The Magdalene – Chapter Two

It’s a few hours before rush hour, but you wouldn’t think it. The cabin is stuffy and the people are annoyed. The hollow sound of our travel can’t escape the tunnel and bounces back screaming in our ears.

I curve with the train as it corners–I prefer standing, surfing with the mechanical wave. Plus, there’s no telling what’s been on the seats. I sure make it a habit to wear my oversized duster on the subway. No need to touch anything with bare hands–I just hook my elbow around the pole to avoid any sticky surprises. My duffle strapped to my back is always heavy, but my steel-capped Doc’s give me the extra weight to ground myself.

Light flickers past the window as the train slows. Stepping to the doors, I prepare for their release. This time I’m determined to get out before people start piling in.

Column. Space. Column. Space.

The train comes to a halt and no one is opposing me on the other side. The doors pull back and I step out onto the platform. Hiking up my duffle, I pan left to right, but there’s no Márk. I laugh to myself. Maybe he’s decided to trust me this time?

Heading for the exit, I’m surrounded by the rumbling echo from the opposite track. The stillness on the platform is sucked dry before a gust of dirty wind barrels in from the Coney Island express keeping its runaway pace.

Lavender. Amongst the old grit and metal, I smell lavender. Sweet. Musky. I look up, and down the stairs comes a girl not bothered by me. Two white cords swing from her ears. She’s in her own little gothic world listening to her heavy music. Veering, she makes her way around me to the base of the platform, taking her floral scent with her. Lavender…

Every day there is always something that fools me into thinking just maybe New York is part of the Tuscan priest’s portion, that it wasn’t a figment of my mind meddling with his vision. It’s been six months and I still can’t get him out of my head. No man has gotten to me before. It makes me baffled as to why this one has.

Hm. I will never forget the look on his face, his cheeky contentment as I came the hardest I ever have in the last two millennia. His revelation must have been a doozy.

Doozy, I snort as I tread up the stairs. I have finally got to use that word. It definitely counts, even if it was just in my thoughts. Everything counts, in the grand scheme of things. Every heartbeat, every breath. Every orgasm…

Who’d have thought that this one particular encounter could perturb me beyond reason. I’m losing it. Must be. Or I’m regressing into a charged-up teenager willing to sacrifice everything for a notion. Do I wish I could be stupid and give way to a lesser path to search out the priest? Yes. Will I do it? Never. I’ve been charged with a task greater than my own life. Nothing will beguile me.

I look back to the girl with the headphones stuck in her ears. She’s ignoring everyone on the platform, jiggling her head in a constant tempo. It must be nice to be so ignorant, to not know the world as it really is. I half wish for it sometimes, but I know better.

I huff–it makes me let go of my own desires, as always.

Through the gates, I climb the next set of stairs up to the street as the afternoon traffic takes over my ear space.

A lanky young man in a warm brown waistcoat leans against the post at the top steadying the black hard-case housing his double bass. Hm, I had thought too soon–he doesn’t trust me. I don’t blame him, I’ve let him down too many times.

Márk is precious. His soul is wide open for anyone to screw up. I befriended him, thinking I’d protect him, but it seems I’m the one who hurts him the most.

I stand up to the top step and the low sun pricks my eyes. The skittish young man doesn’t realize I’m right next to him. He takes out his mobile and thumbs over the screen.

Evig Pint chimes out from my pocket.

Márk turns over, surprised but pleased to see me.

Reaching into my duster, I pull out my mobile and switch off the ringer.

“Nice.” Márk twists his mouth. He’s trying to tease me about my choice of music, but it’s failing.

“No hating. You should be impressed. Kaizers Orchestra uses double bass”–as well as a pipe organ, oil barrels and gas masks, but that’s beside my point.

“You and your beatnik tastes.” He shakes his head with a tragic demeanour.

“What are you saying?” I playfully challenge.

“I don’t know, Miss Ree Brennan…” Shrugging, he fumbles before catching sight of a strand of my wayward hair that is supposed to be neatly rolled and hidden under my slouch beanie. “…that you’re classically Irish?”

“You better believe it.” I live in Hells Kitchen, and though that might not be enough to call me Irish, my natural titian hair and acquired Gaelic name acts like a dead giveaway.

