This one's a lot shorter than usual, so, there's that.
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THE SCREAMING HEAD OF SISTER MARY AGNES
Father Thomas trembled as he examined the severed head in his hands; even through his gloves he could feel the suppleness of the flesh, though surely the feeling of warmth was just a trick of his mind.
She was perfect. A genuine incorruptible. Exactly what they needed.
"That's really been in there for four centuries?" Stephen said, stepping a little closer for a look. He'd opened the wall of the convent for them readily enough, but once he'd pried out the bricks he'd backed away, terrified of the idea of relics, much less the actual sight of one. Stephen had said he was a Catholic, but relics and incorruptibles were a step over the line for all but the most fundamental.
"Almost," Father Thomas whispered. "Sister Mary Agnes was decapitated by a Muslim invader in 1632, for refusing to denounce Christ. Even as her head rolled away it kept mouthing praises to Jesus." Overwhelmed, Father Thomas gently placed the head on the linen-covered cart they'd brought for it. The state of the head was miraculous; not only was it dry and undecayed, it smelled faintly of hyacinths. Father Thomas had been skeptical of the tales of incorruptible saints -- he was cynic enough to know his own church wasn't above the occasional trick to sway the faithful -- but here was proof, taken directly from the vault where it had lain for four hundred years, undisturbed in darkness and silence. Other than some drying and the slightest shriveling, the head could almost have been placed there last week.
"And the body?" Stephen asked, crouching for a closer look but still maintaining a distance, though now possibly more out of reverence than repulsion.
"Cast into flames. The head would have been, too, but a few of Sister Mary Agnes's sister nuns gathered it up and made away with it. They were convinced she was a saint, and not just a martyr, for the way the head kept praying even after death. They hid it in the wall here while the convent was still under construction. And it's been unseen ever since." Father Thomas leaned against the wall beside the hole they'd taken it from. Only the most modern sounding equipment had determined the existence of the cavity. Until then he'd almost been convinced that the story of the head of Mary Agnes was only a legend.
And here she was. He'd been expecting, at best, a mummy, something they'd have to play up a great deal, but this was more than enough proof of incorruptibility. And incorruptibles were rare. Even most saints had eventually turned to dust, leaving a relic or two at best, maybe a tooth or finger bone or lock of hair. You were very lucky if you got something like Saint Bernadette, or the vial of blood of Januarius.
But here she was. Mary Agnes. Eyes closed as though asleep. Mouth slack, drawn back only slightly over the teeth, greying hair clipped short but lush, clean. The stump of the neck was dark with blood that had dried to something like black glass. Tiny flakes of it were caught in the cotton of his gloves. He wondered if water might make them turn red and flow again. It certainly seemed possible. What should have been only dust and bone, flowing and red. A miracle.
And they needed one. Religion, in general, was losing its grip on society. What was left was becoming increasingly radicalized and hardened, entangled with politics that often contradicted the teachings of Christ and thus unattractive to those who just wanted to live a good life. The Catholic church, in particular, had just been recovering from the stigma of child molestation, but in recent months another conspiracy had been uncovered, throwing the church into desperation. He hated to think of the faith in terms of marketing, but in truth, the church was in desperate need of a public relations boost, of rebranding. Media attention needed to be turned in a more positive direction.
Sister Mary Agnes was the perfect means to that end. The story, with its severed head as a centerpiece, was lurid enough to draw headlines all over the world. And the preserved state of the head was a legitimate miracle that would provoke much discussion. And canonizing a new saint was always an event, and a female would make the church seem progressive and modern. Sister Mary Agnes was certainly deserving, with a grisly-yet-inspirational story that few would be able to ignore.
The word "godsend" gets thrown around so much it's practically used in vain, Father Thomas thought, but that was certainly what this head was.
He looked at the head, a peaceful sleeper, who might at any moment open her eyes, it seemed. Even in death, she had a quiet beauty. She hadn't been a young woman, but you could tell, in younger years, she'd been a thing to see. Noting the beauty of the head would not hurt. The world would want to see it and, placed in a proper setting, the gruesome nature of what it was could be minimized.
Affectionately he stroked the head's hair. She would be pleased, he thought, to still be serving the church nearly four centuries after martyrdom.
"Shall I brick it back up?" Stephen asked.
"No, leave it for the while. It should be photographed. News crew will still want to film it."
He shrugged. "Okay, I guess so. It's amazing, how intact it is. Still gives me the creeps, though, if that's not blasphemous to say."
Father Thomas laughed. "No, it's not blasphemous. And there's no way a severed head, even one of a saint, won't be a little creepy."
Carefully, he and the Bishops rolled the cart back to their offices. Now that they knew what they had, a special glass case would have to be prepared. Later, they'd even have to contact the Pope.
* * *
The phone rang at just past 3 a.m. Father Thomas broke away from sleep and fumbled to pick it up.
It was Frances, his Bishop. He sounded shaken, could barely find his voice. "Tom... Tom, it's talking."
"What's talking?" Father Thomas yawned, trying to force himself awake.
"The head. Sister Mary Agnes. She's... she's screaming, actually."
Father Thomas wanted to laugh. Frank had a sense of humor, but this was bizarre for him, and in bad taste. "What do you mean, she's screaming?"
"Exactly what I said. The head is screaming."
"I know, it sounds crazy, it is crazy, but I've seen it."
Father Thomas sat on the edge of the bed, wondering if he was dreaming. He must be. He sighed. "Okay, I'll play along. So, what is she screaming?"
"I can only make out a word here and there. It's mostly just screaming, no words. The rest is Latin, an old dialect, I'm not good in it. Something about rats, betrayal... I really can't make out much. It's horrific, Tom, I've never heard anything so horrific."
