On 15 June 2005, Vaslui Police was informed that an ambulance carrying the dead body of a nun had arrived at the County Hospital. The Police began an investigation at the monastery in the village of Tanacu. Castigated by public opinion and hounded by the newspapers, a priest and four nuns were hauled in front of a court. The Book of Judges is the story of that trial and reconstructs the Tanacu criminal investigation, a complicated, notorious case in Romania, which Tatiana Niculescu Bran describes based on her own investigations, as an extension of the novel Confession in Tanacu. At the same time it is a fictional reconstruction of a religious milieu stalked by fear and guilt. The fundamental question asked by the book is: how is justice to be done?
The two novels the author has dedicated to this subject, Confession in Tanacu and The Book of Judges, inspired the film Beyond the Hills, directed by Cristian Mungiu, which won two awards at the Cannes Festival in 2012.
The Holy Trinity Monastery was visible from the main road. It stood at the top of a hill near the village of Tanacu, twenty five kilometres from Vaslui. The village was thought to be named after a fourteenth century franklin, Tanase Tanacu, a god fearing man, who had left his land to the Church. A country road climbed through a deciduous wood and then emerged on the hilltop, leaving behind the old part of the village and the new villas that had sprouted around its edge in recent years like mushrooms after the rain.
That day, at around two o’clock in the afternoon, two policemen in civilian clothes entered the monastery gate. Corozel was wearing a black leather jacket and was freshly shaven. By the way he walked you could tell he was running the operation. An old scar scored a vertical runnel down his chin and his moist gaze lent him a melancholy air. He had known he would grow up to be a policeman ever since he was in primary school. As a teenager, he had devoured all the detective novels published in the Ceauşescu period. Reserved and precise in his movements, he became trenchant when the need arose. His profession had taught him always to doubt what people told him.
He looked carefully at the priest who came out to meet them. He was short in height, thin, with a long ginger beard that reached to his waist. It was difficult to tell his age. By the way he was wringing his hands, it was evident that he was worried.
“Good day, father. Are you the abbot here?” he asked him.
“God be with you! Yes, I am. Come this way,” said the priest, pointing up the path to the chapel.
“His voice has a slight quaver,” thought the sub commissar.
“Do you have a nun here by the name of Cornici? What happened to her?”
“Two nuns told us she had died. We called an ambulance and…”
“She showed signs of having been tied up, bruises… We saw her in the morgue.”
“Because she was very agitated and a danger to our community, because she kept talking obscenely, frighteningly, we tied her up,” explained the priest.
“How did you tie her up? Can you show us?”
“We tied her to some planks, for pouring cement… There’re over here behind the chapel, come and see!”
They went there, the priest leading the way, Corozel and the other priest following behind. They were joined by a nun who seemed to know everything that went on at the convent. On the grass they found a cross shaped stretcher: two planks, one longer than the other, joined together, and at the top a narrower board. “Did they crucify her?” thought the sub commissioner, and asked:
“How did you bind her to this cross? How did you tie her?”
“We tied her with some towels and with the chains for the dogs,” interposed the nun who had joined them. “So that we could carry her from the cells to the church.”
She had been kept tied up for two days and two nights. After the services, which lasted four or five hours, they would take her into the porch, on the stretcher, lay her on a quilt and there she would stay, talking incoherently, blaspheming, until the service the following day. The policemen asked to be shown how they had transported her. Corozel was not knowledgeable about religion, but it was clear to him that a ritual had been involved.
A nun wearing trousers under her long coat and a black woolly hat pulled down over her ears was pacing back and forth, waiting to be questioned so that she could tell all: about how Irina had visited her in spring and gone into convulsions, about how she had been admitted to hospital, about how she had become violent again and so they had had to tie her up before they could take her to the church. The priest had tried to drive out the evil spirits possessing her. Then Irina had passed out, they had called an ambulance, and an hour later they found out she had died.
The policeman started to make a reconstruction. The girl with the woolly hat had been Irina’s friend, sister Paraschiva, the priest told them. A number of nuns had carried the stretcher to the church. Paraschiva lay on the stretcher, face upward, her arms akimbo, to show them how Irina had lain while they recited the prayers to drive out unclean spirits.
“How did you transport her?” asked the sub commissar.
“The nuns lifted her up on the stretcher, took her from the porch and laid her here, in the middle, on some stools, and after Holy Liturgy I read the prayers to her,” answered the priest. “And I also anointed her with holy oil on her joints. The Sacrament of Holy Unction…”
“And what did she do while all this was going on? Did she say anything?”
