Featured Story • January 2016

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Burdens

 

Sheila Finch

 

For Samantha Henderson

 

The brown-robed priest shifted his gaze from the paper in his hands to the bodies at his feet. Wrapped in sacking and trussed, they awaited burial on the mission grounds. He imagined he could smell blood, but this was unlikely, a troubling memory only. Beyond the cemetery’s low wall, the mission’s small herd of goats cried to come in. The late December sun cast shifting light over cactus and tombstones, giving them an oddly sinister look, as if they concealed more tales than it was good to remember.

“The Alcalde’s order gives five names. I see three bodies.”

The tall man leaning silently against the wall, face half-concealed by the broad brim of his hat which he wore tipped downwards, shrugged. “One threw himself into the sea to avoid capture.”

Father Martín glanced away, beyond the small town of Santa Barbara. The handful of soldiers who had delivered the bodies were specks on the path to the presidio, their voices drifting back to him as inconsequential as wisps of morning fog.

“And the fifth?”

“Mistakes can be made, Padre.”

“Meaning, he is not dead?”

“Or perhaps he did not exist.”

The priest gazed at the man. Thin, perhaps just past his middle years, with a deeply lined face and shadowed eyes. Odd. Father Martín considered himself to be a good judge of character, but found little to be read from the still figure.

“The day is warm despite the calendar,” the priest said. “I would invite you to enjoy the hospitality of our home before you resume your journey.”

He would be glad for a time to rest before observing the evening office. On days such as this, age declared its sovereignty in swollen joints and stiff muscles. Some nights, when his heart knocked in his breast, he wondered if he would ever see Spain again, or if he deserved to. The past weighed heavily on his conscience. Surely God in His mercy would not withhold peace from this sinner for much longer.

He gestured to a doorway. “I will join you in the refectory after I have administered the proper rites as they pertain to executed men—who are nevertheless Christian.”

“I will wait, Padre,” the man said.

The old priest felt the cool touch of a breeze. He crossed himself and began to intone the sacred words over the bodies.

* * *

Brother José, who had been at the mission longer than almost anybody else, refilled the priest’s cup and looked sourly at the full one on the long oak table in front of the visitor. The man set a hand over the cup.

“You do not care for our local wine?” Father Martín asked. “Perhaps you are a connoisseur. The vines were brought here from Spain—a very good varietal—but these are still early days for our harvests.”

The priest noted that the visitor had not joined him when he gave thanks for the bread and the cheese made from the mission’s own goats.

Brother José padded heavily away, leaving the two men alone in the refectory where the smell of the bread baked this morning lingered with the smells of incense and dust. They were silent for a while.

“I have forgotten your name,” the priest said. “Please, forgive an old man.”

“I did not give it, Padre. I am called many names, ‘Barnberry’ being the one I am most recently known by.”

“Barnberry? That has an old, folk ring to it.”

“A nickname. Nothing more.”

“Indeed. And I am Father Martín Esteban Rios, follower of our founder, the holy Junipero Serra, himself a disciple of the Blessed San Francisco de Assisi.”

It was hardly necessary for him to set out his pedigree like that, but he felt an urgent need to claim the protection of these holy names. He and the brothers who served at Mission Santa Barbara were used to entertaining merchants, fortune-seekers, soldiers and ruffians who followed the road between San Francisco and the Mexican border. What was it about the stranger that caused this unease?

Never one to hide from difficult or dark matters, he pursued the thought. “And what, friend Barnberry, was your connection to the three criminals I buried, considering that you accompanied their bodies?”

“You assume something that may not exist, Padre.”

“But you do have a story to tell.”

“I have many stories. I choose to tell few of them.”

“And we are here in the arms of Mother Church where secrets may be safely shared.”

The priest sipped his wine and waited. He had come to this mission a relatively young man, full of faith and had learned many secrets that tried his faith sorely. He did not expect this stranger’s story would be more blood-soaked than other confessions he had heard in his day. What he had learned of the evil deeds of the men he buried this afternoon was grievous enough.

