TWICE A FALSE MESSIAH Daniel Gabriel PART ONE: THE FIRST COMING OF JOACHIM KLINE The second time

I saw the Greek was on the train running south from Cairo. Kline and I had done a dodge on a taxi driver and boarded just as the whistle blew; Kline puffing along the platform and lunging suddenly into one of the second-class cars at the first screech of rolling wheels. We traded hand slaps over the success of our timing and then Kline, after his usual insistence that the choice was mine, shoved his bag under the last window seat and settled in. I leaned past him, looking back out at the station drowning in smoke and fumes, till my eye caught a disturbance on the platform. There were two guards holding back a screaming Egyptian fighting to get through to the train (I recognized our driver) and as they wrestled, a small figure in a grey raincoat and a dark blue fisherman’s cap pushed suddenly past all three and came on at a run. The train lurched, recoiled and started forward again, struggling to get up speed. The figure in the coat was running flat out. A whistle blew again, twice, and as the train’s stutter evened out to a surge he jumped for a doorway and rolled inside, landing in one of the third-class “cattle cars” whose open windows were already thick with teen-age boys in their pajama suits and platform shoes, clinging to ledges and handholds. Maybe it was the smoke—pungent with burning rubber and the sick-sweet smell of diesel oil—or maybe the sheer enervated joy of leaving Cairo to wallow in its own stink, but I couldn’t place where I’d seen that cap before—or the face beneath it. The style (narrow-brimmed, with braiding across the front) was common enough in Greece, but I was thinking of somewhere more recent. I looked down at Kline but he was fondling an apple with single-minded delight. Trust him to find the only one in Egypt. As I watched, he said a blessing over it while his jaws worked in anticipation. I sat down beside him, unwilling to interrupt. I’d learned that Kline and his blessings were never parted. Blessings aside, in the face of an apple in the hand my attempts to remember where I’d seen somebody’s cap would strike him as woefully misguided, search or no search. With it halfway to his mouth he saw me watching and stopped. “Not hungry, are you?” He wiggled the apple beneath his open lips. I shook my head. The apple was engulfed. Two seats up from us a

mother with tattooed henna patterns on her hands fed sticky sweets to a squirming lineup of children. Their baggage spilled into the aisle, mingling with the boxes and sacks of the family opposite. A torn length of burlap had slid over near my foot, reeking of cow dung and overripe oranges. At the other end of the car a group of businessmen in white rayon shirts were sharing out a packet of cigarettes while outside the window the piled-up drabness of the urban fringe played dumbshow for the passing train. Sweet drink vendors, donkey carts, the dark hoods of women in doorways dandling children on their hips. . . . The whole Egyptian sideshow flashed past leaving only the memory of islands of concrete in a sea of dust waving yesterday’s wash like a declaration of distress. When the factories started and the pasted-up hovels began to make the tenements look good I grew weary and sat back, no longer watching the outside. Kline was already asleep, rumbling and snorting like a bear bent on early hibernation. Huge hairy arms encircled his chest as an edging for the thick fur of beard tucked into the tops of his coveralls. His lips moved, shaping dreamwords, and I studied his face for signs of sainthood. Or madness. It no longer mattered about the man in the fisherman’s cap. It was Kline—Joachim Argento Kline by his passport—who drew my focus like the gutters drew the dogs in the back lanes of Cairo. It was Kline who had made the claims. Kline who held the map. Kline who raved with a surety that disarmed all doubt and opposition. Did I believe? That was too hard to say. But I wanted to believe, as much for my own sake as for anything to do with the search. I stood up and went into the corridor, stiffening to avoid the latrine. I’d had a vague idea about exploring the other cars but when I found the metal doorways linking the carriages were locked I lingered near the window at the end of the corridor. It was partly open and the inrushing air lay a welcome cover of diesel fumes over the stench of the toilet. We were running parallel with an irrigation canal whose banks were freckled with village life. Water buffalo dozed. Bands of women knelt in clusters: washing clothes, bodies, bright copper pots. Solitary men squatted on the fringes, defecating into the soil. Stands of palm trees and cypresses appeared, framing the plots of land still green with the gift of the Nile. A blindfolded donkey plodded an endless circle around a wooden water wheel and long after it passed out of sight the image remained, a paradigm of everything I wanted to avoid. I’d just started back to my seat when a wrenching boom from the rear cars sent me flying at the doorway of the latrine, upending a squatting Egyptian into a splashing wave of swill. I jumped back into the corridor with

