There is a knock at the door.
I leave the comfort of warm sheets, place feet into thin-soled slippers. When I open the door, a steaming pitcher of water sits on the cement floor as if delivered by invisible angels, although I know it was a human’s hands who warmed and poured the water before delivering it.
I bend down, my knees sounding as if someone had taken a nutcracker to crab claws. With both hands, I pick up the pitcher and shuffle back into my quarters. Steam swirls as I pour the water into the basin on my dresser. Neither scalding nor lukewarm, just as I prefer it. Not that my preferences are always met. They rarely are. My preferences are insignificant, so I recognize whenever they are fulfilled. I wash my hands and face with a bar of goat’s milk soap, saving enough in the pitcher to rinse properly, to remove any residue from my skin.
It’s still dark out, although not as thick. I peer through the shutters. Sunrise threatens to illuminate the old city center. The sea is still a dark sheet of glass, the pier an empty slab of white, as if, during the night, it had absorbed the moonlight. The bells in the cathedral’s tower clang six times. I lean against the window frame, and for a moment I miss the close proximity of a bell. There was a time our monastery tolled bells throughout the day. It was my initial responsibility when I joined the monastery. Even though I wasn’t an oblate, I didn’t mind inheriting the task. Twice a day I climbed the tower. Standing at the top, I always paused. It was the only time in my day I could simply be with the Lord. Gazing out, I saw the Adriatic and green hills spread out in all directions from my elevated spot on the peninsula. I felt His presence. Abundance surrounded me. He acknowledged me, this small, inconsequential speck of a human. I can still feel the roughness of the braided yellow rope in my hands, rubbing against my sweaty palms, and the satisfaction, years later, when I had worn the rope smooth in some places.
But then war came to Croatia. Our Zadar was under siege for months, years. We stopped the ritual, the tower was locked up. I missed my time of communion. The water, the hills, the breeze fluttering through my hair. This was real, not much else felt genuine. We never resumed the tradition. No one wants to be obliged with the task, and all assumed I was too old.
I too am hesitant to begin again. Too many doubts creep up in those quiet moments now. Will the Lord ever forgive our war? The hatred and suspicion lurking in even the most chaste hearts? Will He ever forgive me? People have inquired, from time to time, but I always dismiss them. A Catholic nation wants its bells. We are far too busy, I tell them, to burden ourselves with the business of ringing metal. Not every church on the peninsula needs to chime out the hour. The days blend into one another whether the bells ring or not. There are so many grave tasks at hand that it is impossible to attend to them all, and my sense of time or urgency slips from me more and more daily, grains of sand too fine to matter.
I exhale, remembering today I take confessions. Penance. Stuck in a dark box, the absence of light. Sometimes I feel it is me who seeks penance, time and time again, a circle. Always seeking forgiveness for my transgressions. Seeking, seeking from the Lord. Still. I toss the thought aside as I set the used water outside my door. This is the life I have been called to, and to not answer the Lord’s call would be a sin. We all have our roles to play in this life.
I was born into a poor family. While I was still young, it was arranged that the Franciscans would educate me, and in return I would serve in the priesthood. I never questioned this vocation, always regarding it as the will of God. My sudbina, my destiny. My mother picked me out of her brood of eight. You, you by far are the smartest. You’ll become a priest for us all, she said. Absolve us of our sins, have a position in society, she said.
I was happy to oblige her, wanting so badly to be good. Pleasing others has motivated me most of my life. Until I realized the peace and faith I was supposed to be imbued with diminished, if not took flight.
Many will come to reconciliation today. I’m not accustomed to the new numbers. Now that Communism has fallen, the churches are visited by former party members reclaiming their faith and culture, which would never leave them, even if they ran. We waited patiently, arms open, ready to embrace the prodigal children, knowing the ideology was nothing more than a vermin which would eventually be exterminated. It’s not just the older family members, but the youth of the city, the ones who have never set foot in a church, except on a childhood dare, who are coming. Yes, the ones who mocked me as I strolled the streets in my robes: Where is your God? In the heavens? They have space ships, satellites, and guess what? He is nowhere to be found.
