There had been dozens of tiny fragments to warn her. Shards of time, oddly shaped and of themselves senseless, each piece a clue to disaster. Madelyn struggled to ignore them. Utterly in love, deliriously, euphorically happy, she had dared to confess this lingering fear to Josh.
“Afraid of what?” he’d asked.
“I’m not sure.”
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Madelyn had witnessed hints of impending doom and she’d felt her heart pause in mid-beat at little signs of things awry.
Josh had laughed, pulling her closer, his body warm against her face and breast. “What God giveth, God can taketh away. Is that it?”
“Something like that.”
He kneaded her shoulder, the bed sheets rustling like coniferous needles stirred by a breeze. “You’re not going to lose me,” he’d said, softly.
But Josh hadn’t counted on God’s Dirty Tricks Department, Madelyn thought. God was more than an entity. He was an organization, a celestial force, with a bureau assigned to seek out any mortal’s weakest points. Madelyn believed that. It was the responsibility of the Dirty Tricks Department to remind humans that “What God giveth …”
Deep in thought this Sunday, Madelyn was unaware of passing traffic as she walked to Grace Church. She followed a pathway to the side entrance, pausing to adjust her dress before entering. The door opened before she reached it.
“Good morning, Miss Neely.”
“Good morning, Ralph. Is Josh here?”
“In his office.”
The wide, tiled hallway felt cool. On Sunday mornings before every service, the atmosphere seemed to reflect the tension Josh always suffered. Stage fright. Josh wouldn’t admit it, perhaps, but Madelyn recognized the symptoms—perspiring palms, drawn facial muscles, Josh wearing his “minister’s smile.”
“Josh?” She held the office door ajar, looking in.
“How do you feel?”
“Give ‘em hell.”
He nodded. The exchange was always the same, his response automatic: “That’s their alternative.”
She heard a scraping of metal folding chairs somewhere in the Sunday School area. A muted voice was directing the activity.
“See you after services,” Madelyn said. Without glancing up from his notes, standing behind his desk, Josh lifted one hand as though to wave, then let it slowly settle to the papers before him.
She closed the heavy door, pulling gently until it clicked firmly shut. She glanced at her watch: twenty minutes before the service. One of the acolytes hurried across the hall toward the sacristy, following the Senior Warden, Mr. Mulloy. The boy’s garment gave him an angelic appearance which was, at best, a temporary guise. Madelyn knew the child to be a persistent truant. It was Josh’s philosophy to take such delinquents and make them a part of the ceremony. In this instance, “God’s mysterious ways” had not yet begun to work. The boy was irritating, still naughty, no less recalcitrant.
She lifted the heels of her shoes so she could pass the Senior Warden and his charge without attracting their attention. She saw the boy wipe a runny nose on his sleeve, compounding this with a second wipe of the sleeve against the backside of his gown. The child glanced up, meeting Madelyn’s disapproving gaze. She read defiance in his freckled face.
“Make two trips,” Mr. Mulloy was saying. “Don’t drop anything.”
She went outside the rector office, found a bench located beside a winding walkway. Amid a scent of sweet shrub, Madelyn awaited the passing of time. From behind the church she could hear a crunch of tires on gravel as deacons and other officials arrived. A florist’s truck pulled in and a woman carried in a floral arrangement to place in the narthex. It was the same routine every seventh day.
The building had been moved here from downtown Mobile, brick by numbered brick, and carefully reconstructed to its original grandeur. In an inconstant and volatile world, the parishioners of Grace Church wanted constancy and a feeling of permanence as solid as the stones in the edifice walls.
This morning, like every Sunday for more than a year, Madelyn had arisen early to prepare breakfast while Josh tossed in bed a few minutes longer. Josh had bathed, shaved, eaten, and throughout said not more than fifty words. In contrast to his usual diurnal ebullience, Sunday was his most serious day. Engrossed in the mental polishing of a sermon he’d outlined on Tuesday and typed on Wednesday, in the predawn hours of Sunday this man she loved was truly a man of God. So absorbed was Josh in his sermon preparation, she’d see him sit in the bathroom for forty minutes, apparently lost to his original objective.
“Six-thirty,” she’d announced. And for every quarter hour thereafter, “Six forty-five, Josh.”
At seven-fifteen, he was walking out the door to stride eleven blocks to Grace Church, often without bidding her “Good-bye.”
She had come to know his “absences.” Present in body, his eyes would give Madelyn a clue to his distance from the moment. She had grown accustomed to such departures, learning to be silent until his thoughts rejoined her. There was no predicting such reveries. She had seen him pause in mid-conversation, during a meal even, his fork half lifted. For a few seconds, sometimes longer, he would be motionless, head slightly turned, distracted. Then he would blink his pale blue eyes rapidly and continue their activity.
In the beginning of their relationship, she would ask, “What are you thinking?”
