“I swear before God,” her hand closed on the crucifix hanging around her neck. “Nothing you say to me will leave this room, and I do want to help, in any way I can.”
He knew she was sincere in her offer, and not one to go about spreading idle gossip. Like him, she was lonely, and the lines on her face told their own story. Life wasn’t easy for her.
“It’s nothing concrete, you understand,” he decided to trust her. “And I can’t betray what I heard in the confessional.”
“I understand that, Father,” she nodded. “I wouldn’t dream of asking you, but if telling me a little of what bothers you eases the burden, I’d like to help.”
“You know about the two sudden deaths last October?” He asked.
“Yes, the suicide and the murder.”
“You think one of the deaths was murder?” Her answer amazed him, and gave him comfort he wasn’t alone in his suspicions.
“The whole place knows it was, but as the coroner said, there was no proof, and the murderer got away with it.”
He sat back in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment, relieved the wickedness in his own thoughts was echoed by others.
“I heard their last confessions,” he roused himself and went back to his tale. “Only hours before they died, and I did nothing to help.”
“How could you, Father?” Norah asked. “As you said the confessional is sacrosanct.”
“The knowledge gives me little comfort, I’m afraid, but you’re right. I couldn’t break the seal of confession, and it haunts me. That, and the promised each of them made to me,” his eyes grew troubled. “It’s exactly a year ago tonight, you know?”
“No, I didn’t know,” Norah pulled her coat around her shoulders. “I knew it happened around this time, but not the exact date.”
“I knew each of them well,” he said. “I christened little Sarah Jacobs. She was fifteen when she died, and I met Lorraine Ryan on the day she moved here,” he looked around the room. “I called offering to help with the move, but she’d little material possessions, and most of the furnisher was falling to pieces, but she was glad of the offer, and we became friends. You know in the old days,” he said. “I’m not talking about the last century or the one before, but going back maybe forty years ago, they buried suicides outside the walls of the graveyard, and not only suicides, but babies who were not baptised and unmarried mothers. They thought them unfit to lie in consecrated ground, God help us,” he put his head in his hands and his voice was muffled. “So much harm was done in the name of God.”
“They were superstitious times,” Norah said. “I remember reading how they buried suicides at crossroads with a stake through their hearts.”
He looked up at her.
“Well, we haven’t come far since then.”
“It’s this place, Father,” she said. “Folk have little to occupy their time, and the old superstitions die hard. It’s different in the cities with the drugs and people overdosing right, left and centre.”
“Ah, now, Norah,” he laughed, at the casualness of her words. “I don’t think they’re dying that fast.”
“Well, you know what I mean,” she sniffed and straightened her shoulders.
“I know,” he didn’t want to offend her. “It seems like it, if the news reports are to be believed.”
“The young one,” Norah asked. “Did you know her?”
“Sarah, yes,” he paused. “Better than I know most of the young ones. I’ve met them at communion and confession, but many have moved away from the church. Sarah sought me out during the last few weeks of her life, both did. That’s why I know so much about them, and there’s no harm in telling you what I know. What I do know of Sarah is her life wasn’t an easy one. Have you met her mother, she’s the one with all the cats?”
“I know who you’re talking about. You can smell the cottage before you see it. She strikes me as a bit odd in the head.”
“That’s her; the poor woman should’ve been hospitalized years ago, but her husband wouldn’t hear of it. You haven’t been here long enough to know any of their stories, have you?” He asked.
“No, I’ve just picked up bits and pieces of gossip from the locals,” she said.
“Would you like to hear the truth?”
“Yes, Father, indeed I would.”
He consulted the clock on the mantelpiece.
“We’ve a few hours before mass and their stories will take some time in telling, but if you’re willing I’ll tell you how each of them came to be lying prematurely in the grave. Then you can judge if they’re at rest; or if as I suspect, tonight will see the beginning of a nightmare.”
“I’d be glad to listen,” Norah croaked, her mouth was dry from the tension.
“It’s hard to believe I used to enjoy the solitude of my calling. My sleep was free of terrors and my days spent in restful study of my books. It seems so long ago now, and it was brought to an end by what I’m about to tell you.”
His voice, once he began was unstoppable. There was a gluttonous intent in his outpourings. Norah settled back in her chair and nestled deeper into the warmth of her coat. She tried to make her face remain impassive, and did nothing to interrupted as the sad panorama of the two lives unfolded.
Father Brown watched her, looking for signs of disbelief. He knew as he spoke, she thought he was exaggerating, or the events were clouded, as his mind grew feeble with age. Still, he couldn’t miss this opportunity to unburden himself, and if as he suspected, the night ahead was filled with horror, there’d be someone who knew the truth.
Tonight, he’d face his demons. Though this word was not one he’d use to describe the poor, restless souls in the churchyard. The trauma and turmoil each felt at the last moment wouldn’t have left them unaffected and this was what he dreaded most. It was the one thing he couldn’t divulge to Norah, the urgent, angry whispers he’d heard in the confessional, as each one vowed revenge on those who’d hurt them.