Category Archives: Sabra the Astonishing

My life’s work apparently

Me when I first began work on Sabra the Astonishing.

Me when I first began work on Sabra the Astonishing.

Well, I’ve finally finished Sabra the Astonishing, thirty seven years after I first put pen to legal pad in the carrels of the austere library of the Dumbarton Oaks Institute for Byzantine Studies, where I was, as it turns out, masquerading as a serious scholar. I was supposed to be writing my dissertation on the life of Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria. Put off by the need to stick to known facts, however, increasingly obsessed with Marian visions, in particular,  the case of Bernadette Soubirous, and, not to put too fine a point on it,  unraveling, I began instead to write a novel, which I described decades later in an application to the Ontario Arts Council thusly:

Sabra the Astonishing is the story of a teenage girl who sees an apparition which she takes to be the Virgin Mary . . . which it most definitely is not. Indeed, it is something far more sinister. Set in the sixties in the tobacco country of North Carolina, the novel explores the phenomenon of Marian visions and the steamier underside of Catholic excess.”

The novel went through a number of iterations, the most recent of which was completed twenty five years ago. My agent circulated it; no takers. My ex once described it less than kindly as, “bloated,” and, in retrospect, he was right. Sabra the Astonishing  erred on the side of excess; rather like the obese fellow traveler who sits next to you in coach, it had a propensity to ooze.  Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that the manuscript contained some of my best writing and the fact that it has languished in the bottom drawer of my file cabinet for so many years has been a source of  melancholy for me. Unpublished novels render one wistful. They are like dead babies; you can’t help but mourn them, to wonder what might have been had they been allowed to live.

This past year, I decided to have one more go at it, so I pulled out the manuscript and had a critical read.  This is what looking at a novel written by a young woman through an old woman’s eyes revealed:

  • Characters that don’t belong. I quickly realized that I had to kill off one of the lead characters; though darling, he was absolutely extraneous to the plot. (Those of you who follow this blog will have been privy to Lorenzo Da Silvio’s murder over several posts, each purporting to be the last.   I couldn’t help it; he was everywhere.)
  • Time and Place: Despite the fact that the novel takes place on Easter Monday, 1963, I had done nothing to set it in the period. I’ve now spent the last six months researching what training bra Sabra would have been wearing, what episode of Wagon Train might have played that night, and what brand of tranquilizers were vegetizing her mother. Thank God for the Internet. A related disconnect was the fact that, although Sabra’s family owns a big tobacco company and it’s the sixties, no one smokes! I addressed this problem by making everybody smoke all the time. One even dies of lung cancer.
  • Acknowledging the Zeitgeist: For a book set not forty miles from Greensboro, North Carolina where the lunch counter sit-ins had taken place just three years earlier . . . moreover, for a novel with several black characters, the fact that there was no acknowledgement of the Civil Rights Movement was, well, weird.
me at 60

Me when I finished The Virgin of Ararat.

The young woman was caught up in the story, in  action; the old woman, in context.

All these oversights have now been rectified and I will be sending the novel out again, but under a new title this time – The Virgin of Ararat. I’m doing this in the hopes that any editors who might have rejected it a quarter of a century ago will think it’s a different book altogether. Shhh! Let’s let that be our little secret.

And still more Da Silvio

The pelican, a Christian icon of self sacrifice

The pelican, a Christian icon of self sacrifice

Da Silvio certainly takes a long time making his exit.  I am, however, within a few pages of the end of Sabra the Astonishing, Soon he will be no more.  In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, Lorenzo Da Silvio.

He took hold of the ornamental wrought-iron banister. Slowly he pulled himself up the curved staircase, red-carpeted step by red-carpeted step, bearing within him his tormenter, his grand inquisitor, and his executioner, three in one, a perfect Trinity, his poisoned, poisoning liver, about which his doctor used to say, “No more drink, Lorenzo,” and shake his head, knowing that it would do no good.

Slowly he climbed, until at last he reached the window parallel with the second floor landing. He pushed aside the curtain, leaning a little out over the veranda’s steep, red-tiled roof.

There it was: pine forest, acre upon acre of it, rolling in the slight breeze like a sea, making a sound like the sea smoothing its shore, broken now and then by a poor, squarish patch of man’s making: there in the distance Raleigh, and if he turned slightly to his left, the smaller cluster of fainter stars, Bright Leaf; between them the silky ribbon of grey road, the winding, looping Jeff D. with its many aliases. Da Silvio sighed.


