IN THE EARLY MORNING of December 1999, two men walked along an ancient street of Jerusalem or as the Israelis call it "Yerushalayim" pronounced as Herushaleim. The sun was not yet visible, and the air was crisp. The sky was already grey from the faint light in the East. One of them was clad in a Franciscan monk's garb with his hood over his head; the other wore a long white priestly robe. The one in white was tall and lanky. Strands of grey hair stuck out from under a straw hat with a large brim. He had it tipped slightly forward from habit to keep the bright light out of his eyes even thought the sun's rays had not yet reached them.
"So what do you want my son?"
The monk kept his head slightly bowed.
"Before I answer; you must promise me that what I tell you will be kept under the seal of confession."
The voice was barely audible. Since his head was bowed, anyone walking by would assume that the monk's eyes were directed at his feet. Nothing could have been further from the truth. If observing closely, one would have noticed the rapid eye movements of the cleric. The pupils were shifting from side to side without stopping to look where he was going. He depended on his companion to make the choice of the route and warn him of any obstacles in their path. Every once in a while he would turn himself on his heels and check to make sure that they were not being followed. His constant restlessness gave an impression of a hunted animal. His eyes continually searched the cross streets and alleyways of the ancient city. From time to time he shot a fleeting look at the man beside him. The motion was so quick that the old priest was not even aware that he was being observed.
During the last few months the monk had developed the ability to judge and "read" a person after one glance. His skill was honed to such a sharp edge that he was rarely wrong. He always reached the same conclusion that he would have if he had studied the subject in detail for a long time. The strange events that he was about to reveal had unfolded in such a short period of time, or it seemed short to him even though they began five months ago. Since then he acquired a sixth sense to recognize danger immediately. Time was not a commodity he could squander or leisurely spend. His very life depended on it and he was getting more frightened with every step they took. Even though the priest had an uneasy feeling that his companion was studying him he could not catch the monk in the act. The monk's eyes shifted so quickly that the man dressed in white couldn't turn his head fast enough to make eye contact. Both figures were sombre and talked in low voices.
A closer examination would have revealed that the monk's lips were curled in a slight smirk as though he was musing about some secret joke that he alone understood. His amusement came at the expense of his companion, whose appearance gave the impression of being a large toadstool, with the wide brimmed hat and the lanky body clad in a white pristine robe.
The tall man's face was dry and brown. It had seen many years in this harsh and unforgiving land. Deep lines etched into his skin covered his forehead. The tops of his cheeks resembled the fissures found in the brown sandstone around this part of the world. The lower part of his face was hidden by whiskers almost as white as the ones protruding from the hat with a few dark strands still visible. The beard fluttered slightly in the breeze as he walked giving an impression that he was a prophet in this holy land. His arms folded in front of him and tucked inside his wide sleeves close to his body added to the 'stem' appearance of a toadstool. There was no expression on the priest's face until the monk uttered the last fateful words.
"…under the seal of confession."
The priest stopped abruptly so that the brown clad man ended up a few steps ahead of him before he realized that his companion was no longer beside him. The monk stopped instantly. He was stricken with terror at finding himself alone because people had tended to disappear around him in a blink of an eye since that dreadful day. Later they would turn up dead. Turning around he saw the brown face of the priest a few feet behind him turning grey with anger. The white silhouette was frozen with his mouth wide open as though it was yelling, but no sound was heard. The face of the priest was so tanned that even anger didn't turn it completely white. The monk couldn't make out whether his companion's twisted face was from being surprised by the request or if the old man was having some kind of stroke.
Before the Franciscan could ask the priest if he was all right the elderly man closed his jaw and began walking towards him. As the priest got closer the monk turned his head away from him. He didn't want to make eye contact yet so that the priest whom he knew as his professor from the past could recognize him. As they fell into step again the only noise that came out of the Jesuit was a barely audible growl. He was clearing his throat. They walked several blocks and turned a number of corners before the priest calmed down enough to get control of his voice.
"Why should a Franciscan brother insist on such a pledge? He should know better."
The man in brown uttered softly.
"What I have to say must have the protection of the seal of the confessional. I'm not a monk but am wearing these Franciscan robes for safety, besides it's a practical disguise, which keeps me comfortable in this cool air. This robe also helps me avoid harassment from local authorities. They are paranoid and think that everyone is a terrorist or an Arab spy. On the other hand the Arabs think that everyone not of their race is a Jewish spy. There is no end to the mistrust of these people. Besides, the hood over my head keeps my face from prying eyes. There are so many monks, priests and religious types around here that I blend into the crowds like a sheep in a flock."
