A Game of Pairs
by Isak Romun
It was a perfect arrangement. Father Konrad was in South America, a missionary to the faithful in one of those troubled republics down there. His mother lived in my parish and she was ill, terminally ill as it turned out. I proposed a way by which Father Konrad could get up here to wait upon his mother for a period of, let’s say, a year. I would go south and take Konrad’s place in his missionary post. Father Murphy would take over Francis Xavier while I was away and Father Konrad would be his assistant with the understanding that he would be given the time he needed to care for his mother. Konrad and his superiors jumped at the idea and our bishop approved it, perhaps not enthusiastically but without much in the way of reluctance. It was a good thing all around: Father Murphy got needed exposure as a pastor; Father Konrad was at ease because he could be with his mother in her last days; and I got an unexpected sabbatical in sunny climes during which I could practice and improve my Spanish. I was, perhaps to use an inexact word, ecstatic.
Of course, at that time, I knew nothing of the bandits.
I saw Pardrilone before he broke from the jungle and before his horse set hoof on the village’s single street. He came slowly, another horse tethered behind him. I got up from my chair on the dispensary porch and went inside. I gave a few instructions to the people within, then got my hat and last-rites kit. Then I went back out to the porch. By this time, Pardrilone had come up to the hitching post outside the small building. He stayed mounted.
“Who is it this time?” I asked.
“His name is Blinn. Desmond Blinn. He came all the way from New England’s frosty shores to die here, in all our heat and stink. He should have saved himself the trouble. He could have hanged himself in his home country and been quite comfortable as he went about it. He said he doesn’t want to see you, but Bohlmann said to get you, anyway. You know how Bohlmann is.” As he said this he pulled the tethered horse abreast of his and handed me the reins.
“How’s he holding up? Blinn.”
“Pretty well,” Pardrilone said. “He’s pretty much resigned about the whole thing. Calm. He’s keeping busy writing his autobiography.”
I mounted and followed Pardrilone into the jungle and, in time, to Commandant Bohlmann’s camp.
The use of the word “commandant”, and the name “Shield of the People,” the movement to which Bohlmann and his followers swore a casual allegiance, were excellent covers for the group’s real mission—banditry, to put a sober face on the matter. The village and Father Konrad’s mission were spared the depredations other locales suffered at the hands of Bohlmann’s raiders. Perhaps because the village served as a source of supplies and the mission as the source of a priest when needed, we did not fall under the heel of the “revolutionaries.”
I saw Blinn immediately upon my arrival in camp. I found him in the little guard shack that Bohlmann kept as a sort of wagging disciplinary finger for any of his followers who might be contemplating stepping out of line, for passing over a line the specifications of which were known only to Bohlmann. This wasn’t the place for drunk-and-disorderly types, for those imbibing one bottle too many of the fiery “whiskey” mixed together by the Indians in the small patches of shanties surrounding the camp. No, if you found yourself in the guard shack you could be sure that your stay would be short and your end, well, would be violent in the extreme.
We had strict orders from the local bishop not to accompany the condemned to the place of execution and not to witness the dispatching of the poor soul. The bishop did not want to give the appearance of approving the proceedings. There was an exception: if the condemned requested that the priest "stay and pray" right up until the end. From his first words when I saw Blinn, it was clear that he would not be availing himself of this “benefit of clergy.”
“Told them I didn’t need you, Father Bax” he said over his shoulder as I entered the dark, cramped room. He was sitting at a small table with his back to me. He had paper before him and a pen in his hand. He was writing furiously. Off to the side there were two other sheets of paper; one filled with writing, one blank. I thought, Not much of an autobiography so far.
I found a small stool and sat down. Blinn must have caught me out of the corner of his eye. “You still here?’ he asked without turning his head. “Have no objection to you being here. You can stay till the cows come home and I still won’t need you.”
“Interesting that you should mention cows. They’re butchering one now. I saw them at work as I rode into camp.”
“I told them I’d like some beef. Very thoughtful of Commandant Bohlmann.”
“Well, since I can’t provide you with what I am singularly able to provide you with, can I help you in some mundane other way? For example, can I get you more paper for your autobiography?”
Now he turned. His left arm fell across the paper upon which he had been writing. He was a handsome fellow, perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties. His blond hair was carefully parted and swept back on his head. His features were constantly changing; there was a kind of fluidity of movement and floridity of countenance that, at once, repelled and attracted. His skin was rutted and blotched, the effects of the way of life he had chosen and the heat and grime of the environment within which he lived out that way of life. But beyond this, it was an open face, no guile, no strangeness, and, above all, no fear. I tried to probe this face to see if I could detect fear far below the surface. But no, no fear.
