Looking for a story? Well, I've got one for you. With a lovely young girl and a parish priest, lots of rain, a reputed miracle, and a hint of scandal. At any rate it's an Irish story, set right in Ireland, so when you're reading it you've got to picture everything green. Well, not the girl, who's got red hair. Or the priest, who's got blue eyes. Actually, there's lots that isn't green at all. But you should picture the background that way. Green. Irish green.
Suppose I should just start the story, but where to begin? That's the problem with most stories. The beginning just isn't right. And if the beginning isn't right, I don't suppose the rest of the story has got much chance. But let's begin in a small town church on a Sunday, in Ireland, mind you, some time ago. Let's say it's communion time and the line for this has been reduced to a dozen parishioners when Nuala, the young woman who's the main character in this story, rising from her seat in the back of the church and beginning her stroll up towards the priest. Let's have her move up the aisle swiftly, quickly, surely, and with her eyes locked onto the young priest, Father Robert O'Leary, who is the second principal player in this story.
You probably know what happened between them already. But read on, because that's not the story, as it were. It's essential, sure, but all history by this point. Surely you know that no story can really start at the beginning. The beginning? It can't be done. So we're starting our story here, with Nuala's attention so fixed on Father Robert O'Leary that it is only at the last moment that she catches herself from plowing into the back of Mr. Muldoon, who was one of the church ushers, and had been, previous to Nuala joining it, the back end of the line. Now Muldoon's not important. I just want to make it clear there's something between Nuala and the priest, that's how I'm using him. What is important is that just as Nuala reaches Muldoon, lowering her eyes and standing behind him, he and all those in front of him abruptly stop. Nuala thinks it's because of her, and she's ready to turn around and run right out of the church. She's this close to turning and ending this story already. But before she does she leans slightly to the right, looks over the usher's shoulder, and sees the back of the young priest's robe flowing behind him as he walks quickly up the steps which lead to the altar. She lets out a sigh of relief. He's only run out of hosts for the communion. You see, the churches were always crowded back then in Ireland. I don't know if they run low on hosts anymore. In America, people like to skip church and go shopping. Or they stay home and tell themselves they're Buddhists, or that it doesn't matter any way. But this is not a story about any of that. This is a story about Father O'Leary carefully removing the hosts from the tabernacle and blessing them quickly and placing them in his golden chalice.
I'm starting a new paragraph now because I like the sound of that last line, the last two words especially. It's the perfect way to end a paragraph: golden chalice.
Have you figured it out yet that I'm not Irish? Well, this is an Irish story anyway. People love Irish literature. Who will admit otherwise? Not me. Not you. Otherwise we wouldn't be here together right now, would we? Where would we be? That's a good question. I know it's a good question because I don't have the answer.
Anyway, the priest steps back towards the congregation. Everyone in the church can see he's feeling a little sheepish. They knew if he could have talked at such a time he would have been apologizing to everyone who would listen. But they didn't care because as a priest Father Robert O'Leary was very well liked. He'd been with their parish for just under three years, and not one parishioner could find fault with the way he read the Scriptures or gave a homily, listened to confession, or performed any of his priestly duties. But let's get back to Nuala, who's in the line as it begins inching forward again. You probably know how that moves. If you haven't been in one, you've seen it at a wedding. As she gets closer to the front, Nuala is tempted to sneak another peek at the priest but she, and now don't hold this against me later, she resists.
Finally, it's just her and Muldoon in line. Now remember, don't get too close to this usher Muldoon. He'll be gone soon, and won't figure in later at all. It's just that he is so nice and big that Nuala can hide behind him, like she's hiding behind a wall. Think of him as a wall if you feel yourself getting too attached to him, wondering about his life. In fact, the last time I'm going to mention him is right now when he is presented with the host and says, "Amen," very piously then steps to the side.
Finally, we've got Nuala and the priest together. She steps forward and lifts her eyes to his face. Now imagine this, O'Leary's lifting the host from the chalice and holding it delicately between his fingers with a look of contentment on his face because, though he has not looked at Nuala, he knows that the person before him is the last in line and he has enough hosts and moreover that Mass is nearly over and even the priest is happy when the Mass is over because priests are people too. This story will show you that if it shows you anything.
