(Originally published here)
Conway stood with the other parishioners, a thick crowd pressing in on each other and reeking of ostentatious piety and desperation.
The decrepit church wasn’t the biggest, but droves forced their way in from Carey’s Lane every Sunday. A man six feet away was coughing as if his life depended on it, and maybe it did. Cholera had ripped through Cork a little more than ten years ago, carrying away thousands, including three of Conway’s children. Now famine stalked the countryside, and scores of skeletal people draped in rags crammed the quaysides and back streets either looking for work or somewhere to die.
The damned crammed into any church they could find, searching for something. Maybe salvation, maybe just a moment’s respite from the fear of imminent death. He knew they wouldn’t find anything here. He hadn’t. And surely, if ever God was going to reach out his hand it was going to be when his little Isobel lay dying of fever, a whisper of the vibrant two-year-old she used to be. First Martha, then Danny, then Isobel, all gone in just weeks. What a glorious reign Queen Victoria had brought them.
His wife, Matilde, barely left their rooms. She spent hours kneeling in front of two red candles and a portrait of Saint Monica, who was supposed to bring solace to grieving parents. But if she did, she was ignoring the Conways. Their last surviving child, Hanora, now sixteen, had gone to England with her husband and her mother had barely noticed. Hanora had worked small jobs here and there, helping on clothing stalls at St Peter’s Market on Cornmarket Street, and made sure her mother was fed while her father was at sea. Now they relied on friends, relatives to look in on her. He helped haul grain, butter, and timber to England and bring coal back on one of the steam packets. He had been missing when Isobel passed. They couldn’t afford to lose the work, he kept telling himself, even though he knew it was a lie. Now his wife was a ghost and guilt and grief were eating him from the core out.
The priest droned on in the gloom ahead. Conway understood almost none of the Latin, but they all understood the rhythm of the ritual. He could just about see the priest’s head bobbing up on a step as they all faced the altar, which was clothed in shadow and candlelight, the sun outside blotted out by clouds and the high windows filthy inside and out. Who is this man to turn his back on us, Conway growled to himself, even though he knew it was just the way things were. But when the priest turned to deliver his sermon, some tirade about God leaving bellies empty as punishment for the emptiness of souls, Conway realised he had had enough. Enough of going along with the pantomime, of worshipping a God that had abandoned him and ruined his beloved.
And standing there, desperate to leave and ready to explode with rage, he had an epiphany. If God won’t answer me, maybe the other fella will. What have I got to lose? And so he prayed with a fervour he hadn’t felt in a decade of half-life. Over and over he chanted, in his head first and then under his breath, “The devil is in me, the devil is in me”. And if the men on either side of him started to back away, what of it? Fools, he said. Idiots with heads full of muck and hearts as dull as old knives. Something welled up inside of him, an emotion he couldn’t name which made him puff out his chest, and for the first time in a long time he felt calm within himself.
The Mass finished, and the congregation spilled onto the street. Legions of the dead walked around him, braying to each other with news of the day or pleading with passersby to throw a few coins their way for charity or whatever goods they’d dredged up.
Behind him he heard a tap, tap, tap of metal on cobblestones. Conway looked left and right. The crowds had vanished, along with the hawkers trying to flog their wares. The street had gone utterly silent, but the tapping echoed off the buildings, until it seemed to be coming from everywhere at once.
Conway turned around and less than a foot away from him was a leering, decimated face. It was bloated and bleached white, and half the skin on its jaw was missing. Something had been gnawing on it, but the wounds hadn’t bled. They had just torn. The man’s clothes were drenched and his hair seemed to drift in the air as if he was underwater. Conway screamed as the drowned remains of his father chuckled at him, rapping a blackthorn walking stick on the ground.
“This? This is how you see me? I won’t lie, I was rather hoping for a well-cut suit, one of those uptight educated voices that drives you crazy, but this… well, this will do. That scream, oh that scream was pure fear. It was intoxicating. Do it again.” His speech was clear but damp, as if it was full of phlegm.
Conway’s mouth opened and closed but nothing came out.
“No? Cat got your tongue? A pity, that. But such is life. And, indeed, death.” And the revenant laughed again, a mawing sound that made Conway sick to his stomach.
“What… what do you want?” he finally stammered out.
“‘What… what do you want’,” the creature mocked. “You summoned me. ‘The devil is inside me’, you said. Not the most eloquent prayer but I saw in your heart that you meant every word. ‘What do you want’. Do not insult me.”
“I wasn’t sure … I didn’t think what I’d say exactly.”
“No time like the present, lad. But tempus fugit, hora volant. Time flees, hours fly. I already know what you want to ask me. I just need you to say it.”
