Father Lichtenberg departed the church through the back door, removed his white tab collar, and lit a cigarette in the alley. The nightly bombing runs had guaranteed him time to take off the facade, as nobody dared walk the streets while the sirens sounded. But once the Germans invaded, the runs stopped, food grew scarce, fear ran rampant, and, worst of all, church attendance increased.
The rain started as a dribble, but soon flooded the town of Stiklestad. Father Lichtenberg swore that God must have had a stopwatch on his smoke breaks—they never lasted more than five minutes. He tossed the cigarette on the ground and crushed it under the sole of his black dutch clog. The only thing free from German control in Stiklestad was the rain, softly pattering with nature’s indifference to the tangled passions of man.
Though it interrupted his break and made everything messy, Father Lichtenberg liked the rain. It hailed upon the stone church, filling the main atrium with white noise, silent but not empty—the church was never empty.
He enjoyed being alone in the alley. No affectations to convince parishioners of or theological discussions to dodge. He longed to return to the farm and listen to all the critters scattering and the wind coursing through the crops while working the fields alone in the morning. Father Lichtenberg slicked back his hair and replaced his collar, retreating from nature into the church.
He lit a piece of old newspaper and placed it in the small fireplace in his office, which also functioned as his bedroom. The dying ember pile consumed the kindling, erupting back into a respectable fire and crackling as the roof of the church bore the rain’s assaults.
Father Lichtenberg sighed as he settled in an old leather arm chair, stretching out his worn hands. The constant interrogations from his congregation about what they, as good Christians, were allowed to do to the Germans drove him to the point of needing confession himself. Alice the baker, who most of the town agreed would be made a saint, asked if she could give the Germans her stale loaves when they demanded bread. These questions bombarded the priest at all hours of the day, and even during some of his sermons.
A loud rapping at the door dragged Father Lichtenberg from his chair. If there was anything beneficial farming an hour’s walk from town, it was the lack of visitors. He adjusted the white tab collar while walking from his office, through the church pews. “Yes?” Father Lichtenberg said, opening the heavy wooden door.
“Father can I come in? I have a question,” Arna asked, dripping.
Responsible for the majority of the theological discussions the Father tried to avoid, Arna Stilka was indomitable and would make most nuns appear worldly in comparison. Father Lichtenberg detested these conversations, if they could even be called that, as they always devolved into Arna quizzing him, seeking to prove she was holier and more knowledgeable than the Father—which she was. But, his collar was in and she looked cold and the Father found himself opening the door for Arna.
“So what is the question?” Father Lichtenberg said, following Arna into his office.
“I’ve been wondering about the three missing kings in the lineage of Jesus?” Arna asked, settling into a chair by the fire.
Something caught in the priest’s throat and he pulled at his collar, “Sorry?” He coughed.
She sat, one leg over the other, hands pulling on her knee, her lips curling at the ends, “You don’t know?” Arna said, trying to conceal a smile.
“Well, let me check my journal,” the priest said, shuffling to his desk.
Inherited from a much more knowledgable and holier priest, this brown leather notebook was Lichtenberg’s bible. If ever in doubt, which was quite often, he turned to the journal first. The journal contained commentaries on each book of the Bible, often with anecdotes mixed in—Lichtenberg found these more helpful than any of the theological analysis. Flipping through the pages dedicated to the gospels, he could feel Arna eyeing him, taking pleasure in the increasing silence. Nothing.
“I’ll tell you this, it doesn’t change anything,” Father Lichtenberg said, returning her icy gaze.
“Why not, Father?” Arna said, calling his bluff.
The priest bit his lip—he should have left her in the rain. He doubled down. “I’d get into the theology with you, but it’s a bit over a lay person’s head.”
“I might not have a theology degree, but neither did Jesus,” Arna smiled.
Father Licthenberg’s eyebrows furrowed. He wasn’t sure, but he thought that comparison constituted some degree of heresy. The priest looked at her—she was almost licking her lips, anticipating a fight. He realized he could only loose in this matchup, so he called upon those holy few words guaranteed to end any conversation with an annoying parishioner.“Let me pray on this.”
Leading her out of the office and through the church doors, he assured Arna he would find her when God answered his prayer—for her this meant sometime next week, for him this meant never.