“Nothing at all?”
“Not a thing.” The quiz seemed to irritate him. Whatever his thoughts, he had never expressed a desire to discuss them. She no longer tried to pin him down. When he went away like that, she sat quietly until he elected to rejoin her. Sometimes he picked up right where they had broken the conversation. More often, such flights of the mind signaled a shift in direction. He would refocus his eyes, shake his head ever so slightly, be confused a second or two, then introduce some topic which was completely alien to the subject of a minute before.
Pieces of the mosaic. Splinters of time. Recently, there had been a change in his demeanor, a new ingredient in their lives.
“Did you smell that?”
“Smell what?” she’d asked. They had been eating dinner at the Jolly Ox.
“Like”—he’d carefully placed his fork on the plate—“like bran. Like breakfast cereal. No more like fresh barley, or sorghum feed. Like the smell of the feed we gave dairy cattle when I was a kid on the farm at the Boys School. I took my turn at milking like all the other students.” This conversation came in the midst of a tense discussion about the merits of ordaining women as priests!
She watched him stare into the dark recesses of the restaurant, the flames of candles on their table flickering in his eyes.
“Josh? Are you all light?”
“It smelled like that,” he’d said very softly. “But it wasn’t exactly that.”
“A cooking odor, perhaps. A combination of tastes which excited your sense of smell,” Madelyn had suggested. What kind of stupid topic was this? A minute ago he had been hotly listing his reasons why women shouldn’t become priests and now they were talking about cattle feed!
“It brought back a memory,” Josh said, lips twisting. For all the world he looked to be on the verge of tears!
“Josh, are you all right?”
“I’m sorry.” He wiped his nose brusquely, voice deep. “You didn’t smell that?”
She speared a piece of steak from his plate and sniffed it, then tasted it. “It seems perfectly good, Josh.”
“It is. There’s nothing wrong with the food.”
“Well”—she sought to dismiss the subject—“I didn’t smell a thing.”
That evening, he went to bed, turned his back on her, and was deeply asleep even before Madelyn was undressed.
There’d been more of these disjointed, unsettling voids lately. In the beginning, she suffered such moments without complaint, attributing them to the workings of an overloaded mind. Josh had always been the kind of man who needed time alone, to think, to “work things out” mentally. Perhaps then, it was she who caused such flights—she had enveloped him too tightly, held him too closely. In which case, with virtually every waking moment in her presence, Josh was forced to flee, his mind taking leave to seek some arcane answer to an unspoken thought. She had asked him about this.
“No, no,” he had protested, “forgive me if I’ve given you the impression I wanted to be alone. Being with you, having you with me, nothing makes me happier or more contented. I’m sorry, Darling.”
She accepted this. If his abstractions had continued the same, she would have lived with them without regret, thankful they had one another. But Josh was changing. Nuances of manner so slight that to describe them would have made Madelyn struggle for words. But so finely was she attuned to this man, so much did she love every fiber of his mind and body and soul—any deviation from the Josh she knew could not escape her. Last Thursday had been the most upsetting. “I’d like to know who Mr. Mulloy thinks he is,” Josh had snapped by way of greeting as he came home. “He thinks Grace is his church. His and God’s!”
“What’s the matter?”
“I announced to the vestry that I was going to use The Proposed Book of Common Prayer to reflect changes taking place in the Church.” Josh angrily snatched off his clerical collar and threw it on a living room chair. “Well, you’d think I had suggested we hang the crucifix upside down for next Sunday’s services.”
“Josh, you know what a pragmatist Mr. Mulloy is.” Madelyn echoed one of his own statements about the warden.
“Mulloy had the audacity to suggest I had been at Grace too long! That I didn’t understand what the people of this community want or need. He said he, personally, wished I’d spend more time talking about Christ and less time dwelling on social issues. What does he think I’ve been talking about these past four years?”
She had never seen him so furious. “That was a rash statement, Josh. Nobody else would agree with Mr. Mulloy on that—”
Shocked, it was the first vulgar remark she’d ever heard him utter. “Let me mix you a drink, Josh.”
“He talked about you.”
She stopped at the kitchen door.
“He said he had turned his head long enough. That we were living in sin and—”
So here it was.
They’d been as discreet as mice, sneaking in after dark, carefully timing their exits so nobody would see. They had perpetuated an elaborate pretext, maintaining separate apartments in the same building. Maybe it was inevitable and they should have known it would come to pass. Heart hammering, Madelyn watched Josh sink into a chair, avoiding her eyes.
“A quiet reprimand I could stomach,” he said, more subdued. “A vote of censure, even. But there was such vitriolic pleasure in Mulloy’s attack. He—”
She waited. Josh had halted, mouth agape. After an interminable pause, she said, “Josh?” He stared into space, the now familiar vacant expression bringing a chill to Madelyn as she took a step toward him, repeating, “Josh?”
