|The Transformation Story Archive||World in Flux|
Father Luke Stavros pushed open the door to the small room in the back of the chapel. Light shone a bright crack across the inside. He had half hoped that the room would be untouched. The door was closed, after all. Secured. But the shelves inside were broken, the floor littered with the sacred objects of worship. Broken candles, empty bottles that had once been filled with holy water, incense beads and the charcoal to burn them were strewn inside. The wax from the candles had been ground into the carpet, and all the vestments were torn or missing. The pitcher that held the hot water to be mixed with the Eucharistic wine was shattered.
The priest hung his head and closed the door. It was not too much of a surprise. Churches had been some of the first buildings to be pillaged after the Shock. There had been horror stories, of course. Word got around. But the Antiochian Orthodox Church of St. Stephen, the original Martyr, had been lucky. It was not fitted for electricity. They had still lit the aisles and pews with candles, and the chapel itself was small enough not to need a sound system. The hot summers of sweltering crowds struggling to lisp the words to the Liturgy in the small, un-air conditioned space seemed to have paid off.
It was the large churches which had suffered. It was the priests who shouted their prayers and homilies into microphones who felt the Shock. When the Flux thundered down upon all their heads like the foretold Apocalypse, televisions arced out death from their screens, sound systems hissed, lighting networks popped and crackled in a parody of heavenly fireworks, lighting up a variety of expressions below. The people looked up expecting rapture and saw their ministers melded to their microphones, their music leaders subjugated by their own digital keyboards, the entertainment directors slumped across the patch panel that now broadcast high feedback squeals to all the speakers, tones that ruptured eardrums and made noses bleed.
Father Luke reflected on this and thought, "I bet they wished they worked on Sundays."
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. That had worked out well. "Strike one commandment," he chuckled mirthlessly to himself. At least the congregation here had not suffered for their attendance--those that had attended. Pagers, cell-phones, wristwatches and pacemakers had notified them all of the Shock, but when it was over, his flock still stood. And they still had a minister, unlike so many of the rest of them, now wandering without guidance, without any one thing to set their hopes upon.
"It hasn't done them any good," he thought bitterly. He closed the closet door and surveyed the small chapel. The altar still stood, too heavy and resilient to have been easily damaged, but the crosses, the heavy metal fans, the bound Bible, the Chalice, and others had all been taken for their value as silver and gold. He didn't need them more anyway.
Some of the pews had been torn up and dragged halfway to the door, presumably to be used as firewood. They hadn't fit out the door. The priest walked up to the first rows, in habit crossing himself as he passed in front of the altar, his black vestments swishing against his legs. The burnished brown wood was still shiny. It still looked as if it might be gripped in reverence, as if it might steady the elderly who rose for the prayers, or hold up children who leaned forward to see or to whisper something to the child in front. He knelt behind the first pew, making himself a laymen, watching the church from a point of view he hadn't seen in a while.
"Have mercy on me, a sinner," he mumbled. "Have mercy on me." The words were numb on his lips; he scarcely heard them, and meant them less. "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner."
"A little too late for that." The thought wormed its way into his mind, and he half-wished it would go away, half-wished it would stay. Hadn't he earned the right to a little self-pity? Hadn't he given twenty years of his life to this church?
He had. He deserved pity. His beard had turned from dark brown to grizzled grey in the time he'd been here. His strong hands had gone soft, the skin hanging loose from them. His once slim belly had advanced outward, taking his belt size with it. "Twenty years," he thought. "Twenty years gone by and where am I now?" He looked up toward the altar again, his gaze fixing upon the crucifix. The painted icon of Jesus had a broken arm, and its head was about to come off. Father Luke let his head drop against the pew with a thump, feeling the pain as it jarred his forehead, feeling the cold of the wood as he sat there.
"My God," he said, his mouth twisted in parody, "why have you forsaken me?" Twenty years. Twenty years of his life, gone. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. That hadn't worked out well, either. They had come, at first, asking his help. Not that he'd been able to give it to them.
The Flux had gotten him when he'd gone to his car. It was a nice car. A Lexus. It was a gift, of course. Few priests could afford such a car. It was the car that had done him in. The keys slid into the ignition, he turned the starter, and heard everything start like normal. There was a quick, almost imperceptible jolt of electricity--probably static, he'd thought. He grabbed the steering wheel, and stared. At first it just looked like a very bad sunburn. Then, as the skin of his arms grew redder and redder, it became apparent that it was much worse than that. The flesh on his hands, his arms, turned a bright crimson, like a lobster cooking before his eyes, and the hair fell out in tiny, failing wisps. A sheen spread down the skin and up into his sleeves as he stared, his mind slowly numbing over, certain that this was all a bad dream.
