The Archbishop cursed the light with language bright enough to bring the dead back to life. He used up the usual blasphemies—he brayed damnation for that damned Edison—and then he lay there, flat-backed, more blanched corpse than famous cleric lying in such a state. The great swell of his belly had lifted the light cotton of his nightshirt high up above his knees, and now the Archbishop turned his back to the porthole (and against the light), and in the dark his knees tried to find his chest in quest of warmth, and youth, and God knows what else.
From what I have learned of his life and those times—from what I have managed to imagine—the Archbishop had no way to know what was to come in the last town along the canal. There was nothing to betray either the great tragedy that awaited the town the next morning, or the great good that would come of his own spineless flight.
The Archbishop was at the tail end of his annual odyssey to the parishes along the canal: a trip always timed to coincide with the longest, lightest days of summer, when the canal was the only salvation from heat so hot even the godless seemed to throb. As the century waned, the towns along the canal had become nothing more than glorified ports of call for the Archbishop, scheduled respites required to stoke his unabated appetites, and to take on the best supplies a parish could afford: fresh-faced colleens, corn or strawberries in season, the latest gossip ground fresh from a town’s rumor mill. In arch response to his critics, the Archbishop had increased not only the length but the lavishness of his trip along the canal, until the voyage had become its own warm-weather trinity of worldly pleasure: devoted, in equal part, to The Word of God, and the long days of summer, and the earthly comforts of the Archbishop.
Supine on a bed big enough for a king, the Archbishop lay there mute and oblivious beneath the fine mesh of mosquito netting, at the exact moment in time when his flickering sight gave way to the unadulterated power of his remaining senses. It was then that the scent came: not the incense that meant the empty promise of sleep, or the burnt coal that meant going home, but the immortal smell of young girl: the scent of salvation heaven-sent. He could smell the clean tang of colleen clear through the door.
“Grace?” he said.
“Coming,” came the miraculous voice of Grace O’Kell.
Grace O’Kell had always been a sight for his sore eyes, and yet, as she waited, teasing and tittering behind the green door, the Archbishop was thinking of all of the things that she was not. Grace O’Kell was not one of his commonplace colleens—oh no—not beautiful, despite her silvery curls, and definitely not pliable, not born of the right Hat City clan—not by a mile—not a candidate for canonization, and not even—not ever!—on time.
She was in fact all of the things a colleen was not supposed to be: a talker who loved to talk back, and a troublemaker who made her small trouble to no end.
“You’re late,” the Archbishop said.
And yet, and yet.
The Archbishop found Grace O’Kell to be a breath of fresh air compared to his cookie-cutter colleens. Perhaps he no longer cared for their bland acquiescence or his predictable blandishments. Perhaps—a sixth sense?—he understood it no longer made sense to extract free will like a ditch digger digging deeper down with those new-fangled drills.
Perhaps the Archbishop had simply seen something of himself—something of the devil—in Grace O’Kell.
There was her voice to be reckoned with—the beatific voice of an angel—a voice for the ages, for all time. Grace O’Kell was humming now, in his chambers, humming the hymn about Him without need for the glorious words, and the light melody carried her right along into the room. For the first time, the Archbishop heard her voice ring out somehow beyond the highest register that a man could imagine, up there in the range between God and dog. God had given Grace O’Kell that voice to be used, the Archbishop knew, and by God she had used it. It was because of her voice that the Archbishop had plucked her from the gutter like a piece of forgotten, ripening fruit.
“Coming,” Grace O’Kell hummed.
Warm air came whooshing into his chambers, and what the Archbishop could no longer see began to take shape in the growing light of day. No—God had not given Grace O’Kell beauty, but He had given her something better: the soul of beauty. Her light hair shone almost silver in the light from the porthole, but her eyebrows were darker than her hair, almost black, and they curved high above her eyes and hung like two half-moons. With her willowy build—and the billowing white gown of the Archbishop’s colleens—she could have been an angel alighting for a quick look-see.
“So where’s the fire, Archie?” Grace O’Kell said.
She plumped onto his foot-stool with one foot on the Bible below the bed, and the other propped up against the real lace of his virgin sheets. Grace O’Kell spread her legs into the widest of Ys, and when she lifted her gown the Archbishop could see nothing, not even the soft silvery blur down between: a sight that would have stirred him to ecstasy, had he the eyes to see.
Her soft purring became a mumbled, magical prayer.
