Horla Fiction (May 2021)

A STORY IN THE GROTESQUE TRADITION FEATURING STRONG LANGUAGE & VIVID IMAGERY

 

THE PHANTOM HAND

by PAUL MURGATROYD

ONLY two people had been brave enough to enter the booth where Father Whitehead was taking confession. Word had got round that the new priest from Liverpool was much given to righteous rage and very hard on sinners. Tall and cadaverous, with a long white beard and eyes that often blazed, he reminded his parishioners of some stern and unrelenting prophet from the Old Testament. When the second penitent emerged trembling, sent on his way by a roar from the venerable man of God, a fresh-faced boy aged eleven, dressed in his school uniform, rose from the pew where he had been sitting for several minutes, with his head bowed, and padded over to the confessional booth, looking apprehensive.

He entered, knelt down, made the sign of the cross and said in a fluting voice: ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’

The priest replied through the grille: ‘May the Lord be in your heart and help you to confess your sins with true sorrow. True sorrow, now.’

The schoolboy said: ‘Yes, Father. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…er, I passed gas.’

The confessor said: ‘That’s uncouth, but it doesn’t constitute a sin. Don’t waste my valuable time with trivia, child.’

‘But I passed gas at mass.’ The boy tittered and added: ‘Hey, that rhymes, Father.’

‘At mass?’ hissed the priest. He clenched his fists and shouted: ‘You disrespectful pup! You little philistine! Couldn’t you restrain yourself in the house of God?’

‘I suppose you’re going to ask me how many times,’ muttered the little lad, hanging his head. ‘In my experience priests at confession always ask how many times you did a bad thing. OK then, I, er, I pumped three times, and in my head I called the third one The Last Trump, because I knew I wasn’t going to –‘

‘What?’ yelled the Father. ‘That’s tantamount to blasphemy, making a joke of – it’s the same as cursing God. Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. And –‘

‘Are they good shots?’ the schoolboy piped up.

‘What? Who?’

‘The congregation. If they’re going to stone me. Maybe you should get some experts in. I’ve heard the knife-throwers of Hamburg are extremely accurate. The ones here in England are no good.’

‘Silence, child! What are you talking about? You’ve broken the Second Commandment. As good as. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.’ He pointed a warty finger at the grille and roared: ‘The smell of Hell will cling to your soul because you committed that terrible sin. Do you hear me?’

‘Er, yes, I can just about hear you, Father: you’re only inches from me and shouting your head off. You nearly scared the chocolate out of me.’

‘Good. I’m glad I got through to you, you little degenerate…Now anything else to confess?’

The schoolboy pondered for a while. His confessor began to pick his nose in boredom. Finally the boy asked: ‘Is frying foetuses and eating them a sin?’

‘Mother of God, of course it is,’ shrieked Father Whitehead. He pulled a hip flask of whisky out of his pocket and took a quick swig from it.

‘Phew. Well, I’m glad I didn’t do that then…But I suppose you’ll want me to stop cutting out new orifices?’

‘Cutting out what?’ hissed the priest.

‘New orifices. With my Swiss army knife,’ said the schoolboy. ‘The girl next door, Yvonne, she’s quite advanced for her age, so she gave me a full initiation into the mysteries of Aphrodite. But after a while I began to find conventional coition a trifle tedious. So I cut a hole in her tummy and rogered that. I found it made for a pleasant change, and she rather relished the variation too. They say variety is the spice of life, and there is something in that – wouldn’t you agree, Father?’

When the old man sat there, speechless with horror, the boy chuckled and went on: ‘Yvonne’s sixteen, going on thirty, and she’s had it more times than you’ve had hot dinners, Father, so it didn’t bother her. I mean, it wasn’t a deep hole – as you know, at my age you don’t have a big mickey. And I cut it below her knicker-line. So it wouldn’t show up if she wore a bikini. I’m thoughtful like that. She was grateful for that, especially when it came to the school fête. To raise money for the netball team, she wrestled in slippery substances with the head girl, both just in their bras and panties.’

The priest couldn’t believe his ears. He started to stammer something, but the lad over-rode him: ‘Yvonne knocked the head girl out with a cross-buttock throw into the corner post. Well, she’s got the buttocks for it. Callipygous just isn’t an adequate epithet for a girl with those twin globes of desire.’

‘What?’ roared the priest. ‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this sickening filth…What you’ve just said causes me almost unbearable pain. You have to repent sincerely. What if you left this church unshriven and got run over by a car?’

The schoolboy cocked his head and said: ‘It might happen, I suppose. Stranger things have happened. I mean, Rasputin’s daughter ended up as a lion-tamer in America.’

‘What are you talking about, child? You could die in an accident, you could leave this church without being shriven and be hit by a car. Then where would you be?’

