Mark Patrick Lynch
At first there was shuffling, scratching, a long moment of silence. And then the voice whispered in the close dark, hesitantly forming words on the other side of the grille.
“I’m sorry, Father. I don’t know how to begin this.”
The priest did his best to stifle a sigh. On top of so much else, was he now expected to guide those without the Faith as well? While he was aware that Sin knew no boundaries and moved freely among men of all creeds, might it not find absolution elsewhere?
He’d foolishly hoped a new parish might present him with some respite from the unending struggle; after all, there were fewer people here than in the grand cities and colonies he’d served during his many years wearing the collar.
Yet it seemed that some great irony was being played, because he was busier now than ever.
He brought hands heavily corded with veins together as if in prayer, and, trying to keep the tiredness and disappointment from his voice, asked his question.
“You’re not a Catholic, then?”
“Lapsed,” came the answer, eventually. “A long time ago.”
Father O’Connor closed his eyes and rested the back of his head against the rear of the confessional. He thought of the many voices that had drifted through similarly patterned grilles beside his cheek over the years. In city after city the lost had come to him, whisperers, sobbers, wailers – all petitioning him for some form of release from their troubles. There never seemed to be a change in the routine.
“But it’s not been so long that you’ve forgotten the confessional?”
“Some things stay with you. I was very young . . .”
“And not been back to the church since?”
“Weddings and funerals, Father.”
Did the priest detect a hint of guilt there? Perhaps. The world, new to him as it was, appeared filled with it. There had been so many funerals of one kind or another, and they had tired him considerably. Outside his confession box, candles burned traces of unfamiliar gases at the altar. Quivering flames hungry with stars of green and yellow and fuchsia in remembrance of those long since passed. They burned while blue autumn leaves pressed against the stained glass windows above, twisted trees attempting to gain admittance, as if in so doing they might be relieved of the ghosts beneath their dying roots. So many dead, thought Father O’Connor. So, so many dead. It was a wonder the world didn’t implode with their weight.
Collecting himself, Father O’Connor blinked in the darkness of his booth and brought his thoughts to the present and this poor man in need of . . . something.
“Would you like me to help you begin, child?” he said, knowing he must take the lead.
More hesitation. More rustles, sounding like pages being turned, as if in the hope that a solution to a problem might be found there. Further shuffling. Scratching. Deep breaths. An existential space leering open like abandonment.
“I. . .”
In the darkness a war was being fought for a soul.
Father Jonathan Leary O’Connor – who sometimes thought of himself as the Last Priest – had learned that waiting was important at such moments. His troubled patients came to the point eventually, the battle with their conscience at an end, the personal demons vanquished or bargained with to some half-satisfying agreement. That was so often the way of these things. And if not . . . well, they might flee, rocking the confessional as they bolted for the church’s entrance, never to be seen again. Except perhaps as lost waifs on the street, hollow-eyed and haunted, though in truth Father O’Connor could never guess which sin marred which face.
At last the battle beside the priest came to an end, and perhaps victory landed not on the side of the angels . . .
“Father, I don’t know why I’ve come here. I’m wasting your time. I should go and—”
The stirring of movement. An attempted escape.
Before the hinges squealed and needle thin shafts of light pierced his gloom, Father O’Connor spread a hand across the grille and called, “No, wait!”
The shadowy presence beside him paused. And pausing it lingered. Further hesitation was marked in a single half-strangled sob.
But the door did not open. There was no howl of despair, followed by sudden flight. Father O’Connor heard paper rustling, pages wrought together once more. Then the voice, little more than a whisper, as if the speaker fought tears.
“Wait, Father? But why? What hope is there left? I cannot find it, and I have searched and searched, believe me.”
“Say no more for the moment,” Father O’Connor said. “Calm yourself.” While he was still in the confessional, there was always hope. If he left, then all was lost. Measuring his words carefully, Father O’Connor said, “There is some reason why you came to this little priest’s hole at the back of a church rarely visited so late in the day. We’re all of us a long way from home, and a sympathetic ear never did anyone much harm. It’s my hope that I can provide one to you now, in your time of need.”
The breathing next door evened into an easier rhythm. But the sigh that escaped the other’s mouth was the longest and most despairing ever heard in this confessional.
