"Pastor's plot is well crafted, her prose sharp. . . . A disturbing mix of detection and reflection." Publishers Weekly
"A mystery, it rivets the reader until the end and beyond, with its twist of historical realities. A historical piece, it faithfully reproduces the grim canvas of war. A character study, it captures the thoughts and actions of real people, not stereotypes." TheFree Lance-Star
Part wartime political intrigue, detective story, psychological thriller, and religious mystery, Ben Pastor's debut follows a German army captain and a Chicago priest as they investigate the death of a nun in Nazi-occupied Poland.
In October 1939 Captain Martin Bora discovers the abbess, Mother Kazimierza, shot dead in her convent garden. Her alleged power to see the future has brought her a devoted following; her work and motto, "Lumen Christi Adiuva Nos" ("Light of Christ, help us"), appear also to have brought some enemies.
Father Malecki has come to Cracow, at the pope's bidding, to investigate Mother Kazimierza's powers. The Vatican orders him to stay and assist Bora in the inquiry into her killing. Stunned by the violence of the occupation and the ideology of his colleagues, Bora's sense of Prussian duty is tested to the breaking point. The interference of seductive actress Ewa Kowalska does not help matters.
Ben Pastor, born in Italy, has lived for thirty years in the United States, working as a university professor in Vermont. She is the author of other novels, including The Water Thief and The Fire Walker (St. Martin's Press).
About the Author
Ben Pastor: Ben Pastor, born in Italy, has lived for thirty years in the United States, working as a university professor in Vermont. She is the author of other novels including The Water Thief and The Fire Walker (set in Roman times and published to high acclaim in the US by St. Martin’s Press), and is considered one of the most talented writers in the field of historical fiction. In 2008 she won the prestigious Premio Zaragoza for best historical fiction. She writes in English.
Read an Excerpt
Cracow, Poland. Friday, 13 October 1939
The polish words stenciled on the plaque read, "Take Good Heed," and the Hebrew script below them presumably repeated the sentence. Colored pictures illustrating the alphabet were pasted on the wall around the plaque. For the letter L, the picture showed a little girl pushing a doll carriage.
Suddenly the odor of mangled flesh was sharp, crude. It came to his nostrils unexpectedly, so that Bora turned away from the wall and walked toward the middle of the room, where an army medic stood in gloves and surgical mask. Behind his figure, flooding the classroom with light, three wide open windows let in the afternoon sun and a lukewarm afternoon wind.
Six desks had been joined by their narrow ends, two by two, and the uniform-clad bodies lay on top of them, over tarpaulin sheets. Blood had dripped down the ends of the desks, from the little spaces between sheets. The larger puddles were coagulating, and reflected the light of the windows on their surface. Bora stared at the reflection before stepping closer, nodding to the medic.
After looking over each body, he pronounced a name in a low voice, a collected and controlled and forcibly boxed-in voice. The medic was holding a pad, and wrote down the names on it.
When he lifted his eyes from the third body to the wall ahead, Bora met with the colorful print of the little girl pushing a doll carriage. It read, Dorotka ma lale.
"We thought you'd be best suited to identify them, Captain, since you were inthe car right behind them."
Bora turned to the medic. He didn't say anything. For a moment he looked up and down the medic's grimy apron as if wondering what either one of them was doing here. What, indeed, any of themdead and alivewere doing in a Jewish day school on Jakova Street in Cracow.
He felt sweat run under his arms, down the middle of his back.
Bora said, "Yes, I was."
Major Retz waited below in the army car. He was smoking a cigar, and the air in the car was hazy with it, because he had all the windows rolled up. When Bora opened the door to enter, a bluish cloud floated against him with an acrid odor of tobacco. He took his place in the driver's seat.
Retz said, "So, of course they were Lieutenants Klaus, Williams and poor Hans Smitt. Had they been wearing their identification disks you wouldn't have had to go up and look at them. How bad are they?"
Bora started the engine, avoiding Retz's eyes in the rearview mirror. "They're in shreds from the midriff down." He lowered his window, and with the motion of the car the smoke began to blow away.
They drove down the deserted street into a square, Bora following the direction signs hastily put up in the last few days over the Polish names of streets and bridges. Retz made some trivial observations, and Bora answered in monosyllables.
The afternoon light shone lavish and clear, it drew long shadows from the trees flanking the street and the tall city blocks. Overhead, the sky was thinly raked by aircraft flying east, delicate trails like pentagrams without notes.
"That's no way to go, is itblasted on a mine."
Bora kept silent, so Retz cracked the window to toss the butt of his cigar out, and changed the subject. "How do you like Intelligence?"
This time Bora looked up into the mirror. Retz wasn't looking at him. His arrogant, crude face was averted, and there came the rustle of a large sheet of paper being unfolded.
"I think I'll like it."
Retz's eyes met his. "Yes. They tell me you're the student kind." Bora thought Retz probably meant "studious," but "student" was what he said. He felt a curious little surge of insecurity at that assessment of him. More crumpling of paper followed, and a badly refolded street map was tossed on the front seat from behind.
