Friday, April 2, 2021

Hidden in Plain Sight

A short story by Mary M. Isaacs


There hadn’t been any public burnings for a while. The State had decided that “out of sight, out of mind” was the best policy for destruction, now that the people had been conditioned to know what was allowed and what wasn’t. Many things were regulated or banned outright—art and literature and religion especially—and sparks of intellectual creativity had been few and far between for a long time. Certain topics only were allowed for books, certain subjects only for artwork. Everything else had been forbidden or destroyed. The Guards had made sure of that.

John remembered witnessing frequent burnings many years ago, when he was a child. One had been for forbidden art. There had been a large pile of beautiful paintings, mostly portraits, and he had watched with unexpected pain and anger as the Guards threw the artwork into the fire. The colorful images darkened and then burst into hot flame until they were entirely consumed. Years later, he understood that pain, as he discovered a love for art within himself and eventually trained to be a landscape and florals painter, the only art subjects now allowed by the State. But in the back of his mind was always the memory of the fiery destruction of beauty; deep inside his soul he remained angry at the restrictions and waste.

The creators of forbidden art and the authors and publishers of forbidden books were never seen again. “Exile” was the whispered explanation, which spread throughout the population. Other kinds of contraband had been publicly destroyed, as ominous and pointed examples. People fell into line eventually and the burnings became rarer. But John never forgot.

He knew how to keep secrets. His parents and grandparents had been quiet but committed Christians and had carried their faith undetected to the grave. John had no family now, but he had the legacy of their faith in full measure. He did not know any other Christians personally, nor did he attend any of the underground, illegal house churches that existed in his city—tiny groups which operated semi-independently, for security’s sake—but he was in touch with them through a carefully constructed network. This network had been painstakingly set up in order that nothing could be traced from them back to him, because some of his artwork was destined for those house churches: John was the secret painter of the Holy Cross icons.

In certain of his paintings, John hid the shape of the Cross of Christ.
Nothing was apparent to the undiscerning eye, but once searched for and seen, the presence of the cross was unmistakable and unforgettable.

They became signposts for the existence of believers. Whenever a threat arose, one of the first things the house church members did was to deface or destroy the painting. If the danger passed, they knew they could get another painting. If the house church was broken up, however, and the members exiled, there was nothing to connect them with John or with the other house churches. The entire network operated under those strictures. John’s shop sold small landscapes and still lifes of flowers, available for purchase by anyone, but the Holy Cross icons were never displayed. He kept them hidden until potential clients had been vetted by the leaders of the underground Church. He never knew where the Holy Cross icons ended up—he didn’t want, and wasn’t supposed, to know–but he knew they were helping to maintain a Christian presence in the current repressive and regulated culture. It was his ministry.

There was only one person in the city who knew about both the Holy Cross icons and the house churches, but who had never set eyes on John, nor John on him. This person–the “Superintendent”—sent a courier with a code word to John’s shop, ostensibly to pick up a painting as a gift. John always had one of his Holy Cross icons wrapped and stored under the counter. When the courier (who was always a different person, and who always believed they were picking up a gift on behalf of the Superintendent) came in with the code word, John sold him the wrapped package. After it had been taken away, John wrapped up another of his special paintings and placed it under the counter to await the next pickup.

He never knew when they would be collected; he didn’t communicate directly with this Superintendent. The procedure had been set up originally, some time ago, by a different man who then moved on to another city. The present Superintendent knew John’s address and what he did, but he’d never met him or spoken with him in person. This was one layer of the security, to prevent visual recognition by either man in case of detection and/or arrest. The existence of the Holy Cross icons was a closely guarded secret. No non-Christian knew about them or their purpose. The members of the house churches knew what they were, but they had no idea where they came from.

Even though Christianity was illegal, John trusted that he was as safe as humanly possible from detection and placed himself entirely under the protection of the Holy Spirit. Even the vague, formless fears that arose from time to time did not deter him from his work. He just kept on painting the special pictures and trusting in the saving power of the cross.

Because the government still allowed people to have certain frivolous things, such as his small paintings of landscapes or flowers, John was able to support himself entirely with his art, along with repairing damaged paintings or frames. Even after the mandatory taxes, he made enough to live on–as comfortably as one could live in the State. He had many pictures hanging on the walls in his shop, and people enjoyed coming in to see and frequently buy them. When his shop was closed, most of his spare time was spent painting.

