In a golden afterglow

Mummy

They do not look like corpses, probably because of the natural mummification they were subject to in this specific microclimate. Yet they are real. These people died in 1670-1780 and were buried in this crypt. Still now, several dozen coffins holding perfectly preserved bodies can be seen in Cracow’s monastery of the Lesser Brothers of the Stricter Observance. The lives of many hide romantic, sometimes mysterious, and sometimes macabre tales of centuries ago – be it a countess going to a cloister and leading a modest life there disclosing her true origins only before her death, be it lovers lying next to each other, or a braid in a wedding dress poisoned for her misalliance by her own father, or a child buried with a fixed facial grimace, having most possibly drowned in slime. All these stories can be read online, found in publications or heard from a monk guiding us into the underground on one of those rare days in the year when the crypt is open to tourists. Yet what is it that we cannot see? What is the monastery’s great mystery? This is exactly what this story is about.

Florek

Brother Florian had always liked to drink. That is why he could be seen in many bars around the Old Town. He had a preference for wines and was by no means satisfied with stealing altar wine from the monastery’s larder. He also got drunk regularly in Cracow’s pubs, bars and sometimes just on benches outdoors. He would then discard the monk’s habit and wear trendy clothes for the young although he was not exactly in that age group. Yet he liked the company young people and as he was fascinated by distant travels he kept in touch with travellers from across the globe. Despite a rather strict rule of the order, the Internet is not banned for the Lesser Brothers, which is the case in many cloisters for nuns. So one can surf it, get to know people and sometimes meet someone in reality. The superiors do not mind. Florian keenly seized such opportunities and remained constantly in touch with several dozen travellers the world over. Yet it was not he who went to visit them but mostly they came to Cracow and sometimes arranged to meet him in town. They would then go to a pub, a bar, a joint. They would have a meal together and above all drink a lot. More often than not, he would not tell his friends he was a monk. To many, he was simply Florek from Cracow. After such meetings, the guests would leave and then keep in touch with him by email. That time around, however, things were to be different.

A meeting of cultures

Keiko and Hitoshi had a passion for travels and discovering in the Christian world what was so far removed from their own tradition. They were fascinated by old churches, Gothic monasteries soaked in semi-darkness, mysterious paintings and crucifixes as well as church crypts, often hiding thrilling tales of people long gone. Keiko and Hitoshi were senior managers in one of Japanese corporations. They were not a couple, yet their colleagues believed that Hitoshi had a secret crush on Keiko, whose beauty was extraordinary, typical of the most beautiful Japanese women. She was a mature woman with an alabaster complexion and at the same time one could clearly discern on her face some features of a child. Many Europeans would just die for it.
The young Japanese had quite a budget for travels during which they would discover places that fascinated them and which they described on their blog. That was the blog Florek came across and he began to comment on entries about medieval paintings and after some time invited them to Cracow, saying that was the last moment to see mummies of centuries ago preserved in a very realistic condition.
The journey from Tokyo to Frankfurt means ten hours on the plane. Then it is not far – just over an hour with Lufthansa’s regional connection, the first gasp of the smoggy air and Keiko with Hitoshi found themselves in Poland’s former capital. They were staying in a small hotel at Poselska Street with comfortable rooms, inexpensive by Japanese standards. They took one day off to acclimatise and then meet Florek the following day. And so they did.
Florek liked them straight away and made no secret of his monk’s identity. He immediately offered them a tour of the famous crypt holding mummified corpses. They were alone there as it was not a day when it was opened to visitors. Florek simply took the keys from the gate and together they walked down the steep stairs leading into the crypt. What Keiko and Hitoshi saw there made an electrifying impression on them, not to leave them that night and only to amplify over time.

