by Aidan Hayes
Ericah first noticed the figure coming down the sidewalk as she exhaled a lungfull of cigarette smoke, and at that moment he had seemed mysterious, ethereal, as if he'd been sent to her from another dimension with a dire message. Peering through the smoke, she thought the huddled black figure loping slowly down the sidewalk must be headed straight toward her. But as soon as he passed under a street lamp, she recognized him right away. It was Father Mukada, walking toward the rectory, and while he certainly looked the part of otherworldly messenger with his smooth mocha skin and bottomless dark eyes, she knew his path past her was only a coincidence.
She'd moved her young son three blocks from St. Mike's intentionally - she wanted Sam to be taught by the Jesuits, and knew the priests would be good male role models for her fatherless only child. She was raising her son Catholic, but had not officially converted yet; it was still a point of contention between her and archdiocese of St. Mike's. She had her own reasons for lingering, not the least of which was the fact that they held her conversion of her son's head like a dark scepter: if she didn't convert, Sam could be expelled. She had walked out of Father Cavanaugh's office two weeks ago, slamming the door hard behind her, after whipping out her checkbook and asking - in the same manner that divorces, annulments, and tickets out of purgatory could be bought - what price second grade? Father Cavanaugh had sent Father Mukada to her apartment a few days later, and ever since then they had shared an uneasy friendship.
She still wasn't sure "friendship" was the right word as she watched Father Mukada grow closer, trudging slowly down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. Despite the fact that a Roman collar was looking more and more to her like a badge of corruption and hypocrisy, she liked him and truly believed that he tried to live by his vows. She could sense the barely hidden contempt some of the priests had for her, the agnostic, and her son, the quiet, intelligent seven-year-old with glasses who just happened to have never met his father. Father Mukada could have come to her apartment that day and paced her floor and delivered a sanctimonious sermon on the important role of a parent's devotion in the development of an effective Catholic. He could have expelled Sam for her implication - face it, outright accusation - that the church bought and sold divorces, annulments, and tickets out of purgatory.
Instead, he had completely disguised his appearance as a simple visit specifically to Sam. She had sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee as Father Mukada had inquired at great length into Sam's studies, his grades, his teachers, his classmates, and had listened intently as Sam answered all his questions enthusiastically. Mukada's point was crystal clear in a matter of minutes: Ericah shouldn't let her own stubbornness interfere with her child's education. Sam obviously loved St. Mike's, and was obviously receiving a first-rate education there. He had straight A's in every class, got along famously with his fellow students, regularly brought home letters of praise from his teachers; the only person who could destroy all that for him was Ericah. His point had not gone unheeded. Although she still hadn't converted, she had called Father Cavanaugh to apologize. And she had forced herself to read the Bible and at least try a little bit of prayer. So far, the results were inconclusive, but she couldn't deny Mukada had had an effect on her. And, although she hated to admit it to herself, he had affected her in another manner beyond the spiritual.
She knew what it was. She was a sucker for men who showed interest in her son. And that late afternoon, with the sunlight that streamed in through the kitchen windows gracing his skin, he'd been so goddamn earnest, sitting down on the floor Indian-style with Sam as the boy stretched out over the linoleum to do his math homework. She had watched Father Mukada's face carefully for any sign of patronization or preachiness, but every word from his mouth had been filled with sincerity and candor. Soon, she'd found herself gazing simply at the lips that were forming the words, and had caught her own eyes wandering over the shape of his ears and the smooth skin covering the back of his neck. As her gaze shifted to the breadth of his shoulders, and then the plain white square nestled at his throat, she had realized what she'd been thinking and turned a deep crimson. Jesus, even /she/ knew that was wrong, all wrong. Priests were off-limits; even /thinking/ about one that way got you sent to hell for all eternity. If there /was/ a hell, she had corrected herself.
Ericah remembered all this as the street lamp across the road illuminated Father Mukada's head, tilted down toward the ground. She could see instantly that something was wrong - something about the way he was carrying himself, with his shoulders drooping and his eyes concentrating on the ground, told her that he was disturbed. She flipped her cigarette into the street, cleared her throat, and called, "Father."
He startled and stared across the street at her. She waved and called his name. He hesitated, and then seemed to make a decision. He looked back and forth before crossing the street at a half-jog. She stood to meet him at the edge of the sidewalk.
"What are you doing out so late?" she asked him when he stepped up on the curb to the sidewalk beside her. His hands were stuffed deep into his hooded sweatshirt, and that trusty Roman collar peeked out the top. She wondered fleetingly just how many collars he had.
"How are you, Ms. Tate?" he asked, ignoring her question. She heard in his voice his attempt to conceal emotion; he was trying to appear to be all business. "How's Sam?"
"He's fine," she answered, knitting her brow as she watched him twitch and fidget uncomfortably. "Are you all right?" she blurted, but it was a stupid question. Obviously he was not all right, and she had no business asking him such questions. Priests listened to confessions, worked with the destitute, and in Father Mukada's case, listened to the confessions of the destitute in the state's maximum-security prison. Of course the man was entitled to the jitters - he was subjected to the worst kinds of sin man committed against his fellow man, every single day. Ericah couldn't imagine what kind of energy it took to keep the faith in a place like Oz.
