Ciaran J. McLarnon is a writer from Ballymena, a town near to the north coast of Ireland.
His stories have appeared in several magazines including New Reader and Adelaide Literary Magazine.
He has written on many subjects, but nature is often an important element of his speculative stories
His published stories and further information is available at http://www.ciaranjmclarnon.blog
By Ciaran J. McLarnon
The sunlight had been blocked by the iron-grey clouds for week, threatening a downpour that never arrived. The village was drooping; the heat and humidity surrounding Havensford was trapped the heavy sky, leaving the residents to eagerly await the relief of Autumn. Tim Fairfield wasn’t expecting a comfortable evening.
Tim’s parents had pressed him for weeks that to attend a Revival on the outskirts of Havensford, and Tim had agreed that he would attend that first night. And he was, walking towards what he considered to be the religious equivalent of a travelling freak-show. His parents had a laughed the suggestion that they should hand with him; they claimed showed sufficient commitment to their faith every Sunday and that their presence could even hinder Tim in finding the rejuvenation his faith so desperately needed. The preacher was also a renowned healer; he had access to a power that could help Tim with an injury that had baffled so many doctors.
He studied the lines of his lifeless left hand and imagined what he could do if his affliction was removed. He would be a famed musician, or maybe a noted athlete. He could even have been an important doctor; the kind of person how finds cures for debilitating diseases; diseases like…. polio. A childhood bout had left Tim with a paralysed hand, but the feeling might come back so no doctor would remove it. If only Dr. Salk had been just a little faster in creating a vaccine; it often seemed that polio was now irrelevant for everyone else. The world had moved on and left Tim behind; aged 25, but he still had the dependant life of a child.
Tim wouldn’t let anyone see his worries; there were no lines around his eyes, no wrinkles on his forehead. He made a conscious effort to give off an aura of confidence as he marched across the field and towards the white, canvas tent that would house the Revival for the next three nights. The tent reminded Tim of an army field hospital; he imagined the bandaged and bloodied soldiers lying on their cots and wailing in anger and anguish.
A sharp wind bent the stalks of wheat in adjoining fields as a steady flow of maligned and desperate silhouettes proceeded through the dim evening and towards the tent, hoping for transformation. This steady drip surely won’t be enough to fill the tent, Tim thought, though a thin crowd might better for me. Pleased that he had finally decided, Tim swallowed hard as he pulled back the cover and stepped inside the tent.
Tim was glad to be protected from the stiffening breeze. But he felt most comfortable close to the entrance, where the wind pulled at the flap and tested the tent-pegs, away from the seated attendees who surely had more faith than he did. These feelings of isolation, that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time were all too familiar to him; he had hoped they wouldn’t follow him to this place. Would it really make his parents happy, to know that even in a place such as this he felt lost? As Tim loitered by the entrance and reluctantly considered moving to the thinly populated seats, he was greeted by a softly spoken man who seemed to appear suddenly beside him.
‘Good evening,’ the man looked old, he had thinning grey hair, and was immaculately dressed in a mauve suit and pale-green shirt. He also sported a pencil moustache that seemed out of place in this environment, ‘welcome to our meeting this evening. If you benefit from the experience, we would be happy for you to return, and consider spreading the word to others. Would you like me to direct you to a seat?’
Slowly Tim looked around at the few others in the half-empty tent; dressed in suits and floral dresses, hats and highly polished shoes. Tim became very conscious of his blue jeans and thin white shirt, his scuffed tan boots. He decided the time was not quite right to become further involved in the situation.
There was a low murmur of conversation in the tent; most were silent, lost in reverence for the show about to begin, Tim was sure his reply would be heard clearly by all who wanted to eavesdrop, ‘No thanks, will the show be on time?’
Tim intended to cause offence, he hoped it was a subtle denigration of the event and this man who was no doubt was heavily involved in the organisation of it. He apologized, to ensure his attempt wasn’t overlooked, ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have used to word show, I realise this isn’t entertainment.’
The man smiled, ‘Not at all, the meeting will begin in a few minutes. If you do require any assistance whatsoever, please approach my colleague.’ He pointed to a young woman standing close to an entrance to Tim’s left, an entrance he had never noticed before, ‘I’m afraid I must excuse myself and prepare for the meeting to begin.’ This entrance was also close to the back of tent also, close to the row of seats farthest from the small stage. After a few minutes he decided he would approach, edging further into the tent; the show was late to start and the wait was making him anxious. She seems friendly, thought Tim, maybe some small talk will be just the distraction I need.
As he moved across the tent he looked again; the woman was not as young as he first thought. The black hair that hung on her shoulders had partly obscured the face of a woman in her mid-thirties, she flashed a reassuring smile at all the patrons who passed by her and offered them a polite nod as they took their seats. Her flowery red dress seemed almost luminous in the sparsely lit tent. As Tim approached, she turned to shine that light on him, and he saw her eyes were alive with the fire of the stage.
