“Salvation.” Thadeusz thought the word so hard he found himself saying it aloud. His mind pressed on, impelled by his intense discomfort at what he had done, and he imagined himself basking in the warm forgiveness of his lord, a lord he knew had once been mere flesh, just like Thadeusz himself.
And who, again like Thadeusz, had suffered. The sins of others, one’s own sins, what difference did it really make? Pain was pain, and Thadeusz was feeling a good deal more of it than he cared to ever endure, though it was being increasingly lightened by the sweet balm of salvation-thoughts. Forgiveness would yet be his, he knew. He had an idea, the perfect idea.
The priest, Thadeusz recalled through the alcohol-haze, had often spoken about sin. There was little else, indeed, of which he ever spoke. And Thadeusz knew from the priest’s spirited words just where the roots of the sin really lay. Its branches may hover everywhere, even in the hearts of good Christians like Thadeusz, but its roots, its deepest roots, were buried firm and deep in the stinking swamp of the prince of darkness. And in the black souls of his cohorts here in the world of the living.
And so, Thadeusz’s own sin, he reminded himself once again, was not really his at all, but the devil’s. He had, of course, allowed the horned one to take control – and for that lapse surely needed his lord’s forgiveness – but the deed had not been born, could not have been born, in his own Christian heart.
The orphan-boy, in any event, had practically sealed his own fate, walking and acting and speaking as he had, tormenting Thadeusz as he had. For weeks Thadeusz had felt strange deep within him, irresistible urges to make the boy pay for the evil he had evoked, day after day, week after week.
And so, when the opportunity finally arrived, Thadeusz had eagerly seized the chance. It had been less a choice than an imperative.
The boy, round and soft and sneering, had boldly entered Thadeusz’s workshop that morning, as he had done so very many times before. That morning, though, no one else was there. Thadeusz had shouted at the little hoodlum to leave, but the brat just stood there smiling his smug, infuriating devil-smile. Children, Thadeusz thought, have no business in a blacksmith’s shop unless they are apprenticing, and that fat demon had neither the physique nor the discipline for the work. When Thadeusz had started to walk to where the boy stood, the child darted out the door faster than Thadeusz would have thought the overfed urchin could run. When he reached the door himself, it had been just in time to see the boy’s plump legs, a hundred paces in the distance, disappear behind a well. Thadeusz had turned, frustrated, taken a long swig of his liquid apprentice, closed his eyes for a moment and then returned to work.
No sooner, though, had he cleared his head and lifted his mallet when he had caught a glimpse of some movement in the far corner of the shop – and realized that the little piglet had somehow sneaked back in without his even noticing.
Propelled by a flood of rage and other more nebulous but equally powerful feelings, Thadeusz had lurched at the scamp, caught him firmly by his overgrown, dirty yellow hair and pulled him toward the door leading to the room at the back of the shop. At first the demon laughed as he struggled, but when Thadeusz, without the slightest hint of a smile, had clenched his large hands around the boy’s fleshy, tender neck and began squeezing, the laughter abruptly stopped. Everything, indeed, stopped; the boy made a weak high-pitched noise or two, rolled his eyes and went limp.
Curiously, Thadeusz had felt even more emboldened with the boy’s wilted body in his hands, impelled to go further, overwhelmed. He dragged the boy through the door and felt and odd inexplicable excitement well up inside him, something like what he imagined a cat felt when it managed to snatch a mouse. Something seemed to beckon him through the dense fog in his head. He loosened his grip long enough for the boy to become conscious again and then amused himself for a short while with the boy’s humiliation, pain and fear – let the worthless scamp pay for what he had done – but when he finally applied his hands again, he did so firmly and decisively.
Finished with the boy, Thadeusz stood gazing down at his lumpy, lifeless body. The strange pleasure he had been feeling slowly but decisively metamorphosed into shame. He knew he was regarding the work of the devil, but still he felt fear, for he knew he had himself been the devil’s instrument. Over the hours that had passed since that moment, the thought of his involvement had pained him deeply and constantly.