The voice always sounds the same to me, the same toad-like croaking of a teenage boy’s crackling and changing voice. Adolescence is cruel. Yes, now one sees golden crosses everywhere, around the necks of the citizenry. Yes, golden crosses everywhere, whereas before it was rare. The old, the sick, and in private places, those isolated villages where one was surrounded by the like-minded. Understandings were reached with the informants, sometimes due to favors, sometimes family alliances. Now that little cross, so damning before, is an ethnic indicator announcing Da! Ja sam pravi Hrvat. Yes! I am a true Croat.
I sigh, entering the church. There was a time I was vibrant, quick on my feet. Punctual. That time has passed. Not so much due to bodily constraints. Even for a man approaching ninety, I can walk for miles, lift a log of wood if I must. Rather, one day it was like a switch in my mind flicked off, and I now fail to see the urgency. I fail to see a lot of what the world says is true. Somehow the veil of conventions lifted, and now it’s apparent how much is dictated not by God, but by humans. As I near the end of my time here, I know less on a daily basis, am sure of less in this world.
An oblate approaches me, head bent, eyes on the floor. His perpetual reverence is irksome.
“Father Pero,” he says. “There is a man waiting in the confessional. A bodul. An islander. Maybe an expatriate. He has been here since six this morning.”
“Hvala. Thank you.”
The oblate hesitates, not wanting to leave. “What will I tell him? He insists on speaking with you. Only you.”
“Tell him another priest will do.” A person speaks with God, not with me. Priests are insignificant, only a conduit. We are not the Church. The Eucharist is the Church. I don’t know if it is that I want to extinguish the oblate’s needless panic or my own curiosity. “Where is he?” I find myself asking.
The oblate juts his chin toward the corner confessional, the one closest to the altar. This was a man who walked deeply into the church, close to God, away from the doors of the world. This was not a stop on an errand list. Have my sins forgiven, just in case. Cross it off my list. Piazza next, then a cappuccino at Café Danica.
“What does this man look like?”
A tall man, sturdy with bit of a belly, in his fifties, weathered face with a couple of red splotches, bright hazel eyes, black wavy hair which is thinning, and a bald spot on top he attempts to hide with a few wisps of hair.
I wave my hand, nodding and he stops speaking. “Dobro, dobro. That’s good. I’ll see him.” He shuffles away.
Head bent, he continues toward the hallway, his footsteps echoing. I pause a moment, take a deep breath and stare at the golden altar. My eyes fall on the crucifix.
My childhood was spent studying that cross, and the man upon it. My mother took me to church daily from a young age, already plotting to make her case to the Franciscan fathers as to why they should select me above the other village boys. What I recall most about those early mornings decades later, is the calm. As I sat in the pew, pretending to listen to the priest, I was really waiting for a sign. Maybe it was a cough, echoing through the church, or a hymnal slipping from someone’s hands, hitting the ground. Most convincing in the way of omens was the morning sun piercing through the windows, enveloping me with a sudden warmth. I interpreted the occurrence as God’s gesture, allowing me to know that I am blessed and cared for. At some point, I no longer believed in its significance, failed to feel relief in the sun’s rays.
Walking down the aisle, toward the altar, my footsteps echo. Olivia, the cleaning woman, stands on the altar, polishing the brass candlesticks. She turns and nods to me. She must have been the first one the visitor came across. She is always the first one these early morning seekers come upon. A refugee, her entire family evaporated in the war. Committed to this place, she has not left to return to her village, even if it is all over. I open and close the thin, wood-paneled door of the confessional. The man begins speaking before I have a chance to sit down.
“Don Pero, is it you?”
I freeze. My insides seem to halt. For a moment, my heart ceases pumping and my blood turns to ice in my veins. I know this man, and my mind pulls up an image of him. Black curly hair, playing the accordion in the middle of a group of his peers, heartily singing. A feast day on the island.
“Father, father, is it you?”
“Ovo sam ja.” It is I.
How many times have I daydreamed of this moment? In my younger days, while he was still a youth, I’d thought I’d act as a brute, perhaps chastise his insolence. Years later, I thought myself above having to deal with such matters, indifferent to any uncomfortable situations. Now, with the war behind us, who do I fool? Nearing the end of life, my heart leans more and more towards myself, my failures, and all of humanity. Even the word failure—what does that mean? And to who? And of what importance?
After a lifetime of study and reflection, a lifetime of administering to the poor, I find answers eluding me. Answers I once though irrefutable somehow vanished like a sea mist. Again, his voice jars me from my thoughts.