The tall man pushed his chair back from the refectory table and stretched out his long legs. “To accept a secret is to accept a burden.”

“No burden is heavier—or lighter!– than the one Our Lord lays on us at our baptism: To do His work and walk in His path.”

“You argue as well as any black-robed follower of St. Ignatius, Padre.”

Father Martín brightened. Not often did the chance come for theological discussion in this backward place! “Not a Catholic, I think, yet you know of the Society of Jesus.”

“I know many things,” Barnberry said. “When you have lived as long as I—”

He broke off. In the silence, Father Martín heard the voices of the mission’s Barbareños returning from a day’s work in the vegetable gardens. The Indians were singing a hymn he had taught them. He would miss such simple pleasures when he left Alta California, though he had lately come to realize he basked in their light to forget the darkness in his heart where God had once dwelled. And whose fault was that? But he knew the answer. The missions themselves were steeped in blood. His own hands had not escaped the taint. Surely the Lord forgave sins committed in piety?

He startled when Barnberry spoke again.

“I met up with the men at Mission La Soledad, on our way south. An unsavory crew of thieves, deserters, failed gold miners. They quarreled amongst themselves and some were killed, till at last only five remained. Three you buried this afternoon.”

“And one threw himself into the sea.”

Barnberry let this go by without comment. Father Martín sipped his wine.

“We made our way to Mission San Miguel Arcángel.”

“Sold by the Mexican government in 1846 for the sum of three hundred dollars and turned into an inn,” Father Martín commented sourly. “But, please, forgive the interruption.”

“The men had heard tales of much gold hidden there by the inn’s proprietor, a former gold miner himself,” Barnberry said. “They planned to take it.”

“Did you not consider how this was going to be accomplished?” Father Martín asked. “In the company of thieves, deserters—”

Barnberry held up a hand. “Let us say, I was bored.”

“Very well. I shall withhold comment. Please, continue your story.”

“Five men,” Barnberry began, “arrived at the mission, late in the afternoon . . . ”

* * *

A cold mist tumbled over the coastal hills. Both men and horses were sweating from the speed with which they had covered the distance from La Soledad, and the men were hungry and ill-tempered. Dismounting, they gave the horses over to the care of an elderly Indian and asked for lodging from the proprietor.

“Enter, friends!”

William Reed, new owner of the inn that had been part of the chain of missions along El Camino Real, waved the five strangers inside. The room he led them into had been the mission church itself, the nave furnished with heavy chairs and a long table left over from its sacred days. The man the others named Barnberry recognized the stale odor of cold fires and fried onions lying heavy on air that had once carried incense.

“Be comfortable, sirs! Remove your boots,” the landlord urged them.

None of the men did so.

“I shall kindle a fire for you.” Reed hurried over to the fireplace, set against the wall that once housed the altar, and began to lay pieces of wood on a grate. “I would have my wife bring supper to the table for you. But she is indisposed, you see—she is in the family way, you might say. But not for much longer! The midwife is with her, and —”

Mike, the Irishman who had become the group’s leader by virtue of his large body and threatening manner, cut Reed off. “Beer and cold cuts will be sufficient, Landlord.”

“And make it quick!” one of the two Peters, the shorter one, added.

“Beer!” the other Peter agreed. They were both deserters from the navy and had learned hard drinking at sea.

Reed looked taken aback for a moment, then recovered. “Certainly, good sirs! I have in the kitchen a Negro, a former slave who learned his art in a great mansion in the South– But, please, sit at table, sirs. I shall light the candles while you tell me what success you have had in the goldfields. I myself have experienced more than a little luck on that quest. Why, I have here in this very house a bag of gold so heavy my son—a strong lad—can hardly lift it!”

Barnberry declined to take his seat where the landlord indicated, instead choosing to sit on a bench with his back to the wall, long legs stretched out and big-brimmed hat sloped over his eyes. He took note of the landlord, whose red face betrayed his love of the beer he purveyed. The babbler did not seem aware of the smell of danger coming off these men like the sweat of their much-stressed horses.