Father Thomas rubbed his face. "I'll be down there. Look up the number for Father Alphonse. He's an expert in seventeenth-century Latin. Don't call him yet, though. I want to see this and make sure it's something real, something worth involving him. Frank, this is crazy."
"I'm not arguing otherwise. But I've seen it! Heard it. And I wish I never had."
Father Thomas sighed. "I'll be there shortly. And Frank -- film it in case it stops."
"We're already doing that. See you."
"Yeah." Father Thomas ended the call and got up and dressed, mechanically, his mind overwhelmed with what he might be about to see.
* * *
Father Thomas, for one brief year of his youth, had flirted with a drinking problem. For the first time since entering the seminary he missed those days. Irish whiskey, that's what he wanted. A bottle. Throw the cap away, he wouldn't need it again, not after what he'd seen.
It was more miraculous than ever... and less helpful. It wasn't inspiring, it was frightening. Terrifying. The most nightmarish thing he'd ever seen, and now he didn't know what to think about the world.
He could still hear it, behind the door, far down the hallway. His hands were trembling, remembering the sight of the head, on a stainless steel laboratory tray, screaming. The voice was a squeak, mingled with a crow's call, a buzz-saw blade cutting into his mind with its supernatural absurdity.
He'd made out a few words in Latin, but they made no sense. Oceans and rivers of rats, rains of rot, scourging, blood, rape, a grand deceit. Was this a prophecy for the Earth? The form Armageddon would take? Dear God, he prayed not.
He'd given word to summon Father Alphonse, out of everyone he knew the most likely to be able to translate. Cameras had been mounted to record every moment of the head's screaming in case it stopped. So far it showed no signs of doing so, however. To call it distressed was a huge understatement. The head was frantic.
Reportedly it had started by moving its lips and mouthing words, and gradually had found its voice, lost for four centuries. The eyes, too, were open now, startlingly wide, pale silvery gray like the side of a fish.
It looked anything but holy.
Bishop Frances joined him in the hallway, his eyes stunned. He glanced at Father Thomas. "What are we going to do, Tom?" he asked.
Father Thomas spread his hands and shrugged. "I have no idea. I fear it's something Apocalyptic. One thing's for certain; we finally have undeniable proof of the divine. Or perhaps the diabolical. But something beyond our world. I've always wanted that, but now that it's come, in this form... it terrifies me."
"I wonder what to do with the head. She seems to be suffering. Driven mad with suffering. We can't leave her that way."
Father Thomas rubbed his face. "I have no idea what to do about any of this. It's... it's too much. All I know to do is wait for Father Alphonse. Maybe he can converse with the thing... with Sister Mary Agnes. Maybe she can tell us what to do. I've never seen anything like this. I'm at a loss."
"I wish we'd left her in the wall," Bishop Frances said. "I can't imagine this ends well."
Father Thomas shook his head. Surely, it could not.
* * *
Father Alphonse had come in on an early flight, and he'd gone into the room with the head of Sister Mary Agnes already pale and shaking. Now, three hours later, he came out considerably worse. He scurried down the hallway to Father Thomas's office, refusing to slow down until they couldn't hear the head's screams, which had only grown louder and more frantic as time wore on.
He dropped into a chair and mopped at his sweat as Father Thomas and Bishop Frances joined him and locked the door, as he requested.
"Well, could you make sense of what she was saying?" Father Thomas asked, sitting behind his desk.
Father Alphonse nodded. "She has a message for us. She's seen beyond death and is reporting back." He wiped his face, gone nearly as white as the handkerchief he used. Father Thomas waited, displaying more patience than he felt. The state of Father Alphonse frightened him. He'd never seen a man so shaken, and Father Alphonse was one of the bravest men he'd ever met, having served as a medic in several wars. He was anxious to hear what he had to say, but filled with a quivering dread.
"She... she spoke of people being driven naked through a valley of thorns, burning hot, over hundreds of miles, through poisonous winds that festered their wounds, made them rot and stink and seep. Pestilential rains of rotting flesh, rotten to liquid slime, formed lakes, and all about were fevers and plagues, bringing miseries tenfold the worst found on Earth. There are rivers made of vermin instead of water, flowing into a vast ocean of swollen, pustulent rats, all frantically biting. People are thrown in and made to swim for the amusement of a bloody smiling king, who is mad. All around him is the worst, vilest debauchery, perversions, hideous tortures, mass rapes. Skinless beings are rolled in salt and raped by beasts. They all starve and there is nothing to eat but each other. They’re maddened by thirst that’s never quenched. Blood flows everywhere and the air is constantly sliced by metal-barbed whips. And over it all the bloody smiling king laughs, laughs at the great trick he's played on mankind, the great betrayal, the monstrous deceit. He roars with laughter, crazed with the success of his trickery. It's all a trap of torment and sickness with no escape, miseries a thousandfold worse than anything dreamed of on Earth. The things she described... I can't repeat them all... I felt my mind twisting, souring, just from hearing them. And she witnessed them all, and came back to warn us all of the trickery, the deceit, the madness and chaos." He wiped his face again.
Father Thomas looked at Bishop Frances and back to the trembling Father Alphonse. "It's horrible, but, at least we're being given warning," he said. "We can get the word out, and now we have proof. Thanks to Sister Mary Agnes's miracle, we can conclusively warn mankind that, at all costs, they must avoid the terrors of Hell."
"Hell?" Father Alphonse snapped, looking at Father Thomas, his eyes pale and bright with shock. "Hell? No, Thomas, not Hell... it's Heaven she's describing!"