“Do you recognize my voice, Father?” He is self-assured, his voice now more matured, more weathered and tinged with a foreign accent. American English.
“Do you remember me? So many years have—”
“Yes, I know who you are, Branko,” I interrupt. I finally have a seat in the small box with only a screen and mahogany panels dividing us. “It has been many years. When was your last confession?”
His voice is suddenly stripped of confidence. “It has been decades. Do you remember when we spoke about this? All those years ago? I can leave if my presence upsets you.”
“Nije bitno. It is not important. The Father has waited for your return.” Tears sting my eyes, but I inhale a sharp breath and set myself aside. This is not about me. It is only about the soul on the other side.
In my mind’s eye, I see him again as a thirteen year-old in church. Holy Week. His mother has brought him and Tomislav, his younger brother, to confession. What a ball buster that mother is! Biljana. A good woman, a generous woman who has told herself she cannot allow tenderness. A weakness which will be her demise, yet underneath that heavy mask of uncaring I see a mother who loves, with a pain which is unbearable.
He and the mother were the last ones in the church. I had just taken the brother’s confession, reliable Tomislav. Throughout the decades of Communism, even with his party affiliation, I heard Tomislav tell his sins in secret. But this eldest brother. I listened to them speaking. I waited. The whispers grew louder. Biljana sounded upset. The sound of sobs echoed off the high ceiling. I stepped out of the confessional, and into the almost empty church.
“Pardon us, Father,” she said, tears cascading down her cheeks.
“What is it?” I said.
“My son, he is an embarrassment.”
“Što je, Sine? What is it, son?”
The thick-haired boy retained his calm. “Father, I don’t want to take confession anymore. What I have to say to God, what I need forgiven, I can take care of with God, without a priest. After all, priests are just men, more unfair than most people I know, the way they judge and comment and carry on, without themselves having to worry about their existence.”
“Enough, Branko,” his mother said.
If he were angry, I could understand. But he had this assured, almost smug, almost peaceful look in his eyes—I couldn’t decide which. It was as if he understood the full meaning of his words. How could someone so young comprehend the way his words went against Church teachings, the way he was turning his back on ritual? Yet his demeanor showed there was not a doubt. Not a doubt in his mind that our Lord would care for him, and that between himself and God any transgression could be righted. He had no need for a conduit, no need for me.
My lips pursed, the muscles in my back tightened, and an abyss in my stomach deepened. This boy had what I had been seeking with the Father: complete knowledge of his forgiveness.
“My son, the Lord sees everything,” was all I could say. I patted the weeping mother’s shoulder, then abruptly excused myself. As I crossed the threshold, I heard slapping sounds. She was beating him, but I chose not to interfere. Instead, I walked through the fields for hours. Then I wandered further, into the foothills of the island. When I returned, the villagers praised my solitude as communion with the Lord. But I could only shake my head, saying, “A glorious day for a walk.”
I could not forget that day. It has visited me over the course of the years, each time my response changing, reflecting my development as a person or maybe my mood. About a decade after the exchange, Branko’s young bride came to live on the island. Her presence jarred me. She too, could not fully understand Branko’s resolve and faith, his separate relationship with the Lord. She could not understand his mother, Biljana, either. I almost told her Biljana’s secret, her agony.
I respectfully requested a transfer to the monastery in Zadar. I’ve spent a long time on the islands, I told my superiors. I had grown weary traversing the coast to the myriad island villages. My transfer was granted. Although the truth was that it wasn’t my body that had become exhausted, it was my heart. I did not understand. How could this boy be sure of God’s forgiveness, while I was still lost?
Months before the second World War was to start, a group of priests from Slavonia came to stay at the monastery. I was in Split at the time. The convoy of priests stayed for two weeks as they awaited clearance to go on pilgrimage through Spain. A golden man was with them. He was an oblate, as I was myself at the time. Neither of us had taken vows yet. I had never seen such penetrating blue eyes. His skin flawless, tanned to a golden hue, and blushed pink at just the precise places on the cheeks. For a week we discussed scripture, prayed alongside one another, and debated the writings of Aquinas.
