Prompt: Calculated risk | Word Count: 1,800 | Genre: Fiction
It was finally quiet. He had listened patiently to all who needed to be heard. He had dispensed wisdom to those in need of wisdom. Now they were all gone and silence crept out from the corners where it had retreated with the arrival of his congregation for morning Mass. It used to be that he loved no time or place better than standing at the altar, looking out over the faces of his small congregation. He stood for a moment with his head bowed. It used to be an attitude of reverence, but now it meant nothing more than emptiness.
This was the best time. He liked this time best of all. Still early morning with the sun advancing across the floor. A mountain breeze with a hint of fresh grass drifted in through the open door, a sign of spring. The mountainview through the door of the church was a daily pleasure he never tired of. He tidied the altar cloths, made sure everything thing was in its place for tomorrow’s Mass, and took a moment to appreciate the peace that permeated the inside of his little country church.
The footfalls of thick-soled boots on the stone floor of the entrance broke the silence and ended his solitude. His first reaction was to be grumpy. He liked being alone. He liked having the church to himself. There was a time when he looked forward to being needed, having the chance to be helpful, being able to offer counsel or consolation. He used to love the sacraments more than anything, and now he loved being alone.
Standing in the doorway was a man dressed in a dark uniform. The lapels of the tight fighting jacket were embellished with insignia and a badge of sorts sat over the brim of the hat on his head. His boots caught a ray of sun stretching across the floor, but his face remained in shadow, so Bruno could not tell his age. The starched and tucked appearance of his clothing would never be at home here where the villagers dressed in humble clothing, soft and worn from much washing and mending.
‘Hello,” said Bruno. “Can I be of help?”
“Ah, you must be Bruno, am I correct?”
“Yes, I am Father Bruno,” said a reluctant Bruno.
“Father Bruno,” the man repeated with half a smile.
“I am Miller,” the man said. The confidence in his voice echoed between the walls of the empty church.
“I’m sorry,” said Bruno, “I don’t know anything about military insignia. Should I call you something besides Miller?”
The man laughed briefly, then, looking around at the stained glass windows, said, “It is so often the same with you people. You know every name in every story in your book of legends, but know nothing of the real world.”
“By ‘you people’ do you mean country folk? Asked Bruno.
“I mean clerical folk,” mocked Miller.
“You believe I am lacking in knowledge because I wear a collar?”
“You confessed to not recognizing my rank. You were surprised to find me on your doorstep. Do you even get newspapers up here to know our army is mobilizing and war is imminent?”
“We are simple people out here in the country, Mr. Miller, but we are not simpletons. What is it we can do for you?”
Bruno watched him warily. They were well removed from cities and their troubles here in his little village, but they weren’t ignorant of what was going on. This man brought with him a promise of trouble to come. His clothing was a rebuke to pastoral life, and his face, now that Bruno could see it, was haughty.
“It always interests me,” Miller said, looking again at the stained glass windows, “that people can be simple enough to gather comfort from the stories in these pictures.” The leather of his boots squeaked on the hard stone floor as he walked slowly down a side aisle. “I am amused that you think these legends are true.” He stopped at a window depicting a shepherd carrying a sheep across his shoulders. “I suppose people with no hope of a greater life and no learning must rely on something to give them meaning.”
Bruno shifted his shoulders uncomfortably. He didn’t understand what was happening. Who was this man, and what was the purpose of his mockery? The man was saying things Bruno himself had often thought but would never allow himself to express. The man now crossed in front of the altar to stand with Bruno in the centre aisle.
“I am here with a specific purpose, Father Bruno. It might be mutually beneficial, both for me and for your village.”
An icy chill tumbled down Bruno’s spine. The air felt heavy and somber with significance.
“It has to do with your uniform?” Bruno asked.
“Ah, you are not so much the ignorant provincial as I thought,” Miller said. “Yes, of a certainty it has to do with my uniform. I am in advance of the army, sent to find a suitable place to establish a headquarters in this region. Your charming village with its admirable view of the mountains is strategically perfect for our needs.”
“The army wants to settle here?” Bruno was dismayed.