Arabic curses trailing from the prone Egyptian and bee-lined for our seats. Kline was on his feet, struggling to get our bags free of the shifting debris on the floor. A sudden shudder ran the length of the carriage beneath my feet. I fell sideways into Kline. “Ostia! It will make crash!” he shouted, his English abandoning him in the crisis. “We go! We go!” “Go? Where?” “Jump! Jump!” Kline staggered into the corridor and when I looked behind me three cardboard boxes and the remains of a package lunch hit me full on the hip. The train was bucking and jerking like a wounded beast. I plunged after him when a high-voiced call to Allah spread confusion in a ripple of answering shrieks, and as the train’s wheels locked for the final grinding thrust Kline jumped from the moving train and an instant later so did I. We rolled to our feet on a rough bed of stones. There was a screeching whiplash bang from the rails and then an ominous silence. My bag had taken the brunt of the fall and when I found that my hat still held its shape I straightened up. Above us the train was stopped, hissing faintly. We worked our way back towards the front of the train while up and down its length people dropped off to prostrate themselves on the sand in thanks for their safe delivery. The Egyptian from the latrine stumbled into view in the doorway of our carriage holding foul-dripping robes and then a lean-faced man in a uniform jacket shoved him aside and shouted down at us. “What doing?” he said. “What doing—you?” “The train,” said Kline, miming the action. “Danger. We jumped.” The man in uniform waggled a disapproving finger. “Not danger. Okay. Train stop. You wait.” He turned and disappeared. Faces appeared in the windows. Shouts went down the length of the train and towards the rear where the third-class cattle cars stacked people like flies on dung, a crowd was gathered. They were pointing at something under the wheels. We beat the dust off our clothes and trailed over towards the activity. Shards of metal couplings lay mangled under the wheels of two of the carriages, severing them from the rest of the train. One wheel had jumped the tracks, leaving its carriage askew on the wooden ties and the bitter smell of hot metal clinging to the air around. Kline looked down at the mess and then away, off towards the long horizon where already the wadis and sand-scraped plateaus of the Eastern Desert lay whitening under the harsh band of morning sun. “That could have been us there under the wheels,” he said. “Ripped apart and bleeding into the sand. Martyrs. Useless martyrs.” A group of soldiers hopped off to piss in the sand, squatting in a

semi-circle. “These things happen,” I said. “Nothing to do with us.” The lean-faced man in uniform reappeared and signaled to one of the soldiers. They stood up as a group and reentered the train. Kline’s right hand clenched and unclenched. “No,” he said. “Everything is related. There are no coincidences.” “Come off it. You know third-world trains. This probably happens every other week.” We edged around to another viewing angle. The couplings, we could see, had been sheared clear through and when I saw the angle of break my assumption of accident was suddenly challenged. Egyptian trains weren’t quite that bad. From the look of it, this had been deliberate. “There are no coincidences,” said Kline again. “But who knows we’re here?” I objected. “That’s the point,” he said. I reached under my shirt to check my passport pouch for damage and when I looked back up the soldiers were again in view. They had a small man in makeshift handcuffs struggling in their midst. The lean-faced conductor ran circles around the capturing party, shaking his fist and pointing at the damaged couplings. The prisoner was wearing a grey raincoat and a dark blue fisherman’s cap—and this time I remembered. I eased behind a pair of Nubian merchants and pulled Kline with me. “The little guy in the cuffs,” I said. “The one in the Greek hat. I’ve seen him before.” Kline squinted across to where the soldiers clustered. “Which—?” His face drained white. “No, it cannot be.” “It’s him,” I said. “He was there in the Museum. He saw you copying out the inscriptions.” “No, no. They’d never send—what did you say? At the museum? The Cairo Museum?” “I’m sure it was him. Tell by the coat and hat. Hang on a minute. You didn’t see him there?” “No,” whispered Kline. “Then how do you know him?” He was silent for a moment and we watched as the soldiers prodded their prisoner up into the caboose. Two of them got in alongside and pulled the door shut with a clang. “He was at the monastery,” said Kline. “On Mount Athos. I know it. He was the gatekeeper.” “Gatekeeper?”

