by elfin

This was the only way I could speak.  I'd forgotten the sound of my own voice.  The last time it was used before now was in my defence.  Yet there was no defence, they said, for the sin I committed.  They told me my actions were against God.  I told them that the love I felt in my heart can only have been placed there by God.  They told me my actions were unforgivable and I asked, didn't God forgive any who sought it?  They said no.

They would, they said, give me hope.  Fifty years away from the church I had known since boyhood.  Fifty years in silence and to make sure I understood why I was to copy out the scriptures word for word, line by line, using only my quill in a hand more used to labouring.  I took my satchel with my meagre possessions and not nearly enough food and water to get me as far away as I needed to go, and under cover of darkness, my coarse robes pulled around me against the battering wind and heavy rain, I left the church, left Belfast, and headed into the wilderness.  Into exile.

As I strained to cross the land I'd been born to, I heard their words - their accusations - ringing in my head like the tolling of the church bell.  Was I damned?  Was I damnation incarnate as they'd told me?  Why were such desires in my heart if no good could come of them?  If God hadn't put them there, had the devil?

I walked daily from dawn until dusk, bedding down for  sleep wherever I could find shelter - with animals in a barn on the first night, in wooden sheds filled with hay and feed on the second and third, under a hedgerow on the fourth and on each night following.  I knew where I was headed - to the cliffs of Mohr and the desolate village where I was born but had no memory of.  I knew of a small monastery there and hoped that I would at least be tolerated if not welcomed.  

On the eighth night there was no shelter.  The land was as harsh and unforgiving as the God I was apparently running from and the weather had worsened during the day, the rain falling heavy and the wind blowing strong.  The sun had set and wanting to find some respite I continued to navigate by moonlight dulled by dark cloud until at last I found an outcrop, a clutch of tall stones, and lay down beneath them in my sodden robes on the soaking, muddy ground.  With my almost empty satchel under my head - my food had run out two days previously - I let my weary body rest.  I was damned, I decided as I lay there with my belly aching from hunger.  Why else would He have turned His back on me?  

I thought I might die there.  The cold felt as if it had taken up permanent residence in my bones.  I had been walking shorter distances every day and my breathing was starting to trouble me.  Never in my life had I felt so weak, so pathetic, as I did that night.  Even as a child, abandoned to the church in Belfast by a mother I could no longer remember, I had stood proud in front of the priest and completed all my chores with a purpose that had, until a week ago, always driven me to serve God.

What had I left?  No semblance of the life I'd been forced to leave behind.  I knew the punishment for the sin I had committed; if I'd stayed the condemnation of the priests would not have had the time to touch me.  Once word spread - and it would quickly - I would have been dragged from my bed, taken into the street and murdered, some obscene act committed on my body first no doubt, some perversion of what I'd done.  No, I had not wanted to stay for that, but escape - such as it was - meant leaving behind everything I had ever known, everything I had ever believed in, everything I had ever loved.  I was a coward.  I deserved to die.  But rather it be here, in the embrace of God's earth, than at the hands of men who knew nothing of what was in my heart.

I slept fitfully, awoken at times by strange noises and the certainty that if the cold and wet didn't kill me, some wild animal must.  But to my surprise when I opened my eyes at dawn, sunlight was peeking through grey, laden clouds and if nothing else here was proof that there was a God in Heaven.

My legs and arms hurt as a roused myself, kneeling where I'd rested to say a prayer of thanks that I'd made it through the night and for the little warmth those rays of sunshine brought to the air.  I had no idea if He was still listening.  I could but hope.  And as I stood I thought He must have heard me because on the horizon, bathed in light, stood the monastery on the hill, the one I had been searching for.  With more hope than I had felt in a long, long time, I picked up my filthy satchel and started to walk.