He recalled stumbling out of the car and ripping shoes from strangely warped feet. He remembered stumbling down the street, not certain where he was going, but hoping for home. He never looked down, only up, where it all looked beautiful. He never saw the cars crashing around him, never saw the people who screamed in terror as their bodies twisted before their eyes. He ignored the cries of those who were dying or in pain. He focused on the trees, the sky. It all looked as it had before.
One women had come up to him and seized his arm, begging for something, begging for... clothes. Yes. She had been unexplainably naked, her thin, sagging body covered with sweat and shaking in an unnatural chill. He had looked only for a brief instant, and then looked away, back toward the heavens, focusing on what was important, focusing on what he needed to see, to understand. Something to help him escape this madness around him. He heard her teeth chattering as she pleaded for help.
Father Luke shook his head and remembered where he was. That sound had stayed with him. He lay in his bed at night and heard the chattering teeth coming from every corner of the room. He remembered the walk home only a little, and yet it was far too much. Even the somewhat comforting linger of rose and mahogany incense could not drive that memory away from him. Neither could it let him forget what had happened to his hands and feet.
As the days had gone by, the nails had been pushed out of the skin and black, thicker talons had grown in, talons which seemed more appropriate to the massive, leathery-red, draconic paws at the ends of his thickened legs, and the enlarged vices of his new hands. The altered skin faded away about half-way up each limb, leaving normal human being beyond those points, but his extremities were tinged with the demonic.
Holding the sacred artifacts in those damned hands seemed blasphemous. The Flux had made him a mockery of his office. Most of those who had dared to enter the church for services and sacraments after the Shock had refused to accept it from those diabolical hands. Those hands that had, in frustration, crushed his vestmental cross into a lump of metal before he had realized what he was doing.
The priest rested his elbows on the top of the pew and sighed. The horns which had grown at the end of each elbow dug into the wood. Not much left here to ruin anyway. There were no more Matins or Vespers to be prayed. No more prayers over the sick. No more Holy Rites. No more baptisms. His people had fled like rabbits, fled to find their own destinies, their own paths to a God who had forgotten them.
His people. That was really what he had lost. They hadn't been God's at all, for God had refused to help them, to send an angel to comfort and support them in their time of need. Where were all the promises of consolation and comfort now? They were his people, and they had abandoned him, and there was no meaning left to anything anymore.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. And why not? Why not worship Baal, or Dagon, or Martians, or himself, or some athlete, or the little yellow people that lived in the medicine cabinet? They were just as effective.
Father Luke Stavros stood, his claws digging into the wooden pew, scanned the church with his eyes, and then sighed, a great, heaving sigh. He walked up in front of the altar, deliberately not crossing himself this time, and looked down at the maroon carpet. There were two imprinted circles there. That was where the staffs had rested, the staffs which were crowned with the metallic, circular fans, the ones that had been stolen. They had looked like shining suns when the acolytes had carried them out before him as he followed with the Holy Bible. The circles in the carpet were where the boys had planted the bases of the staffs every service, in the exact location, just as they had been taught. Just where they were supposed to be as the priest stood between them and read from the Holy Gospel, Peace be unto all. And with thy spirit.
He sighed once more, then turned and walked toward the door of the Church. The sun, shining through the stained glass windows, left a colored menagerie of saints refracted across his skin and vestments. He opened the door, which now hung, slightly on its hinges, and let it swing shut behind him. He never looked back.
The world outside was as he had left it this morning. It was quiet. Were it not for the downed power lines and absolute stillness of the air around him, he could almost believe it was an early Sunday morning, and soon mothers would bustle up, pushing sleepy-eyed children toward the doors while their husbands parked the cars. He could almost believe that at any moment, a car would come around the next corner or a figure would come up the mountain road.
He closed his eyes for a moment, and looked again. There was a figure there. A girl of about age 12, her walk slow and weak. There were people around, he knew. They just seldom came back this way anymore. He walked toward the girl when she shouted, "Hey!" and waved her arms in the air at him. As he neared her, he saw that her eyes were changed, the irises taking up most of the eyes, the pupils slitted horizontally.
"Mama said you'd be here," she said once she was close enough. Her reddish hair was dirty and bedraggled, hanging down around half-formed breasts that were concealed beneath a worn and muddy nightgown. Her face was slender and covered with freckles, bizarrely offset by her over-colored eyes. "She said you'd be looking for truth, and you thought this was the best place to find it?"
