Friday, May 27, 2011

Fiction Friday: A Free Short Fiction Read

Okay, it's Friday and for once I don't have a guest author so here is a short story, "Sacrament" that appeared a few years back in a small magazine called Foliate Oak.  It is a love story but since one of the participants is a priest, it has a different twist.

Enjoy!


Sacrament

                     By Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy





His green and gold vestments suited him and enhanced the resemblance to an angel on a medieval stained glass window in a medieval cathedral.  With a sigh, Julie tried to shift her thoughts back to the Gospel reading and to ignore the constant distraction of her youngest son who wiggled at her feet like a small snake.

     She mumbled the response and sank back onto the wooden pew with relief as Father Lucas began his homily.  His words rolled over her without comprehension as she listened to his soft voice with a hint of an Irish brogue. Something about the cadence of his voice stirred her emotions and awakened longings that had been dormant for more than two years.

     After Mass ended, she grasped Brandon by the hand and pushed her older children ahead down the aisle.  At the door, Father Lucas opened his arms to hug the children, then embraced Julie.  She inhaled the fragrance of his after-shave and enjoyed the texture of his linen vestment against her cheek.

     “Good morning, Father Lucas.”

     At St. Anne’s, she has maintained the title of Father but during his visits, Julie can call him Lucas as they sip tea together at the kitchen table.

     “Good morning, Julie.  How are the children this fine morning?”

     “Restless.” She rolled her eyes and he grinned, then patted her back in parting as a sea of parishioners flooded him with greetings.  His touch lingered on her skin as she drove home.

Although she had ached to invite him to join them for a simple Sunday dinner – a chicken in the slow cooker – she had not asked.  He would dine on roast or steak prepared for him by the aged but active housekeeper at the rectory.

      I wish I had her job, Julie thought with a sigh, and I wish he wasn’t a priest.  Caring for Lucas’ needs would be a joy; a dream job far superior to her job at the neighborhood supermarket.  She choked down her dreams and headed home.

     Thick bacon aroma hung in the air in the apartment as she entered but there was no smell of roasting chicken.  Julie popped a Disney movie in for the children and lifted the lid of the slow cooker.   A half-cooked, cold chicken sat congealed in the pot.  The sides of the cooker were cool but the cord was still plugged into the pot. 

     “Mommy, I’m hungry.” Amelia whined, pulling on her skirt.

     “Baby, I’m hungry too but the slow cooker quit.  I’ll make some peanut butter sandwiches in a minute.”

     With sandwiches, carrot sticks, and a pudding cup each she settled the kids at the table and poured the ruined chicken mess into a heavy-duty trash bag.  If left in the apartment, it would smell so she carried it out to the Dumpster.   When she heard the trill of her phone, she dashed back inside,

     “Hello?”

     “This is Mitzi, upstairs.  I saw you taking out trash and wanted to tell you that your ex was here awhile ago.”

     “Kevin was here?” That was scary.  Kevin was abusive. “Did you talk to him?”

     “He talked to me.  It wasn’t my idea.  He’s mad at you over some kind of papers.”

     “Annulment papers.” After Father Lucas arrived in the parish, Julie developed a desire to have her marriage annulled and had begun the long process.  If successful, she would be free to marry in the Catholic faith but her former spouse had to be contacted. 

     “What’s that?”

     “Like a church divorce.” It wasn’t, not really, but it was the simplest explanation she could summon for her neighbor.  An annulment could make a marriage invalid and as if it had never existed.  For a practicing Catholic, it made remarriage after divorce possible.

     “Whatever.” Mitzi dismissed the unfamiliar term. “Anyway, he’s mad and called you a stupid bitch.  He said to tell you that he’ll be back.  I thought you’d want to know.”

     “I do.  Thanks for the warning.”

     Her hands trembled as she put down the phone.  Little scared her but Kevin terrified her.  Prone to verbal abuse on the best of days, he got physical when he drank or smoked crack.  His abusive behavior coupled with frequent adultery made the annulment very possible but his response might be dangerous.   He might hurt her or he might hit the kids.  Bruises on Brian’s legs had been the catalysts that gave her courage to leave.  Memories of the beatings Kevin inflicted on her had provided strength to file for divorce.

     Two years had passed since the divorce and although he had no custody rights, Kevin haunted their lives with potential violence.  Until Lucas came, Julie thought she had nothing left to give any man but her feelings changed.  Still, Lucas was safe – as a priest, he was unavailable so she could enjoy her dreams without taking any risk.  He’ll help me, she realized.

     She punched in the rectory phone number from memory and waited, fingers crossed that Lucas would answer the phone. 

     “St. Augustine Rectory.”

     Some of the tension uncoiled at the sound of his melodious voice.

     “Lucas, this is Julie.  My neighbor told me that my ex-husband was here this morning while we were at church and I’m afraid.”

