“Look,” Jim says, “over there.” The beam of his flashlight illuminates a small church. The structure appears to be abandoned.
They walk through the gate and pick their way through an old, snarly graveyard with weeds and broken gravestones strewn about. They halt in front an old fashioned, heavy wooden door which sports a brass doorknob and rusted hinges.
Greg runs his fingers along the wood, feeling the bumps and ridges. “Looks like a Roman Catholic church. Wonder what the name of it is?”
Greg gives Jim a dirty look. “At any rate, the place has got to be about a hundred years old, at least.”
“Five hundred,” Jim says.
“Not that old.”
Jim tries the door. It’s locked. He bangs on it. A dog barks in the distance. “Anybody home?” he yells out.
“Jim, don’t,” Greg says.
“Keep your damned voice down, it’s after midnight.”
Jim sets down his duffle bag, unzips and riffles through it.
“What are you looking for?”
“This.” Jim holds up a small crowbar. “Got to be something of value in there.” He dips the metal into the crack of the door.
“This door is solid and it’s locked tight,” Greg warns. “You’re not getting it open.”
“Yes I am.” There’s a cracking sound. Jim keeps trying, digging the crowbar in further.
Greg grabs Jim’s wrist. “Stop.”
“Bluebeard? What about him?”
“Ever heard of the story?”
“You’re full of these crazy stories. Okay, tell me about Bluebeard.”
“A nobleman marries a woman. He has to leave the castle for awhile. The new bride has to stay behind. He gives her the keys. Tells her she can open every door but one. Tells his bride don’t ever open that door. Don’t ever go inside that room, under any circumstances. She vows not to. He goes away and leaves the castle in her care. Of course, curiosity overtakes her. She enters the room and discovers the room’s horrible secret. The floor is awash in blood. The murdered bodies of her husband’s former wives hang from hooks--”
“Greg,” Jim interrupts him with a smirk. He digs into his bag, pulls out a can of spray paint. He shakes it up.
“I’m not finished yet, Jim. Horrified, she drops the key in the blood. She picks up the key and flees the room but the blood won’t wash off. She reveals the secret to her sister and both of them plan to flee the castle the next day. Bluebeard comes home unexpectedly. He notices the blood on the key and realizes his new bride has broken her vow. He wants to kill her immediately, but she begs for half an hour to say her prayers--”
“Greg, what has this stupid story got to do with anything?”
“Don’t open that door. We don’t know what’s behind it. We could be going into a trap.”
“In an abandoned Catholic Church? There’s no trap, don’t be ridiculous. I know what’s behind this door. Stuff to rip off. Nobody’s been in here for years. Relax.”
Jim tries again with the crowbar. Suddenly and with a loud clank the metal snaps in half. “Shit.” He throws the pieces onto the ground.
Greg grins. “Looks like the door won. Let’s get out of here.”
“Yeah, I think you may be right.” Jim kneels down to gather up his bag. He pauses. “Wait. Do you hear that?”
“Organ music.” Jim cocks his head to listen. “Pipe organ.”
“From where? Inside?” Greg leans over, puts his ear against the door. It’s completely silent. “I don’t hear anything. You’re bullshitting me.”
“No, I’m serious. Somebody’s playing the organ in there.”
“All the better for us to leave.” Greg turns to go. Jim doesn’t follow. “Jim.”
“The music. It’s getting louder.”
“I don’t hear anything.”
Greg puts his ear against the door again, hearing absolutely nothing and waiting for Jim to say, ‘I’m just fucking with you’ but he never does.
“You don’t hear that?” Jim asks.
“No, I don’t.”
Jim grabs the door handle. It turns without resistance.
Jim ignores him.
The door creaks as it opens right up. “Told you somebody was playing the organ.” He scoops up his stuff.
“Let’s get out of here. We’re breaking and entering.”
“We’ll just take a quick peek. Then we’ll go.”
