For the Birds
“You’re so pious, Theo,” Saspia said to me on more than one occasion when we were working together at the bakery. “I hope you’ll put a good word in with God for me so I can get into heaven.” Uncle Amos always says she’s only teasing me.
It’s true though that Mother and I used to attend church every week together, and I couldn’t wait until Sunday arrived so we could take a minivan to the cathedral. Mother loved getting dressed up in her finest clothing and wearing jewelry passed down from her great grandmother. Or finding excuses to purchase a new handbag and shoes because none in her wardrobe made “everything come together.” I told her every Sunday how lovely she looked. She’d thank me and give me a look over as well—usually with concern and not altogether impressed—then tell me to straighten my tie or my collar, or tuck my shirt in better, or zip my pants properly.
Even after Mother died, I went to services each Sunday morning before visiting her grave. I’ve loved attending since I was a little boy, in fact—adored the elegance and grace and atmosphere. And I often listen to Gregorian Chants while painting in my room for hours at a time. I think this is what my father used to mean when he talked about reverence. Still, the truth is—although I didn’t express this to Saspia—none of that really has much to do with getting to heaven in my opinion. In any case, whenever church people come around to ask for donations, I usually give them whatever’s in my pocket—coin or carrot.
Look! The cathedral itself! Gloriously gothic and almost five hundred years old. Made from magnificent blocks of granite all chiseled and fitted together. When he was alive I would often hear my father talking to his friends about the cathedral’s balconies, portico, flying buttress (I think it’s called), nave, arches, and piers. I’m not good with the information, but I know that feeling I get upon entering the cathedral: the space, the height—it’s glorious. And then the wondrous details of the sculptures that live in the cathedral, the engravings, the stained glass windows. All of it making the atmosphere dizzying and serene at the same time.
You’d think it couldn’t get any more magnificent, but then the soft music starts. And the organ—oh how I love that organ sound! How do they do it? How do they make that music? To make the mind swirl and fly. To make us feel as if we are floating off to some other planet. If I’d tried to explain to Saspia that this is what I love—not so much the getting into heaven—I’m not so sure she’d understand.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe she likes the colorful, the majestic, the glittering as much as I do—the priestly robes and the chalice and candelabras, the rituals and the prayers. Maybe Saspia understands more about this humbling, grand mystery than I do. I guess it wouldn’t take much. All I know are the feelings I’d get when I used to hear dear Mother praying beside me, the one who gave birth to me—me once growing inside her tummy like a little bean. I remember we would always sit in the same location, on the right side of the church, three-quarters toward the front. Only widows and old women sat in that area. Except for me.
It was devastating when some months after Mother passed away (and I had started working at the telephone company), Father Bougainvillea died too. Colon cancer. A new priest arrived right away—Father Cruxabun. And the first Sunday with Father Cruxabun in charge, everything was different.
I could feel it as soon as I walked inside the cathedral that Sunday. Not just because of the absence of our beloved Bougainvillea, but because it felt like Father Cruxabun held some threatening club or hammer hidden under his robes. And then, early in the service of his second week, as the congregation bowed their heads in prayer, I looked up just for a moment and was shocked to find Father Cruxabun didn’t have his head bowed at all. Instead of looking inward and to heaven, he was staring at people in the pews like a spy. During another prayer I glanced up and saw his eyes aimed at me, glaring down as if I was up to something.
Things got worse. Two weeks later when I went to the cathedral on a Wednesday afternoon for independent prayer, I saw Father Cruxabun at the far end of the church grounds wearing jeans and a football jersey. He had a slingshot and was pelting a group of toucans with stones.
My sisters didn’t see why I felt so disturbed. “You know, Dorus, priests are human beings, too,” Elena said to me one evening over our eggplant casserole.
“What do you mean, Elena?”
“I mean, just like us, every priest is different. One eats spinach, the other eats radishes. One takes his strolls at sunrise, another at sunset.”
“Well, sister,” I said, “I will love the priest whether he eats crabs or crabapples, but no one should disturb the toucans. And it’s not priestly to stare at me like a thief during prayer.”
“Oh, Dorus,” Maria said, jumping in. “He’s probably just looking out for all the older ladies that sit near you.”
“What do you mean looking out for them? Are they unsafe around me?”
Elena laughed. “We know you, Theo. Such a naughty brother sometimes.”
“Take Father Cruxabun donuts some morning and you’ll patch things up in no time.”
“No, I won’t. If I have donuts I’d take them to share with Pol. Or Hebert. Or take them to Mrs. Soldabeam. She loves toucans, too. Anyone but that Cruxabun.”
“Oh, okay, Dorus,” Elena said, winking at Maria. “Take them to Mrs. Soldabeam then.”