A young boy brought a clay pitcher to the table, staggering under its weight. The travelers set to drinking. A large pewter platter that had seen holier days followed, cold meat sliced thick, still bleeding, a loaf of dark bread, hunks of cheese the size of a man’s fist. Reed made no move to help the boy with his burden, seeming pleased to show off the child to the strangers. Barnberry declined the meats and the beer when the landlord pressed him.

Reed was now entertaining his guests with his own tales of adventures in the goldfields. “Nuggets as big as hens’ eggs, I tell you, sirs. No digging needed. The creeks were full of them. Everywhere a man looked—gold!”

The Irishman and the fifth member of the group, a German army deserter named Joseph, exchanged glances. The Peters drained their beer mugs and called for more. The little boy ran to fetch it. The landlord droned on with his tall tales.

Barnberry tugged the hat lower over his eyes. He had seen it all so many, many times before. Fools, braggarts, liars, cowards, and desperate men. The consequences inevitable. Nothing worth his attention. Nothing here to lift the poisonous cloud of boredom that dogged him, or the growing spike of resentment.

* * *

“You admit to knowing what was going to happen?” Father Martín interrupted.

“As any man might have, Padre, had he looked upon the scene.”

Outside, light had faded from the sky and a bell tolled, calling the priest to his evening devotions. “And you did nothing?”

“You ask the wrong questions,” Barnberry said.

Father Martín considered this. His unease in the presence of his visitor had grown during the man’s tale, and not solely because he knew the final outcome was murder most gruesome. In his life he had experienced—often firsthand—the horror and suffering, war and pestilence that seemed the lot of priest and peasant, soldier and farmer, Spaniard and Indian alike. Why Holy God, the source of Love, allowed this, was beyond his understanding. Here, at the final margin of his own story, he had come to accept his unknowing, though that did not alleviate the burden of his guilt or his grief.

But Barnberry seemed to imply something beyond acceptance, a lack of emotion that struck Father Martín as not quite human. Five men entered the inn—one drowned himself in the sea. Three recently buried at the mission . . . .

“What question should I ask?”

“That depends on your understanding of your faith, Padre.”

The old priest considered this. “Continue.”

* * *

By seven in the evening, the fire had died down but not the landlord’s supply of anecdotes, most of them wild exaggerations. Both Peters slumped over empty platters, their eyelids drooping.

“Such jolly days we have seen here in the two years I have been landlord!” William Reed said. “I would need a lifetime to tell them all. But I see the pitcher is empty and must be refilled.”

“Better feed the fire,” the Irishman said.

“But I am one and the tasks are two!” The landlord laughed heartily at his own joke.

The German stared meaningfully at the Irishman.

Barnberry could stand it no longer. “I will chop the wood.”

“You, sir?” the landlord asked. “Should I let honored guests do the work?”

Barnberry took his gaze off the desecrated communion plate and stood. An axe lay by the dwindling fire whose thin trickle of smoke drew upwards to a hole in the ceiling over the place where the altar had been. The wood was stacked to one side. He seized the axe and set to work.

Once the chore was under way, Reed turned back to his other guests.

“As I have told you already, sirs, this friendly house of hospitality was once a Catholic mission. Not, of course, that I knew it in those days, being myself of the Protestant persuasion. What stories these walls could tell—”

Barnberry turned, the axe rising over his shoulder, and struck the landlord, splitting his skull.

* * *

Father Martín’s guest paused. The priest kept his eyes closed and said nothing. Dear God, he thought. Dear God!

“Shall I continue, Padre?”

“There is more?” He had given his word to withhold comment and he would keep it.

“You have read the charges against these men,” Barnberry said. “I tell you what is not written in them.”

Father in heaven, I am an old man. Abandon not your servant. Remember Thou his weakness.

“It is the property of humans to be weak.”

Father Martín opened his eyes at that.

“Your thoughts are obvious.”

The priest’s fingers trembled on the Holy Rosary hanging from his cincture. His voice, when he found it, was unsteady. “Who are you?”

Something flickered briefly over Barnberry’s lips. Not a smile. Impossible to think of this man smiling. The priest’s heart pounded.