"Our lodgings are supposed to be close to the Wawel Hill in the Old City. I'd hoped we'd lodge closer to headquarters, Bora, but that's what we get for staying longer than most on the field of battle. I hope there's indoor plumbing, and all that. Drive to the office, I want to check where exactly they're going to house us."
14 October 1939
The German army headquarters on Rakowicka Street overlooked a formal garden, and, past the gate, across the pavement lined by trolley tracks, sat a gray Dominican church. Pigeons flew to its roof, alone and in pairs, fluttering.
Bora listened to what Colonel Hofer was explaining to him. All the while, he thought that in comparison with Richard Retz, his commander was an introverted and sullen man. Hofer's hands sweated, so that he wore talcum powder in his gloves to absorb the moisture. His palms retained a dusty appearance, like fish floured in anticipation of frying. Of an unclear age (Bora was young enough to misjudge the age of anyone older than himself but not yet white-haired), the colonel had a small nose; a womanly nose, almost, with wide nostrils, a sensitive mouth and narrow teeth. He wore spectacles only when he had to read something, but his squint gave the impression that he needed them even for simpler tasks, such as looking at people while talking to them.
After an intense morning of briefing Bora on his duties, Hofer took him aside by the window, and for some time didn't say anything at all. Fixedly he stared beyond the flowerbeds into the street, oblivious to Bora's nearness. At long last, he focused his circled, watery eyes on the younger man.
His eyes seemed weary, Bora thought, as in one who doesn't sleep or sleeps poorlysomething that could be said of all of them in the past furious weeks. Except that the young officers didn't look, or probably didn't even feel tired.
With some envy, Hofer was drawing a similar parallel. Bora stood by him with a fresh, prim countenance, disciplined into not showing his eagerness but yet very eager, as his record showed. Hofer could shake his head at the enthusiasm, at the eagerness, but it was a time to encourage, not discourage those excesses.
He said, "Captain, how familiar are you with the phenomenon of the stigmata?"
Bora showed no overt surprise at the question. "Not very, sir." He tried not to stare back. "They're wounds like those received by Christ on the cross. Saint Francis of Assisi had them, and some other mystics."
Hofer returned his gaze to the street. "That's true enough. And do you know how Francis and the others received them?" He didn't give Bora time to answer. "It happened during ecstasy. Ecstasy did it." He nodded to himself, with his fingernail scraping a little spot of dry paint from the glass. "Ecstasy did it."
Hofer walked away from the window and into his office. Bora stayed behind long enough to glance at the roofs of the Old City churches, rising to the left like distant ships' forecastles behind uninspired new blocks. Directly ahead, pigeons still flew to and from the Dominican church, seeking the sunny side of the roof.
What did the stigmata have to do with anything?
He thought no more of it until after the lunch hour, when the colonel again stopped by his desk. Bora had been familiarizing himself with the topography of southwestern Poland, and now stood up with a red pencil in his hand.
Hofer took the pencil from him, and laid it on the desk.
"Enough map reading for the day, Bora. Tomorrow you'll go out on patrol. Your interpreter is Johannes Herwig, an ethnic German, and he'll tell you the rest in the field. A good man, Hanneswe go back a few years. Come, now. I want you to take a ride downtown with me."
"I'll fetch the colonel's car."
"No. Let's use yours. I want you to drive."
At Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, a musty, waxy odor hovered in the convent's waiting room. Light came in through a set of three windows lined in a row, high, small, squarish, with deep slanting sills from which one couldn't look out, even on tiptoe. There were three doors and all of them were closed. Silence was so complete, Bora could feel absence of sounds like a void against his ears.
Startlingly real against a blank side wall, a life-size crucified Christ hung in agony, his torso contorted and bleeding, eyes turned back to half-hidden glass pupils under his lids. It reminded Bora of the bodies in the Jewish schoolhouse, and he nearly expected to see blood on the floor at the foot of the cross. But the tiles were spotlessly clean, like everything else. No marks on the walls, no fingerprints, no streaks on the floor. And that waxy, musty smell.
Waiting for Hofer, who had disappeared into one of the rooms down the hallway, Bora paced the floor. The quiet orderliness of the room forced a comparison with the wreckage and noise of weeks pastvillages torn open, fields rolling by, speeding by, convulsed by drifting smoke and the fire of big guns. Bora admitted now that he'd pushed through havoc with the mindlessness of a sexual rush, awed and drunk with it. All the more he marveled at the sterile peace of this interior.
He'd been waiting for over an hour (the light was changing in the small windows, turning pinkish and less strong) when one of the doors opened and a priest walked out of it. Their eyes met, and the two men exchanged a noncommittal nod of acknowledgment. The priest wore clergyman trousers, an unusual sight in this conservative country. He went past Bora, down a hallway and into another door.
