Read Long After Midnight Online

Authors: Ray Bradbury

Long After Midnight (10 page)

 
          
He
spun about.

 
          
The
church lay empty. The candle flames leaned now this way, now that in their
shrines. There was only the ancient smell of wax and incense burning, stuffs
left over from all the marketplaces of time and history; other suns, and other
noons
.

 
          
In
the midst of glancing at the crucifix above the main altar, he froze.

 
          
There
was a sound of a single drop of water falling in the night.

 
          
Slowly
he turned to look at the baptistery in the back of the church.

 
          
There
were no candles there, yet—

 
          
A
pale light shone from that small recess where stood the baptismal font.

 
          
"Bishop
Kelly?" he called, softly.

 
          
Walking
slowly up the aisle, he grew very cold, and stopped because—

 
          
Another
drop of water had fallen, hit, dissolved away.

 
          
It
was like a faucet dripping somewhere. But there were no faucets. Only the
baptismal font itself, into which, drop by drop, a slow liquid was falling,
with three heartbeats between each sound.

 
          
At
some secret level, Father
Niven's
heart told itself
something and raced, then slowed and almost stopped. He broke into a wild
perspiration. He found himself unable to move, but move he must, one foot after
the other, until he reached the arched doorway of the baptistery.

 
          
There
was indeed a pale light within the darkness of the small place.

 
          
No,
not a light. A shape. A figure.

 
          
The
figure stood behind and beyond the baptismal font. The sound of falling water
had stopped.

 
          
His
tongue locked in his mouth, his eyes flexed wide in a kind of madness, Father
Niven
felt himself struck blind. Then vision returned, and
he dared cry out:

 
          
"Who!"

 
          
A
single word, which echoed back from all around the church, which made candle
flames flutter in reverberation, which stirred the dust of incense, which
frightened his own heart with its swift return in saying: Who!

 
          
The
only light within the baptistery came from the pale garments of the figure that
stood there facing him. And this light was enough to show him an incredible
thing.

 
          
As
Father
Niven
watched, the figure moved. It put a pale
hand out upon the baptistery air.

 
          
The
hand hung there as if not wanting to, a separate thing from the Ghost beyond,
as if it were seized and pulled forward, resisting, by Father
Niven's
dreadful and fascinated stare to reveal what lay in
the center of its open white palm.

 
          
There
was fixed a jagged hole, a cincture from which, slowly, one by one, blood was
dripping, falling away down and slowly down, into the baptismal font.

 
          
The
drops of blood struck the holy water, colored it, and dissolved in slow
ripples.

 
          
The
hand remained for a stunned moment there before the Priest’s now-blind,
now-seeing eyes.

 
          
As
if struck a terrible blow, the Priest collapsed to his knees with an
outgasped
cry, half of despair, half of revelation, one
hand over his eyes, the other fending off the vision.

 
          
"No,
no, no, no, no, no, no, it
can’t!”

 
          
It
was as if some dreadful physician of dentistry had come upon him without narcotic
and with one seizure entire-extracted his soul, bloodied raw, out of his body.
He felt himself prized, his life yanked forth, and the roots, O God, were ...
deep!

 
          
"No,
no, no, no!"

 
          
But,
yes.

 
          
Between
the lacings of his fingers he looked again.

 
          
And
the Man was there.

 
          
And
the dreadful bleeding palm quivered dripping upon the baptistery air.

 
          
"Enough!"

 
          
The
palm pulled back, vanished. The Ghost stood waiting.

 
          
And
the face of the Spirit was good and familiar. Those strange beautiful deep and
incisive eyes were as he knew they always must be. There was the gentleness of
the mouth, and the paleness framed by the flowing locks of hair and beard. The
Man was robed in the simplicity of garments worn upon the shores and in the
wilderness near
Galilee
.

 
          
The
Priest, by a great effort of will, prevented his tears from spilling over,
stopped up his agony of surprise, doubt, shock, these clumsy
tilings
which rioted within and threatened to break forth.
He trembled.

 
          
And
then saw that the Figure, the Spirit, the Man, the Ghost, Whatever, was
trembling, too.

 
          
No,
thought the Priest, He can't be! Afraid? Afraid of ...
me?

