Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Ken Charles' 20th Annual Halloween Treat--"The Walnut Hairbrush"

 Micah looked over at the display case one last time, before turning off the lights. He winced at one of the all too common twinges of pain in his joints. Micah sighed, if she's coming it had best be soon. He picked up his cane, locked the door to the curio shop, and 
began his slow walk home. 
     Cheryl Albans was thrilled when her standby travel club called with a chance to leave Los Angeles and fly to London for three days for pennies. The club booked special deeply discounted deals for members who could travel on a moment's notice to fill 
underbooked tours or charters.  

     She was an interior designer and consultant. She did not have any particular set work schedule, which allowed her to take trips virtually whenever she wanted. She jumped at the London trip. 

     She had been tracing her family roots, and had discovered that her great grandmother, Mary Wellington, came to the United States from London in the 1880's. Since her mother died, Cheryl was unaware of any other living relatives. The trip to London was her 
chance to look for other family. Before leaving Los Angeles, she called London and made arrangements to view archived vital statistics. Something told her that she had to take this trip, and that for some unknown reason, time was of the essence. 

     One of the problems with discount packages is that they did not always include world class accommodations. But Cheryl was satisfied with her room. It was clean and bright, and smelled faintly of lavender. She was exhausted after a long day of travel, and had 
trouble falling asleep. She kept thinking that she had been brought to London, and that she really had no choice in the matter.  

     In the morning, Cheryl set about the business of being a tourist. She went to Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. She lunched at a pub, and had fish and chips and a pint. She took  photographs of everything, and had a wonderful carefree time, 
unburdened by any thoughts of any deeper purpose. However, around four o'clock, she experienced a firm conviction that she had to be somewhere in Kensington, and that she was running late. She started to hail a taxi, but stopped short when she realized that she 
had no particular destination in mind.  

     She had planned on having dinner, and then going to a show. But her need to find something, who knew what, in Kensington left her uneasy. She returned to her room, read for a disinterested while, then went to bed early. Her last thoughts before, or perhaps her 
first thoughts after, falling asleep were of perfume. 
     Cheryl devoted her second morning in London to searching public records for Mary Wellington and her kin. After several hours of hunting, she located vital statistics for her great grandmother, but was sorely disappointed to find that Mary Wellington was an only 
child like herself. Mary's mother had died in childbirth. Mary had one child, Cheryl's grandfather. Her grandfather had only one child, her mother. Cheryl, in turn, was an only child, and the last surviving descendant of Mary Wellington. She left Vital Statistics 
feeling small and abandoned. 

     After lunch, Cheryl decided to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum. Wandering museums always inspired her. Maybe she could write part of the trip off as a business expense. She hailed a taxi, and rode to the museum. As she headed to the door, Cheryl 
 suddenly felt that she was close to her appointment, and that the appointment was not at the museum. She turned and started walking down the street, with no idea of where she was headed. she walked for half an hour and took several turns. She had no idea where she was at when she spied the curio shop. It had a plain well aged brown awning out front. The front window read "Smithson's Antiques and Gifts". 

     She crossed over to the shop and opened the door. A little bell over the door chimed brightly. Micah looked up and smiled. A young woman was signing in the Guest Registry by the door. American, judging by her dress. Definitely the right age, with long, silky auburn hair, Micah was satisfied that she had come at long last. He unlocked the display case.  

     Cheryl began looking around the shop. The material was all of high quality, and reasonably priced. Cheryl the tourist was replaced by Cheryl the business woman. She saw two small bronzes, and a nice landscape that she knew she could place immediately. 
In fact, her practiced eye revealed that there were enough pieces, possibly, to justify the whole vacation as a buying trip. Still, she felt that she was missing something important. The last time she got this kind of feeling, she picked up the thirty thousand dollar gem 
from Edouord Leon Cortes that was hanging in her living room, for four hundred dollars. She decided to make a closer inspection of the stock.  

     Micah watched Cheryl surveying the stock. She had a pen and a small notebook in her hand. Occasionally, she would bend over and examine one piece or another, make an entry in her notebook, then move on to another work. He noted that she had a good eye. 
With very few exceptions, she examined only the best of his stock. He thought, wistfully, that if he had had a daughter, this is how she would have turned out. Of course, for all practical purposes, although she did not know it yet, this woman was closer to him than even a daughter could ever have been.  

     Micah knew that she was hunting. He had every confidence that she would find it without any help. He noted that his pulse was rising, and that he was short of breath. He reached into his vest and located his pills, but decided that he would be fine without 
them. Be patient. She is coming this way.  

     Cheryl nodded to the elderly proprietor, but suddenly turned away when she spied a lovely Venetian blown glass vase. The piece was exquisite, as was the price. Maybe after she sells the first shipment, she thought.  

     Cheryl was beginning to feel a little frustrated. The stock was great. There was plenty of room for profit, but there were no apparent steals to be found. The owner clearly knew his business. She smiled at herself. She was acting like a spoiled child turned loose in a candy store. Surrounded by sweets, she was fussing because she could not find a particular chocolate. But Cheryl was certain that that particular chocolate was, indeed, here! With a slight pang of regret, she put down the vase, and walked back to talk to the owner. She needed to talk about volume purchasing and shipping. 

     It was time. She had seen all she needed to see, but not what she wanted to see. She would come back at any moment. Micah again considered his pills, but decided that this meeting would not take very long. He would close the shop as soon as she left. He could 
go home and take a nap, and rest up for her return. 

     Micah rose to greet her, "Good afternoon, I am Micah Smithson, III, at your service." Cheryl shook his hand and introduced herself. She started explaining that she was an interior designer, when she found the object of her desire. She stopped speaking right in the middle of a sentence. Naturally, Micah was not surprised or offended. Cheryl leaned closer to the display glass. She found herself short of breath. 

