And what about the church chandelier?
The parish priest gasped for breath as he clambered up the stairs, his saddlebags swaying from one side of the staircase to the other. Behind him trailed the church warden, a dry old man, both hands gripped tight around the neck of a half-full bag.
Around the place the knee-deep snow stretched in all directions, covering the flat ground like a smooth milky frosting you wouldn’t care to touch for fear of spoiling it. The sky pressed down, as if a thick stifling smoke was suspended in the air, and it dimmed the all-present whiteness that was only disrupted by the grenade holes sprinkled over the north side of the house by a machine-gun paintbrush.
There was not a hint of a wind to stir the stillness. The fir trees, perched on the hill opposite the house, stood motionless in the stinging air – afraid, or simply too cautious, to show any signs of life. Playing dead might well be the answer in some places.
Viktor Maros greeted them with a fleeting smile and quivering lips at the door.
‘Ah, the life of the clergy,’ the parish priest huffed out through his nose. ‘The things you do for your flock, no matter… no matter… the cold, the heat, the snow. Ah… who asks us how hard it is? No one, I say. No one. It is always about–’ He felt the assistant’s elbow jabbed into his fleshy back.
They stepped into the lobby.
‘Yes, yes,’ he cleared his throat, pulled his shoulders back, ‘peace be to this house.’
‘And to all who dwell herein,’ answered in unison Viktor Maros and the missus, stretched on her toes behind him, peering over his shoulder with her two bulging eyes: the priest was marching straight into the house with his shoes on.
Viktor gave her the look before she was able to utter a sound. Without it, despite being a cautious woman, anger would certainly gain the mastery of her sense. Her eyes went from one to the other muddy mark on the carpet – it was only this morning she had cleaned the damn place.
Wringing his hands, Viktor Maros scurried after the man of God who looked around the house, curling the corner of his narrow mouth and squeezing his eyes. There was not much to be seen. The hallway was empty of any furniture except a long, thin coat rack that was pressed against the poorly plastered wall. And it could hardly claim furniturehood, flimsy thing. Not much more in the living room, either. On one side there was the Christmas tree and the old glass-doored cabinet that would rattle every time someone walked by, as if a train had just passed by outside, though the railroad in this country was nothing other than a remnant of an almost forgotten past, and the nearest one was more than a couple of hundred miles away anyway. On the other side were the fireplace and the corner sofa. A boy was sitting on its edge, back straight, waiting for the thing to take place.
Sweat broke out on Viktor’s forehead. The parish priest nearly took a seat on the saggy part of the sofa. Lord Jesus wouldn’t be able to get him out of it if he didn’t steer him past it. Imagine the embarrassment – a scandal, no doubt, he thought as the bare lightbulb which hung over his head illuminated the old bald spot.
He began to breathe again when the priest flumped himself on the good part, all along eyeing the envelope laid on the table right between the Scriptures and the Rood. An olive twig rested in a glass of holy water, and the holy water, just like any water, took upon itself little rings every time someone moved.
‘My dear man,’ the priest said and looked around, raising his eyebrow, ‘I hear Ivan is doing well in Germany, right?’
‘W-well, Father, he is, but it’s not– Well, it’s not as simple as it see–’
‘Ah, good, good. That’s good. I’m very happy to hear that, my dear Viktor.’ He was wheezing. The stairs were really too much. ‘If it weren’t up to our good men abroad,’ he went on with some difficulty, ‘it would be very, very hard for our church. Yes, yes. Very, very hard. Thank Heavens we have them, for they haven’t forgotten about us and the needs of our parish. Thank Heavens.’ He quickly crossed himself and looked up towards the heavens, as did the church warden who had just settled down on a little wooden footstool at the corner of the table. ‘They must not forget about that.’
‘Y-yes, yes, Father, of course they mustn’t,’ Viktor Maros said.
The wife, standing not far from the table, alert in case someone might need something, chuckled with a hiccup-like sound. When she realized it, she pretended to hear the hissing of the stew on the hob and quickly withdrew to the kitchen. Viktor looked her way in horror and swallowed, but the lump refused to go down. Luckily, the priest didn’t notice.
‘However, it is up to all of us here, too, to take care of our church, and to show them how united and strong we are. We need to move on. We have survived it, so we must–’ the priest stopped short. His eye landed on the handsome face of a young man in a black-framed photo that stood beside the lit candle on the cabinet.
‘We all appreciate the sacrifice your family has made, my good man,’ he started again in a lower voice. ‘We certainly do. Now, we do need our people to look after themselves. Yes, yes, indeed. I– I don’t dispute that. But what about the parish house flooring, I say? What about the church organ? We’re hoping that, with the Lord’s help, we will have it before the summer. We also need to replace those pews. They were only meant to be temporary. And what about the gates? They’re a disgrace, aren’t they?’ his voice rose again. ‘We can’t go on forever like that.’
