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‘It were the coughing that gave her heart out, this one,’ Joseph said. He raised his cigarillo to his mouth, then rubbed his forehead—anything, Thomas assumed, to mask the tremble in his hand as he relived the memory. His other hand circled absently at his chest, as though he could still feel the iron grip of death reaching in and squeezing. ‘Francine, her name was. She had a husband. Two sons, both not nearly old enough to have lost their—well. René was good to them at least, and he were a hard worker, always trying to do right.’
Thomas leaned forward, the ancient green leather of his chair creaking beneath him. It was the only sound in the suddenly-quiet room, beside the clacking of the clock above the fireplace. ‘Why do you always start with the way these people die?’
‘Do I, Father? Huh. I guess it’s the last thing what happens, aye? It’s at the front of the mind when I wake up. You want I should tell you something else? When she met René, or how the kids was born?’
‘Maybe in a moment.’ Thomas lifted a small leather-bound diary from the table beside him and flipped through it, carefully working back from where his current place was bookmarked by a sheet of blotting paper. ‘Why this woman again, do you think?’ he asked the man sitting across from him.
‘What do you mean ‘again’?’
‘You’ve told me about Francine before—heart attack, husband called René, children named…?’
‘Blimey, have I?’ The craggy Irishman scratched his overgrown orange sideburns and furrowed his brow in thought.
‘Well I’ll be bugg—err, begging your pardon, Father. I didn’t remember.’ He sighed, and took another deep drag from his cigarillo. Thomas winced.
‘Kid names are easy enough to remember, though,’ Joseph continued. ‘Ignace and Bastien; thirteen and eleven they was. There should have been Cécile, too, but for that damn lake. And none of the others lasted to their baptism, so…’
Thomas looked down at his notes and mentally checked the names off the page. ‘And what happened at the lake?’ he asked.
Joseph swallowed audibly. ‘It were my fault. I wasn’t watching her like I should.’ He pitched forward, cradling his head in his hands, his smouldering cigarillo forgotten and alarmingly close to the frizz of his unruly hair. ‘The ice were always solid at that time of year before, it should have been fine. I spent half my life around that lake and it had never—’
‘Francine had spent her life around that lake you mean, of course?’ Thomas interjected, but Joseph either didn’t hear him or was too consumed by the memory to worry about the semantics.
‘My little mésange, she were so brave, and les petits loved her so, bringing her blankets and sneaking her le miel while she lay there getting thinner and weaker, and Dieu, pourquoi est-ce que cela a dû arriver de cette façon?’
‘Joseph?’ Thomas rose and stepped over to the other man, who had collapsed into sobbing. ‘Joseph, get a hold of yourself, man.’
The Irishman responded with a string of unintelligible french. He waved the priest away and, after a few minutes, squeezed his eyes shut against the shame of his tears.
‘Forgive me, Father. Cécile, she’s… well, she’s a memory what’s hard to bear. I never—sorry, Father, Francine never… she. Well.’ He looked down at his hands, the forgotten cigarillo dropping its ash to the floorboards. ‘It’s a lot.’
Thomas hovered in a half-squat, his cassock gathering tight and uncomfortable around his straining thighs. After a moment of introspection, he stood back and reseated himself, carefully splaying out the pages of the journal once more.
‘Francine seems to be a very strong example of these visions you’re having, all around.’ He tapped a finger against the left side of the book, and the pages of similarly documented stories Joseph had shared with him intermittently over the past few months. ‘Why do you think you keep coming back to her?’
‘Beats me if I know, Father. It’s hard enough just keeping them straight and in the bits of my head they’re supposed to be.’
‘If, indeed, they’re supposed to be in there at all,’ Thomas cautioned. He ran his finger alongside the other notes on the page. ‘For the sake of thoroughness, I’d like to ask you a few more questions about Francine. Last time, you said there was a pet name her mother used to call her—could you repeat that for me?’
They proceeded like that for some time; Thomas asking ever more specific questions from the notes he’d taken in previous sessions, trying to trap Joseph in a contradiction or lead him to expand on deliberately false recollection. Like he had every morning since that first interrogation, when Thomas had found the man desperately pulling up the chancel step in front of his church’s altar, Joseph answered every question perfectly.
If he turned out to be just another charlatan after all, Thomas thought, he was one with a very good memory.
‘All right,’ Thomas finally conceded, uncapping the inkwell that sat on the small table. ‘Since this is the third time Francine has appeared to you, I’m going to ask you some questions of a more… personal nature, in case she returns again. Do you remember if—’
‘Now hang on,’ Joseph said, sitting forward. ‘I been answering your questions a mite long now, I reckon it’s your turn to tell me what you’ve heard back. You think I don’t see them letters folded up there on your mantle?’
