The Wolves of Pavlava by Adriana Renescu (cover)Excerpt from The Wolves of Pavlava

Excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 1

December 1960

“Mother Ierusalima of Pavlava is dead.”

The Colonel traced a mocking sign of the cross over his chest with the hand that held a smoldering cigarette pinched between thumb and index finger. At the apex of the cross, the column of ashes broke apart, scattering over the green folder and the pockmarked top of the massive desk that stood like a barricade between him and the cavernous office with its parquet floors and empty bookcases. At the completion of the cross on the left shoulder, a shrill, spastic cough rose from the depth of his lungs. As if propelled by the jet of air and spittle ejected from his mouth, he swiveled in his chair to face the French windows filled with the pale light of a wintry morning. He sat motionless for a long while, like a gray, bent gargoyle, the rattling noises in his chest quieting, catching his breath, seemingly listening intently to the sound of the shovel scraping the snow in the courtyard below.

Halfway across the office, a good distance from the desk and its occupant, Captain Pavel Corbu stood with hands clasped behind his back and feet firmly planted on the floor. He had responded to the Colonel’s announcement about Mother Ierusalima with silence; a silence as studied and disciplined as his pose, contrived to make him as if invisible; a discipline of the tongue and body he had adopted instinctively at first, then consciously had perfected from the first day he had arrived in Bucharest seven years before as a new and promising recruit for the special security forces of the Ministry of the Interior. He had been a country boy with pinching new shoes, carrying in his head the lesson his widowed mother’s paramour, Father Chirilǎ, had hammered into him, a lesson enforced with generous boxing of the boy’s ears while freely paraphrasing St. Paul, ‘Of all the human body parts, the tongue is the most dangerous to one’s soul and well being,’ to which quote, the priest would add, ‘And to one’s survival in this shitty world.’ He would elaborate, ‘Silence can hide both ignorance and knowledge; the second is the more dangerous.’

In the case at hand, Corbu’s silence hid a frisson of anticipation. He knew enough of Mother Ierusalima of Pavlava – the nun cloistered in a monastery isolated deep inside the Carpathian forests – to understand the implications of being summoned, at the crack of dawn, to the office of the powerful man known simply as the Colonel, who was at the heart of the shadowy world of the apparatchiks of the People’s Republic of Romania.

To Corbu, this morning, the odor of floor wax and furniture polish in the echoing office was the perfumed scent of opportunity.

The Colonel brought the cigarette to his lips and drew on the strong Russian tobacco, the tip of ashes blinking with an orange glow. He swiveled in his chair and turned his back to the office, his head tilted back. Corbu followed the Colonel’s gaze to the two, side-by-side portraits hanging high on the wall–on the right, Piotr Illich Lenin and on the left, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin–both gazing through the framed glass with a Tartar squint. Pavel Corbu had heard many times that on the day Comrade Stalin died, the Colonel had cried like a baby.

The Colonel turned back to his desk. He flicked the ashes off the front of his uniform and squashed the cigarette into the forest of butts in the ashtray.

The scraping of the shovel in the courtyard below stopped.

Corbu moved slightly, coming out of his invisibility with a creaking of his uniform’s new leather straps.

The Colonel’s dark eyes shifted onto him, the gaze of the small black pupils touching him like cobwebs.
Under scrutiny, Corbu chanced a quick look at his own reflection in the glass panes of the bookcase, to ascertain what the Colonel was seeing.

“Do you like what you see in the mirror, Captain?” The Colonel’s voice was mocking, particularly in the way he emphasized ‘captain.’

The question made Corbu flinch. “No, Comrade Colonel.” Actually, he had been quite pleased with the image in its carefully fitted uniform, well built but slim, the boots making his legs look longer than they really were; short-cropped hair making his face seem angular, as if modeled with a blade. He dared to think that he looked elegant.

The Colonel took a new cigarette out of the pack in front of him, torched the end with the blue flame of the steel lighter said to have been made from a piece of a German panzer on the Russian Front. The flashing flame threatened to ignite the fumes of furniture polish and floor wax. He drew long and deep from the burning tobacco. A convulsive, deep cough rattled inside his chest again, expectorating the smoke from his lungs through his mouth and nose in spastic puffs. With a tobacco-stained finger he pushed the green folder to the edge of the desk facing Corbu. “Mother Ierusalima’s dossier.”

