The Reverend’s decline began the day his son died. Or perhaps, even before that.
He looked upon the still form of his son, the steady rise and fall of the boy’s chest slower and shallower with each passing second. He had watched, safe in the knowledge that the Lord was watching over them, so content in his faith that he had missed that final concluding breath. He could not, to this day, even tell himself what he had been expecting; a great light, the flutter of angel wings, perhaps the tender brush of Joseph’s spirit as he had departed this world for good. What he had felt was… nothing.
The child’s finale had been so anti-climactic that the Reverend Arnold Thomas had not even noticed the boy was dead until perhaps ten minutes later. Arnold Thomas, an ordained priest of the Anglican church had not noticed the passing of his own son.
He expected the grief; he had been expecting that from the moment he had seen the car speed around the corner just as Joseph was crossing the road. They lived along a quiet residential street with hardly any cars on the road except around nine am and three pm when school let out. It was eleven thirty when Joseph stepped into the road.
He wasn’t of school age, you see. He was four years old, and his mother had kept him out of nursery, instead opting to keep him home until he turned five and was ready for reception years. After all, “what could a nursery teach the boy that his mother couldn’t?” Lillian, the Reverend’s wife would say casually, firmly ending the discussion when friends would ask her why he wasn’t in nursery getting covered in paint and mixing with the other little boys and girls. The real reason why little Joseph wasn’t in nursery was a lot more complex, and it wasn’t something the Reverend would ever say out loud, not even to his dear wife. Lillian had kept Joseph as close to her as she possibly could ever since the day of his birth, and the reason why could be summed up in just four words; Joseph was her baby.
Lillian had received distressing news towards the end of her pregnancy; their unborn child was sharing her womb with a dark, malignant growth. They induced the labour early, after several scans and samples from the tumour, in order to try and save both mother and baby.
The Reverend remembered sitting that night in the front pew of the church, his church. He sat so still through the night that a rat skittered boldly across the floor not two feet away from where he was sitting, the rat probably did not even realise he was sitting there. Or perhaps it did not deem the frail, frozen man a threat. This rat was carrying the corpse of a much smaller one, its own offspring most likely, and leaving a trail of dark clotted blood in its wake. His initial disgust was immediately accompanied by the firm reminder that leapt to the forefront of his mind – God loves all creatures. The thick rope of the rat’s tail brushed across the ground as it walked, the only sound in the absolute silence of the church and the reverend had to clench his teeth against the rising revulsion at the low scraping sound of it.
God loves all creatures. The Reverend let the rat go about its business undisturbed.
The following day God answered his prayers and in his secret mind, the Reverend believed his acceptance of the rat played a part in that. His baby was delivered by caesarean section and both mother and baby were perfectly fine. The surgeons had removed the tumour in Lillian’s womb and they were confident for her cancer-free future. But there would be no more children born from the womb of one Mrs. Lillian May Thomas. She was left sterile.
“But we have Joseph.” She would say bravely, her eyes gleaming with pride and something wildly close to panic.
The new born baby lived in her arms as soon as he was released from the special care unit, Arnold would sometimes catch her glaring at him out of the corner of his eye if he dared to hold the child for too long, as if to say, “that’s enough now, Arnold, it is my baby after all.” If he dared to put the boy in his cot there would be more than a glare, “Can’t you see he needs me, Arnold!” She would snap angrily at the infant’s cries. “He needs me…!”
The Reverend learned quickly that it was best to leave her to it. Pretty soon, the baby would not settle for anyone but his mother and should Arnold try to hold him or play with him, the boy would squeal and sob for Lillian. She would take Joseph out of Arnold’s arms, crooning wordlessly at him with that little self-satisfied smile. Yes, I am his mother that smile would say, I am his mother, and he needs me.