But when Father O'Leary looks down at Nuala finally his eyes widen suddenly and his entire body rocks backwards, as if a wind that had been blowing across of all of Ireland was suddenly upon him. This may be the first hint to everyone that something odd is afoot with Father O'Leary and that maybe it has something to do with Nuala. If I was telling this story in a more traditional manner this may be when you got your first hint of this too. But you know more than that already because I've given it all away at the start. Maybe I should have started this differently. Well, too late now.
So Father O'Leary stares at Nuala, then looks down at his fingers, and the host seemed to be slipping out of his control, it's like a sliver of wet soap in his hands, Irish Spring, I suppose, but maybe that's going too far. Either way, Nuala stands watching him. We don't know exactly what she's feeling because this isn't that kind of story. I don't think we even know the expression on her face at this point. But we do know that Father O'Leary's face holds a look of horror and his hands and arms are twisting and jerking in a struggle to regain control of the host. It doesn't fall, of course. That would be too obvious. After he recaptures it and squeezes it tightly between two fingers, he lifts it in front of Nuala and his voice cracks, "Body of Christ."
Nuala is staring straight at him and she says, "Amen," like she really means it. You know what Amen means, don't you? It means I believe. So when the priest says, "Body of Christ" he is saying the little round piece of flat bread is the body of Jesus Christ. And she is saying that she believes that. That's the nature of the transaction. Well, of course you know with these two it's much more than that. But after she says, "Amen," she closes her eyes and leans her head back so that her long red hair reaches halfway down her back. She opens her mouth wide and stretches out her tongue for him.
Can you feel it heating up now? I'm sure I don't even have to mention what I'm getting at, you'll figure it out soon enough, and agree with me that it's heat that makes the world go 'round. I'm getting heated up just thinking about it and it occurs to me now that if you're a red headed girl and you're heating up too why don't you give me a call at the end of this story. Truth be told I only write stories to impress girls. It hasn't worked yet, but I figure, why not be optimistic? Why not? And while I'm away from the story I should tell you that I named Nuala after the famous Irish poet Nuala ni Dhomnail, and I suppose I should dedicate the story to her because I got the idea for it when I was reading one of her poems, even though I didn't understand a lick of it. But that's what writers do—when they read something, they think, now I've got to write something. If you're a writer, then you know this is true. If you're not, then I envy you because you can just read a story and be enchanted with it. Though of course this isn't that kind of story. Enchanting, that is. This is a different kind of story.
And in this story, after a few long moments, the priest awkwardly places the host on to the center of Nuala's tongue, then pulls his hand away quickly and groans. Neither he nor Nuala can discern much from this groan, and no one else in the church can even hear it, so he's groaned pretty much for our benefit, though we're not quite sure what to make of it either. But as he's groaning, Nuala is closing her mouth, slowly, lowering her chin, then reopening her eyes to look up at the priest. But by the time they're open, he's already turned around and is walking away from her back up to the altar.
Nuala turns and starts back down the aisle. She walks slowly now, with her eyes straight ahead. When she gets to the back of the church, she doesn't return to her pew, but keeps on, straight ahead to the door which leads outside. Now if this isn't scandalous enough, when she walks past the startled expressions of Mr. Muldoon (and I promise you this is the end of him now) and the other ushers who've assembled in the rear of the church, she opens her mouth for them and sticks out her tongue and on it lies the consecrated host. She's been lolling it about inside her mouth very sensually, and as we all know, that is not considered proper treatment of the body of Christ in anyone's book, and of course, to me and Nuala's fellow Irish Catholics, it was a terrible sin. But in a story that begins in church in Ireland on Sunday morning what else could you expect? A miracle. Well, that's coming later. Maybe.
Now stick with me because I'm jumping forward to Wednesday afternoon. We're back at the church, the same church. You know, if this were a play the crew would love me because I'm writing two consecutive scenes in the same location. They wouldn't have to be awkwardly shuffling the set around, which always kills the momentum. But if this was a play they might tell me to keep the whole thing in the church and I couldn't do that. I'll tell you now this story will not be in the church much longer and you can't fit the whole of the Irish countryside on a stage, can you? I'd never make it as a playwright. I may not be making it as a storyteller either, but that doesn't concern me now. Because right now I am here and you are somewhere else. When you read this, it'll be the other way around. We probably never come into contact with each other. Unless you're the redhead I spoke of earlier. In fact, if you are her, stop reading and give me a call right now. It's been my experience that if you wait and let things go on, they usually don't get anywhere. And even if you're reading this story some time after I've written it, in an Anthology of Irish Literature perhaps, don't assume that someone else has found me before you. It's very likely I'm still waiting for my Nuala, and you might be her.
