The Reverend Joshua Samuel wished the last of his congregation goodnight and held the door open until they reached the street so that they would have the benefit of the light from inside as they crossed the churchyard. It had started raining sometime during the service and the wind was now driving gusts of rain before it, dimming the flickering light from the gas lamps in the street. In the uncertain light, the headstones in the churchyard rippled, now visible, now obscured, and Samuel could almost believe that they were breathing and creeping slowly across the dark grass. Thunder growled. Samuel fastened the door, passed down the main aisle and sat in a front pew.
The church was old, built of creamy limestone which glowed warm and mellow in the soft light of the candles, its interior plain in accordance with Samuel’s simple taste. Samuel valued these moments these moments of peace after a service. They were a time of contemplation, a time when he felt especially close to God and to the warmth of human fellowship. Today was All Hallows Eve. The Communion service had been a thanksgiving for the lives of the Departed and a prayer for their salvation. All Hallows Eve. The night when the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest.
Samuel’s mind wandered while he ostensibly studied the remains of the Bread and the Wine which still lay on the altar. Consubstantiation. The thorny issue. Of course he believed publicly, in accordance with his Church’s doctrine, but privately? Did Christ’s body really co-exist within the bread? All Hallows. The proximity of the dead. Bread. The Body of Christ, broken for you. Catherine’s body, broken by childbirth. Do this in remembrance of me. The memory of Catherine in the silk-lined coffin, their stillborn son cradled against her. I am the Bread of Life. Samuel’s rock and sustenance in the long grey years since their passing.
A tapping noise intruded into his reverie, startling him so that his heart pounded. He smiled wryly at himself. Even a clergyman could become jittery if he dwelt too long on the dead. It was just the door, probably a member of the congregation returned to retrieve some forgotten possession. However, upon answering, he found that the caller was a stranger, shrouded in a hooded cloak and huddled into the door’s recess in an attempt to shelter from the elements. Lightning ripped across the sky followed by a roar of thunder. The storm was upon them.
“Come in, my child,” said Samuel, raising his voice to make himself heard over the tempest. “Please, come in out of the rain.”
“I thank you.” The woman’s voice was low and melodious with a faint accent which hinted at a foreign origin. Once inside, the door closed, she unfastened her sodden cloak and looked up at him with the ghost of a smile.
Samuel was shocked to see that she was old; her voice had led him to expect someone much younger. She appeared frail and slightly stooped, her papery skin pallid and sagging. The black gown beneath her cloak was, as far as he could tell, of high quality, though greatly outmoded and a little shabby. Her face was etched with lines, her lips dry and pale. But her eyes – a frisson ran through Samuel when he looked into them – her eyes seemed yellow in the candlelight and unblinking as a cat’s. They were not the rheumy eyes of age nor the innocent eyes of youth, but timeless, knowing. They both attracted and repelled.
Disconcerted, Samuel led her to the front pews, away from the draughty door. Though wet, she kept the hood of her cloak up, Samuel silently approving of her apparent modesty in not wishing to go bare-headed in the House of God.
“Please, sit” he said. She took a seat adjacent to the aisle and he sat in the corresponding pew opposite, keeping the aisle between them lest she should feel crowded or threatened by his nearness.
“My name is Joshua Samuel” he said, smiling warmly. She inclined her head graciously, but did not reply. “It’s a poor night to be out walking,” he continued after a long pause.
“I find that troubles weigh heavy on me tonight,” she replied. Her head was bowed, the hood obscuring her face. Samuel studied her, intrigued. Her clipped, rather archaic manner of speaking, her faint accent, her advanced age contrasting with her youthful voice and compelling eyes, all these fascinated him, drew him to her like metal filings to a lodestone. Yet the attraction was an uncomfortable one. Whatever the nature of her troubles, there was an undefinable air of unease about her.
“If it would help to talk.…” Samuel suggested. She did not respond, so after a little while he ploughed on. “Or maybe you would find comfort in taking Holy Communion? We could then pray together, if you wish?”
She raised her head and stared at him for a moment with those unsettling eyes, then replied:
“Pray?” Yes, I should like that.” She licked her lips with a tongue that glistened almost obscenely red and wet against the dry pallor of her thin lips.
“Please, don’t be nervous,” said Samuel, turning quickly away from her so that she wouldn’t see the revulsion in his face. “Come, kneel at the altar rail.” He moved to the altar, keeping his back to her. When he turned back, holding the Sacrament, she was kneeling at the rail, head bowed.
“The Body of Christ, broken for you.” He offered the fragment of Bread, expecting her to look up so that he could place it on her tongue, but instead she raised a cupped hand to receive it. Her nails were dirty and unusually long, giving her bony hand the appearance of a claw. The claw grasped its Bread and withdrew into the folds of her cloak.
“The Blood of Christ, spilt for you.” He offered the Chalice. This time there was no response. “Please, take the Blood”, he encouraged gently, bending low over her so that it would be easier for her to reach.
“Indeed I shall, since you invite me so kindly.” Her breath was putrid. Samuel gagged, but before he could pull away she lunged upwards, lightning-quick, and seized his neck in an iron grip. With inhuman strength she pulled his soft, white neck towards her sharp, white teeth.
The Chalice clattered to the floor. The Blood of the Saviour spilt onto the stone flags where it mingled with the blood of the prey.
. . . . . . .
The storm was over. The passers-by on the street paid no particular attention to the cloaked young woman striding away from the church, the young woman with timeless eyes and the ghost of a smile on her lips.
(c) Jane Bidder