by GEOFFREY MARSHALL
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
If you don't like your deacon, don't you carry his name abroad.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.
Just take him in your bosom and carry him home to God.
Oh, blessed be the name of the Lord.
Blessed Be The Name — Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie Johnson
Mantegna the Psychic stood on the shore of Lake Torment. He absent-mindedly swatted a mosquito as he gazed across the water, then examined the red smear on his hand. With a name like Lake Torment, he somehow felt entitled to a few theatrical flourishes — and what did he get instead? Dead trees. Many, many dead trees.
He was annoyed. He was only there by accident (really). That afternoon he had been free as a bird, on the open road with his next show a day away. Music came and went with the radio reception and he sang along whenever he knew the words (always). Then came the traffic stop.
A cop had flagged the cars ahead of him to the side of the road where, after a brief discussion, the car would invariably perform a u-turn.
He could save himself some time and just bang a u-ey — except — except he was curious (being a natural born rubbernecker), so when his turn came, Mantegna inched onto the shoulder to take his turn. He stopped adjacent to the cop and rolled his window down a crack — mosquitos poured through the narrow opening.
The officer (who relentlessly windmilled his arms) barked out the facts — the road was closed (an accident ahead) and would be for some hours. Mantegna could drive back for something like twelve miles then take a left. Follow the gravel road that would bypass the closure and rejoin the main road. Easy right? Or he could go fuck himself — that last bit left unsaid but Mantegna was a psychic by trade. So he just knew.
A few minutes later he had settled in behind a half dozen other cars. He was nagged by an obscure feeling that a gentle guiding hand now controlled his course. He had concluded early on that free will was mostly an illusion. You decide to go right, but really the road decides for you. You come to find that gentle guiding hand can also be a fist so you just follow along and turn right yourself or else you careen blindly off the road — into the unexplored land of the lost. He rolled the window down and spat a few chewed up crescents of fingernail into the wind.
He was a few miles down the gravel road and the cars ahead had kicked up a haze as they rumbled along. A random glance or bad luck, he never could decide but, whatever the reason, he saw the sign —nailed to a dead, bark-free trunk. The ancient paint was mostly flaked off and the wood was weatherbeaten from decades of exposure to the elements. He sometimes wondered how the sign caught his attention and also why he reacted the way he did — or even how he knew it said ‘Lake Torment’.
He jammed the brakes and abruptly abandoned the caravan of rerouted vehicles. The drivers behind him shook their heads (fists too) as he took the road less travelled and was swallowed up by the bush.
Branches hung low over his windshield and beat a relentless tattoo on the roof of his car. Somewhere in the back of his mind he gave himself no more than ten minutes, then he would turn around. His suspiciously somnambulant steering ended pretty close to his self-imposed deadline when at last he could drive no further. What had started as a rough gravel road had narrowed into a hardly distinguishable trail that wound around the trunks of the brooding conifers that loomed above.
With a curse he heaved himself upright and stood on the rocker panel. He caught a sparkle of light just ahead and perhaps, just perhaps, a clearing. After a hike that lasted only a few stumbling minutes, he found himself on a bleak mosquito infested shore.
He peered across the lake — if you could call it that. Really it hardly qualified as a swamp and the dark water looked as soupy as the Deepwater Horizon oil slick. This little side-trip had already cost him an extra hour or more. He spun on his heel (so gracefully, he imagined) to head back to his car. What he didn’t notice was the tree root at his feet, hidden in deep grass. His heel caught and down he went and, as he went, he finally did see that root as it rose to meet him. No that wasn’t right. He fell (so very not gracefully) towards it. However you thought about it, the end result was the same — his forehead collided with the damn thing and out went the lights.
Some time later — an hour, a millennium — he opened his eyes and immediately noticed the acute lack of sunlight. He blinked a few times in hopes this would autocorrect but it just stayed dark and he was forced to admit he had been out for several hours. He dragged himself upright and his teeth clacked involuntarily with surprising force. He had to get a grip — he couldn’t spare a dime to pay the damned dentist with his bankbook as it was. He groped at his forehead, not wanting to find what surely would be a massive lump.
