By John Goodie
“One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name.” – Sir Walter Scott
It was a cold night for Arthur Forest, even in the summer. The tears welled up as he climbed into his bed. The distraught paunchy graying writer had been brooding lately on the complete emptiness of his life. He felt so unfulfilled and unhappy with his life as an author that it bordered on depression. He wanted to write a masterpiece, have his life’s work as an artist acclaimed, become famous and rich. Maybe then he could resign his teaching position and see the world. He thought a lot of his craft and still had big dreams. He had had a few short stories published and two novels, making some money, gaining some hope in his state of gloom, despondence, boredom, whatever it was. Nothing he had written lately had caught the eyes of any editors or publishers or even struck the tiniest chord with any of his colleagues. Every now and then he might win a fifty to two-hundred-dollar fiction contest prize, but not much beyond that. Yet Arthur persisted, developing a discipline of daily practice.
As a lifelong Roman Catholic, Arthur started praying more for divine intervention in his life. He prayed for the Lord’s help in developing his craft and for inspiration to fill his heart and mind. He prayed for God to help him make the most of the gifts he had been blessed with. Arthur deeply felt writing was his call – his purpose in life. He started a novena of nine days, praying to St. John the Evangelist, a patron saint of writers and authors in the church. Legends say that St. John was Jesus’s favorite Apostle and it is written that he was one of the sons of Zebedee and Salome. Jesus referred to him and his brother, St. James the Greater, the Boanerges, meaning Sons of Thunder, due to their tempestuous natures. St. John also wrote a gospel and the book of Revelations, among other things. He was the only Apostle of Christ who died a natural death; the others all martyred for their faith. The Romans tried boiling him in oil, but he suffered nothing from it, and it is said that all in the audience of the Colosseum in Rome were converted to Christianity upon witnessing this miracle. This event occurred in the late 1st century, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian. St. John was thus exiled to the Greek island of Patmos where he lived a long life of nearly a hundred years.
This cold night though, the last night of the novena to St. John, Arthur slipped into a deep sleep under the covers after finishing his prayers. Then, during the night, at around 3 a.m., he awoke for no apparent reason, at first, and sat up straight in his bed. Before him though, to the right of his bed, sitting in a huge, hand-hewn ebony chair that he could even discern in the darkness of the room, was a ghost of some kind – a skeleton upwards of seven-foot-tall it appeared, with a toothy grin and a long purple velvet coat. From the left side of his face peeled leathery mummified skin, in pieces, some hanging there. The right was white bleached bone. Despite his usual fear of ghosts and possible temptations from demons, Arthur felt no fear whatsoever in the presence of this creature, who smiled at Arthur and leaned over, proffering a steamy cup of tea in a gray pewter mug to Arthur, who readily took it and drank it down, putting him in an even more relaxed state of mind.
“My name is Praedo Maritimus, Arthur,” the ghost, with coils of brown and gray dreadlocks hanging to the floor, spoke. His one gold tooth was shorter than the rest and his nails were long, thick and curled. “The good St. John, our benefactor, gave me this purple velvet coat. Do you like it? Smells like lavender too. Hides the smell of a three-hundred-year-old rotting corpse,” he laughed.
“Nice to meet you Praedo,” Arthur said, sensing this soul as a good one and not demonic. “I can smell the lavender. It’s relaxing. Were you sent then, you were saying, by St. John?” Arthur asked.
“Yes, indeed I was, Arthur,” Praedo replied, “I knew St. John in his times, in a previous life on the island of Patmos near Greece. I was a shade in Hades walking the left bank of the river Acheron in limbo after my last life, seeking another, when I ran across my friend, St. John, to whom I asked for intercession on my behalf for a return to this realm, where in this state, I can remember all my lives. With another body I would forget them. The slate would be clean, a tabula rasa, like a newborn child. You see, when a man dies, his soul, in limbo, at first feels free, light, and unfettered from the appetites that rule the human flesh: food, sex, gold, love, greed, power, fame, pain, heartbreak, and others. But after so many years, a shade becomes bored and hungry again for the appetites of the flesh, so they return to the left bank of the river Acheron in Hades to wait in line for another body.”
“What are you doing here, now, may I ask, Praedo?” Arthur questioned.
“My name has NEVER been written Arthur. Nobody alive has heard of me or any of my lives. I was a common man who lived many times, but common as sand – a man of no note. I seek FAME. I, too, am unfulfilled. I need your help, as you need mine,” Praedo said to Arthur, as he grinned and tapped his long thick nails on the ebony wood of the chair.