“That Pardrilone,” he said without exasperation. “He’s gotten it into his head that that’s what I’m doing, writing my life story. Well, what I’m doing is very much less than that. I’m writing up the story of my last day, or days,. on earth. Yesterday, today, tomorrow.”
“And why are you doing this?” I asked.
“So many people live vague, meaningless lives and their deaths mirror these qualities. I want to show here,” and his hand came down on his writing, "that this was not the way Desmond Blinn lived and died. I want my death to mean something. I’d like to get it published, but I don’t know about that.”
I ventured an idea. “I know some people in publishing. Perhaps I can send your manuscript to one of them.”
His face brightened. “That would be great. I always wanted to be a writer. I always thought I could do pretty good at it. Great, then, I’ll ask Pardrilone to get it to you when I’m done.” He turned back to the table and his manuscript. "And I’d better get hacking on this so I’m finished when that beef comes around. I’m a fool for beef.”
I left Blinn soon after. Pardrilone escorted me back to the village where my first stop was the little chapel around which the mission was built.
About a month later, Pardrilone came riding back into the village. He hadn’t an extra horse so I remained seated on the porch. He dismounted, came up on the porch, and took a chair beside mine. After proffers of tea, coffee, beer, wine had been agreeably turned down, he reached into an inside coat pocket and pulled out a sheaf of papers filled with crabbed writing. “I’m a delivery boy today. This is for you. From Blinn.”
“Did he take it well? When I saw him he was taking on a heavy cargo of bravado. Did he use it or did he opt to seek peace at the end?”
“think you’d better read this,” Pardrilone said and shoved the pages into my hand. “Word simply doesn’t get down to your sleepy little place, does it, Father?”
I unfolded the sheets of paper. First, there was a note reminding me of my promise to seek an outlet for Blinn’s story, then an authorization for me to use the proceeds if any, for a charity of my choosing. I looked at the first page of the story. Interestingly, Blinn had given the story a title, “Postlude,” and, below this, he affected a pen-name.
I began reading.
[This is a true accounting of the better part of two days in my life when I was a freedom fighter in the 219th Rifle Battalion, Shield of the People, under Commandant Bohlmann.]
I carved a dripping piece of the rare beef, pushed it down on a piece of rye, and put another piece of bread on top of the meat. I took great bites, my free hand feeling my stubble-strewn face. A beer was nearby, warm now, poured out too long ago, just before I began wrestling with my thoughts. But I drank it lustily, driblets of pale amber upon my new beard turning the liquid into small reflective beads perched on the tips of stiff hairs.
It was a good meal, a good last meal hearty and rough as my life had been; and simple, simple and direct, as I knew my death was soon to be, A strange man, Bohlmann, the leader, a man for little rituals, careful observations, precise ceremony. The traditional “last meal” of the doomed man’s choice a case in point. What would take place soon? — a quick walk into the courtyard, my hands tied behind me, two strong boys, each with a paw upon a shoulder, pushing me gently but with no nonsense to my knees. A long wooden slat upon which thick, brushed letters proclaimed the crimes of ingratitude, treachery, and betrayal of which I had been accused and, in Bohlmann’s direct, thick-robed judgment, found guilty. And then, one gunshot up through the neck into and into the brain and eternity would fold out in front of me.
Bohlmann had seen the method in a newsreel. Chinese Reds, the strips of wood calligraphed with records of infamy, executed by Nationalists—or the other way around; and the simplicity, not devoid of a certain economical pomp and high moral tone, was appealing, irresistible to his nature.
“Let us try that with the very next one we shoot,” he had said jollily, and I remembered with a tremor, for it was I who had accommodated Bohlmann, who bent down, aimed the gun upward, and pulled the trigger, then stepped back quickly as the two burly boys, like pas de deuxing dancers, sprang off to the sides to escape, with me, the squirting blood and the small flying pieces of brain.
And now, I, Desmond Blinn, would again be a participant in this final ceremony. For what? A woman. So foolish, for there were so many women. Bohlmann secured them like copper coins, and soon I would suffer because I rubbed one while there was some sheen still upon it. The woman had been disposed of, thrown down a well and left to die there. Women did not get to participate in the Ceremony, only men—the ones against whom Bohlmann mounted huge accusations, driving himself up a spiraling curve of vengeful rage until, convinced of the utmost perfidy, he pronounced the awful sentence: the Ceremony.
“Tomorrow,” he had shouted at me, his wet red mouth quivering with anger and expectation, “Tomorrow, at dawn.” It was always dawn, another nicety, another line in the format: a chiaroscuro effect cherished by Bohlmann.
But in the meanwhile, I thought, there’s this splendid beef, cut from a cow stolen, slaughtered, and cooked over a great fire that day, and the rough, simple bread, and the beer, though warm, satisfying but almost gone. Might they give me another beer?
