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At night, the church slept. The candles had long since blown out and the doors shut, though a pulsing, bitter wind found its way through every crevice time had made in the old building of stone and wood. The church was protected against the devil, but inside it was still cold as Hell.
Light echoes throughout the cavernous interior followed one after the other as Michel, an altar boy dressed head to toe in a flowing robe still too big for him after all these years, mounted the steps, spiraling his way upwards. An old, rotting door threatened to crumble to dust as the boy shouldered through it onto the balcony, tripped over the frame and cursing under his breath. Michel crossed himself quickly and said a Hail Mary as penance. He stood in awe, staring up at the massive church organ, its pipes of brass ornately decorated with inlaid wood carvings and gold ornaaments depicting angels ascending to Heaven. The instrument was a machine of divine grace that overshadowed the rows of pews below and gave the impression that God himself might be able to hear the music from on high.
The boy plopped down dead-center on the bench, cracking every bone in his hand in preparation as a giddy smile slid across his face. With a slow, steady breath, he lowered his fingers over the keys, hovering just about the ivory pieces. Michel raised his hands briskly and slammed them down onto the keys, ringing out the first chord, expelling dust and a disgruntled pigeon from the pipes. From up there, the sound was deafening as the organ shuddered and shook with the force of air coursing through it, threatening to burst and send the whole church skyward with the angels. Yet Michel paid no mind as he played, long into the night, the organ’s sound filling the empty cathedral with beauty, drowning out the wind, but no one heard it. The last note faded away as the first light of dawn cast stained glass shadows on the floor. And Michel was gone.
A bald-eagle-headed priest, Renaux, glided down the central aisle calling out orders to the clergy as they made preparations for a coming mass. Everywhere people were cleaning and arranging in complete silence. Renaux glanced at the clock. Almost noon.
“Michel!” the priest shouted straight upwards, his voice easily reaching every corner of the church. “It’s time to clean the organ. You’re already a minute late.”
From the balcony, a familiar crash and curse could be heard. Moments later the organ awoke with a single, booming note vibrating through the pipes, cleaning it of dust and debris. Michel held the haunting note until it rang true before moving on to the next, one after the other up the scale, in a slow procession of powerful tones. The ominous horns, steadily rising in pitch, gave the church an air of foreboding, as if time were running out. As it were, the church had only two days until the burial of a fallen cardinal and the Saint Sulpice Church was given the honor of performing the final mass. Understandably so, Renaux was nervous. The entire congregation was looking to him to perform the sacred duty and he had to make sure everything was perfect. Every day of his career lead him to this moment. Even God would be attending.
As Michel finished cleaning the final pipe, he took pause to crack his knuckles, a mischievous smile appearing on his lips. Shattering the silence of the church, Michel launched into a rousing solo, racing up and down the keys with vigor. At once, all the clergymen froze solid as the hypnotic music echoed off stone and wood.
“Enough! I think the organ is quite clean!” called the priest as he rushed towards the steps, but Michel didn’t stop as he couldn’t hear him. Just as the piece reached its most voluminous, Renaux burst onto the balcony, fighting for breathe, and yanked Michel by the collar off of the bench. The organ shrieked a dischordant surprise. The priest swung his hand sharply across the boy’s face causing a bright red welt.
“No more! I said you may only touch the organ to clean it, not to play this unholy filth! You are to mop every single square inch of this floor even if it takes you all night. And you may never to touch this organ again.”
Tears welled in Michel’s eyes as he disappeared down the stairs.
Thunder shook the thousands of chairs lined up in neat rows as the stone walls held force against the gale outside. A single break in the roof lead drops of rainfall along a suspended beam before depositing them into the basin of holy water below.
The priest is gonna think it’s a miracle, Michel thought, the holy water refilled on its own! Michel spit onto the floor, then quickly mopped it up revealing shining tiles beneath. He tossed the mop into the sloshing bucket and packed it away into the closet. His footsteps the only sound alive as he pushed through the carved doors that arched over the entrance. As the doors slowly swung closed, Michel stopped them with the toe of his shoe, propped it open, and snuck back inside. His eyes wandered up the wall to the towering organ, a black monolith in the darkened church.
Labored breathing, heavy footsteps, hand on the railing. The church’s organist, Bellamy, an obese, bearded gentleman, cursed the architect who thought putting the organ on the top floor was a good idea. Finally atop the last step, Bellamy let out a bellowed sigh.
"Tomorrow, I will go on a diet."
The organist’s stubby hands reached for the handle and twisted, but the door didn't budge. Again he tried to no avail, even using his substantial girth as a battering ram with no results. On the other side of the door, two shoes were wedged in the frame, sealing it shut.
Bellamy careened down the steps with all haste, the pure adrenaline of fear propelling him now as he had already expelled all his energy on the single flight of steps. He headed straight for Renaux who stood near the altar ahead a packed crowd all in attendance for the cardinal’s services.
"Father Renaux!" the organist mustered in as loud a whisper as he dared, but his cry was drowned out by the scratch of thousands of chairs being pushed back in unison as all rose for the start of mass.
Bellamy held his breath, anticipating the first note to fall like the jagged blade of his own guillotine. The young altar boy was sure to decimate his reputation with a performance of such supreme squalor that he would be relegated playing street corners as an organ grinder with a monkey by his side banging a cymbal for tips. He squeezed his eyes shut in anticipation.
Yet, the folly never came and the song was played perfectly. Every note in the right order and on time. Bellamy hesitantly cracked an eye, afraid he was just dreaming and would wake up at any moment to a cacophony. A nervous smile awoke on his face, the organist dubiously believing he may have escaped the worst.
For almost three hours, ever single note was played sublimely. Renaux, though still sweating through his robes from stress, began to ease as the services unfolded beautifully. All said and done, the casket was closed and shouldered by the pallbearers who began a steady procession down the aisle to the final organ piece of the ceremony. The organist chuckled giddily to himself as he wiped his brow in relief.
However, halfway through, the organ transitioned to an unexpected song catching the attention of Renaux, Bellamy and the entire clergy who struggled to appear as of nothing was wrong. Renaux caught eyes with the organist and a wave of understanding flooded over him as he realized their livelihoods were now at the mercy of a young altarboy steered with good reason towards revenge. The song, far from the dark symphony of everyone’s fears, was absolutely enchanting, ephemeral and left all who heard it with a deep well of tears behind their eyes. It was unlike anything they had heard before. The parishioners filed out in somber silence as the music filtered through them. Soon, the final notes landed, leaving the priest and organist all alone with the decay of sound.
Muffled rubber stretched as the shoes holding the door locked popped free. Michel’s sock-covered feet appeared first, followed by his dusty, over-sized robe and finally his sheepish face. Renaux and Bellamy stared the boy down, a mixture of awe and anger in their eyes. After a long, tense silence, the organist stepped forward.
"It was... beautiful," Bellamy stammered. "Who composed it?"
Michel merely pointed to himself, a slight smile rising to his lips.
"Bravo," the organist said, then bowed and left in silence. A thousand expressions flitted across the old priest’s face as Michel lowered his head in shame. Renaux put a hand on Michel's shoulder, causing him to look up.
“You may play anytime," Renaux said as a grin, the first the boy had ever seen, crossed his face. Michel returned the smile, and with his hands signed two words: