“Love is as strong as death.”
Song of Solomon 8:6
The man of God called just before dinner.
“I need you to come quickly,” the soft voice urged, barely above a whisper. “Dr. Moriarty is very ill. She may be dying.”
Of course, this was not THE Dr. Moriarty. He’s a fictional villain in a Sherlock Holmes story. No, this Dr. Moriarity was an addict, a young Jewish prostitute drifting between roles as informant, felon, hooker, and the heart’s desire of the ramshackle man of God who had called. He called her Moriarity because she was the mysterious focus of his life; the spiritual quarry he sought, the elusive girl he covered with prayers, and hoped to capture before one of them went ahead and slipped away from this world. Her real name was Kelli Provisor.
“What’s wrong?” I replied. “Shouldn’t you call an ambulance?”
“She’s wanted by the Mexicans. They think she turned them in last week for robbing one of her Johns. The cops want her, too, ’cause she skipped court. She couldn’t pass the drug test.”
I thought for a long minute about the young girl’s sentence of death; a gang contract on her twenty-one years of life.
I had never been to the man of God’s home. No one that I knew of had ever been there, although I had known him for more than twenty-eight years. His grizzled face seemed ageless. Whether he was eighty or forty-five, I couldn’t really tell. He looked exactly as he had the day I met him; identical in every way. As years passed, my children grew up and left for school, but the man of God never changed. In time, my daughter suspected he might be an angel. His thin body was covered with worn, frayed suits and sweaters from the1950s, forever gray and slightly blurred; a living photograph from another era. A slightly pungent odor drifted with him, announcing his presence before he could be seen.
Driving downtown, my mind drifted as I listened to the radio. Something didn’t seem right. I was helping a man hide a girl from the police.
“He is our Provisor,” the radio preacher droned on. My mind suddenly focused. “He came to bind our wounds.”
It took forty minutes to reach East Washington street. Although I had never met Kelli Provisor, we had prayed for her many times. The man of God had kept in touch with the waif as she moved back and forth from jail to the street. Over the past two years, there had been near constant crises; run-ins with drug dealers, vice cops and jealous street walkers; but the man of God had never called me to the small bungalow that held the secrets of his heart.
The litter-strewn gutters that lined Washington street lay just outside the weather beaten carriage house where the man of God had lodged for the past four years. The bungalow was nestled in an alley, just behind a crumbling brick apartment complex. At one time, a graceful home must have stood guard in front of the structure, but the carriage house had long since been forsaken. It stood alone now, surrounded by decay; in disrepair, spindly vines gripping its dirty windows. And yet, this humble structure provided a warm home for the disheveled man who cared for the ailing prostitute.
When I pulled into the alley, my car filled the narrow lane. A few curious heads peered out of the windows of the apartments. A malnourished cat meandered by as sirens rose from the busy street on the other side of the apartment building. I could hear children arguing around the corner in the chilly evening air. Near the carriage house, a few leafless trees reached hopelessly towards heaven, towering over an uneven brick chimney.
I stepped inside the cottage, into a dim hallway lined with several open doors. It was then that I realized the carriage house had been divided into a series of small apartments. Tattered wallpaper peeled from the plaster walls and dust covered every surface. I wondered if the building was filled with roaches. Each of the doors opened into dark, long-abandoned rooms; except for one.
His small apartment was filled with books, newspapers, old clothes and boxes. An unpleasant odor drifted in from the kitchen. On the floor, dim light from a small table lamp revealed a mattress full of blankets, surrounding the face and bare shoulders of a small, very sick girl. The frail man kneeled inches from the girl’s ashen face, brooding over her, stroking her matted hair. He seemed ancient, filled by some primordial force that swirled about them both, as if it had been with them from before the foundations of the earth. The girl seemed incredibly small and child-like, the covers billowing over her like a tent collapsed in the wind. In the dark room, I knelt down and put my hand on the girl’s shoulder. It seemed as if she were only barely there; that her body, cool and unyielding, had already divested itself of most of her spirit and soul.
The man of God’s eyes blazed as we prayed. Kelli Provisor was mumbling and, as I leaned closer, she whispered out to God in the barest of voices. I thought of the thugs searching the neighborhood to kill her, of my resentment at having to miss dinner, and my suspicion that this was all for nothing. But hidden in the darkness of that room, tenderly nurtured by the man of God who no one could desire, her heart somehow intertwined with his; I saw from the deepest past, the wisest of men kneeling over a newly born king, beauty arising from ashes and the foundations of a new world being born.
The last time I saw Kelli Provisor was at the man of God’s funeral. He had been a treasure wrapped and hidden within an earthen vessel. He had loved with a passionate , scandalous love as strong as death. At long last, after many years, in the middle of the night, he slipped out of his vessel and returned from where he came. I had never heard the word “Provisor” used in conversation before that night on the radio, and have never heard it used again. In the light of the funeral home, the girl shone. Her face was bright and covered by a smile. She had done her time for skipping court and moved elsewhere. She had written to him often, brimming with hope and love.
I drifted back to that darkened apartment. The man of God had struggled for the life of this girl, locked in battle with death itself, and prevailed. I had watched the three Provisors, who had given themselves to one another, and I had seen the Spirit of the Living God, from the depths of a poor man’s heart, rise up to tear, by the power of love itself, a lonely broken soul from the powers of hell.
“The Holy Ghost over the bent world broods,
with warm breast and with,
Ah! Bright wings.”
—Gerard Manley Hopkins