"...Artist, writer, broken-hearted for God."
"The Ruined and What we say to them".
Jonathan McCormack 5,600 word count
The Ruined and What We Say to Them
by Jonathan McCormack
It was, I admit, with perverse anticipation that I entered through the scarlet draped columns of Igor's small mansion. Greeted by paintings mostly of Russian royalty, the odd horse standing dumbly in pasture, or the various seasons of what a rich man must imagine the life of a peasant to be, much of the envy in my heart ebbed away when I saw the small messes piled about. End tables stacked with paperwork, dirty plates on the counter, half-empty glasses and cigar butts crushed in crystal ashtrays everywhere.
A house, or anything, becomes human when shared with another. Igor, newly bereaved, had lost this sacramental economy.
He looked up from peeling a hard-boiled egg long enough to grunt at me when I entered the dining room. He inhaled and it disappeared into his curly black beard. Drumming the table with stubby ringed fingers, the old bear let out a yawn and motioned me to a chair down at the other end of the table.
Eyes falcon, cool, predatory, Nikolai, Igor’s eldest son, with his wife’s ringed fingers moving through his thick black hair, tossed a soft laugh, as she, hand on his shoulder, whispered in his ear and eyed me.
She smoothed her beige skirt and pushed back her long black hair exposing a black top, fabric stretched nearly sheer over her chest. Her perfume an opiate scent that, ah ! I couldn’t help but inhale greedily. She leaned over and took my hand, bracelets jangling.
With a love less practiced for the bedroom than the battlefield, she, with midnight eyes ever alert to the wounds of men searched my face.
"Anything you need?"
By the love in her eyes, O Nikolai, you spoiled prince, is propped that spine so erect.
“No, but thank you. And thank you for inviting me."
Betsy was there. A plump dark-haired woman, motherhood embodied, all warmth and softness and care. Her dress, an inky purple, hugged her fullness, and at her generous bosom, it bloomed with pastoral pinks and violets.
“Well hello there, haven’t seen you in a while."
I hesitated but she raised herself and reached over the little plates of bread and wine bottles to take me into the garden of her arms.
Ah me. Like a man just come in from the bitter cold to a fire blazing in the heath of his home, so was the warmth of her embrace to me.
Her husband cleared his throat and I snapped back to the tundra and my own feeble flame. Banished, the heat dissipated slowly away from my body, along with the scent of her perfume.
"Long time no see,” Joe, with grey ponytail, neatly braided, and a workman’s weathered face saluted me with a green bottle of beer. I smiled back.
Tucking a napkin into my lap, I poured a glass of white wine.
"So, do we know if Cal is coming ?"
"I think so,” Betsy said, “He said so at Mass last night."
"You’ve been attending night Mass? I want to, but I get up so early in the mornings."
"Yea,” Joe with a twinkle in his eye, “she’s been going almost every night."
"Well, I’m helping Fr Alexei. And Cal’s been there too."
"Every night?” I sipped my wine.
"Yup. I don’t know what he’s got going on with Fr Alexei so I don’t ask."
"Probably a penance,” Joe grinned.
"I don’t know about that. Vespers every day,” Betsy said, “It’d have to be a pretty big sin."
"With him,” Igor cocked an eyebrow, “It could be.”
Speak of the devil, Cal sauntered in, hands folded behind his back. Greeting no one he took a seat one over from me, leaving an empty chair between us.
Joe’s eyes met mine. He mouthed a whisper, “All right then !"
I raised my eyebrows and took another sip.
Hair unkempt, messy goatee, glasses taped together where they had been broken, like some Marxist college dropout, he plucked a twig of violet lilacs from a white vase.
"You’ve put lilacs out ?” Cal raised his eyes to Igor.
"Nikolai did,” he pointed a thick finger.
"Why lilacs and not another flower?"
"Why not lilacs?” Nikolai said.
"Too soon. Spring has yet to properly begin, or Lent. Christ is still preparing to go into the grave."
He inhaled their scent, closed his eyes, and in a lilting tone recited,
"When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d,” Cal twirled his finger in the air and gave a wink,
"in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”
He placed the sprig of lilac back into the vase.