     Cheryl knew that she had found the source of all of her recent confusion. But she could hardly believe that this piece was worth all the trouble. It was an old fashioned wooden hair brush. The brush was well preserved. It was a dark, hard well-polished 
wood. The bristles were all in fine condition, definitely natural, probably boar. 

     "What kind of wood is the brush?" 

     "Walnut. It was made here in London in 1876." 

     "It's lovely. May I see it?" 

     "Of course."  

     Micah handed her the brush, and watched.  As Cheryl took the brush, she was overcome by waves of emotion. First, she felt unconditional love. She felt warm and content, enfolded in a sea of lavender. But just as quickly, the brush turned icy in her hands. Cheryl cried out, then almost fainted, overcome by fear, pain and a sense of betrayal. A thin sheen of perspiration appeared on her forehead. She quickly passed the brush back to Micah. She apologized to him, saying that she just felt a little dizzy for a 
moment, but that she was better. He told her to sit for a moment, and offered her some water. She refused, assuring him that she was fine. In fact, she was anything but. She definitely did not want to touch that brush again, yet knew that she could not leave the 
store without it!

     "How much is the brush?"

     Micah smiled. "In many ways, the brush is priceless. I have refused offers of up to sixty pounds. But that is because the brush was not intended for those individuals. It was meant for you. It is my gift." 

     "Oh, I couldn't! No, really, I'd be happy to pay for the brush. Please, how much is it?" 

     "Then, the price is one pound. And if you are unhappy with the brush, for any reason, bring it back." 

     Micah carefully wrapped the brush in tissue paper, and placed it in a gift box. With great ceremony, he accepted a one pound note from Cheryl, and placed it in his antique cash register. He escorted her to the door, then closed the shop, and left for the day. 
     After drying her long auburn hair, Cheryl took her expensive Crabtree and Evelyn brush out of her travel kit to give her locks their nightly one hundred strokes. As she was about to start, she paused and set the brush down. She went over to her suitcase and took out the Smithson's gift box.  She sat on the end of her bed, her back straight, her feet flat on the floor, the box held with two hands in the middle of her lap. Sitting there barefoot and in her nightie, trembling slightly, she resembled a naughty little girl awaiting 
impending discipline. Cheryl sat like that for several minutes, afraid to open the box, and equally afraid to set it down.  Steeling herself, she opened the box and removed the dark walnut hair brush. Nothing happened.  

     Cheryl realized that she had been holding her breath. She released it with an audible, "Whew!" Setting the box aside, she began brushing her hair. The brush felt like it was made for her hand. It was firm and strong, and separated the strands of her hair without any pulling or tugging. The brush massaged her scalp, and felt tremendous. As the strokes mounted, she increased her speed and the power of her strokes. At times, she imagined that she could hear a little girl laughing and singing. As the nightly ritual drew 
to a close, she became aware of a strong scent of lavender. With the final strokes, she clearly heard a child's laughter, and a little girl's voice counting with her own, "Ninetyeight... ninety-nine... One hundred! See Miss Wellington, your hair is so pretty!"
     Suddenly Cheryl was very sleepy. She carefully placed the brush back in the box, and went to bed wondering why a little girl was talking to her ancestral link to London. She slept, or least lacked consciousness. The contentment that she experienced while brushing her hair, gave way to darker thoughts as she entered Morpheus's realm. She was in a long, poorly lit hallway. She could not see to the end. Somewhere up ahead, she could hear a little girl crying. Cheryl called to the little girl, but the girl continued to cry. She started to walk down the hall, but could get no closer to the girl. 

     Cheryl cried out in her sleep. She kicked off her covers, and dug her fingers into her pillows. She found herself near the end of the hallway. Running just ahead of her was a little girl, clutching an overly long night shirt. Cheryl called out, and the little girl looked 
back over her shoulder in her direction. As she looked back, she lost her grip on the night shirt. The little girl tripped over the night shirt , and fell forward and down a flight of stairs. Cheryl and the little girl screamed in unison. She awoke, sobbing and drenched in 

     After some time, Cheryl became aware of someone knocking on her door. "Hello, in there? Miss, are you all right?"
     Cheryl called out, "just a moment, please." She peeled off her drenched nightie, and quickly threw on jeans and a tee shirt. She ran into the bathroom, splashed cold water on her face, went to the door, and found the Porter checking out reports of a guest screaming. Cheryl blushed deeply, and apologized for disturbing the other guests. She explained that she had been reading horror stories before bed, and a moth landed on her face just after she fell asleep. Naturally, the moth became a fierce creature of the night. The Porter, who already knew that all Yanks had too much money, too little common sense, and no manners or sense of propriety (but the no bra look works for you), just smiled and told her he understood, and was there anything he could get her--some tea perhaps, and no-- then I'll be on my way, and good night (and try not to wake the rest of the guests, and tomorrow read a bloody romance novel). 

     Several hours passed before Cheryl was able to go back to sleep. As she drifted off, she swore she never touched the perfume! 
     Cheryl sees herself sitting in a huge cathedral, with two young children, a boy and a little girl. No, it is not Cheryl. But the woman could pass for her sister. The little girl is poking at her brother. The woman leans over and whispers to the girl. After several moments, the girl again starts poking at her brother. The woman places herself between the siblings. 

     Cheryl sees a drawing room. A man in a waist coat is seated reading a newspaper. The door to the room opens. Cheryl sees her look alike leading the little girl by the hand. The little girl's face is red and wet with tears. The man folds his newspaper as the girl comes to his side, and says, "I'm very sorry that I was naughty in Church today, Poppa, but I never touched the perfume. Really!" 
     As Micah expected, Cheryl was waiting outside the shop when he arrived. She held the gift box with both hands. "You knew I'd be back." 

