A life does not flow evenly from spring to the ocean, its passage is broken by rapids and falls, twists and turns. The choices we make define a life’s course. Some decisions take us over a threshold where the effort required to backtrack, to paddle against the turbulence and cross to another stream, requires more strength and dedication than most can muster.
Which decisions will plunge us over a precipice? We may not consciously take a decision at all, but drift into the maw of the momentous. But, even when conscious of the act of choosing, sometimes the greatest consequences spring from the apparently inconsequential. Some lives change by turning right instead of left, leaving when they could have stayed, or saying “I love you” but meaning “I want you.”
But a few people know, the very moment they make their choice, that their life has changed forever.
For Fabrice Colliseo that moment came early. He was barely out of his teens when he made up his mind kill a man. That man was Alfonso, clever, handsome and beloved Alfonso. Alfonso the priest. Alfonso, his brother.
Fabrice did not have his brother’s fancy education, but knew enough of theology to know that, having made his choice, he was as guilty of the sin as if he’d already dipped his hands in his brother’s blood. The actual committing of the murder was inconsequential and could wait for the perfect moment. But the knowledge that he now bore a mark that could not be confessed and could never be forgiven resigned Fabrice to his damnation.
So Fabrice was set free.
Fabrice had been a shy boy whose fear had turned sour in his belly and made the man withdrawn and untrusting. He had been morose when sober but bellicose in wine.
Now, reborn, Fabrice had nothing to fear since nothing could be worse than damnation. So Fabrice relaxed. He joked with neighbours, his laughter echoed around the high-walled streets of his home town, he offered a helping hand to all in need, he devoted time and money to good works and soon he became the most welcome visitor in any house in the town.
Though hardly handsome Fabrice was well set financially and his new demeanour and the high regard with which the people of the town came to hold him made him attractive. Soon he found himself with a pretty wife who was devoted to her husband. Their first child came quickly, and many more followed.
“What was it that brought so great a change in you?” Fabrice’s mother asked, with the boldness of the aged, one Sunday when all the family had gathered together and Alfonso had finished offering Grace.
“My brother,” Fabrice replied without hesitation.
“Of course,” she said. “Alfonso.”
The answer made Fabrice’s mother happy for it confirmed that everything that was good in her life flowed from her saintly, priested son. But Fabrice watched the way Alfonso bowed his head in mock humility and remade his vow to strike down his brother.
Years went by.
The mother of Fabrice and Alfonso died. She was ancient but still her loss was sudden. Fabrice held her hand as she faded away but her last words were for her Alfonso, then far away tending to some bishop.
Fabrice’s upward trajectory continued. His decency and honesty saw his reputation grow and he enjoyed both material comfort and the respect of almost all those who knew him. He was a man of standing now, not just in his own commune but in the whole department. Even lords from Paris were known to descend upon him for his advice when dealing with local affairs.
The fortunes of Alfonso did not quite wane, but his assured ascent did falter. Without the belief and the constant driving force of his mother he seemed to loose momentum. His rise within the clergy reached what his mother would have regarded as a rather paltry peak with his appointment as parish priest. His belly widened and his youthful beauty faded, his hair thinned and his skin became blotched in a way that suggested he was becoming too fond of wine.
Then came the scandal.
A girl, a maid in the parish house, ran through the streets weeping with her dress torn. Her father came to Fabrice. He was sorry to involve a good man in this, he said, but the town knew that his daughter was not the first to have born such indignity. Something must be done.
The bishop became involved and Alfonso was cast into that internal exile which the Catholic Church has had so long to perfect. There was to be no public humiliation, for that would damage the church. Alfonso was “ill” and that sickness would prevent him continuing with his duties as parish priest. The people of the town came together to celebrate Alfonso’s years of service and even those few angry enough to express their feelings in public bit their tongues out of respect for Fabrice.
But Alfonso knew that he was disgraced.
Fabrice offered Alfonso refuge in his own house. He moved the old priest into a room high in the eaves and fed him and provided all the wine the old man could drink. Alfonso brooded and spoke only to his brother. Fabrice became his brother’s keeper, his confidante and even his confessor. Alfonso was worn out, his mind was often confused and the disappointments of his life stacked up behind rheumy eyes to force out floods of tears at unpredictable moments. Before long his health failed and Alfonso refused to leave his bed.
Now, at last, it was time.
Fabrice climbed the stone stairs from the kitchens through his family’s rooms and the servants’ quarters. He carried a bowl of soup, a bottle of red wine and bread – his brother’s lunch. Alfonso’s room was higher still, up rough wooden steps. He pushed up open the door into the dim room, slivers of the afternoon light sliced the room capturing for a moment, swirling galaxies of dust.
Alfonso was asleep. Fabrice laid the bowl, bottle and bread on a small table and approached the bed.
He looked down on his brother and it occurred to him that he no longer had to do this. He had surpassed the priest. Looking down on the old man before him he felt only pity.
And yet he had made this choice long ago. The river had flowed this way for too long, its path was too deeply eroded for it now to leap its banks and start of a new course. The choice he had made had brought him happiness, strength and pride. This was the price that had to be paid.
He pulled a pillow from beneath Alfonso’s head.
The priest woke, smacking his lips, blinking and staring at his brother.
“Is it time?”
“Yes,” said Fabrice and lowered the pillow. “It is time.”