Oh my Lord, thought Father O’Connor. What has this poor man on his mind? Did he flee his home and leave his family? Was there a girl he did not honour? Worse: a child lost, or abandoned? And now, when all has gone to dust and ruin, has the guilt gripped his heart and squeezed so tightly that he fears he’ll die of the punishment? The night held so many terrors, and Father O’Connor could not believe men found the strength to face it without Faith in their hearts.
“Father . . .” came the despairing voice.
“I . . . I am responsible for a great many deaths.”
Ah, so this was it. A common misunderstanding, one from which many Settlers suffered.
Father O’Connor shook his head. He thought he understood.
“Hold, son. We cannot blame ourselves for what we left behind, nor what we found when we arrived here. The minds and actions of other men are not ours to accept the responsibility for. If there are ashes where Jerusalem once stood on old Earth it is through no fault of our own. And if there are so many dead here, it is not because you of all men arrived with the rest of us.”
“I’m aware of responsibility, Father. I know that very well. I understand Jerusalem’s ashes, at least, are not mine to worry over.”
Father O’Connor moved his head back in surprise.
The shadow, speaking with the tang of bitterness as much as regret, said, “I’m a man of science, Father. And although I follow the logical path, I am not surprised by the actions of people driven by . . . unreason. If I have faith, then it is in the catechisms of mathematics, the hymns of physics. Did you not think, coming to this new world, that there would be little for you to do? Because I did. I thought you were another expense, nothing more than ballast on our starship’s manifest. I didn’t want to carry our race’s religious squabbles to the stars, so I opposed your passage. How ironic that it is to a man of ‘Faith’ I turn now, as I am confronted with this terrible world . . .”
Father O’Connor kept his silence, appreciating the irony, though from a different perspective. He himself had thought his job here would be simply a figurehead position for the church – weddings and seasonal functions only, with perhaps a little comfort preaching after a transport disaster or some other untoward mortality. The grand devastation he’d had to deal with on awakening from his dreamless, age-defying sleep while the space-barge crossed the stars, had been on a scale he couldn’t at first comprehend.
He thought that it would be enough to drive men away from the church forever, this seeming abandonment by God of the people who’d lived here . . . And yet every day more and more Settlers strayed through his door. So much so that he’d begun a late-night confessional for the occasional lone sheep skulking back to a flock that should have been decimated by so many things, not least the true calamity of what had been done to the world around them.
“Then I am at a loss as to how I can help you,” Father O’Connor said.
“This world . . . what has been done to it . . . the death here.”
“We all share the burden of what we found on our arrival. We remember them. It is all we can do. We cannot turn time around. You say you’re responsible for many deaths, yet I fail to see how that can be so.”
“No, Father? If I were to tell you my name, you might think differently. I was a mission planner, one of the men responsible for our inhabiting this world in the first place. I trusted in my science, knowing that the mathematics was correct, the computations incontestable. Father, you know it had long been thought we humans were the only intelligent life in the universe. Your own Popes endorsed that thinking, though more through their biased needs than through reason. For them the glory of God’s greatest creation reflected Him, so how could there be intelligent life elsewhere? It could only be in His image. And only one world we knew of could harbour human life without scientific intervention.”
“I think I understand,” Father O’Connor said as he heard papers falling to the floor in the booth next door. If this man was who he claimed to be, then what might be written there – computations and statistics; cold, hard equations that allowed nothing of the true Infinite.
“But my son, no one could blame you for not knowing everything. God’s glory is manifest in a million ways, and we’re only now coming to understand how much. You couldn’t know this world was inhabited before we arrived.”
A sigh escaped from the next chamber.
“As we sped between the stars, Father, we slept for two thousand years in deep hibernation, not aging more than a few human heartbeats. And in that time, all on Earth who had been born when we were alive died. All who breathed their first breathed their last, in preparation for the final wars. Your Jerusalem was burned to ashes. And we, asleep, ignorantly believing we were free of all that, were busy killing others on a world we would not see till our distant awakening at journey’s end.”
“The coral towers and crystal domes, the fluted pyramids of the people here . . .” The shadow beyond the grille shook his head as Father O’Connor listed what little remained. “They were a peaceable race. Not like us, it’s true. They had different skin, such strange eyes, and I doubt we could have ever truly understood the nature of their consciousness cycles . . .”