‘Can I help you Sir? The show is about to start.’
‘Sorry to trouble you, but I was wondering if I could buy a memento to give to my parents. A program perhaps?’
‘I’m afraid not Sir. Now if you please take a seat.’
‘I suppose my word will be evidence enough; I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.’
‘So nice of you, to be thinking of them already! We get a lot of people who want to thank their parents, but usually only after they’ve been cured.’
‘He’s really that good?’
‘Take a seat and see the power of God for yourself.’
At least she seems to have a lot of confidence in the preacher, thought Tim.
Closer to the front there was an empty row of seats, Tim decided one of these will be best; a place where he could feel detached from the afflictions that surrounded him. Eye-patches, twisted limbs, unfortunately positioned growths, Tim pitied the desperate mob that surrounded him, and shifted and twisted in his seat as he realised he had been part of them for more of his life-time than he had not. Tim settled into his seat just as the preacher appeared from a backstage curtain.
Immediately he recognised the mauve suit and pale green shirt, the thinning grey hair and slightly unsettling pencil moustache. I wonder if it was part of the plan, to see who in the audience might be the most gullible, thought Tim, although perhaps the preacher merely wanted to be familiar with his audience, and for him to be familiar to them. But why didn’t he introduce himself?
Tim retreated further into himself as he pondered this question; he almost didn’t notice when the meeting began with a hymn, sung at first by only the preacher and his assistant. The woman walked slowly to the edge of the low stage and then the cast her eyes upon the congregation. The meeting was sombre and serious, a mood Tim wasn’t quite prepared for. The preacher wasn’t announced on stage by a voice that bellowed every word, the choir weren’t employed to emphasise his words. He had described the meeting as show, now Tim thought again. A brightly lit stage drew all attention from the surrounding shadows, the man in the middle stood impassive as the crowd began to clap, cheer and speak as one. The preacher descended from the stage and made his way into the boisterous crowd, placing his hands on several members of the audience before reaching Tim.
Tim’s excitement grew as the healer drew nearer. Why should he be nervous when nothing will happen? A few deep breaths and his audience had arrived. The healer greeted him as he had done before, lightly assuaging the nervousness that Tim felt creeping over him; then asking Tim to close his eyes. The touch of his cold hands on Tim’s face sent a judder down Tim’s spine, but the sensation wasn’t unpleasant, it was if a part of him that had been asleep for a long time was suddenly awoken.
Saying not a word the preacher slid his hands from Tim’s face to his withered left hand. As the healer closed his eyes Tim felt the warmth that he transmitted to his hand, and Tim was dumbfounded; for a few moments he was motionless. He flexed and relaxed his left hand as he held before his face, his eyes unblinking.
The change had no visible impact on the preacher. He’s probably cured thousands over the years, thought Tim. The preacher said only, ‘Ok, that’s it, you’re done.’ There was probably not much point in too much fanfare if no-one saw it. Tim was then free to wander into the long, still night; and to marvel at the hand that had returned.
For the next few days Tim was in a daze. His mood was elated, when the initial shock had worn off. In the two days of ecstasy that followed his recovery he stopped passers-by in the street to extol the joyous event. On the next two evenings he proudly told the packed Revival tent how his life had been given back to him. He remembered the gasps and hallelujahs that greeted his revelations, he remembered the smiles and hugs from perfect strangers. Tim remembered how his hand felt as heavy as lead from the moment the Revival left, how his heathy left hand became a blackened stump.
The doctors were perplexed, but finally declared that the damaged blood vessels in the hand just couldn’t cope with the extra blood flow that coincided with the cure. After only a few days the vessels had burst; the hand was dead and could not be saved. The doctors said that the only thing they could do was amputate the hand, as if all they were doing was trimming a rose bush.
It was they finality of it that Tim found hardest to cope with. He’d lost nothing that was of any value right now, just replacing an ugly hand with an ugly stump; butt he’d lost that lingering hope that he was just holding on for something better deformity. But he felt tricked too, and that was a score he had to settle. I’ve been cheated by the preacher and his little show, thought Tim, so that’s where I’ll take my revenge.
He was too old to run away, and he had no wish to join the circus. Tim’s parents wiped away tears as they waved goodbye, rubbing their eyes to see his departure more clearly. The Revival had left a few tattered posters that told of the next town they would visit, and the next, and the next. He wandered into every town alone and quickly found a place to stay. He asked of news of the Revival from strangers in the street, and quickly found that it was always placed in a recently harvested field it just outside of the town. He wasted no time in locating the field and waited for the tent to open each evening, ready to confront those who had wronged him.
