by Mary Brunini McArdle
The blonde woman in the outdated Chevy drove slowly down a road familiar to her and most of the people who lived in the small town. There wasn’t much on the road as far as buildings; it was a country road flanked by tall fields of goldenrod. But just as the Chevy approached an intersection, the woman saw what she had been looking for.
The one-story house was set in the middle of a slightly raised lot. The lawn was thick, but had not been recently cut; the grass was high. No trees or shrubs broke the flat austerity of the property. A harsh July sun blazed on the faded white paint of the house, making the woman squint.
She pulled over and parked the Chevy off the gravel road. She waited a moment before getting out of the car. The woman — her name was Dorothy — was not afraid, despite the isolated setting. She knew They didn’t care about places like this. They had abolished organized religion, along with a few other institutions; They did not allow services or meetings of any kind. But They paid no attention to a little wood-frame house in the middle of nowhere, visited by one or two people off and on.
Dorothy struggled across the field of grass surrounding the building and went to the side door. She had been here before. She opened the door and entered the cool darkness of the interior.
The room, the only room in the house, was open and square. Spider webs graced every corner. A few chairs sat toward one end of the room, facing a china cabinet — not the kind with glass doors, but a mahogany antique with a single drawer topped by two wooden doors and a rusty key sticking out of one of them.
Dorothy realized as soon as her eyes adjusted to the dim light that she was not alone. A man sat slumped sideways in a chair across from her, one hand over his forehead. He stirred and looked up as she sat down a few feet away.
“Good morning,” she said.
He nodded and put his hand back over his face.
Dorothy began reciting the “Our Father” in a soft voice. Then she said a “Gloria” and a few other common prayers. She was startled when she finished to see that the man in the room with her was weeping.
“These are difficult days,” she said shyly. “Is there anything I can do?”
“I don’t think there’s anything anyone can do.”
“I can listen if you want to talk.”
The man turned and faced her. He was in his late forties, a rugged man with brown hair and blue eyes. His skin was weathered, his neck muscular but not too thick. He was a handsome man.
“I threw it all away, twenty years ago,” he said. “Now I regret it, and it’s too late to get it back.”
“Threw what away?”
The man looked over his shoulder as if to reassure himself that he and Dorothy were still alone. Then he said in a low voice, “I was an ordained priest, you see.”
“Well, no one can tell that nowadays. By your clothing, I mean. Priests dress like everybody else. They’re not even called ‘Father’ anymore — not in public.”
“No, no. You don’t understand. I left the priesthood. I renounced it — for a woman. Now she’s dead and I was officially — uh — removed. There is no one to reinstate me.”
“Dorothy. I’m Dorothy.”
“Dorothy, you know it’s hard to find the right person. No one can overtly admit he is the right person. Not with Them in control.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Dorothy said. “But, Mr. — Father...”
“Not ‘Father.’ Call me ‘Robert.’”
“All right, Robert. This may sound a little weird, but maybe you could reinstate yourself.”
“Robert, we live in extreme circumstances. Didn’t we always contend that a man and woman could marry each other without a priest in extreme circumstances? Have you forgotten? Why couldn’t the same principle apply to you? Just repeat your vows and I’ll be your witness.”
Robert’s face lit up, hope in his eyes. “I — I’m not sure I remember the exact words.”
“I don’t think that matters, Robert. Just kneel in front of that old china cabinet and repeat your vows as best you can.”
“You really think...”
“I certainly do. As far as I’m concerned, your vows would be valid in the sight of God.”
He stood up, one knee creaking.
“We have a hard time keeping bread here in the summer,” she said. “It’s too hot. But if you turn that key, I think you’ll find a coffee mug and a small bottle of wine.”
He stared at her in amazement.
“Go ahead, turn the key.”
He obeyed, and pulled open the antique door. Just as she said, there was a small bottle of wine, half full, and a blue coffee mug.
“Now, Robert. Take them out. Say the words.”
She knelt and waited. He held up the bottle and mug and chanted the ancient phrases.
Then she stood and approached him. He hesitated, not sure what to do next. She held out her hands. He poured wine into the mug and presented it to her. “Amen,” she said, and drank. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, wiping the rim of the mug. Then he finished what was left of its contents.
Carefully he put the bottle and mug back in the china cabinet, and said, his voice shaking, “Dorothy, do you think that was legitimate? Real?”
“I believe so. I think I proved it. Will you give me a blessing before we leave?”
“We’d best leave separately, Dorothy.”
“That’s the general practice here. It’s safer.”
He raised his hand. “May Almighty God bless you, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“Go on, Dorothy. Get out of here. And it’s I who should be thanking you, not the other way around.”
Dorothy walked slowly to the entrance and out into the searing July sunshine. She shielded her eyes and returned to her car, ignoring the insects buzzing around her ankles.
She felt full and satisfied driving away, as if there had been Someone other than just the two of them in attendance.
Copyright © 2005 by Mary Brunini McArdle