J. Lee Strickland is a freelance writer living in upstate New York. In addition to fiction and poetry, he has written on the subjects of rural living, modern homesteading and voluntary simplicity for various publications. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sixfold, Latchkey Tales, Atticus Review, Icarus Down Review, Garlic Press, Countryside, Small Farm Journal, and others. He is a member of the Mohawk Valley Writers' Group and The Hudson Valley Writers Guild, and served as a judge for the 2015 storySouth Million Writers Award. He is at work on a collection of connected short stories vaguely similar in format to the long-defunct American television series, 'Naked City,' but without the salacious title.
SACRAMENT by J. Lee Strickland
“Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.”
“In peace let us pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
For Father Joseph the ritual wore the polish of countless repetitions, yet sometimes, as today, it could feel fresh and new.
“For the peace of God and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
“For the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
He looked out over the congregation. They, like he, were old hands at this. He judged their engagement and commitment week by week by this participatory act. Sometimes the enthusiasm of one or two would infect the others, and the muddy murmur would rise to a crisp bark. He liked that, and his own call gained passion from it. His voice would deepen and his words, no longer slips of sound from the top of his throat, would rise like blossoms from within his chest, gathering deeper meanings as they rose, gaining in the rare instance, he thought, the true power of the Word.
In the response today he didn't hear the infectious enthusiasm that would draw others to its pole. It was another sound, a feminine voice, that commanded his attention. He had heard that voice the week before, and now, as then, his eyes scanned the congregation for its source. He found her toward the back, near the south wall, separate from the other congregants. A woman with her daughter, bathed in light from the tall stained-glass windows, they were new faces in a neighborhood where novelty was a rarity.
There was a time when Joseph had seen himself being sent to a backwater town in the midst of the godforsaken flatlands as a form of punishment; punishment for nothing more than a lack of the exceptional qualities that make for greatness. But he had come to see that ‘backwater’ was an imperial and dismissive concept; a place not in my mainstream. This place had its own stream and it ran strong and true. The flatlands were not godforsaken. Their very flatness likely was God's gift to the place, their seeming boundless fertility, the people’s source of wealth and well-being. A rich loam of honest self-reliance ran deeper even than the layer of pungent black soil that capped the land. It resonated with what some might have perceived in Joseph as a lack of ambition, but which he now recognized as inner contentment. In short, he now lived willingly in this undeclared exile. Even the petty bigotries of the few fell short of offensive. They were the necessary blemish on a beautiful face that makes it truly human. His was a flock of real people, willing lambs to his ministrations sometimes, stubborn goats at others, especially in the realm of charity and forgiveness.
"You can call me Joe," he had said from the very beginning, wanting closeness and familiarity, but they clung to ‘Father Joseph’ and it was a lonely while before he realized that they did not distance themselves by that term of respect. In fact, their respect was a special kind of intimacy because it was based on faith. That faith, the unfounded giving over of oneself, was from them, a deep and precious compliment. Even though he understood the great respect these people held for him, Joe still felt the tug, like a stream lapping persistently at a root, the desire for a moment of companionship uncluttered with public roles or expectations. He felt that estrangement as his eyes scanned the congregation.
Joe waited at the door of the church greeting congregants, murmuring pleasantries and grasping hands. When the woman appeared he reached out to touch her on the sleeve. "Hello. I'm Father Joseph." He extended his hand and the woman took it in hers. "I'm pleased to see you back a second time."
"You saw us last week?" She spoke with a pronounced accent Joseph could not place. Mediterranean or Eastern European, he thought.
"A new face stands out here," Joe said.
"We just moved to your city. I was hoping to find…" she paused. "Your church is nice."
"Thank you. May I ask your name?"
I'm sorry, yes. I'm Magda Romanescu. This is my son. He likes to be called Jesse."
Joe suffered a moment of confusion and embarrassment, but as he looked at the boy he thought it was no great error to mistake him for a girl. His features were soft and fine. His eyes were deep brown almost black. His eyelashes were long, and his eyebrows penciled slim arches above them, accenting the smoothness of his brow. His hair fell in lustrous black curls that covered his ears and the nape of his neck. He was beautiful in a way that transcended gender. Joe offered his hand and said, "I'm very pleased to meet you, Jesse. I like to be called Joe."
"I'm pleased to meet you too, Sir," Jesse said shaking Joe's hand.
"How old are you?" Joe asked.
"I'll be fourteen soon." Jesse beamed.
"Jesse might be interested in our Saturday Bible study." Joe addressed the woman. "It's mostly kids from about twelve to sixteen or so. They get together about five o'clock. They have dinner together. They do most of the cooking themselves. The church provides the food. Brandon, my altar boy, comes every week. He's about Jesse's age. Mrs. Amory, our Bible scholar, helps out as chaperone, discussion leader, whatever. It's very informal. If you're interested, call the church during the week. I'm usually in my office."
"Thank you very much. Jesse and I will talk about that." She put her arm around Jesse and pulled him to her affectionately.
"I'm pleased to have met you Mrs. Romanescu. I look forward to seeing you again next week."
"Oh, please. Call me Magda. I know in your country it is first names. I like that. You like to be called Joe? I like that." She turned and waved as they moved away. Then Jesse said, "Bye, Joe."