‘Er, under the wheels?’ said the boy with a smirk.

‘No!’

‘No? OK, don’t tell me. I know – splattered all over the windscreen.’

‘No, no!’ bellowed the priest. ‘What state would you be in?’

‘A bit glum, I should think. Down in the mouth, if the car hit me head on.’

Father Whitehead pounded his knee and shouted: ‘No! The state of your soul, you little fool. Nothing is worse than ending this life in a state of Mortal Sin, believe me.’

‘Is that right, Father? OK, I’ll believe you. But, erm, how about murdering someone? Isn’t that just a teeny-weeny bit worse?’

The priest went cold. He took another swig of whisky. ‘Murder! You haven’t murdered someone, have you?’

‘Well, not as such. Not personally.’

‘What do you mean? Are you a murderer or not?’

‘A bit of a murderer. Up to a point. I didn’t wield the murder weapon myself. But I had a hand in it, you could say. I guided somebody’s hand. A blind man’s hand. Some bloke called Hod – a passing bricklayer. I put a sprig of mistletoe in his hand.’

‘Mistletoe?’ quavered the man of God.

‘Yep, mistletoe.’

‘You killed somebody with mistletoe?’

The youngster tutted impatiently. ‘Pay attention, Father. Do keep up. The blind bloke did the killing. I had only a subsidiary role.’

‘But how on earth do you kill somebody with mistletoe?’ asked Father Whitehead, scratching his head.

‘I sharpened the end, and the mistletoe hit the murderee (a pretty boy called Balder) right in the eye. Then I shouted out: “Happy Christmas, Balder! Give us a kiss, Balder!” He didn’t though, the spoilsport. Just lay there and twitched a bit, hur hur.’

The priest was stunned. ‘Good God! But why did you kill – have him killed?’

The boy shrugged. ‘Ooh, I don’t know, Father. It seemed like a good idea at the time? Because I’m mean and twisted? Yeah, I’m a bad lot generally. I mean, I knobbed a giantess – can I say giantess or must I say giant to be politically correct?’

‘You what?’ asked Father Whitehead, goggling.

‘I knobbed a giantess. Or giant, if you find that terminology more acceptable. And I fathered on her a wolf, an enormous serpent and my dear daughter Hel.’

‘You what?’

The little lad hooted with laughter and added: ‘And I got shafted by a horse myself. Horsey intercourse. In private. I was discreet.’

‘You what?’ asked the priest again.

‘Is there an echo in there, Father? I was a girl horse and I got secretly humped by a boy horse. We’re talking clandestine copulation with a quadruped. Got it? And I gave birth to an eight-footed stallion. How many Hail Marys for that then, how many Our Fathers, Father? Ha ha. It’s OK, don’t answer that – I’m just horsing around.’

The old priest suddenly snapped his fingers and cried: ‘Ah, I’ve got it. I see the trick you’ve been playing on me. You’ve been leading me on, you fibber. You’ve made it all up to wind me up. You little liar, you couldn’t have done any of this – you’re only eleven years old.’

‘You what? My dear moron, don’t believe everything you’re told. I told you I was eleven years old, but actually I’m thousands of years old, and –‘

‘Enough!’ screeched Father Whitehead. ‘You’re making a mockery of confession.  Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord. Your tongue practises deceit, your mouth is an open grave. I won’t listen to another word.’

‘Oh yes you will, you bastard,’ growled the boy in a deeper, adult voice. ‘You’ll listen to these words for a start.’

The priest clenched his fists and rose from his seat. But he sank back down again when he heard from the other side of the grille what seemed to be his own voice, coming out with words he remembered muttering to himself thirty-five years earlier about his first love: ‘Will you look at the arse on little Christopher there? Just like a lovely little peach. Bet it’s got a peachy fuzz on it too…That’s what I’ll call my little altar boy from now on – peachy bum. I’d love to take a bite out of that.’

Father Whitehead’s heart was pounding and his mouth was dry. He had another slug of whisky and then asked in amazement: ‘Who are you, child? What kind of trickery is this now?’

The schoolboy replied languidly: ‘Well, if you wanted to give it a name, jiggery-pokery would be the most appropriate one, don’t you think, Father. That’d be a peach of a name for it.’

The priest blustered: ‘This is a charade, an illusion. You should be ashamed of yourself. Lies. All lies. You can’t prove anything.’

The little boy smirked. ‘Oh aye? Then why do you look so sick? You’ve got a face on you like a squeezed pustule.’

The priest protested: ‘How could you possibly know all this? What kind of devilry is this?’

‘Oh don’t start that again. I got sick and tired of being equated with the Devil as part of your lot’s assault on us. Not that he’s a bad bloke. He’s quite fun actually. The Wicked One has a wicked sense of humour, not altogether surprisingly.’

