Once Upon a Time there was a dedicated priest who lived in a small village in the mountains of a country that I will not name here. On the night that we meet this priest he is leading the regular evening service. This is a night that was not going to end well for our priest. I will not lie to you now and tell you that he is going to be okay. You should know that there are two things that are different about tonight as oppose to all the other nights, in the village, that he has experienced up to this point. There is a service every night. This is not unusual. There is a terrible storm. There are often terrible storms. This is not unusual. This particular storm is most unusual. It was the most unusual for two reasons. First it was the most terrible storm that any of the members of the small village could ever remember. Secondly the lightning that arced from the thick dark clouds was green. This is the last time that the green lightning will be mentioned because it bears no relation to the rest of the story save to illustrate how unusual this night was. It was traditional for the villagers to come to the church to get out of the cold but tonight the pews were crammed full. The edges of the walls were layered with people and even the central aisle from the door up to the altar was thick with humanity. The young priest was happy that the church was full but he was sad that it was only the weather that had brought them all here. At least, he thought that it was the weather. He did not know what was to befall him. The weather tonight was so bad that even the normally protective church was letting in air through the tiny little holes. He knew that they all came here to get out of the cold of their hovels. He sometimes felt pity for them. He sometimes felt shame for them. He never did anything to make their lives better though. All he wanted to to was to bring them together. He wanted to bridge the gaps that he saw between the families who lived in the little hovels that dotted the hills around the chapel. It was cold. He tried to speak above the roar from outside. The wind was violent. The hinges that held the church shutters to the flaking wooden frames were shaking hard. He would have to get them fixed when the storm died down. He walked around the church lighting candles for the second, sometimes third time, knowing that the gale that breached the old building through aged cracks and seams would extinguish them again. The dusty shimmering glow of the small candles lit only two or three congregants. The church was used to being empty but tonight, on a stormy night, it was full to bursting. He ignored their hypocrisy because he knew that they did not have the luxury of it. Those who had arrived on time had now got the best seats. The squeeze of the late comers who had arrived to shelter from the storm now acted as warmth to done so before the storm hit and remained now because it was either too dangerous to return to their homes or their homes were too dangerous to be in during the storm. The church was still the sturdiest building in the area and it often became a popular meeting place when the weather was this bad. The Widow MacGregor asked him when the statue was due to arrive. He squinted down at his old wrist watch. It should be here right about now, he replied, but that storm there that you can here right now will no doubt have held up the delivery. It may be that it’s not even going to arrive tonight, he added to himself. There was no use creating disappointment now. After all he had a pitiful congregation and wanted to keep them for at least another hour. The hope of paying some kind of respect to the relic would at least give them some succour and perhaps, who knows, encourage them to tell others to come to service. It had not been like this in the old days. In the old days he had wielded real power and the iron rod of the church with which to control his flock, even though he had seldom swung it, had always been leaning nearby, a silent threat to any dissent. These were not the old days and everyone had better things to do than to feel guilt and shame about their soft and febrile humanity. He sighed and walked up to the front of the tiny chapel. He turned and opened the book and read clearly from the revealed page. He read from the book. The congregation made hollow reply. He sang the first song in a reedy tenor. The scattered believers wailed back knowing the words by heart but alas never to fully grasp the subtlety of the tunes sung since childhood. The priest sighed inwardly. He took the role of Shepherd seriously but sometimes he wished that his sheep were a little more robust; a little more muscular in their beliefs, their observances of those beliefs and their dedication to their faith. The heavy door that had up until this point stopped the storm from entering burst open. Wind screamed into the small church, spinning papers and shrieking up the pews as the few plucky parishioners attempted to continue singing their praises to the Lord. Lighting shattered the darkness outside and in the framing of the door there stood a giant, looming presence. For a brief moment alive and pulsating. He walked up to the door to close it but as he did so a veined and wretched hand wet from the rain placed itself on his. “Well met friend” He looked up to see a man bent in a cowl standing next to the statue. It was a statue there was no doubt about it. Tall, carved, powerful. The Virgin unblemished by the storm standing tall yet humble before the Priest. He was speechless as he looked at it’s entirety.
