“Father, forgive me for I have sinned. It has been a very long time since my last confession.”
Father Droll sat in the confessional and was listening to his 7th confession this Wednesday night at St. Cecilia’s Church. This was more than usual and he briefly lamented the fact that even Catholics were out of practice of confessing their sins to a priest. But this confessor caught his attention when he emphasized “very long time”. He sat up straighter and leaned towards the screened partition that separated him from the confessor. He could not see who it was but could tell it was the voice of an older man.
“God is always happy to hear your confession, my child”, Father Droll began. “What sins burden your heart?”
There was a pause which was not unusual considering that usually this was the part where someone was about to tell of their deepest and darkest secrets. Most of those secrets were put into generic terms, things like ‘I had premarital sex’ or ‘I lied to my boss’ but every once in awhile Father Droll would be surprised at how specific people could be about their sins. But, after all, this was the place to say those things aloud that you dared not voice anywhere else.
“I am cursed, father, I do not know if God can hear me anymore. I only ask that you ask his forgiveness for me. “
This was a rather odd response and Father Droll was getting an uneasy feeling down in the pit of his stomach. He spoke a little hesitantly. “God does not curse his children, my child. He can hear you and he knows your thoughts.”
“You are wrong, father. God can and does curse his children.” The voice seemed to crack with emotion.
Father Droll sensed the emotion from the confessor on the other side of the partition. “Then how has he cursed you?”
“He has taken away the salvation of death.” The confessor’s voice was now profoundly sad.
“He sent his only son to die for us and give us all salvation…”
The confessor interrupted, “No, father. Not for everyone.” The voice wasn’t mad but was emphatic.
Father Droll had heard a similar line of reasoning before in his confessional and he wasn’t sure what to do next but he was definitely fighting his first instinct to run. He stood up and opened the door to his confessional closet and walked out. He noted that there was no one else in the church which he was thankful for and turned to the door of the confessor’s closet and opened it. The man kneeling in the closet was looking at Father Droll in confusion. Father Droll summoned up as much courage as he could and started in on the man. “You dare come here and violate the sanctity of this church? You are an abomination to God, not his child. Who sent you? What morbid fascination does your kind have with the church this time?”
The man stood up and stepped out of the confessional. He wore a confused expression as he sized up Father Droll. “Yes, father, I am an abomination. You have no words of comfort for even the least of us? Did the almighty not create me as well?”
The man seemed so sincere that Father Droll was taken aback. Had he misjudged who or what this was? No, the pale skin was the final clue. This was a vampire. He had seen many in his time and he had no use for any of them. Well, maybe that wasn’t entirely true. “Who sent you?”
The priest’s body visibly relaxed. It was the one answer he could trust. “Ah, miss Sondragaard.” He turned and headed for the back of the church but after going a few steps he realized that the stranger wasn’t following. He turned back to look at the man and gestured to him to follow. They walked to the adjoining building filled with halls and offices. Finally they came to a large office that was comfortable from the dark carpeting to the books on the wall. Father Droll gestured for the man to take a seat in front of the desk while he himself took a seat in the desk chair.
“I’ll be blunt. What does Sonja want?”
The man’s expression turned from confusion to one of slight amusement as he smiled. “Her reputation precedes her I see but I assure you that she wants nothing. I am the one looking for answers, father.”
“I find that hard to believe but I have no reason not to trust you yet other than the fact that you are a vampire, an anathema to everything I believe in. Who are you?”
The man’s face turned solemn again. “I am Paolo, Paolo de Salerna and yes, I am a vampire although I find it extraordinary that you would know that.”
Father Droll flipped the lid of a box on his desk and pulled out a cigar. He clipped both ends and lit it as he eyed Paolo. “Well what I know is my business but let’s just say I know Sonja and she has done me a few favors. I trust her at least but she still scares the hell out of me.”
“You and me both, father, you and me both.”
Father Droll visibly relaxed again as he laughed. “Ok, so you are not here on some errand for Sonja. What do you want, Paolo?”
