Nobody questioned what went on between the priest and his housekeeper. Rudi locked up his church every evening, and when he stepped into the vicarage and shut the door, he was no longer a priest. He was just hungry. He pulled out his dog colour from his black shirt and stepped into slippers. He poured some coals onto the burner and watched Mitzi cook. Today she was layering dry brioche into a ceramic pan smeared with butter, enwrapped in her red apron. It had been a Christmas gift from Rudi, and she insisted on wearing it even though it was too small. Her mouth was talking for her, picking up mid-way through a conversation they never seemed to finish.
“And then she said that these priests only have one job, which is fasting during Easter.”
Mitzi was now drowning raisins in diluted rum.
“I couldn’t believe my ears, I didn’t know what to say. Nobody questions that mothers get to eat meat during lent. She should see you working, Rudi, she should see how much you worry. We have more than three children, we have all of Gmeinitz to take care off. Jesus Maria Mutter Gottes. Of course I feed you meat during lent. Especially during lent. You need to have your senses together when no one else does.”
She turned her chin to Rudi, who had started reading the local paper at the kitchen table. On the stove, she was whisking eggs and milk to a froth. Rudi turned a page and mhm-ed.
“Mrs Schubert is her name, you hear. I put her straight. In front of everyone at the counter. She won’t say anything anymore. Turned bright red. Her son told me not to pay for the sausages.” Rudi turned to another page. He usually read the ads first, then the news.
“You know, people talk. And you don’t want that type of talk to undermine your authority. People need to trust you so you can do His work.”
Rudi had the habit of pretending not to listen to Mitzi, and usually she didn’t mind. After clearing her throat, she poured the egg mixture over the brioche and then put everything into the oven. She dried her hands on a kitchen towel and sat down at the table. She would have reached for his knuckles, but she knew they didn’t need to touch.
“Is she related to the old Schurl?”
“I’m blessing his new barn Wednesday; it’s finally finished.”
“Talk to him them. Tell him she’s being disrespectful.”
They weren’t married, and they never would be, but Mitzi still felt that she was the only person allowed to order Rudi around. Perhaps because she knew where he hid his boogers and how his knees cracked when he went downstairs. Perhaps because she was the only one who cared if he wore a seatbelt when driving.
“She doesn’t come to mass every Sunday, but she’d like us to think she does.”
Rudi nodded one last time and then handed her the egg timer from the shelf behind him. She finished the papers whilst he did the dishes. In the oven, the brioche doubled in height and turned first yellow, then golden.
On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, Rudi lingered around the confessional. He would have liked to put up a sign-up sheet on the pinboard above the holy water tank, but Mitzi had told him not to. He wasn’t meant to know who slipped into the confessional, but the village was too small. At some point he had stopped pretending the voices he listened to didn’t belong to the eyes watching him during mass, to the heads he baptised and hands he married. He started asking how the potato beetles had affected their fields this spring, and whether they’d need a hand at harvest time. Soon, secrets begun to spill through the netted screen. During winter, Mitzi prepared a hot water bottle for him to sit on. During summer, she hid flasks of iced tea under his seat. Rudi had never broken his vow of silence, but he had come close. Sometimes, he would give advice. He’d know who had taken the apples, whose heart belonged to whom. He would assure and discourage, assign rosaries and Ave Marias. And they’d listen and not kill each other over stolen wheelbarrows.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. My last confession was three weeks ago.”
Lukas never faltered when carrying coffins, and always stayed on after the funeral service to carry the flowers and wreaths from the altar down to the grave. When his parents had died, Lukas had already been too old to be called an orphan. Rudi decided that Mitzi should invite Lukas over for dinner.
“Amen. How have you been, Lukas?”
“Well, what have you come to tell me? Have you overcome the anger you feel towards your late parents?”
Rudi could hear the snapping noise of fingernails being cleaned by more fingernails. He sighed quietly, so that Lukas wouldn’t hear.
“The last time we spoke, you confessed feeling irrational anger towards your parents. For dying. We talked about not letting their deaths turn you away from God’s glory and salvation.”
A badly hidden sigh from the other side of the screen.
“No. I mean – I’ve been good. Less angry at my parents for quitting on me. Less feeling things in general.”
Rudi checked his wristwatch. It was almost time for dinner.
“You on antidepressants?”
“How’s that going.”
A silence Rudi assumed to be shoulder-shrugging.
“Be patient. Let the meds settle. It took me months to figure out my dosage.”
Rudi really needed to get professional cleaners for the church. He didn’t enjoy picking up broken fingernails off the floor in the confessional. He should talk to Mitzi about it.
“I’ve been deliberately entertaining impure thoughts.”
Rudi recognised one of the recommended phrases from the How-to-prepare-for-confession flyers he left at the back.
“You know, I’ve been feeling lonely.”
Rudi decided that he did not have to respond. Lukas hadn’t phrased it as a question.