As for the rest of you, watch as Nuala walks back up the church stairs on Wednesday afternoon. The sky above her is overcast and still. Her hair is damp from the drizzle that fills the air. (Now you can't do that in a play either, can you, make it drizzle or rain). In the vestibule of the church she tries to shake the chill from her body. (The cast party might be fun, though. I've heard stories about actresses, wild ones about them falling in love with the playwright, that might be nice.) Nuala goes into the church and sees she'll have to wait for her turn in the confessional behind Mrs. Cassady, Mrs. Brown, and Mrs. O'Neal. She strides to the front of the church and stands before the votive candles, studying the array of orange and red flames with a blank expression and holding her hands and face above them as if for warmth. (Or is the movie directors the starlets fall in love with? Or their fellow actors?).
Nuala walks slowly inside the perimeter of the church gazing up the marble statues depicting the stations of the cross. Finally, she hears the last of the old sinners coming from behind the door of the confessional on the other side of the church. The old grey-haired woman is clutching a black beaded rosary and when she turns towards the altar Nuala sees that her face holds a look of joy and peacefulness. She watches her shuffle to a pew near the front of the church, cross herself, kneel, bow her head in prayer, then stare up lovingly at the crucifix on the wall before beginning to move her lips as her fingers make their way along the shiny black beads of the rosary. Nuala watches her a while then sighs and cut through the pews directly across the church to the confessional.
Inside it's dark and small. Her portion of the box is about the size of a coat closet. If she'd wanted to extend her arms she wouldn't have been able to straighten them all the way, and I say that so you can imagine yourself in there. In fact, why don't you stop reading, and stretch out your arms about halfway. You see that, that's the size of the confessional. Now you know.
As Nuala sits down, she hears Father O'Leary clearing his throat. She's so nervous she can feel herself perspiring. You might think her a bit of a pistol after all that business with the host earlier. But she's really just a simple Irish gal trying to slow her breaths, hoping she'll be able to find her voice.
Finally our priest slides open his side of the screen. He waits for Nuala to open hers and when she doesn't he says, "Hello," but she does not respond.
"Hello?" he says again. "Is anyone there?"
She sighs loudly this time.
"Is anyone there?" he asks again.
"It's me," Nuala says.
He's silent for a while, then says back to her, "I know. I knew it was you. I could smell you."
Now do you believe the priest said that? I could smell you. Now this is the point in the story had I been telling it in the proper way that even the dullest reader would realize some tempest was swirling between these two. Priests don't generally recognize parishioners by scent. Well, not young ladies anyway who didn't have whiskey habits, bathing problems. If Nuala sat down next to you, let's say she could do that, you wouldn't have noticed a thing about the way she smells. Unless you had known her in the manner that the priest had, which was a very, shall we say, unpriestly manner.
Nuala lets these words hang in the air between them. They sit a few moments in silence.
"Do you have sins to confess?" he asks her nervously.
"Hmmph." That's all she does. "Hmmph."
"Don't ask me that."
"What do you want?" he asks her.
"I don't know . . . "
"If you wish to speak to me, this is not the place, this is not the time," he says, let me describe how he says it, deferentially. Now here's a place it would be nice to have an actor taking charge of the words, to give them some flavor. I mean, you've got that and the cast parties. Otherwise the written word is far and away superior. But either way, let's have Nuala respond with, "This place is as good as any, I would think. To talk of sin. To talk of penance"
"Your only sin was . . . "
"I have not come to talk of my sins," she tells him. Hmm, I'm considering undoing that italic and adding an exclamation point instead: I have not come to talk of my sins! No, that doesn't add much. As a rule, exclamation points are unnecessary, like makeup on beautiful women. I mean James Joyce never used an exclamation point did he? No! Well, I guess I'm not sure about that really. I never made it through Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake either. I haven't read much Irish literature at all. But don't hold that against me. Let's get through the story first and then you can make up your mind.