She knelt beside him, put a hand on his arm. The appendage was rigid, trembling, in stark contrast to the facial image of—almost sleepy expression of—
“Josh, Darling, are you all right?”
He smacked his lips, masticating movements of the jaws.
Alarm ascending, she shook him. “Josh! Are you all right?”
He mumbled something, eyes refocusing. “If I had a—”
“Had what, Darling?”
“If I had a brown shoe and a black one—”
She lifted her voice as though to call him back from afar, “Josh!”
“They don’t make two-tone shoes like they once did,” he said. Eyes blinking, tendons in his neck rose like wires beneath the flesh.
“Josh, is something wrong?”
“I think I’ll—I need to take a bath.”
“I’ll run your tub,” Madelyn offered.
“Where’re you going?” Josh demanded.
“To run a tub of water for you.”
“I’ll do that.”
“I don’t mind, Josh.”
“I said I’ll do it!” He stood abruptly. “I can take care of myself.”
“I know that.”
He shoved her aside, no gentleness in his gesture. She grabbed his sleeve and he snatched free, striding down the hall toward the bathroom. Flabbergasted, she stared after him. A minute later she heard water rushing into the tub.
What had happened here? The pressure of their illicit affair? Now trapped by public knowledge, was he angry with her? Blaming her?
“Madelyn?” Josh called from the bath.
“Would you like to come in here with me? I want to talk to you.”
Please. Don’t drive me away. Get married, now, tomorrow, anything—but don’t drive me away.
She stepped into the bathroom and found him immersed in blue-green water, anxiety and anger vanished.
“Do you know how much I love you?” he questioned.
“I hope you do.”
“I couldn’t live without you,” Josh grinned. “What have I done to so warrant God’s pleasure that He sent me you?”
She had burst into tears and sank down beside the tub.
“Madelyn?” Josh bolted upright, sloshing water. “Madelyn, what’s wrong?”
“Josh, don’t leave me.”
“Leave you?” He grabbed her with gruff affection. “Never, ever, ever would I do that. You silly girl. I love you. You are the blood in my veins, the air I breathe! You are a particle of every corpuscle of my body. What’s wrong?”
“You frightened me, Josh.”
“Yes. That business about Mr. Mulloy. Us living in sin.”
“Oh, that.” As though she’d learned something without his knowledge.
His eyes had a way of deepening in hue, a direct reflection of temperament. He cupped her face with strong hands. “I took the liberty of announcing our engagement tonight,” Josh said. “I told the vestry we planned to get married next month when my vacation comes up.”
“What did they say?”
“They were so busy congratulating me, Mr. Mulloy had to join them. The road to hell was paved with good intentions, maybe, but declaring my good intentions has made you an honorable woman in a modern society.”
Now, three days later, sitting here amid the sweet shrubs, she was roused from her thoughts by the pealing of Grace Church bells announcing the eight-thirty service. She could hear the faint strains of the organ. It wasn’t like her to be late. Madelyn hurried around front, inside, and found a seat in the corner, rear.
As the service began, she was still engrossed in the “head count” which Josh always wanted. She fumbled with a tissue, withdrawing it from her purse. A tube of lip gloss had become entangled in the folds and fell to the floor, rolling beneath several pews.
Damn it. Excuse me, God.
Three rows forward, an elderly gentleman fished between his feet and retrieved the cosmetic. He examined it, turning the tube this way and that, then twisted and looked for the owner. Madelyn averted her eyes. When nobody responded, the old man held the tube aloft and waved it back and forth. Madelyn saw Josh look their way. She tapped the shoulder of a parishioner ahead of her and the woman leaned forward to accept Madelyn’s lost lip gloss. Tense, Madelyn sat up straight, eyes forward, wearing her most attentive expression as the service progressed. If she seemed less than enthralled, Josh would take that personally, assuming he had bored the congregation and therefore failed them.
With peripheral vision, she attempted an educated guess at attendance—roughly 350, maybe four hundred …
To herself, and to God, Madelyn apologized. “You’ll have to forgive me, Lord. Your servant, the man I worship, is about Your business as I undertake the more mundane chore of estimating the flock.” Like chips on a gambler’s table, the attendance was an indication of “who’s winning the game,” as Josh termed it. For early service, the turnout was slightly better than usual. But then, steadily, the audiences had been growing since Josh accepted the rectorate of Grace Church.
Madelyn felt a bodily shift of parishioners as Josh came to the pulpit. He had a charismatic effect on his listeners.
“It’s always good to see you here,” Josh began. He spoke in a tone as casual and conversational as though he addressed each of them individually. Yet not a syllable was ever lost. When Madelyn first came to hear him, she had assumed it was the superb acoustical qualities of the church which carried his words so beautifully. But she had also heard Josh speak in a huge echoing auditorium, and again in an open field at a Fourth of July celebration, another time in a school gymnasium. Always, every word reached the most remote listener despite the apparent low level of his inflections.