"Bye, Jesse," Joe replied. He felt strangely elated by their exchange.
Magda didn't call that week, but on Sunday she and Jesse returned for the service. They had moved one row closer but still sat a little apart from the others. That was to be expected. Joe knew his congregation. They did not invite novelty. They tolerated it in its place. They didn't glad-hand the stranger, and one earned a place among them only with great patience. Joe had thought, too, that novelty held no attraction for him, that his contentment lay in routine, yet the appearance of Jesse and Magda was invigorating. He found himself excited by the thought of the Sunday service, and during the service he became aware of each step of ritual as he tried to imagine what they heard and what they saw.
Joe was in his office struggling to refine a difficult part in his sermon when the phone rang.
A woman's voice said, "Hello, Joe?"
Joe was taken aback. No one called him that. After a moment he realized it must be Magda. "This is Joe. Is that you, Magda?"
"Yes. It is Magda. I am sorry to bother you. Jesse will like to come to the Saturday, the Bible study. You know he likes the Bible very much."
"Oh, that's great, Magda. Why don't you tell him to come to my office about five o'clock on Saturday. I’ll take him around and introduce him to the others. I'm sure he’ll enjoy himself. It's a great group of kids."
"I will tell him. Thank you very much, Joe. I think this will be very good for Jesse. He likes you very much, you know."
"Well, I like him too," Joe replied. "I look forward to seeing him on Saturday."
Jesse arrived promptly at the office and Joe walked him over to the community room where the others had already gathered. After brief introductions, Joe returned to his office. He was still struggling with his sermon, one which, when he first conceived it, seemed a simple one. The topic had started as idolatry and consumerism. Joe had thought to point out that the current social addiction to material things was precisely the impediment to salvation that Jesus spoke of in the parable of the eye of the needle. Instead his sermon had come out sounding like an attack on the members of the congregation.
By and large they were well-off. Many had large, beautiful homes, and they enjoyed the amenities of modern society. But they were hard-working honest folk. By their standards at least, they had earned their comfort. The culture of consumerism was certainly a form of idolatry, and it blocked the path to God, but the victims of consumerism were not the enemy. His task was not to punish or condemn, but to lead them beyond that. That was the point, wasn’t it? The Kingdom of God lies beyond the Earth. That was the real subject. But how could he communicate to them what he knew in his heart? That all that they saw and all that they knew and felt, that all that is now in the world and ever has been, was less than a dust mote against the splendor of the Kingdom of Heaven; less even than that, it all was meaningless. In the grip of that ultimate glory it would be forgotten more quickly than one forgets the face behind the ticket booth window or last week's back page news story. The things of this world were useless there, as useless as a shopping list in an earthquake. Earthly things were just that, their compass no greater than the dirt from which they rose. They served for that brief eye blink called a life, then were shed as easily as the reptile sheds its skin.
Tears filled Joe’s eyes as he felt the poignancy of that loss that everyone must experience once; a loss that would someday be his; the loss of everything earthly to gain eternal bliss. It was difficult from the mortal side to see that there was no loss. In his heart he knew it was so, but his mind rebelled. With a tightly clenched fist it gripped the pleasures of the senses and feared their loss. His parishioners, too, clung to their stuff, to their objects, to their appetites. He could see it in their faces when he spoke of charity and sacrifice. He was, in part, the source of their awe when he spoke powerfully of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
And that sacrifice, that was another story, too. His mind raced. Wasn’t Jesus God himself? And what was death on the cross to omniscient, omnipotent God? Less, certainly, in the infinitude of His being, than a pin-prick to some mortal. And yet Joe’s parishioners reveled in the horror of Jesus’ last day. His blood spilled was their own; his scourging brought to them the fear of their own terrible punishment. His innocence was theirs and the suffering more terrible for that. Each of them realized that even the greatest goodness could not shield them from horrible suffering. In their minds they knew Jesus was God. In their hearts he was a man, wounded, beaten, scorned, humiliated and killed, yet somehow carried beyond that to something better. This was the story they clung to. Not some grandiose scheme of everlasting life, but just a respite, a promise beyond nothingness. Joe’s head ached with the circularity of it. His mission was to bring them to God. Their demand, the job they really paid him for, was to carry them, one by one, over the hill of their fears, over the mountain of their suffering.
A knock on the office door interrupted Joe’s musings. “Come in,” he called. It was Ms. Amory with Jesse. “Is there a problem? Is something wrong?” Joe suddenly felt anxious.
“No, no, not a problem, not at all.” Linda Amory was a small woman whose self-confidence enlarged her stature. She was young and related well to the youth in her group, never spoiling the connection with any authoritarian bent. Now it seemed, she needed help. “Jesse has a question for you, one I thought you could answer better than I. Go ahead, Jesse. Ask Father Joseph what you asked me.”
Jesse hesitated a moment before speaking. “I just want to know, if Satan is God’s enemy, why does he help God?”
“Satan helps God?” This was not a question Joe had heard before. “How does Satan help God?”
“Well,” Jesse said, “he gives God a place to send sinners and he keeps them there and punishes them just like God wants.”
“Satan doesn’t do that to help God, Jesse.” He looked into the child’s face, touched by the innocence, the expectation, the remarkable beauty that he saw. It made him hesitate, the realization that this child was prepared to believe whatever he said. It was not surrender in those eyes but a faith that came very near to it. “Have you ever seen Old Pete around the neighborhood?”
