3rd September 1916; banks of the River Somme, France
“Our Father, Who art in Heaven –”
The blood is too thick on my hands, and the soldier’s guts are spilling over my fingers into the earth. He screams, shrilling over the whistling of the bullets.
“Hallowed be Thy Name –”
The sky is raining fire. Dirt clods pounding against my rusted metal helmet. I clutch at my rosary, stained red and clenched against his bleeding organs. He’s trembling, wailing out into the void of the bombs.
“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done -- ”
I can no longer even hear my own voice. The earth swallows us up into the belly of its steaming trenches, and I realize I will never again look up and see the sky.
“On earth as it is in Heaven –”
He’s bleeding out. He’s dying. I skip a few lines in the middle, and my throat is weeping and sore.
“Lead us not into temptation –”
The earth is crying tears of blood. Mud in my eyes and dripping down my face. I anoint the soldier’s forehead with the sweat from my own brow, pressing on his forehead and his shoulders and his chest.
“But deliver us from evil –”
His eyes are wet. They’re red and fixed on me - staring at the strip of muddied white nestled over my throat.
“In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
He dies, sinking down into the deep red mud and still clutching at the smoking gun in his hands. I wipe off my dripping rosary on my stained and tattered uniform, crawl on my belly through the smoke to the next wailing body.
This soldier’s leg is missing. He clutches at my arms.
“Father,” he cries.
“My son,” I say. I could not be more than two days older than him. I duck from a bomb blast, covering my neck and face with my arms, hurling myself across his open body against the shards. Then I yell into his face, his trembling hands gripping at the rosary in my fingers, stained red.
I begin again.
“Our Father, Who art in Heaven –”
“Hallowed be Thy Name –”
He dies. I save my voice and anoint him with the sweat pouring down the sides of my neck, soaking the dog collar tight around my throat. Quickly from his forehead to his shoulders to the center of his chest.
Then I crawl across barbed wire to the next body hidden in smoke, gnarled and weeping and calling out for his mother, covered in the mud from the Somme.
“Our Father, Who art in Heaven –”
“Mummy!” he screams.
“Hallowed be Thy Name.”
3rd September 1927; St. Sebastian's, southern coast of Wales
I splash my face with icy water in the dark, then slowly kneel until my knees are against the cold, hard stone. I press my forehead to the floor and feel His warmth descend upon my back.
“Lord, open my lips. And I shall praise Your Name,” I whisper into the ground. He hears me as He always does, and His spirit hovers over me in the darkness. There is a smile on my cold lips, and His name tastes like milk and honey on my tongue. It is our time together, and I relish it.
“Oh God,” I say. “Come to my aid. Oh Lord, make haste to help me.”
The new ordinands will arrive today, dressed in fresh cloaks and cassocks and clutching gleaming prayer books in their hands. They will be eager to serve Him, and eager to listen. They will walk, as I once walked, up the path winding gently along the edge of the rocky shore, with the smell of the sea in their noses and the cry of the gulls in their lungs. They will hear His voice in the roar of the waves. And they will bow their heads as they enter through the blessed door of this sanctum, and they will commence their years of learning everything He has put into place.
Out of the misty darkness a solemn bell tolls, echoing in rolling moans out across the moors. It is the bell for Lauds, and I cannot be late. I prostrate myself once more, and feel His hands on my shoulders.
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
I press my cheek to the cold stone, and wonder once more at how He has chosen me to live. At how He hovered over my destitute body and rescued me from the bloody shores all those years ago. Eleven years ago today that He saved me.
I tremble with undeserved gratitude.
This view is my favorite in all the world, save that of the Blessed Virgin in our Holy Chapel, quiet and cloaked in white.
This view is of the sea. I lean on my elbows out the sturdy stone window and brace myself against the salt on my face, gazing at the lonely gulls flying out over the cold, grey waves.
I think for the thousandth sinful time that maybe I should feel lonely as well - hidden in a monastery at the edges of the earth, tiptoeing through silent halls and sacred candlelit corners. Where the voiceless moors stretch out along the shore as far as the eye can see, and the weeping stone surrounding me aches under the force of the spray.