Later a nun came gliding by, was gone. The light in the little windows grew lilac as the shadow of the late afternoon filled the street. Bora measured the floor in slow steps, trying to tend his thoughts and boredom. At last the priest entered the waiting room again.
He said, in English, "Colonel Hofer tells me you speak my language."
Bora turned rigidly. "Yes," and, recognizing the American accent, he relaxed his shoulders a little.
"He sent me to keep you company while he concludes his meeting with Mother Kazimierza."
"Thank you, I'm all right."
"Well, thenYou can keep me company." With an amiable smile, the priest took a seat on a lion-footed bench, but Bora didn't imitate him. He remained standing, hands clasped behind his back.
The priest kept smiling. He was a man in his fifties, or so Bora assessed, big-shouldered, big-footed, with wide freckled hands and extremely lively, clear eyes. His neck, Bora saw out of the corner of his eye, emerged from the Roman collar as a powerful bundle of muscles, like the neck of a wrestler. The combination of his alert glance and strong frame recalled the pictures of warring peasant saints, cross in one hand and sword in the other.
But the priest was telling him, in the most unaggressive tone, "I'm from Chicago, Illinois. In America."
Bora looked over. "I know where Chicago is."
"Well, what I meant isYou and I would be at war if I were British, but I'm of non-belligerent nationality."
It was true enough. Bora found himself relaxing more and more, because he was in fact tired of waiting and not unhappy to make conversation.
"Who is Mother Kazimierza?" he asked.
The priest's smile broadened. "I take it you're not Catholic."
"I am Catholic, but I still don't know who she is."
"Matka KazimierzaWell, Matka Kazimierza is an institution in herself. Throughout Poland they refer to her as the 'Holy Abbess.' She has been known to foretell events in visions, and has apparent mystic and healing powers. Why, several of your commanders have already visited her."
It came to Bora's mind that Hofer left the office early every afternoon at the same time. Had he been coming to see the nun, and was he embarrassed to be driven to the convent by his chauffeur? Bora took a long look at the priest, who sat and continued to smile a cat-like smile at him. Friendly faces were not an everyday occurrence in Cracow. He thought he ought to introduce himself.
"I'm Captain Martin Bora, from Leipzig."
"And I'm Father John Malecki. I was put in charge by His Holiness of a study regarding the phenomenon of Mother Kazimierza."
"Why, the wounds on her hands and feet."
So. That's what the stigmata had to do with Hofer's talk. Bora was thoroughly amazed, but all he said was, "I see."
Father Malecki was adding, "I've been in Cracow these past six months. In case you wonder, that's how I happened to find myself here when you came."
It was as unadorned a way as Bora had heard anyone describe the invasion of Poland.
"Yes, Father," he spoke back with faint amusement. "We did come."
Later, it was impossible for Bora not to think that the colonel had been weeping. Hofer's eyes were red when he came out into the street, and although he wore his visored cap, the congestion of his face was still noticeable. He laconically indicated that he wanted to return to headquarters. It was late in the evening, but he walked straight into his office and locked himself in.
Bora gathered his papers for the trip on the following day, and then left the building.
15 October 1939
The muddy sides of the dead hog were already drawing green clusters of flies.
There was little shade on the isolated farm, because September had been unusually dry and the trees' shriveled leaves afforded hardly any protection from the sun. Bushes along the unpaved roads were dusty and white as if covered by snow; there was no wind, no breath of air. The patrolling soldiers spread around in a fan, blinking in the blaze of midday.
Bora walked back to the army car trying to remind himself that this was war also, killing the livestock of those who harbored Polish army stragglers and deserters. A far cry from the excitement of winning towns house by house, door by door. It seemed to him that the glorious days were already past, and now the business of waranother month at most, no doubtwould go downhill from the exhilaration of the first three weeks. He even wondered what he'd do with himself for the remainder of his life.
On the doorstep, the farm wife was weeping in her apron. Absentmindedly Bora listened to the interpreter remind him that seldom did a poor household butcher the hog. He leaned over to get a clipboard from the front seat of the car, and then slowly turned around to face the little man Hofer had appointed to him. Like a patient instructor, he gestured with his gloved hand to the right, where, brown on the sparse grass of a treeless incline, two bodies lay sprawled.
"Don't give me that, Hannes. Remember what's up there."
Bora's men had killed two Polish stragglers a little way up from the farm, as they ran up the mild rise after firing a few shots at the patrol.
From the arid pasture north of the house, one of the soldiers now walked back pulling a red cow by the rope around its neck. Hoofs and marching boots raised a low wake of silt on their trail, blurring the hilly horizon behind them.
The farm wife heard the sound of hoofs. She lifted her face from the apron and came running, hands outstretched, to Bora. "Nie, nie, panie oficerze!"
Bora pushed her back, annoyed. They were killing farmers elsewhere in Poland. She ought to be grateful that he only had these orders.
"It's a nice cow," Hannes added, to Bora's irritation.
Bora turned to the soldier. "Kill it, Private."
