Father Parthenios, abbot of the monastery of Our Beatific Holy Lady, was a 75-year-old man, of middle stature, lean with an all-white long beard. His long hair, tied in a knot at his nape and thinning on the crown, was covered with his monk’s cap. His clear blue eyes emanated a kind of sweetness bordering to holiness. His worn out frock had become threadbare and bleached with time. He peered into the sky and shook his head. The April day was promised a fine one despite the morning mist. Due east the dawn, in a spectacle of changing hues from purple to red to pink and to orange, loomed over the distant mountains heralding the oncoming sunrise. The stars had already faded in a milky sky, the morning star only being prominent like a diamond pinned on the eastern firmament and at the same time a full moon was about to set behind the western mountains. On his left soared the imposing crenelated ramparts of the southern wall of the abbey, where the monks had their cells. The monastery was founded in the Middle Ages after the discovery of the miracle-working icon of the Holy Virgin. The icon has survived through the long years and is still devoutly kept in the church. At an altitude of 2.300 feet above sea level, the monastery is surrounded by lush vegetation of sundry species of plants, bushes and trees, the latter mainly being acorn and chestnut. It is literally perched like an eagle’s nest at the side of the precipitous mountain slope, offering the observer a captivating vista of the spacious plain at the foot of the mountains.
Behind him the abbot hauled by its halter his obstinate donkey as he would tax the animal greatly to descend the craggy path riding on its back.
On both sides of the path there was an orgy of pale green April vegetation consisting mainly of oaks, chestnut-trees, ash, and numerous tufty small bushes. This greenness was in places interrupted by the white and pink shades of Judas trees. In this orgasm of trees and plants arose a cacophony of chirps, twitters, warbles, trills and other melodies of the multitudinous avian throng hidden in the foliage.
It would take the abbot about twenty minutes to reach the foot of the mountain when with the sunrise he would have an easy ride on his donkey to cover the two hour journey on the flat plain to his destination, the weekly bazaar in the city.
Arriving at the market, he mingled with the sundry multitude converging to the bazaar, not only from the nearby villages of the plain but from distant mountain hamlets, as well. This entire crowd came to sell and buy or even barter commodities and after each had finished his task, he would return home in the evening, as a good breadwinner.
The abbot rode off his donkey before an inn and entrusting his beast to the innkeeper, he hastened to make the necessary provisions for his monastery. After finishing his chores, he looked forward to meeting his friend, father Arsenios, also an abbot of a monastery south from the city. They had known each other for some time and after they both were done with the shopping, they would meet at their usual tavern for their frugal meal and a friendly chat.
Father Arsenios had already been there, sitting at his wonted corner and wiping with his handkerchief the sweat off his brow. He had also done his shopping and was waiting for his friend to begin their repast. Unlike old Parthenios, father Arsenios was a tall and sturdy man, around forty, having raven-black beard and hair, the latter cascading to his shoulders. His dark eyes had a piercing, wild look causing fear. He wore high quality pitch-black frocks and cap as if they were made from silk.
- Your blessing, brother, greeted the abbot.
- The Lord bless you, brother, replied Arsenios.
They ordered and Parthenios said the blessing crossing himself, ignoring the fact that Arsenios was indifferent to such religious formalities, and began chatting while eating.
- What tidings from your monastery, brother Arsenios? I’m looking forward to a visit so that we can say mass together.
- These days we’ve been very busy with repairs and rearrangement, replied Arsenios, so it won’t be convenient for your grace to visit us.
- Then I suggest your grace pay a visit to our cloister, where we may spend some time in prayer and quiet.
- Accepted willingly, brother, Arsenios beamed. Let’s fix it now. How about next Wednesday, after we’re through with shopping?
Therefore, it was arranged that father Arsenios was to visit Father Pathenios’ monastery, and each wended his way to his own abbey.
It was already past the middle of Lent and in less than three weeks Easter was due. As it had been arranged at the Wednesday market in the town, the two abbots – Parthenios and Arsenios – picked up their way to the former’s monastery. Father Parthenios proceeded on his donkey while Arsenios followed riding his tall and stout mule. The weather was clear and fine; the sun shone bright and warm in a clear blue sky. It appeared to be rather a summer day than a spring one. And yet in the process of the two men something was going amiss. Weird and unnatural things occurred: at the places they were going through a sinister atmosphere prevailed as though amid all that brightness a pall of darkness covered everything; suddenly the birds ceased singing only to assume their twitter after the passage of the company from their domain. The package animals were also restless as if they were dreaded something.