I had heard stories of adventurers who walked through the desert and saw great wonders which were nothing more than illusions.  The monastery, I decided, was just that - illusion - my mind playing tricks on me.  I walked all day towards the sunshine yet my robes stayed sodden, refused to dry, and I was starting to flag, feeling that the act of putting one foot in front of the other on the muddy, uneven ground was taking more than I had left to give.  I was so hungry and my whole body hurt because of it.  My vision was beginning to blur, my balance fading.  The toe of my boot caught on a stone hidden by undergrowth and I tripped, frustration rising in my throat.  Before the sound could break I swallowed it, horrified.  Could I not keep a simple vow of silence?  Had I lost all?  Ordained as a priest I had devoted my life to God but it seemed I was more unworthy of the commitment than I had thought.

I found my footing and pushed on, determined not to have come so far only to fail.  Even if they would not grant me sanctuary I would at least make it to my destination before letting death take me to hell.  The monastery was in sight, the foreboding brick building, with long dark walls and dark stained glass windows.  As I approached, the bell began to toll, calling the monks to night prayer.  It was not a joyous sound, like the church bells in Belfast, moreover it sounded like a threat, as if punishment would be swift if thanks were not given immediately for the day's toil.

The hill was not a steep climb but one I thought may be beyond my exhausted body.  Still I started up the slippery, grassy bank, falling back only once when my foot slid on a patch of mud and I dropped face first to the ground.  The sunshine was gone and the rain started when I was only a little way up, light at first but quickly turning into a heavy storm.  I heard thunder rolling in the distance and as my robes grew heavier I saw the first crack of lightening split apart the sky.  Was this an omen?  Did God not want me corrupting his monks?  The sanctuary of a monastery may have been out of bounds for a man such as myself and I was to be left to the same fate as a murderer.  Was I as bad?

I made it to the top of the climb, the wooden doors of the building close enough that I could reach out and touch them.  Another bolt of lightening illuminated the land and I looked out to see the steep downwards slope on the other side and the village at the base of it - Mohr - stone buildings, wooden barns and farm land, a long street with a market at one end, people running from the sudden downpour that had marked my arrival.  I was not wanted here, not by God and not by the unsuspecting villagers who would soon hear of the monster in their midst.

I was overcome with despair.  There was nowhere else for me to go but it didn't matter as I had not the energy to get there.  I sat down with no grace at all in the mud, my robes clinging to me, rain dripping from my hair over my face.  I reached into my satchel with hands now trembling from the effort of such a simple action and lifted out my bible.  It was as sodden as the rest of me, its pages stuck together, the words unreadable.  I did not need to read them.  I clutched the leather bound book to my chest and closed my eyes, lips moving around a mute prayer, asking Him for His forgiveness at my time of judgement, asking Him to take me into His kingdom, begging Him to be my salvation.  

I heard the heavy sound of thunder, close, close by, and a shadow passed in front of me.  I let out my final breath and raised my head to look into His face.  My last sight was a vision of beauty and I think I smiled as I allowed myself to die.


I was warm.  That was my first thought after dying.  I opened my eyes and realised I had not in fact crossed over.  I was lying on a narrow cot in a long room.  A fire was burning in a grate close by.  I was wrapped in blankets, dry underclothes covering my nudity.  This then was the monastery, and in all likelihood I was in the infirmary.  I had been taken in, given shelter, warmth.  Food.  For next to the bed, on a tall wooden table, was a simple plate of bread and meat.  Next to that, a clay mug of water and a bible with my rosary laid over it.  Not my bible though, for mine was assuredly ruined.  On the empty bed to the right, a set of clean, dry robes had been laid out.  I sat up and reached for the mug, swallowing half the water before I picked up the plate and ate like the food was my first meal in weeks.  I felt my belly cramp with the first few mouthfuls but I didn't stop.  I did not know how long I would be welcome here.

I was almost finished when a young monk entered the room and approached the bed.  I recognised the face I had seen looking down at me out there on the hill, the vision of beauty I had believed in my exhausted, starved state was the face of God.  I felt foolish to have thought that.

