A week for writers and lit lovers

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Vermillion House by Joan M. Baril

As Beth Iverson mourns the murder of her uncle, she discovers her entire family has been targeted for revenge by religious fanatics called the Sacred Guardians.  (a fragment of a novel in progress). 
The young man, alone in the cathedral, bowed his head and prayed to the holy martyrs whose images surrounded him. May he be worthy of them, he prayed, and may he, if it be God’s will, accept death as they did.
He lifted his head and stared at the giant wall painting beside him, studying the familiar small figures on it, the blessed saints undergoing their final agony before being received into heaven. He knew this mural was called “August” but the black lettered sign which had informed the faithful of this fact had been removed.
He turned to check the murals for July and September. They too were bereft of labels. Even though his colleagues had informed him of this desecration, he had refused to believe it. But now, he saw it was true. Not only had the names of the months been erased but also the calendar number beside each suffering saint was missing.
He gripped his hands together in a spasm of anger. What evil person would commit such outrage, destroy the heritage of a glorious past? Even worse, the paintings had been allowed to fade so that the tortured saints were barely visible, just pale blobs on the wall where once they existed in full colour, brilliant testimonies to their holy deaths.
He bowed his head. May these desecrators, these Jew-loving traitors to the fatherland, be punished in the same manner as depicted on the wall. And, he murmured fervently, “please Heavenly Father, anoint me, your servant, and all the Sacred Guardians, as the instruments of their deaths.”
Tears came into his eyes. He stared up at the beautiful blue ceiling, the black and green marbled altar with its statues and gold trimmings, the holy paintings on the pillars. For the first time he realized the church was empty and it shocked him. In his childhood, there was always a certain bustle of noise, the mumble of dozens of people praying, the whispers of other dozens coming and going, the clank of coins in the candle boxes, the smack of  kneeling benches being raised and lowered, and the thud of the outside doors opening or closing every second or two.

Eight years old in this very pew. While his classmates intoned a prayer of thanks for the destruction of Communism, he and his best friend, Chico, were pointing to the murals and giggling. Back then, the colours had been bright, the numbers and labels sharp and black. His laugh was suddenly cut short when the massive hand of Father Thaddeus hit the side of his head with a loud crack. He gave a surprised yelp.

