Black sky. Black earth. Black sea. Marcus found himself again in the same dream, but this time, not in the same way. He was lying on the sand, gazing at the sky with the blankness that was comparable to the barren place. Emptiness filled his mind. And yes, he had been like this for what seemed like hours until a wave of water came rushing towards him and when it touched his bare feet, this somehow pulled him out of the void state.
His thoughts and emotions ran wild then, as if it was freed from being imprisoned, and with this, confusion immediately clouded his mind. His lips tensed and his brows furrowed as he contemplated all of the recent events.
He was confused because ever since he had exorcised the demon in André’s body, this dream came into full swing. How? Why? Was it possible that this was the work of the demon? Most likely not for he was sure he exorcised the damn entity into oblivion. Very sure of it.
Confused because although he was aware that he was in a dream, his senses felt so real. He could feel the coolness of the water touching his bare feet, legs, arms and torso. He could feel the warm breeze in his nostrils. And most especially, he could feel the shooting pain in his charred right hand, radiating upwards into his shoulder and chest, specifically into the heart region. He couldn’t pinpoint exactly what but there was something about being in this place that was downright different.
And lastly, confused because amidst feeling this, he felt a different sense of safety entirely. Like in one side of his body, he felt the animosity of the place, and on the other, he felt secure...brought up in heaven’s gate. Marcus couldn’t explain it, but it made him feel calm — quite a welcoming feeling in this kind of environment.
It had been two days past since the exorcism incident. The staff of the Rogratiatto Household was busy, especially the ones assigned in both André and Father Marcus’ rooms. New linens were brought in every day; towels and bed covers in particular. Why? Because the two men had been in a feverish state, with temperature as high as 40 degrees Celsius, and that aside from injectable paracetamol to lower it down, sponge bathing was required by the house doctor to assist with the treatment. It had produced a successful effect so far, well...on André’s case that is on the third day.
In the midst of the activities, one woman had been busier than the others. Ysabelle had took it upon herself to take care of the two unconscious men, visiting them in intervals to make sure that they receive proper treatment. Both rooms were of different hallways, but good thing it was on the same floor. Although she was no nurse or doctor, her wide experiences were enough to be called a seasoned caregiver. And aside from that, her guilt was still nagging at her. It wasn’t giving her any proper sleep the whole two days, most especially when the exorcist priest’s burning eyes pop right out of her mind. With André now in stable condition and with the defervescence of his fever, she could focus more on Marcus who was still showing no signs of waking up.
After choosing a simple long-sleeved sundress and donning her hair down, she left her room intent on visiting the priest’s chamber just below hers. When she arrived there, Father Julien had just come out of the room with a cellphone in hand.
“I need to take this call, Ms. Ysabelle. Can you keep an eye on Father Marcus for a while?” he asked, noticing her presence in the hallway.
“Ah...ye—yes, of course, Father, ” although taken aback, she gave him an answer. So easy of him to leave her alone with his colleague.
During the whole two days of taking care of Marcus, Father Julien had been together with her, either assisting with her and the staff treatments or just staying inside the room praying. She had been formal in her actions during those times, keeping as little to no glances with Father Marcus’ state of undress. She had been successful with it so far and that was because of Father Julien’s presence, but now that they would be alone together, it immediately made her nervous, and that feeling tripled then the moment she opened the chamber door.
The room was quiet, lit with the soft morning sun entering through the glass window. It had a smell of jasmine and mint, probably because of the newly laundered linens stacked in a corner of the bedside table. She gets the same atmosphere like these whenever she comes in every morning in Marcus’ room, but somehow, she felt this third morning was different. The air was a bit heavier than usual even though the windows were open, and she had wondered if Father Julien had come to notice it too.
Sitting down in her usual stool, she fought to keep her eyes averted once again so as not to ogle on the priest. She kept herself looking at his sleeping face, which by now was a bit more serene than the previous days. Checking on Marcus’ temperature with the back of her hand, she found that his fever had finally eased down. It relieved her, but when her attention was caught with the sight of the bandaged right hand, her breath hitched.
