I was always nervous when attending a new church, and this one in the centre of the small village I had just moved into was no exception. When I arrived for mass, I was shocked with how many parishioners were here. For such a small town, it was quite a sight.
I took a seat at the back of the church and watched as the priest performed mass. It was obvious he was very practised. When he finished, the congregation stood and clapped. This made me feel mildly uneasy, as if I was witnessing a cult, and not a standard gathering of churchgoers. Maybe it was because I was used to people going to church just to tick a box, me included. To see people enjoy it so much was quite uncanny.
I got up and stood at the back as everyone slowly filed out. I looked at the priest. Now his sermon was over he appeared to shake. He removed a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his face. As the last of them left, I made my way to the altar.
“Hi, I’m Alice Jones. You perform a good mass.” I said stretching out my hand.
Spooked, the priest jumped. The shocked look in his eyes betrayed a nervous individual.
“Alice, Alice Jones.”
He looked up, as if trying to remember a long lost name.
“I just moved in.”
As I said that, he relaxed.
“Oh good, good, I’m Father Robert Collier,” he said, before scanning the room anxiously, “come with me,” he continued, raising his hand, beckoning me to join him.
I followed behind. The room was not as I’d expected. It looked like a standard office, except for the crucifix on the wall.
“It’s nice to have fresh blood here. This town…” he trailed off, before turning and staring out of the window.
“A lot of people came to watch you today, Father,” I offered, “you must be very happy.”
“You’d think,” he replied.
He dived into his desk and pulled out a hip flask. He checked all the corners of the room before surreptitiously taking a few gulps. My jaw must have dropped because as soon as he looked at me he blushed and thrust the flask back in the drawer.
“I know I shouldn’t be drinking, but it’s how I cope.”
“How do you mean cope?” I asked.
“All’s not what it seems here. Every single one of them needs something, and if I don’t do what they want…”
There was a knock on the door.
“Hello, Father,” a woman’s voice said.
“Hello, Mrs Farmer. I’m just talking to our new parishioner, Ms Jones.”
“Nice to meet you,” the woman said, barging into the room, “it’s nice to have some fresh blood here, boy do we need it.”
She offered her hand, and I took it in mine, it was cold and clammy.
“Has the Father told you anything about us?”
“Why would he?” I asked confused.
“I’ll leave you two alone. Don’t keep us waiting Father, we have work to do.”
Then she left, the door clicking shut behind her.
When I turned back, the priest was taking another secretive swig from the flask.
“I think you had better leave.”
“No problem,” I said standing up, “see you next Sunday?”
He stifled a nervous laugh.
“Why don’t you have a walk around the cemetery, it can be quite cathartic; it’s particularly nice over there by the apple tree,” he said, pointing through the window.
He got up himself and picked up a shovel propped against a filing cabinet.
“Sure,” I said leaving, not before staring at the muddy tool.
My footsteps echoed in the large cavernous church hall. It appeared so different now it was empty.
I left through the front door and turned right, weaving through the graves. It was very sunny, not a cloud to be seen. He was right, it was peaceful; but oddly, not a single bird sung. The grass under my feet didn’t seem to be green enough, as if the saturation had been turned down, nearly grey.
The graveyard was almost fully occupied. I absently scanned the stones and read the years: 1912, 1845, 1890, 1810, 1778. Even the oldest tombstones appeared tended to, though the soil on top of the graves had been recently disturbed and no grass grew. The caretaker was REALLY doing a good job, I thought sarcastically.
I arrived at the apple tree, the fruit was ripe. I reached for one, it came away in my hand as if offering itself to me. I sat on the bench below, reading the dedication plaque.
In memory of Judith Farmer
I bit into the apple and immediately it tasted bitter. I chewed, not wanting to be rude. I looked down at the bite mark to see maggots wriggle from holes they had made homes. I spat and threw the apple in reflex.
The half eaten fruit landed on a grave in front of me and I felt a chill run down my spine. I got up to retrieve it, not wanting to be disrespectful and leave it on the dead. I leaned over and read the stone.
Judith Farmer – 1897 – 54 years of age
Something rang a bell. I checked the graves to the left and right.
Edward Farmer – 1910 – 66 years on this earth
Jonathan Farmer – 1870 – 12 years young
Seeing the names filled me with anxiety, though I didn’t know why. I chucked the apple into the bushes and returned to the front of the cemetery to leave.
“Father?” I asked, seeing a man thrust a spade into a grave, “what are you doing?”
Sweat poured off the old man’s brow and down over his face. He looked in my direction briefly, then got back to work. I stopped next to him.
“Are you digging up that grave?”
“Yup,” he said out of breath.
Without stopping he replied, “Gotta clean them.”
“Can’t have dirty bones. Nothing worse than dirty bones. Even the dead want to be clean in front of the eyes of the Lord.”
“Why do you need to clean them?”
“Please, I have to do all of these before next Sunday. I need to concentrate.”
“We need to be clean to go to mass,” a woman said behind me.
I swivelled on my feet, shocked to see the woman I met in the office.
“Judith?” I said, surprised I uttered the name.
“Why yes?” she said quizzically, “now run along child.”
I didn’t need to be told twice, I hurried towards the graveyard entrance.
“See you next Sunday?” the woman offered.
I didn’t reply.
As I left the cemetery, I turned. Father Robert knelt down and leaned into the grave. The woman was nowhere to be seen.