Giotto Sabatino lived in a little trailer in the woods outside the tiny town of Hurlock, Maryland. Giotto’s brother Carlo bought the trailer for him in 2002 after the vigilantes burned down the old wooden shack that had been his home. The vigilantes wanted to burn Giotto to death for what he did to his wife and kids, but they only succeeded in scorching the top of his head. A flaming beam fell on him as he escaped the torched shack, melting the flesh clean off his scalp.
A man can understand how a woman can drive a man to madness, but a man has only himself to blame if he lets himself go all the way into it. It’s simply beyond the pale, of course, for a man to kill the woman he loves, but it was well known around town that Giotto had committed a crime even worse than uxoricide. He’d also murdered his son and daughter, and buried them with their mother so deep in the earth that no one had ever found a trace of them in the decades they’d been missing.
Carlo felt that blood was still blood, and he owed a certain loyalty to his brother no matter what he’d done. He only saw Giotto on Sundays when he brought him his weekly groceries, but he never stayed long. “You home, Giotto?” Carlo said, unlocking the bolt and entering the little trailer, putting the heavy paper bag on the table.
“I’m always home,” Giotto mumbled, coming out of the bedroom with his 83 Orioles hat on. He always wore the 83 Orioles hat to cover the burn scars on his head.
“Have you eaten breakfast?”
“Ran out of food last night,” Giotto said, removing the milk and Shredded Wheat from the grocery bag and pouring himself a bowl.
“I really wish you’d go with me to Mass, Giotto. No one’s ever at the 7am and no one would even know you were there,” Carlo said, putting away the rest of the food in the fridge and cupboard.
“I don’t fear for my soul,” Giotto said, delving into his cereal.
“Every man should fear for his soul,” Carlo said, closing the cupboard.
“Perhaps you should,” said Carlo, “Fr. Francis will be here in about an hour. Give him a chance, Giotto. Don’t be so resistant. Just listen. He wants to help you. Try to open up to him. There can be grace if you come back to faith.”
“I don’t fear for my soul, I never have.” said Giotto.
“I know, but I wish you would,” said Carlo.
Carlo was distressed by his brother’s nonchalant attitude toward things immortal. “How can you be so cavalier about the next world, Giotto, especially considering what might await you there?”
“Whatever awaits me at death awaits everyone else,” Giotto said.
There was a time when Carlo believed in Giotto’s innocence, but Fr. Francis finally wore him down, and convinced him that even though Giotto had never been convicted of anything, the evidence of his guilt was overwhelming. “A woman and her two small children simply don’t disappear into the ether,” Fr. Francis would tell Carlo when they discussed the matter. “If his wife had run away with the kids, surely some sign of them would’ve appeared in all these years!”
Giotto’s family vanished from their home in Seaford, Delaware on Saturday, October 22nd, 1983. Giotto had been out at a bar the night before and was as desiccated as a desert rock when he woke up. “Had to drink like a fish last night, didn’t you?” his wife Angela said, looking down at him on the bed. “You didn’t think your children would want to spend Saturday with you? It’s one in the afternoon for God’s sake, Giotto.”
Giotto rose, wobbly, and put on his clothes. He was seeing double. “I’m so sorry, honey,” he said, “I lost track of the time last night when I was out with Carlo. He wanted to take me out to celebrate the Orioles.”
“The Orioles won the World Series a week ago,” Angela said as the children dawdled up to her.
“Yeah, but we couldn’t celebrate like we wanted to on a Sunday since we both had work the next day.”
“Daddy! Daddy!” the children cried. They wrapped their little arms around Giotto’s legs and smiled up at him.
“Let Daddy go, kids, I’m not feeling so well,” Giotto said. He’d suddenly become nauseated.
“Oh, for the love of God, Giotto!” Angela said as her husband pried the children off his legs and crashed through the bathroom door and fell to his knees before the toilet bowl. “How disgraceful!”
Giotto ejected several bolts of vomit and buried his head in the bowl after flushing the toilet. “I’m so sorry, honey,” he moaned.
“What’s wrong with Daddy?’ the little girl asked.
“It’s nothing, sweetie. He’s just a little under the weather.”
“When will he be better?” asked the boy.
“In a while, honey,” Angela closed the bathroom door halfway. “A fine role model you are for your children!” she said to Giotto. “Just look at you there, is this who I married, is this who you are?”
