Notes: This was written for LJ's khrfest Round IV: V-9. Knuckle - last chances; regrets before becoming a priest the next day. I based Knuckle's backstory loosely off of Natsume Soseki's Kokoro. I apologize in advance for any errors I made in regards to history, religion, and culture, and please give me a heads-up if you spot anything wrong. I'm always willing to learn and correct my mistakes.
Thank you, and please enjoy!
It is his last trip to the hospital as a deacon that nearly does him in.
He has come to learn that nothing good comes from sunny days, for it is a clear and beautiful afternoon that he takes his routine trip to the hospital to comfort the dying and the sick, preparing them for anointment from Father Andrei later. Father Andrei tells him that this is unorthodox, but also that he feels that the deacon needs to do this for his own peace of mind. The deacon still does not understand what Father Andrei means.
As he enters the musty walls of the hospital, the monks direct him to the needier of the patients. One after the other he offers God's grace and blessing. Most are grateful, thanking him with tears in their eyes as he takes his leave to the next patient. Others are less so, scowling at him or ignoring his very presence. He prays for all of them, none more than another, and he makes his rounds around the cots as nuns and monks scurry to and fro to tend to those they can save.
The last bed he visits is quarantined. The monks ask him to be cautious. He is a madman, they tell him, a madman and a leper, and perhaps he is better off not going in there at all. He only smiles at the Brothers and reminds them that they are all God's children, and that he will exhibit no less kindness and attention to the man as he has shown to the others.
The room he enters is the brightest room of the entire hospital with one huge, barred window allowing the sun's rays to illuminate even the darkest corners. On the bed sits an elderly man with lesions covering his arms and legs and face, and his rags of clothes are torn and barely cover his torso.
The elderly man turns his head as the deacon enters the room, inquisitively staring at the deacon as he grabs a seat on the rotting stool next to his bed. Then, he grins as though to proudly display all the teeth now missing from his mouth.
"I know you," he tells the deacon in a raspy voice.
"You have come to Father Andrei's services?" the deacon asks.
The elderly man wheezes a laugh. "Isn't it obvious, boy, that God has forsaken me? If He has no need for me, then I have little need for Him. No, I know you from elsewhere. From a long time before. You look different in those robes, Knuckle."
The deacon freezes. Nobody has called him that for a long time, now.
As best as he can, he changes the subject. "God has not forsaken you. He loves all His children and only wants the very best for them."
"But some more than others, eh?" The elderly man cackled. "It's okay, Knuckle. There is no love lost between me and God. You don't have to tell me otherwise, even if it is your job, and especially since I already know you don't believe it."
"Of course I believe it. It is a sin to lie like that," he says.
"But is it not also a sin to kill, Knuckle?"
The elderly man grins at him, expectantly. The deacon hesitates in answering. This is not a part of his life he wants resurfacing, not on the night before he takes his vows, but there is little use in dodging the topic. The man knows. Somehow, he was in Moscow on that dreadful day, and he knows.
"Yes," the deacon finally answers. "Killing is a sin, unforgivable in the sight of God, but I committed many other sins that day."
"And this is how you repent." It is not a question.
Knuckle frowns and turns away from the leper. "It is only the start. I know it will not be enough. It will probably never be enough."
They were seven years old when they ran away from home. Stars dotted the cloudless summer night sky, and the moon lit up the farmlands and the roads. No breeze covered the sounds they made as they snuck out of the windows of their bedrooms, but neither of them woke their parents or siblings. They met at the top of a hill underneath a giant pine tree, and one showed the coins he had stolen from his parents and the other showed the food he had filched from his family's pantry. Then, they ran down the road and never looked back.
Dmitry insisted on keeping his name, since his boxing name was also his family's nickname for him; Knuckle, still furious at his mother and father and why not, the rest of his siblings, too, decided that his boxing name was the only name he wanted to be called. Dmitry respected his wishes and Knuckle respected his friend's, and so they traveled and were forever known by those names.
Though they ran away so that they could continue to box, it took many weeks before either of them felt up to the task of fighting the other.