Closing the door, the priest clinched his hands and returned to his office. He knew Arna would gossip through her prayer meetings about how incompetent Father Lichtenberg was and why they needed a new pastor. He longed to leave, but the occupation forced him to remain with his flock. The fire laid on it’s death bed, dwindling, no doubt because Arna had sucked half the air out of the room with her babbling. She reminded him of his cows, which always groaned when he walked by them, though at least they provided him with some kind of value. He stuck his finger between the collar and his skin, running it around his neck. Seven quick knocks at the door illicit a curse from Father Lichtenberg. Dragging himself to the door, he sighed, preparing to square off against Arna for another round.
“Hello, Father. How are you today? Even with all this rain, it’s still a nice day, here is the package. Oh, I was wondering if you could explain the three…,” a small man with a button face and sharp nose squeaked as the priest opened the door.
“Thank you, Johan. Tell your mother the church is grateful,” Father Lichtenberg said as he snatched the large basket and closed the door before Johan could trap him in another theological discussion.
Father Lichtenberg crossed himself as he shuffled with the basket towards the pulpit—he had avoided a close one. Johan Feldenstein could talk the ears off a deaf man. Almost forty, he still lived with his mother who, luckily for her had, lost most of her hearing years ago. While the priest liked Johan, mainly because he often talked until he answered his own question allowing the priest to just sit back and listen, if he heard one more thing about the three kings he might just commit the unforgivable sin.
Father Lichtenberg set the basket on the offering table against the wall and entered the pulpit. The church, originally built after the Vikings were forced out, symbolized the transition from paganism to Christianity, and the community had kept the building in good condition, even making a few additions. The wooden pulpit was engraved all around with viking symbols and biblical figures interwoven. Nordic dragons and hebraic angels carved side by side, the Christians always conquering of course. The Father sat down, tracing his thumb along curves in the wood with a sacred care.
Years ago, before he became Father Lichtenberg, his son would etch tulips into leftover fence planks and present them once he had come in from the fields for dinner. As he rubbed the carving of baby Jesus, his saw his son’s crow-like body being lowered into the ground. He seemed too heavy being carried him from the bedroom and the boy’s mouth seemed to open as they filled the grave. His thumb paused over the engraving of a cherub playing a trumpet beside Mother Mary as someone began rapping at the front door. Father Lichtenberg gritted his teeth and headed towards the door, knocking three times on the offering table.
Dieter Kane smiled as the door opened,“Hallo Father!” the Nazi officer said as he peeked into the church, his uniform dripping.
“Hello,” Father Lichtenberg replied on edge, keeping the door barely opened.
The officer titled his head and stared at the priest. “May I come in?”
The priest knew this was less of a request and more of a polite demand. The journal always said the church was open to anybody. Father Lichtenberg put on a smile and opened the door. Kane nodded his head and entered the sanctuary. “What a beautiful church. You must have some wonderful services here,” the Nazi said, setting his hand on a middle pew.
Father Lichtenberg nodded graciously, keeping his distance from the reason of the four funeral services during the past month. “Can I help you with something, Dieter?”
Kane turned, eyeing the priest from his black clogs to the touch of gray settling atop his head, before looking around the church. “Let’s speak in your chambers.”
Sweat trickled down Father Lichtenberg’s back like the rain along the stained glass behind Kane. The priest motioned towards his office and smiled. The Nazi smiled and began a slow march to the office, with the Father close behind. Kane took the seat occupied just a few moments earlier by Arna. Fitting, the priest thought, settling into his chair and stoking the fire back to health.
“So what is it Kane—do you need confession?” Father Lichtenberg asked, surprising himself.
The Nazi was surprised too, a smile spreading across his tight mouth. “Do you, father?”
What does he know, Lichtenberg thought as he chuckled. “Pardon me, officer?”
Kane leaned forward, the fire roaring now, and titled his head. His eyes dissected Father Lichtenberg, the flames dancing in his deep green pupils. “We know someone in your parish is hiding thirteen Jews. Who is it, Father?”
Father Lichtenberg gulped, his eyes escaping for just a moment to the door. “I’m not aware of any…”
“Please. Someone must have said something. During a sermon or a confession?” Kane said, inching closer to the priest.
“I can’t break the confessional seal, officer.”
The Nazi’s smile widen, his teeth appeared almost filed and the fire’s shadow slithered down his face. “I didn’t realize Fake priests were bound by cannon law.”
Father Lichtenberg passed a burnt field on his way into Harstad. Stopping outside the inn, a man groaned at him. He turned to see a poor creature, covered in ash, clothes barely hanging on his scarecrow frame, and an electric look of desperation in his eyes. A man hurried out of the inn and greeted the priest, guiding him in, while trying to block the sight—perhaps even the existence—of the poor creature parked outside the inn. Later that night the creature emerged from his nest and stared into the inn, at the food, the people—the warmth. He looked around the inn until he locked eyes with Father Lichtenberg and scurried back to his nest, terrified.
