And Eat It
He says the words “anthropodermic biblioplegy” like it’s a secret they share as he holds out a book bound in leather-that’s-not-leather, no title embossed on the cover, nothing that would disrupt the calico pattern of pores even though the book must be at least 200 years old, but his eyes are full of light, like they were when he anointed her forehead at her confirmation, so she takes the book from him, runs her hand over the smooth, cool leather-that’s-not-leather as he says, “bound by a doctor in Paris in 1789.” His eyes on her. “In his secret human tannery.”
And he’s smiling at her in the uncertain way he smiled yesterday in front of the church when he waved to her parents in his liturgical robes—blood red for Good Friday—and she pretended not to see him while she clipped her white lace veil into her hair and crossed herself on her way into the church, feeling him watching her—watching her lace-gloved hands, which are the part of her he loves the most.
He’s not smiling at her in the easy way he smiles when they’re eating ice cream cones in his car in the Thrifty parking lot and he puts his quivering hand on hers in such a gentle, chaste way that it leaves a menstrual throbbing in her core—an ache that blooms open at the exact moment during the sunrise mass when he raises the disc of the Eucharist in the stained-glass light and says, “Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you.” When he raises the chalice of wine and says, “This is my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. Drink this in memory of me.” When his eyes meet hers, full of heat, as he places the Eucharist in her mouth and his finger brushes her tongue like a cat hair, and only she can see in the flicker of his eyelids, because this: a brush of the tongue, a pat on the hand, is the closest he will ever come to touching her—
Except for that moment at St. Ignatius Apostolic Youth Camp last summer when he held her bleeding hand in his, the two of them sitting knee-to-knee in metal folding chairs under a huge blue oak that smelled like sun and dust as he wiped the blood with cotton balls soaked in alcohol, she in her wet bathing suit, he in his black clergy shirt and white collar. They watched fresh blood bead along the cut as gooseflesh rose on her thighs in the cool breeze, and he started trembling—and then dropped her hand and drew back with a hard swallow like he’d just swerved out of a pair of headlights. He stood and walked away, and the ache in her core pulsed in rhythm with the ache in her hand.
So when he called to her in the dark later that night, haloed under the flickering lamp above the mess hall door, she went to him, followed him inside.
Now, as his fingers tremble over hers on the cover of the book bound in a queer leather with its strangely familiar pores, he says, “Would you ever do this?” He smiles. “For me?”
And she thinks about the way his face looked after he took the pictures in the dark mess hall, the camera flash blanching her feet, her legs, her hand taped with rusty gauze. He looked weary but relieved, like he’d just breached the surface of the water after being under for too long.
She thinks about the way his breathing slowed as he looked at the Polaroids: flashes of bloodless skin in the dark; a shoulder blade, webbed ribs, a breast rooted with blue veins—and he looked peaceful.
And though she senses there will come a day when she will see the connection between these things: the strange leather, Polaroids of body parts, the body and blood of Christ—
And though she knows that she won’t always be able to ignore the feeling of unease she gets when he looks at her and she sees the furnace inside him and knows that their final scene will be her incineration—
All she wants is to bring him peace, so she says, “Yes.”
Faith Merino is the author of the novel Cormorant Lake, which was longlisted for The Center For Fiction’s 2021 First Novel Award. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Forge, The Indiana Review, and more. She lives in northern California where she is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.