Paolo stood and walked over to the books on the wall to wall shelving. He admired the leather bound tomes of knowledge. “My confession was not a ruse, father. I look for forgiveness that is not given because of a curse that was not asked for.”
“So let me get this straight. You don’t want to be a vampire anymore and you think the church has the answers?”
“I never wanted to be a vampire and yes, I am confident that the church has the answers to undoing the curse even if no one knows what those answers are. It is in its corpus of knowledge that the answers will be found.”
Father Droll was skeptical. “So you never envied the idea of immortality, of never getting sick, of having unlimited strength? None of that ever appealed to you?”
Paolo looked at Father Droll seriously. “No. I never wanted immortality. What a long route to the kingdom of heaven. Mortality is a definite shortcut.” Paolo turned back to the books on the wall. “I only ever wanted to live my life of service to God and to reap the benefits of my faith and service in heaven with my creator.”
Father Droll put out his cigar and stood. This man talked as if he was a man of the cloth like himself. “So what happened? I mean, how did you die? Or, I guess what I really mean is how did you become a vampire?”
“Love killed me,” Paolo said half smiling to himself as if remembering something fondly. “Well if love didn’t do it then the Great Pestilence was right behind. Oh how I wish the hand of pestilence was swifter than that of love.”
“The Great Pestilence?”
“Oh, pardon me, I sometimes forget myself. I only ever knew it as the Great Pestilence, history would give it another name, the Black Death.”
Father Droll caught himself on the edge of the desk as he tried to recover from being suddenly light headed. He took a moment and then went over to a cabinet to retrieve a class and a bottle of scotch. He hastily poured a quarter of a glass and downed it. “Sorry, don’t think I was prepared for that. You did mean the Black Death of the 14th century?”
“The one and the same.”
Father Droll walked back to his seat. “I need to sit down.”
Paolo sat back in the chair across the desk from Father Droll. “I was not so different from you, father.”
Father Droll interrupted, “please, please call me Adam.”
“Ok, Adam. I was saying that we are a lot alike. I see from your credentials that you are Dominican. I was once part of the 1st order of Dominican Monks in Italy myself. I would say that I officially left the order when I ‘died’.”
Adam was now speechless. Paolo was turning everything on its head. He didn’t fit his perception of what vampires were. “You died serving in the order during the black plague?”
“Yes. It was a horrible time but it was the perfect time to be a servant to God. His flock was in such desperate need of help both spiritually and physically. I would be lying if I said I was a rock in such times but I did the best that I humanly could. But I too eventually succumbed to the plague. It was on my deathbed that God had another plan for me. I only wish it was one that hadn’t cut me off from him completely. When I told you that love killed me I wasn’t exaggerating there either. I had fallen in love with a woman, father… Adam and even though I never acted on it and even denied it to myself it was there nonetheless and it was deeply rooted in me. Had it been another time I might have forsaken my monastic orders to be with her but the plague was so overwhelming that it never entered into my thoughts to abandon God’s will. But there was a great evil present in Salerna as well that I was unaware of and would only become aware of after it was too late. Another vampire was using the plague as cover to feed indiscriminately and had turned the woman that I was in love with. She thought to turn me as well to save my life but she was chased off by yet a 3rd vampire but before she left she killed me. I can only guess at her motivation but it was this 3rd vampire who turned me into what I am now. He was fighting the vampire who was feeding on the plague victims and trying to drive him off and he needed my help. He knew me because we fought in the crusades together and he was coming to look for me. He just happened to find me as I was breathing my last. He felt he had no choice.”
“You fought in the Crusades?” Adam was reacting in shock.
Paolo let Adam collect himself a little. “Yes, I fought in the crusades. Another horrible chapter in what men can do to each other.”
Adam thought quietly for awhile. The fact that Paolo was a vampire didn’t surprise him but Paolo was different but he wondered how different. “So you are devout to the Christian God but you are a vampire. Do you feed off of others like vampires must? Do you hurt others by taking their blood?”
