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The Church of St. Jude

by Christopher Donovan 15 days ago in fiction

A Window Onto The World

In many respects, the church of St. Jude was a quite ordinary place of worship.

It was no more than a moderately large, square stone box, and its external architecture possessed no work of any remark.

It was a plain, bland building with no terrifying gargoyles, or innately chiseled statures of saints to hold one's attention. Indeed, there was an absence of any vainglorious decoration whatsoever, thoroughly reflecting the straightforward, commonsense mentality of the sea-faring community who had worshiped there for nearly two centuries.

I do not wish to insult them, but they were simple people; it was only fitting that their church should, likewise, be simple.

The interior of St. Jude's was, similarly, unprepossessing. No pictures were affixed to the walls; it was just an ocean of grey rock. The dull, stone floor was covered with a dozen, battered wooden benches. Ahead of them was a raised dais. To the right of this was a basic pulpit; to the left, another weathered bench.

On Sundays, the majority of the village's children would populate this bench, and perform their civic duty as the choir. Much like the vicar himself, the children were artless but loud. However, the simple, unpretentious congregation wouldn't have it any other way.

There were only two aspects of St. Jude's that were in any way impressive.

The first was its location. It sat a few hundred feet back from a vast cliff-edge, on a promontory that extended into the churning, wild English Channel. Regardless of the season, the views from the grounds of the church were inspiring, albeit vertigo-inducing.

The second was the large, stained glass window that dominated the rear wall of the church. Given everything else about the building, the window's size, and majesty was an anomaly. It would not have been out of place in Winchester Cathedral such was the feat of its craftsmanship.

It certainly did not belong in St. Jude's.

It ran from the floor to the roof, extending at least fifty feet in height. It's width was at least thirty feet. It was made up of twelve panels, each depicting both a calendar month, and the activities the village performed during that time. As this was a maritime community, the underlying theme was - naturally - sea-faring.

In one panel, you could see the men hard at work on the village's docks, that ran along the bottom of that afore-mentioned vast cliff; in a later one, we then saw their rag-tag collection of fishing vessels setting out to sea; in another, we saw a solitary boat, its sails aloft, on the edge of the horizon, whilst the fishermen - unseen - undoubtedly toiled for their catch. And so on.

However, the artist behind the glass-work was indeed that - an artist. Each panel, although only a relatively small square, individually the size of a school-desk, consisted of hundreds, possibly thousands, of tiny, precision-cut pieces of glass.

Up close, it was possible to admire the inspired intricacy, yet also lose any sense of the overall narrative. But, take a few steps backwards, and the grand picture was clear. If Michelangelo had been an Englishman who designed stained glass windows, he might very well have ended up creating the masterpiece that was the window in St. Jude's.

In fact, for all Jonathan Barnes knew, Michelangelo may have been the architect.

The truth was, no-one knew who the window's creator was. Upon first seeing the window, Barnes had instantly asked himself; why had no-one ever written about this act of beauty before? How had it remained a secret for so long?

Then, after attempting to delve into the church's archives, Barnes got his answer. At least, he assumed he did.

The various clergyman who had taken occupancy of St. Jude's had been - to a man - neglectful in both either preserving historic documentation, or even more contemporaneous ones. Being a church historian, Barnes had encountered many men of the cloth whose archiving skills were on par with those of a small child.

However, in the twenty-four years he had traversed the country, attempting to bring some coherency to the history of Anglicism, Barnes had never witnessed such ineptitude as those of the vicars of St. Jude's. He was amazed they hadn't mislaid all the Bibles given their incompetence in managing anything paper-based. The current incumbent seemed the worst of the lot; his bulbous, purple-veined nose evidence of a man who preferred to sample the sacramental wine than collate the records of the church he was in charge of.

Of the man who had designed, and built the church, there was no trace. Its window, likewise, remained a mystery.

But, Barnes' initial frustration was short-lived. In fact, he was actually pleased no records regarding this dull, little church, with the outrageously wondrous window, survived. It meant that he would get to write its history. Whatever he discovered would be down to his diligent study. As an academic, whose career relied less on his teaching ability, and more on how often he was published, St. Jude's represented an opportunity.

One he fully intended to grasp. One he needed to fully grasp.

He had willingly chosen his career over his marriage, over his only son. Indeed, when his wife informed him of her wish to divorce to him, Barnes' only demand was that the academic tomes in their tiny cottage remained in his possession following the dissolution of their marriage. As long as he had his work, he had no need for a family, for love.

Truth be told, he couldn't even remember the last time he even missed them.

However, the modern age had also brought with it a new generation of scholar, a more ambitious, more driven, breed. Over the last few years Barnes had felt fusty, inert - unless he performed a task of note soon, his place on the faculty was a risk. He would become an academic non-entity.

