The monk glided like a bat inside Putna Monastery, north of Romania. His black cassock floated, his cylindrical hat bowed, its dark veil flapping over hunched shoulders like wings against the night sky. And just as silent. His eyes were cast on the stone path but his mind was alert, churning memories of a night thirty years back. He was an apprentice, following his abbot along the same trail.
Then, the mid-winter bit his toes inside peasant soles, opinci. Tonight, his footsteps were hushed by summery snowflakes. The apples lining the monastery’s pathways had bloomed a second time. Monks whispered it was God’s promise against another war. He knew better. Apples do bloom twice. Wars do happen.
Then, they surged through thick fog, a God-sent, the abbot said.
A familiar candle scent revived his frozen nostrils, filling his lungs with the familiar as he opened the church doors. The abbot prayed, walls embraced his whisper.
Frankincense enveloped them as they advanced past the dignitaries’ graves; the abbot ahead, a sure footing. He, shrinking in his cassock as an echo and not angry whispers rose from the graves.
A whisper of pardon brushed his ear, an auditory sign that his leader kneeled by the Virgin’s icon, Putna’s patron.
The saints watched from the church’s dome. How was he serving Him?
‘Wait,’ the abbot disappeared inside the altar.
How bright their eyes! Were their lips moving?
The abbot pushed a bundle towards him. The air forced out of his lungs reached the heavenly dome with a sigh. The cloth felt honeyed under his calloused hands. His thumb brushed a thread sewn in the familiar cross pattern. A chill of realization flared like a silenced scream, spilling over his body, locking his stomach in a knot. He had hand-washed that treasured cloth in preparation for Christmas Mass. The autumn sunlight lacked vigor, yet gold and silver threads gleamed like jewels while the fabric’s watery pattern glowed like the sacred light of the Promised Land.
The Blessed Pall!
‘Speak of this to none,’ said the abbot and even the church walls seemed to approve his words, for they swallowed them. ‘Swear.’
His head bowed. A hand dropped on his shoulder like David’s stone crushing a blade of grass. His knees hit the stone. His clasped hands pushed the precious parcel against his boyish heart, throbbing inside its rib cage. A fervent prayer escaped his lips like the wooden beads of a rosarium.
He stood a different man, his innocent love for God a flaming sword in his heart. His hands, the hands he swore to serve only God with, held the kingly crowns of Virgin Mary and Jesus, crowns fashioned from the gold of past royal tiaras, adorned with five hundred pearls, rubies, sapphires, amethysts.
He helped a thief steal them.
The flaming sword reached his throat, forcing the air out through his lips. The words that left his mouth were a dragon’s breath against stone walls.
The abbot stood, a shadow against the moonlight peering through the apse window.
‘Shush,’ it urged, slanting under the burden of a crate.
‘Be still,’ it closed in.
‘…from God’s House!’
Sometimes the weight of a physical burden renders a moral load manageable. The abbot dropped the metal crate, crushing the young forearms between two loads.
He still felt the abbot’s fingers grabbing his neck, as cold as death against his fiery skin. He still felt his raspy lips against his earlobe. As they parted words became vapors and, when their meaning penetrated his young mind it condensed to ice that rolled through his veins, smothering that flaming sword.
They left the church carrying an iron chest with its velvety treasure, disappearing in the fog shrouding the church walls. And, like tonight, they reached the well where a man in peasant attire waited, a boy’s hand in his.
The peasant bowed in respect for the robe and the House it represented and the boy mimicked. And a familiar ritual unfolded. The monk blessed the child. The father kneeled and squeezed the boy in a hug.
The boy felt the familiar scent of wood, sweat, tar, the marks of a carpenter he associated with safety, and the sweet blossoms. And he wondered, as with everything that happened that night. But he knew, there was a time for everything and now it was for obeying.
‘You can do this, Ioane. What I told you?’ whispered the man.
‘Good heart, good will,’ said the boy.
The man enjoyed the feel of fat padding underneath the boy’s summer shirt. The childish scent, still unspoiled. He sat the boy atop the fountain’s bucket, the legs coiled around the metal chain. Small, sturdy hands grabbed the metal snake.
One more pulling onto the fountain’s chain verified its strength. He’d made it twice as sturdy last he’d worked on, and the carpenter grabbed the massive wheel when the monk’s gesture froze the time.
Remembering his abbot, the monk revealed his cassock’s leather girdle, signifying the strength of truth, the soul’s renewal. He removed it, securing it around the boy’s waist, looping it through the chain, like his abbot back then.
Four turns and the bucket reached the desired depth, the boy suspended three meters under.
When he resurfaced he held a moldy bundle. The monk remembered the gold thread of the Blessed Pall gleaming on Easter morning, joyful symbols that Putna had done without for thirty years.
‘Take them,’ he said. ‘Keep them safe. May God protect and guide you.’
With the parcel underarm and a grateful heart for the feel the small body against his hip, the peasant left.
It was July 1940. A full moon reigned, the heavens were open, and earthly treasures gone in the night. Before the Red Army pushed through a state border it had no respect for. Before it reached their sanctuary. ‘It was bad with der, die das, but it’s worse with davai watch.’ Everyone knew Red Ivan stole everything.
(c) Patricia Furstenberg