Read an Excerpt
This is my body.
In the cave’s lowermost chamber, the priest raises the last wafer—his supply has been exhausted—toward the formations that remind him of a dragon’s mouth frozen in mid-roar, the growths like teeth glistening red and yellow in the lamplight.
The catastrophe of the divine sacrifice by his hands.
Take this, all of you, and eat of it . . .
Then the chalice containing the final drops of wine.
Take this, all of you, and drink from it . . .
Midnight in late November. In the caves below, the small band of survivors will remain warm and hidden with enough supplies to last until spring. No one has died of the plague in months. The worst appears to be over. They are safe here, perfectly safe.
With faith in your love and mercy, I eat your body and drink your blood . . .
His whispers echo in the deep. They clamber up the slick walls, skitter along the narrow passage toward the upper chambers, where his fellow refugees have fallen into a restless sleep.
Let it not bring me condemnation, but health in mind and body.
There is no more bread, no more wine. This is his final communion.
May the body of Christ bring me to everlasting life.
The stale fragment of bread that softens on his tongue.
May the blood of Christ bring me to everlasting life.
The drops of soured wine that burn his throat.
God in his mouth. God in his empty stomach.
The priest weeps.
He pours a few drops of water into the chalice. His hand shakes. He drinks the precious blood commingled with water, then wipes clean the chalice with the purificator.
It is finished. The everlasting sacrifice is over. He dabs his cheeks on the same cloth he used to clean the chalice. The tears of man and the blood of God inseparable. Nothing new in that.
He wipes clean the paten with the cloth, then stuffs the purificator into the chalice and sets it aside. He pulls the green stole from his neck, folds it carefully, kisses it. He loved everything about being a priest. Loved the Mass most of all.
His collar is damp with sweat and tears and loose about his neck: He’s lost fifteen pounds since the plague struck and abandoned his parish to make the hundred-mile journey to the caverns north of Urbana. Along the way he gained many followers—over fifty in all, though thirty-two died from the infection before reaching safety. As their deaths approached, he spoke the rite, Catholic, Protestant, or Jew, it didn’t matter: May the Lord in his love and mercy help you . . . Tracing a cross on their hot foreheads with his thumb. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you . . .
The blood that seeped from their eyes mixed with the oil he rubbed on their lids. And smoke rolled across open fields and hunkered in woods and capped over roads like ice over languid rivers in deep winter. Fires in Columbus. Fires in Springfield and Dayton. In Huber Heights and London and Fairborn. In Franklin and Middletown and Xenia. In the evenings the light from a thousand fires turned the smoke a dusky orange, and the sky sank to an inch above their heads. The priest shuffled through the smoldering landscape with one hand outstretched, pressing a rag over his nose and mouth with the other while tears of protest streamed down his face. Blood crusted beneath his broken nails, blood caked in the lines of his hands and in the soles of his shoes. Not much farther, he encouraged his companions. Keep moving. Along the way, someone nicknamed him Father Moses, for he was leading his people out of the obscurity of smoke and fire to the Promised Land of “Ohio’s Most Colorful Caverns!”
People were there, of course, to greet them when they arrived. The priest expected it. A cave does not burn. It is impervious to weather. Best of all, it’s easy to defend. After military bases and government buildings, caves were the most popular destinations in the aftermath of the Arrival.
Supplies had been gathered, water and nonperishables, blankets and bandages and medicines. And weapons, naturally, rifles and pistols and shotguns and many knives. The sick were quarantined in the welcome center aboveground, lying in cots arranged between the display shelves of the gift shop, and every day the priest visited them, spoke with them, prayed with them, heard their confessions, delivered communion, whispered the things they wanted to hear: Per sacrosancta humanae reparationis mysteria . . . By the sacred mysteries of man’s redemption . . .
Hundreds would die before the dying was over. They dug a pit ten feet wide and thirty feet deep to the south of the welcome center to burn them. The fire smoldered day and night, and the smell of burning flesh had become so commonplace, they hardly noticed.
Now it’s November, and in the lowermost chamber the priest rises. He is not tall; still, he must stoop to avoid smacking his head into the ceiling or against the stone teeth that bristle from the roof of the dragon’s mouth.
The Mass is ended, go in peace.
He leaves behind the chalice and the purificator, the paten and his stole. They are relics now, artifacts from an age receding into the past at the speed of light. We began as cave dwellers, the priest thinks as he makes his way toward the surface, and to caves we have returned.
Even the longest journey is a circle, and history will always cycle back to the place where it began. From the missal: “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
And the priest rises like a diver kicking toward the dome of the sky sparkling above the water.
Along the narrow passageway that winds gently upward between walls of weeping stone, the floor is as smooth as the lanes of a bowling alley. Only a few months before, schoolchildren on field trips marched in single file, trailing their fingers along the rock face, their eyes searching for monsters in the shadows that pooled in the crevices. They were still young enough to believe in monsters.