Mount Ararat

Mount Ararat

What had that old devil of a carpetbagger had in mind when he named his house after that bleached mountain in Turkey on which the ark came at last to rest? Did he flatter himself that his ancestors, the issue of his loins, would go out from it to found a new world? And what was his, Ignatius’s, share in all this? That empty tower room, its Moorish arches of open stone tracery now hung with cobwebs, rimed with dust, its mirrors clouded like blind eyes, its brass lamps green and swinging still, but slightly, as the wind insinuates itself in thin threads through the chinks in the windows. This silent room and then the grave, more silent still.

Da Silvio turned wearily and climbed the few remaining steps to the second story. He glanced quickly down the hall to the alcove at its end with its stained glass windows of pelicans wounding themselves in the breast so that they might feed their young with their own blood, and Sacred Hearts like lopsided bombe tomatoes, wound in purple ribbons onto which the family motto was engraved in gilded glass: “Nunquam satis de Maria.”

Surely Noah must have had his doubts, he thought, opening the door to his studio. Surely he must have wondered as he sat atop that arid mountain waiting for the dove to return, watching as the sky cleared and the water receded inch by inch: Am I mad? Was I hearing things? What are my senses that I should credit them? And if it was God’s whose voice I heard, just supposing, then Who is He that I should trust Him? All powerful! An inducement to fear, yes, not trust. And what of my neighbors, whom I have, not forty days since, seen floating like pickles in a barrel, face-up in the brine, their locks streaming out to either side of them and their poor faces white and still in death? They were not all bad, nor I all good. I know my sins. Is this (endlessly fending off the questions of querulous relatives; endlessly shoveling manure), is this Grace? Or is it a trap? Is this a new beginning? Or the beginning of a new end?

Christ's feetHis eyes fell upon the easel in the middle of his studio and the painting of the three Mary’s at the Tomb. He leaned against the lintel of the door and covered his eyes with his hand. “Feet!” he exclaimed softly. “The feet are all wrong!”

Actually, a bit more Da Silvio

As it turns out, there was still more Da Silvio.  I had forgotten.  This scene takes place near the end of the novel.



Da Silvio, who had just left Ananias’s room, stood at the end of the gallery, his shoes dappled by  droplets of moonlight, to look towards the greenhouse as if it were the City of God drifting down from the heavens towards the plain of Pepuza, as Priscillian had promised, luminous, ghostly, the silhouettes of its broken palms, its ruined trees like the hands of tortured men outstretched in agony. The redwood slat trapezes on which the orchids had this morning balanced, like fragile circus performers in multi-colored tights, swung empty or dangled disconsolate from one rope. Why is it, he thought, that we yearn for each day to end, yet so fear death?

He stood where he was for a moment, not lost in thought but swept up in the sudden sensation of unbalance occasionally induced in him by drink. He felt for a moment as if the ground beneath his feet had sagged, then shivered into a liquid, begun to eddy, to rage. It was as if he were some rough stone which a stream had torn from its bed and turned this way and that and finally over and over, as if it were determined to smooth from his surface any mark which might distinguish him from any other rock. His hearing dimmed. His sight clouded. He swayed a little, extending his arms to either side like a high wire walker and finally falling forward to catch onto the arm of the hat rack. He breathed deeply once and then again and little by little as the moments passed, his equilibrium returned to him, his vision and his hearing were restored. At last he could let go of the armrest, stand erect, yank at the hem of his claret-colored jacket and turn towards the stair. That was what death would be like, he thought, the only difference being that death, unlike this sensation of being swept up by a sudden swift current would not pass. He, if not Garrity, knew what the composer of those schoolboy lyrics meant when he wrote, “And you go dribbling down the stream.”

The last little bit of Da Silvio

A house resembling Ararat, the mansion in my novel, Sabra the Astonishing


As I draw near the end of this revision of Sabra the Astonishing, Lorenzo Da Silvio makes a last appearance.  (I’m almost finished!)

Da Silvio drew one of the cane-bottomed rockers conversing in small groups about the veranda away from its creaking fellows and placed it before the veranda railing. Laying The Lives of the Saints on the floor beside it he sat, drink in hand, surveying the manicured lawn as if he sat in a box at the theater before an empty stage.

