by Joseph Farley
It was a Saturday afternoon in the autumn of the year. The sky was cloudy. A cold wind had just started to blow. A figure, male by appearance, possibly between age thirty and forty, walked along a lonely sidewalk. He had black hair, frizzled, reaching down to the collar of his green windbreaker. He sported blue jeans and decrepit running shoes. The zipper of his jacket was broken, requiring him to hold the two halves shut with his left hand in an attempt to guard against the wind. He had a twitch, his right eye lid opening and closing; making it appear that he was constantly winking. He ground his jaw from side to side, a habit of decades that was slowly wearing down his teeth. He mumbled to himself, low and inconspicuous sounds that could have been words, easily lost in the noise of the neighborhood. The locals pegged him quickly as peculiar. People who saw him ignored him or made distance, establishing a comfort zone that could be as far as a city block.
Cars whizzed on the street loaded with strangers passing the man. He caught whiffs of music coming from vehicles, different flavors of taste, different levels of volume. He saw crowded cars of teenagers laughing and talking, young couples with children in the back seat yelling and pulling at their hair, middle aged couples riding together in silence, and septuagenarians driving alone. He smelled the spores of fungi drifting through the air and the scent of dead leaves. He walked past houses with big glass windows facing the street. Inside he caught glimpses of families gathered around the sacred television. He saw individuals engaged in the minor ceremonies that were part of daily life; the running of vacuum cleaners, the painting of walls, the ritual playing of video games.
The man’s steps kept an even pace as he moved from street to street, turning at known corners, finding his way. He passed a steep lawn, the grass still green, where a group of children were checking their prowess and standing in the local pecking order through a tournament of King of the Hill. The small and the weak had no chance unless they teamed up, but even then, only one could be left standing at the top. There always had to be betrayal, back stabbing and a necessary fall. There could only be one king. The man smiled at this for he had observed similar behavior in many species of this world. He found it symptomatic of the planet. It was one of the reasons he wanted to leave.
As he walked the gray stone steeple of a church came into view on the horizon, rising above the roofs of two-storied brick row homes and twins. The man had expected this structure to appear. It was where he was headed. The closer he got to his destination, more and more of the church revealed itself, the angle of a high slanted roof, below that a circle of multicolored glass and metal framework portraying a saint, the high walls and the concrete steps leading to the red wooden doors with their black iron hinges and decorative studs.
Having turned the final corner and crossed the final street, the man climbed the concrete stairs to the church. He pulled on the red door’s iron handle. The door was not locked. He opened it and entered the church.
The interior of the church was darker than outside. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to dim light coming from heavy electric lamps dangling on chains from the ceiling beams, and small stands of candles. In the front of the church hung a large wooden cross with a life like statue of the dying Jesus affixed to it with bolts that were all too real. Beneath the crucifix was a tabernacle of gold. Before the tabernacle was the altar. Tall brass candle stands supported long white candles on either side of the altar. A metal lectern with the large emblem of an eagle with outspread wings stood off to the left of the altar. There were several heavy chairs with rich red upholstery along the walls perpendicular to the altar. The entire area was encircled with a marble rail. The man’s eyes focused momentarily on the altar, before shifting gaze to the statues of saints hidden in niches around the church. Rows of red glass cups, each containing a small candle, stood in racks in front of each saint. Not all of the candles were lit, just a few before each saint, burning memories of prayers said by the faithful or the needy.
The man turned his head surveying the dark wooden pews, polished to a strange luster. The benches were mostly empty, but there were several parishioners, more old than young, more women than men. Some knelt. Others were seated. The man studied the women’s clothing; all wore coats of different colors—red, green, blue. The women wore hats that matched their coats in color. Some of the hats had bangles that reflected the light as necks twisted and heads bent forward. The men were less spectacular in their outfits, in drab gray or brown, their heads bare, showing white hair, bald spots, scales and remnants of a lifetime’s use of hair grease.
The men and women were waiting. He was waiting. They all were waiting.
A door opened in the shadows to the right of the altar, emitting a momentary crack of light. A figure came through the door and closed it. It was a man dressed all in black with a white roman collar. The heels of his black leather shoes clicked against the tiled floor. The priest had a bald pate fringed with gray. He was tall with long limbs. He had large hands.