A contract done at the Wedel café

After that unusual visit, they sat down in the Wedel cafe in the main market square where they serve handmade chocolate pralines. Eating them with delight, they started to talk about the monastery and its problems. It was 2013 and the Lesser Brothers did not have sufficient funds to properly protect the bodies against total destruction. The crypt began to get moist and fungus appeared on some of the mummies. That is why Florek had written to the Japanese that was the last moment to see them in their former glory. They asked why the municipal authorities would not save the site. The Minicipality of Cracow did deal with the matter but – as is usually the case with it – at its own sluggish pace. Unfortunately, the fungus was faster.
The young Japanese were moved by the story and asked how much money was needed to save the mummies. Florek did not know the precise sum yet he called his superior. The Japanese promptly received information on the amount to be paid to rescue the mummies. They decided to act and immediately sent the money to the order’s account. They set a single condition – as contemporary benefactors they would like to be put to rest in the crypt so that their bodies become mummified like the several dozen ones already there. By doing so, they actually declared that they want to lie next to each other after death, although neither had confessed to the other yet that they wanted to spend their earthly lives together. In a sense, however, that might have been done that very day in the Wedel café.
Florek exchanged several text messages with his superior and received his approval for the terms set by the Japanese, which he communicated to them straight away. On a piece of paper, they drafted a contract of a few sentences and signed it, after which Keiko reached for her mobile to transfer the right amount to the order’s account. After the successful transaction, they ate some more pralines with Advocaat stuffing and finished the coffee, then went for a walk in the market square.
Throughout the afternoon, they devoted themselves to the shared passion and saw various churches, paintings, drawings and sculptures. Then they wanted to eat something and Florek suggested a pizza at St Anne’s Street. They serve great pizza from a wood-fired oven there. The smell of the wood often penetrates the air at the corner of St Anne’s and Jagiellońska Streets. After a meal like that, one can always move on to one of hundreds of bars around the main square or further away. This is exactly what they did settling in a wine bar at Sławkowska Street.
Florek ordered strong spicy Pinotage from Africa and they started talking. He told them about himself. He came from the Polish region of Subcarpathia, where he completed secondary education after which he moved to Cracow to study. He studied art history at the Jagiellonian University but had never finished the programme. However, he was fascinated with medieval paintings and completely succumbed to that passion, visiting various sites, reading about their collections and thinking about the creators of those pieces of art and their motivation to be creative, their lives and deaths. He had also met a girl while at university and he moved in to live with her in a house she rented in the district of Salwator. She, in turn, was very much into dark but at the same time romantic music, regardless of whether it was Bruckner or The Sisters of Mercy. Florek then accompanied her to concerts in Bolków, where goth rock festivals are held regularly at a medieval castle. When in Cracow, they would also walk around the quarter together, climbing Kościuszko’s Mound and visiting the local cemetery situated on its slopes. This is a burial site of Polish poets, writers and other artists. As it happens, however, she met someone else one day and soon left him. It was then that Florek started to drink more and turned to God, which after some time bore fruit in the form of his vocation to become a monk. Florek joined the congregation of the Lesser Brothers of the Stricter Observance and was responsible for gate-keeping.
He was telling all this to the young Japanese couple as he felt so good in their company. They shared common passions and they were opening up to one another worlds normally poles apart. Keiko noticed a badge in the lapel of his jacket – a yellow triangle with black zigzagy lines and asked about its meaning.
– It is the symbol of our fraternity – was Florek’s reply.
– Of the Lesser Brothers of the Stricter Observance? – she wanted to know.
– In a sense.
Then they talked about old and contemporary times and how rotten the latter were, and how formerly people had lived in harmony and tune with values, regardless of their definition. The evening was passing fast and turned into night. Successive bottles with spicy Pinotage were being emptied and finally Florek rose saying that he would like to invite his guests to the monastery, where they were going to taste a special kind of wine. Keiko and Hitoshi were far from sober at that point as their small bodies were not as sturdy as Florek’s, used to Subcarpathian heavy drinking, so they were not too enthusiastic about the proposal. They wanted to head for the hotel and go to bed. Florek insisted, however, encouraging them with a strange smile on his face saying that on the occasion he would show them something they might never and nowhere see again. So they agreed and barely able to drag their feet they moved towards the exit. Luckily, it is not far from Sławkowska to Reformacka Street.