     "Yes, I did. Please come in." 

     Micah opened the door and let them in, but left the blinds drawn, and the closed sign on the door. He told Cheryl to place two straight backed chairs by the rosewood coffee table in front of his desk, and to place the walnut hair brush in the middle of the table. He then walked back to his office and started boiling water for tea. When the tea was finished, he poured two cups, and rejoined Cheryl. 

     Micah sat down painfully, and set his cane aside. He took a long sip of his tea while he studied her. He began slowly, "I did not know your name, of course, but I have known of you since your conception, just as I knew of your mother. I know that you are the last of your blood line." Cheryl shuddered and her eyes widened, but she dutifully remained silent. "Even though you are still young, and may yet have children and many descendants, my bloodline dies with me. A war wound ensured long ago that there would 
be no blooded Micah Smithson, IV. And my health is failing rapidly. So it was time for you to come and break the cycle, since I am Micah Smithson the Last. I waited for your mother, but she never came. But God has sent you to save our souls."

     Cheryl was watching the walnut hair brush. It glowed, with an intensity that varied with the cadence of Micah's words. She knew with absolute certainty that whatever the old man was telling her would be the truth. And that thought petrified her! He paused and 
took another sip of his tea. She desperately wanted to sip hers also, but was certain that her hands would shake too much to hold the cup. Micah continued, "I am the last direct descendant of Micah Smithson, the brother of the little girl in your dreams." Cheryl 

     "Oh yes, dear, I am quite familiar with the dreams. I have had them every night for the last forty years since my father, Micah Smithson the Second, died. He was quite mad by the end. But he never knew that there is a way out, which has saved my sanity. 

     "It was shortly after the onset of the dreams, that I first became aware of your mother. She was still too young. But her mere existence filled me with hope! At that time, your mother was the sole living descendant of Mary Wellington. As she came of age, my spirits soared. But her window of opportunity came and passed all too quickly. Your mother never came. I fell into a deep depression. Just when I thought that I would soon follow in my father's footsteps to the sanitarium, I saw once again the faintest glimmer of salvation. Redemption came from across the sea, as I sensed that your mother was pregnant. I remember that day. It was thirty years, two months and four days ago. Yes, dear, I even remember the time of day. And your twenty-ninth birthday brought me indescribable joy." 

     Micah winced over a twinge in his hip. He paused and took another sip of tea. "The little girl in the dreams is named Sarah. She was aged nine. She would have been my great-aunt, had she lived. But you already know that such was not the case. 

     "Sarah's mother died in childbirth leaving Sarah and her older brother with a father who loved them, but could not care for them. My great grandfather took on a nanny, a twenty-year old named Mary Wellington, to raise his small children. Mary was the only 
mother that little Sarah ever knew. And they adored each other! Every night they would brush each other's hair, one hundred strokes each." 

     Cheryl heard a little girl's voice echoing "ninety-eight...ninety-nine...one hundred!" 

     “Mary was very loving to both children, but at times seemed to dote on little Sarah which would make Micah jealous. 

       "My great grandfather was a bit strict with the children. However, it devolved on Mary to administer discipline. Mary was always fair, but firm. As by now you've come to understand, severe infractions received an application of Mary's walnut hair brush, which was always received in the bare. 

     "On several occasions, Mary had found a curious little Sarah playing in her room with her personal belongings, particularly her cosmetics. Mary was partial to lavender. After several warnings, one afternoon she once again found Sarah seated at her vanity, 
sampling her toiletries. Although Mary admired Sarah's perseverance, she nonetheless promptly turned Sarah over her knee for a light smacking, but promised her a dose of the hair brush if it happened again. 

     "On the night of the accident, which was her night off, Mary returned home late after an evening at the theater. Upon retiring, she discovered that her toiletries had been moved about on her vanity. In particular, Mary observed that the stopper to her favorite lavender perfume was setting next to the bottle. She was shocked! Only days before, she had warned Sarah of the consequences of playing with her belongings without permission. Despite the late hour, Mary decided that correction could not wait until the morning. Wrapping herself in righteous indignation, she stormed down the dark hallway to Sarah's room. She pulled the sleepy and thoroughly bewildered Sarah out of her bed, and quick marched the little girl back to her room to view the scene of the crime."

     Micah paused again for another sip of his tea. He felt a pang of sorrow for Cheryl as he watched the tears forming in her eyes. He wanted to hold and comfort her, but there was precious little time left! 

     "Poor little Sarah was terribly confused. She cried and begged, 'Please, Miss Wellington! I never touched your perfume. I swear it! Oh, please, please, please, not your hair brush! I really did not touch it this time!' But Sarah's protestations of her innocence 
fell on deaf ears. Mary picked up the walnut hair brush, took little Sarah by the ear, and pulled her over to the bed. However, in an unheard of fit of defiance, Sarah broke away from her and ran from the room. Mary could have caught her easily enough had she tried 
immediately, but she paused, astounded by Sarah's insolence.
     "When Mary started after her, Sarah was half way down that long dark hallway between their rooms. Sarah looked back to see where Mary was, and dropped her hold on her night shirt which was too long for her. She tripped over the night shirt. Her 
momentum carried her down the stairs, where she fell, and broke her neck." 

     Cheryl was crying openly now. Micah paused and reached across and patted her hand. He handed her his own handkerchief, which she unashamedly filled. When she had regained some of her composure, he concluded his story, "The Coroner's inquest ruled the matter an accident. No one, but Mary herself, ever blamed her for anything. But Mary could not live in that house with her memories of Sarah. She resigned her position, and shortly thereafter moved to America. 