Thomas sighed, and replaced the blotting paper he was using as a bookmark back between its pages. He set the journal aside and reached back to the table, this time, to where his long-necked pipe sat atop a tin of tobacco.
He was silent as he packed the pipe and lit it—a meditative act, which gave him another excuse to scrutinise Joseph and his reaction to the wait. The Irishman’s eyes darted between Thomas and the mantle each time the priest made it seem like his attention was on the pipe before him. The man really did seem to be interested in the letters themselves, rather than Thomas’ reaction to them. He might actually want to know, and his unwillingness to press the matter spoke volumes for the humble means he claimed to have come from. In Thomas’ experience, the ones who really wanted to convince you had a hard time keeping the façade up as completely, or as long in these apparently inattentive moments.
‘I haven’t written to Cordesse, if you’re asking specifically about Francine,’ Thomas finally said, settling back into his chair and working air through the embers of his pipe. ‘Honestly, I have no idea whether the parish still exists or whom I would contact to have their records checked—I will make enquiries there, I assure you,’ he held up a hand to forestall reply as Joseph drew in a breath. ‘I did, as you’ve noticed, hear back from several of the enquiries I sent out towards the start of our little… investigation.’
Joseph looked at the letters with the desperate excitement of a child who caught a glimpse of the sweet in their parent’s pocket. ‘May I see them?’ he asked, half-rising from his seat, his cigarillo dropping from his fingers.
Thomas almost choked on his pipe-smoke in his incredulity. ‘Dear man, they’re in Latin.’
‘Marius and Llaedwin both knew Latin. I remember it well enough.’
‘…if you say so.’
Taking Thomas’ doubt as permission, Joseph leapt for the letters on the mantle. He flipped through them one by one, his eyes darting across the pages. Thomas watched him carefully. Not even he, a scholar of many years, could read so fast—but the incremental disappointment etching itself into Joseph’s features didn’t seem like an affectation.
The Irishman folded the letters together and placed them back on the mantle, using it to steady himself in the process. His voice, when he spoke, sounded heavy—as though the entire weight of his life’s burdens were settling on him anew.
‘Not a single one?’
Thomas readjusted his grip on his pipe. ‘You must understand—as I told you when we began—that the people you’re describing in these visions of yours are… well, unimportant. And the farther back you go the harder corroborating evidence will be to find. Even in the civilised places of the world.’
Joseph nodded in a way that indicated he wasn’t really listening. He leaned further into the mantle, staring at the last embers of the morning’s fire. Behind him, Thomas picked up the diary and unfolded the blotting paper he was using as a bookmark.
‘I do, however, have one more letter. A response to one of several letters I sent to places not civilised enough to enjoy consistent written records.’
Joseph’s attention snapped back to the priest. He frowned, expectantly.
‘It was sent to me from Father Lourdel, a missionary in Buganda, but I’m given to believe that it was penned by one of his—’ Thomas searched for a tasteful term ‘—converts.’ He pursed his lip around the stem of his pipe. ‘Which may account for it’s… quality. They apparently remembered some grandparent telling them about that little native war you described to me.’ He held the letter out to Joseph, who snatched it with naked excitement and paced back and forth while his eyes skimmed across the poorly-penned lines. His face cracked into a grin, and he looked up with shining eyes.
‘Insofar as it suggests elements of your stories share details with historical events, then yes, it’s compelling.’
‘Aye, but I see where you’ve pulled the same trick on them what you like pulling on me—see, here, where they’re correcting the names of the tribes; I know I told you the right ones so you must have been testing, aye?’
Thomas raised an eyebrow. He thought he’d been more subtle. ‘They also say this King was as tall as six natives and had the power to command the wind to destroy crops and villages.’
‘Aye, but what tale doesn’t grow with the telling, Father? What matters is they remembered him, even remembered his name. He were real.’
‘Perhaps. Whether that in turn verifies the miracle of your visions, or simply proves you heard the name and story somewhere, is the matter we need to determine.’
Joseph didn’t move a muscle, but something indefinable changed in his demeanour.
‘That’s the third time since I met you where you’ve called me a liar, Father.’ Joseph’s voice was low and measured, erasing all traces of his former excitement.
‘I’m not necessarily saying it’s intentional, Herr Joseph. There are many ways you might have picked up the knowledge without realising; a childhood story, perhaps, or overhearing some sailor in a beer hall spinning fables. The human mind is one of God’s most incredible creations, Herr Joseph; the smell of a flower or the touch of rain under a certain colour sky and the mind can remember many things we’d otherwise have thought forever forgotten. Who can say what it is rediscovering for you while you’re asleep?’