In a golden afterglow

They were walking in silence along the few lanes they needed to take, going past groups of completely drunk young Englishmen who simply popped in for good fun in Cracow using the sky taxi offering a direct connection between Poland’s former capital and numerous British cities. Yet the more they were leaving popular touristy trails, the quieter it was getting and finally the monastery gate stood before them at the end of Reformacka Street. It was closed at that hour, yet Florek produced a bunch of keys from his pocket. He was unable to fit one of them into the hole, yet eventually he was successful and all three found themselves in the dark inside. The gate-keeper was either asleep or not there at all. In any case, no-one asked them about anything and soon they were in Florek’s cell.
It was not large and looked rather austere. It comprised a small table, a desk with a PC, probably the only thing that let the Japanese conclude that there was some physical connection between the world they knew and that place. The rest was shelves with holy books, somewhat kitschy paintings of the Blessed Virgin on the walls and a huge crucifix, which immediately attracted their attention although most probably the consumed alcohol made them seem to see that the head of the crucified as if protruded towards them and Keiko even seemed to see that he winked to her with a painful eyelid. She tried to ask Hitoshi whether he saw the same but as she turned her head she froze seeing his facial expression. Then she followed his line of vision and saw two chairs where some monks’ habits with hoods were hanging. Their shapes, however, were far from typical. They looked as if sewn for people of miniscule size. On the sleeves and back, one could see triangular yellow signs with black zigzagy lines.
Florek caught their eyes and began to laugh:
– You think I want to make you monks? Do not worry. You will return to your corporation safely but at last with unforgettable memories – and then he reached inside a small refectory, opened its door and got a bottle out of it.
– I have promised you a special kind of wine. In our fraternity, it is used exclusively during great celebrations. I have nicked a few bottles from the small larder. I sometimes serve it to my guests, yet only those truly special, like you.
– What makes you think we are special? – Keiko asked – her delicate face was veiled in the semi-darkness of the cell.
– I had developed a liking for you already at the stage of our email exchange, and then you turned out to be people of great spirit and transferred money to the order. It is a magnificent gesture – he replied reaching for a corkscrew. The cork popped out of the bottle with a characteristic sound. Florek poured the wine into glasses. An extraordinary aroma filled the air. The Japanese felt almost dizzy.
– This is just the beginning – said the host. I suggest you put on these habits as you are about to see something unusual.
They reached for them without much thinking. They fitted them really well. Florek smiled and handed the glasses to them. They smelled the drink contained in them. That extraordinary intensive aroma hit their nostrils with double force. They took a sip all at once.
A peculiar glare appeared before their eyes. Everything seemed to lighten up and assume otherworldly colours. The kitschy paintings glittered, the crucifix also glistened with a golden-yellow afterglow. A golden hue flooded the room, and the holy books on the shelves were squirming, making black zigzagy shapes. It looked fantastic and was overwhelmingly beautiful. So they stood there for some time peering into the space whirling around them, just as if they had put on 3D glasses.
Florek took Keiko by the hand and said to Hitoshi:
– Let’s go, I’ll show you something.
They left the cell. Neither of the Japanese noticed that on this occasion Florek had not taken a single sip of wine. He was leading Keiko by the hand through a labyrinth of monastery corridors, followed by Hitoshi. Everything was veiled in a golden afterglow. They started to descend. The young Japanese were in a sort of trans, failing to pay attention to the things around them, but sensing they were going down and further down and deeper and that it was taking a very long time.
Finally, they reached a medium-sized crypt with yellow walls or that was just the yellow afterglow accompanying them since they had consumed the wine. The crypt slightly resembled the one with mummified corpses but was larger and located somewhere else. Most bizarrely, although it was the middle of the night, the place was filled with people. Just like the young Japanese, they wore habits, although highly varied in terms of cut and colour. The only common element was the triangular yellow sign with black zigzag lines sewn on the back and sleeves. For sure, there were around a dozen or so persons there. Florek led Keiko closer. He ordered Hitoshi to wait in the place he showed him with his hand. No-one present turned as their entered; no-one noticed them. There was general concentration and silence.
Florek brought Keiko closer to the person obliterating the niche with their body. When she came up over there, she saw sand on the floor, just like that on which the dead monks were lying in the crypt with the mummies. There, everyone’s head rested against stone. And here there were no stones but only something shaped like a catafalque, or maybe a small altar. Everything was spinning in the golden-yellow afterglow. Keiko’s eyes ran towards the upper side of the altar. What she saw was both disturbing and beautiful.
On that little catafalque, rested a mummy with unbelievably realistic features. It seemed that the person was asleep although most certainly they were dead. It was not a child, neither was it someone of an adult size. There were candles placed all around casting a glow on the lovely face of a girl lying on the catafalque. It was hard to say whether it was the flames and the entire afterglow that lent the face just that colour or that really was a face of a young Japanese woman of astonishing beauty.
Keiko opened her mouth exactly when the master of that strange ceremony turned to her. For a few seconds, Keiko saw an old furrowed face and glowing eyes. The monk held a gold cup out to her, a source of that impossibly intensive aroma which reminded her of something.
She wanted to cry, escape, and she extended her arms to knock the cup out of the monk’s hand. Florek’s strong hands, however, got a hold of the Japanese’s small hands from behind and before she could shout out, the master of ceremony was already pouring the contents of the cup into her mouth. A moment later, she lost consciousness.
Hitoshi did not see that scene at all. Looking around, he was standing in the place indicated by Florek. The crypt seemed amazing to him and as if transported straight from the Middle Ages. It was dripping with gold, or maybe that was the impression after drinking that peculiar wine? He investigated one of the side niches and made out a beautiful girl wearing a habit with the order’s symbol sewn on it, which he recognised as perfectly familiar. She smiled at him almost flirtatiously and her gorgeous eyes seemed to be saying “come closer to me”. That was too magnetic to resist. Once he drew closer, the half-beauty half-nun extended a hand towards him and it was only then that he noticed a gold cup in her hand, a source of the familiar intoxicating aroma. Hitoshi winced and retreated but at the same time someone’s strong hands got a grip on his small hands from behind and the contents of the cup started to flow into his mouth, and then he lost consciousness.

