A Vicar’s Baptism
by Thomas E. Lange
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
“Because I need this! To talk. I cannot live with myself. I cannot come to terms with anything. I do not know what I believe or do not believe, and feel like I’m lost on one of those endless trains filled with flies and bodies that stretched from town to town over there.” His voiced rasped file-like, “I do not want to be the person I was. I have not wanted to be him since I sat in my first trench.”
I was frantic. I realized that I did not want to hear his words — I could not hear them! What could I possibly do? “Sir, maybe if you talked to our elder Vicar, George, he might... This should be done correctly... The confession—”
Unheeding, the man continued. “My knife had been kept sharp daily, the only civilized act within my savage habit. Then we finally entered the war, after months of watching and listening to Belgium twitch on the end of the Hun’s bayonet.”
Another deep rattle of breath. “I thought I was the one. That I was some dark avatar, arrived in time to finally tear the veil of naiveté from the eyes of mankind. I thought I was the worst. But there are true monsters, greater and much more insidious and capable at work in the world. They hunger for the blood of nations. I ran to it!
“The stink of gunpowder, cordite and human waste. The bodies. The rats.” He chuckled. “The eternal hell you preach would have been a welcome interlude from what your common soldier endured in a week’s time.
“We would dig our trenches — far inferior to the enemy’s — and, of course, there would be times when we would run into a forgotten gravesite and accidentally open an avalanche of our fallen to tumble in among us. Or the shelling would strike open the same, with the result that we would be showered with bodies and barely recognizable appendages. Not that we wanted to recognize them. We wanted to forget them then and there.
“Remembering is for those at home, or maybe after all this — or that. The trenches were hell; but still, within even those horrid fissures we would gladly have huddled rather than launch ourselves over the top in that insane race to gain ground against the relentless inevitability of their machine guns.
“This was not battle. There was no man-to-man striving back and forth to claim some inner sense of personal glory. The first slaughter I lived through scoured that notion from existence.”
His long string of words elicited another of his unwholesome — unholy — coughs, rattling through the black space beyond the screen separating us. After catching what remained of his breath, he continued, “There was no feast. There was only the revelation of the lie. It was a charnel house — a landscape of endless horror. The wasteland of human endeavor.”
The confessional booth had become a torture chamber. I did not know how to stop this man’s rampaging self-hate as his words poured like an inescapable tar through the screen, holding me fast and burning my heart. I tried one last time, like a guttering candle, “But God. There is God.”
“Is there?” He started coughing again, but pulled it in with a gasp of obvious agony. “Life is a Petri dish, filled with microorganisms. Filled to overflowing. Only the quick will survive. The most brutal. Does a passive, a kind, microbe survive? Of course not. They are either the first to go, or they are set aside to feed on later. That which is dubbed ‘inhumane’ is all that is left of humanity, once our essences are tossed upon the boilerplate of life and the illusions are evaporated away.”
He paused his lecture and I heard him thump back against the wall of the booth. “I refuse this. I am opting out of my membership in this endless cycle of cruelty. This eternally repeating phonograph of noise and sweat.”
I felt as though I were drowning in his sea of words. “Sir, please, I have to go.”
“Wait.” The timbre of his voice changed subtly — as though he were only now aware of the viciousness of his diatribe. “I wanted to say. I wanted to... confess... this, because...” his voice was forlorn, and hollow. “Ah, me. I wish I could change everything. I know I was — am — was a thing of the worst order. But I think, maybe, the Devil does exist. I know he does. And I reject him.”
“How... the Devil?” I was taken aback at this sudden shift. “What do you mean?”
The man’s breathing was painfully audible, but steady as a bellows. A minute passed with no other noise before he continued. “I am sure you have heard various versions of the constant shelling over there. Artillery bombardments could and would continue hour after hour, both our side’s and theirs. In any case, I was enduring one such stretch that resulted in the Germans’ entirely devastating our line, forcing an unorganized retreat from our position. I was separated. Many of us were.”
There was a wet cough, or laugh, I couldn’t tell which; but such a prolonged period of quiet followed that I began to hope the man would save his tale for another day. My duty, though, asserted itself within this lull, and I gazed a bit more steadily into the blackness beyond the grate. “I am here. Do you wish to continue? Or...?”
A sigh from the abyss, “I am questioning myself. Do I even have the right to speak? To ask for a listener? I have earned nothing of the sort. My deeds...” A pause.
