The Time of the Singing
Click on image to enlarge.
by Louise Blaydon
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: Raised by devout parents, Israfel Vacek is a teenager before he realizes he may be turning into someone his parents would shun. When he confesses his fears to his brother, Michael suggests Raf might be able to save himself if he joins the clergy. Though Raf is well-suited to the clerical life, enjoying the piety of his parishioners, his homosexual desires don't go away. Still, Raf is able to repress them, until one young churchman decides he wants Raf for himself. Nate Mulligan is a bundle of contradictions, a devout believer who insists their love can't be wrong, and Raf finds himself powerless to resist. At first, Raf puts his guilt out of his mind, but when a misunderstanding brings his relationship with Nate to Michael's attention, Raf realizes he has to make a choice: give up Nate to serve the Church and save his relationship with his family? or find his own path to grace and save himself.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: December 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [269 KB]
Reading time: 169-237 min.
The first Mulligan Israfel meets is the youngest. It's a Sunday, his second in town, when Israfel finds him sitting on a beat-up plastic chair in the sacristy, glowering at his Game Boy. The contrast between the scowl and the pristine surplice is discordant, the combination making the boy seem simultaneously angelic and sullen. Israfel's heart sinks a little, anticipating difficulties.
Nevertheless, he puts on his best disarming smile. "Hello," he says mildly, holding out his hand. "Are you serving today? I'm sorry, I don't know your name. I'm Father Israfel."
He expects, maybe, a shrug of the shoulders and some kind of prepubescent grunt, as generally offered by the altar servers at his last parish. The smile that breaks out on the boy's face is a revelation, the firm handshake even more so. "Tom Mulligan," he returns, immediate and bright.
He's pretty, Israfel notes detachedly. In five years, he'll be gorgeous. Israfel wishes he wasn't the sort of priest to whom such realizations come naturally, but wishing has never done him very much good. It could be worse. His observations, at least, are consigned to the purely objective, constrained to innocence by the smoothness of Tom's face, his narrow, little-boy shoulders. To some men, these things would be enticements.
"Pleased to meet you, Tom," says Israfel, and means it. He half expects Tom to return to his game, let Israfel finish blessing the water and fixing his vestments, but the boy sets the Game Boy aside on an empty seat, eyebrows drawing inquisitively together.
"I like your name. Israfel's an angel, right? Like, the same as Raphael, in the Book of Enoch?"
Israfel blinks for a moment, astounded. It's literally the first time in his life that anyone has known the origin of his name, beyond vague guesses, and Tom throws out the comment like it's obvious, something he remembers from grade school. "How on earth do you know about the Book of Enoch?"
Tom shrugs, mouth tugging up at the corners, quietly pleased with himself. "I like angels. I got interested. Nate says there's no such thing, but that's just because he's a jerk."
"Is Nate a friend?"
Tom snorts and shakes his head. "He's my brother," he says, almost derisively, as if Nate is so very much his brother that the idea of his being anything else is laughable. "He's meant to be serving today too, but he went off somewhere. To the 'bathroom',"--Tom makes air quotes with his fingers--"except that was fifteen minutes ago and nobody takes that long to pee."
Israfel laughs softly. "Well, there's time yet. I suppose you two know what you're doing?"
"Been doing it three years," Tom returns, nodding. "Since I was ten. And Nate's been doing it since he was ten and he's seventeen now, so I guess you could say we pretty much have it down."
Seventeen. Israfel squares his shoulders and makes himself go on smiling, trying not to imagine what kind of seventeen-year-old this boy's brother might make. Tom's small right now, but there's height anticipated by his big feet and long legs. Any brother of his would doubtless be tall, broad in the shoulders. Tom's eyes are green, intriguing. Israfel hopes this isn't a family trait. For both their sakes, he hopes Nate is the plainer brother.
When the other boy enters the room, Israfel is straightening his vestments, back turned on the sound of approaching footsteps.
"Hey, bitchface," says the newcomer, glib and self-assured, although there's fondness under the insult.
"Nate," Tom hisses, scandalized, and Nate laughs.
"Sorry. Forgot you don't like to be picked on in front of servants of the Lord."
And herein, Israfel thinks, lies the trouble he'd expected when he'd first laid eyes on Tom. He finishes arranging his sash and turns around.
Nate is... definitely not the plainer brother. Tom is cute. When he grows up, he'll be extremely appealing. Nate, six feet at seventeen, is to "appealing" what the sun is to a keychain flashlight. His surplice is immaculate, stiff starched and formal, but it sits on Nate's shoulders with a kind of casual familiarity that suggests a level of ease in his own skin that Israfel has never enjoyed. Not that Israfel can blame him for it, given that Nate is far and away the most physically perfect person he's ever seen in real life. He's fairer than his brother, pale golden skin and dark golden hair, a faint constellation of freckles just visible over the bridge of his perfect nose. He does have green eyes, Israfel determines: bright, vivid green, under neatly arched brows. The line of his jaw is sharp enough to cut butter on. His mouth is as soft as sin.
Israfel is utterly undone.
Nate Mulligan is probably, Israfel thinks sadly, entirely unaware of the massive wrench he has thrown into his new padre's life by the very fact of his existence. Certainly, he holds out his (square, long-fingered) hand for Israfel to shake, as if he has no idea that all the vileness in Israfel wants to take that hand and pull him close, debauch and consume him and never let him go.
Of course he has no idea. Why should he? Priests aren't supposed to be like Israfel. Israfel is an abomination.