Jesse nodded. “He talks to everybody. Momma told me not to talk to him ever.”
“Well, Pete, you see, has an addiction. He’s an alcoholic. He can never get enough of the whiskey. Satan is like that in a way. He lusts for human souls. He never gets enough and he won’t let them loose once he gets them.”
Jesse’s eyebrows pulled together in concentration. “Mom said the bartender at Tony’s Tavern shouldn’t let Old Pete in there; that it’s his fault that Old Pete sleeps on the sidewalk and always bothers people. Is God like Satan’s bartender?”
“Maybe that wasn’t such a good example. The Bible says a lot about what it takes to achieve salvation, and a lot about why some people are condemned. People really decide for themselves, by how they live, whether they’re going to heaven or to hell. God instructs us to do good works. We need to follow that instruction. You see, Jesse, it’s not what Satan’s doing that matters. We have to live our lives, not in fear of Satan, but for love of God. Does that make sense to you?”
Jesse nodded. His face was grave. His look did not waver from Joe’s face.
Joe came from behind his desk. He placed his hand behind Jesse’s head. He was surprised by the softness as his fingers tangled in Jesse’s hair. “I want you to know, my door is always open. If you have questions or just want to talk, I’m here.”
“Thanks, Joe,” Jesse said quietly. A look of surprise crossed Linda’s face, but she said nothing.
After they left, Joe felt shaken. Was he really so unprepared to answer the questions of a child? Wasn’t it his scholarship that qualified him to lead people out of the maze of these popular misconceptions? Yet, the question had come from Jesse. He had reasoned to the point on his own, and Joe felt somehow Jesse had uncovered something Joe had never seen before.
He pushed his thoughts aside and returned to the frustrations of his sermon.
Jesse came back regularly. On Saturdays he would come early before the Bible study-group meetings. One or two days during the week he would stop on his way home from school. Sometimes he asked questions. Often he answered Joe’s and in that way Joe learned a little of their former lives, of their time in Romania, of the death of Jesse’s father during the overthrow of the dictatorship. When they arrived in the United States, they had lived in Boston until Magda’s desire to find a haven away from the chaos of the metropolis led them to move again.
“We like it here,” Jesse had said once, “but Mama’s a little afraid of the flatlands. They’re so different from the mountains of her country.” Hearing that, Joe was struck with how quickly the child embraced the new and how easily he separated himself from Magda.
The compass of Joe’s life began to revolve around those visits. It was as if light flowed through a window he had never noticed. He became interested in things that before he had shunned. Where once he kept to his office, his private sanctuary, now he took to walking about the neighborhood. He discovered a park, several acres of green space a short walk from the rectory. It was beautifully kept, and when he penetrated to its interior it was possible to forget that he was surrounded by a sea of pavement, bricks and mortar. Even the otherwise ubiquitous brown noise of urban bustle, noise he had learned to ignore in his office, did not reach here. A few people strolled the tree-lined paths. Squirrels scurried through the grass, and birds sang from their perches in the trees. Joe found a bench and sat.
A voice, just above a whisper, called him.
Startled, he looked around. No one looked familiar. The few people walking by ignored him. The voice came again.
“Joe. Don’t look back too quickly. I’m right behind you, in the bushes.” It was Jesse’s voice drawn to a horse whisper. “If you stand up and turn around, you’ll see where I am.”
Joe stood slowly, casually, feeling partner to some indecipherable intrigue. He turned and saw a palisade of dense vegetation a few feet beyond the bench. There was no sign of Jesse.
“Don’t say anything,” Jesse’s voice instructed. “Just go around to the left, away from the path. There’s an opening, like a big rabbit hole. I’m inside.”
Joe tried for nonchalance, skirted the wall of vegetation. It curved around until, out of sight of the gravel path, he found the opening. Feeling foolish, he gingerly stooped, trying not to kneel in the dirt as he entered the hole. It was too low and branches grabbed at his clothes and hair. He dropped to his hands and knees and squirmed through. Inside the packed dirt floor was devoid of vegetation. At intervals, branchless trunks rose like pillars in a miniature cathedral, and Joe’s eye imposed upon them the symmetries of nave and choir. The impenetrable ceiling of intertwining branches and leaves was too low for standing, and Joe relaxed onto his haunches looking about with fascination.
Jesse beamed at him from the cool darkness at the far end of the space as Joe crawled toward him. It felt strange pressing his hands against the earth. He could not remember ever doing such a thing. He felt the fabric of his pants rubbing his knees and, through it, the unfamiliar texture of the ground. He thought of his housekeeper, imagined her puzzling over his dirty clothes. I’ll tell her I was playing in the dirt, he thought, smiling to himself. He was still smiling when he reached Jesse. He rolled over and rested his back against a trunk. He was about to speak when two of Jesse’s fingers pressed on his lips.
“You need to speak quietly,” Jesse said. “People can hear us if they listen.” As he spoke, Jesse’s fingers remained against Joe’s lips. Joe thought he could taste them… a hint of salt… perhaps the dirt from the ground of their sanctuary. He felt their weight tugging at his lower lip, the palm brushing his chin. Then the hand withdrew.
