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The Pillar Ascetic
by Nathan Leslie



Truthfully, I live on the pillar, some sixty-one feet above the parched grasses and locusts below. The base and crown are of equal diameter: twelve feet by twelve feet, a perfect square resembling His perfection itself. Six plus one equals seven—the holiest number. Otherwise the pillar is ordinary stone. The platform is also twelve by twelve, and capped with a simple balustrade. I have not left the platform for thirty years, but tomorrow I will. The town carpenters are fashioning a ladder tall enough to allow me to climb down from my perch. They offered one of artificial means, but this will not do.

Besides my living conditions I am an ordinary ascetic. I breathe the same air as you. I must eat and sleep as you must. I must drink water, and attend to bodily needs. Yet on another level beyond my needs are wants, and I leave my wants purposefully unfulfilled. This is the meaning of devoting your life to Him. Devotion implies selflessness, and for this I live in the clouds. One would be wrong to think that I do not have desires. My purpose in descending lies in squelching.

Practically, my brethren hoist food and water to me, using a system of pulleys of my own design. Each morning at five, I receive my day’s bounty: one loaf of bread, one lump of cheese, three pieces of fruit, and one wooden bucket of water. When I can hear the deliberate trolling of the rope through the pulley system, I stop my prayers and gather my bucket from the prior day, drinking any remaining bucket water. Then I collect the new food and water, place it in the center of the platform and place the used bucket in the container that will descend to the base of the pillar. Any bodily needs fall down to the base of the pillar. My kind brethren will clean the bucket and the base of the pillar and fill it with water tomorrow. I rarely see but the outline of their bodies in the dawn.

This is not to say my life lacks stimulation. When you live in the clouds, you can see the goings on all about you. When I constructed the pillar there was no town. Since then, my followers and their converts have surrounded me in a circular town that rings my pillar at a circumference of five miles. I did not want them any closer. Many write letters to me and I respond in turn. In some letters women offer intimacies. These I drop to the ground as not deserving of this holy spot.

Women have immense powers, and one must resist those powers with a hearty will, and with His assistance. The Holy Book shows women as they are. I do not wish any being harm. However, of my followers the women have been less obedient than the men. The women have attempted to rend me from Him, and for this I have harbored thoughts that I have eliminated.

After reading letters, I pray for hours, only stopping to eat or sleep. I will not explain or define my relationship to Him. It is everything.

I sat on a stump and prayed. It began with this. The stump provided me a difference. I was experiencing the world slightly differently than anyone else. I had lived in monasteries, and lived in hermitages. I was comfortable in silence, but there was something about the stump. I was a popular mystic. Followers sought my advice and wisdom. Perhaps the stump allowed me to be a bit above them all. I began directing my lessons from the stump, and meditated when they were not there. I couldn’t leave.

Over time I needed a larger pillar. I wanted to be higher above the others. I needed more solitude and more distance. I began building by the light of the moon, pillar stone by pillar stone, mortar and rock. I built instead of sleeping.

I thought of the sheep, and my father looming over them. My father would have me spook them to the river, or lead them into the pen. He could not afford a dog. I try to remember if I ever had a fleshly experience with a girl. It is all so long ago, that at times I cannot seem to remember. Yet I think I am pure. I remember there was a cousin, and there was an aunt. My aunt used to kiss my forehead, and pat my head. This is not fleshly though according to His word.

I have desires though. I cannot deny this. These followers, these women who offer themselves. I cannot say I have not been tempted by this. I have thought of their flesh. My mind has strayed many times. When this happens, I will deny myself a piece of fruit, or only allow myself half the bucket of water. If it happens twice in one day, I will fast. As a child I used to fast often. My father said it was good for your body, and would make me do it to. I grew to like the feeling. I felt as if I was floating.

In their letters my followers tell me other ascetics have built pillars—at least seven or eight more. One even is a confirmed priest, and a healer, and his followers come from thousands of miles to climb the pillar and seek communion and healing. Around each pillar, there must be a town. This development has become overwhelming to me.

A woman named Zophar has written me many offerings, all of which I have declined. She has offered herself and her body to me. Often Zophar has offered to climb the pillar and offer her gifts to me. Each and every time I receive one of her letters, I drop it from the pillar with the others, where it floats to the ground. I never gave a thought to how these letters might be received once read by another.

At the usual time one morning, I heard the sound of the pulley. I squatted on the edge of my platform awaiting my food and water, but when the container reached the top, a woman was inside. Her eyes were wild with envy and lust. She shrieked that she had to speak with me, that she had to touch my face. I let her touch my face, but then I asked her to allow herself to be dropped back to the ground.

“My life is one of contemplation,” I told her. “I cannot do what you ask.”

Tears dropped from her eyes, and a look of frustration swept her face. However, she did go. I assume that same woman was Zophar.

Now one of my followers has informed me that Zophar is to be jailed for many years for her scandalous behavior. I did not intend this. Jesus would not allow this; he would not allow Magdalene to be judged. How can I allow this? I cannot accept her offers, yet I also cannot allow these injustices. Tomorrow I must climb down from the pillar after these years, and I must speak to the judge.

-- -- -- --

The ladder is true, well constructed and useful. I walk into town with the carpenters, since I know nothing of where the court might be or where to find this judge. People hold their noses as I walk by, though their eyes glow. I am ignorant of much of the world. The judge is a stern man, tall and thick bellied, bearded to his waist. He hears my plea, and after hearing me offers to annul the case as a result of my forgiving gesture. I am heartened.

Since I am in the town, I offer to see this Zophar. I want to show her that I am just a man, and perhaps the visual sight of me in the daylight will repel her enough to alter her mindset. The carpenters take me to the prison where she was living these past months. She walks out of the building and falls to her knees. She recalls my face. Over and over again Zophar thanks me for saving her, offering anything I might desire in return. She has not changed herself or her outlook. I tell her what I desire is to see her home.

“I have not seen a home for so many years, it seems that I might forget what one looks like.”

She takes my hand, and I let her. She leads me down the street and into an alley, and through that to a tall building, and up the stairs to her home. She opens the door, and I can see it is empty. She has a bucket of water and three apples on a simple table, and a loaf of bread. Otherwise the room is unadorned. The carpenters laugh, but I do not know what to say. I nod to her and ask her to lead me back to my pillar. I thank the carpenters.

She touches my face before I climb the ladder. Her hands feel warm against my flesh, and for a moment I lift my hand to return her gesture. I stop myself, and climb the ladder, and when I reach my pillar I can see her below, still watching me. I push the ladder with enough force that it falls to the ground.

There are so many prayers to offer to Him. Some days I am overwhelmed with my sense of duty and humbleness. I remember the selfishness of my youth, and how I owned at least four shirts. My life has been pared down to its essence, and I am in His service. This is not the way for all, but my way.

These days I find desirous feelings enter my being less. As a result I dream more. In my dreams I float in the sky as the birds do. I float over the towns and all the pillars, over the followers and over foreign lands. Then I reach the sea, and I float over this. Everything is the same then. The sky is blue above me, and the sea blue beneath me. Then I am lost in the sameness and I am content until I wake.





About the Author


Aside from being nominated for the 2002 Pushcart Prize, my fiction and poetry has appeared in over sixty publications including Amherst Review, Wascana Review, Poetry Motel, X-Connect, Fiction International, Adirondack Review, The Crab Creek Review, Fodderwing, The Sulphur River Literary Review, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Daybreak, and many others. I completed my MFA at the University of Maryland this past spring, where I won the 2000 Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize. I currently teach writing at Northern Virginia Community College.