BARBARIA CHAPTER NINE
Sometimes Friar Mark imagined himself as Satan’s spy, carrying on a tradition of those who do The Master’s secret work inside the fortress of the enemy. He had learned over the years that the perfect Anti-Christ is one who is able to imitate Christ most perfectly while engaging in sin most perfectly. It seemed as though he had been born to diabolical espionage, having been delivered from womb to wet nurse on the very day of his birth, inside the fortress of God, then handed over for the ensuing decade, to … His thoughts were interrupted by the angelic voice of a child who had been running, and was slightly out of breath.
“Father Abbot Joseph wishes to see you in his chambers at once. He wants you to come to his office right now.” The messenger was a tall, pale lad with clean hair that fell below his ears, neatly trimmed to just that length.
The friar tossed his cowl up over his head, turned his back on the boy, and knelt before the shrine of St. Anthony, whose rough hewn oaken statue bore in its arms the baby, Jesus, painted blue and pink. Today the man had been feeling a dreadful abandonment, as though the Prince of Darkness had no more use for the services of an aging spy who had become a bungler. The girl had over stimulated him, gotten him too excited, so that he had behaved rashly, and had not taken the steps necessary to gain control over her will.
The boy left the church door standing open. He was terrified of the old laundryman. His sister had warned him about this evil monk on the night before she ran away.
Slanting winter sunlight fluttered above the man at prayer. Tallow candles sent wisps of black smoke above his bowed head to curl about the face of an infant god, not yet crucified, looking down with untroubled eyes from the arms of a protector.
The Abbot’s messenger stood at attention, remaining silent, but prepared to turn and run, feeling that he was being tested. Someday he would be an army officer. He must learn when to stand his ground, when to charge into battle, and when to retreat with honor. Men like this surly cleric might be dangerous, but he must learn from them. He must be disciplined and watchful.
“What does he want with me?” In all of his 42 years on the premises, the friar had never before been singled out for an emergency call to the office of the Abbot. “This is my hour of silent prayer. Why does His Eminence call me away from my private moment with The Almighty?”
The boy did not respond to these questions. He had learned to keep his duties at the orphanage clearly in focus, and to perform them well, like a good soldier. His only duty, here, was to deliver the message, and he had done so. The Abbot himself had recognized the youngster’s conscientious efforts, and had rewarded him. Weeks before his sister had gone missing. Young Frank Collins had begun his training as personal valet to Father Abbot Joseph. When questioned about Frances, a half a year ago, Frank had told the old priest what he dared, but did not mention the friar.
“She was afraid of the vat of lye, Father Abbot. She said that someone was going to throw her into the boiling lye, and kill her.”
Father Joseph had gone directly to the laundry that day and spoken to Friar Mark, without mentioning what the boy had said.
“Did the girl seem frightened, at all? Did she behave strangely?” the priest had asked the laundryman.
“She was afraid of the vat of lye, Father. Just yesterday. She would not take the stairs to the top of the vat. I told her that she must do so, that it was her sacred duty to do so, and that the Holy Mother of God would always protect a child who performed her sacred duty with a glad heart. And now, it seems, she has run away.”
Father Abbot had apparently been satisfied with Friar Mark’s explanation. Young Frank was told by the Abbot never to speak of the matter again, and to ask God to put his sister’s words out of his mind, and to pray very hard for the salvation of her immortal soul until the day that she would be found. The boy had done as he was told. He had prayed for Frances’ immortal soul, and for her safe return by Christmas. But Christmas had come and gone, now, and Frances was still missing.
“What does His Eminence want with a poor little brother of St. Francis, that he would call a sinner away from his private moment with the Almighty?” The friar moaned as he spoke.
The youngster at the door shuddered with fear at the sound, but remained still. It was difficult. Even though he prayed for her every day, Frank tried hard not to think about Frances - not to think of the terror in her eyes and the dreaded sobbing in her voice as she pleaded with him that October night.
“Fetch our brother. Fetch Terrance from his bed. We must run from here tonight! The Devil himself is in the laundry, Frank. Friar Mark is going to kill us all. He’s going to throw us all into the boiling vat. He’s big and strong, Frank. We can’t stop him.”
Frank hadn’t told the Abbot that part of the story.