“Aren’t you a writer? Cannot you write my story? The stories of my lives?” Praedo questioned Arthur.
“Yes, yes, Praedo, I can, and I will. Tell me first of your last life and I will write it for you. I will have it published and the world will know you Praedo Maritimus! I assure you,” Arthur said.
And so, they began with Praedo regaling Arthur with his tales of life long long ago, hardly imaginable to this simple writer: the cultures, customs, languages, and lives of people long ago in faraway places. Arthur grabbed his glasses resting on his nightstand, and his pen and notebook, that he left there for writing snippets of dreams remembered and ideas contrived in his morning daydreams. He started writing the words from Praedo’s mouth.
“My last life began over three-hundred years ago. Without getting into an uneventful childhood, I ended up a prisoner in the galley of a Portuguese ship, whose name I never knew. Then I was sold to and transferred by the French to the Concorde, a French-owned slave ship. Blackbeard, Edward Teach, as he is known to history, captured the Concorde in the West Indies in 1717 and made the vessel his flagship. He freed me from slavery, and I fought for him thereafter. We settled near the Beaufort Inlet for a while with a pardon from the governor of the state of North Carolina that we bought with our booty, or bribed I might say, to be truthful. I think it was named Bath, the town where we stayed. We had captured over thirty ships with the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Ned Teach’s name for the Concorde, to fuck with the British, and were all rich when the deal was made. Later we bored of getting soft and longing for the sea, we returned to pirating. It was then the British sent in a Virginian British Captain named Maynard who defeated us all in the bloody battle of Ocracoke. Blackbeard was stabbed twenty times and shot with five musket balls himself. They cut his head off and stuck it on the bow of the ship. Me, I was hit with four musket balls and jumped into the sea, floating into the swamps of North Carolina, where I perished and my body lay rotting on my side in the marshy swamps of Carolina until now,” Praedo told.
And that is all that Arthur remembered that Praedo had said that night, though it was much much more. In the morning, he jumped up fresh, eyes-wide, and looked at the floor for markings of the heavy chair or any sign of Praedo. Ah, but there, beside the bed, in a neatly stacked pile of notebooks, was over a thousand pages that Arthur had written during the night. No wonder his hand was sore. There was a stack of filled notebooks along the wall. He thumbed through the pages, pages of history that Praedo had shared. It was true. It was not a dream. Praedo was real, a gift from St. John. A muse from heaven sent his way. His prayers had been answered. This was great material. Excitement permeated the room.
Arthur hurriedly dressed. He made some coffee and while it was perking, he started up his computer in his office and loaded the printer with paper. After sipping some of the coffee, he started typing up the story of Praedo with Blackbeard. And more, much more that the shade had shared. He had enough written for a book. Maybe he could frame it as Shahrazad, in the Arabian Nights, did her stories that kept her from the King’s promise of death.
He typed all day and did indeed have a full manuscript – maybe over three-hundred pages – of short stories or chapters of a novel. But he had so much more left in the notebooks. He read of Praedo being a camel-driver in the time of the Khans, Genghis and Kublai. Praedo had met the Polo’s (Marco and Nicolai) from Venice, who traveled the silk road bringing spices and news from Asia to Italy, becoming very rich and powerful men in their day. He read of El Cid, and his famous horse Babieca and sword called Tizona, who Praedo had known and fought for as a Moor in the Catholic’s army in the late 900s, before the unification of Spain by the Catholics, when the Muslims ruled Andalusia further south on the Iberian Peninsula.
Arthur marveled at Praedo’s tales of being a Vietnamese rice farmer with a family and as a warrior in the Congo and Cameroon in the Bantu tribes. He told of his life as a poor Japanese fisherman in the time of the Samurai and Ninja. And even mentioned his time in England when Shakespeare was building the Globe Theatre and of seeing the plays of tragedy and comedy there. He told tales of crossing the parted Red Sea as an Israelite with Moses, and the slavery there they were fleeing from as they were being pursued by the Egyptian Armies into the desert in search of the Promised Land. He was there when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the ten commandments carved in stone. He told of his times in India, of his knowledge of Buddhism and Hinduism, the seven sacred Hindu rivers of which the Ganges is the most sacred, the elephant sanctuaries and the Taj Mahal. Praedo had stories of the Incas, and the Aztecs of South America, and the Mayans and the Amazon River in South America. He had been to the highest villages of Tibet and Nepal. Praedo’s lives indeed were highly fascinating and were part of the history we have heard and know and also, the history we do not know and have not heard. After all, the victors of battle rewrite history to their own satisfaction and pleasure around the whole world as we know it. Praedo was there. He knew the truth – different things than history has unfolded to us so far. He underestimated himself.
