By Julie Carpenter
Maybe it had started with the mice, he thought. Maybe the exodus of mice was the first sign that there was something amiss in the church basement. The choir room had been plagued by mice for as long as Father Dingle had been there. Alan, the choir director, had been on about adequate storage for the music since he’d been there. Just last Christmas, Alan had gone on the warpath after finding a mouse nest made with scraps of the Hallelujah Chorus, a situation he found neither economically nor spiritually tolerable. But in the early autumn, just a few months ago, the church mice had begun moving out of the basement in droves. Father Dingle had arrived at church one morning to find several families of mice scurrying up the basement stairs and down the hall towards the front doors. More mice appeared each morning, waiting at the doors to dash out as soon as they were opened.
One morning he’d found a mouse quivering on the window sill in his office. It was so paralyzed with fear that he’d been forced to ease it out the window and into the scraggly rosebush outside his office with the end of a pencil. He could not bring himself to otherwise dispose of the poor shivering animal.
The mass evacuation of mice had conducted itself quietly up to a point. He was incuriously grateful that the mice were leaving. He’d chalked up the exodus of mice to a minor miracle and mentioned his gratitude in his evening prayers. But then there was that Sunday morning when pandemonium broke out in the choir loft during the opening hymn…
A bewildered and trembling mouse had apparently crawled into Edna Harrison Brook’s purse to escape the basement. Finding itself in strange new terrain, it ran up Edna’s arm when she reached into her purse for a Kleenex, leaving her in a state of near shock. Then it ran across the pew, behind the sopranos, shot up Mary Jo Baker’s choir robe and right up her neck and head where it perched trembling on her chignon, provoking not a few high pitched squeals from the soprano section. First Tenor Harlan Smith’s instincts took over and he swatted it out of Mary Jo’s hair. It flew up in a beautiful, acrobatic arc and soared high over the pulpit. It landed on the organ keys and the organist, Myrtle Anderson, a victim of both the mouse and the cleaning lady’s zealous over polishing of the organ bench, slid right off, landing on her posterior with a thump and a rather unfortunate and somewhat vulgar exclamation that echoed and bounced against the old church rafters. One could hardly blame her, but of course, some people had.
Father Dingle had retrieved a bottle of flavored brandy when he returned to his study after the incident. He contemplated the conversation he would need to have with old Mrs. Flowers, the cleaning lady, his trip to visit Myrtle, who had probably broken her tailbone, and he supposed he needed to go and pay a visit to Edna who’d nearly passed out after the incident. He shuddered as he remembered the sopranos gathering round to flail at her with church bulletins while one of the altos went for a wet paper towel. By the time he’d thought the whole thing through, Father Dingle found himself holding an empty bottle.
That wasn’t the last time Father Dingle sat in his chair drinking brandy and contemplating odd events. After the mice had left, two packages of Sunday school material had disappeared from the church steps. The postman stoically declared he had delivered them himself and left them right under the archway at 10:15 just like always; and Margie, the church secretary, had just as stoically declared that she had gone out at 10:20 to find absolutely nothing there. The Reverend Dingle found himself in the middle of the mess with phone calls to the Post Office and the publishing company. Father Dingle hated to be in the middle of a mess. Then the altar linens had disappeared and been the cause of an hours long search only to be found sitting nicely folded on a church pew, fouled with the print of a small hand that looked as though it had been dipped in ash. This had nearly caused a fistfight among the ladies of the altar guild. Oh dear! That had required some sorting. It made Father Dingle’s head hurt just thinking about it. And the copy machine had broken down in a spectacular manner. Margie had stepped out to the restroom while the bulletins were printing and returned to find the printer choking on a paper jam. Before the incident was over the office was filled with the smell of burning wires and the church was in need of a new printer.
