Anathema

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Arnold stopped to peer at the moon, glabrous and pale in the late night sky, then slipped through the broad cathedral doors. The church was silent except for the echo his shoes made when he walked across the marble floor, and he suppressed a shudder as he passed by flickering candles and confessionals, surrounded by leering statues of the saints.

He stopped beside the front row of pews, genuflected before the blessed sacrament and sat. It was a ritual he’d learned in his youth. A ritual he hadn’t practiced in years.

The domed ceiling rose to a spectacular height, covered in otherworldly frescoes depicting the cosmic struggle between God and Satan. He looked up and felt dwarfed by the vastness of eternity, a terrible awe of Heaven and Hell, and felt as if he might be crushed between the two.

Arnold took a deep breath and gazed toward the altar, where a large wooden crucifix loomed over the empty congregation, hidden beneath a dark shadowy veil. He imagined the figure of Christ within, face frozen in perpetual agony.

It was Holy Week, a time of penance and reflection, and Arnold had a lot to think about.

The cathedral was a special place. Time was thin here, and if he focused hard enough he was sure he could peer through it, into the past, where he’d spent so many formative years in the Church, into the future, where he searched for answers to questions that had almost destroyed him once and threatened to destroy him still.

What was he? He was no closer to figuring that out than he’d been fifteen years ago when his terrible transformation began.

Life had been simple as a child. He’d done as his parents had told him, had believed as the priests had taught him. He’d gone to mass and confession, learned his prayers, absorbed himself fully in the truth that was presented to him.

Now, he was a stranger in his old place of worship, a stranger to his family, a stranger to himself.

He waited, as if God might glance down from Heaven and notice him at last. But there was only the quiet and the dark.

A faint buzz emanated from the stone walls, as if a tension was mounding in the cathedral’s foundation. Arnold closed his eyes to pray.

“Hail Mary,” he began, voice husky and dry. He stopped to clear his throat, then started again. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

Was there a Lord? If so, how did Arnold fit into his plans? The buzz grew louder, and Arnold could feel the pew begin to vibrate beneath him.

“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

What did it mean to be blessed? Arnold had been taught that to be saved, one must remain in a state of grace. Was Arnold in a state of grace, or was he now anathema? Did he have a place in Heaven, or a place in Hell? The buzz transfigured, became a loud shuddering rumble.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

A thunderous crack exploded like a cannon, and Arnold’s eyes popped open.

The veil had torn along a jagged seam that ran down its center like a fault line in the earth. The heavy wooden cross beneath trembled, leaned forward as if in prayer, then came crashing down, destroying the tabernacle, scattering consecrated hosts like confetti.

The earth shook with such violence that Arnold imagined the gates of Hell were opening, ready to swallow him whole.

“Please, God, make it stop!”

Arnold rocked back and forth like a toddler, holding his hands over his ears as if the gesture could protect him.

Then just like that it was over. The Earth stopped moving. The cathedral fell silent once more.

Face hot, Arnold’s neck bulged as he beheld the ruined altar, veins popping through his skin like thick cords.

“What am I?” he shouted at the painting on the ceiling. “Why are you doing this to me?”

A man emerged through the open doorway behind the altar, a silhouette wreathed in moonlight. He stepped forward until the pallid illumination revealed a pair of wide, disbelieving eyes.

The parish priest.

Arnold leaped to his feet and bolted.

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