"The devil waits for us. He lives in our pride, our hate, our jealousy, and tempts us. He pulls us in with lies and false promises, turns us away from our god and our fellow man, and then we are lost."
Raphe stands at the pulpit, staring down at the blank, sagging face of his followers. They stare back with bovine eyes, feeling none of the rapture he's used to.
God lives everywhere, but rural Missouri and middle England's Wingston-on-the-Brook are different down to their very souls.
"We must resist the dark temptations that Satan brings before us. Fight him in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls, and prevail over the armies of the serpent king." He aches for the cries of hallelujah that ring absent. "Let us pray."
His pleas to the lord fall on distracted ears and are followed by a tape cassette recording of the dying groans of an organ. His flock gather together in clumps as they leave, more interest in the chatter and babble and, 'Oh, what a nice hat,' then a sermon has brought out yet. He closes his bible with care and goes to join them, press the flesh and bring them to god with a smile if nothing else will work, but his way is blocked.
Mrs Withers, 80 years old and widowed for at least 20 of them, is leaning on her walking stick at the foot of the steps. She's dressed like the Queen in a baby blue dress and matching sun hat but her eyes are sharp, and she waits for him to reach her before talking.
"Your sermon." She tilts her head, eyes slit. "It was definitely something new."
This woman could be a perfect sample of the rot that has been allowed to set in without the firm hand of a true man of god. Their pro-forma prayers and dower hymns flowing through the town like blood.
"Should bringing passion for the lord to this house of god be new? It should ring from the foundations. It's what our world should be built on."
The old lady stares into his eyes with an unblinking gaze before answering. "I understand that you were not expecting to find yourself here. And we were not expecting you. Brimstone may have worked for your old congregation until, well..."
He grinds his teeth and she just raises an eyebrow.
"...But we're of a different sort here. Time weighs heavy. We've found our own way to do things. Our own path. We've learned that the strong resolve of outsiders isn't always so kind. Or necessary."
"God may ask much of us, but never more than we can bare."
"Tell that to Seila."
The name sounds like it should ring a bell, but his confusion must show on his face because her own softens.
"Perhaps time is all that we need. And a little enlightenment, maybe?" Her smile is crooked. "It's a good time of year to go looking. Take a walk in the woods to clear your mind?"
Raphe feels like she's telling a joke he's not in on, but he nods anyway. Doesn't hurt to humour the old witch.
She bids him farewell and sets off after the gaggle of similar women who are making their way out of the door, leaving him alone.
Sunday may be the main focus of his job, but it's not the majority. The rest of the week is made up of planning, preparing, and maintaining, including visits to the infirm and frail among his congregation.
When he first visited the doll like Miss Coleman and towering Miss Moore, two spinsters in their 60s who live in a cottage like house down it's own country lane, he thought they were sisters. They twittered when he asked. Just friends who had decided to see out their golden years with someone else for company.
Now they serve him tea in tiny cups and homemade cookies, and seem determined to spend their time talking about nieces, nephews and local gossip rather than the church. He's sure they'd be useful bringing in the community now that Easter is over. He just needs them to get with the program.
He puts a tiny meringue back on delicate china. "If you'll excuse me, ladies, could I use your bathroom?" He needs a break from their chatter before he says something he'll regret.
They point him to the stairs and he makes his escape, having to lean against the railing as he squeezes past the stair lift. The upstairs hallway is decorated with floral wallpaper and paint by numbers paintings, dark brown carpet that might be as old as he is, and three identical looking doors.
The first is a bedroom with all the lace he was expecting. A collection of china dolls stare out glassy eyed from the shelves.
In the second he expects to find another bed, so he's surprised when he opens the door to what seems to be a workroom. Paper flowers and blood red ribbons fill a table that takes up all one wall, and a tailors dummy stands in the centre wearing a simple white shift dress. White candles are scattered around the room, and he spots a blanket with what looks like a moon and stars embroidered on it.
"It's the door at the end of the hall, dearie."
His skin chills at the surprise but when he turns around she's wearing the same smile she had serving drinks.
"I didn't hear about anyone getting married," he says, jerking his head into the room.
"Oh, no dear. Not married. We just..." A wistful look fills her eyes. "It's for a party. Something we've been planning for the whole year. Just a bit of fun, you understand."
And what can he say to that? He empties his bladder with thoughts jumbling together in his head.
When he comes back down the comfortable mood is broken. The two ladies stand awkwardly while he puts on his coat to keep out the cold April air, and look relieved when he finally takes each ones hand and heads for the door.
He's almost there when the doorbell rings, and he can't tell what he sees in their faces when he turns back for a moment, but it makes sense for him to open it.
The woman standing in the tiny open porch is a shock for him, if only because of her beauty. She's young, maybe 16, and her face fills with wide eyed surprise when she's confronted with a stranger.
The taller woman sweeps past him to cradle the girls face, and Raphe is struck by her smile.
"Oh, my dear, come in. The reverend was just leaving, and we've got everything ready. You'll look radiant. How I envy the young."
