NOTE: This is an unpublished excerpt of a longer work-in-progress.
He hadn’t been inside a church since… well, since he’d made himself no longer welcome. Which was why he was there now, outside the door of the Senora de Guadalupe Catholic Church, where he’d been baptized and confirmed, where his parents and their parents before them had been married, and where tomorrow his father would be buried alongside nine generations of Archuletas.
But before he could face all of that, he needed to summon his demons in private.
Like most village churches in northern New Mexico, the door was unlocked, but he hesitated, expecting… what? A stern-faced security guard with angel’s wings tucked under his uniform telling him he wasn’t on the list or challenging him for his credentials? But of course, there was no one and nothing to impede his progress as he slipped inside.
The three hundred-year-old church was more cave than structure, tiny windows and candlelight flickering over three-foot thick mud walls.
Tomorrow, there would be flowers — lilies, probably white, and camellias because his mother loved them. But tonight, the altar was bare and the church empty save an old man praying in the front pew.
He winced as he always did at the gilt-covered cross on the altarpiece, its gothic depiction of blood and suffering ubiquitous in northern New Mexico Catholicism, and felt the urge to kneel, but didn’t and wondered if that urge would ever completely go away.
Long ago, he’d been taught how to kneel without wrinkling his vestments and to stand up again without tripping over the fabric. He’d practiced alone in his room at night, kneeling and rising, kneeling and rising. The Bible might be full of threats of damnation for disobeying God’s laws, but the real danger of his alleged calling was apparently the possibility of tumbling down, ass over tea cups, into the congregation. So they’d taught him to kneel, but they hadn’t taught him to how to answer the questions that came when he did.
He slid into a back pew and the memory rose unbidden, coiled and ready to resume its torment at the slightest slackening of the will with which he’d held it at bay. The death of his father, dreaded and longed for at the same time, had cracked his shell open and the memory unwound itself from its restraints and exploded up into the cedar ceiling beams, the muted whoosh of its wings making the remembrance candles flicker and hiss.
It had been a small moment and not a tragedy…consoling a woman who’d lost her mother to cancer at age 82, with the promise of Heaven and God’s grace. It was his duty to say the words, like an arresting officer reciting Miranda rights, and her duty to listen, handcuffed to the rituals of her faith. But as he quoted the familiar words, he found himself unable to speak them. His doubts had drifted across the thin shimmering line into disbelief, and then everything was different even as everything was the same, as though God, sensing him slipping, had relaxed his fingers and let him fall and resumed His daily activities, the loss of the soul of Manuel Diego Francis Archuleta of no particular consequence.
He’d spent one more night in purgatory, on his knees in front of the crucifix that hung in the privacy of his rectory bedroom, insisting to himself and to God that he still hovered in that liminal space between faith and disbelief. But even as he knelt through that longest of nights, he felt his petition for the lie that it was, and when the sun rose and the morning became sufficiently advanced to make a visit socially acceptable, he’d gone to make his confession and to request a dispensation from his vows.
Priests were in short supply and the Church didn’t willingly let go of its own, but in the end, the flat, dull look in Manny’s eyes and the thin veneer of sweat and despair that clung to him convinced everyone who needed convincing, and the dispensation was granted.
Unlike his ordination, where he lay in prostrated glory on the altar of the gilded and glorious Saint Francis Basilica, his father shiny-eyed in the front row and celebratory Christmas enchiladas at Maria’s afterward, there was no one and no ceremony for leaving. Only Manny, alone in a Motel 6 with his demons, a check for the $320 he’d had on him when he took his final vows, and an official piece of paper releasing him from them, his divorce papers from God.
And after that, lacking his ability to heal himself, the defenses of his psyche had begun the slow work of hardening the area around the wound and the State of New Mexico Department of Child & Family Services had finished the job, so that he moved through the world fortified, more or less, against the pain of caring that he could not believe and could not trust in the absence of belief, that he had tried and failed to touch a God whose grace he somehow managed to long for and not believe in at the same time.
Now, tonight, entombed again in the cave of his childhood faith, he searched for words long pushed to the back of his memory, and found only shards of language encrusted with time and neglect and left to rot in the strata of his past. He struggled to piece them together into something coherent, and when he couldn’t, landed at last on the Hail Mary, so indelible in his mind there was no forgetting it… Holy Mary, the Lord is with thee, blessed art though among women… and turned his fractured focus to the side chapel where an icon of the Virgin waited in the shadows, her clear dark eyes perpetually cast towards her Son on the cross.
He paused a moment in his prayer, but there was no one there except the crackling wings of his demon as it mocked him from the rafters. He wondered what he’d been expecting, and then laughed a knife’s edge of a laugh that sliced through the church and earned him a disapproving stare from the old man praying at the front. Manny stared back for a moment, defiant, then deflated.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
But the Virgin’s eyes were only for her Son, who stared blankly at the ground, lost in His own pain of paternal betrayal, and there was only the faint rustling of demon’s wings in answer.
He rose from the pew and didn’t bother to genuflect on his way out. The old man had dropped a coin in the collection box and left, and there was no one else home in the house of God.
© Faith Currant 2019