"Take heed, therefore, that the light which is in thee be
not darkness" --Mathew 4:12
It was quiet in the park. The night air had ceased to stir as if it were stuck somewhere between inhalation and exhalation. I was sitting on a fallen log, the biting wind of a cruel Baltimore winter tearing at my clothes, and did not notice the breathless forest around me. Only the occasional hiking enthusiast or two secretive lovers would have strayed down the main path and down the embankment to where I sat. I often take little deviations such as these, believing that I benefit from the extra exercise that walking an unbeaten path might provide. I had been sitting there for quite awhile, contemplating this and pondering that, until I had forgotten what led me to sit down in the first place. Blanking out, that is what I've overheard the younger people call it, but I have grown far too old to worry much about giving these mental lapses a name and have simply accepted them as an inevitable part of advancing age. It was the near perfect silence of my surroundings that first startled me back into awareness, and judging by the stiffness of my limbs, I imagined I had been perched there on that log for nearly an hour.
My senses returned quickly, and I was instantly reminded of how cold it was. I was without my scarf, and thought I might eventually regret having misplaced it while traipsing about, but I have always looked on the brighter side of things, and took some satisfaction in thinking that it would wind up wrapped around the neck of someone less fortunate instead.
A slow, rolling fog was creeping in, blocking the twinkling, watchful eyes up in the night sky. I was very much alone now, and had not encountered a friendly face for hours. I felt an urgent need to press on and complete the mission which had brought me to the park this evening.
My mind was filled with thoughts of Odessa. Sweet Odessa, I was certain she was lost forever, stolen away by that shadowy villain the local authorities have dubbed the Smile Thief.
The newspapers claim the nickname originated from the discovery of a single item of dental equipment found several months ago beside the body of a young co-ed, who was returning to her flat by way of this very park. The tool, commonly used for scraping plague and tartar, was stainless steel, with an expensive, intricate engraved and polished handle.
They say the shiny implement was used to remove the victim's teeth, and this, naturally, inspired some speculation about the business of medicine, specifically dentistry. However, some of my acquaintances in law enforcement have confided in me that whoever employed this instrument did not do so with any level of proficiency. I further overheard some of the men at the police station sharing grisly descriptions of a heavy-handed and gory extraction of teeth, and even bits of jaw bone. During confession at the church, some of them ask me why God hasn't intervened in some manner. They worry if the victims, all of them girls, so far, will receive absolution if they die under abnormal circumstances. I try to provide some meager comfort by explaining that, perhaps, God is, at least, allowing these innocents to be strangled before they are mutilated, and that this may be a sign of His mercy. I tell them that even in unusual situations such as these, an opportunity to ask for forgiveness is always there, and that the spirit of St. Joseph is present even at the most unhappiest of deaths.
With my first clumsy step away from the fallen log, I slipped on some dead debris and tumbled headlong into a thorny bramble. A flush of embarrassment filled my cheeks, reminding me of my own frailty, but also of the first time I met Odessa. I had never met the orphaned child until she appeared to me in line to receive communion. Ordinarily, as a newcomer to our church, she would have been restricted from the ceremony until formal introductions and other protocols had been made. But somehow, she managed to elude her chaperones and melted into line anyway. The long aisle between the pews is narrow, and I often see only the next person in line from my vantage point. Thus, I received no forewarning of little Odessa till the person before her stepped aside. She placed a tiny step forward and looked me straight in the eyes. My first reaction, upon seeing an unfamiliar face in the midst of so many familiar ones, was of mild surprise, though I was prepared to receive her as I would any of the others. But then, she skipped forward and presented herself exuberantly, as if she was about to engage in a happy discourse with a department store Santa. Her broad, nave grin provided a stark contrast against the uniform sobriety of the others present, who all better understood how to behave in such circumstances.
Countless times I have extended the body of God out to the faithful masses, confident that it would provide the hope and sacrifice it symbolized. But at the sight of innocent, unknowing Odessa, I found myself wondering if she might be disappointed at what I had to offer her. This was an unwelcome feeling, and I gave the girl a harsh, disapproving scowl, hoping to elicit a more acceptable solemn, even fearful, face instead. Odessa's giant smile quickly disappeared, and she began to tear up, and ran behind the altar, further disrupting the service. Later, I would learn that Odessa had just recently been released into the care of one of the many generous and hospitable families of our church. They were conversing with one of the sisters, placing the name of their new charge in the church registry, when she slipped off and became intrigued by the multitudes of people lining up outside the main cathedral doors.
