It was midnight on a Friday, and Stephen should have been writing his sermon.
He found himself easily distracted these days, though – something he attributed to the natural introspection of advancing age rather than forgetfulness – and instead of contemplating the nature of divine forgiveness he was staring at the new stained-glass window in his office. The figure of Mary at the foot of the cross reminded him of someone, and he doubted he’d be able to concentrate until he figured out who.
Stephen had been staring at the thing for days, ever since the workmen had put it up, and the answer still eluded him. She was different from the Madonna of his youth, all golden curls and roses in her cheeks. No, this Mary was perhaps more correct, with a sable tangle of hair and a pale, olive cast to her skin. She seemed more real than the blonde, porcelain doll image, as if any moment she would toss back her hair and …
Oh. Ellie, he thought. She looked just like Eleanor. Older, to be sure, her face worn with cares Eleanor had never shouldered, but her all the same. I haven’t thought about her in years, Stephen realized. That was deliberate, of course. She’d been the reason he’d entered the seminary – or rather, her disappearance. He had nearly forgotten the hectic trauma, the years of indecision and self-doubt that drove him to seek comfort in the Lord. The police had stopped contacting him with updates at least thirty years ago, long after “missing” had been modified to include “presumed dead”, and between the lack of reminders and the nature of the priesthood, her memory had faded into a wisp of smoke.
Stephen began to gather his papers. He knew he’d get no work done in that room, with Ellie, tear-stained and broken, looking over his shoulder. He was locking the door to his office when he heard a faint sound from the main doors at the other end of the church. They were old wood, heavy and thick, and tended to muffle any ambient noise, so he decided to check. It wouldn’t be the first time some desperate girl left her newborn on the steps, and it was better he find out sooner than later.
The sound grew louder the closer he came, more distinct – a pounding, like someone trying to shove the door open. The neighborhood around the church had been declining steadily for years, but Stephen didn’t think anyone would try to break in. He knew most of the families within five blocks, and they were good people.
He wavered with indecision at the door, unsure whether opening it would be too big a risk. Then his eyes fell on the door’s carving of Christ on the cross. He cross himself and whispered, “In manuas tuas, Domine,” before opening the door.
A breathless woman tumbled in, tattered and dirty. “Close the door, close the door!” she demanded, scrambling away from it on her hands and knees.
Stephen obliged, locking it conspicuously to assuage her fears. Turning, he began in his most calming, grandfatherly tone, “My child, what brings -” but stopped when he realized she had traveled the length of the chapel and was now behind the pulpit, clutching the wall-sized crucifix like a life preserver.
He approached her slowly, like a potentially violent dog. Her eyes were wide with terror, flying around the room as if expecting to find assassins in every corner. As Stephen got closer, he could see how ragged she really was. At some point, her dress had perhaps been white. Now it was torn, dirty, stained with something that looked like blood and somewhat singed in several places.
There wasn’t a mark on her, though. And she was muttering to herself quietly, partially in English but mostly in a language he didn’t recognize – something tongue-twisting and violent. What he could catch made no sense at all: “The Bishop’s men, and how did they find -”, “He hid it, I know when but not where!” and something about a “fire eating the snake”.
Suddenly, her eyes rested on Stephen and she seemed to see him for the first time. She froze and went silent as a look of shock crossed her face. “You’re safe here,” Steven said, holding out his hands to beckon her down.
The woman shook her head. “Sanctuary? Do you still do that, sanctuary?”
Stephen smiled gently. “What do you need sanctuary from, my child?”
“No,” she said, “She can’t come here, she believes.” She looked calmer, though still likely to shatter at a loud noise.
“Will you come down?” Stephen asked. “I won’t do anything you don’t want.”
Her grip loosened from Christ’s feet and she stepped nimbly down, smoothing the ruin of her dress with trembling hands. “I know,” she said quietly. “I only need a moment.” Her hair was a dark, matted tangle, and though she did her best to wrench it into submission she still resembled Medusa more than anything else.
“May I call the police?” he asked.
She shook her head fiercely. Stephen nodded to show that he had understood, and simply waited. He’d often found silence did more than even the best-placed question ever could. The fact that he seemed to resemble every grandfather in the world certainly didn’t hurt, either.
It wasn’t working. She was pacing, slowly moving farther from him, her lips moving frantically but silently as she gestured wildly.
Eventually, even Stephen’s patience wore thin. “What happened to you?”
She froze again, as though she’d forgotten he was standing there. Staring at him with startling concentration, she crept within five feet before coming to another unnaturally still halt. Her gaze never wavered, until Stephen began to feel uncomfortable with her intensity. “Can you keep a secret?” she whispered.
Stephen forced himself to smile and answer calmly, “I’m a priest. We take confessions to the grave.”
She nodded once, then sighed. “I will not ask you to forgive me, Father. I know my sins too well. I left my – not my father. An old friend. I left him alone tonight. I needed to get a … a drink? Supper.” She began pacing again, now slow and deliberate. “He and …” she paused. “An old acquaintance. They had an argument.”
Her fingers raked through her hair. “I should have been there! I didn’t think she’d try anything, not when everyone knew she was there, when she’d be the first suspect!”
Stephen resisted the urge to break in with a homily about responsibility. She wasn’t quite making sense, but at least she was speaking in English.
“But a fire? A fire?” The woman was crying now, her voice broken. “What can I do without him? He didn’t tell me everything I need to know.” She seemed to collapse into herself; as though she’d used all the words she had in her and now had nothing to support herself. Stephen waited for a long moment before he moved slowly towards her.
“Are you saying this … friend? That this woman set a fire in your father’s home?”
She didn’t answer, and he shifted ever closer. He was quite near to her now; he could see that the rusty splotches on her dress were, in fact, blood. And fresh enough to glisten in the low light. “Is he dead? Did she kill him?”
The woman flew at him, too fast to be seen, her face a mask of rage. He slammed into the pulpit, her nails digging into his shoulders as she screamed, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know! I ran, I saw the smoke and I ran, and I – don’t – know!”
Stephen was terrified, barely able to breathe. He could feel his heart constricting in his chest, an erratic pain that sharpened his senses. And somehow, for the first time, he really looked at the woman who was now screaming at him, at herself, at God, in a fury he’d never seen before.
He heard her sob as he lost consciousness.