Neither one of them recalled who gave that little girl the black eye.
In fact, both agreed that it was her own fault in the first place for stepping in between them, completely misunderstanding their spar as a brawl. But it was enough for them to shy away for a while, until they started bickering over something so inconsequential Knuckle could no longer remember it. Then someone threw a punch that was quickly reciprocated. When both of them had fallen over from exhaustion, they were laughing, and the love of the sport came back to them in that instant.
As the years passed, the boys traveled from town to town, doing what chores they could for the locals to earn coin, food, or lodging—or, if they were particularly lucky, some combination or all of the three. In their spare time, they wandered to the back alleys to box. The street rats always became interested right away. If Knuckle and Dmitry stayed in a town long enough, children with homes and families joined the cheering crowd, too.
One day, Dmitry came up with a keen idea: he had snuck into an underground brawling competition, and the onlookers bet on the fighters, and the fighters always received a portion of the winnings. They could do something like that, too, instead of always running errands for the locals.
In every town they visited since, they found another child to split the earnings with. Though every once in a while they chose someone who wound up running away with the coins, for the most part, Knuckle and Dmitry made more money boxing than they did doing little good deeds. And they never minded too much when an urchin ran off with the money. They loved boxing for what it was, not for the money, and they were always prudent enough to have a small stash in their pockets.
As they grew bigger and older, members of the underground circuit in Moscow caught notice of Knuckle and Dmitry and saw them as more than just snot-nosed brats pretending to be one of the men. Annoyed that they were stealing away "their" crowd, a few of them challenged the boys to a brawl. No rules, they said, but Knuckle and Dmitry defeated them handily while following all the rules of boxing.
Impressed with what he saw, the ringleader invited them to join the circuit, promising fame and fortune. Many agents for the real, professional competitions sat in on their fights, looking for new, raw talent to bring to the public. Even if Knuckle and Dmitry could not catch the attention of these agents, at the very least, so long as they won, they could make enough money to survive.
Neither of them were enthused at the prospect. Though they declined, the seed was planted firmly in their heads: maybe, just maybe, they were good enough to become professional boxers.
They spent the last of their coin on tickets to see a real match. Astounded by the skill and talent of the fighters, Knuckle and Dmitry still managed to point out to each other the flaws in each man's technique. By the end of the night, their confidence had skyrocketed. They knew that this was the path they were meant to take.
He shakes himself out of the memory, and he finds himself sitting in the courtyard of the cathedral. The sky has turned from a brilliant blue to shades of purple and orange, and the birds are no longer providing the music of the garden, having been replaced by the sounds of evening Mass resounding from the chapel. His heart skips a beat, and he hurries inside. Tonight, of all nights, he cannot be late.
Father Andrei regards him with a raised eyebrow but of course, does not stop the service to reprimand him. Knuckle takes his place among the others and performs his duties flawlessly, fighting the words of the leper with every step.
"You look different in those robes, Knuckle" overpowers the chants of Alleluia as he places the incense in the censer.
"But is it not also a sin to kill, Knuckle?" is the reply he hears as he greets the faithful.
And as he declares, "Through the words of the gospel may our sins be washed away," the leper sneers, "And this is how you repent."
Before the service is over, Knuckle comes to a startling realization.
He does not deserve to be here.
The first year of professional boxing was not as easy as either Knuckle or Dmitry had hoped for. They suffered many humiliating defeats, barely lasting fifteen seconds, but they kept their heads up. Every day, they practiced, both counting under their breaths how long each match lasted.
Broke, they were turned out of their lodgings as soon as the spring snow melted. For a week, the friends went from inn to inn but to no avail. Either there were no rooms, or they had not enough money. Fortunately, one innkeeper, sympathetic to their plight, pointed them in the direction of his neighbor, recently widowed and would likely charge them little to nothing so long as they helped with household chores and errands.
They knew that doing this would give them less time to practice, but Knuckle and Dmitry had no choice.
