Prologue: Make Straight the Paths

 Ciara Neal, bleary eyed at the bar, was vaguely aware that her friends had left. In fact, all the customers were gone except her, and still Fran didn’t call closing time. She hovered nearby, clearing off glasses and muttering. Something about a priest. Then a word that managed to penetrate Ciara’s brain fog.

“Did you say ‘vigilantes’?”

“Drink this.”

Fran slammed down a coffee mug in front of her. It didn’t smell like coffee. Didn’t taste like any tea Ciara knew of. Presumably it was the same stuff that Fran swilled down every night. If she had to guess, she’d have said it was brewed from tobacco leaves.

“I’ve been listening to you mouth off all night,” Fran said, “louder and louder with each beer you put away. And here’s what I have to say to you: quit your whining. How many people even have the chance to go to college?”

“You don’t understand—”

“I got the picture clear enough. Some teacher’s turned on you ‘cause you won’t sleep with him. College ain’t so different from the rest of the world.”

“I’ve finished college,” Ciara said. “I’m in graduate school now. I’m getting a Ph.D. and this professor could ruin everything for me. He’s a big name, he throws his weight around. He says he’ll stop me from getting any more fellowship money. Even if I could afford grad school after that, he’ll blacklist me from getting jobs when I finish.”

“And now you’re telling your friends and the rest of the bar and who knows who else, that you’re going to kill the wretched man if it’s the last thing you do.”

Ciara picked at a forgotten bowl of bar nuts.

“I filed a complaint. It went nowhere. My word against his.”

“So the next step is what, a bullet in his brain?”

“What’s the alternative, walk away quietly while he ruins my life and fucks over anyone who won’t put out for him? Don’t tell me forgive and forget. I’m so fucking tired of hearing that.”

Fran studied the girl. She had a head of auburn hair that reminded Fran of her nieces back in Ireland. Even the personalities were similar. The same blazing anger and beauty, equal parts.

“Here’s the next thing I’m going to tell you,” Fran said. “But for god’s sake don’t go blabbing about it every time you get some beer sloshing through your bloodstream. There are people—women—who feel the same way you do, who’ll help you free of charge and no strings attached. There’s women like that in every town. They’re all around you, if you know where to look.”

“They’ll help me—how?”

“Rock through a window. Slash his tires. Shatter his kneecaps.”

“Do they go any further than that?”

“You don’t want to go that far.”

“Yes I do.”

“Don’t argue with me, girl. Killing’s not a light matter.”

“I want this man to suffer. I’m not going to stop wanting that. I want to hit him back, hard, and move on with my life.”

Fran suddenly felt tired. It took endless work to keep this bar from subsiding into a pile of beer-soaked lumber. But it was her place, all her own.

There had been a time when she was young, and not so watchful as she was now. Men had seemed larger then. Louder. They seemed to have no limits unless the limits were slammed down on their heads like two-by-fours.

“Can you give me their names?” Ciara said.

“Before I do, there’s someone you should talk to first.”

*

Chapter 1: Advent

For those with ears to hear, voices of long-dead monks still lingered at St. Anthony of Padua’s Monastery in rural Connecticut. The monks had been there for over a hundred and sixty years. They had tended vegetable garden and fruit orchard, cleared underbrush from the forested hills, kept the wide lawns neatly mown. They laid down flagstone paths, repaired church pews, scaled roofs to replace tiles and fix gutters. For visitors they built picnic tables and a playground lined with mulberry and crabapple trees.

Through all that work and all those decades they had chanted and sung, hummed and whispered, together, in mostly perfect unison, Matins and Vespers, Te Deums and Ave Marias.

Then their numbers thinned. The few remaining monks grew old and died. The garden was choked with weeds, the orchard spectral and overgrown. People called the place picturesque when they really meant dilapidated.

But the brotherhood persisted on the other side of that bright dividing line, and the monks were still there, humming and watching, when the archdiocese of Hartford bought the place, and when the two priests arrived to transform it into a retreat house: curmudgeonly Peter Byrne and his idealistic young colleague Marc Cvetko.

Then came the renovations: workshops turned into guesthouses, barn into meeting rooms.

Last year a new one had shown up: a woman priest, of all the daft, new-fangled things this new century had wrought. The monk-spirits were inclined to be disapproving, but they couldn’t help pitying her, knowing the bloody beginnings of her priestly career. And she looked so fragile: sharp elbows and jutting shoulder blades, fever-bright eyes. You would have thought she was recovering from an illness if not for that exuberant dark hair, that reckless smile.

On this autumn afternoon they watched Averil Parnell stride to the playground, drawn by the high, clear laughter that had reached her all the way to the Refectory. Two children were there, a little girl on a swing and an older boy who sat on the carousel reading.

The girl looked to be about four. Averil chose a swing a few seats away, straightened her legs out and lowered her back. On the upswing, with her feet pointing to the sky, her hair grazed the ground. “See, I’m a broom,” she said.

Some of the sterner monks frowned. So undignified.

The little girl tried it herself. “I’m a broom too.”