As I went to the door of my cell, I felt a keen exhilaration over how well I was taking this whole thing, enjoying the meat and bread, even rattling my agateware cup, chips of its coating flying about, against the short bars of the small opening in the door and shouting down the corridor, demanding more drink. And, by God, see that it’s good and cold! (God? Why invoke him? He never did anything for me before and I was sure he was not disposed to step in now.)
I was certain I could hold out this way, relish what life I had left without indulging in false hopes that somehow my life would go on beyond the approaching light, that at the last moment I would receive a reprieve and be welcomed back into the band. No, that would not happen, but I would rob Bohlmann of some of the glee gained through the Ceremony. Hah! – for what was the Ceremony designed? Not to make a man stand tall and stare back upon his persecutor at that last moment, as against a wall to be shot or, rope around my neck, as I sat astride a nervous horse. No, the victim was pushed down, his head bent forward, the wooden slat a comical element in a piece already without dignity; and then in this ignominious position, almost fetal (strange, that), the muzzle of the gun was pushed up against the short nape hairs but not fired until Bohlmann, off to the side, fat and squalid in his canvas chair, his torpid face moving rhythmically to the steady chewing of browned sesame seeds, masking his inner elation, gave the signal. (Caligula at the Circus Maximus.) By this time, the miscreant was reduced to a quaking, screaming figure, explaining to Bohlmann, pleading with Bohlmann, assuring Bohlmann that whatever in the world he had done (and perhaps he honestly didn’t know), it would never occur again. Never.
If only you’ll let me live. That’s what they all said, I thought as my cup ceased its insistent, cadenced ring upon the bars, and my knees felt a certain wateriness when I thought of those wretches; each now in my thoughts with my own face, the fear-stricken face of Desmond Blinn.
I wiped this vision of an uncongenial immediate future from the slate of my mind and struck up again the racket of cup against bars, calling out loudly (too loudly?) for more beer. Then I resurrected the images so recently discarded and ran them through a mental projector so that each, miraculously transformed now, showed Desmond Blinn as staunch, unbreakable, tight-lipped, and not without a trace of annoying wryness playing about his features, robbing Bohlmann of his pleasure.
For now, as one of the guards came padding down the corridor, I knew, knew, that I would go through the Ceremony as these last pictures showed me, that I would deny Bohlmann the circus scene he coveted.
But the approaching guard ignored my demand for more beer and pushed a face against the bars of the small opening and blew his sweetish breath into the cell as he whispered quick and precise instructions to me. The guard was Pardrilone, an old-time member of the band.
Tomorrow it would be over, he told me, but not for you, Blinn. For Bohlmann! If the men don’t turn from him now, he said, each would, in time, march screaming to the same fate that their leader planned now for me. Bohlmann was mad.
. It was, after all, Pardrilone explained, not for a woman that I was to die, but because I represented a threat to the leadership of Bohlmann, just as Bohlmann had been a threat to his predecessor. The woman had been emplaced to provide Bohlmann with an immediate cause for ordering my extinction; and perhaps the woman’s as well, for Bohlmann was tiring of her.
That was why I must be the center of the band’s revolt against their leader. The others were afraid or, weighed down by the awe in which they held Bohlmann, could not conceive of his overthrow being successful, as if he had been touched by divinity.
I reeled back from the door and fell to my cot, weakened as much by the prospect of deliverance as others are of death, I had been ready for death. Mine was a readiness that was absolute, that was devoid of self-deception. I knew that never would I be as ready, that the conditioning of my mind and soul undergone in hours spent in the dark cell could not be replicated at some future date, could not be turned on, turned off, by some psychic finger pressing a button.
“What’s the matter with you?” Pardrilone hissed through the bars. “Are you with us?”
I nodded as I rose and moved back to the door. “How? The plan. Does Quesada know?” (Quesada was a faraway revolutionary figure to whom the band of irregulars owed a tenuous allegiance.)
“He’ll approve. Later. Here’s a gun. Loaded.” Pardrilone shoved between the bars an ugly automatic pistol. “The magazine is full. One round is chambered.”
“I’ll kill Bohlmann with this?”
“Yes. When I come to get you, I’ll tie your hands loosely. Make sure to wear your woolskin so it will hide the gun. When you’re out there, work your hands loose, get the gun out fast, and shoot him as he sits watching.”
“Right in his fat, pig face.”
But Pardrilone held up a cautioning hand. “No! Too chancy—you could miss. Place your shots in his chest, around the heart. Can you do that?
I said I could.
“Good. You will be our new leader. That’s the way these things go."