“But we never had the chance to, Father. They never stood a chance. Their lives were dedicated to their simple, uncluttered existence, and they gloried at their heavens and the halo nebulae above them. They sang their songs and wrote their poems, acted great dramas. All of them reflecting the glory of the world on which they lived, their moment in the light of near and distant suns.
“Yet our seedships came and plunged like knives through their atmosphere, uprooted their grasses and planted our genetically programmed flora, sprayed poisons to kill off their biosphere so that ours might flourish in its place. We choked them without even knowing they were here, Father. Our mechanised bugs infected the world and took it apart so that we could rebuild this planet in the image of our own. The withered trees outside, the new deserts where great herds of animals once roamed the purple grasslands – I’m responsible for so much destruction, so many deaths. I gave the order to launch the seedships in this direction.
“They died at my command. A long slow death as programmed diseases swept their world away. And yet, they did not fight the ships. They thought of how desperate we must be to need to come here and alter their world for ourselves, and they sacrificed their lives for us.”
“They were wise,” Father O’Connor said quietly. “I’ve looked at their artwork, seen their holograms. There is a famous image of what we think must be a family at play on a beach, with the sun sinking behind them and the first stars appearing over a landed seedship. And yet even as the picture was taken, they must have known the children would not live to see adulthood. They seemed almost . . . human.”
Tears were being cried on the other side of the grille. A tortured whisper trembled. “I killed them all, Father.”
“Come now. You didn’t know—”
“I killed them, Father! I was the one who said life here could be nothing more than single-celled. I took one example as the only one that could work: our world, our Earth! And without thought said this was the truth, this was the way. On so simple a basis, I condemned these magnificent – these magnificent people to their deaths. A whole world dying, Father, just so we could set up our little outpost in fear of what we would do to our world. So now we spread our contagion through the galaxy and kill yet more creatures we do not understand.”
Lost in sorrows of his own, Father O’Connor said nothing. So many candles on his alter, flickering with colours alien to the stone cathedrals of old Earth. They burned in remembrance of so many lives lost, a new world full of the dead.
And what of distant Earth? Relentlessly orbiting, a burned-out cinder, unable to harbour intelligent life – if it ever did, he thought wryly – around a blazing sun whose light was never truly appreciated by those born under it, save perhaps by a precious few. Never again to be populated by Man – was that truly Earth’s fate, as the tortured soul beside him believed? Perhaps. But Father O’Connor had faith that there might be something better than that, and that one day all might know it.
“Father, there must be a way . . . Some chance. Something to make it right.”
The priest cleared his throat, choking the emotion that threatened to undo his voice. Realising what he had to offer this lost lamb, Father O’Connor spoke softly.
“Very well. This is all I can do. There’s a card in a pouch on the door. Read the first lines and then tell me what you must, and await the forgiveness in the name of the Lord.”
There followed a cautious seeking at the door. The pouch was found, the lettering on the card illuminating at a touch. Light glowed through the grille. Then there was the voice, hesitating once more, then growing stronger, as the man beside Father O’Connor sought redemption from something he had lost faith in, finding hope in what he had so recently dismissed as unreason.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two-thousand years since my last confession . . .”
Food for Thought
Are we responsible for the unintended consequences of our actions? When confronted with results contrary to those we expect, and those results are the death of others, are we murderers? If we believe it to be the case, then where do we turn to as we seek redemption? If the foundation we build our beliefs on – in the case of Father O’Conner’s lost lamb in this tale, science – are unsound (or not fully understood), does that make a belief in the ineffable a tangible possibility? Can choosing to believe in the impossible bring us solace and a way to live in a universe we may never truly understand?
About the Author
Mark Patrick Lynch lives and writes in the UK. HIs short fiction has appeared in various publications around the world. Some of it is science fiction, some of it is horror, some of it is fantasy, and some of it is mainstream, his theory being that a moving target is harder to hit. His latest book is No Fire Without Smoke and it’s a Western. It’s published by Robert Hale/Crowood Press. He has a blog that he updates almost as frequently as his Twitter feed: markpatricklynch.blogspot.com. HIs Twitter handle is @markplynch. He doesn’t have many friends or followers. Maybe it’s because of his aftershave.
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