Lazarus O’Brian had been a guest of honor at the San Fernando Mission for several days prior to Friar Mark’s summons to the office of his superior. O’Brian was received with honor because he had written ahead to Father Abbot Joseph, expressing an intention to donate a substantial sum to the Mission’s building fund.
Lazarus had also expressed a special interest in the missing Collins girl, explaining that he had been a long time friend of her family, and had confidential information concerning the child’s fate. Lazarus emphasized the confidentiality of his information, and asked that he be allowed to relay it to Father Joseph personally, in the sanctity of the confessional. He included in his letter, two signed statements of personal reference, one from the California State Secretary of Commerce, and one from the Bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento.
Lazarus’ confession took place in the Abbot’s chambers, where the penitent knelt upon a rough braided carpet that caused his knees to ache. The confessor sat in a chair beside the man, facing opposite so that their eyes did not meet, for this conversation was not among men, but between a mortal soul and God. The priest’s presence was necessary only as a divine instrument of absolution.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” said Lazarus, “I have secret information about a missing child, and I have intentionally withheld the facts from the proper authorities.”
“Yes, my son. Go on. Is the child dead? Has she been murdered?”
“No, Father. She is safe. She is in my home. We have concealed her true identity, and adopted her as our daughter, giving her the name of O’Brian. That has been my grievous sin, Father. I have been deceitful, and committed the mortal sin of ‘bearing false witness.’
“If you kidnapped the child, my son, the sin has been much more grievous. Why would a man of your stature do such a thing?”
“There has been no kidnapping, Father. She ran away from your orphanage, and my men found her, nearly dead at the side of the road. They brought her to me, and my sisters and brothers and I have nursed her back to sound health.”
“But why did you not contact the authorities? Why have you, ah, borne false witness, as you say, these many months?”
“That is the terrible part of the story, Father. Indeed, what I must tell you now is unspeakable, and must not to be revealed to the ears of the profane. The truth must remain here, Father, uttered in the presence of the Almighty, in the sanctity of His holy sacrament of confession.”
“Of course, my son. What is this evil of which you speak?”
“His name is Friar Mark …”
Lazarus began to tell a story which Jorge and Raphael had pieced together from the reluctant and intermittent narrative of Frances. The penitent’s knees were in pain and his legs trembled as he spoke. He asked to be allowed to continue the awful tale from a sitting position.
“Yes, of course, My son,” said Father Joseph, and they took an intermission to arrange another chair beside the abbot’s, facing away like a love seat in the French style. Because of priestly protocol, Joseph was the father and Lazarus the son, but both men were well over fifty. Unlike the imposter, Lazarus, whose was of Castilian and Norwegian heritage, the priest was a genuine Irishman, come from County Cork to Boston as an infant. His eyes were the gray color of his hair, and the skin of his hands and face heavily freckled by years of sunburn.
“Ah, thank you, sir,” said Lazarus, easing into his chair and looking out the only window in the sparse room. The bare limb of a cherry tree caressed the glass. He could see the early buds of leaves and flowers. “Before long, Father, your window will be filled with cherry blossoms.”
The priest did not answer. His silence was an admonishment - a reminder to the penitent that he was still engaged in sacramental confession, which did not permit frivolous conversation.
Lazarus took the hint, and cleared his throat. He would have liked a drink of water, but did not ask.
“You have made a serious accusation,” said the priest, “against Friar Mark who supervises work in our laundry. Please continue.”
“Yes, the accusation is quite serious,” Lazarus agreed, “but it is not mine. It is the testimony of a child that I am revealing to you as the basis for my sin of false witness. I feel that I must say as well, that I have come to love the girl as a daughter, and that I believe her testimony to be true.”
“Yes. Go on, then.”
“She claims that this man, Friar Mark, tied a live, newborn rabbit … a wee, hairless bunny, she called it … on the end of a length of string, and dangled it over a vat of hot lye-water. She has described this event in great detail.”
“Yes, I’m sure. I must take a moment, my son, to give you some, shall we say, historical facts concerning our laundry and its vat of lye. Unfortunately, the facts are of a tragic nature,” The priest’s voice was somber. “Three children have fallen into that vat over the years. One has died, and the others were both terribly disabled and disfigured by the caustic chemicals. The laundry work entails a certain amount of risk, you see, and it is Friar Mark’s responsibility to impress that fact upon the children. This business with the rabbit is no doubt one of the methods which he employs to make that impression, you see?”