A secret fraternity

Keiko came to in her hotel room at Poselska Street. Her head was spinning and she felt omnipresent pressure and pain. Just then, she heard hollow knocking on the door. She dragged herself off the bed and opened it with great effort. She saw Hitoshi in a state like her own, or worse. They sat down slowly and began talking about the events of the day before.
Once they slowly came to themselves, they decided to find Florek and talk to him seriously. They went to the monastery for the third time and, to their great surprise, it turned out that there was no Brother Florian in the congregation. They were arguing they had been with him there the previous day, in a glowing cell and then in a secret medieval crypt but various brothers and fathers looked at them surprised, intrigued and – those who spoke any English – with care and sympathy. The young Japanese did not look great and one could smell digested alcohol on their breath. Hearing the phrase ‘Brother Florian’, everyone was throwing up their hands. They did admit that there existed a crypt with mummies but only one and that the mummies were disintegrating indeed and if they wanted to help, the monks would be happy to accept the gift. Keiko and Hitoshi were explaining passionately that they had already transferred a huge sum of money to the order’s account in exchange for the promise of their burial in that special microclimate. The friars explained that no-one was buried there anymore and looked at them with growing concern. Finally, one asked whether they needed assistance and said that he could call his acquaintance working in Cracow’s well-known psychiatric hospital named after Dr Babiński.
They refused such help, however, and left the monastery. They checked the bank account again and confirmed the money was gone. They also searched their pockets but could not find the contract signed on a piece of paper in the Wedel café. All that was left for them was to report to the police.
A polite officer at the police station at the Main Market Square received the young Japanese with much openness. It was great that he spoke excellent English. He took them to some room and asked them to wait. They sat down and looked around. Keiko looked at the desk and fainted. Hitoshi stormed out to help her but saw a bottle opener featuring a sculpted sign – black zigzagy shapes against a yellow background – on the top of the desk. Hitoshi had to support himself on the desk trying hard not to collapse to the floor like his friend.

Epilogue

– What would you like to drink? – asked a stewardess onboard of a Lufthansa plane flying from Cracow to Frankfurt.
– Certainly not wine – replied Keiko – maybe tomato juice.
– And you? – she turned to Hitoshi.
– Juice as well, no salt or pepper – he pre-empted her next question.
– Certainly – she smiled and began to pour the juice.
He was looking at her lovely eyes reminding him of something. Then Keiko seized his hand.
– Florek!
– What with Florek? – he asked her at the same time turning his head in the direction Keiko was looking. In a row next to theirs, there was a man in a window seat looking just like Florek, maybe Florek himself. He looked in their direction.
– Your tomato juice – the stewardess presented Hitoshi with a filled plastic cup and he winced, remembering the half-nun half-beauty handing a golden cup to him in the crypt and yes, it was she indeed! Now serving him tomato juice.
– Is everything ok? You are very pale – she asked.
– Yes, thank you very much – with a shaking hand, he was holding the cup with juice that he did not raise to his lips.
From the outside of the plane window, rays of the morning sunlight were penetrating inside the cabin, making for a beautiful golden afterglow.

