6The Sins of Father Rickman
by Catherine J. Link
Father Rickman was the oldest surviving member of his family. His parents both died in their early seventies and were buried in the historic St. James cemetery in East Galway, Ireland, where he was born and raised. He had outlived his siblings, and only a few cousins were still in the world, most much younger than he.
He didn’t care that today was his birthday. He was never one to celebrate much of anything, except the birth of Christ. That was the only day that had special meaning for him. The day the Great Redeemer was born. He was a man in need of redemption, more than most, and so he had not lived his life to the fullest. Not by accident, but by design.
He heard a noise and looked up from the pew where he habitually sat, his head bent in contemplation. He saw the approach of Bishop Lyle Morgan. He was younger than Father Rickman in earthly years, but he appeared older. In spite of his smile, his eyes were sad—a testament to the sorrows of the world. Today he wore a gray suit, civilian clothing.
“Father Rickman,” he said in a near whisper. “Would you like to visit for a while?”
He gave the bishop a bold up and down glance, then a disapproving grimace.
“Special occasion, Lyle?”
The bishop chuckled at him. “Still a judgmental sonofabitch, Shawn?”
“Think what you like.”
“I just popped in on my niece’s wedding. She married into a Jewish family, so I decided to appear as Uncle Lyle, instead of stodgy old Bishop Morgan, not that anyone saw me.”
“I didn’t ask,” Father Rickman said.
“Just making conversation, Shawn. Happy birthday.”
“Only you would remember.”
“That’s because I’m the only friend you have,” the Bishop said. “And because I am an eternal friend, I’m making myself available to you now, as I always have. Tell me, Shawn. What’s been bothering you all these years?”
The Bishop laughed and nodded.
Father Rickman’s first inclination, once again, was to decline the Bishop’s offer. But time was growing short, and he would be leaving this world soon. He looked up at the tormented body of his savior hanging from a gilded cross, and it came to him that he had to earn the redemption he so desperately craved.
“It’s an ugly story.”
“Of course it is,” the Bishop said with a chortle. “Men are not born moral creatures, Shawn. We come to it by degrees. Our parents do their best to teach us, but we ignore most of what they say. Later, we learn by suffering consequences demanded by society. Then those of us who raise children learn it again as we teach our progeny. This is where the church has made some bad choices. We call ourselves fathers but we lack the practical experience of teaching decency to offspring. So how can we successfully instill decency in the strangers who make up our congregations?”
“Interesting theory, Lyle. You always had a unique way of interpreting things.”
“I followed a code of right and wrong that was my own, I admit. From what I’ve observed of the new pope, he does the same.”
“Does that excuse the common law wife you had for over forty years, the children you fathered by her?”
“I don’t think of them as sins, Shawn. Instead, I feel guilty about pursuing the priesthood. There were hardships thrust upon my family because of it, and I often begged both them and God to forgive my unrelenting ambition for power, the sin that set me on a quest to the Vatican. It was just that God denied me the Holy See. Not because of my wife and children, but because of my self-absorption. Had I not put my ambition first, I could have been a better husband, father, and human being. Regret torments me, and I am being punished.”
“Perhaps I, too, will be punished. We can spend purgatory together, deciding which of us was the bigger fool. I’m going to dinner. Join me if you can and maybe, after some wine, I will share my most unforgivable transgression.”
The restaurant was quiet, the benefit of going out to eat on a Tuesday night. Father Rickman sat in a booth in the back, for privacy, and ordered steak.
“The portions are large enough for two. I always take leftovers home.”
“Perhaps you should eat more. You look pale, Shawn. And thin.”
“I’ll eat a few extra bites, so you can stop worrying. Will that make you happy, Lyle?”
“Ecstatic. So tell me about the abominations of Father Rickman.”
“You don’t think me capable?”
“We are all capable, and I am sure you have committed some error of judgement that you torture yourself over.”
“Mine was not an error, but a choice, not unlike yours. I too have had a woman in my life. We met almost thirty years ago. She and her husband, and a preteen son. They would come to church regularly. Attend the bingo games, donate generously to the church and charities, and the boy sang in the youth choir.”
