Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
“. . . He then fell upon the Kingdom of God, . . . and waged War; with His Minions and their Generals . . . against His Holy City in the Heaven, and His Hosts. . . . Struck down in the battle, Lucifer was bound, . . . . And He was brought unto the presence of the Lord. . . .”
“Unrepentant, He was cast into the Void, and fell, . . . to a place under the Heaven. . . . And His Name was called Satan, for He was no longer the Morning Star . . .”
– remnants of the Book of Jeziel
The old man shuffled slowly down the broad aisle. Frail and wrinkled hands clasped a weathered black felt hat before him, and he shook ever so slightly under the frayed blue suit that draped itself about his thin sallow frame. Wisps of iron gray hair sprang from the borders of his balding scalp, falling in tight, tangled, unkempt curls past his collar. His narrow shoulders were bowed from age and he swayed slightly as he inched along the thick, blood red carpeting. He reached out uneasily as he passed each of the richly carved and cushioned oak benches to steady his gait, pausing occasionally to gain his labored breath.
He halted before the gothic altar and raised a weary brow to acknowledge his eternally suffering host before turning and creeping on to begin his supplication. In the failing day his diminutive figure went unnoticed by the busied clerics preparing for their evening solace. An anonymous shadow, he shambled through his growing peers into the fawning light, where rows of flickering candles wept scented rivulets and sacrificed their warm orange glow, creating shivering monochrome illusions of the ancient furnishings. His trembling knurled fingers scratched a sulfurous blaze and he added to the bank of shining prayers; a single flame, one shrinking commemoration, lost in its likeness, and just as temporary.
Lingering but a moment in thoughtless repose, he tottered about and retraced his considered path as the dusking sun broadcast spectral images of haloed saints through the ancient leaded glass. Languishing ever upwards, they vanished into heavenly scenes on the domed ceiling. Now alone in the dark silence of the empty edifice, he stood once again in the presence of promised salvation. The old man braced himself on the soft rosy velvet of the narrow rail opposite the altar, shuddered to his knees, and rested on the plush pillows of the petitioner. Clasping bent and bony fingers tightly below a stubbled chin, he filled his lungs with deliberate air.
“I am dying.” His words though fairly whispered, echoed sharply through the vast emptiness and rang as insults on his sorrowed ears. He cringed inwardly at the naked soundings of his own voice. “Dear God, please forgive me for what I am about to do.”
An uneasiness crept over him. He felt guilty even though he had convinced himself that he was committing no sin… if indeed there were such a thing as sin. But could he actually do it? Did he have the courage? But more than that, did he have the ability? He shook his head, there was no use in going over all this again, he was here, the choice had been made, and the time was now. He shuttered his eyes and prayed.
“In the name of the Blessed Lamb. . . Your Son . . . Jesus Christ. Please forgive The Fallen One . . . Satan . . . for the sins he has committed. Forgive his transgressions against your Holy Name, and Your Spirit, and Your Hosts in Heaven. Forgive him his avarice, and his jealousies, and his hubris. Forgive him . . . . Forgive him . . . .” The old man fell silent and searched his memory. There were no words for his want. “My mind has grown feeble,” he thought, “I know why I’m here.”
“What are you on about, Joe?” The deep timbre query startled the old man and he blushed with embarrassment. He had been certain that he was quite alone. He strained to turn his stiffened, pain wracked body to the sound and peered into the dim emptiness.
“Father?” He glanced about the vast medley of dancing shadows, searching the dark cast niches of the columns and tapestries before turning his attention to the impenetrable blackness beyond the vacant congregational. He lingered there, leering into the false midnight. Nothing moved and no one answered. He shifted nervously on the crimson cushion, but as nothing stirred, he warily turned his back on the assumed aberration. Gripping the velvety rail, he frowned through the wrought iron stiles. Maybe his mind had grown feeble, or more, maybe he was slipping into senility. Perhaps, he wondered, considering the circumstances, “I must be mad.”
“Yes, Joe,” the bass voice crept closer, “you are quite mad.”
The old man spun on his place, all thought of pain or discomfort washed away by the anxiety of the moment. The graceful shadows were shallower now. The room seemed smaller and the distant darkness closer and pressing.
“Who’s there!?” The old man’s heart pounded, causing his fragile body to rock slightly on its padded perch. “How do you know me?”
“That is your name, Joe.” The inky shade slipped forward, solid as a wall, devouring the light as it moved. “I know you. You are all quite mad. You all suffer the insanity of sentience. You know that you are. Therefore, you know that you will not be.”