“… will be crowded here next Sunday,” Josh was now saying, “as we are visited by our Christmas and Easter members.”
The congregation laughed softly.
“So we’ll be on our best behavior and make them think church is always this way.”
Behind Josh, the chancel was framed by an iridescent triangle of stained glass windows which, together, had a startling visual impact on a viewer. The available light from outside seemed to mass directly behind Josh, forming a radiant halo that encompassed his head and shoulders. It was neither blinding nor distracting, but it illuminated the shocks of hair which thwarted comb and brush, jutting up from his skull in a double cowlick which no barber had ever conquered.
“… and when Jesus took up the cross …”
Last night, out of deference to Mr. Mulloy’s demands for more talk about Jesus and less about social affairs, Josh had vowed to give the Senior Warden what he requested.
“I’ll make enough comments about Jesus to please a Southern Baptist,” Josh had declared. Now, he was doing it.
“Laboring under the instrument of His impending death, Jesus struggled beneath the weight of His cross…”
It was the kind of sermon one would anticipate Easter week; Josh could be a fiery orator, and a thespian. He slammed a hand on the pulpit and without a pause looked down at his right palm. He had cut it. The congregation saw it, but so casually was Josh treating the matter, there was no reaction from his listeners. He reached below the reading desk and got a couple of tissues which he held in the injured hand. Now as he gestured, favoring his left hand, a tissue could be seen clasped between palm and fingers.
“Historically, there has been some debate about the form of the cross itself …”
Nonchalantly, Josh lowered his hand behind the pulpit rail; from his movements it was evident he was blotting his palm. He paused, poured himself a drink of water. The vessel was one of those clear, hard plastic cups used by motels to eliminate the need for washing glasses. Josh sipped water, cleared his throat, sipped again. He held the cup in his good hand now, trying to pick up the sermon where he’d left off.
“Christ was—here was—above all else, here was a man with the senses of a man. He felt pain as we feel pain. He—”
A disturbance in the front pews made Madelyn stir uneasily, rising slightly from her seat to see what was happening.
“I’m sorry,” Josh apologized.
Madelyn could see now, he had squeezed the plastic glass and it had broken. Josh stepped back and shook spilled water from his robes. He stood gazing at the right hand, then his eyes moved slowly to the left hand—both were bleeding!
A lay reader whispered something to Josh and Madelyn saw Josh shake his head, negatively. He lifted his chin slowly and Madelyn’s chest constricted.
She had seen that expression too often of late. Oh, dear God, not now. Not here!
“What’s he saying?” a voice somewhere ahead of Madelyn.
“Mumbling something,” the reply.
Josh was staring across the audience, face bland, mouth moving. Suddenly, he shrieked, and the electrified parishioners froze. Not a murmur, not a body moving, all eyes welded to the face of their minister as he stood in a shimmering nimbus of light reflected from the triangular windows behind him.
Whatever he was saying, it was unintelligible. His voice rose, almost shouting—or as nearly as anyone here had ever heard. The form of the sounds from his throat had a lilt and feel of language, but not a syllable found meaning in the ears of his audience. As though transfixed, eyes glazed, the babble of his voice held them mesmerized.
“What’s going on here?” Someone dared to speak. “What’s he doing?”
Would it never stop? Would he never stop? Madelyn moved without conscious thought, along the walls, past the pews, her body answering commands from some mind outside her own.
Josh lunged forward, chest striking the pulpit, hands jutting toward the audience. Blood-soaked tissues fell away from his upturned palms and red rivulets traced his fingers to fall in thick droplets to the polished floor. Josh was smacking his lips now, teeth grinding and clearly audible above the involuntary gasp of his listeners.
Horrified, Madelyn saw a bloody froth at the comers of his mouth, gurgling rales forming bubbles on his lips.
“Josh!” She was running, oblivious to the immobile audience. “Catch him! Catch him!”
Josh jolted backward, the whites of his eyes all that anyone could see as the misty blue pupils rolled back. He fell, twisting, jerking, bloody hands like claws, back bowed.
“Stand back.” Mr. Mulloy grabbed Madelyn as she reached for Josh.
“Let me go. Let me help him!”
The Senior Warden’s voice was impassive. “Don’t try to stop him, leave him alone. Put something under his head, somebody.”
“Is he dying?” Madelyn screamed, hysterically.
“He’s biting his tongue,” a man noted, his tone reflecting revulsion.
“Put something under his head,” Mr. Mulloy instructed again, with amazing calm. A coat was placed beneath the thudding skull as hands rode gently the contorting body, and distressed, they watched Josh foul himself with body fluids, his face now a mask of pink spittle churned to a bloody foam.