A trail of what looked like a vine in black ink sneaked its way up into Marcus’ right shoulder and crossing down to his chest towards the heart region. It was odd — so odd — that she had just noticed it today. It gave her the chills looking at the tattoo, especially when she realized it had the same appearance as that of her cousin when he was still possessed. Aside from being a bit faded and located in André’s back, every detail of the marking was the same; the tendrils, the vines, and the shades of fire.
Staring at it thoroughly, she felt a sudden urge to touch the markings right then and there. Without further thought, she lifted her hand and traced his arm lightly. The tattoo seemed raised when she touched it, but it wasn’t that fact that made her surprised though, it was the feeling when her fingertips contacted the black ink. She fell in a daze; her eyes blurry and her head lightheaded. More like the preliminary sensation when one is due to die because of blood loss.
“What is...this...feeling?” she asked, momentarily spellbound. She was paying too much attention with the sensation that she didn’t even notice Marcus’ left arm move.
Marcus had been in and out of consciousness and for as long as he could remember during those times, he had found that a woman was taking care of him with the gentleness that he could describe as calming, exactly like he was in heaven’s gate.
This gentleness is the same one he felt now when he opened his eyes. It surprised him yes, for he had never expected that the woman would be Ysabelle Rogratiatto.
But she seemed to be paying attention with tracing her fingers on his right arm. Why? he asked then.
Her more-than-necessary touching was unbearable that he needed to stop it, and fast, so with his other hand, he captured her wrist swiftly and this made Ysabelle gasp in response. Their eyes connected and with that, a flurry of emotions brought their hearts beating in disarray.
“What are you doing?” said Marcus in a raspy, stern voice, quickly commanding his heart to beat in rhythm. He pulled her closer towards him, making her lean considerably in her stool. As a consequence of this inches-away position, they felt each other’s warm breath.
“Fa—Father?” she whispered, wide eyed looking down at him, “Father Marcus!”
“Ysabelle...what are you doing? he asked again, mentioning her name in a breathy fashion. He awarded her with cold eyes, but ones that were enshrouded with confused emotions. This made her feel like he was searching for sins in her soul.
“I was...I was just...looking at...your...tattoo, ” she replied with breaths hitching with every word.
Why does he have this certain effect on her?
Shaking herself from her shock, she wrenched her wrist free from his hold and stood up. Marcus didn’t miss her face blushing in clear reds then.
“Tattoo?” Marcus parroted, brows knitting together in confusion. “I don’t have a tattoo Ysabelle.”
“You do!” she replied quickly, “Although...I don’t know if that is a tattoo. Look at your right arm!”
And Marcus did so, lifting this particular body part for him to examine...for a long minute.
“You are hallucinating maybe? I don’t see any markings on my arm, ” he said with ease, but it was not after a slight twinge in his lips escaped.
“What?!” Ysabelle let out. She blinked thrice to clear her vision and gazed on the markings once again. “But there it is, see?!” she stated, pointing to the black ink. As if it wasn’t enough, she walked closer to him and hastily grabbed his arm, palming his skin with her other hand so as to prove her point. But another point was known when she did it. Her face blushed even more when she realized her mistake. She released his arm in a hasty fashion and backed up towards the wall. Marcus, although surprised to have been casually touched by a woman, couldn’t help but smirk. This caught Ysabelle dumbstruck. Priests weren’t suppose to smirk right? But he did!
“I’m...I’m sorry Father. I didn’t mean to—, ” she quickly announced but was interrupted by him.
“It’s fine, ” he said, taking a deep breath whilst sitting up. For a moment there, Ysabelle thought that he was totally naked with only the bed sheet covering his lower body. She would have darted out of the room if it was so, but glad that he was wearing a black trouser.
“By the way, thank you for taking care of me. I appreciate your time and effort, ” Marcus stated after he drew himself at the edge of the bed.
“Oh, it’s nothing...” she replied, suddenly feeling butterflies in her stomach. Examining his overall presence, she found him looking good. In fact, more than good. He looked like he wasn’t even ill at all. He took no effort when he pulled himself up from lying and he didn’t even exert himself when he sat down at the edge of the bed. “Oh! Are you feeling—”
“Better now?” Marcus finished, and this made Ysabelle nod consequently. He smiled then and stated, “Yes, I am. Very.”