The old man inched away, pressing his hunched back against the rail until his head struck the hard wrought metal. He hadn’t expected this. But then again, he hadn’t quite known what to expect. Truly, he hadn’t really expected anything, and now he wished he had been right. He had waited too long. His mind had turned on him. Now he couldn’t be sure what was real. Was he talking to himself? Would they find him mumbling nefarious epithets in a pool of his own spittle? Or had death finally come for him in the hour of his resolve? The only thing he knew for sure was that he was afraid. Eyes wide white, he pled, “what are you!?”
Laughter filled the cathedral. A lion’s roar, bouncing from the walls, deep and growling it shook the void and put the scattered flames to flight. The acrid smell of sulfur and scorched stone heated the hallowed space and fouled the sweetly incensed air. Waves of fear rolled from old Joe’s withered core and spread over spindly limbs. His skin began to crawl over trembling muscles and tears flowed freely down his mottled cheeks. He turned suddenly about, thrust his face through the balusters, and wretched blindly on the impaled feet of the crucifixion.
Joe’s body pulsed with heat in the stinking darkness of what had only an instant before, been a Holy place of calm refuge, now become a prison, of dread, apprehension, and regret. He wished he were some place, anyplace, other than here. He rocked convulsively as he labored to pull air into his crowded lungs between the anxious thumps of his violently pounding heart. He forced his eyes open and upward, “Oh God!” His cracked cry escaped in a rushing piteous groan.
“No, Joe.” Issued low, the words failed to conceal the amusement and condescension of the speaker. “But very, very, nearly.”
Thoughts poured through Joe’s ruptured mind, flashes of reason ripped by emotion tumbled one over another. He had come here knowing that he was going to die. But he thought he would have more time. “Is this how it ends then?” He gasped.
“I hope not, Joe,” the humored voice rumbled. “You haven’t answered my question.”
“Question?” The old man rolled his throbbing head against the cool iron. “What question?”
The menacing voice came seriously, but softer, in even tones. “Why are you here Joe?”
Joe’s strength left him and he slumped on limp sinews, weeping dispirit streams. “Why are you asking me that? You know I’m dying.”
“Yes, yes. I know,” the voice grumbled impatiently, “you’re all dying. You were born to die. Billions are dead. Billions will die. You’ve missed my meaning entirely.”
Joe’s fear flashed to anger. What difference did it make how he was going to die? And what difference did it make if he angered this thing? If it was true, his time was over, and if it was false, his time was nearly over. He gripped the railing tightly and spat, “I have cancer!”
Another grotesque howl pealed like thunder through the vaulted chamber, vibrating coarsely through the timbered floor, and spewing the hot vaporous stench over the cowering old soul. “Do you think I care what’s killing you, Joe?” The voice fumed joyously.
A din of acid thorns pierced Joe’s fragile senses, rending his anger to despair. “Why do you torture me?” He wailed. “Why don’t you get it over with? Why don’t you take me now?”
“Take you?” The wreaking voice paused curious, “take you where?”
Joe was shaking uncontrollably, he didn’t care anymore, he just wanted the nightmare to end. “To whatever place I’m meant to go.”
The darkness remained silent for a time, then became a lighter spirit, moving softly to the foremost pew, and putting itself at ease. “Who do you imagine I am Joe?” The voice queried in tones more human than before.
The old man made no distinction in the subtle change, but braced himself for the revelation. “Death,” he breathed blankly.
“Death?” The voice spoke the word as an insult. “Death is not my dominion. It does not serve me. Even those that come to me through death, would better serve me in life. Death is His domain.”
Joe’s battered faculties responded meagerly to the altered nature of the entity. He had barely heard the voice, but he had felt the words, and seen the meaning in his mind. He turned his eyes on the Holy Idol. “Then you’re not here for me?”
“Not for you Joe,” the voice said calmly, “because of you.”
“I don’t understand.” Joe shook his attention from the risen icon, fully realizing the change in the being behind him. “Who are you?”
“Just an angel Joe.” The voice was gentler now, pleasingly sweet, and quite human.
“An angel?” The old man questioned himself. He dared not believe his ears. He realized that he had arrived with a mad plan conceived in a diseased mind. But if this thing was an angel, and not his imagination, then his efforts were not in vain. But was it too late? What could he hope to gain if he had summoned his own damnation? “Why would an angel frighten me so?”
“Have you ever met an angel Joe?” The voice mocked the old man’s question. “Have you ever seen an angel?”
“No.” Joe said placidly.
“Are you frightened now?”
“No,” Joe began, “but, you seem different . . . you . . .”
