The Proselytizers

A pair of missionaries stumble upon a stranger who will help both confirm and question their faith.

The Bratislava Intruder is a series of short stories written by an Englishman who lives in this Central European city.


‘What about him?’

The man in his early-twenties turned to see who his counterpart, of same age and sex, was singling out. Sure enough, there was one solitary figure, slumped on a park bench in Sad Janka Krala, looking like he might as well be balanced on the edge of the world. Thin, slightly emaciated, gangly-limbed, wearing a T-shirt with a design not yet visible from this distance and angle. Bespectacled, unshaven, forlorn-faced, he looked about as threatening and dangerous as an abandoned runt of a litter of kittens.

‘Let’s move in,’ the second of the pair replied. They were both fit, muscular, bodies well-nourished and sports-strengthened. And their physical condition was dwarfed by their determination and resolve.

Daylight was waning and the evening was turning unseasonably cold. The park’s visitors had thinned out and this particular corner was free of any but the three of them. Over by the park exit that opened onto the playground and outdoor cafeteria to the rear of Aupark, parents were leading their children out of the brief respite of greenery and back into the more familiar features of this concrete jungle. An in-line skater was making circuits around the pathways off in the distance. Otherwise there was no-one within earshot or clear view of what was about to go down.

The seated man was barely aware of the lengthening shadows of the pair as they merged with that of his own. Instinctively, looking as reluctant as he was surprised, he turned to take in the two men, now standing over him, looking down.

‘Hey there,’ hailed the first of the men. ‘How are you doing?’

The seated man, whom, they now saw, was about the same age again, flicked his gaze between their faces, took in their attire, quickly appraised them, briefly scanned the park around them, then sat up straight as if wakened from a dream.

‘I’m good,’ he tried to assure them, and cracked a smile, a materialisation neither of the standing pair had expected to see appear on such a victimised visage.

‘Yeah?’ the standing man responded, sceptically but politely. ‘Well, would you object if we take a minute of your time?’ As he spoke, he took in the design on the seated’s T-shirt. It was a zombie, one he recognised from his brief forays into popular culture as coming from The Return of the Living Dead, a speech bubble rising from him encapsulating the capitalised exclamation-pointed BRAINS!

The seated man took in the standing ones’ garments’ decoration in turn. He read the name tags on their white dress shirts as he replied. ‘No problem at all, Elder Cox, Elder Bell. I’m Juraj, by the way. And I speak fluent English.’

He stood and extended his scrawny arm. The Mormons pumped it in turn in their own. ‘I’m Steve,’ said Elder Cox. ‘I’m Brian,’ said Elder Bell.

‘Nice to meet you. Where in the States you from?’

‘Texas,’ replied Steve. ‘Utah,’ replied Brian. Then, as a chorus, Juraj and Brian said, ‘Where else?’

There was a moment of laughter and the ice dissolved. ‘Where’d you learn to speak English so fluently, Juraj?’ asked Steve

Juraj shrugged. ‘Self-study mainly. I like reading English books.’

‘You do? What kind of thing you like to read?’

‘Well, for one, I’ve certainly dipped into The Book of Mormon a time or two.’

I’ve certainly dipped into The Book of Mormon a time or two.

Both missionaries raised their eyebrows to the skies. ‘You have?’ exclaimed Brian, trying to keep further scepticism out of his voice.

‘Sure. I mean I can’t claim to have read it thoroughly from Nephi to Moroni, but certainly the small plates I’ve been through pretty much word for word.’

The Mormons exchanged a glance. This was the first they had been in conversation with an unknown member of the public who was able to command some LDS terminology in literally months. Wanting nothing more than to be an encouragement, and with their very last intention being to frighten Juraj off, Steve tried to deftly slip in a test question, to check the authenticity of Juraj’s claim. ‘Which of those books spoke to you the most, Juraj?’

Without missing a beat, Juraj came back with ‘It would have to be the Book of Jacob.’

‘The Book of Jacob, hey?’

‘That’s right. Especially The Parable of the Olive Tree.’

Both Mormons were now not just baited but hooked. ‘Mind if we sit down with you?’

Juraj welcomed them to do so, and thus they bookended the unshaven youth, their spirits raised as they took the weight off their feet.