The priest proceeded to the rear of the church where there stood two confessionals, rectangular mahogany boxes with decorous carving. The priest opened a door and squeezed his long shape inside, pulling the door shut behind him. There was a second door to this box. The kneeling and seated figures in the pews began to rise and queue up outside this second door. They went in one at a time, opening the door, entering the dark box, pulling the door shut behind them. Two separate voices whispered in turn. A low unintelligible rumble reverberated through the vast space of the church. Then it stopped. The door opened. A man or woman exited to go kneel before the altar or in an empty pew. The next person in line climbed into the box and pulled the door closed. Another series of whispers, another penitent kneeling in prayer, continuing until the line shrank to one old woman. The man with the twitching eye fell in behind her, making her feel too uncomfortable to remember all of her homicidal thoughts—her general and localized hatreds. When her turn came she stepped into the box incapable of making a full confession, only able to recite a litany of desires and missteps easily atoned for by reciting five Hail Marys and three Our Fathers.
When the old woman left the confessional, the man with the twitching eye turned and looked about the church, making sure there was no one else there. When he was certain there was no one left to listen even to an indecipherable whisper, he went inside the box. Pulling the door shut made the darkness greater. There was no place to sit, so the man with the twitching eye knelt on a padded board provided for that purpose. A panel slid open. The silhouette of the priest’s face appeared behind a wire mesh screen.
“Bless me Father for I have sinned,” said the man, blinking at each word.
“How long has it been since your last confession?” asked the high voice of the priest.
“How should I define it?” the man asked. “In rotations of this planet around its star or the movements of this galaxy through the emptiness of space?”
The priest leaned towards the screen in recognition.
“What troubles you my son?”
“I am tired of this world,” said Esau. “I am tired of being an outcast, despised, powerless, ignored. I am tired of pretending to be human.”
“Then stop pretending,” the priest said. “Become human.”
Esau laughed, “As you have become human?”
An unintelligible noise, a grunt, a taking in and release of air, came from the priest’s side of the screen.
“I am a priest,” he said. “As such my focus is not on this world. I live for the ‘other’ world. I am not supposed to be of this world.”
“Yes,” Esau nodded. “How easy it is to hide in a church or a monastery where your peculiarities will not stand out so evidently.”
“My peculiarities, as you call them, do stand out,” said the priest. “There is no way to conceal all of what you are.”
“Yet you tell me to be human.”
“Only in a sense,” said the priest, tapping a finger on his right temple. “Be as human as you can be. There is much I have come to like about this species.”
Esau scoffed, “What is to like? They are loathsome. They destroy the water and air. They destroy the systems that keep them alive. They destroy each other, and attack all who are not like them.”
“True,” the priest agreed. “And yet they make music, and have thought and written much that is interesting.”
“Have you come to be a believer then?” Esau said, chastising his associate. ”How sad.”
“No,” said the priest, chuckling and shaking his long head. “Not quite that, but I do find my position to be excellent for observing individuals, learning about their behavior, their fears, their desires. I have learned much about the local culture. Being a priest is a constant source of intellectual stimulation.”
“You would find out more about this species by touring its bars and brothels, visiting its crack houses, its detention facilities, its madhouses. That is where you will truly learn the nature of these beings.”
“You have taken that route,” said the priest. “There is no need for me to duplicate your research. I shall conduct my studies by my own methods.”
“Then you will accumulate useless data.”
“No. I shall just gather different information. When and if we are recalled, your experience and mine and the experiences of all the other observers sent here will be siphoned off, condensed, combined, sifted, measured and tested. Only when the data is combined will our brethren be able to form a full picture of this world and these beings that scurry about here on two legs shouting, crying, fighting, dying and creating both heaven and hell.”
“Heaven and hell?” Esau said. “Do you now claim these places exist? That shows you are compromised. Your data will be discounted.”
“I did not say heaven and hell existed,” corrected the priest. “I used the terms as a metaphor. Such comparative phrases are acceptable for transmitting information on this planet.”
“I know,” Esau replied, his eyelid moving rapidly. “I live here. But it is not what I would expect from you when you are talking to one of your own kind.”
The priest sighed.