“I want them back.”
“Who? Come on, be specific.”
“My little ones. Isobel, Martha, Danny.”
“Ah, of course, Danny like his father. And his father’s father. Such a warped mind you have, lad, naming your son after the person you feared the most.” And he threw his head back with another vile, hacking laugh, threw it back so far it looked as if his neck was broken. “And what makes you think I have that sort of power?”
“I thought you’d do anything for a man’s soul, you wretch.”
“Oh look at that, he’s found a bit of fight in him. You’re an interesting one, Danny Conway. I get these prayers all the time, so so many, but they’re always the same. Boring. Thing. ‘Gimme money, gimme fancy clothes, gimme gimme gimme stuff‘.”
“I wanta go back to the way things were.”
“Truly? Look around you,” and the revenant gestured to the church steps, where a family in rags sat huddled. “You would bring your children into this filth, this degradation? A world of poverty and starvation? Sorrow and pain?”
“So that’s your final answer?”
“I can’t go on,” said Conway, his voice catching. “I put three babies in the dirt, just saw them thrown in pits with strangers like they were nothing. Nothing! I can’t fill that hole in my heart without them. Bring them back. What more do you want from me?”
“Oh, Danny my boy,” said the revenant, leaning in close to whisper in Conway’s ear. “I want everything.”
“What do I have to do so?”
“Why, earn it of course.”
“‘What’?” the creature said, mockingly. “God makes you earn his grace and favour, doesn’t he? Why should I be any different? When your soul is polished up all nice then,” he clicked two bloated, fleshy fingers, “our deal will be complete.”
“But what do I have to do?”
“It’s so dull to have to spell it out. A life for a life. And when you die you come to me. Though I know you knew that part.”
“A life for a life? That’s… in the name of Christ–”
“A little late to invoke him now. So. Do we have a bargain?”
“You’ll bring my children back?”
The revenant nodded, its head bobbing back and forth on a broken neck.
“And everything will be the way it was?”
“That’s up to you. So, agreed?”
“… a life for a life. Why not?”
“I’ll only give you two rules. Make ’em count, and do it fast, before sunset. Before I change my mind. Make ’em count.”
The revenant screamed then, a scream that shook Conway to the roots of his soul, and the sounds of the street roared back and he was on his knees in the gutter with the rats. For a few minutes he wasn’t sure if he had been dreaming, or if this was the dream. Did it matter? Life was a waking nightmare. But for the first time in a long time he felt some semblance of hope. Being a good man had got him nowhere. Maybe breaking all the rules would.
A balding man in a cassock was coming down the steps of the church, stepping over the huddled family which had now fallen silent and deathly still. He held his head high with the arrogance of one who would never have to bury a child of his own but would judge you for not having more of them. He was being followed by a younger fellow, the curate, who carried himself more eagerly but with no less pride. A sudden rush of inspiration hit Conway.
“Fathers,” he said, slouching over and limping with his hand out like a beggar, exaggerating his accent. “Fathers, would ye have a second for a good Catholic?” The curate looked at Conway with genuine pity and began to rifle in his pockets until the priest stopped him with an imperious hand. He was trying to look away from Conway with such disdain that he didn’t see the punch coming. A hard one to the face and he was down. The younger man tried to run but Conway caught him by the collar and kicked the legs out from under him. One solid kick to the stomach and he was winded.
He didn’t kill them right away. Make ’em count. With a strength he scarcely recognised, as if he was being carried along by the spirit of vengeance, he dragged both men back into the church. He stripped them and lashed them to a pillar. “You’re going straight to hell for this, you little shit,” said the priest, spitting blood at Conway’s feet.
“You can keep me company,” said Conway, kicking the man squarely in the testicles. “Look around you. Who’s stopping me?” He crouched down and spat at the sobbing priest. A decade of rage poured out of him as he squeezed the man’s throat. The priest thrashed as best he could, but Conway was younger, stronger, angrier. The curate cried out but Conway cut him short with a stamp to the head, then another and another until he heard bone crack and the man slumped, lifeless.
It was exhilarating, this rebellion. His skin tingled and he felt alive, truly alive. He found himself walking the streets laughing at the idea that he was punishing God. Surely those were two noteworthy deaths. He felt good about it, that he was doing something worthwhile because the return of his children was nearer. He didn’t care where he went when died, as long as he had them with him while he lived.