“What is this place?” he whispered.
“It’s my fort… my hideout.”
“But…” Joe looked about him gesturing. Jesse interrupted.
“I know. It’s really cool. It never gets wet in here and nothing grows underneath. We learned in school about how plants are sometimes shaped because of their water needs. You know how cactuses are fat because they have to store a lot of water?”
“Did you ever notice how some ferns grow so they look like funnels?”
Joe nodded again. He hadn’t remarked it, but in his mind’s eye he could picture what Jesse described.
“They funnel the water to the center of their root-mass when it rains. Well, other plants are shaped like domes so that the water runs off them like an umbrella. This puts the water out at the ends of the roots where the youngest parts, the tiny root hairs, can take it up. This shrub is like that. All these trunks are part of a single root system. As the plant grows, the lower branches get shaded by the new top growth. Once they stop getting sunlight they stop producing leaves so the middle gets hollowed out. It makes a great shelter.” Jesse rolled over on his stomach, chin on his hands. “I can lie here looking out and nobody knows I’m here.”
Joe settled next to him and peered out at the passers-by.
Finally Jesse broke the silence. “Do you think this is how God feels when he looks down at us from heaven?”
Jesse looked at Joe from the depths of his favorite chair. Like most of the furniture in Joe’s office, it was a luxurious, over-stuffed relic from another era surviving in near-pristine condition because it had been so rarely used. It was tucked into a corner between two bookshelves, and Jesse would sit in it cross-legged with a book on his lap, sometimes for hours.
“Why did God create evil?” Jesse asked.
Joe looked up from his desk. “Why do you ask that?”
“It says in the Bible. In Isaiah.”
“It says something about that… chapter 44?”
“Isaiah 45, verse 7!” Jesse said gleefully. He loved to master the trivia of Biblical reference, and Joe did not discourage it.
“Why do you think God would create evil?” Joe asked carefully.
“Well, I asked Brandon what he thought and he said God created evil so we could have some fun in life. He said all the good stuff is boring, and all the exciting stuff is bad.”
“What did you think of that?”
“I thought it was silly.” Jesse squirmed in his seat then settled down expectantly.
“Well some people think that in that verse when God says ‘evil’ he’s not talking about sin… the fun stuff, as Brandon calls it. They think he means calamities, disasters. You know, earthquakes, hurricanes and the like.” Jesse listened intently. “They think God created those things because it is through difficulties, trials, tribulations, that we become our best. The Latin goes, per aspera ad astra… through adversity to the stars. Other people say that God means he created the category of evil. They say that before God gave the commandments to Moses, before he spoke to the great prophets, Isaiah, Elijah, Ezekiel and the like, people didn’t know the difference between good and evil. In their freedom humans are capable of doing anything. All God can do is advise them of the good things and bad things.” Jesse looked confused.
“Look, if I tell you it’s a bad thing to break your neighbor’s windows and then you go and throw rocks through them, who did a bad thing?”
“If I threw the rocks then I did a bad thing,” Jesse said simply.
“Right,” Joe agreed. “I didn’t do anything bad. All I did was tell you it was bad. You could choose to do it or not. It’s the same way God could create the category of evil and not do anything bad himself.”
Jesse was silent awhile, then said, “What do you think, Joe?”
“What do I think?” Joe looked out the window. He could see, at the end of a branch of the horse chestnut tree, the green prickly fruits, not quite mature. As he watched, a catbird landed on the limb, its long tail pumping as it balanced on its sinking perch. “God is a great mystery, Jesse. The world is what it is. I think we spend our lives trying to imagine the God who made the things we know.”
As soon as Jesse left, Joe called Magda.
“Hi Magda. It’s Joe.” The familiarity still felt strange to his mouth. “Jesse was just by for a visit. I’d like to ask him to become an altar boy, but I want to ask you first.”
“Jesse? An altar boy? But aren’t there others already?”
“Just Brandon. He and Jesse seem to be pretty good friends. I think it would be a good thing. What do you think?”
“Oh, Joe. It is such an honor…” Magda was silent.
“So it’s ok to ask him? He might say no.”
Oh, no Joe, he won’t… I mean, yes, please, ask him.”
Jesse came by every day. He and Joe spent their time in enthusiastic discussions of each piece of the ritual from vestments to relics to the paraphernalia of the sacraments. Brandon, a boisterous and cheery boy, welcomed the companionship and the help. Even he sometimes fell silent and still in the face of Jesse’s intense reverence for the rituals of the altar.
One day Joe came in to find Jesse already in the vestry. This was not unusual except that he was still in his street clothes. Usually he put on his robe as soon as he could. Jesse sat without moving, facing the outer door. Joe sensed that something was wrong.
“Jesse, how’s it going?” he said.
There was no answer, but Jesse turned slowly. There were tears in his eyes.
”What happened?” Joe moved to him. “What’s the matter?”
Jesse opened his mouth and sobbed. Joe put a hand on his shoulder.
“They chased me,” he said shaking. “They called me a girl. They said I wore dresses in church. They threw things. I had to run away.”
Joe pulled the quaking body to his breast.
"I wish I was like Elisha," Jesse said between sharp, labored intakes of breath. "I wish I could curse them and have them mangled by bears."
