The Priest's Graveyard

BOOK: The Priest's Graveyard
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“There is nothing
new under the sun, now is there, Renee?”

Father Andro���s chair creaked as he leaned back. “Whatever you’ve done, I’m sure God can forgive you.” He brought his steaming
teacup to his mouth, took a sip, then set it down on his cluttered desk.

I had called three days earlier and asked to see him alone, but only if he could spare the entire evening. Maybe several evenings.
By his silence I knew he thought the request strange, especially coming from a woman with an American accent. But for Danny’s
sake as well as my own, I had to unburden myself.

“Before I tell you the whole story,” I said, pulling the old, brown journal from my bag, “I have to know that you can appreciate
Danny’s past. He wrote this entry when he was in the United States, several years ago. I don’t think many people would understand
why he did what he did there.”

Father Andro looked at me over his round spectacles and took the old journal from me. “But you think I can?”

“If a priest in Bosnia can’t forgive him, nobody can.”

“I’m not sure I feel comfortable reading another man’s confession without their being present.”

“You must. I’m begging you.”

The father’s eyes held steadily on mine. “You would like me to read it now?”

“Yes, please. It’s only a few pages.”

“Wouldn’t you rather tell me—”

“Please, let’s just start with what you have in your hand.”

Father Andro nodded. “All right.”

He lifted the journal, cracked its cover, and began to read Danny’s handwritten confession.

The Confession of Danny Hansen

I can only remember one time in my life when I begged for another person’s screams to continue.

The screams were my mother’s and I was sure that the only reason she’d stopped was because she could no longer breathe. I
was still only a boy and I sat in the corner of my bedroom, knees hugged to my chest, praying for her to make another sound,
any sign of life, even if it was a scream.

Now, much older, I hear those screams far too frequently and I beg them to go away. I don’t know if I’m an angel or a monster
anymore.

It’s two in the morning right now and storming outside. I’ve laid in my bed for three hours, staring at the ceiling, and,
despite my own vow of silence, I must write what happened that day in 1992, hoping that my confession here will finally earn
me enough peace to bring sleep.

I grew up in a small town in northern Bosnia, and was fifteen when the civil war between the Croats and the Serbs began in
earnest. There were many reasons for the war, but the only thing I came to care about was that Orthodox Christians were killing
Catholic Christians.

My mother, my two sisters and I were Catholic. Good Catholics who attended mass at least once a week and said our prayers
every day. For as long as I can remember I was convinced that I would become a priest when the time came.

My father had died of lung cancer four years earlier, leaving my mother to care for myself and my sisters, Marija and Nina.
Within two years of Father’s passing we had adjusted to life without him and took comfort in our love for each other.

On that fall morning, the weather was still warm and the leaves had not yet fallen from the trees in our valley. We were all
seated at the table for a breakfast of muffins and oatmeal in our house on the village’s southern edge. I can picture every
detail still.

Mother had made the porridge with milk instead of water that morning, so it was smooth and creamy the way I liked it. Marija
preferred more oats and Nina suggested more milk so that it could be eaten like a soup. I objected with a sour face and this
made Marija laugh. Encouraged, I offered up a few more examples of how I could twist my face and for a few minutes my oddities
made us all laugh.

Mother was still dressed in her sleeping clothes, the same pale yellow flannel night-dress she always wore. Her long, black
hair was pulled back into a bun to keep it out of her face. My sisters had also come to the table in their pajamas. I was
the only one who’d dressed (slacks and the same gray button-down shirt I’d worn the day before) after rolling out of bed at
Mother’s call for breakfast.

We were still laughing over my fourth or fifth facial contortion, this one involving screwed up lips and crossed eyes, when
someone banged on the door repeatedly. A harsh voice demanded we let them in or they would break it down.

Our small town sat in a valley to the north of the fighting that had brought Bosnia to a standstill, but a hundred stories
had reached us and each one seemed worse than the one before. Reports of terrible killings and rape, slaughters of whole congregations
as they sat in mass on a Sunday, snipers hiding in the woods waiting to pop off anyone’s head as they walked by minding their
own business.

My mother stood slowly to her feet, face as pale as the porridge. The demand came again, with a curse this time.

Her eyes darted to me and then to my sisters. “Get to your bedrooms! Hurry!”

Marija and Nina fled the table in obedience, but I didn’t want to go. Following my father’s passing Mother had become my greatest
source of security—besides the local priest, she was my only true comforter. I felt safe next to her. And I think I made her
feel safe as well.