One Friday afternoon he had had very few customers—the end of the week was usually quiet for business–but was in the process of concluding a purchase when the small bell on the door rang. Another person had come in and was looking around.

Although John was busy completing the transaction, his senses told him that something was unusual, out of the ordinary. He glanced towards the new customer. The man was circling the shop, closely examining the pictures on the walls, so all John saw was the man’s back and a heavy shoulder bag slung over his arm. Something nagged at him, however. While he wrapped the purchased painting, he searched his memory, but came up with nothing—until the man turned sideways to view a picture on the back wall. John recognized him instantly. A few weeks ago, one of the neighboring businesses had been raided by the Guards. Like everyone else on the street, John had turned off his lights and watched the proceedings through his quickly closed window blinds. The owner of that business hadn’t been a Christian–probably. John thought he might have known that, although that wasn’t necessarily a given. Believers went to extraordinary lengths to protect themselves. But although he had no idea why that business had been raided, and it was never a good idea to ask about it, he did remember the officer in charge of the raid. Although he was not in uniform, it was the very same man who was now intently perusing John’s paintings.

John waited until his last customer had left the shop, and then turned to the officer. While trying to maintain control over a distinct amount of uneasiness, he asked “May I help you?”

The officer came up to the counter. “Yes, I’m looking for a specific kind of picture.” He reached into the shoulder bag he carried and held out one of the artist’s own works, from a little while ago. John managed to keep his expression neutral while frantically wondering how this man had gotten his hands on it.

“This is one of yours, isn’t it? I see a strong similarity with these other paintings,” the official gestured around the walls.

“Yes, it’s one of mine. Where did you get it? Was it a gift?” The artist casually tried to find out why one of his Holy Cross icons was no longer in the possession of its intended owners.

“I, uh…acquired it recently. I like it very much and want to purchase more of the same.”

John willed himself to remain calm. This man couldn’t possibly know what was special about the painting. “Everything here in the shop is for sale. Did you see anything you liked?”

The officer glanced around briefly. “I did look at all of those. They’re very nice, indeed, but not quite what I was looking for. This is the painting I like, and I want more along this line.”

“What do you like about this picture? The color scheme? The style? The subject matter?”

The officer looked at John. “I like the details.”

There was a short pause. “Details? What details do you mean?”

The officer leaned forward slightly and pointed to the hidden cross. “This detail right here. I like this detail.”

There was an even longer pause as John experienced shock. Finally he asked, “What do you see there?”

The official straightened up and looked directly into the artist’s eyes. “I see Jesus,” he said simply. “Do you have more paintings with this detail?”

John froze in terror; he was unable to reply in any way. Visions of entrapment, arrest, torture, and exile raced through his mind. All he could do was continue to look at the official blankly. After a moment of silence, the man on the other side of the counter slowly raised his right hand and traced the sign of the cross on his upper body.

John knew immediately that this was one of those moments when he had to trust solely in his faith. He therefore raised his own hand and crossed himself in response. Both men were silent as unspoken communication passed between them.

John finally responded. “I do have another painting with this detail. Would you like to see it?”

When the officer said “yes”, John pulled out the wrapped package from under the counter. As he started opening it, the other man tried to stop him, saying “I can’t take someone else’s painting.”

“That’s not a problem,” John said, “I can paint another one.”

When the picture came out of its wrapping, John laid it down carefully. The officer bent over it, examining it closely. After a few moments, he pointed to one spot. “There,” he said, looking up. John smiled at him. The man looked back down at the image. “Your work is beautiful, but what it contains is beyond beauty. May I purchase this?”

When John answered in the affirmative, the officer stood up. “And how many more of these can I get? I want them for some of my colleagues.”

John widened his eyes in astonishment. “In the Guards?” he said in disbelief, but then collected himself. “How many do you want?” he asked.

The officer answered right away, “As many as you can paint—but I’ll start with two more. How long will that take?”

“They’ll be ready in a month, sir. Will you be picking them up?”

“No,” the man replied. “I can’t risk being seen here often. People might recognize me. As you did,” he added, with some amusement.

