by Ted Lietz
After two months of watching friends turned into bloody pulps and making bloody pulps of strangers, Art had the look and gait of a man much older than the twenty-year-old sergeant who’d come ashore on D-Day. Now his unit, along with a company of Brits, was resting up in—Something-sur-Something? Ste. Something? Some ruin of a French village.
Art noticed a church with blown-out windows, its heavy wooden doors off their hinges. Feeling more than a little out of touch with his Maker, he went inside.
A man in a British uniform at the other end of the building was sweeping shards of yellow and blue and red glass into a pile. The man looked up and said something not quite understandable.
Pretending not to hear, Art walked away and sat down on grassy spot outside.
In the far distance, soldiers slowly checked a field with minesweepers. Closer in, from the area already cleared, gravediggers worked picks and shovels. Closer still, men queued near bushes that served as a latrine. From his breast pocket, Art took the New Testament his wife Anna had sent him. A book whose metal cover she hoped might stop a bullet. The armored word of God.
Art opened to a random page: Blessed are the merciful…the peacemakers…those who suffer…
It was the Brit who’d been sweeping in the church. Up close now, Art could see the insignia of a chaplain. A captain.
He stood and came to attention. “Yes, sir!”
Wearily, the chaplain said, “Please don’t call me sir. Shall we both take a seat?”
As they sat down, Art said, “Very well—Father? Reverend?”
The chaplain chuckled. “I’m a Catholic priest. But church etiquette? Military etiquette? To hell with them both. My name’s Percival. Percy.”
A little uncertainly, Art shook Percy’s hand. “I’m a Catholic, too.”
“Bloody good for both of us, then!” Taking off his pack, the chaplain said, “May I ask your name?”
“Art Rockwell, sir. Percy.”
“Sir Percy! And you’re Art, as in Arthur.” King Arthur!” He took a stick from the ground, brandishing it as if it were a sword. “Rex quondam, rexque futuris. You may have just made me a bloody knight. Sir Percival! Seeker of the Grail!” He slapped Art on the shoulder. “That calls for a toast!”
Percy slid a bottle of wine out of his pack. “Non-sacramental, of course. I believe 'liberated' is the euphemism. Will you join me, Art?”
Accepting a tin cup of wine, Art said, “You’re not much like American priests I know.”
Percy shrugged. “To my bishop’s vexation, I wasn’t much like most British priests, either. Once the war began, in a fit of patriotism, he pointed out the great need of the chaplaincy for such men as myself.”
Percy sniffed the air. “That foul odor? Chipped beef, I believe. Your American shit-on-a-shingle.”
Art took a swig of wine. “After the war, I’m never eating that crap again.”
“What will you do after the war, Art?”
“Be a good husband. And father, I hope. My wife’s expecting. Happened on a one-night honeymoon just before I shipped out.”
“One night!? Extraordinary virility! Or good luck.”
A loud exclamation from a dice game across the square. Nodding that direction Art said, “Hope my luck holds. I want to die a very old man.”
An explosion. Too distant to be dangerous, but Art and Percy reflexively hit the dirt. Soldiers clearing the field had found a mine and destroyed it harmlessly. The men digging graves, ordered to stop while that area was checked again, moved back toward the latrine bushes.
Percy poured more wine for Art and put the bottle to his own lips. He set the bottle down and said, “Suppose you do live a long life. What will you do?”
“Find a decent job. And like I said, raise a family. Ordinary stuff.”
“And yet, you hope for an extraordinary lifespan. Your plan for the rest of your life seems—forgive me—ordinary.”
“What do you mean?”
Percy took the New Testament from Art’s lap and flipped through the pages. “Ah, here it is: 'To whom much is given, much will be required.' If allotted more than the usual span of years, to what purpose will Art Rockwell—citizen, husband, father—put that time?”
“You mean the answer is in that book?”
“In a general way. An outline of Christian dos and don’ts. Other religions have similar frameworks. So do atheist and agnostic philosophers, for that matter. Fine, as guidelines go. The real task is applying them to the challenges of living.”
“The question I posed before,” Percy said. “The quest-riddle, if you will. Whatever your allotted number of days—particularly if you have a long life—to what purpose will you use them?”
“What’s the right answer?”
A benign sigh. “Art, have you understood anything I said? My answer won’t be yours. Even if I had one.” He laughed and drank more wine. “Besides, it would be a bloody poor quest-riddle if you had your answer so early in the quest.”
Tapping the book’s metal cover, Percy said, “Quest riddle.” He tapped his own chest. “And Sir Percival, to launch you on your quest. The rest is up to you.”
“I’m confused as hell,” Art said.
“Then you’ve already set off in the right direction.”
Percy, rising and turning his jacket collar to the wind, said, “On a less metaphysical note, the wine has gone right through me. Therefore shall I sally forth to yonder bushes.”
The chaplain had walked away with Art’s New Testament. He made a mental note to get it back when Percy returned.
An explosion, very close.
Art was face-down on the ground. No more explosions, just shouting.
Cautiously, he looked up to see a medic place a blanket over what was left of Percy. The wind blew away the pages of Art’s New Testament. Later, he found the metal cover and put it in his pocket.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
© Ted Lietz 2021. All rights reserved