"But this shouldn't be too extremely different than before!" said Knuckle, trying to reassure his friend. "We did just fine doing this when we first started out, and we should be fine now!"
But Dmitry scowled the entire time from the moment they left the inn to the moment they met with the widow. Knuckle was not the best people person, many wincing at the volume of his voice, but the widow only kindly smiled when she heard their story and accepted them immediately, praising them for following their dreams with such devotion. She told them that they would not have to run any errands for her or do any household chores, but in exchange, they had to promise her one thing: that she would receive at least ten percent of their winnings, however much that wound up being.
Knuckle enthusiastically agreed to those terms, and he turned to Dmitry to see if that made him any happier. Dmitry's expression had not changed. Knuckle, for the life of him, never did figure out why he remained in a sour mood for so long, especially since that day was the day their luck changed.
They began winning.
Every day they returned to the widow with the promised ten percent, and she cooked them an extravagant meal every night. Dmitry took his meal to his room while Knuckle and the widow ate together, Knuckle excitedly reliving their matches to her. She grinned and laughed at his animated reenactments, keeping an eye on the plates and bowls in front of her whenever he forgot where he was.
Then, one night, she declared that she would go to their next match, and she would bring her daughter with her.
"Daughter?" asked Knuckle. "I thought you lived alone."
"Irina has been visiting her uncle in the country these past couple of months," said the widow. "Her father's death was particularly hard on her. She is due back tomorrow afternoon, perhaps before you have to leave for the arena. Nonetheless, you'll be meeting her tomorrow. You'll like her, Knuckle."
Neither Knuckle nor Dmitry met Irina until well after their matches were over. The widow and her daughter waited for them outside of the arena after the crowds cleared, and when Knuckle saw them he ran to them, eagerly waiting to hear what the widow thought of the matches and how he and Dmitry performed. After all, they were both on a thirty-match winning streak and on their way to entering the championships; surely they must have been something amazing!
Before he could get a word out to ask the widow how well he had done, his eyes caught sight of Irina. He stepped backwards at the sight of her. Her beautifully golden hair was braided into a perfectly shaped bun on the nape of her slender and long neck. Her blue eyes echoed the brilliance of the very sky itself. When she smiled, he nearly melted into the pavement.
"Knuckle, Dmitry, this is my daughter, Irina," said the widow.
Knuckle knew from that moment that he was in love. He just wished that he had not fallen so deep so fast that he missed that ever since then, Dmitry began smiling again.
Father Andrei calls him to his office after the service. By now only candles light up the cathedral. Every member of the clergy floats about, completing their nightly rituals before heading home or to bed. Knuckle is not sure if he should visit Father Andrei before or after his chores, but caution wins out and he makes his way down the dim hallways of the cathedral. He is to be lectured for being late to Mass and on the night before he takes his vows; he must not keep Father waiting.
As he hurries past the monks and the other deacons, he pictures Father Andrei's disappointed face and his kind but harsh voice as he says all Knuckle knows he is to say. Then Knuckle recites under his breath how he will respond: first an apology, and then how he is unfit to be a priest, and then another apology when he announces his leave from the cathedral before dawn.
He cringes as he recites every sin he has committed that continues to haunt him. He knows that as soon as he confesses to Father Andrei, he will understand. No priest should be burdened with as much sin as Knuckle has to carry, and no amount of penance can ever free him from it, nor should it.
He arrives at the oak door of Father Andrei's office. He taps lightly upon it. At Father Andrei's invitation, he lets himself in. Father Andrei is sitting at his desk already, the Bible open by the candlelight, and he is intently reading but not so hard that he does not look up when Knuckle enters. He offers a warm smile and he waves at the cushioned chair in front of him.
"Sit, please," he says.
Knuckle obeys. He is worried that Father Andrei has no disappointed edge in his voice. Has Father Andrei called him in for reasons other than his tardiness earlier?
Knuckle's worries are not unfounded.
"Is there something troubling you, my child?"
Knuckle is taken aback, and he wonders how to answer. Perhaps he should skip the apology and go right into his resignation?