Then he received the letter from the vicar of St. Jude's, asking him to visit. He'd never even heard of the tiny village or its (seemingly) dull church. However, given his perilous professional position, Barnes was in no place to refuse.

And, upon arrival, he saw the window, and knew salvation had arrived.

Officially, he was here to write the church's history for the community. He would, of course do that. However, whilst composing that straightforward tract, he would also write a parallel, more exhaustive piece. And, after that had been bestowed upon the academic world, Barnes would be fusty and inert no more. He would be a somebody.

Barnes dragged the rickety, wooden ladder the vicar had loaned him over towards the window. The legs scraped across the stone floor. However, he didn't need to worry about the noise. It was early morning and he had the church to himself until the afternoon service.

He placed his notebook in his jacket pocket, and climbed. Once he had completed his ascent, he steadied himself, and removed his notebook. Peering through his glasses he looked at the panel for January. In it, stood the church, covered with snow. In the bottom left-hand corner of the panel, two figures were huddled together in the graveyard...

Two figures?

Barnes flicked the pages of his notebook, searching for the entry he had made on the day he'd first been introduced to the window. One figure. He had written one figure.

He quickly dismissed his error. He had obviously been mistaken in writing one. Perhaps it had been tiredness after the long train journey. He flicked forward, and began a new note on a new page. Two figures. No matter.

He then looked at the panel for February. The inside of the church was depicted in this one. But...

The church was full. Dozens of worshipers filled the pews. Ahead of them stood the vicar in his pulpit. However, he - like faces of the congregation - were looking towards the rear of the church. Barnes felt they were looking at him. Once more, he flicked the pages of his notebook.

Again, he had made a mistake. In his initial notes, he had written that, in this panel, the church had been empty. Come on, Jonathan, he chided himself. You must concentrate - you simply have to maintain better notes. As he wrote a new entry, he became aware of a noise: The gentle lapping of waves.

Of course; the Channel stood a few hundred feet away, on the other side of the window. It was inevitable the sound would permeate its way into the church. He was amazed he'd never noticed it before. Never mind.

But, as he wrote, he became aware of movement in his peripheral vision to his right. He looked at the panel for March, which showed the village's fishermen readying their small boats for the sea.

In the window, the men were moving.

Barnes leant closer, staring at the panel. Yes - the tiny pieces of glass were indeed in motion. The tiny figures exhibited small, jerky movements. No - it must be a trick of the morning sunlight. Yet...

As he eyes moved along the window, taking in each panel, there was the same movement. He stared at the panel for July, and watched as one solitary boat, its sails struck high, slowly vanished over the horizon. As it did, the sound of the sea grew louder. This was...

He was not alone in the church. Barnes could feel himself being watched. He spun his head.

The pews were full. The living, breathing denizens of the village, not their tiny glass counterparts, sat. Watching him. How on Earth did they manage to enter the church so silently?

The village's ancient vicar stood in the gap between the two front-row pews, staring at him.

What was happening? This was all very unusual.

"I say," Barnes said. "I'm not sure I appreciate..."

"September," the vicar said.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Look at September," the vicar repeated.

Barnes took two steps down the ladder, keeping his eyes fixed on the congregation. He was shaking; suddenly, his middle-aged body was finding the simple physical effort difficult. As he descended, he kept his eyes fixed on the congregation: The worshipers appeared to be smiling.

He span his head, quickly finding the panel for September. He remembered this panel; in it, the fishermen had returned from sea, and were unloading their haul on the docks...

No, that's not right.

He turned back to the congregation. Their smiles seemed to have grown.

He span his head again, looking at the panel once more. In it, a man stood on ladder, examining the majestic St. Jude's window. The man was wearing a brown jacket, scuffed leather patches on the elbows.

No. That simply cannot be...

The sound of the sea was loud now. It was as if the waves were unfurling in his head.

Barnes' eyes darted to the next panel. October. In it, the ladder stood empty. He inched his head closer. Behind the ladder, stood a smaller depiction of the October panel. A picture within a picture. In it, was the man. Trapped in the panel. He had...

"Thank you, Jonathan," the vicar said.

"For what?" Barnes whispered. "What is happening...?"

The last thing Jonathan Barnes was aware of was the sound of a crashing wave engulfing him.

The congregation stood, and moving as one, walked over the window. They stared at the October panel to see a tiny rendering of a bookish, middle-aged man staring back at them. Satisfied, they turned, and left the church.

The panels in St. Jude's beautiful window continue to morph and change. Every so often, Jonathan Barnes will appear in one of them, in the same way the activities, and appearances, of the villagers subtly shift. However, despite not being ever present, the fact remains that Barnes was now part of the history of St. Jude's.

And would be forever more.

For man who prized posterity above anything else, it was more than apt.

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fiction
Christopher Donovan
Christopher Donovan
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Christopher Donovan

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