"Yes, sir. It's a shame, though."
Bora took his Walther out and shot the cow in the ear.
"Now burn the hay."
As the fires were set, Bora stepped away from the threshing floor. He was resentful not for the farmers, but for himself. This job was beneath soldiers: beneath him, at any ratebeneath soldiers like him. Quickly he climbed the incline to the place where the bodies of the two stragglers lay.
They still wore the dirt-colored baggy clothes of the Polish army, but were barefooted. Had they flung off their ill-fitting boots in order to ease their escape? Bora thought so, by the bruised and pinched appearance of their toes. Flies clustered on the dead men's long, drawn faces, and their pale eyes seemed to have cloudy water in them. The blue collar patches identified them as infantrymen.
Bora crouched to search their tunics for papers. He hadn't handled dead bodies since his volunteer days in Spain two years earlier, and their weight, their coldness surprised him anew. The flies took off from the bloody clothes, landed again. Far away, artillery shots were being fired, perhaps as far as Chrzánow. It's hot, he thought. It's hot and these men no more feel it than they'll ever feel anything again, until God raises them.
Bora found no identification disks, no documents, surely all disposed of along the way. But there was a folded photograph in one of the men's breast pockets. When Bora took it out and unfolded it, it broke in half.
By the signature, he recognized that it was a black-and-white portrait of Mother Kazimierza, standing with hands clasped in prayer. Bandages wrapped her hands, and dark stains were visible through the gauze padding. In the upper right corner, a crude photomontage showed an engraved heart surmounted by a flame. Around the heart a crown of thorns squeezed it until drops of blood oozed from it. A crown surmounted the heart, and from the crown a tongue of flame rose. The letters L.C.A.N. were printed over the flame in a semicircle. Bora looked at the back of the photograph, and read that the letters stood for Lumen Christi Adiuva Nos.
Light of Christ, succor us, indeed. Some good it'd done to the man carrying it.
Rifle shots at the foot of the incline startled him, but it was only a soldier firing in the air to keep the woman away from the burning haystack. Bora stood up, slipped the photograph into his map case and walked down.
Light of Christ. Really.
He had no sooner reached the threshing floor, than a wild, close burst of machine-gun fire sent the soldiers scattering. Bora himself dodged at random, because smoke from the haystack obstructed the view. "Watch out!" a soldier shouted, and it was seconds, fractions of seconds: shooting, smoke, dodging, the soldier's cry. Suddenly Bora made out a man's figure surging through the smoke, and fired. "Shoot!" he called out. "Shoot, men!"
Ghost-like, the armed man turned to him from the flames of collapsing hay, but Bora was quicker. Quicker than his soldiers, even. Two, three times more he shot into the smoke.
The machine-gun let out a last burst, skyward. The man dropped on his knees as if a great weight had felled him, crumpling into the scented cradle of hay fire.
Right arm still extended, Bora released the trigger. "He almost did us in! Didn't you see him?" He was angry at his men, but other than that, the danger had jarred him back into a state of tight control. He even felt better because of it, as if his task here were somehow redeemed by risk. "Search the other stacks," he ordered, and for the next five minutes closely supervised the jabbing of bayonets into the smoldering hay.
Loud weeping came from the farm wife, crouched on the doorstep. Head buried in the fold of her arms, her disconsolate heap of clothes shook with fear and grief.
"Hannes, tell her to shut the hell up," Bora said. He kept his back obstinately turned to her as the soldiers went poking into the deep sluice behind the barn, behind and into a pile of manure, chasing horseflies.
At headquarters in Cracow, Colonel Hofer had a headache. He hid the letter from home under an orderly pile of maps, only so that he wouldn't be tempted to read it again, when it did no good. Again and again his eyes went to the wall clock. He tasted a surge of resentment at the thought that Army General Blaskowitz would visit at four this afternoon, when the abbess had granted him an appointment at four-thirty.
He'd uselessly tried to negotiate the hour with Blaskowitz's aide, who had informed him the commander-in-chief might spend the whole afternoon in Cracow.
"You must pray much," Mother Kazimierza had warned the day before, speaking in her precise, book-learnt German. "Your wife must pray much more than she does. How can Christ listen to you if you don't pray? Only uninterrupted prayer opens God's doors."
Hofer reached into the top drawer of his desk, where a booklet on spiritual exercises written by the abbessuseless to him in Polish contained as a bookmark a small square of surgical gauze sealed in hard transparent plastic. At the center of the gauze stood a perfectly round bloodstain.
Hofer could weep in frustration. "You may only come see me through next week, and then no more," Mother Kazimierza had told him on his way out the day before.
His heart had cringed at the words. "Why only one more week?" he'd cried out to her. "I need your prayersWhy only one more week?"
The nun wanted to say no more about it. "Laudetur Jesus Christus," she'd signaled to Sister Irenka to escort the visitor out, and he'd had to leave. Hofer sighed deeply at the recollection, and tears welled in his eyes. It was becoming more and more difficult to hide his emotions. Luckily, Captain Bora was naive, and hadn't noticed.