Joe's fingers tangled in the soft dark curls. His other hand stroked Jesse’s heaving back, feeling the shape of each in-drawn breath. "Oh no, Jesse. They're just ignorant. They don't know. Don't curse them for that."
Joe's heart beat wildly as Jesse’s hot tears soaked his skin and hot, expelled breath washed his neck. Jesse responded to the stroking by clinging more tightly, desperately molding himself to Joe’s form. Joe murmured meaningless syllables, sounds that matched the inchoate whirl of his mind. A vision of Magda, somehow indistinguishable from her son, entered his mind and then was gone. Jesse had calmed some, and Joe shifted so he could see the boy’s face.
“I have an idea,” he said. “How about if Sunday you take over communion from Brandon?” Joe watched Jesse’s face transform from grief to excitement.
“You mean it?”
Everything else was forgotten.
Joe awoke, bathed in sweat, the bedding twisted around his body. He'd had a dream and now he lingered at the dream's edge. He tried to reach back beyond the one fragment that played in his mind. Magda's face approached his and he experienced again the fear and desire that accompanied the anticipation of her kiss, except it was Jesse's hand that stroked his arm. In the dream it was Jesse's hand that slid up his neck drawing his head toward that kiss. How did he know? It was a dream, and you just knew things in dreams. The most unknowable became patent certainty in dreams, but it was a certainty that rarely carried over to the waking world. There were times when Joe had cried for that moment of clarity, the revelation he knew had been there, suddenly and irretrievably lost. Now he reached again, futile reaching. Fear and desire still warred within him, their physical evidence, trembling and arousal. Jesse's and Magda's faces mixed together in his mind, and he fought the temptation to touch himself as he tried to banish them both.
The church seemed unusually full, the atmosphere thick with anticipation. Joe felt its echo deep within himself.
“The Lord be with you.”
“And also with you.”
“Lift up your hearts.”
“We lift them up to the Lord.”
“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”
“It is right to give our thanks and praise.”
Joe turned to face the communion table. Jesse was there, as still as the chalice, his eyes on Joe’s face.
“On the night in which he gave himself up for us, Our Lord Jesus took bread, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said: Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
"Likewise, when the supper was over, he took the cup, gave it to his disciples, and said: Drink from this, all of you, this is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Do this also in remembrance of me."
Joe approached the table, Jesse at his right side.
“Christ has died.”
He made the sign of the cross above the host.
“Christ has risen.”
He made the sign above the chalice as he and the congregation together intoned, “Christ will come again.”
There was conviction in that chorus. Joe felt it. He looked at Jesse, who stared up at him rapt. His face was beautiful, glowing amidst its halo of black curls. Joe felt himself sinking into its softness, like he was perched on the edge of a kaleidoscopic pinwheel. He looked away scanning the congregation for a life line and found Magda, a mirror of the face he had just left. He raised his hands in ritual gesture.
“Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.”
He lowered his hands.
“Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”
He turned to Jesse who held before him the wafer on its porcelain saucer.
“Body of Christ,” Jesse said, his young boy’s voice like a forgotten song.
“Body of Christ,” Joe repeated and closed his eyes. He accepted the wafer on his tongue. He waited for its thin, crisp blandness to dissolve in his mouth.
Something was wrong. It felt as if a finger lay between his tongue and the roof of his mouth. His tongue shifted the lump toward his teeth and an image of a strip of raw chicken flesh swam into his mind. He felt a spasm in his diaphragm, a clenching gut, and he fought the reflex to gag. Tears sprang into his eyes. His throat burned. He looked across the bowed heads of the congregation as he struggled not to vomit. A few heads were raised. A few pairs of eyes looked his way, but they were eyes that saw only what they believed. His private drama played behind the opaque screen of their expectations.
Jesse was on his knees now. “Blood of Christ.” He held up the chalice. Joe forced himself to swallow the foul lump that still blocked his esophagus. He saw that Jesse was crying.
“Blood of Christ,” he croaked taking the chalice. He resisted the temptation to press the goblet to his lips, to wash away the nausea. Instead he raised it above his head in a theatrical gesture he had not employed before. He paused searching for composure. He looked again at Jesse. Jesse's tear-stained face was suffused with joy, his eyes unfocused, gleaming. Whatever vision he contemplated it was not of this world. Joe was suddenly afraid of the goblet in his hands. What would be in it? Yet he had to put it to his lips, had to drink of it. He had to empty it and wipe it clean with the linen that lay on the table. It was the ritual performed countless times; what those who sat before him expected, and what they would see.
His hands shook as he lowered the chalice and brought it to his lips. The liquid oozed into his mouth, viscous, metallic, salty. He suppressed a sob, but even as he did, the familiar oaky bitterness of the sacramental wine began to fill his mouth. He drank gratefully, feeling tears again filling his eyes.
He could not say with clarity how the rest of the service went. Jesse remained kneeling and Brandon gathered up the remnants of routine. Joe moved numbly through the last steps of ceremony, each word, each gesture, a supreme act of will.