"You're awake."  I glanced at him and he smiled like my recovery was the end of his life's work.  "How are you feeling?"  I could but nod as no words would pass my lips and his smile grew impossibly brighter, like the sunshine coming out.  "You have taken a vow of silence.  Many of the monks here have done the same.  They say it's the best way to focus on serving God.  I think that if God wanted us not to talk he wouldn't have given us voices."  The young monk talked as if it was his duty to make up for all those who didn't and that alone made me smile until I remembered myself and looked away.  "Your name is Father O'Malley?"  My smiled faded.  I feared suddenly that word of my crime had reached here already, but maybe my fear looked like puzzlement because he chuckled a little and explained that it said as much in the inscription on the inside of my bible.  Not totally destroyed then and I was glad; it had been a gift from the other priests in Belfast to celebrate my ordination.

"I'm Brother O'Bryan but you can call me Michael."  Then his eyes widened.  "Oh, you can't!"  It might have sounded like mockery if he hadn't looked so mortified.  "I'm sorry.  I haven't been here long."  As if that explained everything.  I watched him, wondering what - if anything - he wanted.  He was just a boy really, but beautiful.  His eyes were ringed in bright blue and the firelight danced on his flawless skin, casting shadows around the high bones of his cheeks.  Here was temptation incarnate.  Was I being tested?  Was this the price of sanctuary?  "You've slept for several days.  I found you outside in the storm.  You were very sick.  I've been watching over you."  I think he still expected me to speak.  "Are you're well now?"  I nodded.  "Good.  Father O'Harlen has asked that you speak to him as soon as you're strong enough.  If you want I could take you to him?"

I inclined my head once in thanks and waited for him to leave me to rouse and dress.  But he remained where he was standing, arms crossed in his robes, eyes on me.  Neither of us moved.  And he licked his lips.  Just once.  An unconscious gesture I'm certain but it made my heart beat faster.  Then he seemed to notice and started.  "Oh, I'm sorry.  I'll wait outside."  

I finished the bread quickly along with the rest of the water and rose from the bed.  My legs were unstable for a few moments, as if they'd forgotten what they were for.  When I was sure they'd hold my weight, what little of it there was left after days of enforced fasting and my subsequent recovery, I took the robes from the other bed, dropping them over my head and fastening them.  I picked up my rosary and threaded them through the rope of the belt, pushing my feet into the leather shoes.  I put my hand to my face - I needed to shave days' worth of growth - and ran my fingers through my hair in an effort to tidy it.

Opening the door I stepped out into the stone cloister where Brother O'Bryan was waiting for me.  I wanted to ask him so much about himself.  There were so many young monks in the Belfast monasteries - boys who had chosen to dedicate their lives to the service of our Lord.  But to be stuck out here, somewhere so remote, so cold�.  I wondered if he too was hiding from the world.


Word hadn't reached Mohr.  How would it?  We were isolated by more than the miles of barren land in every direction.  Father O'Harlen, a man who looked as old as the stone building itself, welcomed me with open arms and my silence (not so much a vow as a sentence) - which he heartily approved of - prevented me from having to admit the truth about my reasons for walking so far in such terrible conditions.  Naturally he was interested in why I'd almost died to get to Mohr, but his respect for my religious commitment meant he wouldn't force me to answer and so he instead I was told that I was welcome to stay and welcomed into their community as one of their number.

I felt like a liar and a cheat but I kept my silence.   I didn't see Brother O'Bryan again and I overheard a conversation during morning meal one day that he'd been sent to Belfast  to study at the church there.  I worried, of course I did, that while there he would learn of me and my sin.  For some weeks I worried that the young monk would return to unmask me, for that was how I felt, how I saw myself, as wearing a disguise.  But he didn't return and as the weeks turned into months and the months collected together into years, I settled into the routine, into the living, breathing rhythm of the monastery.  