The exchange between the two divines was laconic and to the questions of Parthenios Arsenios answered curtly and in single words as though reluctant to respond. Parthenios benevolently put down the strange behavior of his companion to a probable weariness.
They had already reached the foot of the mountain having covered the half of their journey. Now they had to trudge on the ascending craggy path and after two hours to get at last to the abbey of Our Beatific Holy Lady. The white edifices of the monastery and the dome of the church figured like a painting on the precipitous slope, where the monastery was perched like an eagle’s nest. Built in the 12th century, the monastery forms a square block of edifices surrounded by an external wall topped with turrets and battlements. The southern part of the complex housed the monks’ cells while in the northern part there were the storerooms, the cellars and the pantry as well as the barns and the refectory. The eastern part comprised a spacious balcony over an inaccessible precipice. The entrance to the monastery was in the western part and dominated by a huge belfry. On the right of the entrance in the courtyard were the reception and the guest quarters, where the pilgrims enjoyed the monks’ hospitality. The byzantine church was built right in the center of the courtyard. It was covered in lead and had two small bell-towers and a dome, to the cross of which a lightning rod was fixed. Internally it was decorated with rare frescoes and icons and its iconostasis was a priceless masterpiece of carving.
At last, after a laborious journey both the men and the beasts entered panting and weary the outer court of the monastery. The weather had changed; black thunderheads foreboding a storm had accumulated low in the sky and a chilly air had started to blow causing an unpleasant shivering in the bodies. Static electricity made the hairs of the skin bristle. Father Parthenios had never experienced such a phenomenon and was seized by an uncanny fear. However, the arrival of the group was welcomed by joyful tintinnabulations of the bell, as is wont when an illustrious guest comes. While the monk was pulling at the rope, suddenly the bulky bell cracked and shattered into smithereens on the paved ground with a horrible sound as if the whole belfry collapsed. At the same time a flash of lightning ripped the air simultaneously with the booming peal of thunder. A pair of shepherd dogs belonging to the sheep folds of the monastery let out a shrieking howl and went groveling at the feet of Arsenios’ beast as though in obedience. Arsenios, still mounted and unperturbed accosted his colleague, a sarcastic grin on his lips.
- I could never imagine you to be so faint of heart, holy abbot, to be afraid of a weather element.
- But, Holy Brother, haven’t you seen the bell? How do you explain it?
- This is simply a coincidence. In the course of time all things wear and break.
After this incident they proceeded to the inner courtyard, where the monk serving as host and the other colleagues received with magnanimous hospitality their honored guest and were eager to treat him to something. Dissembling fatigue from the toilsome journey, Arsenios asked to be shown immediately to his quarters.
- The supper at the refectory will soon be ready. After you’re done up and ready, you’re expected in our communal table.
- Don’t fret about me; I’d like to dine alone in my cell if you don’t mind. I’m so dead tired that I wish to retire. Tell the cook to fix me something handy such as bread, cheese and meat.
- But, father, are you forgetting that we’re fasting as it is Lent? Asked Parthenios in amazement.
- My health allows no such luxuries as fasting. Then you must be well-aware of the saying: those of ill health and wayfarers are exempted from fasting.
Not only was Parhenios taken aback but was also deeply hurt by the action of his friend. Nevertheless, he directed the dumbfounded cook to carry out Arsenios’ wishes and retired to his other duties. Meanwhile an awesome storm broke out and raged on with ripping flashes of lightning and earsplitting peals of thunder accompanied by pelting rain and hail. Fortunately, the buildings were protected against the electrical discharge of lightning by the newly fitted rod or else the edifices would have been reduced to cinders.
After the evening repast, from which their honored guest was absent, the monks one by one retired to their cells to meditate in prayer and snatch some hours of sleep till the hour of matins. Heading to his own quarters, abbot Parthenios passed by Arsenios’ cell to check on his high guest. He was about to knock at the door but he was stopped by something that he could not explain. From the cell a heavy odor of attar, acid and pitch was given off through whiffs of gelid draft of air issued from the door chinks. I’d better not disturb him; he thought, he must be exhausted, so let him rest till matins. He put down the odors to possible unguents that Arsenios smeared his body with for medicinal purposes, and the cold draft to an open window in the cell.