After the service Joe made his way to his usual station outside the doors of the church. There was electricity in the air, a strange restlessness and lack of order to the crowd as they exited. An attractive, impeccably dressed woman approached him, her eyes liquid, as if about to spill over her mascara-brushed lashes. She grasped his hand in both of hers. "Father Joseph, what a wonderful service. So..." she pumped his arm convulsively, "I felt..." unable to continue, she began crying freely. She bent and kissed his hand as he tried gently to pull away. He felt fear and nausea knotting his stomach again. He looked around and saw other faces on the brink of that ecstasy, a barely suppressed wildness coursing beneath the surface, so uncharacteristic of his quiet flock.
He went back into the church, and though he felt fingers plucking at his sleeves as he passed, he did not acknowledge them. His one thought was to get to the safety and solitude of his office. Beyond the altar he entered the narrow hall that led through the vestry to his office. Jesse and Brandon were in the vestry. He couldn't face them. Another door, never used in Joe's memory, led into the garden that he could see from his office windows. He pushed on it and it yielded to his touch. He ducked through the opening, not looking back.
He felt guilty for avoiding the boys, guilty for abandoning the people outside the church, guilty for this furtive escape, and guilty for this anxiety that nearly paralyzed him. He looked around in sudden amazement. The garden was beautiful. Cobbled paths wound around manicured beds of flowering plants, taller shrubs and small trees, and there to one side, the enormous horse chestnut tree, the one thing he recognized. How many times had he looked into this garden, never seeing the slightest detail of its beauty? How was it that he had never set foot in this place? And what had happened to bring him here?
He felt again the nauseating texture of the lump in his mouth. So many times he had petitioned the Lord to make of the wine and bread, the body and blood of Christ, never grasping the absurdity of the request. Modern magicians made rabbits and doves, and even fishes, appear, made elephants disappear, unearthed lost relatives of audience members, and surely turned water into wine, all in the name of entertainment, acts that counted as miracles in the foundational text of Christianity. Were people so weak that they needed carnival tricks to compel their belief? How would his congregation feel if they were confronted, as he was today, with some crude demonstration of seeming hidden power?
Vague disgust darkened his mood and shored up his will. He turned back to the door, but it was locked. Some mechanism permitted it to open from inside but prevented entering from the outside. Anxiety boiled up again inside him, and with it, the nausea that had dogged him since the moment with the Host at the altar. He headed for the horse chestnut tree, the one familiar object in the garden. Beyond it he could see what he guessed were the windows of his office, a magic refuge just beyond his grasp.
Near the base of the tree was a small statue of a woman, and before her, a stone slab and low wooden rail. Joe examined the statue, a fanciful evocation of the Virgin Mary. It was exquisitely detailed, hand-painted, almost life-like. Looking at it, he saw again Jesse's face, the tears flowing, not like drops from an eye, but like blood from a wound. The beauty of that face, that was a miracle. He fell to his knees on the stone, clasped his hands before him, collapsing against the rail, and closed his eyes, but there was nothing. He was alone, kneeling on a rock in front of a painted lump of plaster, empty of everything except desire.
The next afternoon Joe called Magda and asked her to meet him for coffee. He had slept little, but he felt lucid, on the verge of some revelation, and at the same time anxious, remembering the events of the day before. When she answered Joe talked quickly. “Magda, it’s Joe. I’d like to see you. I need to talk…”
“Oh, hello, Joe!” The delight in her voice communicated itself across the wires, pressing against Joe’s anxiety. He drew in his breath, willed himself to relax.
“Do you have time to get a cup of coffee? I’d like to talk.”
At the café Magda seemed to Joe like a different person. Her lustrous black hair hung loose about her shoulders, making her look young and accentuating her resemblance to Jesse. She made disarming small-talk as they made their way to a table, moving close to him, matching his step, her arm brushing his, as she recounted the events of her day. They sat and Joe looked across the table at her, drinking her radiance. She laughed and tossed her head.
“You say you want to talk and I do all the talking. Please, Joe, tell me what you are doing.”
“Magda, I want you to know that Jesse,” he hesitated, then started again. “Jesse and you have been a godsend for me.” He stopped and sipped his coffee. “I can’t tell you how much I enjoy Jesse’s company.” He paused again, gathering strength for the next step.”About yesterday…”
“Jesse told me,” she stopped him. “It was the most wonderful moment of his life. To hold in his hand the host… the chalice. The blood of Christ.” Her eyes glistened. Her face radiated joy. It was there in her face, that ecstasy he had seen in the others.
Joe shrank from the force of it. What had he wanted to tell her? What did he think she had seen? He felt alone again as he had at the altar and in the garden. Whatever had happened to him during the service, whatever cruel trick, had happened to him alone, and it had diminished his world. He reached out, a gesture meant to slow Magda’s rush to a place he could not follow, and her hand covered his. He fought the impulse to pull away. Heat passed in a wave up his arm. A vibration coursed through his body bringing each nerve ending to his awareness. He looked at her face and she returned his gaze without wavering. He needed to speak, to break the carnal spell.
“Magda, all my life I have felt that I was working toward something. I didn’t know what, but I thought that eventually I would step back and see that the bricks of my effort had formed a great building, that the chisel of my time had carved out some beautiful statue. In that moment, I thought, everything would become clear.” She listened with intensity and her fingers moved in a slow caress of encouragement on his hand. Joe wondered that no one had ever touched him with that honesty, with that intensity. He willed himself to continue. “It seems things are going in the opposite direction; the bricks are a jumble, the chiseling a pile of dust."
