Abi Hynes

‘The Savage Chapel’ by Abi Hynes

Winner of the Cambridge Short Story Prize 2020

 

The church is big today. If you approach Macclesfield’s St Michael and All Angel’s from the south side, you wouldn’t know the difference, but from Church Street you can’t avoid the three levels of glass and steel. Enter, and you see how the new enlarged nave sprawls itself like the fat belly of an old vicar, its dark stone lifting your eyes and heart to heaven.

I’m glad it’s not a building day, but I find it disconcerting, all this chopping and changing, old to new and back again. I would like to go and rest inside the Legh chapel, but today it’s full of too-bright furnishings and books for children, and I want a more sombre atmosphere in which to wait for him.

My own chapel is named for me, of course: the Savage Chapel. It is my starting and my end point; the centre from which I may wander, though not far, like a tethered dog. If I stray and find myself unravelling, it’s here that I come back to: encased, entombed. Safe as only the dead are safe.

My name, Thomas Savage, was perhaps an odd one for a priest, but I always liked it. It is particularly fitting for this chapel, which is, on most days, used for quiet contemplation and for prayer. Those things sound gentle, but the people who come to sit here are the carriers of all sorts of violent feeling. We tend to forget that the heart is a muscle. These days I see a great deal of sentiment for the mild-mannered Christ, but personally I always preferred him in a rage, throwing the merchants from the temple.

Have I introduced you to our priest yet? If I haven’t, I blame my condition; memory is not my strong point anymore. His foot has just struck the fourth of the 108 steps. It has been raining, and he is watching his shoes just now, but by the 52nd step he’ll look up and see the flank of the church, the stained glass lying flat and grey, luminous only from the inside.

There’s a saying now that I do not like: Home is where the heart is. It’s the sort of trite thing that women in the congregation embroider onto cushions and little lavender bags. Sometimes they decorate them with hearts as a child might draw them: two humps like breasts or buttocks, meeting in a point. They do not depict me, of course. Not the fist of flesh that they interred here, plucked from my body before it was laid to rest at York Minster, as was an archbishop’s proper right. I do not know if the remainder of my spirit – the spirit of my lungs, my legs, my pronounced and hefty intellect – rises and stalks that great church, or squeezes itself onto pews and murmurs into the ears of the mourners, the confessors, the hypocrites. I often wonder what the nature of that ghost might be. Divorced, as it is, from me – as later the boy who watched me marry Catherine of Aragon to his brother would divorce himself from her and from the holy see of Rome. What the Lutherans never understood is that ordinary people prefer magic to symbolism. Who wants to eat a wafer that is only a wafer, if last week you were offered the actual meat of God?

I always gave a good sermon, and I preached to kings. But perhaps, without me, my ghost is not even a Catholic.

I beg your pardon, though. I lose my focus easily. Our friend is on the 99th step. He keeps a leather bag tucked in tight against himself to save it from the rain; it is older than it looks, he is that sort of person. I shoo away the quiet ones who are cluttering up the place with their contemplations, and most of them sense my hostility and shuffle out. One who stays is a woman who is weeping softly. She lights a candle; it burns down in the flicker of a pulse and extinguishes. She lights another, and splits herself, and lights another, until there are fifty of her, days and months and years of her, folding over each other and spreading out like a fan, their little lights flickering in and out of existence. One of her older selves bends to write a prayer request. Please pray for my son. He is lost.

I take a deep breath. I used to be able to control this sort of thing, but it is getting worse. For the heart, it seems, time does not move forwards and backwards, but happens all at once. To the heart everything is present tense.

Our man comes in and brings the evening with him. He both believes he is alone and knows he cannot be, and he mutters something; a prayer, I suppose, from that silly English book he carries. Over the years, I have sometimes lifted it from his pocket while he sleeps and been amused by its practical content: For Fair Weather, In the Time of Plague or Sickness, For Peace and Deliverence from our Enemies. He is too beautiful, really, to be a schoolteacher or a priest. It is distracting to have him around the place, with his pale eyes and his neat, clean hands. I try to make myself visible to him and think myself his equal in height, if a little broader. At one time, I could make myself as solid as a man and twice as tall, or I could manifest as an altar, or an organ pipe, or a communion cup. It was a relief, I’ll admit, to find my heart was not devoid of humour; perhaps my other ghost is very serious. One reckless evening, I hid myself inside a statue of the Virgin Mary, and the older members of the congregation who still remembered their rosary beads and their saints’ relics dipped their heads and washed my feet in tears.

But, alas. Now I can only hover at the edges of his vision, casting no shadow, obscuring nothing that might lie behind me. I do my best, and I put myself between him and the little priest-door beyond which he lives.

“Brother,” I say, and I confess that my tone is not only brotherly. I must stand close to make him hear me, and he jumps. The rain has made his hair look darker than it is, and he smells of it; yes, of musk, and of rain. For a moment there are forty of him, very young and just arrived, or pulling on his gown, or sitting close to the father of a troubled boy. But then he is one man again, and his expression is unhappy.

