Authors: Jonathan Rabb
“Parchment, old paper … yes,” said Mendravic, his bandaged leg up on a chair, a set of headphones to his ears. Petra and Pearse sat at a table in the new communications center, the plastic box between them. Mendravic nodded as he spoke into the microphone. “Yes, at Saint Hieronymus…. I would say three, four in the morning…. The reason is unimportant. Just tell me if you’ve— … Fine, fine.
.” He turned to the two at the table and shrugged. “He has no idea what they are, either. He has a contact in Zagreb. He’ll call back in an hour.”
They had kept most of the details from Mendravic, including the appearance of the man: the two of them had been to the church; they had found the box. End of story. Not that Mendravic was anxious for specifics. He had far more pressing matters to deal with this morning. The body count was relatively small: six children, five women. Still, they needed proper burial. A priest had to be found. A few minutes for the strange stacks of parchment were all he could afford.
Pearse stepped outside. The day was already hot, cloudless, no hint of the autumn weather they had been promised for the last two weeks. It would be oppressive by noon. Petra waited in the doorway, her eyes fixed on him.
Without turning around, he said, “Come home with me.” He waited, hoping for an answer, knowing there would be none. “No. I don’t suppose that’s the way things work out.” He turned to face her.
“Not with a priest.” For some reason, she smiled.
He couldn’t help but smile, as well. She stepped toward him. They started to walk. “Things change,” he said.
“No, I don’t think they do. I have to be here, and you …” She stopped and looked up at him. “You don’t. We’ve been down this road, I think.”
He nodded slowly.
“You have to go. And you have to go today.” In a sudden burst of movement, she took him in her arms, her head tight to his chest. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in closer. They stood that way for several minutes, neither saying a word.
Finally, he whispered, “I have to know you understand,” the words getting caught in his throat.
Still at his chest, she brought her hand to her face, then pulled away. Even through the half smile, he could see the moistness in her eyes.
She shook her head. “You don’t get that one.” She breathed in heavily, then took another step back. “You have to go today. That’s what I want. Do you understand?”
Now it was Pearse who was doing all he could to stem the tears. Again, he nodded.
“I’m sure you can find a transport out of Zagreb tonight,” she said. “Salko can arrange it.” Without waiting for him, she turned and started back.
He was about to follow, when the sound of a helicopter rose in the distance. Pearse cleared his eyes and looked up to see the tiny bird lift above the horizon.
In his three months in Bosnia, he had never seen one, told they were too easy a target for would-be snipers, especially in broad daylight. Yet this one was flying in untouched, making for a large field just the other side of Slitna’s few remaining buildings. Petra watched, as well. Mendravic was now in the doorway, his hand trying to block out the sun. As the helicopter began its descent, the older Croat limped out into the
street. Making his way past Petra, he motioned for her to wait, the same for Pearse as the aircraft set down.
It took Mendravic several minutes to get within shouting distance, his hair blown wild by the slowing propellers. Petra pulled up to Pearse, both watching as two men jumped from the cockpit, each one ducking under the blades, each in sunglasses and gray suit. They approached Mendravic, the taller of the two pulling some sort of identification from his pocket. Mendravic examined the card, nodded, and began to lead them back toward town. As they drew closer, he signaled for Pearse and Petra to join him.
“These men have come about the box you found,” he said, still
over the noise of the engines. “They’re from the Vatican.”
A kind of reprieve for both, they nodded and continued toward the house.
“We’re eager to get it back,” said the taller man as he removed his glasses, “if, of course, it turns out to be what we’re looking for.”
It suddenly struck Pearse that Mendravic had sent the message less than fifteen minutes ago. How had these men known to come here? “And that would be what?” he asked as they continued to walk.
The man turned to Pearse. “Pardon?”
“The pieces of parchment. What exactly are they?”
He stared at Pearse for a moment. “I take it you were the one who found them.”
“Yes,” he answered. “And the woman.”
