The sun shone through the stained glass window, illuminating the tiny chapel in a cascade of life and colour. Father Michael loved Saturday morning confession; it was one of his more peaceful duties that, in many ways, went a long way to strengthen his own faith. He saw a purity in the revelation of human weakness. A purity that became whiter and brighter as the soul became unburdened.
He stopped by the sacristy door for a moment, to take it all in. The glory of Christ, seen through a coloured glass window. The joy of redemption, lived through the disclosure of sin.
To the side of the door, Rosemary, the housekeeper, stood halfway up a stepladder cleaning one of two small windows.
The priest edged his way around her. "Sorry, may I come through.
The woman yelped, the stepladder wobbled.
"Good Lord, Father,' she said, her hand holding a wet chamois clutched to her breast. 'You'll give me a heart-attack."
"Sorry ," Father Michael replied, then feeling somewhat guilty, shuffled around her and proceeded down the steps of the altar into the chapel proper.
Mrs Kelly was sitting in her usual seat, in the first pew, clicking and whispering her way through the rosary.
He patted her on the shoulder.
She looked up at him with certain annoyance, then said, "Good morning Father," and continued with her devotions.
Farther down the aisle, along the pew opposite the confessional box marked Fr Daly, four teenage boys sat, giggling and play-acting among themselves. It was obvious to Father Michael that they were not here by choice. The fear of a clip round the ear, for not doing their duty was probably why they were not out kicking a ball against the back wall of Anderson's Feeds and Fertiliser. A mother with her daughter sat behind them, the little girl wearing a bride-like First Holy Communion dress, an event this three Saturdays gone. She squirmed on the seat, the hem seeming to play havoc with her behind, as her mother tugged at the girl's the arm, whispering chastisements.
As Father Michael approached the pew, the whole ensemble stopped and sat up, naughty children reproved by the Headmaster entering the classroom.
He nodded a hello and went into the confessional. He sat down, took out his stole and placed it around his neck, blessed himself, said a brief, silent prayer, then straightened himself and switched on the light outside that said he was in session.
He waited, but nobody entered.
He waited another moment then, thinking the light might be on the blink again, he got up to check. As he did so, the door of the neighbouring compartment opened and person entered.
Father Michael sat down.
There followed a moment or two of silence. He sensed that the person to be nervous, assuming it to be one of the teenage lads, too edgy to admit another bout of stealing beer and cigarettes from Dunville Wines. Teenage is a painful time of life and even more painful to admit, so the priest gave the boy some space.
When the silence had stretched to an irritating level, Father Michael said, "So what is it you would like to confess, young lad."
It shocked him when the reply came in the voice of an adult man.
The answer came hesitantly, "Father you have to help me."
"That's what I'm here for."
There was another pause, then, "Father?"
"Do you believe dreams can be evil?"
The question stumped the priest. He thought for a second, then said,"There is evil inside all of us. What is ..."
"Answer the question," the voice snapped, blasting him from the other side of the grill. "Do you believe dreams can be evil?"
"Perhaps but is there anything in particular you'd like to confess?"
"Answer the question," the man snapped again.
Father Michael was taken aback, but stayed composed and said, "Look now, if you want to ..."
"I knew you couldn’t help," the man said, and got up to leave.
"Why don’t you tell me about this dream," Father Michael said.
The man kneeled down again and, after a few tense seconds, he began, "You see, it all happened last night, Father ... when I went to bed as normal."
The grill lessened Father Michael's view of the man, but he got the distinct impression that he was sweating.
"Continue," the priest said, not really knowing what else to say. It wasn't a confession in the proper sense but this man was still a soul in need.
"I'm walking through the snow," the man continued. "Beautiful snow. Winter but sunny. I'm coming out from a copse of trees and I can hear children laughing. It's so perfect. I look across and can see a building, like a school but somehow it's not a school either. I go towards it and there's children playing, on swings and merry-go-rounds, they've all got winter anoraks on, bright yellows, orange, with their hoods up and tied in at the neck." The man uttered a nervous laugh. It sounded painful.
"I walk across, and they're all smiling at me. It's lovely, I feel like joining in myself. I look down the side of the building and there's a child, in a red anorak, I can't make out if it's a boy or a girl because the hood is hiding their face. They are writing in the snow. Curiosity gets the better of me, and I approach.
"When I get there, I see it is little girl, a pretty little girl writing in the snow. I look to see what she's writing ... it says FATHER.
“‘Why are you writing Father in the snow?’ I ask.
"She looks up at me, her beautiful, pretty little face, peering out at me from under the hood of the red jacket. "'Will you help me find my father?' she asks.
"I'm at a loss, I don't know what to say but her little face is pleading to me, 'Help me find my father.'
