Ghost Town

T.R. North 

It was only a week after they murdered the priest that he came back to the church. He opened the doors and let himself in with no fanfare, and only the narrow trail of river-slime that traced his progress through the street spoke to things being amiss. Congregants watched him as he climbed into the pulpit, all of them goggle-eyed and silent as he began to hold mass.

The junkie, Maria, who had been a pianist before she’d fallen from grace, was the first to recover. Her full name, so far as the neighborhood was concerned, was Five-Dollar Maria, but in the church she was simply Maria because the priest would not permit discourtesy to a child of God in the face of the carved wooden crucifix. She went to the organ and began playing a soft, mournful melody—one of the first she’d learned, as a child, almost a dirge—to go with the priest’s words, and eventually everyone else gave in to instinct and took to the pews.

The last to fall in were the prosecutors, who were irritated with the priest for returning like this. People had finally been outraged enough to testify—had almost been outraged enough to turn vigilante, but of course the prosecutors didn’t want it to go that far—in a neighborhood where sudden and mysterious bouts of blindness in the face of crime were the order of the day.

It was one thing to murder a thief or a dealer or even a grocer who’d been well enough liked and kind but after all had owed the pimps money, but it had been something else, it turned out, to murder a priest. That the murderers had been policemen hadn’t dimmed the prosecutors’ zeal one whit. The cops who patrolled the slums infuriated the district attorney by flouting laws and collecting bribes in the open and thumbing their noses at the idea that they could be punished, which was a very different thing than the DA deciding that they would not be punished.

If the priest had been alive, a miraculous survivor of an attempted murder who could stare down his assailants in open court and tell the jury what they’d done to him, it would have been one thing. But his robes were dripping and his hair was matted with algae and his face was the color of fish scales, and if there was one thing the prosecutors could not do, it was swear in a dead man to point to the policemen who’d cuffed him to a cinderblock and thrown him from a footbridge and say, “They killed me.” The judge wouldn’t permit it, for one thing, and the jury would be affronted, and the defense attorneys would immediately call for a mistrial.

Maybe they could have done it a century ago, if the priest had agreed to expire permanently as soon as he’d testified; there were a few folksaints who’d done something similar. But these days, with stenographers recording the whole thing and artists sketching it and reporters who’d talk about it on the evening news, it wouldn’t be borne. The priest had the look of a man who intended to stick around for a while, a glint in his bulging eyes that spoke of a man who’d turned his back on heaven because his work on earth wasn’t finished.

Maria thought that maybe that glint meant he’d been refused entrance instead of being the one to refuse. She’d had that happen to her once, though her doctors had told her it was the work of her dying brain, oxygen-starved neurons tricking her into a revelation while the EMTs worked to resuscitate her. She’d turned to heroin to forget about it, or at least distract herself from it, and it had mostly worked. She hadn’t thought about it in years until she’d met the priest’s gaze and known that look.  He had always been kind to her, though, and she didn’t intend to betray his secret.

The rest of the congregants had settled down by the time it came to hand out the wafers. They’d been riled up, ready to find the cops who’d killed their priest and do for them if the prosecutors couldn’t promise a conviction. It had been a little much for the prosecutors, who understood and hated the way the police wouldn’t respect them but who also couldn’t abide by the thought of the mob seizing even a crumb of power back from the state.

It set a bad precedent, they said. It was a slap in the face of law and order, they said.  Only the government was allowed to rein in its misfit children, they said.

With the priest back, he was already being demoted from ‘their priest’ back to just ‘the priest,’ the man from Ghana who’d asked for a difficult assignment to prove his devotion and been surprised to be posted in a developed country.

It likely helped that the locals hadn’t known what to make of him even before he’d come trudging out of the river in his sodden clothes and disintegrating sandals. He’d been kind and good-humored and impervious to intimidation and utterly convinced that God would either protect him from retribution for calling out the unjust or reward him for his suffering in the afterlife, and there had been no one like him in a generation. The native saints and prophets the neighborhood produced were bitter as the soil in which they grew, bitter as Samuel chastising Saul in the witch’s hut. The foreign priest had been a strange thing, and the dead priest transubstantiating crackers into Christflesh was a strange thing, and at the end of the day they had only traded one oddity for another.

The women poaching crawfish off the banks—better to risk the pollution than to surely starve—who’d seen him first had been in no position to call the authorities even in the event that they could’ve been trusted not to just put him back in again. It had been simpler to lay hands on a pair of tinsnips and cut the plastic binding the priest’s hands around the heavy cement block and go back to fishing when he went back to walking than it had been to question the opacity of God’s plan. Their report of it was easily condensed into a not-quite-casual, not-quite-whispered, “Did you hear the priest’s back?”, and it spread in its own garbled way from street corner to street corner as quickly as the priest returned to his church.

By the time word had reached the neighborhood’s borders and echoed back along the train tracks and powerlines, invisible but impermeable demarcations between plenty and poverty, a spontaneous decision had been made pertaining to the priest’s memorials. A few had been stripped of their votives now that he was demonstrably in no position to intercede with God for anyone, but the majority had been redoubled, decked now with blue candles and blue flowers and fervent prayers for the other people lost to the river. It was a convenient and trustworthy—and therefore popular—place for depositing the tell-tale dead, in addition to the occasional unlucky child, drunk, or fisherman against whom no one but fate bore any ill-will, and it had served as a second graveyard for the neighborhood since the city’s founding.  The priest seemed as likely and economical a patron saint for those souls as anyone else, and so the slum was more than happy to shift the burden onto his shoulders.

