Ministrations of Father Imbution

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Let me tell you about a time in the mid-eight­ies. I was a kid, sev­en or eight, not much more. There was half a dozen of us who hung around togeth­er. Most hours after school and days upon days dur­ing sum­mer hol­i­days were spent roam­ing our street and beyond. We would walk until we got tired and stop, hop­ing some busy-body pain in the arse wouldn’t move us on.

Every day we would wan­der until we had to go back home, our mean­der­ing pil­grim­ages of non­sense. Every day but a Sun­day. Sun­day was church day. We were unusu­al amongst our peers in that one or both of our par­ents insist­ed on tak­ing us to church on a Sun­day morn­ing. We had plen­ty of oth­er Catholic friends, but our par­ents were the most strict about get­ting us there every week. Some kids nev­er even went on Christ­mas and were some­times shamed by our teach­ers. We were the ones who were mocked in the play­ground after for being such suck-ups, as though it was our choice.

There was noth­ing spe­cial about us. We weren’t kids who were going to achieve remark­able lives beyond what west Cen­tral Scot­land offered, although tele­vi­sion and films had put those ideas into our heads. Our time was filled with talk. Chat­ter­ing about our hopes, oth­er chil­dren, and fab­ri­ca­tions. Chris was the one who told most lies, every day he said some­thing out­landish and self-aggran­dis­ing while flash­ing his grin of huge teeth. Nick, of dark hair and soul­ful eyes, the smartest of us, would often call out the lies, start­ing an argu­ment. The rest of us were less prone to lying, but not immune, we would all sneak in some achieve­ment we couldn’t pos­si­bly have man­aged. Bar­ry did it the least, which is amaz­ing as he had the most rea­son to want the world dif­fer­ent to what it was. He was the qui­etest and the one to face the world at its harshest.

So, it came as a huge sur­prise when he made the suggestion.

“We should not go to church this Sun­day,” he said in the mid­dle of the rest of us talk­ing about foot­ball. He sat on the ground, try­ing to make his lanky frame much small­er, even in the rel­a­tive safe­ty of our company.

We gaped at him and the audac­i­ty of the idea. Miss­ing church was almost impos­si­ble to imag­ine. I don’t think any of us knew what the world was like when Sun­day morn­ing wasn’t tak­en up by being there. My head swam with the alien idea.

“That’s stu­pid,” Nick said. “It’s real­ly stu­pid. We have to get up ear­ly and go with our parents.”

“Not that ear­ly,” Bar­ry said, his voice qui­et but brim­ming with con­vic­tion. It was the first I had seen how intense he was, before I even had the vocab­u­lary to describe it.

Ste­vie, the small­est of us who spent most of his time try­ing to get away from his younger sis­ter, said, “Mum makes sure we’re up at six on a Sunday.”

“That’s great,” said Edward, the heav­ier kid whose moth­er was fine with us all being in her house all at once. “You get to see all the cartoons.”

“She doesn’t let us watch TV. She puts the radio on and if we want to do any­thing we have to read the Bible.”

“That’s fine. We can all get up ear­ly and say we’re going to the half eight ser­vice,” Bar­ry said.

We had all been aware in a periph­er­al sense that there was an ear­li­er ser­vice to the one we all attend­ed. Hav­ing it as an option to avoid church com­plete­ly was a rev­e­la­tion. It was tan­ta­lis­ing and dangerous.

“Can we do that?” Edward said.

“Maybe,” Nick said, sound­ing doubtful.

“My cousin did it for ages,” Bar­ry said, becom­ing more animated.

“Stevie’s mother’s not going to let him go with­out Wendy,” Edward said.

“Wendy won’t want to go. She just wants to go with mum,” Ste­vie said.

“What about grownups?” said Nick. “I think my mum and dad will want some­one to go with us.”

“They might want Jeanette to go with us,” Edward said, talk­ing about his old­er sis­ter as though she was some hor­ren­dous ogre.

“If we say we’re just going straight to church and back home, we should be fine,” Bar­ry said. “There will be grownups going to church who can watch us.”

“I hate church. It’s so bor­ing,” Ste­vie said. “I’d real­ly like to not have to go.”