Finally, one chilly Sunday morning, as the parishioners had filed past the somber marble angel guarding the tomb of the Reverend Barnabus Fletcher Cook, the first pastor of Whistlestop, they’d noticed that it was sporting devil horns, a pair of Ray Bans, and a Hitler mustache, all of which had apparently been super glued on. The constable had been called and all of the youth questioned, to their immense and haughty indignation, and to the dismay of Father Dingle who couldn’t imagine any of their teenagers at the center of such nonsense. All of these things were awful, but they were just precursors to the real show.
Father Dingle was now contemplating the most recent passage in this sordid history from the comfort of his old leather armchair. He had put on his old soft flannel pajamas, his robe and slippers. His cat, Cedric, was on his lap, slowly softening Father Dingle’s belly with his claws. Father Dingle absently rubbed Cedric’s ears. He needed the pretense of routine. He did not have a book in his hand because he couldn’t take this simulation of normalcy quite that far. Not tonight. Because tonight, Father Dingle was afraid. He’d been more than equal to ignoring the unease that had possessed him over the previous months. He was a master of ignoring disquiet and apprehension. This was different. Fear had settled on him like a heavy blanket, pushing against his chest, forcing him to choke down his blackberry brandy through his constricted throat. He felt smothered and had to remind himself to push his breath in and out. He had tried praying to the God he’d known before today, but found that his agitated brain had long since quit supporting his tongue. And now that he knew what he knew? It was all he could do to swallow the alcohol.
He tried, he really tried, to nudge his thoughts away from the events of the day. But his brain assaulted him again; it needed one more run at the problem. A door had been opened to something incomprehensible and his brain wanted desperately to turn that something over, to inspect it, to pull it apart and put it back together. Then, his brain assured him, it would close that door and tiptoe quietly away and curl up in the fetal position, somewhere safe.
Another sip of brandy and his brain swung back onto the circular track of the day’s events. The morning hadn’t got off to a great start. He’d come in a little late – truth be told with a brandy headache. Fine. He had to admit that. But he’d been sober, if a little worse for the wear that morning. He would swear that on a stack of Bibles. No. When he had arrived, he was fully in command of his faculties.
He’d gone round to the side door, not sneaking really, but he had to admit that he had hoped no one would note the time. And then Margie rounded the corner, nearly knocking him to the ground. Her red hair was falling around her face. Her usually pallid complexion was red and splotchy.
She was gasping out, “You’re not going to believe it. You’re not going to believe what they did!”
Father Dingle was taken aback. “Who? Did what now?”
“I don’t know! No one knows!” Margie burst into tears.
She led him into the church and took him to the nursery door.
In thick green paint, a huge and crudely drawn sea serpent, fangs dripping spots of blood red paint, mouth open, was hovering over the lighthearted mural of Noah’s ark, massive mouth ready to snap off Noah’s head. The serpent coiled around the ark, dwarfing it. Perhaps this was mere vandalism. He’d seen vandalism before, though. Normally, it was merely anger and angst bubbling to the surface of the teenage brain, a vessel too weak to contain it. This wasn’t like that. The art was primitive but it had a raw power. The serpent’s eye was on Noah but it seemed to include Father Dingle in its malevolent, twinkling gaze as well.
Margie left him staring keenly at the sea serpent while she went to call the constable. He was so absorbed that when Alan Cunningham came up behind him and touched his arm he almost went right through the ceiling.
“Why would you sneak up on a man like that, Alan?” he yelped.
Alan tugged on his arm and darted away, “The basement! Come quick!”
When he rounded the corner behind Alan, wisps of sinuous green smoke were easing themselves up the basement staircase and round the rails like serpents. They seemed to be emanating from the choir room.
“We’ve got to save the Christmas music!” Alan was gone…leaping down the stairs, taking them two at a time.
“Alan! Stop!” Father Dingle cried after him in vain. That’s when the fear had first hit him in the chest.
Father Dingle’s fear had wrapped around itself like a snake eating its own tail. He was afraid of what he would find in the basement. He was also afraid of the disgrace of neglecting pastoral duty. The thought of the young and lovely Margie seeing him run like a frightened mouse from the basement flitted across his brain and propelled him through the terror to the bottom of the stairs. Then he realized that Alan had already made the turn into the choir room.
