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Wystan Parish, Virginia
Wait for it. Feel the hint of dew on the air, the cooling of the sidewalks and the diminishing sounds of traffic from the Interstate. Sense the stars hovering above the town, not yet visible but forever there. People were going inside, returning to their homes. Good smells began to drift past him: kitchen and bread and belonging.
A boy was perched on the concrete garden steps leading down from the doors of the rectory. The garden was a sheltered, dark green cove hidden from the road by a wrought-iron fence heavily overgrown with weeds, honeysuckle and boxwood. It was a secret place, damp and quiet, filled with growing things and presided over by an ancient magnolia fully six feet across at the trunk. The boy was dark-haired, with brilliant, wide-set blue eyes vaguely reminiscent of a cat. He closed his eyes, ending their devouring stare, and inhaled deeply before snapping back to attention, his gaze fixed on the patch of sky he could see through the trees to the west. Becket Merriday was an alert child for a seven year old, but his attention had lapsed and he had almost missed it. It always happened so quickly, and he knew from experience that even a momentary distraction could bring failure.
The world was diminishing, not preparing for sleep, but taking a steadying breath before night hammered down with all its native creatures and habits. The evening birds were out. He did not know their names, but they were swift, ratcheting flyers that seemed to come with the red sunset, black arrow-shapes darting in the brazen light of afternoon. The sun itself was gone, sunken without fanfare. The sky still held the light,but there was no glaring source as an author.
He was captivated by small things: the thumb-print blush of smoky-blue in the southern sky, the band of pink to the north, a razor line of fire in the west. He turned his head expectantly as light winds shifted from north to east, carrying a smell he recognized only as distance. A cloud passed, the light dimmed a wisp of a shade, and in the space of one breath to another it happened: dusk covered the small factory town, a brief witching-time between light and shadow.
Beck stared in profound awe and sighed.
He had spent the earlier part of the afternoon in the private library. Father Dane had unlocked it for him with a finger to his lips, well aware of how Father Calvert would feel if he knew that young, careless hands were pawing his revered volumes. Father Dane was much younger than Father Calvert, a new addition to the parish and only recently ordained. Beck trusted him no more than the other priest, but Father Dane only patted his head, made sure he washed his hands, and placidly ignored him with the benevolent, hieratical surety of man utterly convinced that God would take care of His own.
Beck was sure that Father Dane looked at him like he would a mouse that lived under the sink; a small, furtive thing who took great pains not to be noticed, but still needed the crumbs off the table. Lately, Father Dane had begun to allow him to spend hours in the locked, dusty anteroom of the rectory that served as the library, plowing through thick religious treatises and leather-bound volumes of dogma. There were also a few small, neglected chapbooks with crisp, gilt-edged pages describing the evils of sorcery and the fiery end awaiting all heretics. Beck devoured these with the starved hunger of an extremely inquisitive and deprived young mind.
He had read a new story that morning; an exciting one full of monsters and giants and wicked women. Like any boy, he relished such tales, though he was sure he would get into serious trouble if Father Calvert ever found out.
The story was about angels and women and how the children made between them in lust were evil--so purely, irredeemably evil that when such a one was slaughtered, all the demons of the earth had sprung fully formed from its corpse. He liked some of the words in the book, like lust. It was a bad word and he had to remember that, just like he had to remember all the other bad things he must not do or say and all the secrets he must never tell.
He told it to the stillness of the garden, holding the rich, rough sound in his throat and rolling it out with his tongue; "Llllllust."
Beck started, jolted out of his ritual, and turned to glare at the intrusion that seemed to spring from thin air. He had heard no one approach.
An elderly woman faced him. Her dress was long and old-fashioned, her white hair knotted into a coil at the back of her neck. One gnarled hand rested on a wooden cane that supported her slight body. Beck thought she looked like she might fall over and blow away without it. Weak, she was. He relaxed. She was not much of a threat, but he had learned that appearances were the least telling thing about people.
"Hullo," he said warily.
She smiled. "You're distrustful. That's good. That's very good."
"You shouldn't be back here," he said in his thin, strong voice. "This is the Father's private garden. He doesn't like visitors back here."
"Yet here you are."
"I live here."
"Are there other children here?"
Beck looked down at his shoes. "Nope."
