist
The Warehouse of Saints
Too many blessings break a man apart. —TOMAZ SALAMUN
Today, we did inventory, my son Domenic and I: ten shinbones belonging to St. Timothy. Sixteen tibias of Paul. Four skulls of John the Baptist. Three complete skeletons of Mary Magdalene. A jar of teeth simply labeled "Assorted Saints." A cask of desiccated organs. Thirteen livers of St. Peter. The dried tongues of Judas Iscariot, Simon, and Thomas. Fingernail shavings of the great kings of France, including the entire big toenail of Richard the Lionheart. His entrails, too. The scapulas of Saints Catherine and Michael. Enough True Cross splinters to build a bridge from Chinon to Paris. God even sends us bones on His day of rest, and that confounds me. Are all other mortals deemed worthy enough to share in His rest, except us, His bone slaves?
"Does it concern you, my son, that Saint Peter had so many livers, and Mary Magdalene so many skeletons within her?" I have asked him this question and variations upon it before, but my son is clever, and I marvel at the many reasons we should revere God's contradictions. If God did not prefer the impossible to the possible, and the incomprehensible to the comprehensible, he would not have bothered to give form to the firmament and breath to the earth's confounding creatures. Domenic has reminded me of the loaves and fishes, of the water into wine, of the Holy Trinity, of Christ's body and blood.
"The Jews believe that ten thousand people heard Moses at Mt. Sinai," he says, combing his beard with a comb carved from the ribs of St. Batholeme. "Every Jew alive today has a piece of one of those souls co-mingled with his own. What the Jews believe is not what I believe, but I use this as an example. The sums of God are not our sums."
I am a simple man. Such faith inspires me—though there are times, I admit, that I doubt the good Domenic and I do. I named my son after Saint Domenic, who appeared to me in a dream and cut off his index finger and gave it to me. He said, "Mathias, even the whitened bones of the saints clamor to do God's bidding." Yet, it took sixteen years before the true nature of Domenic's prophecy was revealed to me. In the early years, I sold herbs and potions concocted by my wife. Only after her death, when our future looked bleakest, did the bones and relics start to mysteriously appear at the mouth of our cave. Then I understood my true calling. In the two years since, Domenic and I have built our business into the largest inventory of bones and relics of saints in the Loire Valley.
Domenic bows his head and tells me that if the Lord's ways were not mysterious, they would not be the Lord's ways and there would be nothing He could do to inspire or impress us. Man should not try to explain everything in the world and beyond. Still, I wonder. That is my sin. Wonder. And from wonder sometimes doubt springs.
Our tufa stone cave is narrow but deep. Only six cows could fit side by side at its entrance, but a herd could be driven in and disappear within its belly. I have not explored its depths. I stay near the entrance, where the light from the sun mingles with the candles we have placed within the niches and shelves we have carved into the soft stone. Domenic is a tall boy and although the ceiling is higher than his head, he often bends as though in reverence.
We live in a murderous region, my son and I, a place never to my knowledge visited by angels and saints. In Chinon, the Dauphin reigns in his Chateau, though not unthreatened. His own mother would betray him to the English and says he is a bastard. In such a world, is it a surprise then that more travelers are murdered on the road to Chinon than make it through alive? Bandits are our true rulers, and the Dauphin, under whose protection we live, can stop neither a brigand from slitting my throat, nor a witch from making a changeling out of me, nor the English from making a mockery of the French monarchy. In my youth, things were much better. You could walk the streets of Chinon at night, no one locked his door, and everyone greeted his neighbor.
Even in our cave, we hear the rumors, and many believe that France is doomed, that before long an English king will rule over us all. A week ago, the Dauphin was visited by a girl who calls herself Jehanne from the village of Domrémy, who said she was heaven-sent to lead him to victory against the English. She speaks for God, the people say, and they brought her to see the Dauphin, but the Dauphin's advisors, fearing she might have been sent by the English to murder him, put an impostor on the throne. When she was led to the throne room, the impostor said, "I am the heir to the kingdom of France," but this girl ignored him and pointed to the Dauphin, hiding in the crowd. She knelt before him and said, "Gentle Dauphin, I have come, by the grace of the King of Heaven, to raise an army and see you crowned in Rheims." That she was not beset upon by bandits in the Forest of Chinon on her way to meet the Dauphin had already convinced many that she was under God's protection, but what she said to the Dauphin, in front of scores of witnesses, has made even him willing to listen. I am not so sure I would call the Dauphin gentle. In Asay le Rideau, a few of the Burgundian guard once insulted the Dauphin and so he set the town ablaze and put to death hundreds of their number. Still, I prefer the Dauphin I know to the Dauphin I don't, and we must forgive him his occasional outbursts.