Father Dingle paused, his feet felt like lead. There was something emanating from the choir room, invisible but more unyielding than smoke, a something that pushed him away like an invisible hand. He somehow made the turn into the choir room.
“Alan! Forget the music!” he called.
But Alan had already forgotten the music. He was standing mesmerized in the center of the room, looking towards the open supply closet. A steady stream of green mud with blood red streaks was bubbling up from its floor, as though from a witch’s cauldron, and creeping out onto the floor. Father Dingle’s first thought had been that there had been some sort of geothermal event. Was the church crumbling into the earth’s core?
His second thought was that he had inadvertently purchased the LSD variety of frozen waffles because as he lurched forward to rescue Alan, he too became mesmerized. Out of the bubbling cauldron of red and green mud, improbably large bubbles were forming. As they floated past, they caught on various objects and burst, releasing swirls of green smoke that fell to the floor and slithered away and up the stairs. But that wasn’t the thing that had kept Father Dingle’s feet planted. It was the enormous green globule that was currently forming on the lip of the now simmering supply closet. Unlike the more translucent smoke-filled bubbles, this globe was thick and gelatinous. It was oily and oozing.
Father Dingle meant to move forward, to grab Alan’s shoulder and run, but before he could make contact, the dreadful egg swelled up and popped!
It shot out tracers of slime like a goopy green firework. Some of it splashed up and landed on the men. As he wiped specks of slime from his face, Father Dingle saw it. A foot-long, green creature, with wings – some awful, miniature admixture of human and reptile, the word imp came to mind – had been hatched out of the egg. Its wings were bat-like and streaked with crimson red. It stood blinking at edge of the closet, shivering and spitting, flinging slime around the room. It shook its wings to dry them and then let out a piercing shriek and flew up and around the choir room, skimming neatly over their heads.
“Alan!” yelled Father Dingle, “We have to get out of here!”
Alan was looking blankly at Father Dingle. A splatter of green fell from his hair. Father Dingle had no choice. He slapped Alan. Hard.
“Hey! Ow!” Alan snapped out of his stupor, eyes wide.
“Let’s go!” Father Dingle yelled.
Alan’s eyes slid back towards the music cabinet for one last glance, like Lot’s wife at Sodom.
“Bugger the Christmas music Alan! Let’s go!” Father Dingle bellowed. The two men ran for the door, sliding on green slime and choking on the snake-like wraiths of smoke that squirmed around them. As Father Dingle turned back to close and lock the door to the choir room, all that he could think to do under the circumstances, he noticed three new green eggs swelling from the bottom of the supply closet.
He hadn’t handled things well from that point on. He had to admit it. None of them had. But who could be prepared for known reality to go careening out of orbit? It ought to have felt like a bad dream. But it didn’t. The whole thing had a three-dimensional sharpness and clarity. Even now with his pajamas on, sipping brandy with Cedric on his lap. He’d been hoping that remembering it here, in relative safety would take some of the edge off. He wanted to be able to believe that it wasn’t real. That he’d been wrong. But that wasn’t possible. Not yet. He took a few more sips of brandy.
The three of them should have immediately left the grounds, reported it he supposed. Would anyone have believed them? And pray tell…to whom does one report imps? Or demons, as he now suspected. He suspected, upon reflection, that a portal to Hell had somehow been opened in the church basement. How and by whom were questions beyond his ken.
But they hadn’t run for help. For a few moments the three of them had stood outside the windows of the basement choir room looking in, trying to wrap their minds around the bizarre scene. The crimson and green mud had lapped out and reached the first set of choir risers, by now seven of the little green creatures were zipping around the room, screeching like pterodactyls. They were eating everything they could find. One of them was tearing through a choir robe and swallowing the shreds. One was crunching through the leather and paper of a music folder. One was gnawing through one of the legs of the practice piano. One had found the box of Christmas music. It had eaten almost all the cardboard and had frantically started shoveling down the cantatas, chewing them with obvious fervor. After a few seconds, it belched a shower of confetti and started again.
