A Small Hope
For @whumptober2021 day 22: Cursed | Demon | Obsession
CW: Religion talk, confession, just like so much catholic guilt, vampirism, vampire whumpee, shame, immortal whumpee, damnation talk, negative stimming, emotional manipulation, referenced past historical ableism, blackmail, what happens in this chapter is very important later on…
Saugerties, New York, December 1912
Tristan is certain, at first, that the heavy wooden doors of the church will not open to him. His hands hover over the wrought-iron handles, curved in a beautifully fluid arch, one for each side. He feels like an intruder, although he’s spent most of his childhood in and out of churches like this one, in Ireland at first, and later on in the big church in the city where all the Irish from his tenement went, more or less together.
His mother had always made friends easily, and she had walked in a group with other mothers, the only one with only a single living child except for Bridget Sullivan, who was newly-married with just an infant.
He’d asked his mother, once, why she had only him, when everyone else they knew had other children running them ragged. She’d smiled at him, and said, you were a gift, and one given to me in God’s grace far earlier than we thought you would be.
He thinks, as he looks back, that he must have hurt her somehow, in being born, and that was why there had never been another child. But she’d never acted as if she wanted anything more than just him.
He’s lost in thought, looking over the doors but seeing far beyond them, looking back in time, when behind him someone clears their throat, discreet but unmistakable.
Tristan spins around, surprised. The sun is setting, throwing a golden light over the tombstones marking the graves that line either side of the churchyard, some tilted, some still wholly upright. Most of the names there are as Irish as his own. There are other churches he could go to, for certain, but his pack leader William had suggested this one.
Best to go away from the city, he’d said, take the train to a place where no one could possibly know him.
“I’m sorry,” Tristan says immediately, not sure exactly what he’s apologizing for.
A priest stands there, wearing a heavy coat over his cassock, a knit hat pulled down to cover his ears. His nose is bright red from the cold, marked along his cheeks. He’s younger, maybe thirty. Tristan’s priest back in Ireland was an old man, the priests before he died in the cathedral in New York City had been older than this, too.
“Hello,” The young priest says, with a kind smile, and a slightly flattened accent that tells Tristan he was born nearby, has probably lived his whole life here. “You must be freezing. I’m sorry, I stepped out to take a walk ‘round the churchyard. Come in, it’s warm inside.”
Tristan doesn’t really notice the cold any longer, but he puts a smile on his face. He’s glad he wore a coat, scarf, and hat himself, now. Otherwise he might have been known for what he is right away.
“Thank you,” He says, stepping to the side. The priest moves up the steps and opens the door, gesturing Tristan in ahead of him.
He holds his breath as he steps forward, wondering if he will burst into flames, be sent down to hell, the second his feet move onto such holy ground. Perhaps the very Voice of God will shake the earth with His anger at His sacred place being desecrated by Tristan’s very existence.
He walks inside like any other person, one foot before the other, and lets out breath he didn’t need to hold. Inside, the church is warmer, although not by much. The setting sun throws light through the stained glass, colors dancing through portrayals of the Creation, the Fall, the birth and life and suffering and death of Christ Himself.
He would have expected judgmental, hateful eyes on him even from the glass, but instead… it feels peaceful here, just like it used to. The eyes of the Blessed Virgin seem as kind and loving as they ever did. She looks, in the painting, like he remembers his mother looking.
When he was little, the church was a quiet place he could stay when the outside world was too loud, too much. The priests never minded him sleeping under the pews while his mother did her errands. They were happy to let him trot after them to feed the chickens and gather eggs from the little coop they kept in the back. Father Sean had even told the young Tristan he might be a good priest himself, one day, if he felt called to it.
You bring peace with you, Father Sean had said.
Even after moving to the tenement building and the rush and noise of the city, he had learned fast he could duck into St. Joseph’s when the city overwhelmed him and let the familiar accents and songs of home soothe him. He had learned that the priests would let him sit in quiet, would see him rocking and swaying and leave him to it until he stood and left again, without speaking, without needing to.
Back in Ireland they called him touched, but Father Sean called him blessed.
All the world and his life changed around him in ways he could not bear at first - but the church was always the same. The routines were the same, here and back home, the words he repeated were the same. The faces changed but were the same, even so. He could be comfortable in a church, knowing that nothing there would ever surprise him.
It would always be a church, Mass would always be Mass. He could trust its sameness, he could rest in it.
For a mind like Tristan’s, that demanded routine and sameness to feel safe, it had been more home than the apartment they’d lived in, the three of them sharing a room big enough for perhaps three pairs of shoes to fit, it felt like some days.
