(Look, another story excerpt! Mostly this is just to convince myself that I am, indeed, making progress. For real. Hopefully it convinces you, too.)
“And they have said: The Lord shall not see: neither shall the God of Jacob understand.”
– Psalm 93
March 12, 1874 – Thursday
Feast of St. Gregory the Great
Kiroi Hantenmoyo let out a soft rumble of greeting. Caught off guard amid the rocking motion of his choppy canter, Dan peered in the direction of his pointing ears. The moon was slow in rising tonight, skulking behind the shoulders of the hills. The church was a high solid mass, the stained glass windows dull gray in the darkness. In the yard there was a darker shadow – another horse.
Dan considered it for all of two cantered strides. Evening visitors to the temple were common enough, encouraged, even. Some parishioner with a late appointment . . .
Kiroi Hantenmoyo grunted in protest as he was hauled about unceremoniously on the wrong lead and trotted back into the shadow of the church. Dan dropped to the ground without stopping to tie him and ran lightly to tuck himself against the cloister wall beside the wrought-iron gate. He set a cautious finger to the latch, pushing the heavy portal inward a few silent inches.
That was what had disturbed him. Usually the gate opened with a torturous squeal for every passing altar boy. Taking off his hat to maintain a slim profile, Mitsunari peered into the patchwork shadows beyond.
From where he stood, he could see down the cloister to the doors of the eastern transept, but not in the other direction to the baptistry. He glanced once again at the patient horse slouching against the hitching post, also not tied. It’s tack was heavy and utilitarian; no identifying silver plates or tooling.
A moment longer he hesitated.
The peculiar click of a western doorknob being turned, followed by a sudden clatter as of something being dropped to the accompaniment of a stifled curse, jolted him into a thrumming state of silent alertness. The door was closed with a petulant slam.
He only had seconds.
Dan shrugged the sword off his shoulder into his hand and slipped sideways through the narrow opening, nudging the gate almost to after himself. Cat-footed, he doubled lightly past it into the end of the cloister, his back to the side doors of the church.
The intruder – he was convinced now that it was so – meanwhile came down the sacristy steps, retrieved what he had dropped so noisily, and was coming around the back corner of the church toward the cloister gate toward the yard. Under cover of his clankings and scufflings Mitsunari pressed his thumb softly against the edge of the sword’s embossed cast iron tsuba, clicking the tanka free from the throat of the scabbard. A friend would not be grunting under the weight of a sack filled with metal objects, nor trying so hard to carry them quietly. Edging nearer the outer wall of the cloister, Mitsunari was able to get his first glimpse of his quarry. His face was obscured by a dark hat and the load bundled in his arms, but it was certainly no one he knew. The thief paused less than a ken from the inner arch of the cloister, fumbling for a better grip on the loose items he was also trying to carry.
He looked up to find Mitsunari standing regarding him like a ghostly avenging angel in the moonlight.
With a cry he flung the heavy sack in his face. Mitsunari stepped back instinctively, drawing the katana in a clumsy upward strike that sliced through the burlap and sent shining objects flying everywhere. He dodged the worst of the hail and ran after the thief, who was dashing back along the gravel path. The man stopped to throw another item at him and he ducked. If he reached the corner of the church, or even the sacristy door –
Mitsunari saw the thief’s hand reach for the holster that lay against his drab pants and threw himself the last few yards, thrusting his long scabbard between the thief’s legs and twisting them out from under him. The man fell with a heavy grunt as the wind was driven out of him. He rolled onto his backside.
“Yamachimae,” Dan warned, the razor-sharp tip of the katana poised at the thief’s throat more eloquent than words.
The panting eyes rolled frantically in the darkness, but the man did take his hand away from the gun. Dan stooped to remove it – only to bend right into the handful of dust and gravel the thief threw in his eyes. Coughing and scraping furiously at his face, he staggered back from the fallen man, blindly aware that he still had the gun, was still going to draw it – unable to see, he struck out from memory, low to the ground and desperate with fear. The thief cried out, surprisingly close, and he struck again, angling his blade toward the source of the cry. It connected solidly and he swiped the steel hard against its mark, gravel ringing off the tip as whatever he had cut flew off and landed on the loose rock with a meaty plop-crunch before rolling away into the grass.
Finally clearing his vision, he straightened to confirm that the thief would no longer be a threat to anyone. His decapitated trunk lay like a bleeding hunk of beef on the gravel path, the severed bearded head lying a few steps away. The first sword stroke had carved a deep furrow diagonally across his shoulder and chest.
