Headlock Press

Writing That Grabs And Holds


My Uncle in the Catacombs
Edward Eriksson
My Uncle Henry was a priest,
though he had no congregation.

Among the living.

But he had one
among the dead.

He lived in Rome
and worked as a guide,
and, I guess,
some sort of maintenance man
in the ancient catacombs.

My family visited Uncle,
that is, Father Henry
in Rome,
when I was ten.
He took my mother and father,
my sister and me,
down into the underground tunnels
and led us through the dim passageways
lined with tiers of niches
carved-out in the soft gray rock
beneath the city,
used by the early Christians
to bury those
who died in their faith.

At one point,
my six-year-old sister, Janice,
asked him if God was there,
along with those early Christians,
long dead and long disintegrated.
Father Henry assured her that He was.
She then asked where,
where could He be found,
in what hollowed-out recess
of that dim, curious catacomb.

We all laughed
except, of course, my sister.

“God is a spirit,”
my uncle answered, still laughing;
“He was and is everywhere.”

Janice made a face,
supposing Father Henry teased her.

“It’s true,” he said,
kindly but seriously.

We finished the tour;
then left and said goodbye.

Afterwards, back at the hotel,
Janice came to me
and said she had a secret.
She asked if I remembered
when we were in the catacomb
Uncle Henry let us walk ahead
without him.

I said I did.

Well, she said,
She’d turned back to ask another question
and there he was,
talking . . .

to nobody.

“Was he whispering to God?”
she asked.

I nodded, saying that that was possible.

“Or he might’ve been talking to the dead,”
I offered,
his dead.”

She looked puzzled
but said nothing.

About ten years later
Father Henry died
in Rome,
in that same catacomb--
of a heart attack.

When we found out,
I kind of laughed.
I asked Janice.
who was now in her teens,
if she remembered
the question about God
and of Henry’s talking to his congregation
of long-dead Christians.

She didn’t.

She told me that I was stupid to laugh
at our uncle’s death,
there in those lonely,
gloomy underground passageways.

“You don’t know,” she said,
“you just don’t know.”

“About what?” I asked.

“Strange things,” she said.

She went on to add
that she already knew that Uncle Henry had died
faraway, in Rome,
because a few days earlier   
she awoke
in the middle of the night
to see him standing at the foot of her bed.

“Did he talk to you?” I asked, smiling.
“No,” she said;
“he had his head bowed,
like he was praying,
like in the catacomb.

And then he turned into a gray shadow
and disappeared.”

That was forty years ago.
They’re all dead now,
my mother, father, sister,
an aunt and two more uncles.
I’m left.

I never married;
I have no kids,
just some forgotten cousins
and a niece and nephew
somewhere on the West Coast.
who I never see.

And I can’t stop thinking
about that catacomb:
the dim, winding passageways
with niches carved in tiers,
empty of its former occupants,
who longed to join
their fellow Christians,
the long-before, invisibly departed.

And I see myself walking there,

I was never religious,
still not.
But something tells me
I should go back,
back to Rome and its catacombs,
to wander along its passageways
with its empty niches carved out
for Father Henry’s congregation,
lying in wait,
with him,
for their hopeful summons.

Maybe some day,
some day soon,
someday soon.

Paul Agostino  commented on September 08, 2017 :
I like how this poem/dramatic monologue jumps across time, from the time the narrator is 10, then a young adult, and then an older man, and how he looks back on his uncle, an old man with a mysterious history, and the people buried for centuries in the mystery of the Catacombs. The poem reads like a story, but also like a contemplation on time and eternity and the ancient question of where we fit into all of it.

The sister's vision of the uncle and her view of his work in the Catacombs makes me think of that line in the bible about not being able to understand the kingdom of heaven unless you become as a little child. It seems the narrator is coming around to his little sister's view of spiritual matters as he enters into old age, or at least is giving them serious consideration.

The haunting, uncertain final stanza is the perfect ending for the poem.
Michael  commented on September 20, 2017 :
"I’m left"

Great story with a striking political and religious statement. God is everywhere and nowhere. God doesn't care as much as we do, and yet, we're all splinters of God. Interesting to consider because the older remembers and the younger doesn't. Why do our early memories fade? Is it because reason and logic overtakes the math? A conundrum in itself. Well done, because the story overpowers the discretion. It's the story, Jim.
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