I had borne my cross for too long; and so I pledged an oath. Made my New Year Resolution for 1997. By fair means or foul, fame would be mine. I must reach the high-water mark . The acme of achievement. But how? The seed was sewn when I saw Father David’s slight figure kneeling in prayer in the white walled chapel. The seed germinated as I stalked him up the steep sided slopes of the Beunos Heights. There, gazing down upon the valley below, he made his devotions; there scrutinised his manuscript. Only late evening, when the snow lay sparkling upon the ground, did I reveal myself? Emerging from the shadows, l asked pleadingly:
'Tell me how you transmit that magic into your writing'?
Father David’s name was woven into the fabric of fictional literature. He specialised in short stories. Gently humorous; sometimes macabre, always compassionate, he commanded a worldwide audience.
I too was a writer; passionately yearning for success.
The feeble figure before me turned. His face had a strangely high forehead, making his head look enormous. It bowed forward uneasily upon his frail stem of a neck. In repose it fell forward upon the breastbone of his shrunken frame like an overblown rose.
'Nabi, 'he replied.
My face expressed puzzlement.
He smiled. "Hebrew word for prophet. Originally meant to become possessed. Ecstatic. Deranged even. I too am possessed. By God. Through Him I write."
I nodded; but in disbelief. God had no meaning for me. Covetously my eyes fixated upon the flimsy manuscript fluttering between his fragile fingers in the soft breeze.
“May I read... ?” I muttered.
Father David handed me his script. “May I return the compliment,” he replied with old world charm, taking mine. "And you.... are you ....possessed... ?” he asked gently.
I remained silent. The acquisition of his story was my sole desire. The exclusive Welsh Writers' Association held their annual short story competition in the New Year. The Beunos Shield, the sum of ten thousand pounds, and a contract with a leading publisher of International renown was the prestigious prize. Father David had scored a hat-trick; winning the Shield for three successive years. I coveted his story. My name too would be woven into the tapestry of world literature. My dreams were ecstatic.
Fame and fortune would be mine..
The priest was an eccentric; an absolute anathema to my atheism. Yet the magnetism of his words made my imagination soar to the heavens above. I yearned for his magical power.
Father David’s eyes looked directly into mine; searching; probing. What did he discern in those last few seconds that stretched out to his eternity? His face was calm. Composed. Why did he kneel before me; pray as he looked down intently to the ethereal beauty of the valley below?
Even his God could not protect him!
A push from the broadness of my hands catapulted him over the edge. His body disturbed the sleep of centuries. The sound of sliding stones reverberated as they cascaded down like a miniature avalanche
I watched that macabre dance of death; waited until I could only hear the faint sound of falling snow. Below Father David’s fingers were still tightly clutched around my unnamed perfectly presented manuscript.
The priest had returned to his God. I had my pearl beyond price.
We were both winners.
I followed a preconceived plan; sprinted my way back to St.Beunos Priory; arrived breathless; exhausted.
“Father David... slipped over in the snow... fell down the valley... can't reach him. “ So saying, I sunk gasping to the floor, clutching my heart in pretence of pain. Easy for a man near fifty to simulate angina of effort.
Reaching hands were kind. The bed was warm. The priest's manuscript, also unnamed, was gently extracted from me. Praise for my unfailing efforts was soothing. I sunk back into oblivion, pushing away uneasy thoughts that drifted aimlessly like dying leaves through my clouded consciousness.
A craggy nose, piercing blue eyes, dominated my reluctant arousal. It was my friend, Ben Janssen, doctor turned writer. His voice boomed reassuringly:
“Heart seems sound to me... perhaps you are out of condition.” Father David’s story was mine. My name would live for evermore; my once rejected masterpieces recognised at last - the work of a genius.
Ben's voice pierced the exaltation of my thoughts. “The readings are almost due to start. Hurry. We'll just be in time. Father David’s story... clutched between his fingers has been entered too... It's been typed out again.”
I puzzled about that. My presentation through years of practice, had been perfect.
Ben continued: 'We located him easily... your directions were precise...”
I turned away, my body shaking. Ben touched the broadness of my shoulders gently.
Why should I care about Father David? He had achieved union with his God. Slowly a strange sickness crept up from the innermost depths of my being. Was it guilt? Surely not. Now my name, George Le Loup, would go down into the annals of literature; survive beyond my mortal time. The ambition of a lifetime, fulfilling my wildest dreams. Suddenly the irony of the situation struck me. Was there perhaps something predatory in my name? Had I been possessed.... by the devil? Yet the biblical King David had taken Bethsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite; had the soldier slaughtered In battle; just for the ephemeral fancy of a woman; yet still he remained in his God's favour.
Why should I care about God?