Arthur sat and re-read his pages over and over and made revisions. He had decided to show it to Praedo first, what he had typed, anyhow, when he came back, before sending out the first set to a publisher. He hoped he could get attention with this piece. He thought he could. Better yet, he had faith that he could.
That night Arthur could not sleep. The anticipation of the return of Praedo had him all jacked up. At midnight, he got up and had a glass of red wine and took some medication. He returned to his bed, glasses, notebooks, and pens on his nightstand. In short fashion, he was nodding out and drifted into slumber.
The next morning, he awoke a bit dismayed, with no nightly visit, no Praedo. Well, it wasn’t like he did not have anything to do anyway. There was a slog of material to type. Plus, the summer break would be over soon, and he would be back in his classes. But, deep down, to Arthur, this was a big setback. He assumed Praedo would be returning. He had so many questions to ask him. How much of current times was Praedo privy to, for example? How many languages did he know and remember? Did he understand computers? Google? Arthur, as an English teacher, and a linguist, wondered how Praedo’s vernacular was identical to his narrator’s voice, as a writer, in both his novels and his shorter works. Praedo had certainly done his homework, he realized thinking back.
A week went by, then a month, then a year. Arthur had faithfully penned the stories well, as collections of short stories, the short stories of a man who once was able to tell him the stories of his many lives. A rarity. Arthur decided to move forward.
“Bill, hello, Arthur Forest. How are you? Did you get my email?” Arthur spoke to his agent. Or the guy who published his novels two years ago or so.
“Arthur, so good to hear from you. Yes, indeed I did get your email. And loved the story. You mentioned having more? I’m liking the way you’re framing this stuff.” Bill replied.
“Man, glad you like it Bill. Yes, I have maybe thirty stories written and ideas for more. Would like to produce some short story collections on the theme of Praedo’s lives. He’s my central protagonist and I’m like telling his lives. What do you think? How about if I bring ten stories and come down. I’d love to talk about a contract or advance if that’s possible.” Arthur said.
“Oh yea, I don’t think that will be a problem at all, Arthur. This is good so far. Bring me more and come see me tomorrow morning at nine, if you can. Is that ok?” Bill asked.
“Perfect!” Arthur exclaimed. “See you then. Thanks.”
The Lives of Praedo Maritimus Volume I was a major success. For Bill, for Arthur, and for Praedo. Although Arthur never saw Praedo again and sometimes he would think of it all as a dream. He had become wildly rich and was moving to Barcelona. But, no, no, it was not a dream. There was no way Arthur could have possibly dreamed all that up. It was too varied, too eccentric, too eclectic and too exotic for a simple man from Carolina to have come up with without divine intervention, he was sure. So, he prayed his thanks for the intercession of St. John the Evangelist on his behalf. He attended Mass regularly and thanked God everyday for his blessings.
Right before Arthur headed to the airport on his first apartment scouting trip to Barcelona, he walked into his room, and on the bed next to his luggage, lay a package. He detected a hint of lavender opening the box. It was a purple velvet coat, like Praedo wore. He slipped his arm in one sleeve, then the next. It fit perfect. He smiled and looked up and made the sign of the cross. Then he put his hands in the pockets of the coat and out of the right pocket pulled out a note. It read:
Good luck to you Arthur, my friend. I thank you for
telling the world my name. I am glad for your re-sounding
success. I have broken my desire for the human appetites
finally, and have been welcomed into Purgatory to begin
the cleansing of my soul. Pray for me and I will pray for you.
Arthur smiled again, this time at Praedo’s note. After all the writing, revising, editing and repeating
he had done with Praedo’s material to produce the first volume of collected short stories, suddenly he recalled something the great Virginia Woolf wrote long ago that had stuck in his head and reflected his current sentiments:
“I wrote the words O Death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages
with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble
after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker…. Anyhow it is done; and
I have been sitting these fifteen minutes in a state of glory, and calm, and some tears….
How physical the sense of triumph and relief is!”