Photo by Connor Botts on Unsplash

Part III ​ ​“The eyes are the window to the soul.”

You saw him first at the table set up outside the small kitchen, helping himself to baked goods set on a table. He was slight, slim, and dark-haired. He might have been your sons’ peer, mid-30s or so. He wore a black cloth backpack, and was placing slices of a chocolate marble loaf and cookies atop two books he’d placed on the table. Hymn books, you saw, that he’d carried out of the sanctuary. The stacked baked goods were like a miniature inuksuk. No plate; the books served as a plate, wide enough to accommodate a cup of coffee as well. He picked this up with both hands, and found a seat in the adjoining room. Not at one of the mostly occupied round tables, nor in one of the chairs lining two walls of the room. You took one of those chairs, while he sat down in a chair set by itself to the right of the fireplace that jutted out of the third wall of the room, across the room where you sat. He set the books and food on a table behind him, and settled in. Watching, and watching others – as you, too, were doing. The room was filled with talk and laughter. Here sat the nun who had attended the service; there sat Father Matthew, who works on the street. People with crutches, and people with canes, and a few with walkers. People with wild uncombed hair, and people of various skin colour and age. Some without teeth. Communion – post-communion. Your eyes repeatedly returned to him.

He was handsome, neatly dressed, in a clean t-shirt and jeans, his hair wasn’t askew, and he wasn’t in a hurry to eat and leave. Who was he? Why had he chosen to sit alone? Why had he carried the hymnbooks out of the sanctuary? And what was the story behind the countless tattoos covering his arms, neck, his lower jaw, and several on his forehead? And then, before second-guessing yourself, you crossed the room. “Would you like some company?” you asked, placing your coffee and loaf slice on the mantle. He nodded. You pushed the unoccupied chair from the other side of the fireplace closer to his, and sat down. He watched your every move. “I’m Elsie; what’s your name? I noticed you sitting alone, too, so I thought I’d join you over here.” He nodded, his eyes looked directly at yours. Dark eyes. So dark they seemed black not brown. Intense. “Do you come here often?”

“No, it’s my first time,” he said, so quietly you leaned forward to hear. Not a whisper, but a softness. As if he wasn’t used to speaking aloud. “What brings you here today?” He shook his head as if astonished that he was here.

“I’ll be honest with you. I’ve walked by this church about ten times this week, and thought about coming here at least 100 times, so I did today.”

“Oh, do you have a place nearby?”

“I’m homeless.”

“From where have you come?”

“From everywhere.”

“But did you live somewhere before you came to Vancouver?”

“I’ve been all over.”

“Oh, so you’re kind of a nomad?”

“Kind of.”

“Do you manage to find a dry, warm place to sleep?” He looked at me intently, and thought a long while before answering. “It’s just something I felt I had to do for a while. I have nothing. Nothing at all. Not even a phone.” He paused, then added, “Well, that’s not true. I have books. I wish I had a safe place where I could store my books.”

“Oh, what kind of books do you read?” His dark eyes bored into mine, and neither of us looked away.

Then, still without looking away, his hand went to his bag, which he’d placed on the ground, and he brought it up between us, and opened the bag. “Oh,” I said, surprised. I had expected Kerouac, or something like that. Not this. “I’m studying all religions,” he said. “These are just some of the books I have.” One by an Indian mystic, a Koran, and another with a religious title.

“And what do you hope to learn from your reading?” I asked.

“I want to find out who God is.” He stared even deeper.

“And do you have a Bible, too?” “Not yet. But I want to get every version there is. The Old Testament, the New Testament, the King James Version, every version there is. Then I’ll read them all, and compare what they said about God.”

“Oh, that’s a huge undertaking.” He nodded, and I’m not sure why I said, it, but I did.

“You have a beautiful soul.” He paused, then, almost inaudibly, said,

“Thank you.” I broke the gaze.

“Aren’t you going to drink your coffee?” He picked up the cup, and started eating the slice.

“You have a lot of tattoos. I bet there are a lot of stories behind those,” I said, gesturing.

“Well, as I said, I don’t have any stuff, so the tattoos are my photo album. My whole story on my skin, so I’ll never lose it.”

“Oh,” I said, with a half gasp. That is very poetic. Do you write at all?” He looked at me, puzzled.

“Write? I’ve never thought about writing.”

“You should try it. I bet you’d be really good. Just write your thoughts.” He took another bite of his slice, and sipped coffee. I pointed to a tattoo half-hidden by his right sleeve. “What’s this?” I asked. He lifted his shirt.

“A bearded woman,” he said. And sure enough, it was. And so it went, he named what a few were, and as he did, his voice grew a bit louder and what he said made less and less sense. I couldn’t follow the logic he drew between descriptions and images. I looked at his forehead, and again, our eyes met. To the right of his left brow was the image of sutures. Clearly, his tattoos were not done by an amateur. But what was the one above his left eye? It looked like figures from a cave wall – thin-limbed figures, of people, perhaps, standing side by side. “May I ask what the one above your eye is?” “It’s a word. Dirty. Because that’s how I always feel.”

“Oh,” I said. And then I could think of nothing else to say. So we sat for a few minutes in silence. “You have a beautiful soul,” I said for the second time. “I can feel it.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“I’m glad you stopped by today,” I said. “I hope you come again.”