The impostor felt quite proud of himself. He thought that these details added a little poetic flair in view of the location. It was the second time that he had surprised the priest, which made him stop again and stare at the man in the brown robe. This time the priest hesitated for a moment, so that the other didn't get caught off guard, as he had been the first time. The Franciscan could feel the priest's steely grey eyes penetrate through the robe, his body and right into his soul. Suddenly a cold chill went up and down his spine thinking that he might be recognized before he was ready to reveal himself. He fidgeted and felt uncomfortable under this scrutiny. He mumbled under his hood.
"L...e...t's move on."
The priest moved closer to the figure beside him, glancing around the area. The street was empty except for some cat meowing in a doorway. Then leaning his head towards his companion whispered.
"First of all both the Israelis and the Palestinians have reasons to fear each other, but I won't take up any of your precious time to go into details. The paranoia as you call it is very real and not imaginary, but I'm sure that is not why you called and asked to see me. Also your request for me to pledge that this conversation be kept under the seal of the confessional in the middle of the street is most unusual if not ludicrous, I must say."
The Franciscan made up his mind that he might as well reveal his identity now. If not, the priest might concentrate his attention on trying to identify him rather than listening to what he had to say. He pulled his hood back enough so that the priest could make out his features. The tall man was visibly shaken.
"Brad Scott! My God! I haven't seen you since you graduated from the academy. What's this all about? I remember that we had to force you to go to confession when you were a student and now you freely seek it in the middle of the street? You said that you weren't a monk and I believe you, because that's the last thing I would have expected of you. You were too arrogant and too much of a rabble-rouser to join any orders. Compassion and humility wasn't part of your vocabulary."
During this outburst the man in white didn't comment on the impersonation. The monk was more interested in making sure that they were alone and heard only part of the reproach. His mind was centered on his preoccupation with the danger that he perceived was all around them. Suddenly he turned his head and thought he saw some shadowy figures lurking in one of the side streets, but further scrutiny revealed it was the shadows of some statues protruding from a small square.
"So what is it that you really want? Are you in some kind of trouble? What's this nonsense about a confession? All you have to do is ask me and you know that I will keep whatever it is between the two of us."
The monk continued to probe the side streets and only stopped when something unusual caught his eyes. He didn't see anything. Suddenly he heard the unearthly shriek of some bird. He looked up and saw only a large shadow on the wall of one of the churches. Looking around he could not locate the source and when he looked back the shadow was gone.
He turned to the Jesuit.
"Did you hear anything?"
The old man looked up at the sky and at each side of the street. The monk was sure that he saw and heard the shriek but did not press it.
"Okay. I haven't much time so I'll get to the point. I'm in mortal danger."
The Jesuit smiled and shook his head.
"You always over dramatized everything. You should have become an actor. Did you?"
The man in the brown robe was getting angry.
"I respected you as a teacher and that's why I came to you, but don't make light of my predicament. Nothing is what it seems anymore."
The Franciscan began talking, as though to himself.
"You know that we find ourselves in today's chaos because of the past few decades. This century has been a bizarre period. The world went through some terrible conflicts with the last world war being the worst in human history. Yet mankind has learned very little from it as nations continue to bicker and find new and more efficient ways of killing each other. After the Second World War people seemed to have taken a turn for the better, but it didn't last long. Then came the Sixties with love, free love, beatniks the beginnings of almost universal use of all types of hallucinogenic and other hard drugs as well as the rise of offbeat religious cults. It seems that people always seek instant solutions to their plight whether real or imagined. Even devil worshipping is becoming common. One is being told that this practice is an alternative and a benign religion to the fulfillment of human needs how little they know. Still others regress back into bizarre cults and organizations reviving the old pagan practices such as Wicca and Druid customs."
"You've become quite a philosopher. I remember that your only interest lay in making money. Very well, I'll hear your confession if you come into a church with me."
The reply was so loud that both men were startled and jerked away from each other. The monk felt as though the voice came from another party altogether. After composing himself the robed man continued.
"There is no need of a church, but we could go off to one of the quieter streets or a park where I could relate my story undisturbed as we walk."
Unknown to the priest, the man clad in the brown robe, his hands also tucked in his sleeves carried a heavy object. It was wrapped in a piece of rawhide that he was constantly tossing from hand to hand.
Finally the old Jesuit conceded.
"All right, but don't look for an easy way out of whatever mess you have found yourself in, and don't think that I'll roll over and get you out as I did when you were a student. I used to think that there was something special about you and figured if I helped you there might still be some hope of salvaging the good side, but alas it was only a dream and I finally gave up. By now you must have learned that we Jesuits are a tough bunch."
The persistent criticism annoyed the younger man.