Mitsunari turned away, revolted, still rubbing gritty dust out of his eyes. He couldn’t do chiburi in the temple garden, besides, and whatever the man had stolen . . .
He caught himself just in time from kicking a shining gold object with a peculiar shape that had fallen on the walk. Squinting in the moonlight, he crouched to examine it. It was a heavy gold cup, it’s beautifully curved lip bent into a lopsided oval. The thick bulbous stem was twisted, sagging to keep it rocking on its side, and the fluted base was badly dinged up along one side. It’s glittering surface was marred with dark streaks that looked like blood. Dan reached out to test them with a fingertip, then hesitated just short.
“Only Father can touch them,” Henri said, slipping his hands into white cotton gloves.
Mitsunari glanced back at the headless corpse collapsed on the chalky gravel, calculating the distance and the angle of his own sword strokes as they had fought.
The worst of the blood on the ruined ciborium seemed to be underneath it.
With a sick feeling growing in his stomack, Dan stood and pulled off his neckerchief.
Father Tomek came awake with a start. Goodness, I fell asleep in the pew! He pocketed his rosary and creaked to his feet. It was too dark to check his pocketwatch and the rectory manservant would be wondering what had become of him. He exited the pew, shuffling toward the west transept door to the cloister. He could scarcely feel his benumbed feet and had to watch where he placed them. Silently grumbling to himself to offer it up, he was made rudely aware that all was not right when the sacristy door on the far side of the church banged shut in the wind with a tremendous clap.
Father Tomek jumped – and so did the intruder poised before the altar. They saw each other at the same moment.
Father Tomek had spent many years among the poor of Philadelphia. Bull-necked and broad shouldered in spite of his handicap, he strode forward with a stern glint in his eye.
The intruder’s first impulse was to flee. Then greed took over, and he snatched up the golden ciborium he had just removed from the tabernacle. Father Tomek’s gate broke into a limping run. With a grimy leer, the masked man removed the lid with a dirty glove, holding the prize tantalizingly forward. Then with a quick flick of the wrist he cast its Contents in a broad swath before the advancing priest.
Father Tomek gasped, horrified and outraged, as the small white hosts pattered to the floor. They bounced and rolled, as silent as snowflakes and as round as coins, but infinitely more precious. He faltered, afraid to step on any. Seeing his way clear, the thief stomped boldly across the altar steps on his way to the sacristy door.
But the old priest was not about to let him escape so easily. He snatched up the skirts of his cassock and made an awkward leap over the barrier of desecrated hosts with a quick mental apology to his Creator for such an undignified course. The two men met at the entrance to the sacristy.
The priest was unarmed save for his fists and his prayers. He let loose a mighty punch at the defiler of the tabernacle. The ciborium was made of solid gold, heavily ornamented with jewels and blue enamel work. The thief swung it reflexively to counter the priest’s blow. Father Tomek winced as his knuckles clipped the metal, barely sparing a glance as his hand came back bloody from the rough settings of the jewels. He made a grab for the ciborium and another for the man, this time receiving a stunning blow to his right forearm. The thief was strong as a mule and devilishly quick with his hands. The elderly priest found himself staggering as blows from fist and ciborium rained down on him. He sank to the floor, tasting blood that had run down from his scalp.
Dimly he heard the sacristy door slam.
Father Tomek struggled to raise his head. His vision kept blurring in and out in the darkness, and it had taken him what seemed like hours to drag himself across the smooth sanctuary floor, his gaze fixed on the desecrated hosts, scarcely noticing the bloody trail he left on the tiles. He squinted through the numbing haze toward the rangy figure that had materialized in the sacristy doorway.
Dan cast around, belatedly remembering that his hat was not on his head. The injured priest stared at him.
The infidel samurai’s hands were swathed in a piece of blue fabric. Between them, gleaming dully in the red light from the sanctuary lamps, stained with blood, dirt, and grass clippings, lay the stolen ciborium.
The elderly priest nearly collapsed in relief. “Oh, thank-you, Lord!”
Dan looked nervously from him to the sacred vessel, taking in the scattered hosts, the blood, the crumpled state of his cassock. He stepped into the sanctuary, keeping a wary eye on the open tabernacle and the scattered Species as if fearful of being struck down for tresspassing. With reverent grace, he knelt before the injured priest and set the dented ciborium carefully upright on the floor. The bowl yawed precariously to the side.
