Father René stumbled out of the thicket at the edge of town a week after he’d gone missing. It’d been three days since we stopped looking for him- one day more and we would’ve decided he was dead. I cursed aloud when I saw him there, skulking under the shade of the breadfruit trees; surprised to find him among the living, but more panicked that I’d crossed his path.
Ours was a speck of a village in the foothills of the mountains, enclosed on all sides by a system of palm fronds and trees. Small nipa huts dotting small trails, lucky to have a minister, much less a church.
The elderly pastor, old as our mortar chapel, had long considered taking an aide; the congregation, long suffering his doddering years, ached for a fresh voice and face. And so Father René answered that call one Sunday morning in May.
Welcome as his arrival should’ve been, he’d caught us all off guard. Either the old priest had forgotten to report the arrangement, or he was just as astonished as his flock- for Father René appeared, as if thrust from the jungle that very morning, entirely unannounced.
Most startling of all, more so than his timeliness, was his beauty. You’d never think a man should be so striking in the robes of a priest. His chiseled ivory face mantled like the column of an orchid, ascending our meager altar... He was a vision in Pentecostal red. Say what you want, but I know I was not the only one seduced; the silver thurible he had in hand cast back the reflection of one hundred eyes fixed on him. Father René was wholly unlike any man or priest we’d ever expected to see.
That impeccable vision was brief. Taken as we were with this stranger, the packed chapel steaming with candles, the smell of incense and sweat, I remember clearly a chill that cut through the daze as soon as he opened his mouth: he spoke with no emotion. I thought at first it was only the Latin of the mass that made him sound frigid, for all of but a handful out of the crowd understood the language in the first place; a glance at the faces huddled in the other pews betrayed a collective distress. In mass, in the privacy of the confessional, in a chance meeting on the street, our new priest remained the same. He seemed capable only of polite indifference and mechanical pleasantries, always an eerie half-smile on his face. Any leftover bewitchment shortly dried up into dread. The whole of the village agreed that Father René cut a fine but altogether too frightful figure, best kept at a respectful arm’s length.
I swear we’re a pious people; small towns guarded by wilds don’t always make for small and guarded hearts. Most held that Father René had done nothing to dissuade their faith- he simply had yet to earn it.
“A handsome priest does no one any favors” My mother judged more plainly.
I knew in my core, ashamed as I was of it, that I felt the same. We had open hearts and open, cautious eyes. I wouldn’t ever say it aloud, but… It was as if you looked at him too closely, and saw he was only beautiful as a waxy, distant statue of a saint.
Lurching out of the brush right then, he seemed more haggard than holy- though perhaps a bit as if he may as well have just escaped a martyring. Mud-streaked and pale, cassock in shreds; he looked like shit.
I admit I thought it funny: for once this unflappable priest was thoroughly bewildered, his face caught in what looked at a distance to be a rictus of shame. Perhaps on his way between towns he’d gotten lost in the woods? I doubt he had a bolo, much less the skill to handle one- so he was certainly bedeviled for those seven days by bamboo mazes and snakes.
Heartened by the idea (and remembering some sympathy- for I was at the very least glad to see him safe), I stepped towards him and pulled a rag from my basket to sop up his soiled face.
“With all due respect Father René, where were you spirited away?”
The air hung heavy as it did that day he first held mass. Insects flicked in place of candle fire in that nave of anonang trees, humid with an audience of ferns. It did not smell of frankincense, but wet earth. It smelled of rot. I stepped closer and felt again the selfsame chill that slit the damp; all at once I saw too much.
The front of his garment was torn askew. His sash, clotted with blood and busy with flies, was tied about a blackened wound, barely keeping his guts inside his chest. He was more than battered by the wilderness; he’d been carved up like a fish.
And his eyes- Christ, his eyes! From afar I’d thought it was only the shadow of the reaching leaves that dimmed his face. Milky, sunken into pits- he had the telltale eyes of the long past dead.
Before I could say a word, before I even thought to scream, Father René- or whatever of him remained- bowed back into the maw of the jungle and was swallowed by the leaves.