So, Joseph William Thomas did not attend one of the five local state nurseries, or the three private ones. Instead, Lillian would sit down at the kitchen table with him for two hours every day and teach him the basics of drawing, reading and writing. They did crafts and messy play, had long walks outdoors in the muddy forest, spent whole days at the park with jam sandwiches and ice cream if the van should happen to come by that day.
In six months, however, the boy was due to start his reception year at school. Lillian would stiffen up whenever it was mentioned. The Reverend had to bite the inside of his cheeks to keep from grinning hysterically at the thought of her dropping the boy off every morning and having to leave him there without her. It was a sadistic thought, and God would probably punish him for finding his wife’s pain amusing, no matter how warped and obsessive the woman had become. It was something that wasn’t spoken of, much like the fact that Lillian still breastfed the four-year-old boy before bed and when he was very upset.
The Reverend did not ever pray for his wife; the truth of the matter was he was not sure what he should pray for. Sanity? His or hers, he would wonder sardonically, then had to mentally flog himself for making light of the situation. He would sometimes pray for the strength to do what was right by his wife and son, but he knew he could not ask the Lord what exactly was right or wrong; that was something he had to figure out for himself.
The day the car mowed down little Joseph Thomas was one of those rare days when Lillian would let the boy out of her sight. His wife had come down with one of her migraines and they both knew that if she didn’t lie down in a dark room she would soon get very sick with it, so Arnold got the boy’s shoes on and promised him a chocolate bar from the corner shop if he would leave mummy alone for the afternoon. Joseph countered with a request for a trip to the playground and it was so rare for the boy to ask Arnold to take him anywhere that he agreed almost at once. The idea of taking Joseph to the park and pushing him high on the swings and letting him climb up the jungle gym without Lillian shrieking and snatching him down again was very exciting.
Perhaps it was the little taste of freedom that he got with Arnold as opposed to his doting mother had made the boy a little reckless that day. Or perhaps for once he was feeling confident, after all dad was going to let him try and climb the jungle gym with the other little boys and then they were going for a chocolate bar, and mum was not going to spoil the fun, no sir, not this time. Whatever it was that caused it, Joseph was more reckless that day. He didn’t stop and wait at the curb for daddy to come and guide him safely across the road. Instead, he stepped off and was halfway across the road when the car came swerving around the corner. Arnold heard the squeal of its tires and could smell burning rubber on the warm spring breeze. The boy had not heard a thing; he was so lost in his plans for the playground and busy deciding what he would like to go on first that he didn’t hear the car. He didn’t see the flash of sunlight reflecting off its windows either because his back was turned.
Reverend Arnold Thomas blinked when the sharp reflection of the sunlight stung his eyes, that coupled with the squeal of the tires brought a dizzying sense of panic over him. He could hear his heart hammering in his chest, could taste the blood rushing cold and fast through his wrists and pulse points. He called out to Joseph when he stepped into the road unaccompanied, but it had been a vague sort of reprimand without any real urgency; simply a ‘don’t do it next time, boy’ and not much more than that. But as the car rounded the corner at a speed far greater than the approved limit of the road, he called out for his son loudly, to warn him.
If the Reverend had not called out to the boy so panic-stricken, Joseph would not have stopped a foot away from the other side of the road; he would not have turned back to his dad with his little hands tucked neatly into the pockets of his freshly ironed chinos, his eyes wide in fear of a good telling off. Perhaps, if the Reverend had not called out, the boy would have made it safely across the road before the car came hurtling down it. It was a question that had haunted Arnold for three years.
But the Reverend did call out, his panic blind yet vibrant; his body alive and twitching with the surge of adrenaline that would be of no use to him.
It was quick, at least.
Joseph looked up at the wild call of his name, wide-eyed and paused. The next moment he was snatched savagely beneath the ford, and Arnold heard the sickening crunch of bone on tarmac beneath the rubber wheel with a clarity that would now haunt him every night after when sleep eluded him. He was reminded of that old kid’s story… “I’ll grind his bones to make my bread…” What was that from? Something to do with goats? Surely not. It occurred to him in a very detached way that he had not spent very much time reading anything other than the bible to his son.
