The priest stared from the church door into the night. Clouds obscured the moon and stars. The lamp from the street beyond showed trees as spiky silhouettes. The priest squinted. Surely not, he thought. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled and his heart beat faster. He braved himself to take a further look. His throat was dry, and he swallowed to wet it.
A shriek broke into the silence making him jump. His heart thumped. It’s just an owl, he told himself.
Father Connolly wasn’t used to the country. He’d been appointed to this East Anglian village from Salford, a bustling, vibrant city. He’d enjoyed it there. He liked helping the down and outs and the families in need. That was his forte. Why had he been sent here to this nowhere village, where all the old men needed was a pint in the only pub on the green, and what all the old women needed was a good gossip in each other’s houses on a Friday night.
Some folk said the old women were part of a coven, meeting to share spells and do harm, and that he’d been sent here to destroy it. He knew that was utter rubbish and said so. He knew why he was here… it was a rhetorical question he asked himself on more than one occasion.
The priest sighed into the air. His breath cooled and he could see it hanging in front of his face. Nights were so much colder in the country. He rubbed his arms. A rustling in the churchyard bushes caught his attention. Rats. It would be rats. What’s that saying, you’re never more than ten feet from a rat. The father shivered.
He went into the church and closed the door behind him. He fished in his cassock pocket for a tissue. His top lip was sweating. He took a few deep breaths and leaned against the oak panels of the door. Looking towards the altar, he crossed himself.
A light appeared outside one of the stained glassed windows to the right of the nave. It lit up the sinister picture - St Michael, his armour shining, held a huge sword and he was intent on slaying a snake with a dragon’s head -representing - the Devil.
Father Connolly stared.
It was starting.
It was 31st October. He’d given his sermon this very morning and the church was full. Unusually full. In the four months he’d been here, he’d only ever seen the pews at the front of the small Norman church occupied. That was the elderly of the village. The people who knew no different. The women who had been turning up Sunday after Sunday, since they were little because that’s what happened. The men, who went along because their wives told them to, and they wanted a quiet life and a good hot Sunday dinner.
Not like the younger villagers. They worshipped elsewhere. Usually on their computers and in the nearest big town, driving home in their four-by-four vehicles, drunk from alcohol and cocaine-fueled binges. They wanted to live like townies but had so much money, they could oust local people by buying up the homes in the village, having their debauchery in the town, and returning home to respectability.
But they were there in the church today, bringing lighted pumpkins and sharing sweets. In a church! What were they thinking? Are they pagans with no respect? Father Connolly was sure they watched too much American TV. He was in despair. They weren’t genuine, like the people of Salford. People who needed him. Father Connolly detested the young villagers. And he told whoever was listening at this morning’s service. He vented his angst by blowing out all the pumpkin candles.
Some of the children cried.
His service was about Jesus throwing the merchants out of the temple and he likened it to the ways of the young villagers, warning them of the things to come if they didn’t change them. There were murmurings, and a couple of people left before the end of the sermon.
‘Be careful,’ villager Mary Blythe said to him that morning. ‘It’s All Hallows’ Eve tonight.’ And with that she left him standing there, her charcoal cloak flowing behind her as she strode away through the graveyard.
Few people were keen to shake the priest’s hand after the service. He had clearly hit a nerve. Well, he was glad. Hypocrites. He couldn’t stand hypocrites.
Father Connolly looked towards the glow outside the church window. It was clearly a flame on a tall staff. It flickered menacingly, casting shadows across the altar cloth. He switched off the lights and turned the huge key in the door lock.
There were two pillar candles on the altar that lit up the gold cross hanging on the wall. It comforted him. His God will protect him from whatever was out there. He didn’t believe in the myth of Hallowe’en anyway.
People had told him that the village was haunted by the dead. The witch trials of the seventeenth century still hung around this part of England like a bad smell. Mary Lakeland, burnt in Ipswich in sixteen-forty-five, has a whole section of the tiny village museum dedicated to her.
The Landlord of the Lamb Inn had told him that she, Mary, always walked abroad on All Hallows’ Eve. Looking for the men who put her to death.
‘She made a pact with the devil,’ said Landlord Jim.