“help me inside with the thing”
The man in front of him said as he weaved behind the giant stone woman and began to push it into the church. The congregation had stopped singing now and were all staring silently at the drama that was playing out by the door. The Priest noticed this and commanded that the singing continue. Some sang others remained slack jawed watching. Nothing happened. The man in the cowl issued an order to the pew closest to him and they immediately snapped to work. Standing around the statue, awed by it’s beauty they held each rugged corner and with struggle and ancient sinew breaching and cracking like sails on an old ship they guided the statue to the very end of the chapel and carefully had it stand on the dais so that it towered over their belief and looked down with graceful benevolence at their human weakness.
“this will look after you” the man with the cowl said. “now you”
He pointed at a man who hunched in the front row.
“invite me to your house and make sure there is enough for my animals to eat.”
He looked at the priest, smiled, winked and then stepped gracefully over and between the villagers who were still sitting on the floor of the church along the aisle to the door. The Priest stood there. He was going to continue along with the service but he felt a pull from the statue behind him and knew that he could not. He made everyone stand. he called out a prayer and a quick amen and then he ushered everyone out of the chapel. The wind had gone. In fact the night was quiet. There was an unusual heat that was not common for this time of year. Unusual cloying. Villagers glanced suspiciously at the statue as they left the chapel but the priest reassured them. He shook hands, held shoulders, made eye contact. he used all of his tricks even as he body did all it could to push each and every one of them out of the door into the hot night. He closed the door. he locked the door. He walked around the church as he always did and he made sure that all the candles were lit and he checked the doors one more time and the windows one more time and after he was sure that he was alone and secure and everything was safe he walked over to the statue and began to explore every inch of it with his eyes. The air sang. The new heat from the outside was slowly seeping through the holes and cracks that had been tested and widened by the wind. The priest felt beads of sweat prickling his skin. The eyes of the statue seemed to gaze down at him. They held him. He did not want to look away but he wanted to desperately look away. There was something about this new devotion that he felt he should be wary of but his feeling of love for the statue and all that meant to him overwhelmed all else. Whispered words filled his head. Nothing was recognisable as speech – half words, admonitions, requests, promises. He was alone in the chapel. Yet he was not alone in the chapel. The statue, had it smiled at him? He was sure that when the statue had first entered the building it had a look of serene seriousness. Now, whether it was the play of the light or his fevered imagination the statue appeared to be smiling at him. It appeared to be beckoning him forward, to come closer, to hold it, to be with it and to join with it. No! The priest stumbled. An act of will he realised that he was before the statue, his tongue extended. He could not stop himself. the heat was now unbearable. He removed his clothes, standing naked before the welcoming statue as he went to meet it.
He awoke to the rumbling of violence and pain and eyes. confused eyes. angry eyes. Pushing forward looking at him. What were these eyes this great unflinching staring wall of eyes? Eyes whispering things that he could not understand yet gave him such terror.
He was surrounded by the villagers? Where was he? He did not remember. Then his body tightened and he felt the cold on his skin. He remembered. He remembered and he was horrified. The clamor of the villagers got louder and more aggressive as they realised that he was awake. There was not so much talking as there was a general hum of confusion that became indignation in pockets that brewed anger in other areas until the crowd were on him. He never stood a chance he knew that. He had awoken naked in the centre of the aisle in the chapel. He may have been able to convince that the people had a fit but as he looked round and saw the statue, grotesque, spread, open and gaping he knew that he had no hope. Not least the horror he experienced as they swarmed him was to see perfectly formed, resplendent there as had not been the night before, a perfectly formed and polished statue of a tiny naked baby. Unmistakably smiling at him as he was torn apart by his people. At the back of the animal crowd the man in the cowl watched the destruction and was satisfied. It would not do to describe the brute violence that was committed against the naked man. The power of crowds, and the hysteria of the moment, is something that you are all familiar with. It is in the deepest part of all of us, isn’t it? Suffice to say there was a lot of cleaning to do when they had finished. The old man smiled. He had done what was asked of him. Had he not brought the villagers together just as the priest had asked. Now they would take this terrible secret to their graves and the community would be firmer and stronger because of what they had done on this one, stormy night.