The car was off and over the broken body of the little boy, it sped off down their quiet little residential road and was not seen again.
Arnold threw himself to his knees beside his son; his throat closed with the threat of thick, salty terror. The boy’s arm was bent awkwardly, and his back didn’t look right – indented along his lower spine. He looked longer than he had been, taller somehow, stretched. There was not a lot of blood, a little dribble on his face from the gravel of the road, but he was pale, too pale. His head was turned to the side, facing his father and he was blinking disjointedly. It was the smell that would always stay with the Reverend, the smell of blood and urine mixed with faeces where the boy had let go of his bowels in fear or pain or both. “Fee-fi-fo-fum…” Arnold thought, as he recounted that moment and shuddered. “I smell the blood of an Englishman.”
He expected tears from Lillian, he expected grief. He could hear the echo of her in his head, “You see, he needed me!”
But she didn’t say it. She merely stared at the broken body of her son and nodded silently when the doctor explained that they had done all that they could possibly do, and it was time to say goodbye to the boy; their son.
Lillian had placed a single chaste kiss on Joseph’s cheek and then left the room and left the hospital. She could not sit and watch him go.
The Reverend stayed. He muttered random sections of scripture to his son, sermons he had never gotten to preach to the boy. He held his delicate little hand, perhaps the only part of his body left undamaged save for a small red hangnail on his thumb. He told him that he loved him. That had seemed enough.
Then he waited.
He had expected the grief and the sadness. The loss, after all, was a great one. To have his child so rudely and ruthlessly ended. But what the Reverend had not expected was the anger that came with the loss. Not anger at the driver of the car that killed his son, not anger at himself for calling out to the boy, not yet. This first, raw uncensored wave was directed at God.
“How could you?” He sobbed, still holding that small four-year-old hand, a hand that would never get any bigger, would never outgrow that infant chubbiness around its knuckles.
Indeed, how could the Lord take something as precious as a child? It was a timeless question of religion. When others at the church asked him about death his response had always been sympathetic and kind, “it was his time to go,” he would say to his flock. “The Lord needed to bring him home.”
There was no sympathy in him now. No faith. Only black hatred. He had braved the presence of the rat for a successful birth of the boy, but had that simply been a mistake? Had the child not been meant to be born? He could not believe that. “You gave me my son, and now you’ve snatched him back!” He wailed, as the attendant’s knocked hesitantly on the door to this room of death.
The doctor pronounced the boy officially dead after what felt like an age, and Arnold Thomas sat wordlessly, staring at the small body of the boy as they covered him over with a sheet and disconnected him from the machines that had been no help in the end. Officially dead, he remembered thinking. Without the doctors say so, would the boy have still had a chance of life? And what gave the doctor the power to make that decision. They should have declared him officially dead hours before when they told Arnold and Lillian quite calmly that their son would not make it through the night. Time to say goodbye, they said, their voices laced with sympathy. But they forgot to finish the sentence, Arnold thought. Time to say goodbye… before we make it official.
That night he was back in the church, in the front row exactly where he had sat four and a half years previously and prayed for the safe delivery of his son, and a successful operation for his wife. This time, he stared up at the statue of Christ and he could not find a prayer within him, not a word nor a sentence. Not even a line of scripture to recite. There was only the roiling black anger, a great weight lying heavy on his shoulders, so palpable it was almost a real presence, a beast clinging to his back with its arms slowly tightening around his throat.
The church was dark; he hadn’t bothered to light any candles or lamps. It was late, he had come here straight from the hospital, after making a phone call to Lillian at home, “It’s official, my love, your son is dead.”
The anger had caused the faith to waver. Or perhaps waver was not the right word. His faith crumbled like a burning incense stick, his belief came away in ashen chunks and fell to the ground shattering to nought but dust. Once the foundations of his faith had begun to crumble, it was only a matter of time before the rest of it came tumbling down to join the dusty remains of his son, dead and buried now for three long years.