John smiled ruefully, and then asked, “Then how will I get the paintings to you, sir?”

“Please call me ‘Servius.’ I’ll send a messenger a month from today to pick them up; he’ll give you an order for two more paintings and money to pay for them. He’ll identify himself by saying, ‘Servius sent me for the commissioned paintings.’ Will that be enough for you to know he came from me?”

John nodded and wrapped both paintings together. The officer watched until he was finished, and then pulled a stack of bills out of his pocket. “Here is payment for this painting, and also for the two new ones.”
“That’s far too much,” John began to protest, but Servius held up his hand for silence.

“I know you charge less for the paintings on the wall, but this is different. And you’ll need more paint and canvases. Maybe a lot more.” He smiled briefly as he laid the money down on the counter, then held out his hand to John.

John reached out and grasped it firmly. They held the handclasp for a short while, and then Servius placed the package in his bag and left the shop. John followed him and locked the door, turning the sign in the window to “closed.” He wanted some time to think over what had happened—and he needed to start on the new paintings right away.

……………………………….

For the next month, John was kept busy between customers and their purchases in his shop, and his painting. He did his usual number of ordinary pictures (as he thought of them) and extra time on the two Holy Cross icons for Servius. As he worked on them, he wondered where those two paintings would end up. Whose hands would hold them? Whose eyes would see them and find the hidden crosses? The few times he went out into the city on errands, he glanced at the Guards who, as always, were everywhere to be seen. Are you one of us? Or you? he asked himself, looking at each one covertly. For the first time ever, he wished he knew who the other Christians were.

On the fourth Friday following Servius’ visit, John was in his studio when he heard the sound of the bell on the shop door. He returned to the front room and saw a young man standing at the counter with an envelope in his hand.

“Servius sent me,” the young man said, “He wanted to know if the commissioned paintings were ready for pickup.”

John heard the two clues and then smiled. “Yes, they’re ready.” He reached under the counter and brought out the wrapped paintings. The young man placed the sealed envelope on the counter and picked up the package. “Thank you,” he said, and turned and exited the shop.

This was the pattern for several months. John almost lost track of how many Holy Cross icons he finished—a few for the secret house churches, and two every month, like clockwork, for Servius. It still surprised him that these special paintings were going to some of the Guards, but he knew that God’s power was not limited. Maybe things were beginning to change? He could only pray that it was true.
————————————

Late one quiet afternoon, several months later, John was hanging some new paintings on the walls when he heard the ringing of the bell over the door. Turning around, he was surprised to see Servius himself inside the door.

John smiled and said jokingly, “I didn’t expect to see you here, after what you said about maybe being recognized.”

“I have a special commission, which needed to be handled personally,“ the officer replied. Glancing over his shoulder he said, “Perhaps you could lock the door?”

Sobered and mystified, John did as was suggested and turned over the “closed” sign; then the two men walked to the counter. Servius reached into his shoulder bag and pulled out a folder. He opened it and carefully removed a half sheet of paper. He laid it down gently; John could see that it was some type of printed image. The paper was torn along one side and the other edges were uneven, as if they had been flaking away. John bent over to look at the picture and then stopped in amazement, and also with a touch of fear. It was the image of a man’s face. Outlawed! Forbidden! were the words that sprang instantly to his mind.

“Where did you get this?” John asked in a lowered voice. He paused and looked again more closely. After complete silence, he said, almost in a whisper, “It’s a print of a painting of Jesus, isn’t it?” He could not take his eyes off the image.

Servius nodded. “It’s better that you don’t know where I got it. But I didn’t acquire it fraudulently; I want you to know that. I saved it from being burned.” The two men exchanged glances and then John looked back down at the image.

He examined the print minutely. There was something about it that spoke to him on a deep level. Was it the eyes? They seemed to be looking directly into his soul. The face was serene, and yet slightly gaunt and haggard on one side. It was only a face, with no background, but it felt complete to him. Nothing else was needed.

Servius waited quietly while the artist stared at the image. Finally John stood up slowly, still looking at the picture. Then he raised his eyes to Servius and asked a question. “This was in a book, wasn’t it? A forbidden book.”
“Yes. I saw it during a raid and realized what it was. I had only enough time to remove this page before the others came into the room and seized everything.”