"Actually, no," Father Mukada said with an urgent, humorless laugh.
"Oh my God," she said, suddenly noticing the smears of red blood on the priest's sweatshirt. "Are you hurt? Are you bleeding?" She moved to touch his arm, but he brushed her away.
"It's not my blood," he told her.
"Whose blood is it?" she asked. "What happened?"
"I don't think I..." He drifted off, gazing down to the end of the street. Half his face was draped in shadows, but Ericah could plainly see how upset he was. His brows knit together worriedly; invisible weights seemed to tug at his features. "I don't think I should talk about it. But for some reason," he said, turning his dark eyes on her again, "for some reason I need to."
"Come on in," she told him, touching his elbow and directing him toward the door of her building.
"I spent the whole evening talking with the police," he said.
He sat at her kitchen table and talked while she made instant coffee.
"One of the prisoners I work with at Oswald, today he took a knife and carved out the eyes of a correctional officer."
"Oh my God," she said from the sink, taking the Lord's name in vain for the second time in a ten-minute span. He didn't even seem to notice. "That's terrible."
"They charged him with attempted murder and put him in solitary confinement," he said defeatedly, rubbing his forehead with his fingers. Inwardly, she thought it sounded like what bloody well should have happened to the guy, but she said nothing. Something about Father Mukada's tone told her that the tragedy of the event extended beyond the obvious.
She placed a cup of coffee in front of him and slid into the chair across from him. She watched as he took a sip, lifting the cup slowly to his lips with a shaking hand. His voice was low and mellifluous, emerging from deep in his throat and softening as it arose to his lips. She realized he had the perfect voice for pronouncing all those strange Latin syllables; the tone of it was gentle, quiet, almost hypnotic.
"He... he surprised me in my office and tied me to a chair. And right as he was about to slit his own throat, the correctional officers came through the door and grabbed him."
"I know, I know," he murmured, looking down at the scarred surface of her kitchen table. "It was every bit as terrible as it sounds."
"I'm so sorry," she told him. "Maybe I should call someone for you. Do you want me to call Father Cavanaugh?"
"No," he said. "No, please, anybody but him." He sighed and shook his head. "He told me when I started at Oz that the place would, and I quote, kick my butt. He didn't think I could handle a congregation made of the state's worst sinners, he still doesn't."
"You want me to call someone else, then?"
Father Mukada gazed at her, peering into her eyes as though he were trying to find an answer only she could provide. "I helped this boy, from the first moment he set foot in Oz. I arranged for him to be at the bedside of his girlfriend when she gave birth to their baby. When the baby died, I gave it last rites. I've listened to his confessions, arranged visits with his father... out of all the souls in that prison, his was the one I prayed for most, his was the one I showed favoritism. And then..." He shook his head again, glancing up at the ceiling. "You're an agnostic, Ericah," he said. "It's everyday fare for you to doubt the existence of God. I am a Catholic priest. I don't have that luxury."
"It's not a luxury," she murmured. "It isn't any easier for me than it is for you."
"You have your job, your family. You have a child," he told her passionately. "I have forsaken everything for the priesthood. The church, the prisoners, my congregation, that's all I have. And if I fail at that... why have I given up everything else?"
Ericah shook her head. "You can�t think that this one thing that happened means you're a failure."
He looked at her for a moment, and then his eyes shifted over her shoulder, gazing at something far into the distance. "We all decide which paths we're going to take. I could have easily chosen to work with children, to teach at St. Michael's, or some other school. When you work with children, when I came to visit Sam..." He smiled distantly. "The possibilities seem endless. There's such innocence there, such purity, and an eagerness to learn. Flexibility. No child is evil, no child is... " His eyes focused on Ericah's face again. "On a good day, I think that maybe a fourth of the prisoners in Oz are capable of redemption." His face fell again. "On a day like to day, I find it hard to believe that any of them are."
"Father," Ericah said after a moment. "I'm sure this isn't the first time you've had doubts."
"Hardly," he said with a slight roll of his eyes.
"So what made you regain your faith the last time?"
Father Mukada thought for a long moment, and an expression that approached something like embarrassment came over his face. "Visiting you," he told her quietly, meeting her eyes briefly before lowering them to the table again. "Visiting with your son."
Ericah was struck speechless, considering the sheepish tilt of his head. She felt a hot rush slither through her belly, and recognized the old anxious feeling: what her grandmother had called "fancy." She was fancying a Catholic priest. In her mind, she slapped her own hand. Repeatedly.
But the moment seemed to pass as Father Mukada's problems weighed on his mind again. "But even if I were to quit Oz, work only with children, at the school or even on Sundays after mass, it wouldn't be the same. Because I've seen what�s there, inside the men in that prison. The violence, the anger, the hatred behind their actions against each other. It's palpable, it's real, and it's not only behind those concrete walls and bars. It's in this world we live in, inside of men's hearts. The boys of St. Mike's, maybe they won't all end up somewhere like Oz. Maybe they won't all end up victims of men like the ones in Oz. But, I wouldn't be able to look at them without my heart breaking at the possibility." Ericah nodded slowly, her own heart heavy for him.