As he hesitates, Father Andrei continues. "You seemed so deep in thought ever since returning from the hospital, and you have never been late to Mass before. Did something happen? The monks gave me no indication."
"No," says Knuckle. "Nothing worth mentioning happened at the hospital, Father. It's just… I met a man who knows my past there, and he has made me realize that I am extremely unfit for priesthood."
Father Andrei raises his eyebrows. "Unfit for priesthood? What do you mean? You have been the most dedicated and enthusiastic deacon I have ever met. The people adore you, and your devotion to God is unmatched."
"This man has reminded me of my sins, and for that reason, I cannot take my vows tomorrow. I would be a disgrace to God."
"But you have confessed your sins, and you have done your penance. Three times, because you felt the first two times were not enough. I have given you your absolution; God has forgiven you."
Knuckle says nothing for a long while, remembering his confession when he first arrived at the cathedral. He remembers reciting the nature of each sin, giving vague details, but never the details that mattered. Now, it is time for Father Andrei to know the whole truth.
Knuckle murmurs, "Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. I… did not tell you the whole truth when I first came to you."
Father Andrei says gently, "This is not a confessional, my child."
"Please, Father, I have to tell you this. I committed a lie of omission when we first met, and so you do not know the full extent of my sins. Then, you will understand when I say that I am unfit to be a priest."
Dmitry started joining them at meals, and the widow was enthralled to have full, animated dinners.
Knuckle quickly noticed that Irina took her mother's place in watching for any toppling bowls or plates during his passionate storytelling. Like her mother, she also smiled and giggled at his every word. Her laugh reminded Knuckle of the church bells in one of the little towns they had visited shortly before coming to Moscow: sweet and gentle and unassuming. He was no poet, but he felt like he could out-write some of the best with poems about Irina alone.
In fact, he tried to, once. When he read his poem aloud, he immediately shredded it and threw it in the fireplace, blushing so hard that Dmitry teased him about it for a whole week.
Irina rarely came to their matches. She never gave any excuses or reasons as to why. Knuckle learned from the widow later that Irina had little love for fighting and violence, but she still adored Knuckle and Dmitry plenty; she prayed for their safety every time they had a match. For Knuckle, that was enough.
He and Dmitry both continued to be undefeated for many more months.
As the season of the boxing championship drew nearer, Knuckle was recognized on the streets readily. Men, women, and children alike all approached him, praising him for his achievements and admitting to placing a lot of money on his success in his upcoming matches against some of the best in the world. He thanked them all wholeheartedly. He wondered if Dmitry had the same response every time he walked the streets of Moscow.
But then Dmitry began faltering. He remained undefeated, and though he kept a positive attitude, Knuckle noticed the flaws in his movements, the missteps that would get him defeated in two hits flat if he were boxing a better opponent, and that he received twice as many blows from his opponent than he used to.
When Knuckle approached him about it, wondering what was wrong, Dmitry only laughed and said that nothing was wrong, life could not be better, and surely his technique would improve before the competition started.
Knuckle, of course, did not believe his friend. Technique did not automatically improve by itself. Knuckle had long since realized that the reason they started winning after they started boarding with the widow was because they took an entire week off from fighting to find somewhere to live. Their bodies had some time to rest after being overworked since they ran away from home. Though he accredited the winning streak to luck at first—and truth be told, some part of it had to be luck—he knew otherwise. He knew something was going on with Dmitry, and he intended to find out what it was and help him out. After all, that was what friends did, right?
So Knuckle paid more attention to Dmitry during the first rounds of the championship. In the morning, he woke up as groggy and grumpy same as always. When Irina danced through the door with their breakfast and a light song, Knuckle noticed that he was not the only one vibrantly smiling to her angelic form. But of course, Irina was extremely beautiful and could brighten up any room and any mood, so Knuckle thought little of it at first.
Then Knuckle and Dmitry ran their errands. Though the widow assured them that they never had to do such a thing, ever since their winnings tripled, they both decided that it was time to repay her kindness in full. Ten percent of their winning was a lot but not enough for the faith she put in them. This was the least they could do.