We sit together on the bench that has become our meeting place. I can feel that the bag he rests between us is heavy, and so he has brought the instruments I asked him to. It is the same bag from which he has drawn papers criss-crossed with his own dense handwriting: his notes on others like me, from whom – we hoped, before my condition worsened – that we might learn something. Some were names that I knew well. Richard the Lionheart, named for what he was supposed to have eaten, had his own heart preserved in a casket and taken to the cathedral in Rouen. Henry I, who met his unenviable end by eating poisoned eels, had his heart sewn into the hide of a bull to be transported home. And there were other names I did not know. Thomas Hardy. Frederic Chopin. He told me that a man called Byron plucked the flaming heart from his friend Shelley’s body as it burned on a beach and gave it to his wife, who wrote a book about how men are monstrous.

There are no women on his list, presumably because they have mostly lacked the import to be needed in two places at once. I told him once that I felt a woman would be better suited to this heart-ghost existence, given as they are to being ruled by their emotions. One of the stained-glass graces – Charity, I think it was – laughed in my face at that. Her sisters had to shake her.

It was quite the thesis, really, that he wrote for me. But my fading out, my increasingly garbled state of mind… For these things, he has discovered no cure.

He twists his hands together. He does not want to do what I have brought him here for, and he looks around the room, at his sheets of research, at anything but me. But has he managed to discover, I ask him, dripping wax on him with one of the weeping women’s candles to reclaim his full attention, whether any of these famous hearts has formed a ghost like mine? And, being formed, if they have suffered the same predicament: this timelessness, this merging of centuries, this experiential affliction that is separating cause from its effect and making the very bonds of me loosen and fade?

He shakes his head. Around us, the little statues of my great nephew’s children torment me, switching themselves from flesh to stone and back again. The Breeches Bible in the corner clothes and unclothes Adam and Eve. In the church behind us, they hold a funeral for the weeping woman’s son, who has been found at last. She does not see or hear it, but remains in the Savage Chapel, gilding us with the glow of hundreds of candles, all her backs turned to her son’s casket as it is carried up the aisle by strangers. The roof above me builds and rebuilds itself, letting the weather in.

“Please,” I ask him.

He takes a hammer and chisel from his bag and cuts me from the wall. I direct him to the exact place, but the stone does not give me up easily. The noise of the hammer striking metal sets off a cacophony of complaint from every statue between the Pardon Brass and the pulpit. Sweat further dampens the hair at his temples; dust settles on the sleeves of his coat. My urn is small, and I feel the tug of it as he lifts me out and holds me in his hands. I never lay with another man while I had a body, but at this touch he makes me sorry for it. He gazes at me – the faintest thickening of the air beside him.

He would do it if I asked him. He would carry me to York and rest me flat against the earth that covers me, and in that churchyard my spirit would be whole again. I would be reunited with my reasonable mind, with my skull and my belly and my cock. There have been many nights when we have whispered to each other, and he has unburdened himself to the ghost in the wall as he never has in confession. There was a man he loved, but spurned, as his faith would have him do. He is haunted by that love, although he is innocent of his future, which I wish I did not know. To the heart, everything is present tense. I am a coward, and I do not tell him that we stand in the light of his mother’s candles. That our weeping woman weeps for him, her prayer requests aging and curling up like leaves. That his pain, at last, will lead him to do a thing beyond the Lord’s forgiveness. For him, the funeral behind us is still very far away. It is moving closer, but there are years between them.

“Never mind,” I say, and I press my weightlessness against his chest until he understands me. He holds me on his lap, and there we are the only things that do not tremble.

There cannot be long now. If my better spirit is in York, then let it lie there. If we were reunited, it would once again subsume me, and I might forget these hundreds of years of exile; so many of them spent watching this man as he kneels, hands clasped, baring his soul, or brings the boys from the King’s School to mass, or comforts the grieving and the helpless from whom I cannot seem to look away. I would forget (I know I would, for I was ever practical) the way he bends his head to pray, his smiling lips, the narrow breadth of his shoulders. I would present him to St Peter at the gates to paradise as one more thing that I have sacrificed for the eternity of my soul. He would be weighed on golden scales against my virtues; a lonely sin accrued after the bread and ale was passed over my cooling body and swallowed by a sin-eater, who knew not what he took into himself, but only hoped that he was paid its weight in gold.

We wait a while. This is a sermon, too. All that I am, I give unto my God. Every moment, I can feel myself dissolving into air.

***

Abi Hynes is a drama and fiction writer based in Manchester. Her plays have been staged in venues across the UK, and she is currently working on original audio drama and TV projects. Her short stories have been widely published, most recently in Black Static, Lucent Dreaming and Neon Magazine, and she was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Novella-in-Flash Award in 2018. She has a story coming out in the first anthology from Fairlight Books this October.


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