I push him enough that he has to shift to regain balance, and regret it instantly. My playful touch was an oversight as I watch the inner corners of his eyebrows lift from hopeless to adorable.

“But… thanks for coming, Ree, it means a lot.” His awkward squeeze of my arm painfully illuminates his feelings for me.

I should be more careful with Márk. He’s too nice, and that’s his problem. He doesn’t understand the complexities of love, and I’m sure not going to be the one to teach him. My affection for him is purely platonic, and that is hard for a young soul to interpret. I would have ghosted him by now, but he makes such beautiful music. Being his muse was never my intention, it’s just… it would be a tragedy if the world missed out on his bright light.

“How long were you waiting for me?” Locking onto his puppy-dog eyes, I search for the truth.

“Only ten minutes,” he lies, badly. I’m nearly an hour late, we both know it. His unconditional forgiveness is what raps me over my knuckles every time. He reminds me again that the little things in life, like gigs at the Hall, are important too. The little things are a break from reality, and are too few and far between.

Márk timidly smiles at me, before blindly swinging his giant hard-case onto his back, nearly taking out a pedestrian. I say nothing–he doesn’t need to be more nervous than he already is. He has a career-making concert tonight and I promised myself I’d be there for him, in whatever capacity necessary.

It’s not far to walk to the Hall, just around the bend to the stage door. We’re let in after Márk manages to pull out his pass papers. He’s not a big card for the music hall, so there’s no royal treatment by stage management. Márk’s dad has a friend-of-a-friend who got us in at the last minute because of a cancelled artist. Prodigies are a dime a dozen these days. Opportunities don’t come by unless you have some push and pull.

Márk leaves me for a rehearsal room to warm up his bass, and I continue on to the dressing rooms down the stairs. I pick one, a small one with only an upright piano. It’s a far cry from the maestro dressing room, but that’s not my scene anymore. Still, the piano calls to me, unfairly, making the tips of my fingers curl for the silky touch of ebony and ivory. I can do a mad Chopin, but it’s best I avoid the piano–there are only so many talents allowed in one lifetime.

I dump my duffle on the floor and plonk down into the cabaret chair at the makeup bench. The lights around the mirror attack me from all directions as I stare into the fresh countenance looking back. It’s a young, clear face, and bright eyes that have no sense of time–effects of the restoring power bestowed upon me. Without shadows, my unorthodox features align perfectly. There is certainly no Galilean left in me. I would be a stranger to my own mother.

Gripping onto my oversized knitted beanie, I pull. The barbie-red mane falls long and wild, the static energy puffing it out. My hair has a tendency to get me into trouble, but it’s not in my tradition to cut it. Clawing my fingers through, I settle my hair back off my face. You live life, and no matter how long, some things you just want to keep.

Reaching for my duffle, I begin the search for my hair kit. Everything I need is in my bag–static spray to apply underneath my dress so it can flow over my fishnet stockings, black felt-tip pen to color in any scuffs I’ve made on my shoes, and even brown powder to take the shine out of my red hair. Lighting technicians never quite know how to work with it and I end up with a big ball of glowing fire on my head if I don’t dampen the color.

I take all of two minutes to roll my unruly locks into a tight Spanish bun. Eyeliner, hoop earrings, a velvet-shine green dress, and a fake Maravilla rose complete my look. I need what’s left of the time for warm up.

Out the door, I tiptoe through the halls in my nailed shoes to lighten their taps. It’s a habit-of-fear to be quieter than a mouse when walking down long halls. I can still feel the dirty looks on the back of my neck from Matron Mathieson whenever my heels touched the boards of the tetanus ward at Haslar. I have finally forgotten, after two hundreds years, the many ghastly things from my time as a nurse in that military hospital–not her though. A horrible woman, but a brilliant nurse.

The wall-length mirrors of the studio and the soft black dance floor feel like home. Just entering the space floods me with the years of conditioning and training I’ve spent in studios just like this one. Taking in the atmosphere enlivens my muscles, itching me to begin my warm up. The body is a strange thing, at times having a mind of its own. Though it may have all the functions for life–the flow of blood, creation of cells, rejuvenation, all before a thought–without me to make sense of it all, to interpret pleasure and pain, to feel fear, sadness and loneliness, the body has nothing to live for. Still, as perfectly dependent as the body is, it is a refuge from the Darkness.