My two assignments never once changed; to tend the garden and raise the herbs and vegetables and potatoes.  And to ensure the tallow candles in the chapel were lit for morning liturgy, remained burning through the day and were extinguished after night prayers.  This wasn't as easy as it sounded, for the chapel was an ancient stone relic standing separate from the monastery buildings, and on stormy days the wind snapped around it, gusting down the aisle and between the pews as if searching for something long lost.  It snuffed out the candles and on occasions tipped them from their holdings.

During the winter months it was often easier to work the solid, frozen soil than it was to keep the tiny flames dancing in the chapel.  During these long months the house of worship itself seemed eternally cold; even when the sun warmed the earth outside prayers were accompanied by the involuntary chattering of teeth.

On rare days, I joined the trek out for firewood, sometimes having to venture no further than the market, sometimes travelling a day's brisk walk to the home of a woodsman and return through the night with the meagre flames of clattering lanterns to light the path home.  On most days I put aside an hour of daylight to carry out the action of my sentence, the copying of the scriptures.  Over the years calluses developed on my hands where I gripped the quill and during the bitter winters these turned into sores which would trouble me as I laboured, the pain enough to keep me awake some nights.

One particularly harsh winter, some years after my arrival in Mohr, an apothecary from Donegal, on the run after the death of a young child in his village, sought sanctuary at the monastery.  He showed me how to apply candle wax to my sores to let them heal beneath.  He fashioned some rudimentary gloves from coarse sackcloth and presented them to me as a gift.  Other than his reason for escaping Donegal, he would tell the monks only that his name was Joe and he would be gone the moment spring touched the barren land south-east of Mohr.  But some nights, after all the candles had been extinguished, he would sit with me on the chapel steps and with coat and robes pulled right around us for protection from the brutal weather, he would speak of the little boy who had died in his arms, and of the family - a wife and baby daughter - he had been forced to leave behind.

I listened to the sad tale in a silence that had become more than a sentence, more than a habit, which over the years had become a veil behind which I hid everything I was.  As I didn't speak outwardly so my inner voice slowly fell quiet and with it the blasphemous thoughts that had plagued me in Belfast seemed to ebb away.  With Brother O'Bryan gone, there had been no further temptation.  The other monks were old and in no way attractive, and those needs which had once been overwhelming enough for me to risk - and lose - everything that mattered to me for just one touch, just one taste, faded into the background of a kind of contentment.

Unfortunately, it was a contentment not meant to last.

Joe was removed from the monastery by force, only days before the first spring flowers brightened the hillside.  Soldiers from Donegal came in the middle of the night, banged on the heavy wooden doors until they woke every monk, shouted their demands and threatened to burn the monastery if the man they hunted was not presented to them.  Father O'Harlen warned them in no uncertain terms that this was a sanctuary of God, and no violence would be tolerated, but his threat lacked specifics and three monks were hurt before Joe revealed himself to the soldiers and was taken away in chains.

I had felt nothing for the apothecary but friendship, yet I felt the man's absence as keenly as I missed Belfast and the church.  Despite my silence I had always maintained a friendly disposition, lending an ear to those monks who wished to unburden themselves, simply being a presence for those who were sensitive to the loneliness of the place.  But that spring I felt the void beyond Mohr as an oppressive force rather than the soothing balm it had been previously.  I took long walks out to the cliffs and spent hours staring out to sea.  Instead of the vast open freedom I'd felt there before, now I felt trapped.  Fifty years was too long, a lifetime; I would never be allowed to return to Belfast.  And if the monks here found out what I'd done, I would be banished from this place too with nowhere left to run.  For the first time since my collapse on the steps of the Mohr monastery, I felt the true desolation of this place, set in this brutal landscape.


That summer was particularly hot, even succeeding in taking the bite from the chapel air.  The candle flames burned steadily all day without a flicker, the soil was rich and the garden blossomed.  My hands healed in the warmth and I was able to hoe and dig without the aid of the gloves Joe had made for me.