And then he was inspired with his plan, which had emerged before his eyes like the friendly faces of his friends at the tavern after a long drunken nap. It was a simple plan, but profound all the same. Indeed, it was a beautiful plan. He would turn the devil’s handiwork against the devil himself, fight hellfire with hellfire. And thereby win the forgiveness and love of his lord.
The boy had bled but a bit, no more than a few whiskey glasses’ worth, from the mouth. Now, though, Thadeusz was thinking blood and nothing else; it was, he knew, the key to his salvation.
And so, late that night, under the cover of clouds he knew his lord had sent to shroud the bright full moon, Thadeusz did what he had to do with a knife, stake and mallet, stuffed the boy into a burlap sack, hoisted it onto his shoulder and walked deep into the forest that abutted his shop. There among the trees and small animals, his nerves fortified by a few more swallows of his brew, Thadeusz did what he knew he had to.
Back in his shop, he relieved himself of his baggage and bounded up the stairs to where his bed lay. Despite the gruesome contents of the lumpy cloth bag that now sat in the corner of the shop’s back room directly beneath him, he slept soundly, like a tightly swaddled, well-fed baby; his dreams were lucid, filled with bliss, blood and salvation.
The insistent tolling of bells pulled Thadeusz from his sleep much earlier than he would have wished. Well, he thought, what did he expect on Good Friday morning? The town church wasn’t there to let him sleep as late as he wanted, now, was it? No, it was there to call him to serve his lord. And serve him well he would, Thadeusz thought with a smile, that day unlike any other.
After dragging himself out of bed, Thadeusz washed his face with stale water from the basin on the floor nearby and dressed himself in his Sunday finest, clothing that differed from his workday dress only in its relative lack of burn-marks and caked-on filth.
Before leaving the shop for the outhouse, he opened the door to the back room a crack and stole a glance at the sack in the corner. It was just as he had left it, not that he’d expected to find it otherwise. Only the two or three widening patches of crimson now staining the coarse cloth marked the sack’s contents as anything other than mundane.
From the outhouse, Thadeusz proceeded to the church, where he quickly fell asleep during the service, awakening with a start sometime during the sermon, when the image of his lord’s torment and death began to encroach on the considerably less holy thoughts he had been entertaining. The priest was describing the events at Calvary, quoting familiar passages from Matthew. Thadeusz stretched and smiled broadly. The words, he knew, were addressed to him.
Hours later, back in his room above the shop, Thadeusz watched evening fall and picked his teeth. His usual spartan dinner, boiled potatoes and weak beet soup, seemed particularly delectable that night, enhanced by his anticipation of where he would be and what he would be doing somewhat later.
Thadeusz dozed off again at the table and when he awoke he rushed out to look at the moon. It was just past midnight. Only a few more hours, he thought happily. He descended the stairs and entered the back room to gaze again at the sack in the corner. The telltale spots had widened somewhat since the morning but their cherry redness had now faded to a pale, earthy brown. Thadeusz imagined his own iniquity fading too, slowly disappearing and then dissolving altogether in the blessed solvent of salvation. Only a few more short hours.
The hours however, turned out to be anything but short. Thadeusz didn’t dare drink as he waited, for fear of falling asleep again and missing his appointment with destiny. Time seemed to plod along heavily; he imagined the devil straining against the moon, pushing it back toward the horizon. It wouldn’t work, though. He and his lord would persevere.
He thought back to the sermon at church that morning. He couldn’t remember much of its theme but certain phrases, those he has heard many times before, slipped quite easily back into his consciousness. There was “blood of the lamb”. And “his blood be on us and on our children.” He had, Thadeusz realized with a smile, become a scholar, even before his salvation.
Thadeusz stole outside occasionally to check the sky and the sounds, and finally, when he was convinced by the position of the early spring moon and the perfect stillness of the cool, clean air that the assigned time has finally arrived, he set himself resolutely to the mission ahead.
