I saw him leave and I hoped that he was a man on a mission and not an absentee father. His eyes left first, greying out and filming over, milky like a three-week old cup of tea. Then there was an hiatus, a momentary pause when it seemed like nothing was happening, time was suspended, holding fire in no-man's-land and singing carols in a high-pitched voice like a greyhound on helium. Then his jaw dropped just a little, and he started mouth-breathing, a silvery snail-trail of drool leaking from the corner of his mouth where the herpes came on twice a year after his six-monthly visits to The Papaton. If his mammy were still alive she'd have beaten him for that, like she beat manners into him when he was just a kid. It seemed like every night I'd be lying in there in the darkness, scared to close my eyes in case I woke up dead, and I'd hear him in the other room, crying quietly into his pillow because the thrashing made it too hard for him to lie on his back. And most nights I'd find myself getting up and going to him, knowing that if they caught me they'd not listen to a word I had to say, they'd just up and hang me, on the clothes-line out the back, or maybe from the branches of the apple-tree. I did hear tell somewhere that a man hanged in an apple-tree for the wrong reasons gives off the best Hands Of Glory. I'd lie on the side of his bed, putting an arm round him, and he'd shift his weight and bury his face against me, and his tears would mix with my sweat from the heat outside, and I'd wait till he fell asleep and then I'd go back to my own bed. Because who leaves a child to cry on their own like that?
I asked the priest that question once, and he looked at me with the hatred the church has always reserved for those who think for themselves, and he said,
"Get yourself onto that hinky internet that I know and God knows you're stealing from the neighbourhood and find yourself all out about the Nicene Council. And when you're done reading that, remember that it was me that told you all about it and save your scorn for those who've never heard it and yet practise it in every day of their miserable lives."
And that's where I found out that the church reserves the right to edit its holy texts, and while it might not do it so much as a whole the priest was right and many of the churchy-folk I saw around me were all too keen to edit the words to fit the lives they wanted to leave.
His hands stopped shaking after a while and I knew that he was all the way gone then, out there in the astral realm, wandering the clouds and dancing with the rainbows. He would stare out of the window when it rained and we were children, and he'd look for the rainbows hiding in the raindrops. I'd look too, but all I ever saw was grey, an endless outpouring of downpouring, leaden water from the skies that pushed the plants to reach back up to return it. But he could find the rainbows, he'd point and laugh, but the rainbows somehow always skittered away when I tried to follow him, and all I'd get was a flash of red, or a glimmer of violet, and never the whole rainbow. But he was happy, and it took his mind off the bruises and the welts.
I picked his hands up – they were so cold – and laid them in his lap. He shifted slightly, and for a moment I thought he might fall off his chair, but then his spine stiffened and he was steady again. I laid a kiss on his forehead, a reminder, a signpost to wait for his return, and then I slipped the latch on the door and loped out into the night, looking for the Papaton. I heard the door click closed behind me, and I offered up a silent prayer that he'd be opening it when I knocked again, but the Gods were all silent that night, and though I'm sure that the prayer reached them in their brass cities, they didn't deign to tell me what their answer was.