“Go on.”

* * *

With the smell of the landlord’s blood in their nostrils, and the lure of gold in their hearts, the men set about slaughtering the landlord’s wife—in labor, as he had said, in a back room—and the midwife, and two children. Blood poured from their wounds and soaked the bed. The room was hot and airless, and soon filled with the smell of blood and vomit and amniotic fluid. Barnberry stood back, taking no part, observing how women and children were no match for drunken men determined to get at hidden treasure. The shouting of the killers and the screams of the women, the rage and the pleas for mercy did not touch him. He had seen so much more, and so much worse.

The Irishman, who had recovered the axe, set about using it, smashing everything in his fury to get at the gold they were convinced was there.

Barnberry became aware he was being watched. Another child had taken refuge under the birthing bed, the landlord’s young son. Their eyes met, and Barnberry read the child’s fear of being discovered—but also something else. Defiance.

Now the men were tearing heavy draperies from the window, pulling open drawers and spilling their contents over the bodies, overturning tables. The room filled with their oaths. A candle tipped onto a pile of blankets.

“There is no gold here!” one of the Peters said. “Curse him to hell for a lying braggart!”

The Irishman stepped over the body of the midwife. “Search the kitchens—the stables—the storerooms! We shall find it yet.”

“Leave no one alive to tell the tale,” Joseph the German warned.

Four men stormed out of the room, their boots thundering on the stone floor. Barnberry waited.

“Shall you kill me too?” The child who had hidden under his mother’s bed spoke in a whisper, his high voice wavering.

Barnberry dropped to one knee. “Shall I not?”

“I ain’t afraid of you.”

“That is good to hear, but foolish. What would you say if I told you I had buried an axe in your father’s skull?”

Even in the gloom under the bed, Barnberry could see the way the child’s cheeks paled.

“I still ain’t afraid,” the child said.

His nose told him the child had wet himself in his fear. Sounds of destruction drifted from other parts of the inn, the crashing of an axe through wood and bone. Yelling and cursing for gold that was not there.

“And why is that?”

“I want to live!”

Barnberry reached under the bed with one arm and grabbed the boy. Before the child could react, he had dragged him out and smothered him against his chest, silencing the child’s cries. He ran with his burden out of the room, away from the noise of the carnage, the rising flames, out of the inn to the darkness of hills and a star-filled sky.

* * *

“You wish for me to tell you your one admirable deed outweighs your participation in the many despicable ones in the eyes of our Heavenly Father,” the old priest said, his voice shaking.

“Not that.”

Darkness had now consumed the mission dedicated to Santa Barbara, herself no stranger to terror and martyrdom, and the stone-walled room had grown chilly. Brother José returned and lit more candles on the refectory table. The sputter of burning wax and the smell of candle smoke filled the room; light and shadows quilted the stone walls. Father Martín’s silent prayers found no answer.

When the monk left them alone again, Barnberry opened his eyes and sought out the wooden crucifix on the wall. Father Martín watched him. The expression of the tortured face of the Christ mirrored the anguish the priest himself was feeling. What effect had that powerful image on his guest, if indeed it had any?

“I am inured to the dying and the near-dead surrounding me,” Barnberry said. “Those who die on the battlefield, or in their own bed, by their own hand or by the assassin’s knife, young and old, male and female, taken in illness or the height of their health, in the jungles and the high castles, the evil man and the saint, the poor, the weak, the rich, the strong, alone or among thousands. I have seen it all.”

The priest took several moments to exert control over his own weakness. He spoke in a firmer voice. “And have you no Christian reaction to this?”

“I am not a Christian, Padre,” Barnberry said.

Father Martín wished he had some leftover wine he could resort to now, but he resisted the urge to call Brother José back. This was his alone to bear. He deserved it.

“There is a question I must ask. Are you perhaps Satan?”

Barnberry laughed.

The priest toyed with the empty cup, gaining time while his heart slowed its frantic beating.

After a while, Barnberry spoke again. “Do you remember how we spoke at first of the burden of shared secrets? Are you prepared to accept that burden from me?”

