“Don’t tell anyone,” he said, before he told me the story.
My father’s tales starred cheats, thieves, and priests, and he figured at thirteen I was old enough to hear one of his favorites. It began like this: once he knew a long-nosed priest who got bounced from so many parishes that he wore running shoes instead of clerical loafers. Père Renard, or Father Fox, as the kids called him, operated church bingo like a game of casino craps, barking out numbers and taking much more than petty change as bets. At the end of a good night, he might walk out with a wad of sawbucks, a set of cast-iron pots, the keys to a riding lawn mower, and a couple of roosting chickens, to boot.
Father Fox never got busted for the bingo, though. What arrested him in the end hung from both arms. That priest possessed a magic set of hands, the kind that could sink anything in the soil—a sorry-looking seed, a dried-up root, or an old bulb from a dead plant—only to watch it sprout overnight like a Cajun version of “Jack and the Bean Stalk.” Lilies at Easter, of course, irises too. Marigolds, crèpe myrtles, even a magnolia tree. Yet another plant raised a stink, a tall thin weed with leaves like tangled palms. Ladies in mantillas fanned themselves to a fury when they heard the priest not only grew marijuana behind the rectory but sold it to their teenagers through the lattice of the confessional.
After the word spilled on his unholy church business, rumors filled the air about Father Fox and his long-fingered hands, which possessed another kind of magic. Those ten fingers divined their way into the purses of older women and the pants of younger boys. During Mass, heads nodded as he broke the sacred host but not in reverence for the liturgy. As my father put it, all those lace-headed ladies nodded in disbelief. Who had let un renard fou out of another troubled house and into their own den? When would the Bishop or the Pope strip his black cassock right off him?
Father Fox just sniffed at the air with his long nose and ignored the birds circling overhead. He blamed the gossip on the idle words of another priest, another parish. Or he shrugged away the rumors like any false merchant or true politician. One of his favorite quotes came not from the Bible but from Louisiana’s longest-running governor, a man who also might be found at a game of craps.
“The only way I can lose,” he boasted before election season or a court session, “is if they catch me in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.”
In the end, that governor got nabbed in a casino scheme then sent to the coop, while the priest got trapped in a drug sting then bounced free after a call to the bishop. Parishioners claimed even if Father Fox got nailed to a cross, he’d hotfoot his way to freedom and a profit. Hell, he’d sell tickets to his own wake, stuff his coffin with loot from the rectory, play poker with the devil, fault God for any debt, and still take bets on his resurrection. After all, if anyone knew the wages of sin, it was a priest.
As my father finished the story, he slammed his beer down, opened his mouth wide and let loose a wild howl of laughter.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he said as he opened the door.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” I said in a hush. My voice sounded singsong, birdlike, even in my ear, as I hesitated at the threshold of the confessional. The priest was on the wrong side of the booth, the side where the penitent would enter. Where would I sit? Where would I kneel?
“Don’t tell anyone,” the priest said again, as he held out a hand to muzzle my mouth. His black cassock parted to expose a crooked pant leg. His fingers stretched in the air while that leg shifted. In the dark of the booth, the velvet curtain whispered and the wood bench whined. The gruff voice of the priest grunted in my ear, and his eyes blazed before mine. “A secret,” he commanded, tapping his shoe on the floor. Then one more sound: a zipper. His hand pulled me to his waist, fingers slipped into my mouth. The cassock tangled up in his pants, and he crouched to step out of it, like an animal shaking off an extra skin. His long nose sniffed at the air around me.
What I had to confess: impure thoughts, lust for other boys, nightly self-abuse. I let a boy yank down my pants and rub against me under the bleachers, it was true, I locked lips with a yearbook picture of the football star and prayed he’d lay me on the field, I lingered in the gym shower until my skin turned red and the boy at my back tugged off then turned away, and I laughed aloud at the word “homo,” as if it was the punch line to a joke not aimed at me.
In the confessional, though, there was no punch line, no joke. There was only a half-naked priest with furry red patches and yellow eyes daring me to leave the booth, betting I’d stay. “A secret,” he repeated. His eyes shone like mirrors, as if waiting for me to drop to my knees like a real penitent. Did he count on me to play along because he was holy? Because I was homo? By thirteen, I knew how the story went. I’d learned the theater of church and the gamble of faith. I’d learned to take the host between my teeth, to let it sit on my tongue and let it melt there. I’d learned to genuflect, to kneel and to pray for a reason to kneel. And I’d learned once already the hard blessing of a priest’s hand on my legs, the heat of false mercy and the fire of mean grace. That other priest had opened his arms in the confessional too, had held a finger to his mouth, then pointed that same finger in catechism, joking with the boys about my swishing hips, my flapping hands and stammering lips. A secret, I understood, was a cross. Sooner or later, you were nailed to it and the only way free was down.
So when the priest sunk into his chair and parted his legs, at first I rose. My back arched and my shoulders widened, while I lowered my mouth down to his waist, shut my lips tight, and summoned my own kind of magic. He jerked his hips and grabbed my ears as I sank lower and lower, my face buried in his skin. Then a light burst in my eyes, and I rose up again. My arms spread to the walls, wide as wings, my head scraped the vault, high as a hawk, my mouth split open and I finally answered him with a loud and sharp tongue.
“One may keep a secret,” I said, “but not two.”
He opened his jaw, flashed his teeth and sank back on his legs, as if to leap up, but my mouth split open again and this time I said, “No need to tell anyone what everyone already knows.”
Suddenly, the priest gekkered and gasped before his nose shriveled into his face, and his fingers drew into his hands, and his arms and legs grew smaller and smaller in the confessional, small enough that his whole body fit on the kneeling rail. From there, he bowed his head and offered to sell his lush fur for a pardon, his lavish tail for a prayer. Then he reversed himself and denied all sin, calling out accusations and excuses in a low growl, his tongue a flame of fire. It was the true beast, it was the false lamb, he said, it was not him. He faulted his red pelt, his sharp teeth, and his curled fingers. He faulted his long pointed nose and the odd perfume of boys. He faulted his tongue and the maker of his tongue until his voice hoarsened into a howl empty of all words, just a choking sound and a dimming echo.
In the end, the priest disappeared in a foam of yeast and wheat, a desecrated host. Through the lattice of the door, a terrific peal of thunder rang over the pews into the organ of the choir room. The pipes bellowed the chords to a hymn sung for the Fraction of the Eucharist. I ran first toward the sound and the light raining through the stained-glass windows then out of the church and into the empty parking lot before saliva shot across my teeth and I spat a medallion, shiny and round, in a crack of pavement. In that spot, a lily shot up, a stargazer with gold filaments, a bright orange stigma, and a crown of purple petals. At last the church bells marked the hour, and I headed home with a fire in my chest, a new story in my head, and a wild chorus of laughter rising in my wake.
Martin Pousson was born and raised in the bayouland of Louisiana. His short stories won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and have appeared in The Antioch Review, Epoch, Five Points, StoryQuarterly, and elsewhere. He also was a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award, the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Award, and the Lambda Literary Award. His novel-in-stories, Black Sheep Boy, will be released by Rare Bird Books in 2016.