I’m working on a novel and thought I’d post the first chapter (it’s a draft but not a first draft) and see what you think! I’m very grateful for comments, suggestions, etc. Thank you!
Chapter One, Rudolf
Late April, 1524
Old Johann paced back and forth just outside the front gate. “Where is Hannes?”
“He’ll be here, Father. I told Thomas to hurry.”
“Why didn’t Thomas take a horse?”
“I don’t know. He should have.”
“Pray God he gets here before it’s too late.” The old man crossed himself.
Thomas and Hannes appeared at the bottom of the hill.
Inside, Verena lay exhausted on the bed where hours earlier she had given birth to a tiny boy, two months before term. She wept weakly and named him Rudolf. Verena had already several grandchildren, but somehow God had designed her this way.
“Go to her,” said Old Johann to Hannes. “There’s no time to waste.”
Hannes hurried into his mother’s room and found her wavering between worlds. He looked over at his tiny brother in the carefully padded apple box. The nurse who tended Verena sat with slumped shoulders, her face red with crying, knowing why Hannes was there and what lay ahead.
“Sister Verena,” he began. Hannes’ voice caught in his throat. ”Mother.” He swallowed and began again, placing her rosary in her hands. “Mother, do you sincerely beg our Lord for forgiveness of your sins?”
He opened the cross-shaped, silver box he wore on his belt for the services of Last Rites and took out a small vial of Holy Oil and a wafer that had been blessed by the Holy Father in Rome. With the oil, he traced the shape of a cross on his mother’s forehead and placed the wafer between her lips. He knew she could not eat it, but it would protect her from Satan who could be lurking anywhere to jump into one of the body’s openings and steal Verena’s soul at the last minute.
“May our Heavenly Father pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed. In the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, his holy mother, Mary, St. John the Baptist, St. Joseph and St. Verena, name saint of our sister, my mother, Verena.” He made the sign of the cross over her body. Verena soon followed the infant Rudolf in death.
“Father, Thomas, Heinrich, Andreas, you can come in.”
“What of the baby?” asked Heinrich.
“Did you or father baptize him?” asked Hannes.
“How long did he live after he came into the world?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t here. I was at the mill.”
“Father, how long was the baby alive?”
“I was also at the mill, Hannes. You know that. I came home, as did Heinrich, the moment Andreas sent word.”
“Andreas, you were here? Did you baptize him?”
“Such a little thing as he died in the same state of grace and innocence as all small children who are not yet old enough to know good from evil. He went immediately to Heaven and waited there for our mother. To baptize him would be a sin.”
“Then he cannot be buried with Mother. In the few moments of his life, the Evil One could have captured him. He will go to live in Limbo with other unbaptized infants. He will remain there until our Lord returns to judge the living and the dead. We can have prayers said for his soul so that on that day, he will join Mother in Heaven.”
“Hannes,” said Andreas, who was the youngest. “If you spent any time outside the monastery and this valley, you would have heard the disputations in Zürich. There is nothing in the Bible about infant baptism. There is no ‘limbo’ or ‘purgatory’ or any of those other things made up by the Roman Church to steal money from poor people or sad people or broken-hearted people or even guilty people such as our Father.” Andreas was disgusted by his brother the priest.
“Still, Andreas, you could have done it for our father,” said Thomas.
“Are you serious, Thomas? How would that be ‘for’ our father?”
“His son — our brother — could have been buried with our mother. That would mean much to him.”
“Your beliefs make you selfish, Andreas,” said Hannes.
“Mine? It’s your beliefs that prevent our brother from being buried with his mother.”
“As do yours, Andreas,” said Thomas.
“Where were you if it is so important to you? You knew her time was coming.”
“Not for two months, Andreas. You know that full well. Why were you not at the mill?”
“I spent the night in Zürich listening to Brother Huldrych. When I got home this morning, Mother was in labor. The baby soon came. Mother was in a bad way, so I sent to the mill. By the time Father, Heinrich and Thomas got here, the baby was dead. I folded his little blankets, put them in that apple box and laid him in it.
Other than his beliefs, Andreas was angry and disgusted at Old Johann for getting Verena pregnant. He was not alone.
Verena was buried in the Snow/Longfield section of the abbey cemetery beside the graves of the first Andreas who had died of measles when he was two and little Oswald who, alone in the family, had succumbed to the plague five years before. He was ten years old. Verena’s husband and three of her six living sons – Heinrich, Thomas, and Hannes – stood around the grave, each in turn throwing clods onto her casket. Conrad, who of Old Johann’s sons was closest to Verena, refused to attend the funeral of anger at old Johann for his lack of self-control.
“Why?” he’d demanded of the old man, banging his fist on the table. “Do you not remember the last time? The doctor said to you that if Mother again became pregnant, she would very likely die. You were lucky — he said — that the baby she carried then died in the womb, was miscarried, but Mother nearly died as well! And now?” Conrad had stomped out of the house, vowing to return only when he knew his father was not there.
Peter, the second son, was a military man. His troops, currently in pay of the Pope, were fighting the French in Lombardy.
As words were spoken over Verena’s grave, Andreas dug a hole in the orchard for his little brother. When he finished, he sat on the pile of dirt beside the hole and waited for Thomas. Finally, he saw his red-haired brother come up the hill.
“You should have come, Andreas.”
“Very likely,” Andreas admitted. “I just don’t know why the old man couldn’t leave our mother alone.”