They stand at the open doorway, gazing inside. The interior is what appears to be a Medieval style prayer chapel, something you’d see on a tour of England or on Wikipedia. There's six wooden pews, grouped in threes, on either side of an aisle made up of black and white floor tiles. There’s a wooden altar situated in the very front, topped by a delicate lace table runner. The sides of the altar are covered with hundreds of flickering white candles. Stunningly beautiful, multi-colored stained glass windows line the outer brick walls.
Behind the altar is a huge wooden crucifix, complete with Jesus nailed to the cross, wearing a crown of thorns, looking very lifelike. The mouth is contorted into agony. The thin hips are covered with a bloody loincloth.
“Holy Hell,” Greg breathes out at the sight.
Jim worms his hips past the threshold, inching his way inside. He drops his bag, then his flashlight, then his can of spray paint. It clatters onto the tile floor, then rolls away
“Jim wait. I don’t think we should go in.”
“Stop being such a pussy,” Jim calls back to him. “Come on. It’s just a chapel. Shut the door behind you.”
“I don’t think that’s a good--”
“Shut the door, Greg.”
“Jim, I don’t--”
“Shut the goddamned door, Greg!”
Greg jumps inside, pulls the door closed behind him. It slams shut. Why he always lets Jim boss him around, he doesn’t know. Jim’s already up at the altar, staring at the grotesque crucifix. Greg half walks, half creeps down the black and white tiles.
“The music stopped,” Jim says.
“I never heard it in the first place. You must have been imagining things.”
That crucifix is huge,” Jim whispers. “Looks like a real dead body. Just killed yesterday. Gives me the creeps.”
“Wax,” Greg tells him. “If it was a real dead body, it would be stinking up the place.”
Greg selects the first right hand pew and slumps down onto the freshly cleaned wood. He can smell the Murphy’s Oil Soap. He fingers the hymnal laying nearby. So much for this being an abandoned church. He watches as Jim wanders around, looking for objects to stuff into his bag.
Jim spots a golden chalice, festooned with what looks to be rubies, sitting on the altar. “Ah hah."
“Don’t Jim. Don’t take that.”
“Might fetch a few bucks on ebay or craigslist.”
“Because it’s wrong. Look, we’ve seen enough. Can we get out of here, please?”
Jim shrugs, sets the chalice down. He turns around and stares at the stained glass. “What a cute little lamb.”
Greg follows his gaze. “The cute little lamb is being devoured by a lion. Look at the blood on the blades of grass.” The death scene is gruesomely depicted in several different windows.
Jim finally comes to sit next to Greg on the pew. “I was gonna tear this shit up. Now I don’t want to. This place is beautiful.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
It is breathtakingly beautiful, if not macabre.
After a few moments, Jim glances over at the left side of the chapel. “Hey, another room.” He jumps up to investigate.
“No, no, no,” Greg says. “It’s only a confessional.”
Jim opens up the small door, takes a peek inside. “It’s a closet, with a cushion on the floor.”
“The cushion is for kneeling on.”
“People sit in there and do what? Jack off?”
“Confess their sins, to the priest.”
“In here? Two people can’t fit in there.”
“The priest is in an adjacent closet. There should be a sliding panel inside. That's where you talk through.”
“Oh, I see it. Huh.”
“Haven’t heard much about Roman Catholic religious practices, have you.”
“I don’t pay much attention to religion. They’re all cults anyway.” Jim closes the door and comes back over to Greg.
“You should go back in there,” Greg tells him with a smirk. “Confess your sins.”
“There is no God, Greg.” Jim plunks down next to him.
“I remember once when I was little,” Greg says. “First time I ever stepped foot in a Catholic Church. My mom decided we all needed to start going to mass. On the wall behind the altar, there was a huge, life sized crucifix much like this one. It was the worst thing I’d ever seen in my life, up until that point. Blood running down from poor Jesus’ wounds. And Jesus was crying blood. Red blood coming from the tear ducts. I was traumatized. Had nightmares for weeks after that. I’d close my eyes and see the red blood, oh my God, the red--”
“It isn’t funny.”