"Ah, of course. I'd forgotten." She nodded as if she understood everything. "I'm very tired. Is there somewhere an old woman could sit?"
Beck glanced back at the church rectory behind him, shook his head.
"Just for a moment? Please?"
Dusting his palms off on his trousers, he hopped down from the steps and led her to an algae-streaked stone bench under the magnolia, feeling the rich loam sink under his sneakers as he walked and wondering if the old lady was going to punch holes in the moss with her cane. He'd be in trouble then, because of course Father Calvert would think he did it.
Though it was not far, the woman had to stop twice to catch her breath, leaning heavily on the cane and casting a weathered eye at him. Beck halted when she did, but offered nothing further.
"You keep your distance, child," she breathed as she sank onto the bench like a pale, floating leaf, her voice hoarse with exertion. "And you're ignoring your manners. I know a word." She looked piercingly at him. "Instinct. Do you know that word?"
Beck shook his head.
"You have an instinct inside of you. It's like a tiny voice guiding you do to things, or not to do them. Telling you things you never learned but know anyway. At this moment, your little voice tells you not to trust me. Why, I wonder?"
Beck planted his feet and crossed his arms in silent resistance. "Don't like you," he stated mulishly.
"You don't even know me."
"I don't care. You ask too many questions." His nose wrinkled. "And you're stinky."
She laughed with a high, tinkling mirth, and Beck stared with his jaw dropped because when she laughed, the light in the garden seemed to grow more intense. Not brighter, it grew deep. The birds stopping singing as the scent of apple blossoms filled his nostrils, and the leaves of the garden suddenly seemed fuller and greener. Perfume flowed from the wild roses and the blooming gardenia and jasmine, and the seed pods of the varicolored four o'clocks swelled and popped as they opened, and every unopened moonflower suddenly unfurled a pallid banner.
Something moved inside Beck, a small, sealed door cracking open an inch to shed a particle of radiance into his soul. Not very much, just enough to let him know the door was there. His shaking hand went to massage his chest, wondering at the feel of it, this strange sense of expansion inside his own skin. He had no words to express it, but he knew that the direction of his life had irrevocably changed.
Change, the uninvited guest that destroys what once was. He had experienced change once. Change was being left crying on cold stone steps in the snow. Change was when gentle hands left you and never touched you again, when everything you knew went away and never came back.
This time, change was welcome at his door. He relaxed visibly. "Who are you?"
"Call me Claire."
He looked at her thoughtfully. "That's not your name."
Beck reached for the caution he had felt toward her and realized it had vanished. He moved to the bench and sat beside her. A length of silk-embroidered lace from her scarf lay on the stone, and Beck picked it up to admire the pattern. It was an intertwined circle of birds, their wings clasped together.
"What's that other smell?" Beck asked. "Not the apples."
"You don't like it?" He pulled a face and she smiled. "It's called lavender. I thought all old ladies wore it." She waved her hand in the air and the cloying, soapy smell faded. "Better?"
He nodded. "It smells like a funeral. When they bring the coffin in, the thing inside smells like that."
He dropped the scarf and shrugged, suddenly diffident as he fidgeted with his thumbs. "The thing inside. It doesn't move anymore."
"It was once a person, Beck. Like you."
Now he looked at her straight, his eyes accusing. "Not like me."
She sighed. "No, Beck. Not like you. I'm sorry I said that."
The light had faded from the garden. Twilight had fallen without their notice and the enclosed area was sunken in tones of mauve and ash. He scooted a little closer to her. "I missed the nightfall," he said, his face drooping into lines of childhood woe.
"There will be other nightfalls."
"They're all different. That's why I can't miss one." Bright tears shone in strange blue eyes that seemed longer and narrower than was natural. They were the color of sapphires. "I have to remember them all, all the ways they're different. Then when I feel bad I..." he trailed off.
"When you feel bad," Claire prompted.
"When I feel bad, I can take them out again. All the little..." he groped for a word.
A nod. "The details. The nightfalls. They keep me safe." He clasped his hands together so hard that his knuckles turned white.
She reached over and held him as he trembled, her spidery hand on the back of his head, but he did not cry. After a moment, he pulled away. A neon street lamp sputtered and crackled to life in the alley, and the bloated glow reached into the garden, scattering the darkness. Something bright winked from the old woman's sunken breast. Beck looked at it.