The Bishop sat quietly, nodding.
“One day—her name was Nancy—she came to me and told me that she’d seen a ghost,” Father Rickman said. “She was working at the Bridgeport Convalescent Home, during the night shift, and she saw an elderly man walking the hallway. She called to him to see what he needed, but he did not answer. She went down the hallway, to the room he had entered, but the room was empty. She was baffled by the experience. She told her coworkers about the elderly gentleman. As old people too often look alike, a few names were bandied about. Time passed and the incident lost its significance.”
“So no ghost?” the Bishop said. He looked disappointed.
“No, there was a ghost. The old man appeared again. He walked the hall, looking at every door as though searching for a room number. Nancy called to him and tried to follow as he disappeared down a corridor. She lost him in the maze of hallways. There were several such sightings, and Nancy became frightened. She had become convinced she was seeing a ghost. I listened, intrigued, but disapproving.”
“And stubborn in your disbelief, no doubt,” the Bishop said.
“Yes. There are no such things as ghosts, I told her, except for the Holy Ghost, which is a spirit, part of the Holy Trinity. A coeternal consubstantial piece of God. For her to believe in the supernatural was to betray the teachings of the church, and Jesus Christ. ‘Do you think I’m crazy, Father?’ she asked me. I still had enough discretion at that age to tell her she was merely confused. There was a rational explanation, I assured her, and in time it would reveal itself.”
The waiter came to pour the wine. Father Rickman was silent, until the man left.
“I did not see her again for weeks. Her husband brought their son to mass, but she did not come. I asked after her, and the husband said her work schedule had changed. She was working Sundays now. I suggested she come to one of the nightly masses. Then, one Wednesday evening, she came to see me. The mysterious man had appeared again, she told me. He had come out of room A16 and wandered down the hallway. She ran after him and when she got close, she reached to tap his shoulder and her hand passed through his body. He stopped, turned and spoke to her. ‘You can see me, so I belong to you now,’ he said to her, then he disappeared.”
“How odd,” the Bishop said. “Must be some outdated notion.”
“Perhaps, but the apparition was true to his word, according to Nancy. She was seeing him whenever she worked. He would follow her when there was no one else present to witness the haunting. He would accompany her on nightly rounds, from room to room. He would not enter but wait politely at the door. ‘Am I crazy?’ she asked again. I told her she needed medical or possibly psychological intervention and encouraged her to get a checkup. I assured her that there were no ghosts, and that to believe in them was akin to abandoning the church for a cult. I reminded her that nowhere in our Catechism was there a mention of ghosts.”
“I have often thought that was an oversight on the part of the church,” the Bishop said.
“Nancy wept, disappointed, and left me. I did not see her again for two years. When she returned, she looked exhausted. Unkempt, haggard, and nearly hysterical, she begged for my help. She told me that not only did she still see the old man, but he had brought companions. She was now being escorted on her rounds by as many as five ghosts. The old man’s wife, their daughter and two sons, all three adults.”
“You don’t mean it,” the Bishop said with a laugh. “How extraordinary.”
“Nancy was able to converse with the old gentleman, but the rest of the ghosts did not speak. They would weep, make objects move, even let out with blood-curdling howls. Other members of the convalescent home staff could hear the weeping and the howling, and witnessed objects being dropped or thrown. Since it was always in Nancy’s vicinity, they thought that she was responsible. They had come to think of her as unhinged.”
The food was being served, and the Bishop was so excited by the story that he knocked over a saltshaker. The waiter was startled and apologized, thinking he had been responsible. When the man walked away, the Bishop blurted out,
“How dreadful for the poor woman. What happened next?”
“I asked her if she had gone to the doctor for a check-up. She said she had and it came to the doctor’s attention that she had suffered a minor stroke. At first she was glad, hopeful that the stroke had caused her ghost sightings, as well as other problems she was having within her family. It seems she had developed a revulsion to her husband of twenty years, and she no longer had a motherly feeling for their son.”
“Peculiar,” the Bishop said.
