|The Sound of Honey 1230 words
a short story
by William Cleary
72A N. Prospect St.
Burlington, Vt. 05401
802 862 4659
Early in life Tommy did not think to hide his interest in girls his own age. He was a kindergartener with Marjorie Hamilton, a blond curly-headed doll of a kid who lived about seven houses away along the street dark with the shade of broad-leafed elm trees and the sugary scent of lilacs in summer. He often found himself sitting on her yellow steps early in the day and she would call out his name through the screened living-room window, then come and sit next to hem.. He didn't mind that she did all the talking. When the news ran out, he brought her down to his house to sit on the porch swing with him. She usually had more to say then. Her voice reminded him of honey somehow: but that made no sense. You can't hear honey.
When his family moved three blocks away to rent a smaller but newer house, he soon learned the improbable truth that Marjorie's family had moved too, and to a house only slightly farther away from him. That was the summer that his uncle Harry, the graduate of West Point, had sent them an army pup tent. The family set it up in the field next their driveway, and, when his brothers and sisters were not around, he and Marjorie would play wounded soldier and nurse. He never stopped to wonder why the game would be almost no fun at all if played with someone of his own family or, say, with a boy, or, for that matter, why you couldn't dramatize the game of soldier and nurse in the open field somewhere, more like it really happened in war.
But somehow it was much more naturally improvised inside the tent, and best of all, with a nurse who was not in your own family. With Marjorie in her white dress and a cap bursting with sunshine-colored curls, a wounded soldier could groan in excruciating pain, and be wounded in a multiplicity of places on the body. In fact, new wounds were constantly being found, and wash cloths and handkerchiefs could be placed on them that had an almost immediate therapeutic effect. The poor soldier sometimes would pray out loud, hoping a miracle would occur to heal his ghastly wounds, especially the secret wound in his heart that bled profusely for Marjorie Hamilton. "Hail Mary, full of grace," he would moan, "the Lord is with thee," then pass out completely. And the nurse would quickly take up the prayer he'd had to teach her (she was Protestant): "Blessed art thou amongst women!" And Tommy, writhing in despair from the shattered foot that meant he'd never play pom-pom again, knew his nurse was one of the most blessed amongst women, and he experienced at her hands inside the tent miracle after miracle of instantaneous healing and visions of eternal life.
Golden haired Marjorie with the musical name, alas, did not go to first grade at his school, and soon all the women in his life were Catholic. First was Elaine Newman who told the girls on the playground that she was in love with him and he received the information with utter disdain -- for Elaine had three big red blemishes on her thin face and soon died of pneumonia -- but not before coughing up baseball-size clots of blood, said the girls in the class who had visited her bedside. Then there was Alice Ann Mott whom he loved from afar until he lost interest when she gracelessly out-arithmaticked everyone else - including the boys -- in an all-class math shootout. And finally in the third grade another Marjorie constantly got physical with him, pushing him suddenly from behind or bumping into him accidentally as he came out of the classroom door. The girls in his life were many, in his imagination multitudinous.
That year everyone in class was reading ferociously - except Tommy who used up the reading period drawing sketches of towers with pointed roofs and double windows along the circular staircase inside. Hanging out the top windows came someone's long hair curling downward.
* * *
It was a hot Saturday in late June and Father Tom had turned away from the Mets game on TV to go hear Confessions. It wasn't just his odiferous cassock that depressed him: it was his unworthiness. He loved hearing confessions because there he could be merciful to other unworthy men and women and tell them their sins were being taken a way from them as far as east is from west. That's how far he wanted his own taken away but they stuck to him like glue, sins of manipulation, games.
For instance, working the girls: it disgusted him but he was good at it. Make them smile, make them look. Or working the Mass crowd: pop off that quote from St. Paul as if it's hard-wired into your brain, part of your sanctity. Or working the poor: they bow and treat you like Jesus. Soon you break away. "Gotta get going!" (It's cocktail time.)
He settled down in the dark confessional, slipping the limp purple-and-white stole around his neck. He pushed the right-side slider open and in the half darkness a woman kneeling there began her Confession. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was two months ago." She cleared her throat, then whispered. "I am a nurse and sometimes I neglect my patients because I have too many of them." Her kneeler squeaked and he could see a blond shine coming from her hair as she moved. "It happens every day," she said. "I have to hide from my supervisor who despises me, I don't know why. Maybe I talk too much to the patients but they are so lonely." On "lonely" he suddenly heard the sound of honey. "For these and all my sins I ask pardon of God and of you a condign penance."
Ye gods, was he losing it? So many years ago.
"Things aren't sinful if you don't do it on purpose," he whispered.
"I am a convert," she said. "Learning slowly." He felt her smile.
He was back in the pup tent, face down, in a terrible quandary. He wondered if he should turn over and cry out, yet he knew that some soldiers in some wars end up dying in silence. Any sound at all would alert the enemy.
Suddenly he couldn't get his breath to come into his mouth, so ghastly was the shrapnel wound gasping air into his open throat. Blood red and warm ran down the inside of his right leg where his pants lay torn open, a hip bone shattered. He was washed in pain. Mother of God, I'm dying. He wanted to whisper: "Get the medics, Marjorie. It's dangerous, but I'll die if you don't. Hurry!" And she would say: "I'll be back, Tommy, don't die!"
Instead he moved his lips without a sound, breviary-wise. "Jesu dulcis memoria -- dans vera cordis gaudia, sed super mel…. Jesus, the very thought of thee is every heart's true sweetness, more than honey.…"
He mumbled in Latin the absolution formula like his life's last prayer. Then with bloody fingers he held his throat wound closed and air came into his mouth. He leaned toward the screen. "Go in peace," he whispered, tasting salt from his eyes.
"Thank you , Father," she said and was gone.
William Cleary (email@example.com), author of the recent Praying Your
Story (Forest of Peace Publications) lives in Burlington, Vermont.
72A N. Prospect St.
Burlington, Vt. 05401
(802) 862 4659