Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Eagle Among the Dove" by Jenean McBrearty

“Father Steve Halloran. Yet you’re traveling with Anita Mallard. Interesting.” General Uri Savage tucked their passports inside a manila envelope and turned his attention to the rye bread and pork slices on his lunch tray, as Steve, shivering and hungry after forty-eight hours in the Marj prison, nodded yes.

“We met on the plane.”

“Does Benedict know?”

“The Holy Father has better things to do than monitor traveling wine merchants.” The smell of roast pork and steaming potatoes made him salivate so he averted his eyes from the tray.

 “Well, he tolerates child molesters, why not apostate priests? Filthy German.” Uri spat on the floor.

 “Anita’s a reporter. You have her press credentials,” Steve said.

Uri chose an orange slice to inspect. Fresh fruit was as rare in Marj as gasoline. “Belarus is an odd place for a romantic tryst. Why leave Venice?”

“I had business in Minsk. Anita wanted to see the Red Church. We’re thinking of using it on St. Francis’ label. To differentiate our European wines from our California wines.”

“The Church is beautiful, no? Rebuilt after the war — dates back to the 1000’s.” Uri sucked the juice out of the orange and gnawed at the pith. “Why didn’t you stay in Minsk? Tatiana Volmanskya doesn’t make wine.”

 “Poltava Limited does. And Marj could use a revenue stream from what I can see.”

Uri attacked the meat. “So you’re not interested in our latest war criminal?” Beside his tray was an Enquirer rag-mag. Dancing Her Way Into History read the headline announcing the story of Russia’s prima ballerina who was under suspicion of sedition against Eastern Europe’s newest dictator, Alexander Lukashenko.

“Don’t hurt Anita for something you think I’ve done,” Steve said.

“How noble,” Uri said, sinking back in his chair. “Save my mistress. Interesting.”

“Loving a priest isn’t a crime, it’s a sin,” Steve said. “My sin. She doesn’t know I’m a priest.”

“So, you’ve denied Christ for forbidden fruit?” Uri laughed, and returned to his meat.

“I’ve denied only my commitment to Him.” Uri pushed the plate towards him and handed him a fork. “Give it to Anita, please,” Steve said.

“She’s waiting at the hotel with your friend, Martin, in Warsaw,” Uri said, and Steve whispered a 'thank God'. He poured two glasses of wine and handed one to Steve. “You think Californians will like this?”

The wine warmed him a little. “Yes. They will. It’s light.” Knowing Anita was safe made whatever lay ahead less daunting — if it was true.

“You’re too old to play Superman, Martin,” Steve told the white-haired St. Francis accountant. Martin was packing a suitcase, throwing in socks and shoes with his toiletries. “You’ll never get through security with this stuff…Listen..” Steve tipped over the suitcase and started packing it neatly.

  Martin sighed in agreement and brought plastic vials from the bathroom, and poured shampoo and mouthwash into smaller containers. “Priests and teenagers. They think love is only for God and the young,” he said. “I’ve waited sixty-six years, never took holy orders. Why? Because I had to stay free to marry her…my Tatiana.”

“You never took holy orders because you’re a Lutheran, Martin. And you could’ve become a minister."

“And leave the Brothers to take care of their own books? Are you nuts? Franciscans pray and bottle wine, not count their coins. Here, pack a few of these tee-shirts.”

“You don’t even know if it’s her, Martin. Don’t you think you ought to verify?”

“Shut up." Martin sat on the bed and pulled Steve beside him. “You ever seen a miracle? No. You’ve spent your life with addicts and drunks. I was one myself. War does that to people. But I saw a miracle.” Martin reached under his pillow and withdrew a Von's Market rag-mag and shoved it into Steve’s hand. "The Russians got to Berlin before the Americans did. But when we did get there, we had the biggest celebration with the Ruskies you can imagine — Tovarich! Tovarich! And the musicians played Benny Goodman and mazurkas and we all danced and drank till we were exhausted.”

