Acolytes
Christopher Woods
Break
Fresh light washes across the churchyard. Slivers of dawn pierce the stained-glass windows of the church, and of the rectory where Father Dominic is waking. I imagine him rolling over in bed, excavating the sheets for a way back into the night. Then, heavy with regret, he arises. Eyes still sleep shut, he stumbles to the bathroom to wash his face.
With only five minutes until five o'clock Mass, he flushes the toilet with one hand while grabbing his cassock off a hook with the other. The idiot girl from the rectory tells me this.
The sacristy at dawn is quiet as Stonehenge. Already we are there waiting, Quinlan and myself, sipping wine, munching unconsecrated hosts. We wear black cassocks and starched, white lace surplices. Quinlan stands by the window, watching for Father Dominic's approach. We may ditch breakfast prematurely if he arrives too soon.
Comes a faint sound, of whispers talking among themselves from the other side of the altar, A sound slipping from the dank church where dawn is assembling. I look out, see three old women, without faces and buried in shawls, huddled in the dim light. There is no one else, just the women and their tattered voices. I think of witches, of secrets told for so many generations that the voices have died and only whispers remain.
We put away the wine and hosts. I replace Father Dominic's wine level mark on the bottle with another of my own. We pace, waiting for Dominic. He's late again. Quinlan passes the time by spit-shining his shoes with a cassock hem. It goes without a mention that Dominic has had another hard night.
Outside, the chimes resound over the night battered neighborhood. Lights are coming on in small, working class homes. Men emerge from them in undershirts to retrieve the morning paper, then go back inside to start the coffee and wake the wife. Ham, eggs and sex, a working class fugue.
Where I am, in the sacristy, I cannot see Old Mr. Joe playing his morning medley on the steeple bells. But if I close my eyes I can see him there, an emaciated frame swinging and jerking, a marionette dangling in ropes, deaf and manic and laughing to himself. Once he brought his grandson to see the bells, the room where he worked, where the ropes dangled, waiting to be pulled. The boy looked long and hard up that steeple, and then pointed to the belfry. Smiling, Mr. Joe then led the boy up the steepest of stairs for a better look. The old man collapsed, halfway there. Now it has been years since Mr. Joe has actually seen the bells. He speaks with them, from a distance, in a language of ropes.
His bells are thunder in Father Dominic's hungover head. He stands in the rectory kitchen, shouting curses between gulps of orange juice crushed by the idiot girl. He thinks about the woman from the night before, and tells himself it was worth it. No one hears him but the idiot girl, shy, standing to the side. She tells us all about it of course, she who will also show us her breasts if asked.
In a few moments the bells go quiet and a broad silence breathes in the church. The faceless shawls emit the clicking noise of chattering teeth and fervent rosaries. On the walls, saints awaken one by one, in glass, in gradual light. Quinlan and I are pacing, our words stumbling from wine-thickened tongues. There is nothing to be done about our breath but to pray, an unlikelihood at best. Sometimes, when he is in the foulest of moods, Dominic will stop to smell our breath.
At last he appears, his own cassock trailing in the air behind him. He disappears into the vestment room. We wait in anticipation, in fear that we might fall if we try to walk. When Dominic appears again, he has become a glittering image in his Vatican City threads. The door sweeps shut behind him, and I think of Dorothy Lamour.
It is time for Mass to begin. Quinlan rings the small bell and the tinkling sound shatters the silence. The three witches rise in a mass of clockwork grey.
Our prayers rise to touch flaking frescoes, up into the thin air of residual Gregorian chants, sounding surprisingly sincere, young enough not to be tarnished. Dominic watches us. Choose your acolytes and choirboys early on, another old priest had told him once. A soprano is best, and multi-faceted.
The old priest often gave crustaceous advice, his cigar smoke accumulating in layers on the rectory ceiling, a fifth glass of cognac dangling from his liver spotted hand. Gone now, into smoke and incense, laid to rest in the consecrated ground of all humble servants. Now Dominic offers a prayer to the old priest's spirit, raising a chalice aloft. I watch his unshaven face curving, contorting in gold distortions.
At communion, Dominic holds the host low for the kneeling Quinlan, who unknowingly presents a wine-colored tongue. Recognizing the evidence of the boy's transgression, Dominic places a host on Quinlan's tongue, then lets a finger slide down his throat. Lost in their reverie, the shawls see none of this, nor do they notice an acolyte running from the altar, vomiting into his surplice. Wisely, then, I refuse the body of Christ. Dominic eyes me warily, bemused, then walks to the altar rail where the shawls are clicking still, waiting for manna.
Christopher Woods is the author of a prose collection, UNDER A RIVERBED SKY (Panther Creek Press), and a collection of stage monologues for actors, HEART SPEAK (Stone River Press). His play, MOONBIRDS, about doomed census takers at work in an uninhabited desert country, received its New York City premiere by PERSONAL SPACE THEATRICS. He lives in Houston and in Chappell Hill, Texas.