Grace O’Kell was using the very tips of her fingertips, as he had taught her (and all of the colleens) to do. She worried the bead of her own flesh like a rosary, and then she tried to think of God, as he had taught her to—Oh God how she tried!—but instead she came as ever to the earthbound sounds of the men biting at coal in the boiler room down below, to the black streams of soot that twisted down their bare chests, down the stems of their shovels, and down onto the quivering deck.
“What’s w-w-wrong?” Grace O’Kell was quivering.
The Archbishop had begun a flat-backed baying at the light of day: a low-throated howl that belonged to back-alley dogs roaming the gloaming, forever feeding on the meek.
“Begone now, my pup.”
“You’re not well, Archie. I can see that. Maybe a proclamation to make you feel better? Something about sacrifice? That always cheers you up.”
Grace O’Kell clucked at the lump of cleric laden with real lace beneath the veil of mosquito netting. She stood up and down came her billowing gown, and then she ducked her head down to the porthole for a look at the last town along the canal.
How she had come to dread this sight!
For her, this godforsaken hole had always meant the end of summer—and the ends of the earth. Civilization may have extended to the last town along the canal, but Grace O’Kell had her grave doubts. The rust-bucket lock, bare of traffic, looked dry as a bone, like a mass grave waiting to be spaded over, and the steeple of The Church of The Immaculate Conception seemed to have no point for want of paint. Left to right, the red light strip was wretched with one ratty shack after another, with each storefront dedicated to a different strain of mortal sin. Grace O’Kell watched the slops lap up against the hull as the barge came to face the town: the rotting husks bobbing like bad apples, the shapeless lumps of human waste, the ground-down hooves of dead calves and slaughtered sheep. The rickety telegraph shack looked to her like a lean-to for the dead and gone. Everything about the town struck her as small potatoes now, even that boy in rags zagging from lamp to lamp—sagging with the weight of that long, beaked pole.
Hadn’t anyone in this town ever heard of electricity?
Grace O’Kell thought the last town along the canal had to be the last place on earth to get the word on anything.
“Can’t you hear them?” the Archbishop said.
“Where? Who?” Grace O’Kell said.
“The Hads, damn you!”
At first, Grace O’Kell heard nothing but the sounds of a town still nodding awake: the high whinny of a horse, a baby’s whining cry, the creak of a distant door across soiled water. Only then could she hear the low-throated chant of shared public sin, the words of The Lord’s Prayer chanted over again and again: But deliver us from evil… For thine is the kingdom…and the power… the words growing more desperate with each fresh start—until the low hum had become a deafening hymn. Grace O’Kell could see the long line of sinners snake past the zagging boy with the long pole, past the church and that last flicker of lit-up gas lamp. Behatted and veiled in black, the chanting line moved forward, as if marching onward to The Final Judgment with full knowledge of the only possible result.
“My God!” Grace O’Kell said.
“Mutton,” the Archbishop commanded for the penultimate time.
The Archbishop was already wise to the waste The Great Fornicator had left behind in the last town along the canal. He knew Hads had come to know Thomas Cushing far too well—for far too long—the hard horsey prick of his pole in both darkness and light, the grunt of his untimely exit a heartbeat before the pounding demise of his hose. The Had Nots could see the obliterating bliss of the Hads, as if those who raised their skirts to Thomas Cushing had risen one step closer to God. Bliss came at considerable cost, of course: sinful binges by the Hads were always followed by the preternatural need to purge. In those early days of damnation, it was not uncommon for hell-bound Hads to fall weak-kneed onto their knees, to free-fall back into the black hole of the confessional at The Church of The Immaculate Conception. There they pressed their foreheads to the wire mesh like so many wild, trapped animals—all the while spilling their sins into the cupped upturned ears of the hardening priests. The priests would prod the damned, as was their wont (and need), and they would dole out X Hail Marys or Y Stations of the Cross, like so many hard biscuits or plain Johnny Cakes.
The Archbishop knew that Thomas Cushing’s hold on the town was so complete that Had Nots had granted an unspoken dispensation to Hads. In the last town along the canal, there was thus a moral discounting of that brand of adultery from a damning sin of the flesh to a minor slip, one that a God-fearing Had might dilute further with a few dozen rosaries of atonement.
On Saturdays, blessed by the priests and their peers, the Hads would go round and round the dark circle of Stations—one sinner stepping lightly aside to let the next one past—their thoughts of God waging a hopeless battle with The Lord’s polar opposite: Thomas Cushing and his rank pole. The more the women walked from Station to Station in the church, the more their thoughts fell inevitably to The Great Fornicator, and to what had come to pass in the past between each of them and him—and, with luck, to what new sins might lighten their load in the days to come.