Magda interrupted him. "But, Joe, look what you've done for Jesse. Look what you've done for us."
"Jesse has been my teacher," Joe replied. "Jesse's insight has shown me my ignorance. In his beauty I see my own..." he looked away. "I see my own flaws." Magda had his hand in both of hers now, her look intense, mouth open as if she was about to speak, but Joe continued. "It's not Jesse, or you. It’s as if all my beliefs were just a decorative invention. In retrospect it seems my whole life, all our lives as human beings have been driven by guilt, fear, regret. The whole, great fairy tale of punishment and rewards doesn't make any sense. God doesn't make any sense. Not the one that would run the universe like some carnival side show." Magda’s fingers had stopped their movement. Joe was in dangerous waters.
" I don't know, Magda. God, our God, can't just be God for some people. Maybe there is no damnation. Maybe there is no hell. Maybe God just welcomes everybody into blissful eternity, clutches everyone to his bosom.” He watched Magda’s hands withdraw, as if from a stream of scalding water. Her elbows pressed her sides and her arms crossed tightly against her chest.
“Everybody?” she asked. “Child rapists? Murderers? Hitler?” She was tossing her head with each word. “Ceaucescu, who killed my husband and drove me from my country?”
“Everyone. Everyone. No exceptions.” Joe suddenly felt tired, overwhelmed with his own revelation.
“But… but why?” Magda was pleading now.
“Because this moment… this thing… this time we call a life. It’s absurd. It’s an absurdity. No one’s to blame for that.” He reached to take her hand again, but she pulled away.
“How can you say that? You are supposed to be God’s servant, his hand on earth.”
“Don’t you see?” It was his turn to plead. “It’s what God would want.” Magda was mute, staring at him. Her hands clutched her elbows. Her face was a rigid mask.
“Do you know what hell is?” he asked
She answered bravely, defiantly. “I know what hell is.” She paused and flame leaped in her eyes. “And I know what you are.” She pushed away from the table. “A blasphemer…” She stood. “A blasphemer… Stay away from my Jesse. Stay away from my boy.” She was gone.
Joe sat dazed. What had happened? What had he done? For the first time he’d said what he believed. Not some rote platitudes, but a thing that had grown in the private fertility of his own heart, something that he wanted passionately to be true. And like a club, his honesty had destroyed the one other thing that he wanted.
He wandered the darkening streets aimlessly. He couldn’t return to the rectory. Back-stage at the circus, he thought, and disgust hunched his shoulders. A light rain began to fall, and he found himself at the entrance to the park. He ignored the signs that warned that the park closed at dusk. He passed between the stone pillars. Jesse was his only connection to this place. His hand clenched spasmodically as if it still tried to grasp Magda’s. The rain fell more heavily. He thought of the copse where he had found Jesse, and how Jesse had said it stayed dry inside when it rained. He had no recollection of the place or the day, just the sound of Jesse’s voice, the packed earth floor, the stick-fortress walls, the passers-by oblivious to their presence. The closing canopy of trees deepened the darkness and the gray gravel path seemed to glow in the twilight.
He was deep in the park when he heard voices ahead. He slowed his pace, and the sounds coalesced into fragments of intelligible speech; obscenities, laughter, shouts, interspersed with loud reports, solid blows against hard objects, the rattle of wood against iron fence, the clang of yielding metal and the billiard-ball clack of stone against stone. A cry of pain, more curses and scuffling, and Joe moved from the path. He didn’t want to confront other people; not now. A few feet from the path he came up against impenetrable undergrowth. The approaching voices grew louder and Joseph thought he could see shapes lumbering up the path toward him. He pushed against the unyielding vegetation. His sleeve caught and tore as he struggled. He tried to run, tripped and fell into soft, moist earth, darkness all around, voices no longer decipherable blending with the thumping and stomping. What had Jesse said that day? He strained to remember.
“Go around to your left, away from the path.”
Joe pulled himself up and moved against the wall of vegetation. He felt but could not see it curving away from the path. He fell to his knees, remembering, and there was the opening, like a burrow, into the dry, embracing interior of the copse.
From the deep darkness of his lair the world beyond looked light, and Joseph could see the group of youths draw abreast of his position. Seeming unbothered by the rain, they moved, like a clump of gnats, to some random law with no discernible vector. Some carried long sticks. Others swung their arms and spun their bodies; packets of frenetic, pointless activity. Their speech was a near-incoherent stream of profanities.
“Jesus fuck, asshole. Whatcha fuckin’ hit me witcha stick!”
“I dint fuckin’ hitcha with my fuckin’ stick! You fuckin’ run right into it!”
Bodies spun and hoots muddied any sense of the exchanges. Joe watched the complex dynamics of the swirling group. There were seven or eight or perhaps more, impossible to count. Sticks banged against trees, lamp posts, a bench. Rocks flew into the darkness and landed with a thump. In spite of the unaccustomed rawness of the scene Joe felt a kinship with the group. He felt their dark, untamed power and a last kernel of faith withered in his breast. They were damned. He was damned. The indifferent universe gave back nothing. It sucked up desire and supplication and spit back the void.