And the priest rising like a leviathan from the lightless deep.
The trail to the surface runs past the Caveman’s Couch and the Crystal King, into the Big Room, the main living area for the refugees, and finally into the Palace of the Gods, his favorite part of the caverns, where crystalline formations shine like frozen shards of moonlight and the ceiling sensually undulates like waves rolling in to shore. Here, close to the surface, the air thins, becomes drier, tinged with the smoke of the fires that still feed upon the world they left behind.
Lord, bless these ashes by which we show that we are dust.
Snatches of prayer run through his mind. Fragments of song. Litanies and blessings and the words of absolution, May God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins . . . And from the Bible: “I went down to the roots of the mountains; to the land whose bars closed behind me forever.”
Incense burning in the censer. Soft spring sunlight shattered by stained glass. The creaking of the pews on Sunday like the hull of an ancient vessel far at sea. The stately measure of the seasons, the calendar that governed his life from the time he was an infant, Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter. He knows he loved the wrong things, the rituals and traditions, the pomp and foppery for which outsiders faulted the Church. He adored the form, not the substance; the bread, not the body.
It didn’t make him a bad priest. He was quiet and humble and faithful to his calling. He enjoyed helping people. These weeks in the cave had been some of the most fulfilling of his life. Suffering brings God to his natural home, the manger of terror and confusion, pain and loss, where he was born. Turn over the currency of suffering, the priest thinks, and you will see his face.
A watchman sits just inside the opening above the Palace of the Gods, his burly frame silhouetted against the spray of stars beyond him. The sky has been scrubbed clean by a stiff north wind auguring winter. The man wears a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead, and a worn leather jacket. He’s holding a pair of binoculars. A rifle rests in his lap.
The man nods a hello to the priest. “Where’s your coat, Father? It’s a cold one tonight.”
The priest smiles wanly. “I lent it to Agatha, I’m afraid.”
The man grunts his understanding. Agatha is the complainer of the group. Always cold. Always hungry. Always something. He lifts the binoculars to his eyes and scans the sky.
“Have you seen any more of them?” the priest asks. They spotted the first grayish-silver, cigar-shaped object a week before, hanging motionlessly above the caverns for several minutes before silently shooting straight up, dwindling to a pinprick scar in the vast blue. Another—or the same one—appeared two days later, gliding soundlessly over them until it dropped beneath the horizon. There was no question about the origin of these strange craft—the cave dwellers knew they weren’t terrestrial—it was the mystery of their purpose that frightened them.
The man lowers the binoculars and rubs his eyes. “What’s the matter, Father? Can’t sleep?”
“Oh, I don’t sleep much these days,” the priest says. Then he adds, “So much to do.” He doesn’t want the man to think he’s complaining.
“No atheists in foxholes.” The cliché hangs in the air like a rancid smell.
“Or in caves,” the priest says. Since they met, he has strained to know this man better, but he is a closed room, the door securely dead-bolted by anger and grief and the hopeless dread of the doomed living on borrowed time. For months there’s been no turning from it or hiding from it. For some, death is the midwife to faith. For others, it is faith’s executioner.
The man pulls a pack of gum from his breast pocket, carefully unwraps a piece, and folds it into his mouth. He counts the remaining sticks before slipping the pack back into his pocket. He does not offer any to the priest.
“My last pack,” the man says in explanation. He shifts his weight on the cold stone.
“I understand,” the priest says.
“Do you?” The man’s jaw moves with a hypnotic rhythm as he chews. “Do you really?”
The dry bread, the soured wine: The taste lingers on his tongue. The bread could have been broken; the wine could have been divided. He did not have to celebrate the Mass alone. “I believe that I do,” the little priest answers.
“I don’t,” the man says slowly and deliberately. “I don’t believe in a goddamned thing.”
The priest blushes. His soft, embarrassed laughter is like the patter of children’s feet up a long staircase. He touches his collar nervously.
“When the power died, I believed it would come back on,” the man with the rifle says. “Everybody did. The power goes out—the power comes back on. That’s faith, right?” He gnawed the gum, left side, right side, pushing the green knob back and forth with his tongue. “Then the news trickles in from the coasts that there are no coasts anymore. Now Reno is prime oceanfront property. Big deal; so what? There’ve been earthquakes before. There’ve been tsunamis. Who needs New York? What’s so special about California? We’ll bounce back. We always bounce back. I believed that.”
The watchman is nodding, staring at the night sky, at the cold, blazing stars. Eyes high, voice low. “Then people got sick. Antibiotics. Quarantines. Disinfectants. We put on masks and washed our hands until our skin peeled off. Most of us died anyway.”
And the man with the rifle watches the stars as if waiting for them to shake loose from the black and tumble to the Earth. Why shouldn’t they?
“My neighbors. My friends. My wife and kids. I knew that all of them wouldn’t die. How could all of them die? Some people will get sick, but most people won’t, and the rest will get better, right? That’s faith. That’s what we believed.”