“It is indeed part of the curse that I must feed from the blood of living things. But do not dismay too much, I do very little harm to anyone in the process and they are none-the-wiser for it. You might say that the victim even enjoys it but there are certainly those of us who go too far. But most of what you have heard about vampires is urban legend but maybe not all since you at least seem to know Sonja.”
“I have met Sonja a few times as well as others. It might surprise you how many of your kind seek the confessional. However, usually by the time they are seeking the confessional they have done something horrible and are struggling with their own humanity. The first time it ever happened I was almost killed but Sonja was the one who saved me. So I have heard the lamentations of the cursed before but not from anyone calm enough to talk about it.”
Paolo looked down in shame. “I have done horrible things, Adam, but not in this lifetime so far. But the sins of the past still haunt me and often wonder if it is for these sins that I am cursed.”
“What sins, Paolo?”
“Ah. I see. I only know what I have read but history is pretty harsh on the crusades.”
“They aren’t harsh enough”, Paolo said bitterly.
“Father, we spent years chasing what we thought was the will of God, to recapture and hold Jerusalem. It was foolish for us to believe that this was God’s will. God’s will could never have involved so much blood. Blood of men, women and children flowed like rivers on both sides. Yes, there was bravery, courage and faith on both sides but there was far more treachery to be had and we all lost parts of our souls there. No, God was not in the plans. The Devil won on those fields and the irony is that he won in the name of God. What a victory for Lucifer to win souls so twisted that they thought it was all in the name of the Almighty.”
“Is that why you devoted your services to the sick? I mean during the Black Death?”
“I joined the Dominicans before my crusading days. The Dominicans in those days were not only the best known bible scholars as they are today but they were the most knowledgeable group on just about any subject matter in that time. That appealed to me, that I could seek God through knowledge. It was a Knight Templar, a man named Lonardo, who convinced me to join his crusade. He convinced me that having me along was important because I could record the events of his crusade and decipher God’s will on the battlefield. I was young and arrogant and I believed him. The fact is that Lonardo believed it too and he was not trying to deceive me. We would even become lifelong friends and of course friends in death too but I still curse the day we met.”
Adam’s curiosity was piqued. “Wait, I thought all of the Knight Templars were either imprisoned or killed by the time of the Black Death?”
“Ah, so they were. I didn’t know he was a member of the Knights Templar when I met him. No one knew. That was only confided to me later when I was turned. When I joined his crusade we fought under the banner of the Knights of the Black Swan. A rather thinly veiled brotherhood but it was enough to keep a few old Templars away from the chopping block.”
“So Lonardo was the one who turned you into a vampire?”
“Yes, but he wasn’t one when I met him. I do not know what happened after the crusades or how he became a vampire but I do know that even as a vampire he sought to fight evil where he found it. I admired that about him always. During the crusades I admired it so much that I sought training from him and he taught me to fight. So I became more than a scribe and if I were being honest with myself, that was my real downfall. As a fighter I had become the brave crusader I was writing about and it was very seductive but I was also becoming the treacherous Christian I would come to discover in time.”
Adam sat thinking about Paolo’s story. Still thinking he stood up and walked over to Paolo and took one of the seats next to Paolo. “Paolo, I can’t pretend to know all that you have gone through. I can’t even imagine the crusades and I certainly can’t imagine being a vampire but after speaking to you I realize now that I was wrong about something. When I meant to drive you away from the church I told you that you were an abomination and not God’s child. You are an abomination and I see that you understand that but I have to believe that you are still God’s child. You started out that way and just because you are now something different that doesn’t change the fact that you were created in his image.”
“Thank you Adam, but what is the difference if I am now excluded from his will? What’s the difference if he can no longer hear my prayers?”
“Everyone is tested Paolo. Some are tested more severely than others. In my work I have found that those with the greatest potential to do God’s work have the hardest tests of faith. If God is testing you so harshly then I think you can take solice in the notion that he means for you to do something great in his name.”
Paolo found some comfort in these words. He listened to them intently. After a few moments of thought he asked. “What was your test, Adam?”
Adam straightened up surprised by the question but he relaxed quickly. “Well I don’t think I have been tested in the way you have but I do have my own challenges.”
