Copyright © 2017-2023 by Rafael
All rights reserved Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this novel may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or stored in a database or any information storage retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, incidents, organizations and dialogue in this novel are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
The Jews know the signs that will herald the Messiah's arrival. The Christians proclaim He is come and His name is
Jesus. Muslims assert only Mohammad has spoken the final word. Buddhists declare no one can save us but ourselves.
Amid this confusion, the Servant of the One Lord appeared.
Death and Life
Ann watched her husband’s face drain its color. Watched his eyes scan the message for fraud. He turned to her with
a questioning look. “Yes.” Ann nodded. “I confirmed it. It’s from the Vatican.” Neither voiced a shared thought. Outside a frigid wind howled
as it rolled down off the mountain.
Missionary zeal had brought them to China’s westernmost provinces. Isolated, sparsely inhabited, primitive by any measure, they had thought it fertile ground to preach the gospel of Christ. A practice condemned and forbidden by the country’s godless masters, communist bureaucrats who parodied the 1st Commandment and permitted no other gods before them. Like religion, the faceless officials demanded obedience. Willing preferable, blind if necessary.
They had considered the risk but not dwelled on it. The same myopia shared by others in dangerous occupations blurred their vision. Nothing would happen to them. Until it did. And now it had. Two sentences froze them in place. “Your position compromised. Intelligence agents perhaps an hour away.”
John and Ann Wolfe stared at one another. How had it come to this? They had pledged themselves to God’s work. He demanded it. “But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.” Did He demand their lives now be forfeit? John raised his hands to frame his wife’s face. “The martyrs faced far worse. We will not make a mockery of our faith. Not now when He tests us.” Ann’s eyes welled.
“And our son?”
They had tried everything. But their love would not permit abstinence. When Ann emerged from the washroom holding a pink-colored strip, they had fallen to their knees and praised the Creator for the life that swelled within her.
The two American doctors could not have asked for a more perfect child. The pregnancy had been mild, the birth quick, and the four months quiet. Indeed, the silence had alarmed them. He mewled when hungry and gurgled when happy but never cried. They had given him every test and even flown a thousand miles to a Chinese specialist. The Lord had not lacked for thanks when the doctor pronounced their child normal and healthy. “He’s not going to be much of a talker.” Ann declared on the return flight.” His relieved face still aglow, John nodded.
“Still waters run deep.” Now they might not see his first birthday.
Ann’s eyes shifted toward the living room entrance. John lifted his gaze to view it. He inhaled a sharp breath and turned back to Ann. Lips formed a gentle smile. “Our guest may be mysterious but sometimes the Lord is not.” He kissed her full on then lowered his hands to grasp her shoulders. “Delete any evidence of our Bible studies and ministry. I will speak to him.”
Ann motioned in the air as if with an eraser on an old-fashioned white board. The floating hologram message disappeared replaced by menu selections she pointed to. Files displayed and as quickly vanished. Half a world away Vatican servers whirred to life. One by one, eradicated data became atoms banished to the ether. She changed access to full denial, disabled her password, and headed for the living room.
The man did not look like a priest nor dressed like one. Twenty-four hours after the Vatican’s alert to his approach, he descended from the mountains into their secluded valley. Children the two provided much needed medical care for had raced to their home all speaking at once of the giant striding through the tiny village. From down the road, as they had for the doctors’ arrival, smiling village elders escorted the cleric. Tall, rugged, strongly built, he walked with a hiking stick, slightly stooped by the enormous backpack and camping gear strapped along his spine. A casual flick of his arms removed it, belied the hundred plus pound weight. Strong, white teeth flashed a brilliant smile. “Hello there. I’m Father Bartholomew Henson.” His head gave a slight bow. “At your service.”
His appearance as an outdoorsman/naturalist contrasted with an urbane, erudite conversationalist able to speak across time and geography without ever once broaching religion, the Vatican, or his purpose. In contrast to the priest’s calm, stoic demeanor, animated gestures buttressed John’s urgent voice. “Time is of the essence, Father. We cannot wait for your guide’s arrival. You must leave now.” Henson nodded. John continued. “One more thing, Father. Our son. The immediate uncertainty makes my wife and I fear for his safety. Will you take him with you?” John noted the priest’s hesitation. “Please, Father. It is an imposition but perhaps an unavoidable mercy.” Ann joined his plea.
“Please, Father. We did not plan his arrival but the Lord did. And now He has sent you.”
