My fingertips traced the names carved into the joined headstones. First Elizabeth's, then John's; their deaths no more than a year apart.
It was a habit to visit the cemetery every Sunday evening, as the light faded. One I started at the first church I was assigned. I walked the cemetery, looking at the headstones, reading the names, the dates, the inscriptions. Linking those gone to God to those still living, to those a part of my congregation.
A habit I kept long after I knew everyone. Every tombstone.
I knelt, head bowed, said a prayer for them both. Then clipped a few stray grass stems with the pair of scissors I always carried on these walks.
My knees creaked as I stood, a reminder of my age as much as the constant kneeling. But the walking eased the pain. So I walked, remembering those I knew, wondering about those I did not, offering a prayer for each, tending their graves as needed. Until I stopped at the recent grave.
I had not known the man, though I buried him. No one came to his funeral. No one tended his grave. Empty beer and soda cans and cigarette butts littered the dirt. Heavy boot prints marred it as if the grave had been stomped. The simple plaque, paid for by an unknown someone, was defaced. White paint announced to the world 'fag'.
The act of vandalism had angered me. The fact he was buried on consecrated ground, that I had performed the service sat like a ball of fire in my chest.
Somehow something always interrupted me from cleaning the grave.
Archangel Gabriel. Fortitudo Dei, Might of God, Sword of God. Angel of Mercy. Mercy that he wields with a sword. The one who calls me to Heaven at God's will.
I am one of the few. My duty to visit Heaven and listen to the confessions of the fallen angels and to give absolution. Without a priest's absolution, the fallen angel cannot go before God to ask for forgiveness. Without forgiveness, their souls are lost.
I turned and knelt, head bowed. "Heavenly Gabriel. So soon?" I could see his sandaled feet, the hem of his white cassock. If I looked up I would see him, all but his face. Sometimes I glanced. Once in Heaven I could not. His glory so bright I would be blinded for a time.
"You are required."
I stood, let Gabriel touch my forehead and we are transported to Heaven.
Whiteness surrounded me, dazzled my eyes. White floor that clicked when I walked, now in sandals. Walls of polished stone. Angels in white cassocks, with wings of white feathers, white hair, and steel-grey emotionless eyes, all towering above me. These lesser angels I could look at. Only the archangels caused me temporary blindness.
I was the only color; in the brown cassock that I always wore whilst here.
"Priest, you may sleep. You will go to the fallen angel next cycle."
I bowed and let a lesser angel lead me to a sleeping cell.
Four angels stood sentinel; serene in their white cassocks, faces devoid of emotion, steel-grey eyes looking nowhere, seeing everything. In all my years of visiting Heaven dealing with angels on God's command, never had I seen emotion flit across one of their faces.
White wings spread high above their faces fluttered in a breeze that didn't exist. Fluttered as if the emotion that they never showed on their faces was so great it had to escape. Edges of feathers rustled against each other, the sound echoing in the room. Rivalling the sound of my heart beating hard. Causing it.
Behind them, great doors loomed, boding black in a world of white and pure. Doors I had never before seen. I shuddered, looked down at my feet that were still moving towards the door. As if I didn't have a choice.
For God. Obeying because it was the right thing to do. The only thing to do.
The doors opened and I looked up.
White hair. Black featherless remnants of wings. A shaft of light in a dark hole in the stones. Naked, kneeling, his skin white in the light. Arms pulled behind him, chains extending to the rocks either side. I shuddered and scriptures came to mind. Jude 1:6; And truly, the Angels, who did not keep to their first place, but instead abandoned their own domiciles, He has reserved with perpetual chains under darkness, unto the great day of judgment.
Chains rattled but the fallen angel didn't look up. Not even when I stepped onto the dirt and the doors closed behind me with a clang that echoed.
"Welcome to Heaven, Priest."
"Thank you, my son." The words were automatic, decades of replying to welcomes into homes, years of ministering to angels, but the words were ritual.
He snorted a laugh. And looked up.
His hair, a tangled mess, fell half across his dirt-caked face. Swollen lips parted in a false smile. "Come to bless me, Father?" His eyes stopped me. They should have been black pits. "Come to hear my confessions? My plea for absolution?" Every fallen angel I had dealt with had black eyes, as black as the sin they had committed.
His eyes were blue.
"My son, it is why I have come."
"Then go back home, Priest." He held me in his stare. Blue eyes as hard and as emotionless as any steel-grey I'd seen in pure angels. Even the black-eyed fallen I'd dealt with had been emotionless in their pleas.
He closed his eyes, his face softening. He sighed and opened those blue eyes. "Go home, Father." Either he lifted his face more into the light or the light shifted. The dirt on his cheeks was stripped, his eyes glistened. "Go home in peace."
He hung his head.
The shaft faded, the doors behind me opening, till the only light came from behind me and the fallen angel was invisible in the darkness.
Only the sound of chains betrayed his existence. And my memory.
