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November 30, 2017 Fiction


Melanie Ritzenthaler

Fingerbone photo

On a trial basis, they had agreed to let me stand watch while they spied on the girls’ lacrosse team. The boys’ locker room at St. Agnes had a crack along the top of the far wall, where plaster peeled away to reveal a gash as wide as a finger. Wednesdays after lacrosse practice, the boys would drag one of the long benches over to that wall and, if they stood on their tiptoes, they could just see a sliver of the space on the other side—the girls’ locker room, glimpses of sweat-darkened sports bras and virginal Hanes, tinny laughter barely audible. They told me they did this during gym class, too, although they never said anything about seeing me, wrestling out of my undershirt in the middle of the room. 

My only job requirement was to linger outside the doorway to intercept janitors or gym teachers. The boys called this a diversion tactic. 

“If they see you first, they’ll think you’re spying on us,” they said. I didn’t care—I liked being included. I was usually the misfit, chubby and unreligious, and, as a scholarship student, there only by the grace of God. And it was true, in its own way. I was always watching the boys—and seventh grade was the year I decided to seduce them. 

They never seemed to notice me, not even when I rolled up my uniform skirt, like the other girls did, and walked the stairs in front of them. Not even when I laughed at their jokes. My only other charm, apart from being lookout on Wednesday afternoons, was the intel I brought back from the places they couldn’t reach. Sitting in an anonymous bathroom stall, my knees almost knocking into the door, I’d listen to secrets and tampons being traded underneath the partitions. 

It was nothing the boys themselves weren’t already aware of. The girls talked about confessions with Father Cavanaugh, the heavy air in the confessional, talking to their hands in their lap while Father Cavanaugh urged, “What else?” and “Be more specific.” Or they’d talk about teachers, or each other, or their relationships with the boys themselves—the brief, incestuous flirtations of a class that had been wrapped up in itself since kindergarten. I’d dutifully report back which boy’s breath smelled, who the girls wanted to slow dance with at the next dance, but none of this gossip ever helped my plans for seduction. 

During Church I’d study the cracked spines of prayerbooks or send up unanswered prayers to Saint Agnes, wishing I could find a way for the boys to notice me. Agnes, patron saint of virgins because she was my age when she died; killed because too many men wanted her and she refused them all. It was rumored that her saintly, unsullied fingerbone was kept inside the altar. Those kinds of fantasies could keep me occupied while my classmates filed up to receive Communion, leaving me alone, obvious, in the pew.  

Once, after Mass, I ended up walking next to Theodore, who was lagging at the back of the class so he could spit his Communion wafer away into the rose bushes. All the boys had started doing that after we’d been told by a nun that receiving the body was a blessing, and it should be swallowed dutifully with no frills, no gags. The boys especially were horrified.  

“What does it taste like?”

“What?” He was looking around to make sure none of the teachers could see him. I saw a glimpse of the wafer, caught like a half-melting snowflake on his tongue.

“The Communion.” He was staring at me by then. “I guess it’s a stupid question. It’s not—or is it? Like bread? I’ve never tasted it.”

I didn’t expect the red flush that started climbing up his neck. He coughed, choked, and turned away, spitting into the grass by the sidewalk. Then he caught up with me, walking with his head down. 

“Right,” he said. “So. You know you’re not allowed, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m not Catholic, so it would be a sin, wouldn’t it?”

He nodded and walked faster to catch up with the boys. 

The next Wednesday afternoon, Theodore opted out of standing on his tiptoes in the boys’ locker room, spying and pressing his hips to the wall. He came out and sat next to me. I was surprised. If a teacher saw us together, just the whites of our shirts visible in the dark stairwell, we’d be in for trouble. Theodore didn’t say anything at first, rubbing at a smudge on his finger. 

“Confession,” he said. “That’s another one you’re not allowed to do.”

“I guess not. I mean, I could get away with it. No one would know it was me if I went behind the curtain.”

“Except for God,” Theodore said quickly. “But you’ve obviously thought about doing it.” 

After a long silence, he said, “What would you say, if you went to Confession?”

“I would say that I was—”

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned.”

“Right. I would say, Bless me Father, for I have sinned. Then I would say that I’m sorry for calling my cousin a retard. And that I sneak into the kitchen and eat sticks of butter sometimes at night, and I know that’s gluttony. And I cheated on my last two math tests.”

I thought it was the most boring list of sins a priest would ever hear, but Theodore was already flushing pink. 

“What else?” he whispered. 

So I said the one that I knew everyone saved for last, the great relief of saying it making their shoulders drop. “Sometimes—not very often—I touch myself.”

In Sex Ed we’d learned all about that—sins of the flesh. It was our teacher’s favorite topic. 

“Eve’s original sin is where it all begins,” our teacher said. “When you girls grow up, you’ll see. Ever wonder why childbirth is so painful? Or think about your monthly bleeding. Cramps, right? Bloating? That’s Eve, ladies. It can all be traced back to Eve and the apple.” 