The storm of noise drifted away. Lying on the ground, Joe closed his eyes and tried to quiet the pounding of his heart as he attempted to capture the sense of the fading epithets, the muffled thumps. Finally he could hear only the whisper of light rain on the leafy canopy above his head. When he opened his eyes, Jesse was looking down at him. He groaned and turned his head to the side. More carnival tricks, apparitions now. Obviously he was coming unhinged. He turned back, but Jesse was still there.
"Your mother told me to stay away from you. She called me a blasphemer."
Jesse reclined next to Joe, supporting himself with one hand, the other resting on his thigh. The pose reminded Joe of a painting he had seen in a museum, or on the cover of a book, he couldn't quite remember. Jesse pushed a lock of hair away from his face.
"My mother is a woman of great faith. She is a believer. But she also believes she might be wrong. That's why she's afraid. When you know, as you do, Joe, and as I do, then you know there is nothing to fear." He reached out and touched Joe's face. Joe felt the stubble of his unshaved cheek rake against the softness of Jesse's palm, and he thought of the texture of Jesse's hair when his own fingers had tangled in it. He could grow a beard, and perhaps it would be soft and a delight to touch, like Jesse's hair. Jesse's hand withdrew, and Joe wanted to grab it and place it against his cheek, to nuzzle it and kiss it and feel its warmth against his nose, but he did not. Instead he closed his eyes again.
"You should go to my mother, Joe. She loves you, and so do I."
When Joe opened his eyes again Jesse was gone. There had been no sound, but Joe sensed the emptiness, his solitude.
The damp had penetrated to his bones, and now Joe crawled with difficulty out through the rabbit-hole entrance of the copse. The grass beneath his hands was soaked, but the rain had abated to a mist, more fog than rain, that clung to his eyebrows and settled about him like a cloak. The darkness seemed nearly impenetrable, and Joe wondered how long he had lain inside. Was it minutes? Hours? He didn't know. He stood and walked slowly in the thick grass, feeling the moisture soaking the cuffs of his pants, his socks, seeping into his shoes. Each physical sensation was sharp, new, a kind of prod that made him feel awake. Ahead he could make out the dim outline of the bench where once he had sat, and beyond that the gravel path. Above the trees, the mist glowed as it refracted the lights of the city, and tendrils of light seemed to meander through the branches. He was surprised at how quickly he returned to the park's entrance. Twin beacons of light shone beyond the pillars marking the path's intersection with the boulevard.
Across the street from the park was a small market, its facade gaily lit in the wet dimness of the evening. Joe crossed the street and went inside. At the counter just inside the door was a familiar face, one of his parishioners.
"Oh, my God, Father Joseph, what happened to you?" The man came from behind the counter and stopped a few feet from Joe, hands out as if he didn't know what to do next. "Did you get mugged or something? Attacked?"
Joe laughed. "Jonathan, I'm fine. Nothing like that. I was in the park, got caught in the rain."
"At this hour? You're soaked. Your sleeve is torn. Let me get you a towel. Loretta!" He shouted, and a woman appeared from the rear of the store. "Father Joseph is here. I need a towel." Loretta came up the center aisle, stopped when she saw Joe, and disappeared again into the back. She reappeared with an armload of towels. Joe was protesting to Jonathan as she bustled toward the front of the store.
"Please, I'm fine. Just a little damp. Don't go to any trouble." But he accepted a towel and dried his hair and face. He looked down at his muddied knees, at his tattered shirt and said, "I guess I am quite the sight, but, really, I'm fine. But I'm wondering, do you have any bread?"
"Do we have any bread?" Jonathan's look was incredulous. "We have the best bread in the whole city. Your housekeeper buys it here all the time."
Once again Joe was amazed by his own ignorance. He had never thought to ask where the bread, or any other part of his daily fare, came from, nor how. He had never been in the store where Jonathan and Loretta spent their lives. He felt, as he had in the garden, that a new world was unfolding before his eyes, one that had been there all the time, hidden by his own blindness. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize I've never been in your store."
Jonathan laughed and touched Joe's shoulder. "Why would you come here? You have important work to do. Your housekeeper is a wonderful woman. She takes care of those things."
"I'll get you a nice loaf of bread," Loretta said. She took the towel from his hands and knelt before him to brush the mud from his knees. She wiped his shoes. Joe, surprised and embarrassed, could not move.
"Lorretta, please," he said, but she was already gone. Joe looked around the brightly lit store, at all the gaudy items that crowded the shelves. It was difficult to make sense of it. "Do you sell wine, Jonathan?" he asked.
No, Father, the law doesn't allow us to sell wine here, but I have some nice wine for you." Before Joe could object, Jonathan was again shouting to Loretta. "Loretta, get a bottle of wine from the pantry for Father Joseph. The good red." Loretta appeared a moment later with bread and wine.
Joe dug in his pocket for the money that the housekeeper had insisted he carry. "How much...?"
Jonathan cut him off. "These are gifts." Loretta held them out.
"But I want to pay you."
"Father, you can't," Jonathan explained. "If you pay me, then I sell you the wine, which is against the law. A kind of sin, you see?" He smiled and his eyes glistened in the fluorescent light.
Outside, the rain had stopped and the air had cleared. Joe cradled the loaf of bread in his arm like a child. The wine dangled from his other hand. He didn't know if he could find his way to Magda's home in this strange, new world, but he was ready to try.