M.K.Harlan

Storyteller

He licked his lips and walked the chip across his knuckles. Three years. In three years, he hadn’t been to church. He hadn’t had communion. He hadn’t seen his wife, he hadn’t spoken a word to his children. He hadn’t been allowed.

Beside him, his wife knelt in solemn prayer. He knew that for the first time in a long time it wasn’t him she prayed for, or if she did it wasn’t in the same way as before. She didn’t feel she had to. He was better now, recovered, cured. She’d picked him up that morning, the children in the back seat and they’d all come to mass together.

He continued to walk the chip across his knuckles and stared silently at the only thing that bothered him in this church. The Christ stared down at him, his lifeless wooden eyes seemed to cut to his very soul. The crown of thorns on his brow dripped crimson painted rivulets of blood into the corner of one eye.

The blood. That was the part he’d never liked, too real.

The coin danced across his fingers, so quick that he almost lost control of it. People began to form a line to receive the elements He watched as they received their blessing and bread. The body of Christ. He’d never understood the idea of symbolic cannibalism. But he knew he needed it.

His wife rose and stepped to the back of the line. She saw that he didn’t follow and pursed her lips as she glanced back at him. He knew he needed it, but for her it was the final test, to know he was serious about this. That he was a changed man. To her, this would mean he was better, that there was no chance of his turning back.

“God, please. Don’t make me do this.” He whispered the prayer so quietly he almost didn’t hear it himself. He clasped the chip within his closed fist and stood, hands shaking just a little. His wife saw this as the final test of his new commitment to life, but for him it was different.

He needed this, he didn’t doubt it. Communion was important, but for the first time in his life he wished that he didn’t need it. Any of it. There was a part of him that needed it for reasons other than the one that was intended by Christ so long ago.

He took his place beside his wife and she seemed to hold her head a little higher as she looked forward, arms crossed and hands on her shoulders to receive the body. The priest placed the bread gently into her mouth and she swallowed it almost without chewing. He took the bread in his hands, preferring to do it himself. He nodded to the priest and proceeded on with his wife. The chip in his other hand seemed to grow warm as he walked beside her. She took the cup from the alter boy and sipped the blood of Christ, or the wine that represented it.

He could deny it, he could walk by the cup, wave it off and continue back to his seat with his wife. But wasn’t this the most important part? More important than even the body which he had already taken? The alter boy wiped the lip of the cup where her lips had touched and she looked at him expectantly. Was he supposed to take it or was he supposed to walk by? He swallowed hard and rubbed the chip against his palm.

He took the cup.

It was far from the same yet, as the wine touched his lips, memories flooded in. Memories of a lover’s kiss.

A lingering sting on his skin, and a hazy fog. A burning sensation down his throat and warming his belly, but no matter how many kisses he received there was still an emptiness in him. The liquid kiss of the bottle could not, would not fill him.

The glass on the table stood empty. It had been for a while now. He did not want to fill it. He’d made a promise to never fill that glass again. But the glass taunted him. Why should he have kept it if he never meant to fill it again? Perhaps it was not the glass that taunted him.

Maybe it was the bottle he pressed to his lips. Or the now almost imperceptible burning sensation in his throat. It talked from inside him as it went down; crying for another swallow. He did not understand why he continually pressed the bottle’s mouth to his as though it were a lover and he a dying man. Perhaps he was a dying man.

He turned away from the glass. There was a paper on the pillow next to his, faded and folded a thousand times over. He knew its content by heart. A letter asking him to choose between one lover and another. He had chosen long ago after a fashion. He had never stopped seeing the lover that was with him now. He did not use the glass… that bed of whose he could not reenter… But he had found other ways… other methods of rendezvous with her. Her mouth pressed to his again, begging him to forget the letter and the one who wrote it. But he could not forget the letter which lay upon his bed. The language was so beautifully crafted it was meant to be dark and angry. And was made unintentionally beautiful with the stroke of pen and cadence of words. Language come alive in texture and voice… demanding that a choice be made.

Again, his lover’s lips met his and his stomach slowly burned.

He unfolded the paper, caressing it as though it were the one who had written it rather than a mere ghost of what she had been. As if to admonish him for such a thought his lover’s lips pressed to his again. He could not read the words through his haze… through his lover’s fingers laced over his eyes.

All that mattered were the words “this affair must end” But how could he end it? How could he tell the lover that he did not want her any more when yet again her lips pressed to his? He felt the dull burn in his stomach and her weight on his chest as she whispered love and tenderness in his ear, begging for one more kiss. One more chance to make his stomach burn and flutter in his throat.

He stood to leave the bed, he needed to walk, to think, to clear his head. But he stumbled, as she pulled him back. Kissed him again, passionate and fierce.

He shook his head. The alter boy stared at him. He had taken too long, though he barely swallowed any of the wine. His wife frowned as he handed back the cup and followed his wife. The letter had been hers. He’d answered it by clinging to his lover for three years. For three years he had clung to the lover. Now he held this chip in his hand, clung to it as he had once the lover.

The benediction was given, but he did not hear it. He did not see as the recession was made. As they walked out the door he paused, they were the last to leave, but he didn’t linger long. He walked the chip across his knuckles one last time and dropped it in the offering box. He looked back to his wife, but she was already on her way out. Her retreating form did not look back at him, but he knew she was crying. He knew that the lover had come between them again.

He turned back to the cross hanging above their heads. The red rivulets of blood stood out more than ever. “I want you, not her,” he prayed.

But all he saw was the lover, beckoning him closer.

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