He’s pulled back to the present by a hand to his back.
“I’m Father Michael,” The priest says. When Tristan shivers, he pulls back. “Oh, you’re freezing. Did you have to wait long?”
Tristan doesn’t know how to begin to explain that he will only warm to the temperature of the room he is in unless he’s newly fed, when fresh blood keeps him hot to the touch for a few hours and then cools within the prison of his dead body. He can’t bear to admit that he isn’t cold, only surprised that he hasn’t lit on fire from the priest’s holy hand.
He only half-smiles, looking off to the side. He never could look into anyone’s eyes for long, and that’s only gotten harder since his death. “Not so, so long,” He says, in a low voice. His eyes move over the stained-glass image of Eve and Adam in the Garden, their nudity obscured by painted green leaves, each of them with a hand underneath the apple between them, painted a garish, bloodied red.
And the serpent twisting down the tree behind, fangs visible with its mouth wide open.
Tristan’s tongue pushes against his own fangs in a burst of shame, and he steps slightly away from the priest’s touch, as if he will sully him by even such small contact. “I, I, I came to make, um, confession, Father.”
“Of course. When you are ready, enter the confessional, and someone will come to hear your confession.” Father Michael’s smile is so warm and so kind. Tristan hopes that it will be someone else who comes to hear his sins. He doesn’t want to see Father Michael's cheerful friendly expression cool to loathing or crack apart in fear.
Father Michael moves away from him, out of the vestibule and with stately dignity at odds with his youth through the aisles and into a door behind the altar. Tristan is alone, for the moment, to make his slow way after him.
He sees a coin box with candles off to one side, under an image of the Christ with his hands held open to children who crowd around his feet. Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God. The verses come easily to his lips, and his tongue doesn’t burn when he whispers them, his mouth does not fill with acid.
It gives him some small hope, that he may be loved even as a monster.
He digs a coin out of his pocket and drops it into the box with a small metallic clink to join others already in there. He takes the matches and lights first one candle, then another, and sets them carefully into the places set for them, raising his eyes to look up at the way the artist who made this stained glass has so captured a look of calm understanding in the eyes of a Christ who looks back down at him.
His parents are held in those arms, he thinks. Far, far away from him, they are held in perfect peace.
Far away from him.
“Eternal rest grant unto them, O' Lord and, and-and let the Perpetual Light shine upon them.” As always, the memorized prayers come more easily to Tristan’s mouth than his attempts to speak for himself ever do. He thinks of his mother and father, and tries to picture their smiles instead of the final sight of their bloodied bodies. “May the souls of the faithful, departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. A, Amen.”
He glances to one side - there is no one but him here, now, as the sun’s light turns from yellow to orange, and the shadows are heavy and dark along the floor. Then he reaches out and holds his palm, fingers out, directly over the candle’s flickering flames.
He feels nothing.
No pain, no warmth, nothing at all.
Only the twist of pain in his chest, that his parents have gone so long unprayed-for. He supposes their friends and the priests back in the tenement neighborhood probably speak this prayer for them, or at least he hopes so. But this is the first time he’s come back into a church since his turning to say it himself.
He turns and heads for a pew right at the front, dropping quickly to his knees to cross himself before he rises again to sit. His eyes wander upwards, to Christ suffering on the Cross. His eyes are closed, His face slack. Painted blood runs from His crown of thorns.
Real blood doesn’t look anything like that at all.
Tristan crosses himself again, and then wonders if he should have done that or not.
He doesn’t burn, with these holy symbols. He had expected - maybe even, in some small way, hoped - to burn.
His eyes slowly close. Will You forgive me, for what I have become? You, if no one else does? You, if I confess?
His lips move without sound in the form of a prayer that is wholly secret, entirely his own. Only when he feels his lips press briefly together for the amen does he stand again. He is still alone in the nave, but he knows that the priest - or priests, if there is more than one here right now - will be watching and waiting to see when he is ready.
The confessional booth is beautiful, wrought of wood that has a flowing pattern like a river held in place. He lets his fingertips move over the smooth carved angles around one edge before he closes the little door and takes a seat on the small padded bench provided within.
On one side, blank wall.
On the other, a screen that will allow him to speak with a priest without having to see the man’s face. He sits there, rocking to soothe his nerves, forward and back. His fingers dance along his thighs, finger-twist-tap-tap-tap, up to his stomach. Each touch a rush of reassurance, soothing the cacophony of the world outside his mind.
Even here, in the quiet of the church, the tapping is what keeps him feeling safe. In school the nuns would sometimes tie down his hands or hit them with sticks to stop him - but the priests in St. Joseph’s said that God understood the need to be always moving.
