Nero Knarr's Poison
by Isak Romun
The conditions of my upbringing taught me that there is a special hell for those who steal from a priest. But that was when I was young. Nowadays, the priest had better batten down the hatches just like the rest of us.
Case in point: Father John. P. Bax who, for some time, was the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church, here in Paulsburg.
He was short, round, and, in appearance, disconcertingly innocent. It was an innocence that hid a hard and realistic assessment of the world about him. In his sermons he could be aphoristic. He would, without warning, push upon you little moralities that had the gloss of antiquity but were, on examination, of contemporary or immediate invention.
He would say, “Materialists and madmen never have doubts."
That I identified as Chesterton.
He would say, “It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else that prevents men from living freely and nobly.”
That I identified as Bertrand Russell.
He would say, “You may own a thing of gold, but the form of it and all the images induced by that form belong to all.”
That I identified, in time, as pure Bax.
In this last case he had to be referring to the monstrance.
The monstrance was the loving work of some remote cleric in the California missions and dated from the period of settlement and proselytism following the Spanish conquest. It was a gift to the Spanish king for use in his private chapel. The monstrance was put on one of those treasure ships, which were the natural prey of English freebooters. The ship was sunk, but not before its treasure, monstrance included, was carefully transferred to the ship of its new owners. The monstrance went from hand to hand and land to land. Years, many years, passed. It ended up the possession of a well-to-do admirer of Father Bax who had recently given it to the little priest in appreciation of some spiritual service.
I learned of the monstrance just by chance as I chatted with Father Bax outside his church one Sunday. The priest had ended his participation in the activity within before the finish of the closing hymn. It was one of those new church songs, wispy and vapid, diluting divinity, making God seem avuncular and banal, like the white-haired neighbor next door—who has his faults.
We discussed the music and from that started talking of the near-demise of the Benediction ceremony, once a fixture of a parish's final Mass on Sunday. This, logically, led to mention of monstrances, which figure prominently at Benediction. In order, the conversation turned on "the" monstrance. On learning a little of its history, I was anxious to see it. Father Bax said, surely, and after his community duties with his parishioners, crowding out of the church at music's end, led me to the rectory.
He took me into the building's sitting room and there, prominently and recklessly displayed on a cabinet, was the monstrance, exquisite and powerful, redolent of the glories of yesterday awash in the anonymities of today. These last included the room and its furnishings. It was a mean, dark, little room that had a boxlike quality about it, its hard edges cutting lifeless space into definition. The furniture was ponderous and undistinguished, all chance of even an accidental felicity missing. The monstrance, though, on its cup-stained cabinet, transformed all.
I asked a question, which I don't recall now, and that question led to others, none of which I recall either, but which provided the details I have recorded earlier in this account.
It was another story I was after back then. I was a newspaperman and smelled something newsworthy, three columns wide with dignified but informative head, photo of artifact and priest, and, best of all, byline. Mine.
The story appeared the following Sunday in the “Living Today” section of the paper I worked for, The Paulsburg Advance-Indicator.
And now, enter Nero Knarr.
Nero Knarr was the sort of person who evoked thoughts of epitaphs. His. He was a rich man in that period of life when the natural acquisitiveness of business was subsumed in the unnatural acquisitiveness of the collector of self-indulging and costly objects. What he wanted he bought or, failing that, took.
In a way, I'm to blame. It was my story in the paper that attracted Knarr to the monstrance. I found out about this interest when I received a call from Father Bax.
The priest asked, “Oscar, do you know a Mr. Knarr?”
“Know him, no. Know of him, yes. One of Paulsburg's, excuses for the expression, luminaries. Very winning, very persuasive, very up front with his bucks. He wants to see the monstrance, doesn't he?”
“Yes. Yes, he does. Though he was very casual in his mention of it. How did you know?”
“It figures. He's a collector of the hard-to-get. He must have read my story. And he contacted you to see it, the monstrance. “See” is not exactly a precise word in this context."
“What is a precise word, Oscar?”
“Buy. Steal. Take. You make your choice.”
The priest didn't respond and I began to wonder if we had been disconnected. Then he said, “He'll be here tonight at nine. Perhaps you'd like to drop over?”
“May be interesting. All right.”
Dutifully at nine I was there. So was Nero Knarr.
“Monahan, isn't it?” he said in a voice that told me he didn't care one way or another. “I read your article.”
“Monahan it is. And I know. We didn't shake hands.”
We were in the rectory vestibule, admitted within a minute of each other by Mrs. Danneway, the housekeeper, a woman of great dignity and a Marcel wig.. She was off searching for Father Bax.
While we were waiting, we said nothing beyond those introductory remarks. I was sizing him up and, I suppose, he was doing the same to me.