Paolo waited expectantly.
Adam continued. “I am part of a large family. I am one of 6 and my mother is one of 12 and they are all German Catholics. We grew up in the Catholic Church. It was part of our everyday lives, probably more so than the average Catholic. Part of that upbringing involved a lot of talk of saints, angels, God and, of course, the devil. Growing up it seemed like almost everyone in my family had some personal experience with one of these. My father was possessed by a demon spirit and actually went through an exorcism, my mother had heard the voice of God comforting her, even our neighbor, a good Catholic himself, had encountered his dead wife in an apparition. Everywhere I turned the Devil or God was sticking his business in our lives, in a very personal way. I believed all of these things growing up and admittedly I was terrified. I would spend almost every night falling asleep to the idea that I might meet an angel at any moment or far more terrifying, a demon.”
“Perhaps then it made sense that when I got older I went to seminary school to become a priest. The family was very proud of me and of course there were more than a few bragging rights to have a priest in the family but what they never understood was that I did not experience God in the way they did. I joined the Dominicans for two reasons. First, they appealed to my sense of the rationale. They sought knowledge and I have always been a very logical minded person. Second, I thought that seeking knowledge could lead me to a better understanding of faith. See, I had a problem. I never experienced an apparition, a voice, or an encounter with anything spiritual, not a saint, an angel or even a demon. It frustrated me. As much as I was terrified of these kinds of encounters they would also have solidified my faith.”
Paolo looked up at Adam. “So, you had the doubting Thomas syndrome.”
“Yes, exactly. As a person of reason and knowledge I seek something that is unreasonable and even unknowable. I try to rationalize the irrational. It is a paradox and yet I am stuck within it. I have to struggle with it every day. This is my test. It is my test to believe and to have faith where I have no reason to believe or have faith. My curse is a thinking mind, one that tries to think its way out of the divine and to rationalize God away. Maybe some would trivialize such a test but I can think of none more vexing for a priest who is charged with watching over God’s flock.”
“This is no small test, Adam”, Paolo responded. “I too have found myself trying to understand that which we cannot truly understand. Unfortunately for me I have seen too much of the devil’s work not to believe he is alive and kicking.”
Adam looked intently at Paolo. “So tell me Paolo, what do you really want here? I think you understand your plight I also think you understand your own test of faith. I am just not sure I can help much in this situation.”
“Father, you have already helped. Among our kind our faiths and devotions are as varied as any congregation of people. I do not get to converse with someone of faith in the Christian Church very often. But perhaps you are right about something else. I joined the Dominicans almost 670 years ago and even though it has been that long I am having a hard time letting go of that past life. I am no longer a Dominican friar. I no longer serve God as I once did. Those were things that were comforting to me and I long for that comfort once again.”
Adam put a hand on Paolo’s arm. “No, you do not serve God in the same way but that does not mean that you don’t serve God. Serve him faithfully and eventually he will listen, I believe that and so should you. You have a very different life now and you are forced to do things I cannot understand or even tolerate but God can. He can understand who and what you are and he will judge you accordingly. I believe with all my heart that the bible is telling us a great Truth when it tells us that we cannot know the mind of God nor should we have the arrogance to presume his plan for us. If nothing else take comfort in that. Take comfort in knowing that you don’t know what God has planned for you. Take comfort in being uncertain about how close or how far you are from God. Only he knows the answer to that.”
Paolo smiled warmly at Adam. “You would have been a good servant to God even in my time, Father. Thank you for your words. I think it is time for the life of the friar and the crusader to evolve.”
Adam stood along with Paolo and took his hand. He was briefly startled by the coolness of Paolo’s hand but didn’t show it. “Maybe we both learned something tonight. I will not pretend that you don’t scare me silly but I will say a prayer for you, Paolo. I do not know what council I can give but it is yours should you need it in the future.”
Paolo bowed kissing the priest’s ring. “Thank you, Adam. I may just do that.” He let go of Adam’s hand and walked to the door feeling better than he had in a long time. He would serve God in new ways, he would find a way to serve him as a vampire.