Michael's voice boomed through me, even though he spoke in a whisper. Archangel Michael; Quis ut Deus. Who is like God. Archangel of Judgment. Just like Gabriel, I could not look at him whilst in Heaven, so I was kneeling, head bowed. I shook my head in answer.
He sighed. "Priest?"
It was all I could to speak. "Heavenly Michael, He didn't want absolution." I'd never had to say that before.
A door opened. I automatically looked. For a moment. Long enough to see Gabriel enter. Long enough to be blinded by his pureness. "Michael, he must have it." I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to squeeze back sight. It would come, eventually, I knew, but when?
"Then have the priest give it to him."
I heard Gabriel's footsteps come closer. Felt the swish as his cassock brushed past me. As his wingtips caressed my cheek. A touch of light, of joy, of mercy. A touch that left me feeling wanting, contaminated, even though the sentinels had stripped me naked and scrubbed me, providing a clean cassock after my exit from the dark prison hole.
"I can't." I looked up, eyes still blind. "I can't. Not until he confesses and pleads."
Silence. But not in my heart. Nor my mind. There I screamed. I had defied an angel, an archangel. But those were God's instructions.
My blindness still held me in darkness. Till a hand touched my face, pressed my eyes closed. Raphael. Deus Sanaturum, God's Healing. "Priest, then you stay until his confession and his plea is obtained."
I nodded, head bowed, eyes closed. And waited until the three left me alone. Alone with two silent sentinels. Alone with my thoughts and questions as to how.
Two sentinels stood before the black doors, two behind me. Silent, emotionless, as the doors opened and darkness emptied from the hole. I stepped forward, feeling the dirt beneath my sandals. Feeling cold air touch my skin. The darkness surrounded me as the doors closed.
"Again, Priest?" The chains rattled. The darkness continued.
"Peace upon you, son." I slid a foot forward, edging closer to him. Trying to judge the distance.
"I have peace, Priest. Keep your peace for yourself."
How? Chained, beaten, naked in a cold rock hole in the depths of Heaven. His wings stripped of feathers, blackened by his sin, by his disgrace. His sin must be weighing heavily on his body, on his mind. On his soul. How could he have peace? But I kept those thoughts to myself.
I slid forward some more, stopping close to him, I hoped. My eyes adjusted somewhat, my hearing more acute in the darkness. Maybe there was a filter of light from the hole above. His skin shimmered, his hair swayed. I fancied I could hear his breaths.
"There is peace in absolution, Fallen."
He ignored me, remained silent. Although I thought his swaying became more pronounced. The chains clinked in a slow rhythm.
"I will hear your confession now.'"
"You will, will you?" He laughed. "Priest, you will hear nothing from me."
"But, son, absolution is necessary to save your soul."
"Necessary, why? To achieve Heaven? Look around you Priest, this is Heaven."
A light flooded the rock hole. I squeezed my eyes shut, shook my head then slowly opened them. He looked up at me, his eyes still blue. I had hoped the darkness and my imagination had coloured them.
"Look about, Priest."
So I looked. The light was even, not a shaft highlighting him, just bright light that shone everywhere. The hole was hewn from bare rock, black and dull, the gap barely enough to contain him. If his wings had been full they would have scraped the walls. As it was the bare tips touched the sides of his prison hole.
Chains ran from the back corners to behind him, chaining his wrists. The floor was roughly flat, dirt and dust layered over the grooved surface. A rumble echoed from outside. Stones and dirt fell on him, bounced off his shoulders, yet he continued to look at me.
He was kneeling still. I wondered if he ever stood, stretched his legs. Till I saw a collar and a chain shackling him to the floor.
"Again, welcome to Heaven, Priest." And he laughed.
There was something hateful in that sound, something abominable in his face. It filtered through my ears, my open mouth. Screwed itself into a heavy knot in my stomach, in my brains. Squirming and twisting it tried to penetrate inwards, outwards. I didn't know. Only that I had to leave.
I backed up until my heel hit the door. Turned and thumped on the black wood. I could have been screaming but all I heard was his laugh. I kept thumping until the doors opened and I stumbled through. Into waiting arms.
But there was no comfort in them. The sentinels only did their duty - stripped me of my clothes, scrubbed and cleansed me, then clothed me once more. Clean, decontaminated, unable to muddy the purity of Heaven.
But their cleansing could not cleanse the look on his face, the sound of his laughter. The memories of those kept me awake during the assigned sleeping time.
I'd forgone the morning meal to go see him. Selfishly. I wanted to leave. Wanted to return to my flock.
Wanted to perform my duty, so I could forget him.
The four sentinel angels were still there, or another four. I couldn't tell. They ignored me.
The hole was as brilliantly lit as before. He raised his head as I entered. I felt the heat.
"I cannot abandon you."
