Part 2: Chapter 15
Rakovski, Thrace, Bulgaria
The first bombardment of mortar fire struck the main building of St. Augustine’s church, built by monks five hundred years ago. Under a pall of suffocating white smoke, hooded men, women, and children darted from the toppled granite mausoleums, crypts, and vaults.
“Keep calm,” Father Valorous said. “Put on your gas masks, just as we’d practiced. Help your kids and their friends first. Protect your skin. The fallout burns. Make for the bell tower. We should be safe there.”
St. Augustine’s stone walls quivered. Inside the church, shards of ceiling plaster littered the mosaic tiled floor. Wall lights flickered. Smoke filled its stained-glass corridors. Saints imploded from the phosphorous impact.
The second round of mortar howled overhead, blasting the rest of the cemetery filled with Radovski’s buried war heroes, lost souls, and exalted personages. Amid the yellow billowing flames, splintered coffins rained down, vomiting their skeletal remains on the once manicured lawn of grass and begonias tended by the fathers.
Inside the bell tower, Father Valorous counted wings.
“Don’t push. There’s enough room for all. Find a spot and sit tight. Keep quiet. They think we’re dead from the flames.”
“How little they know us,” a young novice said.
“Let’s not give them any reason not to believe that we’re truly dead. Does everyone have those silver crosses so thoughtfully provided by our human congregation?”
All nodded, even the children. Father Valorous’ sharp ears picked up on a high pitch whine.
“Duck. There’s another round coming in.”
“To finish us off,” the novice said.
“No doubt. Let’s not disappoint them until they call us out.”
Father Valorous clicked his tongue against his cheek. In their mind’s eyes, they saw the enemy dressed in blue policemen uniforms and black helmets. Held skyward, above their heads, body-length plastic shields protected them from the bombs’ lethal fallout. Their white gloved hands clasped silver-tipped nightsticks. It was the Vatican’s own special security force, the Corpo della Gendarmeria dello Stato della Citta del Vaticano, which the Pope used to punish wayward flocks, even here in the province of Thrace.
“There’s an officer coming . . . on a horse. His men scatter before him and then collect behind him. Ah, I haven’t seen one of those in a century. How quaint. A battering ram. Hold on to the platform. The fathers hewed this tower out of mother rock when they saw the value of a mountain stronghold. It will take more than a wooden battery ram to crack this . . . our final lair opened to the public. Keep your hoods up. Dawn approaches.”
Father Valorous descended the winding stairs that led to the main hall of the bell tower. Inside his mind’s eye, he saw the young novice tying the children to the metal rails that the city fathers had put in when they tore out the crumbling wooden tiers. Casting off his hood, Father Valorous opened the metal door and poked his head through. Lingering smoke assaulted him. A faint whiff of garlic permeated his nostrils and raced up his nose. His eyes watered. Light-headed, Father Valorous swiped his eyes with the cuff of his black cassock. It steadied him. Clasping the donated silver cross, he waited while the officer galloped toward the bell tower.
“May I help you?” Father Valorous said.
The officer twisted in his saddle and looked at the gathering light of reds, pinks, and oranges filling the horizon behind him.
“We’ve got time. Have you?”
Father Valorous stepped out from the protective shelter of the doorway and confronted the mounted officer.
“What does your master want from us that he hasn’t already taken?”
The helmeted officer stared at the father as if his look could burn through the monk, killing him.
Father Valorous laughed.
“It doesn’t quite work that way,” he said. “Shall we stand out in the sun all day and glare at each other? Tell me, what does your master desire? I’ll do my best to satisfy him.”
The officer stood up in his stirrups and leveled his arm at the father.
“We don’t have long to wait. As for my master, he wants his land back. All of it.”
“Even the cemetery?”
“Even the cemetery. It doesn’t belong to hell-spawn like you and your kind.”
“What kind of hell spawn is that, officer? We believe in good and evil just like you.”
“I’m not here to pontificate. The sun will do the rest.”