    "In fact, of course, Sarah never touched Mary's perfume that fateful day. It was my grandfather Micah, who craved an application of the walnut hair brush every bit as much as poor little Sarah feared it. And that is why Mary's walnut hair brush, the lovely brush there on the table in front of us, serves as an anchor for Sarah's restless spirit, and for ours as well. This hair brush was a symbol of Mary's and Sarah's unconditional love, and the 
focal point of their nightly bonding ritual, but it was also the central focal point of Mary's betrayal of Sarah's love and trust." 

     Her voice choked with tears, Cheryl asked, "B-but what am I supposed to do?" 

     "In order to release Sarah's spirit, we have to acknowledge our ancestors' guilt, and reaffirm their love for poor Sarah. I had hoped to accomplish this exorcism with your mother when she was twenty-nine, the same age as Mary Wellington on the night of the 
accident. But your mother never came. You are my second and last chance." 

     Cheryl suddenly understood the ultimate purpose of her trip, and her awesome responsibilities. She rose, and without saying a word, lifted the walnut hair brush and kissed it. She handed the brush to Micah, who had pulled back his chair, and removed his jacket. She started to place herself over his lap, but Micah held his hand up. "I am afraid, dear, that the walnut hair brush was always applied to the bare bottom." 

     Cheryl blushed deeply, but dutifully unsnapped her jeans. With great embarrassment, she pulled the jeans down to her ankles and stepped out of them. However, she could not bring herself to lower her panties while standing in front of the old man. Micah understood and nodded. She placed herself over his lap. She lifted her hips slightly to allow him to roll her panties down to her thighs. She whispered, "I love you, Sarah," and nodded for him to begin. 

     Micah raised the walnut hair brush, then brought it down with considerable force given his infirmities. The brush landed squarely across the center of Cheryl's upturned backside with a resounding crack! The crack was accompanied by a lightning flash of 
pain for both Cheryl and Micah, emanating simultaneously from her bottom and his shoulder. But the pain immediately was subjugated by a sense of cold, darkness and isolation. Cheryl could smell lavender perfume, as Micah raised the brush to continue the 
spanking. Although one part of her mind duly registered each smack, she was barely aware that she was being spanked over the next dozen blows. She was lost in a long dark hallway, drowning in the overpowering scent of lavender.  

     Cheryl heard her own voice as a little girl of nine, pleading over and over, "I swear I did not touch your perfume! I swear it!" Her own little girl pleas became a sort of mantra which she sobbed out after each blow. Crack! "I swear it!" Crack! "I swear it!" 

     Micah was not counting, because he knew that he would sense when it was time to stop.  Sweat soaked through his shirt and vest. The pain in his shoulder felt like a hot poker. He was certain that he had torn something that would have taken months, if he had 
had months, to heal.  

     Micah feared the strain on his heart, and for the briefest moment considered stopping. But this pain was only temporal, while damnation was eternal! So ignoring the telltale signs of an impending coronary event, he continued to raise the walnut hair brush again and again, only to send it crashing once more down onto Cheryl's crimson mounds. 

     After thirty or forty cracks, Micah's arm lightened, and the blows started falling in a natural rhythm. He felt a kind of bond with Cheryl as if they were sharing something special. He even imagined that he heard a little girl's laughter! However, after several more whacks, that sense of closeness was supplanted by feelings of anger and disappointment. He became aware of her chanting. Crack! "I swear it!" 

     Although she did not know exactly what Micah was experiencing, Cheryl could tell that something had changed by the sudden increase in the intensity and rapidity of the smacks. In addition, she had experienced a similar shift in her perceptions. For the briefest period, she imagined that she heard a little girl laughing. She felt incredibly close to him, almost as if they were lovers. During these periods of virtual respite, Cheryl found herself raising her bottom up meet the next kiss of Micah's brush, then crashing back down to grind her pelvis against his leg. But all too soon, those periods would dissipate, and the laughter would turn again to cries of sorrow and repentance. Her mounting pleasure would once again turn to shame and embarrassment, and an instinctual desire to flee. 

     There came a point as the spanking drew to a close, where Micah's and Cheryl's separate visions coalesced into a single reality. The smell of lavender filled the shop. An overall sense of comfort and well-being filled both Micah and Cheryl. She sobbed 
openly, tears spilling down her cheeks, both as a result of the extraordinary pain radiating from her scorched bottom, and as a result of a sense of immense pride at having fully discharged her ancestral debt to poor Sarah.  The little bell over the door started ringing, and the Venetian vase resonated harmonically. The shop was filled with a little girl's laughter.  

     Crack! "Ninety-seven." 

     Crack! "Ninety-eight."

     Crack! "Ninety-nine."  

     Crack! "One Hundred!"

     Micah set down the walnut hair brush. The back of the brush was hot to the touch. The fullness of the little girl's laughter bounced around the shop, then slowly faded away. Cheryl smiled through her tears, and sobbed, "Good-bye, Sarah! We love you!" He lifted her up and held her while she cried. 
     Poor Cheryl's bottom was too sore and swollen for her to squeeze back into her jeans. So Micah gave her a lovely antique 1880's floral dress, which fit her perfectly. Cheryl looked at Micah who smiled and said, "Of course, it was one of Mary's favorites. But now, it is time for you to return to America."  

     Cheryl shuddered at the thought of sitting on the long flight home. Micah carefully wrapped the walnut hair brush, and packed it in a new gift box. At the door, he took her face in his hands and kissed her on the forehead. As he closed the door behind her, he felt in his coat pocket for the paper with the name of his Solicitor who held his final will signed yesterday afternoon, designating his God-niece Cheryl Albans of Los Angeles, California, United States of America, with her full name and address carefully copied 
from the Guest Registry, as his sole heir. 

