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The Sacrifice

          The pastor pushed through the fog, stumbling along the cobblestone road as he clutched a scuffed leather bag to his chest. The world seemed small, pale, and silent—save for the clacking of boots, a muffled chirping, and the pastor’s ragged breathing. But when he saw a lumpy shape come into focus ahead of him, his breathing stopped altogether.

            It was a young man. His back was arched, eyes wide, and his mouth frozen in a silent scream. As the pastor leaned hesitantly over the body, he winced in recognition. The color was missing from the familiar face. But it was the eyes—colorless like the fog itself—that finally made the pastor gasp. He straightened, drew his leather bag even more tightly to his chest, and carefully skirted the body.

          The pastor practically flew along the cobblestone path toward the church. He passed several vaguely house-shaped shadows and heard faint clanking and muttering inside. The pastor hesitated after passing the final building. He strained his eyes to make out the sign hanging from its rafters and took a halting step toward it. Then, looking down at the burden in his arms, he stopped, took a deep breath, and continued onward.

          After an eternity, the pastor saw a dark, steepled outline materialize before him. He lunged the final few feet and gripped a wrought-iron handle, barely noticing how cold it was. His lips moved in a silent, hurried prayer before yanking the door open. He shot through the doorway, spun around, and slammed the thick wooden door shut behind him. Panting, he rested his forehead against the door until his breathing finally slowed, then turned around.

       The chapel was dark, lit only by a handful of dwindling candles around its perimeter. Their flickering light showed several small groups huddling together on the long wooden benches. The pastor’s eyes darted between every single figure on the benches—then once more—before he fell back against the door and he let out a sigh.

        An instant later his head snapped forward and his eyes swept the edges of the room. The cobwebbed wooden ceiling and dust-covered windows gave him a moments’ pause before he moved on. He began breathing easier, but when he squinted to examine the chapel’s darkened corners, his heart fluttered. A dull cloud was slowly blossoming in the corner nearest him.

          The pastor’s shaking arms hoisted the leather bag a little higher and he pulled it even closer to his chest. He looked back to the benches and observed the wide-eyed and twitching congregants, who now, more than anything, looked like wild animals. He shook his head, straightened, and stepped forward. But instead of a dignified stride up the center aisle, a series of choppy steps carried him to the linen-covered altar at the front of the chapel. After taking far too long to take his position at the head of the altar, he finally raised his head and faced his desperate congregation. By the look in their faces, it wasn’t clear who was more frightened—them or him.  

       The pastor swallowed and shakily rose to his full height. With trembling hands, he held out his bag and slowly turned it upside-down above the altar. Something tumbled out and landed on the padded surface with a soft thud. His cheeks burned beneath his beard where, providentially, the congregation could not see them. He looked expectantly out onto the small crowd, but saw only averted eyes, hands raised to mouths, and wrinkled brows.

          A soft chirping pulled his attention back to the altar. The brown- and blue-speckled bird looked like it was floating in a cream-colored sky as it lay on the linen before him. Its orange feet were tied together with a thin string, and its wings were bound by the thick strip of pale cloth he had torn from his own bedsheets. The bird swiveled its tiny head and looked up at him with dark, innocent eyes. When the pastor saw himself reflected in them, he blanched.

          He quickly closed his eyes and bowed his head in thought, while his lips moved wordlessly. After several painfully long moments, his head snapped up and he opened a pair of steely eyes. The pastor raised his long arms to the sky and in a wavering voice, he said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.”

      The bird twitched on the altar, and the pastor’s eyes dropped downward for just a moment. His mouth went suddenly dry as he watched the bird’s wings tug helplessly at the cloth that kept it earthbound. He continued quickly in a hoarse whisper, “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.”

         The pastor let out a long, trembling sigh and tears ran down his ruddy cheeks. With shaking hands, he scooped up the bird. It began chirping wildly and struggled to escape, but the strip of pale cloth restraining its wings stayed firmly in place. He held the bird in front of him with his arms extended and pinched his eyes closed tightly. He took a deep breath and held it until his lungs refused to hold it any longer, then let it out slowly.

          “Forgive me,” he whispered.

          There was a sharp cracking noise, and the chirping stopped.

         The pastor laid his burden gently upon the altar and opened his eyes, but could barely see anything over the tears that hung there. He blinked, and they rolled down cheeks where they quickly disappeared into his thick beard. His eyes went immediately beyond the congregation and to the corner of the chapel, near the door. The fog that had begun creeping into the church rose higher, thickening into something vaguely shaped like a head. Somewhere in the midst of the shifting fog, two red lights flickered to life and gazed back at him.