“Yeh. Of course, you know.” Sour laughter. “Fucking priest. Fucking celibate.”
“What type of impure thoughts?”
“Like boobs. I see boobs everywhere. Beautiful, fucking tits. Like Mitzi’s boobs. You seen them? Fucking gorgeous. Fucking waste that is, I say. Living with you.”
Rudi would really need to clean the confessional soon. Hoover.
“I just keep thinking. I could catch her after mass. Bend her over. There’s this spot behind the garden shed at the back of the cemetery. You know. Magdalena used to take me there.”
He hated the echo of the hoover in the church. Hated.
“Nobody would be able to hear her. Nobody would know. And because she’s not married it wouldn’t even be adultery.”
Rudi felt alive.
“Please open page three of the leaflet and read out loud.”
“Page three? The prayer of sorrow thing?”
“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. I firmly resolve with the help of your grace to do penance.”
“I absolve all of your sins. Walk with god and honour his name. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
There weren’t many hobbies a priest was permitted to have, but gardening was one of them. Rudi was the proud owner of three vegetable patches, and he had re-vitalised the herb garden next to the rectory. They got fresh red and white cabbage throughout the year, and he even grew the pumpkins they put up on All-Saints day. After Lukas’ confession, he stopped and started tearing at little leaves peeking out of the raw soil. Last winter, he had planted daffodils and tulips along the edges of the path, but blue monkshood was already taking over. He wasn’t wearing his gardening gloves, so he immediately felt the plant’s poison creep into his skin. He’d get eczema, again. He couldn’t stop imagining what Lukas’ eyes looked like on the sinner’s side of the confessional. The blood melted towards his fingers, and he turned to scratch the root. He could crush the root. He could puree it and spread it evenly and white onto the back of an oblate, hitting the deadly two-gram dose just right. He could use the big plate during communion, and carefully push the prepared oblate to one side so that it wouldn’t contaminate the rest. He’d have to wrap mass up quickly, perhaps forget to read out the weekly announcements. He wouldn’t want Lukas to start vomiting whilst still inside the church, next to the freshly sanitized confessional. He’d have to retch outside, in the cold. Rudi straightened his back and inhaled the grey spring air, faintly laced with smoke from the vicarage. Down the road, he glimpsed Mitzi wiping down the Eastern windows. As if she had felt him looking, she turned towards him and the church. He wasn’t wearing his glasses, but surely she was smiling.
The next Saturday was Holy Saturday, and Rudi’s favourite day of the year. He had built the Easter fire himself, so when he spoke the prayer before mass it was clinging to the sky and red. He sent the altar boys into church ahead of him, carefully ensuring that none of their frocks were set alight. The church was dark and full of people. Someone tried to swallow a cough. The boys split into rows of two and spread the rest of the holy fire across the church, until everyone held an ignited tea light. Sepp was carrying the big blunt Easter candle. Josef followed with the wafting censer. Rudi carried Him and an oblate smeared with enough blue monkshood to force a bull’s breath to an end.
At the ambo, he read out Genesis to the black mass filling his pews. He felt their joint prayer run through his chest. When he told them to blow out their candles, their faces disappeared. The colourless night crept in through the glass windows. The room was filled with incense and smoke. He covered the microphone at his collar with a palm and hissed:
“Sepp, you oaf. Turn on the lights.”
Whilst Sepp was fondling the wall for the right switch, Rudi slipped the oblate onto the golden plate holding the bread for communion. It felt so light.
And then, when he blessed the bread, blessed the wine, and kissed the altar, His words shone through him. I adore Thee, O Sacred Blood of Jesus Christ. Thou art the price of my salvation. Cleanse and preserve my soul to life everlasting. He drank from the blood and fed off the flesh. When he let the prepared oblate drop onto Lukas outstretched tongue, he did not feel any remorse. He was clean. Mitzi dropped onto one knee during communion, and he brushed the hair from her forehead before letting Christ’s body melt into her mouth. They closed their eyes. He helped her back onto her feet. Lukas stumbled back to his pew.
Maria Magdalene, Joanna and Mary had found an empty grave, a hole without a body in it. Fasting was over. Mitzi had filled a basket with brioche, bacon, boiled eggs and wine. He blessed the baskets at the end of mass, and every family carried theirs home. She had coloured the eggs using red cabbage, onion and saffron. After mass, they sat down at their kitchen table and drank the entire bottle, butting eggs against each other, betting on which ones cracked first. The loser ate the egg and drank. Rudi slept well and didn’t overhear Mitzi’s snores, because after Holy Saturday he always felt immortal for a bit. God had taken care of their salvation and sacrificed his son. Lukas would never bother Mitzi again. And then on Sunday, the choir would sing Mozart’s Easter mass. He had permitted them to practice in the choir stalls next to the organ this year, so the conductor knew where to place his singers. Rudi could already feel the Gloria hover through the light above his sheep’s heads. Mitzi would sit in the first row, and she’d mouth every word of his sermon with him.