Erika Coetzee

The myth of the doubtful priest and the jungle mud

There once was a priest riddled with doubts. He lived on the fringe of a jungle so wild the sun was scared to shine there. The priest was a holy man, to be sure, but he had lived near the jungle so long that he had forgotten what he had been sent there to believe. He had a room at a small hotel on the jungle’s edge, owned by a retired helicopter pilot with a drug habit. Like most people of his stature, the priest had a deep aversion to the blood-sucking leeches that teemed in the depths of the jungle. So he was booked into the hotel indefinitely, which suited the hotel-keeper, who had few other guests. Every day the priest sat on the hotel veranda overlooking the humid tangle of the jungle, and nibbled nervously at a croissant, wondering what the day would hold. The veranda was made of wood, so he could hear the subterranean insects boring away at the very foundations.

The heat, wet and thick, hung around the priest’s collar as he planned his next excursion in being holy. He decided to lead a short march through the jungle to spread good news and general reverence.

The day arrived for the priest’s planned march, and he put on his most humble clothes. He set out with a large basketful of croissants, which he imagined would lend the whole muddy exercise an air of refinement. And so he set off, wearing thigh-high rubber boots, to protect himself from the leeches. The priest trudged through the jungle seeking people on whom to bestow croissants, as well as magnificent gestures of priestliness. But he found nobody – well, to be precise, he found nobody human. For as he ventured deeper and deeper into the murky brown landscape, his protective boots filled up with leeches, and as might be expected, they sucked his blood to within an inch of his life.

It was the hotel-keeper who found him, dying in the mud. The former helicopter pilot had just partaken of a little indulgence and decided to go for a stroll. He spotted the hapless priest and dragged him back to the hotel, leaving two deep furrows in the marshy floor of the jungle. Propping the doubtful priest up on a wicker chair on the veranda, he used his last crumbs of the ethereal to revive the poor man.

The priest opened his eyes with a flutter, and asked urgently, “Has it happened?”

“Your excursion has certainly come to an end, if that’s what you mean,” answered the hotel-keeper.

“No, no,” stammered the priest, “I mean, has anything magnificent come to pass?”

“Can’t say that it has,” admitted the hotel-keeper, shaking his head regretfully. “But then again, I can’t say that it hasn’t.”

The priest lifted a hopeful eyebrow. “You think the jungle might have caught a glimpse of the divine?”

The hotel-keeper shrugged as he rolled a cigarette. “The mud looked different. Lighter… less soggy… more civilised, if you ask me.”

“Oh good,” sighed the priest, and asked for a croissant. “It isn’t easy bringing light to the jungle.”

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