“The Rite of Father Marcus” by Eric Petty

Rite of Father Marcus

“I have to take Father Marcus to the revival this afternoon,” I told Sister Jinnifer, “It’s down near Cape Girardeau.”  I volunteered to take Father Marcus once in a while to revivals in the area to boost his congregation numbers since most had abandoned the church after the renovation.

“That’s quite a drive.  What is it, three..four hours?” Jinnifer asked. She squeezed the Palmolive bottle and spurted out a quarter sized shape of green liquid detergent, the famous hand of Elizabeth Barbour almost worn away from the label of the watered-down soap.  The fragrance of clean blew in with a slight breeze from the east-facing screen door.

I was sitting at the dining set I had bought at a church sale.  It came with six completely different chairs and occupied much of the kitchen.  The edge of the tattered Afshar rug with the intricate tulip design peaked out from the adjacent living room.  An old Invicta color television console with built-in hi-fi record player occupied much of the opposite wall.   On many evenings, Jinnifer played Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin records for hours only interrupted by the occasional prayer.  On high, the crucifix of our Lord stood sentry to the convent.

“I don’t mind,” I told her, “he has a lot of stories to tell.”  I stared down at my cup of coffee that I had made some hours before that warmed my hands, but never made it to my lips.

“Is there something wrong with the coffee, Mother Superior?” Jinnifer asked me stopping briefly from scrubbing pans from last night’s mozzarella cheese nightmare.  Jinnifer’s  auburn hair flipped around like a Raggedy Anne doll. She had taken her vows only recently and still had a very innocent view of the world.

“No, Sister.  Had a hard time sleeping. I thought I heard the church organ playing last night. It woke me up,” I told her watching the sun cascade over the remains of the buttresses on Father Marcus’ church across the parking lot from the convent.  They had been demolished during the last renovation in order to remove the perceived stigma of gothic architecture that some of the parishioners believed diminished the divinity of the church. The massive bell atop the steeple was removed during the renovation and a parapet that looked like the top of a square castle had begun construction with the remains of the demolished stone and brick in an attempt to emulate the style of St. Nicholas of Ghent, Belgium, where Mrs. Beverly Wyrich  said she saw an actual miracle occur.  Half-way through the project, Mrs. Wyrich mysteriously fell off a walking bridge and into a shallow river in Indiana.  Her body was never recovered.  No will had been drafted. The renovation funds vanished along with Mrs. Wyrich leaving St. Monica’s church resembling more of a fortress than a place of worship. The bell, to this day, still sat in the back of the church unable to beckon the congregation.

“I didn’t hear anything. I’m a pretty deep sleeper, though.” Jinnifer looked perplexed and shrugged her shoulders.   She sat down at the yellow art deco chair at the corner of the table.  Sister Jinnifer Amador had, what the other Sister’s of Charity would define as, an annoying tick.  Occasionally, she hummed songs as she walked through the convent. On mornings, such as this, her humming to the previous nights song parade created a cacophony of sounds from the repeated old-boned creaking of every floorboard to the rhythm of “Almost like Being in Love” accompanied by the rat-tat-tat of wooden spoons on glasses intermittently filled with liquids making an impromptu xylophone.

I found this very entertaining, only at times, as this was an extremely effective tool in waking those sisters with “lazier souls.”  Most of the sisters didn’t care for the young Jinnifer, but I can honestly say, I liked her immediately. I had wondered if my recent promotion to Mother Superior had more to do with my unusually long fuse rather than my studies and grant writing.

“Just strange that he didn’t tell me about a new organist.  He usually tells me everything.” I said shaking my head.

“Could have slipped his mind.  He is getting old.” Jinnifer remarked.

“Maybe. I can’t imagine being in that big church all by myself all the time. I think it would drive me a little crazy.” I looked over at the once proud church trying to remember how beautiful it had been.

“It was nice of you to help him when he was so alone,” Jinnifer commented.

“I only have love in my heart and it was the right thing to do to help him,” I said feeling quite proud.

“He seems to enjoy going to the revivals and talking with parishioners and talking about our Lord.” Jinnifer looked at me with a smile in her eyes.

“No, you are right, he really does.” I stopped and stared at the cold coffee.  It must’ve been for a spell as Jinnifer put her hand on my wrist.