"And it goes on,” he waved his hand in the air. “Willie Whitman. Sat on a lilac strewn hill and watched Lincoln's body go by."
Cal reached across the table and grabbed a bottle of wine, reading the label.
"He was a bit of an old fool. Sentimental. In his old age, he volunteered as a medic. Instead of rolling around with all the young boys, he had to hold them down. For the Doctors you see. To saw off legs and arms. He mined some beautiful lines from all that blood."
He put the bottle back on the table, unopened.
"A flower is a spiritual symbol. A promise. A red rose a promise for romance, or white lilies the hope for children. Lilacs, the poets know, represent the promise of resurrection. That comes at the end of lent, not now."
"Well,” Igor leaned back watching him with slitted eyes, smiling indulgently, “I think they look very nice. I’m sorry you don’t approve. Maybe next time you bring the flowers."
"Not just a promise though, they persuade us.” Cal snatched the sprig again, twirling it. “Flowers are an argument. Of course, you decorate the table with whatever discourse you choose Igor."
Our Priest, in black cossack, came limping in.
Fr Alexei greeted us each in turn. Fingers ruminating his greying beard with one hand, with the other a brown bottle of beer held high, he inspected its exotic label then poured it into a glass. With a mighty gulp, he smacked his lips.
"It’s good !” He declared.
The table broke out into easy conversation.
Cal craned his neck, studying the surrounding paintings. Russian Monarchs enthroned in thick daubs of red, gold, and black, cassock armies smeared on a darkling plain of blue, nobility richly enrobed atop powerful steeds. He turned back to his empty plate.
Niceties were exchanged, laughter forced, the main meal served, steak and ribs both. Corks popped, glasses refreshed, we feasted. Cal, eating little, joined in none of it.
"So Nikolai”, I said, smoothing out the wrinkles in my casual dress shirt, “I hear you are going back to school now, and for Biblical studies, is that right?"
"Yes. That’s true.” An actor's voice, rich and bold. He tossed back a glass of wine, pinching the bottom of its stem, pinky extended, then placed it down before him.
"I’m almost done."
"Ah, and do you know what your master’s thesis will be? You know I always wanted to go to school to study second temple Judaism. I spend hours researching it. But I just never had the money. Or time."
He cleared his throat. “No, I don’t. But I’ll figure it out. Something to do with history perhaps."
He helped himself to a bowl of vegetables.
"Ah, history,” I nodded. “A good subject, history. And are there any particular aspects of history that you have in mind ?”
He took time to take a bite of glazed carrot. Gingerly he dabbed his thin lips with one of his father's richly woven napkins.
"No, not really."
"In actual fact,” Nikolai sucked in a quick breath and snuck a glance at his wife. Sandra smiled and squeezed his hand, “I’m trying to go for the Priesthood."
I crushed a napkin to my mouth, grinding my teeth. Thoughts like angry wasps whipped about my brain.
"Priesthood? You’re going to be a Priest. Well, that’s…incredible. Really."
"If it all works out I’ll be over at the new parish by next May. You should come.”
Nikolai gave me a bemused look. “Why wouldn’t you? Come and see."
"Of course. Very kind of you.” I tucked the napkin back into my lap. “Thank you. I mean, I’m pretty busy, work taking up much of my time, you know, but, sure. I’d love to come, see what all those studies did for you."
"Well,” he said, “the truth is we’re not entirely sure it will work out. Sandra formally being divorced the Bishop is reticent to allow it. In fact, he already said no. But we’re trying anyway. There’s a conference coming up, we can appeal."
"Oh, the conference,” Igor sat up. “You are going to be there, aren’t you Father?"
Fr Alexei paused mid-bite. “I believe so."
"That’s wonderful! You can tell the Bishop.”
“About what? Nikolai? Well, the Bishop - ”
“And about the new bell tower too. I was very happy to help you. And anything else the Church needs. He knows all this I’m sure but maybe a reminder, eh? The Catholics have all that money, but we Orthodox, we must be family, to help one another."