Note: Apart from the existence of several dozen mummified bodies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in a crypt of the church of the Lesser Brothers of the Stricter Observance in Cracow, all the other threads in the short story entitled ‘In a golden afterglow’ and the persons featuring in them are figments of its author’s imagination.

Ilustrated by Lech Kolasiński
Translated by Mikołaj Sekrecki

Russian female friends of a Polish pope

Cats

 

This history is veiled in mystery and much greater than that already surrounding the very race of these unusual animals. They came from remote Arkhangelsk and have survived all storms of history. They have a beautiful plush coat of hair that glitters in an almost quicksilver fashion. They fascinate with their majesty, posture and something like a permanent smile on their tiny faces sometimes referred to as Mona Lisa’s smile. Above all, however, their charm lies in the green eyes. Their look is hypnotising, one just cannot take the eyes off it. Mystics claim that advanced communication with them is possible just thanks to their eyes, that as the depth of their species-blending look meets two souls, a mirror of sorts is created reflecting the past and much can be read from it about the future, too. However, this ability is a privilege of the few.
That evening, the pope was very tired. He had been receiving pilgrims from across the globe, held a general audience, and had a few guests from Poland for a private supper. That supper, in particular, took its toll on him as his guests, highly educated and cultured, still entered into a typically Polish dispute, not paying too much attention to the fact that they were at the table with a great Pole who became pope and began to influence global politics to an extent never reached by his predecessors or any of Polish leaders, dead or alive. One of the bishops got so worked up during that quarrel that while shouting he spat out onto a snow-white tablecloth a pill with a cross, which flew all the way to the other end of the table stopping next to the pope’s glass half-filled with Montepulciano rosé wine. “What is it that he swallows?” – thought Karol Wojtyła with disgust. The pope settled in Rome and felt good in the city yet he still loved Poland, which is why all disputes of his fellow countrymen, including those at the table, worried him a lot, as well as fatigued him immeasurably.
After days like this one, he would give himself over to innocent play with the cats, throwing them a ball to retrieve or even a cassock button that had come off once and he started to use it for that purpose. The pope adored his two female Russian Blue kitties Anna and Teresa. As faithful friends, they always followed him once, tired, just like that evening, he returned to his private apartments in the Vatican. He would delicately caress their small but delightfully plush heads. They accompanied him in play and writing letters to friends but also meditation. Sister Tobiana, in charge of the impeccable whiteness of the pontiff’s cassock, would often find silvery threads from the fur of the plush ones on it. She would then only sigh deeply, whispering under her breath: “all that hassle with Your Holiness, all the hassle he gives me.”
Yet the bond between the lovely but also very mysterious animals and the pope from Poland was more profound and had more serious consequences than it might have seemed and this does not at all concern the fact that he wrote several encyclicals in their company. From the snippets of reports from the pope’s butler Angel Gugel and some other indiscrete persons in the Vatican, we can recreate, if only partially, the events in which Anna and Teresa participated.

Not Birmans
It is worth mentioning first, however, how those lovely and endearing animals found themselves in the papal halls. Once a Pole had been chosen pope, when Cardinal Pericle Felici announced the fact to the astonished world on 16 October 1978, the machine started of constructing the papal court and adjusting the environment to the needs of the Vatican’s new leader. Also the circle of his closest collaborators was taking shape. Father Stanisław, his collaborator of many years from Cracow, became the pope’s secretary and man of highest trust. It was he that received from the new pope the task of bringing cats to the Vatican but, behold, they were to be so-called Sacred Cats of Burma. Those wonderful creatures with turquoise eyes holding inside souls of Buddhist monks were to accompany Karol Wojtyła during his rest after long days filled with hard work. They fitted the purpose very well indeed as that race is famous for being able to adapt to the owner’s mood.
Hardly anyone is aware that Stanisław, known from the very beginning for his great love of his boss and willingness to meticulously do anything needed to satisfy him, paid a brief visit to Burma for that reason, where – as legend has it – lie the roots of the sacred feline race. True to the pope’s orders yet entirely ignorant about cats, the benevolent priest most probably did not know that he really needed to go to France, as it was there that he could find ones best matching the racial qualities. Stanisław must have concluded that for the pope he would like to bring animals almost directly originating from the legendary cat Sinhu. To that end, ignoring the differences of their worldviews, he even met with a certain Buddhist monk, yet interestingly enough not in a monastery but a cosy restaurant, where they discussed the whole matter drinking a strange blue beverage of a sweetish taste. The monk was supposed to know how to get to the people who were the only breeders of cats descended from Sinhu. Why then was it not female Birmans that came to the Vatican soon afterwards but two Russian cats Anna and Teresa, incidentally loved by the pontiff at first sight? Here is one of many riddles in this story.