Kline’s hand went to his beard, pulling and stroking through the thick black curls. “That is more than it may seem. The monasteries of Mount Athos are not meant to be easily approached.” “You said they were independent, right?” “Independent of the kingdoms of this world, yes; though not, of course, from Mother Church.” Kline paused, sucking at his teeth and I thought, improbably, of my own mother kneeling at her prayers. Was her faith a prison or a shelter no tempest could ever disturb? How was it that I lurked, still, outside those gates and found myself incapable of turning away? Why did I long so to be able to step inside? Kline went on. “They have their own laws there, set down in holy writ and untouched by the government of Greece. No women allowed, strong drink forbidden. . . .” “And the gatekeeper?” “The Holy Mountain lies on the end of a peninsula, protected on the land side by a continuous stone wall. There is one gate in the wall and at that gate stands the keeper. Only those pass whom he allows to pass.” I ran my hand across my chin, feeling the new growth of red stubble and wondering at Kline’s obliqueness. “I thought you said the monks there had helped you out. Why would they send their lackey to chase you down?” “Perhaps they didn’t.” “You think he could be acting on his own?” “Our enemies are legion.” I could see that Kline was trembling on the brink of severe digression and to forestall him I said quickly, “I don’t buy it, Joachim. There’s no reason to send any gatekeeper all this way. There’s no gate to control.” “Always you are so literal. You fail to see what is there before you.” The lines on Kline’s forehead deepened and creased and even with the caboose door shut he wouldn’t venture into the open. “There are gates visible and gates invisible,” he said. “What this . . . this Greek is meant to guard is the dead hand of orthodoxy itself. It is that to which we are a threat.” “But he could have had us in the museum. You were alone except when Harriet bounced in.” Kline shrugged. “Who can know the mind of his masters? They may prefer to divert. To delay. To infect slowly with an unfelt sting.” I shifted a little further behind the merchants and watched my shadow trailing thin against their backs. “What masters are those?” “They are a poison in the soul,” said Kline. “They are an Inquisition.” “I meant, what are they really? There’s no—”

“You think it is finished, this Inquisition? Never. They control, they demean. They would smother all outbursts of divine spirit in their heavy blanket of doctrine.” Kline’s hands wrestled with each other, cracking as he twisted the joints. “When Rabbi Ginzburg died with a chicken bone stuck in his throat, did anyone remember he was vegetarian? When the Abbe du Bourges was led raving from his pulpit, did anyone discover the cause? The lack of a doctor at the Vatican only last month—you would call that chance?” I gathered my saliva and spat it on the ground. “Maybe not. But that doesn’t mean each and every misfortune is part of some grand master plot.” “You do not yet understand, do you?” Kline patted my shoulder like an affectionate father. “Sometimes I think it must be wonderful to be so naive.” That rankled, but all I said was, “Better than paranoid.” Kline had begun moving carefully out of the line of sight of the battered caboose, but he looked back over his shoulder and said again, “Our enemies are legion,” and the way he said it left a knife-edge of fear buried inside my heart. I wondered if perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much now, with the gatekeeper whose treachery had troubled him a prisoner in the caboose of an Egyptian train sitting stranded on the beachhead of railway overlying the deep green fields of the lower Nile. Surely whatever efforts had been made to thwart us had been themselves derailed. But long after we were waved back to our seats and the front part of the train limped into the next station up the line I still saw in my mind’s eye the caboose there waiting, always waiting, as if time itself had uncoupled and the end of all things would be the final glimpse I’d had of a pair of grey eyes under the dark brim of fisherman’s cap, unblinking at the window. Without the Greek—or rather, the threat of the Greek—Kline might yet be alive, and the world a very different place. But perhaps I am ascribing too much to the force of one pursuer. Our enemies, as Kline said, were legion; our goal impossible, or so I was inclined to think at the outset. Yet every search bears its own intrinsic logic, and between Kline’s enveloping schema of divine impingement and the nature of events themselves, I began first to acknowledge and then to believe. Almost. It is that final line of divide—the crossing over from “almost”—that weights my feet with leaden shoes and closes off the inner precincts of my soul from their proper domain of awe-ful and total submission. How could it be