     Micah locked the door to his shop for the last time. He could no longer see, but it hardly mattered. Instinctively, after fifty years of practice, he turned off the shop lights and made his way slowly back to the rosewood coffee table. Settling himself in his chair, 
he felt for his tea cup.  He took a sip, then carefully found the saucer and replaced the cup. His last thoughts were of his love for Sarah and Cheryl, that the tea was cold, and so was he. 

KC Copyright 1998 Moral rights to be identified as the author of the foregoing article asserted worldwide (including in Great Britain in accordance with Sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act of 1988)

"The Walnut Hairbrush" can be found in:


Ken Charles' Halloween Treat--"The Burden of the Cloth"

It was a toss up as to what Christian Balcescu hated most that morning. One moment it was the fact that he was hopelessly lost. The next moment it was the fact that he hadn’t eaten in over a day. But then he’d return to the storm that had drenched him thoroughly hours earlier, and hadn’t relented ever since. Occasionally, just for a change of pace, he’d curse the muddy track that passed for a road which kept trying to pull his boots off of his feet. However, what he really hated most was his ill-conceived plan to spend the summer transversing eastern Romania on foot in search of distant relatives. Regardless, he kept his head down and slogged forward towards the top of the next hill.

He thought back to the two German tourists he’d met at the hostel sixty kilometers south of Botosani three days earlier. They told him about the road that would cut a day and a half off his walk south to his final destination in Iasi. The road didn’t appear in his Michelin guide, but they assured him it was there. Their English was flawless, but their directions were Scheiße. He had no idea where he was in relation to Iasi. For all he knew, he had already illegally crossed into Moldava.

Christian had lost track of time. His phone had died the day before, and he wasn’t wearing a watch. He hadn’t seen the sun through the clouds all day. He estimated that he had been walking for close to three hours. It was light (relatively speaking) when he woke up, so he guessed the time to be somewhere near midday on Sunday.

He crested the hill. A chain of lightning briefly lit up the valley in front of him. A huge smile filled his dripping face. Visibility was limited to less than a kilometer, but that was more than enough to allow him to spot the tiny village half a kilometer ahead. Filled with a new sense of hope and a burst of energy, he adjusted the pack on his back, then set off at a brisk pace for the village.

The road bisected the village. As he approached, he estimated that there were sixty to seventy houses divided roughly evenly on either side. Several larger buildings, presumably businesses of one sort or another lined the road.

Christian didn’t see anyone as he entered the village. He wasn’t surprised that no one wanted to be out and about in the storm. He walked on towards the businesses. Not surprisingly on a Sunday, all of the businesses were closed. He wasn’t discouraged. He spotted a small church at the far edge of the village. He knew where he would find everyone in town.