This Jehanne, if she speaks for the King of Heaven, is not the first woman in this place to have God's ear. In Fontevraud, it has been decreed that the head of the order will always be a woman— in this way, the men who serve under her learn humility. The present Abbess, Blanche D'Harcourt, is generous with the humility she doles out to the monks. Men at the Abbey eat no meat, only fish, and receive a daily ration of a quarter liter of wine to the nun's half a liter. If not for the problem of the wine ration, I could be a monk at Fontevraud. I have no difficulty bending to the will of a woman. My own Genevieve spoke regularly with God, though He never told her anything grand to do. God gave her the ingredients to use when mixing her tonics and potions and taught her the language of chickens and wild boars. Useful yes, from time to time, but nothing that inspires reverence and awe. Still, she was able to foretell her own death when she overheard the chickens speaking of it one gray morning as she approached the henhouse.
Today, I have found a neat stack of bleached bones by the entrance to the caves. They do not always arrive so. They appear in the mornings, arriving from where I do not know. Heavensent, Domenic says. Sometimes they arrive in sacks, sometimes moldered, sometimes with bits of sinew and clumps of hair and clothing attached, sometimes the individual bones, the smaller ones, are wrapped in sausage casings. Through divination, we come to understand to which saint the bones belong. Domenic is good at this. I have never been so good at divination, except for my dream of Domenic's finger.
Domenic and I often laugh about the first time I pulled a skull from one of these sacks and ran into the fields, staying until nightfall. "Father," Domenic called, "this is the head of John the Baptist. We are saved!"
"We are doomed," I called from among the wheat fields. "Where did this skull come from? It smells of earth and worms. We'll be hanged, drawn apart, and then, Mother of Mercy, excommunicated. You must bury it again—the crossroads of Fontevraud and Couziers would be a good place. At midnight. And you must blindfold the skull so it will not find its way back to us. Then you must go to mass, have neither food nor drink, cease urination for four days, and spit whenever you hear the words 'owl,' 'vagina,' or 'potato.' You must never speak to anyone of this." The words "owl," "vagina," and "potato" had formed unbidden in my mind, but why these words, I can't say. I only know that "owl," "vagina." and "potato" made me feel great foreboding and so I thought maybe this was a sign from God. And spitting never hurts.
"Father, it's the dream. Your dream," Domenic shouted. "We are saved, not doomed. We must tell everyone." Now we keep this head, our first Saint, up in the front of the cave, by the money box in a special niche, for good luck.
"Good news, Father," he tells me now, appearing out of the dark, where I do not like to go. "We can fill the order from the Abbess in Fontevraud."
"An order from the Abbess?" I say, staring at a group of pilgrims making their way toward us from the river Vienne. "I don't remember such an order."
"It was only a week ago," he says. "A large quantity of pelvis."
"Another miracle," I say, bowing my head in prayer.
We can hardly keep the pulverized pelvis of the Holy Virgin in stock—it's been out of stock for months. A spoonful mixed into the mortar of a church before consecration, chapel, abbey, or cathedral (proportions vary, depending on altitude) will ensure entry into heaven for all the congregants and their livestock—when mixed with the tepid breast milk of the mother of a stillborn boy infant with eleven toes, it is said to cure gout and taste delicious, but this I cannot verify.
"Domenic," I say, "God's mercy is great, is it not?" I meant to say this in praise, but my tone of voice was not the one I intended. I sound doubtful. I have dreams and visions I cannot understand. Angels with swords slitting the throats of Cathar children. Poisonous flowers fluttering from heaven. Last night, I dreamed of a field of dead popes, each of whom was disinterred to receive communion. One pope lay in his casket, blind, while a priest teased him with a communion wafer. Then the pope's tongue burst into flame. Why am I tormented with such undecipherable visions?
Domenic kneels beside me. He rarely answers a question without giving it great thought first. He swats some flies from my nose and lips. I crane my neck around him to note the progress of the pilgrims. Soldiers walk among them. Although I can't recognize any faces, the sun glints off the soldier's armor. One carries a staff bearing a strange seal.
"Father," he says. "Have you been thinking of the Albigensians again?"
"The wretched Albigensians," I say.
"The Albigensians were heretics," he says. "It is God who grants mercy, the devil who shuns it. If you pity the Albigensians so, why did you name me after the saint who wiped them from the earth?"
Domenic does not understand. It's not so much pity that plagues me as a nagging thought. I can't give voice to the thought, so heretical is it, and for this reason it keeps rising. Perhaps these thoughts were planted in me by the devil. I know I would be burned at the stake if I told anyone of them besides Domenic. I think these thoughts, I believe, because I'm surrounded by the bones of the saints, and they talk to me. They whisper doubt to me, not faith. What if the Albigensians were right? What if man is evil, as I've heard the Albigensians believed, and the only way to redeem himself is to suffer multiple lifetimes? What if Pope Innocent and Saint Domenic did an evil thing in hounding and slaughtering the Albigensians by the thousands, and in so doing, eradicated our chance to redeem ourselves through their teachings? I'll never know, but maybe we're on the wrong path, not the right one. Is it possible Saint Domenic proved the Albigensians right by killing them?
Domenic stands and plucks a hair from his beard, examines it, and lets it fall to the dirt. He turns slowly as the wind carries the shouts of the group toward us.