As the veiled women of the town repeated their weekly ritual of commingling and confession and cleansing, the lines for confession grew longer and longer still, with longer waits between each Station of the Cross for each sinner, until each Station was backed up four or more deep with the damned, depending upon the toll from a particularly dark week.
The situation of the sinners had grown even more dire for the parish, for Hads in transit had begun to swap their godawful stories of transience, thereby transforming the aisles of the church into a kind of sinful bazaar. First one and then another began to drop their penitential poses, to timidly lift their veils, and to confess their respective sins to each other in great carnal detail. The weekly procession to the Immaculate Conception had thus developed into a bona fide women’s club, with explicit shorthand between sinner and priest, a verbal economy belied by the scandalous detail that snaked unadulterated from Station to Station, from sinner to sinner, from the lips of Thomas Cushing’s intransigent women and on to God’s ear with just that one stop in between.
In time, the ungodly procession had come to a complete standstill, as each Station came to represent a particular strain of grievous sin, where those lucky enough to be guilty would gather with the giddy anticipation of a church social. With the tacit approval of the priests, the penance generated by Thomas Cushing’s pounding hose came to be truncated and then cut off entirely… in favor of the free flow of communal information around the church—like so many dots and dashes dancing down a hot wire.
Before long, to the horror of the Monsignor, a hoary rivalry had erupted among Hads and Had Nots, with profound political consequences not known in the town since the no-nonsense days of the Know Nothings.
A machine candidate, dutifully campaigning on the stoop of the church on Saturdays, was simply paying homage to the harsh realities of headcount. This predicament was made all the more vexing by the propensity of Had Nots to pose as the most unrepentant of Hads. As one machine candidate after another failed to pull the full parish vote, the leaders of the machine had finally conceded that the town had split smack down the middle between Hads (real or imagined) and Had Nots (all too real). This division represented the gravest threat to party harmony since “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” had soiled the second coming of Grover Cleveland.
It was no surprise to the Archbishop that the machine feared Thomas Cushing, a man who seemed to float unimpeded beyond the laws of man or machine. The husbands of Hads had already been had by this man, while the spouses of Had Nots eschewed random infidelity in the interests of any machinery other than their own. After days of unholy war—the cries of the wounded parties echoing across the canal deep into the night—the machine had forced its negotiated settlement onto Hads and Had Nots alike.
Saturdays had thus become a kind of second Sabbath for the damned women, with those unfortunate enough not to have sinned with Thomas Cushing forced to mind the children of those Hads who had as they made their way to Confession.
Today was a Saturday of a different sort, of course.
On shore, as the Archbishop’s barge bumped up against the lock, it was all Monsignor Fahey of The Church of the Immaculate Conception could do to mouth the words that meant forgiveness in a dead language: Oh my fault…oh my fault…oh my most grievous fault!…. Oh—how the Hads had sinned—every one of them, in every one of the worst ways—but the Monsignor knew that no sin had been so heinous as his own. It was his fault, the Monsignor reckoned, his most grievous fault, because only he had had the power to break the hellish cycle of the Hads, and he was the one who had done nothing yet to set things right—not a thing, not even after the Archbishop had invoked the words of the devil and the wrath of God.
The Monsignor had wanted to believe in the mercy of a merciful God—but how could he? His parish priests had become nothing more than an ordained police force paid to look the other way. Deprived of any flesh save their own, his priests had come to rely upon the shorthand Confessions of the Hads and those who wished they had slept with The Great Fornicator. They had come to vie shamelessly for the best assignments during peak hours, with the prime spots saved for those who had performed their weekly ministries most unselfishly.
Truth be told, Thomas Cushing’s ad hoc excesses had provided His spark to those priests in the parish least convinced of their calling. Faced with the carrot of the Saturday Confessional at the end of Monsignor Fahey’s stick, Immaculate Conception priests did everything in their power to be pious and Godly throughout the week. Thanks to Thomas Cushing, the worst tours in the most hellish wards became the most coveted assignments, as priests in the parish sought to establish their proximity to God for Monsignor Fahey’s benefit. If his religious fervor flagged, a priest might beg off from such a dark and discouraging assignment, but one week away from the hot breath of the sinful town women was enough to send that same priest crawling back to his one, true God.
