"And you would Wash my feet besides, my son?"
In fact, the snow was melting on my poncho and dribbling all over. Score one for him.
"And you would have given me your own sandals if my feet had not been too big. But this goes too far, and the day is passing. We must be on our way if we are to find shelter tonight. Come, my son. Take back your cloak and let us go. Cracow is still a long way off." With that, he got up and started for the road.
"Hey! Wait! That's stupid! You'll get lost in this blizzard! We should wait here for a rescue party!"
"Those who follow God are never lost, my son," he explained slowly, as if to a child. "In any event, our way from here is down, and even a blind man can find 'down.' As to this rescue you speak of, I suspect that God will not see fit to grant that to me for some years yet." And then he was gone.
Lunatic or not, I could hardly abandon the man to die in a snowstorm. I quickly repacked my equipment, even though most of it was wet, and threw the remainder of the wood onto the fire. There was no possibility of a forest fire in this storm, and our fire might attract some attention. I put on my pack and took off after the madman at a trot.
His short, quick stride had taken him a remarkable distance before I caught up, but there was no missing his footprints in the shin-deep snow. I stopped to stamp out an arrow to indicate our direction of travel.
"Ali, my son, and here I had assumed that you were a good Christian."
"What? Of course I'm a good Christian, Brother. And better Catholic, for that matter. I used to be an altar boy. Why should I not be a good Christian?"
"Why, those pagan marks you are making."
"Pagan? Goodness no, Brother. I'm simply showing the direction of our travel to aid rescue teams. The Hiking Society will be out, as will the Forestry Service, the police, and, likely, the Air Force. There must be dozens of people caught in this storm. Darned freakish weather for mid-September."
"Well, if you are only leaving a sign to your friends, I suppose it's all right. And while I quite agree that this would be strange weather for September, I must point out that today is the twenty-fifth of November."
"Brother!" We walked down the trail. I was surprised at how short the man was. He barely came up to my armpit.
"That brings up another point. While I dislike to be continually correcting a benefactor, please allow me to mention that my title is not Brother. It happens that I am an ordained priest, and perhaps Father would be more appropriate."
"As you like, Father." I don't think that insanity and the priesthood are mutually exclusive sets, and in any event, it would do no harm to humor him. "How did you know that I was going to Cracow?"
"Did I say that? If I did, I should not have mentioned it, since I obtained the information in the confessional. However, before he confessed, a good Christian knight told me that he had killed you-at least I assume that he referred to you. There can't be that many giants wandering about, and you do have a slight head wound. He asked me to give you extreme unction, which I agreed to do, although that sacrament no longer seems appropriate. "
Giant? I was fairly tall- 190 centimeters-but hardly a giant.
I stopped to stamp out another arrow in the snow. "Good Christian knight! He's a bloody homicidal maniac! He wanders around trying to murder people! He makes an unprovoked assault on me and you send him on his ay to say a few Ave Marias."
"Not true. It was six dozen Ave Marias and three dozen Pater Nosters. And he certainly felt that he was provoked. Whatever decided you to be rude to a Knight of the Cross?"
"Oh! Nine dozen prayers for an attempted murder!"
"Please calm yourself. You appear to have suffered no great harm, and I don't imagine that the prayers will do the knight's soul any damage, either. After all, it is the intent that really matters."
"The actuality made a considerable difference to me."
"Certainly, my son. Now as I understand it, you were alone, on foot, and completely without armor or weapons. Without an apology, a compliment, or even a bow, you stopped a member of the Teutonic Knights and demanded information of him. You did not even offer him your name. He then answered your question, even translating it with his limited Polish, because you spoke no German at all. You then became ruder and claimed-or at least impliedthat he lied. He then gave you a fair warning, and you returned this with… let me see. What were his exact words?… 'A tone of voice that I would have found objectionable had it been spoken to me by my own Holy Commander.' He then struck you. Now, my son, are these substantially the facts?"
"They may be substantially the facts, but the telling of them is most biased, and in any event they do not in any way justify attempted murder!"
"True. Violence is rarely justifiable, and it was for this reason that I bade the knight do penance after confession."
Christ. I had almost been murdered, and now a man whose life I was trying to save was trying to convince me that it was my fault. Damn! What the hell was wrong with the Air Rescue? We should at least have heard a helicopter by this time. I fished around in my shirt pocket, under the sweater and poncho, and dug out my cigarettes and disposable lighter. Only one cigarette left. I was about to pitch the package, but one must not litter, not even in a snowstorm with a lunatic. I stuffed the empty pack in my pocket. I lit the cigarette, drew deeply, and put away the lighter.
The priest's eyes grew wide, but his step never faltered. "Remarkable. You mentioned that you were a true Christian. Would you like to tell me how long it has been since your last confession?"
"About three weeks, Father."
"That is a long time. Would you like to confess now?"
"To be sure, a quiet, dark spot in church would be preferable. Such things are good, but not necessary. It is what is in the heart that counts."
Recent events had troubled me considerably. To confess to a lunatic might be strange, but then, the whole last day or so had been pretty strange. There I was, walking along in September, through snow that was knee-deep in places, next to a mild-mannered barefoot man who showed not the slightest discomfort. The sane thing would be to stop, light a fire, pitch a tent, and wait for a rescue team. But there was such an incredible toughness about the man that I knew that I could stay with him, or leave him ' but I could not possibly stop him, no matter how short he was. Confession seemed like a good idea, and-who knows? — maybe he really was a priest.
Perhaps not all of my eventual readers, if any, will be good Catholics, so I will try to explain the sacrament of confession. The times of confession are posted in the church, and usually a priest is available several times a day. When you feel the need to go, you go, often alone ' Usually there are people in front of you, and you wait quietly in a pew, because confession is a private thing. The priest is in a tiny, screened room with screened confessionals on either side. Your turn comes, and you go inside and kneel. When the priest has finished with the person opposite, you hear the soundproof screen in front of you open, and you recite a short ritual that serves to "break the ice": "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned… "
And then you unburden your soul onto a very tough man who is absolutely forbidden to repeat anything that is said. You tell him what you have done, what you have thought. You answer his questions until the truth is obvious to both of you. He forgives you your sins and then tells you what your punishment, your penance, will be. This is usually to make a good act of contrition and to recite privately a certain number of prayers. But it can be whatever the priest feels is fitting. And you do it, because you need to do it, or you wouldn't have walked into the confessional in the first place.