“I’m so sorry, honey.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself, Giotto, drinking until you’re sick. I’m going to Hurlock. I’m taking the kids to Grandma’s. I don’t want them around you when you’re like this. Sleep it off and drink plenty of liquids. Maybe we’ll come back this evening if you clean yourself up.”
“I’ll clean myself up right now, Angela. I don’t want you going to your mother’s and running me down.” Giotto tried to get up from the toilet, but weakly fell back to his knees.
“It looks like you’ll be spending the day on your knees, and it’s not even Sunday!” Angela said.
“Don’t go, Angela. I’ll be better soon.”
“We’re going to Grandma’s,” Angela said, leading the children out of the bedroom.
“I told you, Angela. I don’t want you going to your mother’s and running me down!”
“She has every right to know her daughter married a drunkard, Giotto!”
Feeling somewhat relieved after evicting the sick from his stomach, Giotto rose from the bathroom floor and lumbered to the front door to prevent Angela and the kids from leaving.
“Get the hell away from us, you stinking lush!” Angela said, trying to push past her husband who was blocking the exit.
“You’re not going anywhere.” Giotto grabbed her firmly by the wrists. “I told you, I don’t want you running me down to your mother!”
Angela freed her right wrist and slapped Giotto across his stubbled face. “You’re a sack of shit, Giotto!” she roared. “My mother was right about you! I married a loser!”
“You married a loser, eh?” Giotto grunted, knocking Angela to her knees with a hard slap across her cheek.
“I should leave you, Giotto, and be a mistress to Carlo, who loves me more than you know,” Angela said. She rubbed her wounded cheek with a malicious grin, and the children began crying.
The pain that cut through Giotto’s heart was razor-sharp, like when the dentist’s needle stabs the nerve in the tooth’s pulp. He thought how easy it would be for a man of his strength to get rid of his family once and for all if a man of his strength really wanted to. He knew that his fears were true. Angela had betrayed him with Carlo.
The longer that Angela and the children were missing, the more suspicious the police and public became of Giotto. His wife and kids had been seen at the grocery store that Saturday morning, but they were never seen again after they went home. The family’s vehicle, a 1980 midnight blue Ford Bronco, was gone, but Angela and the children never made it to Angela’s mother’s in Hurlock, and Giotto never bothered to file a missing person’s report in the days that followed. It was only on October 26th that Angela’s worried mother went to the police station and filed one.
“Giotto has a temper, and I’ve always feared for my daughter,” the old woman told the officers. “I’m sure he did something to her, something terrible, but not just to her, to the children as well!”
The police interrogated Giotto, but they had nothing on him, “Angela ran away and took the kids,” he told them. “Maybe she went to New York where she has relatives.”
When the investigators interviewed Veronica McFadden, Angela’s closest friend, she told them that Angela and Carlo had been having an affair for years. “If Giotto found out about it,” she said, “he’d seek revenge. He was that kind of a man, hot-blooded.”
“But why would he harm his children?” the investigators asked.
“I don’t know,” Veronica said. “Maybe he didn’t think they were his. Maybe he thought they were Carlo’s.”
When the police interviewed Carlo, they could see he was nervous. He sweated profusely and his voice cracked. “Were you having an affair with your brother’s wife, Angela?” they asked.
“How dare you even insinuate that, you bastards!” Carlo answered. “I’m a good Catholic! I’m married to a beautiful woman and we’re raising four small children!”
Carlo, perhaps not such a good Catholic after all, never confessed the affair to anyone, not even to Fr. Francis.
After several weeks, the police got a warrant to search Giotto’s home but they didn’t find anything. “What would they find?’ Fr. Francis used to tell Carlo when they discussed the matter. “Giotto probably didn’t spill any blood because he strangled his victims, and even if he did stab them or bash their brains in, several weeks is plenty of time to clean up the crime scene.”
Giotto lost his business and then his home in the months that followed. He was an electrician and no one would hire him. That’s when Carlo, guilt-ridden and wanting to make amends, purchased the little patch of land with the wooden shack on it and let his brother move in. Without the bodies or evidence of any kind, the police were never able to charge Giotto with a crime, but he served hard time anyway. Despised and rejected by everyone in Hurlock and the surrounding towns, he never left his isolated shack in the woods. Only when the vigilantes burned the shack down in 2002 did he leave the little patch of land to go to the hospital to dress his burns. Carlo provided for Giotto materially and financially but was forbidden by his wife to bring him around his nieces and nephews. She was sure he’d murdered his children and didn’t want him to murder hers.