It was raining, he realised eventually. He was sweating and panting on the wharves near the custom house. When did he get here? The place was thronged with dock workers hauling, beggars and starving families keening, well to do men milling about, the masters of all they surveyed. He leaned against a wall, letting the drizzle run over his face. A woman no older than himself was trying to keep a gaggle of youngsters in line. Three seemed to be her own, judging by the way she harangued them and they hung on her every word. Two girls and a boy, the eldest no older than about six. Conway’s breath caught and his heart skipped a beat as she turned around and he saw the vibrant, electrified face of his wife as she stewarded their three children and friends through the crowds. But he blinked and she was gone, replaced by a younger woman.
“Everything will be as it was,” he muttered under his breath, and she looked at him queerly from the side of her eye as she heard him, then hurried the children up until they were swallowed by the crowd. “Everything will be as it was,” he said more emphatically.
The three children would be back, but they couldn’t exist without their mother. She was practically a ghost herself, but he clung to the sudden idea that there was a way to bring her back too. The sun began to set behind the clouds. Time was running out, but he had an idea. One swift, brutal act, and he could have his whole family back together. It could work. It had to.
Matilde was kneeling at her makeshift shrine, as usual. Her hair was matted and unkempt, and the plate of food Conway had left next to her when he left had been mostly eaten, but left to go stale. Her pewter tankard of water was empty. It felt like an age since he had seen her, and in truth it had been an age since he had seen the real her. It’s not really her, he told himself. It’s just a shell.
“Matilde,” he whispered. “Did you get some rest?”
Her eyes flicked toward him and then back to the candles, which stood in hills of melted wax. “Oh. I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
“I’ve found a way to bring them back.”
“What? I don’t understand, Danny.” Her voice was small and weak, and so, so tired.
“Danny, Martha, Isobel. I can get them back. But I need you to do something for me.”
Something like life sparked in her eyes. “Anything,” she said vehemently.
“It’ll hurt, but then everything will be back the way it was. Just think of that. Everything will be back the way it was. And that means me, you, and the three little ones. It just really has to matter.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you trust me though?”
“I do, but I don’t understand.”
“You don’t need to understand,” he said softly. “You just need to die.”
She fought, feebly, as he covered her face. He couldn’t look at her. She twitched and pitched. He couldn’t look at her. She went still and silent. He couldn’t look at her.
As he lay her body on the bed, looking everywhere but at her face, the room filled with the stink of fetid seawater and a phlegmy, caustic laugh filled the room, followed by slopping, mocking applause.
The revenant was standing by the door. “Spectacular,” it said.
“It’s done. A life for a life. I gave you three, now you give me everything back in return.”
“I’m afraid not, Danny boy.”
Conway thundered toward the rotting creature, but was floored by a blow he didn’t see coming from a force powerful beyond belief.
“Lie down, and know your place,” said the revenant, in a voice crueller than ever.
“I can get dirty souls, and I mean proper, greasy things that drip and sizzle anywhere, anytime I want. The kinda scuffed ones,” the revenant shrugged. “I’ll take ’em, but they’re not so juicy. But a good, righteous man, well that’s something different entirely. That’d keep the flames burning bright for a thousand years. All you are, Danny, is a disappointment. And you had so much potential.”
“Potential? What’re you on about?”
“All you had to do was be good to your wife. Oh her suffering was delicious, but she didn’t deserve it. And if you had been just a bit more here for her, you could have given her a nudge back toward her old self. One day and it would have counted. And so many suffering in the city. A few acts of charity hide a multitude of sins. Instead you went and did what you thought I’d like, instead of what I needed.”
“So, what’re you saying? Killing isn’t good enough for the likes of you?”
“Killing? Oh yes, it is. But you didn’t truly give yourself into it. You never mentioned her as part of the bargain. Grief made you mad, and proud. You thought she’d just be coming back too, because a child needs their mother. Thought you were smarter than me. ‘But because you are neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm, I shall vomit you from my mouth.’ And if Jesus can have standards, so can I. But I’ll find a place for you in my kingdom.”
“Don’t toy with me. Do what you promised. The children if nothing else.” His mind was reeling and his stomach fit to explode with pain.
“Oh dear. Oh Danny. You haven’t been paying attention. You failed to deliver your end of the bargain. I told you to get your soul all polished up and nice. That’s what I meant.”
“This isn’t what you promised. You said a life for a life, to make them count.”
“I never said to take any. Changing a life is pure divine magic. And winning a pure soul is one in the eye for the Almighty. You’ve robbed me of that prize.”
“I want my children.”
“You’ll see them. I can promise that, for sure. You’ll see them every day… just out of reach. Now,” and the creature stretched out a rotting hand and placed it over Conway’s face, “good night, sleep tight, and I’ll see you in hell when you wake up.”