The man glanced at Petra. “I see.” He then turned his attention back to Pearse. “You haven’t looked through them, then?” They neared the house.
“We tried,” Pearse replied. “None of us is familiar with the—”
“Odd symbols?” the man offered.
Pearse nodded. “Yes.”
“They’re in here,” said Mendravic, leading the way through the door. The man kept his eyes on Pearse until, nodding, he stepped inside.
The box sat open on the table, the shorter man quick to begin examining its contents. Pearse stayed by the door. “The Vatican,” he said. “That’s a long way to come. And on such short notice.”
The taller man kept his eyes on the activity at the box. “Yes. Yes, it is.”
“Considering we radioed less than fifteen minutes ago, I’d say remarkable.”
“Yes.” He paused, then turned to Pearse. “We picked up your transmission on our radio. In the helicopter.” His delivery betrayed no emotion. “Quite lucky, I suppose.”
“Quite,” replied Pearse.
For the first time, the man smiled. No warmth, just a curling of lips. “As I said, we’re eager to get it back.” The practiced smile remained. “How again did you say you found the box?”
“A church,” answered Pearse, his eyes locked on the man’s. “Saint Hieronymus.”
“Just you and the woman,” he pressed, his tone suggesting he knew far more about last night than he was saying. Pearse recognized the threat.
“Yes,” he answered, his eyes momentarily to Petra. She nodded.
“Church documents,” the man said. When Pearse didn’t answer, he added, “You asked what they were. Language, not symbols.”
As much as every instinct told him to hold back, Pearse couldn’t seem to let it go. “Funny that they should end up in an abandoned church in the middle of a war zone.”
“Yes,” the man replied, watching as his partner carefully leafed through a few of the pages. “They were stolen from the Vatican Library several months ago. We were told they had resurfaced on the black market here.”
“I see.” Pearse could sense Petra’s gaze on him, but he chose to ignore it.
“Nasty business, the black market,” the man continued. “People getting killed over a few pieces of meat.” Again, he turned to Pearse. “How lucky for you that you didn’t run into anyone at that church.” He kept his eyes on him for another few seconds, then turned his gaze to his colleague, who nodded and shut the box. “And it looks as if you won’t have to worry about it anymore.” He picked up the box and moved to the door, Pearse stepping out of the way as the two men approached. “Best for everyone that way, I would guess.” Another thinly veiled threat. The man stopped, looked back at the room, then at Pearse. “So much else here that demands your attention.” Another smile before he followed the smaller man out into the street.
Pearse watched them as they went. A moment later, Mendravic was by his side. “You can be very stupid, Ian.” Pearse now looked at his friend, whose eyes remained on the two departing figures. “I have no idea what was in that box, but you don’t provoke men like that.”
“I can’t imagine the Vatican—”
“Neither can I, but that’s not going to stop me from nodding and
, and giving them anything they want. How long have you been in this part of the world, that you don’t understand that?” The two men reached the helicopter; Mendravic turned to Pearse. “And I won’t bother asking what actually happened in that church last night.” He stepped back inside, his eyes now on Petra. “I’m also grateful that no one else was there.”
The helicopter lifted off, Pearse again watching as it disappeared into the sun.
Five hours later, he stood beside a small van. The driver, a man originally from Tirana, had slipped across the Albanian border a few months back and was now helping others to find their way through the perilous back roads of the upper Balkans. For a price, of course. Today, he would be escorting a young American as far as Zagreb. A journalist, he had been told. The details never really mattered. Naturally, he was splitting his take with a few well-placed guards—if, in fact, one could call the apes at the border “guards”—but it was still good money. Americans always overpaid.
“You pay double if we get to the border after sundown,” the man barked over the idling motor.
Pearse ignored him and continued to speak with Mendravic. “I have the address.”
“He’s a distant cousin,” said the Croat, “but he should know I’m still alive.”
Pearse nodded, tried a smile. “She won’t come out, will she?”