“I thought so. I counseled her on marriage and motherly responsibilities. Those were subjects I felt competent to discuss, but then she brought up the subject of ghosts again, and I became irate and advised her to go to a psychiatrist. She did not back down, however. She insisted that the ghosts were real, and that the old man had told her that all five of the ghosts belonged to her now. They were her responsibility.”
“That is ludicrous. What does that even mean?”
“Angrily, I badgered her,” Father Rickman said. “How can they be your responsibility? She had no idea, and I pounced on that. Of course it makes no sense, because it’s not real. You must turn loose of this delusion, or you will do yourself irreparable harm. She became upset and ran out of the church without another word. I did not see her again for an even longer time. Perhaps three years or more. She had changed considerably the next time I saw her. She looked wonderful. Healthier, nicely dressed and her demeanor was calm.”
“Surprising,” the Bishop said.
“Yes, it was. She looked so well that I was hopeful she had freed herself from the ghostly delusions, but I could not have been more wrong. She had left her husband, she told me. She came to realize that she was a lesbian, and she had taken a female lover. Someone she had found true compatibility with. Her son had been angry and rejected her for a while, but he finally came around.”
“And the ghosts were gone?” the Bishop said.
“No, and she was still being told that they were her responsibility.”
“Shocking,” the Bishop said.
“There were ten now. Three children about six to eight years old, and one young woman, perhaps twenty. And, of course, her own dead husband. He killed himself when she left him for a woman.”
“That was unexpected,” the Bishop said, getting a bit loud. Father Rickman gave him a stern look to silence him. “Sorry.”
“I was furious with her. Your husband committed suicide, and you tell me about it as though it’s an afterthought. The man you were married to for twenty plus years, and you seem to have no feelings for him at all. What kind of woman are you?”
“A fair question.”
“I thought so. Her answer was unusual, of course. She explained that since her stroke she was not as emotional as she once was. She said she was happier now, even with the ghosts following her wherever she went.”
“I thought it was just a workplace manifestation.”
“That was before. She had changed jobs and they not only changed with her, but they were now in her home. In the car when she drove. In the grocery when she was shopping. The worst time was when she got her hair done. The beauty parlor was so small that when the ghosts would howl or throw things, it was impossible for people not to notice. She began telling everyone she had Tourette’s Syndrome.”
“Seriously? Tourette’s? How creative. I would never have thought of it.”
“I knew she was a smart one, and I suddenly realized that she was playing me for a fool. Telling me this ridiculous story about being haunted, all a pack of lies designed to amuse herself at my expense. I wondered if maybe she had recorded some of our past sessions. My pride was wounded, you see. My self-image was vulnerable. For the first time ever, I doubted my judgement and I was worried about my reputation in the parish.
“If there were all these ghosts around her, why didn’t you see them?”
“I asked her that, and she asked me if I wanted to see them. I didn’t want to, of course. But that shouldn’t have mattered. If they were there, I would have seen them.”
“So what did she say to that?”
“Nothing. Suddenly, a howl reverberated around the church. A mournful cry that sent chills down my spine. I had been looking at her face and she had not opened her mouth, nor did it seem to be coming from her direction. It was coming from somewhere near the altar. Then, suddenly, lit candles were flying through the air and smashing against a granite wall. Moans of lamentation came from up in the choir loft. She smiled, then quoted a bible verse. John 4:48. ‘Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.’”
“She was a clever woman.”
“Yes, she was and it frightened me. You’re the devil, I shouted. You are the evil one, taken possession of this confused woman, using her for your own purposes. Leave this church, Satan, I shouted, holding my crucifix up like a shield. Now advancing on her, thinking of myself as one of God’s soldiers, forcing her through the front doors, I cursed her. I quoted scripture at her and thinking I should douse her with holy water, as they do in the movies. I cupped my hands in the font and splashed her.”
“Did you really?” the Bishop said, and burst out in laughter, then, seeing the expression on Father Rickman’s face, he stopped. “Sorry.”
“She was also amused by my frantic patty fingers in the font. Laughing at my pitiful efforts to banish her from the church. I must have looked like a moron. ‘I’m not the devil, Father Rickman,’ she said, unable to stop laughing at me. ‘I can’t help being haunted. I don’t want to be, but I am trying to live with it and not go mad. The ghosts are wanting something from me, but I don’t know what it is. I need your help.’”