"Nuala . . . "
"You want more than His forgiveness. You want from me an admission, an apology. I have given all that. It can go no further."
"You admit your guilt like the sea admits its streams. Surely I am no ocean to draw you in."
Very dramatic isn't she, and rather poetic too. I tell you without these characters I'd be lost. It would be just you and I and imagine how dreadful would that be.
"It was only you," the priest tells her.
"And you," she responds.
"I am a man," he pleads.
"You are a priest."
He sighs. "It was expected of me to be a priest. I was in the seminary before I knew it, too far down the path to retreat."
Do you feel yourself sympathizing with this guy yet? Surely, he hasn't done anything wrong, not in the course of the story at least. Had I started it with him and the young girl in a compromising position in the church anteroom after sharing a chalice of church wine, well, that would have stacked the deck too highly against him. My intention is that you don't know how to feel, that you are struggling with these characters. But maybe I should just let him finish speaking. "My faith was not as strong as some others," he says. "But it would have brought shame to my family."
"Now the church too."
I don't know about you, but I get a lot from that simple line. Bravo, Nuala. Keep it up. You're doing great.
"You cannot say a thing," O'Leary continues. "I am a good priest. The people need me. Talk would only bring harm. To everyone. And you the most."
"I have never spoken of it," she says. "I never will. Would it startle you to say I have not returned to tell of your lies."
"I've always known you would do what is right."
"Yes, that is best. Now Nuala . . . " (condescending again)
"It may not be long, Robert," she interrupts him. "That they speak your name in another tone."
"What do you mean?"
"Sometimes I feel I am not long for this world. That I cannot continue this life I have begun."
Confused? So is the priest. Our Nuala has really turned it on in this confessional. She's combative. She's vague. She's vulnerable. She's really got it going now. I've got to get her out of here before she falters.
"I don't understand," Father O'Leary says.
Nuala rises from the bench and clears her throat.
"Nuala?" the priest says.
She opens the door and steps out.
"Nuala?" he whispers.
She doesn't respond, just closes the door behind her, turns down the aisle, and walks out of the church. Dim the lights. Draw the curtains. Scene over.
Now comes the tricky part—getting her from the church to her house. Sure, I could just show her striding up the walkway, or standing at the doorstep, but it would be cheating. And when a storyteller cheats, the reader can sense it. And the walk home is important. I don't know want it to be too clear, but you've got to know something is cooking. If I were doing this the old fashioned way I'd probably say:
Outside the sky had darkened and the drizzle had turned to a steady rain. Nuala steps slowly down the steps, holding onto the black metal railing and tilting her head back so the heavy drops land flatly on her face. She holds her hat in her hand as she turns and walks slowly through the shallow current that has formed on the sidewalk. As she makes her way through the rain down the tree lined streets of the quiet neighborhood she does not seem to walk so much as drift, as if propelled by a force apart from her body. Her eyes are open wide and seem to be searching to bring into focus some mystifying object in front of her, just out of view.
Now here's a place where it might seem helpful to get inside Nuala's head. But it might end the story prematurely. And I'm not sure if she really knows what she's thinking. It's possible this trance of hers is genuine, that she's just giving herself up to it, the rain, everything that's happened with the priest, everything that's happened in her life, and everything that's happened or could happen to anyone at any time in the world. I mean, if Nuala really did let that all in, there's no way she could have a clear thought in her head and that's the way I'm going to think of her here: confused, overwhelmed, lovely, Irish.
I should add "cold" and "wet" to that list because as she walks, the rain soaks deeper and deeper into her hair andclothes until she's drenched. There's a slight breeze blowing on the street she walks on, which rises uphill with the small houses along the way spaced evenly apart. When she looks up she sees the branches of the trees, and just above that the ominous sky hanging down.
I've got two boys jumping into the story now. Let's say two young boys, also wet from the rain, and let's have them coming from the opposite direction, bounding down the middle of the street. Let's say when they see Nuala they slow, then stop and study her. Then let's have them tip their heads together in conversation. After she passes them, they bend to pick up pieces of coal from the side of the road.
"You first," one boy says.
"Why not you?"