He dug in his breast pocket and handed Steve a photograph of a skinny and pale blonde girl standing in a bombed-out doorway. “Tatiana stepped out on the stage followed by an old man with a violin and we all went silent. She wore a loose sack dress and her ballet slippers were ragged and held on by boot laces tied to frayed ribbon, but she was beautiful. That old man played a song from Swan Lake and she moved like an angel — so beautifully, men cried. This is what they had fought for — street by street, house by house, room by room — liberating starving children, and women who saw Hell in the Nazi brothels. Martin's eyes teared and his lips quivered as he spoke. “It was Tatiana's way of thanking the troops for her freedom.”

Steve’d read stories of the Nazi brothels that enslaved captured women. “Freedom is a miracle to those in bondage," he said.

“In the audience, was a soldier in a wheelchair, missing half his face," Martin continued. "His head was wrapped in blood-soaked bandages and he couldn’t be heard over the applause that rolled through the crowd. Then someone yelled, ‘Silence!’ And we heard him call her name — ‘Tatiana. Tatiana. It's me Mikail.’ What were the odds that her brother would live to see his sister dance again after so many years and so many tears? But God had left him one eye.”

“That is a miracle, Martin,” Steve said as the old man took the picture and caressed it with rough hands and gnarled fingers.  

 “A hundred million people were killed or displaced by the war. And after that, the Iron Curtain divided the world. Now, the curtain is rent and she’s in danger again. In another prison. God’s left me one last chance to save her.”

“You tried to get her out after the war?”
“She wouldn’t leave Mikail. Crippled as he was, he couldn’t have escaped, and no one was allowed to leave.” Martin held the picture close to his heart. “I love her, Steve. I have to go.”

Uri and Steve walked down a dimly-lit hallway lined with cell doors, Uri in his olive drab uniform with red and gold regalia, and Steve wearing a heavy green coat over his tourist clothes. Four days in a Marj prison was like forty years, but at least he’d been fed rye bread and boiled potatoes regularly, and had red wine to drink. Mostly, he sat alone in his cell staring up at the sky through a three-by-four-foot window ten feet above his cot. He’d had one cold shower and had to empty his own slop bucket in the latrine every afternoon. But there was hope. Martin would contact the Papal Legate in Rome, and the Vatican would make inquires about the missing priest from California’s Franciscan Monastery. No one knew what a bad priest he was – yet. Benedict wouldn't let the Belarusian government steal one of its personnel assets without objection, would he?

“I don't mind swapping a traitor for a spy. And Lukashenko won’t care. He needs enemies and he’d prefer a priest to an old woman. The Vatican is a more formidable, worthy foe,” Uri said as he and Steve walked down a dark corridor. Uri stopped in front of a door and knocked. “Madame Volmanskya. It’s General Savage.”

“Come in,” a woman’s voice said. Savage led him inside. No key, but then an old woman couldn't escape from a dungeon.

“Talk with Tatiana," Uri instructed. She sat at a small table covered by a white linen tablecloth; before her, was a steaming pot of tea and two red, flowered cups. She motioned Steve to sit, and Uri gave her a polite bow before he left.

“Uri tells me you’re a priest,” she said when he sat down. Her hair was loose about her shoulders, laying like white lace on her black silk dress. “It’s true?” she said in well-spoken English.

“Yes. Father Halloran.” She poured two cups of tea and offered one to him.

 “I want to confess my sins, Father. Sorry, there’s no sugar.”

“I can’t hear your confession, Madame. Having no sugar isn't a sin.”

 “Is it because of the woman?”

“She has nothing to do with the sugar situation.”

Tatiana smiled. “You play games with me, Father. You know you do not have to be in a state of grace to administer the sacraments, only to receive them. You can absolve me and you cannot deny me, if I’m contrite.”

“I’m an unworthy Catholic priest, not Russian Orthodox...”