Joseph said nothing, and the moment stretched from contemplative into uncomfortable as the clock on the mantle ticked.
‘Well. Before you go, let’s—’ Thomas began.
‘I weren’t always a man of means, Father,’ Joseph said. The shock of being interrupted stopped Thomas in his tracks.
‘I were a carpenter before the dreams started, you know? Good, honest labour—good enough for our own Lord, it were. It were my Da’s living, as it was his Da’s afore him, and sure, there were always someone who’d quibble on what was agreed, but not one of them—not one, mind—would have dared call any of us a liar for it.’ He tapped the side of the letter with a finger. ‘Even after this right here, even after that first time where I met you in the church and told you what Günther had drawn ‘neath that stone. Even after all these weeks, and all your forsaken questions and notes, still, still it’s ‘who can say’?’ He raised his head, and his eyes blazed as he stared Thomas down. ‘I say, Father, I say. These aren’t no stories I’ve heard, they’re someone’s life I’m seeing.’ He threw the heavy blotting paper to the ground between their chairs and pointed to it with a snarl. ‘That’s how this fella knew about King Oan. That’s how I knew about the galleon Cecilio drowned on, and knew where to dive for his lost wealth. That’s how I knew what was hidden in the middle of your own damn church!’
‘Mein Herr! I will not have you blaspheming in God’s house!’
Joseph snarled. ‘Then I’ll blaspheme elsewhere! I’ve been patient, sitting here every day for weeks while you laugh behind your hand, scratching in your chronicle about how little you believe me. I came here because I remembered how Günther believed in the power of the Lord, really believed, and I thought if anyone could exorcise me of this curse, they’d be in a church as grand as yours, Father. I was a fool.’ He spat on the floor beside the fireplace. ‘You can’t help me. You don’t want this gone. You’re too busy looking for how it’s going to help you make up with your damned cardinals after that story in the paper.’
‘Want it gone?’ Thomas snapped the journal shut and thwacked it on the table. ‘Of course I don’t want it gone! Neither would you, if it were truly real! Do you understand how rare—how fortunate you are to be receiving these visions from the Lord? This is the stuff of Saints, and you want to discard it like last season’s coat! What I wouldn’t… what any follower of Christ wouldn’t give for the chance to—’
‘You want it? You want it?’ Joseph roared, stepping forward until his knees bumped against the sitting priest’s. He towered above Thomas. ‘You want your nights to last lifetimes, knowing that every time you drift off, you’ll be dreaming you’re an infant seeing their first blurry colours, seeking your new mother’s tit? Waking up to have your own memories clouded like trees in a forest of fog, not remembering if your name is Ho, or Francine, or Terrimoot, or Idaeus, not knowing what language you’re supposed to be speaking when you step into the street?’ He barked a short and humourless laugh. ‘Fine then. Take it! Call upon all the powers of your damn god and have him switch it to you! Go on! Do it!’
Thomas stared agape at the wildeyed Irishman. His pipe dropped out of his mouth as he worked this tongue around his teeth, desperately seeking some words that would placate the madman he’d invited into his home.
Joseph sneered at the sight. ‘You couldn’t help me even if you wanted. There’s nothing you can do. Nothing anyone can do.’ And without further comment, he turned and strode out of the room. Moments later, Thomas heard the front door of the Presbytery open and slam shut again.
He picked up his pipe and brushed the spilled tobacco from his cassock, repacking the bowl with shaking fingers. He’d been so concerned over whether Joseph was trying to manipulate him through the stories of these visions, he’d completely overlooked the simple fact the man might have needed some good, old fashioned Christian help. Ever since he’d earned a reputation as a seeker of miracles, he’d been accosted by so many people who thought it would be their ticket to unlocking the favour and riches of the church he’d almost forgotten that someone could approach him with earnest—
From somewhere outside, Thomas heard an unearthly screech, followed by the shouting of men and horses. The chill of certainty settled in the pit of Thomas’ gut.
The priest ran down the hall and through the front door, shouldering aside the deacons who—barely able to mask their eavesdropping on Thomas’ callers at the best of times—had gathered in the hallway to see what the commotion had been about. He stepped outside, and straight into a nightmare.
Chaos gripped the wide street that ran through the centre of the city. On the roadway, a series of carts were stopped with their drivers fussing over the horses, bucking against their sudden confinement. Between the carts, and crowded around the buildings which fronted the road, knots of pedestrians gasped and pointed at the mass of metal and smoke which blocked the way. Thomas moved closer, the crowd parting before the cassock. As he drew nearer, he saw that the impediment was one of the unmistakeable horseless carriages which had become so popular lately, coughing and jerking their way through the streets. This one, however, was still. It had crashed into a lamppost, and now lay crooked and unmoving.