Ben led me to the conference hall. Sympathetic eyes turned to me, the writer who had risked his life in straining his heart whilst seeking help. No. There must be no guilt.
Each year, the stories were read aloud to the competitors. Judgement was made by an august independent panel. Oddly enough, the story I'd purloined from Father David was called ‘NABI’. I'd left what I thought was rather a pretentious title. It was as usual, superb.
I sat back in excited anticipation. I sensed the suspense. Almost heard the silence. The day was for all of us, sheer entertainment. At the end of the morning session, came my ‘NABI’. It was marvellous. Held the audience spellbound. Surely it could not be bettered? Nevertheless I could barely touch the excellent fare on that New Year’s Day preceding the afternoon session. My competitors ruefully shook their heads; comforted themselves with food and wine. It seemed that ‘NABI' would win, at least by popular acclaim. Since all the entries were identified only by number, the author remained unknown, until announced by the President.
Why then was I afraid. The winner had to be me.
Gently my friend Ben pulled at my sleeve. He had been matching me silently picking at the sumptuous fare. “His name will live on,” he murmured.
So it would; but I was only concerned about mine.
The afternoon caught a somnolent assembly. The warmth from the morning sun streaked through the high glassed windows of the hall, touched our faces with flickering colour. At last the final contribution came. It was mine. The story found clutched between Father David’s fingers. I felt a momentary panic, for I had given the title of 'RETRIBUTION' to my entry. Strangely this was called 'ABSOLUTION.'
Mystified, I settled back to listen. Suddenly I was jolted out of my lethargy. This was my story.... with the title altered... a word changed here and there... so there was a subtle change of nuance. It glowed with a wry but compassionate humour; one that shook us all up from our wine ridden complacency; held us all entranced. But it was the last few lines, that final twist, that left us all holding our breath; such was the perturbation, the passionate intensity of that listening concentration. At last the assembly took breath. Simultaneously a deep sigh, like a gentle tidal wave, broke the stillness.
God. Had my story won? And why bring Him into the issue?
Tears of disappointment rolled unheeded down my cheeks. Oh yes, I could see the undoubted excellence of those minute but subtle alterations. Ingenious. I had learnt at the foot of the master. His lesson would never be forgotten. It would be woven into the fabric of all my future writings.
Was it God’s vengeance upon me? But who had so cunningly altered those words. Contrived to bring my tale into imortality? Surely none but the master; Father David himself. Was his spirit still writing?
Ben jogged my elbow. 'Come with me. Immediately. I've had my orders."
Numbly I followed him, stumbling miserably out of that hall, hearing as I left, that 'ABSOLUTION, had been awarded the Beunos shield; the purloined ‘NABI’ had taken second place. Silently Ben steered me into his car. We moved swiftly along the darkening roads. Finally I followed him out of the car, up some seemingly endless stairs, through lengthy corridors, up in a silent lift, until we reached the topmost floor. Only then did my senses return. We were in a hospital. Ben led me to a small single room. There, stretched out on the bed, was Father David.
Miraculously he had survived.
Only his eyes begged me down to his level. I knelt down beside him. Ben left, and we were alone. His eyes looked deeply into mine. In them was compassion. Tortuously he took a deep breath, the effort of speech shaking the frailness of his form:
“lt only needed a touch just a touch... soon you too will be a master...follow in my footsteps for that Is your mission."
Feebly he grasped my hands in his, whilst his breathing shuddered and stilled, and shuddered yet again. It was then that my tears came. True tears of contrition.
'Forgive... forgive me Father... in the name of your God, forgive me.”
Twisting his lips in the agony of forming those last few words, he said, ”My son. Remember your title - Absolution.'
I knelt before him.
Weakly he raised his right hand; slowly making the sign of the cross upon my forehead. I watched whilst the glow slowly faded from his eyes.
He smiled; but not at me.
I stumbled away, weeping, into the arms of Ben. “It was his last wish,” he said, “that you should hear your story read aloud before he saw you...... that's why he held on ... survived for so long. Why didn't you tell the judges that you wrote 'ABSOLUTION' ? Father David has given implicit instructions. The decision must be reversed. You are the winner. “
My answer was immediate. 'The judgement must be left as it stands..
“I cannot. I gave my vow to a dying priest.'
I looked up out through the window to the world outside. The velvet darkness was pierced by a shaft of light from the glory of a single star shining into the darkness. It blazed its way into the shadows of my soul. I armed upon the light that had once led the Three Wise Men to the stable where the Godchild lay. Did the same light guide me back to the foot of the altar in the sanctuary of St. Beunos’ chapel? Kneeling, l retraced that last feeble touch of Father David’s fingers upon my forehead. Made the sign of the Cross.
Only then did my soul find peace. In absolution. The evil that I had done had been wondrously transmuted.