"Why not?" He tilted his head. "All others have." There were tears on his cheeks. They escaped his eyes, still as blue as the skies above my church. But the tears didn't run far over his face. In the heat they dried, evaporated. He licked his lips, the blood flaked away. Or was it dried skin?
The doors hadn't closed, not all the way. I turned and slipped through. Walked past the angels before they caught me and followed the corridor to the kitchens for want of a human term. Water and manna were always available and plated up as needed. So I took and walked back.
He didn't look up as I entered this time. Only raised his head after I had knelt and touched his chin. His skin, dirty, bloodied and swollen, was as soft as silk, as a butterfly's wings. As insubstantial as the wings of a dragonfly.
I tilted the glass and poured water on his lips. He opened his mouth and sucked it in, swallowing with his eyes closed. I dipped the corner of my cassock in the water and wiped his face. Blood and dirt smeared over the trails of dried tears. I dipped again and tried again.
He let me. His eyes searching my face.
"I have not abandoned you. I will not."
His face passably clean, though still bruised and swollen, I picked up some manna. He dutifully opened his mouth and let me place it on his tongue. Like communion.
"I cannot pass from this existence, Priest until decreed. I have no need of this liquid or this nourishment. I am not human."
I shrugged, as I placed more manna on his tongue. "An old man's folly." His eyes flitted to the glass. I picked it up and tilted it on his lips. He drank, some water dribbled over his chin. It splashed in the dust between his knees.
"How old are you, Priest?"
The glass empty, I placed it on the ground and continued to feed him manna. "Old. Fifty five." He smiled as he closed his mouth around the white flakes. "I know, not old to you but to me. I have experienced many things. Some I wish I never had. Some I wish I could again." He nodded. And it was my turn to smile. How much more had he seen?
"Have you loved, Priest?"
"I love my congregation. Love God Almighty."
He shook his head. "I mean 'loved'."
I sat back on my heels. Looked at him. At those intense blue eyes. Eyes that should not be his. Eyes that were almost human. "I loved my parents, love their memory. My siblings. And their families."
"Get out, Priest." His face came close to mine. His voice as loud as Michael's. "Get out. Come to me when you have loved."
I shook my head. "No."
It was the quietness of his voice that shook me. The hatred it held. The doors flung open and the room plunged into darkness, despite the light outside.
"Leave, Priest. Go back to your loved congregation." Trembling overtook my body, stole my voice and my nerve. "Leave."
I left him. The doors slamming shut almost before I'd stepped past their threshold.
I waited two sleep cycles before I stood before the door again. Two cycles where I had knelt before Michael, head bowed and tried to gain permission to return home. Two cycles that Michael had listened to my pleas, my excuses, my self-depreciation. Two cycles begging that there must be another priest more capable. Two cycles before he told me it was my duty. That God had decreed I, no one else, would give this angel absolution, and so I would.
Two cycles and I stood before the doors again.
They opened to a dim light and a softness in the air. To the fallen angel kneeling still. His head raised, watching me take steps towards him.
I knelt before him, so he didn't have to look up. Instead, I looked up at his face.
"Fallen, I have not loved."
He closed his eyes as he nodded.
"I have not let myself."
His eyes opened. Encouraging me to continue.
"She was beautiful. Even in her grief. He husband died, cancer. It was long, drawn out, painful. She cared for him at home and she struggled to cope with his death." Elizabeth and John had been members of my congregation for years, the first I had married as a young priest. Memories of holding her hands as she wept filled me now. Of her knocking on the church door at 2 am, because she was cold in her bed, despite the intense summer heat. Of returning to sit in her kitchen, drinking herb tea and talking of her past. Of his life. Of the future they had planned. That could now never be.
Memories of my speeches to her, telling her with certainty that he would not have wanted her to abandon their dreams. That by living them she was honoring his life, his wishes. That God would hold her steady until they could be together again.
Of my jealousy that she could love someone that much. Jealous of him, that he had her love. And had it still.
Of my guilt and my confession and penance.
Memories of presiding over her funeral and her Christian burial next to her beloved husband, despite my ignored certainty that she had taken his life in the end, and then hers.
"Beauty does not equate love."
I looked at him again. Anger flushing my face. "Beauty is more than the skin. More than the way you look. Beauty is how you act, how you feel. Beauty is what you make others feel. How they act just by being with you."
I struggled to breathe. To unclench my fists. How dare he suggest she was only beautiful on the surface. I opened my mouth to speak, and realized that only hatred would be spoken. So I closed it again, and my eyes, and took deep breaths.
When I opened them again he was smiling, though I saw only sadness.
"You have loved, Priest."
He watched me. Maybe I had. Maybe I had loved her enough to go against what I knew to be God's will. I vowed to confess next time I saw my confessor. And let him decide.
"It is a shame, Priest, that you have never been loved back."
"My congregation …"
The look on his face, the beginnings of a laugh stopped me. I had loved enough to throw away a section of my beliefs, just for a moment. Could I say the same for any others who stated they cared for me?