‘Who are you?’

‘Who am I? Well, actually there’s a warp in the space-time continuum, a rent in the fabric of the universe, and I’m a creature from another galaxy. Greetings, earthling. Take me to your leader…No, just kidding… Have you considered the possibility that I might not be real at all, but simply a projection of your own guilt? Ask yourself if this is a supernatural or a psychological experience.’

The stunned cleric shook his head, trying to clear it. He wondered if he was talking to some kind of lunatic.

The boyish voice continued: ‘Then again could I be simply a personification of your own secret misgivings? Could I just be giving voice to questions about the nature of the divine that trouble you? Like why the hell would it be pleasing to God for people not to eat meat on a Friday? (How weird is that?) Or why should girls who’ve been raped have to endanger their lives by bringing into the world another unwanted bastard rather than having an abortion?’

The priest automatically countered: ‘All life is sacred.’

‘That would include the lives you’ve ended when your victims committed suicide, would it?’

Father Whitehead gasped: ‘Oh god, they didn’t?’ He sneaked some more whisky and mumbled: ‘What are you talking about? Are you a demon, sent to test me?’

‘No, I’m Loki… Norse god? Widely worshipped by Vikings and Germanic peoples?’

‘You’re saying you’re a god?’

‘That’s how I did the voices and knew all about you and your appalling carryings-on…I was a lord of the north. Until you Christians turned up. The Norsemen recognized the gods of other religions and were happy for them to co-exist with their Aesir, but you lot wouldn’t. You insisted, with no proof at all, that your God was the only god. What makes you bunch think that you know anything at all about divinity and the level on which we move? Morons! Still, what can you expect from people who pray to Santa Chiara for a clear picture on their TV screens? And you Christians particularly hated me. Couldn’t accept the concept of a god who was just not serious, a slippery and mischievous deity, a shape-shifter, not august and venerable, an irreverent divinity. But who makes the rules about what gods should be? Mortals? You arrogant, ignorant nonentities! I was a playful joker, as opposed to your joyless Jesus. So you slandered me, misrepresented me in stories and art, made me into a dark and malignant power. And so ever since then I’ve felt free to behave exactly like the malign figure that you depicted and get revenge on you bunch of pious pricks.’

Father Whitehead was finding it hard to credit all this. He seized on the one point he could follow and asked: ‘Are you telling me that you’ve attacked the holy Catholic church?’

Loki sniffed and said: ‘Are you telling me that you worked that out for yourself, based on nothing more than a clear declaration by me of that very fact? That’s really rather advanced for you. Yes I attacked your church. And why not?  It’s based on shame, threats and fear – bullying via baldachino and hilarious hats. If you spent as much money helping people rather than overawing them and peacocking around, you could end world poverty at a stroke.’             

Loki twisted his lips in distaste and went on: ‘And all the suffering and misery you’ve caused down the ages! Launching crusades, oppressing native communities, collaborating with fascists, enslaving unmarried mothers and selling off their babies. And let’s not forget the sex crimes – not just you, thousands of priests, all over the world. But it’s not just Catholics that I go after. I’m an equal-opportunity avenger.’

Loki gave a high-pitched giggle and then resumed: ‘We Norse gods are very hot on morality and retribution. So other Christian denominations have also come in for punishment for their sins, sexual and otherwise – The Church of England, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Plymouth Brethren, Christian Brothers and that great pacifist the Reverend Ian Paisley, who once memorably called the Pope an “apostolic frog” – not that I could fault him for that, ha ha. However, I get particular pleasure out of going after the auld enemy – Catholics, like you. So now I’ve come for you, and I have you at my mercy.’

‘W,what do you w,want of me?’

Loki replied: ‘I w,want you t,to ask yourself is this all just a bit of fun or is it provocative probing of concepts of divinity and the shortcomings of the established church…No, I want you to confess, and repent, to say that you firmly intend to do penance, to sin no more and avoid whatever leads to sin, like little boys with peachy botties.’

The priest made a desperate defence: ‘I’ll do no such thing. Nothing was proved. Those children were just actors, they were put up to it by the Protestants to smear me.’

Then he crossed his fingers and muttered: ‘I’ve done nothing wrong, I swear by our Lord Jesus Christ that I haven’t.’

The god sneered. ‘Ah get away with you, you senile delinquent, with your fingers crossed.’

‘You, you…’ moaned the priest, squirming in his seat.

Loki guffawed. ‘Ah, excellent. That’s got you blowing steam out of your navel. Right, now it’s time for you to bash off. To Hell. Where you’ll meet my daughter.’

‘Who?’ quavered the cleric, starting to tremble. He finished off the whisky in one quick slug.