The death of their son had done quite the opposite for his late wife and she had turned more fully to God, seeking solace in His teachings and the knowledge that Joseph was safe and at peace with the Lord in Heaven, amen.
For Arnold, Joseph’s death had been a catalyst. He continued his work for the church, but his heart was no longer in it. He often found himself before the congregation, halfway through a sermon and the words would catch in his throat like a bitten tongue. They would all look up at him, his flock, with their faces bright and alive with belief and love and expectancy; they were hungry for his words, hungry for his advice to how they should live their lives. More than once he had wanted to scream at them all, “Sheep! The lot of you – sheep!” He would feel that bubble of hysteria building in his chest and he wanted to shout obscenities just to see what they would do, how they would react.
Instead he would choke on his insanity, double over with heaving chesty coughs and Lillian would rush up beside him to take over the sermon while he went to fetch a glass of soothing cold water.
Arnold watched her deliver those sermons, the blind devotion written across her face unnerved him. More because of his own crumbling devotion than anything else, but partly because she would constantly bring Joseph into her preaching, she would mention him every time without fail. But she would not speak a word about the boy to her husband in private at home. Not once had they held each other in their grief, not once had they even spoke of the boy. They cried in separate rooms at first, when the grief was still too fresh to keep the tears at bay for long. Arnold knew that she blamed him, whether she would ever admit it or not, and he also blamed himself. He was reckless that day, and he lay awake many a night replaying that moment over and over, he would see his son’s blank staring eyes in his dreams and the putrid smell of blood, urine and faeces haunted him. Fee-fi-fo-fum.
Arnold was aware of his many faults, and those of his wife. What he was not aware of was the darkness that had wormed its way into his soul that day when the anger had been so fierce, so black. The day his foundations had begun to crumble, he had welcomed something more than rage into his spirit; he had welcomed the seeds of madness.
The hour was late, and these memories had driven him back out to the church, yet again, as they had done on so many nights in the past three years when sleep backfired. Only this time, something more than his fitful dreams had drawn him here. In a few minutes time one of his last thoughts would be that perhaps it had been God who had brought him here, or maybe some kind of precognition had made him yearn for the safety of the church.
That familiar pew beckoned him like an old friend and he sat delicately down, quietly, so as not to disturb the rat that frequented these pews when the church was deserted. He had seen that little guy many a time over the years, marching to-and-fro, busy with his own work. He often wondered what had become of the corpse it had been carrying that first time but decided that that was something better left unknown.
He sat before that old statue of Christ, with a stern frown and a heavy heart. Lillian had been dead now for four months. She had killed herself, of course, and Arnold had not been wholly surprised when the police had phoned him that afternoon with some bad news. She had not been herself for a lot of years. Not since the cancer, he mused. He wondered if when the surgeons had scraped away the rotting cells in her womb that day whether they had realised they were scraping away her womanhood and a little piece of her sanity too. She had always wanted a whole brood of children and had ended up carrying only one and a lump of disease. That, he mused, was when the cracks had started to appear; the day she had her womb mostly removed. Whatever they had done to her woman’s core had scarred her sanity as well.
Lillian went to her grave a mother without a child. She ended her own life sure in the knowledge that she would be reunited with Joseph, and perhaps reunited with her womanhood also, despite knowing that suicide would have taken her down not up.
Arnold made all the appropriate phone calls, he looked grave and sad when the moment called for such emotion, and he had buried his wife. But what he felt was not despair but regret and a bewildering sense of relief. He welcomed the loneliness.
So here he sat, minutes before the end of his own life, alone and tormented by the absent ghosts of his wife and son. Arnold looked down between the feet of Jesus Christ and spotted his little friend and he knew he had been expected.