"Go to sleep, Priest. Dream of her. Welcome the dreams." I stood, as if his words were commands I had to obey. He watched me rise. "Dream of loving and being loved in return. Then come talk to me."
I was rested when Raphael summoned me so his call did not frighten me, not too much. Yet I could still not look at his countenance. And it was all I could do to not flinch when he placed a hand on the crown of my head and again over my heart.
"I called you to heal. But you have no hurt."
"I slept well, Heavenly Raphael." My sleep had been as restful as I could remember, and pleasant as I spent time with Elizabeth once more. I had said goodbye.
"I see." He stepped back, his hand leaving me. Leaving me bereft. "You will absolve the fallen this cycle."
"I can but try. I cannot force him to confess. I cannot force regret."
"Then encourage. Strongly. His existence will cease three cycles forth."
I looked up, just remembering to close my eyes and keep my head down. Blindness, however temporary, would not help me. "So soon? Can it be changed?"
"Our Heavenly Father has faith in your abilities. You should have faith too, Priest."
I nodded, but inside I was in turmoil. The fallen angel seemed to not regret his sin, not in the slightest. I did not even know of his sin. It was not necessary to know, but if I knew, maybe I could find a way to help him sincerely regret and confess. "His sin? What was his sin?"
Raphael's footsteps stopped. In the silence I thought I had overstepped the unseen boundaries.
"He lay with a man as he would a woman."
A homosexual. A sodomite. An aberration, abomination.
I pushed open the doors and strode to him. "Abomination."
"Ahh, they told you at last."
I stood above him and spat. The globule landed on his cheek.
"Who told you, Priest? Michael? Gabriel?" I could not stop shaking. His gaze was as cold as I'd seen it. "Raphael?" As cold as any angel's.
"What does it matter? You are an abomination in God's eyes. There is no absolution for you." I turned and started my way back to the door, now closed. I would ask, no demand to be returned to Earth this cycle.
"And when you stand to pray, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father, who is in heaven, may also forgive you your sins."
"Do not quote scripture at me, Fallen." I spun to face him.
"And why not? You use your scripture to condemn me."
"Leviticus 18:22. Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: It is an abomination."
"Mark 12:31. But the second is similar to it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these."
"That does not mean physically."
"What better way to show your love to another by opening your body to them?"
"My poor Priest. So caught on words. You forget to feel."
I couldn't help it. I snorted. "You? An angel. Emotionless, cold, insensate. What do you feel?"
He didn't answer. Just looked at me. The globule of my spit was gone from his face, washed by tears that flowed freely. Blood flowed again from his lip, still discolored and swollen. His chest heaved in deep breaths, but he flinched with each breath. With his arms pulled backwards by the chains his ribs showed. More than I remembered. And the color of his skin was different - blue-black of bruising.
But they were physical.
I knew of no angel who felt emotions. Not any of those I saw in Heaven, not even those I had heard confess and given absolution to. Nor those I knew visited Earth. God's messengers, they passed on his words, passed on his actions. With cold, calculating accuracy.
Not that I wished on them the emotional turmoil mankind suffers. Angels, in their emotionless state, were ideal to carry out God's actions on Earth. I often wondered why they did not also carry out the judgments. Why leave it to humans who could not agree on which way was up, or if the sky was blue? Why did priests have the burden of deciding who received absolution, deciding who could stand before God and ask for forgiveness?
It was the torment of my life. One for which I was thankful I had the Word of God to lean upon.
I turned amidst his silence. The doors opened before I stood before them. I stepped from the prison, thankful for the sentinel angels and their rough, precise cleansing.
I turned, surprised the doors had remained open. The angels about me held still.
"Death." I could see the blueness of his eyes. "I feel death."
The light of the room faded as I stared. Darkness sprung from the rock walls, slowly encompassing the space that surrounded him. Engulfing him. Until only his face held the light. Then only his eyes.
The doors closed.
The sentinel angels resumed their cleansing.
"He won't confess."
Though my head was bowed, I kept my voice strong. At least I tried to put as much conviction as I could when standing before Michael.
"He does not regret his sin."
"And you do not wish to offer absolution?"
I swallowed. It was the truth. "I cannot unless he sincerely regrets his actions and asks for forgiveness." The truth, but not for the reasons I had just stated.
1 Corinthians 6:9, 10. For neither fornicators, nor servants of idolatry, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor males who sleep with males, nor thieves, nor the avaricious, nor the inebriated, nor slanderers, nor the rapacious shall possess the kingdom of God.
There was just no point in offering absolution. He would never be received again into Heaven.
"The name of the man he lay with."
"What?" My eye's opened automatically. Time slowed. I saw Michael. His white cassock did not hang softly as it did for other angels. Instead, the chest of it was stiff, solid. It shone. Wings spread above his head and out, framing his head, creating a shadow so I could not see his face. In his hand a drawn sword, the point sitting at his bare feet.