They could hear the boy behind them: “I don’t know if you should be doing that, Ginnie.”

The two of them, woman and girl, picked up speed, bodies tilting backward on the upswing, forward on the downswing. Averil closed her eyes, concentrated on the headlong rushing sensation and that moment at the top of the arc where she was that much closer to the sun, buoyed up by light and air.

Like an echo to the boy’s anxious treble came another voice, the booming baritone of her colleague Peter Byrne: “Averil. There’s someone who needs to speak to you.”

As she dragged her swing to a stop, Peter noted the playground dust in her hair, the dark eyes looking at him with no trace of embarrassment. How she could have been a pastor of her own parish for all those years was a mystery.

The girl who was with him started speaking before Averil was even close enough to shake hands.

“This conversation is just a formality,” Ciara said. “I’ve already made up my mind. I want him dead, the son of a bitch.”

“There are children present.” Peter tried to hiss, but the words sounded more like a low roar. The monks respected Peter for that voice of his. Barrel-chested, angry men had lungs like a set of bellows. He would have made an impressive addition to their choir.

Averil, alarmed by Peter’s beet-red face, pictured heat and pressure building up inside him like a red dwarf star until some kind of explosion resulted. Whatever stars did, implode, explode. Topple from the heavens.

“Let’s go somewhere and talk,” she told the young woman.

Peter later thought of Ciara’s visit as the beginning of what he called The Onslaught. Some people had known all along that Averil was here at St. Anthony’s now: Her former parishioners at St. Margaret’s. Her off-beat friends from exotic religions: Wicca, Santeria, United Church of Christ. Later, others found out too. People who suddenly became regulars at Mass at St. Anthony’s. People who had never darkened the door of any church prior to that.

But before all that, before The Onslaught, was the first one. The girl with the red hair, was how Peter thought of her, failing to do justice to either Ciara’s age, her hair’s magnificent burnt-gold color, or her majestic anger.

*

Ciara had never given much thought to religion, hadn’t known what to expect from this meeting with the woman priest. She’d pictured an office like a therapist’s, coffee in styrofoam cups. Instead they sat on the grass near a picnic area. An enormous gray tabby cat showed up and the priest introduced the animal as if it had been invited to observe.

Both the priest and the cat were gazing over at the church, more focused on that, it seemed, than on what Ciara was saying about the harasser, about Fran and her mysterious hints.

“I suppose I had an easier time in college,” Averil said finally. Or, she reflected, maybe she’d been oblivious. Living with Asher had been like being in a cocoon.

“It must be an urban legend,” Ciara said. “Groups of vigilante women. If they really existed, it would be all over the newspapers.”

She waited for a response. Averil said nothing.

“Well, this is an awkward moment,” Ciara said. “You don’t want to lie, I suppose, being a priest and all, but you don’t want to tell me what you know, either.”

“When I finished seminary,” Averil said, “they had an ordination ceremony for the Roman Catholic Church’s first women priests. There were twenty-three of us.”

“Damn. I didn’t realize that was you. I’m sorry.”

The Cathedral Massacre. Ciara was a child at the time but had learned about it later. One man with a semi-automatic weapon and a venomous hatred of women. Averil Parnell was the only survivor.

“What happened to the motherfucker? Pardon my language.”

“People finally reached him, wrestled the gun away. There were some shots fired in the scuffle and the man was killed.”

“You couldn’t even get revenge.”

In the silence Averil heard the unspoken questions: What do you do with the anger? And the young woman’s more immediate, more pressing concern: What should I do with it?

“Anger doesn’t just disappear,” Averil said. “It bubbles along, it surfaces in different ways. You try not to feel it every waking minute. You learn to live with it.”

Right after her ordination, before the years at St. Margaret’s, Averil had been assigned to a quiet parish out in the countryside, nominally to assist the pastor, but actually they wanted her to pick up where her dissertation left off, start the brilliant career in academe they all assumed she would have.

Women she’d never seen before had showed up, made offers. Fuck him, they said, and the horse he rode in on. Of course the bastard was dead, but there were others who could be made to pay. The gun dealer who sold him the weapon. The judge who paroled him after he’d beaten a woman bloody. Hell, anyone who’d ever given him a kind word instead of grinding him into the dirt where he belonged.

Averil wanted no part of it, barely understood what they were talking about.

They returned a few times. What about justice? they said. Isn’t that what your god is all about?

I don’t know what my god is all about, Averil said.

Mostly she worked in the rectory garden. People made complaints about the scarecrow she’d put up. Too realistic, they’d said. The way he’s hanging there—it looks like a real man she’s tied up to that crosspost.

“Learn to live with it?” Ciara said. “That’s your answer?”

Averil stroked the grass beneath her hands, closed her eyes and felt the breeze on her face. As for man, his days are as grass. She had heard that phrase as a child, recognized its biblical cadence but not its meaning, pictured sunny warm days in the backyard. Only later did she wonder about the other possibilities. Days as grass—meant to be cut short? Meant to wilt? Meant to keep coming back?

