The doors opened to the sides of the altar and the boy-priests, all younger than Ricky, entered carrying their trays with mounds of white flesh and cups of red blood. Ricky’s stomach ached, seizing, refusing, and each priestly-boy, solemn of face and dour of mien held out the sacrament to the penitents and each of them took and swallowed the meat and drank the blood. The young girls in bloom, young girls in pink and white, young girls with long hair, young girls wearing springtime bright savored the meat and the blood. Ricky saw the army of locusts—the Church mothers in their black shells—rattling, their jaws clattering as they devoured the meat of Christ, drank the blood of Christ, gnawed the bones of Christ, their jaws dripping with the blood of Jesus Christ, the meat of Jesus Christ caught in their teeth. And Ricky tasted the vomit at the root of his tongue. He checked his watch, nine-fifteen, he glanced up at the boy-priest—wearing his black pants, his white shirt, his hair trimmed and neat, his angelic face open and clear, his eyes as shallow as drops of rain—holding the flesh on a tray in his left hand. In his right the offering of blood flowed with the thick redness of the man on the cross and the rot in Ricky’s throat boiled up.
He gagged. He held out his hand NO, and he shook his head. The boy-priest, ignorant of what he was doing, but doing it as he had been taught to do it, offered the flesh and blood to Ricky again and Ricky saw in the pools of red the squirming nailed-down Jesus who reached out of his own anguish to mouth words that floated silent as fish bubbles in an aquarium, and Ricky stayed the boy’s hand. Above the receptacles of violence, above the torn meat, he looked at the boy, the priest, the scion of Aaron who had the sacred oil on his forehead and had kissed the rod of Aaron, and Ricky felt his own chest cave in with the weight of the sacrifice. He said, in a loud voice, breaking the silence of the sacrament,
The boy, still offering the meat and blood, blinked. Ricky said it again,
Run. Get out while you have the chance. You don’t want to be here in five years. You don’t have to stay.
The boy, eyes struck with fear, glanced to his left at the valley of pews where the girls in white waited, bare legs, knees wide, their own juicy offerings temptation beyond any imagination. To his right the black army of locusts hovered in their somber gowns and thick black-soled shoes, their legs covered in black, their hair forced into buns at the backs of their heads and the boy, trembling, shook until the blood sloshed out of the chalices to stain the whiteness of the flesh on the tray. Quaking, he glanced at the Elders on the dais, themselves in black, their beards thick as baled hay and Ricky again said,
Run. Don’t you see what they’re doing?
The boy, backing away, turned then and fell to his knees, dropped his slaughter on the floor, and sobbed.
One of the Elders, nameless, faceless, rose to his full height and in breaking the ritual drew a shout from the kneeling women. He pointed a lightning bolt finger at Ricky and he seethed and hissed the words—Ricky Edwards, you are apostate, get thee—
Teresa broke the rapture with a thunder-chord on the organ and Ricky did rise and he did walk into the aisle in a slow processional to the doors where the blood-red crosses, nailed to the dogwood, hung, shocking red slashes. There he turned to face the rows, the pews, the Elders, the silent dark mothers, the pale-skinned girls and Sandra Tate standing in the aisle at the end of the row of white dresses. She held her hands over her mouth. Holding back a scream? A shout? A cry? And the pink ribbon in her hair seemed to pulsate with each beat of her heart, turning redder and redder, about to explode in a flood, a shower of blood.
Ricky shoved open the doors and he walked out of the tabernacle. He entered the night, entered the crisp and misty night, and he let the doors slam shut but through their thickness he heard Teresa, heard her heaving heart in the music. Ricky walked away.
He walked as slow as he wanted, walked from the tabernacle and the bleeding body and the virgins in white and it was good.
It was good to stand up.
It was good to tell the pure and the innocent that they had a choice. Either they could kneel forever to drink the blood and revel in the meat of Jesus or they could walk out into a dark night of pain and hurt that might, just might lead to freedom.
Ricky walked the road lined with walnut trees. In the mist, the trees looked like many-armed giants. Trunks ridged, the ridges deep as knife wounds. Ricky remembered the bullets he and Linard had shot into the wood wounding the trees that now, in the dark, their branches flailing at the sky, seemed to shout back.
The pavement under his feet was solid.
It was good to have that hardness under him instead of the mushy dogma of resurrection and faith. The tar and the rock were true, the stone as real as his own heart still beating with excitement.
It was late when he turned from Greenwood onto Richard Avenue. The street lights shone through the mist in shafts. Ricky sat on the curb in front of his mother’s house where the porch light, always on at dark, shone its single circle on the concrete steps. He could have gone inside, but he liked the dampness of the mist on his skin. It was a soft spattering of wetness falling in a veil over him and he rubbed his face, finding it slick with mist. He remembered his white day, the day he had been washed, the only day he ever wore white—pants of white cotton, shirt of white cotton, white cotton socks—and he remembered the font of life as the Elder slid him into the water that was to wash him clean. But from that day he was not the same. Some boys turned sour instead of sweet and Ricky knew he was one. He and Linard shared that bitterness. Instead of cleansing, the baptism stripped away the skein of lies and exposed them for what they were—men. Blood and meat and bone and brain. Men, not praying machines. It had taken until tonight to teach Ricky the final lesson of his apostasy and he was not sad.
He sat on the curb, in the mist until Teresa arrived in the Ford.
She pulled into the driveway.
She sat in the idling car, the lights still on.
She shut it down, got out and went into the house and turned off the porch light. Ricky waited in the dark.
There was no way back. He knew that. He had committed the final sin. There was no return. Once the Word was rejected, there was no way to take it up again.
Standing, he wiped the coat of mist from his face and he entered his mother’s house.
Teresa sat at the piano, but the lid was still closed, her hands still in her lap. She glanced up at him. Her face was flushed. It was not the tear-stained face he expected, not the punishing lecture face he understood. Instead, she said,
You are lost, Ricky. I’m sorry that you are lost. I know there is nothing I can do to guide you back. I know the anger in your heart leads you to Lucifer. I still love you because you are my son, but I fear for you because the night you roam is so dark and it is very long and when you shut out the only beacon of love in the universe, your pain can last an eternity.
Ricky stood in the doorway to his room, his back to Teresa. He waited.
Her words peppered him like pellets of hard rain, but he did not turn. He could not turn. He would not. He said,
I’m never going back, Teresa.
Poor Eldon, Teresa said. He was crying. Mrs. Tate said it was Lucifer himself speaking through you.
Which Mrs. Tate?
This isn’t the time for that, Ricky.
I’m not sorry, Ricky said. I’m not.
Teresa then lifted the keyboard cover and she played. Mr. Bach. The music filled the room, filled the air, turned it thick and rich and ripe and flowing. Ricky walked through the lushness of his mother’s music into his room.
He knew he had made the right choice.