There is the sound of the door on the other side opening, of the priest settling into his own seat.
When he quiets, Tristan whispers, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has, has, has been…” Tristan stares at the beautifully smooth paneled wood within the confessional booth, trying to think of just how long he’s been away from the religion his mother had held so tightly, in such certainty and awe. “Seven years since, since, since my last confession.”
There is a pause, and he sees the shadow of the priest moving through the tiny holes of the divider between them. “You sound young, my son, to have gone so long away from seeking absolution for your sins.”
It’s not Father Michael’s voice. This man sounds much older. Tristan feels a savage relief, that he doesn’t know what the man looks like, that he will not be able to picture his reaction when he begins to speak honestly and openly about what he is.
“I, I, I sound younger than I am.” He hopes the hint of wry, bitter humor he feels at the words doesn’t show in his voice. “But it has been seven years, an, anyway.”
“And how is your faith, my son?”
Tears strike his eyes, and Tristan hurriedly wipes them away, rubbing his dampened fingers on his pants so that the streaks of pink won’t mark his face when he steps out. “It, it, it wavers, Father. Since, since I lost, um, my, my my my my parents, it-... it wavers-...”
There is a brief silence. “When did you lose your parents?”
“Um.” He has to count, but the years move without meaning, now, without any meaningful change in him. It makes it hard to track. “In, in, 1904… I think. Or ‘05.”
“Ah. Please accept my condolences for your loss, my son, and my reassurances that it is common for faith to waver after the death of those we love. It is common, but there is Grace in Christ’s Mercy, and a place in Glory. Were your parents of the faith?”
“Yes. My, my, my my my mother al, always... my father be, became so to marry her.” His accent thickens even just talking about it, he can hear himself stop trying to dampen and smooth out the singsong lilt of his speech.
It feels good to do that, too.
“Rest, my son, in the knowledge that your parents are in Glory now. The Faithful will be cared for unto the end of days and beyond.”
Tristan nods, as though the priest could see him do it. His chest hitches with air he draws into himself from habit, not need. He nearly cries, here and now, just to hear it said out loud. No one has said such a thing to him in years. It hurts to hear it, but in a way that feels like the pain of washing out an infected wound. “Thank, thank y-you, Father. Um, I, I… need to tell you… I need to confess my sins.”
“Of course. What weight do you bear and bring to lay at the feet of our Lord?”
“I, I, I did not save them,” Tristan whispers. “When they died. May, maybe I could h-have, but, um, but but but I didn’t-... they were killed before my eyes, and I, I did nothing. I could not move at all, I felt such fear, Father. I... I could not move. I, I only watched as they were-... murdered.”
“This is not a weight you carry,” The priest replies, in a low voice, authoritative and sure. “Feel peace, child, for your parents’ deaths are not your cross to bear.”
He nods, again. “Thank you,” He whispers, and he means it, his gratitude is sharp as a blade, he bleeds within himself. Not his fault. “Also, I… my, my parents were killed by the-... the Un-Dead.”
Now it’s the priest’s turn to hitch in a sudden deep breath in surprise. “Were they? Oh, my child, you must have been so frightened. Were they Turned?”
“No.” He closes his eyes. His hands are fists clenched in the rough fabric of his pants. He tells himself that now is the time to be brave. There is no sin that God has not heard before, that’s what Father Patrick back in the city church used to tell him. God has seen it all, Tristan, and there is no evil new under His sun.
“There is that grace, at least.”
“At least.” His lips barely move. It takes everything in him to speak the next words “But… Father, I-... my parents weren’t Turned, but, but, but… I was.”
Silence draws out, unbearably heavy, in the air between them. The priest shifts - Tristan can hear the bench he sits on creak with his movements.
Here it comes.
Tristan waits for the lightning bolt to strike, the church to crack apart under the demonic influence of his very presence. His eyes close tightly, and he jams the heels of his hands against them. This time, he can’t hold back the sound of his sob, the cries of his shame.
“You chose the Path of the Un-Dead?” The priest asks, in a shocked, horrified whisper. “You chose to be a demon rather than to walk with your parents in Paradise?”
“No! I didn’t!” He groans, smacking at the wood in front of him, rocking back so the back of his head hits the wood behind him. He hears the priest jump at the sound, and wonders if he’ll run from the confessional, if he’ll run screaming from the church, run from the demon child in the booth beside him, run from the confession of evil itself. “I didn’t, didn’t, didn’t! I, I, I said no, I asked for death, I, I prayed and prayed, but no one answered me! I was not saved! I, I prayed for help, but, but but but… but but I died, anyway!”
