The old man sat on the floor in the far corner of his cell. He wore dirty white shorts, and greasy white hair fell over his white bearded face. Scars pocked and crossed his torso, face, neck, hands, and feet.
The week before, I had given the sermon:
“Would we recognize Jesus today? Would the message and words of a homeless, poorly clothed young man be taken seriously? Would his poverty be respected by the me generation that idolizes rich actors, rock stars, and billionaire businessmen? Would his simple message of love be noticed in an era of free sex and new-age religions? We need only read the Holy Bible and listen to the wisdom and teachings of the church.”
A young woman approached me after the sermon. “Father, you asked questions, but you never answered them.”
“They were rhetorical,” I said. “They’re meant to make you think about our society. I really didn’t expect an answer.”
“There’s a man I’d like you to meet,” she said. “I think he’s our Lord.”
I was stunned by her request. I’ve had people tell me they had a personal relationship with God, but this was the first person that claimed to know a flesh and blood God.
“I volunteer at the prison,” she said. “There’s an old man there. He’s confided with me some pretty strange stories, and unusual things about him seem to check out. Someone with spiritual powers, like you, Father, would be able to tell.”
A week later I drove to the state prison. I met Beth, the young intern who had invited me, at the gate.
The warden met us at the security desk. “Welcome, Father,” he said. “I see the church has sent another priest to exorcise our lunatic killer.”
“Exorcism?” I said. “No. I’m here to minister to a prisoner.”
“George Duncan,” Beth said.
“I know who ya’ll are here for,” the warden snapped. “George Orville Duncan: G.O.D. Our resident fruitcake. Every prison has one.”
“What’s his crime?” I asked.
“He murdered two high school kids at a 7-Eleven. Course he’ll tell you otherwise. If you believed these cons you’d think all the criminals was at church and that the prisons was chock-full of innocent saints.”
Beth said, “The cops just grabbed the first old man they could find. The slimy witnesses got their fifteen minutes of notoriety and twenty pieces of silver, and the prosecutor got a step closer to the governor’s mansion.”
“Now come on little girl,” the warden said condescendingly, “you weren’t even born when this took place. This ain’t the same as saving whales or rain forests. When they picked him up the old coot had the kids blood on his pants and car seat; he had a
7-Eleven bag with warm coffee and marked money; and he was eating a chocolate donut from the shop. Two witnesses identified him in a line-up.”
The warden pushed me through the metal detector and shouted, “The gal waits in the lobby.” He walked me through a doorway into a small, noisy cage in a gymnasium-sized room. There were bars on three sides and bars just over our heads.
One guard sat at a desk, another stood. The warden pointed to a tall, thin African American guard. “He’ll take you to see Duncan.”
The guard smirked and pointed to a small side cage. The barred door squeaked open; I stepped in, the guard followed. The door clanged shut. We touched elbows in the closet-sized cage. The other door opened. We stepped into the main room.
Prisoners walked past us, some bumping our elbows. Twenty men did pushups on a mat in a corner. Three prisoners painted the west wall. A dozen sat on a large rug in some yoga formation.
“Isn’t the warden coming?” I asked the guard.
“Are you kidding? We have lock-down when the warden comes in. He could be knifed or grabbed as a hostage.”
I felt very vulnerable. Then I noticed the guard was unarmed. “You don’t have any weapon.”
“Heck no! They’d jump me for a gun. We usually send three or four armed men together, if we need them.”
I must have looked pale or frightened.
“Don’t worry, Father. They’re very nice and respectful to clergy and teachers and women. Last year a new con grabbed this woman teacher. Another con, one of our degree students, grabbed the guy by the neck and broke his arm. The other students apologized to the woman and escorted her back to the guard desk. As long as the cons keep their own in line, we don’t even file a report. No one wants to jeopardize the education system.”
We entered an open doorway and walked down a hallway with cells on both sides. We stopped at the last cell on the right. The door was open. “There he is,” the guard said. “He preaches the Gospel to inmates every morning. He prays every afternoon. You’re on your own, Father.”