Christian paused outside the church doors. Despite the storm, he could hear the deep baritone priest’s voice inside. “Sângele Domnului nostru …” A blast of thunder drowned out the next few words. “Care a fost vărsat pentru tine, pastra corpul tău şi sufletul spre viaţă veşnică. Bea aceasta în amintirea lui…” Another lightning flash followed immediately by a booming thunder clap startled him. “Existat pentru tine, şi fii mulţumită,” concluded the priest. Christian’s grandmother did not want to come to America after the war, and refused to learn English to the day she died. So from the time he was two until he was twelve, twice a month, his mother took Christian and his grandmother on a hundred thirty-six kilometers round trip to the only church in a 500 kilometer radius that conducted services in Romanian. By reflex, he bowed his head and translated the priest’s words, even filling in the few words he’d missed, “Drink this in rememberance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.” Thankfully, he opened the door, then stepped out of the storm and into the church.
Christian put his hand over the bowl. “No, thank you, uh, nu vă mulţumim. Trei castroane este suficientă.” Indeed, three bowls of the delicious lamb stew was quite enough. Christian was warm, dry and satiated. His hostess tried one more time to give him a fourth bowl, but he kept his hand over the bowl, and she relented.
There had almost been a riot at the church over who would feed, clothe, and put him up for the night. Finally, the elderly priest with the deep baritone voice chose his hosts, the Negrescus because Dominik spoke some English, and they had an extra bed. Between Dominik’s English and Christian’s Romanian, he managed to fill the rest of the evening after dinner with stories of his travels, including an unflattering account of his meeting with the two German tourists which brought him to the village. Over the next few days, he would tell the stories often enough to the other villagers that he wouldn’t even need Dominik’s help.
The Negrescus told him that they retired early. With the promise of sleeping in a bed for the first time since he left the hostel, Christian told them that he was happy to call it a day.
Mămăligă, balmoş, slănina, eggs, sausages, and fresh baked bread covered the breakfast table. Christian had eaten more than his fill, but his hostess still pushed the platters his way. He smiled as he pushed back from the table. “Vrei sa ma faca grăsime, bunica ta? Are you trying to make me fat, Grandmother?”
“Da, esti prea de slab. Zise tatal sau.”
Christian laughed and shook his head. “Right, even the priest thinks I’m too thin. After that wonderful dinner last night and this breakfast, I am definitely not too skinny.” Dominik translated for his wife who frowned, but started clearing the table anyway.
It took another three days, but the storm finally passed in the night. Christian awoke to sunlight streaming into his room He’d almost forgotten what it looked like. He dressed, then packed his backpack. With the backpack in hand, he’d have an excuse to just grab a sausage and a roll instead of sitting through another feast which would leave him too full to walk. As it was, he guessed that he’d put on ten pounds in the last four days. He went downstairs in the hope of getting an early start. According to Dominik, if he pushed himself, he would reach the main road to Iasi by midday tomorrow.
Dominik met him at the bottom of the stairs. He handed Christian a sack of food. “I told Mama you would want to leave before breakfast. She pouted, but she made you something for breakfast and for lunch. Put it in your pack.”
“Where is she? I have to thank her and say goodbye.”
“She is at the church. I will walk with you. We will meet her there.”
They headed out for the church. Ten steps out, Christian abandoned any hope of avoiding the puddles. Still, it was cool enough that he looked forward to the morning walk.
They walked to the church in silence. It was the longest time that Christian has spent with Dominik without talking. Half a block from the church, Dominik broke the silence. “It is a good thing.” Christian waited for him to explain himself further, but nothing more was said.
At the church door, Dominik took Christian’s backpack. “I will hold this for you. You will not need it inside.” Christian was about to tell him that it was no trouble, but decided it wasn’t worth an argument and relinquished the pack.
Christian opened the door. A gust of surprisingly cold wind hit him in the face. He hadn’t seen or heard an air conditioner running anywhere in the village. He stepped into the church which was filled to capacity, with the women crowding the center aisle. The priest stood at the dais motioning for him to approach.
He started up the aisle. As he walked by, many of the women reached out to touch him. Several wept openly. Others called out, “copilul noastre binecuvântate” and “sa va binecuvinteze”; “our blessed child” and “bless you”. He noticed for the first time that there were no children or teens. In fact, he appeared to be the youngest person in the village by a good thirty years. He made a mental note to ask Dominik about the lack of children before he left.
It took several minutes before a bewildered Christian was able to work his way past the women. The wizened priest waited patiently until he broke free. The priest nodded to two men stationed at either side of the dais. Each of the men held a large antique silver censer on a silver chain. In unison, they lowered the censers to just an inch above the dais. With the slightest flicks of their wrists, they swung the censers inward almost half a meter towards the priest. The censers swung back leaving contrails of thick yellowish green smoke behind them which was quite unlike any incense trail Christian ever saw in his youth. Their scent was also unfamiliar, acrid and sulphurous. Christian found it rather noxious, but he didn’t plan to stick around for long and so, held his tongue.
The priest laughed. “You do not care for our choice of incense?”
Christian coughed. “It takes a little getting used to, I guess.”
“Perhaps it does. After so many years, I do not even notice it. So, young man, were Brother Dominik and Sister Afina proper hosts?”
“They were wonderful. Mrs. Negrescu is a great cook.”
The priest smiled. “Yes, she is an excellent cook.”
Christian’s eyes were watering. His throat itched. It was time to say goodbye and head out. He tried to speak, but had a coughing fit instead. The priest did not wait for Christian to stop coughing. Instead, he looked up at the congregation. “Be seated.”
The women who had crowded the aisle to touch him obediently took their seats. Four men walked out of the church. The rest came to the front of the church and formed a line behind Christian. He was too busy coughing to notice until two men grabbed him by the arms.
Christian stopped coughing long enough to rasp out, “What the hell?” He tried to shake himself free, but the men who held him each outweighed him by a hundred pounds. They had no trouble holding him in place.
The priest turned his attention back to Christian. “Do not waste your strength fighting the men who are holding you. They cannot feel pain. Even if you managed to cut off their arms, they would not release their grips until I commanded them to do so.”
Christian stopped struggling. His eyes were watering so badly he could barely see the priest. His throat felt like someone had massaged it with coarse sand paper. “What’s going on? What do want from me?”
“We want you to become a part of something so much bigger than yourself. We want to suffer for all of us, just as our Lord suffered. Through your suffering, we will all be one step closer to our Lord.”
“You’re crazy! You’re a priest, for Christ’s sake!”
The priest laughed. “Yes, I’m a priest. But not of your upstart Jesus sect.”
“Upstart sect?”
“I was a priest long before your Jesus walked the earth.”
“That’s impossible!”
“Poor misguided child. There are many gods much older and more powerful than your Jesus and his Father. The one I serve is the most powerful of these gods. He sleeps, but even in his dreams he is still so much stronger than the others. That is why the other gods rose up against him sixty-five million years ago.”
Sixty-five million years ago a meteor struck the earth and caused the Great Extinction.”
The priest laughed. “I suppose the explosion that put my master to sleep could look like a meteor strike today. It was the fear and pain of millions of dying creatures that sustained my master through countless millennia. It allowed him enough time to gather his strength while he guided and shaped mankind’s ancestors, teaching them maim, torture and kill.”
Tears ran down Christian’s cheeks. If asked, he could not have told whether the tears were from the incense or from the blasphemies that assaulted his ears. “But the Eucharist? You were performing the Holy Sacrament! I heard you. I went to Sunday Mass in Romanian twice a month for over a decade. You said, ‘Sângele Domnului nostrum Isus Christos’…”

The priest shook his head and held up his hand. “No, Christian. You heard what you wanted to hear. I said, ‘Sângele Domnului nostrum diavolul Satana’, the Blood of our Lord, the devil Satan. I am one of his high priests.”

Christian realized that the priest was insane. It was useless to argue with him. He looked around for help. “Dominik, help me!”

The priest laughed. “Seriously, Christian? Dominik is a good boy. He will not help you.

Take a moment to consider Dominik’s last name, Negrescu. It means ‘black’. It was the most appropriate sobriquet I could come up with when men started using more than one name.

But here is a fun fact for your Michelin tour guide. Everyone in the village calls me ‘father’. It is not a religious title. Everyone in this village is a Negrescu. Everyone, including Dominik and Ifina, is my son or daughter.”

