Chapter Thirty: Bishop's Nightmare
The news conference was held on the huge front steps of the great cathedral on a clear, sunny day. It had gone quite well, pretty much as laid out in the press materials handed out beforehand. The Bishop expansively explained that the "unfortunate story" of the closure of the retirement home operated by the Order of the Ardent Sisters of His Holy Service was a simple "rush to judgment" by an "over-zealous budget process." His Grace explained that of all present, he was the most grateful for an opportunity to "correct a grave error" before it had been perpetrated upon "these most faithful, most precious, most highly revered servants in the Lord's service."
Members of the press stifled their cynical responses while they dutifully recorded the Bishop's bleatings. A few of the photographers were able to capture his flushed face, glistening with beads of sweat as he spoke. His assistant would later plead that such photos not be printed, stating that the great man's apparent discomfiture was due "not to stress and embarrassment but rather to the unseasonable heat of the day."
No photographer was able to see or photograph what the Bishop saw standing behind the crowd as he concluded his remarks: a row of nine Priests, shoulder to shoulder in black suits. Their faces were ghastly white. Black sockets gaped where their eyes should be. At first he'd vaguely wondered why they were there. He recognized each as a 'problem priest' that he'd been forced to transfer out of the city. When he looked more closely he saw that these were not human faces. They were ghastly, horrible caricatures of human faces. He stopped speaking and stared. The nine apparitions grew larger and closer, moving forward through the assembled press who moved aside to make room for their passage but took no notice otherwise.
He staggered backwards a step, reeling. He nearly fell as his foot caught the edge of a step behind him. The apparitions were upon him now, surrounding him, hissing and whispering foul epithets to him, accusing him of foul complicity. He gasped and held out his arms to ward them off. They closed their ranks, their cadaverous faces thrust into his. Their mouths opened and exhaled a noxious cloud of green gas that reeked and tasted of death. It surrounded him, choking and blinding him. He was nauseated, his stomach heaving as if to vomit all it held, but his throat was choked shut. His bile rose and burned like the fires of Hell but he could expell nothing.
Bishop Cruxton flailed wildly and fell unconscious on the steps, his head striking the edge of the stone to open a bleeding wound on his bald pate. Cameras recorded every moment of his 'fainting spell' as his assistant later labeled it. Tape recorders caught his shrieking words before he'd been choked into unconsciousness, a screaming gibberish of 'devils, hell spawn, demons!'
An ambulance was only moments away. The great man was lifted from the bloodied steps. He would be many days in hospital before he recovered. He was confined to a private room. News reporters, staking out the lower floor which was as close as they were allowed to approach, were quick to note that several of the city's most prominent physicians and psychiatrists were coming and going from the Bishop's floor. Their insistent questioning was met with denials and refusals to comment. But they suspected that something more than 'fainting from stress and heat' had happened. They had little need to speculate. Film footage and photographs of the incident dominated the news for several days. Commentary was rife with speculation concerning whatever 'affliction' had befallen the city's most prominent clergyman.
Alone in his private room, the door closely guarded by a rotating shift of security staff, the Bishop lay exhausted in his bed. He was quite alone, most emphatically, insistently alone. He could not, would not tolerate any questions or pitying glances. He had dismissed his staff to tend to their duties back in their offices. Even his personal assistant had been banished from the hospital, told that he would approach the Bishop upon pain of losing his position.
The Bishop wished nothing more than to be left alone. He was troubled, confused, and worried that he was losing his sanity.
He woke to find a stranger standing at the foot of his bed wearing a simple homespun robe of gray wool. The unsmiling figure gestured for the Bishop to rise. Without thinking he found himself compelled to slide from the bed to stand on bare feet. He shuffled forward and the stranger reached out a hand, grasped his shoulder, and they found themselves standing in an empty landscape before a massive gate.
Bishop Cruxton peered through the bars of the gate and there he saw Paradise. Gazing into that scene his soul felt a surge of desire and longing. He reached out to grasp the gate but it slid away, just out of reach. As it did he felt a moment of sorrow, of loss.
An apparition appeared between himself and the gate. It was a younger vision of himself, garbed in rich cloth woven with golden threads. His fingers and neck were draped with gold rings and necklaces. A huge golden mitre sat upon his head. His eyes were glowing, hard and black with pride and ambition. Bishop Cruxton reached out to shield himself from this apparition, the damning truth of himself. It withdrew, but the gate of his desire slid farther away, much more distant this time. He wailed a cry of disappointment and of loss.
He stared after the gate, grown small in the distance. Oh God! Those nine... those demon priests... those abominable men whom he'd shunted off lest they tarnish him with scandal. Those nine ghouls in black stood before him, their eyes open and glaring hatefully at him. They were laughing, mocking, deriding him — HIM their Bishop they were mocking and accusing and proclaiming that however foul they might be, HE was the Most High Protector of their foul and unspeakable evils!
He slapped his hands to his ears to block the clamoring voices but that did not stop their din. On and on their mocking shouts boomed in his head. He stared past them to see the precious Gate of Paradise sliding faster and faster away until it was gone from his sight. He cried aloud in an agony of loss...
The foul nine were gone and in their stead stood a frail woman, hardly larger than a young girl. Her worn and deeply lined face peered up into his, studying him with a pitying expression. She was not accusing or cursing or condemning him. She reached out with her gnarled, frail hand and touched a finger to his cheek. From it she lifted his wet tear and held it before his eyes to contemplate.
"You poor lost soul! That which you seek has been lost. Those who sought to save you were denied. That which you achieved has vanished. Go. Come here not again until you are called. Remember this moment. You may yet redeem yourself. Humility may yet suffice. Heed me, you poor man. Humility may yet suffice."
He awoke drenched in cold sweat. His sheets, his pillow case, were soaked and foul smelling. His blanket lay in a heap on the floor where it had fallen during his thrashing about. The upper sheet lay tangled about his legs. He fell back onto his pillow, utterly spent. He was not a man to remember dreams. Since childhood he could not recall a single moment of any dream he'd ever had.
He'd never forget this one.
Mike turned to Father Ambrose in their hotel room. "Father, we may leave now. I believe our work here is done. We are needed at home. And I, for one, am quite tired of this place. The mountains are calling us."
Early the next morning they were sitting with Sister Agatha in her parlor, the house vibrant with joy and gratitude.
"Dear friends, I cannot thank you enough. The joy of the sisters is unbounded! However this came to be, I'm sure the two of you were the moving force.
"Dear Ambrose, I have considered your words, and I have made a decision. I accept your invitation to that mountain valley you love so dearly, but you must be patient with me for a short while. Now that this home, this refuge has been preserved, I will petition the Order to provide a younger, stronger sister to assume the duty here. I must remain to assist her transition. When all is ready, I will call and we can make arrangements for my travel. Is that good with you, dear friend?"
Fr. Ambrose's heart soared with her words. His broad smile and gentle grasping of her hands expressed his feelings. Mike stood behind him and smiled. If ever two precious souls deserved to find comfort and companionship together, surely their Lord must agree it is these two.
They did not rush home. They drove northward into the Black Hills region that was sacred ground to the native Americans. Mike found spiritual connections there, and shared them with his friend. In turn, Father Ambrose took them to a small chapel sitting alone on a hill surrounded by the sacred hills. There, both men felt a powerful spiritual connection emanating from earth and sky, reaching from the planet's core to the reaches of the universe. It was a palpable energy and they shared it, sensing and revering it. In that tiny chapel they rededicated themselves to their callings.
End, Book One. Next (soon to be written as part of a 3-part series): "Gold Mountain"