“Are you ok, Mother Superior?” Jinnifer asked.  Her hands were so soft, youthful, caring.

“I’ll be ok.  Well, look at me.  I’ve been here for so long I’ve lost track of time.  Father Marcus beckons.  I’ll be home late tonight.  Have dinner without me.” I tapped Jinnifer’s hand and grabbed a pack of 22 ½ volt “B” batteries, I was sure I would need them during the trip, and pulled the truck keys from the nail pounded into the trim around the backdoor. A surface-mounted deadlock anchored the outside door and a deadbolt lock clamped tight on the inside security fence. Our little convent had been the target of various thieves recently and activity had seemed to increase with the recession.  President Eisenhower had promised new construction efforts to put people back to work.  Apparently, those efforts had not reached our small town in Missouri.

Father Marcus walked out of the back of the renovated church near the well-worn path leading to the two-bedroom rectory in the back. I heard the wooden screen door slam hard against the jam. The rectory was wood and was due for a new coat of paint, but Father Marcus believed that painting it would be in the “exact disinterest in being a priest.”  It was, in actuality, an eyesore and, yet, another reason why parishioners were no longer coming.

“Hello, Father,” I said, raising my hand to get his attention.  I met him half-way down the path and allowed for my arm to be grasped.  Normally, he looked put together quite well, especially for a man of advancing age.  Today his thick white hair was disheveled and his thick glasses were heavily smudged with fingerprints. He looked like he fell asleep as the earpieces of his thick glasses were bent, pushing the glasses off kilter.  He wore his only suit made on Savile Row consisting of an ill fitting brown single breasted coat that draped over his hunched shoulders and wide-legged flat panel pants that were a couple of inches short, but did the job.  His shoes were winged-tipped, and originally two toned.  Since his eyesight had began to diminish he just used dark brown and occasionally black shoe polish.  They were a mottled mess.

He talked loudly which was usually caused by the batteries in his Zenith Miniature hearing aid going dead.  I helped him into the rusty ‘49 Ford pickup that was parked right outside the church. He held his Bible tightly in his right hand and stared out the passenger window.

As I drove out of the parking lot, I thought I heard again the church organ playing.

“Did you get a new church organist?” I asked Father Marcus.  He continued to stare out the window.  I put my hand on his shoulder softly to get his attention.  He turned immediately toward me with confusion in his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Sister, I didn’t hear you.” He drifted back into some consuming thought.

“I think your batteries died in your hearing aid.” I pointed to the silver and plastic hearing aid with the crucifix hanging from his neck and a long wire ending in a clear, plastic earpiece.  I pulled the truck over and replaced the batteries.

“Can you hear me, ok?” I asked.  He smiled and nodded, returning to the world outside the truck.  Route 67 south ran down around through Imperial, Pevely and Herculaneum before turning into Route 61.  For the first two and a half hours, Father Marcus said nothing. He propped his right arm on the inside armrest on the door with the Bible tight in his hand.  He just stared.  I figured he needed time to figure out what he may say to the people at the revival.  He had been getting older and was trying to maintain his level of relevance in the Christian community.  Maybe he was just tired.

White arrowhead viburnums lined the highway and could be seen all the way to the Mississippi River.  Their intoxicating smell enveloped most of the entire area.  I’ve never known  an area where I couldn’t find that smell that time of year.

“I love that smell.” Father Marcus stated quietly.  He blinked several times, took off his glasses and cleaned them thoroughly, his shirt untucked from the front of his pants.  Putting them back on his face must’ve been close to the sun burning away a fog.

“I do too, Father.  Reminds me of something.  Can’t quite place it. Viburnums are one of my favorite wildflowers.”  I continued to drive watching the right side of the road now.

“I saw some viburnums in the mountains of Mexico when I was a much  younger man.” He turned his head forward, but wasn’t looking outside.  He pulled his bible close to him. “It’s funny how things in your past temper you for the future.”

“I think about that a lot, actually.  The sisters renew their vows each year, but I wonder if that’s the best way of doing things.  A lot can change in a year.  Some sisters find God in more things in their lives, while some sisters find, for some reason, hate in their hearts,” I stated.

