Third Week of Advent
Charles looked up in surprise. Raphael stood at his office door. “Nothing. A book of art.”
Raphael took a seat. “What kind of art?” Charles slid the book across the desktop, but Raphael did not need to look for the title of the color plate. “Do you like the Pre-Raphaelites?”
“This is the only one I like, and it’s rather maudlin.”
“You think so?” Raphael bent close to study the painting. “A lovely story. ‘The ending of the tale ye see; the Lover draws anigh the tree, and takes the branch, and takes the rose, that love and he so dearly chose’.”
Charles laughed. “Right, maudlin. You know the story?”
“The painting and the verse were inspired by Chaucer. Here is the Pilgrim,” Raphael pointed at the cloaked figure on the left, “who holds the hand of winged Love and stands in awe of the Rose.” He pointed at the impassive woman seated on a throne-like hedge.
Charles was nodding absently.
“She’s beautiful, don’t you think?”
“I suppose. Rather like a fairy tale, but glum.”
Raphael flipped the book closed to see the title. “If you don’t like it, why get a whole book on it?”
“Trying to see what Lillian sees.”
“You want to see as she sees?”
Charles paused as if unsure what Raphael meant. “This is her favorite art. I’m trying to figure out why.”
“She likes it because it’s beautiful. That’s what the Pre-Raphaelites were all about. They were aesthetes reacting against stifling academic procedures, the kind Bougeureau embraced.”
“I see she’s been sharing her opinions with you, but you don’t know her very well. She’s not an aesthete. She’s quite–I don’t know–practical.”
“You bring groceries to her each week. You bring communion to her because she never steps beyond the boundaries of her yard. Have you read her poetry? She’s visionary and sensual. She’s not practical.” As Charles’ brow puckered in thought, Raphael wondered at the enormous blind spot in the man. “You’re the practical one. You’re the ethicist. That’s why you don’t see the beauty in the ‘The Heart of the Rose.’ But there may be hope for you yet.”
“You like this work, too?”
“The reason for hope is that you see the beauty in Lillian.”
Taking the book back, Charles flipped through a few pages. “She’s been a good friend. I’ll miss our conversations.”
“Why did you tell her I was your parochial vicar? Leaving the priesthood is a serious decision, one you must have struggled with for years.”
“She wouldn’t understand. She loves the Church and can’t imagine a priest being a man. I didn’t want to burden her with my troubles.”
“Lying is a burden.”
“I didn’t lie. Besides, she’ll have you once I’m gone.”
“I’m not in love with her.”
Charles stood, hands clenching into fists as he leaned on his desk. “Forgive my bluntness, Father, but I don’t think this is your business, and you’re wrong. I’m not leaving because of Lillian. She doesn’t even know how I feel.” As he said it, his eyes widened with surprise, and he stepped back, bumping into his bookshelf. He squared his shoulders. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Why are you leaving?”
“I can no longer be effective in an increasingly sectarian and reactionary church moving away from Vatican II.”
“Yes, that is, word-for-word, what you wrote to the bishop. But if you leave, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant to the fight. If that’s your reason for leaving, you should stay and use what authority you have.”
As if worn out, Charles closed his eyes. “I’ve stopped asking why I’m leaving because the real question has become, why have I stayed?” He stabbed the desktop with his finger. “This is why. This baptism is why I’ve stayed. Look, I spent my first year in a suburban parish, listening to parishioners bicker about parking lot space, and my first church was a rural parish noteworthy only for how many still took communion by mouth rather than by hand. After twenty-two years, I still find I’m just facilitating men and women who gauge their spiritual progress by how much better they follow rules than their neighbors. I believe God is pushing me into this conflict, demanding I do something, and if I leave the priesthood with nothing else to my credit, at least I’ll have had one worthwhile battle.”
“Do you really think God pushes and demands and encourages battles?”
“I have a Mass to do.”
Raphael accompanied Charles to the church, where he found a packed house for Sunday morning Mass, perhaps ninety families. Three families had stayed away in protest, their regular seats near the front empty, and Raphael guessed they would not return until the new pastor arrived.
The Hewitt women stood at the back of the church holding their toddler, who appeared appropriately angelic in her white dress.
Under the inspiring presence of Raphael, neither the girl nor her parents noticed the many judgmental eyes appraising them from the pews as the tiny girl was born again through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Charles kicked through the powder along the highway. After Mass, he had spent some time congratulating the Hewitts and then met with several families who had complaints about what they had just seen. He usually found conflict with parishioners emotionally draining, but this had been invigorating. It was Gaudete Sunday, and he had brought one more soul into communion with the saints. He felt as joyful as the day.
After skipping up Lillian’s steps, which she had not shoveled, he knocked. She was usually conscientious about shoveling, insisting she liked the exercise. He overheard loud music inside, so he knocked one more time before opening the door.