“Her laughter faded to an amused grin as she waited for me to say something, but I could not speak. I had fallen under some kind of strange spell. While standing in full sunlight, she shook the holy water from her hair and golden curls fell into place like a halo around her head. Still smiling, her mouth was sensuous. Her eyes were green. I had never noticed that before, but I could not miss it now. They sparkled like gems. For the first time, I truly saw her and what a vision of loveliness she was.”
“Uh oh, that’s not good.”
“I regained my composure and asked her to leave. Then she asked me a pivotal question. Do you want me to come back? Why I did not say no, I will forever wonder. She descended the front steps, looking back at me just one time, as she walked away. But the look was a turning point in my life. I will swear on the holy image of Christ, that when I went back inside the church I heard both weeping and laughter, yet the church was empty.”
“Oh, dear. She left you a ghost.”
“Nancy came to church regularly on Sundays. She would come to the rail for communion, and I would pass her over, but not before taking a look down the front of her blouse. She would speak to me, but I shunned her. She came for confession, and I refused to hear it. Yet, my eyes sought her out and feasted on her. This went on for a year. I shunned her and she punished me by giving me no peace. Every time I saw her she looked more attractive, and I could not help but be tempted. She had flawless skin, soft feminine curves, she dressed smartly and looked to be the epitome of good health for a woman her age. Of any age, truthfully.”
“I can see where this is going.”
“She brought her lesbian lover to mass a few times, and the woman was equally attractive, I must admit. Together they made a remarkable impression on me. Excruciatingly remarkable, I’m afraid. My imagination went into overdrive, and I wondered what they looked like together, en flagrante. Various scenarios tormented me day and night. My nerves were shattered. Many times I heard howls and lamentation, followed by sensuous moaning coming from the vestry. Startled, often embarrassed, I occasionally spilt from the chalice during communion, staining the clothing of our most prominent members of the congregation.”
“Even worse, on several such occasions, I yelled expletives loud enough to be heard in the pews nearest the altar. I even took the Lord’s name in vain in the presence of Monsignor Halliday. He came later to counsel me on anger management and decorum. Embarrassed by my faux pas, I told him I was suffering from Tourette’s syndrome. Thereafter, whenever we crossed paths, I performed various twitches of the face to maintain the lie.”
The Bishop burst out laughing again, then apologized. “In tragedy there is often an element of humor.”
“It did not feel humorous to me. Soon after, I approached Nancy and her friend to ask them not to come back to mass. That was what I had intended to say in a noncompromising manner, even threatening them with excommunication if I had to. But they had an aura about them, a savage innocence. They were beautiful, healthy animals, and there was an intense chemistry surrounding the three of us as we stood near the confessionals. It frightened me, yet I reveled in it. Perhaps it was the romantic light streaming in through the stained-glass windows that melted the ice surrounding my heart, because I could not say what I needed to say.”
“Good. It is never right to ask a parishioner to abandon the church.”
“Instead, I clumsily asked Nancy if she needed confessing. She said yes. Then I turned to her companion and asked her the same. The companion smiled at me, then let out a shriek reminiscent of the dolphins at Sea World. That horrible sound filled the church. Her face turned so red, it was nearly purple. Her hair suddenly seemed to be standing straight up, as a flame dances on the wick of a candle. She opened her mouth to shriek again and I wanted to run, but my feet seemed glued to the floor.”
“What was she? Some kind of ghoul?”
“I asked Nancy what she was, but she said she didn’t know. She assured me the woman was quite tame. And that she didn’t make that noise all the time, just when she got overexcited. She said it was unfortunate that I had spoken to her. She had taken a liking to me and she wanted to be mine.”
“Yours? You must have been frantic.”
“I was so scared I was nearly soiling myself. I told Nancy that I’d thought the woman was her lesbian lover. She said she had realized, after a while, that she was not a lesbian after all. As for Maude, she had a crush on me and wanted to go with me, and there was no way to stop her.”
“Maude? That strange creature was named Maude?”
