Father Michel stood in line with the other priests. Like him, they were all recently summoned to Cardinal Jonaton Thibaut’s castle to hear an official decree. Unlike the others, Father Michel had not come willingly. Guards seized him from his humble, rural church before he could even respond to the messenger. Their only explanation: “It is an extremely urgent matter”.
The priests waited outside the entryway to the opulent receiving room. Deep within blazed two roaring fires, and the scalding heat was felt all the way across the enormous chamber.
Twin-robed valets motioned for the dozen men to step forward. They passed by a small audience of lords and ladies, wealthy landowners, high-ranking government officials and their families, who also had gathered for the announcement.
At the end of the receiving room sat the Cardinal between the dual infernos. Each burst from a large cauldron with a recently refashioned chimney above to ventilate the smoke. One of the robed men cautioned the group not to come too close.
The priests knelt in a line before the Cardinal, whose ivory robes and miter were stained with ash and soot. Sweat streamed down the sides of his face as his thunderous voice erupted. “This is an official decree to the diocese!” Several young scribes hastily took notes as their spiritual leader continued. “Through the manipulations of heavenly bodies, pestilence has been sent down upon mankind for our correction by the just wrath of God. The planets of Saturn and Mars and Jupiter aligned themselves three years ago to give us a portent of what has become. No one knows with certainty whose sins have summoned this retribution. Be it good men, the heathens, or the lot of us all.
“The cities are rampant with death. Word has come. Ninety-six hundred have died in Florence alone. Eight hundred perish each day in Paris, six hundred daily in Vienna. Even our dear Pope’s fair city of Avignon releases four hundred souls a day upon the average.
“Neither counsel of physician nor virtue of medicine appears to avail it. Not only do few recover thereof, but well-nigh most die within the third day after the appearance of egg-sized swellings — plague-boils — on the groin or armpits or necks. The malady appears to spread by a simple touch or a sideways glance from the infected. Crowded cities are the most vulnerable.”
He gestured to the caldrons on either side and continued. “We must protect ourselves and the sanctity of this diocese. Pope Clement uses fire to purify the air, and thus, we do, too. Other governments have passed regulations prohibiting funerals and the right to travel freely, thus we do. Many have sealed themselves within sanctuaries to avoid all others, and thus, we do. Until the Great Pestilence subsides, this castle will remain isolated. This is my order!”
Father Michel lifted his bowing head. Underneath the thick mop of black locks was a long face, olive in tone with crisp, blue eyes. Shocked, he shuddered as the Cardinal finished his speech.
“We will no longer travel outside these walls to tend to the sick and then return. No more will we share Sunday worship with the masses. No more will we have contact of any fashion with anyone from the outside until the peste subsides. All gathered here are welcome to stay and seek sanctuary within these fortified walls. Any who leave, though, nary will be allowed to reenter.”
The ramification of the Cardinal’s words soaked into the huddled crowd. There was an oppressive silence at first, and then a twitter of whispers and gasps. One brave priest asked, “Your Eminence, surely you don’t mean we’re not offering last rites?”
“That is exactly what I mean,” said the Cardinal; his voice was flat.
“Sire, how can we abandon so many? In this dark hour, it is more imperative than ever for us to minister to the dead and the dying,” another priest protested as he clutched his rosary beads.
“The dead and the dying will be absolved of their sins. Word has been passed down from Avignon — all who die of infection are saved. These are Pope Clement the Sixth’s wishes,” Cardinal Thibaut said. “He also instructs us to take measures to protect ourselves and the inner workings of the church. Jews, gypsies, witches, evil cults such as the flagellants roam the countryside infecting all they come into contact with. We’re safe here, and our solitude will ensure that the infrastructure of the Church and government remains secure. You all should consider yourselves blessed for being among the chosen few to have this fortified castle as sanctuary.”
Someone from the back of the room called out, “Pope Clement issued a Papal Bull declaring there is no proof the Jews spread the malady; their numbers are perishing like ours!”
The Cardinal answered, “In the castle of Chillon on Lake Geneva, Jews confessed to poisoning the wells in Venice to spread the peste. In St. Etienne, they are accused of the same. Even among our own diocese, we have proof that Jews are responsible for infecting our towns with the malady. Right here, in this room, is a culprit who allowed a diseased band of heathens to infect his congregation. The Pope must speak in political terms. But we know the truth, don’t we Father Michel?”
A jolt shot through the simple parish priest as the Cardinal addressed him. Father Michel meekly asked, “Your Eminence?”
“Tell them, Father Michel. Stand and tell everyone how you were deceived by the Jews who came to your church. Tell them how you took them in and let them poison your congregation.”
