THE GIRL WHO COULD FLY
MANY YEARS AGO, when he was ten, her father had ridden a big yellow bus to the planetarium.
There the ceiling above him exploded into a million glimmering shards of light. His mouth dropped open. His small fingers clamped down on the edge of the wooden bench upon which he sat. Over his head, pinpricks of white fire spun, pure as the day the Earth emerged as a blackened, pockmarked rock, an average planet orbiting an average star at the edge of an average galaxy in a limitless universe.
The Big Dipper. Orion. Ursa Major. The droning monotone of the astronomer’s voice. The children’s faces lifted up, open mouths, unblinking eyes. And the boy feeling infinitesimally small beneath the immensity of that artificial sky.
He would not forget that day.
Years later, when his daughter was very young, she would run to him, pudgy toddler legs wobbling, solid little arms lifted up, eyes burning with anticipation and joy, crying, Daddy, Daddy, stubby fingers spread wide, reaching for him, reaching for the sky.
And she would leap, a fearless launch into empty space, because he wasn’t just her father—he was Daddy. He would catch her; he would not let her fall.
Crying: Fly, Daddy, fly!
And up she would go, rocketing toward the immensity of the unbounded sky, arms open to embrace the infinite, her head thrown back, rushing to that place where terror and wonder meet, her squeals the distilled hilarity of being weightless and free, of being safe in his arms, of being alive.
From that day at the planetarium, when her life lay fifteen years in the future, there was no doubt what name he would give her.
“I WILL SIT WITH YOU”
THIS IS MY BODY.
In the cave’s lowermost chamber, the priest raises the last wafer—his supply has been exhausted—toward the formations that remind him of a dragon’s mouth frozen in mid-roar, the growths like teeth glistening red and yellow in the lamplight.
The catastrophe of the divine sacrifice by his hands.
Take this, all of you, and eat of it . . .
Then the chalice containing the final drops of wine.
Take this, all of you, and drink from it . . .
Midnight in late November. In the caves below, the small band of survivors will remain warm and hidden with enough supplies to last until spring. No one has died of the plague in months. The worst appears to be over. They are safe here, perfectly safe.
With faith in your love and mercy, I eat your body and drink your blood . . .
His whispers echo in the deep. They clamber up the slick walls, skitter along the narrow passage toward the upper chambers, where his fellow refugees have fallen into a restless sleep.
Let it not bring me condemnation, but health in mind and body.
There is no more bread, no more wine. This is his final Communion.
May the body of Christ bring me to everlasting life.
The stale fragment of bread that softens on his tongue.
May the blood of Christ bring me to everlasting life.
The drops of soured wine that burn his throat.
God in his mouth. God in his empty stomach.
The priest weeps.
He pours a few drops of water into the chalice. His hand shakes. He drinks the precious blood commingled with water, then wipes clean the chalice with the purificator.
It is finished. The everlasting sacrifice is over. He dabs his cheeks on the same cloth he used to clean the chalice. The tears of man and the blood of God inseparable. Nothing new in that.
He wipes clean the paten with the cloth, then stuffs the purificator into the chalice and sets it aside. He pulls the green stole from his neck, folds it carefully, kisses it. He loved everything about being a priest. Loved the Mass most of all.
His collar is damp with sweat and tears and loose about his neck: He’s lost fifteen pounds since the plague struck, and abandoned his parish to make the hundred-mile journey to the caverns north of Urbana. Along the way he gained many followers—over fifty in all, though thirty-two died from the infection before reaching safety. As their deaths approached, he spoke the rite, Catholic, Protestant, or Jew, it didn’t matter: May the Lord in his love and mercy help you . . . Tracing a cross on their hot foreheads with his thumb. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you . . .
The blood that seeped from their eyes mixed with the oil he rubbed on their lids. And smoke rolled across open fields and hunkered in woods and capped over roads like ice over languid rivers in deep winter. Fires in Columbus. Fires in Springfield and Dayton. In Huber Heights and London and Fairborn. In Franklin and Middletown and Xenia. In the evenings the light from a thousand fires turned the smoke a dusky orange, and the sky sank to an inch above their heads. The priest shuffled through the smoldering landscape with one hand outstretched, pressing a rag over his nose and mouth with the other while tears of protest streamed down his face. Blood crusted beneath his broken nails, blood caked in the lines of his hands and in the soles of his shoes. Not much farther, he encouraged his companions. Keep moving. Along the way, someone nicknamed him Father Moses, for he was leading his people out of the obscurity of smoke and fire to the Promised Land of “Ohio’s Most Colorful Caverns!”
People were there, of course, to greet them when they arrived. The priest expected it. A cave does not burn. It is impervious to weather. Best of all, it’s easy to defend. After military bases and government buildings, caves were the most popular destinations in the aftermath of the Arrival.
Supplies had been gathered, water and nonperishables, blankets and bandages and medicines. And weapons, naturally, rifles and pistols and shotguns and many knives. The sick were quarantined in the welcome center aboveground, lying in cots arranged between the display shelves of the gift shop, and every day the priest visited them, spoke with them, prayed with them, heard their confessions, delivered Communion, whispered the things they wanted to hear: Per sacrosancta humanae reparationis mysteria . . . By the sacred mysteries of man’s redemption . . .
Hundreds would die before the dying was over. They dug a pit ten feet wide and thirty feet deep to the south of the welcome center to burn them. The fire smoldered day and night, and the smell of burning flesh had become so commonplace, they hardly noticed.
Now it’s November, and in the lowermost chamber the priest rises. He is not tall; still, he must stoop to avoid smacking his head into the ceiling or against the stone teeth that bristle from the roof of the dragon’s mouth.
The Mass is ended, go in peace.
He leaves behind the chalice and the purificator, the paten and his stole. They are relics now, artifacts from an age receding into the past at the speed of light. We began as cave dwellers, the priest thinks as he makes his way toward the surface, and to caves we have returned.