The guard walked down the long corridor. I was alone in the hallway.
The old man was sitting on the floor in the far corner of his cell. He wore dirty white undershorts. Nothing else. Long, greasy white hair fell over his face, which was buried in his knees. His many scars told of a rough life.
The small cell had a bed, a sink, a toilet, and a table. The bed groaned as I sat on the edge.
He lifted his head and looked at me. A white beard and mustache filled his face. He looked familiar. I was sure I had seen him before. “Another priest,” he said, then he buried his face in his knees.
“A young lady asked me to look in on you,” I said. “Miss Beth.”
He lifted his head. He smiled and an aura of peacefulness filled his face. “Miss Beth. A bright, lovely lady. The only outsider who has understood me in a century.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Thirty years and life to go.”
“What about parole?”
“Never considered it. Never asked.”
“Ever tried to escape?”
“Nope, though I could any time I wanted.”
“Have you confessed your sins?”
“Ain’t no sins, Father.”
“What about the kids you killed?”
“Didn’t kill the kids.”
“What did happen?”
“I was driving my truck past the 7-Eleven and these two guys were hitchhiking. An old man with a white beard and his son. I picked them up. They gave me a donut. I dropped them near their car. They left a blood stained bag with money and coffee on the floor. The police picked me up a few minutes later.”
“Didn’t you know they were bad guys?”
“Of course I did.”
“So, why did you stop for these murderers?”
“I say love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. Give to everyone who asks of you.”
“But why have you wasted thirty years in prison if you’re innocent?”
“Wasted? Those who are well do not need a physician. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Who do you say I am?”
“I say you’re an old man in a lot of trouble.”
“I am the root and offspring of David, the bright morning star. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, beginning and end. Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever.”
“How old are you, old man?”
“I was born long before your grandfather’s grandfather, of a virgin in the days of Herod, King of Judea. I trained my Twelve, and they, less the one who betrayed me, spread my teaching throughout the known world. I come now and again to recruit new disciples.”
“What of the prophetic words in Revelations 22,” I said. “If anyone adds to the words of the Bible, God will add to him the plagues described in the Bible.”
“I add nothing,” the old man said. “They were true words when I first spoke them. I only say them again to save a few more wretched souls.” He stood up and lifted his arms and spoke as if preaching to a multitude. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God. You shall not kill. Whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. You shall not commit adultery. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Give to one who asks of you. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Forgive and you will be forgiven… Dear Priest, are these not the words of your faith?”
“Yes, and well spoken, old man. Of course you’ve had thirty years to learn them.”
Beth was napping on a couch in the lobby. I tapped her shoulder and she awoke.
“Well, what did you think of George?” she asked.
“A pleasant old coot,” I said. “He’s got a few biblical phrases memorized, and he spouts them fluently. I’m not a trained psychologist, but I’d guess he’s classic delusional. He seems pretty harmless, though, at least today.”
Beth held up a folded piece of paper before me. “That’s him,” I said. “I knew I’d seen him before. That’s the old man.” She unfolded the rest of the paper. It was a portion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling painted by Michelangelo. The old man reached out the finger of his right hand towards the finger of a naked man. The naked man was Adam; the old man was God.
She showed me a prison mugshot. “Now that’s a spittin’ image of the old man,” I said.
“Your right, Father. It was taken when they arrested him, thirty years ago. Don’t you think it’s strange that he hasn’t aged since then?”
She showed me a photograph folded in half. “That’s also the old man,” I said. She unfolded the paper. The old man was shaking President Harry Truman’s hand. “The picture was taken July 4th, 1945. I found it in the National Archives.”
“But it can’t be him!” I said. “That was over fifty years ago and the man in the picture must be eighty years old.”
She showed me another photo that looked like the old man talking to a Pope. “That’s Pope Pius X,” she said. “He died in 1914. This picture is in the Vatican collections.”