“Yes, and Nancy told me Maude had been born and raised in Wales. When she talked, which was rarely, she had a brogue. It seems she was frustrated that she’s been unable to move on. She didn’t enjoy being a ghost. Nancy asked me to help Maude with that.”
“I wasn’t sure. Nancy suggested hearing her confession, giving her absolution, the same things I would do if she was still alive. I expressed my doubts, telling her again that I know nothing about ghosts. She reminded me that I would have one as my lifelong companion if I didn’t do something about it.”
“That spurred me to action. I decided to try giving her absolution. It may not work, but what harm could come of it? I refused to do it in the church, however. That would soil my conscience, and it would give Nancy more ammunition if this all turned out to be an elaborate hoax. She invited me to her apartment, saying ‘Please, Father Rickman. Don’t make me beg.’ I was an emotional wreck. Part of me wanted to see her beg. I pictured her on her knees, begging, and knew I could deny her nothing. But at the same time, admitting that ghosts exist was mentally disabling for me, and I swear by all that is holy, I was experiencing PTSD.”
“Post-traumatic stress disorder?”
“Yes. But still, my physical attraction to Nancy was stronger than ever. I did indeed want to go to her apartment and breathe air infused with her pheromones. Her allure broke through my resistance, overcame my fear of entrapment and exposure as a sex-starved deviate.”
“I don’t think PTSD was your problem, Shawn,” the Bishop said. “I’m not judging you. Please know that, but you had other things on your mind, in my opinion.”
“Even after all these years, I can’t be objective about it. Maybe you’re right. She gave me her address and told me to come at 9:00 pm. I asked why so late and she said that getting rid of a ghost might be more appropriate after the sun had set and the moon was high. I was out of my depth. I would have gone along with anything she suggested. I arrived at 9:00 pm on the hour. It had been a long day. Time seemed to have stood still during most of it. I’d spent time with two of my parishioners who had personal matters to discuss. Compared to what I was dealing with, their problems seemed petty and self-imposed. I did not give them the best of myself that day.”
“Hmmm,” the Bishop said. “You should have taken time away from the church to search your heart.”
“You know how stubborn I was as a young man,” Shawn said, taking a gulp of wine. “I showered, changed into fresh clothing, and time stood still. Someone had sabotaged the clocks in my quarters, I was sure of it. Unable to wait any longer, I left early, hoping to speed up time by picking up a bottle of wine and flowers. Then I realized my mistake. How do I explain behaving as though I was on a date? Mother told me never go to someone’s home empty handed, I could say. It was the truth. Lame but plausible.”
“You have very fine manners,” the Bishop said. “I have always admired your etiquette.”
“Thank you. Banging on her door, all that twaddle went through my mind lickety-split and I was again banging on the door a few seconds later. And again, and again. What do you think of my good manners now? Nancy scowled at me when she opened the door at last and scolded me for making such a racket. My God, no one ever looked more beautiful than she did, with her show of temper. I imagined her slapping my face, and it was magnificent. Under that yellow bug light, her complexion jaundiced and her hair bleached like straw, she was a dream. If she hadn’t asked me in, I would have committed violence. I know it.”
“I don’t believe that. You’re being too hard on yourself.”
“I did not hand her the flowers and wine. Instead, I took on an aloofness to cover my embarrassment, hiding pent up passions behind a ridiculous façade. I put the wine and the flowers on her kitchen counter and began jabbering like a fool.”
Father Rickman did an impersonation of himself. “Only if we need them, understand? I thought we might, but I’m not sure we will. Know what I mean? Better to have them than not have them, as I always say.”
“Bravo. You sound just like Humphry Bogart in that old movie. The one with the statue of a black bird.”
“Exactly. I seemed unable to stop babbling like some Dashiell Hammett character. I was even talking though my nose with a slight lisp. ‘We have no idea what might happen, see? We might need a peace offering, if things go south. This could get dangerous,’ I said, shooting my cuffs.”
The Bishop bellowed with hardy laughter, and Father Rickman chuckled, remembering his own foolishness.