***

In another part of town, a brief but sober meeting of another kind was about to take place. One man hurried to the rendezvous site. His name was Josef Baca. Senior Police Lieutenant Josef Baca.

***

‘ ‘’…behold ye shall have joy with me because of the fruit of my vineyard.’’ ‘

‘Man, that is incredible,’ exclaimed Brian, in almost rapturous delight. ‘Do you know how seldom we come across people, especially in Slovakia, who can actually quote a single thing from The Book of Mormon?’

‘What do you make of the parable, Juraj?’ Steve asked, excitedly.

‘Well, for me, it’s always been quite straightforward. The lord of the vineyard is God, the servant Christ. The branches are men like you and me, capable of bearing good fruit or bad. The roots of the tree represent scripture. The pruning represents how the righteous will be separated from the sinful.’

‘Well, Juraj, that’s a valid interpretation,’ encouraged Steve. ‘Maybe a little oversimplified in some people’s eyes, but I’m delighted you’ve given it some thought.’

‘I guess you have a hard time here in Slovakia, right? Probably in Bratislava most people, or the ones who bother to speak to you at all, will tell you they’re atheists, right?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Except I don’t think they’re really atheists. It’s just the biggest faith is Catholicism, of course, and most just assume that if they’re not that, atheism’s the only other choice. If you ask me, they’re really more like agnostics.’

‘Well, you might have a point there, Juraj.’

‘Of course, critics might tell you The Book is anti-Semitic. They might make mention of Joseph Smith having fourteen wives. They might mention the archaeological and DNA inconsistencies when it lays claim to the American Indians being the descendants of the tribes of Israel.’ He looked back and forth at the Mormons’ faces, who were trying to be unemotive though showing a crack in their cool. ‘Am I right?’

Of course, critics might tell you The Book is anti-Semitic.

‘Well, sure,’ said Steve, matter-of-factly as he could, shrugging for emphasis. ‘But those are arguments we’ve heard many times before.’

‘Of course you have. Standard Gentile cannon fodder, right? Well, I hope you tell them that American Indian DNA – for example, the Sak and Ojibwa tribes – contains the X halpogroup, which is the marker for Israelite DNA.’

Steve and Brian exchanged a half-concealed glance at each other, with Juraj’s head centre stage and between their own.

‘It’s said there were no horses in the Americas during the 3,000 years The Book spans, and yet for all the Bible’s mention of lions in Palestine, nothing but two bones have ever been found.’

Steve and Brian were simultaneously experiencing a tingle through their bodies. It was as if Juraj had been Heavensent for them. It was if he had begun mentoring them on their own faith.

***

Nadporucik Baca was greeted, perfunctorily, by Jan Turcek. Dr Jan Turcek of University Hospital, Director of its psychiatric ward.

***

‘Of course, Mormons haven’t permitted polygamy for a century. And if Joseph Smith claims God spoke to him and permitted he take plural wives, and that is singled out and criticised by LDS critics, how come people don’t use the same arguments so outspokenly against Abraham, David, Solomon, Moses or Saul? Hell, and let’s not even start on Islam. Mohammed is history’s most famous paedophile, but not remotely famous for being someone who slept with kids.’

By now, the Mormons had started to squirm a little. ‘Well, we don’t want to cause any aggravation.’

‘Oh I didn’t mean any either, excuse me. I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we all say a prayer together?’

‘Well, that sounds a good idea,’ said Brian, and they prepared to do exactly that.

***

‘This is a photo of Robert,’ said Dr Turcek, handing it to Lieutenant Baca. ‘This was taken earlier this year. This is the T-shirt he was wearing when he eloped.’ The snap showed an unshaven spindly young man wearing a T-shirt with a zombie design.

‘You say he goes by various aliases too?’

‘He does. Sometimes he is Michal, sometimes Edgar, sometimes Juraj. But it’s not that he’s lying about his identity. He believes each time that’s exactly who he is.’

‘And the condition he has is called?’

Dr Turcek sighed. ‘Michal has Dissociative Identity Disorder. It is more commonly referred to as Multiple Personality Disorder. Clearly we haven’t got time to go into much detail, but in a nutshell he has several different personalities.’

‘Like schizophrenia, but worse?’