When Carlo bought the trailer after the shack was burned to cinders, he stipulated that Giotto had to speak to Fr. Francis for “spiritual counselling” one Sunday a month if he wanted to live in it. Fr. Francis was a wiry little man with deep brown liver spots splotched all over his hairless head like the flecks on a speckled egg. When he made it down the narrow dirt road that twisted to Giotto’s home that hot July day in 2014, he got out of his sedan and hobbled up to the trailer door where Giotto was observing him through the peep hole.
“Hello, my son,” Fr. Francis said when Giotto swung the door open. “It’s nice to see you again.”
“Come in,” Giotto replied, leading Fr. Francis to a little couch across from the table where both men sat down. “Would you like something to drink? Something to eat?”
“No thanks, I’m full.” Fr. Francis leaned back and swung his right calf over his left shin. “It’s too bad you didn’t come to Mass today, Giotto, I know your brother would’ve loved to have taken you. Carlo told me that himself. Fr. Dominic gave a lovely homily on repentance. He spoke of how St. Peter betrayed Christ when he denied him three times. Could there be a greater sin than denying our Lord and Savior in the flesh? I can’t think of a greater sin than that, can you Giotto? But St. Peter repented for his sin and was forgiven. He now sits by the throne of Christ in the highest Heaven. It just goes to show that you can be saved if you repent. Do you agree, Giotto? What do you think about that?”
“I think Peter was afraid. When he looked into the abyss, he didn’t believe in God anymore, just like most of us.”
“Yes, but he repented. What do you think about that?”
“I think he repented because he was afraid. He feared that without repenting he wouldn’t be saved. I think his repentance was selfish.”
“You don’t think St. Peter’s repentance was genuine, Giotto? You don’t think he knew what he did was deeply wrong, and aggrieving to God?”
“Every aspiration of faith is selfish.”
“Is it selfish to seek forgiveness from God for one’s sins?”
“Yes, I believe it is. If God didn’t want to be sinned against, he never should’ve made us.”
“But you’re forgetting about freedom, Giotto.”
“Yes, Father, I know. Freedom makes us evil.”
“It doesn’t make us evil, but it tempts us to deny God and put ourselves first, to be selfish, in short. To repent for one’s sins is to declare to the Lord that one isn’t evil, even though one has done evil.”
“What’s the point of repentance if God doesn’t exist?”
“This world’s but a transitory phase in the Divine scheme of creation, Giotto, but your soul is immortal, never forget that. The anguish you experience in this existence will be annihilated in the Kingdom of Heaven. Try to have faith, Giotto, never give up on it. Faith will lead you through the sorrow of this world and into bliss eternal.”
“I don’t think that’s true, Father, with all due respect,” said Giotto. “The sorrow of this world is all we’ll ever know. The only solace I take from Angela and the kids being dead is that they don’t have to endure the sorrow of this world anymore. Death is freedom.”
“But how do you know they’re dead, Giotto? How do you know for sure?”
“It’s been more than thirty years, Father. They’re gone. Something evil destroyed them.”
“How well do you know this evil, Giotto? Is it something inside you?”
“Evil’s inside us all, isn’t it, Father? Isn’t that what your faith teaches about your Devil, without whom your God would have no use and nothing to do?”
“If the Devil is inside you, he can be purged, and you can be cleansed,” Fr. Francis said. “With faith and repentance, you can be forgiven for even the gravest of sins–even killing your wife and kids.”
“How do you know I killed them, Father?” Giotto asked, removing his 83 Orioles hat and running his fingers like the legs of a spider over the deep red scars on the crown of his bald head. His eyes narrowed into slits and the right edge of his mouth curled up in a sneer.
“Only God knows what lies in the darkest regions of our souls,” Fr. Francis said, uncrossing his legs and leading toward Giotto on the sofa. “You can’t hide any secrets from the Lord. That’s why the best thing you can do is repent. Confess your sins to God and let the burden of guilt lift from your shoulders.”
“But I don’t have a burden of guilt on my shoulders, Father, I never have, and I never will,” said Giotto. “The Devil inside me is no different from the Devil inside you, or the Devil inside anyone else. Suppose for a moment, Father, that I did kill Angela and the kids. Would wrapping myself in the garb of your faith, saying all my prayers and going to Mass every day, really evince a deep-seated yearning for forgiveness, or would it merely be an exercise in selfishness, an assertion of my own centrality to the morality play your faith claims is the essence of the world?”