A modern song with drums and repetitive lyrics assaulted him, and he quickly reached the player and turned off the music. He looked around and shouted for Lillian, but she did not respond.
He returned to the kitchen and peered out the window across the serene winter terrain, where only cemetery headstones and deer tracks broke the even field of snow.
Lillian stomped down the hallway, wearing a flowered nightgown and shouting through angry tears. When he came to greet her, she brushed him aside and turned the music back on. It thundered, the powerful base buzzing as it overloaded the speakers. Charles turned the volume down, fighting Lillian’s hands to do so.
He took her by the shoulders. “What happened, Lil?”
“You had no right to turn it off.”
“It hurt my ears.”
“Then leave. Why are you even here?”
“Why are you crying?”
“You turned off the music. You had no right. If you listened maybe you’d like it, too, but you never listen.”
Charles stepped back and looked around but did not find any tissues. “Come, sit down.”
“I don’t want to sit down.”
“You need to calm down.”
“I don’t want to calm down.”
“Lillian, just sit in the kitchen with me.” He guided her to a chair and started the tea kettle. “Can I get you a tissue? Where are they?”
When he found the bathroom, he took the box of tissues from the sink. In the few years he had been visiting her, he had never been in this part of her house, and he lingered brief seconds admiring the potpourri and the painting in her hallway.
Back in the kitchen, he set the box in front of her and prepared their tea. “Not that one,” she said as he took a box from the cupboard. He set the box of spice tea back and reached for the Earl Grey.
When he was sitting beside her, he asked, “Are you feeling better?”
She nodded, tissue to her nose with one hand and the other dunking her teabag.
This was not the first time he found her distraught. A half-dozen times over the years, she embarked on an irrational episode, accusing him of some presumption or thoughtlessness. He refused to take the accusations personally, assuming his presence merely provided a safe way to vent a particularly difficult day. Since her mood always resolved itself quickly, he learned simply to wait her out.
After a time, he asked, “Where’s Father?”
She set her teabag down. “He brought communion and then said he was going back to the church.”
“I haven’t seen him since lunch.”
“How did it go, the baptism?”
He spread his arms expansively. “It was wonderful. I’ve never felt more alive, Lil. I made a difference today.”
“I know how much that means to you.”
“It wouldn’t mean as much without being able to tell you.” His revelation preceded an awkward silence. “But I’m being insensitive. I’m sorry about the music.”
“I’m fine, really.”
“You’re not fine.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You never want to talk about it.”
“No, I don’t.”
He nodded, his jaw flexing as he reminded himself to be patient. “Okay, how about I make an early dinner? I know you don’t believe me, but one day, oh, one day you will know what a good cook I am.” He caricatured blowing a kiss from his fingertips. “However, tonight, you’ll have to settle for…” He went through the cupboards, found a can, and set it firmly on the counter. “Tomato soup.”
Lillian laughed behind her tissue.
He collected ingredients for grilled cheese sandwiches and had dinner on the table when Raphael arrived. After shedding his winter clothes, he greeted Lillian and Charles, but declined an offer to eat. “I thought it would be a good time to get my things together and settle into the rectory.”
“The remodelers haven’t finished dry-walling your room,” said Charles.
“But they did. I was in it just minutes ago, and the fresh paint smells amazing.”
“Well, that’s wonderful, then.”
Raphael drew Lillian to her feet and hugged her. “Thank you for your hospitality these weeks, Lil. You made me feel welcome, and I’ll miss our pajama parties.” He kissed her cheek. “I hope I can visit.”
Lillian rested her hand against his cheek. “Of course. I’ll have the popcorn handy.”
Raphael nodded at Charles and went to pack his things.
“Pajama parties?” asked Charles as they both sat back down.
Lillian let go a hearty laugh. “He sleeps less than I do. We started rendezvousing at two a.m. I can’t tell you the bags of popcorn we went through.”
He tried to appear amused. “You never mentioned this before.”
“I thought I did.” Lillian began to eat her soup.
Raphael was too good to be true–an attractive, middle-aged man with unnaturally golden-blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. He was also unusually attentive, giving every person he spoke with the impression that they were the most interesting person in his day. He never lost his temper, had endless patience, and offered no words of criticism about anyone. Charles did not trust the man and he was beginning not to like him, either. “I suppose it’s a good thing he’s moving back into the rectory, then.”
“Why a good thing?”
“You know how people talk.”
“I don’t think I do.” She frowned. “Do you suppose they talk about us?”
“We’ve never given reason for gossip.”
“Neither have Father and I.”
“I didn’t mean you. I like him well enough. He’s just a little, I don’t know…charming.”
“They don’t teach ‘charm’ at seminary. It’s not something a priest needs to cultivate, especially not with a lonely woman.”