“You wish to make a confession? But by your own words, you are no believer—”

Barnberry held up a hand. “I have delayed the taking of many like the innkeeper’s son. It is the one small choice I have in the matter. They are momentary distractions, that pierce a deep and endless boredom.”

“The saving of life is a good deed, certainly—”

“It is unimportant! All flesh perishes in the end. But I take no man before his time.”

“Then—”

“This time, I killed a man.”

Father Martín spread his arms, palms up. “Our Savior forgives the truly repentant.” Surely, that must be true? “Only say the mea culpa—”

“Still you do not understand! I do not need to kill. None escape that final sentence. Not even that child. Certainly you can see the difference?”

“I see a soul in torment. A soul who killed in a moment of rage.”

“There was no rage in my action. Only a profound surfeit of disgust with this charade He forces on me.”

“Provocation then. The innkeeper was loquacious—”

“I have met many such who did not deserve to live.”

Father in Heaven, the priest prayed. I am not worthy. But give me the words to help this tortured soul!

“If you are not Satan himself,” he said slowly, “then bring that sin to the throne of the Most High and lay it at His feet, confident in His promise of forgiveness.”

“There is no forgiveness for such as I! The concept does not exist. There are no indulgences for good deeds. He laughs at good deeds!”

“That is blasphemy! In the name of Christ who shed His blood for us—”

“It was not shed for me.”

Father Martín covered his face with his hands. Perhaps the lord also laughs at those who indulge in theological discussion. Mea culpa.

“I come to this place that gives shelter to secrets to give up mine,” Barnberry said. “I challenged the Almighty. I, who have known Him from the beginning of His Time, know He is both Creator and Killer. I do His will. And now I have burdened you with the weight of a secret you can neither understand nor share.”

For the priest, there was no pleasure left in the realization that in the morning this would be a fleeting memory, and he would begin his duties all over again. The dream of going home that he had relied on to blot out the sins of the past, the blood that stained the mission’s stones—the blood on his own hands—was just that: a dream. Nor was there left to him the compensation of knowing he had saved the souls of some whose lives he had touched, for here was one he could not reach.

“Why?” he asked. “And why here?”

“To confess my unforgivable sin in the place where all sins but mine are forgiven is the ultimate blasphemy,” Barnberry said. “That is the only power against Him that I have. To fling His own inexorable will in His face. To spit on His law and His mercy. Can you begin to understand?”

The candles Brother José lit had all burned down, and silence swallowed the mission. He thought that perhaps he could begin to understand. His sins, and Mother Church’s too, might be dismissed by a Creator who took no sides. Could that be? Knowledge of that cold dispassion would be a heavy burden indeed. And what of all he had believed all his life? Justice. Heaven and hell. What if there were no justice? No forgiveness of sin. He could not—would not!—accept that.

“Then I shall commit blasphemy too.” He made the sign of the cross. “In my power as His representative on Earth, I forgive you, even in the absence of your repentance.” He lowered his hand and his voice sank to a tremble. “Even in the absence of His holy mercy.”

Barnberry gathered his broad-brimmed hat from the back of the chair. “So be it.”

“I too have seen much suffering,” Father Martín said. “And some I have caused, for I have committed my share of sin. I am old and my pain is very great. Take me with you now, Master Death.”

Barnberry shook his head. “I take no man before his time, Padre,” he said gently, “no matter the pain in living. Therein lies the burden.”

 
 

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Sheila_Finch_smallSheila Finch has been writing and publishing science fiction and fantasy for more than thirty years. She has a new novel coming out this summer, this one historical fiction set in Roman-occupied Britain.

About “Burdens,” she wrote, “In 1847, five men entered the secularized Mission San Miguel in California seeking treasure. Four of the five had long histories as thieves and bandits; the fifth was something of a mystery. The landlord of the inn and his family were killed, but one child miraculously survived the massacre. Four of the men were later arrested, but the fifth disappeared from the historical record. This is my attempt at an alternate explanation of what happened.”

 

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