Her reflection glistened in the golden sheen of the chalice as she turned it over in her hand and polished the rim of the cup. The warped vision of her face gazed back at her, with eyeballs and cheeks that seemed to sink even further into her skull than they had the week before. At twenty-five, she could pass for forty if she wanted to. She shook her head and placed the chalice inside the safe and closed it up, scolding herself for dwelling on such trivial things as appearances.
A small knocking sound drew her out of her thoughts. “Excuse me, Sister.”
Sister Immaculata turned to see a figure standing in the doorway which led right out onto the soft blue carpet between the altar and the pews. A lady named Joanna, not much older than she was, with sun-kissed skin and hair the colour of horse chestnuts. She clutched a hot pink handbag in both hands.
“Hello, Sister. Am I disturbing you?” She had an accent, and Sister Immaculata struggled to place it. She had never heard the woman speak before, aside from the throaty agreement of amen while she received the Body of Christ every Sunday morning.
“Ah – no, not at all. What can I do for you?”
Joanna’s eyes wandered across the room and she turned her head ever so slightly over her shoulder. She lowered her chin to her chest slightly and spoke in a hushed tone. “Is Father McGrath here?”
“He’s not, he’s off back up at the house. Is it Confession you’re after?”
“No, no, please. I – I spoke with Father McGrath before mass this morning and he….” Joanna’s fingers tightened even further around the edges of her pink handbag. “Well, maybe you can help me instead.”
Sister Immaculata ushered the woman towards the small table in the corner of the room. Joanna began to fumble with the zip of the bag and she pulled from it a tarnished silver brooch in the shape of a dove. “This belongs to my partner who went missing three days ago. I found it on the moor while I was out looking. Near the liss.”
Cold fear dribbled into Sister Immaculata’s veins. While the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit were the omnipotent beings she had chosen to serve, she had never ruled out the possibility of there being more than three. Father McGrath had briefly told her about the liss a few weeks ago, waiting until she’d settled into the parochial house before unleashing that particular legend upon her imagination. According to what he’d told her, the town and the church had a lot of trouble with it, yet she hadn’t been able to coax any specific tales out of him. He’d just ranted about the gold and silverware they allegedly stole from the church and the house from time to time. “Your partner, you – you think he was taken into the liss?”
Eyes turned downwards for the first time since they’d sat, Joanna’s face dropped a little of its exotic colour. “Sister, I’m afraid she was taken into the liss.”
Sister Immaculata sat a little further back in her chair, feeling her own cheeks turn a colour that might have rivalled the handbag in the foreign woman’s lap. “Sorry.”
“Father McGrath didn’t mind listening to my story today, but as soon as I…. As soon as he realised what I am… His face fell and he asked me to leave. He said there was nothing he could do.”
Sister Immaculata stared down at her own hands, clammy and folded together, pale against the dark greens and browns in her skirt.
“Please, Sister.” Joanna reached out and pulled the nun’s hands, so that she would look her straight in the eyes. “Please. I understand that you have your beliefs and your rules, but help me. Help us. Isn’t it the most Catholic thing to do?”
A weighty silence hung over the glossed mahogany dining table. Father McGrath scooped handfuls of bread and cheese into his mouth, narrowly missing his wiry silver moustache each time.
Sister Immaculata sat before a plate of untouched food. She absently ran her rosary beads back and forth between her thumb and forefinger. She had the hunched shoulders and the glazed look of a new widow, and her new melancholy disposition did not go unnoticed by her supper companion.
“What’re you moping about?”
“Nothing, Father. Just not hungry.”
She expected him to press her further, yet he continued to gulp down his supper without a second glance in her direction.
She cleared her throat. “Aren’t you afraid of the fairies, Father?”
His chewing slowed, and his slanted blue eyes cut through her. “Course I am. Only an amadán’d be stupid enough not to be. Why’re you asking now? Was that Polish one talking to you as well?”
Sister Immaculata didn’t nod. She didn’t need to. “If you’re frightened of them too, why can’t we help her find her partner? Even if we only take a walk as far as the liss –”
The priest’s wrinkled fist hit the table top with a thump, and the crockery hopped a couple of inches from the table. Sister Immaculata jumped, and squeezed her hands together, letting out a wince that she hoped he didn’t hear.