“A lonely woman?” Lillian scooted her chair back. “Is that how you see me?”
“I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”
“Maybe you did.”
Raphael returned from his room with his suitcase. “Thanks again, Lillian. Father, I’ll see you at the rectory later, and I’ll be glad to look over your Christmas homily, if you still want me to.” He winked at Lillian and left the house.
Charles began to stir his soup and felt Lillian’s stare, but he would not meet it.
“Why do you come here every Sunday, Charles?”
Charles felt his chest tighten and the words threatened to spill from his lips. His heart struggled with his good sense, and he settled for a compromise. “Lil, you don’t realize, do you? You were like finding a diamond. The folks here are friendly, even when they hate you, but they’re so simple. I look forward to our Sundays together. Haven’t you ever noticed how I store up everything from the week to share with you?”
“So why didn’t you tell me you were leaving?”
“I should have.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve spoken with my brother in Kansas City. I’ll probably move in with him for awhile.” After another long silence, he finally admitted, “I’m a leaf in the wind, and it’s a very strong and ugly wind, Lil.” He pulled the white tab from his clerical shirt and set it on the table. “I need to answer the questions people bring to me with integrity. I can’t do it wearing this collar. It doesn’t fit anymore.”
“Integrity? You mean something like ‘passion and self-referential honesty’?”
He accepted her point with a short laugh before his humor soured. “You’ve always been careful not to personalize too much, but one more appropriate silence, one more careful avoidance of how I feel about anything other than a sonata or a homily may send me to a bell tower with a rifle.”
“A bell tower?” Her concerned expression eased after a moment. “I don’t know what to ask next, but by all means, just give me a minute to think of something.”
“You’re making fun of me now.”
“No, Charles. Well, yes, but it’s just that you’re wound so tight, you make me look normal.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you, Lil.”
“I’m completely dysfunctional.”
Her twinkling eyes enchanted him as they managed to deepen with compassion and remain mirthful at the same time. He lost his usual reserve and blurted, “I just want to be a man. I want you just to see me as a man.”
Her smile shrunk and her eyes searched his. Her reaction of complete surprise told him all he did not wish to know. He pocketed his tab and went for his coat.
Lillian stopped him. “You can’t go. We haven’t lit the rose candle.”
His cheeks burned, and he needed to get somewhere he could breathe, but he returned to the table.
She shoved matches into his hands. He avoided her eyes and stared down at the wreath, focusing on the role that had insulated him for two decades and hoping it would last at least one more evening. “Today we light the third candle of Advent, the Candle of Joy. This day reminds us of what Mary felt when Gabriel told her of the child that would be born to her. We light this candle to remember that he is the bringer of true and everlasting joy.” As he lit three candles, he prayed, “Lord, help us prepare our hearts to receive your son. Help us to hear and do your word. We ask this in the name of Jesus our Lord. Amen.”
He thanked her without glancing her way and went again for his coat and boots. As he left, closing the door behind him, the cold air shocked his face and allowed his lungs to expand. He walked steadily toward the rectory, the snow no longer powder soft but crunching under his boots.
Raphael slipped through the house like a breeze, wondering if any music were playing. He could only imagine Lillian’s house with the sound of music, whether violins or guitars, horns or drums. He chose to move through the rooms and hallway as he had done for several weeks, though no walls could block him in his natural state.
He glided alongside Lillian as she slept, finding her dreams rather odd but pleasant—lake fishing in the summer with her brother. He engaged her dream, roaming through its story, still in search of her prayer, but he did not find it, so he made his way to the kitchen where three candles retained a faint essence of fire.
He coaxed the fire back to life. Then he fed it with thoughts of an inferno, until hot wax streamed onto the table and the wick touched the brittle pine. White smoke rose in fitful puffs until flames erupted.
As the fire engulfed the table, Raphael went to Lillian’s bedroom. He made a pine branch tap the window, until it shattered the glass. She screamed with fright just as smoke began to roll into her bedroom.
When she raced to her door, intent on saving her possessions, Raphael used all his ethereal will to hold her back. Raphael recognized confusion and fear, but there was another emotion present, a much darker one, and that dark mood seemed to take hold of her. She watched the smoke fill her room.
Now, instead of holding her back, Raphael began to push on her. She fell backward onto the floor and lay unmoving, her lips speaking something and her mind swirling with images of her family. Light slowly filled her mind as the smoke surrounded her body.
Raphael realized he had miscalculated her reaction terribly, though he knew from long experience that unpredictability was the most serious liability when caring for people. He threw open the window and dropped her into the snow. He followed and then carried her some distance from the house, where he left her sitting against a tree. He raced across the field toward the rectory as a sheriff’s car arrived with siren wailing.
Copyright © 2006 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.