Father Tooley woke to a terrible sound. It was gone in an instant, and he wondered briefly if it had been some trick of the mind. As silence reassembled, he pushed back the blanket and went for his robe. Pulling the folds tight around his waist he reached for the door, but the shuffling at his back made him pause. Behind him, the woman in the sheets lifted her head.
“Stay there,” he said.
The sound, a crash, had come from outside the rectory, and he made his way in the faint-light dawn to the double doors that served as gateway. On the other side the darkened nave yawned, vast and empty, and he paused as the door closed to listen. Silence. He walked slowly to the center aisle and looked down between the rows of pews at the front entrance. The carpet scraped his naked soles, the fibers near threadbare from decades of hosting the faithful. Turning to face the altar, he signed the cross and genuflected, whispering an apology for appearing in his bedclothes. Then he saw the face of Christ.
It was above the altar, on the altar, smooth and pained, monochromatic in the dim light. Up the marble steps and closer, recognition dawned. The bare wall behind the altar: the mighty crucifix had fallen.
Ten feet by six and forged from steel, the gold plated cross held a pewter Messiah, massive in presence, hung emaciated by outstretched arms. Now, the head lying prone against the cracked marble alter, the figure looked even more helpless. Father Tooley trembled to see the battered face of the Savior surrounded by broken bits of marble. He felt dizzy, nauseated, but breathed slowly and collected himself in time to follow the base of the cross down to the floor behind, badly scraped and encircled with shards of marble and- something else, pale wedges and bits of ivory moon-spilled communion wafers.
He breathed, he buckled, he fell to his knees. The crucifix had somehow detached from its clasps, falling from the wall, the steel stem splitting the top of the tabernacle like an eggshell, dashing its contents to the floor as the weight of the cross above pitched forward and swung the face of Christ violently down to the altar. Why? Pieces of aftermath lay at Father Tooley’s knees, why, and the answer appeared.
“What happened?” Mrs. Bertrand was wrapped in his bed sheet, her bare shoulders visible even in the shadows. She padded slowly up the marble steps to his folded frame.
Father Tooley stiffened. “I asked you to stay in bed.”
Momentary silence and the two looked down at the wafers on the floor, sacred confetti mingled with terrestrial stone. Before mass, merely discs of unleavened bread purchased in bulk from a Catholic supplier, but during the ceremony of the Eucharist, when Father Tooley held them before the congregation in a gilded platter, they acquired hallowed form. Transsubstantiatio, the miraculous changing of the bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ.
“What a mess,” Mrs. Bertrand said, holding the sheet closed at her breast with one hand. She leaned forward with the other and started to sweep the debris into a small pile.
Father Tooley caught her wrist. “No.” He felt her shrink, but he would not have her further defile the holy pieces with common touch.
No one else could handle the wafers after their metamorphosis; if any were left over from mass they were stored in the tabernacle and used the following day. But it was his sole responsibility to convey them from their resting place on the platter to the hands or tongues of the parish. And if one should fall to the ground by clumsiness of a careless child or arthritic elder, he alone could bend down to retrieve it. It was his touch that preserved their sacred state, kept them free from sin.
Mrs. Bertrand shifted in the sheet. “What now?”
The sun was beginning to filter through the windows above, illuminating the faces of Aquinas, Augustine, and the Holy Virgin cast motionless in stained glass. The reds and golds, blues and purples of their static garments crept down to the pews onto the marble steps to touch gently the edges of the white bed sheet wound around Mrs. Bertrand’s shape. Father Tooley held a special fondness for the early morning light of the church, all color and silence, and he let his eyes fall on the mixed hues that skirted her waist, her thighs. To see her like this, bathed in these tones, was blasphemy, and he felt the bitter pangs of guilt resurface.
Mrs. Bertrand was a boxy woman of forty, a widow fifteen years his junior who had returned to the church of her childhood after losing her husband, her faith. Father Tooley was her console, although his contributions had expanded of late to include physical as well as spiritual sustenance. It was never his intention, but she sparked a forgotten longing not felt since the days before Seminary, a tension that waned during the years of prayer and silent obedience. She was swimming in sin, as was he now, and he longed to free himself from the sensual grip of a forbidden undertow.
She sensed his gaze and loosened her grip on the sheet. The fabric went slack at her chest, dropping just far enough to expose the top of a breast, pale and round.
“Cover up,” he said, looking away.
She reached for him and placed a hand on his robe, finding the fold and slipping her fingers in against his skin. Her touch warmed him, but when he closed his eyes he saw the broken visage of the fallen Christ. He stood up fast and loomed over her. She let the sheet fall full, both breasts burning now with the sacred fire of stained glass sun.
The spectacle of the crucifix- the broken alter, the shattered tabernacle and scattered wafers- was a warning he brought on himself. He’d allowed her to entice him and invited her into his bed. He knew well the price for such actions, the price for them both. Neither were innocent. He knew, too, that it was her inborn deceit that brought them to this place: of the woman came the beginning of sin, and through her we all die. It would be a death without honor, shameful in the eyes of Christ; he’d fallen victim to her charms. Serve only your God and fear him alone. You must destroy the false prophets who try to lead you astray. And so he did, most every night, until he could destroy her no more and collapsed in a heap at her side.