“Don’t even speak of those unnatural things at my table, Sister. You’ll put me off my dinner.”
“I-I’m sorry, Father.”
“The fairies take someone every few years. We let them, or else they’ll be up at the parochial house laying down curses and misplacing funds all over the place. They’re greedy little bastards when it comes to riches and souls. Let’s just be thankful this time they left the parish less a sinner, and not someone decent.”
Sister Immaculata drew in a shaky breath and rose from the dining table. “They mightn’t be as straightforward as you think, Father.”
Sister Immaculata made a point of showing her hands, resting them against the tabletop as her fingers trembled and clutched her rosary beads. “The chalice disappeared from the church this morning. I was afraid to tell you; in case you did something that might upset the fairies.”
“Christ, give me strength!” Father McGrath was on his feet in an instant, abandoning the half-mug of milky tea and the crust of his bread.
The moon was full, the countryside bathed in its sallow light. The grey ring of rocks slumped among the unkempt grassland, as though they had once stood tall and erect but had since given up. Father McGrath hobbled across the moor on his walking stick. He grunted and fought to draw air into his lungs as he slowed to a stop, just metres from the first of the grey stones.
As he wheezed and leaned shakily on his walking stick, a tiny blot of yellow light caught his eye from just ahead. As a younger man, the appearance of the fé would have been cause for heart palpitations; now, however, it was merely his inactive lifestyle and his rage that was triggering the hollow feeling behind his ribs.
“Yu–” He wheezed and jabbed a finger towards the dot of light. “You’s cheatin’ scum – I let you’s keep the girl and you still took the chalice? You’s have some cheek, you know that? Give it back to me.”
The speck emitted an inscrutable series of blinks. There was no way that Father McGrath could possibly have translated such an otherworldly method of communication, but he decided to pretend he understood. In any case, he understood enough from the fact that no chalice appeared on the ground for him to take.
“Really now – no more tricks! Or else we’re going to have a problem, you hear me? I want that chalice back on the altar by morning mass.” Pressing his stick down into the soft mud beneath the grass, Father McGrath began to turn on his heel. The parochial house sat about a half-mile away, a gloomy beige box against the rich blackness of the night sky. His knees cracked in protest as he began the trek home, wondering whether he would have a hot whiskey with a lemon wedge before bed, just to calm his nerves.
A gust of icy wind rolled over the countryside, gathering pace as it reached him, and seemed to compact itself into a single breath which sliced into his lungs, turning the air inside him and around him into a thick, frosty soup. His movements slowed until he was almost frozen in place, and Father McGrath tried to blink the spots from his eyes, finding that they weren’t only in front of him, but hovered behind his eyelids as well. Floating, yellow spots.
He tried to remember why he had come out to the liss in the middle of the night. He wondered if he could remember his name, if he tried hard enough.
The spots were becoming brighter, pulsating, rushing towards him, and still he slowed, as though time was holding him captive. The weight left his body, and his feet left the ground. Maybe the angels were carrying him away.
Father McGrath remembered that he didn’t believe in angels – he couldn’t remember where his bed was, yet he remembered this. He began to cry.
“Put me down! Please –” Father McGrath’s voice vanished in the night as his walking stick dropped through the empty darkness and landed on the grass.
Sister Immaculata crept towards the liss, her figure long and slim in the moonlight. Light on the balls of her feet, she hopped over the wooden cane that lay abandoned, almost colourless in the dark and the long grass. The chalice from the church glinted in her hands as she pulled it out from inside her cardigan and leaned over to place it in the grass near the circle of rocks. A flurry of glinting yellow dots darted forward and began to circle the chalice, while the young nun stood and took a step back.
She looked over her shoulder, where two more figures stood darkly against the illuminated night sky, hands intertwined. She smiled to herself. When she looked back at the grass before her, the chalice and the dancing lights were gone.
Stepping once more over the withered old cane in the grass, she started back towards the parochial house, as the two hand-holding figures waved and headed in the opposite direction.