It was late on Christmas Eve before Father Cornelius made it to the last church in Father O’Rourke’s parish, number four on his list for confession. Acting as a locum for the ailing Father, he had spent the last hour or so in his car, searching in the fading light for the obscure historical site. It was more by chance than sense of direction (his satnav previously leading him to an out-of-town recycling depot) that he eventually pulled up outside the ivy-clothed flint-and-stone church of Her Lady Immaculate. Were it not for his enthusiasm to prove his worth in the diocese, he would have avoided unlocking the heavy wooden door and lighting candles to reveal the spartan whitewashed walls.
Why anyone would want to come here, he said to himself, God only knows!
He then forgave himself for the inappropriate use of the Lord’s name. He walked down the central aisle, the stiff wooden pews either side punctuated by the occasional narrow clear window cemented into the wall. His shoes clicked stridently on the terracotta flooring before he knelt in front of the altar, asking for guidance during the short time he expected to be available to parishioners.
As he dutifully aligned himself in the old wooden confessional box, he assumed nobody would bother to attend and confess on a night of materialistic anticipation for tomorrow. Listening to the wind whistle hysterically through the timber roof above, he was merely eager to make midnight mass at the cathedral, without being delayed by confessors or the stumbling engine of his car, which had crawled hesitantly up the hedged lane to the top of the hill.
He passed his time by concentrating on a few of his favourite prayers and by humming the hymns he was looking forward to singing, alongside Bishop Truman, later that night. Even though he had fortified his priestly robes against the cold by wearing a thick vest and jumper underneath, the chill was seeping into his skin and shivering his muscle and bone. Just as he was about to forgive himself for cutting five minutes off the allotted confessional time, the thick wooden door of the church creaked on its hinges and scraped on the cobbled stone. This was followed by excessive coughing, which delayed the person, before they pushed the door back on its hinges. Then there was an uneven step, the unsteady gait of a heavy man (Father Cornelius assumed) integrated with deep breaths, which were clearly needed to aid the man in his walking.
It was a bit of a relief that the confessor made it to the cubicle, shuffling and wedging a large body into the confined space, then redrawing the curtain.
Father Cornelius pulled back the little wooden envelope and waited for the man to catch his breath, before the confession could begin.
‘Please, my son, take your time so I can hear your confession.’
In reply, the deep breathing continued, as if it was a vocal articulation within itself.
‘Forgive me…’ was the slow, breathy reply.
‘Yes, my son, I am ready to hear your confession.’
‘Thank you, Father…’ came the reply, followed by a long pause.
Again, Father Cornelius waited, patiently, in priestly calmness.
Then the man’s voice changed; it became clear and articulate as the confession started.
‘Forgive me, Father for I have sinned; it is over two thousand years since my last confession and I accuse myself of the following sin: murder…’
The man’s voice trailed off and the church was filled again by the wind making eerie tubular sounds. Experienced as Father Cornelius was to all manner of sin in the confessional box, even the taking of someone’s life, he needed clarity on one thing.
‘My son,’ he said, ‘you have just named a terrible sin; for your conscience and for my duty to God and to society, I must tell you now, I cannot let what you have just said stay within this confession. However, why do you say it is over two thousand years since you committed this act… indeed, is it only one sin committed?’
‘Because, Father, I am as old as sin.’
‘Please, my son, if I am to take you seriously you must tell me only truths. No embellishments, amusements or tall tales, especially on the anniversary night of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. If it is the sin of murder, tell me of its gravity, the circumstances, motivation, even a proper time and place, but with no levity regarding such a thing.’
Father Cornelius’s admonishment had brought silence again. Then he heard the deep breathing which had preceded the crystal-clear voice. Whilst he never liked to peer through the hexagonal grate, he was tempted to try and look, as he wondered if there were perhaps two people rather than one behind the curtain.
‘What would you have me say, Father?’ came the reply, again with perfect tone and pitch.
‘The truth, my son, that is all you need tell me.’
‘The truth is like the wind, Father; it hisses and spits, its venomous bite strangles the light; truth is pain, Father, everlasting unaltered anguish, a thousand years upon a thousand years, until the crushing can squeeze no more deceit and betrayal. That is why I am here, to ask for your forgiveness, to absolve myself of the heavy burden I have dragged around like weighted chains.’
Father Cornelius paused. Such an articulate voice, he considered, was not the voice of someone who was here just to play games. Even if it turned out to be nonsense, maybe he should still listen and delineate truth from fantasy, fact from fiction.
‘Of this sin then…’ said Father Cornelius. ‘A murder you say you have committed; can you tell me who it was… why you did it?’
‘It was only a man,’ came the reply.
‘Is this someone you knew?’
‘No… only someone I had heard of… and even then… I was commanded to finish him off… I think to put him out of his misery. I cannot say I knew the man because there was nothing left to know.’
