Lucy saw the man on the street several times before she recalled that he had been murdered the year before. On reflection, she realized this wasn’t because she was inattentive; he was simply hard to notice. The bulky figure appeared hazy and indistinct, as if seen from some great distance: he was dressed in loose fitting, drab clothing, he avoided the streetlights, and he kept his head down as he walked. So, he was nearly invisible as he drifted ahead of her on the sidewalk.
What struck her, ultimately, was the limp. He had a peculiar arrhythmic gait that wasn’t pronounced, but that, once noticed, caused her to think “he walks just like old man Brander.” She hadn’t thought about Brander since she’d heard about his death. It was one of those awful events that everyone tittered about at the time but then quickly lost interest: an unruly son had beaten his father to death after a quarrel and had then vanished. As far as Lucy could remember, the son, Billy, had never been apprehended.
During these late winter days, Lucy usually returned to her apartment after darkness had fallen. She was in her early twenties, slender, with dark hair. She wasn’t pretty, but she was often told she had a wonderful smile. Employed as a secretary in an office building, Lucy had held her job for just a few months. It wasn’t work she liked much, but it paid the rent while she tried to find her true vocation.
Lucy often stopped by the church to say prayers after her long work days, and sometimes she would remain for evening Mass. When she first took notice of the limping man, she had just left the spired, red brick building; he was walking about half a block ahead of her. A chill went down her spine as she thought of the murdered man, Brander, but she continued on her way. And as she watched him, she noticed that, like Brander, he was large and heavily built. Brander had been a farmer, and he had been as strong as an ox. His son, Billy, had apparently taken after him.
Lucy felt the chill of the March evening. It looked stormy, and the Macon city lights reflected orange on low clouds. The limping man seemed to be headed in the same direction she was. But when they reached her apartment block, he continued on his way. Lucy paused at the door leading up to her flat and peered down the street, but she could no longer see him. Seemingly, he had melted into the darkness….
The next evening, Lucy stayed for Mass. Father Hildebrand was filling in for the pastor. She had heard him speak before and liked his homilies.
“The great failing of our time,” Father Hildebrand proclaimed from the carved wooden pulpit, “is that we no longer believe in the unseen world. We deny the reality of demons, of angels, and of those souls who have gone on before us. We concern ourselves only with the here and the now. And by hedging off our world into that which can be explained and is thus real, versus that which cannot be explained and is thus nonsense, we deny the very power, the majesty, the subtlety, and the mercy of God.”
After Mass, as Lucy knelt in prayer, she suddenly felt the presence of someone next to her. She opened her eyes. Kneeling in the pew was the limping man. Enormous, hulking, he stared at her with burning eyes. Lucy gasped and fled from the sanctuary, stricken with fear. She ran all the way back to her apartment building and up the stairs. She only stopped once she was inside her flat with the bolts thrown. She leaned against the door and caught her breath.
“Why was I so frightened?” she thought. “He was just watching me as I prayed….” She chastised herself for being silly. “After all, I don’t know who he is. He could just be a street person.” She poured herself a large glass of red wine, and although the thought of the man’s eyes continued to trouble her during the evening, she was, at last, able to forget the incident and fall asleep.
The next evening, Lucy went to confession before Mass. The dark, heavy wooden confessionals, ornately carved, stood at the back of the French Romanesque church. She recognized Father Hildebrand’s voice as he slid open the door to the confessional grille. And after confessing her sins, she mentioned her fears regarding the strange limping man. There was a long pause.
“Daughter, do you know for certain that this man is the one, Brander, whom you knew?”
“No, father, I do not,” said Lucy, “But my heart tells me that it is him, even though that might not seem possible.”
“Let me advise you, then, to remain vigilant, but prayerful. If this man approaches you again, try not to be fearful, but continue with your prayers, or better yet, ask him what it is he wishes from you.”
“I will try, Father, but I am so frightened when I see him….”
“Try not to fear, my child, but trust that there may be more reason for this encounter than you now perceive. Have faith in God and all shall be well….”
After confession, Lucy remained for Mass. Again, she was struck by how much Father Hildebrand had to say about the unseen world…that supernatural realm just beyond the veil. And, just as had happened on the previous night, she remained deep in prayer following Father Hildebrand’s dismissal.
As she knelt on the pew with her Rosary, she once again discerned a presence beside her. And once again, she opened her eyes and beheld the hulking presence of the limping man kneeling in the pew beside her.
She breathed deeply, and then looked into the man’s eyes. “Do you wish something of me?” she asked.
The grayish hulk beside her quavered. The eyes blinked several times, and a moan escaped the man’s lips.
“Please!” Lucy cried, “What is it you want?!”
The figure lurched to its feet, hesitated, then knelt again at her side. It moaned pitifully, and then lifted its hands toward her, as if in supplication.
Lucy, who had until then been on the brink of hysteria, suddenly felt pity for the creature. “Would…would you like me to pray for you?” she asked. The figure remained silent, but bobbed its head. Lucy shut her eyes and prayed as hard as she could for the soul of this being. She clenched her eyes and pressed tears…tears both of fear and of pity…from their corners.
And when she ceased praying and opened her eyes…the limping man was gone.
The next evening, Lucy asked to speak with Father Hildebrand before Mass.
“Father, I saw him again yesterday,” Lucy told him once they were alone.
“You are the one who spoke to me in the confessional? Of seeing the spirit of someone who was murdered?”
“Yes, Father, that was me. I’m Lucy. The…the man approached me again after Mass. I asked if he wanted me to pray for him, and he seemed to say ‘yes’.”
Father Hildebrand looked at her for a moment. “And do you still believe that this was the man who was murdered?”
“Do you know the Church’s teaching on the poor souls?” he asked.