Henson fixed his gaze on the woman. For a moment, Ann thought something cold, merciless crossed his eyes. Something that had nothing to do with sanctity or benevolence. It passed. His expression softened. “Of course. Is there anything else?”
“Yes, Father.” John replied. “Will you hear our confessions and give us your blessing?” Each took five minutes in the bedroom then rushed to prepare the infant while Henson dressed and packed. John approached cradling his son. Ann held a powder blue travel bag containing formula and Absorbens.
“He’s fed and cleaned. He’ll be good for a couple hours.” She stifled a sob. Her voice almost broke. “He’ll be no trouble at all.”
Henson shook his head, dropped the pack. Out came some clothes and an extra pair of hiking boots to make room for the bag’s contents. “Even in the woods, the color will be easy to spot at any distance.” He stood and the doctors kneeled. “Oh, heavenly Father. You who do not give the day or the hour fill these two souls with your grace that they may be soothed. Hold them to your bosom that they may be strengthened. Grant them your blessing that they may have faith . Amen.”
“Amen.” they responded. John stood to drape the carry pouch over Henson’s head. One hand to her mouth, Ann touched her son once more, whispered her undying love.
John glanced out the window. “There’s no need to dally, Father. If all turns out well I will take one of the village men and follow your trail. We’ll catch up to you.” Henson nodded and stepped out the back door headed for the forest. John and Mary stood for a moment. Cold air forced them to close the door.
Father Henson did not dally. Strong, steady steps and the house faded while the woods neared. He passed the tree line but did not slow. Sparse ground vegetation had another hundred yards before it thickened and hampered his pace. Despite the bounces and jerks, the infant’s silence matched the forest’s. He soldiered on then stopped. From overhead, engines roared. Through the leafless canopy, he spied an airplane as it banked down from the mountaintop. He dashed back to the tree line just as the aircraft leveled off above the house. Its wings rotated to reveal thrusters that allowed it to hover fifty feet up. Side doors opened followed by thick, corded ropes. Down their lengths black-clad, armed men rappelled to the ground. Gun barrels bristled from the plane’s doorways to cover their descent. Some raced for the front others around back. Over the engine noise, Henson heard the faint thuds that crashed the doors open. In they went.
Minutes passed, then longer ones. As they mounted, Henson closed his eyes. The agents must be beating them. “Bless them, Father. Take their souls unto Thee that they may know peace.” It won’t last, he thought. The plane cannot hover indefinitely. Moments later, multiple machine pistols burped guilty verdicts. Men re-emerged to run for the rope ladders that replaced the rappel lines. A few minutes more and only the back door slamming open and shut disturbed the silence that gave no hint of the carnage within. He rose and turned to resume his trek. Not many steps later he stopped. “Damn it. I am a priest.”
Faster and faster, legs placed one foot before the other then broke into a run. He paused at the banging door to unzip his parka and reach within. When his hand emerged, it gripped an automatic. Henson released the safety and chambered a round. Silent lips moved to an unspoken Hail Mary.
Inside he took in the broken, shattered, furniture strewn about. From the bedroom where they had confessed their sins, lay an overturned mattress ripped open. His face betrayed no emotion or reaction to the bullet-riddled corpses staring with unseeing eyes. How many times had others done this? How many times had he? When would it end?
He knelt between the two and closed their eyes. “Dear Father. Do not place my sins on their souls. Forgive me for not having oil, ointment, or the Eucharist.” He whispered the prayers of Last Rites, ignoring the blood seeping through to his kneecaps. He rose to look down on the two still holding hands. Silent repose did not reveal their martyrdom’s extent. Beyond the proselytizing that itself would have doomed them, the repeated blows the two endured had intermingled with shouts of, “Where’s the priest?”
From down the road, the villagers’ shouts neared. Henson looked about to insure he’d left nothing behind, signed a Cross over them, and muttered softly. “Rest in peace, kind souls.”
He exited the house making sure to keep it between him and the locals. Alert to sound and movement, his penetration into the woods deepened. Soon the snow line appeared and the ground began to slope upward. Expert eyes scanned for an easy approach that did not involve scaling the summit. Best just to traverse it. The effort would take more time but limit the infant’s exposure to the dangers higher elevations posed. He paused to peek at his charge. “Well, young Trajan. You’ve been given a second chance. Let us see what will come of it.” Henson began to climb. The child made no sound.