He was a small, gray, waspish type, dressed in dark blue with a thin, almost imperceptible gray stripe. He was probably pushing seventy or had pushed it. (He carried those years well not because of robust health.) I had heard he had problems in that area“ but because he would not permit himself to carry them in any other way.
Father Bax came along. Knarr and I stopped our examination of each other and I witnessed a transformation that I was tempted, given the surroundings, to call miraculous. Knarr gushed over the priest. Told him of reading my story and how he must meet the remarkable Father Bax, apologized for not getting around to meeting him sooner. He knew all the clergymen in town and they knew him, particularly when a roof needed patching or an aisle needed carpeting. At this, a trace of a snicker escaped Knarr and his eyebrows went up meaningfully. I half expected him to nudge the priest with an elbow, but Knarr brought himself up just short of this.
As it was, Knarr couldn't seem to keep his hands off the priest. From the time he wrung Father Bax's rough, pudgy hand in his soft, claw-like one, he was never out of contact with the priest. He touched him on the arm, tapped a finger against the priest's chest to make a point, and, as they waked toward the sitting room, wrapped an arm around Father Bax's shoulders.
I trailed after them. At the doorway to the sitting room, Father Bax paused, then entered the room first. Knarr followed, but Father Bax did not turn on a light. In the dimness of the room, the priest gestured toward the monstrance, still hidden in a darker recess, untouched by light from the vestibule. Knarr's eyes were fixed on the point Father Bax had indicated. With Knarr's attention directed this way, Father Bax then, and only then, flicked on the overhead.
It was dramatic, and I had never suspected the little priest of any flair or talent for the dramatic.
The priest had not been taken in by Knarr's display off good fellowship. Father Bax now let the lineaments of a special knowledge appear on his face. I, who also was not fooled by Knarr, enjoyed immensely the spectacle played out in that dingy room.
The flat, black-and-white newspaper photo had not prepared Knarr for the reality of the monstrance. Having it pressed upon him like that, with the light suddenly on, robbed him of control. He stood there and gaped. His mouth opened and his eyes bulged as if with some exophthalmic disorder. His face went ashen, became dampish, and his hand shook as it went into a coat pocket, I thought for a handkerchief.
When Knarr's hand, still shaking, came out of the pocket, it held, not a handkerchief, but a small, clear medicine bottle. Inside I could see pills. He groped his way to a chair and, in it, concentrated on opening the bottle. He wasn't having much success, his quivering hands couldn't manipulate the screw lid. Father Bax took the bottle from him, opened it, and shook two or three pills into a palm.
“One?” He asked briskly.
Knarr nodded feebly and Father Bax handed him a pill. Knarr popped it into a sagging mouth and put his head back against the chair.
I watched Father Bax. A look of remorse crossed his face. He fed the extra pills back into the bottle, replaced the screw lid, and returned the bottle to Knarr's coat pocket.
“Heart?” Father Bax asked.
Knarr nodded again.
“I'm sorry for that” the priest said, glancing up at the light.
Knarr waved a limp hand, indicating it didn't matter. Then, the medication taking hold, he sat up straight in the chair and fastened his eyes on the monstrance. He said four words.
It was Father Bax's turn to be shocked. He eased himself slowly into another chair and looked at Knarr; not into his eyes for Knarr was still looking at the artifact, savoring it, all but licking his lips in anticipation of ownership. Father Bax gazed at Knarr's profile and I think he was as struck by it, as I was I. It was sharp, angular, beaked, like a bird's.
The amount Knarr said in those four words represented a lot of money; not what the monstrance was worth, but a decent starting point.
“No, Mr. Knarr, no.”
Knarr said some more words. The figure climbed.
“It wouldn't be suitable. It was a gift.”
More words. More money.
Father Bax let out a long sigh and said, “I feel as if I am on a high elevation and you are offering me the world”
Knarr misunderstood and moved in for the kill. “Then the deal is in?”
I had an image of swooping, fluttering wings, of Father Bax throwing his crossed arms clumsily before his face. “No. Can't I make you see? I can't sell a gift”
Then Knarr pulled his eyes away from the monstrance and bore them into those of the priest. He talked to Father Bax in a low, intense voice. The words came out of him like burbling lava, heated, deceptively effervescent, destructive. He made bald threats, such as calling in the note one of his banks held on Francis Xavier's new religious education building. Such as harassing his employees who were members of the parish. Such as—No need to go on.
To all of it, Father Bax turned a calm and patient face. At its end, he pulled himself to his feet. He went to the sitting-room entrance and summoned Mrs. Danneway. When she came, he asked her to show Mr. Knarr out.