I liked our talks, at times.  On our first drives I talked too much for him as he would reach for his hearing aid, turning it down low or, I’m sure, completely off.  I tended to listen more now and share small portions instead of my epic life story.

“I think about my vacation to the Salton Sea back in 1913.  I took a train out there. It was such a beautiful place in the middle of this desert valley. I was certain God had a hand in making it.  Bombay Beach, I think it was, had these little bungalows.  The lake was pretty salty and you could float all day. Same type of flower was there, smelled just the same. I spent a week there.”  Father Marcus said.  He had told me this exact story on several different occasions.  I believe it was the only actual vacation he ever had in his life and was very special to him. I began to wonder if he had started to become a little senile.  Just as he had finished, we pulled into Cape Girardeau.  A make-shift tent with white, folding wooden chairs sprung out of the prairie growing in competition with the Goosegrass with sticky seeds that traveled on everyone’s socks.

Pastor Benjamin Fergus Dearmond walked up to the truck and helped Father Marcus find his footing on the foreclosed family farm. His white oxford button down barely contained his passion for his wife’s cooking.  The hard sway of his hair was held into a black pompadour by some shiny, greasy pomade.   His growing chops tipped his ever-present, dimpled smile.   They talked for a moment and congratulated each other on finding the flock God had wanted.  I stayed back at the truck and walked around picking wildflowers from the general area.  Blue-eyed grass, and Slender False Foxglove were my favorites in this pasture.  I could hear the accordion fueling up for some hymnal sing-a-longs when suddenly Father Marcus stumbled his way back to the truck.

“We need to leave now.” He demanded.  He took off his brown jacket and unbuttoned his shirt to breathe easier.  As I pulled away, Pastor Dearmond walked toward the front of the truck, but Father Marcus yelled, “NOW!”

We sat for an hour driving in quiet before he sat the bible between us and took a deep breath.  He was in distress.

“When I was a young man, still a seminarian, I was sitting in this little bungalow near the beach at the Salton Sea.  A man dressed in a black suit knocked on my door and gave me a letter sealed with a wax bulla with a crucifix indented into it.  Inside was money for a train ticket and explicit instructions.  I was being called to help a young girl in a city called Cuauhtémoc, in central Mexico. In the letter I was directed by Bishop Marchal to assist another priest in the region.  I was to leave immediately and was given no choice.”  Father Marcus paused for a moment to catch his breath.  He was sweating and darting his eyes back and forth searching for some distant memories.  He clasped his hands.

“Let me stop the truck, Father, and we can talk more,” I said as I signaled for a right turn onto a dirt road in the nearby distance.  We stopped just under a large, shady oak tree. Father Marcus turned to me and lifted his head.  His grey hair caught the tops of his Harold Lloyd styled glasses.

“I was to find this church called St. Pious in a small valley.   The priest of the local church reached out to the bishop after he believed a local girl had been possessed. I was summoned to perform the exorcism after the priest died tragically in a fire that engulfed his small house.   Bishop Marchal received the letter after the priest had died. His name was Father Sarazan. I was chosen because I had just been ordained to the order of ‘exorcist.’”  Father Marcus looked at me, but his focus was in the past.

“How old were you then?” I asked.

“I was 24 years old. It was right after the war. I hurried and gathered my belongings and made arrangements for the next train,” he replied.  He stopped rubbing his hands together and started to settle down.

“I can only imagine how scared that must’ve been for you,” I said knowing I couldn’t cure his pain.

“Actually, I wasn’t.  The strange thing is, I have never believed in the devil. Only God, our Lord.  So I thought I would use it as another chance to see more of what God had given us,” he stated looking quite relieved.

“How were you going to do the exorcism, if you didn’t believe in what you were doing?” I asked.

“Frankly, I didn’t know. I honestly thought I would find a person with a ‘mental hygiene’ problem. At the US/Mexican border, there was a train stop. I was on this beautiful, steam locomotive with a mahogany interior and red cushions.   I could open the windows up and breath in the fresh air. It smelled like the viburnums on our trip today.  I had my eyes closed for a minute…I must’ve drifted off for a moment and when I awoke a man named Ambrose Bierce was sitting there.  He was on this train going to Mexico to fight with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution.”