Fr Alexei plopped a plump shrimp into his mouth and chewed it. “Yes,” he took a swig of beer. “Yes, I think he’ll come around.”
Igor slammed a meaty hand on the table. “Of course he will. One big family, all sons of Russia. Here in the West, many don’t know how to be a family I think."
Fr Alexei popped another shrimp and licked the sauce from his fingers. “Our Priests have always been married. And these days, divorce? How can you hold that against anyone ?"
"Sounds wonderful,” I said, “it’s good to have family. But, and I hope he will of course, but, what if the Bishop doesn’t, you know, change his mind?"
"Oh, I’ll probably go into pastoral work.”
Igor glared at me from the other end of the table.
Now, I had brought dozens to Church. Homeless, needy, mentally ill, and never once did he approach us, let alone offer help. Nor did he ever grace the soup kitchen with his presence, too busy with books to ladle out slop to the suffering masses.
I poured myself a fresh glass of wine and swallowed.
"I mean, of course, I just didn't know you were doing that, but…” I turned to Cal, “So Cal, what do you think of all this? Nikolai and pastoral work."
Cal raised a string of asparagus, examined it, then put it back down. He postured like some king, even as appareled like one in ruin.
"With what population will you work ?” Cal asked.
"Well,” Nikolai shifted in his seat, “I’m actually thinking of hospital Champlain."
Ha! That was rich. I glanced about to see if anyone else saw just how utterly, obscenely preposterous this was.
Betsy sat listening attentively, fingering the antique pearls about her neck. Joe took a swig of beer, studying the workmanship of the table, running his fingers over its smooth edges.
"To the dying ?” Cal’s eyes narrowed.
"The dying and the sick, some homeless. But I’m still hopeful for the Priesthood.”
"God will not allow that," Cal said, placing his hands, palm down, on the table.
Ah, but did the air grow chilly then! This was what I had hoped for. What I had planned. Cal would tell him. Igor threw down his napkin and shot a furious look at Cal who studiously ignored him.
Nervous laughter bubbled up from Fr Alexei. I savored the look of shock and mortification on Sandra as she clutched at the long bejeweled neckless that so lazily dangled between the valley of her breasts.
Nikolai frowned, “Why do you say that?"
Cal leaned back.
"Well, God gives us only things good for our soul.”
Nikolai pushed aside his plate. “You don’t think Priesthood would be good for my soul?”
“Are you ready to fulfill that duty?”
“To hear the things they have to say.”
“You don’t think I can lend my ear to some unfortunate?”
"Well, all those suffering people,” Cal waved his hand to invoke the scene, “begging you for an answer. Looking at you, daring you to look back. You know - ‘this cancer devouring my bowels, and meanwhile my idiot brother fat and happy. My wife disgusted by my diseased body. Or my daughter, devoured by it.’ "
He let these fragments twist beautifully in the air, like phantom serpents they coiled about Nikolai.
"They never give voice to the rest of that sentiment,” Cal continued, in his ease, and without mercy. “Why me? And more to the point,” Cal pointed his fork at Nikolai, "why not you ?”
"Of course there is no answer,” Cal went on, “A dead peasant strung up on a cross,” he gestured behind him, as if, over his shoulder, Christ Himself had hung there, mutilated, gasping, overlooking the conversation with His great sorrowful eyes.
"That mangled corpse is all we, as Christians, have the authority to point to. Say anything else, and they’ll kill you."
Cal took the napkin off his lap and dropped it on his plate and crossed his arms.
"But that’s not an answer,” he continued, “That’s a mystery. If you’re a good Priest, and they truly wish too, which they won’t, then perhaps, at best, you might lead them deeper down into the dark mystery of their own pain. And there to meet Christ.”
Cal searched Nikolai’s eyes.
"For that, though, you need to speak from the place of your own hell.”
Nikolai rolled his eyes and shared a look with his wife.
"They don’t want that though.” He uncrossed his arms, grabbed his wine glass, took a sip, began swirling it, staring into its depths.