He can’t bear the silence that is his only immediate answer.
“Worse, worse Father, I, I had them, had them Turn the aunt who had my my parents killed and make her die twice. I am wicked, I have done s-such evil from anger, to… to d-do what I did… I didn’t want to be dead, I didn’t want to to hurt anyone, I never w-wanted-... I only wanted to live, I, I only wanted to live… I only wanted my parents to live...”
He sobs, voice broken, leaning back over to curl over his legs, arms tucked against his stomach, hugging himself. Pink-tinged tears leak like dripping blood onto the floor of the booth. Somehow, they do not hiss or steam.
“Now I am, am evil, I’m... For, for for me to live, Father, others have t-to die. I-I’m careful, I’m so careful, I almost never kill now, but, but but but but-but sometimes… please, am-... am I damned? Please, Father, please, tell me what-what to do, tell me…”
Tell me there is hope.
“Tell me I, I will see them again, Father.” He begs in a broken whisper, and the silence from the priest makes him feel like he is dying all over again, torn apart by pain that is entirely internal this time. “Tell me I I will see m-, my parents, please, please tell me I’ll see them again… even if it is only a glimpse before I am hellbound, please-”
“You have been placed on a path of damnation,” The priest says, finally, in a flat voice, and Tristan’s sobs grow louder. Then the door to the priest’s side opens and closes, and Tristan wonders if the priest will leave him here to cry until there is no blood left in him, leave him to flee, a demon thrown from the promise of the Garden, an abomination who will never see Grace.
When his own door opens, he is shocked enough to sit back up, heedless now of the tears that still stream from him, his mouth open in a grief-stricken snarl, showing his fangs. The priest stands there, looking down at him, and crosses himself.
He’s much older than Father Michael. He might be in his sixties, or even older.
“Christ protect me,” The father murmurs, and then he holds out his hands. “Please, my son. Listen to me.”
Tristan looks up at him. His green eyes glittery, the whites are totally pink from weeping. “Father?”
“You have been placed on a path of damnation, this is true,” The priest says, gently, and he takes Tristan’s hands in his own, rubbing his thumbs over the vampire’s knuckles. His hands are warm, and not nearly so roughly calloused as those of the people Tristan grew up with. He wonders if the priest was from a wealthy family, first. “I have been taught that hope in grace is for the living, not the un-dead, but… but this does not have to be the truth of your fate. God will find the one sheep lost, this we are told. If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them should go astray: doth he not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains, and go to seek that which is gone astray?”
He leans forward.
It’s a risk, Tristan knows.
If he were anyone other than who he is, he could throw himself at the priest and rip out his throat right now, drink his blood hot right on the floor of the house of God.
But he isn’t like the rest of his pack, and so he holds still, looking up with desperate need into the face of a priest who may hold the key to the only desire he still has. “What, what, what should should I do for penance, Father?”
“Your death is not a sin of yours,” The priest speaks firmly. “Neither is that of your parents. But the death of your aunt… this is a grievous sin, my son. Even if you did not kill her with your own hands-”
“... even so, to have her killed is murder. And you were damned by the nature of what you are. But…” He raises a hand to cup his warm palm against Tristan’s face, and he ducks his head into the touch, crying openly, letting his pink tears stain the man’s skin. The man’s thumb rubs over the line of his cheekbone, and it is such a simple thing, to be held.
A simple thing that he denies himself now.
“Do good,” The priest says, finally. “Be a force for good for the living, and you may one day have tilted the scales in favor of grace. I cannot give you absolution, child. You are not my mine to forgive. But the Lord knows our souls, and He knows yours. Dedicate your life to doing no harm to God’s Children - as little as you must, and each time you do harm you must balance that sin with an act of goodness - and one day… one day He may let you rejoin them.”
Tristan takes this in, and nods, slowly. He rocks forward and back while he thinks, eyes closing, then opening again. “I, I, I can be forgiven?”
“I don’t know, child.” The priest pulls away from him, gesturing for him to stand. He exhales in a slow sigh. “I don’t know. You must live your time as the walking dead doing your utmost to overcome how you must do harm to live. And you must never, ever create more of your kind. You must never Turn a soul to the Un-Dead.”
Tristan moves back out into the aisle, following behind the priest, allowing himself to be led back through the vestibule and to the door. “I, I won’t, Father. I won’t. I, I never w-want to... Thank-... thank you, Father, th-thank you.”
“If ever you create another, the door to salvation will be wholly closed to you.”
“I, I know.”
“I cannot tell you to go in peace,” the priest says softly. “Your kind is damned to walk in sorrow. But I tell you to go with God’s love, and with hope.”
