The Venice of the West
 About the Author/Artist
 Alternative History Timeline  
 Double Fiction Issue

Part I: Alta California
 I Meet Mark Twain
 I Meet John Sargent
 A Humorist, Not a Politician
 The Venice of the West
 The Fair Marina
 A Candide Character
 A Swan Among Geese

 So Much?
 Gibralter the Egg Mule
 An American Vandal Abroad
 Daisy and Oscar
 A Chance Encounter
 Goya’s Studio
Holy Relics

Part II: Sakrametska in Rossland
 Boundary Values
 The Unholy Family
 Boom Town
 New Dog, Old Tricks
 Commission of a Lifetime
 Minor Moon of a Minor Planet

  NOVEL EXCERPTS by Patrick Fanning


Holy Relics

Reprinted from the Atlantic Weekly, June 13, 1879
Mark Twain
Republic of Alta California

Esteemed Reader:

My erstwhile traveling companion John Sargent and I have been initiated into the mysteries of the Catholic Faith, Western Division. Our guide was an amiable Jesuit named Carlos Gustavo Enrique Jose de los Santos y Maria, and proud of it. He greeted us at the door of the local cathedral and invited us in to view the relics on display. As a quondam practicing Protestant, I offered to apply for a visa, supply references, and post a bond, but diplomatic protocol was graciously waived.

Young Mr. Sargent dragged us up to the marble hitching rail at the front of the church to get a close view of the principle sacred object on display: the Mantle of Saint John Diego, bearing a self-portrait of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. I do not know much about art, but I do know what I don’t like, and in my opinion, it was a tolerable likeness. I doubt my own mother could have painted one half as good with her full paint box, and the Virgin was working in the hot sun, without a mirror, without a real canvas, without even a brush or paints. It is indeed a miracle.

Father Carlos Gustavo Enrique etc. bragged that the Virgin had painted herself on the back of Saint John’s ragged cactus fiber cloak, which struck me as a callous and cavalier confiscation of a poor man’s wardrobe. However, he pointed out that Catholics, especially native Aztec Catholics, are famous for their self-sacrifice.

To my astonishment, John knelt before the graven image and kissed the hem of the cloak, already black and damp with the admiration of previous art lovers. Now, I’m not certain, but at the moment of John’s kiss, I thought I detected a nimbus of light around his head, a genuine halo. I admit it was dim in the cathedral, filled with the gloom of the Holy Spirit, and my eyes were watering a bit, since the cloak emitted what I believe is called the odor of sanctity. I was deeply moved, reminded of when I attended my parents’ wedding and witnessed my pap’s cousin Elderberry Pope toast their union with a spittoon.

Padre Carlos ushered us from one relic to another. John seemed to float in a state of mystical transport, moving as if on tiny wheels. He crossed himself, bowed his head, and periodically genuflected to the cardinal directions. We saw wonder after wonder: one of Saint Sebastian’s arrows, the right forefinger of Saint Junipero Serra, and the donkey’s jaw bone Sampson used in the old testament battle, showing remarkable little wear after slaying a thousand Philistines. I was minded of cousin Elderberry’s prize possession, the axe George Washington used on the cherry tree, kept in good repair over the years by replacing the head twice and the handle thrice. I noticed several other icons of the Virgin by lesser artists, each with a different complexion, from whitest Castilian to brownest Indio, beauty being notoriously in the race of the beholder. I have noticed this tendency before; painters make Christ a Spaniard in Spain and Irish in Ireland.

To me, the prize of the collection was a minute speck of sawdust from the cross of Jesus. Papa Chuck assured me that Holy Mother Church has preserved enough pieces of the True Cross to build the Pope a steamboat. I was not blasphemous enough to inquire whether he referred to the pope in Monterey, the pope in Rome, the pope in Constantinople, or Elderberry Pope, who since he runs a tannery in Hannibal, Missouri is the only one of the quartet who possesses any real need of a steamboat, or has a river at hand to float it. Knowing the Roman Church, I suspect their steamboat will never be launched. Rather, it will be encased in glass, surrounded by a Carrara colonnade, and touted three hundred years from now as the private launch of Saint John Singer Sargent.

Despite my native skepticism, I returned to my hotel room a changed man. Before retiring I created a literary shrine on my nightstand, arranging in a mystic triangle one of Shakespeare’s fingernail trimmings, a lock of Dante’s hair, and a pocket watch that once belonged to Homer. In my prayers I asked the Presbyterian God to bless me with a tenth of the pure storytelling imagination bestowed on the Catholics. I fell into blissful sleep, knowing that if my prayer were answered, my stories would be chiseled into stone, pilgrims would line up to kiss the ink stains on my fingers, and my publisher would scurry to reply to my correspondence within a year of receipt.

Devoutly yours,
Mark Twain

  © Patrick Fanning, 2012


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