Father Dingle watched as one of the creatures tried to swallow what appeared to be the G3 hand bell, a larger lower octave bell. Two of the imp’s companions were working on the higher octaves with more success. The creature appeared to be trying to unhinge its jaw in an attempt to swallow the enormous bell. One of the other imps noticed its distress and shot out a bony hand. It pulled its companion’s jaw down and with a clang the entire hand bell disappeared.
“There goes the G3,” Alan said miserably. He was also the director of the hand bell choir.
Yes in retrospect, Father Dingle had to admit that standing around the window watching all Hell break loose in the church basement might not have been the best response to the situation.
The demons had been in a perfect frenzy of eating. They were shrieking and splashing in the red and green mud, fighting over the gray sweater that Edna Brooks always left draped over her chair, until one of them snatched it up and vacuumed it into his wide mouth, starting with one of the sleeves. The piano was listing badly to one side and the piano bench had been reduced to mostly splinters. The cubby where the folders were kept had been reduced to half its size. They’d all gasped when one of the monsters began chewing through a metal music stand. Alan’s score had been on it. He gave a little cry of anguish as it too became confetti.
What to do? What to do? The refrain had been running through Father Dingle’s brain the whole time. What to do? But there was no frame of reference. He didn’t even know what had happened, much less how to stop it. He could only look on in horror. Surely a priest should be able to do something about the situation but Father Dingle didn’t know what. He had never been a brave man and no heroic actions came to mind. In fact, no actions of any kind came to mind. He hadn’t even thought to run. He’d been cowardly and stupid.
One of the imps had looked up, straight at the window. It caught Father Dingle’s eye with its own. It was a malevolent and twinkling eye, just like the eye of the sea serpent on the walls of the nursery upstairs. With a shriek it flung itself at the window. Glass splintered. Father Dingle had just enough time to throw himself on Margie and push her to the ground before the creature burst through the window and went rocketing past them. Alan flung himself to the ground as well. They heard a chattering, shouting noise above their heads and more glass splintering and then all of the imps were free of the church, some flying to the trees and some hopping and clambering among the gravestones, flicking out their tongues and spitting. Father Dingle noticed for the first time how dark the sky had become, ragged and black through the trees. A few drops of rain pelted down and the creatures shrieked, whether with excitement or displeasure Father Dingle could not tell. They gathered in the large twisted maple in the center of the graveyard, a shrieking knot of bat wings.
Father Dingle lifted his head and once again caught the eye of one of the creatures. It gibbered and pointed at him, then put its hands on its hips squealing and bouncing. It flung down a shower of acorns and spewed out a small fountain of green spit. He looked down again, and then carefully looked up out of the corner of his eye. His submissive posture seemed to mollify it. The rain began to come down more seriously. But Father Dingle found that if he moved more than an inch or two, one or more of the little demons turned a baleful eye in his direction and began spitting and throwing things.
“Keep still!” he hissed to Margie and Alan.
His bald head was getting wet and it occurred to him that his glasses would soon be almost useless in the rain. He had no idea how they would escape, but moving now was out of the question. Perhaps they could wait the creatures out.
“We have to get out of here!” Alan hissed back. “I can’t stay here any longer. We have to get out of here!”
Alan’s voice was trembling. Father Dingle glanced at him through the mud, over the top of his foggy glasses. Alan was pale and wide eyed. He was going to crack.
“Hush!” Margie whispered back, urgently. “Be still like Father Dingle says.”
“We can’t just stay here forever. We can’t!” Alan whispered, his voice crackling and warbling. Suddenly he shrieked, “Somebody has to do something.”
Then out of the corner of his eye, Father Dingle saw Alan raise himself up to his knees. He was shaking his fist. He picked up a rock.
“No! Alan!” Father Dingle hissed.
Margie reached over to tug at his pant leg, “Alan! Stop!”
But Alan’s fear had made him very, very angry. “Get out of here you little monsters!” he called out. “Go back to Hell!”