Tim thought he deserved at least an explanation, but neither the preacher nor his assistant was there to offer him any. Apart from their absence the tents held an eerie familiarity, but the absence of these faces made him nervous, perhaps he had mis-read the signs. But again, and again he returned to watch the meetings, the tents ringing with gasps and shouts of joy…
The stifling humidity that had trapped in the lazy winds of late summer was now a distant memory, there was a chill in the air that reminded Tim that winter would soon be upon him; the seasonal efforts of the Revival were coming to an end. Tim was attending the first night in another town, the final one. Strong gusts blew an icy wind into Tim’s face, but he trudged across the sodden field to the dull light of the meeting. He pulled back the curtain to enter an empty tent, the only other was the woman wearing the same red floral dress as before. She had seen Tim enter the tent, of that he was certain, but stayed pressed against the other wall, offering him a smile and welcoming him to the meeting, but there was no flicker of recollection in her eyes.
Tim took a few steps towards her, and then stepped back, wrinkling his forehead; he said, ‘you really don’t remember me, do you? It has been a few months since the Revival was in my home-town, but even so I thought my healing would leave some impression.’
At last, they flicker of recognition Tim was looking for, ‘Oh yes, now I remember; wasn’t it Havensford? We do have very busy schedule; and my father and I had some problems to deal with; another preacher has taken over since, but my father wanted to come back for the last meetings. You’re a long way from Havensford now; why did you follow us all this way?’
‘The preacher is your father?’
‘Yes, and we had a problem we needed to deal with together. My father and I organised the meetings held meetings in Havensford, but we’ve not had the time to do any since then. Is something the matter? Did you think healing didn’t go as planned?’
Tim laughed and held out his left wrist for the woman to examine, ‘not go as planned!? You could say that! Before I went to the meeting in Havensford my left hand was withered, but at least I had one.’
‘My goodness,’ said the woman, ‘that’s terrible; what are you going to do now?
Tim sighed, ‘you really not going to take any responsibility for this? Just look at what you have done!’
‘We, I mean the preacher, have not done anything. It was God that gave your gifts and gave you what you needed, but I can see you need some solace. If you take a seat I will see if the preacher can offer for some advice after the meeting.’
The lights around the tent began to flicker and recede. Tim looked around the empty tent and wondered what kind of meeting the could have. The man who appeared seemed like a husk of the preacher he had seen and Havensford. His eyes had once twinkled, now they were sunken, black pits. He had lost weight which made his skin slack and, whatever his troubles might have been, he now seemed tired and his skin yellowed. Tim hadn’t seen how the moustache gave his face an air of jauntiness, until it was gone. He looked like a man who needed a longer rest, and moments after the meeting had begun his daughter ran up to the stage and whispered something in his ear.
The preacher looked directly at Tim and then his daughter did the same. The daughter placed her arm in the crook of her fathers as they descended from the stage and into the wooden benches and fold-away chairs that would have seated the audience. As they made their way done aisle towards Tim, who was sitting in the very back row of sitting even though the tent was otherwise empty. The woman began speaking to Tim in a high pitched and hurried manner, but despite this she smiled at him, ‘it seems you are in luck Sir.’
Tim looked at her inquisitively and wrinkled his forehead, ‘how so?’
‘Perhaps not,’ said the woman. ‘The congregation this evening is thinner than expected, so my father has suggested that you might like personal meeting, where perhaps the preacher can offer an alternative way to interpret your experience.’
‘Of course,’ said the preacher, from a chair he had pulled up beside Tim, ‘I’m very sorry to hear of the troubles you have had but, as my daughter has explained, I am merely a conduit. The power that you experienced didn’t come from me, it came through me.’
Tim sniffed, it was starting to get very cold inside the tent, ‘that power had a very damaging effect on me, and it’s very irresponsible to give people false hope in something you can’t control.’
The old man laughed for a moment and then coughed for much longer, ‘the people who visit a Revival trust in me to cure them. The nature of the cure isn’t decided. You have lost a hand that never helped you, but you have gained the confidence, independence and mood you needed to live your life.’
Tim was silent for a moment, ‘I suppose that true, it has given me a different perspective on my problems.’
‘Perhaps what you needed were the tools to live your life,’ said the preacher, licking a drop of sweat from his upper lip ‘that is what you have been given.’
The preacher began to cough again, and this time held a crumbled handkerchief to his mouth. He coughed something into the handkerchief looked at it and then grimaced.
‘Oh dear,’ said his daughter, ‘maybe it’s time for you to get some rest.’
Tim smiled, ‘maybe the low turnout for the Revival was a gift from God as well.’
The preacher laughed for a moment; a laugh that soon turned into a long cough.