Tonight, belongs to the dead and the living would do well to remember it. Father Brown tried to brush aside such morbid thoughts and smiled as another small group, comprised of witches, ghouls and a lone grim reaper swept by. He shivered and drew his coat collar around his throat. The wind carried with it a penetrating chill, and the last of the autumn leaves swirled around his feet, as he walked up the path to the church door. He looked neither left nor right, not wanting in his gloomy mood to acknowledge those of his parishioners lying beneath the earth. There was no mistaking the tremor in his hand as he tried to place the key in the lock, and it scraped against the brass surround leaving a deep scratch.
“Christ,” he licked his thumb and rubbed at the offending mark, but the metal from the key cut deep, and it would take more than a gentle rub to remove it.
He stopped to allow the trembling in his hands subside, and his eyes travelled up to the porch above his head. The doorway was unremarkable by some standards, though the archway was cut from a single stone. It was devoid of the finer carvings of scrolls or angels, but this wasn’t uncommon for a church in a rural community. Its congregation were unused to frills and flounces, the bishop informed him, as he handed over the keys to Father Joe’s first and only parish. He waited over forty years for this honour, and served his time as curate and underling to a host of priests, without a murmur of discontent as the younger and less experienced were promoted before him. He bided his time, and patience paid off. He’d been serving in this parish for over twenty-four years, and never once had he cause to regret it, until now.
Wanting to be free of these thoughts, he turned back to the door and this time managed to turn the key in the lock. The interior of the church was icy, and he cursed the ancient, unreliable heating system as he walked down the shadowy aisles. The evening mass wasn’t due to start until seven, so there were hours yet before his services were needed. Until then he’d be left alone with the horrible grey mood that descended. Edging his way into a pew at the centre of the church, he knelt in silent prayer until the ache in his knees urged him to sit. His tired eyes roamed around the familiar interior. It was an ordinary building, with no cellar beneath it to hide the tombs of past gentry, and no stone effigies of fallen knights to mar the aisles. The windows the usual semi-circular arch, and the stained glass showed a parade of saints and sinners. At the side of the altar sat the baptismal font. Carved from a huge stone hollowed to house the holy water, it sat unused and forlorn. It was years since the last christening, and it lay empty with just a small, green lime stain coating the bottom. The younger members of his congregation moved away to the city as soon as they were old enough. Only those tied to the place by farms or family businesses remained, and it was to this dwindling number he preached each Sunday.
Behind him, rising to a point above the porch, sat the bell turret. To have called it a tower would be boasting. To his right sat the confessional. Double sided with a half door in the centre, and a heavy, green, velvet curtain to hide his face once seated. It’s here he’s listened over the years to sins, some real, some imagined, of those desperate for absolution. It is the place he heard the last words of those who haunted his sleep, and who now, as the night of All Hallows drew nearer, made his heart race with the certain knowledge of an approaching terror.
A sudden blast of wind carried with it the smell of altar flowers that outlived their life span. The thud of the church door explained the cause of the draught, and he didn’t bother to turn around to see who it was. The footsteps drew nearer, their sound echoing in the silence and amplified by the high-vaulted ceiling.
“Ah, Father, I thought it was you,” the old woman stopped beside the pew. “I’m here to change the flowers,” she held out a bunch of yellow chrysanthemums.
The autumn wind picked the gardens bare of blooms, so she had to buy the flowers, and she wanted to make sure everyone knew of her sacrifice.
“That’s good of you, Norah,” he looked at the offering. “You must let me reimburse you.”
“Not at all, Father,” she puffed out her chest. “I’m delighted to do it. It gives me something to do.”
He watched, as she took the small vases off the altar and into the sacristy. There came the sound of running water, as she emptied and refilled them.
“There, now,” she came back and replaced the vases, fussing over the way the stems sat.
He saw there were red carnations scattered among the flowers, though overshadowed by the larger blooms and ferns, they seemed to his tortured mind like blazing, crimson orbs.
“Are you all right, Father?” Norah came down from the altar and was watching him with a worried look.
“I’m fine, Norah,” he rubbed at his eyes. “A bit tired, that’s all.”
“You should be taking it easier at your age,” she said. “You’re not getting any younger. Then neither am I.”
“You’re right,” he smiled and eased his way up out of the hard-wooden seat. “I’ll go back to the house. It’s warmer there. Maybe, you’ll come over when you’re finished, and I’ll make us some tea?”
“I’d be delighted,” she flushed at the honour of being asked to take tea with the priest. “I’ll come over as soon as I’m done here.”
She watched his retreating figure with a growing sense of worry. Father Brown was not a robust man, but of late he seemed thin almost to the point of emaciation. Something was disturbing him, she was sure of it and maybe with a bit of coaxing he’d tell her over tea. Running a dust cloth across the top of the altar, she wondered about the stories circulating. In a rural area, where everyone knew everyone else’s business, it was impossible not to hear what was whispered about. Being a relative newcomer; she paid little attention to the superstitions and old wives tales, but still. She shivered, as her mind strayed to the two, bare mounds in the graveyard and the cause of the talk.