Like most men of his political generation, Bora was hard to figure out, but at least there was some traditional solidity in him, a trustworthiness that had little to do with party allegiance. He knew how to keep things to himself. The only trouble with Bora, Hofer glumly considered, was that fortune treated him well.
Out in the country, the smell of charring flesh came from the haystack, where the flames continued to smolder and the fermenting core of the stack burned around the body in black compact clumps like peat.
Bora looked up from his map and called to the soldiers squatting near the threshold of the farmhouse.
"For Christ's sake, pull him away from there! Can't you see the poor bastard's starting to cook?"
16 October 1939
Bora didn't return to Cracow until Monday. He met Retz at army headquartersRetz was in the supply service, and was now cursing over the phone about some late shipment of bedsheetsand at the end of day they drove to their apartment together.
It was a fine three-story house on the Podzamcze, directly below the formidable bastion of the Wawel Castle. Against the pale yellow stucco, freshly painted shutters and wrought-iron balconies stood out, and from what Bora could tell, a narrow garden of evergreens lined the back of the building.
He followed Retz up two flights of stairs, to a door which the major opened on an elegant interior.
"Just our luck that we should billet here," Retz disparagingly said, pulling back the key from the lock with an ill-humored jerk. They'd been talking of Colonel Hofer on the way to the house, but now the very act of walking into the apartment seemed to renew his contempt for the assigned quarters. Entering ahead of Bora, he added, "Did you see what's on the door frame outside?" He referred to a small, half-torn metallic container which Bora had already noticed. It seemed to have been pried open with the point of a knife, and right now it resembled nothing but torn metal. "Do you know what that's supposed to be?"
Bora said he thought he knew.
"But do you know what it means?"
Bora looked away from the doorpost. "I think it's called a mezuzah. It's supposed to contain some holy script."
Retz unbuckled his belt and holster, and tossed them on a chair. "If the place weren't so nicely set up, I'm telling you, that thing would be enough to ask for relocation."
Bora hadn't yet crossed the threshold. He saw that, although the brass nameplate had been removed from the door, the family name printed under the electric bell was still readable, and it was a Jewish name.
Retz had gone into the bathroom. Through the half-open door, the sound of urine falling into the bowl could be heard. He called out to Bora over the trickling noise. "Look aroundyour bedroom is in the back."
Bora took his cap off. Unlike Retz, it was the first time he'd stepped into their quarters. He glanced in the direction of a room straight ahead, a carpeted parlor where the shiny corner of a grand piano was visible to him. He was soon standing in front of it, and some nimble fingering of keys followed. Retz joined him leisurely.
"So, about Hofer. You've been driving him back and forth for a week and you didn't know that his son is as good as dead? Has some dire disease, and he's only four or five years of age. Late marriage, late childthe only child. The old man has been beside himself for the past year. The doctors told him there's nothing they can do, so he lives day by day like he's the one on death row." Retz leaned with a sneer against the shiny frame of the parlor door. "Well, I see you won't have a problem adjusting to a Yid's house." He watched Bora eagerly look through a stack of sheet music. "Why don't you play something? Can you play any of Zarah Leander's cabaret songs?"
20 October 1939
The abbess' voice came distinctly through the door, addressing a sister no doubt, because Bora recognized the Polish word Siostra. Hofer stood two steps away from him in the convent's corridor, white-faced. The thin layer of sweat on his balding forehead was not justified by the temperature of late October. The outside walls of the convent were massive and successfully insulated it from the heat and cold. Warm, it was not. When Hofer nervously checked the buttons of his tunic, Bora saw his hands shake.
Because of that, and because sunny days seemed to be scarce in Cracow, Bora would much rather be outside. Careful to show no annoyance, he lifted his eyes to the closest small window filled with sky and cut out like a cloth of gold in the bare wall. The abbess kept them waiting. The open air would be cool and brisk, with plenty of light left to drive to the river past the Pauline church or beyond the bridge towards Wieliczka, something he hadn't had time to do so far. He imagined walking in the tender oblique sun through venerable streets.
Hofer addressed him harshly, with a tone of sudden strain in his voice, as if he could be harsher than this but chose to curb himself.
"You have no worries in the world, do you?"
Bora was taken aback by the words. He had tried not to look distracted, and was embarrassed. When he removed his eyes from the window, a greenish square floated in his vision after staring at the bright window. "I'm sorry, Colonel."
"That's not what I asked you."
"No, sir." Bora overheard some imperious command from the abbess beyond the closed door, still he looked at Hofer's resentful face. "I have responsibilities," he said. "And I miss being home."
"You have no worries." Hofer said it as if it were Bora's fault, with envious bitterness. He glanced at his watch, took a rigid step forward and then returned to utter immobility, the cramped immobility of one who awaits the verdict in a physician's office. "How long do you think it's going to last?"