     “You have every reason to be frightened.” He knew the turbulent history of her troubled marriage and the concern that deepened his voice was genuine.  “I wanted to talk with you about the last series of questions in the annulment process.  May I come over?”

     “Would you?” Her breath exhaled in relief. “Oh, thank you, Father Lucas.”

     “I’ll be there in less than a hour.  If he arrives before I do, call the police.”

     “I will.”

     Brandon wailed because his diaper was soaked.  She changed him, then helped Brian and Amelia put on play clothes.  After a quick call to her mother, the kids were picked up by Grandpa and whisked away.  The mention of Kevin in the vicinity had been all her parents needed to hear.

     Feeling silly that she cared about her appearance, Julie changed into a pair of black jeans and a flattering rose-colored T-shirt.  With the children’s dirty plates stowed in the dishwasher she vacuumed the rug and picked up toys from the floor.  She could feel every beat of her heart and wondered if it was fear of Kevin or nerves because she would be alone with Lucas.

     He’s your priest she repeated in her mind but despite her efforts to remember his position, she walked into his open arms when he arrived.  His arms wrapped about her with strength and safety.

     “He’s not been here then?” he asked as she brought him into the living room.  “Good.  I’ll make short shrift of him if he comes while I’m here.”

     “Thank you for coming.”

     He glanced around at the empty room.  “Where are the children?”

     “I sent them to my parents for the day.”

     He nodded. “Good.  I’m concerned about you and the children, Julie.  I brought the last series of questions for your annulment.  After these are sent in, the tribunal should be able to make a decision and I expect you’ll have your annulment.  I’m worried, however, what Kevin might do.  Does he understand what it is?”

     “I don’t think so.  He’s not Catholic.”

     Brian married her, at her father’s urging, after she became pregnant with Brian.  He refused to have a church wedding and would not attend church with her.  Each of the children had been baptized but without their father’s presence.  By the time she left him, Brian no longer allowed her to go to Mass on Sunday.  He once slapped her so hard that her lip split and for a moment she tasted the remembered blood. 

     Every event of the day – the threat of her ex-husband, the broken slow cooker, the proximity of the priest she’d fallen in love with, and the tension – overloaded her emotions and she began to cry.   As the first tears trailed down her cheeks, Lucas put his arms around her.  His warm arms offered comfort and she began to sob.  Her tears soaked his shirt, which she noted, even in her distress, was not his priest clothing but a button-down oxford.

     “Don’t cry, Julie.” His lips brushed the top of head as he whispered the words.  “Dearest, don’t.”

     At the endearment, she pulled away from his shoulder to look into his face.  Sadness shadowed his eyes but his expression was tender as he bent forward to kiss her with slow gentleness.  The impact of his mouth on hers fired her latent desires and dried her tears.  Julie’s arms circled his neck as she moved closer to explore his mouth with her own.  She shut her eyes in enjoyment of the moment but when he moved away, she opened them to find him standing, arms crossed, in the center of the room.

     “I’m sorry, Julie.” His voice had never sounded so emotional as now. “I shouldn’t have done that.  I apologize.”

     “Why not?”

     He sat beside her, shaking his head.  His eyes were darker than usual, shadowed by sorrow.  She wasn’t sure if he was sad because they kissed or sad because he felt it was wrong.

     “Because I’m your priest.” His hand reached out and grasped hers.  That gave her courage to speak her heart, to say what she had kept hidden for months.

     “Lucas, I wish you weren’t.”

     His eyes narrowed but she thought that the darkness lightened at her words.

     “Am I such a sorry priest then?” His slight brogue thickened as he tried to joke.

     “No, you’re a good priest.” Julie kept her tone firm. “And you’re a fine man.  You have to know how I feel, Lucas.  I thought you felt the same and when you kissed me, I knew.  You do, don’t you?”

     Color stained his cheeks and he squeezed her fingers so tight that it hurt.  She could see a pulse beating in his forehead and his face was fierce with emotion.  He opened his mouth to speak but said nothing.  He pulled her tight against him and kissed her again.  This kiss was not gentle and Julie felt the surge of his desire as a red, living force that drew her into its’ circle of fire.  This time, she pulled away in order to catch her breath.

     “Yes.” Lucas said, simply, in answer to her question. “But it’s impossible.  I’m a priest.  I made vows.”

     “But, Lucas – “

     “No, Julie.  Not now.” He stood up and stalked across the small room then whirled to face her. “Do you think I don’t want you, that I don’t ache to hold you, to kiss you? I do and it’s wrong because I’m not supposed to feel this way.”

     Her heart beat faster within and she felt a triumphant sense of victory.  Lucas cared.  He felt the same as she did.  Every glance, every touch, and each word had been part of the incredible connection she’d felt since the day she first met him.   She wanted to tell him, to shout out her love but one look at his face made her pause.  Anguish drew lines on his forehead and she realized what an inner struggle he faced. 

