Father Simon was having another bad bout of cough. It had been a terrible decision to dust the rickety old cabinet, donated by some early 20th century magistrate, in his office. He dug his knuckles deep into his mouth as the coughing showed no signs of ceasing. Finally after six and a half minutes of agony, the old priest withdrew his hand and took shallow breaths trying to discover some composure. He noticed the crimson fluid on his fist and sighed. It was getting worse; there was blood now since the past week. The church doctor had suggested it was just a passing viral infection due to the sudden change in weather but the reverend knew better. How many of those tuberculosis patients he had tended to in his 35 year old career.
There was a rap on the window.
“Father? I have a confession to make! Can I have a few moments?” a man asked from the outside.
Gathering his wits, the priest replied, “Yes please! Take your place in the confession box. I will be there in a minute!”
Sliding the door close, Father Simon took his seat and prayed for the soul on the other side of the veil- a personal ritual he had been following ardently since he became a part of the church and was entitled to the darkest secrets of fellow, faceless men and women.
“Please begin…” he said tucking the holy cross away into the folds of his robes.
There was a long pause, as if the confessor was thinking about his words. Father Simon waited patiently.
Finally the man begun, “I have been carrying guilt for more than 3 decades now… guilt of infidelity…”
He paused. Father Simon closed his eyes and listened intently, a trait he had gathered over the years- this was a very common confession in fact so he had already started structuring his advices for the man, for which he was famous in the whole town!
“I have a lovely wife and one girl child whom I adore but alas… I do not love my dear wife. I “can’t”!”
The priest’s eyes flew open at the emphasis on the word “can’t”! This wasn’t the introduction he was expecting. He adjusted his sitting posture, straightening up a bit.
The man sighed. Hesitantly he added, “I am homosexual! And that is what brings me to you.”
The priest waited.
“It all started 37 years ago. I was 20. Fresh from college, bright, confident, a spring in my steps suggesting my love for life and my face adorned by a smile so exuberant, every woman would blush at the sight of me. I had had quite a few flings with beautiful females during school and at college too, and an even larger number of casual flirting made me quite the notoriety.” The man seemed to be in blissful nostalgia even as Father Simon fidgeted a little bit in his chair. Was it the weather or just his cold?
“Then one fine evening during autumn, I met this man at the pub. The man who changed everything. The man who made my world turn upside down. ‘The doctor’, everyone called him. He was a vet by profession in truth, but since the night when he had helped save a war soldier by surgically removing shrapnel from his abdomen, everyone sought him for anything pertaining to medical remedies. So by practice he was ‘the doctor’!”
The man paused, seemingly lost in the thoughts of the doctor who had set the fire of passion in a person whom the fairer gender adored!
“What happened next?” the priest asked impatiently, a slight quiver in his voice.
The man sighed again, “Alas the doctor was married! But he wasn’t happy with the marriage. According to local gossips doing the rounds, the wife apparently could not satisfy the lust of the good doctor!”
Father Simon shifted in his chair again. Seriously, the humidity was getting unbearable.
The man continued, “That piece of information gave me great solace! So I did have a chance to impress this beauty of nature, I thought. After going through a lot of trouble, I finally managed to gather an appointment with the man who would get my heart racing! I could not look the doctor in the eye, I was blushing and my nerves were jingling at the sight of him. Finally during my fifth visit at his clinic I expressed my love for him. I was scared he might react badly or even assault me or worse throw me out of his life! What I didn’t expect him to do was hug me, the warmth of his body got my pulse beating away and the bliss that followed…”
Father Simon’s cough was starting again. He stifled them with his kerchief. He was so engrossed in the tale he was barely moving anymore.
“But unfortunately, we were not meant to be together. Our secret meetings at the barn were no longer a secret. People would taunt us for being the way we were. I was even assaulted by armed men who threatened my life if I were to continue with this ‘nonsense’, this ‘unnatural act’… It finally became unbearable! I fled the village with a group of nearly 20 men charging after me like enraged bulls, seeking to mow me down! I left without a note. I left without saying goodbye to the only person I had ever loved truly…”
Father Simon had heard enough! He jumped out of his chair which fell to the ground with a bang. His heart was pounding. Beads of sweat crisscrossed along the lines on his face.
“Who are you? What do you want from me?” he screamed at the wooden panel which hid the confessor from the priest!
There was no answer.
Father Simon opened the sliding panel, his hands shaking in anger and humiliation. There was no one there. A single slip of note lay on the counter. He picked it up. It read, “By the lake. 7:00 pm”!