The priest concealed his arms behind his back self-consciously, though all-too-aware that she could quite clearly see the huge, digitigrade paws that projected from his robes, forcing his knees into a bent stance. "Your mother. Who is she?" he asked, shifting his balance from foot to foot in a sort of nervous exercise in agility. He had forgotten the girl. He never used to forget anyone.
"Margaret Hanson," said the girl in her most informative tones. "But she's in a real bind, so you have to come and help her."
Father Luke stared at her. Margaret Hanson, the take-control lady. She had been the busybody behind all the church's functions, preparing the meals, deciding who should and who shouldn't sponsor baptisms. The woman who never needed help, and responded in a fiery manner to anyone who offered it. "Your mother doesn't want my help."
"Yes, she does," insisted the girl, her head bobbing emphatically. "She said specifically to go and find you and bring you to her because you were needed whether you realized it or not." The girl held out a thin, grubby hand. The priest stared at it. "Well? Are you coming?"
Father Luke sighed and took the hand in his claws as the child led him down the shoulder of the highway. Neither one spoke as they walked, the gravel crunching beneath their feet, the smell of autumn leaves in the air. The girl's pace never tired or slowed, never faltered, even when she walked by the car that lay in the ditch to their right, the car that reeked of death, and whose windows revealed a rotten expression of pain pressed up against them.
The highway moved on for miles, and by the time the Hanson home revealed its candle-lit windows in the distance, the sun was sinking behind the hills, and a slight chill was filling the air. The girl seemed encouraged by the sight of the house, for her pace quickened, her tuggings at Father Luke's arm grew more insistent.
The priest grew more uncomfortable as he mounted the wooden steps to the old home, but was pleased to feel the warmth coming from within. His claws clicked on the hardwood floors as he stepped inside. The girl dropped his hand and ran through a door to the right, a door that was well lit by candlelight. "Mama, mama, Father Stavros is here. I found him!"
"Well!" said a voice from the other room, and a woman appeared in the doorway, blocking most of the light. She was solidly built, as if standing imposingly in doorways was her calling in life, as perhaps it was. She was wearing an apron over her jeans and blouse, and was drying a plate with a damp towel. "It's about time, I expect."
"You don't want me here," the priest said slowly. He held up his alterations as proof of this fact.
"Why not?" asked Margaret. "Because you've got hands that are a little different from everyone else? I don't see as how that can make any real difference, except that we'll be needing someone with a good, firm grip."
He tried to answer, but she didn't let him finish. "Now if you're all through with that bit of nonsense, there's a woman in the next room who needs your care. I've got to finish the dishes. Ellen, you show him where to go." She disappeared back through the open doorway and the room brightened again.
The girl walked off through the door ahead, calling, "Follow me," and the bewildered priest complied. He walked into the next room and saw a figure lying on a plush blue couch. The figure was wrapped in a clean quilt that seemed to match the homey decoration of the room itself. The bundle was breathing slowly.
"That's her, Father," said the girl. "She's real sick. She's been asking for you."
The priest walked toward her, the wooden board creaking beneath his feet. The whole room smelled of sickness and fear, an acrid, bittersweet scent. He pulled back the blanket.
It was the naked woman from the day of the Shock. She was drenched in sweat, breathing in heavy pants, her cheeks sunken in. Her flesh itself was mottled with veins, and slightly bluish in color. Mucus leaked from her nose and mouth, and her eyes were swollen shut.
Father Luke turned his head away, despair wracking his body. "My God..."
The woman stirred at the sound of his voice. "Father?"
He didn't answer.
"Father, is that you? Please... I know I look bad, just please answer me."
"I... I'm here."
"I guess you're probably pretty scared, too." Her voice was shaking with the trembling of her body. "I saw you the other day, when the Shock came. You didn't see me, but I saw you. You were afraid."
The priest felt guilt sink into him, his stomach hardening with accusation. "I was... afraid," he admitted.
"I guess even priests can get scared every now and then," she whispered, "even though they know better than anyone else that God is there for them."
"Yes. Priests can forget that." He didn't tell her the whole truth: that priests can stop believing that. "Do you know that now?"
She sniffed wetly, trying to clear her air passages. "I guess. It's hard to know anything when you're this cold. But I'm close to the other side, Father. I can feel it." Her lips stretched into a thin parody of a smile. "They're waiting for me. It will be warm there. There's none of this pain, none of this fear."