 
          
And
now the Spirit shook itself with an immense agony not unlike his own, like a
mirror image of his own concussion, gaped wide its mouth, shut up its own eyes,
and mourned:

 
          
"Oh,
please, let me go."

 
          
At
this the young Priest opened his eyes wider and gasped. He thought: But you're
free. No one keeps you here!

 
          
And
in that instant: "Yes!" cried the Vision. "You keep me! Please!
Avert your gaze! The more you look the more I become
this!
I am
not
what I
seem!"

 
          
But,
thought the Priest, I did not speak! My lips did not move! How does this Ghost
know my mind?

 
          
"I
know all you think," said the Vision, trembling, pale, pulling back in
baptistery gloom. "Every sentence, every word. I did not mean to come. I
ventured into town. Suddenly I was many things to many people. I ran. They
followed. I escaped here. The door was open. I entered. And then and then—oh,
and then was trapped."

 
          
No,
thought the Priest

 
          
"Yes,"
mourned the Ghost. "By you."

 
          
Slowly
now, groaning under an even more terrible weight of revelation, the Priest
grasped the edge of the font and pulled himself, swaying, to his feet. At last
he dared force the question out:

 
          
"You
are not . . . what you seem?"

 
          
"I
am not," said the other. "Forgive me."

 
          
I,
thought the Priest, shall go mad.

 
          
"Do
not," said the Ghost, "or I shall go down to madness with you."

 
          
"I
can't give you up, oh, dear God, now that you're here, after all these years,
all my dreams, don't you see, it's asking too
much.
Two thousand years, a whole race of people have waited for
your return! And I, I am the one who meets you, sees you—"

 
          
"You
meet only your own dream. You see only your own need. Behind all this—"
the figure touched its own robes and breast, "I am another thing."

 
          
"What
must I
do!"
the Priest burst
out, looking now at the heavens, now at the Ghost which shuddered at his cry.
"What?"

 
          
"Avert
your gaze. In that moment I will be out the door and gone."

 
          
"Just—just
like that?"

 
          
"Please,"
said the
Man.

 
          
The
Priest drew a series of breaths, shivering.

 
          
"Oh,
if this moment could last for just an hour."

 
          
"Would
you kill me?"

 
          
"No!"

 
          
"If
you keep me, force me into this shape some little while longer, my death will
be on your hands."

 
          
The
Priest bit his knuckles, and felt a convulsion of sorrow rack his bones.

 
          
"You—you
are a Martian, then?"

 
          
"No
more. No less."

 
          
"And
I have done this to you with my thoughts?"

 
          
"You
did not mean. When you came downstairs, your old dream seized and made me over.
My palms still bleed from the wounds you gave out of your secret mind."

 
          
The
Priest shook his head, dazed.

 
          
"Just
a moment more ... wait..."

 
          
He
gazed steadily, hungrily, at the darkness where the Ghost stood out of the
light. That face was beautiful. And, oh, those hands were loving and beyond all
description.

 
          
The
Priest nodded, a sadness in him now as if he had within the hour come back from
the true
Calvary
. And the hour was gone. And the coals
strewn dying on the sand near
Galilee
.

 
          
"If—if
I let you go-"

 
          
"You
must, oh you must!"

 
          
"If
I let you go, will you promise—"

 
          
"What?"

 
          
"Will
you promise to come back?"

 
          
"Come
back?" cried the figure in the darkness.

 
          
"Once
a year, that's all I ask, come back once a year, here to this place, this font,
at the same time of night—"

 
          
"Come
back
...?"

 
          
"Promise!
Oh, I must know this moment again. You don't know how important it is! Promise,
or I won't let you go!"

 
          
"Say
it! Swear it!"

 
          
"I
promise," said the pale Ghost in the dark. "I swear."

 
          
"Thank
you, oh thanks."

 
          
"On
what day a year from now must I return?"

 
          
The
tears had begun to roll down the young Priest's face now. He could hardly
remember what he wanted to say and when he said it he could hardly hear:

 
          
"Easter,
oh, God, yes, Easter, a year from now!"

 
          
"Please,
don't weep," said the figure. "I will come. Easter, you say? I know
your calendar. Yes. Now—" The pale wounded hand moved in the air, softly
pleading. "May I go?"

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