I blushed some more.
Uncle Amos said I should just find a new church to attend if I didn’t care for Father Cruxabun. “No,” I said. “A church is not like some orchard you can abandon when the year’s apple harvest goes bad!”
I was really quite fed up with the entire mess. On top of it all, my annual confession was due later that month, and it turned out disastrous as well. I started off by telling Father Cruxabun how I had admired Saspia for so long, and how I’d taken bread from the bakery on several occasions after getting fired by her father, how I’d sneak back into the shop and hide inside behind the big refrigerator that holds fruit juices and cream pies and custards, how I’d stay there and watch Saspia and admire her more, and then wait until she and her father disappeared to the back so I could come out and nab the bread. Well, to be honest, I also took some of the custards. I explained how I sometimes did this by going in disguise around lunchtime so Eugenio wouldn’t know it was me. Father Cruxabun asked why I hadn’t confessed this earlier, but then I told him about also stealing Stanton Billardo’s book and button at the bookstore reading many months earlier. And how I let Coco invite me out for pie afterwards and I ate three pieces and drank two cappuccinos and didn’t offer to pay even a small bit of the bill.
Father Cruxabun told me a lot of the same things Father Bougainvillea used to tell me when he was alive: that these were venial sins, not mortal ones; that all men have biological desires, but that they must be controlled and acted upon only after holy union in marriage; that it’s natural to enjoy the fruits of our labor, but that we should share, be thoughtful, and compassionate to our fellow human beings; that we shouldn’t take what doesn’t belong to us. He asked me to repent of the sins, and to make amends with the individuals I had wronged.
I sat there, put my head down, and tried to think how I could possibly get in touch with Stanton Billardo. Maybe I would have to go to another book reading. And then, for some reason I remembered what I had seen that day many months ago as I walked to the bookstore—starlings pecking at bags of garbage laid out for collection. Which then made me recall what I had seen Father Cruxabun do with his slingshot.
It had continued to weigh on my mind all that time, so I had to ask him. “What about birds? Should we be compassionate toward them, Father Cruxabun?”
“Yes, of course. To all God’s creatures.”
“What about starlings?”
“Yes, they are birds also.”
“And I’m sure you would understand me better if you could see Saspia, Father. She has such lovely hair and smooth skin and a delightful little nose.”
“Well, of course I understand you very well, my son. The desires you speak of are nothing rare.”
“On second thought,” I said, “she does often dress very colorfully. Like the beak of a toucan. So maybe you wouldn’t like her.” I imagined old Cruxabun’s face shriveling up behind the confessional screen.
“But this is not the concern of your penance, Theodorus. You should focus on God, now and for all your life, and you will be richly rewarded in love and understanding. And in that way you will also find your life’s companion who will be both a blessing to yourself and to God.”
“Honestly, Father, since you came to our cathedral, I don’t feel such a heavenly presence during our services. I think I feel closer to God eating a mango—not just because of the taste, but the color, the juices…it all brings a joy to my face, to my feelings. I think the mango is divine.”
“God is in all things, my son.”
“Do you eat mangoes, Father Cruxabun?”
“Yes, on occasion. Of course.”
I knew Father Bougainvillea so well from over the years. He had even visited our home and joined us for a meal. But Father Cruxabun? I still couldn’t see the human side of him. I couldn’t see him allowing mango juices to run down his hand onto his wrist, his forearm. The way he walked, talked, kept eyes on people—it all seemed like a business to him. Or worse, a crime mystery!
“And what might be your five favorite fruits, Father? I’m only curious.”
“Well, I don’t know, Theodorus. I would need to think about that. But in any case, as I said, this is beyond the scope of your penance and we could talk about that later perhaps. Right now there are others waiting if you have nothing more to confess.”
I put my head down again—I was just like a customer to him. And he was the bank manager. A business relationship, which is really not much of a relationship at all.
I didn’t answer. I opened the confessional box and walked out, exiting the church as well without looking back. Father Cruxabun didn’t say anything to stop me.
Once outside in the fresh air (Father Cruxabun’s robes always spread a faint scent of mildew), I told myself that I would never return to the church again. At least not for as long as Father Cruxabun remained, but perhaps even forever. I would give my small alms directly to those in need. I would pray elsewhere.
But you know how it is when you’re upset: you make accusations and threats and plans that you’ll never be able to keep. So, barely two weeks later, I felt a great need to go back to church again, to pray in that lovely sanctuary, to feel its glory, see its beauty. And that’s what I did—walked to the cathedral in the afternoon of my day off. I quietly passed through the front gate and quickly walked to the cathedral’s great doors, peeping inside to make sure none of the ladies who clean and sell prayer pamphlets, candles, and the like were poking around in there. It was only then that I realized I wasn’t acting as myself—that I was creeping around like Father Cruxabun would probably want me to do.
