A Country Priest

Christopher Burns

That year we had the worst winter I had known. It had taken two men with picks to break the ground in the churchyard, and when the soil was lifted it was in great jagged lumps as heavy as stone.

All this was a long time ago. I travelled by horse, although I had once sat in a car owned by my bishop. The villagers told me they never dreamed of owning cars. They were not even sure how they worked, although some of the farmers had tractors. Often, however, the villagers told stories of train rides that would take you to magical places they had never seen – Lublin, Kharkov, Jerusalem. And I would tell them how I had once travelled to cities whose names were mere rumours to them.

That afternoon I took my horse to be shod. It was pleasant to come in out of the street and stand by the blacksmith’s hearth. Fire glowed and licked in the bed of charcoal. The smith stood beside his forge, his arms bare and his hair wet with sweat. He was said to be cuckolding one of his friends, but I had seen no proof. I was vaguely jealous of him. At times the life of the flesh, untroubled by the rigours of the spirit, seemed to me to be a strange condition. Like sleep, it was doomed but happy.

The blacksmith’s was full of the smell of leather, of pickling acid, and most of all the hot, sulphurous smell of charcoal. The horse felt the unexpected heat and urinated in a long viscous stream onto the flagstones. The smith took its bridle and led it forward. I did not have to say anything; he knew about the shoes by the way it walked. I stood nearer the fire. The horse’s winter feed made its urine smell thick and pungent.

The smith bellowed the flames into a glowing, scorching heat and reshod the horse. As he worked we talked about village business – the next day’s burial, the weather, an expected child. His muscles gleamed as he bent, lifted, hammered. I wondered if hell could be something like this. The smith seemed irredeemably physical. I could see the tension in his body increase and relax, watch the sweat coat his brow. When he rested the shoe or a hammer against his leather apron it gave a soft, almost inaudible thud.

Afterwards the horse backed away, its hooves clattering on the stone and throwing off a few sparks. I took the reins from the smith. ‘You owe me nothing for this, Father,’ he said, and his smile was thin. I nodded and blessed him. Then I took the horse back across the street and stabled him.

My housekeeper made me a meal of broth and newly-baked bread. The bread was pleasant but the vegetables in the broth were fibrous, and some of them tasted slightly rancid. The meat, too, was tough. She was embarrassed by this, but I said it was not her fault, and that I would see if any of my parishioners could give me some better food. Afterwards we drank hot, sweet tea that made me feel heady and content.

The boy came to the door just as I was beginning to doze in front of the fire. I did not recognise him at First. He wanted me to come and see his sister at their farm some distance out in the country. I looked up at my house-keeper and she explained who he was. ‘I know,’ I said, although I had not known. I was tired and needed rest.

‘You must come, Father,’ he said, ‘I have been told not to come back without you.’

I looked at him, trying to judge from his face how serious the problem was. He repeated his sentence word for word. I sighed, said I was weary, but agreed to come. His face showed neither gratitude nor relief, merely a kind of stupefaction. ‘He must be warmed,’ my housekeeper said, and made him drink some tea while I got into my boots.

Already the sky was dark enough for the early stars to be seen. I took my horse from the stable and followed the boy on his. Oil lamps burned in several windows, but many had put up shutters. Our shadows were long but already dispersing into dusk. I shivered. The light across the horizon was a narrowing band; it would be another bitter night. I pulled the gloves as tight as I could.

Outside the village all the countryside was frozen snow. Black skeletal trees were dotted around it. Along our track were a series of bare thorns. The sky was darkening all the time, with skeins and clusters of stars springing out across it, and the light wind carried flecks of ice.

Half an hour outside the village we came to the railway. Here, just before they crossed our path, two lines joined. The main line drove straight across the plain, but the branch that came in from the left was from a town that was three hours away by buggy. I went there once a year, twice if I was lucky, and wandered round it. There was a bookshop, and a magistrate’s, and shops where they sold things that could only have been brought by train. I always went to the station. It was nearly always empty but, to me, full of promise. It would be an easy place to escape from.

Curiosity overcame me, and I guided the horse beside the lines until we came to the junction. The points were frozen. The spaces between the rails were packed with ice. I went back to where the path crossed. The boy was waiting for me; as soon as he saw me coming he set off again.

I could not help but pause when I crossed the line. The rails headed somewhere with a precision that was purposeful and thrilling. I never saw them without thinking that someday orders would come from above that would take me out of this bleak, sparse country, away from the claustrophobia of village life. I would catch a train.

By the time we reached the farm the boy had slowed and I was almost at his side. He was doubled forward over his saddle, his head touching the horse’s mane. Sometimes he sniffed as if he was crying.

The farm buildings were black and the stonework edged with snow. Outside in the yard stood a drinking-trough; its ice had been smashed but had refrozen into a jagged pattern. I sniffed the air and could smell hard earth and the distant fetid smell of cattle. I dismounted and handed the reins to the boy. ‘Keep him inside,’ I said, ‘and give him water and food.’ The return journey would be difficult. The boy looked at me. His eyes were full of stars. Then he took the horse across the yard, the ice ridges cracking as they walked.