"The only thing to be done is to just be there. Open up your heart to God, and let His life-giving Spirit heal through you. To abide in your own uselessness. It’s not easy. We always want to speak. To lie."
“What do you mean by that?” Nikolai asked.
"I tell you,” Cal said, wagging a finger, “You can’t ever forget the difference between them and you. A Priest forfeits all his right to cross that abyss. Have you ever spoken to the homeless ?"
Cal looked around the table.
"They all say the same thing. No one loves them. And of course you can’t give them the answer. That this is earth. Love is scarce. Any love to be had they themselves must bring. The poor, the homeless, you see, are ugly people. Petty, vicious, and resentful. Coursing with hatred. Most of their problems and woes are well deserved. But once you see this, you can kill that look of pity in your own eyes that separates you from them. Then you can speak to them, finally, as an equal."
He swung one leg over the other and turned at Nikolai. “Have you ever had a man look at you like that? With such pity ?”
"I’ve spoken to all kinds. People have always come to me with their problems.”
"You haven’t,” Cal said. “You’d know. It’s a punch to the gut. We’re the ones who pity others. But…to be pitied ourselves ?"
Rubbing the soft petals of the lilacs between his finger, Cal fixed his eyes on Nikolai.
"Do you,” he asked, “think you’re pitiful ?"
"I’m sure I can be. Why don’t you ask Sandra.”
Her eyes were pure adoration and respect, her lips smiling against his cheek.
Cal lowered his eyes to his plate, bored now. Chin in one hand he pushed about the leftover cuts of steak, making patterns in the sauce.
"It’s a great insult, ” he said, “to see it in the eyes of these people. People full of pride and foolishness. One could accept such a look from a Priest, or God. But from one of them,” he appealed to the room, “so pathetic, so below us. For them to shake their heads and pity us ! It’s a hard thing to bear. That’s the difference between them and you,” he lazily pointed at Nikolai with his fork.
Cal continued, “Being superior, you can pity. Those who have nothing to give lack that privilege. The ability to pity, and the ability to sacrifice this privilege, having things in general to sacrifice, these things are for your kind."
We all snuck a glance at Fr Alexei, to see if he would confirm or deny any of this. A noncommittal chuckle escaped his beard.
“It is because we fail in our loves that the world is nailed fast to the cross. If people were well-loved and knew it, they would sin rarely. They’d be free."
Cal threw up his hands.
"Yes, Love will finally lose our suffering flesh from those nails, and take us down into itself, into the arms of love."
These words he dropped on the table like small polished stones. I exchanged a look with Igor, shaking my head at such pomposity.
"You see,” Cal continued, “one needs someone below oneself to care for. The ones at the bottom who can care for no one, they uphold the entire world, gifting all of us, against their own will and desire, our dignity and personhood.”
“Stop.” Igor raised his hands. “All this you are saying. This is all just opinion. Opinion only. Your opinion."
He wiped his mouth, crumpled his napkin, then smiled.
"Others know better, eh Father ?"
Fr Alexei nodded, “Oh yes."
For it was true, the worth of a man's words were backed by experience. Cal’s life, judging from appearances, brought little value to these grand sentiments.
Cal merely shrugged. Igor began to dig into his meal then looked up again.
"That’s another thing,” Igor pointed to Cal with a juicy strip of steak dangling from the end of his fork, “You talk but with no kids. Very different when a man has to raise a family. To earn a house. That you know nothing about.” He chomped the chunk of meat.
Cal, who had no wife, no children, nor even the achievement of a mate, yet sat lecturing us all on love, sat haunched over his plate. He played with, but did not spear, the uneaten meat.
“Well,” I folded my hands on the table, “And how did you learn to be so loving towards all these poor, mentally ill people Cal?"
"Because I’m one of them."
"Oh, no you’re not,” Betsy clucked her tongue.
"I don’t think you’re like them."
"Tell us what you know of love,” Cal addressed me, “If anything."
“What ?” I said, “I’m not the great expert here."
"Tell us what little you do know then."
"I once was touched by love."
I blushed at how ridiculous that sounded.
"Tell us. I want to hear about it,” Betsy leaned in.
