by ELLE MICHAEL RIVER
Bread of Life by Jaci XIII | Flickr
The buttered body of Christ bathed in Sunday sunlight upon a polished silver platter. I dropped the crystal cover on the vestry floor and stifled a cough. Dust stuck to the spines of old hymnals, the abandoned robes of dead choir members, and a set of forgotten advent angels. I eyed the golden goblet, half-filled with Christ’s cranberry blood, tempted by my tickling throat. Congregants never saw our church’s cluttered backstage unless Mrs. Patricia caught a hint of vibrato during the Call to Confession and drafted the unlucky soul into her obstreperous ensemble. Then, they were stuck with the secret: it’s all dust and dollar store cocktail back here.
If you hadn’t guessed, I was one of those unlucky souls.
Mary, my worst best friend, grabbed my hand but dropped it, embarrassed. We were twelve, almost thirteen.
“How do you know they don’t need it for the next service?” she asked.
I examined the shining loaf.
“They don’t,” I said. But maybe they did.
A sea of impatient Do Re Mis swelled from beyond the vestry. Mrs. Patricia should just expect our lateness by now. I fingered my braid, pulling apart the tidy strands, and picked up the platter cover.
“My fa-ther”—I said it like that because people thought he talked to God— “always buys too much bread and ends up bringing home the extra. So, it’s fine. He feeds it to our dog.”
I lifted the meaty loaf from the platter with my left hand and replaced the sterling cover with my right. Mary tugged on the sleeves of her borrowed sweater. The knitted wool hid her bare arms. Mrs. Patricia had grabbed the frumpy thing from the lost and found and insisted Mary wear it because freckled elbows were sin second only to murder.
“Why don’t we just wait for the extra, then?” she asked. “We could eat it instead of your dog.”
“It doesn’t taste the same,” I said. “It goes stale too quick.” Confession: I fed our dog the leftovers, not my father, but the rest was true.
Mary stared at her shoes. “I’m just not sure.”
I leaned against a sagging bookshelf stuffed with crumbling Christmas Cantatas and wrinkled sheet music. I could sing every hymn in that bookshelf by heart, but that’s a predictable perk of being a preacher’s daughter. Mary probably could too, but not for the same reason.
I scratched an itch on my leg, my nails rubbing against off-white nylons, scuffed, like always, at the knees. There’s a mossy oak tree to the left of the freshly paved parking lot with three low, fat branches perfect for climbing. From the second-highest limb, I could watch every congregant park their shiny SUV, scream a sacred warning at their whiny children, and plaster peaceful prostration on their Protestant faces. The church did that to people: made them perform perfection, but only once a week, and only after they walked through those stained-glass doors for pulpit-promised salvation.
But I knew the truth.
“I think...” I had to choose my words carefully like my father did. “I think there’s something’s different about this bread.” Mary lifted her gaze from her buckles, so I continued. “It seems softer. Creamier. Like it knows it’s been saved from being…from being…” I stumbled. This was harder than it looked; I’d give my father that. “From being, um, stinky garlic bread at a sad pizza place… or something.”
“But I like garlic bread,” said Mary
I was losing her. I cradled the loaf like a baby and lowered my voice, reaching for the smooth baritone of my father.
“Now, Mary, this sacred bread has a higher purpose, the highest purpose a bread could ever have…” A cloud moved, and warm sunlight streamed into the vestry, illuminating the dust, Mary’s chestnut hair, and the golden, buttery crust. “Mary, this bread is Christ’s body, broken for you.”
She gasped. “It’s blessed.”
My father used toilet water to baptize a baby last week. A pipe had burst and shut off the church’s water for two hours. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone, and I only knew because he closed the door to his office, ran his hands over his beard, and told me to do it. He said it was clean enough, just take it from the tank, not the bowl, and that God would understand. It smelled like poop, though. Would the baby’s head smell like poop? Would it smell like poop forever?
My father wouldn’t tell me how the toilet water became holy water or how this bread ascended from artisan to divine, but I was starting to catch on.
I nodded at Mary and bowed my head in silent prayer. The overworked straps of my training bra strained against my shoulders, but I was committed to this divine experiment.
I took a bite of the Jesus Bread.
Syrupy sponge melted across my tongue, and warmth ran from my chapped lips to my pink-painted toes. I sank my teeth into the honey-glazed crust for another, bigger bite, and ripped free a yeasty chunk. Somehow, the magic worked. I’d changed this regular old bread into something better, holier, just with my words, just like my father.
I swallowed and shoved the swollen loaf into Mary’s trembling hands. “Your turn.”
“Oh, I don’t…”
“Do it.” I needed her witness.