Waiting for me by the music system is the tap board I asked for. I take it, lay it flat, and I stretch like a good bailaora should. Marching through my drills, the rhythms melt the pockets of tension in my soul.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen.” The calm voice from the overhead speaker pauses as if it is waiting for all to stop what they are doing and look up. “Mr Márk Novak and company, this is your ten minute call. Would you please proceed to the Auditorium Stage.” The voice repeats everything in the same soothing monotone.

“Ree..?”

My gaze snaps to the door.

Márk stands in a sharp tuxedo and pleated shirt. “You ready?”

I can’t help but notice how lucent his eyes are.

“Gosh, you look amazing,” he sighs.

I’m right to feel the pang of unrequited attention–his compliment is more than a practise of convention. Politely, I smile, and make my way to him. “Thank you. And you’re not so bad yourself.” My generic reply is supposed to suggest I’m on board with playing the social etiquette game.

Márk pulls at his shirt. “Oh, this old thing.” His cliché is perfect to ease the tension between us.

He’s supposed to be older than me, being a senior at the Skeidar Conservatory, but his confidence is as stable as a freckle-faced school boy. I met Márk in a bar when he was “slumming it” in Spanish Harlem. He was looking for inspiration from the “music of the people”. What he found was a new lease on music and a new obsession–an impulsive Irish girl full of deep and dark secrets. To him, I am a sophomore studying the Romantics. Well, I have studied such, just not in this century. But since, our lives have been woven together through our passions, and I have found myself to be his soul’s benefactor.

Márk huffs, the slight quiver in the delivery revealing his nerves. Playing for an authentic, passionate crowd who loves anyone enjoying their culture is one thing, but on a grand stage bearing the glaze of elitists is quite another. With my hand on his chest, I’m careful not to sound intimate. “You’re going to do great. Remember, ‘heart and soul’, and you can’t go wrong.” The heat under his shirt fills my palm. I double pat him to close our moment.

On our way through the halls the silence is stifling. He wants to say something, I can almost hear the muttering on his breath.

We turn the last corner for the backstage.

“Hey, after the concert, come out with us for a drink?”

The bold invite has me on the spot. Socialising is one thing that doesn’t work for me. I can tell his intensions aren’t innocent enough to accept, but the hopeful squiggles above his brow do their job. I never want to use him, but he is my means to an end. Father John is always on my back about acting normal–doing ordinary things with regular people. Without his music, Márk is as regular as a Joe can get, in New York, at least. A driven hoper just happy to be a part of the mix.

“Sure, why not,” I reply within my necessary capacity. I need the distraction anyway. Being alone my mind tends to wander to Tuscany.

“Really?” His surprise is a little exaggerated. Swallowing his eagerness back down, he sighs with a cool bearing, and a pinch of giddiness. He finishes with a pert smile.

I need to find him a nice girl. When I was young, it was the family who chose a match. It made it much easier when no heart was involved, and there was comfort in the fact that if the match was amiss, it wasn’t your fault.

Under the blue light in the darkness, we meet Bastian with his guitar. A line of dried blood sticks to his freshly shaven throat just under his Adam’s apple, reminding me of how young these boys are. I’m grateful–the rising generations have allowed me to live young–but at times I long for something more, an older soul, who understands what it means to live. Actually, I’d settle for a crowd who knows what it’s like to be over thirty, but looking like I do I can’t be choosy. I’ve managed to reach forty years a couple of times, but anything older and I draw too much attention to myself. It’s been getting easier the last few decades with the world being obsessed with youthfulness. There was a time when maturity was a woman’s virtue. In every generation women have had their wins and woes. This era seems to be one of the better ones, though we shall see. Constructive hindsight takes a couple of generations.

The stage manager joins our circle with his radio microphone wrapped around his jaw. The calm monotone voice has a hefty face. “We’re just waiting on a few still at the box office.”

“How many seats are filled?”

The hope in Márk doesn’t elicit any empathy from the stage manager. “We are a quarter full tonight…” He breaks off, holding up a ‘one moment’ finger to listen to his earpiece.

Bad stage manger, I grit to myself.

I catch Márk’s forearm before his heart can fall, and squeeze for extra intent. “This is going to be good. It will be like our regular Thursday nights at Hernán’s. You, me, our music.” Looking up into his face, squarely into his doey eyes, I whisper what he needs to hear. “You play for me, remember? I’m the one who feels your music. It beats against my heart until I surrender. It enlightens me to beat back.”

