Thursday, October 29, 2015

Short Story: Hallowed Ground

Seamus Rafferty, oldest fisher in Ballyvaughan, lay alone before the altar. No family knelt near his flimsy pine coffin. In fact, the church of Mary Stella Maris sat empty save for Seamus in his coffin and young Father Brendan in his vestments.

As he stumbled through the Requiem Mass, Father Brendan was almost glad for the absence of mourners. A botched funeral could damage his standing in the isolated village even further. Already he felt the parishioners barely tolerated him. His youth, his unfamiliarity with their customs and dialect, his books of canon law. Ballyvaughan wanted Father Duncan back, but Father Duncan had been recalled for his near-heretical writings. So Father Brendan arrived and sent Father Duncan away.

But even the village’s polite dislike of Father Brendan did not explain why no mourners were present at Seamus Rafferty’s funeral. The old fisher had a large and loving family, and a reputation for generosity and kindness towards all. Why, just last night at the man’s wake—Father Brendan was present to pronounce a few edifying words—hadn’t three separate friends lamented the world was worse off without Seamus Rafferty in it?

Father Brendan puzzled over this mystery until he intoned the last “Requiescat in Pace, Amen” over Seamus’ body, whereupon Michael the sacristan peeked in to announce that six strong men were here to carry the coffin.

Michael was older than Seamus by far, but lacked the honorary of “Old Michael.” Instead, locals called him Sacristan Michael to distinguish him from various other Michaels roundabouts. Though a bit crook-legged, Michael remained spry and spent his free time, when not tending the church, documenting local ruins and history. Father Brendan found Michael an invaluable guide to area customs: The second Angelus at evening, the strange fishers’ prayers in neither Latin nor Gaelic nor English, the taboo against naming the drowned dead, the red doors to “ward the Gentry away.”

After removing his vestments, Father Brendan followed Seamus’ coffin and the six strong men out into the mid-morning drizzle. They walked out from the village and hiked up into the low surrounding hills, where a square of grass and dirt nestled within a dip in the stone as if cupped in a giant’s hand. Up above on a higher ridge stood a great cromlech of roofed standing stones. The empty void between the stones lay thickly shadowed even for this overcast day.

On an early ramble through the country round, Father Brendan had noted that great portaled tomb. Inquiring with Michael, the priest learned ancient inhabitants of the Burren had chipped long low passages out of the stone, vast burial chambers that stretched back as far as anyone cared to explore in flickering torchlight.  

The six strong men lowered Seamus Rafferty to the ground. The old fisher’s coffin flexed precariously and the scrap wood creaked. One of the wooden pegs seemed ready to pop loose. A shallow grave awaited, scarcely deep enough to hold the coffin, water already pooling in the bottom. Good ground was scarce in Burren country.

While the coffin-bearers caught their breath, Father Brendan glanced around this lonely cemetery. No headstones marked fellow resters-in-Christ. Perhaps each family remembered their own graves.
A slight sensation of weakness caused him to feel for his heartbeat. The pulse was irregular and very faint at times. The doctors in Dublin said his heart was faulty. It had not kept him from seminary and priesthood, however.

Turning back from his reverie, Father Brendan found the pallbearers lowering Seamus into his grave. Hurriedly, he began final prayers for the deceased. But he had just intoned the first “Dona eis requiem” when one of the men—stocky Rod McCorley—stopped him with an exclamation. “Nae, Father. Your work is done here. Best you be off now.”

Gawping in befuddlement, Father Brendan failed to chastise the man, simply stumbling back to Ballyvaughan. His ears roared with blood and the world swam about. What sort of madness was this? To hold wake and funeral for the dead, but deny their last prayers? This could not be explained as some local custom.

When he emerged from his stunned state, he found himself in church. Kneeling before the altar, Father Brendan prayed for guidance. In seminary, he had learned many things, many nuances of the faith. Everything appeared so simple then, so easy. Now he wandered in the shadow of despair. “Good Lord, guide my words and actions.”

Michael interrupted the young priest’s prayer. “Ah, Father. I’ve just touched-up that pitcher of Our Lord o’er there…”

Standing up, Father Duncan loomed over the sacristan. “Michael, I demand an explanation. Why did Rod McCorley send me away before I could pray over old Seamus’ grave?”

“Yeh prayed o’er t’grave?” Michael paled.

“I did not. Though I should have insisted. I failed in my duty as pastor.” Father Brendan clamped onto Michael’s gaunt shoulders. “Why did they send me away, Michael? Such behavior is not in line with doctrine.”

