This worked better than the story, which isn’t saying much:
November Writing Challenge #6—ACT I
Setting: a church sanctuary, elaborate, Victorian/Gothic. Altar with hangings, candlesticks. A cross above, not quite in the center. A font stage left, with the cross on the lid tipped to the side. There is a door in the wall next to the altar, on the right side. A chair up against each side wall. Dimly lit, as a church would be without electric lights in the middle of an autumn morning.
Father William, The New Priest—a fresh-faced young man. In clericals.
Martha, The Altar Guild Lady—a middle-aged woman, very efficient and brisk.
Father Grayson, The Old Priest—under the altar, which is moveable, and can be raised
lowered. He is spectral and wearing a black cassock.
Florist—not a speaking part
As the curtain opens, Father William and Martha are standing in front of the altar, continuing a conversation.
William: Martha, I told the vestry that I don’t want to make any changes in the building, but I do think that straightening out that cross isn’t extreme. I think I should just get a step ladder and get up there and move it before the service tonight.
Martha: Oh, but then you’d have to step on the altar.
William: I’d take the fair linen off, first, of course, and put down newspapers.
Martha: That’s not what I meant, Father. Standing on the altar. . .
William: I understand. But it’s off-center. And surely when it was hung in the first place, someone had to stand on the altar.
Martha: Father Tomlinson often commented on that cross. He believed that it was hung that way for a purpose.
William: Perhaps it was. But I believe that purpose has been fulfilled, and I shall move it to the center. And while I’m up there, if you like, I’ll give the paneling a good rubdown with whatever polish you recommend. Would you mind taking the fair linen and other things off? I’m afraid I’m not good at that sort of thing.
Martha (somewhat mollified): Certainly I can remove the things properly. And I’ll fetch some polish. I have just the thing in the sacristy closet. Exits
William: I thought you might. He is visibly relieved.
Martha returns wearing a pair of white gloves. She hands a pair to him.
Martha: You may help me with the candlesticks. Be careful. They’re heavy. Father Tomlinson didn’t like is ladies to move them without gloves.
He puts the gloves on, and each of them lifts a candlestick from the altar. They carry them through the door. When they have gone, the altar shifts slightly so that the cross appears to be in the center. They return, without gloves. Martha has a tube to roll up the fair linen, and she begins to do that while William stands back and watches. He looks at the cross, clearly puzzled.
William: Martha, could you come over here for a minute? She leaves the rolling and stands beside him.
Is it my imagination, or is the cross in the center now?
Martha: I believe it is. But wait. . . she goes back to the altar and looks at the floor. The altar has moved. Look! William joins her and examines the floor.
William: Did we. . . bump it? When we removed the candlesticks?
Martha: I doubt it. Try moving it. He tries, and fails. “Bumping it” is out of the question.
William: You’re right. Was there an earthquake? But—nothing else is out of place. We would have felt something. . .
Martha: The altar has a solid marble top. I doubt that an earthquake would move it at all.
William: Well, I guess I don’t have to move the cross.
Martha: But now the altar is off center.
William: And since we can’t move that, it will have to stay that way. I suppose we can put the things back. Martha unrolls the linen again, and smooths it, while William ponders, and examines the altar and the floor. They exit. While they are gone, the altar moves back to its original place. They enter, in white gloves, carrying candlesticks, which they put on the altar. William steps back.
William: Martha. Look. She joins him. They look at one another in puzzlement. All right. I think we’d better leave this. No ladder, no moving, no polishing. I must think about this. Thank you for your help. It looks as if everything is all set for the service tomorrow night.
Martha: Except the flowers. They’ll be delivered at six. You’ll be here. (not a question)
William: Yes. My first service. All Souls’ Day. (To himself) I must remember the list of names.
Martha: It will be sad to hear Father Tomlinson’s name on that list this year.
William: We’ll all be on that list one day, Martha. One thing we can be sure about.
Martha: (darkly) Assuming there is still a church and a congregation. I do hope you can make a difference. Father Tomlinson tried, but he was not well.
William: I’m sure he did his best. The Bishop would not have sent me here if he thought the situation without hope. Thank you for your good work. Everything looks very nice.
Martha: So I’ll go now.
William: And I’ll see you this evening.
Martha: Of course. Good morning, Father.
William: Good morning. . .
She exits, and he stands in front of the altar with his arms folded.