She handed me another photo. “The last two pictures,” she said, “are from the Walt Whitman collection at the New York Public Library.” There were two old men, nearly identical, with full white mustaches and beards, and long unkempt hair. The caption read: 1890, Walt and his friend George Duncan.
She handed me the last photo. There was George again, still eighty years old, and a younger Walt Whitman. The caption read: Walt Whitman and Orville Duncan, 1854. A hand written note on the back, signed by William O’Conner, said, ‘They look like Christ and his Father. I feel like John the Baptist as I cry in the wilderness to promote Walt’s Leaves of Grass.’
“Don’t you see, Father,” she said, “George Orville Duncan looks exactly the same today as he did in 1854 and 1890 with Walt Whitman, in 1910 with Pope Leo X, in 1946 with President Truman, in 1960 when he was imprisoned, and in 1510 when Michelangelo painted him! Who else but God could do that?”
“All we know,” I said, “is that there are a lot of white-bearded-old-men who look alike.”
“You said he quoted the Bible, Father?”
“A lot of old men quote the Bible.”
“Did you know he can recite the entire Bible: Old and New Testaments?”
“Impressive, yes, but he can recite it in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Coptic, Arabic, Gaelic, Italian, Spanish, King James, New American, Korean, Chinese.”
She handed me the photographs and said, “See him again, Father. Ask him about these pictures.”
A week later the guard led me down the hallway to the old man’s cell. “I don’t know how he survives,” the guard said. “They tell me he only eats bread and drinks water. No one has ever seen him eat meat or fruit or vegetables.”
The old man was in his undershorts sitting on the floor in the corner. I went into the open cell and sat on his bed.
The old man smiled at me and said, “You’ve brought the photographs. Beth is such a wonderful advocate. I wish they would let me see her more than once a month.”
“Does she send all her priests with the photographs?” I asked sarcastically.
“You’re the first priest who would come for her,” he said. “I’ve never seen the photographs.”
First I showed him the Michelangelo painting of God reaching out to Adam.
The old man laughed, then stood up and laughed even harder. “Poor Mike,” he said, “He got really hung up when he tried to paint God of creation. Painter’s block. I figured to help him, so I walked into his studio one day. He was a man of rare spiritual feelings. He sensed my aura and was immediately attracted to me. I told him I had come to pose for him. To pose as God. He asked me if I presumed to think I looked like God. I told him the Father had no physical form and as such could not be painted or carved, but that I, his Son, being a chip off the old block, was the best physical image he would ever get. Mike laughed and told me that was the best pitch he had ever heard.”
“So five hundred years ago,” I said, trying to hide my disbelief, “you were a model for Michelangelo? You are God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling?”
“Has it been that long? He made me pose and stretch out my arm for hours at a time. I still get an occasional pain in my elbow from that.”
I showed him the Walt Whitman photographs. “Is that Walter?” he asked. He squinted at each photograph and read the captions. “That’s right,” he said as if he had just remembered the events. “I tried really hard to reform Walt. We met in forty-two and became good friends. I was his good buddy Orville Duncan. But I just couldn’t stand the war. Michigan boys shooting Virginia boys. Southern boys stabbing Northern boys. So I left the country in sixty-one and went to Argentina. Spent a year there then slowly preached my way back to New York. When I came back to New York in eighty-nine I looked up Walt. Course he was an old man then. I introduced myself as George Duncan, son of his friend Orville Duncan. Told him that Orville had died in Georgia.”
“I thought you never lied, never sinned,” I reminded him.
“Oh, I didn’t. Orville Duncan, had been lynched the year before.” He held his hand to his neck and showed me what looked like scars from a rope burn. “I was ministering to Negroes, former slaves in Georgia, and the Klan hung me right there on a cross in the church yard. So I resurrected myself as George.”
Did the old man really think I believed him? But I nodded and listened as he spouted on.