Mendravic started to answer, then grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him close. “Whatever brought you here is still with you. Don’t ever question that.” He held Pearse for some time before releasing.
Mendravic smiled, nodded. “No, she won’t.” He reached out and cupped Pearse’s cheek in his hand. “Good-bye, Ian.” With that, he turned and made his way into the house.
Pearse waited a moment, then opened the door of the van. He glanced one last time at the war-torn landscape, then ducked into the seat. His Albanian seemed overly anxious.
“I’m telling you, after sundown, we don’t get through. No matter how
much money you have.” He waited for Pearse to say something. “You
have the money, don’t you?” Pearse nodded. The man immediately ground the van into gear, yammering away as they pulled out. It was a poor act, but at least it was entertaining. Pearse hoped it would be enough to keep him preoccupied for a few hours.
He thought of looking back, but instead, he shut his eyes.
Better that way.
he smell of incense hung in the air, strong and sweet within the confines of the church of San Clemente. A summer rain had caught most of the gathering unawares, dank heat compacted within the stone and marble walls, hats and hands turned to fans so as to combat the humidity. Even the mosaics above, ochered reds and greens, seemed to glisten in the heat. Usually left open, the nave was set with row after row of chairs directly behind the schola cantorum, the choir seats filled with boys in white robes. On occasion, a small hand slowly lifted to brush away a pool of perspiration; otherwise, the boys remained perfectly still as they listened to the Latin Mass for Monsignor Sebastiano Ruini. A voice rose from the altar in doleful Latin, its singular cadence lulling the crowd to sleep.
Father Ian Pearse sat on the left-hand side in the second-to-last row. He was using his program to fend off the heat, his thoughts on the multiple strands of sweat racing down his back.
Truth to tell, he hadn’t really known Ruini, had seen him only once or twice at the Vatican Library—a man fascinated with fourth-century architecture, on a three-month dig somewhere in Turkey up until a few weeks ago—enough of an acquaintance, though, to merit an appearance at his funeral. It was the same with most of the congregation, fellow clergy whose time in Rome was spent less with matters of faith than with scholarship. Each might have been hard-pressed to distinguish between the two, but theirs was a different kind of service to God, one without the desire to tend a flock. It had been the perfect place to come for a young priest restless in his small Boston parish.
But perhaps restless was the wrong word. Uneasy. Uncertain. The questions in Bosnia had never really gone away. How could they have? Petra had stopped writing a couple of months after he’d gotten back—he’d
made his decision; she was making hers. All ties cut. It only made the numbness more acute. Mom and Dad had told him that he needed to go back for her, figure it all out. No ulterior motive this time. They just wanted him happy.
Instead, he’d gone down to South Bend, played the young alum, worked out with the team, put on the ten pounds he’d lost. Best shape of his life.
Still, that same emptiness.
So he’d called Jack and Andy. Little brother in need of help. Jack had been studying for orals; Andy had been three weeks into a Harvard philosophy Ph.D. They’d both dropped everything and met him out on the Cape. A week at the old summer house. Nights on the beach with more cases of beer than any of them cared to remember. And, of course, the mandatory midnight swim their last night together.
“This is fucking freezing, Padre.” It was Jack’s little joke. The Padres had been the one team to show any real interest in Pearse during college. Jack liked the irony. Less so the cold water. “You get on a plane and you find her. Trust me. Situation solved.” Jack had a way of spelling things out for you. Ever since his two younger brothers had eclipsed his more than respectable six-foot-even, Jack had asserted his primacy in other ways. The words
were a favorite.
As ever, Pearse was trying to float on his back, his eyes locked on the stars. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the shriveled balls theory of resolution.”
Andy let out a laugh and immediately sucked in a mouthful of water. Blessed with an Adonis-like build—six foot four, 220 pounds—he didn’t have an ounce of athletic talent to go with it. He began to cough up water as he tried to stay afloat.