I started to object, but she cut me short with her finger, stabbing toward my bedroom.

“Now! Run! Climb out your window! Get your sisters and run to the priest!”

So I raced down the hall and was about to turn toward my sisters’ room when I heard the front door crash open. I knew that
from their vantage whoever had broken down the front door would see me if I ran across the hall toward Marija’s and Nina’s
room.

I can’t tell how many times I’ve relived that moment. It was the first in a string of choices that would eventually land me
where I am today, a full grown man with a new name, living in America, courting madness.

Panicked, I slipped into my bedroom and eased the door shut, careful not to make a sound. I was halfway across my room, when
my mother’s first scream stopped me cold. Then the sound of a slap and running boots.

Afraid I would be caught, I ran to the corner, ducked behind my dresser, and dropped to my seat in the shadows.

The door flew open. Heavy breathing filled the room. Not my own because I had clamped my lungs as tight as a drum.

The door slammed shut. I was alone.

And then another scream, this one from Marija. Followed by the sound of another hard slap. I should have run for the window
and gone for help, but even then my first instinct was to stay and save my mother and sisters, never mind that I was only
fifteen and as skinny as a twig.

So I didn’t run for help. I hid in the corner like a frightened rabbit, hugging my knees to my chest. Finally, the screaming
stopped.

I knew they had missed me and I would be safe if I just stayed put, but I never was the kind to sit put. If you asked me to
go one mile, I would go two; if you asked for one contorted face, I would give you four. I had already lost one father, and
the thought that I might lose my mother or a sister or even all of them drove me to my feet, still trembling with fear.

The house had gone eerily silent except for the occasional muffled voice. Were they already dead? Or were they being killed,
right then, while I stood doing nothing? Maybe I could distract the Serbs. Or even lead them away from the house.

I don’t know how long I stood there, anchored by my own terror, I only know that I became convinced that I had to know what
was happening. So I walked to the door, breathless with fear. Slowly, I took the handle in my hand, and, when the house was
silent for a few seconds, I eased the door open and pressed one eye up to the crack.

The hall appeared empty. So I pulled the door open just enough to give me a line of sight to my mother’s bedroom.

I was standing in the six-inch gap, peering down the empty hall to my sisters’ closed door, when a soldier in a green uniform
filled my mother’s open doorway, fumbling with his pistol belt. His eyes lifted and met mine. For a moment we stood still,
staring at each other. If he had come after me straightaway, he would have been able to grab me and stuff me into a bag or
shoot me before I got out of the window behind me. But he hesitated, stunned.

“We have a runt!” he roared. And he ran for me.

If I would have slammed the door and run for the window as any sane person of fifteen would have certainly done, I would be
dead. He would have simply opened the door and shot me in the back.

Instead, I jerked the door wide open just as he lunged for it. His lumbering body hurled through the sudden opening. Off balance
and carried by his own momentum he flew by me, tripped on my foot, and stumbled to his knees.

His pistol belt had fallen on the floor. I bent down, grabbed the gun and jerked it free. The man’s bitter cursing was enough
to propel me forward in a blind panic. But now a second soldier threw open my sisters’ door and a third appeared at his shoulder.

“He’s got a gun,” one of them said, eyes darting down to my hand.

My father had taught me to shoot targets with a twenty-two gauge rifle when I was still a young boy. He said I was the most
accurate eleven-year-old sharpshooter he’d ever seen. But in the hallway, I realized that if I took the time to shoot the
man at my sisters’ bedroom door, the man I’d tripped would reach me and kill me from behind.

So I didn’t shoot the man. I acted as any sensible fifteen year old might. I ran. Down the hall in a dead sprint. Toward the
front door. Leaping over a pack one of them had dropped.

It suddenly occurred to me that, although the way through the front door was clear, my back would be to them for the whole
sprint down the path. I would be like a turkey in a fall hunt, with three hunters to shoot me down in the open.

So I spun to my left and ran for the kitchen.

A bullet slapped into the wood frame and I ducked. Maybe the shooter’s choice to stop and fire slowed him down enough to give
me the time I needed to get out the back door. Or maybe the deafening explosion was enough to give me inhuman speed, I don’t
know. Either way I was out and running toward the forest behind the house.