Mrs. Bertrand pulled the sheet up and stood. Father Tooley could not meet her eyes. Filled with such loathing, he couldn’t bear to look. “This isn’t right,” he whispered, “you know it.”
“It is right,” she said, “and you know it.”
It was not the only time he’d made a false claim of repentance. The first time, a winter storm wrought chaos on the roadways. He’d ended their counseling session early, but by then it was too late; the power was out and ice had frozen her car doors. He’d prepared the bed in the rectory’s guest chamber, but she never made it. Somewhere between lighting candles and building a fire in the hearth he yielded. The next morning he rose with the dew of her body still on him and wept in the shadows while she gathered her things. There was no explanation, no reason he could offer to God or himself; he’d tasted the fruit. When she left he purged her from his thoughts and adopted immediate resolve. Never again, and he would spend the rest of his life toiling for forgiveness in the service of the Lord.
But he slipped. Their sessions turned into more than talks about grief, and he found himself drawn farther away with each touch, each kiss, each night of empty pleasure. Weeks passed, months. She kept a toothbrush in his medicine cabinet. She cooked him meals and called him John. She insisted that he call her Lilian, she was no longer anyone’s Mrs., but it terrified him.
Standing in the Sanctuary with her now, he trembled to think what punishments awaited. God was angry. Sickened with lust, he’d enraged his Savior. “It’s sinful,” he said.
“Sinful?” she shook her head, “it’s love, John. There’s nothing sinful-”
“Stop it,” he said, and stepped to the crucifix.
The aftermath of the fall was overwhelming. The altar was ruined; he’d have to hire a mason. Some of the minor cracks in the base could be filled, but the main slab would have to be replaced, he was sure. He’d need to commission a new tabernacle. It had been in the church before he arrived; he’d have to call the Diocese office to inquire after the original records. The small door was gold, could it be salvaged? He looked at it now on the floor, unhinged and speckled with marble and dust. These were the pieces of his own desperation, the flotsam of weakness.
And suspended above it all, supported at each end by cracked stone, the crucifix. He went to it, touched the scraped face of Christ, and placed his hands firmly underneath the cold torso. It would not do to wait.
“What are you doing?”
Mrs. Bertrand was behind him, he could almost feel her breath at his neck. He closed his eyes and felt the muscles tighten.
“John, stop,” her voice again, “it’s too much.”
But he pressed the bare flesh of his fingers hard against the torn metal, feeling the skin open. The pain was mad but he kept on, wrenching, twisting, trying to lift the cross away from disgrace. He pulled with his body, with his being, and his breath went quick. The heat of the task rose in his face, his eyes, splotches of white coming and going like the apparitions of Elijah. He was reaching, stretching, cleansing himself with the burn of exertion, rinsing away sin with his own hot blood. And he reveled in it, rapt with holy subjection. This was atonement.
Paralyzed with strain and nearing exhaustion, there came a sudden jerk from behind. He groaned as his fingers tore loose from the steel and spun to see Mrs. Bertrand, upright and naked, her hands at his sides, the sheet at her heels. She was heaving, fear in her eyes. “Stop.”
He hit her. He swung a hand at her face and she cried out, reeling back into the soft light with blood on her cheek.
Neither spoke. Father Tooley stood with the crucifix at his back, looking into temptation. The tips of his fingers pulsed. His hands bled freely now; crimson globes falling onto the marble, spattering the debris. Mrs. Bertrand’s face was an enigma. In an instant he saw fear, true pain, a mix of the two that boiled in her eyes. He imagined a tear, a bevy of them brimming and falling to wash away the blood mark on her cheek. But she did not cry. As quick as they appeared, the hurt and fear were gone, wiped clean by an unseen hand. The face that remained was stone. Father Tooley shrank within himself but couldn’t look away.
You’re not an evil man, she had said. Three months into the affair: he was a wreck of shame. A wolf in sheep’s clothes, he led his flock into the sulfur and hadn’t the courage to admit it. This is bigger than God, she told him, and he cringed. Yet a small light flickered inside, call it doubt or truth, and he’d sobbed freely in her arms and told her he loved her.
Now Mrs. Bertrand didn’t speak. He watched as she pulled the sheet up around herself once more and stepped lightly from the altar down into the center aisle and away, past the pews and into the shadows.
Father Tooley heard the hollow click of the rectory door and knew she was gone. He spent a moment in stillness, watching the nave lighten, the windows burning with morning sun. Thoughtless, he turned back to the prostrate crucifix and worked his bloody hands beneath. In the emptiness of the cavernous church he heard his own whimpers against the distant ceilings. He tightened his grip and pulled, pulled with the fervor of sacred will, but the stone-cold Christ would not rise.
Mike Bove‘s fiction has appeared in Mindprints and Eastoftheweb, his poetry in The Cafe Review and Off the Coast. He lives with his wife and son in Portland, Maine and is a member of the English faculty at Southern Maine Community College.