“You’re always full of these goddamned stories. No such thing as Jesus, Greg. All of this is crap. Like a stage, theatre, make-believe.”
Greg looks up at that hideous crucifix. There's red coming out of the tear ducts. Can’t be. Can’t be crying red. Only a wax statue. Wax statues don’t cry. Wax statues don’t cry blood.
“Greg.” He feels a hard punch against his arm.
“What are you muttering? Can’t understand you.”
“Nothing.” Greg stands up.
“Where ya goin’?”
“Up there. I want to get a better look at that crucifix.”
“Why? You want to see if it’s really a dead body?”
Greg makes his way carefully past the lit candles, then slides behind the altar. “Maybe.”
He faces the crucifix, damned thing looks even larger now. The body hanging there is the same size as his own. And it is crying blood. Red flows out of the tear ducts and it's the same color liquid flowing out of the nail wounds. There’s the inscription overhead: "INRI" or as they used to say as kids: ‘Iron Nails Rammed In’.
He’s heard of this happening before, folks claiming that a statue of Jesus or Mary cries.
A miracle they say. It doesn’t seem to be a miracle. A miracle is saving his dad from dying. That’s a miracle that didn’t occur, but should have. This statue is only crying blood. It ain't blood. Probably rusty water. Don’t they usually cry tears, not blood? Big fucking deal. Rusty water from a pipe overhead. That’s all it is. Sure does look real, though. He reaches out and touches a foot.
“Wax.” Greg knocks on a thigh for effect.
“I was kinda hoping it would be a dead body hanging up there.”
Greg spins around to glare at him. “Because Catholics are cannibals? Is that why?”
Jim jumps in his seat at that. “Woah! Where’d you get that from? I never said Catholics are cannibals!”
"Yes you did. The other day." Greg places both hands flat on the altar, feeling the lace under his palms. He closes his eyes for a long second, before opening them again. “Well. If you want me to be honest, we sort of are.”
Jim’s eyes widen at that. “Are what?”
Greg repeats himself. “Cannibals.”
Jim chuckles. “You are not. You’re full of shit.”
“No.” Greg grins. “Not at all. You see it’s like this.” He drops his smile as he reaches over and picks the golden chalice. It’s heavy, full of liquid, smells like sherry. Just like the old days. “You start out with ordinary wine, and then you say ‘this is my blood’. And then, lo and behold, it is.”
“You can’t turn wine into blood just by you saying that.”
“Oh, yes, I can.”
“Stop fucking around. You’re trying to scare me, get me to leave here. Aren’t you. It ain’t working.”
Greg holds up the chalice in both hands. “She begs for half an hour to say her prayers.”
Jim chuckles at that. "Was Bluebeard's room really covered in blood?"
Jim stands up from the pew, spins around at the noise. “What the fuck?”
There’s a toy monkey about a foot high, standing on the black and white tiles, in the aisle between the pews. The monkey bashes together a set of shiny brass cymbals.
“Where the fuck did that thing come from?”
Greg lowers the chalice. Can’t take communion yet. Haven’t been to confession. Can’t take communion with black mark. “I don’t know,” he murmurs. “Must be a miracle.”
Jim rushes out of the pew, lunges towards the toy. He kneels down on the tile floor and stares at it. “What the fuck?!”
Jim lays down flat on his stomach. His head lolls to one side, completely entranced by the monkey.
Suddenly the monkey stops.
“I want to make it go again. How do I make it go again?” Jim whines like a child.
“Easy,” Greg tells him. “There’s a key stuck in its back. Wind it up.”
Jim does exactly that. “I still can’t figure out how this monkey got here.”
“Must have came from my back,” Greg mutters. Jim doesn’t hear him, too busy winding up the toy.
Jim cackles with glee.
The monkey stops. Jim winds it up again.