“The famous writer?  I’ve heard of him.” I thought back to my schooling and remembered several of his works.  My favorite was “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”

“He was a rather unpleasant man, actually.  Very bitter in all.  We talked mostly about his travels.  He seemed uninterested in my life until I mentioned why I was traveling to Mexico.  His eyes lit up like an Edison Lightbulb.  He was, after all, an agnostic, so this was an absolute hysterical situation that he couldn’t pass up.  I let him know he could join me, but would have to wait outside while I performed the rite.” Father Marcus caught his breath and told me to continue driving as he had obligations back at the church. It was getting dark and I was usually uncomfortable driving at night. He continued.

“When we arrived, I found a young girl named Marie Vogel. She had such wonderful auburn hair that draped over her shoulders.  Her father had traveled to Cuauhtémoc to start a Mennonite church.  Her father had traveled back to Canada for supplies and left her under the trust of Father Sarazan.” Father Marcus watched the road ahead as I drove. His eyes never lost the road.

“Was she…possessed?” I asked. I found myself watching Father Marcus entirely too long while I was driving.

“No, she wasn’t. And that wasn’t because I didn’t believe in such things. While I was in with Marie, I noticed that she sang this song that was very popular at the time. It was by Al Jolson called, ‘You Made Me Love You, I Didn’t Want to Do It.’ She sang this song over and over and over. While I sat there preparing, she fell asleep and still continued to murmur the song,” he said, starting to hum the song quietly.

“So she just kept singing that song?  I guess that would be annoying, but…” I stated, but Father Marcus stopped me.

“It was driving everyone crazy.  While she was sleeping, Ambrose stopped me and told me that Miguel’s grandmother noticed a blossoming romance between Marie and her grandson, Miguel. The grandmother, who was a practitioner of Santeria, that Catholic and voodoo religion, disapproved of the union and asked that they no longer see each other.  Both told her they were in love and intended to marry under the guidance of the Catholic church and the beliefs of Menno Simons. That night, as they danced slowly and intimately to that Al Jolson song, Miguel’s grandmother cast a maldito on her.  A curse.” He stated.

“A Curse?  That’s almost worse than being possessed. Isn’t it?” I asked carefully.

“Yes, it is,” he stated emphatically. He started sweating and clenched his left hand. He pulled the bible to his lap laying his hands atop it.

“So you weren’t needed after all?” I asked.

“No, not at all.  From what Ambrose told me all Marie needed to do was to tell Miguel that she hated him. The curse would’ve been lifted.”  Father Marcus feathered the edges of the bible several times as we rounded the corner several blocks from the church.

“Then the song would stop playing in her head, right? So what did she do?” I asked turned carefully, slowing the car down to get the entirety of the story.

“She told him she hated him, but there was a catch.  She actually had to mean it. She couldn’t hate him. She loved him dearly. After I learned of this situation, I pleaded with the grandmother, but the curse had already been uttered. She didn’t want to remove it and wouldn’t listen. She didn’t care for my intrusion, either. So Marie just sang that song over and over and over,” Father Marcus said.

I looked over at him and noticed a tear had ran down the side of his face. He closed his eyes and bowed his head.

“The day before I left, I met with Marie and blessed her. She was still singing that song. Ambrose woke me that next morning and told me Miguel had beat her to death with a stone.” Father Marcus sat motionless.

I parked the truck in the parking lot between the convent and the church. Father Marcus got out of the truck without help and stopped at the edge of the path to the rectory. The single light in the parking lot outlined his body. He turned to me and looked quite strange.

“I never saw auburn hair like that again until I hired the new church organist. I couldn’t see her face and she had her hair pulled back, but that hair…she played that Al Jolson song all night long. That’s why my hearing aid was turned off. I didn’t need new batteries. I just thought she was practicing. After all these years, the church needed some music to wake it up so I ignored it.” Father Marcus started to turn away. I had heard that organ playing after all.

He walked cautiously up the path and turned around one last time.

“She was at the revival today, too. I knew it was her now playing that song on the accordion. It found me after all these years. I wasn’t able to save her, to quiet her mind and her soul.”  Father Marcus grabbed the wooden door and walked half-way into the rectory.  With his head half-turned to me, he said, “I do not possess hate in my heart, Sister.”