Beautiful, terrible, fearsome, resplendent. And, as darkness took my eyes, as I sunk to kneeling, I feared he was the last thing I would see. Ever.
"He must say the man's name."
"Heavenly Michael, you do not know?"
"He must say, Priest."
"And the man?"
"Not your concern, Priest."
And he was gone.
So was the blindness.
The doors opened, but only partly. I had to squeeze through them, mentally cursing the fallen angel for him not opening the doors fully.
"I was wrong, Priest."
My heart raced. I stood just inside the doors, grabbing my cassock so it didn't get caught in the closing doors. Also to still my trembling hands.
"My son?" The light was soft, his body visible as if through a mist. Slumped in his forced kneeling position; the chain from his neck to floor hanging loose, his damaged wings spread, almost resting on the side walls. His face was lifted, but I could see no details. Not this far away. Yet I dare not step closer.
Most confessions were taken anonymously. Few had the courage to expose their sins to a face. That face might display horror or disgust. It would have been the reason he had softened the light, created the mist. To put distance between us as he confessed.
"Priest, I …" I held my breath. "I do not feel death." My jaw started to drop. "I feel the effects of death. I feel the absences of death. But I do not feel death."
Anger filled me. Anger at myself for hoping. Anger at the fallen angel for his refusal, his stubbornness. His homosexuality, the offence against God and mankind, and his ignorance, even his delight at that. My anger propelled me forward. Caused my hand to raise, to strike him.
His head jerked back with the force of my slap. I raised my hand again, would have slapped him once more but for the streak of red that seemed to glow in the misty light. Never had I raised my hand at another. Never had I struck another. I looked at my hand, as if it didn't belong to me. Blood filled the creases of my palm, a stain that accused me.
"I am sorry." I turned and trudged back to the door.
"How will you explain that to your confessor, Priest?"
The doors stayed closed. I closed my eyes and worried the same. But worry wasn't going to get the information I was asked for. "Who was he?" I turned to face him. "The man?"
"Surely he has a name. Or did you not bother with such niceties."
"He has a name, Priest." The words were spat at me. His blue eyes shone through the mist. He rose higher on his knees, the chains singing as he pulled them taunt.
I waited, leaning forward as if my being closer would make him say it.
"He had a name." Life seemed to leave him.
"Why? He is dead. What does it matter, his name?"
Dead? Was homosexuality his only sin? "Heavenly Michael has asked for his name."
"It could mean absolution. Your soul would be saved."
"I have no soul, Priest."
The doors behind me opened, and unseen hands pushed me backwards. I watched him as the doors close, hiis mouth open and moving. Saying words silently. I strained to see. But the poor light hindered me.
The snap of the doors locking made me blink. I looked down, the intention to close my eyes to try to remember. My hand was red. Soaked in blood. I turned to the sentinels, to wash my hand first. But they were nowhere.
I did not sleep well. Dreams of blood and violence and death plagued me, though when I awoke I could not remember whose blood, whose death. I woke with an uneasy feeling I could not shake.
I skipped the morning repast to go to him. I had forgone the evening meal. My stomach churned, not from hunger but from dread of what I would see when the doors opened.
It was dark and silent in the prison. Too dark for me to see much more than a kneeling form. For that I sighed.
I walked towards him, the darkness lifting the closer I got. He lifted his head but kept his eyes closed. A red mark, the shape of a hand, stained his cheek. I glanced to my hand, fearful the blood had returned despite my scrubbing. It was clean; pinked and scraped but clean.
When I looked back his eyes were open. They stopped me where I stood.
"Priest, answer me this. Which sin is greater; sodomy or murder?"
"Murder." I shuddered. "For it takes what God has given. That which only God can take."
He sighed. "Would you absolve a murderer?"
"Yes. If his confession was sincere."
"And God? Would he forgive?"
I shook my head. "I can not know God's final will. But without confession, without regret, there can be no absolution. Without absolution, no forgiveness."
I took a step forward. Inside I dared to hope but feared my hopes would be dashed again. "My son?"
"I regret my being."
"Sit, Father. Please. My back aches. My knees." He grinned humorlessly. "I can no longer feel my feet, nor my hands." He nodded to the ground. "Sit."
"I had welcomed the pain. The physical pain. Thought it might drown the pain of love. The pain of losing love." I opened my mouth. "Do not talk, Priest. Just listen. Hear my confession."
I closed my mouth and listened.
He closed his eyes for a moment. "Do you know how he died?"
"I do not."
"In my arms. From injuries I could do nothing about. I pleaded, prayed, called to God, to Raphael. But he died."
I could hear tears in his voice, but none slipped from his eyes.
"He was attacked. In our own home. For being who he was. Beautiful, giving, tender, innocent. Beaten for being nothing more than gay. I found him left in pain, helpless. Left to die."