Before I went into the house I looked around the yard and peered into the buildings. Some hens in a coop fluttered as if I were a prowling fox. And, in an outhouse, there was a tractor that was covered up to wait for the spring. They had money.

I found the pigs by their smell, but I was more surprised to find that they had not had to slaughter most of their cattle for the winter. I slid open the bolt of the byre and went in. The cattle swayed in the dark, their huge black bulks indistinguishable from each other. The place reeked of their warmth, and sodden hay, and shit. I closed the door on them and went into the house knowing I would be rewarded for my journey.

The farmer was thin, with an angular face that exaggerated the slight protruberance of his eyes. He had not shaved for several days. His wife was small and more stockily built, with a broad, open face and a white bonnet that made her eyes look dark and anguished. They fussed around me, thanking me before I even had time to stamp the snow out of my boots.

‘How long has she been ill?’ I asked.

‘She sickened for a short while,’ the wife said, ‘and fell into a fever this morning.’ Her voice was thin with strain.

‘She does not know who she is or where she is,’ the man said.

‘What have you been able to do?’

‘We can do nothing but hope,’ he said.

‘We have prayed,’ the woman said, ‘all the time we have prayed.’

‘Good,’ I said absently.

I was looking round the room. It was gloomy but for the fire and an oil lamp in the alcove on the rear wall. Hams, cured by smoke, hung from hooks in the ceiling. The girl’s bed had been brought in. It was pushed up against the far wall. I stood in front of the fire and watched her. She appeared to be unconscious; I wondered if she had just died.

The boy came in from the yard, settled himself in a chair, and began to close his eyes. I smiled at him. The farmer took a log from the pile stacked by the hearth and placed it on the fire. The flames licked round it, caught on the resin of the bark, and within half a minute it was spitting, illuminating the room.

I stood next to the girl. She was breathing uneasily and her skin looked sallow and unhealthy. When I touched her brow her eyes shot open and stared at me. She was hot to the touch but my hand, when I lifted it away, was damp. I sniffed it, half afraid of the smell of death.

‘Are you a priest?’ she asked. Her breath smelled like a dog’s.

‘I am. Don’t you recognise me?’

She looked at me as if she did not understand at all.

‘I have known you for some years,’ I said.

‘Am I dying, Father?’

I averted my eyes. ‘I shall sit beside you and pray,’ I said.

I would not let them waken the boy, but the farmer and his wife knelt beside me and I spoke a long prayer out loud while the girl lay there. When she turned her head and gave a moan of what I took to be despair I reached out and stroked her hair. It was in damp black strands. Her body gave off a sick heat, as if it was burning itself.

I took hold of her hand and could sense that she had lost much of her weight; the hand was nothing but skin and sinew and bone. I sat there holding it until I began to feel weary. If the girl died then I would, perhaps, have made her passing easier. But with her presence so close to me, even in her sickness, I could not help but think of her as recovered, healthy, enjoying the pleasures of sensuality with someone I might even know.

I dozed, and imagined that the dark room glittered, as if her soul had escaped her. But then I woke, not knowing how long I had slept.

The girl was breathing more contentedly. I touched her brow again. She was still warm, but the unnatural heat had gone. She could have been a child asleep.

I looked round at the farmer and his wife. He was still on his knees, his hands linked together above his genitals. It was as if he was naked and protecting them. But his wife had her face in her hands. I saw the light run across her fingers then fall with her tears, splashing on the floor. ‘I think she is safe,’ the man said shakily.

‘I believe so,’ I said. ‘Your wife?’

‘She knows that prayer is strong,’ he said.

I nodded.

‘Did you sleep, Father – or were you entranced?’

‘I looked sharply at him.

‘She believes the Lord was with us. She said she could feel his presence.’

‘But you saw nothing?’

He shook his head.

I allowed myself a small, sardonic smile. ‘God is everywhere,’ I said. But I had never felt his presence. I envied these people neither their ignorance nor their restricted, unalterable lives, but I often wished that God was as real to me as he was to them. For me he was just a theoretical presence, an abstract product of meditation and study, a philosophical ideal.

I put my hand on the woman’s shoulder and said some words of comfort. She held onto my hand and kissed it and said how good I was, how I was their saviour, how she had felt God near her and her child. Her husband and I exchanged a glance that neither of us wished to hold.

‘You have a rich farm,’ I said as I prepared to leave. They began to offer me food, donations to the church, a regular attendance on the Sabbath. I put my fingers to my chin to indicate thoughtfulness and looked at the sides of meat that hung from the hooks in the ceiling. ‘We are short of food, my housekeeper and I,’ I said, ‘it has been a long winter.’

They wrapped the best ham in a cloth and I put it across my saddle when I set off back across the plain. The temperature had sunk still further. The horse’s breath plumed in the starlight and on all sides was an unutterable icy silence. The hoofprints that had been made on our journey to the farm had turned glassy and hard. They snapped beneath us.