His chest eases with a beholden breath. I let go of him, knowing I have gone too far. Pinching his bottom lip into his mouth, Márk stares at me with a manful air–strong and confident–and for the first time he makes me feel self-conscious.

Wow.

“Okay, the house doors are now closed, stand-by for your stage cue…” The stage manager leaves us for his control desk that’s blinking like a Star Trek console.

“Well, fellas, ‘tvi tvi’,” I say. Bastian’s fluffy brow scrunches. Márk is used to my strange multi-lingual phrases. “Good luck,” I clarify.

Bastian buddy-taps Márk and they turn to wait on the edge of the stage just shy of the light. Without a middle-aged spread, their concert suits hang from their bones.

It dawns on me, this is likely another historical moment the world will not appreciate until the next century.

When their introduction is made by the Hall’s office clerk, I watch the pair walk on stage to a modest applause. Bastian sits and takes up his classical guitar into his arms, resting the lower bout on his thigh.

Rolling up his double bass to its full height, Márk steadies it on himself,  the neck against his shoulder. He prefers to stand when playing, movements in his body help him to release the instrument’s full color. If only he could play women like he played his bass, he’d never have a need to be so nervous around females.

The boys check their tuning–it’s perfect–and then they wait for the annoying–yet, somehow mandatory–coughing to settle in the auditorium before they begin.

Gentle, so, so gentle. A quiet start is a risky move to capture an audience, but Márk likes to take his listeners on a journey. I wonder if the audience has noticed that the boys have no sheet music. They play by feel, not by sight. Eyes are the window to the soul, but music is the key to the heart. All the unrequited loves of Márk’s heart can be felt in the air when he plucks his fingers around the steel cords. Tragic, yet beautiful. His sentimental timbre bellows in the deep, and booms through the chest of all those who dare to hear–pure and innocent melancholic brilliance. It takes me away to a place where the fields are purple, even in the moonlight. Where the cut-up hands of a priest lightly scratches over my skin. The fresh smell of his silky hair is fisted between my fingers. His raspy breath is a sweet sonnet as he pumps his sterling cock deeper into me…

Swaying to get closer to the music, I fall deeper into my senses. I step too far and my foot nudges over a bucket behind the curtain. Thank god the wing is carpeted, absorbing any sound the handle could have made. Crouching, while tutting at my clumsiness, I help the fallen bouquet of flowers back into the bucket. Thinking the Hall is being unusually generous with their concert flowers, the card flips into my view. The flowers are from Márk, and they are more than just a ‘thank you’. My heart sinks, but I’ve lived long enough to know that love should never be taken for granted.

Standing, I regain my composure, and watch the stage. Márk is lost in the moment, his unkempt hair flapping about.

The duet ends, but the music still vibrates in the air, and the boys hold still like masterful musicians to allow the ardor to disappear into the atmosphere.

A roar of applause erupts from the light crowd. With a wiggle in Márk’s chin, he is trying to keep a modest smile. He nods and waits for the applause to settle. “Thank you. I’d like to introduce Ree Brennan.” His hand swings to me standing in the wing, his gaze follows, and I remember why I like him so much–he’s proud to have me as his friend.

I huff, raise my chest to a dignified pomp, rolling up my head up high, and step out onto the stage. The audience is definitely intrigued by my entrance, I carry no instrument, or so they would believe. They wait while I get into position on top of my boards. The washing stage lighting is a mood-killer for flamenco, bouncing off the wooden wall panels, equalizing any contrast. Just a black stage and spot light would have been my choice. Instead we’re lit up as if we’re standing in the Midnight Sun.

Turning to Márk, I lose the sight of the audience. Lifting the split in my dress high up my thigh for a stronger press-line, I drive my energy further into the floor. Opening my arms out, I spiral my hands in the air, bringing them above my head and resting them into my starting position. I hold fast, ready for Márk.

He takes a beat before getting into his play position. Picking up his bow, he hovers it and then strikes. I keep myself still–breathing in the first sounds help me to rest into Márk’s mood. He plays a little brighter than usual, and it makes my hands twist around themselves.

