Gerri Brightwell ~ A Vaster World

When I was young, bed­time meant shrink­ing beneath the cov­ers in case the Devil found me. My par­ents said you could tell he was there by a sud­den sense of dread, and the smell of excre­ment on the air. The small cru­ci­fix they hung on my bed­post didn’t help—as soon as the lights went out, fear swamped me. I’d recite prayers under my breath, but how could words fend off evil?

The world I was brought up in—the strange, insu­lar world of Catholics in Britain—was full of beliefs and rit­u­als I either only half-believed in or took too much to heart. I was nev­er quite con­vinced by a priest’s abil­i­ty to absolve sins, or a com­mu­nion wafer being trans­formed into the body of Jesus. But the idea of the Devil loom­ing in the dark, or of God know­ing my every thought, my every action and inac­tion and per­haps judg­ing me fit only for hell, they were enough to make my gut ache with fright.

In our world, it was a mor­tal sin not to attend mass on Sundays and holy days. Ash Wednesday was the worst because the priest would smear an ashy cross onto our fore­heads. I’d sur­rep­ti­tious­ly rub mine away. I was self-con­scious, but it wasn’t just that—I was uneasy about being marked out as Catholic when we head­ed back onto the street. God sure­ly count­ed my lack of for­ti­tude against me, but then, how must he have judged the adults who declined the ash alto­geth­er? Who didn’t want to return to work with a smudge on their fore­heads because, my par­ents explained, not every­one liked Catholics?

Back then in the late 1970s, the sense of being a per­se­cut­ed minor­i­ty lin­gered. The num­ber of Catholics in Britain had risen to eight per cent, thanks large­ly to immi­gra­tion. Before that num­bers had been tiny, and no won­der when being Catholic had once been down­right dan­ger­ous. During the reign of Elizabeth I, Catholics were impris­oned, tor­tured, exiled or exe­cut­ed. Allegiance to Rome was met with a dis­trust and hos­til­i­ty that would endure for gen­er­a­tions (not with­out rea­son, giv­en that Catholics plot­ted to assas­si­nate Elizabeth, and lat­er tried to blow up Parliament). The coun­try not only banned Catholic wor­ship, but enact­ed laws bar­ring Catholics from serv­ing in civ­il office, Parliament, or the mil­i­tary, or from buy­ing land. Some laws stayed on the books well into the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry: until 2013, those in line for the throne lost their place if they mar­ried a Catholic, and even now no monarch can be Catholic. Catholics couldn’t serve as prime min­is­ter, and none did until Boris Johnson—Tony Blair hedged his bets by attend­ing Catholic mass dur­ing his time in 10 Downing Street, but not con­vert­ing until he’d left office.

In my child­hood com­mu­ni­ty of Catholic church, Catholic schools, and Catholic friends, we nur­tured a feel­ing of griev­ance for our per­se­cut­ed ances­tors. In truth, though, many of our fam­i­lies were orig­i­nal­ly from Ireland, France, Italy, or Poland. I had one English grand­par­ent, and when we stud­ied the Elizabethan age at school, I imag­ined his fore­bears risk­ing every­thing to attend mass in secret. It nev­er occurred to me that they’d been Church of England, and that my grand­fa­ther had con­vert­ed when he mar­ried my Irish grand­moth­er. Finding out left me awash in disappointment.

It wasn’t just a sense of injus­tice that bound us Catholics togeth­er. There was the belief in a par­tic­u­lar sort of mag­ic: the infal­li­bil­i­ty of the pope, the halfway house of pur­ga­to­ry for mod­er­ate­ly sin­ful souls, the road straight to hell if you died hav­ing missed mass with­out con­fess­ing. There was a won­drous­ness to it all, but now decades lat­er I ask myself, who teach­es chil­dren such things? Who tells them about eter­nal damna­tion, or that the Devil might be lurk­ing in their bedroom?

One sum­mer night when I was in my teens, I stood in our gar­den and stared up into the dark­ness. I called out, “If you’re there, God, give me a sign.” One breath lat­er, the first shoot­ing star I’d ever seen flared across the sky. I was aston­ished, then bemused. God didn’t pro­vide proof of his existence—I’d heard that often enough. What was this, then? Coincidence and noth­ing more, I decid­ed. A chance to let go. I lin­gered before head­ing back inside. High above me the sky was glim­mer­ing with the light of ancient stars, and the world felt vaster, less cer­tain, and far more mag­nif­i­cent than it ever had.


Gerri Brightwell is a British writer who lives in Alaska. Her lat­est nov­el, Turnback Ridge, was pub­lished by Torrey House Press in 2022. She is also the author of the nov­els Dead of Winter (Salt, 2016), The Dark Lantern (Crown, 2008), and Cold Country (Duckworth, 2003). Her short work has appeared in many venues includ­ing The Best American Mystery Stories 2017Alaska Quarterly ReviewCopper NickelRedivider, and BBC Radio 4’s Opening Lines. She teach­es in the cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.