A sigh of relief from Michael, then a yelp as Father Brendan tightened his grip. “It’s how we’ve always done. Ever since the old days before even this church stood here, before the stone fortress this church used t’be, all the way back to before the first priests came. The dead, we bury them in that hollow, an’ no one prays o’er them. Then after a year or so their bones go into the cromlech above. It’s always been that way… Tis a path of the Gentry up nigh that cromlech, and they dinnae care for hallowed ground. Father Duncan saw no harm in’t.”

The last words were delivered in a wheedling tone which made Father Brendan’s gorge rise. Father Duncan. Father Duncan. Could he never escape that old heretic’s shadow?

“Father Duncan was a schismatic and recalled to face punishment.”

“Maybe, but he understood. Unhallowed ground and no prayers o’er the grave. The way it must be. Best yeh just leave such things alone. Best not to meddle in the old ways. The Gentry don’t care for nosy pikers.”

Unhallowed ground and unsanctified burial. Father Brendan reeled. Anger throbbed through him. His pulse quickened and he shook. He must calm down. The doctors said his heart could fail. He must calm down—All the world went white.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

When Father Brendan awoke, he lay before the altar, alone. Where Seamus had lain this morning, he thought, and shuddered. Michael the sacristan was absent, though usually he could be found here throughout the day, puttering about making minor repairs, often to things in no need of fixing.
Father Brendan eased himself upright, not wanting to faint again or fall from a sudden rush of wooziness. His heart was not strong. This morning’s events returned to him, and he knew what must be done. Genuflecting before the altar he whispered, “Thank you, Lord,” and went out into the drab day.

From the waning light, the young priest gathered it was late afternoon. All the men of Ballyvaughan were at sea fishing, or working their fields in the low hills and scarce flat ground. Busy with chores, women and children paid him no heed as he drew a pail of water from the village pump—the plaque expressed gratitude to a visiting British peer who purchased the system.

Pail of water in hand, Father Brendan climbed out of the village and into the hills. This time, the trek was not as easy. Between a heavy pail and his earlier exertions, the young priest found himself forced to stop repeatedly as bursts of dizziness overwhelmed him. By the time he reached the small hollow, his breath came short and sharp, like icy pins in his chest.

All the signs of a recent burial remained. Small rounded mound of loose-packed dirt and a higher pile of good black earth nearby waiting to be spread out. Father Brendan set down his bucket of water near the fresh grave of Seamus Rafferty.

Slowly, so there might be no mistakes, he spoke the words which transformed ordinary water with a slight metallic taste into holy water, one of the minor sacramentals. Blessing complete, he began to sprinkle holy water over the grave and burial hollow.

At length, he knelt beside Rafferty’s grave and recited last blessings. He should have insisted this morning, his conscience told him. As a priest his duty was to tend the spiritual welfare of his flock, not to coddle their schismatic tradition. Spiritual authority superseded earthly superstition.

Then, as a final step, he performed the rite of consecration which would hallow this plot of earth. Though he lacked some of the necessary elements of the rite—the great cross, the specially-blessed candles—he knew the prayers. “Purify me with hyssop, Lord, and I shall be clean of sin. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Lord God, Father of everlasting glory, solace of the sorrowing, life of the just, glory of the lowly, we humbly importune you to keep this cemetery free from any vileness of unclean spirits, to cleanse and to bless it, and finally to give lasting wholeness to the bodies brought here for burial…”

When Father Brendan finished the ritual, dusk was creeping over the hills. He stood limp, cassock soaked in sweat, and watched the last orange-peel sliver of sun disappear behind the western ridge of the Burren. To the east, out in the bay, the riot of reds and pinks and oranges drained from the ocean, leaving only wine-dark sea.

He turned back to the low Burren hills where darkness crawled leechlike down the slopes, turning greens and browns and greys to washed-out monochrome. In Ballyvaughan, the evening Angelus rang.

Father Brendan’s attention shifted to the great cairn further up on the slope. Tomorrow he must return and sanctify that ancient tomb as well. His role as pastor required it. If the bones of Catholics lay within, the tomb should be sanctified. But for now, the night breeze grew chill and he grew tired. His pulse was thready. The young priest prepared to return to Ballyvaughan.

Up in the cairn’s shadow, something moved. Squinting against the tenebrous hills, Father Brendan thought he recognized old Michael the sacristan’s gaunt frame. He hallooed and the figure ducked into the cairn’s mouth. What was the sacristan doing up in these hills?

