Tim Callaghan sat astride his horse, bewildered, in front of the narrow stone arch. Beside him an older man, a priest, sat and pondered, unmoving. The tall iron gate that kept the town secure stood open and creaked idly in the wind. “Father,” said Tim. “Somethin’ seems different.”
Father Paul knew something was different. The air was empty—empty of the songs and laughter of children, empty of the calls of busy mothers, of the chapel bell ringing the evening Angelus. The little town of Horeb had always been alive. Now it lay dead and silent as the deeper blues of evening bled down and crowded the setting sun. He had heard that there had been hardship here. But he hadn’t dreamed of this.
“They’re gone,” he said. His little parish was gone, his flock. “But why?” He had only been away for four months, called to a struggling missions parish at the request of his bishop. The priest sent in to take his place, he was assured, was an excellent priest, young perhaps, but wise and virtuous, as any priest ought to be. And besides, the arrangement was only for a few months.
He led his horse through the gate, Tim following close behind.
“Father, I…” There was something in the young seminarian’s voice, an uneasiness that was quite recognizable, Father having heard it for many years in the confessional. “I think I know what happened.”
Father Paul kept his horse moving, following the large circle that the buildings made, peering in through windows and open doors for any sign of life. Late autumn leaves crunched under the horses’ hooves, muffling the sharp clack of hoof on stone.
“By all means, Timothy, tell me.”
“Well…” There was that reluctance again. “The new priest was a fine man and all. I mean, not as fine as you, but…” Tim trailed off, embarrassed. “Well, anyway. He came here.” They passed an alley, scaring a stray cat into the gathering shadows. “Everyone seemed to like him well enough. He preached well. I kept servin’ the Mass. We chatted a couple o’ times. Nothin’ too deep. At any rate, I kept pullin’ the flowers out o’ the fountain, like you an’ me have always done. I laid ’em up –once they dried, o’ course– around the feet of the Virgin in the chapel, just like you showed me. That was for the first month or so after you left. Then I got this feeling growin’ in me, that I ought to go to the seminary, that I wanted to become a priest. I hadn’t ever thought about marriage, really. So I thought about it an’ prayed for a while, and then one day, I left. I felt it was the right time.”
He fell silent quite abruptly. Father Paul gently halted his horse in front of the chapel, catching a glimpse of its stained glass image of St. John the Baptist resplendent in the rays of the dying sun. He turned to look at Tim. They had almost made a complete circuit, but Tim was staring sadly at the large fountain in the very center of the circle.
“I knew it.” said Tim. He slid down from his horse and tied it up to the post in front of the chapel. Father Paul did the same and followed the young man. Tim knelt at the white stone fountain, a triangular pond with a little pearl-hued statue of the Madonna and Child in its center. As Father Paul came nearer, he realized that the water’s tinkling music was missing, and so was the large reservoir that usually gathered in the fountain’s recess. Its covered aqueducts that ran under the streets like insect’s legs echoed hollowly when he stepped on them. Peering into the fountain, he saw moldering mounds of dark, twiggy material heaped within.
“I didn’t tell him.” Tim, elbows propped on the edge of the fountain, hid his face in his hands. “It’s my fault.”
“The priest was told, Timothy.” Father Paul sat gently on the fountain beside where Tim knelt. “Something as important as the town’s only source of water would not have been left for you alone to take care of.” He swung his legs around so that he was seated with his feet in the fountain’s bottom. He dug his fingers into the muck gathered there and pulled. It was stubborn. He yanked again.
“I should have told him again, should have reminded him–”
“Regardless of whether or not you had told him, his compliance was not guaranteed. Cleaning the fountain was not your duty. It was his.” The mess finally came free in Father’s hands, sending him rocking back. He caught himself and flung it on the ground beside the fountain. Tim leapt up and clambered into the fountain to help. The two men yanked on the debris in silence for a moment until Father Paul was forced to rest, sweat rolling in great drops off of his face.
“Where did all o’ this come from?” said Tim between grunts. “This can’t all be flowers.”
Father Paul, panting, pointed behind him to a handful of tall trees that encircled the fountain.
“Those trees…when they shed their leaves in fall, they make quite a mess. It was my grandfather’s job to clean this fountain. He taught me that fall is the season of greatest vigilance. The dead leaves come down in such great abundance that often he, my father and I would have to come clean it twice in one day.” He paused, regaining his breath. “As you can see, they’ve made a mockery of this mighty fountain. A few dead leaves is all it takes to freeze up the mechanisms.”
“Can it be fixed?” Tim asked.
“Anything can be fixed with the right skill and knowledge,” replied Father Paul. He chuckled. “Unfortunately, I have neither the skill nor the knowledge for this particular task. All I can do is what I’ve been taught to do.” He wiped his brow and began again to dislodge the dead, slimy vegetation. Even with Tim working continuously and Father Paul trying as often as he could, the choking piles seemed endless. The last of the sunlight dwindled dangerously; they finally surrendered as the first few stars peeked through the violet curtain of night.
“Well,” said Tim, examining their handiwork in the dim light, “that’s about all we could have done.”
“That is all we can do for now. Let us kneel and ask the Virgin for her prayers.”
They stepped outside of the fountain, knelt with their Rosaries and offered a few roses to the Madonna. Then in silence they stood and retrieved their mounts from the chapel. Father Paul pulled a lantern from the saddlebag and lit it, and they shrugged on their cloaks.
“We will have to travel a while, but there is a town quite close where we can stay tonight,” said Father Paul. Tim nodded and looked one last time at the fountain. In the light from the lantern he could see their piles of black leaves next to it. They had indeed worked hard; the piles were rather large, looking like little misshapen hills in the dancing light. The light began to move away. Tim stepped back towards his horse, feeling for the reins.
He saw a brief glint of light from the fountain and stopped. The lantern light kept moving away, but Tim peered closely at the fountain, straining to catch that glint again. It had very much resembled the elusive reflection of sunlight on water. As he watched, it happened again. The lantern light dimmed more.
“Are you coming, Timothy?”
Timothy thought he saw the Madonna’s lips turn up ever so slightly into a tender smile.
He laughed to himself, shook off his fancies, and clambered onto his horse.
“Yes, Father.” The men on their horses trotted off into the twilight, Father Paul praying for a miracle, Timothy praying for forgiveness.
Behind them, in Horeb, the fountain sputtered, paused, and gave birth to a bare trickle of pure water, while the Madonna and Child looked on.