"It doesn't matter whether you will give me absolution or not. My only interest is that you keep this conversation in confidence between us and no one else."
Coming at a cross street the Jesuit glanced in both directions.
"Okay. I agree. Let's drop the subject. Let's turn down here onto that street."
The priest pointed towards what looked like an alley with his prayer book.
"There are fewer people in this neighbourhood this time of the morning. Most of them are devout Armenian Christians and are at their masses."
They turned down the narrow lane. Long shadows covered both sides giving the impression it was evening instead of the beginning of the day. They walked in silence, each with his thoughts. The monk's head was deep inside his hood and before he realized, they had stepped into a deserted square where the rays of the sun pierced his eyes like arrows as he emerged from the murky darkness of the alleyway. He was forced to squint several times to enable him to adjust his pupils to the bright light. Opening them he saw the priest pulling his right hand from the inside of his sleeve holding a stole. He kissed the little embroidered cross on one end and put the narrow strip of silk around his neck so that both ends hung on his shoulders and chest going all the way down the length of his robe. He made the sign of the cross as they walked and began to whisper something that was unintelligible.
There were a few minutes of silence, then he whispered.
"After knowing me all this time you still don't trust me and since it's so important to you I'll hear your story under the seal of confession now."
The monk tried to organize his thoughts. It was the heavy object in his hands that distracted him from his concentration. He could also feel the burning heat radiating through the wrapping even though miraculously it was not affecting the rawhide. He was also preoccupied with his goal of passing it on to the priest at the end of his 'confession,' which kept him from paying attention to what his companion was saying. The piece was getting heavier and felt hotter as time passed. Brad yearned to get rid of this thing that had caused him so much pain and forget the nightmare that had almost killed him.
The monk skipped over the part of the ritual that starts with, "Bless me father for I have sinned…" and immediately began at what he perceived to be the beginning of his dilemma. His voice was low, barely audible. He talked to the priest as though he was a son talking to his father about his troubles. Brad had a premonition that at the end of this conversation he would finally be relieved of his burden.
"I … I don't know where to begin. When I left the academy I joined an international firm and worked my way up the ladder where I have become an executive in Middle Eastern, European and African affairs consisting of investments and sales of subsidiaries. Everything went well just as I had planned until I got myself in this mess. This was not of my choosing nor did it happen suddenly, but rather slowly with a number of coincidences. If I were superstitious I would say some force played with me twisting and turning my actions until I found myself where I am now. When I finish you will understand why I can't continue nor am I equipped to carry on with this responsibility thrust upon me. I'm in my thirties now, still single and I make more money than I need. I have a very good life, or so I thought until now. Traveling to many corners of the world staying in the best hotels, eating the best foods and drinking the finest of wines. At the risk of sounding immodest I must also tell you that I'm considered to be charming by women, or perhaps it's only because I can spend money without having any concern."
The priest remarked. "I remember humility was not your strong point."
The monk caught the sarcasm, but pretended he didn't and continued.
"I don't know why, but a year ago, I decided to make a personal pilgrimage to this part of the world and especially to Israel, to see why people make such a fuss about this land. Now I wish I never did. I had been here on business, but never spent any time on taking in the sights or trying to enjoy what it had to offer. There are many other historical lands that are just as interesting, but now I understand why I was steered to this direction. You remember me. I never was much interested in religion and my parents were Catholics only when it served their purposes. As I got older it seemed that the stories told in church were archaic and insulted my intellect. I felt that they should be told to children rather than grown intelligent adults."
The Jesuit asked in a dry tone. "So what are you trying to tell me? Are you trying to get back on the good side of God, the Church, or just bring your accounts up to date?"
"None of the above. My reason for seeking you out is selfish. I know that you have an acute sense of fairness in your judgments and are a staunch defender of the church. You also have an open mind and do not spout the normal fire and brimstone rhetoric."
The man in brown continued his tale.
"Instead of signing up with some standard tour to visit Israel and be brainwashed by some paid evangelist, I decided to make the trip on my own. Figuring that a person with my travel experience should have no problem finding the mode of transportation and the type of guide that I wanted to show me around the country as well as places that I would pick myself."
Suddenly the Franciscan stopped talking. This time he was sure he heard a grinding sound. Looking around he saw no one. The priest also glanced from side to side.
"What's the matter? You're nervous. Why?"
"It's nothing. I guess I'm just jumpy."
Just at that moment Brad lifted his head and saw a large stone teetering on a tower above them and was sure he could see some figures beside it with their shoulders pressed against it, but didn't have time to have a good look as the stone tilted and began its plunge towards the pavement. He pushed the priest hard with his left shoulder so that the old man fell and rolled over on the hard cobblestones in the square. The monk lost his balance and ended up beside him.
