Tis the Lord’s Work by Stephen McQuiggan

Tis the Lord's Work

Stephen McQuiggan

The harsh rapping roused Father Gorman from the limbo of the hearth, his joints grumbling as he rose stiffly to answer the door. He peered out through the window but saw only the swirl of snow dancing against the moon—a moon so big and bright he had taken it as a portent of ill omen the first moment he saw it, trudging through the small copse from the churchyard to his home. I’ll go out hunting again, he thought distractedly (and of late his thoughts were distracted easily), whenever the storm abates.

It was very late. There must have been a death in the village; no-one would be abroad at such a time, and in such weather, otherwise. The door rapped and rattled once more. “Okay, okay,” grumbled the priest, “spare the horses. I’m coming.”

He heaved open the warped oak, letting in a wind that chilled him like an exhalation of the grave. A man stood on his porch, his head uncovered, and his ragged clothes soaked through; small drifts of snow on his shoulder as if he had been stationary for a long while, summoning up the courage to knock.

Father Gorman squinted at him through the storm—a lost traveler perhaps, a peddler in need of shelter, but not a local from the village. “Are you the Holy Man?” asked the stranger before the priest could so much as greet him.

The quaint earnestness of the question made Father Gorman smile. “I am,” he said, “now come in before one of us catches our death flapping our jaws.” He smiled again as the man methodically wiped his boots on the mat before entering; there was enough snow on his back to flood the hallway, but he came in like a prissy spinster nonetheless. “Get yourself to the fire, my son, and I’ll brew up a nice cup of tea…or perhaps you’d prefer a wee dram of something harder?”

“Is alcohol not a sin, Father?”

“It would be a sin to refuse it on a night such as this.” The priest led the way into the small parlor, eyeing up his visitor for size. “I have a few old clothes left from the charity drive,” he said, “that might fit you in a pinch. I’ll go fetch them while you change by the hearth.” He stopped by the door: “What’s your name, son?”

The man, steam rising from his tattered shirt, looked back at him as if he were about to cry. “I’d tell you if I could, Father, I surely would.”

The priest studied him for signs of drunkenness; he was steady enough on his feet, but drink was a blight in these parts lately, especially now the crops had failed and the children missing. The stranger looked sober enough, though, as he smiled ruefully. “They called me Slop the last place I stayed.”

“That’s not a very dignified name.”

“The one who sent me here, he calls me Ephraim…I like that, it sounds proper.”

“The one who sent you?” asked the priest, but Slop was busy stripping, shaking the snow off like a drenched dog before the fire. “Well, we’ll talk in a while. You get yourself sorted, and I’ll be back with something to warm the cockles, eh?”

Father Gorman bustled into the back room, fetching a shirt and some trousers from a moldy old sack and wincing at the tang of acrid sweat that still clung to them. He paused in the hallway—he could see the damp tracks of his own slippers trailing back from the slush at the front door, but of his visitor’s prints, there was no sign. He shivered, chastising himself for being a Dolly Daydream, and hurried back to the cozy parlor.

“Can I ask you something, Father,” asked Slop on his return, “and will you answer me true?” The priest hid a smile; how often had he assuaged the guilt of the peasantry with a well-tongued piece of scripture. It was touching. It was also a relief that some of the savages had not receded so far back into animalistic ways that they ignored his office altogether. There wasn’t much food in the village; people were starving…if this winter was prolonged…

“Of course,” said Father Gorman, “that is the proof-rock of my vocation, after all, to steer the lost back onto the righteous path.” Slop fiddled with the buttons on his borrowed shirt. “Come now, Ephraim, what ails you? What drags you out here on such a night?”

“Do you really believe in the risen Christ?”

“With all my heart,” laughed the priest. “Did you expect me to answer otherwise?”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Slop mumbled, shaking his brambled mane slowly, “so, so sorry.”

“Does my faith make you anxious, boy? You make no sense.”

“I’m just sorry to have to tell you that you’re wrong,” said Slop, finding the courage to look him directly in the eye. “Surely, the missing children prove you’re wrong.”

The priest furrowed his brow. “The children? I don’t…Have you come to me to confess something?”

“I’ve been talking to someone who knows about faith, Father, and you’ve been fed lies. There is no God. Those missing children aren’t in Heaven.”

“And where are they then?” Father Gorman blocked the doorway; suddenly, the bumbling Slop seemed a threat. The boy merely shrugged and smiled.

The priest sat down wearily, sighing heavily to cover the creak of his old joints. He’d had his fair share of dealing with drunks, deflecting the heathen blasphemies that spilled like hot piss from them after a few pints, and he was in no mood this night.

“You walked abroad in this foul weather to spout nonsense in my ear? Come back some other day, boy, at an honest hour and in a more sober manner, and I’ll discuss the hereafter with you until the seven celestial trumpets sound. You can sleep by the fire—I wouldn’t turn a hound out, even if it did snarl at me, in such a storm.” He rose, looking for his pipe. “I’m off to bed now. Show some respect and be silent.”

“But you must understand,” pleaded Slop, “I don’t want you wasting your life.”

Father Gorman sighed; the man was mad, not drunk; lunacy had its own brand of unshakeable faith.

“Father, will you not speak with the one who sent me? He will convince you, save you from ignorance.”

