by Tamar Anolic
It was winter when Father Cillian O’Leary realized he had lost his faith. He spent the morning in penance, trying to get his whip across his back. Behind him, he could hear the waves of the gray Donegal Bay. In front of him stood the northernmost church of the Diocese of Killala. The church’s cold stones matched the sky, and Father O’Leary hoped none of the congregants inside could see him. The miserable weather of the December day added to his pain as sleet coated his face and body.
A bout of pneumonia, followed by a prolonged stomach flu, had weakened Father O’Leary’s body beyond his own recognition. Both diseases had already been treated, but he was no longer grateful for being alive in their wake. That morning, he only managed to get a couple of lashes across his back before he fell to his knees, gasping for breath. Already, though, he had cut himself, and he could feel blood flowing down his back. In past years, he would have said, I shall suffer as Christ suffered, but now no words came.
Christ is no longer with me, Father O’Leary thought as he struggled to stand. Suddenly, he felt much older than his thirty-two years. As his shaking legs carried him back into the rectory, he could hear the parish’s other priest, Colm Carroll, celebrating a weekday mass. Father O’Leary had neither the strength to join the congregation, nor the desire to hear the familiar words being sung. He caught sight of the crucifix hanging in the doorway and shuddered.
He bypassed the chapel and went straight to the rectory, where he could clean up his back in the privacy of his own quarters. He winced as he dragged a towel across his chaffed skin. Then he looked at the clock in the room and wondered whether it was still working. When his back was clean, he turned on his cell phone and realized that the clock was right. Damn, Father O’Leary thought. It’s not even ten o’clock.
Then his conscience chastised him. Realizing that the mass in the chapel would be ending soon, he changed into his clerical garments and went downstairs. When the mass was over, he waited in the gray stone doorway so that the parishioners could talk to him. Seamus Brennan, his white hair cropped close and his shoulders stooped, came over. “How are you feeling, Father?” he asked.
“Better, thank you.”
“I have a new great-grandson, a redhead like you.” A grin lit up Seamus’ face.
“He must be a beautiful baby, then. Is this a new addition from the grandson that now lives in Dublin?”
“Yes, all the young people are fleeing this area,” Seamus said sadly. “But at least he lives in the part of Dublin where you grew up.”
“Then your new great-grandson must be a football fan, like I am,” Father O’Leary replied. “He’ll have to root for Ireland when the team makes the finals every year.”
“Yes, he’ll root for them even when they lose in the finals, like they did several years ago.” They both laughed.
“I was at the stadium for that game,” Father O’Leary said, smiling at the memory. Best day of my life.
Two other parishioners, also bent with age, had joined them, and Father O’Leary realized that the three of them had been the only congregants for the mass that had just ended. “I remember that game, too,” Pol Kavanagh said. “Were you already in seminary then, Father?”
“No, I was still in college,” Father O’Leary said. His teeth clenched at the sadness that rose within him, so strong it caused his stomach and thighs to feel like they were falling, as if he were looking down from a great height.
“Studying astrophysics at Trinity,” Seamus said.
Father O’Leary raised his eyebrows. “I am always impressed by your memory, Seamus,” he said. Instantly, he struggled to suppress his own memories of the school’s full library and soaring ceilings. I wanted to finish my Ph.D. so badly. Even now, four years after completing seminary, he still hadn’t forgotten the stack of unpaid tuition bills in his flat. The looks on the faces of the school’s officials when they told him they could offer no further financial aid also rose up in his mind. Suddenly, a cough racked Father O’Leary’s body, and he put his hand on a nearby chair to keep himself upright. His parishioners looked at him sympathetically.
“Get some rest,” Seamus said as he turned to leave. “We can talk about football some other time.”
“I’d like that,” Father O’Leary said.
“Be careful, Seamus,” Father Carroll warned. “Cillian can quote football statistics for hours.”
“He’s no match for me!” Seamus replied heartily as he reached the door. He fished his car keys and cell phone from his pocket as he left.