Father Michel tentatively rose to his feet. He thought about his parish — a small rural church that was mostly ignored by the rest of the diocese until it was time to collect tithes. Farmers and peasants mostly filled his congregation. It was nestled on a hillside with a handful of country houses surrounding it. They were a faithful bunch, many traveling over five miles to worship each Sunday. He opened his doors and his heart to all who needed him.
“Cardinal Thibaut, surely no one blames me for the misfortune that befell my congregation…” began Father Michel, shaking his head slowly.
“Blame you? Of course they do. Your congregation sent word to us asking that you be removed from the parish! They begged us to absolve you of your duties.” Cardinal Thibaut rose from his chair while flames leapt at him from either side.
Father Michel glanced sideways at his peers. “Perhaps this should be discussed at a later time.”
“Time is not ours to relinquish! Men have been known to go to bed healthy only to be dead by morning during this time of pestilence. Besides, everyone here knows the story, Father Michel. None chose to speak it out loud, but in the hallways, late at night, murmurs can be heard describing your exploits. Indeed, the Pope himself has heard the tale of how you took in a family of gypsies...little more than vermin wandering the countryside in a covered wagon. Witches, some say they were.”
“No, they weren’t witches; they were a simple family. They were hungry and sick. I ministered to them as I would my own congregation,” Father Michel interrupted.
“But, unlike your congregation, what were they, Father Michel? You knew!” Cardinal’s voice was loud, and it echoed off the high ceiling. Several of the other priests flinched under his words.
“They were Jews, nothing more. They weren’t criminals or witches,” Father Michel cried.
“That’s right! They were worse than witches. They were Jews. And they infected your congregation and spread the peste. That’s what Jews do, Father Michel — they spread disease. They are evil heathens whose only goal is to destroy the faithful. Did they cast a spell on you, Father, to deceive you? Did they taint your soul with their lies? Did they bribe you with their filthy money?” he whispered the last sentence, letting it hang in the air.
Father Michel violently shook his head from side to side. A vein throbbed in his temple. “How can you make such charges against me?”
The Cardinal levelly stated, “If these were charges, Father Michel, you would have been tried, convicted, and hung already. This is a warning. Make your penance and pray that God’s vengeance spares your polluted soul.”
Father Michel spun to face the audience. “They were a family, a mother and father...three young children and an old man. They just needed food and some place warm to sleep for a couple nights.” His words echoed in the massive hall and his pleading, imploring eyes were met with expressions of disgust and downcast stares. “It wasn’t like that! How could I turn them away? Isaiah 58:7 says that we are to ‘bring into our house the needy and the wanderers. When you seest the naked, thou shall cover him, and thou shall not hide from him for fear of seeing his flesh!’ We should not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for they may be angels in disguise!”
“Angels they were not! Satan in disguise is more apt, and you allowed yourself to be taken with his trickery!” the Cardinal erupted from behind Father Michel. “Retreat to your chamber. Go now and beg our Lord for mercy for what you have done.”
Father Michel did not look back at the Cardinal. “Yes, Your Eminence,” he stammered, hung his head, and walked dutifully past the rows of onlookers. Their judgment pierced him like steely daggers as he passed by. Quickening his pace, he fled through the archway, into the library, and down the hallway that led to his tiny chamber.
Once inside his own private sanctuary, he allowed tears of shame and rage to burst. While shaking, he knelt by his cot and cried, “Lord why have you brought this burden upon me? Why have you cast doubt upon my faith again and again? Do you test me?”
He reached under his collar and pulled out a gold chain. Attached to it was medallion inlaid with precious stones and an unusual, archaic cross. Gazing at it, he asked, “Or is this not a test at all but proof of a truth that I must bring into the light? I can’t stay here. I must go back to my church. I just have to figure out how.”
Read the first chapter from Father Michel's Story...
Father Michel must reach her before the peste does. Defying orders from the Cardinal, he risks his life as he rides across the decimated French countryside to find her — and to find something that rattles the foundation of his waning faith.
Will the truth he unravels lead to salvation? Or will this simple parish priest be led astray?
This is a story of crushed faith and bashed hopes. This is Father Michel’s Story.
Father Michel’s Story
During a time when the plague ravaged the land, sweet Claudeen wore sprigs of fresh lavender in her hair. It masked the smell of death that soaked into every strand, fiber, and pore of her soul.
Oubliette — A Forgotten Little Place copyright © 2016 by Vanta M. Black.
Website, art, cover, and jacket design copyright © 2016 by Black Château Enterprises.
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