If I was ever to find peace on God's earth, I would surely find this year, under the life-giving sun and blue sky stretched over Mohr like smooth cloth.  And at peace I was, for a time at least, the desolation of spring chased away by the heat and the beauty of the season.  I rose early on these bright mornings, replaced candle stubs with new tallow stems and lit the wicks with a prayer of thanks, before walking through the garden and letting the sun warm my skin.

It was on one of these beautiful mornings, as I left the chapel alight with candle flame, that I noticed a figure coming across the moor toward the north-west corner of the village.  I stood and watched, seeing that the figure wore nothing but undergarments like those I wore myself under my robes, and carried a heavy pack across his shoulders although it did not seem to weigh him down.  The opposite in fact, his face - I became certain that it was a man - was tilted to the sky and he strolled across the uneven ground as if it presented no threat to his sure footing.

As I watched I felt something waken within me, heat and light in my belly.  The figure came closer, making his way through the early morning quiet of the village, vanishing from sight as he passed in front of the stone homes to reappear again quickly, his stride long, his pace fast but in no way hurried.  The thing waking inside me unfurled as if from a long, long sleep, yawned and started to fill me.  The figure reached the path at the foot of the hill and started up it, monk's robes spilling from his backpack, his undergarments a faded white but nevertheless glowing like an angel's wings in the sunlight.  I knew the figure, this monk, recognised him as if minutes not years had passed since I last set eyes on him.

I stood, rooted to the ground, as the tall man took the last step up to stand before me, almost sinfully proud, eyes shining blue like a reflection of the sky, smile like the sun.  Brother O'Bryan; older, wiser, more radiantly beautiful than I remembered.

"Brother O'Malley," his voice was assured, with not a hint of the youthful silliness that had once been there.  But the mirth remained in his still-young face.  "Do you still keep your silence despite your obvious pleasure at seeing me?"

For the first time in as long as I could remember I blushed, and the warmth in my cheeks from the heat in my belly made me feel more alive than I had ever felt.

But heat quickly turned to terror.  After so many years spent living in Belfast, this monk surely knew everything about me.  Even if the Fathers had remained mute there would have been rumour turned to stories within the city walls.   But Brother O'Bryan's expression gave away no such knowledge, his face was open and he looked pleased to be back at the remote monastery from which he'd started out so long ago.  Allowing a smile to touch my lips, I felt that for the first time in years I actually wanted - needed - to speak, to welcome this man back to where he belonged and I still did not.

"There is no need for you to break your silence at this moment, Father.  Your welcome is as warm as any I shall receive."  Something in the lilt of his voice said more than his words but it was something I did not dare think about, and with a nod and an outstretched arm, I bade O'Bryan towards the monastery where Father O'Harlen welcomed him home with open arms, despite his unusual state of undress.

That day garden offered no comfort in the hot sun.  I purposely missed the midday meal and laboured through, wiping sweat from my brow with the arm of my undershirt, outer robes abandoned at the base of the beanstalks.  I didn't see Brother O'Bryan as I worked but that didn't prevent my thoughts from reaching in that direction.  I recognised the feelings within me with a sick dread.  I'd felt them before.  These were the feelings on which I'd based my actions that had led to my banishment from the church and my fifty-year sentence of silent, word for word study.

Brother Murray, a monk from the Monastery of St John in the centre of Belfast, had turned my head during many a liturgy and private prayer meeting.  Each time our eyes had met, I had known without a single doubt that the terrible urges staining my soul were also staining his and late one night when right and righteous men were asleep, we had lain together on a narrow bed in his tiny cell.  Our coupling was ungraceful and messy yet it felt the truest I'd ever been to myself.  But our exertions, it turned out, had been overheard, and we were discovered in the early hours of the morning by a naive young monk whose shouts had brought even the frailest of the order running to witness the blasphemy first-hand.

As a young Brother, Murray's punishment had been lesser than my own, but he had taken it less stoically, asking - pleading - why God would make us this way if it was such a sin even as he was removed from my presence, the last time we would see one another.  I, in contrast, accepted my sentence with a bowed head and few words and fled Belfast that very night.