Bora didn't mistake what Hofer meant. "I'm sure life tries us all, sooner or later."
"Sooner or later? Sooner than you think, be sure." Above the door hung a framed lithograph of Adam and Eve in the Garden, and Hofer pointed with his head to it. "That's you, up there."
Bora urbanely turned to the picture. Adam's nakedness stood behind a providential arching branch. He looked stolid, wide-eyed, a well-built yokel to whom a flirtatious Eve was presenting a very small red apple.
"This war's going to give you the apple, Captain."
"I expect it will. Still I think I have a choice"
"Oh, you'll bite into it. Don't you think yourself superior: When it's shown to you, you'll gobble it whole."
The noiseless turn of the door handle was followed by a rustle of black and white, and a plain-faced nun cracked the door, only enough for her to look out.
"Pulkownike Hofer." She invited the colonel to enter. "Please. The abbess will see you now."
"Wait in the other room." Hofer tossed the words to Bora. As he walked in, through the widening swing of the door Bora caught a glimpse of another woman in three-quarters view: a tall, starchy, regal nun, whose eyes leveled a cold look on him. Then the door closed like a denial.
Walking back to the waiting room under the escort of a nun who seemed to have materialized out of nowhere, Bora paid closer attention to the sparse images on the walls, set off by the clarity of perfectly-washed, drapeless windows along the corridor. The Stations of the Cross followed one another inside black frames. At a bend of the corridor, a colorful plaster statue of Our Lady of Lourdes stood on a doily-covered wooden pedestal. Despite the solidity of the building, when Bora went by, his booted steps made the metallic stars around her halo tremble and tinkle.
Although he'd come here every day he'd spent in Cracow for the past week, Bora still couldn't figure out the ground plan of the convent. Rooms seemed to be everywhere; narrow hallways and steps leading up and down confused the visitor until one appreciated the silent, gliding presence of the nun to guide his steps.
21 October 1939
"She was the classiest lay in Poland," Retz reminisced after work over his tilted liquor glass. Eyes on the fifteen-year-old stage magazine spread on the coffee table in their apartment, he simpered, "You haven't seen class and single-mindedness until you've see her. Look there."
Bora looked. It seemed that in the 1920s critics had sworn by Ewa Kowalska. Picking through the printed words of the Polish magazine, Bora understood that her rendition of Dora in A Doll's House was unrivaled, and men had loved her in Pirandello's It Is So. She displayed strength, technical self-assurance, flair, et cetera. She promised to be a Polish Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse rolled into one.
From what Bora had heard elsewhere, less than twenty years later Ewa Kowalska didn't seem to fit the promises anymore. She hadn't adapted well to changes in style and interpretation, and in the end had argued her way out of the Warsaw theater scene. It was on the provincial stages that she could still play the prima donna, and probably only because of the war she'd found herself once more in demand in Cracow. She rounded her income by doing translations from the French on the side, but, all in all, the officers said that her flat on Swietta Krzyza was still cozy in winter and had fresh-cut flowers in the summertime.
Bora listened to Major Retz speak, and was actually curious to meet her.
"I don't think she would be much interested in someone your age," Retz dismissed his interest.
Bora wouldn't argue the point. He'd already concluded from the odd array of bottles and smears on the sink that Retz dyed his hair to look younger, so he added nothing that could be interpreted as a wish to compete with him on matters of women.
Retz said, refilling his glass, "I'm meeting Frau Kowalska here next Saturday, Bora, so make sure you stay out until very late that night."
"Until what time, Major?"
"Oh, I don't know. Two, three in the morning." Retz had a meaningful grin. "I haven't seen her in twenty-one years."
Lack of an answer hinted at some unspoken doubt in the younger man. Retz felt it. He added, "I'll reciprocate, don't worry."
"I have no difficulty staying out, Major. It's the matter of security."
Retz laughed. In his mid-forties at least, strongly built, he was handsome in a coarse way, self-assured in excess of any certainty Bora felt right now.
"Because I take to bed a Polish woman? Loosen up, Captain. I know what fraternizing is, I don't need Intelligence to remind me." After gulping the drink down, Retz put his glass away, and corked the brandy flask. "By the way, how's your Polish?"
"Not good. I only know a few sentences."
"Well, you're doing better than I. Call this number and schedule me an appointment with Dr. Franz Margolin, here. Of course I 'know he's Jewish,' what do you think? Now that he and his kind have been brought back to Poland, I might as well take advantage of it. Jew and all, he used to be the best dentist in Potsdam."
"Won't he speak German, then?"
"I wouldn't be asking if he did, would I? Polish is what he speaks. Unless your Yiddish is better than your Polish, stick to Polish. Tell him I have a cavity or two to take care of."
Bora had no idea what the Polish word for cavity might be. He dialed the operator, and managed to ask for the dentist's office. The phone rang long and empty. Bora was about to hang up when finally a woman's voice answered.