When I stepped inside the sanctuary, however, I felt at home again—sort of. I looked up at the great ceiling, as majestic as the sky itself. I took deep breaths of cathedral air and looked all around at the wonderful mix of light and dark and shadow. I went to my usual spot and began to pray— quietly, I thought, until a pigeon inside the church flapped its wings and I realized my voice had reached the volume of normal conversation. I can’t be sure, but I may have gotten teary-eyed—I wouldn’t be embarrassed if it were so.
After my prayer and extra contemplation I stood up to leave, thinking I could not continue to stay away from church as I had earlier planned, that I would come at least once a week for independent prayer. I dropped a coin into the palm of the beggar seated at the entrance to the church, then stepped back out into the courtyard. Feeling content, I walked the grounds a bit and visited the cemetery behind the church—it has old, grey tombstones that jut up from the ground as if from another world. There are lovely stone sculptures of angels as well, some with green eyes from the little moss or vegetation that somehow finds its way to grow there.
That’s when I saw him again. Father Cruxabun. In the little grove in the back, at the edge of the great field where the church grows mango and guava and banana and lychee and jackfruit and acerola. He was throwing stones at the birds again. At toucans.
It sounded like a camp of whining puppies, the toucans hopping and flying from branch to branch, upset by priestly aggression. The chances of one of his rocks hitting and injuring a toucan was probably slight, but the amount of stress put on the birds was great—the terrible feeling of being under threat. Several of the birds flew away, off into the distance, and I watched them go with great sadness, wondering what it would be like if they’d never come back, if they flew to another planet and never returned to earth. Other toucans tried to move further back into the recesses of the tree for safety, and I thought how this was almost sadder, like a killer in my own home, pushing me further and further back into a closet until I was pinned against the wall with nowhere to go.
After my mind came back to earth—and in hope that it would give relief to the birds—I called out Father Cruxabun’s name several times, but he didn’t hear me. That’s when I picked up a stone from the ground and threw it myself. Not at the toucans, of course, but at Father Cruxabun. And then another. And another. On my fifth toss, the small, grey rock landed on Father Cruxabun’s neck. Maybe it could have stung a bit, but otherwise it probably felt like a grasshopper jumping onto his skin. He flicked at it, at something that was no longer there. And turned around, saw me standing.
I looked him in the eye for a moment, from a distance of course, and then ran. I ran through the field, away from the church, away from the main road.
“Hey,” he yelled, not remembering my name. Maybe not remembering me at all.
I ran to the edge of the holy property, to the wall that encircles it, and found a soft spot, a place where the wall isn’t so high. I climbed up and over and dropped onto a side road that drifted into a busy neighborhood. I looked back and peeked at Father Cruxabun one last time, seeing him as he turned and entered the cathedral.
It was a sort of blessing really, as they say, to help the birds a bit and to find that low place in the wall as well because now I’m still able to go there on my free days. I climb over the wall easily and walk along it to the cemetery without being seen. In the graveyard I find a spot just under the trees where the toucans rest, and I sit and watch them. No one notices me, and I relax and even chat to those wise jokesters a bit. It’s not like being inside the cathedral though—and toucans aren’t God…although, I swear, sometimes when I watch them I think they might be more mysterious and wonderful. But never mind all that—it’s a lovely feeling to sit with the toucans, watching them hop unperturbed and make happy noises and pick the fruits right off the trees, peeling as needed before knocking them back down their beak and into their belly. And with a look on their face that says, “Look what I just did. I just peeled and ate a tasty banana.”
I’ve never told this to Saspia, or anyone actually, but if I am pious at all, it is for something like that. Usually I sit for a couple hours or more with the toucans, never getting bored. Sometimes I take my sketchpad out to draw the whole scene, and that is enough for me. I just have to keep an eye on the nearby church door to make sure Father Cruxabun doesn’t pop out of his evil hideout. If he appears, you know, we all have to fly and run.
Timothy Dodd is from Mink Shoals, West Virginia, in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. He is the author of short story collections Fissures and Other Stories (Bottom Dog Press), Men in Midnight Bloom (Cowboy Jamboree Press), and Mortality Birds (Southernmost Books, with Steve Lambert), as well as the poetry collections Modern Ancient (High Window Press) and Vital Decay (forthcoming, Cajun Mutt Press). He is co-editor of Southernmost Books as well as a visual artist who primarily exhibits his oil paintings in the Philippines. Sample artwork can be found on Instagram @timothybdoddartwork. His website is timothybdodd.wordpress.com.