The priest stepped down from the dais, then drew a long obsidian dagger from his cloak. Christian went weak in the knees as the priest approached. The priest grabbed his hair and pulled his head back baring his neck. Christian closed his eyes in the face of imminent death, and made his peace with his god. Unfortunately, he wasn’t that lucky or blessed. The priest slid the knife inside Christian’s shirt, and in a single swipe, slit it open to the waist. Using the tip of the knife, the priest cut a shallow four inch inverted cross on Christian’s chest. The priest smiled as the first ruby drops of blood welled up from the cut. The cut stung, but Christian clenched his teeth and refused to make a sound. It was a small and Pyrrhic victory.
Two more men took hold of Christian’s legs. Another man unfastened and removed his belt. Afina and another woman carrying kitchen carving knives came up and cut away his clothes, then each unlaced and removed one of his boots and socks leaving him completely naked. Afina gave him a kiss on the cheek before gathering the shredded clothes and returning to her seat. The other women gave his midsection a quick glance and a nod of approval before returning to her seat.
The doors to the church opened. The four men who left earlier returned carrying a two and half meter high wooden cross with an iron ring screwed into the bottom of the cross. The men solemnly carried the cross down the center aisle. The men holding Christian pulled him over to the side of the dais. The men carrying the cross laid it down flat in front of the dais.
“Oh, fuck no!” Christian screamed. Until that moment, the even the thought of using an expletive in a church would have been inconceivable. He struggled against the men to no avail. In desperation, he threw his head back and smashed the bridge of the nose of one of his captors, who didn’t even blink.
The priest turned to Christian. “As I told you, our Lord’s blessing has rendered us impervious to pain. But our Lord thrives on pain and suffering. We cannot give him what he needs. That is why you must suffer for us. In return for your suffering, our Lord will grant us eternal life.”
The priest pressed the dagger flat against Christian’s chest coating one side in his blood. He flipped the knife over, coating the other side. Satisfied, he placed the blade edge on his left palm, then sliced deeply. He placed his bloody palm on Christian’s chest. “As our Lord Satan’s blood flows through me, let it now flow through you.”
Fire shot through Christian’s body. He screamed. Oily black smoke curled up from the edges of the priest’s hand. When he lifted his hand, a burned imprint remained on Christian’s chest. The inverted cross was seared black. Christian hung limply in his captor’s arms, completely overwhelmed by the pain and shock.
Christian did not resist as the first two men who grabbed him dragged him over to the cross, then laid him down on top of it. He had no fight left to resist the men who pinioned his arms and legs as the priest stepped forward with four long silver nails and a heavy wooden mallet in his hands. 
“Trust me, Christian, when I tell you that the worst is yet to come. I tell you this because you need to know that the pain that you experience today is only the beginning. It is my duty to my Lord to make you suffer as much as possible. Your pain will earn my Lord’s continued blessing on my children, the youngest of whom is older than that Noah fellow in your bible. And so you understand, your sacrifice is just one of countless others. You will not be remembered.”
The priest placed the point of one of the nails against Christian’s upturned wrist. He raised the mallet, then slammed it down on the head of the nail, driving it through Christian’s arm and another two inches into the cross, leaving another two inches of the nail above the wrist. Christian passed out before the priest moved to the other wrist.
Afina stirred in the last of the herbs. The mix was thinner than she wanted, so she added a tiny bit of flour. Thirty seconds of whisking and the mix was perfect. She carried the bowl over to the heavy butcher’s block next to the hearth. The heat was uncomfortable, but it wouldn’t take her long. She considered using a ladle, but decided to use a broad pastry brush instead. She dipped the brush in the bowl, then swirled it around several times. She carried the bowl over to Christian who hung on the inverted cross which was hanging by the ring on a chain that dropped down from the rafters, half a meter in front of the hearth.
By any known medical standards, Christian should have been dead days ago. He hadn’t had any water in a week. His skin was burnished and leathery. Only the priest’s shared blood kept him alive.
Without a word, Afina slathered the mix over Christian’s thighs and belly. The astringent mixture stung. Christian moaned, but didn’t say a word. After six days of roasting in front of the hearth, it was almost impossible to form words with his bloated tongue and swollen throat. Besides, he knew she wouldn’t say anything to him
Afina pinched his side, then smiled. She spread more of the mixture over his arms and legs. She pushed the brush behind him as best she could to spread the mixture over his back and buttocks. She emptied the bowl, then walked over to the hearth and tossed a wet log into the fire. White smoke and steam poured out of the hearth, but not enough to satisfy her. She tossed another wet log into the hearth. For the first time since he was crucified, she spoke to him. “You almost done. Father come see you tomorrow.”
The priest came the next day just as Afina had told him. Christian was beyond caring, or so he thought. He couldn’t imagine any greater pain or horror than what he was experiencing. Unfortunately, the priest’s imagination was broader.
The priest sat down on a three legged stool. He leaned forward placing his head near Christian’s so he could speak softly. “Good morning, Christian.” He reached out and touched Christian’s thigh. “It feels like you are done. That is good, because tomorrow is your big day.
You know it is a terrible burden to be responsible for so many other lives. My children live through me. So it my duty to protect them and give them a purpose.
“All my Lord requires is a periodic sacrifice. I could have simply slit your throat, and my Lord would have been appeased. He would renew my life’s blood, and through me, the blood of my children. As remote as our village is, missing travelers would never be found. But how would that satisfy my children for the many centuries they must serve until our Lord returns?
“The simplest solution was the creation of a ritual sacrifice. I created a dark secret that they could share, something that would bind them together. And best of all, it gives me what I love most, a chance to inflict pain. Once my Lord rises, there will be pain and suffering enough. Until then, your sacrifice and those of others like you will have to suffice.”
The priest stood up. He laughed as he pushed the cross far enough that it would swing for a minute after he left. He released the cross, then walked away. “I will see you tomorrow morning in church. Try to be on time.”
The church was full. The priest beamed at his congregation, his children. This would be the church’s first full sacrament since they hosted that nice Luftwaffe pilot who crashed near the village in 1943. That ceremony was conducted in Romanian and German in honor of the pilot. This one would be in Romanian and English in Christian’s honor.
The church doors opened. Four men entered carrying Christian in on the cross. Many of the women wept as the men proceed slowly up the center aisle. When they arrived at the dais, they set the cross down with Christian’s head at the floor, then turned the cross so congregation could see him.
The priest bowed his head. His deep baritone boomed, “Să ne rugăm.” For Christian’s benefit, he added, “Let us pray.” All heads bowed. The priest continued in English. “Thank you, Lord, for the many blessings you have bestowed upon us. You give us our lives, and our lives belong to you. Let us thank you by giving you this one small life in return.”
Afina and Dominik rose from their seats. They went over to a table at the end of the dais. Dominik picked up a large silver chalice. Afina picked up the dagger that started Christian’s suffering. They walked over to the priest who held out his left arm.
Dominik placed the chalice under the priest’s wrist. Afina drew the dagger sharply across the proffered wrist. The priest did not cry out or show the least sign of discomfort. He merely turned his arm to allow the blood to drip into the chalice. “Your blood is our blood. We share it in your honor.”
The chalice filled rapidly. When it was full, Afina wrapped a white cloth around the priest’s wrist to staunch the flow of blood. She got a drop of blood on her finger which she licked off when she thought the priest wasn’t looking. She took her seat.
Dominik held the chalice up over his head. Despite the loss of blood, the priest continued the ceremony as if nothing had happened. “Sângele Domnului nostru diavolul Satana, care a fost vărsat pentru tine, pastra corpul tău şi sufletul spre viaţă veşnică. Bea aceasta în amintirea lui diavolul Satana ca a existat pentru tine, şi fii mulţumită.” The priest looked down at Christian. “The Blood of our Lord the devil Satan, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that the devil Satan’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.”
Without further instruction, the men rose from their seats. Christian recognized the two “German” tourists from the hostel. Dominik lowered the chalice as the men formed a line to his left. The priest smiled down at him. “Sa va binecuvinteze, fiul meu. Bless you, my son.” Dominik took a sip of the priest’s blood, then handed the chalice to the first man in line. The priest blessed this man as well who then took a sip of the blood. Once all of the men had been blessed and had partaken of the blood, the women, led by Afina, formed a line.