The rat was greying with age, its bristly fur no longer thick and black but patched and faded. One of its eyes had been lost in its lifetime, there was only a twisted scar along the socket now. It’s one good eye glowed faintly in the dim moonlight, a beacon of crimson in the dark.
“Hello, old friend.” Arnold said loudly, his voice echoing in the deserted hall. “Come to see me off?” He asked cheerfully.
The rat eyed him cautiously, tasting the air with its twitching nose. It waited until all was still and silent again before moving, the animal was cautious by nature but even more so since losing its eye. While Arnold had taken special notice of the rat over the years, the rat had hardly noticed him. It had been much too busy with its own work gathering nesting materials, hunting food, to notice that the same human sat and watched it at work now and then. Truth be told, there wasn’t all that much work for this rat to do these days; much like Arnold’s dead wife, the rat was now sterile. She was alone haunting the church. She took no notice of the still, quiet human that sometimes sat on the bench late in the night.
When all was still and silent again, the rat started back on its path. It’s movements, that Arnold would once have described as a scurry, were now slow and shuffling. The rat was as old and mangled as Arnold felt. He, himself, had shuffled into the church this night, short of breath and acutely aware of the tight ache in his chest.
The heart attack was in full swing now, but still he managed to stay still while the rat went about its business. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and the pain was spreading from the centre of his chest to his shoulders and arms. His jaw felt stiff and foreign, his head was starting to spin from the depletion of oxygen in his blood and still he refused to move. There was one last thing he needed to do before he, too, departed this world on the heels of his wife and son; before it became official at least.
Sharp bursts of white hot agony sizzled through his chest and into his abdomen. In his delirium he was suddenly sure that this was Lillian, somehow transmitting her cancer to him from beyond the grave. He wanted to laugh but held firm as the rat neared. In the seven years since the birth of his son Arnold had watched that rat track back and forth through his church, dragging its thick grubby pink tail behind it, like a scabby umbilical cord. Back then it had come within two feet of him. It was not as weary as it once was; sometimes, it would brush its bristling fur across the leather of his shoe. Today, this night, as it heaved its thick body sluggishly across the ground, Arnold felt a giddy elation rise up from beneath the pain in his chest. The rat was slow, and it came close, and Arnold would finally take some proactive action at the end of his own miserable life.
It was alongside his shoe now, close but still watchful. He waited. Another moment, another tightening in his throat, one less breath. When its body was mostly past his foot and its sightless eye hole was the only thing that flashed at him, he made his move. There was not much air left in his lungs, but there was plenty of weight under his feet these days; Arnold stamped on the rat that had been a persistent unwelcome presence since the first dark hour.
The thing squealed, sounding sickeningly human as it arched back and snapped at his shoe with sharp little teeth. He had hoped the first hurt would be the last, but the rat was surprisingly resilient. He stumbled as his addled brain pondered what best be done next to finish the job and the rat zipped out from under his shoe, moving faster than it had in years.
Arnold wanted to shout at the thing, to grab it and murder it with his bare hands, but it was quick with adrenaline, and he was slow with the ensuing cardiac arrest. Worse still, as he fell to his knees watching it escape, he was suddenly sure he was looking at his son instead. The rat, too, had a new curve to its spine and it looked stretched and thinner since the accident that squashed it.
“I just killed my son.” He mumbled distantly.
He was looking at Joseph’s head of thick hair, black with blood, and his curved, crushed spine. The fat pink tail of the rat made him think of the protruding umbilical stump that had come off in Arnold’s hand as he strapped a diaper around that chubby infant’s waist all those years ago.
In his mind Arnold could hear Lillian’s voice as clear as day, “Do you see, Arnold, he needs me.”
Arnold Thomas died, kneeling before the statue of Christ, laughing breathlessly in his departing madness and wondering why the rat should live after such a crushing blow when the boy had died. The rat stared intently at the dead Reverend for a moment longer before scampering off, back to its nest to lick its wounds and live a little while longer.
© Emma Stead