“You drowning on us, Lurch?” asked Pearse.
“I’ll let you know.”
“At least I’ve got some,” Jack piped in.
Pearse laughed. “And this from a man who’s getting a Ph.D.”
“Well, it is freezing.” Jack began to backstroke his way to shore. “You and Aquaman can figure it out. I’m going in.”
The sound of lapping water grew more distant as Pearse let his feet drop down, only his head now above water. He could just make out Andy about ten feet from him.
“You think I should go back?” he asked.
“The philosopher speaks.” Pearse waited. “No, what do you really think?” He heard Andy take a few strokes to his left.
“I think it would make your life a whole lot easier if it was only about her.”
“Meaning, if it was just her, you would have stayed.”
Pearse didn’t answer.
“So it’s not just about her,” said Andy. They floated silently for several minutes before he spoke again. “You should read Descartes.”
Cogito ergo sum
. You should read him.”
“Except that’s not really it. It’s not the thinking that tells him he exists; it’s the doubting. Because if he’s doubting, then he must be thinking. So it’s
dubito ergo sum
that leads him to
cogito ergo sum
“How much did you have to drink?”
“You’re not listening, E. Look, I’m probably the closest thing we have to an atheist in this family, but even I know faith begins with doubt. If you don’t question it, what’s the point in having it? So things got a little rocked over there. That was the whole reason you went, wasn’t it? If you hadn’t come back a little disillusioned, then you’d have a problem. I might not get it, E, but I know you do. You always have. This is the first time something’s forced you to defend it. And that’s what’s making it so tough. Until you figure that out, she could be out here with us right now, and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference.” Pearse heard Andy duck his head underwater, then come back up. “One thing is for certain. It’s fucking freezing out here.” Andy started in for shore.
Pearse stayed out a few minutes longer, always happiest giving in to the isolation, his utter insignificance within a seemingly empty sea.
And, somehow, the ball began to fall into his glove again.
All through seminary, he had managed to hold on to that feeling. That connection. That sense of absolute wonder. A life of cloistered contentment. The surest way to keep Petra at a distance.
And, for a time, the questions faded, even the doubt that Andy had said was so essential. Pearse preferred it that way. Pure reflection. A proximity to God felt in the shadowed recesses of an afternoon prayer.
But only for a time. Once on the outside, he began to run into even greater confusion, especially in the role of priest: too much responsibility
ceded by a willing congregation; too easy a reliance on detached hierarchy. Church dogma had a way of clouding everything. And what had been so pure, so personal at the seminary came to resemble that arm’s-length quality he had seen with his parents. Genuine connection no longer made sense. There was too much standing between believer and Christ to allow for it.
Not surprisingly, the emptiness from Bosnia slipped back in,
everything he had built for himself. He knew he needed to find another venue for his devotion, one more isolated, safer, where church structure couldn’t undermine his ever-tenuous belief. And where he wouldn’t allow Petra to find her way back in as a different kind of answer.
Walking alone one afternoon near Copley Square, it had suddenly dawned on him where he might find it. Or at least how. Everything had become a little too dark; he needed to lighten things up. So he’d gone back to the games, the fun of fragments and puzzles. This time, though, it wasn’t Paul, whose approach had always seemed colored by a Pharisaic past, nor the writers of the Gospels, each too caught up in his own agenda, but Augustine, where the insights remained acutely
and therefore somehow less limiting—the fun and wonder reclaimed all at once.
And so, in an act of self-salvation, he’d dived in. He found himself
by it, simple translations leading to the more complex world of liturgical analysis. Somewhere along the way, he even began to make a name for himself—conferences beyond the walls of the church, papers beyond the scope of personal faith—a scholar of language, everyone so surprised, no one more so than himself. Except, of course, for John J. He’d known all along. The onetime Bosnian freedom fighter caught up in a world of minutiae, intricacies of meanings—energy focused on the
of belief rather than on belief itself.