Except I’m not speaking to the stone when I open my lips, when His name is in my mouth before the sun even rises. I speak out my prayers into the silence, but He hears me.
I ignore the tiny pain in my breast that still says, “but I am alone. All alone, like I was on the shores of the Somme.”
Quiet footsteps behind me, and I take one last deep breath of the air and turn once more into the room, spreading my arms.
“Welcome, Brothers,” I say gently. I only ever speak gently.
“Father Watson,” they say together, heads bowed calmly at the floor.
They remove their hooded cloaks one by one, fabric billowing in the stillness of the air. I wait patiently as they pull out heavy wooden chairs to sit, seated in our circle around the seminar table.
One by one they give their names, and I solemnly nod my welcome. They are all so young, none of them over twenty-two. So young and bright and small in their robes. Their eyes light up at the insides of this place, as if the Spirit is hiding in every crack in the ancient walls, silent and waiting to be discovered like a secret. Eager like the Seminary is a game to be won. They remind me of the soldiers their first day on the march, loose-limbed and open-mouthed and brimming with life. They remind me of the boys I watched die eleven years ago, fading down into the wicked earth underneath my hands.
I shake my head gently out of the memory. The last ordinand in the circle still stares softly down at the table, silent after all the others have given their names. His hood is up.
“Brother,” I say, “and what are you called?”
The man next to him answers for him. “He is Holmes,” he says. “He’s taken the Vow of Silence. Father Colmas has told us.” His brow is furrowed slightly, confused that I didn’t know.
Something sparks in the back of my mind from the night before. Father Colmas did indeed mention this, I remember now. It shames me that I can’t remember a single word from that meeting. I’d been lost, gazing out the window at the sea, thinking that it had been ten years and three-hundred-and-sixty-four days since He’d saved me.
“Of course,” I say. I stack my notes in front of me, the same handwritten scrawl that I’ve read off for the past nine years without deviation. “Your hood,” I say gently to Holmes where he sits, hands folded, at my right.
Long, thin fingers reach up from under the edges of his thick, brown cloak, grasping at the hood and slowly pulling it down to rest against his back. The fabric swishes softly against his skin, and his fragile wrists fall away to reveal a long, slender neck. Pale skin disappearing into the folds of his ordinand’s robes.
A pulse shoots through me. For a blinding, wild moment, I think that I’ll reach out and run my fingers through the long dark curls that drape over his scalp. I think that I’ll hold a handful of ringlets in my palm, and draw my fingertips along his nape, and press him closer –
I silence my thoughts and pinch my own hand. My mind races as I look back down at my lap, blood roaring and mind floating and His name on a blessed loop in my mind.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver –
I nearly flinch, and look back up at the table of wary faces. I clear my throat.
“Forgive me, brothers,” I say. I smooth down the front of my cassock under sweating palms. “I was just praying for the beginning of our term.”
A lie. A blatant lie in His name. I want to leap up from my seat and sprint as fast as I can across the moors until I reach the nearest church and can give my Confession.
The man under the Vow – Holmes – shifts next to me. His eyes are still down at the table.
“Let us begin,” I say to them all, but my eyes are still on the side of his head. Staring at the way his jawline cuts like smooth marble. At the way his hair curls just around his ear, and the way his long lashes droop across the tops of his cheeks, and the way his throat –
I rip my gaze down to the papers in my hands, and a flurry around the table signifies the ordinands getting out their notetaking materials. Holmes doesn’t move. The sight of him sitting there utterly still yanks at my innards in a way I’ve never known could exist. It feels like hot oil, dangerously poured over my exposed and shivering skin.
I cry out to Him in my heart, an earnest plea as desperate as the prayers I wailed on the shores of the Somme eleven long years ago to this moment.
My chest aches when I don’t hear an answer in my soul.
They’re waiting for me, clearly thinking that Father Watson must be far older than he looks if he can’t figure out how to properly start a lecture. Comparing me to the lectures they’ve already had that day from my fellow priests, introducing them to every aspect of theology and the Word.
I clear my throat again, and stand tall at my lectern, and I begin to speak the same words I’ve said every term without deviation, only I’ve never before felt this foreign presence of unsettled evil in my veins while I speak them.
