KISSING THE SAINT

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I was once visiting a friend in Montenegro and decided to hire a car for a few days. It is a wild country: deep forests, precipitous roads with no safety barrier, angry-looking inhabitants. I began to long for something softer somehow, more merciful. But I looked in the wrong place. As I was driving up a mountain, I saw hundreds of people walking to a monastery, and I foolishly thought there was some kind of festival. There might be wine and cake, music perhaps, and so I followed them. But as it turned out, they were pilgrims asking for salvation.

When I got to the monastery, I joined a queue and understood from a student that once in every five years they celebrated one of the monks, who had been made into a saint. They kissed his cheek and asked for blessings. It seemed impolite to withdraw now. As I passed into the anteroom to the chapel, my nostrils were assailed by a terrible smell: musty, sweet, bitter, sour. It was rot of some kind. The woman before me carried a disabled child, and she began to croon as she carried it in, and I heard a raw voice chanting. Then it was my turn.

There was a mound of something, covered by a fine red carpet. A huge priest sat by the thing, and seeing that I was nonplussed, said in English: “Kiss! Kiss! And your wish will be granted!” He drew back the carpet and I saw that it was a corpse, long dead no doubt but still pretty gruesome. It wore a priest’s garb and a smile of sorts. I kissed its cheek (or what remained of it), and said: ”I want my life to change.”

After I had run out of the room, driven down the mountain and cleaned my teeth many times, I tried to think no more about it. But my life did change from that day, and in a way I did not expect. I had always wanted to write fiction, and imagined that it would be fairly anodyne: up-market Aga-sagas perhaps, or a campus folly. But the stories that now poured from me were not like that at all. They were dark as pitch and sharp as gall. They told of the far side of anger and pleasure, and of transformation and pain and savage humour. People liked them well enough, and there was certainly nothing like them. But I knew that they were a gift from the thing that lay beneath the red carpet, and I was not sure whether to be grateful or not.