"Oh, Jesus. All right."
So the boy takes a step forward and lobs a piece of coal over Nuala's head. Then the other boy does the same, and his lands so close to her feet so that water splashes up on her legs. Let the boys hoot now so we know their intentions are not venomous, they're just boys being boys. Let Nuala's eyes remain fixed ahead of her as all this goes on until one of the pieces sails closely past her then makes a loud "clank" on the street sign she's walking by. Have her look up at the sign that reads, "One Way." Have Nuala sigh. Exit boys.
Nuala makes it home then, to a faded brick house at the top of a hill. She stops and sizes it up. It's taller, a bit older than the others on this edge of town. There is an extra lot on either side of it and the lawn rolls down to the houses of the neighbors. She looks up at the roof shingles that are shiny in the falling rain. She watches the water flow from the holes in the gutters to pour onto the mossy rocks below.
She follows the walkway that cuts through the grass to the side of the house and looks to the yard behind and the rocky field stretching for miles behind her house. In the yard she notices her mother's clean laundry hanging on the line, white sheets and blankets which stand out like polished ivory against the grass and trees and the gray tool shed. The sheets are hanging to the ground with water and she goes to them and presses her nose into the cold wet fabric and begins to twist herself in the sheets.
This is how her mother finds her, trying to wrap herself in these wet sheets. "Nuala!" she shouts from the back door. "My God, girl. What has gotten into you? What are you doing?"
Nuala turns towards the house. Her mother is leaning out the open door. "Why, you're soaked," she says to her, as if it were the most amazing thing in the world.
Nuala unravels herself from the sheets and walks to the door. When she gets there her mother touches her on the cheek. "You're like ice," she cries.
She leads Nuala into the main room of the house to stand before the potbellied stove. She put her hands on Nuala's face and neck and hair. She shakes her head and says, "Why you must be cold right down to the bone, girl."
Nuala doesn't say anything. I'll tell you right now she's going to say probably two more words in this story. She blew her wad in the confessional, I guess. She was hot then, spewing them out, well, relatively at least. But she's silent and still as her mother undresses her completely and dries her with a towel. (Here's a scene that would help sell tickets to the play I think, a beautiful, naked, wet woman on stage. It would all be done in the name of art, of course, but it would certainly bring in some of the fringe art lovers).
Anyway, each time her mother's hands touched Nuala's bare skin she (the mother, that is) winces. "Like ice," she says again. She helps Nuala into a flannel gown and rubs a towel over her long red hair. Finally she asks, "Where are you coming from that you've got such a soaking chill?"
Nuala says one word to her: "Church."
"Well, you must have taken a curious way home to get as soaking wet as this."
You see the mother doesn't have a clue as to what's going on. Everything that's occurred previous to this point would be news to her. She's just been sitting home, watching the rain fall down on the beautiful Irish countryside, as it were. She's a simple character. If I made her too complex it would only detract from the story. We need to keep our focus on Nuala and Father Robert O'Leary. That's where the story is.
When her mother thinks Nuala sufficiently dry and warm she leads her to her bedroom at the back of the house and tucks her into bed. "Have to get you more blankets," she says. She goes to the window and looks out at the sky. "Sun this morning," she says. "Now all this rain." You see, here again, she's the kind of woman who can't see anything coming. That explains the laundry hanging outside, that explains a lot of things. She turns back to the bed and sees Nuala's eyes are closed. She stands looking at her daughter a long time as if lost in a dream then snaps back to it. "Blankets," she says. "Blankets. Got to find dry blankets." She leaves the room shaking her head and repeating the word "blankets" as if they were the most important and elusive objects in all the world. "Blankets, blankets . . . " Dim the lights. Draw the curtain.
Now it's time for the last scene so if you found yourself maybe drifting off a bit lately, it's time to snap back to it. I know getting her home from church was kind of a drag. But you've got to have a lull before the storm. And I feel good about that scene. You know, it's no easy thing to get a character to move in a story. That may be the hardest thing to do. Anyway, this last scene is the most important in the story, the one all the others have been building towards. But again, I don't know exactly where to start it.
I guess I'll begin with the third doctor, with him waving Nuala's mother to the hallway outside the bedroom and expressing the same verdict as the others.
