The holy water in the tiny stone basin was icy cold, but it was a welcome pain for a change. Hastily but not without reverence, I dabbed myself in the familiar pattern. Cleansing, my escape, putting aside the home that was not home and entering my sanctuary.
Part of me constantly ruminated on the idea of becoming a nun once I was old enough, but I was done with too many rules and too tight walls. There also was no convent anywhere near, and despite my constant dream of fleeing, I couldn’t bring myself to leave behind this one place where walls and company didn’t mean bad news.
The church was a place of shadows, friendly ones, both real and metaphorical ones. It was a cover I could enter freely, anytime, one of my only accepted pastimes, and no one asking what secrets I kept behind the gate. Almost automatically, I crossed myself before stepping into the wooden perch, kneeling in my accustomed spot in the second row from the back, waiting.
It only took a few minutes today until I heard her approach and whisper into my ear. “How bad is it today?”
I shook my head in reply, my throat to tight with tears and my lips to bruised to trust myself to speak. Carefully, I glanced about, relieved to spy nothing but her ghostly shape – a girl, pale but round-faced, whom I perceived as a little sister – and the priest puttering around near the altar, surrounded by the air of respectfully ignoring us, giving us space. I was pretty sure by now he could see her too, by the tiny telltale smiles and nods of acknowledgement. Padre, our father in spirit.
Like a small touch of a breeze, she tugged at my dress. “Come.” And I followed her along the side of the main ship, towards the small oaken door towards the rooms that were off-limits to most casual visitors. Again, it was unlocked. Again, I suspected it was on purpose, to judge by the almost smirk on the priest’s face as he observed us slip through, from the corner of his eye.
We passed the sacristy, then the cracked old wardrobe holding clerical vestments of all kinds, until we reached the small library with its smells of centuries. Holy and unholy books, some ancient spoils of holy wars – “Not so holy, they were,” she mutters.
Lightly, we treaded and floated between the shelves, caressing leather spines and touching history on yellowed paper. Searching for an unspoken idea, as we have done for weeks.
She stopped in place and her expression shifted. Wordlessly, she tapped the spine of a thin volume slightly protruding from its spot in the shelf, and disappeared to wherever it was she went in such moments. It was my decision to act on whatever coincidence or intent this was, she told me by her absence.
Deep red linen brushed against my fingers, a cover of blood and inked darkness. Ars Transformationis, the art of change. Had the priest left it for me to find? I never knew how much he knew, about me and about the conversations I had with the ghost who haunted his church.
This day, I didn’t see her again, but I felt her lingering close. “Take this,” she whispered, finally, “find a way, and we’ll be our own eternal sisterhood of shadows beaten by false hope. And I’ll share the bell tower with you, the attic. Be a ghost or whatever you like, but be.”
I skimmed the pages by candlelight, ignoring the time that passed. This was important, maybe more important than all that would happen when I returned too late. Maybe nothing else would be of real importance ever again. When I found the part I had been looking for, I did my best to memorise it: the instructions, the arcane symbols. The steps were simple enough, besides one key ingredient; and I had my idea how to get it. The pattern I would need to copy and practice though. For now, I replaced the book and went to find the priest. I had another question.
“Will you be damned?” He laughed, softly, as if it was a slightly ridiculous question asked by an innocent child. “No, I don’t think so. It isn’t what goes into the body that makes us unclean. You know the words of the scripture. You’d still be able to enter this refugium.”
Then, in an unexpected but yet not fully surprising move, he slightly pulled aside his collar. There, on his normally unexposed skin, I saw scars and marks both of war and of night. He let go of the stiff fabric and smiled the faintest trace of a smile, sad and knowing. “I couldn’t save my daughter, but I could join her, here, stay with her in my own way.”
Stunned, I nodded. For the third time this day, I didn’t dare to speak. But I was sure I knew who his daughter was; knew her quite well.
“And we could save others here,” he went on. “In all ways, soul and body and spirit, with hope and bread and refuge.”
“Padre,” I said, desperately, in offering my vulnerable skin.“Padre, be my father, too.”
But he shook his head. “No, not this way. It has to be by your hand alone, I made a vow. But ask what else you need, I’ll give it to you. Is there something I can help you with before you go home?” He was offering the usual, I knew, counsel, confession, blessing. But I had a different need.
“A coffin nail, iron from the ground.”
In my mind, I kept repeating the words from the secret tome, mulling them over and ingraining them while I walked home. Just a few more weeks and I would be free. The instructions became my litany.
Take the nail of a coffin, bury it
under a rowan by new moon, darkness silent
until by full moon you unearth it, take a sprig
of same rowan tree:
let the nail rust in holy water, wait
until another new moon, burn the wood
take rust and ashed, mix with holy water
and a drop of your own blood, pricked by a needle
that never has sewn:
tattoo the magic over your heart
and silently sit in the graveyard
midnight to sunrise, the needle between your lips
until you thread it by sunrise
with a fibre of the clothes you are wearing
stick the threaded needle into a grave and go home
start turning vampire by nightfall.
I returned the next day with a scrap of paper and a pen, to trace the intricate pattern of circles and lines with beaten fingers. Just a few more weeks, and then the last pain would come from my own hand.
On my way out, I stopped to join the priest in the confessional.
“I have read the words,” I said through the wooden lattice, “will you have me, here?”
And he smiled. “We have waited for you, come home any time you’re ready, just be safe and promise you’ll join our vigil. We’re shadows, but not damned.”