‘Codswallop,’ the father had replied. He knew that Mary Lakeland was put to death in the guise of being a witch but that she also murdered her husband. And that was just cause for her death. ‘Well in those days anyway,’ he added feeling contrite after Jim’s wife shot him daggers over the bar.
A thump on the door sent Father Connolly running up the nave towards the cross. Another thump, followed by another, echoed around the walls of the church. The father clutched the small cross hanging on his neck and knelt before the altar.
He felt the same as he did that time six months ago when called in front of the bishop. That time he was told he had to leave his beloved Salford.
Sleeping with his verger’s wife was no longer a secret. His parishioners were not to be told but he was to leave forthwith. There was to be a short period away from the church, in which to reassess his commitment. There was no discussion.
He was scared then, and he was scared now.
Lucinda didn’t even leave with him. She stayed with her boring verger husband, Samuel. ‘He needs me,’ she said.
‘I need you,’ Connolly had replied but Lucinda had already walked away.
The father was disturbed. He turned his head round to the huge oak door. Music seeped under it and through the cold grey walls. It was eerie. A kind of dirge. Like nothing else he’d ever heard. It wrapped itself around his head and worked its way into his ears. The slow beat of drums, haunting woodwind, and… voices. Yes, it was voices. Low, wailing sounds – a lament.
More horrifying flames flickered outside the stained-glass windows. Now on both sides of the church. He was surrounded.
The Christ child was illuminated. The picture showed the anointment by his cousin John.
Father Connolly began to pray to the image, as the music became louder. The thumping on the door began again. This time not only three thumps but a continuous banging. The door was being forced.
The priest put his hands over his ears.
‘Dear God, help me,’ he said towards the window.
One by one the flames went out. Father Connolly followed them with his eyes. He swallowed hard in anticipation. His stomach hurt. He felt sick.
The banging on the door stopped and the music began to fade to silence as if the people outside were leaving.
The priest crossed himself.
The altar candles continued to gently flicker, throwing a wave of light on the gold cross. Jesus, his saviour, looked down. Father Connolly turned and lay prone on the floor before Him.
‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered. ‘I did wrong.’
The church was silent. He began to feel in a state of grace.
‘Father Connolly!’ rasped a deep voice.
The priest jerked his head up. The altar candle flames were dancing maniacally. The father stared at the mesmerizing lights. There was a draught fanning them. Someone had got into the church.
The priest slowly turned towards the voice. It was coming from the chancel.
It couldn’t be. His eyes were deceiving him again, like when he was outside the church.
A black hood and cloak clothed the beast. He held a long stick in his - what looked like a claw.
Father Connolly blinked hard. His head pounded and a rushing sound filled his ears.
The beast raised its arm and at the same time, the altar candles were extinguished.
The priest’s scream was penetrating.
Then, he blacked out.
Mary Blythe bathed the father’s brow, and he opened his eyes.
‘Are you feeling better now?’ she asked.
Father Connolly couldn’t speak; his mouth was too dry.
‘Here, have some water,’ Mary said, holding a glass with a straw up to his lips.
The father looked into the mirror on the dressing table opposite his bed.
How did he get here? What had happened?
He looked at his reflection. His eyes widened. A white streak of hair ran through the middle of his thick, curly black thatch. He touched it.
‘Shock,’ stated Mary Blythe.
‘What happened?’ said the father.
‘Least said soonest mended,’ said Mary.
She tucked his bedclothes around him.
‘I’ll be back later today,’ she said, pulling on her charcoal cloak and heading out of the bedroom. Quietly she turned the key in the lock and slipped it into her pocket.
Mary felt her mobile phone buzz. She closed the rectory gate and answered the call.
‘Oh, he’s okay,’ she said into the device. ‘He’ll live.’
The voice on the other end chuckled.
‘Aye, but lesson learned, I hope. He’ll not do it again, I’ll be bound.’
‘No indeed, Samuel. That will teach him to mess about with my brother’s wife! He’ll not be doing it again.’
‘Thank the old women from the coven for me – they helped tremendously.’
‘I’ll see them at our meeting later. We’ve got plans in place. I’ll pass on your good wishes,’ said Mary Blythe with a smirk.
She clicked the phone off.
About the author
Lynn is a regular writer for Cafelit. Her first flash fiction collection, The City of Stories,' is published by Chapeltown Books. See 5-star reviews - #amazonthecityofstorieslynnclement
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