The beginning of a story, shared for Halloween
Tonight, Kwame would clean the altar. He walked to the front of the chapel. He methodically clicked each in a row of switches and light soaked the altar. Standing next to the altar in the bright lights, Kwame couldn’t make out the first row of pews. His breathing slowed there in the warmth. He stood next to the altar and allowed his arms to hang by his sides.
The very end of his middle fingertip brushed on the cotton tablecloth. He stood six feet and half an inch tall. Each time he measured himself he hoped that the downward force of age had compressed his spine a little to round him out to six foot — a more perfect stature. So far, the half inch had stubbornly withstood time. For a month he walked heavy-footed in the hopes that the force of each footfall would shorten him an invisible fraction of a inch until he had moulded his body successfully. He imagined a moustached architect measuring his proportions with his thumb held sideways and one eye squeezed shut, tutting and walking away.
A bead of sweat ran down his temple. Leaping from his jaw it landed on the lapel of his suit. He turned his face away from the lights and towards the altar. It was a folding trestle table, six feet wide and two feet deep, draped with a brilliant white sheet. In the centre, an unadorned cross stood two feet high. Its gilded surface was polished so as to become a tinted mirror. Either side of the cross were two candles in candlestick holders. Each of the candles nearest the cross stood higher; the wicks burned a foot from the tablecloth. The candlestick holders too, were unadorned but well polished gold.
Kwame plucked the four candles from the candlestick holders, first the small — then the tall. He held the small in his left hand and the tall in his right and carried them into the dark. He walked to the back of the aisle and laid them on the leather top of a small side table to the right of the doors to the chapel. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he opened the top drawer of the table and pulled out a large pair of scissors. He opened the scissors and ran a blade around the circumference near the top of each candle. Then, twisting and pulling at the wax, he slid a disc of wax from the top of the candle — leaving the wick hanging long from the remaining wax. Then, he clipped the blackened part of the wick from the candle. He threw the clippings into a small paper bin next to the table.
The refreshed and shortened candles were then placed in the bottom drawer of the side table, ready for Sunday afternoon when they would be given to the children. They would each light their candle, place it in a tall cup, and kneel before the altar, and pray. They would shoot dutiful looks up to Kwame as he stood behind the altar, no doubt.
He walked back into the light and picked up the cross. He held it under his arm as he picked up the candlestick holders. Back in the dark he opened the top drawer again, picking out a new cotton handkerchief from a plastic packet. He eyed the new handkerchief carefully for grit. Finding none, he began to rub down each of the gold items one by one. First the candlestick holders, and then the cross. Each article ended up a little freer of specks of moisture and dust than it had begun. Finally, Kwame whipped the cotton sheet from the table, whipped it to a snap in the air, then turning it over gently as it floated down toward the table — he laid it down as the exact inverse of its original position.
With new candles placed in each of the candlestick holders and each of the candlestick holders back in their original position, Kwame straightened up the cross in the centre of the table. He walked halfway down the aisle and turned back to look at the altar. He took in the altar at once, halved its width with his eyes and verified that the cross lay at the halfway line. He split each of those halves into three and verified that each of the candles lay on one of the invisible dividing lines.
The chapel around him was simple and easy to divide into these symmetrical portions. Kwame was stood in the exact centre of the square room. In front of him there were three rows of pews, then a step up, then the altar. Behind the altar, a tall window with a rounded top — framed in dark wood. The glass was frosted rather than stained, and in the daytime it permitted a flat, diffuse light. To the right of the altar, on the wall, six light switches and a fire alarm. The room’s ceiling was flat and white, and hung only as high as that of a Victorian living room. Behind Kwame, there were five rows of pews, then the back wall. In the middle of the back wall, aligned with the central aisle, the door out to the atrium. To the left and right of the door, the two identical side tables. At even intervals on the back and side walls were simple gold brackets holding bare Edison lightbulbs. All these bulbs sat dark.
An eruption of wheezing echoed as if it had been directed into the vaults of a great cathedral. Turning around laboriously in the front pew, the old man fixed his gaze at Kwame. Against the glow of the altar, the man appeared to Kwame as a silhouette. His hunched posture appeared as a crumpled black oval. His head was another oval set on top, fringed around the top with thin hair. The preacher could discern the angle of the old man’s gaze by the prominence of his two large ears, possible visible on either side of his head.