With that, Father Marcus was gone.

—–

I watched what the weatherman called heat lightning, purple and beautiful, exploding in the distant clouds.   I didn’t realize that I had been standing by the open window for so long watching, wondering, listening to the organ playing in the church, again. It started the minute we arrived. Through that window I smelled something burning, then the light of the fire drew out across lawn and danced on the garage door.

I ran outside to find the church engulfed in flames.  I pounded on the door as the other sisters arrived. Sister Jinnifer informed me she had called the fire department. I looked for Father Marcus in his rectory, but he wasn’t there. I feared the worse. The red flashing light of the firetruck lit up the entire neighborhood as I stood by helplessly watching.

One of the volunteer fireman told me they found Father Marcus’ body. He was laying next to the church organ.  His hearing aid was missing. The doors were locked with chains from the inside which kept the firemen from entering the church and attacking the fire. The church was gone. That unfortunate renovation a memory. I walked back to my bedroom and slept for a long while.

I could still smell the smoke coming from the church as I took my seat at the kitchen table. I wasn’t interested in the coffee that morning, instead I held my hands and prayed for some time.

Sister Jinnifer walked catching my eye. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“He was a good man of God.” I replied.

Sister Jinnifer started washing dishes, but stopped abruptly and walked into the living room.  I could hear her fiddling with something.  The thump of the needle and the scratchy, static of the record player filtered into the kitchen. Jinnifer appeared at the doorway.

“I bought another old record yesterday at a garage sale. Music soothes the soul.” Jinnifer walked back to her dishes. She quietly hummed along with the song, that familiar song I had heard coming from the church those nights before. She knew the words and sang them out loud.  When the record ended, she went back returning the needle to the beginning and played it again, and again, and again, flipping her auburn hair over her shoulders.

 

 


 

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Get to know Eric Petty: I had the fortunate demise of being the youngest in my family…by eight years. I was treated like everyone’s child and there is nothing quite like having four mothers and two fathers. I spent a lot of time alone with imaginary friends instead of with my family who constantly worried over me. Those imaginary friends kept my mind pretty busy and ushered my imagination into new and exciting directions. Fortunately, some of those childish things I did not give up. I am glad I can still dream today.

photo credit: lead me lord via photopin (license)

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3 Comments

  1. Brevity is the soul of wit according to Wilde, so:

    thoughtful, interesting, didn’t work for me. It left me feeling that maybe more should have happened.

  2. Jon Jones @DVWhat

    I thoroughly enjoyed the senses that were invoked by this narrative. It was a wonderfully detailed journey of years and memories, rife with descriptions of wooden doors, the smell of the flowers, etc.

    I admit I was taken out of the experience a couple of times, mostly through nitpicky things that conflicted with my visual experience of the scenes as they played out. (ie: a 1949 pickup truck that should not have been rusty during the Eisenhower administration…)

    The previous commenter did touch on something that struck me about this story. Although a great deal was referenced through Father Marcus’ memories, not much of great merit really seemed to actually happen in the present experience of the narrator – specifically the intense change in tone that occurred between arriving at the revival, and quickly leaving it again – it felt like there was a missing reel in there somewhere – meat of a story that was unnecessarily compensated with a few threads that felt wedged in, such as the presence of Ambrose Bierce. Perhaps details that might help flesh out a longer and more comprehensive narrative, but frankly felt like distractions in the context of a short story structure.

    But…in all fairness I must balance out that previous paragraph with another underlying feeling that I really DID like about how this story was conveyed, though it is difficult to wrap my mind around. It called to mind the 1967 hit single “Ode to Billie Joe”. Not in content, setting, characters or era – but rather in style. It is a great song that intersperses the core of the story with seemingly innocuous details that actually serve to put the listener more into the scene of the storyteller. I really liked having that sense here with this story, and I often get quite sucked into that kind of style. I guess what this boils down to is that although I felt there is something slightly lacking in the “meat” of this story, I really dug HOW this story was written, and I’d be quite interested in seeing more from this author.

  3. I’m afraid I agree more with the first comment than the second. I felt there was a lot of long, slow burns that didn’t pay off. There is a story in here that is interesting, but there was just so much to wade through to get to it that in the end the story just doesn’t really work.

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