Alan threw the rock. It hit the smallest imp squarely in the back of the head. The imp slowly turned and eyed Alan. Alan remained on his knees, locked in a stare down with the creature in the pouring rain. The other imps stopped their noise and they all turned to look at the three humans lying on the quickly dampening earth.
In a trembling voice, Alan yelled, “I said go back to Hell!”
Father Dingle couldn’t endorse such behavior, but he had to admire it.
The imp who’d been hit hunched forward on a gnarled tree branch, looking intensely at Alan. It turned its head to one side, like a dog who’s trying to make out whether you have a treat in mind or a trip to the vet, and it made a chuckling noise. The other imps chuckled with it. For a few seconds they chuckled and clucked like overwrought hens. Then with a shake of its head the small imp flew down and landed in front of Alan, who was still on his knees. Alan gazed down at it. From his vantage point, Father Dingle thought Alan looked like teacher getting down on his knees to talk to a small and ugly child. The imp turned its head this way and that, clearly thinking. Then it reached out its bony fingers, stroking Alan’s chin and his neck, all the while peering into his eyes. It clicked its tongue, still wagging its oversized head from side to side, considering. Finally it rubbed the back of its head where Alan had pelted it with a rock.
Suddenly, it leapt on Alan’s neck, biting hard and deep. One bite. It lingered at Alan’s neck for a few seconds, tracing the bite mark almost tenderly with its bony claw like fingernail, then flew back to its companions.
Alan remained on his knees for a few seconds, like a tree after the felling cut. Father Dingle could see the bite mark on Alan’s neck from where he cowered on the ground. It was a perfect circle of teeth marks…for an instant. Then the blood began to ooze from the wound, marring its circular perfection, welling up into large beads then dripping down Alan’s neck in a stream of crimson. Alan toppled, stiff as a log and then he was still. The whole swarm of imps had gathered and flown off like a dark cloud up through the trees and into the tattered sky.
Father Dingle took a few more sips of brandy. He swirled the liquid in his glass and shrugged. He downed it. More images swam up from the brown liquid. Alan lying pale and motionless, barely breathing. The weight of Alan’s head in his hand as he tried to keep it up and out of the mud and water. His hand covered in Alan’s blood. Father Dingle came back to the present, rubbing his hand compulsively against his belly as if to remove the stain. Cedric, displeased at the disturbance, bit his hand, released a pinpoint of Father Dingle’s own blood and then licked it off.
Father Dingle closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on the scratchy tongue of the cat, but he was back in the graveyard; there was Margie’s retreating back as she ran through the tombstones, fiery red hair against the slender blue coat to meet the constable and the ambulance and direct them to Alan. She disappeared into the fog of his rain smeared glasses.
Father Dingle had not moved. He had remained kneeling on the ground holding Alan, mud oozing through his pant leg and creeping into his shoes. He did not know whether he held a man or a corpse. He felt that he could not breathe, but his body remained alive. Then realized he was breathing not air but fear. Fear filled his lungs. Fear coursed through his veins. It filled his belly. It slid downwards and his intestines cramped with it. Every crevice of his body and soul, every crack, every wrinkle, every cavity was full of fear.
The fear that the demons had unleashed was a magnet for every other fear he had ever felt, and Father Dingle had always been afraid. This new fear devoured his fear of the dark and expanded. It devoured his fear that he would lose his job. It sucked up his fear of confrontation. His fear of hunger. His fear of sex. His fear of loneliness and his fear of intimacy.
Now enormous, the Fear loomed over him. And he recognized it. This was the god he had attempted to pacify all his life. His religion was not an invitation to the sacred and mysterious. His religion was an attempt to keep those things at bay. Hell had broken through his illusions with a battering ram…and a message. All his rituals and liturgies, all his attempts to be good had been pointless, because Hell found a way in anyway. He’d been right to be afraid. The universe was and always had been oblivious to his magician’s chants and hymns.