“I might,” he said. And then he reached back, picked up the hymn books, on which still sat four cookies, picked up his bag, and got up. I reached out my hand. “Take good care of yourself,” I said. He shook my hand, and was gone.

His name was Curtis, he looked like Keanu Reeves, only a little more handsome, and a bit younger. I don’t think I will ever forget those eyes. A man in a wheelchair who wished to be a horse; a man dressed as a fox with a head of an octopus; and a man who is all eyes – not the Trinity you expected to encounter in church. I give thanks.

Today, four days later, I found this quote by Alfred Hitchcock of all people, that expresses what I felt during our exchange. “Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.”

July 13, 2018, Judy Graves read this and commented: “Elsie, you had a conversation with an incarnation of the spirit of St. Benedict Joseph LaBre.” I looked him up and discovered he is the patron saint of the homeless. And this: “These days we ascribe such behavior to mental illness; Benedict’s contemporaries called him holy. Holiness is always a bit mad by earthly standards.”  Amen.

By Elsie K. Neufeld

Photo by A. L. on Unsplash

Part II. “But God be with the clown”​ (Emily Dickinson). @St. James Anglican church, Sunday July 9, 2018.

I arrived on time, though too late to hear the church bells ring at the corner of Gore & Powell. Parked my car, and hurried up the steps, was greeted by an usher at the door, and handed a church bulletin. As I made my way to a pew near the front, a flash of orange caught my right eye. It moved. I looked, and saw a blonde-haired man dressed in a velvety orange costume. His face and hands were fully exposed, but the rest of him was contained in a hooded costume with a slinky orange tail that nearly touched the ground. Fox, I thought; he’s wearing a fox costume. As if today is Hallowe’en. He flitted down the aisle as if uncertain where to sit, and I carried on. No heads swivelled in his direction, so as much as I was tempted to watch him make his next move, I sat down and faced forward, too. Then, to the sound of the pipe organ, the procession of robed ones made their way to the front, and the service began.

Prayers and readings, songs, and then the passing of the peace – that time when everyone is invited to greet others with a handshake (optional) and “Peace be to you” (also optional). And that’s when the fox came forth and got busier than anyone in the sanctuary. He rushed to and fro, from pew to pew, lickety-split, shaking parishioner’s hands, and saying oh-so-solemnly, “Peace to you,” then quickly moving to the next person as if he was in a race with time. When he reached Eddie, who sat in his wheelchair, he bowed and slowed down. Extended his hand. Eddie shook his head, declined the hand offered, and The Foxman said, “Peace to you,” and carried on with his mission.

And that’s when my face turned into a smile, and joy found me and I caught sight of Father Matthew, the street priest, who sat on stage. He smiled too. We both smiled. And smiled. And smiled. Utter joy, that’s what the Fox man was spreading. When that part of the service ended, the fox vanished.

Next up was Communion, and sure enough, the Fox was one of the first kneeling before the altar to receive the “body of Christ” and “the blood of Christ”, and then he vanished from sight again.

Then, the service took a turn from its usual order – and this was outlined in the bulletin. One of the robed persons picked up an urn that stood next to the altar, an urn filled with the remains of a church member, and another procession began. Every one present was invited to convene in a narrow hallway off the sanctuary, for the blessing and placing of the urn into the columbarium. (Mennonites do not have columbariums in their church buildings, and have only in recent years cremated their dead. This, because of a belief that the dead will literally rise again in physical form from the ground in which they were buried. But that’s a whole other story…)

The procession following the urn to the columbarium was slow, and reverent. No one spoke. Was there incense? If not, the scent of it remained in the air. What I recall is the close proximity of bodies in that narrow space, shifting forward and sideways, uncertain of where to stand. I backed against one wall, while others backed against the other, facing forward, though my view was blocked by taller people in front of me. There was a gap, suddenly, between the two lines of people, and then, as if the way had been purposely opened for him, the Fox man swept past everyone and positioned himself close to Reverend Lucy who had begun a series of readings. She paused, and Foxman blurted out “Amen!” He lifted his right hand and stood at attention in full salute, facing the columbarium. He stood still as a sentry at a royal event for the remainder of the ritual. Reverend Lucy read another brief passage, and concluded with “May you rest in peace.” Foxman still at attention, said, “Thank you,” and lowered his hand. We slowly returned to the sanctuary for the concluding song and dispersed, some leaving the building, others heading to the Bishop’s room for coffee and baked goods.

That’s where I came face to face with the Foxman. He had added a second costume, not on his body, only on his head. A bright green skin, like a swimming cap, covered his head, and tentacles wriggled incessantly as he bent and lifted his head, grazed his cheeks and chin. The fox had sprouted an octopus head! He poured himself a cup of coffee, gathered items off the various plates of pastry – cookies, several slices of marble loaf, a piece of muffin. “How many arms do you have there?” I asked. “Eight,” he said with a tone one would use if they said, “Duh.” I laughed, and thought, well, no wonder. What a silly thing to ask of an octopus, even if he’s wearing the body of a fox. And then he was off, and that was the last I saw of him.

Later, I discovered it was the first time he’d attended the church. I suspect it won’t be the last. “But God be with the clown/ who ponders this tremendous scene…” Emily Dickinson. Elsie K. Neufeld, July 10, 2018