John stared at him. “Why are you showing me this?”

“I want you to paint this for me.”

John’s face lost much of its color. “I can’t do that—I’d be a dead man!”

“No, I would protect you. I will never, ever betray you. Do you believe me?”

John tried to stall. “But I’ve never painted a portrait before. I don’t know how! We weren’t trained to paint people. If I tried, it would probably look terrible. And a portrait of Jesus? That should be the most beautiful painting in the world! I can’t paint this.”

“I know you can do it. He will guide you.” Servius gestured to the face of Jesus. “You can keep this print for an example. And we will pray for you. All of us will pray for you.” He looked again at John, and asked once more, “Will you paint this for me? Please?”

John nodded in agreement, as he knew he must. Servius placed the piece of paper back into the folder and handed it to John. “Guard this carefully,” he said, and then started to leave the shop. “Oh,” he said, turning back, “here. It’s not possible to put a price on something like this, but I’ve done my best.” He laid another envelope on the counter and then hurried out the door.
………………………..

In the weeks to come, John continued to paint for his shop and create the occasional Holy Cross icons for the house churches but found himself spending more and more time on the portrait. It was the most difficult work he had ever done in his life, but also in a strange way the easiest. It was as if another hand was guiding his with every brush stroke. Bit by bit the face of Jesus emerged; when he stood in front of the canvas he often felt a strong sense of peace at a deep level. The eyes were the hardest part, but even they appeared without much struggle as he painted. He found himself praying as he painted: prayers for his family long gone; for the house churches he had never seen but had blessed with his paintings; for Servius and the secret Christians in the Guards. He prayed for those who didn’t know Jesus, but who might come to know Him. He prayed that he would be allowed to continue his ministry of art for as long as it could be of help to others.

But there were also times when he despaired, when he cleaned and put away his brushes impatiently and turned away in frustration. When he returned to the painting after a night’s sleep, however, he found it better than he had thought it to be the day before. That could only be the hand of God, he concluded. He knew then, with no doubts whatsoever, that he was meant to paint this picture.

When it was finally finished, John set it aside to dry thoroughly before varnishing it. He wondered how he was to let Servius know that it was done, but then laughed at himself. He’ll know—of that he was completely certain.

———————————-

Shortly after the painting was ready and had been wrapped, Servius came to the shop right before closing time. No one else was present. John handed him the package and then walked over to the shop window. He didn’t know why, but he didn’t want to see the first reaction when the wrapping was removed. He had no idea what Servius would say.

There was a sound of paper unfolding, and then no sound at all for a very long time. Finally John could bear the suspense no longer and he turned to face the officer. Servius stood quite still, holding the painting and looking at it. His expression was completely unreadable. John started to walk back to the counter and was surprised to see the marks of tears on the other man’s face. They stood together in silence for a few moments.

“He guided you well,” was all Servius could say.

“I couldn’t have done it otherwise,” John replied quietly. He then took the painting and wrapped it again while Servius stood by. John started to put the folder with the printed image into the package, but Servius stopped him.

“Keep it, you might want to paint another. And besides—I have this now…” Servius took up the wrapped package gently, as if it would break in his hands, and carefully stowed it in his shoulder bag. He held out his hand to John, but then changed his mind and embraced him. Both men were silent; they knew there were no other words. Servius turned abruptly and walked to the door. As he left he looked back a last time and held up his hand in farewell, and then exited the shop. The bell on the door rang briefly, and then the sound faded away.

——————————–

A short while later, John had the next two Holy Cross icons for Servius wrapped and stowed under the counter, ready to be picked up. It was nearing the end of the day and the foot traffic outside and in the shop was moderate.

All of a sudden there was a commotion in the street. Before anyone could react, the door of John’s shop was banged open, with the shop-bell clanging wildly. A member of the Guard stood there, glaring in. The customers in the shop turned to look at him, startled, as he shouted harshly: “Attention! Burning tomorrow, at dusk! Everyone is to be in the public square, no excuses. Mandatory attendance!” The he stepped back abruptly and marched to the next business. All up and down the street there were sounds of doors being opened violently and voices shouting the same message over and over again.