“What’s your name?” Father Lichtenberg asked, standing beside the man who had covered himself with a blanket.
The creature stuck his head out from the blanket to see the priest holding two plates of food. “Christopher.”
The Father leaned back against the wall, balancing the two plates of food in front of him as he slid down to the ground. “Nice to meet you Christopher.”
The creature named Christopher nodded and smiled as the priest handed him a plate of steaming fish and salty bread. After a ruthless minute of devouring, Christopher looked up from his plate to see Father Lichtenberg smiling. “Are you the new priest?”
Father Lichtenberg tore a piece of bread, “No. I’m just stopping for a rest and meal on my way to Stilkestad. You know the town?”
Christopher nodded as the priest chewed on the bread, “I’m taking over a church there,” the Father said. “So, what’s your story?”
Father Lichtenberg began on the fish as Christopher told his tale of suffering. The priest remained silent throughout, nodding occasionally. “It reminds me of Job,” the priest said, once Christopher had finished.
“The one in the whale?” Christopher asked, while ravishing a fish.
He had said this as Father Lichtenberg prepared to chew on a piece of fish, causing the priest to swallow it in the laugh that followed. “No, no,” the Father coughed. He began gesticulating, rolling his hand around in a circle towards Christopher. “The one…the one.”
Christopher continued to suckle on the remains of a fish as the Father worked his way through the cough, watching the priest’s smooth white hands turn and turn. The cough continued, his hand now retreating to cover his mouth. Father Lichtenberg’s skin begun to turn blue, which in the moonlight, made his skin look like silver.
“Are you okay? Christopher asked, putting the remnants of the fish down on his plate. The Father’s eyes had began to bulge and his hands relocated to his throat. His hands loosened and then dropped, his head slouching onto his right shoulder. Chris panicked. “Jesus!” He shook the priest, hoping to wake him up. The Father didn’t answer. The creature known as Christopher slid back down the wall and stared at the priest.
Something possessed him. Christopher wasn’t sure what it was—desperation, Holy Spirit, demon—but he listened. He began undressing the priest, until the dead man was almost naked. The creature also undressed, wiping himself off with the rags he use to wear before putting on the holy garments. Pulling the priest into his nest and before covering him with blankets, the creature known as Christopher closed the Father’s eyes and prayed for him. After the short ceremony. Christopher left the priest, cold and covered, and headed to Stilkestad—the new Father Lichtenberg.
The dead man’s blue face flashed before Father Lichtenberg and he bit his lip. “I don’t know what you’re…”
Kane rolled his eyes like the old Father Lichtenberg rolled his hand and leaned back in his chair. “Fine. Show me your papers then.”
The priest’s eyebrows furrowed, “My what?”
“Your documentation that proves your Father Lichtenberg.”
There must have been some kind of venom in Kane’s stare—the Father froze. He had never found any papers on the dead man or in his luggage and it had required a near miracle to convince his parishioners he was any kind of priest when he first arrived.
“What if I could provide you with these documents?” Kane said, rubbing his fingers together.
Father Lichtenberg looked up.
The German smiled, “You want to be legitimate don’t you? Finally stop looking over your shoulder?” The priest looked down at his table. “Father, think of it like a deal—a covenant. You tell me where the Jews are hiding and I give you the life you have been looking for.”
Something possessed the priest. He wasn’t sure what it was, however he knew it wasn’t the Holy Spirit. “Come back with the papers and I’ll do it.”
Kane smiled as he rose, the fire dying down. “Excellent, Father.”
The priest walked him out, “I’ll need some time to get everything ready. I’ll need to perform a blessing and—”
The Nazi held up a gloved hand as he walked through the door and turned. He stared at the priest, his thin mouth parting ever so slightly as a pale tongue slithered out to rest atop the bottom row of teeth. Kane’s eyes slanted before his tongue retreated and he took a step back, grinning, “Fifteen minutes, Father. Perhaps last rites would be more appropriate.”
Father Lichtenberg closed the door, sinking to the floor with his back against the ancient oak. Shaking, he spread his fingers as far the they could go before squeezing them into stone fists. His chances of surviving this cursed covenant with Kane seemed less and less likely. Father Lichtenberg drew himself up from the ground and hurried to his office—he needed a drink.
