The deserter and the priest sit in the church playing Russian roulette. The deserter’s face and hands are black with gunpowder and grime—only his eyes and teeth glow white in the dim candlelight. He gives the priest an exuberant smile and pulls back the hammer on the revolver. The cylinder spins with a reptilian hiss.
“Perhaps if you told me what was troubling you,” the priest says tentatively. The game was not his idea. He had been hiding under the altar when the deserter climbed in through a breach in the wall. The war had been raging along outside for days and everyone but the priest had fled.
“Nothing is troubling me,” the deserter says. He holds the gun to his temple and pulls the trigger. The hammer crashes, shockingly loud, on the empty cylinder and the sound echoes off the ruined walls of the church for a very long time. The deserter gives a dry little laugh and places the gun gently on the altar, his eyes on the priest. “I told you. I have come for a duel with God. If the bullet chooses me, God is stronger. If it’s you, well…” He shrugs, and his overcoat makes a strange rustling noise as it settles back around him. It is torn in many places, black and stiff with blood. “Your turn,” he says.
The war had been sniffing around the town like a jackal for months, but it arrived in force ten days before, with the rebel army taking up positions in the surrounding hills. The priest had been instructed by his bishop to protect the church from looters, so when the metallic crackle of gunfire drew close, he bolted the tall oak doors shut.
For over a week he heard the ebb and flow of the battle outside—small-arms fire, explosions, the despairing tramp of refugees, the cries of the wounded—tidal currents of violence and motion washing continually around him. The priest roamed the church in an agony of doubt. Was this truly what God wanted from him? That he should hide in this church, concealing himself from the struggles of the world? He imagined opening the doors, the oak spreading like angel wings before him, and striding bravely out into the inferno. But then he thought of his instructions, the stern warning that the purity, the sacred ground of the church depended entirely on him. Sometimes at night he would hear voices outside, women and children pleading for him to let them in. He would stand, his hands shaking on the latches. “I can no longer stand idly by,” he would tell himself. “Now, at long last, I will act.” Each time, however, he stepped back. He was so small, and the suffering outside so large. He would wander through the church, stroking the tapestries, running his hands along the inspirational inscriptions carved into the walls. But the saints of the stained glass windows cast their dark eyes heavenward, having already dispensed with the works of man.
“I could shoot you. I could fire into the air,” the priest says.
The deserter looks disappointed. “If there is a bullet in the chamber and you kill me, then God wins. Otherwise I suppose I will be forced to club you to death. It’s only fair.”
After a week or so, the sounds of the battle began to ebb. It seemed that he had endured the worst, that the war would move on, leaving the church unscathed. With each new morning the priest felt faith swell inside himself with a hard brightness. The rising sun shone through the windows, the delicate panes still impossibly intact, and bathed him in the glorious light of God. The priest found himself filled with a brilliant feeling of joy. He had won. He had submitted himself to the will of God and, though he had endured a great trial, had emerged transfigured, humbled, and purified.
Then, in the middle of a nearly silent afternoon, there was a deafening explosion. A single artillery shell had landed near the front of the church, shattering the stained glass windows and blowing a jagged black crevice in the stone wall facing the street. Smoke and dust filled the church, and fires caught and burned fitfully on the tapestries and some of the pews. The priest, his ears ringing, his breath coming in gasps, huddled behind the altar with a bottle of sacramental wine where, a few hours later, the deserter found him.
“There are riches here,” the priest says. “Treasures. I can show you. You could be a wealthy man. You can take anything you want.”
“This is what I want,” the deserter says. He looks at the gun, and then expectantly back at the priest. The priest doesn’t move.
“You know, all of this,” the deserter waves his hand around airily, somehow including not just the ruined church but the whole town, the countryside, the world at large, “this was me. I did it.” He reaches over and grabs the priest’s bottle, draining it and throwing it down the nave where it crashes on the flagstone floor and shatters into bits, scattering among the sharp shards of stained glass, the remnants of God and the lives of the saints. “I was an artillery man, you see, before I settled on my new career as assassin of God. We sat up in the hills for days, tossing explosives down onto this town. We wrote prayers on the sides of our shells before we sent them off, our most heartfelt wishes, that your town be reduced to rubble, that everyone in it die a painful death. We would launch them heavenward, the embodiment of our desires, and God would bless them and offer them back to you.” He paused, craning his neck to look at the gash in the church. “I can’t be sure this was one of my rounds, but it’s very lovely nonetheless.” He gazed thoughtfully at the breach, and then looked back at the priest. “All good things must come to an end, of course, and the war moved on. But I had a powerful urge to see what God and I had done. So I slipped away from my company in the night, and came to visit.
“I met such devout pilgrims on the road, father. You would have wept at their piety. I saw a young man, his chest shattered by a blast. With each breath I could hear the grate of his ribs against each other, and the burble of blood in his lungs. I found a woman in a ditch. I imagine that she was beautiful a few days ago, but her legs were bloated and useless and smelled of the putrefaction of the grave. I saw a baby. Someone loved that baby once, but when I met him he was alone, shivering and whimpering at his dead mother’s breast. His skin was wrinkled and gray, already ancient and tired of life. I gave them all the only gift I had, and they each met the bullet with joy, having had their fill of God’s presence in the world.” He paused and looked slowly around the church, at the vaulting ceiling, now torn open to the sky, the great gray walls painted with soot, the windows, their edges still jagged with bright fragments of glass. “When I had only one round left it occurred to me that I might be equally generous with myself, for I too had grown sad and weary with the burden of God’s love. Just then, I saw your church, and I thought that perhaps there was one sacrament I might yet perform—that God, selfish to the end, might want my final bullet for himself.”
The moon, clear in the sky, beamed through the rent in the roof and the shattered walls of the church gleamed silver. The priest imagined a bullet tearing through his skull, admitting all of that light while a fine mist of blood and brains scattered onto the stone beyond. The revolver, silent and inscrutable on the altar, shone with such brilliance that he thought it must sear the flesh from his hand, but when he touched it, it felt bitterly cold. He picked it up and looked into the eyes of the deserter. A warm breeze sprang up, whispering through the walls, and he smelled gunpowder and smoke, the sweet odor of a new spring, rotting flesh, shit. Rats and carrion beasts shrieked and squabbled over corpses outside as birds, just beginning to stir, opened their throats in tentative song. The priest realized he was biting the inside of his cheek, and the taste of blood mixed with the scent of flowers in his mouth. He looked up at the sky and thought that the dawn, when it came, would be the loveliest thing anybody had seen.
John Haggerty’s work has appeared widely in magazines such as Confrontation, Nimrod, Salon, Santa Monica Review, and is the recipient of the 2013 Pinch Literary Prize. His novel Saline Springs, which he hopes to finish very soon, was a finalist for the 2013 James Jones First Novel Fellowship. He is enrolled in the MFA program at San Francisco State University.
What motivates him to create:
“My first thought was that I create out of envy and fear. Envy because, when I see a piece of great writing, I think, ‘Damn, I wish I had done that,’ which spurs me on to do something similar. Fear because the world is a scary place, and I use writing to try to make sense of it. But viewed in a more positive light, beautiful things, especially beautiful writing, makes me wish that there was more of that in the world, and inspires me to add my own pale contribution. And whether I am afraid of the world or not, art remains the best way for us to examine it in its entirety—its joys and sorrows, the terrible beauty of life.”