Excerpt from Pilgrim Tale

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PILGRIM TALE

by Tim Murgatroyd

Excerpt: “The Modified Man”

They led him into the high, shadowy cathedral. Michael’s eyes adjusted to the gloom of the long vaulted nave. A few stained glass windows glowed; most were as broken as the Bible stories they depicted. A layer of mud on the flagstones told him even the massive church had flooded recently: no holding back water or time.

He turned to the young woman who seemed in charge. The tightly wound scarf concealed her face.

‘Will my horse and mule be safe out there?’ he asked. ‘I’m rather fond of them.’

Her eyes were soft, large, a hazel-flecked brown, beautiful eyes he must admit. She pointed at his weapons then at a stone bench set into the wall. Armed men surrounded them.

Michael hesitated. ‘All?’

His question echoed in the empty space. She pointed more urgently.

‘Very well,’ he said, having little choice. Shotgun, blunderbuss, knife, sword formed a pile on the bench.

The veiled woman waved to indicate he should follow, and he caught a whiff of her breath through the cloth, acrid and strange.

Michael stared in wonder at stone effigies of kings and arch- angels, knights and bishops. On the wall, inscriptions commemorated dead worthies: a lieutenant killed in a forgotten colonial war, his name preserved in marble; beloved wives and children snatched early by God.

The veiled woman waved him on, and four guards followed. They reached a space enclosed by ornately carved wooden screens and stalls for choristers, all miraculously intact. At the far end, upon a raised dais, were ancient thrones bearing ornate crosses. One chair had its back to him. All Michael could see was the rear of its occupant’s lumpy head covered with warts and wispy grey hair. The old man sat before a vast stained glass window, its leaded pictures busy with people, animals, drama.

‘Look up!’ called the seated man without turning. ‘Look up and behold Creation!’ His voice was hoarse, bitter. ‘See! Perched upon a cloud, no less, our generous Creator! Do you think he’s pleased with his work?’

The question echoed. Somewhere a pigeon cooed.

‘Sir!’ called out Michael, ‘I think you are the one they call the Modified Man.’

‘And I think you’re the one they call Michael Pilgrim.’

Michael blinked. He had heard the Modified Man possessed strange powers.

‘May I take it then,’ said Michael, addressing the back of the man’s head, ‘you know why I’ve come?’

‘Because you desire something from me,’ replied the Modified Man. ‘Why else?’

Michael glanced round. None of the guards had moved. His sense of danger intensified.

‘My family needs food,’ he said. ‘Much food. I have brought something to trade.’

For long minutes the man on the throne stared up at the stained glass window. The coloured glass was dulled by a layer of dust like a bright light dimming. Finally, the old man sighed, struggled to his feet, turned to face his visitor.

Some moments of revelation are replayed over and over in dreams. So it was for Michael Pilgrim with the Modified Man. His instinct was to cry out in horror. Step back. Were his eyes playing tricks in the dim light? But no, what could not be, should not be, was very much before him. Instead of a man’s face, features resembling a grey-faced toad’s. Pink, piggy eyes and a small, flaccid elephant’s trunk for a nose.

The Modified Man’s mouth opened in a horrible, toothless smile.

‘How?’ Michael stuttered.

‘Do you really wish to know how I came to look this way, Michael Pilgrim?’

‘Yes,’ he heard himself saying. ‘Yes.’

‘They did this to me as a punishment. The Five Cities did this. For seeking to stop their abominations against nature, their crimes, long before you were born. I was a warning to others who might oppose the Beautiful Life.’

‘I don’t understand,’ whispered Michael. ‘Only God can inflict such punishments.’

The Modified Man’s trunk twitched. Mucus glistened at its tip. ‘But my dear boy, some men aspire to be God! I’m thinking of one scientist in particular, a doctor. You wouldn’t like to be treated by him, Michael Pilgrim, believe me.’ He turned to the girl. ‘Take our guest to Clifford’s Tower and let him rest there tonight. Return his weapons and feed him well. I believe him to be a man of honour like his grandfather.’

With that, the vile face turned back to contemplate the stained glass window.