His men laid the battering ram on the ground. The sun rose as dawn bloomed into a cloudless turquoise blue sky. Still the officer, his restless horse, and his men waited. Nothing happened. Father Valorous didn’t die as the Pope had predicted. Instead, the father waited with folded arms. In his hands, he held a silver cross.
“Tell you what. I’ll just go out and stand in the middle of the yard like so and hold my cross skyward above my head to protect me from the sun just like your policemen did with their body shields. Will that do?”
The officer shifted in his saddle. Tapping his foot, his spurs whined in protest. Behind him on the ground, his men milled around, not quite sure what to expect. Extending their silver silver-tipped clubs, they held them out in front of them as if this symbol of Christian faith would protect from things like Father Valorous. Their officer dismounted from the horse and, with great effort, picked up one end of the wooden beam.
“Get out of the way Father so we could ram open the bell tower’s door. No doubt that’s where your heathen flock lives.”
Father Valorous dropped his arms and tucked the cross into the round top of his cassock. It gleamed with a fiery light as the sun struck it sideways. The officer’s men glanced at the cross, then genuflected as if that would save their lives as well. Father Valorous walked up to the officer and held out his hands.
“Handcuff me, if you like. But I won’t let you into the bell tower. You’ve destroyed most of the church and the cemetery. For what? To get a bit of land back from the church? I bet you do this with all of the property owned by mother church. I’ve got news for you. This land isn’t owned by the church. We were bought out years ago by the government. Their appetite for land is even greater than your Master’s.”
The officer imperiously strode around the father. He struck at his cassock. No sign of burn holes. Sniffing, the officer caught a whiff of musky sweet perfume. He gagged, but saw no signs of red or swollen skin on the Father. Puzzled, the officer lifted the father’s cassock and examined his too white body. Father Valorous stood still, fighting the urge to sink his teeth into the officer’s neck and suck his blood.
Upon inspection, the officer saw no promised first, second, or third degree burns on Father Valorous. His white flesh remained unblemished; there were no reddened skin, charred flesh, or blisters. Confused, the officer dragged Valorous away from the bell tower. Taking rope from his saddlebags, the officer looped the rope around the father’s chest and under his arms. Knotting the rope, the officer fastened the other end of the rope around the saddle horn. Grabbing the horse’s mane, the office stepped into the right stirrup and swung his other leg over the saddle.
Gathering his reins, the officer spurred the horses’ flank. It started forward and then broke into a canter. Valorous struggled to stay upright, but as the horse’s speed increased, he fell to his knees and then flopped onto his back. As he was dragged along, Valorous reached for his cross. Plucking it from his cassock’s cloak, he held it aloft: a silver beacon amid the darkness of minds of the Corpo della Gendarmeria dello Stato della Citta del Vaticano.
“What’s happening down there?”
Sister Bagdona stirred and flicked her overlarge brown eyes at the young novice.
“Can you not pinpoint it? There’s enough noise out there to light the Father’s path.”
“I’ll try,” the novice said.
“We’ll try together. All of us. Click your tongues and listen to how it bounces off the bell tower.”
A collective image entered their minds: not one of Father Valorous but of Father Tairino sleeping in a crypt-like structure. Cobwebs glimmered in the half light, penetrating the under building’s darkness.
“Doesn’t look very comfortable,” the novice muttered.
“What’s that he’s doing?” Sister Bagdona asked.
They watched the image of Father Tairino as he pulled a cell phone from his shirt pocket. They watched as his fingers spelled out a message.
“What does it say?”
“Father Valorous needs our help.”
Sister Bagdona smirked.
“Don’t forget our crosses. It seems we have a myth to destroy. Come on. We need to get out and feed anyway. Think of all the men out there waiting for us to join them.”
Father Valorous’ flock laughed together, smacking their wing tips together.
“What about the gas masks?”
“We can take them off,” Sister Bagdona said. I don’t smell garlic. Gave me the shivers when I did. My hair stood on end. I felt like vomiting. What will they think of next?”
“Ready? Follow me!”