He wasn’t an impatient man. For the most part, priests including exorcist priests are supposed to be a man with considerable patience, but for some reason, there was a pulling force inside him that meant time was of the essence.
“You are?” Ysabelle asked in disbelief. Odd of him to recuperate that quickly.
“Yes, now, I need to prepare myself. I need to see your cousin right away, ” said Marcus, once he stood up.
Ysabelle took a step back to open up a wider space between them, her hands trembling. Why? Because this God-like of a man with priestly aura seemed too casual to show his thick slabs in front of a virginal woman. And...he was towering her alright. She never expected that a mere 4 inches of difference in their heights could lead to her feeling intimidated.
She never felt intimidated before...not once...not ever in her lifetime. So why did she? To him?
“Why?” was her immediate question. She did want to know the answer to her own question, but the latter issue about him needing to talk to André warranted an explanation too.
“I need to talk to him, Ysabelle. I need to discuss some...matters, ” he answered rather vaguely. “He is awake now, I presume?”
Ysabelle, after remembering André’s condition, nodded. “Yes, he...he had finally woken up yesterday night, ” she replied. “The doctor says he is in stable condition, but he still needs to rest in bed.”
“Ah, good, ” Marcus remarked. He walked past her and into a table with a pitcher of water. When he poured the clear liquid into a glass, he heard her call again.
“Father?” she spoke.
“Yes?” Marcus replied but didn’t look at her way.
“Are you really sure you are okay?”
“I mean, your hand...” she mentioned, looking down at the bandaged part.
For a moment, she thought he was going to say it’s fine, but without expecting it, he turned around to face her and pulled out the bandage, dropping the thin linen on the floor. Lifting his hand for her to see, he then stated, “It is fine now, see?”
The sight made Ysabelle turn red with embarrassment at first and then blue with bewilderment. How could? How could his charred hand heal that fast?
“Like I said, this is just a momentary setback in the exorcism. You don’t need to concern yourself with it at all, ” he reassured, then turned back his attention on the table and drank his glass of water.
“That’s...a relief to hear, ” said she, smiling softly but still with a residue of disbelief.
As if on cue, the main door opened and in came Father Julien.
“Ah! Father Marcus! You’re awake!” he exclaimed, smiling towards his way.
“Good morning Father Julien, ” Marcus greeted with a nod.
“Good to have you back Father, ” was his colleague’s reply, relief clear in his voice.
Ysabelle watched as they exchanged casual glances. It perplexed her even more when she saw Father Julien acting as if it was a common occurrence for him to see the exorcist priest in sudden good health.
“Where are my clothes?” Marcus asked straight away.
“Hmm, that. I believe it is placed in a hanger, in the change room Father, ” he replied, looking at an entrance into another room which Ysabelle thought is the change room.
“I see, ” Marcus voiced. After drinking the last of the liquid, he turned to Ysabelle and gave her a wry smile. “Would you excuse me for a moment Ms. Ysabelle?” he said.
It didn’t take her too long. She knew exactly what privacy he meant. She nodded quickly and said, “Oh, of course Father. Anyway, I need to go. It is good to see you well.”
Leaving a smile on Father Julien’s way, in haste she opened the main door and out she went. In the hallway, she placed a hand on her chest as if she was clutching her heart. Just that moment...just that simple word alone, it made her heartbeat jet out of control. Maybe it was trivial a word for others, maybe it was insignificant for all, but then the difference between Marcus calling her name in raw form and putting a respectable Miss before it meant a borderline of emotions exploding.
To Marcus, her exit was a solution for his disquieted heart. She didn’t even realize what effect she had on him when he found her in his room alone, all the more touching his arm. Her leaving could give him the chance to evaluate his emotions more. Truth be told, he wasn’t supposed to feel any attachable emotions for any person, most especially a woman. He wasn’t supposed to even show it. He was a priest for crying out loud. But why now that after André’s exorcism rite, he had been too much of a jumbled mess?