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Tenebrae

The church was beautiful. It was small and ordinary and undramatic, but Sam still thought it was beautiful. The sturdy, narrow pews were populated by a smattering of people, all of whom were old. They spoke with one another quietly and amicably, some standing in the aisle, leaning in, while others turned, resting their arms across the back of the pew. Their words were inaudible but hung in the air like a thin fog. Sam had never been here before, and while he wasn’t ignored, he also wasn’t acknowledged.

Sam hadn’t lived in town for a very long time. He lived on the other side of the old railroad tracks in a little house that he didn’t own, that, to his knowledge, nobody owned. The plaster ceiling had deep scars and flaking scabs. The toilet didn’t work, and the bottom of the dry basin was covered with a stain, permanent and russet. There was no electricity. He cooked canned beans on a camper stove.

Even though he hadn’t pursued steady work in a long time, Sam saved enough money to take his last good shirt and slacks to the laundromat to wash them properly. He hitchhiked to the truck stop outside the other end of town to use the showers. He looked very good this evening, and when he looked in the mirror at the Love’s, not even Sam quite suspected that he was pathetic.

It set him on edge, then, when he hadn’t been greeted by the pastor. Sam had stood sheepishly in the lobby waiting for the older gentleman to give him a service program to whom the pastor was speaking. When the usher noticed Sam, he gave him a program and a nod, but the pastor had just looked at him. The handful of seconds that passed felt very long.

Sam was sitting quietly, alone, now, and he was early and surrounded by the comfortable elderly whose lives gravitated and revolved around these church events. They were faithful in their attendance, cosmically so, and could be counted on and predicted like the phases of the moon or the trajectory of Mars.

Sam looked down at his fingernails. There was filth trapped beneath them. He sucked his lips into his mouth and then, after making sure no one was watching, he cleaned his nails with his teeth. He swallowed the dirt.

The choir and the musicians filtered in through the doors at the front of the church. Growing up, Sam had gone to a Methodist church—not this one, but a different one in town—and he could not remember ever seeing cellos, flutes, nor clarinets at the Good Friday service. Sam looked at the program and was pleased with the number of songs that they planned to play. He didn’t know any of them, though.

The sanctuary was full now, and the demographics varied. There were some who were younger, some that were Sam’s age. There were a few ethnicities. They filled the tall room with a quiet hum. It seemed too comfortable, dissonant with the mood of the holiday. In the front pew, the pastor sat with one leg over his knee, twisting his foot idly at the ankle. He didn’t seem to be looking anywhere.

A woman on the other side of the aisle got up when the organ started playing and carried a long brass stick to the altar where the stout, pastel candles stood. The brass rod had a wick on the end, lit and flickering with fire, and beneath it protruded a bell-shaped snuffer shaped like a tulip. The woman lit the candles among the notes of the organ, and the grace of her hands seemed compelled by music’s gentle beauty. Each tiny flame she shared with the candles burned terrible and bright. It was as if the whole sanctuary was illuminated by them alone.

The organ stopped on a chord and sustained it. Sam stood with the congregation, opening his hymnal to number 294, and even though he couldn’t sing, and didn’t believe in the things he was singing, he sang anyway. The words were archaic and Sam had a hard time following the melody, but surrounded by men and women who also couldn’t sing, all of them guided by the choir, Sam was immersed in a deep calm, a tranquil security. He thought that maybe he’d been wrong all these years.

Sam left his faith in Michigan—what little of it there was to begin with—when his wife and son died. He’d moved back here, to this little town in New Mexico, because the sight of oak and ash and maple, the smell of burning leaves in the fall, and the sound of great angry thunderstorms against rain always brought to mind Tasha’s face and Jacob’s smile. The wound was too deep and too fresh—Sam had learned in subsequent years that it would always be too fresh—for him to stay. He left. When he came back to town he learned that his father had been dead for seven years, and all minor progress Sam had made in fighting back the demons inside him—the ones that had killed Tasha and Jacob—was for not, and he started drinking again. Soon, he’d lost everything, and he’d cared less about it than he thought he would.

In the front pew, the pastor glanced at his watch. The liturgist was talking about the Last Supper, and the pastor looked at his watch again and tongued his cheek. Sam laced his fingers together in his lap. He straightened his back. He pictured Jesus drumming his fingers against the rough wood of a long table, waiting for his twelve sycophant disciples to stop talking, then shaking his head and clicking his tongue. “You will betray me all,” Jesus said flatly, then grabbed a loaf of bread. Sam imagined him speaking in bitter, wormwood tones as he broke the bread and dipped it in the wine.

The woman with the brass staff extinguished the first candle. The sanctuary darkened imperceptibly.

