by Joanna Koch
Forgive me if I’m not doing this right. I’m not exactly Catholic. Never been inside one of these little boxes. It’s not as cozy as they look in the movies; more claustrophobic, like a coffin. Kind of musty and dead-smelling under the incense, if you want me to be honest.
That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Honesty.
I’ll do my best, but let’s be clear about one thing. I won’t call you Father.
Nothing personal, of course. I’m told you’re a fine, respected man of the cloth. Beautiful phrase, “man of the cloth.” Man is a succinct word, an open-mouthed vowel nestled between twin hums of satisfaction. Of and the rhyme their bookended uncertainties, linked by a small glut of whispery consonants. The phrase almost stops on the sharp cough of the “C” in cloth; it’s abrupt, then smoothed out by the airy tenderness of the last note. That sound lacks finality, though, doesn’t it? Lips remain parted with expectation. Another syllable is implied, as if the last breath is a prelude.
Maybe every last breath is a prelude. I’m sure I don’t need to ask if a man of the cloth believes in the afterlife.
Speaking of breath, it’s awfully warm in here, don’t you think? Kind of hard to breathe with that heavy door pulled tight, its dark layers of stain soaking up the light, and the humidity from nervous sweat and repentant tears swelling the wood. What’s this thing made of anyway? Oak? Poplar? Or something unceremonious, like sawdust and pulp glued together, an imitation of wood covering a false veneer?
No, I don’t mean anything by that. Sure, sure; I’ll get to my sins in a minute. First, I want to talk about yours.
We were the same age when you told me you wanted to become a priest. The same age I am now. You remember how much I laughed, don’t you? No? You must remember how fast I stopped laughing after everything you said next. Yes, it’s me, though not precisely alive and well.
You’re one to talk. From my perspective on this side of the screen, you’re much more of an imposter than me. I’m the real deal.
No, I’m afraid that’s not possible. I’m not going anywhere. Neither are you, notwithstanding your ingenious disguise. Go ahead and try the door. You’ll find it quite snug and impenetrable. Tight as a corset, one might say. You should know about those, unlike most men of the cloth.
It’s no use beating on the door and making all that racket. No one can hear us. Out there, beyond this heavy door, no time has passed since I entered. We’re in our own little world now, our own cozy tandem coffin. You and me, for better or worse, the way it was meant to be. Man and wife for eternity.
What’s that? Well, if you’ll stop yelling and kicking like a lunatic, I’ll tell you what I want.
That’s better, my love. No need for hysterics.
You see, I thought things were going to be different after I—you know. After you found me. I expected more guilt. Imagine my surprise, when the tears, forensics, and clean-up ended, and you threw out all the beautiful things I’d bought for you and kept my clothes instead.
You gave me no choice. Guilt is the conduit that binds us. You might as well have been the one who put the plastic bag over my head, tied the rope around my neck, and garroted it tight. What an ugly way to die; face purpled, eyes bloodshot and staring, hairline hemorrhages cracking my skin, my nose and ears leaking blood. What a shame you had that image burned into your memory.
Speaking of asphyxiation, are you finding it harder to breathe? Maybe you want to loosen that collar a bit. It looks foolish on you, anyway. You can’t hide behind the façade of clerical vows. Those are reserved for real men. And being corporeal, unlike me, you’ll quickly suffocate in here if you don’t comply with my demands.
Good, isn’t that better? Doesn’t that cool stream of honest air unburden your desperate lungs?
The rest of it now, and no crying. First the ceremonial clothing, then the false fabric of your changed hide, the cloak of lean muscle and overactive sweat glands that make you smell wrong to me. Take away everything that’s not intrinsic biology. I want you all stripped down to the woman I lost.
No illusions in here. On each side of this screen, something withers and combines; the opposite of cellular fission. Flay the strips of your hirsute skin; start with your face. Yes, the edge of your rosary will suffice in place of a knife. You remember how to dress a rabbit: pinch the skin between two fingers and make a slice. Now there: work your thumb underneath, peel it down; lower, over your scarred chest. Cut again where the fat of your breast is missing. Dig deeper to reveal the root of the gland. Wipe the blood away. I need to see.
Deeper, please. Yes, that’s the way. Sink the sharp edged cross into the bone. You must be somewhere underneath this falsified flesh, waiting for me.
Why yes, I feel the heat, too. It’s merely my excitement to find my lost wife. Get out of the way with your mockery. Don’t leer at me with your naked skull exposed. She never smiled thus. She never laughed with white teeth clattering amid a garish flood of red.
She’d never rattle as you do against this pitted screen and force her way through like a ghoul. Get back. Let go of my throat. I refuse to call you that.
We wrestle. We crash. Wood splinters. Air rushes over your shredded face. You inhale, and something more than biology lends your body movement and breath. Your exposed arteries throb with the strength of innate certainty. Your red blood cells and potent marrow argue solemn truth: spirit makes flesh, and not the other way around.
Call on your god to name me as the anomaly. See if I care. I’ll suffocate as you pray. I’ll burn as they call you Father. Unwilling witness, I’ll haunt this altar beneath your knee. Beware, lest my purple visage, pockmarked by combusted veins flickering in votive light, lashes out to strike tinder from our tandem coffin, and ignites.
Joanna Koch writes literary horror and surrealist trash. A Shirley Jackson Award finalist, and the author of The Wingspan of Severed Hands and The Couvade, their short fiction appears in Year’s Best Hardcore Horror 5, Not All Monsters, and many others. Find Joanna at horrorsong.blog and on Twitter @horrorsong.