The priest looked down at Afina and shook his head. “I should make you go to the end of the line, you naughty girl.” Afina froze. The priest smiled at her. Relieved, she took the chalice from Dominik. “Sa va binecuvinteze, fiica mea. Bless you, my daughter.” Ecstatically, Afina sipped the blood, then handed the chalice back to Dominik. The rest of the women were blessed in turn, and each sipped the blood.

When the last of the women were seated, the priest stepped down from dais. He stood next Christian as he unwrapped his wrist. He knelt down and lowered his head. “Domnul Satan, EU jertfesc această ofertă pentru glorie. Vă rugăm să o accepte cu eternul nostru dragoste si recunostinta. Lord Satan, I consecrate this offering for your glory. Please accept it with our eternal love and gratitude.” With his bloody left wrist, he traced the blackened scar of the original inverted cross that he had cut into Christian’s chest the previous Sunday, giving it a fresh coat of blood. He stood, refusing assistance from Afina who had come to his side.

Afina handed him the dagger. The priest turned back to the congregation. “Corpul Domnului nostru Diavolul Ĺźi Satana, care a fost pentru tine, pastra corpul tău şi sufletul spre viaţă veşnică. Ia şi mănâncă în amintirea că Satan a fost aruncat în jos pentru tine, şi alimentare pe el în inima ta prin credinţă, cu ziua recunoştinţei. The Body of our Lord the devil Satan, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Satan was cast down for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.”

Dominik brought a large silver platter over and held it out for the priest. The priest turned back to Christian. He set the dagger just below Christian’s left knee. For the first time since he’d been brought into the church, Christian showed signs of life. He tried to shake his head and yell out for mercy, but all the sound he could muster was a strangled “Mrrrr!”

The dagger sliced into Christian’s leg. The keen edge bit deeply into the cured flesh. The priest pulled the blade down slowly and evenly, flaying a strip ten centimeters across and a centimeter deep. The priest continued all the way down to Christian’s hip. Christian passed out when he was half way. The week of slow preparation left little blood loss.

Dominik placed the slice of Christian’s flesh on the silver platter. The priest handed the dagger to Afina. Dominik held the platter while Afina sliced the flesh into thin strips and then into squares with precision of a five star restaurant chef.

The men lined up once again to the priest’s left. The priest took one of the squares of Christian’s thigh. “Sa va binecuvinteze in numele Domnului nostru şi tatăl lui Satana. Bless you in name of our Lord and Father Satan.” He placed the square in Dominik’s mouth.

When the last of the congregation had taken the sacrament, one square remained on the tray. The priest set it aside. Once everyone had taken their seats, he nodded to the four men. They rose, then walked up to the cross. They lifted the cross back up onto their shoulders, then proceeded slowly back up the center aisle. As they passed, the congregation rose and followed them outside. The priest smiled. He figured that Christian would last at least six months.

The priest bowed his head once more in the emptied church. “Lord Satan, I thank you for your bounty.” He placed the final square of flesh. He smiled. Afina really was an excellent cook.

KC copyright 6/18/15. Moral rights to be identified as the author of the foregoing article asserted worldwide (including in Great Britain in accordance with Sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act of 1988)


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