I strike my nailed heel into the hardwood underneath me. The crisp echo pulls focus. Bastian keeps the rhythm for the audience to be content just enough, knuckle tapping his guitar between his strums. Márk and I begin our conversation.

The bass teases around my stamps and taps–I chase the rhythm. My ribs and arms float and snap to Márk’s brazen advances. I stamp, stamp, stamp them away, collecting the ambient power building between us in my arms, and swish it down my body. With each turn and replace, I direct my energy onto a member of the audience. They don’t move or blink in return–they never quite know what to do when so much intensity is offered to them. I turn and turn, stomping, pounding my heels as Márk pursues with his fingers, and a fire rises within me, until…

I see those daunting eyes gazing back from the audience. Those dark eyes and that boyish face. So often have I seen them in my dreams. They are unmistakeable. My heart skips a beat, but I can’t rely on my feet to carry me.

The Tuscan priest sits behind a couple as though it’s normal for him to be here. His cool stare knots up my insides bringing back the rush he gave me in the bell tower. My thighs clench and I miss my fill in the music, but Márk covers for me. He plays louder grabbing my attention. He knows something is up, but I gently shake my head at him as if I’m alright and just got lost in the rhythm. I can’t spoil this for him, I have to focus.

Relying on my body, I golpe fast, striking hard. Rolling my heels, I drum to dampen the wayward rhythm of my heart. The thrill and fear of having the priest in my midst is all too much and I’m tiring. I use Bastian’s strum pattern to back bend, pushing my arm styling above, twirling my hands in the ending utterances of music.

Rolling back up, I face the priest again, but he is gone.

Along the row, I see a man scooting towards the isle. He’s not the priest–no white collar, long shaggy hair, a gruff stuble. Huh, I’ve deceived myself. I just got excited over a gaudy hipster, a rude one at that. Doesn’t he know it’s disrespectful to leave during a number?

I regain my power, and dash my heels on the hardwood, making sure the volume can prick the man’s arrogance.

It works. Before exiting, he stops and glances back. Those eyes, those limitless eyes… he is the priest.

The man pushes through the door and my heart races after him.

This is not serendipity, there is no such thing as coincidence, and wishes don’t come true. If the priest is here, there is something gravely wrong. I have to fix this before our worlds collide.

My dance is done, but Bastian is taking his sweet-ass time finishing his phrase. I’m pulled off my spot and reach the edge of the stage. I can’t turn back to Márk for as soon as I look at him, he will stop me from being foolish.

The audience is expecting me to do something dramatic, but not to jump off the stage. I do it anyway, landing on my two feet, and I run up the aisle.

Hooking onto the door frame, I glimpse back at the stage. Márk is left standing, his bass hanging in his hand. I’m so sorry, I breathe, but I can’t let this one go.

Through the double doors, I fling myself out into the foyer. The black cloaked man is nowhere. I pass around a few human obstacles blocking my line for the main doors.

The nightlife is too busy going places to notice me charge out of the Hall in my shiny flamenco costume. The flags of the concert hall hanging overhead snap back and forth as I look up and down the street.

I take a chance and head north. I’m sure I see the priest ahead of me, his coat flapping from his pace. I quicken my chase, banging into the cement with my nailed shoes.

Crossing the road, I literally screech to a stop before the tree-line. The priest vanishes into the woods. My breath catches up to me and I take time to wrench at my predicament. With hands-on-head, I grip onto my hair in frustration. Central Park. I do not dare go in. There is no telling what slivers about in the darkest shadows of the night. Gaius, the temperamental Guardian that he is, would probably lock me up for another ten years if he found out I went into the park.

I swing around, almost taking out a woman in a summer shawl. The near-miss and her scowl pressures me into settling down. Grunting through my teeth is my final surrender.

I search for something tangible amongst the pedestrians and the cars and the trees, but they drift around me, unwilling to be still so I can collect my heart.

If the priest is here…? This is disastrous. Brought on by my own foolishness. I thought he was a phantom–pieces of him around every corner, over my shoulder, in the darkness. I thought he was only a figment of my desires, haunting my days and stealing my nights. But all this time he’s been real. Instead of fulfilling whatever the hell he was divinely assigned to do, he’s tracked me down in one of the biggest cities of the world.

It’s a wonder my guardian hasn’t ripped him to pieces by now. Gaius doesn’t mess around.