Thomas nodded. “She should have been past her time.”
“But she wasn’t. Father should have known that and considered the dangers.”
“Perhaps he didn’t know.”
“My God, Thomas! They lived together for nearly forty years! He must have known. Last time when she miscarried — what, last year? The doctor told him. You were in the room yourself.”
“Yes. But, the old man has his way. You know that and I know that. We get no where like this, Andreas. Anger can never be God’s will.”
“No.” Andreas sighed.
Thomas lifted the apple box.”Poor little one,” he said. “Never to see this beautiful world.” The petals on the apple trees had shaken free in the wind, covering the spring grass in white and pink. “This is a lovely spot for our brother, Andreas.”
They gently placed the box in the hole. Andreas having had the work of digging, Thomas took the job of covering Rudolf.
“There,” he said, tamping down the dirt with the back of his shovel. “Say a prayer, Andreas. You’re better at it than I.”
“Heavenly Father, who knows better than we the reasons for things, please care for our little brother, Rudolf, who spent only a few minutes in this world, not long enough to harm anyone or anything. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.” He began to cross himself, a reflex, and stopped. The brothers stood in silence for a few minutes.
They brushed the dirt off their leggings and kicked their boots against a tree to clean the mud from them and went to join the neighborly meal that traditionally followed a funeral. When they got to the courtyard, people were seating themselves at long tables set up in the courtyard.
Andreas and Thomas sat down at the family table, expecting an angry look from the old man, but Old Johann was relieved see them. Verena’s death, and his part in it, had taken something from him in just a day, and he was suddenly an old man. He stood up slowly to speak to his guests, most of whom he’d known all his life.
“Family and friends — and most friends in this village are family to us, too. Thank you for being here. Thank you for standing with me at the funeral of my wife, Verena.” A lump rose in Old Johann’s throat. His marriage had been arranged, yes, but it was also a marriage of love. She had been barely 15 when he first saw her and just 17 when they married. Within the year, their first son was born, then poor Andreas the first who died at age two, and then one boy after another over the years, eight in all, counting little Rudolf. He knew his sons could not understand why he, an old man and she, an old woman, well. Never mind. He hoped that their lives would give them a similar love. He took a deep breath and shook his head to make the memories disappear. “Our family has, for generations, recited a psalm every morning before doing any other thing. This morning, I’m afraid, we did not. I cannot remember a morning in all my life that did not start with these words and before we break our fast. I would like to share them with you and with my boys who are here and perhaps, too, with Verena and my poor dead sons and the small Rudolf whom the church says could not be buried with his mother. Perhaps they will all hear us and know of our feelings for them, that we love them.”
None of Old Johann’s sons could believe what they were hearing. This hard old man who focused on duty, custom and rules, who made money, followed the customs of the village and did everything “recht,” who had served on the Zürich council, when he was younger; this man who met backtalk from his sons with hard slap across their mouth, who believed in fierce discipline to prepare his boys for the world saying, “The world is hard. Be ready,” before lifting the switch to chastise an erring son, this man admitting to loving them, this was their father?
“My sons,” Old Johann motioned for them to stand up, “Everyone.” Heinrich, Hannes, Thomas and Andreas stood. Old Johann began, and they recited together, “Bless The Lord, O my soul, O Lord my God, Who coverest Thyself with light as with a garment; who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain, who layeth the beams of his chambers in the water; who maketh the clouds his chariot, who walketh upon the wings of the wind.”
The old man sat slumped in his chair. His mind filled with questions. Andreas said that Rudolf was in Heaven; Hannes said he could not be. Who was right? Old Johann had chosen to ignore the changes filling his world, but now change had been lain on his door step.
“Father come,” said Thomas, offering his arm to Old Johann after all the guests had gone, “I’ll show you where we buried Rudolf.” The two walked slowly up the hill behind their house and its walls to the apple orchard which had helped support their family for many generations.
”Would that you had cared for his soul,” he said, his red eyes rimmed with tears.
“Father, Rudolf is with our mother in Heaven, even if he is not beside her in the grave yard. You do not need to worry about his soul.”
“How do you know that, Thomas? Hannes says the baby is in Limbo.”
“There is nothing in the Bible about Limbo. There is nothing to say that a baby who has not been baptized will not have eternal life with our Lord.”
“The Bible? And you have read the Bible?”
“Brother Huldrych speaks on the Bible every Sunday and reads to us from it, in our language.” Thomas replied. “Others, too, speak on different questions, and some are very interested in this question of baptizing infants. They say it’s wrong, sinful. There are constant debates on this question in Zürich. Though they do not all agree with each other on every point, they do agree that the old church is corrupt and greedy, and far from the Scripture. They say that demanding money for prayers is theft. They tell us how the church in Rome is very rich from preying on the superstition and fear of well-meaning people.”
“The Church has been with us since time began. How could it be so wrong? And tell me, why is your Brother Huldrych just finding out now?”
“The Roman church has been in trouble with itself for a long time. Even Conrad’s old songs tell of the Pope taking our money and leaving us poor. Here it is, Father.” Old Johann looked at the small mound of earth, already covered with the falling apple blossoms.
“Did you at least say a prayer for him, Thomas, you and Andreas? Or does Brother Huldrych say prayer is no longer needed?”
“Father, God hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s where He has always been, closer to us now we don’t have the Roman Anti-Christ standing in between.”