He didn't say anything; his mind was numb. Lies, lies, his mind accused. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. How could he tell her it was all right? How could he deceive her. He looked at her again. She was gasping for breath through her mouth. He lifted the blanket up a bit so he couldn't see her face.
"Father are you still there?"
He paused. "Yes, I'm still here."
There was a sob from beneath the quilt. "Father, I'm scared."
He reached out and laid his hand on the blanket, feeling a thin shoulder beneath. "Don't be afraid."
"But I am. What if... what if we were all wrong?"
Hating himself for it, he answered, "You can't think that now. You just have to trust that there's something better than this. So don't think that now."
She was quiet for a moment. "It's hard not to think it."
"Will you hold my hand?"
Father Luke stared at his hands for a moment, flexing the massive claws. She couldn't see his hands, but she might be able to feel them. Maybe not, though. "They might feel a little strange," he said.
"Everyone's strange now. Some people have funny hands. Some people have strange eyes. Me, my blood turned into ice water." Her hand pawed weakly at the air for a moment and before he knew what he was doing he had taken it in his own.
"Your hands are warm," she said quietly. "Will you give me confession?"
He sighed inwardly and stared at the floor. "If you like."
She squeezed his hand faintly and smiled again. And began. She confessed for nearly half an hour before her words trailed off into mumbles and then stopped altogether as her hand slipped from his grasp and thumped against her chest. She wasn't moving.
Father Luke stood and wrapped the blanket over, feeling like he was choking on his tongue. He walked back out to the entranceway and looked into the kitchen. The lights were dimmer now, the candles a bit lower. Margaret Hanson sat at a table covered with a tablecloth with yellow and red rectangles on a white background. She was snapping the ends off of long beans.
"Is she dead?" she asked pointedly.
"Yes." Father Luke pulled out a chair and slumped down into it, relieved to take the pressure off of his huge, aching feet.
"You can't sit down yet," Margaret said. "There's more folks as need your help."
Father Luke stared at her. "I can't do this," he said. "It's all gone, don't you understand? It's all gone! The Apocalypse came and went, and did any of us get saved? No! Did God send us comfort or take us away from it? No."
He buried his face in his hands. "I can't administer the Eucharist because I have no faith in it anymore. It's nothing, don't you see? Everything we did, everything we worked for--it's all come to nothing! They don't even want my help. They run from me; they've deserted the Church--"
"Have they really?" interrupted the woman. "Have they really deserted the church, or have you?"
The priest stared at her. "I was there; you should have seen it. It's destroyed, the whole thing is falling apart, and no one comes there anymore."
"And what were you going to do, just sit around and wait for them?" The woman slapped one hand down on the table. "Well, I've got news for you, preacher. That whole building and everything in it has nothing to do with your job. It's just a good place for it."
Father Luke shook his head. "Easy sentiments, easy sentiments," he murmured. "But the light is gone. I can't do this anymore--I don't believe in it. There's no help from above. God's sent no comfort, no angel of hope."
"He sent you," Margaret said pointedly.
The priest stared at her. "But..." he said. He closed his mouth again.
"Now come on, unless you want to feel sorry for yourself some more," said the woman. She stood up and led him to the back of the kitchen and opened the door. He looked outside. In the backyard were lined up dozens of metal cots. People lay on them, in a chorus of moans and cries that mingled with the chatter of those who sat beside their beds. Others leaned against trees or sat on logs. They looked up when he came out of the door. Many were ill--some with muzzles on their faces, some with twisted limbs, some with curious mewling sounds coming from their throats. Others were burned or wounded.
He gazed out over the group of people that had gathered there and realized that they had come here because they knew it was safe, they knew they would be helped. What had he done wrong? Why hadn't they come to the church? The answer hung before him in the air. His shame, his guilt... that had driven them away to seek comfort from those who needed no comfort, and hope from those who never lacked it.
Margaret's words rang in his ears. He sent you. And then he was down in the midst of them, holding a hand, listening to those who needed to talk, offering words of comfort where he could, holding the children and praying with all of those who wanted prayer. And it didn't matter whether he believed in it or not anymore. What mattered was that he was with them, offering the compassion that could not be found in those among them who had despaired, who were afraid, who had given up hope.
He moved from cot to cot, from person to person, and the moon shone through the leaves and lit up the ground in shapes like those from a stained glass window. The two candle lanterns hanging from the porch shone like metallic fans of gold, heralding the coming of good tidings.
FLUX: Faith copyright 2000 by Jason The Skunk.
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