“We should do it,” Edward said, get­ting excited.

“That should be easy,” Chris said with a com­pla­cent shrug, even though he had been get­ting more excit­ed as the con­ver­sa­tion had progressed.

“What about your broth­ers, Ger­ard?” Nick said to me.

Robert and Peter could pose a prob­lem. They were both in sec­ondary school and resent­ed me for being born so late. Robert, in par­tic­u­lar, liked to make my life difficult.

I gave it a lot of thought. My brain had been whirling since Bar­ry intro­duced the idea. Just like Ste­vie I found church bor­ing. If we could have some­how done it with­out hav­ing to wear uncom­fort­able shirts, trousers, and tight dress shoes, I wouldn’t have hesitated.

“I think I can do it,” I said at last.

There was a moment of shock, as though none of us believed it would hap­pen. Look­ing at Barry’s smile, he had looked more con­fi­dent than the rest of us. A bunch of good lit­tle Catholic boys were going to dodge church.

•••

I got up that Sun­day and was just com­ing out of the bath­room after tak­ing a bath, to find Peter wait­ing for me. He was scowling.

“You’re up to some­thing, you lit­tle shit,” he said.

I shook my head. I wasn’t con­fi­dent I could say any­thing that wouldn’t give away my inten­tions. The uncan­ny knack I thought Peter had for know­ing what I was doing was noth­ing more than guess­work I came to learn. We get on a lot bet­ter as adults, prob­a­bly because we only talk a cou­ple of times a year.

“Yes, you are. You and your wee mates have been mak­ing stu­pid fuck­ing plans all week,” he said.

“Peter! What did I tell you about that kind of lan­guage,” our mum said as she appeared in the hall. “Your broth­er is going to church with his friends. I’ve talked to Ste­vie and Edward and Nicholas’s mums and they’re fine with it.”

“Why didn’t you let me do that when I was his age?”

“Because you couldn’t be trust­ed, son.”

He gaped at her. I had to sup­press a gig­gle but giv­en the nasty look he gave me I let a smirk escape.

“You were always try­ing to get one over on me and your dad at his age,” our mum said. “Gerard’s nev­er done any­thing like that. He’s earned our trust.”

“But,” he said, whining.

“But noth­ing. Leave him alone to get dressed. You and Robert are com­ing with me and your dad.”

She ush­ered him into the bath­room while mov­ing me towards my bed­room. I kept my head down, hid­ing my smile.

There’s not much else to say from that point. We did what any kids who had escaped from some­thing we hat­ed would do. We ran around, stay­ing away from any­where we might be spot­ted, most­ly stick­ing to wood­ed areas of waste land, and went to Edward’s house when Nick said it was time.

Chris got a curi­ous look from Edward’s moth­er because he hadn’t been able to con­tain him­self and got so much dirt­i­er than the rest of us from climb­ing trees and rolling around.

For two more weeks we did this. I got more ner­vous each time, and so did Ste­vie. The oth­ers became reck­less, join­ing in with Chris in rough hous­ing. Even Nick, the most reserved of us got caught up in the high spir­its. I couldn’t. It got too much for me when Edward’s moth­er start­ed ask­ing point­ed ques­tions about the state of Nick’s, Barry’s, Chris’s and Edward’s clothes on that third visit.

“We’re going to get caught,” I said as we walked to school the fol­low­ing Monday.

“No we’re not,” Chris said.

“Edward’s mum is going to say some­thing to my mum. I know it.”

“No she’s not,” Nick said.

“You were all cov­ered in mud yes­ter­day. Didn’t your mums won­der what you were doing?” I said.

“You are such a fuck­ing down­er, Ger­ard,” Chris said, try­ing out swear­ing for size. “I just said it hap­pened on my way back home.”

“You’re always mud­dy. It doesn’t mat­ter to your mum,” Ste­vie said. “Nick, Chris, and Barry’s mums must have noticed.”

“My mum and dad don’t care,” Bar­ry said. “They wouldn’t even care if I didn’t come home from school.”