The lake looked beautiful in the moonlight. It was as if a thousand stars had fallen out of the sky and taken refuge on earth! The moon wasn’t shy either that night! It played a bit of hide and seek with the clouds but eventually resurfaced, a naughty smile playing around its countenance! The air was still and apart from the crickets singing some kind of a “jungle song”, doves cooing softly as if a lullaby for their young ones and the fish splashing around in the water, nothing moved.
“How did you find me?” an old voice asked.
“Your love brought me here!” the other voice said playfully.
“Please act mature Andrew! We are not 20 anymore. That time is long gone. You shouldn’t have come. I am a man of the cloth now, you cannot come in here unannounced and evoke buried memories.” The first voice said.
“Simon! Simon you left without a note, you didn’t even let me have a last moment with you! The very thought of losing you drove me crazy. I couldn’t concentrate on my work, my marriage failed; my wife hates me for having destroyed her life, my daughter… my innocent daughter holds me responsible for all the taunts at school! What was I supposed to do? Where was I supposed to go?” Andrew put his hands to his face and let the tears roll. He could cry unabashedly in company of his beloved.
Simon took Andrew’s hand in his, “Andrew… I am sorry… If I had known the consequences of a silly action taken in my youth was…”
Andrew snatched his hand away, “Wait! Silly action? You are calling our love silly? The love for which I have sacrificed so much- my reputation, my family, even risked my life for?”
Andrew jumped up from the haystack and started walking away.
“Andrew! Andrew wait! ANDREW!” Simon called desperately, “Fine you coward! Fine! Leave me again. Like you had abandoned me 37 years ago, when you decided to go for that stupid medical convention of yours while the crazy villagers came hunting for my balls!”
Andrew stopped in his tracks.
“What did you say? I am a coward? I abandoned you?”
And before Simon knew it, Andrew was on him punching every inch of his old body that could be reached. Simon was flailing and punching at Andrew too. A few stray dogs which had come to the lake for a drink looked at the two elderly men brawling like children. They appeared amused but did not bother the two.
20 minutes later, the two lay on the ground exhausted. Andrew began laughing. Simon looked at his old friend and lover and started laughing too! They laughed their hearts out, they laughed till their throats became dry, they laughed till 37 years worth of pent up feelings flowed out of them, and they laughed till their eyes watered!
Simon began to cough again. The laughter didn’t help. It got worse and suddenly he was rolled up into a cocoon, spitting out blood which was clearly visible in the light of the lamp that the priest had brought along.
“Simon! Simon what’s wrong? Simon talk to me!” Andrew was scared.
Simon lay down on his back, “Andrew… I have a serious case of tuberculosis… I might not be alive for long! A week at best is what the doctor promised today evening!”
Andrew looked flabbergasted, “Simon! Why didn’t you tell…?”
There was a long silence. Even the crickets and doves had stopped making noises as if listening to the couple’s conversation.
“I am glad you came Andrew!” Simon finally said.
Andrew looked painfully at the shriveled up old priest who looked nothing like his old self. Years of social service had stolen the looks that had attracted the good doctor so many years ago and yet the bright young person remained embedded in this shadow of his lover.
“Me too Simon… Me too!” Andrew sighed and looked at the moon which was smiling at the pair.
Simon lay there, also looking at the full moon.
“Hey Andrew? Can you do me a favor? “
“Can you arrange for my bones to be laid to rest somewhere away from the town? I always liked the village better you know!”
Andrew didn’t answer.
“Promise me!” the old priest said rising up.
Andrew nodded his head after a long pause.
Simon lay back on his back, “tell me more about heaven Andrew.”
“Shouldn’t you be telling me that?”
Simon replied, “No I want to know about your heaven! The heaven where you always said you wanted to go when you died!”
Simon snuggled close to his lover.
Andrew sighed, “It’s the most beautiful place in the universe. The weather is never too cold or too hot. The rivers flow throughout the year, it’s always spring time and the flowers are always in full bloom. The supply of food and drink never ends and beautiful angels roam around, their white gowns rustling on the carpeted roads as they glide across giggling.” Simon chuckled softly. Andrew gently kissed the priest’s forehead and continued, “The wish tree grants you all your wishes and the saintly servants of the lord tend to your needs at every single hour of the day. There is no nightfall and the sun always shines, spreading its warmth and goodness to the souls that get through the gates of heaven.”
Simon whispered, “What is it that you call it again?”
“The valley of light…”
“Yes… the valley…” Simon muttered.
A cool night breeze made the lake’s smooth surface flutter, the ripples moved forward, passing on their enthusiasm to the rest of the lake. The water glittered like a diamond, the stars looking like the many edges on it, the moon started playing hide and seek again, and the dove cooed once more-a last time before falling asleep.