Story by Peter Hankins
It was the Earl’s leprosy that brought us the mechanical Jesus. Our little church is unremarkable in most ways, but it holds the arm-bone of St Effulgentius, a relic which has performed many miracles, especially the healing of wounds and cankers. The Earl had not meant to visit us in Mertingham – he was on his way to Canterbury and eventually to Jerusalem, where he would pray for a cure for his disease. Hearing of our holy relic, however, he made a detour to see whether it might serve as well as a greater shrine.
‘Your finest private room, goodwife,’ he said to me, his face wrapped up so that all you could see was his eyes ‘my men will sleep with the horses’. As the owner of the only inn near the church, I’m used to taking in sick people, but leprosy? Surely that was a danger to my customers, and indeed, to me? I thought I could smell the disordered miasma coming off the Earl. If he hadn’t been a nobleman, with six armed retainers, I might have turned him down.
That first day he spent an hour on his knees in front of the arm-bone in fervent prayer. Only the way he was swaddled up marked him out from the other afflicted folk doing the same thing. That night the Earl fell into a deep fever and was unable to continue his journey. Of course I had to look after him, whether I would or no; and frankly at first I thought I should have the burying of him, too, he was so ill. I buckled to, though; I unwrapped him and washed his scaly flesh twice a day in a tincture of cobwebs, camomile and clover. Two days later he seemed to rally; he rose from his bed and found his white, scaly skin had begun to heal. He decided to stay longer, praying in church every day, and every day he got better. In a fortnight he was completely well; what a difference! Now you could see that he was a comely man in his prime, well-built and vigorous, with not a mark on his skin left anywhere. The only smell he had now was an honest, manly one, with a faint tang of camomile. He was able to end his pilgrimage in Mertingham, and go straight home, but not before promising that the church would be richly rewarded.
He’d given me a handsome gift on parting, as well as paying over the odds for his room, so we expected a silver reliquary at least for St Effulgentius. Instead a wagon rolled up at the beginning of May with a bundle like a corpse. Father Ambrose pulled the cloth away and there it was; a beautifully painted figure of Our Saviour, not on the cross but with hands held out from his sides in a gesture of benevolence. The Earl had sent a man to explain the thing; it was like a clock inside. Father Ambrose was to wind up the weights every day and then mechanical Jesus would raise his right hand and sketch out a cross of blessing in the air, four times every hour. The Earl’s man said it had been made in Vienna, and was worth a huge sum of money. The Earl had meant to give it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but now Mertingham should have it. Father Ambrose felt obliged to take down our old carved wooden crucifix and install the new Jesus.
It was a fine piece of work, very lifelike; but I never liked the machine part of it; the movements were jerky, and it creaked as though Our Saviour had terrible arthritis. I had to admit it was a bit of a wonder, though, and for a while there was a new influx of visitors who came to see it and get a mechanical blessing. After the first two months that died away, and then there seemed to be less trade than before. When Father Ambrose came in for the good ale he always took, I sat down and asked him whether fewer folk were visiting the church. He admitted it was true. Not many curious folk were coming to see Mechanical Jesus any more, and the ones who came made no donations. Worse, there weren’t many ill folk praying at the arm bone, either.
‘Oh, Father,’ I said, ‘I’m afraid the machine is a distraction. You try to think of God, but Jesus creaks and waves his hand in the corner of your eye and calls your thoughts back to the earthly ingenuity of man. Our old crucifix, if you thought of it at all, reminded you of the faithful labour of an honest carver, or the grain of the wood reminded you of how the tree had grown, and so, of God’s natural bounty. Those thoughts were at least ones of respectful wonder, near allied to faith. The continual contemplation of a machine drives out such feelings. Whoever met a pious miller? Not I.’
‘What you say may be wise, good woman,’ said Father Ambrose. ‘I can’t deny that the problem clearly has something to do with the new figure of Our Lord. Alas, it is rather worse than you suppose. For the last six weeks, there have been no cures and no miracles. I do not know whether it is because folk are distracted from their prayers, as you suggest, or whether old Effulgentius is withholding his intercession to show his displeasure. People will not come if no-one is healed. But what am I to do? I cannot remove the figure. What if the Earl came back? He would be mortally offended if his magnificent gift were not on display.’ He took a long drink, and was well-advised to do so, for a fine ale drives out fears and worries.
One morning, early, I went to the church and prayed for help. The place was empty now, and it seemed to me there was an echo and a mustiness there that I had never noticed before.
‘O Lord,’ I said, ‘though this mechanical image may be defective, yet surely it is holy. Of your loving kindness tell us how to win back favour in your eyes, and those of the saintly Effulgentius.’ I raised my hands beseechingly and gazed up at Mechanical Jesus. I thought no answer was coming, but after a few moments he creaked and raised his hand in blessing. That was it!
Father Ambrose was slow to accept my conclusion when I seized him and explained.
‘You want me to bless Jesus?’ he asked. ‘Shouldn’t He be blessing us?’
‘Isn’t it usual to sanctify holy images with a blessing?’ I asked. ‘Perhaps, in all the excitement, that was never done to Mechanical Jesus. I believe he wants to be blessed.’ I could see the idea take hold in Father Ambrose’s mind.
‘Well, what harm could it do?’ he said.
He did it later that same day; a long ceremony involving lots of holy water thrown over the figure and an anointing with oil that ran down into the space around the neck. I thought that that might at least stop him creaking, but in fact, whether it was the oil, the water, or something else, once Jesus was blessed, he stopped moving altogether. Father Ambrose wound up the weights and hesitantly jiggled Our Saviour’s right arm, but nothing happened.
‘Now we won’t even get people coming to see him move,’ the Father moaned.
Our problems were almost over, however. One afternoon later the same week I heard a great commotion. Outside, there was a crowd around a man who was waving one arm in the air and shouting.
‘Cured! Cured!’ he said. It seemed his arm had been wasted and useless, but after praying to Effulgentius just a few days earlier he had found it starting to get better; now it was as strong as ever. ‘Jesus gave up the power of his own arm to heal mine!’ he explained. I didn’t think that story really made sense, but it was soon being told everywhere, and before long the sick and the lame were once again coming to Mertingham in great numbers.
‘The miller from Otterick came to me yesterday,’ said Father Ambrose, a couple of weeks later, ‘he told me he thinks the cogs inside Mechanical Jesus are clagged. He said if I’d let him strip the whole thing down and clean it, he was sure he could get it going again. I told him I didn’t think that would be appropriate.’
This story by Peter Hankins was the winner in our recent writing competition with the theme "When the Machine Arrived". Follow us on Facebook and join our newsletter to receive invitations to future competitions.