"And so, what do I have?" Father Mukada asked her. "If I don't have my faith, what do I have? A set of five Roman collars and an old Toyota." He laughed bitterly, and Ericah silently celebrated the answer to her unasked question.
She laughed with him, gently. Then she said, "Believe me, Father, the grass is always greener. Things aren't so easy for a single mother in this city, either."
"You have your son," he told her. "You have the satisfaction of tucking in your own flesh and blood every night."
"I have the satisfaction of worrying myself sick every time my flesh and blood gets the sniffles or leaves the house," she said, and he laughed. "Look at you. You have the satisfaction of knowing you've got a guaranteed ticket to heaven when you draw your last breath, Father."
"Yeah, and there's also the possibility that that we all rot like meat when we die, and all this abstinence and poverty was for nothing."
Ericah shrugged. "There's that too. But take my word for it. The abstinence thing, it's no big deal. Neither is the poverty. On the second, I'm not really qualified to say. But on the first, I can tell you, you're not missing much. I'd rather have the guaranteed ticket any day."
"Well," he said quietly, his voice like lush velvet. "Like you said, the grass is always greener."
Ericah started to laugh, but then she caught a glimpse of the father's face. His eyes were deep brown pools, crystal clear and sparkling. His lips were pursed together, and he was looking at her with a concentration she hadn't seen for a long time, but recognized instantly: it was that old-fashioned fancy. She never thought she'd see it on his face, but his gaze fell upon her with such intense interest, it couldn't be mistaken. She leaned forward slowly, waiting for that painful instant when he would draw away, pretend the look had been something else, something platonic - but it never came. As she moved closer, she could smell the spicy, mellow scent of his flawless skin, the color of a wide expanse of unruffled desert sand. His eyes never left hers, never defied hers, never betrayed his true intentions and pretended she was overstepping bounds he would not cross. She raised her hand and touched the curve of his jaw with her finger, and then in another second, watched as his eyelashes fluttered closed the instant their lips met. His were dry and full against her own, and as soon as she pressed her lips to his, another bolt of electricity darted through her insides, sending her heart beating rapidly. She stroked his jaw gently and felt him move closer, straining to reach her. She kissed him again, more firmly, and was surprised when his mouth opened slightly. Everything melted away at that second - the fact that he was a priest, the circumstances that had brought him here, her surly history with the church and Father Cavanaugh - everything except for the sensation of his lips against her own, the slight breeze of his breath brushing across her cheek, and the close, warm smell of him, rising from the open V of his sweatshirt.
She moved her hand down the line of his jaw to his chin, and urged his mouth open more with her thumb. She felt his tongue enter her mouth tentatively, and then hesitate at the inner surface of her lips. Jesus Christ, he's never been kissed before, she found herself thinking as she touched her own tongue against his, tasting the flavor of his mouth. She exhaled a choppy breath, teasing his tongue slowly with her own, sliding the tip of it against the delicious texture of him. He responded quickly, almost awkwardly, seeking to force himself on her mouth rather than enjoy the sensations she could evoke in him. She withdrew her tongue and used her teeth to nip gently at his lower lip before she pulled away completely. Her eyes open, she watched as Father Mukada's opened slowly, gazed at her blindly a moment, and then closed again.
This time he took charge, bringing his tongue to her lips as soon as their mouths met. She opened hers willingly, pressing her hand flat against his cheek as he explored the depths of her mouth with his nimble, sweet-tasting tongue. Her heart beat hard; she struggled for breath as the satin of his lips slid against hers, as the musky scent of his skin grew stronger, as the skin under her hand grew warmer and warmer. She curved her hand against his neck and ran her fingers through the soft dark hair at the back of his head. She heard him murmur gently in his throat as his mouth moved desperately over hers.
And then she heard the loud, rude, familiar scrape of her kitchen chair being thrust back. And she opened her heavy-lidded eyes to see Father Mukada standing before her, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, a stricken look on his face.
She couldn't help it; she was momentarily overcome with passion and didn't immediately react. She could see his broad chest rising and falling rapidly under the soft cotton of his sweatshirt. Then, when her eyes rose a little higher, she saw the little white square against his throat, and felt her stomach flutter again - this time with something like fear or apprehension instead of desire. She reared back and straightened herself, avoiding his eyes as she tried to assess what had just happened.
"I..." Father Mukada fumbled from behind his hand. "I'm sorry, Ms. Tate," he stuttered, backpedaling into the chair, which made another rude noise against the floor and then fell over with a clatter.
She couldn't speak, but went to reach for him, to reassure him or steady him or somehow make what had happened all right. But he stepped back again, nearly tripping over the toppled chair, his eyes open wide with shock and horror.
"Forgive me," he rasped hoarsely. "Please, forgive me." Then he turned and fled the kitchen, and in another moment, closed the front door loudly behind him.
For a long moment Ericah sat at the table, pressing her fingers against her lips. She thought of her son: Sam's studies, his grades, his teachers, his classmates. Her disagreement with Father Cavanaugh, and her appreciation for the attention Father Mukada had paid Sam.
And she thought about failure.