The following story forms part of Notes on Jackson and His Dead, published by Dalkey Archive Press.
There is a vault deep beneath the Vatican which is said to be as large as the city of Rome, if not larger; everyday our workers excavate its walls in every direction. Despite the heat, this must be done with special care. That cavern, for it was once a natural cavern, just barely contains a fragment of skin thought to be the last surviving remnant of the first pope. Scholars compete to tell the true story. Many believe this skin once wrapped a bone from that pope’s thumb, others believe it housed his nose: a regal Roman one. I am inclined to believe the latter.
The skin has grown without pause since his death, apparently. It is folded and layered upon an antiquated system of brass poles, pipes, and pulleys. The skin is so entwined within this system, which nobody has yet to fully understand, that the system cannot be dismantled to make way for a new and efficient mechanism. A team of workers maintain the old materials as best they can. Many have fallen from the upper layers of piping and, afraid to break their fall with that skin, drop freely to the subterranean earth, which might only paralyse them. Most die. Yet, some have landed on the skin and, grinning wildly, slid down to the earth, happy to climb back up to their interrupted work once the supervisor allowed it, once the doctor—my wife— has asserted, yes, the bones seem fine, the skin unblemished. Another team polishes the apparatus daily to avoid the terror of snagging that holy skin. This, I believe, is the Church’s greatest worry.
If the skin were to be placed flat on the ground it might cover the continent of Eurasia, which is not very impressive; I once read that the intestines of any person, like me for instance, if I could somehow live and at the same time spread them flat on the ground, would stretch for 50,000 miles . . . Now that I put it on paper, I think it might in fact be my circulatory system, my blood vessels or something, but still the idea stands: this saint’s skin was not so impressive to my mind.
Just recently, in its unending struggle to contain the skin, the Vatican has begun to dig downward. There are fears of what might be found—if the earth’s molten core were to erupt inside that chamber, the church might fall and the skin disintegrate, for who knows how strong this old skin might be. Although, it may only be the earliest parts of the fragment that are so old, other sections—for example, that square metre which grew this month—they could be said to be newly born while remaining a part of this first pope, just as the endings of the uppermost branches of a tree are called buds—those blind tips that look so distinctly newborn, the progeny of those first roots. And yet, the new skin looks very much like the old skin. I often wonder if it ages like us, or does it simply grow. And when I think this, when I fall into this thought, I quickly loose the distinction between those two things, through the nulling effect of repetition, perhaps, or I am falling further from things that I know and closer to the unknown and, as happens in these moments, I must reach out for another topic—to avoid . . . I don’t know, exactly.
It is the task of one man to make the daily measurement. As the skin might grow in any direction, or might spread its miniscule growth throughout its manifold edges so that to a stranger no movement would appear to have taken place, his job requires patience and expertise. He is old, and often supported by a harness affixed to another system of rigging reportedly designed by one of the better-known minds of the Renaissance. (Inventors spread like lice then, but, I am glad to say, they are no longer a problem.) The rigging covers the vast roof of the cavern. It was constructed with the aim of manoeuvring such a person over every segment, every ridge, pimple, and callus so that he might measure the progress of the whole. He writes down nothing, and does not speak to us. He caresses the skin so gently. He must dream of it. It must be a part of him: I am surprised he leaves it, to go where, I don’t know, but he goes, each night, like the rest of us. I cannot imagine the skin of an ordinary person sufficing for he who gets to caress that vast living sheet each day. I like to watch him as he works. In fact, this is how I discovered the conversations he has with the skin. Of course they are too mumbled on either side for me to hear, that is if there are two sides to this conversation. He may put on a voice for the it as some do with their pets, or that first pope might indeed speak to him, ask him the latest about his football team, about the weather on the surface.
The doctor tells me the old man is losing it, that she has done tests which say as much. She believes only what her instruments tell her. That is why I will never let her know about the strange vertigo that so often strikes me when I wake. It is not the type poor Jimmy Stewart suffered in Hitchcock’s film, but a temporal one: a confusion of time. The past, just four years ago—a time in my life when I did not yet know my wife—invariably feels more real to me than this present, and I hate that I feel this way, but I do. In that time I lived alone, spoke very little, and worked even less: I was despair itself. And it lasted for much longer than how I have been living most recently. How backwards it feels: each morning, moments after waking I believe I am still in that time, and must force myself to remember our life, this smooth happiness. How strange to have to tug this reality out from under my pillow each morning only to tuck it away each night.