In the afternoons, a bus drove us a little ways outside of the city to work the olive grove. It was harvest season. We picked olives which would later be pressed into oil. The grove was large, and it was not unusual to spend the entire afternoon, until dusk, working in long periods of isolation. We were instructed to meditate during this time, and to be present to the task at hand for nothing is menial or mindless. Of course, during the time he was there, we did much talking, little reflection. The day before he was to leave on pilgrimage, however, we were unusually quiet. I was so engrossed in my own thoughts of dreading his departure, that I didn’t pay attention to my work, and my hand caught in a small crook between two branches. When I pulled it out forcefully, both sides of my hand were bleeding, my palm especially so, the skin rubbed raw. He came over with a salve he carried in his pocket. He opened the tiny jar, and massaged it onto my abrasion.
I don’t know who kissed whom first. It was almost accidental, I liked to believe. We leaned forward at the same time, and the kiss was there, as if it had been looming above us all along, just waiting for gravity to give it that extra push. Under the olive tree on that warm, late afternoon, the sun setting on the horizon, insects buzzing about, wind rustling leaves softly. His hand landed on my buttocks, and that’s when the thunderbolt of awareness struck me. I pulled away.
“No, we mustn’t. God sees everything.”
He looked confused, then stood upright, “God made us too. It happens in nature. I’ve seen it on my farm before, with the animals. It’s rare, but it happens. God made everything.”
I shook my head.
“I have a plan,” he said. “Come with me. We will run away.”
My mind could not begin to comprehend at that time what he could possibly mean. Instead I could only think of the sacrament we were to take soon. “We promised. We’re to take vows.”
“Pero,” he said, the pleading in his voice an undercurrent. “Come with me to the new land. We’ll leave the priesthood. We’ll find a city where people like us can live.”
A city where people like us can live? In 1938 this thought was incomprehensible to me. The bells summoning us sounded through the grove.
“This is shameful,” I said, and turned, striding to the meeting point, carrying the basket of olives on my head. How could I do this to my family? How could I do this to God and the Church? Yet. A corner in my heart ached, hesitant. I wanted to go. Even as I sprinted back to the others, I already missed being in his presence. I left him there in the olive grove. On the way back, I sat in the back of the bus, claiming stomach pains, gazing out the window and refusing to even look in his direction.
When I got back to the monastery, I vomited and was transferred to the infirmary. My wound was properly bandaged there, where I remained for a day. By the time I emerged, he and his group had already left.
I never saw or heard from him again. Many times I caress my hand at the spots where he had applied the ointment so long ago. I often picture him in New York or San Francisco, or maybe even Seattle. I imagine him as a young man, walking the city streets, unencumbered, holding another’s hand, smiling. My memory does not allow for time. He too should have gray hairs, sore joints, creases and folds in his skin. Perhaps he’s dead. For a long time I was too ashamed to think it: I hope he made it to that city where he could walk about freely. I hope he retired the robe. He probably found work as a nurse or a teacher.
Meanwhile, I struggle. My biggest sin before God wasn’t that I was tempted. It was that I served him all of these years wondering what my other life could have been like. As the years descended, instead of growing sure in my choice as a tree spreads and deepens its roots, anchoring itself to a spot in the Earth, I chided myself for not rising to the call to live as God intended. God has shown me love, authenticity, and I had turned it away.
Now I held in my heart sins that could not be forgiven. I could not confess to another priest and I myself could not provide absolution. I had condemned myself to live with this knowledge, to live with my grečka. A kiss. My mistake. An inauthentic existence. My sin. I prayed about this—oh, how I prayed—and I was met with sobering silence.
Zadar became my refuge, my escape. In the city, most did not know me. On the rare occasion I stepped onto the streets, I could keep my head down and not have to assist or comment on anyone’s way of being. Mainly, I secluded myself within these cloisters and served in quiet ways, like in the bell tower, never questioning, until one day I found myself directing and orchestrating the workings within these walls.
Branko’s mother and brother, Tomislav, visited me occasionally. This family was one of my favorites. I baptized all of the boys in that family, even baby Aloysius, who never grew beyond an infant. I led the prayers as we buried his small body. And I prayed for that family’s father, who sailed on ships, exiling himself for all but a month a year for over four decades, until he was forced to retire by the state. Branko was always self-sufficient; he sprung from a pillar of strength, never seeming to need either parent. Although I often asked his mother about his whereabouts, that day in the church was the last time I saw him. Soon after, he went to work on the boats, then the military, then back on boats, this time abroad, and finally he disappeared into the anonymity of America, and I figured I would never see him again.