"Yea, tell us,” Joe gave me a friendly smile.
"Well, it’s no grand love story."
"Go ahead,” Joe encouraged me.
"Well, I never really tried to date, for various reasons. I just…didn't think it would work out."
I snuck a peek and saw that Betsy was still listening.
"But, there was this one girl, I’d known her for years, and one day, out of the blue, she asked me out. It only lasted two weeks. She broke up with me, which was fine. But, as insignificant as it was, I did learn something.”
I realized I was toying with my collar and stopped. I quickly polished off a glass and poured myself another.
"Don’t you see ?” Cal said. “That was just some stupid little girl. She probably didn't even like you. But,” he raised a finger, “just that little affection…and it tore you out of your little death spiral, and into life !"
He slammed his palm on the table.
"But now, think of the love between normal people. Then think of the love of a saint! Then, consider this."
He paused, struggling to give shape to some vision.
"Could some beloved,” he spoke deliberately, eyes peeking over steepled fingertips, one eyebrow cocked, “be called from out the very grave, if love had power enough ?"
He held up a hand.
"Could this love, think of it, summon the beloved from the rot of the earth? Simply because …you needed them to be?"
He looked back down into his wine glass, “Fr Alexei can talk all about the resurrection, but I know it."
"I’ve experienced it. And so have you,” he pointed at me.
"That petty crumb of affection, from some girl, who herself had likely only the most damaged capacity to love, transformed you utterly."
He glared at us.
"Do you see? My words are true! You can hear the weight of them, and their weight can lodge in your heart."
We all studiously avoided eye contact with one another.
Dimitri did become ordained the following year. I decided to go see him serve.
It was in the middle of lent, Christ readying to go down to Hades, and the parish jostled with designer purses, fine overcoats, and expensive perfume.
Extravagantly ornamented, this Church. Massive richly painted icons of saints decked the walls, high above, an enormous candelabra ornately embellished with a ring of dragons.
Dmitry grandly arrayed in his liturgical vestments. Shimmering bright sheep and lambs, and a few doves, were elegantly sewn into the fabric with fine crimson and golden thread.
The iconostasis alone must have cost a fortune. Robed in majesty, hollowed, the painted Saints looked down on us, guarding that border which separated earth from heaven. All who wished to enter could do so only confronted by these pure, sad faces. How Nikolai had the nerve to I wondered.
The service unfolded, taking on its familiar rhythm, the byzantine chant, lapping like gentle waves, carrying me to some childhood twilight place.
A watcher only, I did not receive the Eucharist.
The main part having ended, in our denomination, the Priest will then announce any upcoming birthdays. The congregation sings to the celebrating member a song, “God grant you many years.” A quaint tradition.
“I see here it’s Henry’s birthday,” Nikolai said, looking up from the bulletin.
His eyes swept over to a young man slouching in the far corner with arms crossed, chewing a toothpick with a cynical smile. He wore ripped jeans and an oversized dark green military jacket. His head was shaved and, even in Church, he wore blue sunglasses.
"We’ll sing many years to Henry,” Nikolai raised the cross to begin.
“Don’t do that.” Henry stopped him, startling the congregation.
Nikolai’s smile froze with surprise and confusion.
"Oh, no ?"
"Are you sure?"
"If God wants to give me dental insurance,” Henry smiled wryly, appealing to us all, “or get rid of this toothache, He can do that. Years, I got enough of."
The smile melted from Nikolai’s face.
"I see,” he nodded solemnly. “Alright then."
He quickly ended the service with a prayer and invited us all downstairs for coffee.
I decided to stay, why I don’t know. Down I followed the masses. I grabbed a cup of coffee and sequestered myself at one of the small round tables in the far corner.
Luckily, Nikolai was too busy mingling and socializing to notice or recognize me. Or perhaps he had and decided to pay me no attention.
Either way, I cradled my mug of hot coffee, staring into its blackness, in a daze.
A voice startled me and I turned to see that surly young man, Henry, sitting at the table behind me. Across sat Nikolai. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop.