An image of a front door opening filled my mind. Of being filled with disquiet at the silence. Of calling out, of running down corridors that seemed endless, of turns that went nowhere, disquiet turning to panic to despair. Of passing the same photo on the wall, again and again, and again. A photo of two men standing close, one in front, the other's arms around his shoulders. Sunshine and budding trees, joy and laughter. I could not see their faces.
Around the final corner I entered a lounge room, furniture upturned, ornaments shattered. A dark lump heaped in a corner. My feet kept moving towards the lump, even though I needed to stop, needed to turn the other way. To run again, but this time to escape.
I stopped when I felt something slippery beneath my feet. I looked down. Dark liquid squelched between to toes of my sandaled feet. Dark red.
I knelt, my hand extending to touch the lump. It groaned. His face was no longer there. A bloody mess of flesh and bones. His hands clutching at the ground, the carpet torn, fingertips raw, as if he had tried to dig away.
"I did not recognize him at first. All I could do was hold him as his life slipped away."
Still no tears fell across his cheeks. They fell across mine instead.
"Do you think he found Heaven, Father?"
"Say his name." I swallowed back the thickness in my throat. "Say his name and he will."
"You have been told this?" There was hope in his voice, in the way he held his head. The way he stretched forward as chains and aches would allow. Hope I had not seen in him before.
"I can ask for you. Say his name and your soul will be saved. I can ask that his will too. Ask for forgiveness."
"I do not need your forgiveness, Priest" Though he still leaned forward, hope slipped away, taken by the darkness behind him.
"It is not mine to give but God's you seek."
"I do not need His forgiveness. Nor do I want it. I have no desire to enter the Kingdom of God. I am not sorry for what I have done. For the love I gave. For the love I received. I cannot believe the beauty I experienced is an abomination."
"God's word states man laying with another man is an abomination, Fallen. Therefore it is."
He looked at me. "You truly believe the Word of God, the Bible."
"What does the Greek word 'arsenokoitais' mean, Priest? The word Paul created?"
"It is translated as 'men who lie with men'."
"Paul told you this?"
"Of course not. The scholars have studied and decided on the meaning meant by Saint Paul."
"And the other possible meanings? Like 'man who lies with many men'? What of them?"
"There was debate and they decided."
"They did not ask Paul?"
"You are being obtuse, Fallen. Those that transcribed the Bible came long after Saint Paul walked Earth. The scholars that translated long after that.
"And yet you believe this is the Word of God. These words a man wrote time after the Holy Son walked the land. Words the man fabricated, transcribed from scrolls worn over time. Translated by many scholars, none of whom agree." He paused. Maybe waiting for my argument, but I didn’t voice anything that was swirling in my mind. "Ever played the game Chinese Whispers, Priest?"
I had nothing to say. I had debated in the seminary and many times since, always confident in my understanding and knowledge. But this time I had no words.
"I am tired, Father. Please leave me."
I could not refuse him. But on reaching the opening doors I remembered the next cycle would be his last. And I had still not obtained his confession. I turned back. The thick black door frame bordered a picture of him as I had seen him that first cycle. Kneeling, head bowed, white hair falling in a curtain, arms pulled back and his body slumped forward. Wings tattered, blackened shreds.
“Your confession, Fallen?”
He lifted his head slowly. With his blue eyes stared at me. I felt it, his gaze. Like it was stripping me bare - not of clothes, but of flesh, of bone, till nothing remained of me but my soul.
“I confess that I would have killed to protect him. That I will kill if I find the people who murdered him. I confess that I do not regret my feelings of anger, my desire for revenge, nor my love of him.” He paused. “That is my confession, Priest. Do with it what you will.”
The doors shut before I could make an answer.
I didn’t go to the bed provided for me. I stood in front of the doors, waiting for them to open, willing them to. My questions to the sentinel angels as to their ability to open them were met with disinterested silence. All I could do was wait.
My eyes were drooping when the doors swung open. The light was bright. The room was empty. My heart sunk. I had miscalculated the time. They had taken him already. I thought I had one more cycle.
Then I saw a dark lump. I ran.
Still chained, he lay, blood pooled around him. I touched him, letting tears flow as I felt his warmth.
He turned his head towards me. His face, gouged, bloody, and caked with dirt, was almost unrecognisable. Only one eye was open, its blueness dull. I ran my gaze across his body, looking where I could, gently touching where I could not. Searching for other injuries. "Who did this, Fallen?" He let his head fall to the ground again and closed his eyes. "Who beat you?" I could not believe an angel, no matter how emotionless, could cause this much damage. One shoulder was dislocated, his arm twisted awkwardly. His neck ringed with blood beneath the collar, part from the blood from his face, part where he had pulled and twisted against his confinement. His wrists were bloody, ankles too - I had not realised his ankles were also shackled and chained. One wing looked broken in places, but they were in such bad condition, stripped of feathers and blackened, I couldn't tell if this was a new injury or old.
As I touched his wings remains he shuddered, moaned. I pulled back, my fingertips black. I smelled them. Burnt! His wings had been burnt.