"Margolin? Jego niema w domu. Kiedy on wraca? Nie, nie moge odpowiedzec na to pytanie. Nie wiem kiedy."
"Nie rozumiem," Bora said in return, because he hadn't understood a thing except that Margolin wasn't in. It took ten minutes of mutual explanation for him to realize that Margolin was not expected back at his house or office ever.
"Just my fucking luck." Retz disappointedly slapped his knee. "Now I'll have to go to one of our military hacks. Do you realize how inconvenient it is to walk around with two cavities?"
Bora, who had no cavities, didn't think it was the time to say so.
23 October 1939
In his rented room on Karmelicka Street, Father Malecki awoke from his afternoon nap with the anxious impression that he shouldn't have fallen asleep. Heart pounding, his eyes opened on the green-striped rectangle of the shuttered window and he could tell by the amount of light filtering through the slats that it was past four o'clock.
Holding his breath, he tried to control the palpitation in his chest. It wasn't like him to wake up in a cold sweat, especially when he hadn't even had a nightmare. He sat up, reaching for his wristwatch on the bedstand.
Four-thirty-five. He yawned, slipped the metal band around his wrist and stretched. Why did he feel that he was late for something? There wasn't much for him to do until this evening, when he'd join the sisters at the convent for vespers.
The sting of anxiety made no sense. Malecki drank a sip of water to wet his dry mouth. He hadn't felt such discomfort since the arrival of the Germans in Poland. Sure, news every day managed to make him sad and appalled in turn, impotent before the excess of violence, but this was no vicarious anguish.
The room was quiet. The ticking of a clock just outside his door was all that broke the silence until Malecki left the bed and the springs moaned under the mattress. His heart no longer pounded, and maybe it was just a matter of giving up coffee, or going back to a decent brand of American cigarettes if he could find them on the market.
He went to open the window, and looked down the narrow old street. There was no traffic. A German army truck slowly rode in from the center of town. Malecki turned his back to the sill, frowning. It was no use blaming coffee or cigarettes. The anxiety was still here, noxiously lodged at the pit of his stomach.
On the tall armchair his cassock rested like a piece of dark night sky. Malecki put it on and began buttoning it. The idea of calling the convent bobbed up in him and he discounted it at once. How could he even think of it? There was no telephone there, and at any rate he had nothing to tell the sisters.
Disturbed by the movement of cloth, dust motes danced around him in the light that sliced across his room.
He sat at the narrow desk by the bed and tried to read his breviary. Words skipped about under his eyes, confusing the lines until he closed the book. He then began writing a letter to his sister in Carbondale, but didn't even get halfway through that. Finally he opened the door of his room and called out to the landlady.
"Pana Klara, is there anything in the news?"
Just then, in the east end of the Old City, Bora knew he'd have trouble parking in front of the convent. He'd barely stopped by the curb to let Hofer out, when a growing din of steel chains and engines filled the opposite end of the street. With the car still running in idle, he craned his neck out of the window to see.
Tanks. Could anyone be as dim-witted as to do this? There was no room in this narrow street for tanks to operate. Still, jangling and rumbling on cobblestones, panzers blundered toward him from the curve ahead, where the front steps of a Jesuit church further reduced the pavement. Dinosaur-like, they emerged in a stench of fuel, rattling lamp posts and windows and the rearview mirror in Bora's car. Whatever asinine thinking had made them choose this route, on they came, blind and dumb as all machines appear when their drivers are invisible, seemingly unaware that the sharp corner facing them would pose an obstacle.
Judiciously Bora drove the car onto the sidewalk, and for the next five minutes he was as much part of the deafening maneuvering, backing up and squeezing past as the tanks themselves.
The last cumbersome vehicle was still churning the corner with its mammoth flank when Hofer unexpectedly stumbled out of the convent door. Seeing him stagger on the sidewalk caused Bora to rush from the car, sure of a partisan attack. By the time the gray-faced Hofer made some frantic gesture for help, Bora was already by him. Pistol in hand, he straddled in a protective stance, turned to the street as if the unseen danger should come from there.
"Insideinside!" Hofer's choked voice found a way out of the cavern of his mouth. He rudely pushed the younger man ahead of himself into the dark vestibule.
For a moment it seemed to Bora that flimsy ghosts were milling around him, gowned and wailing. Then he recognized it was the nuns, whispering and sobbing in their incomprehensible language.
Hofer kept pushing him, and they hastily crossed plain rooms, past black crosses, long tables, starched linen, chairs, a hallway, steps, and then a green burst of light and the odor of watered dirt.
They were standing at the edge of the cloister. A perfectly square overcast sky opened above, and the different greens of small trees and potted plants crowded the view on all sides.
Mother Kazimierza lay face down by the well at the paved center of the garden, arms spread to the sides, face turned away from the viewer. Part of her wimple showed white. That, and the black robe gathered around her legs made her look like a strange, overgrown swallow, felled from a great height.