“Nancy watched the spectacle, grinning, recognizing me for the fool she had made of me. Knowing this, I still couldn’t stop myself. She told me she was glad I came, trying to make me feel less embarrassed, I think. She said she had been afraid that I might change my mind. And again, I went on with my one man show. ‘That’s not the kind of man I am. Understand? Once I decide to do a thing, I get it done.’ I was still channeling Sam Spade. Once in the persona, it was hard to shake off. ‘So where’s the dame?’”
“Dame? You meant Maude?” the Bishop asked. “She should have come with you. Isn’t that right?”
“Very astute, Lyle,” Father Rickman said to him. “I hadn’t thought of that at the time. Nancy reminded me that Maude was my ghost. We figured that she must have been hiding, perhaps a bit embarrassed. Then she appeared out of nowhere and sat down on the sofa, hiding a grin behind one hand. I nodded to her and she let out another dolphin call.”
“She was saying hello,” the Bishop said with a smile.
“’Hello, Maude,’ I said, with an unenthusiastic wave of my fingers. Meanwhile, Nancy was arranging a place at the kitchen table where the three of us would be comfortable. ‘Should I open the wine and put out some crackers for communion?’ she asked me. I nodded, wondering why the hell I had not thought of communion as a way to explain the wine. I was grateful to be done with the Sam Spade impression. It was exhausting.”
“I can sympathize. I feel the same way about charades. Ridiculous game.”
“Nancy put the flowers in water and placed them on the table, saying they could dress up our little chapel. I think that was the moment I fell in love with her. She buried her nose in the bouquet and there was a satisfied little smile on her lips. I flushed with humiliation, like a fifteen-year-old boy, then I asked Maude to join us in the kitchen. Nancy and I sat at opposite ends of the table, and Maude in the middle. ‘Can you talk?’ I asked her. She let out a string of screeches.”
“The dolphin noises?”
“That, or a language spoken on an alien planet. ‘How am I supposed to work with this?’ I said, frustrated. Nancy said she could translate. ‘She mutters sometimes, unable to get the words out, and then there’s the Welch brogue,’ Nancy told me. She said they had developed a mental bond, and that I would develop one with her over time if she stayed.”
“And so, we started. Doing all the right things, saying the appropriate entreaties. The time came for her to confess and she let out with a yammer that was so bizarre, I had to pinch my own buttock to make sure I wasn’t having a nightmare. Nancy was able to translate her story. Unfortunately, it was overtly pornographic, and hearing smut falling from Nancy’s moist lips was having an effect on my demeanor. I took a gulp of the sacramental wine straight from the bottle. Startled, both women looked at me with doe eyes, their lips slightly parted, each holding their breath, waiting for my next move. The thin fabrics they wore perfectly molded their breasts, accenting the shapes, exaggerating every quiver of anticipation. I needed another pull on the wine bottle.”
“Oh my,” the Bishop said, loosening his collar and wiping his red face with a monogrammed handkerchief.
“When her sins had all been told, Maude wept with relief, and I very nearly did as well. I had her say a prayer, as best she could. Lord Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It was yammered out in an odd rhythm that made me think of a naked savage beating a tom-tom.
Ld Jesses nod good, mery o’me, zinner. Would you believe me, Lyle? That corruption of prayer got stuck in my head for weeks. I would find myself tapping my toe and reciting the sounds as she had said them, with that same savage rhythm. Sometimes it still comes back to haunt me. Telling it to you now will cost me some hours of distress, reciting it in time to the ticking of my father’s antique mantel clock, or the spin cycle of the washing machine, the timer I use to make three minute eggs. That piece of verse is not done with me yet.”
“I’m sorry you told it to me,” the Bishop said. “I’m beginning to hear it in my head. Oh, dear.”
“Sorry about that. Well, I went through the rest of the litany with the two ladies, then we had communion. When I told Maude she was cleansed of all sin and was now worthy to move on in her voyage toward salvation, she slowly faded away to nothingness.”
“Marvelous,” the Bishop said, with a reverent joy in his eyes.