“That would depend on whether you really wanted to be forgiven, Giotto. If you did, you would be, even for the vilest sin, like killing your family; if you didn’t want to be forgiven, you wouldn’t be, and you’d pay the price forever. God sees through every hypocrisy and deception that dupes and beguiles mortal men. But what’s immortal is what’s important, Giotto. Your soul is the most precious possession in the world, as is mine, and everyone else’s, to recognizing that isn’t selfish, it’s simply realistic. If there’s a stain on your soul it needs to be removed, Giotto, and the only way to remove it is to repent and ask God to forgive you.”
“I don’t deserve God’s forgiveness, nobody does.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” said Fr. Francis. “I can intercede with God on your behalf, all you have to do is confess.”
“Hard on myself?” Giotto said with a laugh. “Is that what you think I’m being? Hard on myself? I don’t need to be hard on myself, the world’s been hard enough on me.”
“Confess to me, Giotto,” said Fr. Francis, “and set your soul free!”
“I’ll never confess to you, nor to anyone else!” Giotto said with contempt. “I’ve had enough of you today, Fr. Francis, I’ve tolerated you for too long, now I think you should be going.”
“Very well, Giotto, if that’s what you want, I’ll go, but I’ll see you next month,” Fr. Francis said, getting up and moving to the door. “Just think about what I said, and don’t give up on God just yet, God hasn’t given up on you.”
“I think God has given up on everything,” Giotto said, “if God ever existed in the first place.”
“Always leave the door open for faith, even if just slightly.”
“Be on your way, Father,” Giotto said opening the door and shooing the priest out. “Be on your way, and I’ll see you when I see you.”
Giotto was disturbed all day by Fr. Francis’s visit. He grew increasingly agitated as darkness descended on the forest that concealed him from the harsh and prying light of the world. Still tossing and turning at midnight, he thought he heard voices in the thickly tangled woods. When he looked out from the little window in his bedroom, he was sure something sinister was looking back at him. Sets of eyeballs seemed to blink in the blackness but he couldn’t be sure if they were real or just imagined. Giotto hoped he was being paranoid, but he wasn’t, unless paranoia is the keenest form of perception, for he was right that something sinister was lurking in the night, hunting him.
The vigilantes were as patient as Job, and waited twelve years before finishing the job. No one would ever know who they were but the police suspected they were locals, for outsiders had no way of knowing where Giotto’s trailer was in the dark woods. Giotto was laying sleeplessly in his bed when the first Molotov cocktail crashed through his bedroom window. His blankets caught fire but he was able to kick them off him and scurry toward the front door. When he reached it, he found it wouldn’t open because it was blocked by an outside obstruction, and another Molotov cocktail crashed through the living room window, slid across the table, and set the sofa aflame.
With no means of escape but the shattered window in the living room, Giotto leaped up and tried to pull himself out of it, slicing his chest and back on the shards of glass that were embedded in the frame like the teeth in the jaws of a shark. When he was stuck half-in and half-out of the small window, two vigilantes in black ski masks, one with a bat and the other an ax, viciously attacked, killing Giotto by bashing and slashing him dozens of times on his head and back.
When the police informed Carlo of his brother’s grisly death a few hours later—his charred body had been discovered by the firefighters—he said a prayer for Giotto’s soul and called for Fr. Francis to come over and give him comfort. “Perhaps in the privacy of his own heart he repented to God and was forgiven,” the priest said gently placing his hand on Carlo’s shoulder, “but if he didn’t repent, the pain he endured tonight will be but the beginning of his torments.”
“I’ve prayed for him every day these many years, Father,” Carlo said. “I prayed for the salvation of his soul but I honestly don’t know if he wanted it to be saved. He was so cold to faith. He once said to me that it would’ve been better if the Earth was like the moon, just a cold dead stone.”
“Death and nothingness are always desired by evildoers, Carlo,” Fr. Francis said, “for if the world and everything in it is destined for nothingness, there will be no punishment. Giotto all but admitted to me that he killed his family. The Devil’s rage burned in his soul, Carlo, and if he was too proud to repent, the Devil’s rage will always burn it.”