I thought about the young man even as my mind wondered and the image of Brother O'Bryan's soft countenance filled my head.  Why had God made us with such wickedness in our hearts?  And was it wicked?  There had been nothing evil in what Brother Murray and I had shared; it had been one of the most beautiful encounters of my life.  I'd been filled with a love so pure, a love reflected back at me in his eyes as his body had welcomed me, I couldn't believe it hadn't come from God.

But the scriptures stated it was a sin.  The sin that dared not speak its name.  What was its name?  Blasphemy?  Lust?  Sodomy?  An aberration certainly.  So strong was my belief when in Belfast that I told myself God had a plan for me, God had a place for me in Mohr.  But if I was to believe God had sent me to Mohr for a reason, why was he again tempting me?  

So deep was my thinking, so disturbing my thoughts, that I put the sharp edge of my spade through a large marrow without realising it, splitting the vegetable in half.  A single, rare expletive rose to my throat, surprising me, and I swallowed it just in time.  No word - no sound - had left my lips since I'd left Belfast.  For one to almost do so shook me to the core.

I was late to the evening meal despite my hunger and I ate alone.  I made certain I was also the last into night prayer, remaining at the back of the chapel, my eyes avoiding the dark head three rows in front of me.  I kept my face bowed to the floor in silent prayer while the monks filed out and when I was the only one left I moved from the pew to the alter to lift the snuffer from its place.  But I didn't extinguish the flames immediately, staring into one, separating the colours, the bluish hue at the centre, dark middle and bright amber tear drop surround.  Licking my lips once I leaned down a little and blew gently against the flame; it flickered twice and went out.  I don't know what had come over me but I turned to the next candle and did the same, blowing a little harder, working out the perfect touch of breath needed to put out the flame without a single flicker.

"Does everything you do get such devoted attention?"  I startled at the first word, head turning to see Brother O'Bryan standing in the narrow aisle not far behind me.  I almost answered him, it felt so natural to do so, but I held my tongue at the last minute and wondered at the slips I had made throughout the day.

He took a step towards me.  "Still silent after so long and I'm sure you have so much worth saying."

How could I respond?  I'd taught myself actions and gestures over the years, ways to communicate without words.  The other monks respected my vow, asked closed questions to which I could either nod or shake my head, or point to relevant things around me.  I was widely thought of in the monastery to be an excellent listener and as time had passed I made agreements with the brothers to allow myself to take confession and issue the necessary penance.  But Brother O'Bryan was different.  He didn't respect the vow, almost as if he didn't believe it and he was right.  A vow was taken willingly, a personal commitment, an agreement between a monk and God.  Mine was pressed upon me, a punishment, one which could so easily be breached out here where no one knew of my crime or sentence.  A monk breaking a long silence was often interpreted as personal revelation: the discovery of whatever answer he'd been searching for.  A little lie was all it would take and yet still habit and faith held me in check.  If I cheated on my faith, I would be cheating God and myself.  Despite my uncertainties, it was all I had.

I glanced up at Brother O'Bryan and saw him watching me as if I'd spoken my thoughts out loud.  But all he said was, "Good night, Father O'Malley," and with a smile that heated my blood, he turned and left me alone.

Sleep eluded me that night.  The heat of the day had turned the old stone building into an oven and my thoughts were turning circles in my head.  I lay awake on the hard cot staring at the curved stone ceiling, thinking about his eyes, his voice, his smile.  His lips, how they would feel, how they would taste.  I hadn't entertained such ideas since fleeing Belfast and they were wrong, I knew them to be.  I just couldn't help it.  The heat meant I lay naked and the thoughts meant I was aroused.  Brother Murray had described my nude, erect form as 'glorious' in his hushed tones and that had always stuck with me, tucked away with the memories that were forbidden.  Brother O'Bryan had gone away a boy and returned a man, a very attractive man, and now there was nowhere left to run.  