While we shifted uncomfortably next to each other, our teacher walked behind our chairs, recounting stories. Jezebel and her promiscuity, Deborah the temptress. But he also liked to linger on the martyrs who died rather than give up their chastity. Agatha had her breasts cut off. And Agnes, of the sweet, pure fingerbone, was forced to walk, nude, to a brothel. 

“Nude?” the boys breathed. 

Nude, our teacher had said gravely.

“But the men who looked at her naked body were struck blind by God. Because Agnes wasn’t theirs, she was married to Jesus and for Jesus alone,” he said. “They tried to burn her, but God smothered the flames. So they stabbed her, and killed her, and all the devoted Christians there sopped up her blood with their rags.”

“Sir,” said one of the boys. “Why wouldn’t God keep Agnes from being stabbed if he kept her from being burned?”

“To teach them a lesson, of course,” our teacher said.  Normally the class would be staring at the bubbled plaster on the ceiling, or scuffing shoes restlessly against the linoleum. But I was starting to see there were some subjects that could command everyone’s attention. 

The week after my confession, Theodore and I snuck into the vestry during recess with Neil, a nervous boy a year below us, one of the altar servers. The vestry was cool and silent, smelling faintly of incense, with a closet set into the wall filled with the tall black shadows of cassocks.  

“Neil, what’s she not allowed to touch?”

Neil, scowling, gestured to a table of gold bowls and cups. Theodore nodded at me and I picked up one of the chalices, which was smooth and round and filled my hands. My palms left behind smudges when I put it down. 

“What else?” 

So, with Theodore watching, I tried on one of Father Cavanaugh’s shapeless robes, with the sleeves falling past my fingers and the collar digging into my throat. I licked my fingers and smothered some of the votive candles left burning in the nave, the stained glass windows sending mosaics of color bleeding over my body. Neil seemed half-impressed despite himself, coming to stand at Theodore’s shoulder. 

“What else?” Theodore said. 

My eyes fell on the altar. Inside it, I knew, was the fingerbone. Just how it was acquired always had a gloss of black market hush to it.  Maybe the finger had been taken by force, snapped at the joint like a wishbone, or maybe it had chipped away already when the body was found. No one I knew had ever actually seen it. 

“How do I get in there?” I said. Stumbling over the hem of the robes, I walked around the altar, lifting up the cloth to view the smooth wood beneath. “Is there a panel, or maybe a key?”

Neil shook his head. “Nuh uh. No way.”

Even Theodore looked uneasy. “Why do you want to do that?”

But I wasn’t paying attention to him anymore. I crouched close and turned my cheek against the altar, feeling the grain of the wood against my skin. Inside, I decided, must be dark, cramped—the fingerbone, white and bare, reclining on a silk cushion like a Renaissance nude.  

“Hey,” Theodore said. He jostled my shoulder. “Stop that, come on, we have to go.” He seemed relieved when I followed his instructions. 

“Theodore,” I said. “Next time I want to—”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. 

He helped me pull the robe over my head, hung it in the closet. Then he smoothed my hair down, looking like a proud father. Outside, we could hear the sounds of our classmates funneling back into the school as recess ended. Theodore cracked the door, looked around for teachers, and jerked his head for me to follow. “There’s one other thing I thought of.” He patted his pocket with a smile. 

The boys did not say much to me over the next week, but they didn’t have to. They smiled at me over the lunch table, and whispered expletives only I could hear while the teacher was talking. I felt big, but not how a chubby girl feels big. I laughed at their jokes even when the teacher’s stern eye fell on me. 

Then came Wednesday, and I stayed after school, even though by then the girls’ lacrosse season was over. I went into the girls’ locker room. I wasn’t used to being in there alone. For a few minutes I sat on one of the benches and looked around, studying the fans of dust in the corners where the floor wasn’t swept, the dinged lockers. From there, the crack in the wall across the room was slender as an eyelash. Finally I reached beneath the bench. There, just like Theodore had promised, was the item he’d stolen from the vestry. 

Communion wafers, before the miracle of transubstantiation, were lined up like crackers in a plastic sleeve. Unblessed, so not quite sacrilegious, but I didn’t think anyone really cared about that. I put the roll between my knees and ripped it open, a loud sound in that small room. Then, facing the wall opposite me, I fished out the first one—petal-thin—and put it between my lips. 

I imagined I could hear a vacuum of sound on the other side of the wall, a silence that was too deep, like their breaths—Theodore’s and Neil’s and all the boys’—were held suspended as the wafer dissolved on my tongue. 

If you asked I couldn’t tell you the taste.

I remember a feeling that I haven’t had before or since, a feeling of being utterly exposed—eyes on my thick knees, my mouth, on my breasts, still small as marbles, pushing through my shirt. And yet I had them. In every part of me, down to my littlest fingerbone—I had them. 

I ate until I was full. 

image: Jeremy Ackman