But I didn’t run into the forest because it was only a thin strip of trees that opened up to fields on the far side. I would
once again be a turkey to pick off. I only wanted to run into the waist-high grass that surrounded the forest, and I’d only
run a few steps into that tall grass before dropping to my knees, scrambling to my left perhaps ten meters, and falling to
my back, pistol at the ready above me, trying to control my breathing.

One of them swore. “He’s in the trees.”

They hadn’t seen that I’d dropped short of the forest! They’d come out of the house looking north toward the burning town
and by the time they’d turned in the forest’s direction, I was down, leaving only some bent grass to show that I’d gone in.

Or so I hoped.

I recognized the voice of the one whose pistol I’d taken. “Your mother is still alive, you runt! Come out or I swear I’ll
go back and put a bullet through her head!” The machine-gun fire from the town sounded like popping corn. “I’ll give you one
chance. We have a whole army; your town is surrounded. Come out and we will let you live.”

Their muffled voices approached as I lay there sweating, shivering with fear. But then they passed and faded. They’d gone
into the forest?

I eased up, poked my head just above the grass, saw that they were gone and knew I might not get a second chance. So I stood
and ran back to the house, praying with each step that I wouldn’t be seen.

I raced through the kitchen and into the living room with my mother’s name on my lips.

“Mama?”

She didn’t respond.

Louder now. “Marija?”

I ran down the hall, still clinging to the pistol. Into my mother’s room where I pulled up at the sight before me.

My mother lay at an angle on her bed. The sheets were soaked in blood. Her throat had been cut.

My heart stopped.

“Mama?”

Her head. It was barely attached to her body. Her dead eyes were staring at the ceiling.

Frantic, I tore from the room, down the hall, and spun into my sisters’ room afraid I would find the same thing.

I did.

The only difference was that they were on the floor and both naked. Something deep inside of me snapped then, while I stood
shaking, staring at my dead sisters. Then the pain came, like an erupting volcano. I dropped to my knees, then slumped to
one side. There on the floor five feet from my sisters I began to sob uncontrollably.

I didn’t care if I was found. I didn’t want to live. If I had full use of my senses I might have put the pistol in my mouth
and ended everything right there.

But I was lost in my anguish and for a long time I couldn’t think straight. And even when I started to think again, my thoughts
were strange ones that might make others wonder if I’d lost my sanity that day.

Thoughts like:
I will hunt down every last Orthodox Christian in Bosnia and make them pay for killing my mother and sisters.

Thoughts like:
I will burn the house down with me and the soldiers trapped inside.

Thoughts like:
I will take a stake and shove it through the eyes of the one who’d come out of my mother’s room. Then gut the other two with
the same stake.

But out of that dark fog came a few more rational thoughts. In retrospect, I think the notion of becoming a priest who brought
true justice into the world with the help of a knife and a handgun first began to take root as I lay there on that floor.

And then the memory of the pack that one of the soldiers had left by the front door entered my mind, and my eyes snapped wide.
It was still there.

He would be back for it.

I sat up. My sorrow gave way to such a terrible need for justice that I was able to ignore my pain and push myself to my feet.
I looked at my sisters’ dead bodies one more time, then turned away, walked down the hall, and entered the living room.

There, I faced one of the most significant choices of my life. I could flee the house and make my way to the town to find
help—surely there were many families who’d suffered similar tragedies that morning, milling about, helping each other.

Or I could provide what justice my mother and sisters deserved here, in our own home.

I chose the latter. It was a very easy choice.

The home’s primary source of heat during the winter was a black pot-bellied stove that sat in the corner of the living room.
After moving the green pack into the center of the room, I climbed behind that stove and carefully stacked firewood on both
sides to protect my flanks.

Metal in the front, firewood on either side—I wasn’t going to be the hunted this time. It was now my turn to hunt and that
green pack by the front door was my bait.

I cleared the pistol, saw that it still had seven unfired cartridges, and chambered a round. Then I made myself as small as
possible behind the metal stove and pointed the gun over the top.

They came to me about fifteen minutes later, single file, through the front door.

“Forget it, he’s probably in the next village by now. Even if they do listen to him, this kind of thing happens every day
now. Get your pack.”

“I don’t like it. We agreed we wouldn’t kill them.”

“And you didn’t, did you?” the first one snapped.

I could have shot then, they were in my sights. I would at least get one, maybe even two. But I didn’t want to kill one or
two. I had to kill them all.

BOOK: The Priest's Graveyard
5.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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