‘Certainly, Father.’ Viktor Maros looked down at his clenched feet. He wiggled his toes a bit to try and loosen them, but all it did was make him become aware of how hot and wet they were.
‘Anyway,’ the priest got up and, turning to the assistant, said, ‘let us pray and bless the home of these good people.’
Their heads down and eyes shut, the assistant, the husband, and the wife repeated clearly what the priest was mumbling. The boy, his head down too, out of the corner of his eyes caught the priest scanning the envelope, trying to make out the banknote in it. Then he looked at the rolls of skin and fat on the priest’s neck, pressed against each other like a pile of worn-out car tyres sweating and melting in a sweltering midday heat in some wretched scrapyard, and at the generously big belly casting a shadow over the table, threatening to explode and spill its content over the miniature Jesus on the Holy Rood.
The priest sprayed the water around the room. A few tickling drops fell on the tip of the boy’s nose and trickled down its side. He giggled, but instantly assumed a sincere look upon his face as the priest held his gaze.
‘…and may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord.’
The thing was over, and the priest’s arm, gaining spirit, extended towards the envelope. But the wife came in fast with a platter of homemade cottage cheese and kajmak, and smoked bacon and peka and sujuk, the mouth-watering salty smell filling the room like a dense but invisible cloud. As the stomachs started to gurgle and growl the husband followed with rakija and, as the bottle popped open, the priest, his eyes glittering, retracted his outstretched hand.
‘Oh no, no, please, no,’ he said, curling his lips. The assistant’s stare burned through his skin. ‘We should go, we’re barely half-way done.’
But he readjusted himself on the sofa a little and, turning his head away from the church warden, he said, ‘Oh well. A small one won’t do any harm.’
The firewater slid down his throat and his chubby cheeks glistened with a nearly ripe-cherry blush, jiggling with a pleasant shiver that raised every single hair on his body as a familiar warmth glided through his insides. He smacked his lips.
With a tilt of the head the host asked for permission to refill.
‘My dear man,’ the priest nodded in assent, ‘have I told you yet? No? The plans I have made for the wall behind the altar? Oh, it will be magnificent, I tell you. A twenty-times-fifteen-feet painting of St Elijah and his fiery chariot. I can already see it. The splendour of it! We just need generous support from our good people. I am certain– No! I know we won’t fail.’
The assistant cleared his throat with sufficient intensity. He laid the bag on the table.
Viktor Maros looked at it, then opened his mouth and straightened his back. Searching for the right words, he smiled to stop his lips from trembling.
‘Father, please take this…’ his voice thinned out and broke. He picked it up again. ‘Father, please accept our humble contribution for the parish. Th-this year– Well, we’ve had so much to do this year. And you–’
‘I know. I know indeed, my dear Viktor. But what about St Elijah and his fiery chariot?’ The parish priest sighed and, even before the whole sigh was out of his lungs, Viktor began to stumble over apologies and excuses, the indistinguishable sounds that were meant to be words.
‘You’re right, Father,’ he gave in at last.
A crimson flush swept across his eyelids and up his forehead; the tingling of it, the prickly fire, like stepping into a warm and snugly room from a freezing cold – only that this was far from pleasant and comforting – settled on top of his ears.
He has been idle for years now. And indeed, the aid had been poor. So poor he had to strip down all the windows of the upstairs and buy and fix up new ones by himself. And that was only one thing. There were walls to be replastered; tiles to be laid; family to be fed. And he wanted to treat their youngest son this year for Christmas, he really did, with the keyboard he wanted so much. But isn’t anything better, he thought, than to be disgraced before the eyes of the parish priest and his assistant?
He took the envelope and left the room.
The wife stood frozen, her jaw slumped, hanging loose, and listened to the squealing of the heavy wardrobe doors upstairs. He had emptied the inner pocket of the old fur coat, she knew.
Her eyes then came to life. She blinked rapidly, looked at the boy, and the pallor of her face was fast replaced by the earthy red of rooster potatoes boiled skin-on, gleaming through the bubbling water. Her teeth gritted and ground like heavy steps across a tarmac road. But she knew better than to say anything. She certainly did, the cautious woman. Playing dumb might well be the answer in some places.
Viktor Maros placed the envelope back on the smooth surface of the table. He rested two fingers on it for a moment, staring blankly at the air between him and the table. Then he looked at her as a promise he had made only yesterday flew through his head. But with a silent exhale he slid the offering towards the priest. There was no turning back.
The parish priest sneaked a peek inside and sniffed. ‘And what about the church chandelier?’
Marko Bobetić spent most of his life moving between Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina, where he graduated in Philosophy and English Language and Literature, before settling in Ireland where he works in hotel management and writes short fiction. This is his first publication.