“Gregory.” A woman’s voice coming from the left of the altar. He looks. There’s a statue of Mother Mary nestled between two flickering candles. She’s staring right into his eyes. She’s standing on a globe, the serpent of the garden at her feet. “Gregory,” Mary says.
“Yes?” he replies.
“Do you want to be a good boy?”
“Yes,” he says. “I do.”
“Do you want to take communion, like a good boy?" Mother Mary says.
“Yes,” he tells her. He glances over at the chalice, then at Jim, then back to Mary. “I want to. Very much so.”
“Confess your sins. All of them. Only then can you take communion, Gregory.”
“But there’s too many sins. I’ve been so bad,” he protests. “Please, Mother Mary. Don’t make me go to confession. Please.”
“You must, Gregory. Go to confession. Confess. Be a good boy. You want to be a good boy.”
He’s thirty-three now, been lots of sinning since he was twenty one. It’s gonna take forever. But, she's right. If he wants to take communion, he must confess all of his sins. Every last one of them.
He sets the chalice down on the altar, very delicately. He turns back and faces the crucifix. He reaches out again, runs two fingers along the emaciated, wax torso. Feels the ribs.
He spins back around. Jim’s still laying there, watching the monkey.
He shrugs and walks around the altar, making his way to the confessional. He opens up the door, goes inside, shutting it behind him.
It’s tight in here, a closet, just like Jim had described, or maybe a coffin. Enough room to fit one desperate man and nothing else. He’s in complete blackness. He can’t see his hands in front of him.
Light switch. Where’s the light switch. He feels along the four wooden, splintery walls. Nothing. He feels for the door handle from the direction he’d just come from. Nothing. The handle was just there a minute ago. Can’t find it now. He’s trapped. His heart races. Where’s the light switch? Where’s the door handle? Where is it, where is it? Where IS IT? He’s frantic now. WHERE IS IT? WHERE IS IT? WHERE IS IT? WHERE IS IT?
Oh my God...the walls...they’re closing in. They’re closing in. They’re gonna crush me to death...the walls are gonna kill me...and I deserve this all of this... but I haven’t confessed my sins... I can’t die with the black mark...the black X on my soul.
He hears a noise: A grating, dragging. Like something sliding along a track. Somebody’s in the confessional next to him. The priest’s box. He spies a figure along with a dim stream of light emanating from the wooden latticed partition.
“Are you alright, my child?” a voice says. There's a bony hand, resting near the lattice.
“I can’t find the light,” he whispers.
“There’s a chain, above you. Pull on it.”
His hands scrabble overhead, feeling for something. Anything. The back of his hand hits cold metal. He tugs on it. With a click, blessed illumination, via a single dim lightbulb. The most gorgeous thing he’s ever seen in his life. Thank God. He sinks to his knees. He breathes out in relief, wiping the sweat from his brow.
After a moment, he brings his hands together in prayer. He lets out a soft giggle. Hasn’t done this in years.
Twelve years of Catholic school. Then three as a novice and one of seminary so that he could say the mass. He looked so angelic, so holy in that black soutane, crazy haircut, black sandals, his mother had said so when he’d taken his final vows: Obedience, poverty, chastity. It was the last time he was able to have contact with his family as a monk. Last time he’d ever seen Dad alive. He’d taken the name that all brother’s take, different to the one he’d been born with. His had been ‘Boniface’. So long ago.
Things were fine, he’d settled very nicely into religious life: the silence, the waking up at 4am every morning for prayer. Compline. Priory life was the simple way of life. But one day, he’d somehow gotten word that Dad had died. Nothing could save Dad. Dad was already buried. His mother had called the priory, several months ago, before, when Dad had taken ill.
‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner?’ he’d asked the Prior. ‘I could have prayed for him. Prayed for my dad.’
‘I’m sorry. Say three Hail Marys for your father’s soul.’
‘But if I could have prayed for him sooner. Prayed for a miracle. It might have saved Dad’s life.’