Knarr got up and moved quickly to the doorway. “I'll have it, Bax, I'll have it. You'll see.”
We stood in silence after Knarr left. Finally, Father Bax spoke. “I believe he will have it, Oscar. What do you think?”
“That was a lot of money,” I said, unhelpfully.
Paulsburg started out as a trading post in the sixteenth century graduating to a village in the seventeenth and a town in the eighteenth. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was incorporated as a city.
Nonetheless, Paulsburg never outgrew its humble beginnings. It's less like the medium-sized city it's supposed to be than it is an overgrown town. This is evident in its twisting streets, some of its old laws, which retain varying shades of blue, even in the inescapably local orientation of the Advance-Indicator . And, of course, in the Wednesday Closing.
In a small town, the Wednesday Closing is workable, but in a city it”s anachronistic. Briefly, what it amounts to is this: at noon sharp, nearly everything closes down; stores, schools, banks, showrooms. Even churches.
To Father Bax who, by his calling, was addicted to ritual, Wednesday was ritual in its larger aspects, though details might differ. And to other people resident in the rectory, Father Murphy, the assistant pastor, and Mrs. Danneway, Wednesday was also ritual. The younger priest visited his mother in Weave's Lee, the housekeeper her sister in the capital, 25 miles north.
Father Bax's Wednesday was tiresomely routine. In the afternoon he would leave the rectory struggling under the bulk and weight of several large packages. In the packages were old, clean, usable clothes which Father Bax, using mendicant skills that all old-time priests seem to possess, had plucked from the closets of the parish. He would dump the packages into his car and drive over to Duckpuddle Road, close to the edge of Paulsburg, where there was a United Parcel Service pickup point.
With the packages in the hands of UPS, destined to go out that day to some central relief headquarters which would further distribute the clothing items to missions around the world, Father Bax's time was his own.
Normally, before dark, there was time for a ramble around the nearby Civil War battlefield. After that, when sunset overtook him, he sought out one of Paulsburg's restaurants for supper, then visited a parish family or individual.
It was my turn to be visited that Wednesday night and Father Bax bustled across my doorstep aglow for some reason which I took to be the acquisition of a new bit of Civil War lore.
So after he called in his whereabouts to an answering service, I asked, “What makes you so happy?”
Instead of responding, he asked me, “Did you get the impression the other night that Mr. Knarr might do something desperate to get his hands on the monstrance”
“I guess I picked up the same thing from Knarr that you did. His threats didn't faze you, so he may get somebody to steal it for him. Did you lock up the rectory?”
“I'm not sure. I often forget to.”
“I don't suppose it matters. If someone wants to get in, they'll get in. I can't say much for the general security of the place.”
He smiled pointedly. “The monstrance will never be taken from me, Oscar. I have placed it in a location from which Nero Knarr himself cannot steal it.”
“Where is this wonderful place?”
“It doesn't matter.” Then Father Bax changed the subject. “Let me tell you about what I found at the battlefield today.”
He did. And I, a low-powered Civil War buff myself, found the hours slipping away as we talked of the Blue and the Gray, of the vestigial encampments around Paulsburg, ghosts of their nineteenth century realities. We were discussing the Union railroad that ran through the area when the phone rang. I glanced at my watch. It was close to midnight and I wondered who'd be calling. I had been off news beat for years and didn't get late calls anymore.
Father Bax was seated nearer the phone than I, and I signaled him to answer it. He picked up the phone, held the receiver to his ear for some moments, said, “I'll be there in minutes,” then silently, carefully, placed the instrument in its cradle.
“Well?” I prodded.
“Nero Knarr is dead.”
“Who was that? Who called?
“The police. Our old friend, Lieutenant Brosnan.”
“Why would they call you” Visions of death-bed conversions flitted through my mind.
“Apparently, Mr. Knarr died in the rectory. Mrs. Danneway found him, the body, when she got back tonight.”
All of us, at one time or another, come up against a tendency we should reject. Those of us who don't reject it are failed human beings. Nero Knarr was a failed human being.
He had been stealing all his life, though in a remote, my-hands-are-clean manner, using manipulative agencies, such as banks and boardrooms. He was so successful at this style of stealing, I suppose he thought it high time to graduate to greater directness. Though why he would take this route, to elect not to have someone else do his dirty work is a secret Knarr carried to wherever it is he ended up.
There could be no question of it. He had forced his way into the rectory. He was dressed in a parody of the fictional second-story man: dark clothes, black cap pulled down to just above the eyes, and sneakers. There was a bag of tools of fine quality and specialized design. As he pointed them out to us, Brosnan remarked, “Money can find anything.”