Father O’Leary laughed as he watched Seamus go. He has the newest iPhone, he realized. I’ll bet anything his grandson got it for him. There’s no way Seamus could have afforded it on his own.
“That’s the first time I’ve seen you laugh- or even smile- in months,” Father Carroll said when he and Father O’Leary were alone in the now-silent church. “I mean it, Cillian,” he added as he tucked a long strand of gray hair behind his ear. “You only smile when you talk about football or studying at Trinity.”
Father O’Leary sighed. He was about to respond when another coughing fit caused stars in his eyes that replicated the colors of the church’s stained glass windows. When he could breathe again, he was clutching the back of one of the mahogany pews to maintain his balance.
Father Carroll eyed him sympathetically. “Maybe you should get some rest instead of hearing confession this afternoon,” he said. “There’s no reason for you to rush back into anything if you’re still sick.”
Father O’Leary felt his guilt rise as he contemplated simply going back to bed. “No, I promised I’d do it,” he said finally. “Besides, it’s been weeks. I can’t keep shirking my duties.”
“You’ve been sick, Cillian,” Father Carroll said. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
The hour the church had set aside for confession was nearly over before anyone showed up. “Father, my daughter Siobhan has decided to break off her engagement, and I’m sad about it,” Fiona Doyle said as she knelt in the confessional. Her lined face mirrored the rough life she had endured, and she winced as her knees pressed against the hard iron bench in the confessional.
“That’s a difficult thing to go through,” Father O’Leary sympathized. “What made her change her mind about the marriage?”
“Her fiancée got a job in the United States- all the way out in Boston. My daughter doesn’t want to be so far from her family.”
“I can understand that.” Father O’Leary’s eyes clouded up as he thought of his parents and eight siblings in his childhood home.
Fiona shook her head. “I’m sorry to have to bother you with such worldly things, Father.”
“No, I was almost married before I entered the seminary,” Father O’Leary said. “I know how painful this ending must be for you.” He was glad for the darkness of the confessional- Fiona couldn’t see the pain that swept through him like a tornado, dark and writhing. I really loved Mary, he thought. I am such a screw-up.
“I didn’t know that, Father,” Fiona was saying. “Perhaps it would ease Siobhan’s pain to know that you came through a similar situation with aplomb.”
“I hope it does,” Father O’Leary said, also hoping it sounded like he was smiling.
It was late in the afternoon by the time the confession was over. Father O’Leary dragged himself to the rectory and threw himself onto his bed. He winced at how hard and unyielding his mattress was. Once more, he also felt the welts across his back, but he was also glad not to be standing up any longer. For a moment, his eyes took in the furniture around him- the desk and two chairs, made of the same heavy mahogany as the pews in the church…
Father O’Leary was dreaming of football before he even realized he was asleep. The game he had discussed with Seamus relived itself while he slept, starting in the early afternoon in the pubs. When the game was over, he and his friends were too disappointed by their team’s loss to simply head home, so they wandered through the streets of Dublin. Rain swept through the city as they walked, turning the air moist and fresh. Soon, the cobblestones glistened in the orange glow of the streetlights.
Father O’Leary awoke remembering the yells of the crowd in the stadium, shouts so loud that his ears had rung for hours afterwards. He swallowed, feeling how parched and sore his throat was. Then he sat up in bed, and his bare feet touched the smooth wooden floor below him. The short winter day had already ended, and the room was dark. For a moment, Father O’Leary stared across the room into the full-length mirror on the opposite wall. It was only his reflection that reminded him that he was still wearing his clerical clothing. The white square in his collar shone in the darkness against the black of the rest of his garments. Father O’Leary averted his eyes from the mirror but also avoided looking at the large crucifix on the wall next to it.
With nothing else in the room to hold his gaze, Father O’Leary stood and went to the window. My life ended after Papa died, he thought as he pressed his hand against the window’s cold glass. I could no longer afford Trinity, so I went to seminary because the Church paid my tuition as an incentive- so few men are becoming priests these days. Tears welled up in his eyes. That should have been a warning. I was not called to the priesthood any more than most men my age.