Corbu approached the desk and with his body at attention, picked up the folder. He read the name on the cover.



Excerpt from Chapter 2


The men Captain Pavel Corbu had sent into the forest to bury Mother Ierusalima were found two days later, once the blizzard had abated, scattered around her unburied body, laid out around her like sacrificial sheep.

They had not been shot or stabbed, nor had they frozen to death in the blizzard. They had been killed by the teeth of wolves, their throats ripped out.

Captain Corbu stood at the edge of the empty grave hewn out of the ground, now filled with snow and looked with strange detachment at the five bodies of his men, their tattered clothing, ravaged skin and flesh around them, their bones gnawed bare and their blood spread across the snow, congealed and frozen. At his approach, the crows picking at the carcasses had hopped away and flown into the trees from where they now looked down, cawing impatiently. The rifle had been left leaning against a tree; the demijohn of lime still there, uncorked, the stopper neatly set next to it.

He felt a shiver again; a strange, unwelcome shiver, like a deep itch, as he looked down on Mother Ierusalima. The wolves and crows had left her body untouched. Someone–peasants or may be even Mazilu’s men, for what other explanation could there be–had laid Mother Ierusalima out atop the snow in full habit. Careful hands had lovingly arranged the white mantle around her, clasped her hands on her chest with the rosary now made whole, twined around the fingers and covered her head with the veil. These same hands had closed the wound in her throat, and left her there, to be found, serene, untouched, un-spoilt, the ruin and desecration of her body erased, her victims strewn around her like some pagan sacrifice. Her face and bare feet, narrow and delicate, looked like carved marble.

“Any tracks, men or wolves?” he asked his lieutenant.

“We found none when we arrived. It has been snowing.”

“There’s no snow on the bodies.”

“No, Comrade Captain.”

Corbu and his lieutenant looked at one another, and neither voiced the superstitious thoughts that rose to the surface like the accursed whispers of old women.

“Trickery and theater,” Corbu snapped at the man.

He swung around at the noise rising behind him. Two of his men were dragging a woman, her voluminous and tattered clothes showing her to be a Gypsy. Another man held a wildly squirming, but silent girl of no more than six or seven.

“What is this?” Corbu asked.

The Gypsy, shoved forward, fell on her fours, raised herself, and then looked at him defiantly, one eye black and shiny, the other one shut by an old scar. The little girl had stopped struggling and watched with glittering eyes. The man let her be. She didn’t run away but sat down in the snow, a fist holding her chin, the elbow resting on her knees.

Corbu examined the Gypsy in front of him. She would’ve been very beautiful were it not for the ugly scar. He glanced at the little girl–she bore the marks of the great beauty her mother must have been once.

“Your name, woman?” he asked, modulating his voice to be harsh but calm.

“Hurea.” Her voice was hostile. “Lizeta Hurea.”

“Where are you from?” Corbu had no doubt that she was a nomad, part of a group that had taken refuge in the forest to escape being forced to settle in a village.

“From nowhere.” She spat at his feet.

The man standing near her swung his hand and hit her across the cheek and good eye. Blood squirted out of her nostrils.

“What did you see here?” Corbu asked. “Don’t tell me you saw nothing!”

Blood dripping on her chin and her chest, she sneered at him, “I don’t mind telling you what I saw! I saw archangels like gold carry the Little Mother in their arms; I saw the Wolves of Hell, with bloody teeth and fire in their eyes. I saw them,” she pointed at her good eye, “tear and eat your scum!”

Another fist hit her again. She shuddered, but did not fall.

“They were tall, with long blond hair, and they carried incense in gold vessels.”

“You see too much with that one eye, and you talk too much,” Corbu said slowly. He turned to his men, “Take her away and make sure she never sees or talks again.”

Kill all rumors and legends from the root…

The Gypsy bolted, but she was not quick enough. They grabbed her, twisting her arms behind her.

“Run!” she cried to her daughter in their Gypsy language. “Saveta! Run, girl!”

The little girl obeyed instantly and scurried away with unexpected speed and agility. She disappeared too quickly for anyone to catch or find. They were not particularly interested in her. What harm could a child cause? No one believed a Gypsy brat. They let her go.

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