Miller looked at him intently. He was puzzled at the reaction. He thought being singled out in such a way was an honour.
“It is one such village being considered,” said Miller.
“You might find another more to your liking,” suggested Bruno.
“So far it is the best,” said Miller.
“But you are not yet firmly decided.”
“Father Bruno, come now. Where is this reluctance coming from?”
Bruno’s mind was racing, fully awake after a long hibernation. His thoughts were incoherent, but in an instant he saw it all: his villagers living in fear, intimidation, and punishment, enduring food rationing, and the demolition of their peaceful way of life. His nerve endings tingled. He had to protect his people. Somehow.
“Can I convince you, Mr. Miller, to continue your search elsewhere?”
“Are you thinking to bargain with me, Father Bruno?” Miller was surprised at the idea.
“The people here are good and simple folk,” said Bruno. “Their way of life seems naive to you, I know. But there is something fine and precious here that would be lost forever if the outside world, as you call it, were to take up among them.”
Miller smiled slightly. With hands clasped behind his back, he began a slow down the side aisle, taking in the images in the stained glass windows and the carvings of the stations of the cross. It was all myth and legend to him, a panacea for those who needed comfort when reality became too much for them. Why not have some fun with this, he thought to himself.
“I tell you what, Father,” he said, “I will pretend your village doesn’t exist. I will carry on with my search elsewhere, and you can protect the good and simple folk and their good and simple faith. All you must do is convince me there is something to all this,” he gestured around the interior of the church.
Bruno’s throat closed in fear but his heart kicked in anticipation.
“How do you propose to test me?” he asked.
“Do what you do, Father,” came the answer.
Bruno bowed his head a second time that morning. Now it was in question, seeking guidance he wasn’t sure would come. After long minutes he looked up again at the man, and nodded his head.
“Yes,” he said. “I will do what I do.”
He walked into the sacristy and calmly reciting the prayers, he vested himself. He gathered the sacred vessels, lit the candles on the altar, then took a moment to prepare himself for what he was about to do. Would he be able to convince an unbeliever that there was substance behind faith, when he might not believe it himself?
Whether there was ‘something to all this’ or not, he loved the people in his care, and he was going to take this opportunity to shield them from harm at least for a time.
He took his accustomed place in front of the altar and eased into the ritual. The words were so familiar he had taken to reciting them by rote. He hands moved through the gestures he had made many hundreds of times without thinking. As the mass went on, it took on light and colour and texture, becoming tangible to his senses. Now, in this moment, he was aware anew of the potential of the words, the significance of the postures. He felt uncertainty give way as acceptance settled into his bones. This was what he remembered. This was how it used to be, before he allowed indifference and discontent creep in.Right here in his hands was everything that mattered.
Miller wasn’t entirely a novice. He was familiar enough with the concept of church that he had some idea of the structure of what was taking place before him. He had seen the ritual mocked and parodied enough to even know some of the words. What he wasn’t prepared for was the serenity that obviously settled on the other man as the mass went on. It wasn’t merely ease of the familiar. Rather, it had substance. The peacefulness was a presence Miller could not ignore.
Was the hocus pocus of it all actually true? Surely not… and yet he could see a transformation in the man at the altar. It was tangible. As he sat in the pew watching the priest Miller tried to regather his accustomed scepticism. He was comfortable with the world as he knew it, liked the ordered certainty of his place in it. He thought the amorphous nature of faith was sloppy and disliked the sentimentality he perceived in it. “Hocus pocus,” he muttered to himself, as if for reassurance.
Bruno paused at the end, head bowed reverently. He hadn’t expected to get such a clear answer to the question he’d unknowingly asked while saying the mass, but he now felt calm despite the possibly severe consequences of what happened here today. He looked up to find Miller watching him looking somewhat bemused and resigned.
“I am a man of my word,” Miller said. “I still think all this is superstition and soothsaying, but I cannot deny… well… “ He stumbled to a halt, unable to express what he had just experienced. “I am a man of honour, Father,” he continued. “I will honour my part of the bargain. Your little flock will be quite safe from us. I will not mention this village in my report.”
With that he bowed his head in acknowledgement of what had passed between them, and walked out of the church.