My terrifying desire for the priest has blinded me. I was too quick to disregard my interference in his vision. I was so caught up in him that I accidentally revealed myself… I must have. He saw New York through me, I knew he did. I’m such an idiot!

Now that he’s found me, it’s only a matter of time before he is destroyed. I can’t have this, not if it was my fault in the first place.

I should be going back to the Hall, to Márk and grovel at his feet for fleeing his concert like that. He doesn’t deserve me and all the pain I cause him. I need to make it up to him, and then some. But now is not the time. First, I must go to confession.

I leave the shadows behind in the park to wrestle with themselves. On the corner, Columbus Circle welcomes me with its merry-go-round of twin-lights. Crossing a little further up, I dive into the numbering streets again, tall apartments towering over me, until I reach it–Sanctuary.

The stone walls are a fortress against the world, but the doors of the Cathedral are always open.

Father John never sleeps.

He is a man of symmetry, order and tradition. He has to be, living in one city for so long. It’s a life were everything has a place, and a time, where the mundane and boring is a good thing. It is the way he knows when something is amiss, when the realm of the living has been tampered with.

A great weight lays upon me as I pass through the doors to the nave. The dense air hits me first, then the heavy embellishment–the classical timber and the rich blue dome are as overbearing as ever. The mosaic tiles and stained glass windows, full of aesthetic life, lack the humility I so desperately search for within myself.

It didn’t start out like this–pomp and ceremony. All that was needed was a mountain–a high place to reach the heavens, and an open heart. But Father John and I, we play the game. We keep up the facade in the midst of everyone else. It’s how we’ve survived for so long.

Bracing myself on the second pew, I complete the customary sign, before I take a seat on the cold, hard plank.

Father John is conversing with a solemn soul. The woman’s handkerchief is well used, every bit crumpled as she dabs it under her nose. Her cheeks are valleys for her tears, but her face shines when she looks up into Father John’s eyes.

There is good done in stone walls, I admit–giving the blinded a sense of their small importance in the grand scheme of things–but the feeling doesn’t last. It starts to rub off, or break down, as soon as they walk out the church doors.

I too know what it means to leave Father John.

Trinkets and prayers comfort most, but I’ve never found solace in ornamental things. I don’t see the reason in calling out into the Darkness when I know no voice can escape this world. What the faithful remember is a narrative that was never supposed to happen. They won’t awaken to the truth, they can’t. The truth is too scary.

I’ve been living the truth all my life, since the stones were dropped at the feet of my accusers. Since I was lifted up from my knees and carried across the desert. A woman saved from herself…

Father John sees me from out the corner of his eye, but his empathy never leaves the woman. The Spanish are blessed with devout hearts, and Father John has always had a soft spot for people of the Romantic languages.

Clutching onto her handbag on her shoulder, the woman presents a delicate smile through glassy eyes. She steps away, and waddles down the aisle. Just past me, she turns to the head of the church and crosses her frame, whispering an intent-filled formula.

I watch Father John looking after the mournful woman leaving his protection. His soft eyes under rickety brows have stood the test of time, a compassionate gaze that never tires.

John the Beloved is a pillar of strength, his benevolence long lasting. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him, but he hasn’t changed. He has started to dye his hair gray again around his temples to gain some years–a mature look has always become him.

No matter how few and far between we are, John and I have stayed close over the centuries. It was our solidarity in the life, and our grief in the loss, that sealed our fates together. We are Heralds of this realm, the true Followers who were there at the beginning. Many writings have confused us–John thinks it’s funny, but I still get annoyed at how the scriptures get it so wrong. That’s what happens when bored and hungry monks are given the task to transcribe in candle light from a third or fourth translation.

But always, The Beloved is my strength when I have misplaced my own. I shouldn’t have avoided him for so long.

John’s gaze skips onto me, and his tight features dissolve into relief. His elegant nod gets me to my feet.

Following him to the confessionals, I sigh heavily in hope to dislodge any part of my dread.

He takes the middle box in the oversized closet and closes the lattice door behind him.

It’s always been hard for me to enter the confessionals–upright coffins with breathing holes.

I choose the one on the left, for pertinent reasons mostly–the heart is more forgiving than the hand. I step into the darkness, and seal it up behind me.