The rest of us exchanged awk­ward and embar­rassed looks. Even Chris, with all his brava­do was cowed by Barry’s tone. We all knew his par­ents cared more for his younger and old­er sib­lings, although even then I’d heard some par­ents use the word ‘neglect’ when dis­cussing Barry’s home life and his siblings.

“You and Ste­vie are just a cou­ple of babies,” Nick said. “Every­thing will be fine.”

“We aren’t being babies,” Ste­vie said. “I don’t like it anymore.”

I was about to add some­thing when my atten­tion was caught by a shape at the church.

Our route to school took us past the church. It might have been one of the rea­sons I was get­ting ner­vous about avoid­ing our Sun­day vis­its. One day a priest might come out and ask us why we hadn’t been in so long. Being cor­nered by the cler­gy­man would have been terrifying.

The priest who stood at the gate of the church grounds wasn’t one that I recog­nised. He was tall, dark haired and extreme­ly thin. For some rea­son I couldn’t see his eyes. Despite that, he gazed at us hard, his mouth a thin, severe bow.

I was about to point him out, ques­tion who he was, when I saw the oth­ers were already star­ing at him. We all stood there for a while. I tried to make my voice work, but noth­ing would come. The ques­tions were there, just as snarky and jokey as I want­ed — and they stayed in my brain, as though the mech­a­nisms for expres­sion had been dis­con­nect­ed, shut off.

At last, he nod­ded slow­ly. When he walked away it was like the world around him dis­tort­ed to accom­mo­date him rather than his limbs mov­ing. Like real­i­ty itself resist­ed him. He made his way to the church and entered.

We all looked at each oth­er, pale and shocked. I still have the impres­sion that they all want­ed to say some­thing, ask all the same ques­tions I had. Except, per­haps for Bar­ry, who con­tin­ued to watch the closed church door. His expres­sion I couldn’t read.

Blink­ing and look­ing around in con­fu­sion, my sens­es came back, and it looked like the oth­ers had the same expe­ri­ence. The oth­er pedes­tri­ans and oth­er chil­dren on the street didn’t notice any­thing had changed, so we con­tin­ued on our way, in silence.

•••

I can’t remem­ber if it was that same night or the fol­low­ing night. It might have been the fol­low­ing night because I’m sure Chris had been talk­ing about see­ing the tall priest the night before. We didn’t make any­thing of it, in fact we mocked him for how thin the lie was. Think­ing back on it, he was gen­uine­ly upset.

Whichev­er night it was, I lay in bed awake, per­haps what Chris had said was more effec­tive than I want­ed to admit. It was late, I had lis­tened to my par­ents go to bed and pre­tend­ed to sleep as my broth­ers went to bed.

The house had been silent for over an hour before I couldn’t take it any­more and got out of bed. My room was at the back of the house and didn’t get quite as much light. The back gar­den was always dark, street light blocked off by build­ings at all sides.

The priest’s white face stared up at me. Grim and eye­less, an uncom­pro­mis­ing­ly dis­ap­prov­ing scowl glow­er­ing at me from the bar­ri­er of shad­ow. That face, his dog col­lar, and his hands crushed into fists float­ed in the dark­ness. I want­ed to turn away, I want­ed to scream. Being caught in his black glare stopped move­ment and sound. I have been mocked or con­de­scend­ed to through­out my life when­ev­er I describe this, one of my ex-wives laughed at me every time I men­tioned it. The fear and help­less­ness were shack­les, tight and unyielding.

I don’t know what the sig­nal was, but some­thing prompt­ed him to step away, the dark­ness swal­lowed him. Even as he retreat­ed, I could see the shad­ows where his eyes should have been, holes punched in the nor­mal dark­ness, for over a minute. I couldn’t move or make a sound before the deep­er dark­ness final­ly fad­ed. Unsteadi­ly, I went back to bed and wept until sleep came.

Unlike Chris, I didn’t recount my expe­ri­ence for fear of being mocked. The way he looked at me for the rest of that day, I could see he knew what I had seen. Just as the next day, we both knew that Nick had been visited.

By the end of the week, we had all seen the priest, glar­ing in at us through our bed­room windows.

