High up on the far wall, above the sanctuary and above the crucifix of Christ and the massive painting of the Mount of Olives, an amorphous shadow separated from the deeper, darker shadows of the ceiling. The shadow took shape, formed arms and legs, and crept slowly down the wall. It stopped between the painting and the crucifix.
It was their way of inviting me to join them. Often, I answered their call, rising up to be with them, disappearing into them, my individual thoughts ceasing to exist as I merged into The One. And their thoughts, more often than not, were centered on protecting that damn painting.
“And they’ve done a marvelous job of it, haven’t they?” said a humor-filled voice just below the entities.
Not too many things surprised me these days—this did.
The only thing below the entities was, of course, the statue of Jesus Christ hanging on the cross. At the moment, it appeared to be trying to pull free one of its nailed hands.
“Exactly,” said the statue. “Now, how about giving a brother a hand?”
The statue didn’t wait for my help.
As I stared up in stunned silence, incapable of moving even if I had wanted to help, the statue went to work freeing its nailed hands from the cross. As it did so, the three red-eyed beings scuttled quickly away and huddled together in the far corner of the room. I nearly scuttled away with them.
At least I’m not the only one seeing things, I thought.
The statue made a fist with its right hand, gripping the nail head in reverse, so to speak, and began working the spike back and forth, crying out as he did so. When the nail finally came free, the statue bellowed like a wounded and dying animal.
He did the same with his other hand, grunting and gasping, and when it came free, he found himself balancing precariously on the single nail driven through both his feet. Balancing in that position as rivulets of sweat poured down his damaged body, he plucked each nail from the center of his palms like a magician performing a macabre magic trick. He dropped the bloodied spikes to the carpeted dais below, where they clamored and bounced and came to rest side by side.
Had I been human, I would have vomited violently.
Next, he reached up and gripped the crown of thorns encircling his head. “Man alive, this thing gives me the worst headache.” He carefully pushed up, and as fresh blood poured from newly opened wounds, the crown came free. He tossed it aside, and it landed next to the two stakes.
The statue, sucking wind, looked down at me. “This is where I could really use your help, James.”
His words ripped through me, snapping me to attention, and in a daze, I found myself warily floating up to him.
“I don’t bite, James,” he said, and gave me a lopsided smile. His lips, I saw, were badly split, and some of his bottom teeth were broken near the gums. He motioned to the nail driven through his feet. “I could probably pull it out myself, but, well, my back is seriously killing me.”
I nodded dumbly and reached for the nail head and wondered how much I could truly help, since I was a ghost.
“Just do your best, James,” he said.
I nodded dumbly again and took hold of the nail—and noticed I had solidified enough to wrap both hands around its head. Bracing my bare feet on either side of the cross, I pulled with all my strength, and as I pulled, it slowly came free. Warm blood poured over my knuckles.
Warm blood. On my knuckles.
As I continued to pull, Jesus Christ braced his arms against the thick wooden crossbeam, holding himself up, grunting through clenched teeth. His legs, I saw, were crisscrossed with raw, open wounds. Lash marks.
I pulled with all my strength, grunting myself. And when the nail finally came free, blood sprayed in a crimson arch, glinting in the multicolored morning light shining in through the stained-glass windows.
The iron spike, slick with blood, slipped from my fingers and bounced and rolled and came to rest next to the others.
“Thank you,” said the man, or statue, in front of me. I looked up into his face; he winked at me. “You’re a real lifesaver.” He then gave me another lopsided grin and dropped down from the cross. He landed loudly on the raised stage.
I drifted down from the cross while he spent a few moments bending and stretching his back. As he did so, something caught his eye in the far corner of the room.
“Wait here, James. I’ll be back in a moment.”
For someone who had been hanging around for unknown decades, he moved surprisingly well—and even looked pretty good in a loincloth.
Crisscrossing his back were dozens of open wounds.
Some of the torn flesh was literally flapping free with each step. But if he was in any pain, he didn’t show it.
He walked swiftly over to the far corner of the chapel, until he stood directly beneath the three red-eyed sentries. The beings, which were shifting agitatedly high above, watched him restlessly, churning, moving in and over each other, their red eyes flashing warily. Where one began and another ended was nearly impossible to tell. Christ—or, more accurately, the living statue of Christ—spoke to them. What he said, I didn’t know, but it seemed to calm them down.
They slowed their fidgeting, then stopped altogether.
He said something else to them, and they looked at each other, and I knew they were silently conferring together. They came to some sort of decision, because a moment later, a single shadowed being emerged from The One and crawled tentatively down from the wall.
I watched, stunned. Never had I seen the brothers separate.
And when he was just above Christ’s head, he stopped and reached out a shadowed hand from the wall…
Christ reached up and took it, and when the two hands were together, something miraculous happened. That is, something else miraculous happened on a night of a thousand miracles.
The shadowed hand turned into a very real hand. And the shadowed being turned into the brilliantly glowing spirit of a real man. A bald man wearing a long, flowing robe. A robe that was riddled with bullet holes.
Still holding Christ’s hand, the monk drifted down from the wall and immediately buried his face in Christ’s shoulder, sobbing uncontrollably as Christ hugged him tightly.
In that moment, the golden tunnel appeared in the ceiling above. It glowed invitingly, serenely, and I watched as dozens of spirits emerged from it, surrounding Christ and the monk. One of the spirits, a young man—the fourth brother, perhaps—covered in what appeared to be splashes of paint, embraced the monk in a massive bear hug. When they separated, another spirit, a middle-aged woman, took the monk gently by the hand and led him up to the tunnel in the ceiling.