Raphe finds himself quickly bundled out onto the porch, the door closed in his face.
He slips into bed that night, ready for the peaceful sleep of the righteous, but tosses and turns under his covers when it doesn't come. His mind slips back to Tanith, her innocent smile and strange name. He'd looked up it's meaning that evening.
Serpent lady. After a Phoenician goddess. He wonders how a couple in this part of the world came to choose that for their child.
When he looks up at the alarm clock and sees it's already passed midnight he sighs to himself. This isn't working. He need something to cool his nerves, and a quick cup of hot coco sounds like just the ticket. The floor is cold under his naked feet as he trots back round towards the bedroom door.
There's a light outside.
Not in his street, not that close, but the church and small house it comes with are sitting on the highest point for miles looking out over the town.
He would put it down to a late night dog walker, or someone coming back from meeting with someone they shouldn't, but the light is still. He squints his eyes to try and see more, and thinks he makes out the general form. By now he can make out the geography even in the darkness of the full moon as well.
Someone is standing on the bridge over the sluggish river that runs through town. Not doing anything else, just looking, like a ghost mourning a lost love out at sea.
The light is moving slightly now, bobbing up and down as the figure moves strangely, and it takes him a moment to figure out what is happening. They're climbing over the railing.
He only hesitates for a second. He's shoving on yesterday's clothes before he's really thought about it, forcing his feet into the wrong shoes before he thinks to switch them and try again. The bridge isn't tall, not high enough to be fatal, but that can be worse. He sees the figure in his minds eye, falling through the glassy surface of the water and breaking bones on the hard bottom, or getting sucked out into the mud and held their as their oxygen runs out.
The figure is still visible when he leaves the front door hanging open and pelts down the sloping road. His feet slap against the asphalt and his lungs burn, but if he can just get there in time...
He's close enough to hear the splash and puts on a final burst of speed, colliding with the metal railing and letting his body fold over it to peer down into the cold depths.
He can's see anything. There's no one on the surface and it's too dark to see the bottom. He heads for the embankment and scrambles down till his feet are wet.
There's no one there.
He searches downriver with his eyes, then splashes to the other side of the bridge for a look, but he's alone here, standing in frigid water in his pyjamas.
The climb up out of the river is undignified, and he scrapes his hands on the way, but his mind is turning over too fast for any of it to register. As he trudges back to his home he knows he has to uncover the truth
The buzzing of his alarm wakes him early, so early, and after the drama of last night it isn't surprising that his eyes drift closed and stay that way for several hours.
When he wakes again it's to the sound of music. He rubs his sandpaper face and drags himself back to that same window. There's a crowd this time, gathering in the main grass square.
Raphe has had damn near enough of this. He gets dressed quickly, slipping on a thin coat over his priestly garb. The change of seasons is running slow and winter still clings to the corners of the day.
Something makes the holy man keep himself hidden from the revellers. He watches from consecrated ground as they gather together, garlands of flowers in their hair and paper mache masks of demented creatures. They swirl like a whirlpool till an older man dressed in flowing robes stands on the plinth of a statue and calls there attention.
"Ladies! Gentlemen! Friends!" He waits for the crowd to quell. "On this May Day, just like on so many before it, we return to the forest. For though it is reduced, though the new encroaches on the old, we hold our ways sacred." He's joined on his makeshift podium by a young woman in a white dress. "Today, we give back. Give the young back to the ancient. Let us follow our May Queen."
It's Tanith. Tanith looking like a bride with bare feet and flowers in flowing golden hair, holding aloft a standard and leading the crowd into the trees.
Her followers are a mix of gruesome creatures, one seems to be wearing a horse skull, and innocent looking little children, angels in their own white dresses.
He's seen this movie before. Read about it happening in real life, but never thought he'd have to witness such depravity. He keeps himself unseen as he runs through the trees, far enough away to stay safe but close enough that he can still track their progress. Brambles scratch at his skin and roots reach up to trip him, but he forces his way through.
They come to a clearing. It's crowded and they press in, moving through each other like murmuring birds. They dance and sing, words in some old tongue he doesn't quite understand.
He circles them in his own way and that's when he sees the fire. It's been burning for a while, flames licking up the sides of what looks like a coffin made of cinder blocks.
Just the right size for a person.
He has to stop this. Has to bring god back to this terrible heathen place.
The fire has been left to burn for itself and he heads closer. They've used local wood, and it crackles and pops with the last moisture. They've even left out the axe.
He feels the weight of it in his hands and he knows what he has to do. He grips it, wringing the neck, steps forward to look into the flames, and pretends the smoke is to blame for the tears running down his face.
But there's something down there. Something in the pit. A red skinned form laying in the hole.
He only makes out the hooves and snout of the pig for a second before he feels a hand on his shoulder. He swings round on instinct. He feels the axe bury in soft flesh, sees innocent eyes flash pain, and then she's falling.
Tanith stares up at him, white dress turning red as her blood blooms over it, and he knows he is lost.