•••

Sun­day arrived again, time, as always, ignor­ing all appre­hen­sions. The oth­ers had come around to Stevie’s and my thoughts on going to church. Even Bar­ry was will­ing to go back, in fact he was the first to bring it up after Ste­vie and myself made the suggestion.

I tried to be as qui­et and unas­sum­ing as I could while we got ready to go out. My moth­er was sur­prised by my deci­sion to return to the lat­er ser­vice. Peter’s sus­pi­cious­ness had only become stronger, he aggres­sive­ly glared at me and elbowed me in the shoul­der when nei­ther of my par­ents were watching.

Oth­er­wise, it was a nor­mal morn­ing prepar­ing to leave for mass. Until we got to the church. Instead of the groups of peo­ple chat­ting on the path to the build­ing, men stood in two for­mal groups at either side of the door. They all stared at me. One of them broke from the group as we entered the grounds and pulled my par­ents away.

“What have you done, you lit­tle shit?” Peter hissed in my ear.

I was too ter­ri­fied to react. My par­ents looked aghast at first. I will nev­er for­get the look my moth­er gave me after a few more moments, the fury and the ter­ror on her face. My father was stony-faced and held onto me, while my moth­er took Peter and Robert into the church.

The man sig­nalled my father to fol­low. We were led into the narthex, where Bar­ry, Nick, Ste­vie, Chris, and Edward wait­ed. Ste­vie was already cry­ing, and Chris looked as though he was about to join him. Nick looked scared but thought­ful and Edward looked con­fused. Bar­ry let a small smile escape before he saw us, and his expres­sion became neutral.

 I was cor­ralled with the oth­er boys while my father was led away. His fear and wor­ry hit me in such a deep way I want­ed cry out for him, but the expres­sions of the oth­er men stopped me.

The qui­et in the church was like noth­ing else I had expe­ri­enced. Only Stevie’s and Chris’s sobs inter­rupt­ed it. No one moved. No one looked at us. The entire con­gre­ga­tion faced the altar. The parish priest, Father Duf­fin, in full vest­ments, faced our direc­tion, but I got the impres­sion he wasn’t look­ing at us either.

“The Lord be with you,” he said, his voice crack­ling over the speakers.

“And also with you,” the con­gre­ga­tion said, the famil­iar reply. Even through my fear I almost joined in.

“Our bless­ing and our suc­cour have been for­sak­en.” I had nev­er heard this before.

“For­sak­en.” The reply was only tak­en up by a few of the assemblage.

“Let those who have turned their backs on us be brought forth. Let the Lord and Jesus Christ see them.”

With­out a fur­ther word, we were pushed, as one, onto the nave. As we were forced down the mid­dle of the church, I could feel the peo­ple around us try not to look. I couldn’t see my par­ents, but I saw Barry’s moth­er and father, watch­ing in bafflement.

We were lined up in front of the altar. My hands were cold, and I was shiv­er­ing. Even Ste­vie and Chris had stopped crying.

Father Duf­fin walked around the altar to us. It took me over twen­ty years to under­stand the expres­sion he wore in that moment. He was con­flict­ed. For what felt like hours he stud­ied us.

“I’m sor­ry,” he whis­pered. He addressed the whole church. “You have shirked your duties and tried to hide your sins. It is now Father Imbution’s task to deal with you.”

He took a step back and looked in the direc­tion of the sac­risty. The silence this time was com­plete. I couldn’t even hear my pound­ing heart, as it jud­dered against my ribs.

When it hap­pened, I knew what I was see­ing and hoped that I was wrong. The dis­tor­tion and resis­tance of the world, a sec­tion of the wall hid­ing the sac­risty twist­ed. More of the wall altered in shape, the straight lines warped out of align­ment. I heard gasps and mut­ters from the con­gre­ga­tion that were quick­ly smothered.

His eyes, like wounds in the world seemed to appear first. Seething dark­ness that was able to see into us. The painful way air and mason­ry had to shift, to recon­fig­ure to this entity’s pres­ence made me want to recoil. Again, all of my reac­tions were cir­cum­vent­ed, switched off and I was reduced to watch­ing Father Imbu­tion approach us.