“You mean those who have died and who have been saved, but who are still in torment because of their sins?”
”Yes,” he said. “I do not know if the one you have seen is simply a homeless man, or something more, but we may be able to find out.”
“If you will stay for Mass this evening, I will, after Mass, come and remain in a pew close enough to keep an eye on you. And if this person confronts you again, I will be there to see him. Perhaps, then, I can better advise you as to his nature.”
“Would you do that, Father? Thank you!”
After Mass, Lucy again knelt in prayer. And between her petitions, she noticed that Father Hildebrand had come to kneel in the same pew as herself, but well away from her. She continued her prayers until, as on previous evenings, she felt that someone or something was beside her. She opened her eyes. There was the limping man. But he looked different. He seemed less unruly, less frightening. His eyes still burned as he looked at her, but now she did not feel fear in his presence.
“Shall we pray together?” she asked the man. He nodded and bowed his head toward the altar. She prayed for the man. After some time, she opened her eyes, and, as before, he was gone. She looked beyond where the man had knelt and saw Father Hildebrand rising from the pew. She hastened to him.
“What do you think Father?” she asked him.
“About what, Lucy?”
“About the man that was kneeling beside me?”
Father Hildebrand looked intently at her. “I saw no one but you in the pew,” he said. “But I did hear you speak…was it to the man you mentioned?”
Lucy was stunned. “There was no one in the pew?!” she exclaimed. “But he was right there beside me! We prayed together!”
Father Hildebrand looked down at the floor for a moment. “I believe you,” he said. “But, this simply tells me that the creature that you were praying with is not of this earth. He may well be one of the poor souls in Purgatory who has come to you to ask for your aid. If so, this is a great privilege, Lucy. There are not many in these doubt-filled days that have enough faith and sanctity to attract a suffering soul. And if it is true that you have been chosen to help this man, then you must continue to do all you can for him.”
Lucy came to Mass each evening on subsequent days. And each time, following Mass, her visitor knelt beside her. With each visit, his features became less wild and horrifying. And after a week of these meetings, Lucy ventured to speak to him.
“Are you Farmer Brander who was killed over a year ago?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he answered. His voice was hoarse, as if through long disuse.
“And why do you come to me after Mass?” she asked.
“For prayers,” he said.
“But why do you need prayers?” she asked. “Are you in torment?”
The man rose from the pew. “Look at me!!!” he said. And she perceived that his entire figure was shrouded in flames, as if every part of him was burning. She could feel intense heat emanating from him.
“I am so sorry!” she said. “I didn’t know…”
Two weeks passed. Father Hildebrand continued to encourage her prayers for Brander. She came to Mass every evening, and did not mind walking home alone each night, even though the neighborhood between the church and her apartment building was not the safest. On some of these nights, Farmer Brander would walk before her to her apartment block, always continuing on past her door as if his destination lay somewhere beyond her ken.
But one evening, Brander did not appear after Mass. And when Lucy left the sanctuary, she noticed a figure lurking in the shadows beside the huge church doors. The shadow followed her as she headed home. At first she thought it might be Brander, but he had never followed; he had always gone on before her.
When she came to the poorest lit portion of her path, her pursuer came up quickly from behind and grabbed her around her waist.
“Shush, now, and you won’t get hurt!” he hissed.
Lucy froze. “Who are you?! What do you want?!” she gasped.
“Give me your purse,” he whispered in her ear, “and then…we’ll see what else Billy might take a fancy to.…”
Just at that moment, a huge figure appeared beside them both. The man, Billy, stepped back and pulled out a knife, but the figure reached over and grabbed him by the arm. Smoke billowed from his sleeve, and, screaming, Billy lashed out with the blade. Then he froze. Lucy turned to look at her assailant. Billy was staring past her in horror, waving his hands in front of his face as if to awaken from a nightmare.
“No! No! It can’t be you! You’re dead! I killed you!!!” he yelled, and, dropping the knife, he bolted down the street, clutching at his still-smoking arm.
Lucy turned around and looked at the man beside her. It was Farmer Brander. He looked at her sadly, and then…simply faded away before her eyes.
It had been a glorious spring day. The daffodils were blooming and the robins were out. And although it was too early yet for the crickets to begin their serenade, Lucy knew that soon they, too, would emerge from beneath the loam. Father Hildebrand had heard about Billy’s attack, and they had both, with great relief, learned of his capture by the police. It had not been hard to find a fugitive who had a burn mark in the shape of a man’s hand on his arm; he had been picked up when he sought treatment in the local emergency room.
Farmer Brander had continued to come to Lucy for several Masses following his son’s appearance. But on this March 25th, Lucy sensed that, perhaps, this might be the last time.
As on all the other evenings of his visits, on this Feast of the Annunciation, the murdered man joined Lucy in prayer following Mass. But once her prayers were through and she opened her eyes to see him, he said “You have done all that you can for me. I will be going now.”
“But will you be alright?” she asked.
“Yes. But, I…have to make my own way from here.”
“Is there anything else that I can do for you?” she asked.
“No. But you can help these others….”
It was then that Lucy noticed several shadowy figures seated in the pews around her. Wild they appeared, as had Farmer Brander when she first saw him. “Is this my task, then, to help these other souls?” she asked.
“Yes,” he responded. “And some day, you may find my son, Billy, among them. You won’t forget to pray for him?”
“No, of course not,” she said. And she bowed her head once more and asked for God’s blessings on this poor man who had first come to her so many weeks before. When she finally lifted her head to behold the altar, he was gone.
Lucy stood. “Come along, then,” she said to the misty figures that populated the pews around her. “We shall see all of this through together….”
And, as she left the sanctuary, the host of hungry souls followed her out of the church and into the night….
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