“We cannot learn the history of the Church without starting at our foundation. With Christ,” I say clearly. “And it is from there that we draw our lineage and history. The years of faith and devotion that have come from those who have been Called before you, and this small glimpse into the eternal and loyal nature that is Christ’s love for his Church.”
There is no oxygen in the room when I finish my lecture. The ordinands stand solemnly one by one and pack up their things, preparing to walk to their chambers. They flip on their hoods against the biting wind that whips through outdoor stone corridors. I nod at them and murmur their names as they exit, trying to learn each one. Trying to settle this odd twist of nausea in my gut.
When Holmes passes through, I murmur his name, and at the sound of it he stops mid-step and looks up at me for the first time since he entered the room.
He looks straight at me, and my skin suddenly prickles with forbidden sweat. Some wretched, wicked part of me wants to cry out that eyes like his do not belong in this place – shuttered away in moonlit corridors and hunched over rosaries in the windswept dark.
Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.
Thy Word is a lamp . . . Thy Word is a light . . .
I blink hard and break our gaze, terrified at this trembling in my limbs. This previously unknown evil in my chest.
“Holmes,” I say again. The word crackles like fire on my lips, and I watch his chest hitch just barely under the cover of his robes. His Adam’s apple bobs on his neck, and his swallow sounds louder than all the echoing footsteps in the corridors combined.
There is something in his gaze, something I can almost see --
He nods, then turns to leave in one graceful movement. Long cloak billowing out behind him like a cloud, silently swishing through the mazelike halls of candlelit stone until he vanishes.
In a fog, I leave all my materials behind and walk quickly in the other direction, hand clutching my cane as I hobble across empty courtyards. Carpets of dead leaves whisper and claw at the bottom of my robes. I walk beyond the grounds of the monastery walls, out through the manicured hedges and tidy paths and groundskeepers’ and maids’ cottages until I reach the free moors beyond the reaches of the thick stone walls. The sun is starting to set out across the horizon as I wince at the ever-present pain in my leg, shame-faced that I’m limping and even more shame-faced that I should care at such a superficial thing.
I grimace at the foreign feeling of mud in my mouth. Of wicked dirt coating my eyes which I feel have somehow betrayed me. I look out over the waves moaning against the bottom of the rocky cliff, feeling the force of the wind against my back. I stand there, and I clutch at the precious rosary in my fingers, and I ground myself in the sacred feeling of my cassock blowing gently across my legs in the wind.
Then I pray to Him with such earnestness I nearly weep at the force of it. I pray that He will surround me with His mighty shield of Christ; protect me from this unexpected force that still burns sickeningly in my blood.
“Cleanse me,” I say out loud. “Lord, cleanse me,” I beg, ready to sink to my knees.
“My child,” I hear Him say in my soul, and the restless waters before me suddenly still under his Calm.
“My child, abide in me.”
I sink to my knees in the long, wet grass. My fingertips twitch as they brush over the soft blades, and in a sudden blinding panic I think that I am running them across a head of silken curls instead.
“Father!” I cry out.
I am back on the Somme, drowning in blood. I am back on the Somme, wailing out and performing my own last rites as I sink . . .
“Forgive me,” I whisper, not even knowing what for. Not knowing why this choking fear has settled over my limbs since the moment that last ordinand pulled down his hood.
“Forgive me,” I say again with my lips pressed to the muddy ground.
It isn’t a Confession, but it will have to do. He understands my soul, as I have known since I first learned His precious Name. He sees me.
When the bell for Vespers finally tolls I look up from my ceaseless prayers at the now darkened horizon. The boiling sickness in my veins has calmed, and I can once again feel His warm palms upon my shoulders. I cross myself, and cherish the sound of His name on my tongue, and then rise on my screaming leg to limp my way back inside the beautiful stone walls.
I’m halfway back across the moonlit grass when I see it.
High up in the tower, in one of the abandoned old chambers, a glowing warm candlelight flickers in the window, like a lighthouse beacon blazing across the sea. And I gasp on a choked breath as I recognize the outline of a silhouette standing at its opening. It is tall, and lean, and draped in billowing robes in the breeze. Topped with a head of wild curls.