Father Duf­fin bowed his head as Father Imbu­tion passed. Father Imbu­tion was two feet taller. I hadn’t expect­ed him to have such a tow­er­ing pres­ence. Now, being so phys­i­cal­ly close, I was over­whelmed by the weight of his dis­ap­proval, his bare­ly con­tained rage. Nei­ther his skin nor his hair looked real, both had a translu­cent qual­i­ty as though made from a jel­ly. Pale things whirled and quiv­ered beneath the unnat­ur­al skin. The thin line of his mouth was open, and I saw the dark blocks of his teeth grit­ted and work­ing back and forth.

“I have seen you in your sin and your deceit,” he said in a voice no human pos­sessed. It rang through parts of my mind and body, set­tling and con­geal­ing. “This sin stains you deep in your soul. You must show the Lord you are back on the path. You must show the Lord you are con­trite. A price must be paid.”

His words set­tled like poi­soned rain on me, seep­ing fur­ther into my being. I was drenched in his acidic procla­ma­tion and stran­gled to silence. Despite every­thing around Father Imbu­tion being tor­tured out of shape, there was no sound and he was still, like a still image from a children’s pro­gramme con­tain­ing a graph­ic atroc­i­ty. His pres­ence was smoth­er­ing and uncom­pro­mis­ing, even if my body hadn’t been paral­ysed, I was bereft of words.

“You want me,” Bar­ry said, voice clear and unwa­ver­ing. He stepped forward.

Even Father Duf­fin looked shocked. He shook his head in denial.

“You have the temer­i­ty to speak?” Father Imbu­tion said.

“It was my idea. I per­suad­ed my friends even when they didn’t want to do it,” Bar­ry said, unaf­fect­ed by the voice that sliced through me and held me in place like a but­ter­fly spec­i­men. He was smiling.

“You under­stand the price for such trespasses?”

Bar­ry answered by hold­ing out his hand. I want­ed to bat his hand way, pull him to the ground. There was noth­ing with­in me that could over­come the paral­y­sis. The paral­y­sis that Bar­ry some­how ignored.

Father Imbu­tion con­sid­ered the child’s prof­fered hand as though it were an alien thing of curi­ous design. His anger seemed to increase, his teeth were no longer grind­ing, and I could see some­thing pale grey roll and knot where a tongue should have been.

His long, thin fin­gers engulfed Barry’s slim, frag­ile hand. Where the strange skin touched it, Barry’s skin seemed to with­er, turn grey. Bar­ry didn’t react. He became so still, his face blank.

“You will come then,” Father Imbu­tion said and turned his atten­tion to us. “Con­fes­sion for the rest of you.”

He dragged Bar­ry away, back to the sac­risty and out of everyone’s life. Nei­ther Father Imbu­tion nor Bar­ry looked back. The dis­tor­tion around Father Imbu­tion extend­ed to engulf and include Bar­ry the fur­ther they went. My eyes watered in sting­ing pain before they went out of sight.

It would have been poet­ic to say there was noth­ing but silence in the church. There was no silence, the qui­et sob­bing sits in my mind when there is qui­et. I’m forced to lis­ten to my friends and adults I’d thought were immune to tears, sob in the wake of Father Imbution’s appearance.

Father Duf­fin looked stunned, he stared after the crea­ture and the boy. His mouth worked with vague dumb­ness. I had nev­er hat­ed any­one like I hat­ed him, his help­less expres­sion was a cat­a­lyst for cor­ro­sive rage my small body could bare­ly con­tain. There was noth­ing I could do, the unrea­son­able desire to lunge at him was quelled, not by my age, but by the weight of author­i­ty around me.

Some­one spoke behind me, ask­ing a ques­tion that broke Father Duffin’s trance. He nod­ded and we were dragged back into the pews to join our fam­i­lies. My broth­ers looked shocked and afraid — their teenage brava­do demol­ished by what had hap­pened. I saw no com­fort from my par­ents, nei­ther of them could look at me. A wall of tears tot­tered in my mother’s eyes and my father’s jaw was clenched and shuddering.