“Well…” murmured the priest, shaking his head and looking down at Paraschiva the same as he would have looked down at Irina. “She struggled, she screamed, she cursed… the devil tormented her sorely…”
“So, you were trying to exorcise her?”
“That’s what you laymen call it, but what we call it is administering Holy Unction, and I read to her the Moleben of St Basil,” said the priest.
He saw that the policeman did not know what Holy Unction or a Moleben was, and so that was why he called it an exorcism. It was pointless trying to explain the difference.
Radu Corozel gazed at him in mild amusement. He suspected that he was younger than himself, although the beard concealed his age and only the liveliness of his blue eyes gave him away. “The victim was crucified on a wooden cross for purposes of exorcism,” he wrote down in his notebook. He had never come across a case like it. But he knew that in the monasteries of Moldavia rites to drive out evil spirits were a frequent occurrence.
“She was no longer herself, that’s what!” Paraschiva managed to interpose.
When the policeman turned around to look at her, she felt embarrassed.
“Because of grave sins, you know? You have grave sins and you’re ashamed to confess. Even if you’re a virgin, the devil can still possess you… I told her beforehand that she should confess: ‘Irina, you know how grave some sins are and you don’t even need to do it with a man, just to think about it!’ And she herself realised how many she’d committed…”
At the orphanage in Birlad, where they had grown up and where the older boys and the assistants used to rape the girls, nobody had ever managed to pin Irina down. “If they got you and held you down, there was no escaping them!” thought Paraschiva. To protect herself, Irina had learned karate moves and she had taught her too. “Enough to let you to get away, so that they won’t pin you on the floor,” Chiţa used to say. “Because it nags at you when you’re all alone and you haven’t got anybody else. It’s hard like that, because nobody knows when they do bad things to you, they let them kill you and nobody will ever find out…” That’s why she entered the monastery. Never mind that she was a believer: it was so that she wouldn’t have to go on living with the dread, a dread that Irina had never managed to rid herself of. Lying on the stretcher on which her friend had writhed, it was as if she could see her trying to break free of her bonds, pulling at them, twisting and turning, bawling at the top of her voice.
Paraschiva was convinced that Irina had been possessed by the devil. Yes, they had locked her up in her cell, yes, they had tied her up with towels and bound her hands and legs in the chains for shackling the dogs, but what else could they do when she was bawling obscenities and lashing out at everybody and when not even the doctors at the hospital had been able to do anything for her? Hadn’t they tied her up at the hospital too? You don’t mess with the devil! Only by fasting and praying can you vanquish him! It was as if she was afraid, but also proud in a way that they had singled out her to show them how Irina had been lain out and bound on those planks.
“When she was lain out like that, did you give her food and water?” asked the policeman.
“The priest kept trying to give her holy water and sanctified bread, but she spat it out. She wouldn’t even let you moisten her lips!” she said.
“We fasted and we wept!” added another of the nuns. “We knew that she was a tortured soul, all alone in the world, raised in an orphanage, like sister Paraschiva! This morning, when she came to her senses, she was calm and she recognised us. We said to ourselves that she was cured! She even asked me: ‘Mammy, where are you going?’ That was what she called me. ‘I’m going into town, Irina,’ says I. ‘Just you be good, because I’ll be back in no time!’ I had to do the shopping and take one of the nuns to the hospital, you know?”
“What is your name?” asked Corozel.
“What is your name on your identity card?”
“Arcalianu,” replied the nun.
“And did she want to become a nun, or what?”
“Yes, she said she liked the life we lead here and that she was going to stay.”
“Where did she sleep?”
“Let me show you,” said the priest. “Her cell is in the wing at the back. The one under construction… we didn’t manage to… what with all the misfortunes…”
“Can I get up?” Paraschiva asked the policeman, trying to attract his attention once more.
There were lots of other things she could tell him about Irina. Didn’t he want to know anything else? Why had he finished with her so quickly? The cross shaped stretcher still smelled of her friend’s sweat and urine.
“Yes. What is your name?” Corozel asked her.
“Chiţa!” she said, and then, realising that the Police needed to know the name on her identity card, she added: “Paraschiva Anghel.”
The sub commissar made a note of the names and then followed the priest into the yard, together with the other policeman. They went down a narrow gravel path and then turned left, by a breezeblock porch where a cauldron of vegetables was simmering on a hob. In the meantime, sub commissar Popa and his criminalist technician had arrived and they were taking photographs. On the fence by the cells, a garnet coloured quilt, a flowery brown blanket and a doormat were hung out to dry in the sun.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth