The Penitent

Chapter One

I think of an aerial view, a gray geometric grid of lines, angles and ants. Focus down. I am a speck, seated in St. James Cathedral, located in the center of the highest crime area in this gritty city that smells of oil refineries and burning hops.

A celluloid of four seasons moving through a clicking projector. We are at late winter. A calendar torn, months blowing rapidly past. Stop on February. A pocket watch, cracked glass face, through it the hour shows midnight.

I move slowly through pew forty-five, left-center aisle. Rearrange hymnals and offering envelopes in the small wooden racks on the back of each pew. The desolation of a weekend of Masses. I straighten the books, and dig out the gum wrappers from the deep wooden pockets. My soft oily rag wipes over the pew's honey-colored wood so it can breathe. I smooth my hands on my apron and scoot along the wooden bench to the next slatted compartment.

Vibration under my skin. I press my thumb against my knee, conjure the droning voice of Father Charles. His preaching hasn't sounded here since this morning. His imagined voice is a perfect backdrop for the vivid stories I create to pass the time, or to make it stand still. Naked stories I step into, leaving my clothes behind, my life.

Twenty-four and the fantasies of my protector dazzling me from a far-away pew are tales spun by a sojourner looking for the faraway city of "happily-ever-after."

I feel a draft. In front of the altar candles flicker in red cups like caged dancing sprites. The movement lures my mind into an incense-induced trance.

The shuffling sound is first. I don't turn to look. It is the holy battle. Perhaps. The doors of this grand place are supposed to be locked. Father often falls asleep before he remembers to do so. Too much sacramental wine swirls in the cup he holds against his belly as he snores comfortably in his study.

And so he crawls forward. The penitent. Passes my seat on the aisle. He is a strong force of regret. His head is lifted. His gaze is set on the tiers of flames lit by those who purchase God's attention. He is owning his sins.

I only breathe in. Throat constricted.

Up the aisle he drags on his knees against the long ribbon of hard red and gold linoleum. His long black coat drags behind, beleaguered wings, a dark angel. Arms held away from his body, hands open, fingers spread in silent plea.

Slow and careful. He reaches the candles. He staggers to stand. He lifts one of the tall punks standing on end in a clear cup, and lights its end in one of the flames. Touches its glowing tip to the wick of one of the red wax-filled cylinders. The flame catches and burns brightly, a continuous licking prayer for absolution.

I feel his relief. He replaces the punk in the holder. He turns, eyes cast downward, jaw strong, but not clenched. A soft expression on a hidden face, and even so I sense he's no innocent. Even as I understand he's beautiful.

And broken.

How do I know? All of my life I am silent in this house of God. Always watching. One of the statues, crying silent red tears that cease to disturb they've grown so familiar.

For many years I've watched for him-Gabriel or Michael. I don't know, I can't guess. Now I sit in all the grayness. I wait.

He moves closer, hands in the pockets of his black trench coat, steps slow, head down. But he stops by me, even though I am the color of dried leaves. The lanterns overhead making his hair an errant halo.

"You see me, Little One." There is wonder in his tone, though his voice is soft as anointing oil. His eyes are deep and ringed by the blackest fringe, as if he needed any of that, as if I could resist him, fight him off, or worse, would want to.

"Of course I see you," I answer, not scoffing. I barely speak, he's that over-whelming.

His long-fingered hand reaches toward me, its elegance touching me lightly under my chin, lifting my head slightly. I regard his beatific features. Feel the red tears pulsing beneath my skin, my blood an under-ground spring of life that rushes so madly no one from the outside could guess.

And yet…he knows.

His thumb grazes my cheek. He whispers, "At last." The timbre of his voice is a low-chord. This is the vibration. I am untouched. Until him.

His gaze pulls me until I reach for the pew in front of me, easing myself forward as if to rise.

"Bella." I don't know my voice it's so open. With him, I am new.

He smiles. I lean a little. Toward him, not away.

He shakes his head. "I see you now…like this. You are quite something," he says, his lips as lovely as his hope.

"I…I'm nothing," I assure him.

"No," he counters, pained now, his finger cold against my lips. "No blasphemy."

"Isabella," I finally whisper against his fingers.

He whispers this in return, "Isabella. Bella." It's like a sad melody the way he says it. He looks at me so fervently. His chin is tucked, his eyes a furnace of interest. I need to stop such a look before I start to weep, but I'm held by this attention to every detail that is me.

He uses both hands now, to sift through my hair as if each strand were of value, to trace the line of my shoulders as if it is well-drawn, to cup my face, to lightly run his fingers over my brow, over my cheek, like the blind do to see the skin and the bones beneath, until I'm soft, and gripping my hands together to keep from clinging to him.

"How can this be?" he whispers in a voice as compelling as his touch. "You deserve…so much." He speaks to himself, not to me. He speaks about me, examines me, opens my hands and lifts them, and I stand. He is taller. He presses his lips against my knuckles, the tender feel of my first kiss. I know my hands smell of dust and taste of the oil soap on the cleaning cloth. I am so embarrassed.

But he holds my palm against his cheek as if it's meant to bless. All of my ugliness is devoured by his beauty, and all of my longing moves into him.

His eyes search and hold mine, and he gently releases my fingers.

"Forgive me. I had to touch you. Isabella. It's all starting now." He looks away. His face is twisting, conflicted. He pulls at his hair with both hands then lets his arms flop against his coat.

I take a step toward him, boldly grab his beautiful hands and weave my fingers with his and he almost crushes them in his grip, and it is the most glorious feeling.

"Isabella," he groans, his head dipping low, his eyes closed. "I've known you for so long, but not like this."

"You're not a man," I say.

He looks at me then. His expression makes my throat spasm, but I do not flinch from his deeply verdant gaze.

"You're something more."

Now he swallows just as loudly as I had.

"I sleep in the basement of this place," I say, my fingers still twining with his. "You can stay with me."

"Yes," he says, with his voice, his face. "That is what I long for."

I lead us then, across the expanse of the church, to the narrow hidden staircase in the far southern corner. He leads thereafter, down the wooden stairs, through the dark labyrinth. Coat sluffs against the narrow places, against the broken statuary that litters the hall. Steps soundless and sure, knowing the way to my room as if we have always shared it.

And while we walk, he sings, "Isabella. Isabella."

Room white and gray, colored like a moth's cocoon. Beauty can die in its wrappings if it never finds the strength to bloom.

Catacombs and graveyards. This room, a tomb of sorts. Buried here, unworthy. Upstairs all the gilding, the bell, like in my name, ringing out.

From behind, I lay my hands on his shoulders, pluck at his coat, slowly drag it down his arms, lay it on the cask at the end of my bed.

I say, "Excuse me," step behind the screen. Movements whisper as I take off the shell and leave the gauzy underthings. Vestments. Weightless, I move to him, he watches, he looks, but it is awe. Touching his hand, I move mine into his and pull him to my narrow bed, pulling back the covers, a broken-wing of invitation.

I lie on my back, hand still in his, guiding him. "Are you real?" he whispers. "Are you real?" I say.

He arranges my hair over my shoulders, my veil.

"Sleep now," I say. "I'll keep vigil."

"I don't need sleep," he says. "I'm adoring you."

He lays his head next to mine. He brackets me like a dark curve of strength. My mirror and my contrast.

Awake long in the darkness, but never more at rest. Able to see by the light of one another's presence. Warm in spite of the coldness that seeps across this city. Across this world.

When it's over and the streets have stopped chewing and devouring. He and I will start again.