Be picked up the photograph again and stared at the two white-haired old men. “So Walt Whitman and I became friends again. Course with his book Leaves of Grass he was famous now. Do you know he made a pass at me?”
He paused as if reliving the past, then said, “When Walt died I went back to Italy. I met a good man, Guiseppe Sarto, Bishop of Mantua.” He picked up the picture of Pope Pius X. “I pulled a few strings and got him appointed Cardinal in ninety-three. Ten years later Sarto became Pope Pius X. I’m mighty proud of Pius. He was canonized in ’54. The last time the church granted sainthood to a Pope was 1712.”
I showed him the photograph of President Harry Truman.
“That was taken shortly after Germany surrendered,” he said. “I used to play cards with the Trumans. It’s a good thing Harry was a better president than bridge player. I couldn’t get the security clearance to get in to his inner circle of military advisors, so I schmoozed Harry and Bess to get close to him.”
“Your Almightiness couldn’t get a security clearance?”
“I didn’t have any papers. No birth or baptismal certificates. What am I going to tell them? That I was born in a stable in Bethlehem and that I was baptized by John? That I thought my talk with Martin Luther would reform my church, not split it apart?”
“I pleaded with Harry not to drop the A bomb on Japan. He always wondered how I knew of the secret plan. At one point he threatened to lock me up and torture me until I revealed my source.” The old man smiled. “I don’t think Harry could trust anyone to torture me, so we just continued to be friends. Of course I wasn’t successful, and then the S.O.B. drops the second bomb on Nagasaki!”
The old man put his hand to his right side and grimaced in pain. He pulled his hand away and wiped blood on a towel. “Damn thing never healed properly. It’s been bothering me forever. Hands and feet rarely bleed anymore.” He showed me puncture scars on each hand and foot.
“You’ve got an awful lot of scars,” I said. “You must have had some nasty times.”
“See this one around my neck?” A thin purple scar went all around his neck. “Guillotine, France, 1794.”
He pointed to two marks on his chest. “Firing squad, Texas, 1836.”
He twisted his left arm to reveal a shoulder scar. “Samurai sword, Japan, 1363.”
He touched a scar in the middle of his back. “The arrow went in here, pierced my heart, and came out here.” He pointed to a scar near his left nipple. “That was France, 1415. Those English arrows came out of the mist like magic and struck most of us down. Nobleman, soldier, clergy. I saw a thousand men fall on the field at Agincourt before I took my fatal arrow.”
He looked over his body. “Many more, but none other fatal.”
I became weary from the preposterous stories and bid him goodbye. I walked down the hallway, continued through the prison, out into the fresh air beyond the razor wire, into the reality and sanity of the real world.
The next day Beth came to the rectory. I told her of my meeting with the old convict. “What an old windbag,” I said. “Does he really think anyone will believe that he has returned from the dead over and over? Don’t you think that if he really were Jesus he would have fixed his body? That he would heal his scars? That he would get out of prison?”
“Father, have you forgotten the Gospels?” she asked.
“The Gospel of John. Pilate imprisoned Jesus, had him scourged, then handed him over to be crucified. After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples, but Thomas was missing. Thomas would not believe the resurrection claims of his friends. Only when Jesus appeared and said to Thomas, “Put your fingers here, into the wounds in my hands, and put your hand into my side,” did Thomas believe.
I crossed myself and said Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
“So, Father, you accept the wounds and scars of the resurrected Jesus in the Bible. Why should you be surprised that he still carries those wounds and more?”
“I’ll pray on it,” I told her. Then I promised her that I would see the old man again next month.
I didn’t keep my promise. The bishop transferred me to a parish in another county. My pastoral duties kept me so busy that there was no time for the old man. Besides, I’m supposed to give spiritual inspiration to my flock. The old man had more inspiration than my entire parish. He didn’t need me. Soon I forgot about him.
Ten years later the bishop called me on Palm Sunday. He had received a request from the warden of the state prison. An old man on death row had a final request: that I dine with him for his last supper.