“I’m not particular. I’m dying of brain cancer.” She brushed a wily wisp of hair from her eyes. “Don’t look so sad. I’m old and achy and," she glanced around the room,

"this place is ugly.”

Steve covered his eyes with his hand, and prayed silently for a few seconds. “What are your sins?” he said softly, looking away from her. He was there to listen, not to judge. Nor was he there to see a sixteen-year-old survivor of the Great Patriotic War, but an adult who must be called to account — as we all must, no matter what life held for us. Yet, his heart wrenched for Martin, who would never see the woman he loved.

 “After the war, I danced for the Bolshoi. I and my son by Major Buchman, the commandant of a Berlin brothel. He was a devotee of the ballet and when he found out I had been classically trained, he kept me for himself — his private dancer. Eventually, I put on enough weight to conceive. A dear little boy. Klaus.”

“He was a child of rape. It's not your sin. And it was not a sin to love him, Madame.”

“To the KGB, it was a sin for me to love Major Buchman. They accused me of being a collaborator. During the trial, they brought the boy to me — so happy to see his mama — I knew they wanted proof I rejected Nazism. So I cut the child’s throat." Her words were full of a dull sadness of the past, as ugly as the gray stone walls.

Perhaps she believed death was better than life in a regime that was as bad as the one her country had vanquished. Perhaps she had a right to protect her life at the cost of the child’s. Perhaps the war had driven her insane and she was not in possession of her mind or her morality. Perhaps she despaired. Perhaps she knew her accusers were going to kill the child anyway, and thought it better he spend the last few minutes of his life in her arms.

Whatever the case, Halloran slowly made a sign of the cross above her bowed head. “I absolve you of all your sins,” he heard himself say as he contemplated what penance he could extract for one heinous crime springing from another. She recited the Act of Contrition, her hands clasped tightly in front of her. Through her hell, she had clung to her faith that there was no sin God could not forgive. She’d been robbed of everything — her body, herself, her womb. But mostly, she'd been robbed of love. “Go in peace, and sin no more,” he said though she had no need of the words except, perhaps, to hear them spoken by someone who cared.

“What is my penance, Father?’ she said.

“Go to Venice — to Martin. He’s waiting for you”

"Who?" He detected no feigned ignorance in the question. Did she really not remember? Had Martin come all this way for nothing?

"The American soldier from Nebraska. He's come back for you."

"My Martin? Has Savage agreed? Is he going to give me — freedom?" She whispered the word as though it was holy and now he knew it was.

"He will," Steve said, hoping that Savage was listening. "He knows prosperity is a worthier legacy than old, cruel regimes. When we're forgotten, he'll be remembered as the hero who rescued Marj from economic misery." 

Bishop Eduardo Alvarez welcomed a visit to St. Francis. Prior Christopher Cole had summoned him, again, about Father Halloran, pleading for him to transfer the once-urban minister to a treatment center, and claiming, "I've had it. He's disobedient, worldly, and now run off to Belarus, of all places, to buy wine and help an eighty-five-year-old man meet up with his war-time lover. If any harm comes to Martin — God knows what Halloran's doing...."

"Since that's so, why not let God worry about him?" Alvarez told him, grabbing his car keys and driving north to Napa Valley. An hour later, he was walking through a St. Francis' vineyard to an umbrellaed oasis where Chris waited for him, the vineyard where he and his father had picked grapes, the vineyard where Christ had called him.     

"There's another woman, Eduardo. Martin called me from Warsaw, begging me to help her and that rascal...."

"Martin told you Halloran's found a lover too, I take it?"

"Yes! She's not a Catholic, but we can excommunicate Halloran." Chris at sixty-eight, was still straight and tall, and wore his brown robes like he once wore his Air Force uniform — unwrinkled and spotless even after laboring hours in the fields or scouring pans in the kitchen. "I won't have him saying mass here," Chris said.