Down in Ballyvaughan, the second evening Angelus tolled. No—it could not be Michael he had seen. The old sacristan prided himself on faithfully ringing out each knell of bells. The figure had been nothing more than a trick of the light, or his overweary brain, or some wandering tinker wishing to remain unseen. Old half-remembered fireside stories of the Gentry whispered in his memory, but he dismissed such superstition and naivete. He was university-educated.

He descended from the hills with care. The stone jagging out from patches of scrub grass remained slick from morning’s drizzle. And in the near-dark it was easy to stumble over a taut vine stretched tripwire-like across one’s path.

By the time Father Brendan reached the rectory, Ballyvaughan lay swathed in shadow. Sickly yellow light oozed out around cottage doors, but no other illumination guided his path. It was a moonless night.

He entered the warmth and bright of the rectory with relief. Nights here held a chill which seeped into the very marrow of the soul. The smell and heat of a peat fire was a simple pleasure he never expected to value so highly. Michael the sacristan met Father Brendan almost at the door—“Ah, Father. I was beginning to worry the Old Folk got yeh! Where’ve yeh been?”

“I went walking up in the hills.” Father Brendan did not like deceiving the old man, even with a half-truth. But he needed time to arrange his thoughts. Blind, though righteous, anger would not guide the flock. Michael straightened a bit, “Aye, a walk can do powers o’good. Well, I’m off to home. The missus fried some praties and cod. They’re on a warm in t’oven.”

Father Brendan thanked Michael distractedly and the old man slipped out. After picking at his dinner—fish and potatoes! How he longed for a curry—Father Brendan retired to his cramped study.

The room scarcely deserved such a title. When Father Brendan first arrived, the space was used to store bottles of sacramental wine, more bottles than any parish would require in a hundred years. Father Duncan’s doing, no doubt. Now Father Brendan had lined the tiny room with shelves of books on canon law. In seminary, he received high marks for his analysis of the Church’s role in the Great War, and he still harbored hopes of a career in liturgical academics.

For now, though, he turned to his books and searched for Church teaching regarding graveyards. The parishioners needed to understand it was not him who condemned their burial practices, but Holy Mother Church.

He studied and wrote for several hours, crafting the outline of a sermon which he would deliver on Sunday. By his own admission, the work surpassed even his previous magnum opus in sheer knowledge of and reference to doctrine, while maintaining a clarity and simplicity of language even these simple fishers could understand.

As his oil lamp began to gutter out, Father Brendan rose, trimmed the lampwick, and ascended the narrow stairs to his garret room.

In the low-ceilinged bedroom, he knelt beside his bed and prayed once more for guidance to direct this wayward flock of sheep. Then, blowing out the lamp, he slipped into bed. Sleep came swiftly on the wings of exhaustion.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

He woke breathless. A great weight crushed his chest, and he thought of his last heart attack. The graveyard stench of rot and damp earth filled the attic room.

Then the weight shifted and Father Brendan knew he was not alone. The thing leaned forward—Father Brendan felt its scabrous lips at his ear—and in a sepulchral tone whispered, “The last priest was a drunkard, but at least he was no fool. You may bury your dead in hallowed ground, but we will have our way.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Michael the Sacristan found Father Brendan the next morning. The young priest had collapsed halfway down the narrow stairs from the garret, spending the late hours of the night trapped in darkness, alone with his fear and the stench of grave-mould. Michael reported to the village that Father Brendan had been muttering frantically about “hallowed ground,” but the sacristan could get no more sense than that. For when Michael bent over the young priest, Father Brendan scrambled backward with a half-intelligible scream about smelling damp earth, pointing at stains on Michael’s trouser knees from the morning’s gardening.

Father Brendan did not recover from the shocks, and lay bedridden for some weeks, whilst all the village women took it in turns to provide him with food and care. Privately, though, they whispered that the young priest’s weak heart and heavy reading had stressed him unduly. No such thing would have happened during Father Duncan’s tenure, that was certain.

Though he lingered on for a time, Father Brendan’s heart gave out entirely one mid-spring morning. He had always been a sickly sort, and no doubt the shock of his imagined nightmare caused a second attack like that which had first made him aware of the heart problem. After that, it was merely a matter of slowly fading away. So said the country doctor brought in after the first week of bedrest showed no signs of improving Father Brendan’s health.

They buried him in a torrential rain, up in a hollow very near to the one which held Seamus Rafferty. When the six strong men lowered the priest into his grave, water had already flooded the shallow pit. No priest was there to say the requisite prayers, for none had yet arrived to replace Father Brendan. Privately, the people of Ballyvaughan hoped for one more like Father Duncan than Father Brendan, though they said no such thing aloud. It would be disrespectful to the dead, though he lay in unhallowed ground.