Dr Turcek toyed with a pen on his desk to help steady his nerves. ‘A little like the common perception of schizophrenia, yes. It affects up to five percent of the population, and is much more prevalent among women than men.’

Baca chuckled. ‘Yeah, you can say that again.’

‘To give you the briefest background on Robert, as himself – as in when he goes by his given name – he is utterly dependent and depressed, and also racked with guilt, which may or may not be due to some early childhood abuse. This is the prime reason we must find him quickly, because he is incapable of looking after himself. Coupled with the fact he has no money upon his person, and that he is ill-dressed for the weather conditions, I’d say it’s imperative we find him today.’

‘We’ll do our best.’

‘Just so you can give your fellow officers a briefing, Robert is extremely well-read, a voracious consumer of information. He has an acutely high IQ and is also fluent in several languages. He is nobody’s dummy, even when he’s barely capable of feeding himself.’

‘I see.’

‘When he goes by the name Michal, he is an undercover detective, following up leads on an unsolved case, employing detailed knowledge of forensic procedures.’

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‘Interesting.’

‘As Edgar, he is an eccentric millionaire, roughing his way around Europe to give himself a break from his opulent life in his various palatial homes.’

‘And Juraj?’ asked Baca, impatiently, referring to his hastily scrawled notes.

‘Juraj is a theologian desperately seeking salvation, with a tendency to latch on to whatever religious ideology those in his midst are trying to sell. A few months ago he was located and secured having persuaded Jehovah’s Witnesses of his adherence to their doctrine so convincingly, he was among their ranks holding up copies of Strazna veza at Trnavske Myto.’

‘OK. One more question. Is he dangerous?’

‘He has no history of physically harming anyone else. He is more a danger to himself through physical neglect. He does, however, have a tendency to panic, which is why I would like you and your officers to wear kid gloves when bringing him back. Oh, and he likes to hang out in parks, which might well be a good place to begin your search.’

***

Steve and Brian prayed with Juraj, persuaded him to attend a forthcoming service with them, and even got him interested in a soccer game their church regularly held. Finally, after an hour plus of what to them seemed to be highly fruitful discussion, they even invited him to the shopping centre food court and treated him to some refreshments as they topped up their own energy levels.

Eventually it was time for them to part company. Elder Cox and Elder Bell were soon due back at the meetinghouse in Grosslingova. After pumping Juraj’s hand with aplomb, they said a heartfelt and encouraging goodbye.

As they headed back toward HQ, they took one more sweep through the park, just to see if their radar detected any more lost souls they might be guided to. They were feeling buoyed after the relative success with Juraj, who showed more promise and likelihood to follow up on a meeting than perhaps anyone else in Bratislava they had thus far proselytized to.

As they made their way past the Gothic arbour, a police officer noticed them and quickly homed in on the pair.

‘You boys seen this guy around here today, by any chance?’ He handed them the photo of the man they knew as Juraj.

The missionaries exchanged a troubled glance. ‘Yes,’ said Elder Bell. ‘We actually had dinner with him in the food court of Aupark about twenty minutes ago.’

‘You did?’ The officer looked hopeful, and quickly blurted an instruction into his radio. Done, he turned back to the missionaries. ‘OK, we’ll check if he’s still there. In case we aren’t successful, do me a favour and call me on this number should you see him again.’

He handed Elder Bell a business card with Nadporucik Juraj Baca printed on it.

Just as he was leaving them, Elder Cox could not resist asking, ‘Lieutenant, is there a problem with this man? Is there anything we should know?’

Baca made a circle with his forefinger at his temple. ‘The guy’s nuts. A looney tune. Mad as a hatter. A total whacko.’

The missionaries frowned, indignant. ‘He didn’t seem like that to us,’ spoke up Elder Cox.

Baca took in their attire properly. He read the name tags on their shirts, under the inscription CIRKEV JESIZA CHRISTA SVATYCH NESKORSICH DNI. ‘Nah,’ he said, turning again to go. ‘I guess not.’

Afraid of what might await the man they knew of as Juraj, Elder Bell called after the disappearing cop, ‘In fact, he seemed to us like a perfectly sane man.’

Without breaking stride, Baca retorted without looking back, ‘Yeah.’ With a chuckle in his voice, he added. ‘I guess he probably did.’


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