"C’mon, you really think I’m gonna use those years for repentance ?” Henry looked incredulous, his thin-lipped smile more a sneer. “No. I’ve spent all my life, every day, making little decisions. Decisions the other way."
He leaned back, arms dangling at his side, staring vacantly across the room through blue lensed sub glasses. He scratched his bald head.
"I’m stuck in hell. Can’t get myself out. Why the hell would I want more years?"
He sucked in his teeth and shrugged, merely stating the fact.
Nikolai gripped his coffee mug, holding it close to his chest as if for protection. He looked like a miserable, orphaned child, desperate for his mother. I couldn’t help but pity him.
Nikolai opened his mouth to speak, then stooped, as if something had just occurred to him, and snapped it shut.
Henry frowned into his chest, puzzling something out. When he looked up he appeared thoughtful.
"I mean, Father,” he dropped his voice, speaking confidentially, looking over his blue lensed glasses, “you ever think of that? Asking God to grant someone all those years? And then they get a long life and life screws them. They end up wanting to bash their brains out."
The young man crossed his arms and shook his head. He scratched his bare chin eyeing Nikolai carefully.
Under his gaze, like a fire panic spread throughout Nikolai’s face. I saw him swallow and turn away as if to escape, shifting a nervous hand through his hair, still thick and black.
Henry nodded to himself, satisfied. He heaved a great sigh and relaxed into his chair. He looked down at his jacket and pretend to pick off fluff.
When finally, with yet another sigh, he raised his eyes back up, he gave Nikolai a look of such deep sadness, of such overflowing compassion and baffled pity, that, shocking myself, I nearly burst into tears.
Nikolai winced but he did not speak. He only sat there, defenseless. Suffering whatever lacerating words, the only gifts he would receive, Henry might stab him with. Or maybe the silence was his answer.
A mad desire seized me to take hold of him and protect him from Henry or anything else that might give him pain.
I could see now. Nikolai had become a Priest after all.
After coffee hour there was a gathering at Nikolai's house, just up the road behind the Church. Everyone walked up and I followed the crowd, a bit curious.
His house was no mansion, but his land impressed me, Fields stretched far away. Horses roamed about the fenced-in areas. Squinting I saw a little girl atop one, her mother griping her anxiously, a faint squeal of delight rising to the cloudless still sky.
I passed two ponies, a little girl straddling each, and found Nikolai in the backyard. Out of his cossack now, his skinny white legs poked out of pale red denim shorts.
“Nikolai! It’s been a while."
"Oh, it’s you. Yes, it has. Do you like my new bar-b-Q? Quaint isn't it ?"
The burgers he had stacked in a neat pyramid.
"I’ve never seen anyone grill like that before."
"Yes. The pyramid shape distributes the heat evenly you see. I read a superb article on grilling technique."
Just then the pyramid toppled over, two burgers hitting the manicured grass.
"Oh for Pete’s sake !"
He picked them up from the ground frowning,
"Well, go grab yourself a beer. I guess this might take a while."
I bowed out, leaving a line of others to greet the good padre.
End to end he had pushed together three picnic tables to make one long one. Standing at the head he blessed the meal and we all took our seats. Sandra sat next to him, kissing the cheek of a young boy with messy thick black hair, not doubt their son, and another little girl, his sister I assume, handing Sandra a tiny fist full of small white flowers. Sandra filled her dress admirably, I lost myself in the bright floral patterns, bright reds, and purples. A queen’s bearing, Nikolai was a lucky man.
A tap on my shoulder spun me around.
"Cal !” I hadn't expected to see him
"Fancy a walk?"
"You’re not eating anything?"
"Later. When I talk to that viper,” he nodded his head in Nikolai’s direction and winked,
He turned away. Not wishing to be rude I put down my burger and followed.
We walked a trail alongside the horses. They mulled over grass, massive coasts shining in the sun, the occasional snort sending up a cloud of flies which decided to follow us, buzzing in our hair. Down a little hill, we passed by a dark wood to our right as I swatted them away.
"So Cal, you look well, haven’t changed a bit."
"Have you changed ?” he looked back at me, smiling like a crocodile.