A couple of years ago, during the war, his son unexpectedly showed up. Some in the monastery called it a sign from God, but I doubted Branko would ever return.
Branko, not much younger than when I met with my crisis. However, unlike me, he had no fear that he could be forgiven. He believed the Lord would forgive all his transgressions, and he could be held in the palm of His hand. It was too much for me to hear.
Zadar comforts me. The city has a way of hiding you. Strolls down the doljna riva, long afternoons sitting on a bench in the wooded city park. I waited, still wait, for Him to send me a sign.
Since my transfer, I have spent forty years at the monastery, serving naš narod. Our people. My title in the eyes of the world is Monsignor, but I’m not the head of the men that reside within the monastery’s walls. I am only one of them, a single speck in the universe of a multitude of particles too small to see without a microscope, yet when united, the hope is that our work will be seen and interpreted as positive. Beneficial to all. I sigh.
Who am I to judge? I am not the Father. For me to judge sins or indiscretions, after my grečka, so many years before, well, it would be preposterous. Nije sve zlo za zlo.
In the darkened booth I wait for him to speak again, words having escaped me.
“I have come for many reasons,” Branko says, and I exhale. “I wanted to thank you, Father. For how you helped my son. Neven. He was here a couple of years back. During the time of war.”
An image of the young man comes into my mind, and I smile. A good soul. “It was nothing. Anyone would have done the same. Is your boy alright now?”
He sniffles, it’s obvious he stifles tears. “Neven is better now.”
“Tell me, Branko, why are you here? You didn’t come to thank me.”
“You remember my name because of the cavalier way I handled myself.”
How odd that he should recount the event in those terms.
“I’m sorry, Father Pero. For everything. I shouldn’t waste your time.” He sighs.
I’ve waited too much in life. “No. It’s not a waste.” I take a deep breath. “I remember you because of your faith, your assurance of His love.”
He sighs again, only now it almost sounds like a gasping for air. “I don’t know.
There was nothing. It was like pulling up an empty net. I waited for…I don’t know exactly what, but a sign, I suppose. I don’t think He heard me.” So I was not the only one met with this sobering silence.
“It was like being met with silence?”
“The worst kind.”
“Tell me more, son,” I say. I am not alone.
He tells me of his life in America, the trials he and his wife faced in the new land. The way Vesna almost died once, the way she was unable to have more children. He tells me of his recent hospitalization, the freak accident, the realization that he is aging. And what is beyond this life? He spoke of his sorrows, the ways his mother failed him, the ways he fails his son. He spoke and he spoke. This man I thought resided with the Lord actually lived amongst us.
“Son, did you lead the life you wanted? The life you were meant to lead?” The scar on my hand feels hot, but I do nothing. I want to feel its fire.
He pauses. “I suppose.”
In his answer I hear the depth of his doubts. He was once so sure. My entire adult life I prayed to be as sure. The one I thought would never return, has; he weeps on the other side of the partition. He weeps the pain of an animal, and a hidden spot within me clicks open. It is so quiet there between us, I can hear his soft gasps, his timepiece ticking. His sorrow is mine, and mine is his.
Come with me. We will run away. In my mind he is still nineteen, a golden boy with striking eyes, making me fall in love with him by offering a kiss in an olive grove.
“Father?” he asks. “Are you there?”
“Is this the nothing you speak of, son?”
“Don’t you see, Branko? He has always held you, held us, in the palm of His hand.”
“I want to believe you, Father, but I’m having trouble.”
My heart aches for him. I want to go to him. Instead I stare ahead. There is a crack in the wood. Is it new, or has it been there all along? I lean forward and trace my finger along the opening. A sliver of light peeks through the fissure.
“Don’t you see? There is enough for you.”
“There never seems to be. I have filled three freezers and a walk-in pantry. And you know what I see? How many days before the food is gone, before I starve and die.”
My thumb presses against the wood. The knot gives, detaching from the partition. The splinter becomes a hole. Light streams into my box.
“You need to allow yourself to be cradled in the palm of His hand. It’s our only hope.” He doesn’t respond. I lean forward, feeling a dull tug in my lower back. Peek through.
The pews are filling up with people seeking reconciliation. Some kneel, praying. Most sit, heads bowed. Sunlight filters in through the high windows, enveloping the church with warmth, pushing more illumination into my small space. On the other side of the partition, Branko is quiet, and then sighs.