otherwise? I’ve been stoned for treading holy ground by the mullahs of Meshed and passed the chalice with Natty Dread. I’ve been sanctified (to no avail) by a Pentecostal sect in the highlands of Guatemala and conned by pseudo-rishis on a pilgrimage to Ranakpur. It’s not as if I’m ripe for redemption. But the hunger—the need for a quest as much as for an answer— remains. I tell myself that that is what drove my father on. That it is what has shaped me in the prison of my inmost being. But I do not know. Perhaps it is a universal human condition, and nothing peculiar to me. Still . . . I began in motion, and I remain in motion. My parents met on a boat to Europe just after the war and found the experience so agreeable that they not only married but stayed on, living in various port cities while my father hustled jobs as ship’s engineer, chief mate and the like, until in due time I was born and grew to the age of five. When the weather was right, and Dad was around, we camped across the continent. In winter, Mom and I holed up—London, Geneva, Goteborg—while Dad’s ships disappeared over a clouded horizon and we waited through the slowly lengthening days. Mom would tell me stories then: of her own childhood; of the family house in Chicago that someday we would go back to; of her father the Irish precinct captain who always overpaid for votes. It was a fairy tale land to me—vivid only in the details she chose to highlight—and when we moved back and I started school it was a shock to learn that all the other children were Americans as well. I’d always been the only one (it was my own personal distinctive and a source of unnatural pride) and now, suddenly, I was submerged in a sea of creatures all claiming a similar identity. When I resurfaced, it was as the boy who’d been to Europe. The boy whose father came and went. Already I had my mother’s face—the sharpened jaw, the deep-set eyes—and the maple-red hair that brands each member of the Doyles. If I stood a little shorter than most of the kids my age I made up for it in nerve and quickness. In childhood photos I always looked like I was just ready to bolt. But then maybe that was a family inheritance as well, for even the house in Chicago was more a rendezvous than a permanent abode. Summers we’d go south to my father’s latest port of call (the Lesser Antilles were the favorites) and try a taste of the sailor’s life. I always preferred shore leave myself and once I hit the age of consent I was gone. I knocked around the islands while I lost my sea legs and then headed out for Europe, hitching north to Scotland, which was where I got the word. My dad’s latest ship—a three-masted schooner being used to study the mating