The god boomed: ‘My daughter Hel. After whom Hell was named. She’ll give you hell, play merry hell with you.  She’ll come up with something fitting for you. She’ll inflict on you all the torments you people have been terrifying your poor flocks with for centuries. Lakes of fire, darkness visible, black and red devils with pitchforks, all the trimmings. And no whisky to help you cope. Do you know how hot the fires of Hell are, Father?’

The priest muttered: ‘Well, I –‘

‘They’re two thousand degrees centigrade,’ roared Loki. ‘I’m not sure what that is in Fahrenheit, but it’s pretty frigging warm. Hot enough to boil a monkey’s bum…or a paedophile’s…Talking of which, some of your little playmates want to have a word with you first, before you’re haled off to Hades.’

Father Whitehead gasped: ‘Who?’

‘Oh, you know – all the children who you didn’t drive to depression and suicide. They’re coming soon to a church near you. In fact to this church. Coming up through a gateway to Hell, just behind the altar. Yes, Father, it’s payback time, hur hur.’

It suddenly grew very cold and dark in the booth. Father Whitehead shivered. He could smell something too. He could smell clay, mildew, the grave. He stuttered: ‘W,what?’

The god cackled and said: ‘You want to know what they’re going to do to you. Well…it’s going to sting, by jingo. It’ll really hurt.’

The priest groaned and held his head in his hands. Loki smiled and said: ‘They’ve come up with a simply splendid idea. I’m sure you’ll be very impressed with their inventiveness. You’ve got to hand it to them. And talking of hands, of hands at last, hands of a mad circus clown…a phantom hand…’

‘What phantom hand?’ asked the old man, looking round nervously.

‘Oh nothing,’ said the deity airily. ‘They’ll hack your balls off  and do something really rather imaginative with them – play ping pong. Yes, two doubles teams (one of girls, one of boys) with be batting both bollocks across a table tennis table simultaneously. They’ll have a ball, but you won’t, of course.’

The priest suddenly heard two table tennis balls being batted to and fro at great speed, and yelled: ‘Aargh.’

Somehow through the close mesh of the grille came Loki’s face, floating free and gazing down at him, his crimson lips parted in a sardonic smile, sparks of malice glittering in his emerald pupils, and a golden halo caressing his head.

In shocked horror Father Whitehead grunted: ‘Uurgh.’ Then his stomach clenched and terror constricted his chest as he heard the deity’s next words.

Loki growled: ‘Aah, the children. Here they come now, all your old chums. Can you hear the patter of tiny feet, Father? Can you hear them squeaking and gibbering?’

When the man trembled, the god tittered and said: ‘I see you can. You’re shuddering beautifully. They’re getting nearer. Nearer. Listen to them – Children of the Night. What music they make! They’re hungry for blood. Your blood! They – oh shit. Hey! Don’t do that, don’t have a heart attack! Have you got high blood-pressure or something? Hey! Hey! Stop that! Right now!’

Loki snorted and pulled a face. ‘Oh bollocks, he’s gone and snuffed it. That didn’t go exactly to plan, did it? What have you gone and done that for, you Papist pillock? I was just dicking around with you. None of the children committed suicide, and actually I’m not into morality at all, don’t particularly hate Catholics. Gods just want to have fun. And I was just getting started. You’ve no idea how boring it is roaming the earth for centuries on end, with nobody worshipping you or even believing in you. You’ve got to do something to amuse yourself or you’d go mad. But now you’ve ruined it, you self-indulgent old sod, you meanie. Now I’ll have to find somebody else and start all over again…’

Loki stroked his lower lip, crossed his legs and began to jiggle one foot up and down. He murmured: ‘Hmm, who will it be? Hmm…I know, I’ll go all the way up to the top, to the Apostolic Frog himself. Let’s see what he makes of a private visit from the Virgin Mary, announcing who she is, performing a couple of miracles by way of proof, and then giving him tidings of comfort and joy: “Gentle Jesus loves everybody in the whole wide world, except you, you cunt.”’

 

 

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PAUL MURGATROYD had a long career as a university lecturer in Classics (Latin and Greek literature, language and mythology in particular) and was Professor of Classics at McMaster University, Canada. He is the author of Mythical Monsters in Classical Literature. His publications include Tibullus Elegies II (1994); The Amatory Elegies of Johannes Secundus (2000); Mythical and Legendary Narrative in Ovid’s Fasti (2005); and From Augustus to Nero (2006).

Towards the end of his career he started writing novels and short stories at weekends, and since retirement has had more time to devote to his fiction. (His poetry has appeared in various periodicals.)

We’re delighted to have Paul back at Horla.

This is the sixth of his stories that we’ve published. To access his other tales enter his name in our search engine at the top right of our pages.

Title photo credit – Matthew G. Rees

Standard Horla disclaimer – image has no connection with the fiction