The next day, the plan worked perfectly. But despite what Pardrilone said, I fired at and placed two bullets squarely in Bohlmann’s face and watched with satisfaction as the force of the shots toppled the fat man over backwards, his wide buttocks clamped in the arms of the canvas chair which went over with him as he skidded and rolled to a stop against a car some six feet distant. Some of my satisfaction was stolen, however, by Bohlmann, who saw, in the instant between the appearance of the gun and its discharge, what was happening and looked at me calmly, a hint of wryness about his lips.
Pardrilone went over to the body, examined it, then growled,“ You should have fired at the chest. If you had missed, many of us would have been doomed. It was a stupid chance to take.
“Didn’t miss – he’s dead, isn’t he?” I replied matter-of-factly.
Pardrilone pondered this logic, accepted it, turned to the other members of the band, and yelled, “Hail Blinn, our new leader!”
The shouts were ear balm for me, standing there the center of an admiring throng, any one of whose members would have shot me out of hand just moments before. I held my arms above my head, hands cupped in the manner of a champion boxer. Outside the circle—forgotten now even by Evelyn, his latest woman, who now turned her hot, fox eyes upon me—lay Bohlmann, his shattered face a jagged O.
“Poor Bohlmann,” I muttered, “He didn’t have a chance.”
“What chance? He was a monster deserving his end.”
At these words, I looked at Pardrilone and said in a low voice,” Still, still.” Then I asked, “How does Blinn relish being in the exact same position as the man he killed?”
Pardrilone stood up and surveyed the village beyond the porch rail. “What is this place, anyway, Shangri La? Am I the only one who stops by here?”
“Actually, we’re expecting the return of Father Konrad within the week. But what about Blinn? Any changes in him? Power changes a man.
Instead of answering, Pardrilone reached back into his coat and withdrew a single, folded piece of paper, which he gave me. “This is the end of the Blinn saga, what’s written on this piece of paper, which I blush to say, I myself wrote. Read it after I’m gone. I don’t wish to discuss the matter again after today.”
I waved the hand holding the sheet of paper in a sort of wan farewell, and said, “Tell Blinn I’m praying for him.” I chuckled a bit, then added, “And for you, too.”
“Oh, I’m not going back. I’m going south till I reach a border. I may cross that border into another diseased republic. There I may join another revolutionary group. Why not, I know all the slogans and have a way with an AK-47. Or, I may retire, marry, buy a farm, upon which I shall raise fat children and healthy cattle. Then I will welcome your prayers.”
After that he got on his horse and rode away. I continued sitting on the porch as I read the writing on the piece of paper Pardrilone had given me.
“You are going it get it published?” Father Konrad asked. He put the account of Blinn’s almost-execution aside and picked up his fork.
We were at table, our last supper before I was to take a bumpy bus ride to the capital where I would board a sleek, silver plane for my trip back to the States. My work here was done. Father Konrad’s mother had died, and was buried under his watchful eye. He had returned to the mission and my “sabbatical” was over. If I had not improved my Spanish in the months I was here, it was too late to do anything about it now.
I replied to Father Konrad's question. “I’m going to try. I know a publisher who might be interested in putting it in one of his periodicals.” From the table, I picked up the last piece of paper the one Pardrilone had given me. “I’m going to append this to the end. Read it.. It’s the actual end of Blinn’s story, which you’ll see, could not be written by him.”
Father Konrad took the paper, unfolded it, and read the following:
“After that, Blinn led the band on many daring raids that garnered them much spoils and a number of casualties. They were richer than ever but disgruntled at the chances they had to take. So, one day they grasped Blinn, tied his hands behind him, and dragged him to an open field. From the moment they had their hands on him to the moment they fired one sure shot into his head, Blinn, a bag of twitching, sagging flesh, cried and begged for his life. He even screeched out a prayer. He may have had few other thoughts at the end, but if he had, one of them must have been of how well Bohlmann had died. And how well he, Blinn, might have died that same day.”
When Father Konrad finished, I asked, “What do you think?”
Father Konrad thought about his answer, then said, “Understand why you changed the title to 'Two Postludes.' As to what I think, I agree with the conjecture in that added paragraph. It’s too bad he didn’t have the death he was prepared for rather than the one forced upon him. What do you think?”
“This was a game of pairs: good and evil, life and death, courage and cowardice, compassion and cruelty. Sometimes one or both parts of a pair are thrust at you, over your sayso, sometimes you get to choose. Blinn had two deaths. Circumstances prescribed that he endure the second, treated as an animal, shred of all dignity, left as buzzard bait in some field. You choose the first death for him, though?”
Father Konrad nodded.
“The prideful, self-indulgent death he might have suffered?”
Father Konrad nodded again.
“I choose the second.”
“But why? Why?”
My voice rose as I answered, “The prayer, man, the prayer! That final desperate prayer. Remember, according to the account, Blinn screeched out a final prayer.”
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