The mass that ensued was like a cas­cade of oblit­er­at­ing water. Much of the con­gre­ga­tion might have said it was puri­fy­ing, as the con­fu­sion and fear were scrubbed away by the famil­iar chants. I felt sul­lied, and I didn’t even under­stand such a concept.

No amount of call and response, script­ed wor­ship would unglue the ques­tions that filled my head. They scrab­bled like trapped rodents, claw­ing and scrap­ing for an escape.

“What’s going to hap­pen to Bar­ry?” I said when we were halfway home.

Nei­ther of my par­ents acknowl­edged me. They heard me. The mem­o­ry of them exchang­ing a glance is clear as that whole morn­ing. They stared ahead, fix­at­ed on get­ting home, with­out break­ing breath.

“Mum, Dad. What hap­pened to him?” my voice quiv­ered this time. Most of it was frus­tra­tion, but there was a shim­mer­ing halo of fear.

Silence reward­ed my per­sis­tence. I was dis­cour­aged from say­ing any­thing else by my father’s infu­ri­at­ed expres­sion. My moth­er sniffed, but she had turned enough to obscure whether she was crying.

Most of the rest of that day I spent in my room, sent in there the moment we got back home. Despite glow­er­ing at me when­ev­er he could, Peter avoid­ed me. Robert looked sad, he still does on the rare occa­sions we are all togeth­er, we have nev­er been close and that day it seemed we drift­ed further.

•••

No one would talk about it. I was the only one who showed any curios­i­ty about what we had all wit­nessed. Noth­ing I could do would get any­thing from them. Ste­vie was the first to stop talk­ing to any of us, he looked faint­ly afraid of us until we were split up fur­ther in sec­ondary school. Edward became dis­tant soon after almost as though he had been look­ing for an excuse to break away from us. Chris, ever the con­trar­i­an start­ed hang­ing around with a bunch of Protes­tant kids and became active­ly hos­tile to us. I couldn’t blame him or any of them for their reactions.

Only Nick and I would hang around with each oth­er until the end of pri­ma­ry sev­en. We might not have if Nick hadn’t become seri­ous a year after Barry’s dis­ap­pear­ance, he looked so much old­er than nine that day. I had been talk­ing about Bar­ry again, after his fam­i­ly moved away.

“You can’t keep doing this, Ger­ard,” he said.

I feigned igno­rance and stared at him blankly.

“We aren’t going to get answers. The ques­tions you keep ask­ing are just mak­ing peo­ple angry.” He sighed, as though he had seen the future. “If you keep going, you’ll end up alone. There’s already so much hap­pened. You have to let it go.”

I had no answer. No argu­ment. He was right, and I fol­lowed his advice for a while. It was well into sec­ondary school when I couldn’t con­tain it any­more. I won­der if we had been in the same friend group in the big­ger school, he might have been able to quell my need. Per­haps, instead of becom­ing indif­fer­ent, he would have devel­oped hatred for me. He’s the only one who still acknowl­edges me as an adult, nod­ding and smil­ing when we pass each oth­er in the street. The oth­ers might as well be strangers, I recog­nise them, but they look right through me.

Some­times it makes me won­der if I am an actu­al ghost.

#The moment I left home I stopped going to church, ignor­ing my mother’s nag­ging and cajol­ing. Even as a man over forty, I expect to see Father Imbu­tion again, wait­ing to pun­ish me for for­sak­ing the church. Per­haps I want to be punished.

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Con­tribut­ing Author

William Couper (he/him) is a writer from Scot­land. As well as hor­ror, he writes fan­ta­sy, and sci­ence fic­tion. He will even do some non-fic­tion when the fan­cy takes him and has had work appear on Gin­ger­nuts of Hor­ror. His fic­tion has fea­tured in antholo­gies includ­ing, Cthul­hu Lies Dream­ing, In the Blink of an Eye, and Built from Human Parts, as well as the peri­od­i­cals, Penum­bric Spec­u­la­tive Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, Cos­mic Hor­ror Month­ly, The Hor­ror Zine, Black Sheep Mag­a­zine and Schlock Webzine.

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