“What are you blathering about? Who sent you?”

“One of the missing.”

There was a heavy thud on the front door as if a tree had been uprooted and blown against it. Despite the blaze in the fireplace, the old priest felt his blood turn to slush. Living out here in the woods, he had grown accustomed to strange sounds in the night, but the sight of his visitor’s face and the fear imprinted there like a fist in soft dough, struck terror in his bowels.

“For the sake of the God you revere,” whispered Slop, “let him in and lend him your ear.”

When Father Gorman wrenched the door open, he saw the trees that bordered his small garden were ablaze. A lightning strike? He’d heard no thunder, saw no flash…but then his attention was caught by the young boy on his step, and the priest’s old heart began to gallop. He clutched at the lintel for support.

“Let him in!” Slop was yelling, but the boy was already over the threshold and shaking the snow from his hair. The priest followed him to the fireside. Slop stood in the shadows as if seeking to put as much distance between himself and the boy as possible.

“Hello, Father,” the boy said, warming his hands above the flames; his voice was deep and sonorous as if it were dredged up from the depths beneath the cottage floor. The priest recognized the boy—it was Eli, the innkeeper’s son. How many sermons had he faltered through under the boy’s mocking gaze? He had always been disturbed by Eli, the facade of youth he cloaked his wickedness in thin and frayed.

The boy had disappeared with the other children—some even believed, and the priest encouraged their speculation, that the boy with the wicked eyes might even be involved. “What trickery is this?” blustered Father Gorman, fighting the urge to brandish the crucifix he wore around his neck.

Eli laughed as if reading his thoughts. “Sit down, old man, and I’ll tell you of the secrets I have learned. Perhaps you’ll soon be preaching my gospel.”

“Leave this house now!” boomed the priest in his sternest pulpit voice. “Return to your parents. They have been ill with worry for you. I have prayed with them and—”

“You have prayed with many grieving families of late, Mr.Gorman—have they been answered? The village is still empty of my classmates. The families are still hungry…but you, you look well fed. I have been in the woods, watching; I have always been a smart boy, my schoolmaster will confirm it.”

Eli grinned, revealing a row of yellow stumps. “I know where the children are. I’ll be a hero when the grieving stops. People will turn from your blather and listen to me.”

“In the name of the Almighty—”

Eli produced a blade, gleaming like lava in the firelight, from his sodden jerkin. “Is your holy carpenter as almighty as this?” he asked the priest. “Let’s go down to your cellar and compare their teachings.”

Father Gorman made a lunge for the hallway, but Slop blocked his way. “Sorry, Father, but Eli has promised me such things,” he said. “No God, no harm, eh?” He put his rough hand on the priest’s neck and pushed him out into the hall.

“You were always a thing of evil, Eli,” Father Gorman said as he unbolted the cellar door, feeling a cold blast rush up from the darkness to embrace him. “I knew it from the first time I laid eyes on you. A smirking imp, sullying the Lord’s house.”

“Evil is the true son of God,” Eli smiled, waving the blade at the priest to hurry him down the crumbling stairs, “and we’ve already decided that your God is nothing but a figment of—”

The boy’s smug sermon was cut short as Father Gorman abruptly seized him by the throat and flung him down the steps. The blade clattered on the top stair, and the priest was on it in a flash that belied his years, scooping it up and ramming it into Slop’s belly in one fluid serpentine motion.

Slop’s eyes widened in idiotic surprise—the same expression he would no doubt soon wear as he prostrated himself before the throne of the Almighty. Father Gorman twisted the knife, causing blood to bubble from the urchin’s flapping nostrils. “Pray, my child,” he told him kindly, “and Christ may yet forgive your wickedness.”

He pulled the knife out with a sucking slurp and then heaved Slop down the steps, waiting for the thunder of his descent to cease before following him down, licking the blade clean on his way. The blade was a primitive thing, little more than a steel leer, but he would keep it anyway.

I’ll use it for hunting with, thought Father Gorman as he made his way down into the cold darkness, just as soon as the weather picks up. Not that there was much left in the way of sport in the village—still, there may be others like Eli hiding out in the woods, poking their devilish snouts into his divine business.

He lit a candle on his rickety old workbench, humming over the groaning of the broken boys on the cobbled floor. He set the guttering flame down by Eli’s head; the boy’s skull was dented and badly bruised, but one eye remained open, and the old priest could see the satanic rage glinting there.

He shivered. “Tis the Lord’s work,” he reminded himself as he slit Eli’s throat, before leaning over the twitching body to dispatch the one who called himself Slop. In the morning, after stripping them of their meat, he would bury them with the others—if he could find room in the cellar. If not, he would have to sanctify a new plot in the back garden.

The thought wearied him, but he knew it must be done and that it was a great honor to be chosen for such labor. After they were interred, he must resume the hunt. Only when the village was purged of its youthful mocking cancer could he rest, and the teachings of Christ be truly adhered to once more.

“Tis the Lord’s work,” yawned Father Gorman, as he made his way back up to his warm bed. “Tis the Lord’s will.”

About the Author

Stephen McQuiggan was the original author of the bible; he vowed never to write again after the publishers removed the dinosaurs and the spectacular alien abduction ending from the final edit. His other, lesser known, novels are A Pig’s View Of Heaven, and Trip A Dwarf.