Fiction: Thing of Beauty

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by Carole McDonnell

beautyCarole McDonnell is the author of three novels: the afroretroist medieval Christian fantasy romance Wind Follower; the epic fantasy The Constant Tower, and the Christian new adult novel, My Life As An Onion. Her stories can be found online at Escapepod and Untold podcast. Her stories an several serialized novels are also available on the Radishfiction app for android and Apple.

~~~

When Father James McLaren opened his eyes from the grand sleep of death, it was not upon the heavenly throne room. His was not the celestial vision of the enthroned Deity, but a bag of hay seeds and a pile of manure. He rose from the wheelbarrow in which his body rested and took the measure of his situation.

The first observation was that he was not in hospital garb. Instead he was wearing his clerical collar and all the accoutrement of his calling. His right pocket even contained a bottle of anointing oil and a small cross.

The second observation was that he was in no pain whatsoever and he could breathe like a kid of sixteen. All of this was remarkable because the last thing he knew of himself was that some ten minutes earlier — and for about eight years — he had been killing himself with alcohol and cigarettes. But now, the cirrhosis and the lung cancer were apparently gone.

His thoughts turned from himself to his surroundings. He was obviously in a shed or a barn. He had awakened to find a horse’s rear end in his face and had been thrown onto a pile of manure in a wheelbarrow.

Obviously, the Almighty had a sense of humor.

“But He has granted me mercy!” Father James exclaimed, shouting. Then, more intimately, “You, Dear Lord, have granted this thieving, lusting, blind-eye-turning priest a second chance! I have been saved from the pains of Hell. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Several thin streams of light filtered through cracks in the wooden walls. A mid-afternoon sun, James thought. The air in the barn felt fresh but cold and the coldness nipped at his nose and at his dark brown skin. I need a coat, he thought and studied his long brown fingers, now no longer the fingers of a dying eighty-six year old man. Still, they were almost numbed from the cold. I most definitely need need need gloves!

It was then that it occurred to him that perhaps he was not entirely free. After all, as far as he knew, this sort of thing was quite rare. Unless it had always been part of the Almighty’s repertoire to translate mob priests from hell to barns, surely some penance was necessary. It was then that he thought to ask, “Lord, what will you have me to do?”

The thought came to him that he should look in his left shirt pocket, and this he did. Looking, he found a note neatly-written in the finest cursive imaginable, “Go and build me a school for orphans. All your paperwork is in order.”

“Paperwork?” he muttered, and searched the pocket of his left pants. Finding several pieces of paper rolled together, he opened them and saw that they were from the diocese of Maryland.

The hoofbeats of several horses outside the barn, and what he assumed was neighing, momentarily startled him. But he kept his mind, keener than ever because it was freed from pain, on the task he had been given.

“Orphans?” he said aloud to himself. “How pure and good is that!” It would certainly be better than turning a blind eye to murderous mob bosses, ignoring their cruelty to their fellow men and mistresses, and saying pious empty words over their corpses. A horse outside neighed and Father James looked up at the barn door. He brushed off the remaining manure from his clothing. I think that was neighing. Or it might be a whinny, he thought. But what do I know of horses? He flicked some bits of horse manure out of his afro and walked outside.

The first thing he saw were two white cowboys. They were standing beside two of the most beautiful horses Father James had ever seen.

“How majestic and wonderful are your creations, Oh God!” Father James said. Then he turned to look down the unpaved streets. It’s something out of a movie set, he thought, intrigued. God dropped me into a movie set? Ah, perhaps he wants me to take care of Hollywood street kids and runaways.

I’d be good at that, he told himself. Kids liked him and he himself had been a runaway back in the day.

His gaze returned to the men and he looked up at the face of the older of the two. “This a movie set?” he asked.

They exchanged bewildered looks. At last, the younger one — a blond teenager with sweat dripping from his brow — said, “You a priest or something?”

Father James smiled, extended his parchment-like resume toward the men. “That I am. From the diocese of Maryland. Apparently.”

The men glanced at each other then at the priest, again with evident bewilderment. “You a priest?” the young one asked, so incredulously that even the ever-jaded Father James almost began to worry. “A real priest? They’re making Blacks priests now?”

The older cowboy removed his ten-gallon hat and wiped sweat from his brow. “What you doin’ here?” he asked James. “This ain’t free territory. Priest or not, them bounty hunters find you…you gonna be taken to some plantation.”

Ah, James thought, This is getting interesting.

Having been dragged into mob truces and been surprised more than once by confessions of murder and torment, James was never one to be flustered. “And might I ask you where we might be and what the year of our Dear Lord is?”

“Father,” the older cowboy said, “it is the year of our Lord 1850. And you’re in Louisiana.”