I drove to the prison on a rainy Thursday evening. George Duncan was sitting in undershorts on the floor of a small room. I sat next to him. I had grayed and lost hair since our visit ten years before, but he looked exactly the same.
“You haven’t aged, old man.”
“The first eighty years are the worst,” he said. “After that, not much happens. Look at Methuselah and Noah. When they were seven hundred years old they could pass as seventy today. Of course people haven’t eaten like they should in thousands of years, and body parts made to last a millennium rarely last a century anymore.”
“What happened?” I asked. “Why are you here?”
“There was a riot a couple of years ago. A Latino guard was taken hostage, then stabbed by a frustrated inmate. I comforted the guard, held his head in my lap, pressed on a severed artery to stop his bleeding. The SWAT team blasted the door off its hinges and stormed the room. There I was clutching a bleeding guard, a knife next to me. They sprayed me with mace, shocked me with a stun gun, and kicked me. The guard bled to death while I was being cuffed and dragged away. They called it a hate crime. I was already a lifer, so they convicted me of murder and sentenced me to the electric chair. It’s down the hall. That’s why we’re here right now.”
“If you are who you claim to be,” I said, “why didn’t you raise the guard up like Lazarus? Why didn’t you save him and yourself?”
“That was a different mission. I had come to fulfill prophecy, to give a message to my people, to reveal my divinity, to sacrifice myself for your redemption. With that accomplished I come back to help spread the word and to show love through service. No miracles; no show of divinity; no big deal.”
A guard brought a tray into the room. He placed it on the floor next to the old man. A bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, a turkey leg, a piece of foil.
The old man broke off a piece of bread, handed it to me, and said, “This is my body.”
I ate it.
He handed me the wine and said, “For that which I am about to shed, this is my blood.”
I drank from the bottle then passed it to him.
A guard poked his head into the room and said, “One minute.”
“Would you confess your sins,” I said, “to free your soul for the journey ahead.”
He laughed. “You of little faith. Like my disciple Thomas, it will take seeing for you to believe. So be it.” He wrapped the turkey leg in foil and said, “This is my resurrection.” He pushed it into my pocket.
He stood up and walked into the hallway. “Come along, Father,” he told me. “I want you with me until the end.”
We walked down the hallway into the execution chamber. A guard seated him in the electric chair, swabbed his ankles and wrists with a pink gel, then strapped metallic clamps around each ankle and each wrist. A crown, like that of metallic thorns, was placed on his head. Heavy electrical wires were connected to his ankles, wrists, and crown.
The warden approached the old man. He bent down and said, “You know I never believed that you stabbed the guard. I am innocent of your blood. I only follow the laws and orders given to me. I wash my hands of your death.”
I went into the observation room and watched the old man through a window. The warden, four guards, a doctor, and six other witnesses waited. Ten minutes later, at 12:02AM on Good Friday, the lever was thrown.
“It is finished!” the old man shouted, then he shook convulsively. Smoke rose from each clamp. He twitched spasmodically for a minute, then he collapsed into an anguished rest. A minute after the last sign of life, the voltage was turned off.
The warden and the doctor went to the corpse, and the doctor put a stethoscope to the chest. Then he lifted an eyelid. The warden waved us in.
The odor of burnt hair and flesh hit me when I entered the room. We stood in a circle around the corpse as a guard removed the clamps. Burn marks circled each wrist and ankle.
A drop of blood rolled down the right side of the corpse. Then blood oozed from the wound in his side. It flowed until a large red stain collected on his undershorts. At the same time fresh blood appeared on the scars of his hands and feet. Soon it flowed down his fingers and dripped onto the floor. Blood ran down the top of each foot and pooled into puddles by his toes.
The STIGMATA! The flowing wounds of our crucified Savior. Surely it was a divine sign.
I bent to my knees, gave the sign of the cross and prayed for mercy and for forgiveness.
The burning smell was replaced by a sweetness like that of red wine.