Mary squeezed the bread and brought the rounded tip to her mouth. Would she do it? Could she do it? Sweat trickled across my belly and into the rolling waistband of my tights. Mary’s lips pursed against the artisan dough, but she hesitated. She was waiting for permission because Mary was a good girl.
“Eat it!” I yelled.
The vestry door jiggled.
We jumped, and I dropped the bread. It bounced twice on the carpet and showered sacred crumbs across the floor. Tears flooded Mary’s sunburnt cheeks, but I shook my head at her, scooped up the fallen loaf, and shoved it under my skirt.
Mrs. Patricia opened the door, beak-first. She mourned the death of Christ with widow’s black and a permanent frown, except on Christmas and Easter, of course.
She sniffed. Could she smell the bread between my thighs?
“Why aren’t you two in your robes? The service starts in ten minutes, and Pastor Porter is about to open the doors.” She shuffled to the folding table and snatched the goblet and the platter without looking inside. “Go on, then.” Mrs. Patricia lifted her cleft chin at the racks of faded plum robes in the corner. “Get dressed. And, Miss Evelyn Grace Porter,” her nostrils flared at my stained knees, “don’t let me catch you without your tights on under those robes. I don’t care how hot it is. I’ll check.” She closed the door with a snap.
I sighed, and the bread fell out of my skirt.
“We need to put it back!” Mary snatched the dough from the ground. “They won’t have any left for the service. What’s everyone going to eat? How will they be saved by Christ’s sacrifice?” She hugged the half-chewed loaf against her cardigan. “You were w-wrong!”
I shoved a stack of hymnals off a stained folding chair and sat down. Mary had a run in her left stocking. It curved behind her knee into a sideways J.
“I wasn’t wrong. It tastes just like the real stuff,” I said. “In fact, I dare you to eat the whole thing with me right now.”
“The whole thing?” Mary stepped back. “It’s as long as my arm!”
“I double dare you.”
“No. The last time you double dared me…” Mary glanced at the door. “You dared me to kiss Matthew Reed. On the lips. That’s a sin!”
But she’d done it.
“We basically have to get married now,” cried Mary as the tears appeared again. “I prayed for forgiveness, but how do I know if it worked? How do I know if I’m still full of sin or not?” Mary raised her head. “Can your father tell?”
Everyone was full of sin. That’s what my father told me.
“You know what’s also a sin?” I crossed my arms. “Breaking a promise.”
“Is a dare a-a promise?” She dug her nails into the bread.
“It’s exactly the same as a promise,” I said.
Mary never refused a second helping of lumpy chocolate chip pancakes after a Saturday slumber party. Last year, she climbed up the ladder to the church bell with me and stuck bubble gum on the clapper. And three months ago, Mary let Matthew Reed hold her hand and lead her into the stairwell behind the choir room for ten whole minutes. No one just kisses for ten whole minutes.
I lifted the loaf from Mary’s cradle and placed my hands on either end. “If you don’t eat this bread, I’ll tell Mrs. Patricia about everything you did with Matthew because I know it wasn’t just kissing.”
Mary covered her mouth with her hands. “H-how did you know?”
My father was right; everyone was full of sin.
“I’m pretty sure if we eat this bread, Mary, all our sins will be forgiven.”
“Really?” Her eyes opened wide. “I mean, I guess that makes sense…”
“I definitely makes sense.”
I broke the bread like my father did on the first Sunday of every month. The quarreling tones of an ancient organ rang to life and shook the battered floorboards with “Amazing Grace.”
“The service!” cried Mary. “Listen, maybe we don’t eat it. Maybe we just put it back. We can still put it back, right?”
“Girls!” Mrs. Patricia’s voice called from the sanctuary. The organ stopped, and I shoved both halves into Mary’s hands.
“Eat my half too,” I said. “Quick!”
“What?” Mary gulped. “I-I can’t eat all of it… and what about your sins? Don’t you want forgiveness too?”
“Don’t worry about it. My father’s a pastor.” I shrugged. “He can put in a good word for me.”
“Just eat it!”
“Girls!” Mrs. Patricia’s voice cracked right outside the vestry. “I know what you’ve done!”
I grabbed a maroon robe and pulled it over my turtleneck. The folding fabric fell to my shins and draped past my honey-stained hands. Moisture bloomed under my arms and knees, so I reached under the velveteen folds and peeled the sweat-soaked tights from my legs. I tossed them at Mary’s feet.
“Yours have a run in them. You should take them off too.” I put a hand on the iron doorknob and turned. “I’ll stall the bird; you eat the bread.”