The moon pulsed over that fringe of tall, shaped trees which rose above the lawn and on the distant horizon the lights of Raleigh glittered like a beached constellation washed up on an inhospitable shore. Behind him the restless house stirred and shifted its burden of kudzu ivy almost angrily then settled, then woke with a start. The floorboards all around him creaked. His rocker squeaked. The other rockers squeaked. A loose shutter somewhere on the second floor of the southern facade tapped against the brick wall as if to drive home a point, and around the yellow glove of the veranda light a ghost moth swung and swung, brushing the thick opaque glass with her white fine wing. It began to singe it. He could smell it.

Da Silvio dug into his jacket pocket and after a moment extracted from the debris at its bottom a battered cigarette. He lit it and, holding it before him, examined the bright ember.

Then he heard a sound very like a human groan. The house? he wondered, glancing sharply up at the veranda ceiling.

He heard the sound a second time — louder this time.

He rose to his feet, placing his drink on the cover of the book beside his chair. He dropped the cigarette to the floor and stepped on it.

The stable door creaked open and after a minute a figure, tall and stooped, staggered through the door, holding his head in his hands. The stained white satin jockey’s pants gleamed like a fish’s body in the moonlight. It was Dick, the groom. He raised his face to Da Silvio, whose figure he could discern by the veranda light and removed from his battered head hands sticky with dark blood.

“Dick!” Da Silvio exclaimed. “What’s happened?” He started down the steps towards him. Then he heard the sound of a car grinding up the hill. Both he and Dick turned to look down the driveway in the direction of the sound. In a moment they saw a car’s lights blink on and off like the staccato message of a signal light as it moved towards them down the long avenue lined with tall tapered cedar trees, before the car rounded the final curve of the driveway and bore down on them, its headlamps two smoking corridors of white light. The car stopped just short of the pink granite sundial. The headlights sunk to low beam, then snapped off. A door opened, and Sheriff Dale rolled out of the car, at the same time as he rolled his flat-brimmed sheriff’s hat off of his head and into his plump, grimy hands. Da Silvio had seen him once or twice before. Recently he had come to ask Ananais to put a lock on the gate which led from St. Mary’s cemetery to the woods of Ararat so that snake-hunting on the hill might be inhibited. Da Silvio had always thought that Dale fitted his skin and clothing in the same way sausage meat fills its casing, without a rumple, to the point of bursting. Although the night was growing chillier, the sheriff’s red face exuded drops of sweat as large as tears. His brown eyes, small and wise as a pig’s, fell upon Dick. He wrinkled up his nose and dragged a meaty hand over his moist, sticky forehead.

“Good God, boy,” he exclaimed. “What happened to you?”

But Dick knew well the hand that fed him. He was solicitous of it, and when he did bite it, he took care to do it in private, when he might reap some material advantage from it. As he fully intended to do on this occasion.

“Fell down,” he said gruffly, turning away from Dale .

The Beguiling St. Bernadette

In this excised excerpt from Sabra the Astonishing, Jesuit priest Xavier Buck goes to view the body of St. Bernadette Soubirous, on display in a glass coffin at the convent where she served as a kitchen nun in Nevers, France. 

St. Bernadette in her coffin

St. Bernadette in her coffin

Perfectly preserved the nuns said as they ushered him into the church. It had something to do with the type of soil she’d been buried in. Charcoal? Limestone? Only her skin had blackened on exposure to air, so that they had artfully covered her hands and face with a sort of chamois. Such fine handiwork.

They stepped aside to let Xavier draw near. Save for the fact that her neatly trimmed fingernails seemed too deeply sunk into the flesh of her fingers for them to have been real, the short neat figure in the black and white habit of the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction had seemed quite lifelike, as though she had fallen asleep a century earlier, her pretty face turned to one side on the lace-covered pillow, her fingers curled around a rosary pressed to her heart.

As he gazed down on the saint he had experienced a sudden pang of desire so sharp that it riveted him to the spot. An urge to throw open the coffin and crush the tiny body to his breast, tumbling the chamois mask from the blackened face and crackling those age-brittle bones on which the flesh so perniciously clung came over him.