Turning onto my side I recited psalms in my head, lips moving silently.  The scriptures had been my comfort and my teachings all my life, but they brought little comfort now and I was at a loss to find meaning in them.  My erection slowly wilted, although sleep still failed to come and when the dawn light filtered through the narrow window slit above the bed, I didn't believe I'd had a single moment of rest.


There were storms that day, thunder rolling across the skies, lightening tearing the clouds apart, rain falling heavily.  Good for the garden, but I was soaked to the skin by time I finished toiling that evening.  I left a trail of water drops on the stone paving through the narrow cloisters to the lavatory, where I stripped off my robe and underclothes quickly.  I dried myself, rubbing my sodden hair vigorously before ringing out the heavy web clothes in the trough.  As I did, I imagined myself spied on but when I turned to look I saw no one behind me.  My imagination had been leading me astray so often in recent days I put it down to fancy and continued to hang my still dripping clothes.

I heard the bell announcing the evening meal and was glad of the sound because it meant I would be free to make the short trip to my cell without witness to my nakedness.  I waited for a count of one hundred then, satisfied every hungry monk would be already standing to thank the Lord for the food laid out before them, I stepped into the cloister and came face to face with Brother O'Bryan.

There was no longer any pretence in his stance or expression.  He stood with his hands folded in front of him, his eyes heavy on my nude form.  He made no attempt to hide his appraisal of me, smiling when his heated gaze met mine.  Already I had grown hard just with his looking and I should have known with despair that I was once again falling for the devil's shrewd work.  But it wasn't despair that I felt - it was desire, lust - all the greedy emotions I had felt for Brother Murray.

We stood, face to face, for a short time which felt like eternity before he parted his lips, licked them and murmured, "Do you see how much is said without the need for words, Father?"

Even if I'd been allowed to answer I don't know that I could have.  I watched him turn and stared at his back as he retreated, heading I supposed for the refectory.  I forced myself to complete the journey to my cell, where I dropped to my knees on the hard bed and pulled on my aching erection until I came, soundless, into my own hand.  The first time I had touched myself in twelve years.


I didn't eat that evening, food wasn't what I wanted and my thoughts were too chaotic, my belly churned with bile.

I made my way to night prayer and shuffled into the last pew, standing close to the wall, staying in the shadows as if just by looking at me the other monks would know what I had done.  Brother O'Bryan was the last one in, and to my horror he moved to stand next to me while the other monks filled the front tows of the small chapel.  Father O'Harlen led the chanted prayer and I stood silently, letting the familiar sound wash over me, hoping it would cleanse me even as the object of my sinful thoughts stood at my side.

The chant did have a calming effect, like a balm to my turmoil, until I felt a pull on my robe and I glanced down to see O'Bryan thumbing my rosary, fingers touching each bead deliberately before pushing it along the string.  Something heavy and hot settled in my belly, the guilt subsiding to be replaced by the thrill and excitement the likes of which I'd felt only once before.

I closed my eyes and without thinking I pushed my own hand into his, lacing our fingers tightly, the rosary biting into my palm, locked between us.  He curled his fingers through mine and I realised suddenly that he must have been feeling the same terrible things as I.  We were both equally cursed.  Any of the monks in the pew in front of us could have turned around and witnessed our blasphemous sin but none did.  The prayers ended and we broke apart hurriedly.  The monks filed out and he followed them without another glance at me.  I stayed behind as usual to perform my final daily chore of extinguishing the candles, moving to the front of the chapel once I was alone.

But I wasn't alone.

"It's not a sin."  Brother O'Bryan stood framed in the door, surrounded by the ashen grey of the dark evening outside.  I didn't respond although he paused to allow me the chance.  Did he think I would take it?  "It's not a blasphemy against God.  The scriptures teach us that he made us in his image, so how can anything inside us by sinful?"

His argument was flawed.  There were bad people in the world, people who maimed and killed without religious cause, not in defence but out of a need to do so.  Our urges, I wanted to assure him, were from the same source.  But instead I turned from him and took up the candle snuffer.