The vampire boy goes, walking down the steps with new lightness even as the night sky above him is showing the first twinkling stars in the frigid air. His heavy boots crunch through a dusting of snow, matching the white of the church’s exterior. The bare tree branches overhead seem like they cut apart the sky when he looks up.
He walks down the street. There will be one more train back to where his pack lives, and he can get there without them having realized he’s been gone, if he’s careful. William had told him he could come out here to find a church, and that he’d keep Tristan’s secret. The pack leader had been kinder, lately. Sweeter, holding Tristan sometimes and sleeping next to him during the day, listening to his fears and his worries.
It had been William who told him he might be able to have his confession heard here, that he could speak the truth without worry he’d be staked afterward.
Tristan walks with a lightness to his step he hasn’t had in years.
When he is safely gone, a pale figure steps out from behind a tall memorial-stone marking the death of some rich someone-or-other, moving across the snow in total silence. The priest, though, is not surprised when the man - white of hair, and skin, so pale he seems like part of the environment - steps up in front of him.
“William,” The priest says, voice hard now, and cold.
“Timmy,” The vampire replies, bright and cheerful.
“Father Timothy,” The priest replies, rubbing his hands against the cold. “And you know it. I’d ask you inside, but I’d be afraid you’d poison the place with your presence.”
“Still the same delightful scamp as when we were children.”
“Were you ever truly a child? I have my doubts.”
“Oh, hush it. Did you take his confession?”
Father Timothy’s jaw sets. “I did.”
“What did he say?”
“That’s private, between he and God. I will not speak of it.”
“Fine, fine. You Catholics are always so fussy.” William crosses his arms, unbothered. “I’ll ask you this - did you tell him he is damned?”
Father Timothy frowns. “Yes. I did as you said.” He doesn’t mention that he said much, much more than that. That he did not lock the door, but left it cracked open to have the warmth and light of God visible, a promise to be kept for all.
“Well, at least now he’ll stop all his mooning about over that rosary he found. It was getting irritating.”
Father Timothy struggles with a new spike of guilt. The poor creature wanting only to find his way back to the light, and here Timothy had sent him into darkness with only a small candle. “William, as we discussed-”
“Right, right. Hanging work, Timmy-”
William ignores him. “Your family’s safe as houses. There will be no mysterious attack on your sister’s children. She grew up a fine homely woman, didn’t she? Her granddaughter’s quite the beauty. Now, I’ll go wash down this happy little double-cross with good blood. I suggest you do the same with your whiskey.”
“Begone, demon,” Father Timothy says tightly. “You know I don’t touch the stuff.”
“Not anymore, you don’t. I remember.”
“Then try to remember how loudly it is I once said I hoped never to see you again.”
William gives him a cheerful little wave of his fingers, and then he moves back into the churchyard cemetery, seeming to simply fade into the snow. Father Timothy stares, the light from within the church at his back, the cold darkness of the growing night before him, until William has long-since disappeared.
“Father Timothy?” Father Michael speaks from behind him, fingertips just barely brushing his cassock.
Timothy jumps, his heart leaping out of time, reaching up to put his palm over his chest as he spins around to see the young priest looking at him, blinking in surprise hand still up. “Oh! Oh. Apologies, Father Michael, I was-... a bit lost in thought.”
“Clearly. Did you take the boy’s confession?”
For a second, Father Timothy thinks Michael is speaking of William, and he nearly starts to laugh bitterly at the very idea that William would confess a sin for any reason but to brag about it. Then he realizes Michael means the young vampire boy with the red hair and settles, smoothing his cassock, shaking his head.
“I did, I did,” He says, closing the heavy doors against the cold, the two of them back within the barest warmth of the vestibule. “He’s been and gone.”
“Oh, good. It’s odd of you to volunteer for a confession, usually you have me take them these days.”
“Hm. The old bones don’t do so well sitting and standing as they used to.” Father Timothy ignores the pang of guilt within his own soul. “But I felt called to this one. Is our supper readied?”
“Ready and waiting. Come and eat, Father.”
Father Timothy nods and follows Michael through the nave, down the aisle. He feels the weight of Christ’s gaze upon him - knowing that he did as his tormentor bid him but knowing as well that he did what he could to give the boy hope - and he prays, lips moving silently when Michael can’t see him, for forgiveness.
Christ forgive me, for I have done Satan’s work in exchange for my sister’s children remaining safe.
Christ forgive me, for I have done his work for many years.
Christ forgive me, for I have told one of Your children that he is damned, knowing well that he is not.
Forgive us all.
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