by Bruno Jasieński
“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
– Matthew 16
“… For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you …”
– Matthew 6
The crucifix was old and weather-beaten. Perhaps six hundred years old, it was said.
It hung in an alcove by the vestibule entrance.
Its wood had hardened and petrified with age, so that its origins could no longer be determined; it stood slightly taller than a person.
It depicted a blackened and withered Christ, fastened to the cross with three massive hobnails.
But the most fascinating thing was Christ’s face – it in no way resembled those pious faces the Renaissance painters gave Him on their canvases. It was the face of a thug, horridly ugly, with black, sunken eye sockets, a terrible, loathsome expression etched onto his ample, bestial jaws, a face that smacked more of blasphemy than sainthood.
The monk who sculpted it must have been possessed, or a dreadful sinner; he had carved the base evil of his spidery soul.
The legs, half worn to nothing from the kisses of pious lips, were stiff and bony, like the legs of a corpse.
The priest felt a strange antipathy toward the crucifix.
Ever since he had first set foot in the parish, at only thirty years of age, he had nursed an incomprehensible, superstitious dread, a hatred for it, which had only grown as the years went by.
Whenever he had to pass by the alcove to conduct Mass, he always crossed himself rapidly and hurried on.
He had been here for twenty years, living off the church and the village. When offered a promotion to a better parish he declined. Only his relationship to the crucifix in the vestibule had remained constant since the day of his arrival.
He was not liked by his parishioners.
They knew about his various dealings, and whispered about them in private.
Everyone knew he had had two children, a boy and a girl, with his housekeeper, who had died the previous fall. The children were being educated in the city.
He was stern and dogmatic with the villagers.
Miserly and penny-pinching, he begrudged everyone, whether rich or vagrant.
He knew perfectly well the parishioners detested him, and this made him even more ruthless.
A wiry consumptive with broad shoulders and a sunken rib cage, he was still trim despite his fifty years of age. Silent and glum, his face gaunt and ashen, his eyes blazing but deeply sunken, he gave the impression of a man wracked by illness.
And curiously – though no one seemed to notice it – that bony, angular face with its phosphorescent eyes resembled that of the Christ in the vestibule.
Had the priest seen this resemblance? Was this why he resented the crucifix?
He had been overexerting himself the past few years. That autumn was more difficult and more miserable than the ones before.
Rain fell incessantly, the air was foggy and damp.
He never tended to his illness. He had lived with it for so many years that it had become a part of him.
And one day it happened that, while celebrating Mass, his singing gave way to a terrible fit, coughing up blood.
He toppled from the pedestal, dropping his chalice.
He was carried to the presbytery.
The fit persisted.
By the time the doctor from a nearby town had managed to stanch the hemorrhage, the priest was utterly spent.
He lay supine, yellow as a chasuble, gasping for breath.
The doctor prescribed some powders for him, told him to remain in bed, not to go outside for the love of God, and when the rain let up – to travel.
Gries – Davos – Zakopane …
He took his pay and left.
The priest spent two days bedridden.
On the third day he rose and went to conduct Mass, in the morning, as usual.
He was looking much the worse for wear.
He was hobbling with a cane and coughing loudly.
His face was even more sunken and sallow.
He looked like a ghoul.
Thus passed several weeks …