Prior to The Strange Path, Father Castillo sees a strangely familiar face come through his faith-operated homeless kitchen.
Who does she remind me of? Father James Castillo stared at the group of homeless youth across the street. There were eight teenagers clustered together. One of them, a young woman of perhaps eighteen or nineteen, intrigued him. Positive he’d never seen her before, she nevertheless reminded him of someone.
She swaggered along, laughing with one of the other girls. Her long platinum blonde hair was tipped and streaked with black, and most of her clothing was of the same color. Torn cargo pants revealed burgundy spandex beneath, and scuffed work boots covered her feet. Her dark blue hoodie was completely inappropriate for the rainy autumn weather, even coupled with the black Levi jacket she had on over it. She carried an Army backpack on her shoulders, stuffed near to bursting with her possessions and topped with a roll of what Castillo presumed were blankets wrapped in a plastic garbage bag.
She seems so familiar. No matter how hard he wracked his brain, he couldn’t puzzle it out. He frowned as he watched the haunted children join their indigent elders and drift closer to the building soup kitchen.
The doors opened for business, and he had little tome to ponder the issue of the strange familiarity as the stream of homeless filed through the buffet line. Soon the tables in the room filled to over flowing, but the tide kept surging. Eventually the first of the children began filtering through. Castillo welcomed each of them as he dished mashed potatoes onto plastic plates. As expected, he received suspicious glares and jaded sneers from them, but he continued his greetings all the same. Just as he scraped the bottom of the last pan, one of the volunteers arrived with a newly made batch, and he breathed thanks to God before continuing. The air was redolent of cooked food, wet clothes, and unwashed bodies. It was a familiar odor to Castillo, having volunteered here every weekend afternoon for the last five years.
The girl he’d spied outside stepped up to his station with a plate. “Welcome to St Amadour’s.” He gave her a healthy helping of potatoes. “I’m glad you’re here.”
She scoffed. ”Yeah, whatever.” The corner of her mouth had turned up in a derisive smirk.
The expression stunned him as he made the connection. He knew where he’d seen her countenance – on a woman who was dead and dust centuries ago. It was patently impossible she could be standing in front of him now. Though this version of her wore dark sunglasses despite being indoors, he would wager a king’s ransom that she had ice blue eyes. It can’t be!
Her companion, a small Hispanic woman, nudged her with a scowl. “Show some respect to the padre, Whiskey. He’s the reason we’re eating today. And take off your glasses; we’re in church.”
Showing a slight measure of abashment, Whiskey gave a half shrug though the contempt remained on her face. “Sorry, Padre,” she said, reaching up to remove her shades. “Thanks for the grub.”
A wave of bewilderment flowed through Castillo as she revealed eyes as black as night. What…? Is it her? Seeing her begin to frown at his lack of response, he shook himself. “Ah… You’re welcome, Whiskey. We’re here every weekend at eleven thirty. Feel free to come in for some good food whenever you’re in the area.”
She grinned at him. “Free’s always good.”
“Hey, come on! Let’s go!” someone called from among those waiting for their meal.
Castillo forced himself to turn away and welcome the next in line.
“Don’t mind mi amiga, Father,” the Hispanic woman said. “She don’t get to church much.” She glared at her friend’s mocking snort.
“That’s quite all right.” Castillo noted the cross around this one’s neck. “Both of you are welcome to attend services whenever you like. The door’s always open.”
“Thanks, Father. Maybe I’ll come next Sunday.”
Then they were out of conversational range. He made himself remain in the food line; as much as he wanted to rush to his room to do research, there weren’t enough volunteers to cover the food line. He had to stay in place to get everyone fed. He couldn’t help staring at the blonde, however. If her stiffening demeanor and scowls were any indication, she’d started becoming annoyed with his attention.
It took a supreme effort of will to concentrate on the never ending stream of plates needing filled, giving each individual a personal word as they passed. When he allowed himself to glance at her table again, she appeared less subdued, joining into the conversation with her friends. There were only two others in the group dressed like her – all in black with heavy metal band logos drawn or patched onto their clothes and wild colored hair. The others, including her Catholic defender, wore baggy cargo pants and military jackets reminiscent of the grunge movement that had hit the area a few years ago.
He’d only seen pictures of paintings, and even those were old. Seeing the spitting image of the Sweet Butcher, animated and alive, seated in a church kitchen… It simply flabbergasted him. It’s the prophecy; it has to be!
Eventually things slowed down as everyone received a decent meal. Whiskey remained at her table, holding court with her friends. As much as he wanted to approach and speak with them, he knew from experience that too much attention from an authority figure would surely drive the children away. Instead, he thanked his helpers and assigned clean up duties.
Then he left for the rectory. He lost no time in getting to his small room, ignoring the rumble of hunger in his stomach for more essential things. Using a key, he unlocked the cabinet that held his most precious volumes. Some were so old, they had no writing on the spines suggesting titles. Those that did held faded writing in an ancient language few could read in this day and age. He ran his finger along the books, discovering the one that interested him, and pulled it down. He plopped the heavy volume in the center of the table he used as a desk. The pages were yellow, some crackling as he turned them with gentle care. No other sound permeated the room until he found that for what he searched.
“Yes!” he breathed.
There on the page was a reproduction of a panting held in a private art collection somewhere in Europe. A pale woman sat on an ornate armchair, light blonde hair piled into a high coiffure with random ringlets dangling here and there. She wore a deep burgundy dress accented in white lace and black brocade. Deeply cut to reveal a modest bosom, it flared from a small waist and over feminine hips. Only two pieces of jewelry adorned her; a golden locket around her graceful throat, and a thick ring of gold and ebony more suited to a man than a woman encircled a thumb. In one well-manicured hand was a single blood red rose. The artist had captured the pale woman’s eyes with painstaking detail. They were unearthly, an almost white blue that held more in common with a robin egg than human irises, the colorlessness ringed in deep blue. Sardonic lips held a permanent smirk, sharpening her soft features into idle cruelty. Scrawled beneath the image were the words “Ninsumgal Elisibet Vassilas the Sweet Butcher, b. 1123, d. 1629.”
Castillo slowly sank into his chair, staring at the portrait. Four hundred years dead, yet her double currently sat in his soup kitchen. Except for the color of her eyes and a change of clothing, Whiskey could be the Ninsumgal. “It’s Mahar’s prophecy. She’s come back. Good Lord, what do I do now?”
How long he sat there regarding the page, he didn’t know. Coming to his senses, he considered his options. He needed to notify the Agrun Nam of his discovery. That wouldn’t be easy. He was a lowly servant with no connections to speak of. He couldn’t call the local Saggina and expect his news to reach a sañar’s ears. This sort of information could cause a civil unrest that may destroy his people. “Her return will bring order to chaos,” he recited to himself. “Compassion to corruption, and peace to warring nations.”
With a sigh, he turned to his Rolodex. Regardless of his lowly status, he did have connections. It might take longer, but sooner or later, he’d get the news in the right ear