This knowledge broke him. For a time, he could no longer summon the existential vigor to trouble himself. His strength ebbed and he relaxed himself into the mind of Fear. His soul, drowned in terror, was numb. Submission to Fear had released him from its feeling. His god had at last given him the religious ecstasy he had so long been denied.
Constable Henry had dropped Father Dingle at home and here he was now…in his pajama pants drinking brandy. He’d locked the doors and windows and closed all the drapes. It wasn’t until then that the numbness released him and his sense of self-preservation and with it his terror, returned. No one had believed them, of course. Alan had been removed to the hospital, still unresponsive. The search was on for the assailants who had attacked them. Probably with a smoke bomb said the Fire Chief and the Constable, searching for a reasonable explanation for the damage and injury. But now Father Dingle knew. The universe did not have to wait to sneak in through an unlocked window. It did not have a rule book. The universe could simply unleash Hell.
Still, he tried. He tried to think of some reason this had happened. He pondered how. He pondered why. He pondered who. Most of all he pondered whether he was somehow to blame. It was his church after all. Allowing a door to Hell to be opened in its basement had to fall under his responsibility. His brain had circled the track until it was exhausted. Now it was inching back toward its default position. He could make no sense of the thing. Odds were he wasn’t suddenly going to become a brave or useful man. He found it hard to repent of his fears when it seemed that all along fear had been the most appropriate response to a universe that was at its mercy.
After all, what could be done? He had no magic tricks or seminary tidbits to close the portal to Hell. Perhaps it had closed itself. Perhaps it hadn’t. No one had believed his story, except Margie, and what exactly could a roundish, balding, middle aged pastor and twenty-something part time church secretary do to fight the powers of Hell? Not one thing he could think of. Not one thing.
In spite of all his efforts, in spite of all his religious supplications to the infinite to leave him alone, the mysterious universe had broken through. It wasn’t a good thing – as he had suspected all along. What could he do? He was at the mercy of powers beyond his control. He suddenly relaxed back into the infinite Fear. There was nothing he could do. He would simply go back to hoping that the universal mystery would leave him alone. What were the odds of such a thing happening again? He would hope the imps had flown into the mountains (or even another village, as long as it wasn’t his own). Hope that somehow Alan would be okay in the morning. Hope that the church could be put to rights again and that no more portals to Hell would open in the church basement. It was a poor tired hope. But it was all he had.
He was exhausted. The brandy was finally doing its work. He stood up. He would get Cedric his tuna, he would go to bed and lock his door and pull up the blankets and he would sleep as long as ever he could. Yes indeed. Certainly he had a good excuse for calling in sick for a few days. The universe could sort its own damned self out. Father Dingle was done trying to manipulate it. He would hide from it the best he could.
He started to walk to the kitchen when the phone rang. It jangled his nerves. It rang again. That was twice. Another loud, jarring brrrrrrng. Two more rings and it would stop. Whoever it was would think he was in bed. Every nerve in his body quivered. The phone itself might have been a small bat winged demon it unnerved him so. It battered his fragile new wall of exhaustion and serene despair.
The final ring shook him into action beyond his control. His hand shot out, quivering and he heard himself answer the phone.
“Hello?” he trembled into the phone.
“Father Dingle! It’s Margie,” the phone said to him. He removed the phone from his ear and looked at it with distaste.
“Father Dingle, are you there?” she was speaking loudly and he could still hear her.
He put the phone back to his ear.
“Yes,” he said uncertainly.
“What are we going to do? Samantha, my roommate saw one! On her way home, she saw it in the park! They’ll have to believe us now Father! We have to…” Margie’s voice snapped off as Father Dingle clicked the phone gently back into place.
“Come, Cedric,” he said, his voice quivering. He almost fell over the cat, which was rubbing its face on his leg in anxious anticipation of tuna. But he forced his trembling feet to shuffle toward the kitchen, “It’s time for tuna. And then off to bed. If there’s one thing I’ve learned today Cedric, it’s that the only proper response to this universe is fear. And if we swallow enough fear and brandy, we won’t feel a thing.”