So much easier to “take it and read” than to take it and know.
He was, after all, his parents’ son.
Unwilling to admit that he was falling into that same trap, he’d pressed on, back to Ambrose, Augustine’s mentor, inspiration for the most brilliant mind the church had ever known. The most reasoned faith it had ever known. Find clarity in that wisdom.
So, when the opportunity to sift through a sixth-century palimpsest of the letters of Saint Ambrose at the Vatican had presented itself, he’d jumped at the chance. Not just for the scholarship but also for the place
itself. Maybe in Rome he’d be able to reconnect with the purity he’d somehow lost along the way. The certainty.
It had been two years since then. Two years in which to find other projects so as to keep himself busy, keep him in Rome, insulated in a world of abstract piety. The answers might not have been any easier, but at least the questions were once again more distant.
The congregation rose, Pearse with them. Communion. He moved out to take his place in the line, when he noticed a familiar face some thirty feet ahead of him, the man looking back, trying to catch his attention. Dante Cesare, brother of the monastery at San Clemente—and an avid digger in the church’s storied foundations—stood by one of the half dozen vaulted archways that stretched the length of both sides of the nave. One of its few non-Irishmen, Cesare stood almost six foot five. And at no more than 180 pounds, he virtually disappeared into his robes, all thoughts of a torso lost, only scaly hands and feet
from the outfit. His equally elongated head bobbed above, aquiline nose stretching the skin taut around his cheekbones. An El Greco come to life.
They’d met just over a year ago in the Villa Doria Pamphili, a park just south of the Vatican, and the best place to find a pickup game on weekends. Pearse had gotten into the habit of taking a handful of kids from the American school out on Saturdays, play a couple of innings, keep himself in shape. Cesare had appeared from behind a tree one afternoon, keeping his distance, but clearly fascinated by it all. When a stray ball had rolled past him, he’d gone after it with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old. The image of those skeletal arms and legs thrashing around still brought a smile to Pearse’s face. It turned out that what the monk lacked in physical ability, he more than made up for in his
of the game. Cesare had been a rabid Yankee fan for years, knew all the statistics, the stories. The kids loved him. Pearse handled the drills; Cesare handled everything else.
Once a week, priest and monk, two topics off-limits: Thomas Aquinas’s thoughts on eternal law and Bucky Dent’s affinity for the Green Monster.
The relationship had blossomed.
The Cesare who now waited beneath the archway was hardly the man Pearse had come to know over the last year. The chiseled face looked even more gaunt than usual, not all that surprising, given how close he had been to the late monsignor. Still, Pearse saw more apprehension
than grief in the eyes as the monk nodded to his left—an open area just beyond the archway, frescoes and mosaics adorning the high walls. Cesare moved off, Pearse behind him.
No one seemed to notice as the two men slipped away.
“We’re missing the best part,” whispered Pearse.
Cesare ignored him and continued to walk. He came to a large wrought-iron gate, a key already in hand, the stairs to the lower levels of the church beyond. Without any explanation, he slid the key into the lock and pulled it open, the sound of squealing hinges drowned out by the Mass going on behind them. Cesare quickly glanced over his shoulder as he hurried Pearse through, no time for any questions. He pulled the gate shut and locked it, then moved past him to the stairs.
Pearse had ventured down only once before with his friend. Then, it had been to see a small statuette Cesare had unearthed: a fertility relic from the second-century temple of Mithras some two or three levels below—he couldn’t quite remember which—one more piece in the ever-growing celebrity of San Clemente. Like so many of its
around the city, the church boasted a healthy cache of
finds dating back to the ancient Romans. Unlike any other, though, its lineage could be traced by descending from one floor to the next, from one church to the next—the twelfth century, the fourth, the second, each preserved in almost perfect condition. It was what made it so popular with the tourists. And why Pearse had always felt somewhat unnerved by the place. Too similar to another church. Another time.
Never quite relegated to the past.