Back at the pulpit, the liturgist continued, saying that Jesus was killed on a tree, and while it wasn’t technically correct Sam thought about the Aztecs and Xibalba and the tree of life sprouting from First Father’s stomach. He thought that life from death was a very beautiful idea. It was then Sam realized that he wasn’t at a church service at all, but a wake, and none of the attendees had even met the dead man in question. They’d only heard about him through stories, these same stories, that were told every year in the same bored way. They did not feel grief for the dead man’s passing.

Outside, the late spring sun was setting, darkening the colored glass murals lining the sanctuary. Sam hadn’t noticed until now that there was a candle in each of the alcoves, and that they were being extinguished with the candles on the altar up front. Unlike the ones on the altar, these flames were smaller and dimmer. They cast shards of broken light against the irregular surface of the windows.

The choir kept singing and the liturgist kept reading from the Bible and the woman with the brass staff kept cupping the flames with the bell, slowly extinguishing the light. Before Sam knew it, there was no light at all shining through the stained glass windows. The flickering candlelight illuminated it like the faint, cloud-sheathed moon over a pond. Sam shuddered and goosebumps scattered across his arms and back, and he thought about Tasha and Jacob again. He thought about how it felt when the car crashed, and how the vodka had tasted. The liturgist talked about Jesus in Gethsemane and the serpent that was really the Devil. Sam looked up from his knees, noticing as if for the first time, the thin cross at the front of the sanctuary. It had a long purple cloth draped over the arms, sloping gracefully down the front and then up again. The cross was delicate with the cloth in the almost total darkness of the sanctuary. It cast the faintest of shadows over the congregation; the only light left illuminated the cross from behind.

The choir finished. The lights went out. There was total silence. The silence kept going.

Then the choir all slammed their hymnals shut at the same time, and the Earth shifted. The sanctuary lights came on dimly, and the choir exited, making only the sounds of rustling clothes and shuffling feet. The congregation stood once they were gone and filtered out, too.

Sam hadn’t realized that he’d been alone until now. No one in the pew crossed him to leave. He had been sitting all alone. He glanced around like he’d come out of a dream. The sanctuary was empty. Sam felt something at the bottom of him, settled but formless without any root or anchor. It was thick and heavy, but it was arranged as tenuously as sand on the ocean floor. He held his breath and didn’t move for fear that the shifting tides of time would dissipate it before it could take solid shape and become a part of him.

But the silence was breached. The congregation in the lobby murmured and the thing inside him moved and broke. Sam lost it. He didn’t remember why it was so important. When he stood up, his knees were trembling, and he may have been grieving. Something had shifted for sure, but he had no words for it and could no longer behold it with such distant but tremendous clarity.

Sam stood up and left the sanctuary. No one spoke to him this time, either. He wanted to thank someone but he didn’t.

When Sam stepped outside, he grimaced because he had changed but the world hadn’t.

The pastor was in the parking lot, smoking a cigarette next to a car and talking about football in cheerful, animated tones. The men and women who still lingered did more of the same. They talked about their Easter hams and exchanged tips on perfecting gravy. Sam put his hands in his pockets and arched his head back to gaze at the stars in perfect despair. After a deep breath, he walked home. He still did not believe.

Upon crossing the tracks, there was nothing. The desert dominated the landscape with only a few derelict buildings and the abandoned scrapheap accenting the barren landscape. Out here, with his back to the mountains, Sam could see the cosmos extending in a cover from the horizon. God had draped a sheet over the world as if it were a birdcage and the people canaries. He wanted the world to shut up. He wanted it to sleep.

The place where Sam lived was on the other side of the scrapheap. He passed by the rotten garden of twisted metal flaking with rust.

The hinges creaked when he pushed open the door, and he was greeted by the smell of decaying wood. Sam opened a can of beans and heated it on the gas camper stove. He shoveled the beans into his mouth with a stolen plastic spork and closed his eyes as he chewed each eager, enormous mouthful. He was famished but he ate slowly. The beans were lovely.

After they were gone and Sam scraped every last drop of juice into his mouth, he took the can and went outside with it. He went to the scrapheap and dropped the can into a discarded washing machine, then he stuffed his hands in his pockets and leaned against the stained front bumper of a car. Sam stayed there for a while, watching the headlights traveling the freeway far in the distance.

He didn’t think that the church’s congregation lacked either true love or admiration for Jesus’s acts. Sam was sure that they believed. It was simply that all the love and admiration was now commonplace. The story Sam had heard today for the first time in decades was told to them every year. They lived with it deep in their hearts every day, and the words were so familiar to them now that they were unrecognizable, morphed into something as alien as hieroglyphics. They sang the songs as if reciting phrases in a foreign tongue. The meaning remained, but the words were lost.

Sam thought about Jesus and pulled his hands out of his pockets. He wept because there were no stigmata piercing them. The blood that stained them with was not his own.

He stayed outside for a while and thought. Then Sam went home and pulled down his clothesline. He found a place to hang himself in the scrapheap and died.

The sun rose the next morning, covering the Earth with light.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Fiction

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