by David Leo Rice
Last year our town finally shuttered the Church. Momentum had been growing for a long time beforehand, maybe as long as I’d been living there, maybe as long as anyone had. The will to move on from ancient religion had been growing and growing in the mind of the people, but the fact that the Mayor actually did it was seen by almost everyone, both for and against, as a landmark event. There were no voices in the middle claiming this wouldn’t impact life as we’d lived it up until then. And if there had been any claiming this, they would have been dead wrong.
As soon as the Mayor’s delegation forced the priests, bishops, altar boys, penitents, and parishioners out onto the street one Sunday morning in September, and gave them the choice between remaining in town as lay-people or moving on as pilgrims, we could feel something in the ground beneath our feet begin to shift, like the spirit of the planet itself had been shaken awake, for better or worse.
Op-eds and testimonials ran in the Daily Citizen’s Gazette for weeks thereafter, arguing about the rectitude of the Mayor’s decision, not to mention the harshness of her means of implementing it, but no writer dared take on the deeper issue at stake, namely that of whether the God who’d been worshipped in that cold stone enclosure over so many centuries had ever existed, nor what the answer to that question might imply for the future we had all now stepped into together.
For my part, all I wanted was peace in the here and now. The possibility of another life, of heaven or hell or eternity of any sort, did not figure into my way of thinking. I merely hoped to get through my few decades in the town I happened to live in with a minimum of discomfort, and I believe my wife and daughters wanted something similar, though whether they harbored private yearnings of a more metaphysical nature is of course more than I can say, just as I hope they’d decline to speculate about me with regard to this subject, were they ever called to.
In any event, a regime of militant atheism was imposed upon the town after the Church was evacuated, the very last stragglers pried from its naves and vestries, and its electricity and water shut off by the Board of Public Utilities. Anyone caught continuing to profess belief in a transcendental being or plane of being was jailed overnight for a first offense, for a week for the second, and for a month for offenses after that. Anyone caught ministering to lost members of the flock, whether in the backrooms of bars, behind dumpsters in alleys, or even in the privacy of their own home, was dragged into the square and drenched with a fire hose until they publicly apologized.
“What we are trying to accomplish here,” the Mayor announced, after one such hosing in late October, the weather just beginning to turn, “is nothing less than the complete purification of our shared mental space. A purge of all the mold clinging to the psychic crevices of this community. No more will we indulge in idle speculation and childish fantasy. The time to dig our heels into the ground of reality and finally, after all these wasted centuries, attempt to get somewhere, is now. That is all. Please disperse.”
So we did, back to the homes we lived in by ourselves or with our families, to do whatever we wished so long as it didn’t stray too far into the numinous. We hovered in an uneasy détente, wondering when the next public hosing would occur, and, naturally, who its victim would be. This period came to an end when a priest and three penitents were found back inside the Church, having somehow surmounted the barricade in the dead of night. Armed and refusing to leave, they engaged in a firefight with the police, which left one officer and two penitents sprawled out on the flagstones, their blood clotting on the grout between them.
After this, a wall of razor wire and fiberglass was erected by a crew of volunteers, rendering it impossible to enter the Church without fileting oneself in the process. And yet the pull of whatever had summoned those people inside remained. The ground beneath us seemed to be quivering, sending shockwaves through our hearts – mine, anyway – and soon dire images began to invade my dreams. Images of angels and demons, celestial spheres and satanic depths, psalters and prophecies and sacrifice and resurrection, over and over again so that I could barely sleep.
Things came to another head – a second head, I thought, imagining the situation now as a multi-headed beast – when a group of citizens, myself among them, found ourselves face first in the shadow of the new Church walls, entirely uncertain as to how we got there. No amount of public hosing, nor private haranguing by my wife and daughters once I was released from the square, revealed any clue as to what had happened. “I was in bed,” I kept repeating, “and then I was there, curled naked against the fiberglass like I’d just been born.” I do not believe I could have provided a more thorough explanation had I wanted to.
Sentries were then deployed along the Church walls, armed with semiautomatic rifles the Mayor purchased using The Town Discretionary Fund, which meant there would no longer be enough money to plow the streets this winter. The guards stood watch through the rest of that first year of our atheism, twitching and growing sallow and sick until, in the week before Christmas, two of them crumbled in the unplowed snow and were no longer.
“This first year will be the hardest,” the Mayor announced at their funeral. “Please believe me when I say that, come next year, the worst of the withdrawal will be behind us and a new era of rationality will have dawned. This isn’t easy for me either, but it’s a struggle we must all undertake in good faith. If you must pray for something, pray for the strength to endure it. God will hear you.”
She fell silent and shriveled into her parka. Reemerging a moment later, she said, her voice shaking, “Please strike that last comment from the record. I don’t know what came over me.”
Whatever came over her was coming over me as well. As the new year began to unfold, my dreams grew increasingly vivid, to the point where I’d often find myself walking by the shuttered Church with the distinct sense that it wasn’t empty. I dreamed – or perhaps, by this point, I wasn’t dreaming – that it was full of hooded shapes, human or humanoid, muttering with their backs to us, sharing a secret that gave them tremendous power. Their numbers grew until, by April, I’d walk by the Church certain it was as full as it could possibly be, so that there were more people in there than out here. I began to feel lonely in the town, surrounded by stragglers and shades.
This feeling grew so acute that, one day in June, I passed the Church and failed to resist the forces pulling me toward it. I went right up to the wall and stared through a peephole someone had drilled in the fiberglass. As I stood there, my entire eye bulging through the hole with my nose crushed beneath it, I felt the Church or whatever it contained pulling me closer, so compellingly that I feared I was about to be ripped to pieces by the razor wire.
I turned and ran, but, in a sense, I also didn’t. That night, I kissed my wife and daughters with a heavy heart, fearing, for reasons I couldn’t explain, that I’d never see them again. I lay down, made my peace with myself as well, and went to sleep.
As soon as I began to dream, I dreamt I was inside the Church, and that my wife and daughters were beside me, such that I’d been a fool to think we’d have to part. A sense of tremendous relief washed over me. We were all dressed in coarse black robes buckled with twine around our waists, and we were listening with unwavering attention to the priest, her voice and mannerisms uncannily similar to the Mayor’s.
“Tonight, blessed brothers and sisters,” she declared, booming down from the dais, “we break free. This moment has been slow in coming, but a quickening is about to occur. We have waited long enough, have we not?”
A great cheer went up in the stone chamber, my voice part of its echo.
She held out a vicious metal spike, enjoining the congregation to mimic her, which of course we did. “We are surrounded on all sides by infidels,” she boomed, “who have sought to trap us in here. They’ve built a wall of razor wire and fiberglass around our citadel, but will that restrain our faith?”
“No!!” we shouted, pumping our spikes up and down.
“The unbelievers have had ample opportunity to recognize Christ’s Love and have, over the centuries, brazenly refused to do so. Tonight we show them what the price of that refusal truly is. Tonight we bathe them in the Blood of the Lamb! Good citizens, loyal townsfolk, I ask you to follow me into battle!”
And with that she charged from the dais, spike extended, and we all fell in line behind her, fury boiling up our necks and into our eyes, and I remember thinking, just before we burst through the wall outside and onto the familiar streets, tonight at last, the true price of peace will be paid and its reward will be reaped, if not in this life, then surely in the next one.
David Leo Rice is a writer and animator living in NYC. His stories and essays have appeared in The Believer, Catapult, Black Clock, The Collagist, The Rumpus, Hobart, and elsewhere. His first novel, A Room in Dodge City, came out in 2017, and he’s online at: www.raviddice.com
Image source: Paxson Woelber via Creative Commons