No lump did he find, but what he did find was even stranger — he was wearing his stage costume — shirt, cubic zirconia studded cufflinks, not to mention his shiny black dress pants. He even had his shoes and cape (velvet lined). He loved his cape — his dad always said he was a wordy little prick but he did look dashing in a cape.
He felt a passing urge to kick the root, but even he learned his lesson (eventually) and, besides, he had just noticed something far more interesting — something that had grabbed his attention by the lapels and was shaking the bejeezus out of him. What he noticed was a bony hand protruding from the water.
He blinked. Maybe it would go away. Blink. Hard no. Blink. Now the hand was even closer. Closer. But Maybe it wasn’t a skeletal hand at all. How could it be? Just a tree branch. Had to be. He edged nearer—one foot, then the next — a Texas two-step towards the water— and waited for the illusion to dissolve.
The hand not only did not dissolve, it had risen out of the water, ulna and radial bone clearly visible. He reversed his two-step just as the arm was fully out of the water and the rounded dome of the skull broke the surface. He figured his best move was to now move away from the walking (or was it swimming?) skeleton. Especially as a dozen or more skulls emerged from the water like a pod of tiny bleached whales. He took a few rapid steps backwards and fell again, his foot catching on that very same root. That damned root. He kicked at the thick bark, a move that accomplished nothing, except to bruise his heel.
Mantegna forced by his curiosity, stared at the lake and faced the others, who sat in rows on pews of dank, waterlogged wood. The standing skeleton swayed in the throes of soundless oratory, while the seated skeletons nodded, some even lifting their arms and waving them overhead — a silent congregation enthralled by a silent sermon.
Mantegna was likewise enthralled, albeit from the ungainly position of his posterior, which was planted in the deep grass. As he scrambled to his feet, a translucent veil of ghostly flesh formed around the congregation’s moldy bones. Slowly the skeletons solidified, down to their hair and clothes — simple dresses, hats, vests, pantaloons — all homespun and stitched by hand. The grass, the night sky, even the lake — all painlessly bleached from his sight and he found himself inside a rough chapel. The congregation sat on the now sanded planks of their pews — Mantegna himself in the last row — and watched the Preacher behind his makeshift pulpit.
His mosquito bite had begun to itch and he dug his finger into the small lump until his nail found relief. While he gouged, he began to perceive the voices of the congregation. Some now stood and waved their hands while others sang in languages he could not understand.
The preacher raised his voice above the din, “Acts chapter nineteen, verse six, my brothers and sisters.” Bang. His fist on the pulpit, “and when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.”
Soon they all joined the linguistic frenzy, some with eyes closed and some in prayer, with their palms held up in supplication. Mantegna had already guessed they were speaking in tongues, but he wasn’t certain about the prophecy part — a sketchy claim given the languages amounted to nothing but gibberish and random babble.
Now there was blood under his fingernail but at least the itching had ceased. As he calmed down he noticed the man seated beside him. The man’s prodigious cheek muscles twitched but, unlike everyone else, he sat silent and stoic. Also different (troubling really — Mantegna admitted) was that the man was staring directly at him.
After what seemed like an eternity, the man spoke, “Let me show you what happened to us.” Strange visions passed before Mantegna’s eyes.
There was the Preacher in earlier times — younger, handsome and so, so charismatic — his passion contagious and his faith a living thing. His followers left their lives behind to build a paradise. Mantegna saw them construct the chapel along with smaller cabins for the families. They farmed the land and tended their livestock — cutscenes of wind-rustled cornrows and swine, caked in mud.
“These were the good times,” the man whispered, “everything was good until came time for baptism.”
The Preacher left his pulpit and made his way towards them. The man’s eyes remained locked on Mantegna’s even as the Preacher approached and the two embraced.
“My deacon,” the Preacher embraced him, “do you remember our promise when we swore to build this haven?”
The Deacon grimaced and pushed away, “We said we would build Paradise.”