“You could hang him in effigy,” Averil said. “Then again, in a few weeks it’ll be Halloween, a good time for bonfires.”

What?”

“Symbolic revenge. I know people who would help set it up.”

“That won’t do a damn thing.”

“Try it,” Averil said. “For my sake. Before you go back to Fran.”

*

The monk-spirits fretted over Averil Parnell. Her undignified behavior and general unkemptness they could overlook. More worrisome was her procrastination. Not perhaps a Deadly Sin, but certainly a moral failing.

In her life before the priesthood she’d been a scholar, a historian of medieval Christianity and a rising star in the field. They felt—and Averil did too—that she should get back to her scholarly writing. She was forty-two years old, well past time to produce another book on the medieval women writers she’d specialized in before.

She had been the pastor of St. Margaret’s for ten years—reason enough, she used to console herself, for not returning to her scholarship. Now she had no excuse.

Averil gripped her pen and notebook. A scholar needed to narrow down a topic. Identify a research question. She would decide on something. Now.

She closed her eyes. Nothing.

“I had a fine mind once,” she said out loud to the empty room.

The words had flowed easily all through the child-prodigy years, a high school diploma at age sixteen, graduating college at nineteen. Sailing through her graduate work in history, when the momentous decision was made to accept women to the priesthood. Earning an M.Div. while finishing a Ph.D. and hardly breaking a sweat.

Then came the massacre. The words skittered off into dark corners, crouched down and dug in and refused to come out.

All the words she’d had, they’d done her no good. Her fine mind was no match for blood-soaked horror.

Jesus could not have been clearer: Turn the other cheek. For all you could argue about who he really was, what he thought he was, you couldn’t get around the basic message. Forgive, forgive, and then forgive some more.

Women in the confessional, whispering even in the privacy of the small cushioned booth, memories of being wronged, angry thoughts of revenge, and Averil had said forgive.

When they whispered that the revenge had been taken, she gave them absolution.

God is love. Love is forgiveness.

She thought about Ciara, and about the long-gone scarecrow.

She had torn that scarecrow down, dragged it into the church one evening when the elderly pastor was away, pronounced anathema on the cathedral killer and his straw stand-in. A brand-new priest taking on a power technically reserved for the pope.

“In the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” she had said, using for once the patriarchal language, “in the name of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given me of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth . . .”

She held a lit candle in each hand, raised them over her head as she stood at the altar. Besides not being the pope, she was not surrounded by the requisite eleven other priests, all chanting in unison. Nor was she following the correct wording. Gone was any mention of the possibility of reconciliation, should the sinner repent.

“I deprive you and all your abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, I separate you from the society of all Christians, I exclude you from our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, I declare you excommunicated and anathematized and I judge you condemned to eternal torment.”

She raised her arms and dropped them. The candles clattered onto the altar and went out.

“You are damned, you are damned, you are damned.”

She had never told anyone about this private ceremony. Had never asked forgiveness. Had never considered that she needed forgiveness.

Now, in the peaceful darkness of her rooms at St. Anthony’s, sins suffered and sins inflicted reverberated off each other, a hall of mirrors.

She looked at the empty page as if looking down a long corridor into the past. Not only the murders of her companions, but so many murders before that. A long, vast history of men killing women.

People sometimes asked Averil, obliquely, about the massacre and its effects on her. “How are you?” they would say. “Really, how are you doing?” and she knew what they were asking.

She wanted to tell them about the Black Death, the plague that carried off a third of medieval Europe’s population. The survivors reacted with extremes of behavior.

It’s a punishment from God, some claimed. They fasted, gave away their earthly possessions. They flogged themselves, earning the title Flagellants: holy fools with whips and blood-seeping scars.

On the opposite side were those who drank heavily, gorged themselves on food and sex. We’re doomed anyway, they said, why not enjoy ourselves at the end? Maybe they too believed that the plague was sent by God, or maybe in private they decided there was no God, and this senseless destruction was the proof of it.

Sometimes roving bands of penitents met up on the road with wandering revelers. Averil liked to imagine the scene. One group heading east, the other west, they mingled as they crossed paths and forgot for a moment who they were, which group they belonged to. Ashen-faced penitents took swigs from flasks, boisterous carousers whipped themselves with nettles.

Years after the massacre, when well-meaning acquaintances asked her how she felt, how she survived, Averil wanted to tell them about those encounters during the plague years. She was still there, she wanted to tell them, still on that road.

__________________________

ROSALIE MARIE KEARNS, author of the novel Kingdom of Women (Jaded Ibis Press, December 2017), is a writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent. She’s the founder of the feminist publishing house Shade Mountain Press, author of the story collection Virgins and Tricksters, and editor of the short story anthology The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women. A product of Catholic schooling from kindergarten through college, Kearns has a B.A. in theology and an M.F.A. in creative writing.

Adapted from Kingdom of Women, by Rosalie Morales Kearns, Copyright © 2017 by Rosalie Morales Kearns. With permission of the publisher, Jaded Ibis Press.

 

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