She-cat aggressors
The then head of the Soviet KGB accused Zbigniew Brzeziński, a security adviser in the US president Jimmy Carter’s administration, of voting manipulation during the conclave and ensuring the choice of a Polish pope, which would certainly impede the promotion of communism in East-Central Europe. It must be said that the Russian was right at least in that respect. During meetings with Brzeziński, John Paul II would often joke that since he had made him pope, he then had to visit him in the Vatican. That is what happened and sometimes the meetings would take place a few times a year. For this story, however, the most important is their first-ever telephone conversation in December 1980 during a political crisis. It was then that 18 Soviet divisions, two East German and one Czechoslovak stood at Poland’s border. They were all supposed to march into the country in two days. Brzeziński called the pope to discuss the matter. However, he had major connection problems and it was urgent. Finally, having realised that the direct number to John Paul II’s private apartments would not work, he started to connect through other telephone lines, which was not that safe anymore considering such conversations could be eavesdropped by Russians using agents known to the CIA as operating within the Vatican. The conversation did take place eventually and the whole thing had a happy ending. After all that, it turned out, however, that the telephone cables in the pontiff’s apartments were bitten through by Anna and Teresa, and exactly when Brzeziński wanted to connect with the pope for the first time. This could be considered a coincidence, were it not for the events that followed.
Karol Wojtyła decided to crack down on communist spies inside the Vatican by strengthening a secret unit in the Holy See playing the role of counterintelligence, that is the Sodalitium Pianum, appointing as its leader Archbishop Luigi Poggi whom he greatly trusted. The archbishop initiated close cooperation with Israel’s intelligence and the CIA. Interestingly, both of the pope’s cats, usually rather friendly towards John Paul II’ collaborators and most of his guests, just hated Poggi. During one of the deliberations, Anna tore the archbishop’s cassock apart and Teresa bit his calf which oozed a trickle of scarlet blood. The meeting was interrupted as Poggi’s wound had to be dressed. Karol Wojtyła was surprised by the incident yet did not scolded his plush ones, who just then and there turned out to be far from sweet mascots.
In 1979, the pope comes to his native Poland for a historic visit. In Washington D.C. the event is watched by Ronald Reagan, soon the President of the United States. He sees great potential in the Poles and Solidarity movement in terms of fighting communism in Poland itself but also the entire Eastern Bloc. Consequently, in the pope he sees a man who can help a lot in that regard. Reagan was much concerned about the introduction of Martial Law in Poland and the day after he called John Paul II expressing his friendly attitude towards the Poles. The US president’s collaborators later reported than the conversation was often interrupted – horror, horror – because of cats meowing exceptionally loudly. Finally, however, the leaders managed to finish that important exchange. Then they wrote to each other frequently. One of Reagan’s letters was found by Sister Tobiana in the pontiff’s cassock bearing clear traces of a cat’s talons. Soon, in June 1982, Reagan met the pope in the Vatican Library. As a result of the meeting, contact between the CIA and Sodalitium Pianum intensified and the head of the US intelligence agency William Cassey began to appear in Rome.
During one of Cassey’s meetings with the pontiff, the incident with Poggi recurred and the conversation was interrupted again, an important one as Cassey was showing John Paul II photos by spy satellites taken over East-Central Europe. Later, it was noticed that due to the commotion over Cassey’s biting by the pope’s cats several such photos disappeared. The suspicion fell on communist spies inside the Vatican, still existing yet fought by Poggi. Nevertheless, at least some of those photos were found – in the form of torn pieces – by a butler, who immediately suspected that Anna and Teresa were to blame. The pope’s collaborators began to draw his attention to the fact that both cats behaved a bit strangely and their aggression was very particularly targeted. After all, when John Paul II received the governmental representatives of the Polish People’s Republic, the cats were rubbing against their feet.
The great pope tried not to be mean towards his collaborators yet when he heard that and other nonsense concerning some strange attitude of his cats towards Americans and their being nice towards communist dignitaries, he minced no words when speaking to those who promoted such theories, and depending on his mood on a given day such remarks on his part were either funny or bitingly ridiculing their stupidity. Over time, they would then watch successive incidents in silence and some of them simply stopped paying attention to the cats concluding that despite being no less than the pope he still had his own obsessions and they were exactly his two favourites.
In the meantime, in 1982, in a Siberian military base, a certain Dmitry Vereshchagin supervises the setting up of a secret centre for research on human consciousness so that it can be controlled without the will of the ones to be controlled. The work goes very slowly but it bears first fruit. Already in the 1970s, such experiments were carried out on animals in the USSR, with promising results, and in the 1980s they involved humans. One day, a man from Burma appeared in the base with whom the officers working there would drink a blue beverage of a strange sweetish taste. At his feet played cats with a penetrating look of their beautiful green eyes.