At the head of the group of soldiers and townspeople rides a stout boy on a mare. The boy carries a white banner I've never seen: against a field of lilies are written the words "Jhesus Maria," and underneath these words is a picture of Christ surrounded by two angels. The boy wears a black cap, boots, leggings, and a tunic that reaches to his knees. A coat of arms, red and gold, blazes from the tunic. We have had important visitors before, princes and bishops and cardinals, all drawn to this place to see what we have to offer. Some send their emissaries, but most choose to visit in person. Buying the bones of a saint is a delicate business—the buyer wants to know what he's getting, wants to see it, wants to heft its holy weight and hear it whisper its secrets and tell one's destiny if it wishes. One cannot send an emissary for that. But this banner the boy carries is such I've never heard of nor seen, and I feel a peculiar tingling in my toes, an ache as though my own bones were struggling to answer some invisible summons and rise bidden from my body.
A voice somewhere inside me speaks. "Jehanne," it calls. "Jehanne." I turn to alert my son, but he has already retreated into the cave. "Domenic, come out," I say. "You must see this."
"I saw it," he answers, his voice suddenly sulky.
"But I think it's that woman we keep hearing about, dressed like a man," I say.
"That's right," he says. "I have an intimation." The boy is always having intimations, often accompanied by a headache. And he starts to pray the special prayer to ward off women who dress like men.
"But Domenic. She carries a banner with our Lord's name on it."
He doesn't pause his prayer but only prays louder. Presently, the voices of the crowd gather at the mouth of the cave and one voice, surprisingly deep for a girl so young, sounds above the rest.
"Troglodytes!" the woman hails us. "I wish to speak with you about the relics you trade in. We ride to Orleans soon to break the siege of the English."
The girl dismounts her horse. In the air, a faint whiff of honeysuckle wafts, the swish of her horse's tail, the nonsensical song of Jerome, the town imbecile, always lagging last in any procession.
"We're closed for inventory," Domenic shouts. "Don't touch anything." But they seem not to hear him. As if in a dream, they have already started milling about the shelves, picking up relics. Domenic stands among them, grabbing the relics from their hands and replacing them in the niches. Two men and one woman lie prostrate before the three skeletons of Mary Magdalene.
"Holy!" one murmurs.
"Preserve us," another says.
"What's this?" Jehanne asks, picking up the lucky skull of John the Baptist.
"That's John the Baptist," I tell her. "Very rare. Our first saint."
"Look, it's the toe of St. Ignatius," a monk from Fontevraud shouts to his brother.
"Put it back," the brother says. "What are we going to do with the toe of St. Ignatius?"
"What can't be done with the toe of St. Ignatius?" the first monk says. "Never was there such a versatile saint! Not only was he the child the Savior took up in his arms as described in Mark 9:35, but he was among the auditors of the apostle St. John and the third Bishop of Antioch, if we include St. Peter."
"Oh, there you go again," says the second monk. "The third Bishop of Antioch, if we include St. Peter."
"Oh, luckless bones, I hear your voices," Jehanne says. "This is nothing but the daughter of a farmer from Bourgueil."
The anguish of her voice cloaks me like another skin and I look at my hands as though they hold my answer to her. But they do not. They are dumb and cannot speak. No part of me can speak with the certainty of this Jehanne. They cannot even speak the terror of my doubt.
I bring her a stool to sit on and walk to the well to give her something to drink. "No, it's John the Baptist all right," I say, my voice betraying me. "But he's not for sale."
"Where did you get these?" she says, sitting down with John's skull and looking into his sockets.
"Here and there," I say. "Domenic, do you want to tell her? It's really quite an amusing story! That very skull you're holding was our first relic, wasn't it, Domenic?" I laugh and turn to Domenic, who seems to be quaking. He stares at the girl. And I stop to stare at him. An excuse for him begins to form: the dankness of the cave has made him shiver. But I cannot say this and believe it. This is my own son. How can I doubt my son? Even if he is wrong, I would wish anything but doubt. I wish his certainty again.
"Bourgueil?" he asks her in the slightest voice I've ever heard from him.
Jehanne casts the skull in the dirt and produces a piece of worn leather from her robe. She holds the leather kerchief in front of Domenic. As she unwraps it, we strain to see what the leather holds, a bone small and curved like a rib, but brittle, covered by a thin red dust.
"Domenic," she says. "Tell me from whose body this was taken?"
Domenic stops shaking and peers at the bone, then carefully plucks it from its wrapping. She's so much smaller than him. She's a girl who looks like a boy and wears men's clothing. Maybe she's a witch. He looks into his hand as though he has never seen a bone before.
"More light," he says. "I need light," and one of Jehanne's followers, a boy wearing a tunic with Jehanne's crest crudely stitched onto the cloth, takes a torch from the wall of the cave and brings it to Domenic.
Excerpted from Reply All by Robin Hemley. Copyright © 2012 Robin Hemley. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Warehouse of Saints
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Indiana University Press