Excerpt from The Autograph

Posted: June 25, 2008 in Excerpts

This is an excerpt from The Autograph, a story I’m currently working on. It’s a little long, but I hope you like it.

“Brother Demetri, your garden looks well.”

Demetri Antonescu turned to his unexpected guest, surprised and somewhat pleased to have a visit from the Abbot. He immediately grit his teeth against the surge of pride forming in his heart, and fought for an appropriately humble reply.

“It is the blessing of the Lord that makes it so. He sends the sun and rain, and gives the increase to these simple tomato plants.” He fingered a leaf on one of the plants, then picked up his clipping shears and snipped off a large, round tomato from the vine. He held it up for the Abbot. The Abbot took it with a smile.

“You tend it with a faithful hand, Brother.”

“Thank you, Father.” The sun was bright today, and the breeze blew fresh from the Aegean over the peninsula, gently caressing the leaves in his garden and filling his heart with a warm contentment. “It is my task.” He turned back to the tomato plants.

“I have another for you.”

Demetri paused, hand still holding the clipping shears. There was something in the Abbot’s voice that quelled the peace in his heart. His fingers tightened on the shears, and for a moment it felt familiar, reminding him of the gun. He set the clippers down and stood to face the monk. Drawn to his full height of six foot two, two hundred and twenty pounds, he towered over the smaller Abbot, and in his black cassock and brimless kamilavkion cut an intimidating figure. In his previous life in the Romanian Securitate, he could take a man like the Abbot and send him to God with a single strike to the Adam’s apple, or heart, or any of a dozen other vital targets on the human body. Such thoughts troubled him now, and why he should have them toward his spiritual mentor—a man who had shown him nothing but kindness—filled him with sorrow. He’d come to the holy mountain two years after Comrade Supreme Commander Nicolae Ceauşescu’s execution in Târgovişte on Christmas Day 1989. It had been almost twenty years since he’d taken a life. He’d spent a decade reliving the faces of those he’d killed, his willfully deaf ears now awake to their pleading. He hated himself for the monster he’d become, and he marveled at the grace of a God who could forgive such a man as he. His spiritual training at Mount Athos purged him of the nightmares he’d earned enforcing the Romanian dictator’s will. But there was a deeper training, one ingrained from a generation of hunting down dissidents and foreign operatives which rose to the surface now. There was something in the Abbot’s voice which called to it.

“How may I serve?” he asked, praying to God his instincts were wrong.

The Abbot smiled, oblivious to his torment, and invited him inside the skete. Demetri swallowed, staring up at the thatched roof and cinder block walls of the skete. It had been his home for more than a decade, but now it felt foreign. A fragment of scripture trailed through his mind. ‘Eu sînt străin şi venetic printre voi.’ ‘I am an alien and a stranger among you.’ The three pillars of monastic life were poverty, chastity, and obedience. He’d willingly given up material possessions to serve God. He’d never had much to begin with. Long ago he’d lost interest in sex, except for the occasional indiscretion. Here on the holy mountain women were forbidden, and he deliberately allowed the feel of a woman’s body to fade from his memory. And obedience? His years in the Securitate taught him to obey without question—a virtue here on the mountain.

And yet, he hesitated. The Abbot poked his head out of the skete, a puzzled look on his face. Demetri fondled the clippers, then flipped them in his hand so he clutched the sharpened blades, with the handles pointed safely downward. He ducked through the door and set them in their place on the shelf, next to his Romanian Bible and book of prayer.

The Abbot swung the teapot over the coals of the fire pit in one corner, tossing a few more briquettes into the glow and stirring it with the simple poker by the hearth. Demetri picked up a pair of cups from the shelf and set them on the low table by the only window in the skete, draping a single tea bag in each one. The Abbot took his seat across from Demetri, leaving him the chair closest to the door. He sat with his back to it, trying not to feel uncomfortable.

“Where to begin?” said the Abbot, folding his hands. “Are you familiar with the Domo tou Bibliou?”

Demetri furrowed his brow. He’d heard of it, once or twice in idle conversation—speculation among the monks about relics yet uncovered. Always it was dismissed as a legend, on par with those who sought the Holy Grail.

“It is a myth,” he replied.

“It has been found.”

He laughed nervously. “Surely, Father, you have made a joke—a story to play sport with me.”

The Abbot poured his tea. He looked at Demetri from over the kettle, his eyes veiled by the steam. “Dear Brother, I would not trifle with you. The legend of the Domo is true. This most holy relic was entrusted to a simple priest by the Bishop Crescens, before he left to join his brothers in glory at the hand of the pagan Caesar Trajan. The priest carried the secret with him to the grave. Even his name has been forgotten. But in nineteen centuries of sleep he did not fail to keep this sacred trust—until now. A week ago the Protus learned an unbeliever has disturbed his rest.”

“The crypt has been found?”

“It has.”

“Then it is lost?”

“No brother,” the Abbot shook his head. “The Lord has smitten the unbeliever. But the man was an archaeologist and would have told others of his discovery. We must protect it, my friend.”

Demetri stopped in the act of sipping his tea. He swallowed and set the cup down. His instincts had been right. “You wish me to leave the mountain.” It was a statement, not a question.

The Abbot sighed. “We have prayed about this mightily, my friend. There is no one else here who possesses the skills needed to accomplish this great work.”

“Skills?” he stared down at his hands. “Father, do you know what it is you are asking of me? To go back to that life? To become that which I have crucified? Eighteen years I have tried to forget these ‘skills!’” He put his head in his hands, trying to flush the memories from his eyes. “Long ago I beat my sword into a plow. Please do not ask me to remake it.”

The Abbot rose and came around the table to place a kindly hand on the monk’s shoulder. “Dearest Brother, we would never ask such a thing. And if you do not wish this assignment, someone else may go. Someone far less likely to succeed, I am afraid, and perhaps at greater cost.”

Demetri turned and looked hard at the Abbot. “Who?” he asked. There were more than sixteen hundred monks in the twenty monasteries of Mount Athos. He knew of none who could do what the Abbot proposed.

“Consider this, my friend, with all that you are, and all that you once were, whether or not you were saved for such a time as this. Perhaps it is God’s will.”

God’s will. He folded his hands and rested his chin on them. So much he had tried to forget. Could it be? Might God even redeem his past for His service? His eyes wandered to the window. Outside the sun shone on the leaves and trees—a field of green rushing endlessly down to the perfect, forgetful blue of the Aegean Sea. Maybe he wouldn’t have to be the man that he was. Maybe this time would be different. He turned around and looked up at the Abbot who leaned against the doorframe, watching him with silent, patient eyes. When Demetri spoke, his voice was even and smooth—a ready soldier willing to lay down his life for his Captain.

“What would you have me do?”

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