The Preacher nodded, “And consecrate our toil with baptism.”
The Deacon said nothing but his jaw muscle ticked with each beat of his heart.
“Destiny calls us,” the Preacher said and the scene began to dissolve, “my friend, the time has come to finish what we started.”
Then Mantegna was outside, again on the shore of Lake Torment. He blinked under the white hot sun while mosquitoes swarmed his sweat-soaked head. The Preacher had talked about destiny. Mantegna sneered. Destiny was just something people said when they felt out of control —as if the past somehow had them by the throat, jerking them around like a puppet on strings. Bullshit. Fate was an excuse, destiny was manufactured and, sometimes (sometimes), the puppet could cut their strings. Even he had managed to do that once upon a time.
He observed the congregation, all dressed in flowing white robes. They were hand in hand, every single pair of eyes trained on the Preacher who was up to his waist in the lake’s impenetrable water, deep in prayer. The Deacon, as usual, was at the back of the crowd with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face.When at last the prayer came to an end, the Preacher beckoned to the group and the first of the congregation stepped into the water.
The man splashed forward, his legs churned and his gown spread out around him like the wings of a dove. The Preacher gently tilted the man backwards with one arm under his shoulders for support. His lips formed in words of prayer as he submerged the man’s head with his other hand.
Time passed. The rest of the congregation looked on and stared, and merely continued to stare as the man’s feet began to kick. The Preacher’s forearms bulged as he held the man under, until, at last, he thrashed no more. He nudged the body and allowed it to float behind him, out towards the center of the lake. He turned to the next in line, his hand outstretched. Come my child, come down to the Jordan.
Mantegna ran toward the congregation. Stop, oh God stop, he begged. Make them stop. He reached out but his hands passed uselessly through the immaterial baptismal gowns. He sat helpless but could not turn away. Someone needed to bear witness. One by one the worshippers stepped into the lake, each death a spike in his beating heart. The trail of white wings stretched out behind the Preacher, beautiful, even in death. Until, until at last, there was only one.
The Deacon alone of all of them met Mantegna’s eye, “You cannot change the past Psychic,” he said.
“My deacon,” the Preacher held out his hand one last time, “my friend, your time has come.”
The Deacon joined the rest of the congregation. When his death throes at last were over, the Preacher dragged himself to the shore and collapsed. He rolled onto his back and stared, eyes wide open, at the sun. The flies buzzed around his head. Mantegna was close now and watched as the man blinded himself.
“You saw what he did to us?” It was The Deacon was beside him again.
The Preacher began to whisper, “Matthew, chapter twenty seven, verse forty six, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” There were tears now, pouring from those awful eyes. “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?,” he called out, louder and louder until his chest heaved and he fell silent.
Mantegna looked away as the nausea gripped him.
“He repeats the Redeemers words, but he is not the Redeemer,” the Deacon said, his grasp firm on Mantegna’s wrists.
His fingers were cold bone despite their fleshy illusion. The grip itched like a mosquito bite, like a thousand mosquito bites. Once again he showed Mantegna visions of the past — scenes flashed before his eyes. The pigs slaughtered in their pens. The clouds tainted with smoke. The cabins in ashes. Mantegna’s eyes brimmed over with the squalor of the desecration. He closed his eyes and prayed for the torment to end.
The other spirits of the congregation now joined them — a phalanx that drew them inward, inward into a strangled circle. Mantegna shuddered as the burning itch on his wrists became unbearable.
“The Preacher lives,” the Deacon squeezed harder. One by one, the spirits evaporated into small clouds of ash and death that stank of their burned out chapel. The clouds sped towards Mantegna, narrow funnel clouds that spiraled into his mouth with the screech of a banshee wail and the taste of mold. The Deacon — the last in this as in everything — dissolved into a cloud of mosquitoes and swarmed down the dry walls of Mantegna’s throat.
Silence fell and the lake was still, yet the sky began to pinwheel. The Preacher lives. Mantegna stumbled, took a step back, felt his heel thump against a root. The same root. He fell and knew no more.