She removed it without hesitation. It was a charm necklace, an incised disk of gold on a steel chain, about the size of a quarter. She dropped its weight into Beck's palm and he turned it over with his finger. It was very lovely. On the surface of the raw gold, pitted and dark in places, was a tree in a circle. The fine lines of the branches were grooved and shaped to resemble bark. The tree was leafless and crowned with fire, and a snake twined around its bole. Beck saw none of its flaws, only that the patina of extreme age covered the charm in a shimmering aura of secrets.
Secrets that might speak to him.
Claire smiled as Beck's fist closed over it greedily. "It is yours, Beck."
"Really?" Hope melted into glee, yet still no smile. He would never really learn how to manage that, only to construct an expression that resembled the real thing. The feeling, though ... yes. He knew what joy felt like now.
"Oh yes. It's entirely yours now." She looked around the garden then and checked the angle of the sky. "It's getting late. The old priest will be missing you soon."
A shadow filled Beck's eyes at the mention of Father Calvert, kindly Father Calvert, whom everyone spoke so well of. Claire rose and he stared because the cane had vanished. The old woman moved without a trace of stiffness or age.
Beck stood up, suddenly afraid. "Don't go!"
Claire smiled and extended her withered arm to brush a strand of hair from his eyes, which was glossy black and shining as spider-silk. "We will see each other again."
"Again" seemed to roll in the night like faint thunder. She gave his hair a last caress before she turned away. The intricate, wrought iron garden gate that led into the narrow alleyway lay just beyond the reach of light from the street lamp, and Beck heard the gate creak as it opened. Claire's heels clicked on the pavement for several counts before they suddenly ceased. There was no fading sound of her step as she got further away.
Beck rushed to the gate, for once gripped by a more primal fear than darkness. He jerked it open and saw that the alley was empty. He did not bother running out and looking for her. He knew what he would find.
The boy closed the gate and locked it, and in the dark gloom under the eaves surrounding the gate, he reverently spilled the golden charm into his hand, brought it to his mouth, and kissed it.
"Where is that child?" Father Calvert murmured as he moved aside the pale, smooth lace of the Battenberg curtain with a fingertip, letting the cool touch of its softness slide over his knuckles. Beck was already an hour late. His lips pursed in amusement. Beck was always running off somewhere, elusive and quick as a little lizard, always drawing attention to himself.
The parish had been given the annual sum of fifty thousand dollars in return for feeding, housing and educating Becket Merriday. The money arrived the same day every year, in a vellum envelope hand-delivered by a brisk and unsmiling attorney who answered no questions. Calvert had called their office once, digging for information, and had been so coldly shut down that he had never tried again. Beck's benefactor wished to remain anonymous, he was told, and it was a private matter that he was being paid not to pry into, wasn't he? Calvert had hung up the phone shaking with outrage. He himself had not agreed to the arrangement, but had inherited it, so to speak, from the elder priest in place before him. That priest had died three years ago, and Calvert felt no particular loyalty to any contract the man had made with Beck's mysterious guardian. He often had thoughts that Beck must be a senator's by-blow or some rich heiress's secret, and that whoever owned the little rat could probably afford a whole lot more than they were paying to keep Beck out of sight. At any rate the boy was certainly born out of wedlock. The Church had not taken a hard stand on bastards for some time, but Calvert had his own opinions.
Calvert waited five more minutes at the kitchen window, humming quietly as he watched several dusty sparrows pick for grubs in the dead leaves. He finally left, heading for the quiet hall that led to the rectory, certain that he'd find the boy huddled in some corner with a book. Predictably, as soon as he opened the door to the dimly-lit rectory, he heard a scuttling sound behind the bookcase. He smiled and closed the door, silently pushing the lock into place, double-checking to make sure it held.
"Beck?" he called softly, creeping around the tall bookcase, the air so still he could hear his own heartbeat in his ears. "Are you hiding, angel? I've got something for you."
He looked down and saw a small, dark head bowed over a book, and two childish legs drawn up to a thin chest that shivered and heaved. Beck held the book clasped to him like a shield, arms crossed over its cover. Calvert knelt and gently pried the book away from Beck's grasp, who reacted by drawing up into an even smaller ball. Calvert set the book aside and carded his fingers through the black silk of Beck's hair, sighing deeply when his penis twitched at the contact. He felt his member grow stiff and poke at the restraining fabric of his briefs, and he scooted closer. "Sweet angel," he crooned.