“Ah,” said Father James, “that could be problematical.” Only fifteen minutes ago, he had been on his deathbed in 2015 New York, surrounded by loving and weeping congregants. A place which now seemed a hundred times safer than a plantation in the antebellum southwest.

“How come you don’t know where you at?” the kid asked. “You been imbibing? Or you get conked on the head or something?”

“Neither,” James answered, and because his high school days were sixty years in the past and more than a century in the future, he added, “And where, may I ask, is the nearest free state?”

“Kansas,” the teenage boy said.

Now James was not one to miss anything. One of the largest heroin sellers on the East Coast had even called him “whip-smart.” So it quickly occurred to him that his meeting with these two men could not have been an accident. Surely, any other meeting with ranch hands, or white men in general, from the past would not be so typically courteous. “Tell me,” he asked, “are you two…abolitionists?”

“We’re Quakers,” the older man answered. “And I suppose you could call us abolitionists.”

“But don’t call it too loud,” the younger man said.

“Ah, Quakers!” Father James looked about what he supposed was the town square — a wide, dust-blown expanse, dotted with about forty one or two story buildings. For the first time, he felt somewhat nervous about his strange situation. “How wonderfully precipitous and timely! Could it be that we are destined to meet?”

The two cowboys looked at each other, then at the priest. “Are you thinking of the Underground Railroad to Canada?” the older man.

James thought for a moment. As he studied the leather coats of the men, he felt a chill coming on. The Almighty could at least have given me a coat, he whined inwardly, then turned his attention once again to his rescuers. “I’ve never liked Canadians,” he said at last, and rubbed his shoulder. “I’ll stay here. This is where the Lord sent me.”

The older man squinted; the younger bit his bottom lip. It was clear they thought he was seriously nuts.

“I’m to build an orphanage,” he told them. “One for all races. A great rainbow coalition.” He paused. “But tell me, what might your names be?”

“The name’s Jacob Brackner,” the older man said. “And that’s my boy, Joseph.”

“Glad to meet you. But do you know…I am seriously hungry.” Then he quipped, “Apparently being raised from the dead does that.” They looked at him quizzically. “Long story,” he said. “Oh…and don’t worry about giving me a ride. I can walk. Only ride very slowly so I can follow and not get lost?”

Father James had always been skillful at getting himself invited to dinner. But it was quite true: being resurrected from the dead tended to make a person ravenously hungry. And with the added dimension of time travel and traveling back to the past…well, he could eat a horse.

“Best you not walk,” the older man said, a warning in his voice. “Or are you forgetting where you are? Just you wait right there. The missus will be coming with the wagon soon.”

And so she did. She arrived driving a two-horse covered wagon — and if she blinked or paused on seeing James, the good pastor didn’t notice. Like Jonah of old, James was an animal lover and he had fallen instantly in love with a fat and docile hog stumbling about in the back of the wagon.

James helped them remove several large bags of grain from the general store barn and then followed them to the butcher shop, where James’ new friend was slaughtered before his tear-filled eyes.

Dressed as he was, it wasn’t long before James became a bit of a spectacle. Several folks, including the town drunk, gathered about to watch the little — James was a mere five foot three — Black priest.

He walked toward one man who was eyeing him cautiously. “Father James McLaren,” James said and extended his right hand. “Apparently, you folks have never seen a Catholic before.”

“He’s got his papers on him,” the boy quickly chimed in.

The man grinned to himself, then walked away without shaking James’ hand.

“What papers?” James asked the boy, who was looking even more worried than before.

“Papers saying you’re free,” the kid answered. “Not that it matters if he finds you alone.”

“Ah!” James said, then he shouted at the man’s back, “I’m actually a rather nice guy!”

“You best learn who you should joke with, Father,” the older man said. “That one there is Albert. He’s our marshall. He also owns a large farm around here with ‘bout maybe 20 slaves. The wrong man for you to seek friendship with. And come to think of it, your pleasantries could leave you and me and my family dead. So, best keep your head down and your humor even lower while I figure out how to explain you.”

“Explaining having a Black man in your wagon?” James asked.

“No,” the man answered with a wry smile, “explaining what I’m doing with a Catholic.”

“Either way, you’re in trouble, I suspect,” James said.

He truly suspected trouble. And he knew he should be afraid. Yet, he could not help himself. He was alive! He was hale, hearty, and free from pain. He wanted to weep with joy. Surely, the feeling of a healthy body was one of the banal wonders given by God for humans to enjoy!

So James worked as he had not done in years, hauling and dragging and lifting — and all the time resisting the urge to weep with joy at his returned health.

When the family finished their shopping, James joined them in their wagon, sitting atop a bag of flour, some horse feed, a tin of salt, a few remains from his lost friend, and a yard of blue gingham. As the wagon turned from town toward the wide expanse of scrub and faded grasslands, James looked out at the town square disappearing behind him: under the darkening mid-afternoon sky, Albert was watching him.