The more pious of the priests came to know the women of the last town along the canal in a way that neither their husbands nor Thomas Cushing ever would. To the priests, it was as though the women glowed in the darkness of their guilt before God, as though neither Confessional wire nor stone walls separated priest from sinner or soul from soul. As the priests grew more pious—and the women more bold—both parties had dispensed with the formalities of church ritual across wire mesh, in favor of a sinner’s blow-by-blow account (real or imagined) of the latest damnable indiscretions. At first, under the gentle prodding of the priests, the women had regaled the emissaries of God with splendid approximations of size and length, with tall tales of their most hellacious mortal sins. But as the lines to the confessional grew deeper still, such details came to be spent like precious coin changing hands. Their private moments with the priests were no longer squandered on these smoldering events, but rather on the more lofty and lasting matters of the soul. Like old lovers with all secrets spent, the priests and the women moved on to more important matters in their lives: to talk of children, and God, and the loss of love. So intimate were these sessions—so telling in the lives of sinners real and imagined—that Confession had become a kind of heaven for the women: a quiet moment in a quiet place with a quiet man. For the priests, these revelations were so stirring that they too confessed from the heart: they told the women of their lives and their worldly loves, of their sacrifices on this earth—all for the sake of Him.
On shore, the Monsignor’s behatted lackeys were all waiting to follow his lead—but he had lost his capacity to know the will of the people just as will became want.
It was all he could do to raise a hand—and to hear the ripple of lackeys raising their hands behind him as the town’s prize colleens-to-be began their procession on cue from The Church of the Immaculate Conception.
For all the world, the colleens-to-be looked to Monsignor Fahey like sisters born of the same sacred coupling. The hair of one might have been darker than the brow of another, but they all had the same freckled blush and full-bodied voice of their father, The Great Fornicator, and the press of their full breasts all pointed heavenward against the close stitching of their white gowns. Like a string of imperfect pearls, they all came now from the church in singing single file, the starched white of their dresses the whiter still against the dark contrasting mass of huddled Hads and Had Nots waiting for the worst along the shore.
The Monsignor could hear the colleens-to-be lifting their beatific voices to The Lord. He could see that these beautiful girls came from the same seed, yet they remained miraculously protected from the truth that darkened the town every day of their lives. They were all half-Cushings, half-his if Thomas Cushing had cared to know, but in the conception each girl had become more his than hers, so that each of the colleens-to-be could easily have shared the same mother as well, with any physical discrepancy left to generations long gone. Half-Cushings were made of stronger stuff, as everyone knew, and they had always managed to survive childbirth and the pestilence that claimed their lesser halves in the last town along the canal. Neither the Monsignor nor anyone else could account for the dearth of boys born out of wedlock in a town that bore the sultry evidence of Thomas Cushing’s rank pole wherever an eye might wander. There were in fact eight of his boys born of Mary Reynolds Cushing—nine if you counted the runt Tommy Tom—and they formed the heart if not the soul of Cushing & Sons, as if Thomas Cushing could have no Sons other than those sanctioned within the Most Holy Sacrament of Marriage.
The chorus of would-be colleens had come to a keening climax.
Monsignor Fahey removed his satin cap on shore to scratch his head in wonderment at the colleens-to-be. The scratching at his scalp was a nervous tic the Monsignor had developed during decades of procrastination, but an observant lackey could pick up the habit in days, and now each lackey hacked at his own head until the Monsignor had replaced his own cap.
Knowing full well that the worst was a certainty—and further procrastination an impossibility—the Monsignor, scratching away, walked up into the barge and on into the Archbishop’s chambers. The Archbishop was blinder than before, or so the Monsignor imagined, because the Archbishop was blinking now in the dim room as though a great light shone directly into his fading eyes.
“You say that he is just one man?” the Archbishop said.
“Yes,” the Monsignor said. “He is one.”
“Saints be praised,” the Archbishop said. “He fornicates like a steam engine.”
The Archbishop, bless his soul, had come to see the strange case of Thomas Cushing in the finite terms of dollars and cents, rather than in the everlasting currencies of damnation and salvation. The half-wit in the telegraph office two towns back down the canal had known enough of higher math to add a zero to every dollar mentioned in the Monsignor’s wire. . .and, for good measure—to remove a zero from the number of Hads with whom Thomas Cushing had had his way. The Monsignor’s detailed message had thus been reduced to a few brief phrases that promised maximum financial return from the minimum number of sinners: a misleading message that had been music to the Archbishop’s increasingly keen ears. By the time the Monsignor’s garbled wire had reached the Archbishop, all mention of the party apparatus in the original plea had been superseded by a simple business proposition: the near-term potential for the tithing of the sinners—and a tidy profit for the building fund of the Archdiocese.
Lost in translation were all references to the heart of the matter: the soul of the town.