"I'm afraid I can't do a thing for her," he says. "She is, that is, the symptoms are, well, I'll admit I am as confounded as the others. I've never seen anything like it. Her signs appear normal, and so there is nothing to account for her condition. But it's obvious she is just hanging on. You say this began on Wednesday, that she caught a chill?"
"Yes, dreadful chill. Came home drenched to the bone. I don't know what she was doing wandering around out there. She's been a bit," she lowered her voice. "Her life's been a bit complicated lately."
Now as we know Nuala's mother is a simple character. But that doesn't mean she's not valuable. Watch what she can do here. Just sit back and admire the amount of information she can provide us.
"She was at the convent recently, you know."
"I had heard," the doctor says.
"She had never mentioned it before. Had always been a good girl, a wonderful daughter. But then sisterhood. It took me aback a bit. I thought she would follow my lead in life. It's a simple one, a hard one, but good."
"Yes, very fine."
"But I suppose you don't need warning to hear the call. So I said, okay, God bless. Then before she was set to go she turned to crying. But wouldn't talk about it. 'Follow your heart,' I told her. 'Follow your heart.' So she left and I thought it was resolved."
"But then six weeks went by and she came back. Didn't explain it to me. Said I wouldn't understand but that she was better off home. Well, I was glad to have her as she's my youngest and the two of us been alone since her daddy, God rest his soul, was caught in a machine at Callanan's and crushed to his death as the doctors arrived too late, no offense."
"So she comes home, she goes to church, gets wet, and now she's going to die, is that it?"
"If she's got an infection in her blood, which is what it seems, then it's in too deep now to do anything."
"Could she have been sick a while? Could she have known?"
The doctor shrugs. "It's a curious case. Did she complain of any symptoms? Did you notice any?"
"Oh, just the moods and the running off to the convent. But maybe, maybe she knew her days were short."
So same as her behavior had done heretofore, Nuala's illness has confounded everyone. The only consensus is that she will not last long. The coffin maker is sent Nuala's dimensions and told to get to working. The workers in the graveyard are told to start digging.
I should describe her condition, I suppose. Let me just say that for three days after walking home in the rain she did not leave the bed. If she gained consciousness, she was not lucid. If she was cold for a minute, she was hot for the next. She could wretch in convulsions for an hour, then be still for four. If she opened her eyes, they did not come into focus. And when the doctors examined her, it was not clear if she knew they were there.
Word of Nuala's condition spread through town. Before long, it was common knowledge that she was not only ill, but indeed had already died. You know how a story gets changed when it goes from place to place. Well, people starting flocking to the house to offer condolences and see what they could do for her mother. When they got there and found that Nuala was still alive most made a motion to go, but Nuala's mother persuaded them to stay.
"She'll be gone any time now," she told them. "Save yourself a trip and stay a spell. Nuala would want it this way."
I don't know if I mentioned it yet, but Nuala was very well liked in the town. She was happy to help out whomever needed it. And if not that, she always had a smile and good word to share.
"She was like a ray of sunshine," one of the mourners says. A character, you see, can get away with a line like that, especially at a time like this. I couldn't pull it off though. If I tried to slip in something like that I'd be laughed right off of the page.
As far as Nuala's mother, it's not that she was being cold-hearted about it, but the doctors said there was nothing they could do, and she didn't want to be alone in the house when the time came. So before long on that Saturday evening, the house was full of people. There were always a few looking in on Nuala, the doctors keeping close tabs on her as they thought they might be seeing more cases of the mysterious illness and their observations may help, if not Nuala, then others. But most of the people were scattered about the other rooms of the house. Some had brought food, others drink. If I had started the story here and simply described this scene to you without commentary you would have thought it was simply an Irish party of some sort. And it seemed like a party, there was no undercurrent of doom among the people, most were nearly giddy. I can't explain why that is. Perhaps they felt themselves fortunate to be in the house of one who was just a breath away from heaven. Maybe they thought something miraculous was going to happen.
One of the doctors comes to find Nuala's mother and says to her, "I think she's close to it now." Nuala's mother goes into the room and see her daughter twitching uncontrollably and moaning dreadfully. The mother begins to cry. Others come into the room to observe Nuala and comfort her mother. Finally, one of the women says to Nuala's mother, "Have you called for the priest?"