~~~

Having eaten two platesful of beans, a hunk of salted bacon and rattlesnake, and five boiled buckwheat dumplings, and having drunk three mugs of sarsparilla root beer, Father James was licking his fingers enthusiastically when he realized his hostess, a graying matron, was looking down at him with both pity and worry. Although soft curls framed what could only be called a sweet face, James suspected Mistress Brackner could and would wield her frying pan with the same power and precision her rancher husband had used in dispatching the rattlesnake they’d just eaten.

So this is what a frontier woman looks like, he thought, stocky, fatigued, grim, but somewhat sweet. Then, because his hosts were all studiously looking at him, he said, “You’re a mighty fine cook, Mistress Brackner. Mighty fine.” James had watched an awful lot of westerns in his younger days and the lingo had slowly been returning to him as he ate, as were all his memories of his younger, nobler self. He had to admit that the westerns had had a good influence on him. They had taught him about, chivalry, machismo, and being a straight-shooter. Murdering Injuns and shufflin’ Black folks notwithstanding.

“But to the matter at hand,” he said. “My orphanage. Where should I build it? In Kansas, you say? And will you help me get there, Rancher Brackner?”

“I ain’t no rancher, Father, and gimme a minute to think.”

The boy glanced at the window. “Now that they know you’re here, they’ll most likely come a’visiting. To see if you’re a real priest.”

“Not that that matters,” the missus said, then added, “You full?”

Father James tapped his stomach. “Quite.” He looked about the room and toward the mirror. He’d seen the mirror when he first entered, but had avoided looking into it. It was not everyday that one encountered one’s younger twenty-year old self. But was he, in fact, twenty?

So even while eating the most fulfilling meal ever, he had had his mind on his former face. What did he look like? What face was the Brackner family seeing?

He stood up, bowed, and said a prayer of thanksgiving. He noticed it again as he had the first time. The look that sometimes came over people when a priest offered a prayer. These are holy people, he thought. And he wondered at their salt of the earth goodness. He had not seen it in ages, not since he got so sick he couldn’t go to the parish church.

And even before that. When he was still officiating, he would only see that love of holiness in the eyes of the little old women at Mass. Not in the eyes of the mob guys, though. Made guys didn’t really care about holiness.

He walked to the mirror with his eyes closed, not caring that the collective gaze of his hosts were on him. When he knew he stood before it, he opened his eyes. In spite of himself, he gasped. There he was: his younger self.

It had been a handsome — some might have said “beautiful” — face. And years of unscrupulousness and duplicity had not marred it. Age had, however. But even when he reached the golden age of eighty, and had been overly-wined and overly-dined by the powerful politicians, gangsters, merchants, and bishops, the beauty was still there.