The Archbishop had immediately decreed via return wire that he himself would hear the most solemn Confession of every Had on board his sacred barge that Saturday, this very Saturday, in the privacy of his own chambers. The Archbishop had assumed that such a task might take him the better part of an hour—long enough for a dozen or so of the hell-bound Hads to shuffle repentantly through his portable quarters. It was not until he had heard the mass murmuring that morning that the Archbishop had come face-to-face with the enormity of the sin splitting the town asunder.
“The time for forgiveness is at hand, Your Grace,” the Monsignor said.
“Let’s see if these Hads are as bad as you think,” the Archbishop said.
Confession began as the first breath of fall shivered through the town that Saturday, and the administration of the sacrament did not end until gas lamps were the only source of light left along the canal.
As luck or the will of God would have it, the first of the Hads had been Molly O’Malley, wife of Michael O’Malley, one of the leaders of the machine. Through the blur of his diminishing vision and the fine mosquito mesh, the Archbishop could make out a woman as wide as she were high, one who fell like a dead weight to her knees in front of him. He could not see the fine metallic sheen to her eyes beneath the veil, but in her voice he could hear something that was not of this world.
“Bless me father,” Molly O’Malley said. “For I have sinned.”
It was every bit like Molly O’Malley to be the first in line. It was Molly O’Malley who had always been first at the door to the confessional at The Church of the Immaculate Conception, and it was Molly O’Malley, parading from Station to Station, who had first spoken to the other Hads of her remarkable sins. For that matter, it was Molly O’Malley who had first opened her legs (and her heart) to Thomas Cushing, and who now had a fine would-be colleen waiting on shore to show for it.
Even on her knees in front of the Archbishop, it was Molly O’Malley who was reliving that first time with Thomas Cushing in her mind. She remembered how he came to the fore with all of his tools, how he began to hammer out a room for the little Michael that Michael O’Malley believed to be only a matter of God’s will and the passage of time. There was a taste of new snow in the air and on her lips, and yet Thomas Cushing had stripped down to nothing, or next to, just a slip of a shirt rising and falling against the fine ripple of his biceps and ribs. Thomas Cushing had hammered in a wide sweeping arc, with no mind for the helpless fingers that held the nail: the head of the hammer snapping onto the face of the nail, the high arc repeating then repeating then again, the swing traced in the sweep of the air, the head of the hammer always landing with the same smashing result.
Molly O’Malley herself was just the stem of a flower back then, and she had brought him so much water that day she thought for sure that Thomas Cushing would float away and leave her to drown in her own lust. She had watched him drink water all day from every angle: peeking past the sash and around the doorjamb: spying as he stood up and when he knelt down. She had seen the bob of his Adam’s Apple rise and fall like a lure, and she had watched the sweat gather across his back while she shivered with the raw cold within her own home.
Molly O’Malley heard Thomas Cushing whispering something about her beautiful hands—hands that could only grow more red and raw over time, as the duties of the household and her husband made their claims. All the while hammering, Thomas Cushing was whispering now of her neck and of her back, of her lobes and of her toes (and of every hidden trove), until Molly O’Malley could stand it no longer, or so she swore, and she had to have at him right there on the splintered floorboards of the kitchen, with the hammer still held up high in his hand like a torch, and her shrill silly cries of lust echoing in the cold hollow of a new room in the making.
“Repent,” the Archbishop said to Molly O’Malley in his chambers.
“How much?” Molly O’Malley said.
The Archbishop named a dollar amount and Molly O’Malley agreed to the figure. He was about to tell her to begone, but Molly O’Malley wanted her money’s worth from this transaction. She told the Archbishop every detail of every one of her sins with Thomas Cushing, and every transgression that had taken hold only in the fertile soil of her own rabid soul. She told the Archbishop everything, until she herself could no longer tell the difference between light and dark, between sin and truth. She told the Archbishop about the time on top of the chopping block, and that night backwards and buck-naked on Thomas Cushing’s lap, and the smell of the slops as he drowned her along the canal, and the blisters from the sticky bar stool—and even of that moment in the back alley when she was as big as a house with his child, her only child, her colleen-to-be.
“For your penance,” the Archbishop said when she finally drew a breath, “say one hundred Hail Marys, one hundred Our Fathers, and one hundred Acts of Contrition. Say them all, and be done with this devil for good.”
“But I’m not done!” Molly O’Malley said.
“You are finished!” the Archbishop said. “He’s a dead man now. May God have mercy of his soul!”