“In what way ?"
“Hmmm. Still no girlfriend ?"
"Well, no. There was one. It didn't work out."
"No, not brief. A few months."
"You’re renting a room from Joe aren’t you?"
“Can’t move a wife into some little old room I suppose."
"Well, I have my own bathroom,” I said lamely.
“I thought you shared it with their son."
"Oh, yes. I do. Now that he’s back from college. But for a while, I didn’t. And if he moves out, then I’ll have it to myself."
"Something to look forward to."
"So where are you living these days ?"
"Around,” he waved off the question.
The path opened up to a small plot of cleared land studded with a dozen ancient gravestones.
Cal leaned on one, regarding me through dreamy eyes, chewing on a blade of grass.
"I didn’t know this was back here,” I said.
"It was built over a hundred years ago. The property came with the Church. For impoverished parishioners, too ruined by life’s cruelty to be able to afford their own plot of dirt."
Some of the old stones, covered in Ivory, only ruble in the tall grass.
The sun beat down. I shooed away a cloud of flies biting at my face.
"I guess you were wrong about Nikolai,” I said.
"Was I ?"
"Remember, you said the Bishop would never ordain him."
"Did I ? We’ll see. It’s only been a year. He’s still on probation. And I’ve seen him serve. The man makes mistakes left and right."
"He seemed perfectly reverent to me."
He squatted down at a gravestone worn to a mere rock peeking out the ground. Trying to brush away some dirt, he smeared it across the inscription.|
"Actually,” he spoke to me over his shoulder, “I plan to speak to the Bishop about it at the upcoming parish council."
"Is that necessary ?"
"He shouldn’t be serving."
"He’s only just begun. He’s still learning. And he has a family to support.”
“I have a way with words. I think the bishop will listen to me."
He licked his thumb and began to wipe away the brown smudge on the grave. I watched his back. A bird chirped somewhere. Perhaps the graveyard had taken over my mind, but a thick choking rage began pumping through my veins. The man was an abomination. Worse than some ghoul. His pretty words were soaked in venom. His entire being all bile. A hateful little prick. My vision blackened.
As in a dream, I found myself rushing toward him. I took told of his hair in my fist and dashed his head against the rocky tombstone.
He rolled to the ground. His eyes were wide and like panicking ants fear danced about his face.
I took a rock from the grass. Like a spooked horse he went to scream before I brought the stone crashing down, feeling his teeth shatter under its wet thud. I raised my heavy arm and brought hot down a second and a third time.
After searching Nikolai’s property I eventually found a shovel in an old barn and spent the next few hours digging his grave. I shoveled dirt into the crushed hole that was his mouth, then rolled him into the hole and filled it up.
The sun was setting when I returned to the party. Drenched in sweat and exhausted I avoided Nikolai but the following Sunday at coffee hour we met for a good chat. I decided to choose him as my Father confessor. After some weeks, I kneeled in the confessional and admitted to him all that I had done.
"You buried him at my home ?” His voice was a mere whisper in his booth.
"Is this a joke ?"
“Listen to what I’m telling you. He’s dead."
"What will you give as my penance Father?"
"Penance? A man is dead! You murdered him. Oh, Cal! And in my backyard! If someone should find out…."
"I can plant flowers."
"Lilacs Father. Over his grave."
He went quiet. I waited long minutes in the dark for him to say something. Eventually, I rose to leave.
I sat back down.
His voice still shaky, “Bow your head."
I did so.
"This is the penance,” he mastered the tremor in his voice, “that I lay upon you. You will buy Cal a headstone, plant flowers about his grave, and keep the site clean in perpetual remembrance of the man whose life you took. You will offer up daily prayers for the eternal rest of his soul for all the days of your life until that time you meet our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus when He shall come to judge you."
"Yes Father. I will. Thank you."
"No,” he said in a small voice, “thank you."
Nikolai, bound by his oath, did not go to the police. Each returning spring, after Resurrection Sunday, I go to his house. There, where the dead are silent, I listen to what the lilacs say. I gather them up. I lay the lilacs at the foot of the cross.