Shortly thereafter, he walked out the Priory. An ex-monk. With nothing but one hundred bucks, an old shirt, sweater, a pair of jeans that were too big for him, pair of old shoes, holy socks. The Prior warned him. Crooked an elderly, angry finger at him. You may walk out on us, but you can never leave.
Within days he’d broken two of his vows.
And he no longer believed. Boniface was dead. And that priory had that same goddamned black and white tile floor as this chapel.
He makes the sign of the cross. “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It has been twelve years since my last confession.”
The priest in the black cossack, behind the lattice, holds up an equally black rosary. There’s tapping. Those beads. He remembers them very well.
He exits the confessional.
Jim’s still lying on the black and white floor, on his side. Watching the monkey. When the monkey stops, Jim immediately winds it up again.
He watches Jim a moment before making his way back to the altar. He feels so free. So sinless. So good. Finally. All those sins will be gone. The years of guilt, absolved. His soul is completely clean. No more black mark. No more X. But, first he has to pay restitution. Before the communion. Before he’s allowed to eat the body and the blood. He must be willing to pay for those sins. He kneels down in front of Mary. Time for the prayer of death.
“Hail Mary," he says, "full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women. Holy Mary Mother of God, pay for us sinners, now and at the hour of death. Amen.”
He stands up, glances over at Jim. Jim’s winding up the monkey. Again. Jim, who’s always getting into trouble. Getting them both into trouble. Drugs. Women. Sex. Crime. Jim with a rap sheet a mile long.
He kneels again. Makes the sign of the cross.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women. Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death. Amen.”
He stands up and looks over at Jim. Jim turns the key, winding up the monkey yet again.
He kneels again for a third time. (Jesus fell a third time when he carried his cross to be crucified. On the third day he rose again.)
He makes the sign of the cross. "In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen."
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women. Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
Finally, that’s all taken care of.
Now for communion. The miracle.
He walks towards the altar. Reaches to the left of him. Gets out the brass plate. Picks up The Holy Eucharist. Holds up the wafer. He speaks in persona christi (like so long ago): “He broke the bread and gave it to his disciples and said, take this all of you and eat of it, for this is my body, which will be given up for you.”
He holds it up and shows the host to the people in the pews then places it again on the plate. He genuflects in adoration. He says: “He poured the wine and gave it to his disciples and said, take this all of you and drink it, for this is my blood, which will be given up for you.”
He holds up the chalice, then places it down on the altar. He genuflects again in adoration.
Jim winds up the monkey.
He holds up both the wafer and the chalice. He sings: “Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the holy spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever. Amen.”
The pipe organ plays from the back, the choir loft, very softly at first, then louder and still louder. He knows that song all too well: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Hosts’.
Then the music stops.
The monkey halts.
Jim’s laying on his side. On the black and white tiles. In the fetal position. But Jim doesn’t wind up the monkey. Not anymore. He can’t.
Jim’s severed head rests on the communion plate.
Boniface sets down the bloody knife.
You can walk away, but you can never leave.
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
He partakes of God’s body and blood and it is good. And to be good, he must pay.
He closes his eyes.
He opens them to see the chapel full of people. Light streams in from the stained glassed windows, leaving colorful pictures on the freshly scrubbed black and white tile floor. Everything is pristine. It’s so beautiful.
He feels agonizing pain in his wrists and feet and realizes that he’s hanging from the wall, behind the altar, behind the priest. Wood splinters dig into his back. He’s clad in only a loin cloth.
The priest says to the assembled: “Welcome to St. Boniface. The processional music today is on page 313. Please rise for the opening song.”
There’s a little boy in the front row, staring into his eyes in horror. He tries to move his wrists. The thorns on his head dig into his skull. Oh, how it hurts.
“Mommy!” the boy says.
“Mommy!” the little boy says. “Jesus is crying. He’s crying red. Why is Jesus crying blood, Mommy?”
The congregation stands and begins to sing.