She led them down from the belfry, down the winding stairs, past the sheltered corridor and out the door. Halting five yards from the safety of the bell tower, Father Valorous’ flock stopped in their tracks, as they saw the police officer’s pull their holy father around the cratered church yard.
“Stop!” Sister Bagdona cried out. “In the name of the Father, his son, and his younger brother, stop this madness!”
The officer’s men regrouped and picked up the wooden beam. Grasping it under their arms, they moved forward. Behind them, their officer rode with Father Valorous’ inert body.
The men kept walking toward the bell tower’s door. Sister Bagdona held her cross high above her head. Father Valorous’ flock followed her lead. Fifty silver crosses were thrust high into the sky . . . . catching the light of the mid-day sun . . . its light reflecting . . . . its light blinding . . . . its light pure and holy. Sister Bagdona gave her cross to the young novice.
“Keep ’em high. They can’t move until we extinguish the light. Hold still while I collect Father.”
Sister Bagdona approached the officer’s horse. The horse’s eyes slid sideways. Its flanks heaved as if expelling too much air. The officer sat tight, his blue eyes directed ahead of him, his hands cradling the reins, his breathing to the point of not breathing at all.
Sister Bagdona pulled at the rope. The knot slipped loose, and the rope fell into her hands. Turning, she strode toward Father Valorous. He sat up and gazed at her with a half-smile, his bloodied lips exposing reddened teeth from where he bit into them.
“It seems that good has triumphed over evil.”
The Sister clapped her wing tips together.
“I wasn’t sure. Old wives’ tales usually hold a grain of truth, but I really didn’t believe it until now.”
“It is a thing of beauty. Have you heard anything from Counts Erros or Ambros?”
“We received a sign . . . . from . . . . Father Tairino. He has found us sanctuary. We can leave today.”
“Ah, Father Tairino, he came through for us. I sometimes wondered where his true loyalties lay.”
“I thought that he’s one of us,” the sister said.
“In a manner of speaking, yes. But he’s not Slavic and therein lays the problem. He’s of Spanish descent. A prisoner of war brought up by the good fathers who became initiated by one of our own.”
“A righteous man?”
“An honorable man. A man of God and of the people, for the people, so they wouldn’t perish from this earth.”
“How did Father Tairino get transplanted from sunny Spain to gloomy Radoviski?”
“A curious thing,” Father Valorous said. “But not something for us to dwell upon here. It wouldn’t do for a cloud to suddenly appear.”
Sister Bagdona glanced up at the sky. Its blueness beamed back at her.
“I’ll chance it. How did Father Tairino connect with us, of all flocks?”
“He was partially ours by birth. Wrong god. Our lay fathers took good care of him and educated him the ways of Mother Church: money, power, and land. He became a bishop. Fate stepped in. Father Tairino was sent to America to preach the word of our faith. He met a woman who desired that Spanish be taught to her daughter. The daughter went to a special school, which taught the same principles that Tairino learned within the church. The rest was easy.”
Sister Bagdona looked past the Father. Small white clouds scuttled toward the sun.
“We’ve worn out our welcome. Where do we go from here?”
Father Valorous brushed his cassock off. Straightening his hood over his shock of tousled black hair, he licked his reddened lips.
“Have you not guess? There’s a flight out of Plovdiv International Airport. I’ve chartered a bus. It should be here by midafternoon.”
“What about the Corpo della Gendarmeria dello Stato della Citta del Vaticano?”
“What about them? The Light of our Lord will keep them bedazzled long enough for us to leave. As for me, will hate leaving the bell tower. It was truly a place of peace and quiet for centuries.”
“Times have changed, Father. We can’t stay here. We’ll not be safe. That garlic smelling bomb is just the beginning for them. Thank the Lord for old wives’ tales, otherwise we would be long gone.”
“I wonder what leftover tea bags would do. Ever given thought to that?” Father Valorous asked.
Sister Bagdona howled. Still, the officer and his men held in their captivity.
“I’ll gather the flock. They act as dazed as our would-be captors,” Valorous said. “Come all yea faithful, joyful and triumph. O, come ye to the new world of Chiapas.”