The priest looked at Brad shocked.
"What the ..."
Before the other could answer the block of sandstone came crashing just a few feet away as they lay on the ground. It was lucky that none of the large fragments landed on them, but they were showered by scores of small pieces that stung their hands as they covered their heads. The object wrapped in the animal's hide fell out on the pavement.
When the noise subsided both men slowly lifted their heads from the ground and glanced around. As they looked up towards the spot from where the stone fell they noticed two large birds circling high above as though surveying their handiwork. One of them began diving towards them. The shape was one of a triangle like the airplanes that kids make out of paper. The people coming out of their doorways shouting and pointing towards the sky must have confused and frightened it. Suddenly it became apparent that it had a visible body, neck, and head. Then with wings flapping began to climb into the sky.
The priest looked horrified. He was more alarmed at the actions of the bird than the stone that almost killed them.
"What was that? I have never seen such large birds, especially in a city. This is ridiculous. They look like ravens, but they're too big. Lucky you noticed the falling stone and acted as quickly as you did. If not both of us would be have been flattened under that much weight. Those birds must have figured that we were their breakfast."
The monk didn't comment. He stood up first and stretched his arms to see if he had sustained any injuries. There was blood dripping from his hands where the chips had hit him, but no serious wounds. Then he extended his right arm and grasped the priest's stretched out hand.
"This was no accident. I saw a couple of silhouettes putting their shoulder to that block on the old rampart."
"What do you mean? Somebody is trying to kill us?"
"I'm not sure about you, but I know that they're trying to get rid of me."
The Jesuit noticed the bundle tied in rawhide lying a few feet away.
"What's that? Is it yours? I didn't bring anything with me except my missal in my hand."
He looked around to see if someone else might have been close by and dropped it, but they were alone, except for some people in their doorways some ten yards from them. The monk quickly picked up the package and shoved back it in his sleeves. He didn't even bother to dust himself or to clean the bundle before he began to walk again keeping an eye on the priest to make sure he was beside him.
"I ... it's mine."
The monk looked around until he saw a vaulted walkway.
"Let's go in there. Perhaps we can avoid further 'accidents' and we will also be out of sight of those damned birds. Once we're inside we can take one of the side passages and exit a long ways from here."
As they entered the darkened passageway the younger man returned to his story as though nothing had happened to disturb their original schedule.
"I ... I guess the whole thing started on July 8th of this year. I remember it was a Thursday because I had to finish a previous assignment before I could leave my office in the middle of the week. I arrived in Tel Aviv and checked into the Dan Tel Aviv Hotel on Hayarkon Street and went about finding myself a guide. I talked to a number of cabbies who I thought would be the prime candidates, but didn't find anyone to my liking.
"Then sitting on the Patio cafe of the hotel I told the waiter of my predicament. He said his nephew Nachman was studying archaeology at the University of Jerusalem and was very familiar with the country's many historical digs. He said that the nephew was off for the summer and lived in Tel Aviv. When he brought my tab there was also another piece of paper. Unfolding it I saw a name and address. I settled my account and left.
"Taking another look at the paper and turning it over I noticed that there was a telephone number scribbled on the back, that I had missed when I picked it up from the table. Since it was too late to go anywhere that afternoon, I decided to phone and make an appointment for the next day. Returning to my room I rang the number and was in luck. A male voice answered. It sounded young, like a teenager. I asked if Nachman was there. He answered that it was he. I told him of my need for a guide, and my wish to visit some of the ancient out of the way places. I told him about my encounter with the waiter at the café in the hotel who had given me his name. We agreed to meet the next day at ten o'clock at the entrance of the Jaffa Market on Allenby Street in the Yemenite quarter.
"After making the arrangements I went to the Sabra Coffee Shop in the hotel and had my supper, then retired to my room. Turning on the TV I watched a news program in English for a while. At the end of the broadcast I turned the lights off and tried to sleep without much success. Switching them back on I searched through the drawer of my night table to find some reading material. I found a Bible that looked like it was written in Hebrew. I flipped through the pages, and then half way through I noticed that the second half of the book was written in English, so I started to read. Reading for a couple of hours made me drowsy, so I turned the light off and went into a troubled sleep."
The priest interrupted. His voice was curt.
"You don't have to give me a blow by blow account of your stay in Israel."
The monk shot back.
"I'm trying to prove to you that this mess that I find myself in began so subtly that I wasn't even aware that I was being manipulated by unseen forces."
"You said that you weren't religious. Did you go out as many younger people today looking for some offbeat cult that you believe took control of you?"
"Everything in due course. You must allow me to tell it in my own way and at my pace."