Authors: Jonathan Rabb
Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote.
Dictionary of the English Language
arth and glass sifted through a moonless sky. A thick wall of flame some two hundred yards off pinpointed where shell had met target, seconds later a pulse of heat searing its way through an already-sweltering night.
For several moments, everything became strangely quiet. No sound of machine-gun fire, no siren song of incoming rockets, only the sharp taste of gasoline as it began to suffuse the air. A few distant shouts echoed in the open expanse, quickly drowned out by the rising pitch of the
school-turned-fuel-depot. It had been an age since children had inhabited the place—six, seven months at least—the entire village reduced to little more than odd mounds of stone. Prjac had never been much of a town to begin with; now it suffered a far more damning fate. Strategic importance, caught between Serbian Banja Luka and Croatian Bosanski Brod. A vital piece of turf.
For the time being.
Ian Pearse stared out into the night. He’d lost ten pounds in the past two months, his six-foot-two frame reduced to taut skin and muscle. Once clean-cropped hair now draped to near shoulder length, pulled back behind his ears, sweat and two weeks without hot water enough to keep the tangled strands in place. Yet his face remained clean-shaven. Somewhere along the way, a shipment of ten thousand safety razors had found its way to the supply dump in Slitna, a substitute for the
they had been begging for. People might be dying, but at least they were well groomed.
“They’re taking the bait.” A whispered voice came from up ahead. “Wait for Josip to draw their fire; then go.”
Prjac’s church—or what was left of it—stood no more than thirty yards from him, its silhouette cast in the glow of flames, two walls, bits and pieces of roof dangling from above. Pearse clutched at the turf under
his hands, listening, waiting for the peal of tommy guns. The fuel tank had been a surprise, an added bonus, far more than the diversion they had intended—blow up an old building, draw attention away from the church, away from the three boxes of black-market penicillin they had been told would be inside. A depot, however, required guards, more than they had anticipated. Which meant one or two might still be waiting.
A burst of gunfire, and Pearse leapt out, his torso crouched low as he wove his way toward the church. His legs had grown accustomed to the spongy sod of Bosnian countryside, gelatinous clumps made thick from the summer rains. He did his best to run on tiptoe, every so often his feet slipping out from under him, a quick hand to the ground to steady himself.
No more than fifteen feet from the church, he stumbled again, suddenly face-to-face with two green eyes, the outline of the fire undulating in a pair of lifeless pupils. The man’s neck had been slit. Silent, efficient. Pearse placed his hand on the frozen gaze and shut the eyes. Another wave of gunfire. Somewhere up ahead, two figures darted into the church. Pearse wasted no time racing after them.
Inside, he leaned up against one of the two standing walls, to his left the remnants of Prjac’s lone stained-glass window, pieces jutting out into the night, prismed blues and reds reflecting on the piles of stone scattered about. A second fuel tank ignited in the distance, another wave of stifling air. Instinctively, he pulled back and glanced around the little church; he noticed a few cots against the far wall, blankets, some straw. He wondered how many had taken refuge in the abandoned church, how many had lain here wounded or dying, praying for the trucks to come and cart them off to some imagined hospital, refugee camp—more likely, roadside grave. Muslim and Catholic lying side by side. Waiting.
It was only at moments like these that he let himself see beyond the narrow focus of survival to the real devastation. Thousands upon thousands driven from their homes by their own neighbors, friends, told to take what they could and go. Where? It didn’t matter. Just go. Those lucky enough to get to the border had survived five weeks on foot for a car ride that would have taken less than six hours a month ago—forests, mountains, never the main roads for fear of paramilitaries all too ready to take potshots. And all for the dim hope of cramming themselves into sports halls, warehouses, one blanket per family. Those not so lucky were hunted down, ambushed.
Sometimes in a church.
Pearse tried not to let his mind wander. Instead, he ducked down behind one of the piles of brick and waited. He knew that to grant those thoughts more than a few seconds would have made day-to-day survival impossible; to deny them altogether, though, would have made him numb. And as much as he might still have hoped to reclaim the naïve, albeit well-intentioned, convictions that had brought him here, he knew there had to be more to it than that. His faith remained strong. Numb wasn’t a possibility.
Not for someone whose future lay in the church.
His parents had been against it from the start. They were both academics, both good Catholics, but more for the sake of their own parents than for themselves; faith hadn’t really been a part of the calculus.
Except for the rituals. Those, they’d always liked. It’s what he and his two brothers had been brought up on, little in the way of substance, but plenty to fill the calendar. Of course, nothing that might infringe on baseball practice, but there was always something for an altar boy to do, especially for the youngest of three. When he began to notice there wasn’t all that much to it, he hadn’t gotten an argument. “A cultural thing,” Dad had said, “to keep the family together”—which meant, of course, more time with the rituals. When he told them he’d found
even more compelling, again they’d hardly been surprised. After all, the college scouts had made it clear how good he was. Not just at the game, but in the way he played it—with a kind of delight, a wonder. Pearse was at his best when on the field, and everyone knew it. As long as he kept going to church on Sundays, no problem.
When it turned out to be faith, and not baseball, that was inspiring him, his parents had stared, stunned.
“A priest?” his father had said. “Isn’t that a little … too Catholic?”
School had been the first compromise. Notre Dame. He’d gotten the scholarship to play; why not see it through? And, as reluctant as he was to admit it now, the status of gentleman jock had made campus life pretty nice for a while. A few big-league scouts had even come to see him play. Come and gone. Still, everyone had been duly impressed. Especially the young ladies. He hit for power. What could he say?