A mirror
Anna and Teresa grew in the Vatican. Despite his great love for both of them, John Paul II began to worry about their aggressiveness towards certain guests, destroying satellite images provided by the CIA as well as the cats’ growing distrust of his faithful collaborators. Nevertheless, he would not share his doubts with them, although they saw him more and more often sitting and peering into the distance. Facing the pope, sat Anna and Teresa, also as if looking at something far away. That scene would recur increasingly often and one day it took place during a trek in the mountains where Karol Wojtyła took his cats in a cage. That bizarre but also highly mysterious scene was noticed then by his faithful companion during such treks, Father Tadeusz. However, he did not attach any special importance to it back then – well, it was just the pope enjoying being close to nature in the form of not only flora but also fauna, and as he would typically fall into a meditative mode then, that was most probably the case.
No-one had ever seen the pope in photographs with his Russian Blue female friends, although there exist several pictures taken by the butler Gugel during those rare trips where the cats were present and in Karol Wojtyła’s private apartments. From the leaks and indiscretions concerning them, one may conclude that they are extraordinary and may shed a new light on understanding between man and animal as well as the unusual mysticism of John Paul II.
Suffice to say that after such unique meditative sessions featuring two Russian cats and one of the greatest mystics of the contemporary world, their behaviour changed beyond recognition. They softened vis-à-vis guests from the USA, becoming almost endearing and starting to accept Archbishop Poggi. They did not destroy any documents or photographs anymore and since then they had never obstructed a conversation or bitten through a telephone cable. Whence the change? Stanisław, who believed in the sanctity of the Polish Pope already then, saw the reason for it in the supernatural abilities Karol Wojtyła had of talking with all creatures. He would say that was like a breath of the living God. Himself rather stiff towards animals, one single time was he brave enough to throw the pontiff’s zucchetto cap to be retrieved, encouraged by Karol Wojtyła’s joyful cries. Anna and Teresa brought it in the teeth together, as if walking in a cortege or procession, straight into the hands of the Vicar of Christ, not his secretary. Wojtyła reacted to it with his well-known sense of humour: “You see, Stan, they know who rules the world.” The entire scene made them both burst with laughter. There was also a characteristic laughter on the faces of the Russian Blue cats. After the sudden change in Anna and Teresa’s behaviour and a few gestures on the part of Stanisław, some in the Vatican started to suspect that the papal secretary also fell in love with the cats. They could have been wrong, however, and the current cardinal’s only love was and remains his boss.
The cats’ transformation, however, brought them the favour of the papal court and since then even former enemies of the plush ones began to show them fondness and attachment. Sister Tobiana would pick out silvery threads with tenderness whispering that the cats of His Holiness were close also to her and that she loved them with love only an animal can receive. And so everything started to work very harmoniously until those dramatic days to unravel soon.