One hour after midnight the wooden chime sounded the matins and the monks began to gather in the church for the matins service, apart from the monk Jeremiah, who was charged with the nocturnal patrol of the abbey. But what astonished the abbot and the monks was the absence of Arsenios from the service. The bedcovers must have fallen too heavy for him, Parthenios mused ironically. In the meantime the storm had notably abated but the night was pitch-black as the ominous, dark clouds were still dense and low in the sky. What was unusual was that lugubrious howls of wolves were heard from the surrounding forest that made one’s blood curdle.
The day broke in a downcast sky that sunlight could hardly filter through. An eldritch silence prevailed. No warble or twitter of birds could be heard. A kind of foreboding hovered in the air.
The morning repast being over after the mass, the monks went out into the courtyard and each headed to perform his daily s tasks. The abbot went to assess the damage caused by the storm. The hail had wreaked havoc to the vegetables and fruit stripping the trees from their boom and leaves. In the middle of spring the spectacle was rather wintry with the desolate trees. The chicken coops were completely destroyed and the chicken corpses lay topsy turvy on the ground. The few fowl that survived were perched in the corners of the coop that had remained intact. An august monk, Joel, hurried panting to the abbot to announce that their best milk cow was found dead on the pasture, possibly struck by thunder. At the same time, brother Jeremiah approached looking aghast and haggard, his eyes wild and bloodshot, and trembling in indescribable fear brandished a kitchen knife:
- Holy Father, your blessing. We’ve got to exorcise the evil we have unwittingly brought in in our monastery. Last night on my watch I saw him … the fiend was there, tall and pitch-black in his frock, his haired disheveled and his ears pointed. He turned around, his face pale, and looked at me with penetrating and sarcastic eyes. Then he burst out laughing and his mirth was eerie. The air around him was pregnant with a foul smell, an odor of tar. I tried to pray but I could not as cold sweat ran along my spine in my utter horror. I rushed to the kitchen and snatched this knife. When I came out I saw him standing at the main entrance with his back to me. I attacked him stabbing my knife in his back but to my terror it went through his body, as in empty air. God save us, Holy Abbot!
As he was speaking he cut around in the air with his knife. The abbot crossed himself and instructed brother Jeremiah to summon the rest of the monks into the refectory. He himself went to Arsenios’ cell, which he found it empty. His guest was nowhere to be found. Then he made sure to seal all the exits with crucifixes and sprinkle them with holy water. All this done, he headed to the refectory.
“My brethren”, said the abbot accosting his monks, “as you have realized Almighty God has decided to lead us into temptation to test us. We have the evil in our midst and that is in the person of our guest. Both brother Jeremiah and I are fully convinced of this. Therefore, we have to exorcise the fiend. I have already taken the necessary measures sealing all exits with holy water and crucifixes to trap the devil I so that he cannot escape. Now let us proceed with the necessary orthodox ritual of exorcism ending up with the orthodox Divine Eucharist Service”.
Being no possible escape for the devil, the abbot began the exorcism ritual: in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost… At that time the terrified Arsenios was attempting to get out of the court. He sensed however that an inexplicable power kept him away from the exits and made him tremble in unutterable terror. The service was going on within the church. Outside Arsenios was feeling a sort of strange discomfort and at the same time his body began oddly to change. His face gradually began to grow swollen and red. As the service went on it went from red to an uncanny purple and his body was bloating like a balloon. Then from within the church was heard the petition: Especially for our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary. From without was heard a loud bang as if something exploding. Some of the monks sprang out of the church in panic and were in time to see Arsenios explode and shatter into a thousand pieces, which were dispersed around upon the court cobbles in flames and thick smoke. Finally they reduced to ashes which were blown away by a pleasant breeze. The sky cleared at once and the sun beamed joyful and warm anew.
Vassilis C. Militsis ( email@example.com) is a graduate of the University of Thessaloniki, Greece, with a B.A. degree in English and Greek. He taught English and Greek at state Greek schools, both in Greece and Germany. He retired in 2010.
He speaks Greek and English fluently and possesses a good command of German and Italian, and a fair command of French. He has also a long experience in translations ranging from simple professional texts to literary works. He and Mr. Wolfgang Reumuth are the authors of the Praktische Grammatik der neugriechischen Sprache, published by Gottfried Egert Verlag
Shortly the Passion Week was coming and abbot and monks were looking forward to the festivities of the Resurrection of Our Lord.