The Burden of the Cloth
By Ken Charles
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 you 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.”
“I was a Priest long before your Jesus walked the earth.”
“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, 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. 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 to 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 cooking preparation resulted in 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 in his mouth. 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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