With a happy grunt, he heaved the sack with its unwieldy, unsavory contents onto his shoulder, and took a deep, excited breath. The time had come to turn the devil’s work to his lord’s purposes. He muttered a hurried prayer, took a long swallow from the bottle he had so righteously shunned all night, and marched like a soldier through the door, out into the still, pregnant, holy night.
Through breaks in the cloud cover occasionally allowed the moon to cast its cold, harsh light on the trudging, burdened figure, no one in the town surveyed the scene. Thadeusz reached the vicinity of his destination and, although the streets were utterly empty, he tried to assume an even lower profile, stealing through the alleyways like a cat, imagining himself pushed ahead by the wings of loving angels.
As he closed in on the house he sought, he thanked his patron saint that no Jew of the town had stretched his Passover feast that far into the early hours. The ghetto was as motionless and black as the rest of the town. The devil’s own darkness, he snickered, would become Thadeusz’s ally.
Passover, Thadeusz’s mind touched the word like it was a snake. The gall of those Jews, celebrating the death of his lord, even as they insisted on denying his resurrection. They, the ones who killed him in the first place! Truly the devil’s seed, as the priest had said.
But the lord had risen, Thadeusz knew. That was Easter, after all, whether the Jews knew it or not.
And he too, Thadeusz, had risen, he thought as a grateful tear ran down his grimy cheek. Above the very devil himself.
The house! He had no memory at all having crept so close, but there it was, within his touch. It seemed to have suddenly materialized before him; all in all, a good sign, he thought, as he shifted his sack from one shoulder to the other. Feeling its contents awkwardly shift, he couldn’t help but picture what lay inside it. The fat mouth hopelessly agape, the bulging eyes recalling the boy’s last moments of terror, the once-succulent body now drained of blood and, rigor mortis having faded hours earlier, utterly, decisively limp. When the carcass would be found, Thadeusz mused, the slit throat and dearth of life-fluid would be immediately noticed, along with the oozing, ugly wounds where Thadeusz had carefully hammered his metal stake, at the center of the palm of each flabby hand and through the ankles of the swollen, dirty feet.
Thadeusz walked, slowly nervously, along the side of the building, feeling for the cellar window he knew would be there. It was, and he practically yelped with glee when his hand finally found it. The full moon poked through the clouds at that very moment but then disappeared once again. Thadeusz knew without doubt that the lord was with him.
It would be a tight fit, he realized, but he was a strong man. He smiled as he reassured himself that the boy would surely not object to being pushed a bit, under the circumstances.
The baker’s name, Thadeusz was pretty sure, was Yapov or something of the sort. He had come to the ghetto often enough to buy the baker’s cheap bread, but had never engaged the man in conversation. What difference did the Jew’s name make, anyway? It would be mud soon enough and, if Thadeusz was lucky, the cursed devil would be taking some of his fellows along with him to the grave – after a long spell on the wheel.
The boy, Thadeusz reflected with a cynical smirk and no small touch of resentment, might even be made a saint. Killed for his pure, innocent – here Thadeusz stifled an audible laugh – blood. Killed to provide the magical ingredient for the Jews’ Passover blood-bread. Killed by the devil’s own, martyred for his lord.
He himself, though, Thadeusz reassured himself, would also be hailed, if not as a saint then at least as a hero – and there was considerably more to be gained, in any event, as a live hero than as a dead saint. He, after all, as the townsfolk searched for the urchin, would make the discovery. He would know just where to look.
Buoyed by his happy thoughts, Thadeusz placed his burden firmly against the cellar window and pushed. The sound of the breaking glass was muffled by the bulk of the sack and its contents. He pushed harder and harder, putting pressure now here and now there, until the bundle somehow squeezed through the narrow opening. It landed on the dirt floor inside with a dull, satisfying thud. Thadeusz laughed aloud again, then caught himself and looked nervously around. All was still.
Before heading home again, the penitent paused and looked heavenward. He thanked his lord for his love and forgiveness and, beyond all else, for inspiring him with the means of his absolution.
How wondrous, Thadeusz thought with deep humility, that his lord’s grace had extended him that holy insight. And how wondrous and beautiful that Salvation was now his.
© 2014 Avi Shafran