“You’d think so, but I was disappointed. I admit that until that moment, I still didn’t believe she was a ghost. In all candor, I had envisioned a three way with the two ladies. I did not know how I was going to justify my lascivious suggestion, but I was working on a rational excuse. Perhaps framing the sexual encounter as a sacrament, a beneficial cleansing of lust that would leave us free from carnal cravings forever after. Ridiculous, I admit, but remember that I was in the throes of PTSD and was willing to do whatever it took to bring about my own recovery. No matter the sacrifice.”
It took a while for the Bishop to stop laughing at Father Rickman, so he took the opportunity to eat and drink some wine as the laughter died down. He was thoroughly annoyed.
“Are you quite finished?” Father Rickman asked him.
“Sorry, Shawn, but it was funny.”
“That being said, when Nancy, the loveliest woman I had ever seen, took a suggestive posture and gave me a come hither smile, I leapt across the table like a lion on a wildebeest, knocking what was left of the wine onto the floor, along with the dish of soda crackers and the vase full of water and blooms from the floral department of the local grocery.”
The Bishop was silent with a shocked look on his face.
“Yes, we stumbled onto each other like inexperienced teens, casting off clothing in all directions and leaping into each other’s arms by the time we reached the bed. It was the most poignant sexual experience I had ever suffered. I both hated Nancy and worshiped her. She’d turned me into an animal. She stripped God from my heart and mind and stood in his great stead. It was a magnificent night, but when the sun came up in the morning, Nancy was not in the apartment. I thought perhaps she was ashamed and did not want to see me again. I hoped that was not the case. I was completely in love with her, so much that I decided to leave the priesthood if she asked me to.”
“Of everything I’ve heard so far, that is the most shocking. That you would consider leaving the church,” the Bishop said. “You have always exhibited a piety that was almost arrogant in its intensity. There were times when you did not seem human.”
“And yet, I am among the most frail in my dedication to the church.”
“What happened next?”
“I gathered my clothing from the bedroom floor, the hallway rug, the living room hardwood, and the kitchen linoleum, putting each piece on in reverse order from which I shed them. Now looking around, I found no definitive trace of her, which was disturbing. The wine was still staining the floor. The crackers were scattered, and the blooms still vibrant in a pool of water and shattered pottery. I cleaned the mess, then I scrutinized the apartment further. It was not much bigger than my own quarters provided by the parish. There were pictures on the walls. None of them had Nancy in them. There was mail on one end table. Her name was not on it. This is not her apartment, I realized. Whose then?”
This part of the story tore at Father Rickman’s heart. He had to rest before he continued, and the Bishop waited, his eyes filled with pity.
“I opened the door to leave, and a stranger was standing there with a key in her hand. She took one look at me and screamed. ‘Please don’t be frightened,’ I said. ‘I’m Father Rickman.’ She stared at me, ready to bolt, but then she noticed my clothing, the collar. She did not run, but she cautiously stayed outside.”
“It must have been embarrassing,” the Bishop said.
“I asked her if this was her apartment. She said it was, and she wondered how I got in. I explained that I was let in by a woman named Nancy. She told me that she had lived in the apartment for the past two years, and the woman who had the apartment before her was named Nancy, but she was dead. She had committed suicide, in that very place.”
“Suicide. How terrible,” the Bishop said. “And you obviously knew her during that time, when she was so troubled.”
“I must have looked stricken. The woman’s tone changed to one of sympathy. She came through the door and invited me to stay and have a cup of coffee. I told her no thanks and got out of there as quickly as I could. But then, before I got very far, I went back and banged on her door. I just had to ask. How did Nancy take her life? She told me that Nancy shot herself. Under the chin with an automatic. She’d read about it in the newspaper and became excited at the prospect of an empty apartment in the neighborhood. Her sister lived three blocks away.”
Then Father Rickman chuckled. “I asked her if she believed in ghosts. She knew what I was getting at. She said that if I was asking if Nancy haunted the apartment, that she had no indication of it. The only noises that bothered her were the neighbor’s dogs. She said the damn things made the strangest sounds. She compared it to living next to a zoo. And they howled in the middle of the night sometimes. She said she’d complained, but it did no good.”
Father Rickman sat silently now, sipping wine, waiting for Bishop Morgan to comment.
“What you’re telling me is that you had sex with a ghost. Is that the upshot of it?”