Molly O’Malley’s litany of sin had only whetted the appetite of the Archbishop for more. From behind the mosquito netting, he proceeded to quiz each of the damned with all the subtlety of a fire bucket thrown into the face of these hellish flames—
How many times?
Where? How could that be?
When? How’s that again?
—and on and on his questions came and went, until the Archbishop had spent every question, save the one that he could take to the bank.
At first, the sinners had snaked slowly forward to hear their fate firsthand from the Archbishop, but as the cold morning gathered up its warmth, the line of sinners along the canal had begun to waver, and then to waggle forward, as though its sudden progress were the grinding work of a divine machine, and not merely the will of a willful Archbishop. This sudden movement was no miracle, of course, though gossip of a merciful God did course up the writhing line like wildfire. In truth, after peppering the damned with every damnable question imaginable, the venom of the Archbishop had quite simply petered out in the face of such relentless sin.
Yes, he had, said the self-proclaimed Hads, and here: and there: like that up there: and this way: yes: and that way too.
As the day wore down, the Archbishop had come to believe there was nothing Thomas Cushing could not do—and very little that he had not already done.
By late afternoon, the actual penance for each individual Had had become an afterthought—and then not even that. No sooner had a sinner said, “Bless me Father,” than the Archbishop had doled out a few perfunctory rosaries, and a fixed dollar amount payable in full at the most solemn High Mass the next morning. By suppertime, with the long line of sinners still wavering in the dusk like so many lamps, the Archbishop had grown impatient with even this wholesale dissemination of God’s eternal salvation. When the damned kept coming into his buoyant chambers to be saved, the Archbishop had simply fixed a fixed dollar amount payable to the building fund of the Hat City Cathedral, with no mention of Hail Marys or Acts of Contrition—or even a lonely Hosanna in the highest.
All the years of guilt and premature damnation brought on by Thomas Cushing were thus washed away with a divine, dismissive swipe of the Archbishop’s ringed hand. And so our story would have ended, had it not been for the Archbishop’s decision to admit one last Had on board the barge that day as night began to fall.
With a great grunt the Archbishop had flung his massive body through the hole in the mosquito netting until the blood had run down on into his toes. He was left with the pleasant empty-headed elation that always came in anticipation of a great proclamation. This was how the Pope must feel (or so he felt) as the Pontiff prepared a heavenly missive ex cathedra, for here was absolute power combined with the infallible purity of His light.
So what to call this?
A general amnesty?
A few pointed swoops of the quill of the dove on the parchment affixed with his official stamp—and the Archbishop could send the last town along the canal back on the path to normalcy. He had done his duty that day—no one could claim otherwise—and there was no need to hear another word of the evil that lies in the hearts of women on account of man.
With his looping strokes, the Archbishop wrote the date along the top of the page, and then he dipped the point of the quill into the silver cup once more—a nervous tic that he had always associated with his own great deeds. Nose this close to parchment, the Archbishop addressed his message to Monsignor Fahey in the most formal of terms, and then he drew out a long thin dash in anticipation of the inspiration that had always followed. The Archbishop dipped the quill into the silver cup again, then again, until the point of the quill was covered with the thick black sludge of brackish ink.
Still no words were to be had.
The Archbishop groaned like a cow lowing out loud, and only then did he give in to the dark foreboding that accompanied this unavoidable duty like a drug.
All the while that fateful day, beginning with the first words uttered by Molly O’Malley, the Archbishop had known that something beyond the sins of Thomas Cushing was badly amiss in the last town along the canal. If these adulterous tales could be taken at face value, then here was sin so penetrating that no amount of penance could ever do it justice, and no blanket proclamation could ever snuff out its smoldering fire. The Archbishop had half-heard thousands of smothering confessions in the course of his career: from the venial, made-up tales of vain schoolchildren, to the bile spat out by mad Hat City hatters in need of a hand-out. But he had never heard anything to compare with the gross couplings and copious copulations so glibly admitted to on board the barge that day. The Archbishop knew that both the quality and the quantity of sin were quite beyond the realm of earthly possibility, even for a man as mathematically monstrous as the accused. This had to be the work of Satan himself.
At that moment, the wife of the albino baker barged into his chambers.
She was slight, and doughy white, and she was shaking in slow ripples from the spine outward: a blur for the Archbishop against the porthole’s diminishing light. There was no bright polish to her voice, no distinctive treble or timbre, not a trace of the devil-may-care tonality so common to Hads. The Archbishop could see that she was taller than her adulterous peers, with a long slender neck like the gradual bend of a gas lamp—but she was stooped over, too, as if against her own will, so that the Archbishop could have sworn the sound of her voice came from where her soul waited in hiding.