But, “Don’t touch the glass!” the nuns cried shrilly. They rushed after him, grabbed him by the elbows, and dragged him back. “You’ll get fingerprints all over it!” A fat pigeon of a nun interposed her bulk between it and him and, reaching into the folds of her habit, withdrew a bottle of Windex. Spraying the coffin liberally with the solution, she scrubbed at it with her sleeve.

Bernadette coffinHe had thought, standing there in the dark convent chapel with the sweat streaming down his face and his fingers squeezed into fists, that if he could only embrace the horror beneath, tumble the mask, then everything would come clear for him. The darkness in which he lived would be rent like a curtain, thrown back, and he would see things as they were. He wanted it so badly. He felt that he couldn’t live a moment longer without it. But the nun continued to polish the coffin, crawling all over it like a black and white bug, all the time casting quick victorious glances over her plump shoulder at him. At length his friends, embarrassed, had urged him gently to go, and he had turned away, his heart in his mouth, his hands trembling. As he stumbled from the shrine one of the nuns had plucked his sleeve and like a madam who, on a summer’s eve when the blood stirs, calls to passersby from a chair placed beside her door, she lisped through death’s head lips “She’s beguiling, is she not? Our Bernadette?”


He is not here . . . His feet are there

Christ's feet dangled in a number of paintings. This depicts the Ascension of Christ.

Christ’s feet dangled in a number of paintings. This depicts His Ascension into Heaven.  From the look of things, that’s one powerful updraft.

A painting that used to hang in the halls of Knox College at the University of Toronto was the inspiration for the painting described in this excised excerpt from Sabra the Astonishing. It depicted the scene wherein an Angel of the Lord tells the women who have come to Christ’s tomb to wash His body for burial, ” He is not here.  He is risen,” and points in the direction of the canvas’s upper right hand corner where two pierced feet preposterously dangle.  I always wanted to add a coda to that statement, like, “See, you just missed Him,” or, “He went that-a way.”

I observed in an earlier blog post, You Can’t Go Home Again, that one of the reasons I had trouble abandoning this novel is that it is the only work of mine to take place in the Piedmont country of North Carolina, my birthplace and childhood home.   Walking away from it is like closing a door.  It is a death. But I have also come to realize that Sabra the Astonishing stands as my ode to Catholicism, with which (as I laid out in Why I Became a Catholic), I have a complicated relationship. 

The women at the tomb

The women at the tomb. WTF?


Up the front stairs, down the hall, was Lorenzo Da Silvio’s studio, a long rectangular room illuminated by two skylights. It was all but empty. A cabinet in which tubes of oil paint, brushes, glass jars, and other implements of his trade were stored, an easel on which a large canvas was set, a small refrigerator in which crusts of cheese mouldered, and an overstuffed armchair — in these items did the room’s furnishings consist. Now Da Silvio perched on the chair’s arm and contemplated the work in progress.

He is not here.  Neither are His feet.

He is not here. Neither are His feet.

Its composition was this: Christ’s tomb — rather in the style of a Persian miniature. The lavender stone that had sealed the tomb’s mouth had been rolled aside. On top of it sat one of the dark angels who had become Da Silvio’s trademark in recent years, feet crossed, hands clasped and swinging between monstrous knees, silver eyes glittering. Its lips were slightly parted, as if he had just uttered the words etched in gilt along the bottom of the canvas after the fashion of medieval artists: “He is not here. He has risen.” Facing the tomb were Mary, the mother of James, and Salome, veiled and heavily draped and plainly shocked at finding the tomb empty. The third figure, the Magdalene, had turned away from the tomb and was stepping forward, the folds of a scarlet cloak caught up in her hand; the expression on her face, one of anguish and desire, as if in the next moment she might throw herself to her knees and cry out, “The body! The body I must have at least!”

Christ's feetNone of this Da Silvio minded. In fact it was all very good in its way. It was the feet he objected to. He glanced at the top of the monumental canvas, a little to the left. There hung two nimbused feet — prehensile toes, the skin punctured and fish-belly blue, the wild concatenation of tiny bones — painted and repainted until the pentimento of his past efforts shimmered about his present effort in such a way as to suggest that Christ’s feet were not merely hanging there in mid-air, but were actually vibrating. “Che schiffo!” he muttered. But there was nothing to be done about it.  There they hung, like two dead trouts a-quiver.