"Don't."  Suddenly he was right behind me, his hand on mine, stopping me.  "Use your lips as you did last night."  He whispered the words into my ear, my whole body reacting to his nearness to me, his breath across my skin.  I hesitated but eventually replaced the bronze snuffer and leaned close to the first candle, pursing my lips and blowing gently across the wick.  The flame jumped, then went out.  I did the same with the second and the third.  I moved to the fourth but O'Bryan beat me to it, leaning down beside me, blowing long so that the flame flickered before dying.  Then he turned to me, face an inch from mine, and whispered, "Kiss me, Father."

I wanted to so badly I couldn't resist him.  Our months met, the touch almost chaste.  Then he parted his lips under mine and I slid my tongue over his and we were lost.  His hands got into my robes and around my flesh as I found my way to his.  Standing in the glow of the candles we sought each other as we kissed, mouths restless, hands exploring.  His fingers working into the opening of my underwear, out of sight under my robe, was the most erotic experience of my life and I looked to return the favour, palming his turgid flesh as he slid his hand along my length.  The sound of our breathing filled the chapel, along with other sounds the likes of which I wondered if the walls hadn't heard before.  Brother Murray and Brother O'Bryan shared my base needs, I wasn't alone and wondered how many other men kept their desires secret for fear of retribution.  These acts didn't feel like sin.  I couldn't equate the adoration in O'Bryan's eyes with the hatred of a murderer.  He took a step closer and my hand closed around him, fingertips pressing into the soft sac.  I reached with my other hand, pushed his underwear from his hips and cupped his testicles as I pulled and pushed his erection through my palm.

I felt his smile against my mouth, felt him mirror my actions only his fingers reached further back behind my sac and I felt a fingertip push against my tight hole.

I came, almost losing my balance, my knees feeling like they would give way and topple me to the hard floor at any moment.  As I coated his hand, he coated mine, covering my fingers and wrist, and I pushed him that little bit further, feeling every shudder, hearing every moan.  Until I realised that the sounds were coming from me.

Loathe to let go of one another, we eased down to the alter steps, hands still buried in the folds of each others' robes.

"You broke your silence," was the first thing he said to me, and I nodded against his dark head.  I may have done, but at that moment my voice was still lost to me.

"I heard about you, in Belfast."  They were the words I'd been terrified to hear but when he finally spoke them they no longer had any power.  "I told no one where you were.  But eventually I had to come back.  I met Brother Murray and he told me how much he felt for you, how much he still missed you and thought of you often despite them saying it was an insult to God to do so.  He told me being with you was the closest thing he'd ever felt to God's love, that putting you on earth had to be part of God's plan for him.  He still believes, in God and in you.  So do I."

"If God meant this," my voice had no substance beyond a whisper on a breath, "why does his church teach otherwise?  Why does it punish those of us who feel this way?"  For my first words in over a decade, they were hardly memorable.  But they meant much to me.  It was the one question I knew I would be asking on my deathbed and there would still be no answer.

"The church is a corrupt, greedy institution.  Religion is organised crime, faith is belief.  Without faith we are nothing.  Without religion, we're free."


We left Mohr that night as the rest of the order slept, and taking lanterns we walked hand in hand south-west towards the coast.  We stopped at a small fishing village the following day and bartered some simple clothes and food in exchange for our robes.  We journeyed for a couple of weeks, doing small jobs in return for money, making love in outbuildings under the darkness of night.  Until finally as summer was cooling and autumn's brightness was colouring Ireland, we reached a remote coastal town outside of which we stumbled across an abandoned stone building; two rooms, a dusty fire grate with its own contingent of insects and some rotting wooden furniture.

This place we made our home.  We grew herbs, vegetables and potatoes in the fertile soil and sold them at the town's market, making enough to buy essentials.  And at nights we lit a candle and lay together, expressing our love for each other in all manner of physical acts, knowing in our hearts that God was watching and only at the end of our lives on earth would we find out whether or not he approved.