Sitting on the bench, I ready myself–I take my hair out, allowing it to fall past my cheeks.

Reaching down, I find the buckles to my shoes and pull them apart. Slipping my feet out and onto the bleak floor, I change my mind and catch my knees up into my arms. It helps to have something to squeeze when I pour out my soul.

Resting my chin on top of my knees, I fall into a penitent temper. My vision blurs as always when I introspect my mind.

John is waiting but he’s a patient man, he can wait a little longer.

Allowing myself to enjoy the stillness, I reflect on my past deeds. They aren’t hard to remember, they have been kept fresh in my mind.

The assignment. Tuscany. The priest. His first eyes on me. My first glimpse into him… Oh, I remember. I remember what I saw in him. The vastness, an encompassing brightness throughout the Ages…

It is now the prick of regret creeps in. There is none for the seduction, nor the months of craving the priest–only regret for walking through the doors of the church to give him up.

Before I’m ready, the divider between my box and the next slides open. “Beloved,” I say, feeling like a child caught doing something naughty.

“Betrothed…” John’s soothing voice invades my dark space.

I’m defenseless. I shrink, pressing my eyes closed to stop the meaning of that word going further into me, but it still washes down my spine. Betrothed. The title has always pained me. I wish he wouldn’t use it.

“You are troubled. Tell me, what has kept you from coming to see me?” John is using his passive voice. Damn it. It means he is deeply angry with me, chastising me through a mask of charity.

The words are on my tongue but they are not good enough. How do I tell the Beloved the thoughts that have possessed me these last months? The feelings I have, and want to keep. Not to mention that because I didn’t control my thoughts in the heat of passion, I fell into the priest, sharing myself with him, and I am now found by him.

My mind is racing and the longer I say nothing, the more I can hear John thinking.

I long to escape my coffin. It was a mistake coming to John, I’m not ready yet to give up the priest.

Shifting my weight forward, I’m going to run, but not before picking up my tailor-made shoes…

“Mary… It’s been six months.” John has dropped the act. I hear my friend and confidant coming through. He knows how to pierce my soul. “Why haven’t you come to me earlier?”

I have no excuse, none that would satisfy him. My heart going astray is nothing new. It’s how it works. I’m supposed to fall for my lovers–I’m a woman, after all. I’m drawn to each one by immeasurable proportions, too inevitable to resist. If I feel nothing, if there’s no bond made, the Light can’t flow through. It’s not magic, just quantum physics.

“You know how dangerous it is to hold onto one soul for too long, especially when your task has been completed–the bond has no more purpose.”

And that is my life in a nutshell–there’s no point in loving someone unless it’s for a higher purpose. There’s just no point…

My sight falls to the Act of Contrition taped to the side panel. The edges of the card are crisp, and face clean. It looks out of place against the rough wood, and I want to tear it down. Instead, I clutch around my legs hard enough for prickles to start in my palms.

“Tell me, out of all your confessions over the centuries, all the souls you have bonded to, why is this the one you won’t seek absolution for?”

My throat won’t work and all I can manage is, “I don’t know…”

“It is not for you to decide which bonds to keep and which to give up. Your bond with the priest is not yours–it belongs to the Greater Good. So let it go, Magdalene.”

I catch my breath. It’s spooky how Father John is always on point. He has the Gift of Discernment, and I swear he was given it just to torment me.

The world is out of balance. It leans towards an obscure angle, and it is ready to tip. There are those of us, called to do what we do, who push the other way…

My bonds are made in the name of Joshua for the war in Heaven is certainly not over. I’m required to break every single bond after a vision is completed–Joshua requires it. They don’t call him the Jealous God, and me the Penitent Woman, for nothing. My tears salt the earth, breaking what has been bound by him. I can never stop atoning until he returns.

But my tears for this priest don’t come. It makes me feel guilty as hell, but I can’t release him. It feels wrong to, and an overwhelming dread consumes me whenever I think about doing it. There is something more to the priest, I know it.

I clear the thickness in my mouth, annoyed at the awful patience of Father John. He waits for my answer like a dog for a bone.

Closing my eyes, I see what I dream every night–the universe inside the priest–and I find the courage to confess it. “The priest has broken into me like a thief. I see his truth amongst the anguish, and it is beautiful–a love waiting, hoping to be realized. His stars are far reaching… there is no end to his world. He has been here before…”

“Enough,” John grunts into my coffin shaking me out of my reflection. His harsh echoes hit me, making me crunch my stomach. “So this is why you hold onto him? The priest has a past? A life before, and that intrigues you?”