“Well, yes, Lyle. You don’t have to make it sound so pedestrian.”
“No, of course not,” he said, struggling for the right words. “It is a singular experience, Shawn. And tragic, to have found that special someone at a time in life when she was not…alive. But you accused yourself of having committed an abomination. I would hardly call it that. You are much too hard on yourself. One such encounter with a ghost might be called a minor infraction, especially since you didn’t realize, and considering the PTSD.”
“Well, perhaps,” Father Rickman said, admitting he had a flair for the dramatic, and exaggeration. “I went back to my life, and the week dragged on, one joyless day after another until Sunday. I was hungover most of the time, wondering if all the craziness was just that. Was I crazy? Oh, how I wanted to be crazy. Nancy could be alive, and she would come to mass, with Maude beside her. Perhaps I had not killed her with my cold disregard and mockery. But when she did not come, I was faced with the truth, and I became a broken man. There were so many things left unsaid between us, and I did not know how to reach her. How does a mortal call on a ghost? A Ouija board, perhaps? I feared demonic possession so often associated with that game, especially since I’d become a believer in the supernatural, so that was out. The only safe thing I could think to do was visit her grave.”
The Bishop, in his sympathy, wiped tears from his eyes and blew into his handkerchief.
“I found where she was buried and again, taking a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of wine with me, I went to her. Placing the flowers against the headstone under her name, I poured out my heart, hoping she could hear me. Telling her I loved her, and how sorry I was for not believing her. Then I drank the wine, and like a loyal dog standing guard, I slept six feet above my mistress. Nancy came to me in a dream.”
“Did she really?”
“Go home, Shawn, before you catch your death,” she said. “It’s going to rain.”
“Was that all she said?”
“At that time, and it meant the world to me. I awoke to a downpour that soaked my clothes and chilled me to the bone. I very nearly did catch my death. That was autumn of 1989, many years before you and I met.”
“I can’t remember a thing about 1989. My memory is failing me,” the Bishop said, with a confused expression on his face.
“Nancy was clairvoyant, you see, Lyle. She didn’t realize it when she was alive but in death, through trial and error, she learned of her gift and how to use it. And I have been helping her ever since, as I should have been helping all along. I suffer terrible guilt over how badly I treated her. Perhaps, if I had been understanding, she would not have killed herself.”
“You and I met later, in 2010. Is that right?” the Bishop said.
“Listen Lyle. This is important. She tells me things about people, and I check on them to see if they’re alright. I pass messages back and forth between the living and the dead. As we did for Maude, I hear confessions and give absolution so a spirit will feel ready to move on. We’ve helped many such souls over the years. I’m glad you came to see me, Lyle. Nancy has given me a message for you.”
“For me.” The Bishop said. “From my Anna?”
“That’s right, from your wife. She sends her love and she wants you to know that she always understood your dedication to the church, and she never held it against you. She said you made her very happy. You can stop haunting now and move on. Anna promises that when it’s her time, she will come and find you.”
Bishop Morgan let out a sob. A single tear fell from his face and disappeared before it hit the tabletop, and he was gone. The ghostly outline of his crumpled handkerchief lingered, then it too evaporated.
Father Rickman finished his birthday dinner, eating a few extra bites, as he promised his friend he would do. He finished one more glass of wine.
“I’m so tired, my love,” he said. How much longer must I walk this lonely Earth?”
He could hear Nancy’s voice, a soft whisper in his ear that caused it to tickle.
“It won’t be much longer now, Shawn. And remember, dearest, you never walk alone.”
Retired and living in Hamilton County, Texas, Catherine Link is a painter who occasionally teaches private students. She has won awards in local shows for her artwork and had one of her pieces included in the December 2013 issue of the Rotarian Magazine.
She loves to write short stories, which is like a form of meditation for her, calming her nerves and taking her away from everyday life for a while.
Catherine has had short stories published in Dragon Poet Review, Corner Bar Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Toasted Cheese, and Bewildering Stories.
She is married to Robert Link, also an artist and burgeoning writer. They have two grown sons. Douglas, who lives in Waco and enjoys painting, and Daniel, who lives in Northern California and is a successful fiction writer.