John and his customers looked at each other, stunned. This had not happened for a long time; each person was absorbing it silently, afraid to speak their thoughts. One by one they quickly left until John was alone in the shop. He wondered if he should lock up for the day. There would obviously be no more customers. Everyone would be going home to discuss the burning and the command to attend. Open conversation about such things would be safe only at home, with the people closest to them.

As he stood uncertain what to do, John heard the bell over the shop door ring once more; Servius’ messenger came in and placed an envelope on the counter. Shaking off his preoccupied thinking, John bent to reach underneath the counter for the package waiting there, but the young man stopped him. “No!” he whispered, as he glanced over his shoulder toward the door. “Read it.” He indicated the envelope and then quickly left the shop.

John picked up the envelope, noticing at once how thin it was. He opened it and pulled out a small piece of paper. “Jesus has been discovered, but you are safe,” he read.
A message from Servius–the burning is for MY painting! John realized. Servius had taken the time to write this note, even though he was surely in trouble… John remembered then what Servius had said to him, “I would protect you. I’ll never, ever betray you.”
He read and reread the words. My painting will be destroyed–the painting of Jesus… He felt sick at heart but knew he had to be there; “mandatory attendance” was non-negotiable. Those who didn’t go of their own accord were dragged there by the Guards, and an ominous black mark was placed by their names.

John did not sleep much that night. Visions of Servius’ face kept coming to him. How had he been caught? he wondered. What was happening to him right now? Where would he be exiled? Even though he hadn’t spent much time with Servius—there had been only three meetings, he realized with surprise–he felt deep regret that he would never see him again.
The nextday John conducted business in a sort of fog. He would have preferred to have been closed, but rules were rules: if you had a business, you were open. Any unusual deviation could prompt an unpleasant visit from the Guards. As the day progressed, he grew more and more apprehensive about the upcoming event. What would it feel like to see his beautiful painting destroyed before his eyes? To see the face of Jesus disappear under the ravening flames–could he remain calm while witnessing that?

Closing time came. John put on his jacket and locked the door of the shop. Along with others from his street he made his way quietly to the public square. They were not the first to arrive—hundreds more were already gathered, and many others were streaming in from all the adjacent roads. John made his way to about the middle of the crowd, so that he could see well but also not be seen, in case he could not completely control his reactions. He quieted himself internally, by praying, and made sure he wasn’t standing by any of his neighbors.

When he looked at the center of the square, things appeared a bit different than what he remembered from the past. There was a pile of wood, yes, but right in the middle of the pile was a large pole standing upright. They were going to nail his painting up high, so that everyone could clearly see its destruction! John thought of all the hours and days he had worked on that picture and felt sick inside as he imagined how quickly it would be consumed by fire.

The square filled up as the sun’s light faded. There was a soft murmuring from the crowd around him, people greeting each other quietly. A burning was unusual, but most of the people there had attended one, so they knew to remain obediently passive.

The low talking was abruptly interrupted by the sound of marching boots. Everything became quiet as people turned their eyes toward the main road at one side of the square. The marching sound grew louder and louder and then a company of Guards entered, followed by a group of officials. The hair on the back of John’s neck stood up. He had never before seen such a large gathering of Guards and officials at one time. Something was very wrong.

The Guards came further into the square, the crowd parting to let them through. John saw that they were surrounding one individual in their midst who was not marching like the others. As they came closer, John stopped breathing for a moment—the man in the middle was Servius, with his arms tied behind his back. When the Guards came closer to the pile of wood, they stopped and Servius bowed over, in exhaustion or pain, or maybe both.

The officials drew together and one stepped forward with an amplified megaphone in his hand. He waited for complete silence and then raised it to his lips.

“PEOPLE!” The stentorian voice rang out and echoed through the square. “You see before you a traitor to the State! A traitor who has betrayed his high office of honor in the Guards! He has broken cardinal rules by hiding forbidden materials in his quarters! These outlawed and forbidden materials were so blasphemous that they had to be instantly destroyed, before corrupting others! He also turned his back on the guidance and authority of the State and pledged his loyalty to something else! That is UNFORGIVABLE!” The people in the square were frozen into immobility. “This traitor betrayed the trust placed in him by the State. For that offence, the only appropriate punishment…is DEATH.” As the voice stopped, several Guards pushed Servius toward the pile of wood in the center of the square. John felt a shudder ripple through the crowd as he, and thousands of others, realized what was going to happen—something they had never before seen or even imagined.