Odessa could not be compelled to return to church again after our first meeting, and I often lamented over how I might have caused her to run from the Lord. It wouldn't be easy to tend to this lost, little lamb after scaring her away from the flock, but I had managed before, and knew that I could again.
By the time I had walked out of the edge of the forest line near the park's entrance, I was already thinking about what words of comfort I might offer to her family. It was then that I heard the shuffling footsteps of the two patrolmen.
"Ho! Who goes there?!" one of them called. I could see their flashlights gleaming off the frost that was accumulating on the ground as they made their way towards the line of trees I had just exited.
"Hello! It is I, brothers." I shouted back.
I recognized the voice of Jim Thackery, a local police officer and parishioner of the church.
"Yes, yes! Shine your lights over this way. I am over here!"
The two men turned around and began to walk towards me.
"Ah, we thought we heard something, but could not pinpoint it's location in the many echoes of this cold night air."
"I'm sure it was just me you heard. I've not met anyone else tonight."
"Father, no doubt you are a regular out here in the park, and probably still so physically fit because of it, but at your age, and on a night like this..."
"Say no more, son. Your concern is much appreciated. However, it is a troubling doubt that brings me out tonight."
"What do you mean, Father?" Jim replied.
As it began to snow, I explained how young Odessa did not return home from school, and that she was last seen at final bell's ring and no more since.
"Oh my, this is the first we've heard. Why didn't her mother make a report?"
"Well, it is not the first time little Odessa has strayed. I advised her caretakers to wait a little longer, hoping she would turn up by suppertime, but, alas, I now fear that something frightful is amiss."
The other patrolman, who had remained silent thus far, spoke with hesitation, "What do you carry there in your hand, Sir?"
His words, far less friendly than his companions, seemed harsh and tactless, causing me some slight irritation, but then I remembered that I was still holding my claw hammer.
"Oh, this. Well, it was all I could think to do in the meantime. I have been posting these flyers about describing little Odessa."
From my coat pockets, I pulled out the remaining notices and a small pillbox I used for holding small tacks, and showed it to the officers.
"I may be overreacting, or maybe not, but I felt like I had to do something," I said as I rattled the pillbox in front of them.
"You are a fine man, Father, a blessing to this community," Officer thackery proclaimed, offering the platitude not so much for me it seemed, but rather for the benefit of his companion, a young man, new to the police force, who, according to his badge, went by the name of McNeice.
The young man continued to regard me with caution and once even leaned in close to Jim and whispered something that resulted in a severe rebuke, of which I only overheard the following;
"What else would he use to drive them? His bare fists? You're barking up the wrong cypress tree, son."
The implication of that exchange made my stomach turn. Panic and suspicion was turning my peaceful community upon itself.
'We will take the rest of your notices, Father, and distribute them in the sub-station after we finish our rounds here in the park."
"Excellent, very kind of you, Brother Thackery."
By this time, the snow was beginning to come down in giant flakes. The weatherman had predicted a blizzard, and it was well on its way. I was fortunate my business in the park was done. But then, I had timed it so.
"Goodness, but it is coming down now, boys" I said, trying to lighten the mood, " Might I inquire, how long does it take you to make your rounds? I made my walk in record time tonight, and none too soon by the looks of things."
"From this entrance to the back lot and back again, about 90 minutes, Father. Though probably a little longer tonight, eh McNeice?"
"Indeed," was the young man's gloomy reply.
"By Jove," I said with a chuckle, "you may be crawling your way back through a foot of powder by then, boys."
And off they went.
I thought I might ask this boy to the chapel for tea some evening, for it seemed our first impressions of each other were not quite as they should have been. I do so loathe a bad first impression.
As I walked away, the park grew quiet again. Quiet except for the square bits of enamel that jangled in the pillbox in my trouser pockets. I did worry a little about the damaged I might have caused them, but sometimes a person must work with whatever tools they have at their disposal. After all, the Shepard's crook comes in many forms, doesn't it?