The Archbishop balled up the parchment soiled by the wasted date.
“Dash it all!” he said.
The wife of the baker fell to her knees in his chambers. The Archbishop thought she must be confessing, but he could not be so sure, for not even his keen hearing could make out the shape of her sins, but only the shapeless sounds of shame: the last howls of a lost soul.
“Louder, my child,” the Archbishop said.
“They don’t love him.”
“Lift up your eyes to The Lord.”
“They don’t even know if he’s alive.”
“Raise up your head, my child.”
“I’m a sinner, Your Grace.”
“But I’m not a liar.”
“They’ve all been lying?” the Archbishop said.
“But you’re not lying?”
“Then tell me what you’re not lying about, my child.”
“About him,” she said. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
“And how long since your last Confession?”
“Yesterday,” she said. “Every day—every day I confess to what I am thinking about what I have done.”
“What are you thinking?”
“That with him I would do it again.”
“And just what have you done?”
“Things that a dog would not do, Your Grace.”
“A dog cannot sin, my child. A dog has no soul. You are not a dog, and so you can be saved.”
“It’s too late. Can’t you see?”
She stood up—and she pulled down on her skirt—and she thrust her belly up and out toward the Archbishop.
“Come closer,” he said.
“His!” she hissed. “His kicking and screaming inside of me! I can hear her talking sometimes, Your Grace, and I want to kill her. That’s my sin too, today and yesterday and tomorrow too—every day wanting to kill her, and if I can’t, then wanting to kill her and me both.”
“You would go straight to hell,” the Archbishop said, “and this child would be lost forever to Limbo.”
“Where else can I go?” the wife of the baker said. “I love him.” She pointed at the big wide swell of her belly, and she began to cry in drops big as dimes. “I think he’s dead, Your Grace. I hope he’s dead. I want him dead. And I want to die.”
“NowNowNowNowNowNow,” the Archbishop said. “Come here, come here, so I can see your face.”
He raised her veil and cupped her cheeks in his hands as he might have cupped a quivering dove.
“You’ll be dying soon enough, my child, and only then will you be dead,” he said. “But your sinning and your suffering must end now—today. And so—in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost—“
“– I absolve you of all of your sins. For your penance, you must find this man with horns and bring him back here to me.”
“Dead,” the wife of the baker said. “I can feel it, Your Grace. He’s a dead man.”
“And if he’s not dead,” the Archbishop said, “then we must bury him alive.”
There had been sightings up and down the town under darkness of night that night. Hads and Had Nots both—and who was to say who was whom?—had spoken for the first time in years, trading rumors of the beast’s latest goings and latent comings. Scores of lackeys and party underlings had pounded on doors in every crook of the town, but they had found not a soul in Thomas Cushing’s customary holes—nothing save a few boiled, soiled underthings.
The Monsignor had carried the Archbishop’s unadulterated fulminations to his priests, who in turn had told Hads and Had Nots both, who in turn had given their souls over to a fresh state of whirring panic. To be saved—albeit for sins not always committed—and then to be damned to Hades as a Had (real or imagined): that was surely worse then never to have known the face of God at all.
Only the deliverance of Thomas Cushing could warm their souls and wipe the sinful slate clean.
But The Great Fornicator was nowhere to be found. The Monsignor could not find him, not even with the help of the priests who knew his ways so well second-hand. His wife, poor Mary Reynolds Cushing, was questioned by the Monsignor himself, and she answered that her husband’s whereabouts were solely a matter between him and his God. His Sons at Cushing & Sons snarled as much about their father, and that was as much as they were ever going to say. There had been a spurt of new housing in the next town back down along the canal, and some even said that Thomas Cushing was exploring a licentious business expansion to the south.
But no one in the last town along the canal could find Thomas Cushing on the last night of his life.
He was nowhere, they said.
They said no hellfire could be hot enough.
They said they would burn him alive.
Flogged by Monsignor Fahey, all the priests in the parish had dispersed through the town like a diaspora that night: scolding the mute, threatening cripples lest they refuse to stand up and be counted. Among this group of clerics was a Father Sean Joyce, a fresh-faced priest fresh from the seminary, and another case of the cream rising to the top thanks to the allure of the Saturday confessional at The Church of the Immaculate Conception.