From under her tall body a thread-like red line had come snaking in the grout between the bricks, to the edge of the paved area. The long, sinuous ribbon seemed to reach out for the men and women standing at a distance. Past the edge of bricks, it had been absorbed by the moist dirt, like a river that disappears into porous soil.
Bora lowered his gun.
To his left, pressing both hands on her mouth, one of the young novices began to shake convulsively, but would not weep. When a breath of unseasonably cold wind swept over the cloister, round yellow leaves, no larger than coins, rained in from the trees outside. No coherent sounds came from the staring group until Hofer stammered to himself, glassy-eyed.
"She's dead, she's dead-the saint is dead."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In 1938 Father Malecki, a Polish American priest from Chicago investigates the alleged powers of Mother Kazimierza, the abbess of a convent in Nazi occupied Cracow, Poland. People believe in her ability to foresee the future. However, before Father Malecki can make a determination, someone shoots and kills Mother Kazimierza. Wehrmacht Captain Martin Bora is assigned to investigate the homicide in which his superior Nazi fanatic fanatical Colonel Schenk demands one finding, a Jew killed the holy woman. At the same time the Archbishop and the American consul demand Father Malecki stay out of the inquiry; in fact they prefer he return to Chicago. Although the murder mystery that at least in the first case is relatively easy to solve, Lumen is also a great historical that uses the killing of a nun to provide a stunning period piece focused on the horrors humanity does in the name of some ism. The profound story line focuses on the Nazi-Communist takeover of Poland while the Church remained mute to Father Malecki's shock. Seemingly minor incidents like how a Jewish teacher addresses his former student now a German Officer and the visiting official told to back off or else make for a discerning read. These little tidbits of horror include the trip Bora makes to the Communist allies taking Poland apart from the east while the Germans do likewise from the west; with each side trumping the other in brutality. Readers will relish the lives of Bora and Malecki circa 1938 as the value systems the soldier grew up with has been obliterated by his country and their ally; and that of the priest devastated by the Vatican's silence in this dark early WWII era thriller. Harriet Klausner
Lumen is an interesting book. It is a novel of crime fiction, but the actual crimes and their solutions tend to take a back seat to the main character, Captain Martin Bora of the Wehrmacht Intelligence division. Bora is recently arrived in Cracow, just after the German army has invaded Poland, and finds himself involved in an unusual case involving the Abbess Kazimierza, a nun who supposedly has prophetic powers and who at times bears the stigmata. He had seen her before her death when he would accompany his superior officer Colonel Hofer, who went to see the Abbess on personal matters, so when she is killed, Bora is assigned to look into the case. He is assisted in his work by Father John Malecki, an American priest who has been assigned by the Vatican to investigate claims of her mystical abilities, and then later to examine the circumstances of her death. Bora is young, still in his 20s, newly married, and has left his wife behind in Germany. But his investigative prowess does not actually take center stage in this novel -- although he's quite good at what he does -- it is his gradual awareness of growing doubts about a cause that supports mass killing, cover ups, racial superiority and the deaths of innocent people which make Bora stand out as a character. He's a scrupulous person whose sense of duty doesn't necessarily extend over the full range of Nazi ideology and practices, and his own moral compass makes him a target for potential enemies in the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst -- Security Service), who were responsible for overseeing and carrying out many of the atrocities perpetrated against the Polish people. And there's no room in the Wehrmacht for a "young captain with scruples," according to his commanding officer Colonel Schenck: "If you start feeling sorry so early on, Bora, you're screwed. What should you care? We have our orders and the SD have theirs. It was only an accident that you didn't have similar orders. And these Polack farmers -- they aren't even people, they're not even worth reproducing. I can see you're perturbed, but believe me, don't start caring...We're all in it. If it's guilt, we're all guilty. This is the way that it is. "Scenes change quickly in this novel, and the action is offered up from different perspectives throughout the story. The investigation into the death of the Abbess lasts from beginning to end, while other mysteries crop up in the meantime adding to the crime elements of the novel. At the same time, it's a solid piece of historical fiction, examining the psyche of a man who finds himself in a situation where normal laws don't apply and the world seems to have gone crazy. There are, believe it or not, bits and pieces of humor in spots, but overall, given the circumstances, there's little to smile about during this time. Pastor's novel is no lightweight thriller; she's written a much edgier story of a dark time in history.Definitely recommended. Lumen is supposed to be the first in a series of books about Martin Bora, so I'll look forward to the second.
I thought this a very original work, combining mystery, philosophy and religion in an unexplored environment. Poland immediately after the German victory there provides a unique backdrop to a murder mystery which leads the German protagonist, Martin Bora, to a crisis of conscience in which he must decide how to react and live with himself in the face of Nazi atrocities. The combining of this dedicated German officer with an American priest who is tasked by the Vatican to solve the mystery of who killed a popular nun, is very interesting as the two uneasily combine forces. 'Lumen' poses many questions in the course of solving this mystery and the greater mystery of how to act honorably in a dishonorable world. Highly recommended.