The fire had gone out. He went to the desk, unlocking the bottom drawer which held the holy elixir: whisky. He chugged the small glass bottle, burning his throat while numbing his hesitations, as he tossed last week’s prayer requests into the dying fire. If only his congregation knew their priest was making deals with the devil. Then again, he wasn’t their priest.
The Father fell into his desk chair, whiskey still in hand, and stared at the phone. He rubbed his eyes and took a long sip before dialing. “Yes, it’s Father Lichtenberg. Johan, please just listen for once. The church needs you. I need you. Get in your truck and drive to the back of the church now. I’ll explain once you arrive. Godspeed, Johan,” he said as he hung up the phone with Johan still babbling. Shaking it for the last few drops, the Father set the now empty bottle on the bible opened on his desk which was turned to the book of John. Father Lichtenberg read the magnified verses and cursed under his breath. He stretched out his hands until his tendons cramped and then curled his fingers into fists, banging them against the desk.
Three loud knocks at the door reverberated through the church. The Father bit into his lip as he rose, trying to compose himself. Walking down the aisle towards the door, three more knocks echoed through the church. The priest crossed himself before opening the door to Dieter Kane.
“Let’s get this over with,” Father Lichtenberg said, exhaling.
The officer wrinkled his nose, “Jesus, Father. Dipping into the church’s stock?”
The priest sighed, his hands trembling.
“Father, relax. They won’t trust you if you’re a mess. You smoke?” Kane said pulling a package of cigarets from his pocket.
The Father nodded, stretching his hands as Kane pulled him outside the door and under the overhang of the church entrance. “Open,” Kane said as he placed a cigarette into Father Lichtenberg’s mouth. The Nazi moved the priest’s hand to his mouth to hold the cigarette steady, before bringing up a silver lighter.
Father Lichtenberg nodded and began smoking, turning with Kane to look out at the muddy street.
“It makes everything a damn mess, doesn’t it?” Kane said, motioning to the mud-caked cars and carts lining the street.
The Father turned towards the officer, “The rain doesn’t make things messy. People do that all on their own.”
Kane chuckled, “Let’s go in.”
Father Lichtenberg tossed the cigarette as Kane grabbed his shoulder gently and guided him through the church doors.
“I have your papers, Father,” Kane said, tapping his jacket. “After you deliver.”
The Father nodded as he lead Kane through the center aisle to the pulpit. The Nazi observed the intricate carvings, tracing the outlines of the dragons with his gloved finger.
“So, who has them?” Kane asked.
The Father squeezed his hands. “Give me a second,” the priest said, adjusting his collar before tracing an etching of a tulip on the side of the pulpit. His thumb caressed every curve of the flower before he pressed the bulb. The tulip retreated into the pulpit, clicking until the wall behind the offering table popped open an inch.
“They were here the whole time? Very clever, Father,” Kane said as he moved the empty offering table to the side.
The Father went to the edge of the false wall and pulled it out, revealing a thick velvet curtain. Pushing aside the improvised sound wall, the priest revealed six children, four women, and two men huddled in a corner around a basket. Kane slapped Father Lichtenberg on the shoulder as he strode into the hiding place.
“I was promised thirteen, Father,” Kane smiled, counting the now trembling Jews.
The priest stepped into the room, “One died a few days ago. Now give me the papers, Kane.”
“Father Lichtenberg?” one of the little girls said, walking towards the priest before the closest women grabbed her.
The Nazi chuckled, “Oh, no my dear—he’s not Father Lichtenberg.” As he pulled out an empty envelope, a voice echoed through the church.
“Father? I’m here! What do you need?” Johan shouted.
A smile spread across Kane’s face. “Is that the mastermind behind the hiding?” Kane said, taking his pistol out the holster and turning towards opening.
Father Lichtenberg spread his fingers, curled them into stone fists, and then tackled Kane. “Go! Go with Johan!” The priest hissed at the Jews, who jumped up and flew through the opening. As the Father turned to flee with them, Kane grabbed his ankle and twisted. Father Lichtenberg cursed and slammed Kane’s head with an iron fist and pushed himself from the floor.
“Run!” the priest yelled.
Johan nodded and sprinted through the back of the sanctuary with the last Jew as Father Lichtenberg stumbled out of the hidden room and moved around the offering table. Limping towards the pulpit to press the bulb, he tried to lock Kane in the secret room. Touching the bulb, the wood popped back into place. As Father Lichtenberg turned, he met Kane. Two bullets rippled through his torso, launching him back against the pulpit, his hands limp. Kane spit on Father Lichtenberg’s body, before walking out through the back of the sanctuary.
The rain had stopped.