“I’m like Dorian Gray,” he said aloud to himself, and then to the watching family. “All my wrinkles have melted away.”

“How wrinkled could a man of twenty be?” the much-wrinkled Missus Brackner asked.

“Indeed,” Father James said. “Quite true.”

For he was thinking of wrinkled souls and not wrinkled skin. And his soul was wrinkled indeed. And why had so many creases marked his soul over the years? The answer was clear enough. Truly, it had always been clear. But those months spent on his deathbed and the unending procession of thieves, murderers, shyster lawyers, and greedy politicians all bringing larger and larger flower arrangements had made it all all all too clear: Because I wanted to be seen as understanding, as patient, as likable.

“It is a disgusting thing to be well-liked,” he said, half to himself.

The boy looked up at him. “What’s that you say?”

Father James began to answer, but a knock sounded on the door, and outside the house a voice called, “Open up, Brackner. It’s me, Marshall Caine. We hear you got an escaped slave in there. I’ve come to take him in.”

Inside the house, all grew still as everyone froze. Jacob Brackner rose from his seat. He put his right index finger to his lips, pointed to the floor. Immediately, the family lifted the heavy table and kicked away the rug underneath it. At James’ feet was the opening to a trap-door. He knew without them speaking a word that he had to climb down it. This he quickly did and they closed it over him, along with the plate and cup he’d been using. He heard the rug being slid over the floor, then the table being put back into place.

“Brackner! You hear me?” the voice called again. “You opening this door, or should I break it down?”

“No need to do that, Marshall,” Brackner’s voice answered.

“Is this what it was like?” Father James asked as he looked up at the floor above his head. “To have the dirt over my head? And will I die here now? Was this only a short reprieve?”

He was not afraid. On the contrary, he was preternaturally calm. Even when, above him, the front door of the cabin creaked open slowly.

“What took you so long?” a gruff male voice demanded. Harsh footsteps — the booted feet of five or six men — trampled into the room of the cabin. “Where is he?”

“He?” Missus Brackner answered. “You mean the Black priest? We sent him on his way.”

“Search the place!” Then, “Boy! If you know what’s good for you, you’ll come on out from where you’re hiding!”

Father James did not budge. Instead, a memory came to his mind. It had lain in his mind, long-forgotten. One of the hitmen, who regularly came to him for confession, had talked about the giddy joy he felt when his prey was hiding from him.

“It’s the funniest thing, Father,” the guy had said. “It’s like…my blood gets all…I dunno. I get excited like. And I can smell blood. I can smell the guy’s fear, you know. And it’s like…it’s like thrill. And I love it so much. Weird, uh?”

“Not especially,” Father James had answered.

Because he had heard that kind of confession before. From Black gangsters, Italian mafia guys, Russian hitmen. He was well-known for giving them penances, which they always completed. They’d come back and tell him how clean they felt. After they’d given some money to an orphanage. After they’d secretly arranged for money to be given to the widow of their prey. After they’d filled some poor churches’ coffers. But they’d never changed. The thrill of killing would come back. And now Father James pondered the fact that he himself was now prey, that he was now actively disliked.

He clasped his hands together around his knee and waited, remembering the names of the many preys he had heard of. Above him, the marshall and his officers searched, then hollered when they could not find him.

“He’s still round here somewhere,” the marshall said. “In the barn maybe.”

“I tell you, he’s gone,” the missus said.

James heard a chair being pulled across the floor and surmised that Albert had decided to sit a spell.

Apparently, that was exactly what Albert had done. It was pretty evident to James that the guy sensed his prey nearby and wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. Like many of the bullies James had met, he was intent on showing his power. Manspreading, probably, James thought, and snorting up dinner like addicts snorting cocaine.

The day drew to its close and Marshall Albert was still sitting there, schmoozing and making threatening small talk. Taking up space. Taking up time. So James sat in that pit, prey, fearing to move and waiting for his enemy to smell him out, as the hitmen used to say.

As he sat there, cramped, the thought suddenly occurred to him that perhaps he had indeed died and was in Hell. For all the times I turned a blind eye, he thought. Because I wanted to be liked.