I am not rattled, but I am furious as a fiery blade. Sometimes I forget myself and think John is my elder. My youthful meekness and uncertainty often trick us both into believing I need his council and approval. I am no lesser in power or dignity, but the world would have us act so. I have become accustomed to playing the damsel, but I will not let John treat me like a child.

“No,” I gnarl. “I hold onto the pain of wanting him fair well knowing I shouldn’t.” I am offended at Father John’s refusal to understand. I know something of this priest, I’m not quiet sure what, but John has dismissed the slightest breath of it, as if it is nothing. Why? Why won’t he listen to what I have to say?

The tension between our boxes runs thick. I’m ready to bite at anything he throws me.

“You’ve always been good at torturing yourself, Magdalene.”

The caring quality in John flails at my shielded heart.

“Mary, punishing yourself like this serves no purpose. Joshua requires sacrifice, that also means releasing your personal punishments…”

“John, stop handling me. I’m Jewish for Christ sake. I know what he requires… I know. I’m living proof.” My teeth grit together to pinch in my hurt and fury. The Beloved and I are at odds for the first time in five hundred years, and it scares the hell out of me.

Taking a deep, silent breath allows me to collect myself and settle my tone. Strong and slow, I pronounce my truth, “No matter how much I give, it will never be enough.” The tightness surrounding me finally tenderises my stubbornness.

Hanging my head, I press my lashes onto my cheeks. I don’t want to see anymore, not the weave in the door and the candle light flickering through, the clearly printed Contrition, nor my design and purpose.

We still for a long time.

Through the quietness, I carefully whisper, “I did this, John. I was the one. Because of me, Joshua failed.” I push the burning blade into my own heart–I deserve it–and it starts the familiar tingling in my eyes. They fill up in the darkness.

“You are the Betrothed. Because of you, Mary, Joshua can return, but not if you keep the bond with this priest. There is more work to do before enough is done. There is only so much love a mortal body can bear. Only so much the beating heart can take.” And then John says something that I will never expect. “Joshua loves you, Mary. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I can feel it whenever I stand next to you. Joshua loves you. He needs you just as much as you need him. He gave you your Gift for a reason…”

I sputter out a little laugh. “Gift? Is that what we’re calling it now?”

“You’re his last miracle. You are more than a witness, you are the shape of his voice.”

Wiping off the tears gathering under my chin onto my knuckles, I gently sniff. It is hard to swallow.

“No matter your feelings for this priest… let them go. He is not yours to keep. We are meant to progress like light, not stand still in darkness. Remember who you are–what’s at stake. I urge you to get back to routine. Any disturbance, any unnatural activity–like chasing ghosts through the city…”

My centre clenches, before I gasp.

I should have known–John senses everything. He knows the priest has found me. He knows I have broken protocol, running after my foolish desires through the streets of New York.

A sickly pang sweeps through me. “What are you going to do to him?” I struggle, already knowing the answer.

“What must be done.”

I wince at the thought.

“By their live or their death, everyone has a purpose.”

John has settled it for me. I must let go of the priest, cry him out, or I am to suffer the pain of loving him and losing him.

“Mary..? Remember, they are watching. They are always watching.” John bids me to start.

I kneel on the prayer bar at the base to bring my lips closer to the window. Opening my eyes wider, I feel the rush. With each tear running down my face, I let go of the priest–giving up the bonds from the cells in my muscles, my bones, my blood and all living matter–sensing damn well I shouldn’t be. I have to fight hard to work against my instincts, and I begin to shake. But, there is one place he is stuck–my obstinate heart won’t untie him from its fibres, it won’t obey me. Rather than crying myself into a desert trying to overturn it, I allow my eyes to dry up, leaving my bond with the priest nestled in the deepest chamber of my heart.

Somehow I can still breathe. I am freed of the priest, for the most part…

But I am not finished.

I must go through the motions–whoever goes to confession without confessing? Crossing myself, knowing damn well it exposes my thoughts and words to an unseen world, I lay my eyes on the dummy card, and recite by-heart, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…”

I wonder who else is listening.

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