‘So, you were party to the murder… it was a collective endeavour to end this man’s life?’
‘Oh yes… there were many involved in making sure this man was punished and then killed.’
‘And you say you were commanded? Are you in the army… is that why you have come to confess… to ask for forgiveness for something you feel crossed the lines of what is acceptable in a state of war?’
‘Yes, Father, it was a command, but one I carried out with relish. There are always too many men seeking godlike status; to see one humiliated and crucified was a gratification which I have sought throughout my long life.’
Father Cornelius stiffened his back, pushed his shoulders back and grimaced at a man who seemed to show no remorse whilst confessing.
‘My son,’ he said, ‘to crucify a man is a most barbaric method. It is a punishment which our Lord Jesus was the victim of and not something which in any way can be justified.’
Then Father Cornelius heard the most peculiar sound, like an animal grunting or snorting, as the steam of hot breath filtered through the grate. This was followed by a foul smell, of stinking rotten eggs, a noxiousness which almost choked Father Cornelius’s breathing.
‘You cannot use the sacredness of the confessional…’ asserted Father Cornelius, ‘for childish pranks!’
For a few seconds more the grunting continued, the heavy uncontrolled breathing, before there was an odd silence which seemed to wrap or enclose Father Cornelius. It was all rather peculiar, because he also noticed the wind outside had suddenly dropped in volume, so much so that all he could hear was his own awkward shuffling in the confined space.
He was conscious now of his own isolation: up on the hill in a church with a man who was confessing to a murder. It was at this point that he realised he was vulnerable, how in such times where there was unpredictability he had always relied on his faith; trust in God, Father Cornelius told himself… trust in God.
Fortunately, his nervousness was calmed, as the man’s distinct and steady voice soothed its way through the grate again.
‘Forgive me, Father, it is a side of me that takes over my calmer state; it is the animal in me, the beast which breathes like a beast, smells like a cesspit and horrifies those who are not used to my immortality.’
‘Your… immortality?’ wondered Father Cornelius.
‘And why do you think you are immortal?’
‘Simple, Father: only gods are immortal.’
Oh dear, thought Father Cornelius, this is a seriously troubled man who will need to be treated sensitively.
‘Please tell me, my son, when did you first think that you had godlike qualities?’
‘When I was born.’
‘And when was that, my son?’
‘At the point of the singularity.’
Father Cornelius, who had a basic understanding of the latest theories of how the universe is interpreted scientifically, replied: ‘You mean, you trace your consciousness back to the birth of life… to the birth of the universe as we know it?’
‘Indeed, Father… it is where all gods come from.’
‘So, there is more than one of you… it is not just you who inhabits the earth?’
‘No, Father, it is only me on this planet. There are others, who span the tentacles which bind and connect. We are like the dark force, the dark energy, which spins the material which runs at an everlasting sprint, pushing out into infinity.’
‘To think of yourself as a god, my son, is not compatible with our beliefs, or indeed any other faith or religion. I am struggling to understand if you have really come here to confess a murder or are just seeking guidance? If you want, we can talk outside, in my car even, which would be a lot warmer.’
Again, Father Cornelius heard the animal-type breathing before the confessor’s voice returned.
‘You are right, Father, and I ask for your forgiveness. Perhaps it is not so much a confession, as I at first professed; think of it instead as a message, and a raising of your consciousness.’
‘You mean, you wish to educate me?’ replied Father Cornelius incredulously.
‘I find history is always covered in prejudice depending on whose side you are on. And you do not know yet whose side you are on, but I am here to enlighten you.’
‘Are you here to convert me?!’
‘We must all at some stage come to recognise who we truly are. You, my friend, have history flowing through your veins. Your ancestors are the triumphant slayers of the false gods and worshippers. It is now your time to awaken, measure your worth against the purveyors of falsehoods and join your cousins who used the spear against the false Messiah!’
‘Are you suggesting that I am connected historically with the death of our Lord Jesus Christ? Which, if you are, is an outrageous, blasphemous slur… no foundation in evidence… no proof whatsoever…’
Father Cornelius struggled to find any more words, as he felt emotionally drained by such absurd claims, by such ridiculous teasing…
‘But you are Cornelius…’ said the confessor-turned-messenger.
‘My name is Father Cornelius and there is nothing more to it. I have never traced my family origins, and even if I could, it would be a miracle to establish that I was somehow related to a Roman soldier who ended the life of our beloved Lord Jesus.’
‘I understand your fear, Cornelius; it must be troubling to know that your dedication to the belief system of a non-god requires you to accept a different fate… one where you must be a party to new murder.’
‘Murder? What are you talking about? There is no need for any murder. There is no need for all this nonsense regarding this most abhorrent sin.’
‘Are you sure there is no need for murder when we consider Bishop Truman?’
‘The Bishop? Why would I want to murder the Bishop?’