     “Lucas, I realize this is hard for you so let’s talk about the annulment.  I’ll make some coffee and if Kevin comes, you’ll be here.”

     His taut shoulders relaxed and he sat down at the kitchen table with a sigh.   He did not touch her again and she was careful not to brush against him as she filled his cup.

     Kevin failed to appear but from that day, Father Lucas kept his distance from Julie.  He met her only in the presence of others and was polite in a way that hurt.  A week, then another passed without any personal contact.  The annulment papers had been filed and she could not think of an excuse to talk to Lucas alone.   Pride kept her from calling him until the night Kevin returned.

     Curled up on the couch in an old set of sweats, Julie had been watching television when someone pounded at the door.  Hope flared that it might be Lucas and she opened the door without thought to find her ex-husband.  Kevin pushed his way past her and entered the apartment.  Rank odors clung to him; the smell of unwashed clothing, stale beer, and cigarettes.

     “Got any beer, Julie?” His tone was harsh.

     “No.  You’re not welcome here, Kevin.  Go away.”

     He laughed and she felt the old fear stir in her belly. 

     “Make me.” He taunted her and she moved toward the phone.  He ripped it from her hand and hit her across the face with an open hand.  Her cheeks stung from the blow and before she could duck, he punched her in the mouth.  She felt her fragile lip tear and warm blood trickled down her chin.  A swift kick brought her to her knees and she grabbed the phone.  It never occurred to her to call 911; she dialed the rectory instead.   At the sound of Lucas’ voice, she gasped for help just before Kevin took the phone and smashed it against the wall.  She waited for him to hit her again but he whirled around and left, probably afraid that she had called the police.

     By the time Lucas arrived, she had washed most of the blood away and had an ice bag on her lip.  He walked through the door with wild eyes.

     Julie lifted her head. “He left.”

     Lucas knelt beside her. “He hurt you.  Do you need to go to the hospital? I’ll take you.”

     She shook her head. “I think I’m okay.  He’s hurt me worse before.  My lip’s split but that’s about it.  Thank you for coming.”

     “Did you think I wouldn’t?” he whispered and held her with careful arms.  “I was so afraid.”

     “Me too.”  She nuzzled against his shoulder for a moment. “I’ve missed you.”

     “I know.  I’m sorry.  I had to think.”

     “And what do you think?”

     “I think you need to go away.  I don’t think you’re safe as long as your ex-husband can find you.  Do you have some place you can go, a relative or friend in another city?”

     “I could go to my grandmother’s.”

     He nodded and she began to pack.  He carried the kids and suitcases to the car before he left.  Although he did not kiss her, he traced her cheek with one finger and then raised one hand in farewell.

     She wrote him a letter and gave him her grandmother’s phone number.  He did not call but came instead early on a Sunday morning to take her to church.   Dressed in jeans and a sweater he didn’t look like a priest.  Her grandmother, who had met him as a priest, looked at him and said nothing.

     At Father Lucas’ side in the hushed cathedral Julie rested her arm against his. Her three children sprawled over their laps and feet.  For this moment they were a family and, as always, his presence gave her a powerful, delicious sense of harmony.  Amelia wiggled and clutched her crotch.

     “She needs to go the restroom.” Julie whispered as she rose to exit the pew.

     “I’ll help you.” His whisper grazed her ear and she nodded.

     Lucas held Brandon and Brian’s hands as she took Amelia into the restroom.  Because it was so quiet in the building the sound of the toilet flushing seemed obscene but she flushed it anyway.  When she met Lucas, he smiled and she knew that it was all right, no matter what.  He couldn’t have missed the stares or heads that had turned as they departed the sanctuary together but he didn’t seem to mind.  Even on this side of the diocese there were many people who knew Father Lucas.

     Together they slipped back into the pew and although the offertory hymn was being sung, the curious still craned around to see them together.  It might have been her imagination but she thought that she heard whispers, wings of gossip that could rise like birds to destroy this moment.

     As if he divined her thoughts, Lucas reached for her hand and took it into his.  Against her moist palms, his hand was cool and dry.  He squeezed it and she settled back, her arm against his arm, her children across both laps as if they were one.  They might have been his children.  The comforting, strong sense of connection wrapped around her like a blanket on a frigid night. 

     As they stood together to profess their faith, Julie felt the thrill of voices united in prayer. His voice was audible to her, distinct among the others and she felt a rush of warm love for him.

At the Eucharist they rose, she and Lucas, and stepped into the aisle to move with slow precision toward the altar.  As she felt the familiar dry crispness of the wafer on her tongue, she wondered if it felt odd to Lucas to be the recipient rather than the officiant.  When she touched her lips to the wine in the chalice, the smooth wine filled her mouth with momentary sweetness.  His kisses had been far sweeter.