He turned to me, eye open.
"Michael tried …." But the effort was too much. He coughed, cried in pain, and collapsed. Shaken, I touched him again. First his face and felt warmth, then above his heart, felt the beat of it and the rise and fall of his chest. Slackness had come to him, a brief freedom from pain. Michael. He'd named Michael. Archangel Michael. Sword of God.
I stood and turned to the door, still open, the wings of the sentinel angels visible. They had let it happen. My strides were long, it did not take me long to reach them.
Only one turned at my demand, his face impassive.
"Now! Get Michael and Raphael. Gabriel too." For once, though he stood taller than me, I didn't feel small. "Now!"
He looked at the others, silently. Then left. Vanished. The others took no notice.
I stood trembling with rage for a moment before I managed to turn and go back to the fallen angel.
There was little I could do with him still chained, but I tried. Slipped his head on my lap, despite his groan, to ease the pull on his arm, to take his face from the dirt. Using the edge of my cassock I wiped away what I could.
Though he flinched, he watched me and kept his silence.
"No one deserves this, Fallen. Not a murderer, not a sodomite. No matter what sin. No one."
"Shush. I've called for Raphael."
I heard the start of a laugh in the spasm of coughs that took him. All I could do was hold him, try to keep his arm from twisting any more than it was, keep his wings from touching anything, for they seemed to hurt the most.
Light filled the hole and I looked up. Michael strode towards me, behind him Raphael and Gabriel. I quickly looked down, my blindness would not help the fallen angel. My eyes remained sighted.
"How could you?" I looked at the fallen angel, at the damage done to him and I felt the anger build. "How could you beat him, torture him?"
"I did not, Priest."
I looked up. Damned the blindness. "Then who?" Michael's face was beautiful, horrific. From my seated position on the ground he towered over me. His sword shining with the Light of God. And yet I held no fear. "Who?"
The fallen snorted a laugh, then coughed. I held him, tears falling, since he didn't let any of his own fall. I washed his face with my tears.
A hand joined mine, long delicate fingers, so pale. My arms tightened around my fallen angel as I looked up. Raphael squatted before me, his face impassive, steel-grey eyes vacant of emotion, head tilted, like he had questions. "May I, Priest? I wish to tend to him."
I let him. Let Raphael taken the fallen angel from my lap. Let him stand, carrying the fallen in his arms, the chains and collars falling to the floor. Let him hold the fallen to his chest, let him kiss the fallen's forehead.
But I didn't let Michael touch him. When the archangel moved forward I scrambled to standing and put my body between Raphael and Michael. He looked down at me, his face holding the same impassive expression Raphael had. Holding the same questions.
"You. You do not get to touch him. Not whilst I stand here."
"Either you chained him, then beat him. Or you let it happen."
"Priest, I chained him." I glared up at him. "But I did not beat him. Nor let it happen." I growled. "When, Priest, have you heard an angel lie?"
"Never. But then I have never seen an angel beaten whilst in Heaven before either, and yet …" I turned to Raphael and the fallen angel. Words failed me.
He stood. My fallen angel.
He stood dressed in a white cassock, wings restored, his face restored. His beauty restored.
He stepped forward, raised his hand and touched my face. "My poor Priest, you do not understand."
"I understand the pain you are in. Were in."
"You still believe they did this to me. That my chains were to confine me."
"Who else? What else?"
He held my face in his hands, his palms burning against my cheeks. He leaned forward and pressed his lips against my forehead.
I felt contentment.
The fallen angel let me go and looked up at Michael's words. I realised he stood only just taller than me, his wings, though spread, were only a hand span higher than his head. He nodded and looked back to me. His eyes were still blue.
He leant forward again, his mouth close to my ear. I stiffened. He whispered a name. "Remember him, Father. So someone on Earth remembers him."
He straightened, wiped tears from my face. And smiled.
With that, he left. Following Archangel Michael, with Archangel Raphael walking behind. The doors closed behind them. I sunk to the ground.
"His confinement was to protect him."
I looked up at Gabriel. "From whom?"
I blinked. "You mean …?" I thought of the damage he had sustained, looked to the rocks beside me. With shaking fingers I touched the surface. They came away coated thick red.
"Come to the doors, Priest, when you are ready to go home."
And he vanished.
I don't know how much time passed. I slept. I know I tried to sort out what had happened, tried to remember his words, tried to make sense of it all.
Words danced through my head; words spoken in the night, meant to soothe a hurt heart, that only sent a woman looking for her death. Words of love that she spoke. Words I had read; words of scripture, of discussion. Words of lecture, of a sermon. Words I believed to be true. Did I still?
Words became a maelstrom until my mind became black. That’s when I slept.
When I woke the only words in my head were of the name he told me.
I rose to stand. Smears of blood on my cassock seemed to glint in the pale light. I tore a piece from the cassock, a piece stained red. Clutched it in my fist.