Alvarez finished his tea as moisture snaked down the glass like tears. Chris had a reputation for reforming the wayward religious through hard work and service to his aging monks. Martin sobered up after hearing Chris speak at an AA meeting, and Chris kept him sober by hiring him as St. Francis' accountant and dishwasher. Alvarez hoped Chris could do the same for Halloran though his skills were more nebulous: street smarts and gang savvy. Alvarez had bailed him out after he'd been arrested for removing a corpse; stumbling drunk, he'd taken a dead infant he found in a dumpster to the rectory, baptized it, bathed, and dressed it before calling the police. The judge ordered rehab or jail. Alvarez ordered him to St. Francis.

"He probably thought expanding the product line could save St. Francis, Chris. A contract with Eastern Europe...not a far-fetched idea in this day of globalization."

 "Bull. He saw a chance to hang onto his addiction to excitement," Chris said.

Alvarez, patted his hand. "Women can be exciting, Chris." Alvarez stood up when they heard the screech above them, and shaded his eyes from the California sun. A huge bald eagle was dive-bombing a flock of doves in the rafters of the mission's chapel roof. The doves hunkered down. "Was celibacy difficult for you after being married, Chris?"

The older man poured another glass of tea from a blue-glass pitcher. "It got easier."

"How long were you and Yvonne married before the accident?"

"Three years."

"I wasn't a virgin either when I entered the seminary," Alvarez said. "I almost quit a hundred times." The doves were huddled together, making a united front against the attacks of the determined eagle. "I have to hand it to Halloran. After all the heartbreak he's seen on the streets, he's still willing to take a chance on human love."

"We stuck it out. If Halloran can't, he shouldn't be a priest," Chris said. "As for Martin, I doubt if his geriatric lady love is still exciting."

"You talk as if you've forgotten all about Yvonne. Or maybe you've found the perfect place to indulge an alcoholic's guilt — behind monastery walls." The screeching subsided as the battle ended and the eagle soared heavenward, its gold-brown feathers glowing in the setting sun. When it was out of sight, Alvarez returned to the shade and the cold tea. "There are worse things a man can do than pledge his love to a woman. Maybe Halloran will leave the priesthood for…what's her name?"

"Anita Mallard. Newspaper reporter. Martin and this Volmanskya woman have married. Halloran is still in prison. Martin wants the Holy Father to intervene. The Orthodox Prelate in Prague has already sent an envoy."

"Is that all?"

"Well...this General Savage who has him locked up is offering to make a deal... He's making a hero out of our jackal. As best as I can decipher, he wants a development partnership contract — whatever that is — that makes Halloran Marj's wine representative and Martin their accountant! It''s...."

"A good idea?"

"That's not the point, Eduardo. Orthodox priests can marry. What if Halloran thinks he can have his cake and eat it too?"

"You mean have God and his wife too?"

"The holy life demands sacrifice."

"But not the same sacrifice from everyone," Eduardo said.

Alvarez's response to General Savage was "willing to negotiate" sent via e-mail to Martin, along with congratulations on his marriage to Tatiana and reassurance he could return to St. Francis when "it was time". He would pray for guidance before making any decisions, he told Chris, but excommunication was off the table. "God understands spiritual struggle," he cautioned, "and knows it takes time. Perhaps a lifetime. You must try to understand."

Chris weighed Alvarez's words as he sat before his computer screen, feeling the silence of two thousand and twelve years of Christendom descend with the darkness. He did understand. He knew Halloran's pain because he had cradled a lifeless body in his arms too — Yvonne, six months pregnant with their first child, who had begged him to let her drive home from the party celebrating his selection for a historic mission after years of training, loyalty, and dedication. He did understand. Ambition. Desire. Agony. Loss. Again, as he often did, Major Christopher Cole viewed his own spiritual struggle played out in a YouTube video: a spaceship descending from the heavens onto a vast, empty landscape and Neil Armstrong's scratchy voice intoning, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

- - -

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