The parting
In 1987, when the pope returned from yet another visit to Poland, he learnt that Anna had been most probably poisoned. A secretly ordered toxicological analysis confirmed that suspicion. John Paul II was in despair, which Teresa – still alive – sensed perfectly. Her behaviour also showed her highest concern. In those days, the pope’s collaborators hardly saw him at all. They were guessing that he sat with Teresa, both looking into the distance, and talked in that peculiar manner when in meditation the animal soul becomes one with that of a human. We learnt about what followed thanks to a report of one of the Swiss guardsmen.
He was asked to discreetly prepare a car with ordinary Roman registration plates, which they entered wearing civilian clothes, only Father Stanisław and the pope himself but dressed the way no-one could recognise him. He had made such incognito escapades to ski, yet that time around it was a special mission. Karol Wojtyła firmly held a cage with Teresa inside. The car left the Vatican without any security assistance and went to Trastevere.
In this Roman quarter, an old Polish woman named Wanda lived on her own. She was a widow of a soldier serving under General Anders who had died near Ancona after which she settled permanently in the eternal city. She was found by people from the Sodalitium Pianum and she agreed to take Teresa in as her continued presence in the Vatican could have been too risky. It was very hard for the pope to part with her but he knew that was what he had to do. He decided to accompany her on the way to Trastevere and when the old woman realised that she was visited in her modest flat by the Vicar of Christ himself, she almost became another victim in this strange story, so emotional she was about the personal meeting with Karol Wojtyła. His parting with Teresa was brief – a quick kiss on her sweet plush head and a firm order for the accompanying priest: “Let us go, Stan.” The events of the following day close the mysterious story.
Wanda went out for an espresso to a nearby café, which was not expensive and they also baked delicious cantuccio biscuits on the spot. There were only three tables and usually it was not difficult to find a free space. That time around, however, all the seats were taken. When she was about to turn around and leave, a man looking like a monk rose from one of the tables, put aside a glass with a bluish beverage, smiled at her offering his seat and left. She thanked him, sat down and enjoyed the great black infusion. Then she did some light shopping and returned home. She did not find the cat there yet she thought it had gone into a hole and sat there. After several hours, however, she started to look for the cat. To no avail. In the evening, she called the contact number she had received from Father Stanisław and told him that the Russian Blue cat disappeared without a trace. We do not know John Paul II’s reaction to the news and can only make conjectures about it.

Epilogue
In the early 1990s, when communism fell in East-Central Europe, to which the pope from Poland greatly contributed, and all alliances changed, a man was at confession in a small parish near Lviv. He claimed to have been working at the Medical College in Omsk where he assisted in cruel experiments performed on animals. He was also supposed to have seen Teresa’s head left as a keepsake by a mad associate professor who for the purposes of research on human consciousness control would kill thousands of animals there, including cats. He claimed that in the anguish administered to Teresa, her penetrating green eyes had been the last to go. Yet they finally did. As the priest taking the man’s confession turned out to collaborate with the Sodalitium Pianum, the event was immediately reported to the Vatican. For many successive years, it was verified using various channels and has never been fully confirmed.
After many years following the trip to Burma, in a tiny café at Trastevere Father Stanisław met with the Buddhist monk again and they drank a strange blue beverage with a sweetish taste. Little is known about that meeting. It remains a fact, however, that just a few days later a limousine from the Israeli embassy in Rome entered the Vatican on several occasions. Did that mean some negotiations between the parties, and if so, what was put on the table? Were there some other meetings between the mysterious monk and Stanisław? Who was that man really? How did it happen that once cars stopped moving between the Israeli embassy and the Vatican suddenly joyfully running in the pontiff’s apartments was Teresa, very old now? There are no unambiguous answers to all these questions. It should be assumed with high likelihood, however, that an entirely different cat found itself in Omsk while Teresa had been taken care of by the world’s most powerful intelligence service. The Russians were then outwitted by the Mossad, not for the first time in history. Which diplomat of the embassy was entering the Vatican in the limo? Who and why poisoned Anna? Did the pope give priority to the interest of his own love for an animal over some important matter concerning the whole Church – we do not know any of this still today and experts on the Vatican will probably still long deal with such riddles. As regards this story, it is interesting, however, what it was in those two Russian Blue she-cats, and later one, that made her chased by the world’s most powerful intelligence services? Doubtlessly exciting is also the fact that there have not been many cases in history bringing Judaism and Christianity close to each other like that single sweet creature with penetrating green eyes.

Note: Apart from the fact that John Paul II did possess two Russian Blue she-cats, some historical dates as well as the pope’s generally known official meetings and conversations, the entire other content of the short story entitled ‘Russian female friends of a Polish pope’ is a figment of its author’s imagination.

 

Ilustrated by Lech Kolasiński
Translated by Mikołaj Sekrecki