My wife could surely tell me why I crawl back to unhappiness each night. But I could never let her know. I don’t even know how I would react if she revealed she felt the same way. Perhaps I would feel relieved; we would be equal then. Maybe everyone who works with the skin feels the same way, or indeed it has nothing to do with the skin but is something universal which nobody dares reveal for fear of that revelation revealing something deeply different to the experiences of everyone else, that it would expose our darkest sediment: a place where only Dante and his poet could return from. Still, I can’t help but wonder how she would react. If I were to tell her and she were to understand, would she attempt to treat me, or would she be content with me as I am, would she first reach for me with her warm arms, or would it be her stethoscope that I feel cold against my chest?
On a particularly hot day in late summer, a friend of mine fell dead. He was typical in that he would not even look at the skin as he fell—more a colleague, really. I took the opportunity to stay back when everyone else went home, saying I would do his work that evening, that this would be a sort of tribute, and more importantly, that if he could not do his work, someone must: the skin does not stop so we cannot stop, and so on. I think they were grateful. Once alone in that echoing cavern, I felt afraid, and thought of leaving, and catching up with my friends who would be drinking by that time, but I did not leave. I touched the skin. It felt so warm. I wrapped myself in that skin and held my ear to its deep surface.
I cried for the first time I can remember since losing my mother. I cried tears that soaked my shirt collar, cried and cried, whole rivers and lakes formed in the skin around me. I was an island of my own making. The skin was so warm and comfortable, so forgiving, it seemed.
Sometime around about midnight I remembered myself, stood up, and with as much care as I could manage, unfolded and placed that part of the skin back the way it belonged. I went home and watched my sleeping wife. I do love her. I carefully placed the sheet that had fallen on the floor back over her pale body, and lay beside her. My breathing slowed to where we became one person, and rather than becoming overly conscious of this and waking a little more, I felt very light.
In work the next day, the man who measured the skin was pronounced dead. They refused to reveal the cause of his death or the location of the body, and it seemed everyone felt that this was a great mystery, that this was something worth discussing, something that demanded their understanding. I would like to say I felt the same. In fact, my wife did, and I had to feign illness (not an easy thing to do with a doctor for a spouse) to escape her theories on the whereabouts of his poor body, the cause of his death, and the possible effects of the skin on the former. I feel the same when people go on about the wonder of that first pope’s still-living skin. It is no more wondrous than the fact that I exist, that somewhere inside my own skin there is an I which contains all of my history yet continues to be I, that my wife (is it too late to introduce her? no? Sylvia, beautiful name isn’t it?), that Sylvia—another mystery bound in soft skin—and I found each other and, despite our vast differences, live together. And that every now and then, we find some happiness. There is no understanding any of this, but does that not merit even a little attention, a little discussion?
It does not, it seems; I write it down, and must be content with that, just as I must leave now to go measure the skin in my new position—I have become the official measurer, exciting isn’t it.
It all happened very fast, but everyone says I am growing more and more suited to this role. The skin has also grown—a total of twelve feet over the past month, a record for this, albeit, short, century, and most of that time it has lain unmeasured while our superiors deliberated as to who could resume the measuring. Everything has changed so quickly since that poor man’s death. For example, since my new position at work I no longer wake as if I had not yet met Sylvia. I guess that feeling was just a remnant from my dreams. Perhaps our dreams, like Achilles, must travel farther to catch up with our lived life, which—though much slower than the life of dreams—can always, like the tortoise from Zeno’s paradox, be found just ahead. We must live before we dream. It must be a rule of nature, the way shadows can never overtake the light.
Whatever it is, my dreams have changed. Last night, I dreamt that the cavern had caved in and I was the only one inside. The skin wrapped itself around me until I ran out of air. This was a slight variation on the dream of the previous night, which varied slightly again from the previous night’s dream, and so on. I have to write these down, just as my predecessor did. I am not allowed to see his writings; and I am not sure I want to either. Our dreams hold the key to the future of the skin, apparently.
The having, and subsequent recording, of these dreams are an unwelcome aspect of the job, but it pays so much better than my last position. Sylvia and I are even looking to buy a house—somewhere close to our shared work. When I wake now, I open my eyes expecting to see her, and I am very glad of that, but the idea of the skin: this is incomprehensible to me in those moments.
Hugh Fulham-McQuillan is an Irish writer from Dublin. His short story collection ‘Notes on Jackson and His Dead’ is published with Dalkey Archive Press in the US and UK. Irish pub. date is forthcoming. His fiction and essays have been published in Ambit, gorse, and The Stinging Fly, among other places. He is currently working on a novel, and a book about writing and mental health. Twitter: @HughFMcQ