The vigilantes may as well have been ghosts, since they left no sign whatsoever of who they were, and everything at the crime scene was burned. Even the boots they wore had no distinguishing patterns on the soles, and other than the size 10 footprints—the most common size among men—there was no evidence for the police to go on. The decent and upright townsfolk of Hurlock wouldn’t condone lawlessness, of course, but there was no appetite at all among them to bring the vigilantes to justice. The murderous hermit living in the dark woods had cast a sinister pall over the town, and when he was gone it was as though an oppressive force had lifted off their collective shoulders.
As the months passed and the grim memory of Giotto’s existence faded, even Carlo, relieved of the burden of supporting his brother the murderer, found his way back into the town’s good graces. Fr. Francis reminded the townsfolk that a man is only responsible for his own actions, and can’t be made to carry the weight of his brother’s sins. “Carlo prayed every day for his brother’s soul,” the priest told the townsfolk. “He fed and sheltered him for decades in the hope he’d repent, but Giotto was too proud and stubborn to ask God to forgive him.”
Carlo was always too fearful to admit his affair with Angela to Giotto, and they never broached the topic in conversation, but Carlo strongly suspected that his brother knew about it, and that it had been the catalyst for the atrocities he’d committed. His betrayal of his brother, Carlo was sure, had ignited a rage in Giotto’s heart that led him to murder. When he thought of Angela, he was ashamed of himself and his sinfulness, and wished Giotto would’ve killed him instead of her and the kids.
As the years went by and the life and crimes of Giotto Sabatino passed into legend, Carlo slowly began to find peace. His many children had many children of their own and it seemed clear that God was blessing him. He felt in his heart that his prayers had been answered, his repentance accepted, and his sins forgiven. After all, his sin was concupiscence, not murdering children, and his brother—unrepentant to the last—would have to pay the price for what he’d done to the kids, not him, he had nothing to do with that.
A man can understand how a woman can drive a man to madness, but murdering little children is simply beyond all understanding. Carlo had no doubt that Giotto had been damned to Hell, and he prayed every day to escape the same fate. Fr. Francis was right, Carlo told himself, just because God is forgiving doesn’t mean that God forgives everything. To be forgiven, one must ask for it, one must repent, and since Giotto never repented, he deserved God’s righteous punishment.
A little less than four years after Giotto’s death, on a bright, sunny day in July 2018, a diligent scientist from the Maryland Department of the Environment made an amazing discovery that would exonerate Giotto posthumously. While she was using a drone to map the eutrophication of Marshyhope Creek, photographing and measuring the shades of green and brown in the water, she thought she saw an anomaly, a large, dark shadow, in the middle of the waterway. Zooming in on the great shadow with the drone’s camera, the eagle-eyed ecologist discerned tiny pinpricks of white, and realized they were the numbers and letters of an old Delaware license plate.
When the police arrived and lifted the midnight blue 1980 Ford Bronco out of the creek, they found only bones and scraps of clothes on the victims. The injuries to Angela’s teeth and cheekbones demonstrably showed that she’d been knocked out on impact, and the two small children, not strong enough to open the doors under water, drowned in the backseats they were strapped in when the water surged into the slightly opened windows.
There was disbelief and confusion when news of the discovery spread around Hurlock and the surrounding towns. “Perhaps Giotto had driven Angela and the kids into the creek after killing them,” Fr. Francis opined when he and Carlo discussed the matter, and Carlo desperately wanted to believe him, but after further investigation the authorities found that the front tire had blown out and Angela probably lost control of the Bronco in an instant. The truck had taken so long to be found because it landed nose down in a soft spot in the sediment with a sinkhole under it. Most of the vehicle was submerged under silt and only the rear bumper stuck out unseen beneath the murky water.
Angela must’ve been in a great hurry to get to her mother’s place in Hurlock that day because she was driving at a pretty good clip across the Harrison Ferry Bridge when the front driver-side wheel blew out and she lost control of the top-heavy Bronco. Elevated on lifted wheels, the vehicle easily rolled over the foot-and-a-half high guardrail and plunged perfectly into the sinkhole in the middle of the creek where for thirty-five years it disappeared from the world. There was really no denying what happened, Carlo realized, and how wrong he and Fr. Francis and everyone in the town had always been. It was as clear as could be, Angela and the children had died in an accident. They hadn’t been murdered. His brother had always been innocent, and he and Fr. Francis and everyone in the town, especially the vigilantes, had always been as guilty as sin.