When the Guards reached the center of the square, two of them dragged Servius up the mound of wood to the pole and placed his back against it. Without untying him, they used more rope to fasten him there, standing upright and facing outward. One of them then yanked on the knots to make certain they were fastened tightly. Servius stood in silence, but leaned over slightly, as the two Guards climbed back down the pile of wood and rejoined their ranks.

“Light it!” cried the harsh voice. “This is the punishment for traitors! Watch and see! ALL power and loyalties belong to the State, and to NOTHING ELSE!” As the echoes of the voice resounded around the square, three minor officials stepped forward with burning torches in their hands.

John found himself moving forward slowly through the crowd, not quite to the front row, but close enough. He watched in horror as the three officials lit the brushwood kindling at various points around the pile of wood. The twigs caught fire quickly, and the fire soon passed to the logs; over time, the flames grew slowly closer to the bound man.

The sound of the crackling fire was very loud in the silence. John looked at some of the people in the square. As he expected, there were satisfied smiles on the officials’ faces and grim looks on the faces of the Guards, but the people around him showed horror, disbelief, incomprehension. Some were fighting back tears, some were even turned away. A few people had their eyes tightly closed. He looked at all the faces he could see. Powerful images; his hands itched to paint the shock and disbelief he saw–and then he was overcome by his own emotions.

He looked back at the bonfire; the flames had now encircled the stake and were burning right up to Servius’ legs. He saw sweat and agony on the man’s face, but then something unexpected happened. Servius slowly lifted his head and looked straight at John. He did not have to search for him—it was as if he knew exactly where John was standing. As they looked at each other a message passed between them, in moments that felt like hours. Almost like hearing a voice speaking directly to him, John recalled one of Jesus’ commands: Feed my sheep. He accepted this final commission and looked steadily back at Servius. He nodded, slowly and slightly, to the suffering man.

Servius then closed his eyes and began to recite, in a loud but labored voice: “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord…” As the words continued, a howl of rage rose from the officials—but not all of them. John stared at them, trying to memorize some faces, while the flames crackled and the fire roared. Servius continued speaking until his fading voice was drowned by the sound of the fire. The officials fell grimly silent. All at once, like an ephemeral echo, John heard a barely audible whispering of the rest of the creed from all around him. He spoke the words also, under his breath, until he reached the end, but refused to look at anyone in order to protect those who were reciting. The fire burned higher and higher until the stake could be seen no longer. The acrid smell of smoke–and other things–swirled around the square.

There was no more sound from the crowd as they watched the burning. The officials, satisfied with their evening’s work, marched off with the Guards. After a while everyone else began to leave. John turned abruptly and almost immediately stumbled into someone standing close behind him. He recognized one of the Guards who had tied Servius to the stake, and a wave of deadly fear came over him. The man put his hands on John’s shoulders, to steady him, and then reached down to the ground. When he stood up, he had an envelope in his hand, “I think you dropped this,” he said loudly, as a few people walked past them. He held out the envelope.

John looked at it, confused—and then the officer said, in a bleak whisper, “Servius sent me.” He looked at John, his eyes begging forgiveness.

John stared back at him and then involuntarily glanced at the site of the burning. When he turned back, he saw that the Guard was also looking that way, with deep anguish and shame twisting his face. Those emotions held and then slowly vanished as he turned back to John, continuing to hold out the envelope.

John stood up a little straighter and asked, “How many do you want?”

“Four,” the officer replied, his voice a mix of pride and grief.

“I have two ready right now,” said John. “The others will take a little longer.”
“I’ll send someone to your studio tomorrow, then, for the first two,” the officer replied, “But I’ll be needing many more.” He placed the envelope into John’s hand. It was the same kind of envelope as all the rest of them, but much thicker this time.

John turned again and looked directly at the bonfire, which continued to burn in the middle of the square. He handed the envelope back to the officer as he watched the leaping flames. “Keep it,” he said. “It’s been paid.”

They watched the burning fire together for a few moments, and then went their separate ways.

_________________________________________________________________________
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” - Tertullian, ca. 197 AD


© Mary M. Isaacs For more stories by this author, click on her name and scroll down.

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