‘Come, Cornelius, there is no need to be coy with me. We both know Bishop Truman merely pretends to consider your welfare… we both know what is behind it… we both know that he thinks you are not strong enough to be a part of his flock. There is duplicity in everything he says and does. Think hard, Cornelius, and you will see he only has designs to expel you from your devotion. Not only that, he thinks you conspire with the devil!’
‘Of course, Cornelius; that is why I offer you this insight, the chance to adopt your true self and understand it is not too late to choose the right side of history. False gods and false prophets populate this earth, and you can have the right to slay the postulators of falsehoods.’
‘Look at me, Cornelius. Bend your head down and look at me through the grate.’
Father Cornelius was gripped with fear, but also with the compulsive urge to understand the bizarre machinations of this obscure confessor.
‘Come, look, Cornelius… look upon a true god!’
Slowly, against his will, almost compelled, he lowered his head towards the confessional grate. For a few seconds he kept his eyes looking straight ahead to avoid what sat opposite him. Then the heavy breathing, the hot air of breath seeped through, the stinking hell of sulphur. He squeezed his eyes shut, hoping that it would all go away, that the box would be empty, or that a teenager would burst out laughing. But the animal sounds continued, the breathing grew louder.
And then he looked and recoiled in horror at the foul goat-headed beast staring back at him, its black nostrils pulsating, its damp furry hair crowned with an abominable set of curling goat’s horns. But it was the eyes, the penetrating yellow eyes, the black slits of evil cradled menacingly in their sockets, which penetrated his soul and challenged his belief in all things godly.
Father Cornelius threw himself out of the confessional box and onto the cold floor. He did not look behind him, but picked himself up in a state of panic, his limbs struggling to move, yet somehow pushing towards the heavy wooden door. He landed outside on the path of dead autumnal leaves, picked himself up and ran around the side of his car to look back at the church.
Was it coming?
He waited, watching the candlelight from the church flicker through into the dark. He had time, he realised, to find his car keys. He fumbled in his pockets, cursing the intricate structure of his priestly robes, whilst all the time nervous and observant of the church door.
Praise be, he said to himself, as he plucked the keys from a pocket, unlocked the car and locked the doors immediately.
Lights, ignition, he said to himself.
The tall trees which surrounded him were lit up by the car’s lights as the engine started; he put the car into gear and sprinted back down the track which he had followed on his way up to the godforsaken hellhole. His speed was rapid as he took risks to get as far away as possible from the living nightmare he had just experienced.
And there was only one place to go: midnight mass with the Bishop to restore some sanity.
By the time Father Cornelius arrived at the cathedral, the congregation were seated and midnight mass was about to begin. Father Cornelius headed straight down the central aisle to make his presence known, hoping he might find a few reassuring words from Bishop Truman.
Behind the Bishop were his flock of priestly helpers, organising the altar area for mass.
‘Father Cornelius,’ said the Bishop, acknowledging the presence of his rather febrile and troubled young priest. ‘We were wondering where you were.’
‘I was at Her Lady Immaculate, receiving confession,’ replied Father Cornelius.
On hearing this, Bishop Truman returned that face, the face which had been used so often to demonstrate his disapproval of Father Cornelius.
‘Why would you go there, my son?’ asked Bishop Truman. ‘There is only a few walls and an open sky. Not a place to visit on a cold night like this.’
Father Cornelius wanted to reply, but he knew his words would have no meaning.
Bishop Truman watched the troubled soul of Father Cornelius return down the aisle and disappear out of sight. He hoped it was not the last he would see of him.
As midnight began to strike, Father Cornelius found himself walking among the graves behind the cathedral. He was distraught, angry and troubled by everything. Until he heard the heavy breathing, the animal sounds of grunting, the hot breath from the confessional seeping again over the back of his neck. The air around him was suffused with the pungent stench of sulphur.
‘So, Cornelius, do you wish now to fulfil your destiny?’
Without turning, Father Cornelius accepted the heavy spear. There was now one last mission, one last confession, one last act to align himself with his ancestors. Whilst he did not need to kill a false god, he could at least bring down the purveyor of false teachings.
Father Cornelius dragged the spear along behind him, muttering these final words before he killed Bishop Truman: ‘I am sorry for these sins and all the sins of my whole life, especially the sin of murder. Father, give me some prayers as penance and advise and absolve; God bless and go in peace.’
Author Notes: I am an author and artist, living and working in London and Essex. I published my debut novel, Zombie Park, in 2017, a sharp and witty, intense portrayal, of a disintegrating psychiatric hospital, set during the social and economic turmoil of 1980s. In 2018, I had published several short stories in the following UK magazines: Storgy, Bandit Fiction and Horla. As a hybrid author, I also self-publish a flash fiction blog and short fiction using online platforms. Currently, I am completing my second novel, a crime and grime thriller, inspired by the war and post war era fiction of: Grahame Greene, Eric Ambler and Patrick Hamilton.