"Oh, my, it slipped my mind. Someone go fetch Father O'Leary. He's got to send her from this world with the body of Christ."
You see now how it's all coming together, the story, I mean. We're going back to where we started. Well, not exactly, but it's ironic isn't it. Irony, it's essential for us Irish writers.
So Father Robert O'Leary is fetched and he comes quickly and when he gets there he sees our Nuala twisting and turning and by all accounts hanging on by just a thread. "Oh God," he whispers. Even priests say "Oh God" sometimes. They don't mean it that way, really, but they just hear it from others so much it kind of creeps up on them.
Now here it would be fantastic if we could get inside the priest's head, see what he's thinking, what he's feeling. But you can't just jump right in there when it's convenient for you. Because even a crooked story like this has rules. And the rule is we're not going into anyone's head.
Well, when he walks into the room, everyone moves aside for him. Some leave, but they don't go far. They want to see what will happen. When he gets to the bed the doctors step back. The priest stands looking down with a puzzled expression on his face. When Nuala stops writhing for a moment, one of the doctors says to him, "Better do it now Father."
The priest pulls his golden chalice from his bag. He's got a little black bag just like the doctors, what do you think about that? In the chalice is the host. He's brought only one host and he blesses it and raises it up just like when he's in church and everyone in the room is quiet and still watching him perform these last rites. Finally, he's ready and he holds it in his fingers before Nuala's face. Remember he's just a young priest, and not experienced in matters like these. That's what everyone is thinking anyway, that's how they explain the band of sweat on his forehead and the pale color of his skin and the fact that his fingers are shaking as he holds the host above Nuala. We know more, of course. We don't know the whole story, but we know there's more happening than what we see.
When the priest looks to the doctor for help, nearly everyone in the room feels sorry for him. That's not what we're feeling though, is it? Well, maybe a bit, but we're not sure what to think. The doctor just looks back blankly at the priest. Then his eyes widen and he motions to Nuala with his chin. Father O'Leary turns and sees that Nuala's eyes are open, maybe only the slightest bit, but they're open. He moves his hand towards her face and her mouth opens and out comes her tongue. The priest lets out a simple, "Ah." And there are other various "oohs" and "ahhs" around the room. Even the workmen who have finished digging the grave and were watching through the window elbow each other somberly.
Father O'Leary puts the host on Nuala's tongue and her tongue takes it back into her mouth and she presses it against the roof of her mouth until it's soft and then she swallows. Her eyes close. She doesn't stir for a long time. The priest stands looking down at her. Someone from the hallway asks, "Is that it?" The doctor steps forward and leans his ear close to her mouth.
"Still breathing," he whispers. "I think."
The crowd moves in closer around the bed. But still, it's silent. All eyes are on Nuala.
And do you know what our girl does then? She sits up. She opens her eyes, sits straight up, looks around the room and smiles. Just smiles. And everyone thinks it's the most magnificent smile they have ever seen. Then she looks at the priest, at Father Robert O'Leary, who face has turned as pale as the host he's just given her. She looks at him and then turns up her smile one more notch, I mean, one notch beyond perfection, and then she grabs his hands in hers and kisses them. Then she says one word to him. One word only. She says, "You."
She pulls back the covers, swings her legs over the side of the bed, and stands up. No one in the room says a word. Everyone just moves aside as she stretches her arms then walks out of the room. She walks right out of the house into the night air and everyone just looks at each other, amazed. Then everyone in the room turns their attention to the priest, to Father Robert O'Leary who is still standing beside the bed. He's staring down at the golden chalice in his hands. Then it drops to the floor.
I think I'm going to end this story here. I could go on and give detailed accounts of what happened after Nuala left the room: what the crowd thought they'd witnessed, what they said to the priest, what happened to the priest. Did he become a saint? I doubt that. Did he even remain a priest? Swear off drinking? Was there even call for that? I don't know. At least I'm leaving that all open. And I'm leaving open what happened to Nuala too. Sure, I could follow her through the next phase of her life, through the next five minutes at least as she walks through the fields behind her house. But no, even with that I'm giving away too much. I'm stopping here because what happens after this isn't as important. It's another story anyway. And you don't want another story from me now, do you?
I didn't think so.