William: All right. Whoever you are, whatever you are, I know about you. The Bishop told me there was something amiss here, and there is. That cross, that crooked font, the organ that won’t stay in tune, the bell that won’t ring no matter how many times it’s rehung, the fact that no one has been baptized or married here for one hundred years. . . I want this foolishness to stop. And I will get to the bottom of it. I know about you. I even think I know your name. I’m off to search for the missing vestry records. And if I must, if you will not repent, I will do an exorcism, old-fashioned though that may be. As he speaks, the cross falls off the wall. So. You see the writing on the wall: “Mene, mene, tekel, parsin.” Your days are numbered. Exits.
The curtain rises on the dark sanctuary. William enters, carrying a flashlight. He stands in front of the altar and shines the light on the crooked cross.
William: I do know your name. I found the missing records, hidden, as the Bishop suspected they’d be. Well hidden, so no one in the parish has ever found them. Buried in the bottom of a trunk in the crawl space in the attic. You are in fact Henry Malachi Grayson, the third rector of this parish. You were not universally beloved, and in fact, the vestry minutes from that time indicate that the Bishop had been asked to remove you from this cure, but it was not necessary because one Sunday morning you were not here. You were not in the rectory. You were nowhere to be found. Letters were written to your remote cousins in New York, but they had not seen you. You disappered. You are the haunting. And I want you to come forth and tell me, now, in the name of Christ, why you are haunting this place?
There is a rustling, and Father Grayson, ghostly, appears from behind the dark altar. The lights go up enough to make things more visible.
William: Whose murder?
William: He sits down in the chair opposite the font. Grayson stands in front of him. Tell me. I command you.
Grayson: (As if reciting lines by rote.) They were too young and they did not belong here.
Grayson: The people who came on that Saturday. The woman was with child.
Grayson: (testy) Of course they were strangers. I would not have turned away members of my own flock. I would have chastised them, of course, as was my duty, but I would not have turned them away.
William: What did they ask of you?
Grayson: Marriage, in the holy church.
William: And you refused.
Grayson: Of course I refused. (back to rote recitation) The man had not been baptized, the girl had fallen away. The child was conceived in sin. The man was coarse and loud. When I told him that I would marry them only if he repented and was baptized, and only if they both repented of their sin, he picked up a candlestick—(pointing to the candlesticks on the altar) and struck me. I died.
William: And what happened then? Where did they go? What did they do with your body?
Grayson: (contemptuous) I do not know. I was dead. And so here I am, unavenged, unshriven, forbidden the heavenly mansions until my corpse is discovered and anointed.
William: Perhaps you should repent.
Grayson: Of what should I repent? I was murdered by a hooligan.
William: Lack of charity, perhaps. Arrogance. Pride. Bearing False Witness. Maybe. . . lust. Maybe. . . fornication.
The ghost raises its arms in a classical sort of haunting position. William is unmoved.
William: That’s it, isn’t it? You seduced that girl and she conceived. The man with her was not her lover but her father. When you refused to acknowledge your fault, he struck you and you struck him. And there was murder—but not yours. You’ve told yourself that story from your place in purgatory for so long that you’ve come to believe it.
Grayson: This is outrage.
William: Indeed it is. Where did you hide the bodies, Grayson? I command you to tell me.
Grayson: (snarling) The altar. You fool, look behind the altar.
William (stands) And you must move it. I command you. If you want rest for your soul, Grayson, you must do this thing. And you must confess.
Grayson gestures and the altar rises. There are two skeletons curled on the floor.
William: And now, if you would be free, confess.
Grayson is clearly beaten. He kneels, sobbing.
Grayson: Bless me father, for I have sinned. William stands above him. She and her father were drifers who came to me for help. She was naive and very pretty. I gave them money for food and lodging in a boarding house, and I gave her money for nice things and I took advantage of her. She conceived and told her father. They came to me, begging me to marry her. I refused. I said that she was a whore. Her father was a strong man. He struck me. I lifted a candlestick from the altar and struck him and he fell. The girl screamed. I struck her. I hid their corpses behind the altar and sealed the seams with pitch so there would be little smell. I took clothes from the poor box to wear, and I took what money I had, and I took a train out west, where no one knew me. I died of cholera, in a no account town in Ohio. And when I came before the judgement seat, I was sentenced to return to this place until I repented. And I did not repent, but told myself the lie I told you. I confess that I have sinned, and I humbly repent. Save me, father, save me.
William: Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis.
The lights go out, the altar is lowered, and Grayson exits in the dark. William exits also. He reemerges from the sanctuary as the lights go on—as if he’d flicked a switch. The cross is in the center, and the lid on the font is righted.
William: I’ll leave them. What better place for two sad souls than under an altar. May they rest in peace. He looks at his watch. It’s nearly six. And here come the flowers. I’m going to ring the bell.
Florist enters from the audience and he helps put the flowers on the altar, then exits through the audience while she/he continues to arrange them.
There is a sound of bells.