“I found the remains of a farmhouse. It was more just the cellar, really; the house had been blown and burned away, for the most part. The only remains of the house itself were the torn timbers and loose trash that were lying in the now-exposed and partially collapsed cellar. It was good enough for me, though, and I dove in.”
A shifting sound accompanied an attempt to stifle another coughing jag before the man continued. “There was someone else in there already. Another soldier. Immediately I suspected my own motives as I spied him. Was he trying to desert? Was I? No. It was just the pounding of the guns. And he was unarmed, or so I thought.
“I soon realized that I recognized this man. I’d seen him a few times in the trenches. His name was Clive. He had red hair and always seemed to have a wolfish grin. I had never spoken with him before; he always seemed a bit off: always present, but separate from the rest of us somehow. I suspect that this might simply be the way he registered to me. A predator responding to another predator.
“In the cellar, he was smiling. I will never forget that. Me. After all that I had done to people here at home. For this creature to excite such a thrill of what I assume now was fear. For this creature” — brief, gasping coughs — “to elicit such repulsion from me. To bring about such a feeling of evil by the simple expression of his face. I did not want him to smile at me.”
Immediately there was such a fit of hacking, the length and painfully obvious depths of which made me pray inwardly that he might not be capable of any more — speech, or otherwise. And the cold, tightness within me informed me that my own breath was largely being forgotten as I sat, rigid, with a yawning emptiness growing within me. I could say nothing, could ask nothing. In stages, the man regained control of himself.
“He pointed to a far corner. There were the remains of steps, covered by wood and litter. There were children beneath them, watching us. There were three. A boy and two girls. They were very young.” His voice, ragged as it was, had been audible. At this juncture, however, I had to lean close to the screen in order to hear him; the man was now speaking in a tone barely above a whisper.
“He said... He said, ‘The Bosche are coming. You can hear them.’ And I could: the yelling. It is a language made for yelling, I think. He said, ‘Do you want them, or shall I?’ He was pointing to the... to the children. And he had a trench knife — pointing it at them. And he was smiling so hard at me that I knew that he was no man — this Clive.
“I said to him, ‘We must leave. We can bring them with us.’ He simply repeated himself, his arm — and the knife — never wavering, ‘Do you want them, or shall I?’ And it was then that I understood. He knew. Somehow. And his eyes were shifting into me in such a way that I knew that he could somehow sense my understanding, and that damnable, damnable smile was a leering death’s head.”
The man stopped speaking, and I found myself hanging onto his words, nearly as breathless as he. “What did you do?”
“What did I do? I knew I had to do something. I had seen other straggling civilians led to shelter by soldiers, and I knew that the Germans were not always lenient with them, children or no. We had seen plenty of massed graves made by the Germans, and I was under no illusions as to the danger that little boy and those little girls were hiding from. They should have hidden better.
“What did I do? I did nothing. The Devil approached them and made his work very short. I know I was watching, but damn me if I remember any kind of struggle.” A pause. “Damn me anyway. Those faces in the cellar under the stairs will plague me eternally, and I welcome them to do so.”
There was silence then. A blessed period of silence. And I realized after some time that I was alone, then, in the booth. I opened the door and crept to my feet, not daring to look about me for the man. I felt as though the world might end at any moment.
The elder Vicar, George, nodded to me from the door to the hall of the parlor beyond, and beckoned me. Dazed, I followed him through the door and saw that the Deacons appeared to be preparing something. George asked, “Was that Professor MacHeath? Back from France finally?”
“What?” I felt heavy, as though I’d been underwater for too long.
“France,” George said in his rural drawl — his blessed, simple voice. “Professor MacHeath — Medieval English or some other literature, I think, at King’s — finally back. He went over before I was sent. I’d heard he went missing, but was wounded — gassed. He was convalescing at Chateau Montanglaust in Joue-les-Tours, I believe. For over a year.”
The old Vicar spoke with the tone of respect reserved for one veteran to another. “I wonder if he’s comin’ back. To the campus, I mean. He had a good position there. Still young, too.”
George shook his head and touched the black scarf on my shoulders. “Better change. It’s Wednesday — midweek Communion service in ten minutes.”
Communion... Communion? In this world? My head began to spin and I blinked stupidly before stumbling past the Deacons preparing the Eucharist and through the kitchen to the janitor’s closet, where I vomited into a waste bin.
George followed me in quickly, placing a hand on my back. “You sit this one out, Nathan.” I noticed then that his voice was filled with compassion and realized that he always sounded this way. “Are you all right? You look like you could use a drink.”
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Lange