She’s not a bad sort, Father Brown thought, as he made his way home. Norah Byrne came to live with her daughter a few months before. Escaping the hustle of city life for the relative quiet of the country, was how she explained her decision. It couldn’t have been an easy choice, as her son-in-law was a huge, gruff man and not one given to kindness. There was no peace under his roof, and this drove Norah to take the unpaid job of church warden. Though the job itself didn’t entail much work, it gave her an excuse to leave the house, and she found, as Father Brown had, a sanctuary there.
His house sat a few yards from the church gates. Within a stone’s throw of the graveyard, he always joked “They won’t have far to carry me far, when my time comes.”
The path through the graveyard was coated with the last of the autumn leaves and they crunched beneath his feet. From deep within their withered dryness rose a heady, decaying scent of mould and damp earth. He stopped and listened for a moment. The only sound came from the sighing of the breeze and somewhere in the distance the screams of the children, as they went about their tricks. Halloween started early in the day. There was too much distance between the houses to make it safe to do so by night, especially for the little ones. The teenagers were a handful, but they kept their pranks away from the church, and for this he was grateful.
Leaning on the gate, he looked across the fields, splendid in their quilt of autumns, brown, green and gold. To the city dweller, a place such as this would seem out of time. Used to a life surrounded by noise and confusion, they couldn’t imagine one could walk down a country lane so overgrown with bush and bramble the branches met overhead, only to come across an old farmhouse nestled among this chaos. Or a place where everyone knew who you were, and could recount tales of your grandparents and great-grandparents. There was a lot of good in living in the country, he sighed, but it was only in the last year he’d come across its dark side.
The serenity he’d known was stripped away in one night, and the calmness of the graveyard lost to him forever. There was no way out for him, other than stagnate in one of those god-forsaken homes for retired priests. He refused to end his days listening to their endless reminiscences of what they believed to be better days. He’d rather die in the service of his congregation, than rot away in some elephant’s graveyard. He knew once he’d gone the church would be closed. It was no longer financially viable to keep it open, not with the ever-decreasing numbers coming to his services. His superiors allowed him to continue there because he made no demands on their coffers, preferring to bear the burden of the running costs from the meager amount collected every Sunday on the offering plate.
Turning around, he looked back across the graveyard. To anyone unaware of its terrible secret, it seemed peaceful, with its large elm and oak trees, stripped bare now, but nevertheless solid and strong. To his frayed nerves, it was dark and forbidding, the only colour came from the berries on the holly bush. Moving back along the path, he saw the first of the two graves. He knew there was talk about them, and though his religion forbade belief in such things, he felt it was true. He was weary and feeling every one of his eighty-two years. Leaning one hand on the nearest headstone for support, he made the sign of the cross over the mound. This exercise was repeated once more before he was ready to go home. The last year was a horror, for beside the usual, sad deaths either from old age or sickness; there were two more which filled him with sorrow and dread. Sorrow, because of the needless loss of life, and dread because of the way one of the departed sought out death. Suicide, the word made him shiver, and he tried to huddle deeper into the neck of his coat. The second grave belonged to a young woman whose murderer was unpunished, but what haunted him most, was the fact he knew, suspected would be a kinder word, something dreadful was about to happen that day.
It began as it always did at that time of year with confessions. Halloween was the day of souls, and this was obvious by the fresh bouquets of flowers adorning the graves. Those who came to pay their respects to departed loved ones, also came to confession for the first time in a year. It became a cleansing of sorts for those who were not inclined to frequent the church, and they went away with a sense of well-being, knowing their souls and conscience were wiped clean Whatever happened over the next twelve months would be dealt with in the same way. He remembered listening to the whispers from beyond the grill, and giving absolution to those seeking forgiveness. It was his policy to neither judge nor reprimand, as people were who they were, and nothing he could say would change that. Once the first small wave passed, he’d stayed there hidden by the curtain and in silent prayer, when the groan of the confessional door roused him. Sliding back the latch, he closed his eyes and waited. Even now he heard her voice in his head. Hoarse from unshed tears, she stumbled through her confession, desperate to be done. Despite the darkness of the box, he knew her. She was very young. Her sadness touched him and he remembered whispering.
“Let me help you, child.”
“Please, father,” she sobbed. “Give me absolution.”
He knew by her urgent plea any further attempt would send her running from the box, so he did as she asked. Shaken and unnerved by this encounter, he sat back and prayed. The door of the confessional opened for the second time, and he waited with bated breath, hoping the sinner’s tale would be nothing to disturb his sleep, but fate was against him. What he heard made him put his head in his hands in horror. By the time he was finished for the night, his nerves were tingling and icy fingers of fear crept up his spine.
By nightfall both were dead; one by their own hand, and his life was changed forever. What he heard in the confessional was sacrosanct, but this knowledge did little to sustain him, as he presided over the funerals, or tried to comfort the bereaved. Neither did it comfort him during the long nights, when plagued with self-doubt; he walked the floor praying for sleep to come. It was now one year to the day, and the memory of their last words echoed in his head. If they, who lay under the mounds, which refused to settle, and on which no grass would grow, could keep their word, this would be a night of terror for those they came searching for. Though the voice of reason told him this couldn’t happen, Father Brown couldn’t help, but wonder, if the need for revenge was strong enough to resurrect the dead.