And pinned between the twisted metals, was Joseph.
‘—n’t move, he just kept walking there when I—oh! Father, please, you have to—’ the distraught driver of the carriage said, wringing his cap in his gloved hands and justifying himself to the crowd as Thomas drew near. The priest ignored the man’s pleas, pushing past him to kneel by the Irishman’s side. He’d sat with enough dying parishioners to know how serious Joseph’s pallour was.
The wounded man turned a bloodshot eye in his direction.
‘Ah, Father, how quicker God repays his blasphemers than his supplicants. How I didn’t see that great smoking thing coming down the—’ a fit of coughing interrupted his speech, and he waved an arm weakly to cover his mouth. Thomas caught the ruined hand and pressed it gently.
‘Peace, friend. Save your breath.’
‘No! No, don’t you see?’ Joseph continued. ‘This be my chance, Father. My final chance to set it right—one final sleep, in His bosom, never to dream again. It’s not the time for peace, for quiet. Not yet.’ He licked his lips, painting them red. ‘Will you hear my confession, Father?’
Thomas pursed his lips as agony lanced his spirit. ‘You know I cannot absolve a protestant, my son.’
‘Aye, but you can listen—and through you, Him. He be the one who forgives all, and there be so much sin wrapped up within me. I’ve been lying to you, Father.’ Tears dropped from the dying man’s eyes. ‘I were afraid, but now that’s passed. There’s no more time for secrets.’
Thomas dropped Joseph’s hand as though it, not the dying man’s words, had stung him. He hadn’t realised until that very moment, but after weeks of methodically insinuating hope into Thomas’ heart, Joseph’s final act of storming out of their meeting had broken through the priest’s cynicism. He’d been ready to believe the man’s visions were real—that he had finally, after years of prayer and contemplation, been witness to a miracle. But it had been a clever deception all along. He looked away, breathing heavily, and in his rage and pain he forgot his duty. He began to stand.
‘I’ve always known why I’ve been having the visions, Father. Lord forgive me, but I’ve always known. You think that they’re some sort of gift, and I’ve let you believe that for the fear of what you’d say if you knew the truth behind it. That you’d turn me away if you knew it weren’t a gift at all—but a punishment.’
A sudden chill shot through every nerve of Thomas’ body. He froze midway through rising, turning his gaze back to Joseph’s blood and tear-streaked face.
‘I were with a woman when it happened the first time. A woman who weren’t my wife. You understand, Father?’ A choked sob escaped the man’s throat, as though he were trying to laugh before being strangled by his grief. ‘You know everything about the kids I birthed and raised in those other lives, but you never even knew about the four I left with the missus here in the real world. I couldn’t go home. I couldn’t face them after I…’ his confession trailed away. He seemed to be having more difficulty with his breathing. Thomas looked at the enraptured crowd around them.
‘Instead of goggling, have any of you thought to send for a surgeon?’ He snapped. Many of the gawper’s faces turned red with shame, and a few scampered away—whether to fetch help or simpy to flee Holy wrath, Thomas would never know.
Joseph’s arm shot out, gripping a corner of the priest’s robe with the unnatural grip of the desperate. ‘I could barely breathe after I fell out of her bed,’ he ranted. ‘I could still feel the seawater burning in my lungs. When I woke her with my terror, she couldn’t understand a word I was saying, because after forty-three years as Cecilio I’d forgotten anything but Spanish! If we hadn’t have been on the drink, she’d have called me a madman right there and then—and she’d have been right!’
‘Calm yourself, Herr Joseph. Please,’ Thomas hushed, crouching beside him again. It was no use; the agitated Irishman continued to shout.
‘I knew it, Father. I knew it in my soul. The Lord had seen me in there with her—why else would my punishment come to me as I sleep? I wanted another so badly, now He’s giving me a new one every night. And every night, they die—I die. It’s how it always ends, whether I’m slipping on my own innards with the phalanx at Argos, or feeling my skull crack from behind in the middle of a wife raid; whether I’m clawing for breath or feeling my heart burst; whether I’m a ‘coimhead mi fhín a’ losgadh bho na casan suas or even mati sendirian di alam liar—’
Thomas pressed a hand to Joseph’s chest as the babble worsened and the man’s confession became completely unintelligible. After a full minute of nonsense in some barbaric tongue, the Irishman finally came back to German. ‘Will he, Father?’
‘… I don’t know,’ Thomas replied. He’d learned it was usually better, in these cases, to reassure rather than to answer.