Knuckle treated the errands as a warm-up for the afternoon matches, always keeping a light jog and always having an opportunity to do a little heavy-lifting. Dmitry, Knuckle noticed, spent more time gazing into shop windows than actually contributing to the errands. Which, of course, Knuckle did not mind at first, until he noticed the stores Dmitry peered into: jewelry stores, fabric stores, flower shops.
Could he be…?
But, no, impossible. Surely Dmitry knew that Knuckle was in love with Irina. Surely Dmitry would not dare to infringe upon their friendship in such a manner.
After lunch with the widow and Irina, where Knuckle noticed that Dmitry spent more time looking at Irina than paying attention to what anyone else was saying, the pair ran off to their afternoon fights, which were the preliminary fights of the championship. Neither of them suffered losses, and both noticed that they were on opposite ends of the bracket. There was a chance, they realized and joked and laughed about, that they would end up fighting each other in the finals. It was a prospect both were openly looking forward to.
They returned to the house with their earnings. Knuckle stopped noticing Dmitry and started noticing Irina. She continued to watch for bowls and plates ready to flip over from his enthusiastic tales of the day, but she no longer smiled at him and she no longer laughed her beautiful laugh. She would steal glances at Dmitry, and her cheeks colored.
Knuckle knew that he became less enthusiastic at dinner ever since that moment. He never stopped for a second to realize that he became more and more bitter since then, as well.
As the pair continued to advance through the rankings, they fell into the same routine, but everything changed. Knuckle stopped smiling at Irina in the morning and instead narrowed his eyes in Dmitry's direction. He glowered at Dmitry looking at possible pretty presents for Irina, and Knuckle began to try to anticipate what Dmitry would buy so he could do one better.
Lunch became quiet, and the widow even wondered out loud if Knuckle was feeling sick or nervous about his matches. He was starting to face tougher opponents, after all. Dinner amounted to the same atmosphere.
But, in hindsight, what should have disturbed Knuckle the most was that in his afternoon and later, evening matches, he approached each opponent with a ferocity and strength that he never knew he had. He always won quickly so that he could hurry home and see Irina before Dmitry could finish his own matches, just so she could begin seeing Knuckle in a better light than Dmitry.
The night before the championship match, the final contestants was what Knuckle and Dmitry and the rest of Moscow had hoped for all along: the two childhood friends would face each other.
At dinner, Dmitry pointed out that it had been a long time since they fought each other and that it would be just like the good old days.
The widow and Irina promised to attend the match. The widow teared up as she said how proud she was of them, and how she thought of both of them as her own sons. It was in this single moment that Knuckle forgot about his grudge, and it was the last time he knew true happiness.
Before they fell asleep, Dmitry admitted to Knuckle: he was planning on proposing to Irina after the match tomorrow, whether he won or lost. He loved her, and he wanted nothing more than to make her happy.
Knuckle did not sleep that night.
Father Andrei's face remains expressionless as Knuckle arrives to the part of the story he is most ashamed of. The part of the story that drove him away from Moscow and into Father Andrei's cathedral, praying and crying and begging for forgiveness from a deity that he never paid attention to before. The part of the story that he dreads the most, the part of the story he regrets the most. The part of the story that makes him the worst candidate for priesthood than any other deacon who has ever taken his vows.
He pauses, staring at the scrunched up robes in his hands. Father Andrei waits patiently for Knuckle to continue, and Knuckle knows that he must. He cannot back out now; Father Andrei needs to know. He deserves to know. So, Knuckle takes a deep breath, and he continues, though he cannot bear to look at Father Andrei's face now.
"My wrath was so extreme, my envy so green, my pride so wounded, my greed so hungry, and my lust so deep, that I could not calm down until after the match was over," says Knuckle, recounting all the sins he confessed to Father Andrei the night they met. "And here is the sin I hid from you, Father, and it is the worst sin of them all: I killed him. In the ring that night. I… I never stopped to think about what I was doing, and I killed my best friend. The one who was my family when I abandoned mine, the one who looked out for me as a brother should. He is dead now, because of me and my petty selfishness. And because of that, Father, I cannot take my vows tomorrow."
