The cathedral was as hollow as it was austere, its vast stone nave flanked by four rows of several dozen brass pillars, its high ceiling lined with ribbed vaults, the unnatural curves and appendages streaking in all directions to meet the towering pointed arches in an ensnaring web. Fifty yards down the procession of frigid statues and faded apertures there was hymn-song. So faint and ethereal was the sound that it confounded, prompting the pilgrim to approach the tiered chancel in a morbid silence. For there, before the altar, standing erect in the light of the chalky haze filtering through the monochrome centerpiece, were the very Servants of God, arrayed in white coifs and serge habits, descanting solemnly the refrain of Heaven as the silent masses, hands clasped in helpless veneration, sat bowed.
All except one.
Perhaps this man was now twice fifteen, the age he was when he last came to this place. His complexion was not wan but hardy. His eyes were not lowered but attentive, with a cold and instilling glimmer. Sharper still were the creases of his ebony suit, accented in a sea of brown and graying garments, and the wilting red rose set in his left breast-patch was the sole source of true color in the entire chamber.
Upon a forlorn note the refrain was concluded, and the choir dispersed in somber files off either end of the chancel. At this point the stately man, before completely motionless, rose promptly and started towards the second or third pillar to his side, where the transept met the side aisle, and covering much ground in several fleet strides, crossed paths, somewhat brusquely, with an age-worn canoness.
“Do you have a moment?”
Sensing no response, he spoke again.
“Can you not spare one?”
She stops and looks up from silent prayer, clears her throat.
“Only if you seek atonement or offer alms, child, are you moved to either?”
“Yes…but, not for…”
“Come, child,” she says. “If it’s a penitent heart you have, I’m certain God will hear…”
Then softly, huskily. “No, not Him…I’ve no quarrels with Him.”
“How, child?” she says. “And could you have come here to seek another, if not God?”
“I’ve only come to seek…that which once was.”
“Surely you understand, child. God does not parley with men.”
“Not Him. But this…” He pauses in perturbed thought. “This…this crude…religion.”
At this her face grows hard.
“And what, child, know you about the doctrines of the Faith?”
“I know enough,” a faint scent of suppressed rage, “about this one.”
He takes a step back, considers his left and his right, the shell of the construct in which he stood.
“One body. One voice. One face. Its…fictions…exceed the spires of your chambers. They claim to lighten yokes, but offer only shackles of indoctrination.”
She shakes her head.
The harsh word stuns her to silence, echoed down the halls. “Don’t…call me child. I swear at the word, I hate the tone of it!”
He draws near, looks into her eyes menacingly.
“I look into these…holes…and see only a bound conscience, I see nothing but my own pitiful reflection.”
“You are yet a poor, wayward…”
“Not your child, you delusional … ”
He wrings his hands.
“You think you belong here any more than myself? Do you? You belonged to us! We belonged to us! Child…you…curse child, you know my name! Speak my name!”
Others begin to watch.
She looks about, notices the attention being drawn, and grows stern.
“God will not tolerate such insolence in His house…”
“Oh, I’m sure He will…” Cold venom in his voice now. “And can I not get one warm word without my insides churn of disgust? Can’t I?”
More men turn and stare, their expressions confused. A pair of guards jerk their heads toward the commotion.
“Child, if you have come to blaspheme, then depart in peace. I will not have you disturb the good children of…”
“Children? CHILDREN?” He flings his arms wide like a raptor, no longer restraining his hoarse voice. “What are the children? WE! WE WERE THE CHILDREN!”
The guards approach swiftly. One points accusingly at the man. “He dares, in the halls of redemption…!”
He wheels about to face his challengers. “Indicters! Slanderers! I’ve nothing against redemption, I’ve nothing against God! I loved Him! I LOVED HIM!”
“And see.” The canoness at the man. “What sort of…blasphemer…professes to love God but sows discord in His Courts on earth?”
The man turns back, and their gazes lock.
“And which…hypocrite…can claim to have cleansed her soul and turn her back on the fruit of life? Of happiness? How? HOW COULD YOU?”
The guards lay their hands on him.
“Hands off me! Take your hands off me!”
“He dares…this man surely is perturbed by some malevolent…”
“NO! Not God! Not the Devil! Only false religion! ONLY FALSE MEN!”
They drag him away.
“Liars! Adulterers! Fornicators! They stole us! THEY STOLE US FROM OURSELVES!”
She stands rooted to her spot.
“NO! Hands off me! You cannot beat me with sticks! You cannot tempt me to blindness! You cannot drag me further from this wretched place than I ALREADY AM!”
She begins to mutter. “…depart in peace…depart in peace…”
His eyes dart to her once more.
“…from blindness…to the truth! You know my name! Speak it! SPEAK IT!”
He is beyond the stone gates, restrained at the threshold.
“Arthur! My name is Arthur! ARTHUR!”
The gates begin to shut.
“Do you think yourself whole now? Do you?”
And if a single streak of tear may grace her cheek, the man would not have seen. He was too beside himself in hurt, in rage, consumed by his shattered past. By the distance between.
“You think yourself whole and pure and beautiful? Come awake! BEAUTY IS PAST YOU NOW!”
The last glimpse of her face.
“PAIN! PAIN AND BEAUTY! EMBRACE BOTH, OR CLAIM NEITHER!”
Tristan Wang is a high school senior living in Palo Alto, CA. Aside from writing, he dedicates his time to book-reading and meme-posting.