Joseph’s head dropped back against the lamp post with a quiet thud. The tension seemed to drain from the rest of his body as well, and his hand slipped from Thomas’ cassock.
‘I don’t even rightly remember which of the sin is mine anymore, Father, and which belongs to the others. I’ve lived so long as a heathen; I’ve known so many idols, so many spirits and gods besides Him, it’s hard to see his Truth. What do I even ask forgiveness for?’
‘Rest, Joseph,’ Thomas said softly. ‘Say no more—I cannot shrive you, but know that understanding is His and His alone, and his judgement on you will be fair.’
‘Yes. Rest. It’s a good time for rest.’ Joseph closed his eyes, and the corners of his mouth twitched into a smile. ‘It’s funny, isn’t it? I’ve died so many times now it don’t even worry me at all. Fact is, I’m looking forward to not waking up as someone el—’
* * *
Benoit opened his eyes slowly, blinking away the crusted sleep that had frozen there. He yawned, letting a blast of frigid air race into his lungs. He leaned forward, and frozen dew glittered from his uniform as he peeled it off the icy trench wall.
‘Look who’s decided to join us,’ a voice—Fredericks—snickered from his right. ‘Got enough of yer beauty sleep, darlin’?’
Benoit rubbed the stiffness from his neck and rolled his shoulders. ‘How long was I out?’ he asked.
‘Long enough. Nearly time to be up an’ over.’ The veteran shook his head in mock wonder. ‘She were a beautiful sunrise, too. Fancy, this could be yer last mornin’ on this earth and you spend it takin’ a nap. Kids. Think you’re damn immortal.’
Benoit chuckled, still lost halfway between the cold grip of reality and the fading memories of Joseph’s life. The dreams which had started shortly after he’d enlisted had sent him Joseph twice more after that first time—like Ellis and Moawa, reliving the experience of someone who had also been a dreamer was even more disorienting than the usual, single-lifetime affairs.
‘Didn’t you know, Fred? Benny is damn near immortal,’ another familiar voice called out from the line of shivering men crouched in the frost. Benoit sifted his swollen memory, searching for the kid’s name—Timothy; a scrawny English kid whose uniform was nearly two sizes too big.
‘You should’a seen him at the landing,’ Timothy continued. ‘God above, if I had half this sleepy bastard’s ability to sidestep a bullet, I’d never fear one again.’
A familiar chill dripped down Benoit’s spine at the kid’s words. He shuffled, his weapon and kit crunching into the ice crystals below him as he turned to peek over the trench wall. Seven thousand years of combined lived experience across the past two years of dreams had left him with an almost preternatural survival instinct on the battlefield. He could intuit the enemy’s sight lines, the best time to advance and when he’d been out in the open too long. But from the moment he’d laid eyes on the long, flat battlefield beyond the trench wall, that same sense had been screaming. A machine gun didn’t care how experienced you were; neither did a shell or a grenade. War had come a long way since Idaeus’ phalanx, and none of that experience would matter the minute they stepped above. Like they’d been ordered to do today.
Fredericks laughed through his nose. ‘Mate, there’s only one bullet you’ve got to be ‘feared of. You go worrying about each of the others, and you’ll die a thousand times before yours gets you anyway.’
Benoit smiled sadly to himself. It was a distinction Joseph had never been able to draw, either—not even at the end. The difference between being cursed to live through a hundred moments of death, and being gifted with the thousands of moments of life before them.
The frost crunched as Tim sidled closer to Benoit. The kid licked his cracking lips and cast a furtive glance around. ‘You’ve got a plan though, right?’ He asked. ‘You always know the way to get through. I stick behind you, and we’ll get to the other side okay, yeah?’
‘Yeah, kid,’ Benoit said. He slipped a hand inside his shirt and pulled out the battered leather-bound diary he’d kept tucked in there since the day his dreams had begun. He opened the front page, and looked at the creased newspaper photograph that had been hidden within.
It depicted an uncomfortable-looking Irishman with incredible sideburns standing next to a scowling German priest—the same chaplain who had once carried the journal and the photo; the same chaplain whom Benoit had accidentally shot during a nighttime raid two years ago. Between the two men in the picture was a large stone, and if you squinted just right, you could still make out the faint etching of an ancient pope with gargantuan genitalia scratched on the underside of the slab.
‘Don’t worry,’ Benoit reassured the kid. ‘Everyone’ll reach the other side okay.’
Thanks for reading! If you want even more short fiction—while it lasts—you can find it in the 2019 Terry Talks Fiction anthology, Tales of Sorcery and Silicone, available on Amazon or to read free through Kindle Unlimited.