It is said that every priest has his quirks: that every man of the cloth has those sins or sacraments which hold his closest attention. For Father Sean, there was no sacrament more sacred than the ritual of Last Rites and the administration of Extreme Unction to those about to meet their Maker. For a boyish man, no older than Tommy Tom, the Cushing runt, such a sacrament was nothing less than the key to the lock of the next life: a last chance for the damned before the soul’s irreversible passage downward into Hades. To the young priest, Last Rites were the penultimate proof of a merciful God. Any man—even a monster like Thomas Cushing—might live the life of Lucifer, hellbent for sin, but in his last breath, if that same man confessed his sins and professed his love for Almighty God, then the gates of Heaven would swing open as if he had lived the life of a saint.
God’s love went beyond that even, in the soft eyes of Father Sean.
For even if a man were too sick or too weak to repent, he might still be saved if the righteous rituals could be executed in time. The whispering of those few sacred words in a dead tongue, the poignant waving of his hand to form the Sign of the Cross—for Father Sean these were nothing less than the final proof that He was afoot in the world. At such a moment, with the stench of death blowing hard on into his face, with Lucifer leering over the soul of the sinner, Father Sean shone with a light whose origin could not have been of his own making, or of this world. The Lord was his Savior, and he could feel the light of The Lord pass on down and through the leathery skin of the sinner to the soul about to go on into the next life. Even if a man were stone-cold—a corpse save for the final harvest of hair and nails—Father Sean still believed that he could feel the breath of God breathing through that dead-to-the-world body. He still believed that at such a time God and man and priest met in some bright, in-between world, a world where eternal life with God was a certainty, not a choice. At such a time, The Holy Ghost surged through Father Sean like a thousand points of light within the darkest souls in the kingdom of God.
The Monsignor had come into the rectory that night to spread the alarm, but Father Sean was already making ready for his midnight walk up along the canal, among the sludge of mankind who had come to lap up along its banks. To lift up mankind meant that God had to go down to find man—or so Father Sean believed—and so it was that night that he came to be walking with Him down the dimmest of sidestreets by the lock.
True: Father Sean had never set eyes on Thomas Cushing, but he had pictured a man with a long face and longish legs, with wild black hair that went wherever the wind might blow it, and an organ so dense that it made him walk bent over, like a monstrous half-man walking on three poles.
Father Sean was looking for Thomas Cushing along the canal, but he was looking for his other lambs as well, for the damned who damn well knew the sight of the priest’s darkened eyes set against the lightness of a boy’s face. At first, they had scorned Father Sean as a Johnny-come-lately who had lately come down on into their dead-end world. They saw him as a reminder of the hateful places they had left behind—a world where men bathed, where hungry babes suckled their mothers, where the party always made you pay. Now here came this boy-priest down on into their dark underworld, down among the shards of memory and the scraps of food they shared with wild dogs and lice.
“Oh for God’s sake, Father,” the least of His lambs had said. “Leave us the hell alone.”
But Father Sean could no more ignore the jagged plaints of a starving child than the empty souls of the damned dying to die along the canal. There were gullies and lean-to’s and potato-sack shacks that backed up along the canal for all of his lost souls. Father Sean knew them all, every soul, every hole, and it was there, on that night, in the lean-to hard by Canal Telegraph Limited, that he came upon a man whose soul was the only flickering light left in a body eaten alive by every insatiable disease. The lice had already taken to his strawberry meat without even saying please, and the mice were there too, waiting for their own feast. It was plain as day to any layperson that the man was as good as dead, that the soul of this man—saint or sinner—had all but passed on into the next life.
Father Sean touched this husk of man as though he might an ear of corn, shucking first with his fingers to get to the sweet gold. The man’s wild black hair was matted flat down across his brow, so that his narrow face seemed lost between brow and beard. He was curled up like a baby: his legs stuffed into the open end of a potato sack.
Father Sean thought of how cold the soul of this man would have to be.
He knelt down next to the man and the mice screed away. He put his fingers to the man’s mouth, and he felt something there that might have been breathing, had it not been the rank whisper of death.
Father Sean made The Sign of the Cross.
My son? Father Sean asked in his living tongue, and then he spoke the dead language of eternal life with God the Father. He touched the man’s forehead through the wet wild bush of his hair, and then he forgave the man for all of his sins, for every transgression, and in the way of the ritual he promised the man that he would surely see the face of God in the next life. Father Sean anointed this unknown man in the Limited lean-to along the canal, and then he lay the warmth of his own body over the man to warm whatever life might be left.
Father Sean waited there for the rest of the night, his body a living blanket for the dead soul of Thomas Cushing, until the young priest was sure the unknown man’s soul had moved on to the promise of the next life.