Kwame tore his gaze from the man and fixed it on the cross as he began to walk to the front of the chapel. The old man’s gaze felt as if two fingers were pushing into the side of Kwame’s face. As he passed the front row of pews his skin pricked with a fresh crop of cold sweat. He walked around the altar to the row of light switches. With his hand resting on the switches he turned to look over his outstretched arm at the pews. Finding them all empty, and himself alone in the room, he snapped each light off one by one. He walked through the dark, crossing himself before removing a set of keys from his jacket pocket.
The chapel was unimposing from the street. Between a closed launderette on the right hand side and a three storey house on the left, its simple green door and single frosted window to the atrium did not mark the building out. Locking the front door of the chapel and turning away to walk down the road, Kwame felt two fingers pressing into the back of his neck. Glancing back he saw the old man gliding down the pavement behind him.
Moving smoothly through the air, the old man had the calm demeanour of a person floating in a dream. His feet hung slack below him, the tip of his boots scuffing the pavement as they passed over uneven slabs. His outline was black this time against the sodium orange of the streetlights. The shape of his silhouette was still indistinct to Kwame at this distance; he looked as if he was wrapped in a shawl that muddled his form until it was a suggestion of a man. There was some oblique reference to shoulders, a torso tapering off to thinner legs hanging together and then those boots scraping on the floor.
The old man glided along a few yards behind the preacher. Kwame made no efforts to increase distance between himself and the figure. He had some notion that it wouldn’t be possible if he tried. Instead he went along the street, past terraced houses whose doors faced right onto the pavement, until a small park where he cut along the footpath. At the other side of the footpath he passed through an open gate and rounded the park wall before arriving at his own front door. He slipped a key into the lock and swooped inside. As Kwame shut his front door behind him, he saw the figure stood on the other side of the frosted glass. He watched the figure fade away into the darkness of the street.
First there was the cheekbone against the concrete. The cold that seemed to be stored in the ground was being conducted through a thin, grazed layer of skin and right into the core of the cheekbone. Once there it seemed to dig into the bone marrow. Then there was the granular wetness of the hard-frozen snowfall against the skin of the cheek. Mixed in with the road salt and grit, the snowflakes pressed under the cheek were sturdy enough to press a millimetre or so into the skin without melting away immediately. Slowly the man became aware of his right eye socket. A flicker of his eyelid moved his eyelashes across the ground, brushing a tiny amount of ice crystals along the concrete. Through the crack in his eyelid he could see the dark made darker by a harsh light raking across the floor. An unnatural blue-white light was being cast low across the concrete’s subtly pitted surface so as to create an endless mountain range with the peaks in brilliant white and the valleys in deep black.
His mind was slowly rising as if from a low hanging fog. He wrestled up a little further clear and the sounds in his ears became more distinct. Almost right above his head, the quick and steady rattle of a car’s engine fighting the cold as it ticked over, idling. Far away, a plane passed overhead. He became aware of his right arm, crushed under his body. He searched for sensation in any part of his hand, his forearm, his elbow — and found none. He tried to move the arm out towards the periphery of his body to begin to free it. His hand twitched to live, and as a gasp of blood reached its nerve endings — it burned back to life. Dragging his arm up along the ground like a fallen snow angel, he spread his fingers out over the ground an inch or so from his right eye. Readying himself to push against the ground he noted the mottled purple of the complexion on his hand.
As he pushed against the floor the blood moving through him roared in his ears. His face rolled away from the concrete but the snow and grit mostly stuck to the minuscule pits they had made in his cheek. Each inch from the floor poured more blue-white light into his eyes until he could resolve the cat-eye form of a car’s headlights a couple of feet away. His right eye winked shut for a moment and the headlights remained burned in. With his face away from the floor he could now smell coolant and oil. He was looking into the car’s radiator from below. As his mind resolved the grilled shape in front of him the world twisted violently down.
A hand had grabbed the hair at the back his head pulled his face up and away from the floor. The tautness of his scalp pulled his eyelids open. His body curled backwards; his shins were flat against the ground but his front could now feel the cold air blowing against his shirt. As his eyes pulled focus he could make out a red crane against the night sky. Behind the crane, loud clouds were moving quickly from left to right — illuminated orange.
He felt the body holding him up draw back for a moment. The hand holding his hair was whipped away and for a moment he was falling back toward the ground. Then, the world splashed against the back of his head. A deadness spread from that centre and fanned out around him. He felt the light collapsing in him. Layers of him began to collapse under their own, suddenly unbearable weight: a building collapsing on itself as each floor smashed through the one below it. He was arcing towards the concrete but before his face met once again with the floor, the floor melted into stars.