"Suddenly her face lights up, 'He's coming,' she says. 'Father's coming,' and she clutches hand and leads me in through a door, into the building. 'Up there,' she says, pointing up a flight of stairs. I look back at her, she's smiling. 'Father's up there. Help me find him.'
"How can I refuse, she's so beautiful, small and helpless. I start up the stairs; she's following two steps behind, smiling at me through her bright little face. So, I walk around a corner and look up. Over the next rise everything is black, not just dark but a wall of blackness barring my way from going any further. I'm scared, I don't know why, but I'm scared. There's something up there, I can feel it. Father is up there, I don't want to go any further but I look back to the girl, her eyes are begging me to go up, so I do."
The man went silent. His breath sounded short, panting, as though every word had drawn air and life from his lungs.
Father Michael thought it wiser to remain silent also.
"I started up the stairs," the man began again, "and I'm standing before the wall of black, I can feel it now ... more intense. There's something in the blackness, diabolical and evil. I can see it - him - moving, a shadow on the other side, rippling amidst a curtain of darkness. I'm so close he could reach out and grab me but he doesn't, it has to be my choice. I don't want to go in but he's calling to me. It's as though I'm about to take a step into a place ... that place. The place that is pain and misery and destitution. 'Father' wants me to go in, there's something I have to do, but I hesitate, I turn to go. The girl is pleading to me. I look at her little face begging me to go into the void but I can’t, I’m scared, I can't do it ... I'm a coward.
"I turn to leave, and see the girl's face begin to contort, changing, warping into something ... something brutal and demonic.
"She charges at me, bites me in the arm. I feel her teeth cutting into my flesh. The other children have joined her, snarling faces, all around me, on top of me, biting me, pushing me up the stairs ... pushing me into the void."
The man paused, caught his breath. "That's when I woke up."
There fell another moment of awkward silence, thick as fog and filled with disquietude.
"Well, that's quite a dream you had there," Father Michael said, not really sure what this man wanted from him. "But I think you've come to the wrong place. I think a Psychoanalyst might be a better person to help you decipher the meaning of it. It's not really my bag, all that head shrinking stuff."
He laughed, a vain attempt to lighten the mood.
The man stayed silent, yet Father Michael knew that he had duty to provide this poor soul some kind of succour.
"Okay then,' he said. "In answer to your original question, 'Can dreams be evil?' the answer is no. It is people who are evil, or at any case, it is people who have the capacity to be evil. It's inherent in all of us. Don't get me wrong the Devil exists, in all his wicked ways but he is within us, corrupting what is good and virtuous about being one of God's children. Our mission in this life is not to give in, to follow the Lord, the Scriptures, lead good and honest lives, with consideration for ourselves, our God and our fellow man. That is how we overcome evil. Don't make too much of it, it was only a nightmare, frightening to say the least, you had the hairs standing on the back of my neck there for a bit."
He laughed again.
The man didn't.
"But that's all it was," the priest continued. "No more than a scary nightmare."
To this the man said nothing.
"So, scary dreams aside," Father Michael began again, "is there anything you have to confess? Now, that is something I can help you with."
The man remained silent.
"Sir?" He tapped the grill but the man said nothing, sat rigid, staring at Father Michael through the meshed screen of the confessional box.
Feeling uneasy for the man's sanity and safety, the priest thought to go to him, perhaps settle him into a pew, to sit, and pray, and wait for the end of confessions, when Father Michael might have chance to talk further, and perhaps guide him towards someone better suited to hear his fears.
He rose from his seat and walked through the door to the aisle.
His foot sank into something wet.
When he looked down, a stream of blood was flowing in bright, scarlet rivulets along the aisle. He looked up again. Opposite the confessional, the four teenage boys lay draped over the back of the pew, heads lolled to one side, their mouths gaping and their chests cleaved open to the neck. Although his eyes took heed, his thoughts tumbled, unable to register the savagery before him.
He moved closer, more through impulse than will. Behind the boys, the mother lay slumped, her decapitated body spewing blood from the neck and, beside her ravaged body, poking out from beneath the bench, two legs protruded from a pearl white, blood splattered dress. The priest pressed a hand to his mouth. His stomach churned and his gorge rose. He lurched, regained balance, then panic struck and he bolted for the front of the church and the blessed sacristy.
He passed Mrs. Kelly, rosary beads in hand, lying halfway out into the aisle, the rest of her, from the waist to toes, sitting undisturbed were she’d been praying with blood gushing from the gash in her throat.
He made for the altar, stopping only to take in the majesty of the stained-glass window, hoping to find comfort from the image of Christ's loving hand.
He saw the stepladder, still standing upright, but Rosemary wasn't there.
"Thank God," he thought before he spied her ... above the tabernacle, splayed out, crucified upon the wall in a blasphemous parody of the suffering of Christ.
A sight that Father Michael Daly took with him into darkness.
* * *