“Stand up,” the furious priest had whispered. “What’s this laughter?”
“My death, Father. I am to be drowned in a very small bucket.” The boy rubbed his head with one hand and with the other, pointed to the August mural and his birthday number, August 2, beside the image showing a holy martyr face down in a small bucket, held in position by two burly soldiers in medieval costume. He could not help but smile and he knew his classmates were covertly smirking behind their folded hands. “And Chico here is going to have his arms and legs hacked off.”  Father’s long arm would have caught him on the head again if he had not dodged backward, almost falling into his best friend who was kneeling, face in hands, pretending to pray.
“Idiot,” the priest snapped. “Superstitious idiot. These murals have no magical powers. They were painted,” and here the priest raised his voice for the class to hear, “in 1708 by the pious artist, Charles de Prêvot, to depict the entire martyrdom of the blessed church. The Martyrologium Romanum.”
 As the priest rolled out the last words, the boy felt himself being grabbed by the collar and shoved into a kneeling position. “Pray, disrespectful boy,” Father Thaddeus said, holding him in place. “Pray hard for forgiveness or maybe, one day, I will drown you in a bucket.”  The class snickered and the present day twenty-eight year old Andras smiled at the memory.
Now, he reached into the inner pocket of his leather jacket and took out the diagram his colleague in the Sacred Guardians had researched for him. On one side, a list of three names: the first, Paul Chandler with his birth date, August 11. Using the drawing as a guide, he searched the scenes of torture on the wall until he came to a man burning at the stake. Taking out a pencil, he made a mark beside Chandler’s name, a mark that signified “fire.”  He moved to the aisle, genuflected, and walked around the perimeter to find the correct image in the January mural and, after checking the diagram carefully, set a second mark beside the name of the Chandler woman. Good one. Rape. He moved on. The figures in the mural for the month of March were almost obliterated with neglect and age but at last, using his diagram, he found the painted saint for March 21, about to be beheaded him with a large saber. This final name received a mark denoting, “decapitation.” So be it. He folded the paper carefully and put it back in the inside pocket of his jacket. Later he would destroy it.
 But he would remember the information.
He genuflected again and walked out the side door trying not to look at the purple curtain covering a third of the back wall. He knew what was behind the curtain: a blank space. The mural, which had been there for three hundred years, had been torn out and removed, and this had been done over the protests of many of the local citizens. Another sacrilege. He felt himself shaking in fury as he bolted through the door, body gripped in spasms of rage.
Like a bullet striking the wall of the house, a loud snapping noise sent Beth Iverson leaping from her bed and into the dark living room, running for the phone. Was Uncle Paul’s killer trying to kill her too?
Beth’s hands trembled so wildly she could hardly hold the receiver. She took a deep breath to calm herself and then another. Listened. Everything was still. Had it been a nightmare after all? She shut her eyes and listened again, directing all her concentration past the whimpering of her own breath to focus outside the small house, through the frosted walls and windows, to the road and then further, across the fields of snow and into the forest beyond.
Dense silence. Not a car, not a footstep, not the smallest whisper or creak or purr of a motor. The Canadian winter shrouded her uncle’s cottage in silence, a quiet so deep it stretched to the core of the world. Even the over-sized furnace in the basement was still. Perhaps she’d been mistaken, had a crazy dream. Her legs felt rubbery as she groped in the dark for the sofa and sat, confused and feeling foolish, trying again to calm herself by deep breathing.
Beth Iverson was twenty-eight years old and a tall woman, close to six feet. Her face, long and boney with high cheekbones and blue eyes had the pale golden tan of the California resident.  Heavy dark blond hair hung untidily below her shoulders. But she carried her athletic Californian build with a bouncy confidence that turned heads, something she was entirely unaware of.
If Beth thought about herself, she considered herself ordinary, plain-faced, sensible, a bit shy perhaps, but also methodical and hard working.  A person ready to help out, get things organized, make everything go smoothly.  She knew she had led a sheltered life. Except for the few times her parents travelled, she had never been alone overnight before. Even when she went to university to train as a librarian, she had lived at home until her marriage.
Beth had been born in Canada but she could barely remember it because her parents had moved to Santa Barbara when she was six.  Except for a couple of trips to Mexico with girlfriends, she had no experience with foreign lands.  Besides, whoever thought of Canada as foreign. Canada had always seemed to her and, she was pretty sure, to everyone she knew, as just an extension of the United States, cold, of course, dull, uninteresting, but basically the same.
Now, sitting on the sofa, her breathing slowing, a feeling of safety returned but along with it, a searing loneliness. She had to talk to someone, hear the voice of another human being
Holding the house phone steady on her knee, she punched her husband’s Santa Barbara cell number on the illuminated key pad. It must be sometime after midnight in California, but her husband often worked very late on their downstairs construction site, sometimes until two or three in the morning. As she dialed, she prayed he’d remembered to take along his cell.
Larry’s funny, swooping “helloooo,” which usually made her smile, now echoed like a ghost from another life. At the same time, she heard voices in the background and knew some of his friends were working with him on what they called the Venture, the project to turn the large downstairs floor space into an upscale coffee house.
“Larry, it’s Beth. Listen, darling. Please.” She tried to keep the desperation out of her voice. She would not whine like a child. “Can you send me some money tonight? Through American Express? I know we’re short but I don’t want to stay in this house another minute.” In spite of herself, she heard her voice sliding upward into a plea. “It’s Christmas, Larry. I want to go home.”  
            “Hey, hey, babe.” His voice was soft, caring. “Take it easy. I hear you but you can’t leave yet. I know it’s tough but it won’t be long. Okay, so your credit card doesn’t work there. Different country; different system. Phone the Canadian Visa tomorrow and get them to reopen your card. It’s that simple. Take it one step. One step.” 
            “I’m totally sorry, Larry. I know I’m being ridiculous. But this house is so sad. Uncle Paul’s things are everywhere: his clothes, his books, even a little Christmas tree. It makes me cry to see it. And I can’t go outside; it’s cold outside, way cold, thirty below zero.”
She heard him sigh. “It’s costing you nothing, right? Yesterday, you said you had a freezer full of food and the place was warm. So okay, it’s a shack in the boonies. But only a few more days until that dumbass hick lawyer gets back in town. Tough the stuff. Hang with the plan, doll. Hang with the plan.”
Beth sighed. After she’d received the news of her uncle’s murder, she’d flown from Santa Barbara to the Canadian city of Thunder Bay where two police officers had met her at the airport. An afternoon of intense questions followed before they drove her to a near-by hotel. But then the credit card debacle. Their suggestion that she stay in her uncle’s house seemed sensible at the time. But she hadn’t known how remote it was, how far from town, somewhere in a snow world.

Now, all she wanted was to get back to California, to sun and warmth and people.

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