A bead of sweat pools on the tip of my nose. I want to wipe it, but I can’t move. Light pinwheels around my eyes like a kaleidoscope at a carnival. I hear my breath quickening, but I don’t know why. Other sounds morph into a distant drone punctuated by organ interludes.
Am I in church?
Through pinholes in my delirium, I can see Father Tassio talking behind the pulpit, his hands working the sermon like a potter would clay on a wheel. Behind him, I can see the cross where Jesus bleeds, the holes in his hands pulsing dark tunnels to another dimension. I look away so I’m not sucked into them.
Amanda Wingo draws in her bible. Her pencil scratches into the onion thin paper. I want to be that paper. Want to feel that important to someone.
The organ explodes and my head reels.
Everything fast forwards. The ironwork on the ceiling spins like the inner workings of a Swiss clock racing to get away from time. The stained glass windows shoot daggers of colors that ricochet off pews that are lined up like dominoes. I want to knock them over and watch them tumble, but my hands are too heavy.
I can’t lift my head, either. I am stone – just another Parian figure in the church, albeit one with penny loafers and a navy jumper.
Father Tassio’s words turn to tongues, a belligerent rant that pummels my head like shrapnel. “Shut up,” my mind screams over and over as each word bullet zings me. “Shut up! Shut up!”
Will I go to Hell for my blasphemy? It has to be a pretty big sin to scream shut up at your priest. I don’t care, though. And I wonder what is wrong with me that I don’t care.
Perhaps this is demonic possession. Shelly Meyers, a sixth grader with hair that reminds me of Christmas tinsel, missed three weeks of school one time when she was possessed. I overheard her telling the Barrow sisters all about it in the cafeteria during lunch, though I didn’t understand why the devil would want to make you do things with boys.
I recall a scene from The Exorcist, a movie I’ve watched on cable far too many times. Not the best choice for a second grader, but television is never monitored at either of my homes. Maybe Captain Howdy needs a new little girl and has come for me.
Oh, please, oh, please, don’t let my head spin around like that.
I look over at Jesus. His holes expand and unfold into a blanket of space that covers me.
I knew he’d get me eventually.
I hear a thud,
I have no consciousness.
Am I dead?
Not yet. That would come later.
For now, I am simply nothing.
When I begin to come back, I hear water running. Then I feel something warm and wet on my cheek. A washrag. Steaming terrycloth.
“Are you all right, dear?” she asks with a voice soft as baby powder.
I can’t talk. There’s a boulder in my throat. But I can hear and I can see, though the light of the room makes me squint and washes everything out like an overexposed photograph.
“Breathe,” she says, and I do as I’m told. But my chest expands too quickly. It won’t stop, and I can feel an earthquake somewhere at my core. A chill skitters up my legs to my stomach somehow setting flame to something that erupts.
I vomit on her, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “Don’t you worry about that one bit,” she says, cleaning her skirt.
Mrs. Tassio. I see her clearly now. I’ve thrown up on the priest’s wife.
“Are you all right?” she asks again.
I sit up too fast and almost hurl another, but somehow I will the tsunami in my stomach to recede. Mrs. Tassio puts a cup of water to my mouth and I drink. “Your mother’s on her way,” she informs me. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
She curls a strand of my hair behind my ear and I feel better, but then the weight of what I’ve done drags me back under. I’ve desecrated the priest’s wife. I don’t know where that ranks in the hierarchy of sins, but I’m sure it must be a doozey. Maybe even worse than telling a priest to shut up, even if I did only say it in my mind.
I start to cry.
“Father Tassio,” I whimper. “I need Father Tassio.”
Mrs. Tassio motions to a girl behind her. The girl approaches and I can see the burn scar that runs along her jaw. I want to touch it; I want to know what the puffy skin feels like. There’s something beautiful about the way it coils from her ear to her chin like a rivulet of secrets. I catch her eyes, and I can tell she misunderstands what I’m thinking because her mouth tightens into an asterisk of anger.
Mrs. Tassio dunks the washrag in a basin of steaming water. “Go get Father Tassio. If he’s not in the church, look in his office.
The girl obeys, throwing me a look on her way out, a look I’d come to know too well over the forthcoming years.
Moments later, Father Tassio returns without the girl. I can’t decide if I’m more relieved that he’s here or that she isn’t. My stomach moans and I roll over on my side. He kneels next to me
“You sent for me?” he whispers, taking my hand. His skin is too soft, it reminds me of someone, and I almost recoil, but then I remember. Father Tassio. My priest.
I squeeze his hand. “I need to confess my sins,” I say.
“What sins could you possibly have, little one?” he asks.
I run down the list, admitting all my indecencies: the time I said shit when I stubbed my toe on the refrigerator, the time I blamed our dog Jenny for breaking my mom’s porcelain vase, the time I gave Milton Hewitt the finger when he splashed me on purpose with his bike.
By the time I get to today’s transgressions, about how I told him to shut up with my mind and how I vomited all over his wife, I hear funny sounds coming from Father Tassio. He sounds like the squeaky gate to the playground. At first I think he’s crying, ever so disappointed in me, but then I notice he’s holding his stomach.
Is possession contagious? Have I contaminated my own priest on top of everything else?
Father Tassio snorts, taking such deep breaths that his nostrils flutter like an accordion.
Mrs. Tassio steps over with a thermometer, but I wave her off.
“My penance. I need my penance.”
Father Tassio can’t talk. He turns completely around in his chair. His belly heaves like a bellow, and he wheezes like my Uncle Ernie’s mule. I look at the ceiling to see if there are any long spears that might fall from the sky, but I only see a brown water ring.
God, if his head spins around, I swear I’ll throw up again.
“Five Our Father’s and five Hail Mary’s,” he finally gets out.
Mrs. Tassio sticks the thermometer in my mouth. “And how many for the priest?” she asks, then thumps him on his head.