I walked to the closed doors. They opened without me touching them. Gabriel was waiting for me. And, as was normal, he escorted me to the cemetery at the back to my church. I became clothed in the suit I would normally wear, but the torn fabric remained in my fist. It was night, the coolness of the breeze a welcome feeling on my face. I looked up at the stars. They twinkled.
"My mother used to tell me that every saved soul becomes a star."
"I know." I kept looking. Wondered if tonight there was a new star. "It comforted me though, as a child."
"You know your way home, Priest."
"Yes." And I turned to him. On Earth, when Gabriel appeared to collect me, or to return me, those were the only times I look upon him and not fear blindness. But never had I seen his face.
I saw it tonight. The same impassive steel-grey eyes as Michael and Raphael, the same white hair that flowed around his face. The same look that spoke of questions I could not hope to understand. And I wondered how I knew. How I knew what Michael and Raphael looked like. How I had looked upon them in my fury and my frustrations and not been blinded.
Gabriel looked at me. "God tells me that your time to hear fallen angel's confessions has ended. Return to your flock, Priest, and take comfort the next time you will see me will be on your own death bed. Many years from now."
I nodded. Unsure what to think. Clutching the bloody rough material in my hand.
The stars peeked from behind clouds as I walked the graveyard. I stopped at the twin headstones. Fresh roses lay against the headstones. I wondered who had placed them.
I went to his grave then. The lover of my fallen angel. I knelt and prayed. Prayed for his soul, for my fallen angel's soul, for forgiveness of sin. Mine.
To the night I spoke the prayer of Saint Francis.
"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen"
When I was done took off my jacket. I scraped away the paint, cleaned the plaque with the bloodied cloth. It shone in the night's pale light. I picked up the trash, collected the cans, some still dribbling beer and soda, and the butts and wrapped them in my jacket. I smoothed the dirt mound, and vowed to return to cover it with grass. And flowers. Bluebells. For some reason, bluebells came to mind.
I jerked as a hand gripped my shoulder. I tried to rise, to turn, but the strength of the hand forced me to stay on my knees, to stay facing the gravestone.
I knew the voice. "Fallen?"
Then he was gone.
The days came and went. The routine of them; the visits to the nursing home, the hospital, the schools; eased me back into normal life. No one had noticed my disappearance, they never did. Sitting with the children of the local school had always been a delight as I told of the scriptures, of God. I found I enjoyed it still. But some unnamed feeling joined me as I sat and talked.
Saturday came and I sat at my desk, writing my sermon. Or at least staring at the blank papers. Beside me book upon book lay open, piled upon my desk. On my computer so many internet pages bookmarked I lost count. Never had I researched this hard, all for one word; 'arsenokoitais'. And yet I had not found an answer.
Sunday came and the paper was still blank. I closed my eyes and prayed to God to guide me. To let His words flow.
My sermon was delivered to a murmuring crowd, the hymns sung with less gusto than usual. My congregation less than enthused as they left, saying words as they shook my hand, but not meaning them.
As I watched them leave I wondered had they changed? Were my memories faulty, misguided? Or had I changed?
I turned. "Joseph?"
The boy looked down at his shuffling feet. He was a regular churchgoer but he had rarely spoken to me since his teenage years. "Would you hear my confession?"
"Of course, son."
I turned to the confessional, but Joseph stood still. "Joseph?" He looked up, blue eyes wide in fear. "It is safe, Joseph, what you say is only for me and God."
"That's what I fear, Father." But he followed me anyway.
It took him time to settle, shifting on the hard polished wooden seat, shuffling his feet, clearing his throat in little coughs. I waited, fingering the bloodied cloth instead of rosary beads. It had become a symbol of my penance.
"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."
"How long has it been since your last confession, my son?"
"Six years, Father."
"Tell me your sins, my son."
"I have coveted another's car. Jimmy's. A Caddy. It's sweet, Father purrs like a tiger. Goes like a rocket. And …"
I smiled as he stopped. It wasn't an unusual sin for a twenty-year-old boy. "Are you sorry for your sin?"
"For the sin of coveting say five Hail Mary's and put aside ten percent of your wages each week."
"To give to the church, Father." There was an edge of panic in his voice.
"No, son. To save so you can buy your own car."
"Oh." I could almost hear his smile. But he made no move to leave.
"Is there more, Joseph?"
"I didn't wash the dishes when Mum told me too. I stayed up all night playing WoW. I …"
"Joseph." Whispers in the back of my mind told me these were not the words he wanted to say.
"I looked at a man. I looked at a man." He sobbed. "I'm damned. Oh God, I damned to Hell."
"Joseph, listen." But he heard nothing of my voice. I looked at the cloth in my fingers. "Lord, be with me, guide my words." I rose and broke the curtains apart and then the ones hiding Joseph's distress.
I took his hands in mine, squeezed until he looked up at me with tear-filled eyes. "Joseph, my child…."