The police much preferred the people they disappeared to stay disappeared until they’d at least begun drawing their pensions. Even there, though, the reaction was far from consistent. Those less plagued by imagination or conscience could not see significant harm in one man returning to his post after being discarded as an impediment to the constabulary, while everyone else saw him as a harbinger, the first starling of a flock. They had leisure to debate the issue at length due primarily to the fact that the people who’d hoped to form a posse and hadn’t been parishioners also hadn’t felt the need to wait while the priest gave his first mass since his death, and spent the time more productively by driving the men responsible for his murder from the parish with rocks, bottles, and whatever else was ready to hand.

No one was much assured by Maria carefully tidying the priest once the service was done, and her attempts to make him more presentable only served to highlight the way his skin had begun to slip around the edges and his anger had stamped deep and true into his features.

It was a few more days before anything of note happened, except that Maria moved into the rectory when it became clear that the priest had no more need of sleep or food but did need someone to keep him in fresh clothes and sweep away the petals as they dropped from offerings suddenly overflowing the transept. The cleaning woman who might have done it had fainted when she heard about the priest’s murder and then, gripped by some premonition of things to come, had fled the city.

The priest preached as he had before the river, crying “Usury!” to the check-cashers and “Charity!” to the bail bondsmen and “Mercy!” to the landlords, and they received his sermons in much the same way as before, except with an added air of unease. They looked not at the priest, who might show some uncanny sign of his time submerged and besides could not be reasoned with except by a show of repentance, but at the loiterers and passersby around them. These were their fellow sinners, people who might acknowledge the ridiculousness of their situation, this novelty of being harangued over petty sins by a man refused by God. No one would meet their eyes, though, each determined to turn his back on his neighbor and have his neighbors’ backs turned on him when his time came. It was not, they said with their hurried steps and their hunched shoulders and their dropped eyes, their business.

It could not go on forever, and on the fourth night, the police returned to the slum as if nothing had happened. They were circumspect, for policemen in the slum, but that did not stop the priest from bursting from the church, standing in the road in front of their car, and shouting “Murderers!” at them with his full, deep voice, which the river had not been able to drown after all. They were not the policemen who had thrown him off the bridge, but, all the same, he wasn’t wrong in his accusation. They were murderers, and hearing the accusation leveled against them in that voice, in that place, touched them to the quick.

They had emptied their guns into the priest before they realized that it was no good. The bullets struck him but did not seem to hurt him, and the people who had all week steadfastly refused to see the men the priest chastised now stared from alleys and half-boarded windows.  The priest neither bled nor cried out in pain, but kept shouting “Murderers!  Idolaters!  Perjurers!” and listing all of their sins as if they were no more than gnats to be ignored or swept aside.

They did as they always did, and tried to call for backup, only to find that Maria had doused the car with gasoline and was striking a match. By the light of the flames, the neighborhood could see that she was untroubled and serene. The policemen had spent all their bullets on the uncaring priest, and there would be no braving the fire to reach her, not with so many eyes glittering in the darkness, throwing the light of their burning patrol car back at them, hungry in the way of flash floods and sinkholes and tornadoes.

They fled on foot, and they did not make it back to the station.

The next day brought a blackout, and so Maria sat on the sidewalk in the sun to mend the holes in the priest’s robes. People who’d seen everything that happened but thought, between the heat and the darkness, that it felt too much like a fever dream to be real came and slid their fingers through the cloth and examined the gunpowder burns as she worked.  Whenever she shook her head at their questions, ashes fell from her singed hair, which hung around her now like a curtain, and she only told them that they were late for mass.

The parishioners, ranks swollen with the curious and the angry and the inspired, took wine warm as blood and could taste river-silt in the host. It sat heavy and metallic on their tongues, and when the water was cut off along with the electricity, it did not occur to any of them not to go down to the banks with pails and drums and buckets to draw what they needed when tanks and cisterns ran dry.

It had not at first been a matter of note—the power failed and the water stopped flowing every so often in the heat and in the droughts, siphoned to parts of the city which could pay more or whose lines were less corroded. Before they might have called the aldermen, or the power company, or the number on the back of the last bill they’d paid. But the police had not been back since that night, and their calls were cut short the moment they described their location, and so they knew that at long last they had been abandoned, the neighborhood the mayor had once called a weeping sore excised from the city’s face. Riots could be quelled. Protesters could be jailed or, in extreme straits, listened to. But there was no dealing with dead men publishing the state’s wrongdoing to an audience of people it would not admit to the ballot or the workhouse.

The river gave where men wouldn’t, though, its waters rising to meet every need, and it seemed only natural to Maria, when she asked to be baptized, that it be in the same place which had given her this calling. She went back to the spot where the priest had emerged, greeted the women with their nets and their pots, and followed the priest into the murk.

She was the first, her previous life carried to the sea by the sluggish current, reborn to something greater than she’d been before there, ankle-deep in the weeds and slime and cold hands on her shoulders and that deep voice calling to God to witness his works. There was a steady parade to come after, though, and when the people who followed the priest came back out of the water, they knew themselves to be different, no longer of the earth. They knew themselves to be holy. They knew themselves to carry a salvation as old and certain as the tide, and just as unforgiving.

T.R. North was born and raised in Florida and has never been featured in a “News of the Weird” column run in another state. Follow @northonthegulf for more news.