The church bell broke the morning, the broken church bell of the broken village. In this Serbian village of the cross-roads, this village of Raskrsnica, wherein their first grave was dug amidst the 6th century, now rings this war of rebellion that had arched heavenly, the jet planes, the rockets, the artillery shells falling to earth, scorching the village.
This broken church bell, briefly its flaring mouth clamored for divine retribution, for the surviving villagers, petitioning the heavens.
The villagers halted their labors and turned their faces toward this declaration from the church, the church crowning the hilltop, defaced.
Marinko and his wife, Josipa, startled, together raised their eyes.
Josipa whimpered, raising a knuckle to her lip, saying, “He is coming.”
Marinko stepped beside his wife to comfort her, whispering, “I know you want to believe. I want to believe. Hope is the last to die.”
Marinko and Josipa descried the figure emerging from the church’s eminence.
From the hilltop descended the humble Bishop Sava, his eyes heavy, weighted with his witnessing yet his lips gentle, uplifted with hope.
Bishop Sava bore tidings once again for villagers.
Marinko and Josipa both dreaded and yearned for those tidings of Bishop Sava.
Josipa trembled with the anxiety, “I can have no peace. Perhaps Bishop Sava has no word for us. Maybe he has words that are only words…”
Marinko interposed, “…of faith. Only words of faith.”
Josipa rested her head against Marinko’s shoulder, saying softly, “Faith is everything.”
Down the path through the village trod Bishop Sava. In nearly every house that he passed, in the window was a living triptych of a watching husband, a watching wife, and the reflection of Bishop Sava.
Bishop Sava turned toward the home of Marinko and Josipa. Bishop Sava held his hands, left hand over his right hand, against the waist of his flowing cassock.
Marinko and Josipa opened their door without Bishop Sava announcing his presence.
Marinko nodded, “Your Grace,” and he reached for the right hand of Bishop Sava. Bishop Sava extended what remained of his right hand which bore only the ring finger. Marinko kissed the wounded hand.
Josipa glanced away downward and expelled a quick breath, “Your Grace,” reaching for the scarred hand of Bishop Sava.
Bishop Sava softly commented, “My dear, you fear I cannot make the ancient sign of the cross, without a trinity made of three fingers. I assure you I feel all my invisible fingers as if they remain with me.”
Marinko said, “Please, Your Grace, sit with us.”
Josipa offered, “Your Grace, would you like coffee?”
Bishop Sava smiled, “Thank you, dear,” and he sat at the kitchen table.
Josipa set the small cup of thick strong coffee before Bishop Sava who then absent-mindedly wrapped the lone finger of his right hand about the cup. He sat stirring thoughts without sipping.
Marinko suddenly stepped forward, offering, “Bishop Sava, would you like this glass of plum wine?”
Bishop Sava smiled in gratitude. He took long swallows of the wine and then Marinko filled his glass again.
Marinko and Josipa sat down together with Bishop Sava at the kitchen table.
Finally, Bishop Sava spoke, “Last night Sister Yelena came to me with your daughter, with your Jasna.”
Josipa stifled herself, repeating, “Jasna.”
Marinko took her hand.
Bishop Sava soothed Josipa, saying, “My dear, Jasna is well in Sister Yelena’s care. Have faith, for I am responsible for her.”
Marinko next asked, when Josipa could not, “Your Grace. Bishop Sava. What does Jasna say?”
Bishop Sava smiled, “Jasna wanted me to tell you that she was very excited about going to the meadows today with Sister Yelena and all the other children. She herself said to have faith for she loves you. Oh, and she asked me to assure you that she can see you from the church.”
Josipa whimpered yet she smiled.
Marinko took Bishop Sava’s right hand again and kissed it, then saying to him with lowered eyes, “Bishop Sava, your tidings are blessings to both of us,” then Marinko glanced at Josipa and he added, “Please tell Jasna we are missing her and that we want her back home here with us again soon.”
Bishop Sava rose up to depart and he added, “Jasna said that you must believe that her thoughts are always with you.”
Then Bishop Sava went calmly on down the path through the village, stopping before other homes where the doors opened without his announcement.
In the late afternoon, Bishop Sava was climbing the path back up to the church, when he noticed an odd figure standing beside the entrance. In the shadow it looked like a scarecrow, an effigy to deter birds, yet its scraggly silhouette indicated a covering of tattered fur or perhaps vegetation, a pagan spirit of the forest.
Bishop Sava, undaunted, called out with amusement, “Tutelary spirit, do you wish to confess and be saved? Or are you a whiff of smoke in my face?”
The creature that stepped forward was a man, a soldier in camouflage. He answered, “I confess that I am Death the moment most are made aware of me. I am a sniper. I was passing over these hills to this place of eminence, to surveil the village below. Were your losses great here?”
“Sniper, none were truly lost. Death merely limits our suffering here as well as death limits the sin that can be committed here. I believe it to be God’s wisdom.”
Sniper snorted, “I believe in death”. He shook the rifle that he bore. “I have waded through mass graves to get this far.”
Bishop Sava answered as if in a liturgy, “As did our Lord.” Bishop Sava gestured with a glance toward the porch to invite Sniper into the maimed, defiant church.
“You are welcome in there, Sniper.”
Sniper answered wryly, “It looks like hell, but then I do pass here to find Muslim devils.”
“There is one Devil reflected in all warring sides. Sit with me awhile in Sanctuary. Sister Yelena and the children will be with us in the Tabernacle.”
Sniper assumed that the young children of the village were taken to this church for safety and protection when the storm of battles began to slip overhead
Inside the church, passing behind the Sacred Beautiful Gate of the Sanctuary, where should have been the Altar of the Tabernacle, the sniper saw that there was now only a fused mass of salt and soil and debris. “And the children,” Sniper suddenly understood, making the gesture of the ancient cross.
A thermal missile had struck this place. Now the heavens peered through the hole in the ceiling of the Tabernacle
Bishop Sava “That damage was not an intentional crime, I want to believe. How could it have been?”
Sniper cursed, “What matter if intentional, misguided, or wild? This is havoc.”
Bishop Sava sat upon his Bishop’s Chair before the fused mass of salt and soil and debris and explained, “Sister Yelena comforted the children and tended them. They remain my responsibility. They will be here soon. During the battle in the heavens Sister Yelena took the children behind this Altar to pray. I went outside to stand watch and to witness. Suddenly there was a roar and light and heat…I could not find my fingers”
Sniper stared at Bishop Sava.
Bishop Sava’s eyes glistened.
Doves now began to fly into the tabernacle ruins. One of the doves landed unafraid at Bishop Sava’s feet and peered up at him.
Bishop Sava spoke to the dove, asking, “Ah, Sister Yelena, did the children enjoy their playtime in the meadows?”