Still on his knees, Calvert jerked back from the boy and whirled, shocked by the unfamiliar voice and dismayed that a stranger had invaded his sanctuary, someone who could have seen anything.
He turned back to hiss at Beck to hide somewhere, but stopped, his jaw hanging open, when he saw that neither Beck nor the book was behind the case. It was empty, with only the sweet ache in his groin for evidence that the boy had ever been there.
His eyes darted around the room, searching. The rumpled carpet led a red trail to a hunched shape outlined against the window. Outside, the streetlamp dripped sour yellow luminance into the rectory, coalescing around the dim form of an old woman who leaned heavily on her cane. Calvert relaxed slightly and stood, consciously smoothing his robes. Only an old lady, probably hard of hearing, too. Whatever she had seen, he could talk her around. He'd always had a way with women and kids.
Calvert wiped the perspiration off his brow with the end of his sleeve as he began to approach the old woman. She was older than he first thought, yet he could have sworn it was a man's voice he heard. Confusion and fear made his charming voice less kind than he was wont to speak in public.
"Can I help you with something?"
"You have helped yourself to quite enough that is mine."
Calvert frowned. Just my luck, he thought. Why do all the crazies find their way down here? You'd think there was something drawing them. Why don't they go uptown, where they can at least get a meal?
"Excuse me, but just how did you get in here?"
The woman advanced, moving away from the leprous light, her cane clicking on the wooden floor with a sound that reminded him of a prowling dog. "In the old days, we knew what to do with men such as you. Faithless priests are no novelty. Still, confession is good for the soul."
His heart began to pound. She had seen something. "Now, just wait a moment--"
"But then, it was so much harder to hide it in those days; lack of faith." She stopped and stared at him, her hair pulled back from her face in two white waves and her old eyes knowing and jaded, seeing inside him. "We would take a man like you and hang his skin from the branches of a poisoned tree. But first, we would cut a hole in your belly, pull out a length of your guts, and strangle you with them. This we would have done while your feet roasted over a pit of coals."
Calvert recoiled as much in fear as in startled offense. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave!"
She laughed. It was not the reedy titter of an old woman, but the full-throated laughter of a healthy man. Calvert gasped and took several steps back. His hands worked, fingers curled into fishhooks as he dug at his belt for the solace of his rosary, but that thin comfort evaporated when the woman began to change.
Calvert's jaws opened and closed before his mouth cinched into a drawstring purse of disbelief. The woman's washed-out hair darkened and smoothed as new bones jutted up from her collar, forming broad, square shoulders. Her body plumped and filled out, a wind battering her skin and bones from within.
"Oh God!" Calvert choked, backing up, tripping over a ribbed edge of the blood-red carpet and falling hard on his rump. Fear scalded his bowels as they let loose.
"Llllust!" A bass roar now, a bull-voice that called down sin from the pulpit.
Calvert began to babble. "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee oh God, be with me God, be with me!" as he held the small wooden crucifix to his mouth, almost eating it in his terror, as the choking stink of his own shit reached his nostrils.
He could see the man now. Not the nightmare monster he had feared would leap, bloody muscle and skin ripped aside, from the old woman's bones, but a man with pale blue eyes and pure black hair that curled at the sides of his long face, dressed in a long black cassock and Roman collar. His beauty made him all the more terrible.
The man stretched out his hand. "He was mine."
Calvert felt his heart trip and seize, and he panted, feeling a chill begin in the center of his chest that grew and quickly seeped into his arms and down to his fingertips. The cold became pain, and pain became howling agony as he flopped and screamed, mouth dripping pink froth from bitten lips, slapping at his chest, vainly trying to put out the fire. The last thing he saw as the muscles of his heart burst and showered his chest cavity with bits of molten lava, was the rise and sweep of two pale curtains that shuttered away his last view of the world.
They looked like wings.
Posted February 9, 2013
This is one of my favorite reads. I've re-read it numerous times and I enjoy it more and more each time.
Its the book that I pick up when I'm looking for something that is thought-provoking and emotional.
Posted December 5, 2009
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