“It is not for me or you to say who is biased, or whether either of us has invalidated our research. Let us leave that to greater thinkers on our home planet.”
Esau agreed, “The superior brains know best.”
“They may know,” said the priest, “but they do not always understand.”
“Do not question those who know,” Esau said, reminding the priest of one of the basic tenets on their planet.
“I do not question what they know, only how they interpret it.”
Esau gazed around the confessional.
“This room, this box, this is how this world feels to me,” Esau said. “I am trapped—confined. I want out.”
“You were chosen for this mission,” the priest reminded, “so was I. The ones that know must have had their reasons for sending us here, unless you suspect they were wrong, suspect they made a mistake.”
Esau sighed and looked at the floor.
“You and I know that they do not make mistakes.”
“A miscalculation then?” said the priest.
Esau looked at the priest, his eyes brightening.
“A mathematical error?”
“Or an error in interpretation of the data.”
Esau shook his head.
“You speak…blasphemy,” he said, but his lips bore a weak smile.
“Are you a believer now?” the priest teased.
“Not in this stuff,” Esau said. “I believe in knowledge.”
“But you speak of it as if it were a faith,” the priest said. “You accused me of blasphemy.”
“I did not accuse,” Esau said, “It was a metaphor, a borrowed phrase. You have made use of metaphors.”
“I see,” said the priest. He rubbed his chin. “We both are borrowers of words. I guess it is natural. We have been here so long. An individual tends to absorb aspects of the local culture after prolonged exposure.”
“You are right,” Esau nodded. “We absorb too much. When will we be recalled? Do you know?”
The priest sighed.
“I have not been told. I wait as you do. I wait and I absorb.”
“How can you put up with all this?” He gestured with his arm.
The priest understood the motion not to be limited to the building or his means of integration. It referred to the entire planet.
The priest held up his breviary and rotated it in his hand.
“This book, strange, repetitive, nonsensical, it helps somehow.”
“You sound like a convert. You have gone native, lost your professional distance.”
“No,” said the priest. “I do no believe. I just read it. I repeat the prayers, sometimes out loud, sometime to myself. It may be the repetition itself that is calming, like counting numbers or reciting square roots.”
Esau looked strangely at the priest.
“Are you suggesting that I get a prayer book?”
“You could try,” the priest said,” Or, considering your nature, perhaps you should just work on solving the ratio of a circle’s radius to its circumference to the millionth decimal.”
“You think that would help?”
“Give it a try, and let me know the result. It would be interesting to find out.”
“Thank you for the suggestion. I will give it a try. Math always gave me pleasure.”
The priest started to rise.
“Let us leave this box,” he said. “I need to stretch my legs.”
The priest exited the confessional followed by Esau. The taller being placed his arm on the others shoulder.
“Let me escort you back to your assignment.”
Esau shot a weak smile towards the priest.
“Yes,” he said. “The world. I guess it is my responsibility to be here.”
“We each have our responsibility,” said the priest.
“It is a difficult job,” Esau said. He looked at the door. He had a strong desire not to go back out there.
“It is,” said the priest observing his associate’s reactions. “But if we do not do it, who will?”
The priest guided Esau to the door. He nudged the door open with one of his long arms, the large bony hand filling up more space on the wood than it should. It was quickly turning dark outside.
“It is late,” said the priest. “We must go our separate ways. There is much I have to do.”
“Yes,” said Esau looking at the world—all its strangeness, its alien nature, its violence, its stupidity. He shivered at the thought of going back out into that world. “There is much I must do as well,” he said, but there was no conviction in his voice. He turned to the priest. “Yours is the easier path.”
“Only from your perspective,” said the priest. “Go now. I must prepare my sermon for tomorrow’s mass.”
They parted company without handshakes or nods, two naturalists assigned to a wild world. The church doors closed behind Esau as he stepped out into the dawning night. He looked back at the doors and heard a lock click into place. He sighed and started down the concrete steps, thinking of the streets lined with houses and apartments filled with tiny lives, and his own life. He could never—would never—become one with the lives around him. He was, and always would be, just an alien to them, and they would remain aliens to him.
Joseph Farley has had fiction appear in Danse Macabre, Schlock, Sci-Fi Short Stories, Golden Visions, and other places.