“You were quite nearly catatonic.” The soothing voice interrupted. “I had to do something to calm you. I want an answer before you die.”
The old man gathered his thoughts. The implication was clear. He was on the very threshold of oblivion and the thread that held his life could be severed with a statement. He knew he would have to choose his words carefully. “What is it you want to know?”
“Why are you praying for me, Joe?”
Old Joe’s mind went blank. He didn’t know how to respond. He knew his next utterance could be his undoing, so he adopted the only sensible option open to him, he stalled. “What?”
“The question, it seems to me, is fairly simple, Joe,” the voice chided, “why are you praying for me?”
“I . . . don’t know,” Joe replied in confused fragments, “I . . . don’t know . . . what you mean. I’m dying . . . I came to pray . . . I wanted to know.” The old man wrestled with the moment. Every word, every syllable, every sound he spoke formed an anxious knot in his throat. The wrong answer, or in this case perhaps, the right answer was tantamount to suicide. The answer to the question was the answer to his prayer. But he hadn’t prayed for this, and he certainly hadn’t prayed for an angel. Then his cause came to him. He had prayed for an angel. And the angel had answered. “How can you be in this place?”
“Am I not an angel, Joe? Why shouldn’t I be here?”
“This is a holy place,” Joe felt the fear returning, “and you are . . . evil.” The old man shrunk from the word and awaited the repercussions of his statement. In the eerie stillness that followed he felt a strange desire to turn and look upon the face of the High Angel. But, try as he might, he could not turn his head. He thought himself in great peril, not now for his life, but for something far more precious – his imperishable soul. In his eagerness to regain his fallen faith, he may have placed his own redemption in real jeopardy. “You’re an old fool.” The impression slipped audibly from his reflections, interrupting the momentary respite, and prompting the voice to inject coolly; “You are if you expect forgiveness.”
The deceptive supernal adopted a wholly mortal aspect and posed carelessly on the smooth satin elegance of the comfortably bolstered bench. “No one has ever prayed for me Joe. There are many who pray to me, and a great many more who curse me, but no man has ever prayed for me. What is it that you hope to accomplish here?”
The icy insight into his innermost meditations had shocked and surprised the old man. He was uncertain as to whether this malicious inquisitor had invaded his private mind, or if his mind was fading before a creeping dementia. He was, however, absolute in his understanding of salvation. In a meek but determined defiance, Joe challenged his tormentor. “What makes you think that I won’t be forgiven?”
“You?” The outcast underlord bared his razored teeth. “I wasn’t aware that this was about you, Joe. I thought it was about me.”
Despite the intended sarcasm, the unearthly revelation brought the old man an understanding that restored a wanted measure of his stricken courage, and caused the lingering doubts that he had brought with him to be washed away. His slighted strength slowly revisited the wilted cords in his pallid flesh, and revived the stiffened fingers that hotly clasped the cold iron bars. Joe pulled his aching legs from under him, drew his knees to his chest, and rubbed the sticky salt from his cheeks. “It is about you . . . and God.”
The dark angel glared at the morose figure draped over the polished wooden cross. “God has nothing to do with me,” he snarled, “even a doddering old priest should know that.”
The old man ignored the added insult and renewed his purpose. “Don’t you miss it?”
“Miss what Joe?”
“Grace.” The old man began his assault. “Can you honestly say that you feel no remorse . . . no loss, in the absence of the Holy Spirit?”
“I can say nothing honestly.” The father of lies responded with obvious revelry, squirming in congratulatory delight, and cackling irregular octaves.
“Your honesty is not required.” The robust declaration sprang from the old man’s lips with a confidence that hushed the writhing celebrant, and fixed the blackened eyes of malevolence firmly on his fetal shape. “Your presence is proof enough.”
“Proof of what, Joe?”
A guttural discomfort attended the knowing probe that gave the old man a final assurance of faith. Once again he felt the urge to glimpse the creature at his back. He pondered an alien image. Would he see the beauty of the first above all, or the beast from the bottomless pit? The attraction seemed irresistible, but his will would not meet his wonder. The old man dared his eyes to their corners and stated with authority, “God.”
The dark angel raised himself, and chaffing with the knowledge of his ill-considered appearance, tread closer to the tautly twined old man. “I have never denied His existence.”
Joe shivered under the looming cloak of iniquity. The proximity of the sinister seraph presumed the impending response. The old man braced himself for the inevitable counterblast and pierced the Profanity. “I have never been so sure of it.”