I met with the bishop on Sunday. I told him of the old man’s scars, showed him the drawing and photographs, told him the stories of past lives. Then I bent to my knees and swore to him of the miraculous sign of the stigmata.
The Bishop and I arrived at the morgue early Monday morning. The bishop told the Chief Medical Examiner he would like to view the body. We took the elevator to the basement where a technician unlocked the examination room. One wall had twenty stainless steel doors, each the size of an oven: two doors high by ten doors wide.
The technician checked the label on door number twelve. “Duncan. Here it is.” He pulled the handle and opened the door. The smell of red wine. He pulled the drawer all the way out. The drawer was empty, except for a pair of bloodstained, white undershorts.
“You’ve got the wrong door,” the Medical Examiner said impatiently.
“I’m sure this was it,” the technician said. “He was here Saturday, and I was the last one to leave.” He opened other doors. We watched him pull out a young woman, her shoulder broken and face smashed from a car accident; a beautiful young man, unblemished but dead from heroin; a teenage boy, bullet holes in his skull at close range; a baby, bruised and broken before it could crawl; an old lady, stabbed for a purse that held ten dollars.
Sweat formed across the brow of the technician, his expression twisted with confusion and disbelief. “I don’t know!” he blurted. “Only the guards were here over the holiday. The room is locked and has an alarm system. Video monitors showed nothing unusual. Nothing like this has ever happened.”
“Maybe another room?” I asked.
“It’s not like you can lose a body easily, Father.”
We waited an hour as they searched the building, interviewed guards, and checked security camera tapes.
Nothing unusual had happened, except for the disappearance of the body.
The bishop and I walked to our car. The bishop took my folder of photographs and notes and lit a match to them. He dropped the papers on the asphalt and we watched them burn.
“Father,” the bishop said to me, “if you tell anyone about the old convict or what happened here, your soul will be in mortal danger. If I hear that you have talked to anyone about this incident, I will recommend that you are defrocked and excommunicated.”
That evening in the rectory, I unwrapped the foil from the turkey leg, poured myself a glass of beer, and sat in my favorite chair, and turned on the television news.
The Medical Examiner tells a reporter that he could not confirm that a body was missing from the morgue; that it was probably a bookkeeping or clerical problem; that the morgue had extensive security systems and had never lost a body and had never had a corpse stolen.
I took a gulp of beer and chewed on the turkey leg.
The screen flashes to a woman reporter standing in front of the rubble of collapsed buildings. A dozen rescue workers use bare hands to remove bricks and large wooden beams. “Two weeks ago,” the reporter says, “a massive earthquake had destroyed a million buildings in Turkey and killed thousands of people. The last survivor had been pulled from the debris a week ago, but workers have continued to remove hundreds of smashed, putrid corpses from the rubble. Rescuers had given up all hope of finding more survivors. Yet yesterday, Easter Sunday, as a young girl lay flowers on the pile of bricks and timber which was once her village church, groans rose up from the debris near the former altar. Rescuers have just reached the altar.”
The camera shifts to three men lifting a naked old man from the debris. He spits and blows dirt from his lips and grimy white beard. Long white hair covers his eyes from the bright light. They lay him on a stretcher. A nurse covers his scarred body with a blanket then checks the pulse of a wrist ringed with fresh burns. Coagulated blood fills a puncture wound in his palm.
The old man lifts his head and smiles at me as a whiff of red wine floats towards me from the television.
I wave and smile back.
With degrees from Oakland University and Johns Hopkins University David Thorndill has written the novel First Contact at Cabo Rojo, and Tales from the Confessional, a collection of short stories narrated by Catholic priests. Stories from Tales won a $3000 prize from the Maryland State Arts Council. I have recently written feature length screenplays for Rise of the Dolphins, The Last Vikings, and The Voyage of Genesis 2. The screenplays have received recognition from several film festivals including best action/adventure script (The Last Vikings) at the Los Angeles Film and Script Festival.