Sunlight eventually warmed his eyelids and the reddish glow told him it was daylight. He opened his eyes and winced as he caught a glimpse of the sun. The Preacher lives.
The endless chatter from the voices guided him — more than guided — they confided in him. He became the mortal vessel of their unrequited hopes, their lost dreams, and, all the while they led him onward.
Time refused to pass, yet he found himself sitting in his car. He was parked in front of a large tower. His walk to his car, the (unbearable) trundle to the road, the gauzy dullness of his brain as his car rolled down the blacktop, his arrival in this parking lot — all a blur, a stop motion journey that took four hours but somehow only lasted ten seconds.
He knew where he was (the voices whispered to him now) — the Avalon retirement residence, domicile of the Preacher, the only survivor of the (unremembered) Lake Torment Massacre. He exited the car, his knees wobbled, his back creaked, the Congregation like an angry nest of wasps infested his mind. The front doors seemed so very, very far away. The Preacher lives. He presented himself at the front desk and somehow, before his tortured mind really understood what had happened, he stood in front of a door.
He knocked and waited for an answer. At last it came. Enter.
He didn’t know what to expect. The Congregation in his mind was silenced in the presence of the old man. The Preacher lay in a hospital bed, back raised to a three quarters sitting position. His skin, weathered, thin as tissue paper, his arms frail — but the eyes, the eyes. Sightless, milky white, and yet electric.
“You brought them along for the ride,” the Preacher said.
The voices came to life — let us have our revenge. Mantegna’s head swam and he focused on the Preacher.
“My congregation is dead,” he said. His tongue passed across his cracked lips. “Mark, chapter five, verse thirteen — ‘And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine’.”
The old man’s voice pierced the veil of torment and cast a silence over the swarm, “My Deacon…” he trailed off with a cough. Slowly, inevitably, Mantegna drew closer, closer until his ear was less than an inch from the man’s lips. “The Deacon was unholy — Mark, chapter five, verse nine — ‘My name is Legion: for we are many.’”
He was blindsided by an overwhelming itching sensation from the wound on his neck. “You killed them, didn’t you?” Mantegna said.
“Like the Savior, I tried to cast them out. I offered salvation.”
“No mortal can offer salvation. Only God. There were no demons. There never were,” Mantegna said, “and when they failed to appear you decided to force them out.”
“They didn’t come out for me,” the Preacher said, “why wouldn’t they come out? They should have come out for me as they did from Him.”
Mantegna recalled the visions, the slaughtered swine, “My god, you drowned them to drive the demons into the swine.” He was again gripped by cold fingers of nausea. He vomited. Nothing but smoke emerged, hanging stagnant in the air — a coagulated mass between Preacher and Psychic. The blind old man began to pray and the noxious smoke sizzled and seethed and was slowly drawn to the old man where it settled and sank into his chest.
When the cloud had been fully absorbed, his hands fell to his sides. “I wanted them to die with the swine,” he said. Mantegna could see an oily film polluting the whites of the Preacher’s eyes and he jabbed at the call button.
“But now I know they’ll die with me,” the Preacher said — the last words Mantegna ever heard him say.
The doors of the Avalon closed behind him later that evening. Somehow only twelve hours had passed since he was forced to take his detour. Mantegna the (now genuine) Psychic started his car and pulled out of the parking lot.
From a window high up in the Avalon, a doctor looked down — the same doctor who answered the call of the Psychic and attended to the Death of the Preacher. He watched Mantegna’s car turn the corner and, from his eyes, as if from behind another window, the Deacon peered out.
Mantegna felt his gaze, that tormented gaze, as he drove away. “Addio my friend,” he said, “go with God.
Geoffrey Marshall is a writer in Aurora, Canada. He knows just enough to be dangerous (mostly to himself) in several different fields. You can find his work in The Ansible, Academy of the Heart and Mind and the September 2022 issue of MoonPark Review. His education never really took, through no fault of his instructors (debatable) but he did manage to acquire a BA in English Literature from Carleton University. Find him on twitter @g_k_marshall.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.