For a long time, Father Andrei says nothing. Knuckle fights the tears but fails, and they fall onto his hands like warm raindrops. He wonders what Father Andrei looks like: is he angry, disappointed? What is he thinking?
He wonders about his next move, and he only comes to one answer. He has to leave; he is no longer welcome here.
But before he can move, Father Andrei asks quietly, "What of the widow and her daughter?"
Knuckle is taken aback by the question. "I… I don't know. As soon as I heard Dmitry's neck snap and I saw his dead body in the middle of the ring, I ran away and didn't stop running until I was out of the city. I haven't been back since."
"I see," says Father Andrei. "Now, let me ask you something, Knuckle. Why do you want to become a priest? Is it to repent? Is it to run away? And I want you to think about this before you answer, and I don't want you to tell me what you think I want to hear."
And so he takes a long moment to consider what had gone through his head the day he asked Father Andrei what it took to become a priest.
He spent a couple of months taking up sanctuary in the cathedral, diligently praying every night and tending to his penance for the sins he did admit to Father Andrei, and for the sins he did not. He remembers breaking down in tears as he chanted over and over again, "I didn't mean to, I didn't mean to, oh God, my Heavenly Father, I didn't mean to."
He attended every service, and he was struck by the serenity and holiness that the priests and the deacons and the monks carried with them. So inspired by their aura, he asked Father Andrei what he needed to do to be like them.
"Peace," says Knuckle finally, lifting his head to meet Father Andrei's eyes. "I wanted to become a priest to find peace. I thought that by devoting my life to God, I would find it. I kept telling myself that it was to repent for my sins, to repent for killing the person that mattered most to me. I realize now that I can never find peace with this hanging over me. This will never leave me."
"No, it won't," says Father Andrei, his face solemn. "My child, no member of the clergy is without sin. All of us have our fair share of misdeeds in the past, some worse than others. You regret what you have done, and in your own way, you have sought forgiveness. Several times. This in no way makes you unfit to become a priest."
"Then why tonight?" asks Knuckle. "Why do I remember Dmitry and the widow and Irina so clearly tonight, of all nights, if not to tell me that this is not the path for me?"
Father Andrei finally smiles. "Knuckle, my child, all priests have their doubts before taking their vows. Some priests are given visions of the children they can never have, or the riches they will never be allowed to keep. Taking your vows in the morning will be the easy part, if you pass the test God has given you tonight."
After he takes his leave from Father Andrei, he performs his nightly duties. He thinks about the test God has given him, and he wonders if the leper from earlier in the day is one of His agents. After all, the chances that such a man could find him again so far away from Moscow to remind him of who he once was are slim and especially on such a night. He wonders what it will take to pass the test and, most of all, whether or not it is God's will that he does.
As he sweeps through the church, he begins to wonder what his life would have been if he did so many things differently. What if he believed Dmitry from the start, that everything was fine and he would get back on track without his help, and he did not spend many days carefully watching his every move? Would the hate have built up to such tragic levels that perhaps Knuckle would not have overreacted to Dmitry's plans for proposal? Would he have been more accepting of his friend's love for Irina?
What if he had just swallowed his pride and given Dmitry his blessing? Dmitry would still be alive, possibly married to Irina, and all of them, including the widow, would have been happy. Or even if he had just kept his anger in check!
He finishes his chores and finds himself standing before the altar, staring up at the ornate crucifix mounted upon the wall.
What if, he wonders, he had done things differently?
But it is useless to dream of what could have been. Dmitry is dead. Dmitry is dead because of him, and nothing can change that.
Even if God can never forgive him, even if Dmitry never can, and even if his soul is condemned to Hell forever for what he has done, Knuckle knows that he has one last saving grace left.
He clasps his hands in front of him, bows his head, and begins to pray.