Outside, it was no longer storming and the sky was clear. Father O’Leary watched the night sky and could see the stars. Then the aurora borealis flashed, dimly at first and then much brighter. Father O’Leary had his long, lined cassock on and was walking towards the door of the rectory before his brain comprehended what he was doing. Even the staircase’s metal railing was cold beneath his shivering hand.
Once outside, Father O’Leary limped across the field behind the church, hoping to see the auroras again. His long illnesses had so deprived him of his strength that his legs dragged and his torso groaned with the effort of taking even just a few steps. Suddenly, a gust of cold wind came out of nowhere. Its icy fingers dug into Father O’Leary’s skin and its body block threatened to knock him over.
Once more, he longed for the warmth of his large family at home and extended network of friends at school. Maybe I should just leave the church and go find Mary. Then the sarcastic part of his brain took over. And what would that do? She’s not going to marry you all of a sudden because you turn up at her door.
Father O’Leary’s fingers went to his collar. Immediately, he ripped the white plastic tab loose and threw it to the ground, where it blended in with the snow from that morning’s storm. Just as quickly, he ripped the beads and cross of his rosary from his waistline. The beads, now free of their string, bounced across the icy hills in front of him before disappearing into the darkness. Father O’Leary could hear the noise that each of them made as they tumbled away from him. When only the cross remained in his hand, Father O’Leary gripped it tightly for a moment before hurling it onto the stones that lay near the church. Then he hobbled away from the church so that he could get a fuller view of the sky and the auroras.
As he walked, he was reminded of a passage from the Book of Isaiah: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing…” Father O’Leary realized that he had left his bible, with its raised lettering on the cover and gold sheeting on the edge of the pages, on his desk in the rectory. He shook his head. I can’t even walk, I haven’t sung mass in weeks, and my eyes can no longer comprehend the words of the Book. There are no miracles for me.
All of a sudden, the aurora borealis danced across the sky again. This time, it was in waves, green and ghostly. Father O’Leary turned his head upward, and the auroras poured their light onto his pasty countenance. Then the lights swayed like a curtain in a breeze, and Father O’Leary felt dizzy. He collapsed onto his hands and knees, and it was only when his body hit the water with a loud plunk that he realized he’d reached the bay.
With difficulty, Father O’Leary twisted his neck upwards just in time to see the auroras die down. Don’t go, he begged silently. But the darkness of the night regained its strength, and only the white of the stars, cold and bleak, shone through the empty space of the sky. The last of the strength in Father O’Leary’s arms gave out, and his torso and head crashed into the water. Immediately, he tasted the salt in his mouth, felt the water sting the open wounds on his back.
High above, the auroras flashed again briefly- a quick shot here, a swift wave there. I’d wanted to write my doctoral thesis on the auroras forever, Father O’Leary thought. He rolled over, still in the water, so that he could see the heavens again. He was rewarded with another cascade of celestial light.
Even from his low vantage point, Father O’Leary could see the second story of the rectory. The light of a single candle shone from one of the windows. For a second, Father Carroll was visible in that window, leaning over his bible, his lips moving in prayer. Then the candle went out, and all Father O’Leary could see was the light of the auroras above him. He shut his eyes for a long moment and saw the green light of the heavens imprinted on his closed eyelids.
The icy bay’s water washed over Father O’Leary’s face, and he moved his arms just enough to get his nose, mouth and eyes above the water. He could feel the intense cold seeping onto his flesh and into his bones, but he didn’t care. Once more, his eyes sought the light above him, and once more, he was rewarded with an undulating wave.
Finally, thought. Real beauty. That’s just what I’ve been missing.
About the Author:
Tamar Anolic’s most recent novel is Triumph of a Tsar, an alternate history where the Russian Revolution is averted and the hemophiliac Alexei, son of Tsar Nicholas II, comes to the throne. Her other books include the nonfiction biography The Russian Riddle, and the novel The Last Battle. In addition, her short story “Rumors of War” was published in The Copperfield Review in 2017.