     Such thoughts bordered on blasphemy so she shook it away and returned, shepherding her children before her, to kneel in the pew.  Lucas bowed his head, her son on his breast and prayed.  His thoughts were not open to her but she sensed that he felt the same camaraderie that she knew, the sense that they were one.  Maybe now he knows what it would have been to be married to a woman, she thought. 

     When the Mass ended, she gathered up mittens and thrust small hands into them.  She buttoned coats and found hats.  Happy crowds thronged the aisles and exchanged greetings in quiet voices.  One man came toward them, his face shining with perspiration and speculation.

     “And who is this?” His voice boomed out over the pews like thunder and his eyes devoured Julie. “A sister or cousin?”

     “No, no, this is Julia Sullivan, one of my parishioners and her children.” Lucas’ voice was mild and he kept moving toward the exit, away from prying questions and curious eyes.

     At the door that led to the parking lots in the rear of the cathedral, Lucas turned to her.   She could not hear his voice in the merry clatter but she read his lips.

     “There’s a reception in the parish hall with cake. The kids might like some.  Do you want to go?”

     She nodded in agreement, in response to his unspoken question.  He led her into the crowded hall.   The older kids sat the table and she brought them cake with cups of milk.  Then she took Brandon from Lucas’ arms. 

     “Go ahead, get some cake.” She kept her voice low.

     Lucas returned with cake and punch for her, then made another trip for his serving.  Julie thanked him and ate. The cake was dry in her mouth; it had sat out too long but she ate it.  Although she had not been uncomfortable during the Mass, she was uneasy now.  Furtive glances met hers and many turned around without any attempt at artifice to stare.  By the time she had eaten the cake and sipped the punch Julie was ready to leave.   At her grandmother’s house, Lucas helped her take the children in and asked if Grandma would watch them.

     “I need to talk to your granddaughter.” He told her and Julie’s grandmother agreed.

     There was a park a few blocks away and they walked, hand in hand without speaking.  On a small rise near a fountain, he stopped and turned to face her.  Julie had not thought to wear a jacket and shivered as north winds teased her hair.  Lucas put his arm around her.  It was solid and warm.  She snuggled against him and then with one movement she whirled into his arms and found her lips beneath his.  His mouth was urgent as it closed over hers and she felt her body tensing with an aching need.  Something within sought sweetness the way that her hungry stomach might seek food and her hands, greedy paws, circled his neck. 

     Conscious thought paused during the kiss but when he released her, it returned.  They stood at arm’s length now, apart even as their lips could feel the tender emotion within.

     “Lucas.”

     His name passed between her lips like a prayer.  Julie meant to speak words of apology, to say she was sorry, that of course they should not have kissed but he put two fingers over her mouth.  With a single digit he traced the long line of her throat.

     “It’s all right.  Don’t say you’re sorry; you’re not.  I’ve figured it all out. You are another sacrament.” His voice was quiet but not soft.  “They’re wrong, the theologians.”

     “Lucas, I thought -.”

     He hushed her with his mouth.

     “Don’t think.”

     She didn’t.  All thought ceased as his mouth caressed hers again and in silence she allowed him to lead her back to her grandmothers.  They filed past the living room where the television was on but did not stop or make any explanations. In the upstairs bedroom that had been her father’s boyhood room Julia unbuttoned his collar, that Roman collar, and then his shirt.  Her nipples hardened as he slid her blouse from her shoulders and sought her with a consuming hunger.  Her body trembled, as private places she did not remember that she possessed became damp and charged with electricity.  Her fingers tensed and grasped the threadbare sheet that smelled faintly of bleach and came.  Her lips whispered his name and the look on his face was the same as when he rose the wafer to become the Body of Christ.

     His voice whispered and caressed but she did not hear the words and felt nothing but the sense of them, the meaning and the emotion.  She felt no sacrilege as she became one with Lucas, no shame when they lay together afterward, bodies warmed with sex and sweat.

     “What now?” Her voice caught in her throat as if she choked.  Fear made her tremble but he mistook it for passion and drew her closer, his hand between her legs.  In the silence between her question and his answer, she died in torment and suffered all the pain of hell.

     Lucas whispered in her ear,

     “Today is the first day of the rest of our lives.”

     A poster with a sea gull vivid against the bright blue of the sea had proclaimed the same mantra in her high school English classroom.  She remembered it, crisp and bright above the chalkboard and for a moment she felt seventeen.   Laughter bubbled up and cleared away the sense of choking and she was still giggling as she bent her head to kiss his lips.  Joy filled her at all his words implied and she said aloud the final words of the Mass,

     “Thanks be to God.”

     Never again would she speak them the same way, not when his fingers caught in her hair and struggled for purchase, not when his mouth tasted as sweet as sacramental wine.

    

    



    

    

    

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