Well, almost anything. Money didn't get the monstrance for Knarr and Father Bax was right, it couldn't be stolen either. It wasn't in its usual place in the sitting room. And, clearly, it wasn't anyplace where Knarr could get his hands on it. He tried. God knows, he tried. The place was a wreck. Knarr had used his tools inexpertly but effectively. Nonetheless, he didn't find what he was looking for.
That's what killed him. The excitement of searching, the crushing tightness of failure.
The body, rictal shock upon the face, was found at the foot of a stairwell, the pill bottle in the hands. One hand was holding it, the fingers of the other hand were on the seated screw lid.
An Advance-Indicator reporter was there, so I didn't do anything about getting the story down on paper. I stuck close to Father Bax, however, dying to ask a question or two.
He saw through me. “Tomorrow, Oscar,” he told me. “Questions and answers tomorrow. If I have the answers.”
Father Bax called me the next night. “Come over,” he invited.
I noticed as I was let into the rectory by Mrs. Danneway that a lot of work had been done toward cleaning up the previous night's mess. Still, it was a work in progress. Father Bax and Father Murphy were in their shirtsleeves. A variety of plaster-dust and other stains adorned their clothing.
“I'll go and straighten up the upstairs hall,” Father Murphy said and headed for the building's central stairwell.
Father Bax and I went into the sitting room. It was still a shambles. “In a way, I'm to blame” Father Bax said as he eased himself into a chair and invited me to do the same, “In a way, Nero Knarr did Mrs. Danneway a favor. She's always wanted to do something with this room. Now she can. The insurance gave us a clean bill to redo the place”
I looked at the empty top of the cabinet and visualized the monstrance there in its usual place. Then I wondered why it wasn't. I kept my mouth shut, though, and waited for Father Bax to lead. He didn't seem ready to talk just then, so I glanced around the room. Everything was more-or-less the same except for a package on a corner table. I gestured toward it and broke the silence.
“For United Parcel?.”
He appeared startled, coming out of a daydream. He looked at the package, nodded his head.
“One you should have taken yesterday?”
“One I should have taken the day before yesterday.”
More silence and then he said, “All right, Oscar, we both know the monstrance wasn't stolen. Do you know why?”
“Do you wonder why I didn't talk to you last night?”
I thought back and realized that through the trial of finding out what Knarr had done, of assessing the damage to the rectory, of comforting Mrs. Danneway, of dealing with the police, Father Bax had been calm, in control of himself. But there was something else, some expression of puzzlement in his face, something that didn't register with me last night, but did now.
“Something was eating at you. The last thing you said to me ‘maybe if I had asked questions, I couldn't have gotten answers. Not last night.'
“I couldn't understand then why he would do it. Break in here. I had taken such steps to prevent that.” He peered over at the package on the table. “The answer came to me today. Go over, look at it.”
I got out of my chair and examined the wrapped package from every angle.
“No, no,” he cried exasperatedly. “The label. Read it!”
I did, then turned to the priest.
He said, “If you give to a thief he cannot steal from you and then is no longer a thief.”
“After he left last night, after you left, I spent a lot of time thinking about Mr. Knarr and the monstrance. I did some of that thinking on my knees. What is it? A piece of gold, artfully shaped and beautiful. But absent the presence that transforms it, it's only an object. And I would have it forever, anyway, its image pressed upon my mind and soul. This would be quite enough for me. But never for Nero Knarr! He would have it! One way or another. In my mind, you can't sell a gift, but nothing tells me you cannot make it, in turn, a gift. This gift could spare Mr. Knarr the need of committing some rash act, could perhaps redeem him.”
I turned to hide a skeptic's smile and showed a fresh and false interest in the package, rereading there Nero Knarr's name and address on its label.
“I had specified it must be delivered to him personally,” Father Bax went on “but it never was. He had left home, no doubt headed here, when UPS tried to deliver it”
“Then they returned it to you after trying again today and being told that Knarr would never sign for another thing.”
“Yes. That's so.”
I looked again at the old cabinet upon which the monstrance had stood last time I saw it. “Well, aren't you going to unwrap it and put it back up there?”
He waited before answering; seemed to be giving a lot of thought to what should have been an unadorned “yes” or “no.” Little beads of glowing sweat appeared about his forehead and on his upper lip. Finally, as if it were an effort, he answered me.
“Possession is one with loss. Don't trouble yourself, Oscar, it's Dante. I'll put a new label over the old. Then off to the missions for it. Doubtless they'll find a use for the proceeds of its sale. It will end up in some appropriate and secure place, a cathedral or a museum.”
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth where thieves break through and steal.”
You have shortened it, Oscar, but you're right. Possessions are poison.”
© 1984, 2005 Gordon Bennett
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