All that Lazarus could see in his mind as the priest spoke, was an image of Frances drowning in the vat. “Yes, I do see, Father. Please hear the rest. I have yet to tell the ‘unspeakable’ part of the child’s story.”
The priest’s voice softened. “Ah, my son, a confessor soon learns to listen with patience and tolerance to the most sordid of tales. Please go on.
“I shall attempt, Father, in the interest of objectivity, to put what I am about to say in the child’s own words, as they were uttered by her with evident fear and reluctance. But before I do so, Father,” Lazarus asked, “may I please have a drink of water?”
The priest reminded the penitent that this was not a time for self-indulgence, and that he should humble himself before God by practicing self-denial, but to go ahead and take a small sip of water. Lazarus went to the sideboard and sipped discreetly, noticing that the priest was watching him in a mirror on the far wall. He returned to his seat and resumed his confession.
“She said that Friar Mark is a very strong man. Of course, she is just a little girl, so even a man of moderate strength might seem very powerful to her,” Lazarus was timid about describing the sexual assault, and felt himself procrastinating. He wanted to simply rise and leave the room. He was prepared to pay this priest a lot of money to leave Frances alone. Perhaps this confessional charade was unnecessary. But the matter was delicate. He and his brothers wanted to bring the damned laundryman to justice, but they wanted the police left out of it. The matter was indeed delicate. They needed Father Abbot Joseph’s cooperation.
Lazarus continued, “She said that he held her by the neck with one hand, and rubbed her hard between her legs, under her dress, in the place where she goes wee-wee. Those were her words, Father. ‘He held me by my neck and rubbed me hard under my dress in the place where I go wee-wee.’ Those were her words, and there is more.” Lazarus leaned back in his chair, heaved a sigh, and risked a sidelong glance at the priest. The Irishman’s ear was bright red. He was blushing.
“Then, she said he forced her hand under his habit. She said he had a ‘great long wee-wee’ under there, and that he held her hand in his, rubbing the great long thing until he made peculiar noises from his lips, and her arm became wet. She thought he had urinated on her. ‘Peed’ was the term she used to describe it.”
Both men were silent for a while, then Lazarus said, “There’s more, Father.”
“Go on!” The priest’s tone was sharp. He did not call Lazarus his son.
“Friar Mark told the child that if she said anything to anyone about what had just taken place, he would throw her and both of her brothers into the vat, to suffer the same fate as the wee hairless bunny.”
Lazarus O’Brian finished his confession and received absolution for his sin of false witness, then the men sat across from one another at Father Joseph’s desk for a business meeting. Lazarus felt a familiar sense of calm that follows in the wake of confession. He made a mental note to discuss the psychology of confession with Jorge at the next opportunity. These priests all believed that their power over the minds of the faithful came from God, but Lazarus believed otherwise. The power of Augustinian psychology was the thing. The architects of ritual learned from that old reprobate how to control the emotions of the multitude.
Father Joseph was shaken. His ears were still red, as were his nose and cheeks. He did not wear the tonsure, so his head was covered with thick gray hair. Otherwise the old man’s dome would be glowing like a campfire, thought Lazarus. Ah, well. He and his brothers were putting up enough money to ease the priest’s mind. Money does for the shepherd what confession does for the flock. Lazarus smiled at the thought, and wondered what Jorge would have to say about that.
“You realize, Mr. O’Brian, that these matters are both grave and delicate. We must be circumspect to a degree. We must proceed with caution and discretion.”
“Of course,” agreed Lazarus, “That is why I have raised certain facts of the case in my confession, prior to our discussion of more practical concerns. So that we may be circumspect, but at the same time … I believe that now we can exclude any involvement of the police and the journalists, and avoid all taint of scandal as we proceed to a congenial resolution of the problems before us.”
The priest’s ears flared momentarily, and without excusing himself, he stood and crossed the room to pour himself a cup of water. Lazarus gazed out the window, deciding what to say next. When Father Joseph returned to his chair, his complexion was returning to its pink and healthy appearance. The two men talked for over an hour, and Lazarus, in the end, produced some documents for signatures. Then Lazarus retired to his room, and the abbot sent young Frank Collins to summon Friar Mark.