Father Tomek shifted himself forward to inspect it, turning the cup toward him with the less bloody of his hands, then glanced again in anguish at the Hosts. “It is too dirty,” he sighed. He swayed, threatening to land on top of it, and the samurai instantly supported him. “Thank you.” He panted for a moment, then gestured toward the right-hand sacristy. “In – the top drawer – there are linen cloths.” He tried to pantomime their size. “Bring me six or eight, please, if you . . . ”
The tall samurai was regarding him in hopeless confusion. “Rinenu, kurósu. . . ?”
The priest groaned, trying to force his throbbing brain to find an easier-explained solution. His eyes fell upon the long cloths hanging neatly over the back of the nearby Communion Rail. “Those,” he pointed. “Bring me those.” The samurai cocked his head to the side, considering, and then to the priest’s relief unfolded himself and soft-footed carefully over to the rail. He pointed to the cloth, seeming reluctant to touch it. Father Tomek nodded. “Yes. Those.” It took the samurai a few moments to figure out the clamps that held the linen in place, but then he folded the long rectangle loosely over his forearm and returned to the priest’s side. Father Tomek sorted out the end, doing his best not to bloody it, and with Dan’s help spread the cloth over the scattered fallen particles of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ.
Dan moved jerkily, nearly paralyzed with awe and the palpable Presence of God. When all the Hosts were neatly covered, the priest finally sagged to the floor.
“Get – Berkeley,” he whispered. And Dan, with a last uncontrollable bow of respect that was akin to worship, backed out of the sanctuary, threw himself into the saddle, and fled across the sloping wheatfield to the big house, forgetting even to blow his alarm whistle. It was only when he was halfway up the steps to the front door that he remembered that Furanshi-sama was gone to the northern forests.
No one in the rectory or in Berkeley House got much sleep that night. Father Tomek was helped to the sacristy to cleanse his hands and then bandaged and put to bed with someone to watch him in spite of his protests. Telegrams were sent to Watsonville for Father Hugh Curran from St. Patrick’s and to the Salinas hospital for Dr. Archer. Mitsunari and three other armed guards kept mounted watch over the church compound while vigil was kept at the altar rail over the exposed Presence by some of the women. O’Rourke, the butler, and the rectory manservant worked at cleaning the priest’s blood from the floor in the places where there was no danger of coming in contact with the Sacred Species. When Father Curran arrived via the Soledad livery close to five o’clock in the morning, he was at last able to collect the Particles and return Them to a separate ciborium, properly cleanse the sanctuary floor and the dented almost-stolen ciborium, and convey the communion cloths to the sacrarium to be properly washed in daylight.
The Irish priest had been providentially out on a sick call in Salinas, which had considerably shortened his long journey. He had a habit of notifying the telegraph offices of his whereabouts when he entered and left every town on his mission circuit, and the Salinas operator, good Protestant though he was, had known an emergency when he heard one.
Astride a worn-out Kiroi Hantenmoyo’s plodding back, Dan watched the flickering lights glimmer dully through the stained glass windows, aware of a strangely keen sense of loss and a reluctant, unarticulated longing to once again be near the Hidden God.
Kiroi Hantenmoyo – Literally ‘Yellow Speckles.’ It started out as a description rather than as a term of endearment. The horse is a dun paint with a white eye patch and a bit of an attitude.
tsuba – the oval or square guard on a katana. Usually cast iron or bronze with cutwork of some sort.
tanka – the fitting/washer just below the tsuba that fits snugly into the opening of the scabbard. If I recall correctly, “tanka o suru” is the term for aggressively popping this free. It makes a distinctive click and can be interpreted as making a challenge, because the swordsman is then only one stroke away from starting a fight.
Yamachimae – Stop/halt/desist.
chiburi – a practiced spin and swish of the sword to the side that flings most of the blood off the blade after a battle. It’s an elegant, almost unnoticeable flick of a ritual when done properly, but any walls in the vicinity get spattered.
Shinpu-sama – form of address the Japanese hidden Catholics used for priests once they returned in the 1800s. Basically ‘honorable father.”
Furanshi-sama – The Japanese mangling of Francis Berkeley, the name of the man who owns the large house previously mentioned. They started with it before they realized that the family name comes last, and then it was such a habit there was no point changing it.