Excerpt from Martuk … the Holy: Proseuche (release date July 22, 2014), the sequel to my award-winning debut novel Martuk … the Holy —
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
were the first words his assassin said.
Weeks ago he had spied the man, a stranger, lingering in the silver light of morning.
Weeks ago, the sun waking behind a canopy of grey, he had wrestled the keys that turned the locks that opened the door to this, his church.
Weeks ago, he had sat in the confessional, the dark-haired Penitent hidden by the lattice-work screen separating them.
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
The words had come, halting and thick with exhaustion. The heavily accented English breathed by a soul in torment.
The priest hadn’t known what to say.
The Church believed one thing, he another.
For years he’d closed his eyes, all those shadows sitting in the pews rising from memory to haunt him. Echoes of faces, of arms and chests and torsos and slender shoulders. Their necks long as they bowed their heads in prayer. Even still, he was haunted by the gentle warmth of phantom breath against his cheek as he worked in his office, alone. Still, the feeling of all those eyes on him persisted, like a stain or the lingering scent of cherished memory. Eyes watching him, following him. Souls eager for him to see them, to know them and remember them. To love them. Their footsteps echoing his as he walked the nave jingling the keys that would turn the locks to bolt the doors of this, his church.
“Yes,” he had finally said in English as well, his voice a whisper lest this blatant insurrection be overheard. “Yes, I do.”
“It’s amaranthine,” had come the response, the voice low, the words mumbled. The vowels and consonants lost in the advent of quiet tears.
He had lost the word. Had caught the “it” in what was said, but wasn’t sure about the rest. Knew there was a second word. An odd word. An unfamiliar word. A beautiful word. But he didn’t know what it was. It was a word he thought he might know, but hadn’t really heard.
“I’m sorry?” the young priest had said. “I didn’t hear you.”
He had grown desperate to help this stranger. To give him comfort. To offer something, anything, to ease his pain and bring a glimmer of hope to his heart.
This, this man, this agony, this need. This is why he did what he did. Why he had sacrificed so much. Why he’d given his life to Our Heavenly Father and the Church.
“I didn’t hear you,” he’d repeated, his voice sounding weak.
The stranger’s hand had rested on the screen then. The dark shadow of a palm, a thumb, four fingers, all splayed flat against the thin strips of wood. Reaching for him, perhaps. Seeking comfort, maybe even a friend. The flesh of the palm smooth. A hint of an ancestry not solely European in the skin. A discreet, subtle darkness there. Middle Eastern, perhaps.
The priest had wanted to press his palm to the screen. Return the gentle gesture. Had felt the overwhelming urge to lift his hand to that of the one who struggled, whose heart wept. This soul who was so desperate for companionship that he’d offer his touch despite the lattice-work between them.
The thought had been ludicrous, of course. He knew that. Had known that his imagination had gotten the better of him. Could hear the criticisms from years ago, those venerable Fathers and Sisters and Mother Superiors who had warned him that his too tender heart would be anything but a blessing.
“It is not your pain,” Father Bautista had urged, the old man looming like a great mountain, his voice a deep rumbling from his chest. “They come for guidance. For Penance and Reconciliation. For peace, for hope. To cleanse themselves of their sins. Remember, it is not your pain.”
And yet …
“Listen well, my boy,” had come the voice of the Mother Superior whose name was lost though her doughy face and thick hips and those stubby fingers laced together so tight the knuckles turned white would never leave him.
“This is not good, what you create in your head,” she’d said, her voice cutting and sometimes cruel. “Listen to their words, and only their words. Do what is needed of you. Trust Our Heavenly Father to do the rest. Do not create a world of loneliness and need for these Penitents that may not exist.
“This world, it is not yours.”
But if those who’d teased his tear-stained cheeks, those Fathers and Sisters and Mother Superiors, if they could hear this stranger, hear the voice thick with loneliness, see the palm, patient and waiting against the ancient wood, wouldn’t these ghosts from his past feel what he felt now?
Yes, he believed in ghosts.
The priest’s hand had left his lap, the fingers flexing as they stretched and slowly, tentatively, rose.
There had been a sigh then from this soul in torment waiting on the other side. A glimpse of a head bowing. Of shoulders slumping. Of the hand still smooth against the slats of woven wood.
But a sigh, yes, deep and heavy.
A sigh of someone who had not known sleep for many moons.
Of someone who waited, alone, his patience ebbing, his fear growing.
The priest’s hand had stopped, hovering near the shadow of the stranger’s palm, and then retreated. Scurried to the safety of his cassock, the fingers instead choosing to wind ’round the slender cloth of the stole falling from his neck to rest against his chest.
Their voices had been too strong, his ghosts. Their belligerence had clouded his mind. Their admonitions too great. His shame at being too kind, too loving, of weeping too easily, too onerous to bear.
He had cleared his throat, shaking away the past as he blinked once, twice, a finger swiping away a tear and then wiping his nose as he cleared his throat again.
The sudden banging of the door had startled him.
He had left, this man, this stranger. The hand gone as his footsteps echoed through the nave and rushed down the aisle to push past the heavy wooden doors and disappear into the crowds navigating Boulevard Saint-Germaine.
The priest had sat back, the stench of failure, of regret, catching in his throat and stealing his breath.
“Père, pardonne-moi …” he’d prayed, willing away the image of that bowed head and thick dark hair. Of the hand resting, lonely and alone and friendless, against the screen.
That night the dreams started.