The man pulls a large hunting knife from his boot and begins to clean the dirt from beneath his nails with its tip.
“This is faith: You grow up; you go to school. Find a job. Get married. Start a family.” Finishing the job on one hand, a nail for each rite of passage, then beginning on the other. “Your kids grow up. They go to school. They find a job. They get married. They start a family.” Scrape, scrape. Scrape, scrape, scrape. He pushes his hat back with the heel of the hand that wields the knife. “I was never what you’d call a religious person. Haven’t seen the inside of a church in twenty years. But I know what faith is, Father. I know what it is to believe in something. The lights go out, they come back on. The floodwaters roll in, they roll out again. Folks get sick, they get better. Life goes on. That’s true faith, isn’t it? Your mumbo-jumbo about heaven and hell, sin and salvation, throw it all out and you’re still left with that. Even your biggest church-bashing atheist has faith in that. Life will go on.”
“Yes,” the priest says. “Life will go on.”
The watchman bares his teeth. He jabs the knife toward the priest’s chest and snarls, “You haven’t heard a damn word I’ve said. See, this is why I can’t stand your kind. You light your candles and mumble your Latin spells and pray to a god who isn’t there, doesn’t care, or is just plain crazy or cruel or both. The world burns and you praise the asshole who either set it or let it.”
The little priest has raised his hands, the same hands that consecrated the bread and wine, as if to show the man that they are empty, that he means no harm.
“I don’t pretend to know the mind of God,” the priest begins, lowering his hands. Eyeing the knife, he quotes from the Book of Job: “‘Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.’”
The man stares at him for a very long, very uncomfortable moment, absolutely still except for his jaw working the already tasteless knob of gum.
“I’m going to be honest with you, Father,” he says matter-of-factly. “I feel like killing you right now.”
The priest nods somberly. “I’m afraid that may happen. When the truth hits home.”
He eases the knife from the man’s shaking hand. The priest touches the man’s shoulder.
The man flinches but doesn’t pull away. “What is the truth?” the man whispers.
“This,” the little priest answers, and drives the knife deep into the man’s chest.
The blade is very sharp—it slides through the man’s shirt easily, gliding between the ribs before sinking three inches into the heart.
The priest pulls the man to his chest and kisses the top of his head. May God give you pardon and peace.
It is over quickly. The gum drops from the man’s slackened lips, and the priest picks it up and tosses it through the cave’s mouth. He eases the man onto the cold stone floor and stands up. The wet knife glimmers in his hand. The blood of the new and everlasting covenant . . .
The priest studies the dead man’s face, and his heart burns with rage and revulsion. The human face is hideous, unendurably grotesque. No need to hide his disgust anymore.
The little priest returns to the Big Room, following a well-worn path into the main chamber, where the others twitch and turn in restless sleep. All except Agatha, who leans against the back wall of the chamber, a small woman lost in the fur-lined jacket the little priest had lent her, her frizz of unwashed hair a cyclone of gray and black. Grime nestles in the deep crevices of her withered face, around a mouth bereft of dentures long since lost and eyes buried in folds of sagging skin.
This is humanity, the priest thinks. This is its face.
“Father, is that you?” Her voice is barely audible, a mouse’s squeak, a rat’s high-pitched cry.
And this, humanity’s voice.
“Yes, Agatha. It’s me.”
She squints into the human mask he has worn since infancy, obscured in shadow. “I can’t sleep, Father. Will you sit with me awhile?”
“Yes, Agatha. I will sit with you.”
He carries the remains of his victims to the surface two at a time, one under each arm, and throws them into the pit, dropping them down without ceremony before descending for another load. After Agatha, he killed the rest as they slept. No one woke. The priest worked quietly, quickly, with sure, steady hands, and the only noise was the whisper of cloth tearing as the blade sank home into the hearts of all forty-six, until his was the only heart left beating.
At dawn it begins to snow. He stands outside for a moment and lifts his face to a sky that is blank and gray. Snow settles on his pale cheeks. His last winter for a very long time: At the equinox, the pod will descend to return him to the mothership, where he’ll wait out the final cleansing of the human infestation by the ones they have trained for the task. Once on board the vessel, from the serenity of the void, he will watch as they launch the bombs that will obliterate every city on Earth, wiping clean the vestiges of human civilization. The apocalypse dreamed of by humankind since the dawn of its consciousness will finally be delivered—not by an angry god, but indifferently, as cold as the little priest when he plunged the knife into his victims’ hearts.
The snow melts on his upturned face. Four months until winter’s end. One hundred and twenty days until the bombs fall, then the unleashing of the 5th Wave, the human pawns they have conditioned to kill their own kind. Until then, the priest will remain to slaughter any survivors who wander into his territory.
Almost over. Almost there.
The little priest descends into the Palace of the Gods and breaks his fast.