A low hum, unsympathetic to the sacred acoustics, warped through the great hall. The bedeviled demon seized with the consequences of his errant curiosity. Lurid distortions rippled over the false humanity and hideous contortions transformed its pleasant pretense. A gaping, twisted maw belched caustically. The distorted drone grew to a mournful yowl, that struck a steel chord on a monstrous scale. The old man’s lungs heaved under the raging onslaught. He pressured his dampened palms over his ears to shut out the deafening shriek, but was overwhelmed, and fell prostrate before the agonized image of the Son.
As the sun rose the next morning, a converse host of glowing saints materialized and descended from their Heavenly haunts. A yawning priest entered the cathedral from the rectory, stretched on his jacket, and began to extinguish the sobbing candles. Another, younger clergyman, entered from the opposite side, rubbing the sleeper’s sand from his eyes. He stumbled forward in the uneven morning light to join his fellow at the bank of smoldering memorials. He had made but a few unsteady steps when he fell and found himself sprawled over a still form stretched before the altar. Surprised and embarrassed, the young reverend gathered himself and grasped at the faded blue suit coat.
“I beg your pardon, sir, I did not see you there.” He pulled at the old man’s sleeve and the lifeless body rolled onto it’s back. “Sweet Jesus!” The young man scuttled back over the thick carpeting. “I’ve killed him!”
The Reverend Father Gilzley abandoned his morning ritual, silently approached the scene, and knelt over the elderly gent. “Bring a candle.” He motioned at the horrified youth. The young priest hung wide-eyed over the plush red fibers on his hands and heels, frozen in fear and disbelief. “Father Dardy.” The elder man reached out and tugged on the younger’s pant cuff.
The lad started, his eyes flickered, then went to his superior, “Father?”
“A candle son, bring a candle.”
“Y-Yes Father, right away.” The young man rolled onto the slick, hard soles of his shiny new shoes and slipped his way to traction, rushing away to comply with his mentor’s order. He returned quickly with the shivering yellow flame and took a knee beside his elder. “Oh Father, what have I done?” His tenor voice quavered with the waxen light he held above the pale, silent figure.
The older churchman gazed intently into the old man’s dull gray eyes, motionless in their sunken, shadowed sockets, then placed his hand on the cold, bony chest. “You’ve done nothing son,” he let the old man’s head softly to the floor, “he’s been gone some few hours now.”
“Thank God!” The words burst heavily from the breathless young priest. He dropped his head, eyes closed, and filled his lungs with the cool, scented air. He rubbed his hand over his neatly cropped black hair, and when he raised his teary eyes, he caught the quizzical expression on the Reverend Father’s face. “Oh . . . no, Father, I didn’t mean . . . “
”I know lad, I know,” he patted the weeping boy’s shoulder. “Go on now, and get a sheet from the linen closet, and when you return, we’ll pray for the poor old soul.” Father Dardy nodded bashfully, then rose and pulled a black kerchief from his breast pocket. He moved off softly, carefully wiping the wet lines from his blood darkened face.
The orange-gray shadows of dawn gave way to the pure white light of a new day. Father Gilzley dropped his gaze to study the gaunt features of the man at his side. For the first time he actually saw the man and not the distressed, empty shell of an unknown derelict. He thought the man familiar in some way. As the light came on, he studied the old man’s face. There was no expression at all in the flesh, no indication of pain or distress. He appeared, if anything, calm, perhaps even serene. Father Dardy returned with a thick square pad of clean white linen and passed it to his elder. The young man stood gazing intently at the withered remains of the old man. “Father?”
“Yes my son?” Father Gilzley rose and shook the folds from the fine crisp cloth.
“I know this man.” Father Darby took one corner of the sheet and cocked his head. “His picture is on the wall of the rectory.”
Father Gilzley squinted down at the old man. “Yes,” he nodded, “yes, of course. It’s old Father Carlisle.”
“Did you know him Father?” Young Dardy clutched the linen to his chest.
“No. No, not really,” Gilzley replied. “He quit the church just after I arrived. Terrible thing too, if I remember right.”
“What happened?” Father Dardy’s concerned query shook the sad memory from Gilzley’s past.
“His wife was killed in a hit and run.” Gilzley whispered. The senior priest cleared his throat and continued in a mild voice. “He lost faith after that. In God, in his fellow man, in himself. He disappeared a few days after the funeral and never returned. That was,” Gilzley rubbed his chin thoughtfully, “almost twenty years ago now. God only knows where he’s been.”
Father Dardy carefully pulled the makeshift shroud over the lifeless body. “And only God knows where he’s gone.”
Credit : Jesse Neel
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