But then a worse thought came: perhaps he had yet to die. Maybe he had not died at all, but even now was in the process of dying on his deathbed in Catholic Metropolitan Hospital, and the entire scenario was the last synaptic firings of a guilty and dying chemo-infused brain.

But no, James concluded, that was not it at all. He was not dying. He had already died. He was dead. And now he was resurrected with a racist, murderous Louisiana marshall sitting above him, attempting to wait out his prey.

James had always been liked. As a child, his mother had been busy and their life solitary. So he had not received much love or attention. So from his birth, James had honed the skill of being charming, helpful, and likable. And so being liked became the air he breathed.

And now, as he listened to the marshall seated on the floor above him, he began to see how being liked had been perhaps his own personal idolatry. For now he was living — yes, very much alive! — in a world where most people would not know, trust, or even like him. Is it a desire to be perfect in the eyes of others? he asked himself. I wish I weren’t so me-minded. He pondered the question continually as he sat there, cramped: How does one go about losing a desire to be liked? And hadn’t it been his desire to be liked that had made him lose his soul by turning a blind eye?

James found a little metal chamber pot and held it close to his skin. He unzipped his pants and peed into it, letting the stream of urine fall against the pan’s side soundlessly. It was good to pee normally again, without the use of a catheter. He slowly returned the pan to the dirt floor, then stared out into the darkness, his eyes already accommodated to the black cellar. Remnants from previous cellmates surrounded him: several cups, a cast-off shoe, a bloody and torn shirt. Former escaped slaves. Had they all escaped safely? James wondered. Would he himself escape? Would God resurrect him and transport him in time only to have him murdered? James decided that that probably wasn’t likely. That’s not the God I know. He’s neither so petty nor so slick. That’s more like what one of the godfathers would do.

Marshall Albert stayed in the house till break of day, and only left the next morning when his posse returned to say the Black priest had not been found.

But even after James heard the relieved, “God be with you, Marshall,” and the defeated, angry closing of the door, the Brackners did not open the door of James’ little cell. So James sat there, crouched, cramped, waiting. All morning, the family walked inside and out, doing chores, greeting several housewives who arrived from neighboring homes. And still James was not freed. The trap door was opened, twice. Once to remove the chamber pot. Once to bring him honey baked ham with beans. Night came again, and he was not freed. “We know what we’re doing,” Jacob Brackner said.

So, for three nights and three days, James ate, shat, slept, and peed in that darkness. Then, at last, he was released.

Climbing up, he had to train his eyes to accept the light again.

“They’re gone,” Jacob said, helping James climb up. “Sorry for keeping you down there so long, Father. But it’s safer this way. Couldn’t close the shutters. And they’d be watching. Next week or two you stay in. Don’t go running out or talk about how you got cabin fever. Even if they think you ain’t here, they’ll be roundabout, snooping.”

“Got ya!” James said, and looked around the cabin.

He never set foot outside and steered clear of the windows. The exile seemed strange but familiar. In the hospital, he had endured a similar kind of prison. Not being able to go out. Being waited on and cared for, yet somehow at the mercy of and dependent on everyone around him.

“Is this the way it will always be in this new life of mine?” he asked God. “Will I always be remembering my death and the circumstances around it?”

Some three weeks later , he was told one morning that he would be leaving for free state territory that night. He would be leaving by night, by covered wagon, and Quakers in Kansas would help him found his school if that was what he wanted to do.

“Yes,” he said, shaking Jacob’s hand profusely, “that is what I want to do.”

His only parting gift to his saviors was to tell them about the future war, about a president named Abraham Lincoln, and to suggest that perhaps they should move far away.

So, that night, after hugging the missus tightly and giving the young ‘un a tight squeeze on his shoulder, Father James McLaren went on his way.

In Kansas, he would find many who did not like him. He did not seek their love. He would find prey and those who preyed upon them. He hooked up with the prey.

His attempts to create a rainbow school challenged even his benefactors. His school flourished, but he died deeply disliked. And as he lay in his little room, surrounded by orphans young and old, he was happy for it. His life had become a thing of beauty.

Originally published in Untold Podcasts, November 2015.

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