I slipped out the vestry and into the shadowed sanctuary. Stained glass stories bled biblical rainbows across the empty aisles. I looked past rows of people-less pews into the packed atrium where Sunday hats bloomed in every color except red. I turned toward the choir loft and smacked into Mrs. Patricia’s black buttons.
“Where is it? It’s missing!” She ran a shaking hand over her arched eyebrows. “Samuel was able to run out for a replacement, but it’s not…” She grabbed my arm, and her eyes bulged. “What happened to it? What did you do with it?”
“With what? What’s missing?” I wiped my mouth with a drooping purple sleeve.
“The sacred body of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!”
I pointed above her head. “Isn’t he right there?”
Mrs. Patricia whirled around as if the lifeless copper corpse nailed to the golden cross hadn’t hung above my father’s pulpit since before I was born. She craned her neck back at me, narrowed her beetle eyes, and dug her fingernails into my wrist.
“Stop it! You’re a naughty, naughty girl.”
She dragged me behind the pulpit, out of sight of the impatient chorus waiting for the organ’s reprise. She bent down, but I was almost as tall as her.
“I know you don’t have a mother at home—may sweet Diane rest in peace—but that’s no excuse to behave the way you do. You’re a young woman of Christ, and you should know better. Mary, too. Where is she? Is she still wearing the sweater I gave her? I can’t believe she thought that dress was appropriate in God’s house.” Mrs. Patricia stood up and stuck her hands on her hips. “Mary?” she called. “Mary, get out here this instant!”
The vestry door opened with a creak, and Mary waddled over.
“Child, are you ill? Why are you holding your stomach? And where is your robe?”
“I forgot,” said Mary.
Mrs. Patricia blinked. “You know,” she wet her mouth with a lipsticked smack, “little girls can be just as nasty as little boys.” Her gaze lingered on Mary’s midsection. “I’ll get your robe. Now go sit.”
I clutched Mary’s hand and hurried us into our wooden seats at the front of the choir loft. My shoes kicked the back of the piano, and ten wrinkled faces cleared their sour throats and frowned. Mrs. Patricia bustled over with Mary’s robe and tossed it at her. She smoothed her salty hair and flexed her bony fingers.
“Put it on. Quick!”
Mary shrugged into the heavy robe and leaned against her seat, breathing in short huffs.
“Evelyn,” snapped Mrs. Patricia, “are you wearing your tights under those robes?”
“Yes,” I lied with a perfect, straight face, just like my father.
“Hmph.” Her right hand twitched, but she wouldn’t dare expose me in front of her flock. Instead, she narrowed her eyes and surveyed the lopsided chorus: eight fossilized sopranos who couldn’t hit an E4, two blackmailed baritones, and us. I could hit an E4, and so could Mary. Mrs. Patricia needed us, and we both knew it.
“Okay, everyone. Remember the refrain on ‘The Church’s One Foundation’ and that we cut the harmony from the anthem.” She smoothed her skirt and took a deep breath. “Please, everyone end together. If we can do that, no one will remember if the middle goes astray.”
Mrs. Patricia raised her hands toward heaven, giving it to God like she did every Sunday, and bustled over to the ancient organ. “Amazing Grace” filled the sanctuary once again, and my father finally opened the doors.
“Hey.” I squeezed Mary’s hand. “Did you eat it? All of it?” She nodded. I glanced at the covered silver platter sitting center stage on the table. “And did it taste like the real stuff?”
“Yes.” She gulped. “But I don’t think I can sing.”
“This is the blood of Christ shed for you.” The congregation echoed the call, and we drank from our plastic cups—my father from the jeweled goblet—but didn’t dare lick our lips.
Mary didn’t drink hers. Instead, she covered her green cheeks and started at the piano in front of us, where Mrs. Patricia sat poised and prepared, her fingers hovering over middle c.
“And this is the body of Christ broken for you.”
My father lifted the silver platter, and a pre-packaged loaf of discount, sliced white gleamed proudly on the Eucharist table. A woman in the front pew gasped. Someone turned a laugh into a hacking cough. Mrs. Patricia let out a stifled sob.
And Mary vomited.
Golden artisan ambrosia erupted from Mary’s mouth, gushed over Mrs. Patricia’s cleft chin, and seeped into her discordant piano cord.
“Amen,” I said and scratched my stocking-less legs.
Elle writes curious fiction from beyond the rabbit hole and performs heart surgery on manuscripts missing their soul. When Elle’s not writing, you can find her singing like a sad ghost on a community theatre stage, reading dystopian horror aloud to her cat, or panic-eating peanut butter in the upstairs closet. Elle has her MFA in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University and her BA in English from Thomas Edison State University. You can read some of her fiction work on www.ellemichaelriver.com.