I looked up at the stars and thought that I had never seen so many. They covered the sky in drifts and clouds of eerie, pure light. They made me shiver.

Out of the corner of my eye, towards the horizon, there was a red flash which scattered and dispersed. Above it the stars were momentarily obscured and then swam back into focus. I was puzzled but not scared. Then the flash again. As if, far away, a smith was bellowing his forge. And the stars above it were veiled and then clear again. I stopped and listened. Far away there was a whisper, like the unstopped exhalation of breath.

By the time I reached the crossing the train had stopped at the frozen points. It faced me with its heavy black bulk still hissing. Whatever it carried was stretched away behind it down the branch line.

There was a man at the points carrying a shovel of glowing embers. As I rode slowly towards him he tipped them over the points. The cinders hissed and sparked, filling the air with glowing points of red that winked out one by one. Steam rose from the melting ice.

I paused before the crossing and wondered if I should help him. But, although he looked at me, he did not acknowledge me. I stayed, for the moment, where I was.

He took a hammer and hit the rails. They sang with the blow as it reverberated down the tracks. Then he picked up the shovel again and jammed it down into the gaps between the rails. It scraped and scored until the ice must have given, because he stepped back and signalled to whoever was still in the engine cab.

‘Do you want any help?’ I called, and my voice disappeared into the night. The furnace of the engine gave a dull, muted roar. The man looked at me then walked over to the large lever that controlled the points. He pushed at it and it swung with a metallic creak, and I heard the tracks move. They scraped across the ice with a tearing, glacial shriek.

The man walked over and stooped to inspect the rails. When he straightened he looked at me again. His face was gloom and pale reflected light.

‘The train will pass now?’ I called.

Something came across his face that could have been a smile.

‘I have not seen that trick before,’ I said.

He did not move.

‘You must know many things,’ I said.

‘Perhaps there are some that you could learn, Father,’ he said, and as he picked up his things I wondered how he knew I was a priest. He walked back to the cab, threw the shovel and hammer into it, and climbed after them. A spout of steam hissed from a valve and the train began to rumble forward, gathering speed as it came. In awe, I edged the horse forward, as close as it would go.

I thought that perhaps the points squealed as the huge weight crossed them, but now the whole train was clanging and I could not be certain. The engine smelled of grease and heat and distance, and black smoke, livid with sparks, came out of the funnel with a whoosh like emptied lungs. There were two men on the footplate. Red light spilled across them from the firebox, and one was shovelling coal into its furnace. I was not surprised when neither of them looked at me; they had a whole plain, perhaps more, to travel.

After the engine came a long clattering line of cattle trucks. Frost had settled on their tops and it made them glitter. The trucks were bolted and had small barred apertures. At first I thought they were empty, but as the first drew level I saw a pair of shocked eyes and a child held up for air. And suddenly an arm was thrust out towards me through the bars, its fingers open. Another arm followed. They would have grabbed me if they could. Beneath the clamour of the train I heard a strange forlorn cry begin to pass down the trucks. They were all full, and the people in them had been packed as tightly as beasts. I could smell wet hay and excrement. And faces crowded each opening, and hands reached out along the whole train. I would have given them food, or water, or blessing, or forgiveness if I had been able to. But I could never have reached them, and if they had grabbed me they could have pulled me from my saddle, broken my leg and left me here in the middle of nowhere. The train passed me with its arms still stretched out with spread hands, like strange white growths opening into the night.

At the very end of the train was a carriage with an open guardrail at the rear. As the carriage drew level with me I saw that a man stood motionless at the rail. He had fierce black eyes which did not blink, and his face was thin and bearded like an ascetic’s. He fixed his gaze on me and it did not waver as the train drew him away. Behind him the cattle truck rooves shone in the starlight.

I watched the train until I could no longer see it, and its noise was only a distant whisper across the plain. Then I looked up at the stars and breathed out. My breath frosted in front of me; I sensed the turning of the world; everything wheeled and I fell with a dizzying thump onto the frozen snow. The horse snorted and moved away from me as I sat up feeling breathless and weak.

I picked up the parcel from where it had fallen beside me and dashed the snow crystals from my coat. Then, feeling my bladder full, I stood and pissed freely and for a long time onto the ice.

I led the horse across the railway and mounted him at the other side. The tracks were still and silent. Only a faint wisp of steam from the points spoke of the train’s passing.

There were still a few lights in the houses when I got back to the village. I saw to the horse and trudged back into my own house feeling faint. Just inside the door I had to kick my boots free of ice.

My housekeeper got out of bed and, wrapped in a thick shawl, put more wood on the fire. After she had put a kettle on it she helped me pull off my boots. I held up the parcelled ham and gave it to her when she reached out.

She unrolled it carefully and I saw her eyes glitter when she saw what it was. She weighed it in her hands and the grain on its flank caught the firelight, making her nod appreciatively.

‘It’s good,’ she said, ‘it’s just what we need.’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘And the girl?’ she asked.

‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘she was saved.’

The kettle began to knock and hiss. Soon vapour began to spout from it. I gazed into the fire until my eyes ached.