His major had been the second. He’d originally signed up for theology, but Mom and Dad had convinced him to broaden his horizons. Classics. Now, there was a leap. He’d laughed and acquiesced. But even he had been surprised when he’d begun to show an uncanny facility for
Latin and Greek. A special gift, he was told. The folks had been ecstatic. More so when he’d admitted just how much fun he was having in class with a collection of old fragmentary tracts. It was like a game, he said. Filling in the missing pieces of the jigsaw—the words that were never there, the scattered phrases on a parchment that he learned to turn into coherent thoughts. He’d always had a knack for puzzles. Dad had actually laughed.
Until Pearse had told him it was Saint Paul, not Horace or Aeschylus, who was providing all the fun.
“We send him to a Catholic university, and he wants to sign up for life? Where did we go wrong?” Dad had been joking, of course; his parents had never doubted his sincerity, even back in high school. But Pearse knew the jabs meant that they’d never really get it. They were far more comfortable with the intellectual detachment, debating the minutiae, reveling in the ambiguity. Not surprising. It was how they’d always dealt with their own faith, as something to be held at arm’s length.
And Pearse knew that wasn’t going to work for him. He’d switched to theology, spent a couple of summers working for the archdiocese in Chicago, and taken his first real steps beyond the rituals. The first steps beyond the games of scholarship, and into the trenches with the church.
And with John J.
Even now, four thousand miles away, and crouched up against a ragged pile of bricks, Pearse couldn’t help but smile at the thought of Father John Joseph Blaney, rector of the Church of the Sacred
shock of white hair, those eyebrows always in need of a good clipping. The first time they’d met, Pearse had actually had trouble not staring at the wisps sitting there like spider’s legs, curling to the lids, though never daring too far. It was as if even they somehow recognized Blaney’s authority, hulking shoulders over an ever-thinning body, all of it an echo of the once-imposing figure.
It had been the same with the priest’s flock, even among the rougher elements—no one willing to cross the sixty-five-year-old Father. Blaney had actually gone on a drug bust once, aware that several of his younger parishioners had gotten caught up in something beyond their control. Naturally, he’d brought Pearse along with him, the two of them sweating it out with three cops in a cramped basement for hours. And, in typical John J. fashion, he’d made Pearse spend the time whispering word games back and forth, a mania with the priest, a necessary passion for anyone under his tutelage. The two, it seemed, had been made for each other.
Pearse wouldn’t have minded a little of that right about now.
“Faith’s a puzzle,” Blaney had always said. “Have to keep the mind active for it.”
When the kids had finally arrived after three hours, and with what amounted to two ounces of marijuana, Pearse had nearly had to restrain one of the cops from going after John J.
“Three frickin’ hours, Father, for two ounces of …”
Blaney had known all along what the “bust” would entail (although, of course, he’d never told Pearse). He’d also known that the sight of three undercover cops ready to explode would have a lasting effect on his twelve-year-old “dealers.” Three hours for six kids. A nice trade-off, according to John J. It had taken him a little time to convince the cops of the math, but they’d eventually come around. They’d also left the offenders in John J.’s hands. The look on the boys’ faces on hearing that the Father would be handling their “rehabilitation” had said it all.
Pearse had loved those summers with John J. Another kind of wonder and delight. After that, there’d really been no question.
His dad, however, had been another story.
“You’re sure?” he’d asked. “I mean, absolutely sure?”
“Yeah, Pop, I’m sure.” Sitting around the kitchen table that last Thanksgiving break—the two of them alone—Pearse had experienced something he never thought he’d see: his dad at a loss for words. It was the first time he’d ever felt on a par with the man.
“So I guess you were hoping I’d get sidetracked by something else.”
“No. …Yes. I don’t know.”
“That’s a first.”
A smile. “Wiseass.”
“Holy ass, I think, would be more appropriate now.” He watched his father laugh. “It’s what makes sense to me, Dad.”
“I understand that. It’s just … it can be a very lonely life, Ian. Priests are a different breed. I’m sure Father Blaney would be the first to tell you that.”
“Is that why they get the fancy flea collar?”
“I’m being serious.”
“I know. And I’m trying to tell you that I don’t see it that way. Look … remember those summer games in the Newton league?” A nod. “Remember how I used to tell you how much I loved that feeling when there was just enough sun to see the ball but not enough to really trust it? And they’d hit one out to me, and I’d race after it, and just when
I thought I had it, I’d close my eyes and see if it would fall into my glove.”
A smile. “You were a cocky son of a bitch.”
Now Pearse laughed. “Yeah. Well, remember what I told you it was like when I opened my eyes and the ball was there?”
“It’s like that, except maybe a thousand times better. You can’t quite see it, but you know it’s there. All the time. How can that be lonely?”
For just an instant, Pearse thought he’d seen a hint of regret in his father’s eyes. Not for the son who’d “gone wrong,” but for himself. A longing for a sensation he’d never know.
Even so, Dad had been the one to suggest the relief mission. Ecstatic baseball moments and summers with priests were one thing; Bosnian raids were another. Test those convictions in a place where faith seemed to be at a minimum. Before taking the plunge. It was why he had come.
Numb wasn’t a possibility.
“Over here.” A voice from behind one of the piles of rubble called out. “We’ve found them.” Pearse knew the voice, Salko Mendravic, a bear of a man, who had taken Pearse under his wing within the first week of his arrival. A man who had gone to great lengths to cross himself with gusto at every opportunity during those first two days the American priests and their young entourage had stopped in the village—“Yes, Eminence, I’ll make sure to take excellent care of these young men, so brave, so generous of spirit….” Mendravic, an artist until the war, had been equally enthusiastic about teaching them how to dismantle and clean a Kalashnikov rifle once the priests had moved on. Not exactly the usual fare for seminary-bound young men. Six of them. The other five had lasted two weeks. For some reason, Pearse had remained.