calls of whales—had gone down off the Galapagos with all hands. Just like that he was gone. I probably should have gone home, but I didn’t. I stayed drunk for a week and depressed out of my mind for another dozen or so. It wasn’t just my dad’s absence, permanent though that was to be. I was well used to him being out of reach. But always before there had been the image—flush with a brightness and immediacy that little around me could commandeer—of the bold adventurer plumbing the depths of the watery world. It was an image of risk, yes; but also of gain, of wonder, of the sudden frisson of life’s discovery amid the turbulence of hidden reefs and pounding waves. It was, I began to see, an image that had borne me up. That had set my course. An image without which I was rudderless and adrift. There came a night in the Inner Hebrides, down along the Ross of Mull, when I lay sheltering under an upturned boat and vowed that in the morning I would cast off in it and let the waves and the rising wind determine my fate. I felt bold and desperate and wild, though it was not so much death that I wanted, but direction. There was a harbor, I knew, along the southwest point, and islands just off the coast. But I did not know which, if any of those the boat might reach. The morning came wet and cold and fogged so thickly at first that I could barely see the shoreline. I pushed off into the slapping waves and let the boat drift out into the North Atlantic, surging on an outgoing tide. Almost immediately the fog thinned and before I could even properly begin to meditate on the futility of life, an island appeared: a spit of land, a fringe of rocky beach, and then—a stone cross, Celtic like my blood, with its encompassing circle at the join of the “T” and beyond, a building rising, medieval and ecclesiastical, with empty stone windows and yet another cross crumbled above the entrance. Two sheep appeared in the doorway, bleating, and I realized I had nudged up on Iona, burial place of the ancient Scottish kings. It was too clearly a sign to be ignored. At the very least it recalled to me my mother, crying for her own lost sheep, and I knew that the image of my father I’d been carrying around was only one part of my inheritance. I needed to claim it all. By the time I got back in contact with my mother she’d taken up with the church. Not St. Columba’s either, or any of the other parishes that we’d used mostly as necessary props in the business of being Irish and rovers. She’d joined the Apostolic Brethren of the Holy Lamb, some storefront operation on the near North Side that was long on praise and testifying and pretty short

on coherent doctrine, so far as I could tell. She’d never shown much interest in organized religion before. Every now and again there’d been a spurt of Lenten fervor or a sudden influx of macabre literature on the life of one of the saints. But I’d always ignored it and she, for her part, had seemed content that that was so. Now she was all over me, leaving tracts at my bedside, praying over breakfast, hosting revival and testament meetings that ended with the attendees wriggling on the floor or babbling in unknown tongues. “To combat the dark forces,” she said, but at the time I’d had no direct experience of any such forces and wasn’t in the mood to contemplate the possibility. I was still trying to sort out who I was now that I could no longer be my father’s son. Yet it all seemed to have worked for her. She’d rebounded from Dad’s death a lot further than I had. Once or twice we actually managed to sit down and try to talk things through, but there was something I just wasn’t getting. She kept going on about “new hearts” and “the Blood of the Lamb” and “wars in the heavenly spheres,” as if this world was nothing but a pale shadow of the life to come. That wasn’t how I saw it at all. She wanted me to move back home and take up the Teaching, as she put it, but there were too many roads I hadn’t walked. Too many chances I hadn’t taken. I kept thinking about Dad and wanting to find what he’d found, whatever that was. Mom said an empty heart meant an empty life, but I figured I’d fill the emptiness my own way, so I set off again and stayed on the bum, scuffling whatever it took for bread. I can’t say I’m proud of everything I’ve done. Time and distance and the fragile chain of circumstance have all conspired to twist my intentions into shapes I scarcely recognize. But when I study again the maps that marked my routes I can see patterns emerging that were never discernable at the time. Mostly, you’ll never have heard of me. But a message I delivered to a runaway in the Greek Islands cost a Senator his seat, and I brought out the first photographs of the lingam caves in the western Karakorams. There was even the matter of the Spanish Consul, but perhaps that’s better left unsaid. For all that, there was never anything to match the stakes proposed by Joachim Argento Kline. My mother would have said he was sent to still my troubled soul, but I figure it had a lot more to do with timing. The weight of years, or maybe it was memories, was beginning to press me down. There was a hollow feeling inside my chest sometimes late at night and when I dared to look hard enough I knew that I’d begun to question the sufficiency

of my road-tested answers to life’s dilemmas. I was ready for something new, must have been, or I would never have been rolling south on a train from Cairo in search of what the ancients called the True Name of God.