He bids himself be calm, takes the proffered hand and shakes it. His voice, when it emerges--"Hello, Nate. Good to meet you. I've just been talking to your brother, here."--is perfectly steady, revealing nothing. Israfel is twenty-nine years old, and he has been concealing himself from the world since he was fourteen. Fifteen years of practice, it seems, can help a man cope with challenges that once would have been insurmountable.
"Sorry about him," Nate says and laughs. Israfel feels an absurd urge to lick the boy's (perfect) teeth, abruptly followed by a surge of guilt that shoots hot through his jaw like a vein of molten silver.
"Not at all," Israfel protests, and the fact that his voice continues to be even is nothing short of astonishing. He smooths his sash, fussily and unnecessarily. His palms are damp against the cloth. "He was very illuminating."
Nate laughs again and clicks his tongue. "Oh, I bet. Trash talking me to the new priest already, huh, Tommy?"
Tom crosses his arms and tosses his head in a gesture several years too old for his childish frame, eyebrows raised scornfully. "Was not. Believe it or not, I do have better things to talk about, Nate. And it's Tom."
"Oh, right. Of course. I forgot about how you're all grown up now." Nate shoots out an arm, curls it around his brother's head, and drags him into something that might have been a headlock but could equally just be an attempt to smother Tom with his armpit. It's immature and rough, and Tom's protesting vehemently while he pummels Nate with his far-smaller fists, but there's nothing but fondness in it, really, and both of them are laughing as they grapple.
The foolish, obscene twist of jealousy in Israfel's gut is simply further evidence of the true hopelessness of his situation. He is a grown man--a man of the cloth, moreover, sworn husband to the Church of Christ and no other--and he's envious of the thirteen-year-old whose face is currently smushed into Nate Mulligan's armpit.
"Holy Mary, pray for us sinners," he mutters in a voice inaudible to earthly ears as he heads out into the sanctuary.
It doesn't do much to reassure him, but currently, it's the best plan he has.
The Mulligan boys serve the Mass more efficiently than anyone Israfel's ever worked with before, even including the fifteen-year-old girl in Illinois who'd spoken to him about entering a convent. These boys serve as if they've known this service about as long as they've known language, and as far as Israfel knows, it could be true. Their matching expressions of quiet devotion make him smile a little as he circulates the chalice, remembering the way they'd teased each other earlier, irreverent and carefree. They're both evidently anxious to display their devotion to their work.
When he meets their parents, when the Mass has been served and the congregation is filing past him into the graveyard, Israfel has a better understanding of why. The boys disappear back into the sacristy to put things away and change back into their own clothes, which takes long enough that Mr. and Mrs. Mulligan are required to hang back from the line to wait for them, making them readily identifiable. By the time the little family reaches Israfel at the door, the church is empty, the smell of incense headier in the silence that's fallen.
"Mr. and Mrs. Mulligan, I presume," Israfel says, putting on his most inviting smile as he holds out his hand for them to take.
Mr. Mulligan's grip is strong, insistent. There's something militaristic in his bearing too, and both things together suggest some time in armed service. His free hand is clasped on Tom's shoulder, but it isn't a reassuring touch, nor a particularly friendly one. It's a firm hand, rather, as if he feels that his youngest son is somehow in need of stern handling, and the picture they make is altogether too familiar. Israfel has known a lot of "firm-hand" fathers in his time in the ministry, all of them reminiscent of his own.
The gruff voice is absolutely in accord with the man. "John Mulligan," he says, and then, "and it's Captain."
Israfel isn't sure whether to congratulate himself on his fine deductive reasoning or flush at being so pointedly corrected. In the end, he simply smiles awkwardly, and John obligingly continues, unabated.
"Good to meet you, Father; good to meet you. I hope my boys here didn't give you any grief?"
Israfel laughs and shakes his head. "They're extraordinarily well behaved. The best altar servers I've ever had the pleasure of working with, in fact. You should be proud."
"Oh, we are."
Mrs. Mulligan's tone leaves Israfel in no doubt as to her sincerity, even if her husband's white-knuckled grip leaves him questioning. She's slightly built and blonde and evidently the source of her eldest son's good looks. She delicately declines to shake Israfel's outstretched hand--an affectation Israfel has rarely seen in women below the age of seventy--but her smile is very genuine and oddly familiar.
"And I should hope they do serve a perfect Mass. We always run through it in Saturday-morning school, before we study the catechism, so there's no excuse not to. Is there?" She grins sidelong at her eldest son, squeezing his hand affectionately.
"None," Nate tells her flatly. He's looking at the ground, patient but rather expressionless. Israfel finds himself wishing the boy would look up, but admittedly it is probably for the best that he doesn't.
"Do you teach a special Saturday class, then, Mrs. Mulligan?" he asks, politely inquisitive.
"Lynda, please." Lynda smiles at him, and it's Nate's smile, straight-toothed and compelling. "I homeschool them, actually; I trained as a teacher, but obviously, after these two came along...." She laughs and spreads her hands, as if the rest is self-explanatory--as indeed it is. Lynda Mulligan is clearly a very conservative Roman Catholic. Israfel wonders if this is the general attitude in this parish--that married women ought not to work outside of the home--or if she is simply exceptionally pious. His last parish had been rather lenient on such matters.
"She's a marvel," John puts in, his tone fond but rather brusque. Israfel recognizes it immediately. It is undoubtedly the tone of a man eager to quiet his wife before she can launch into a twenty-minute narrative about a subject in which he is entirely uninterested. He reaches over Tom's head for Lynda's hand, squeezes, and tugs, his intention unmistakable. "Aren't you?"
Lynda laughs. "Whatever you say, hon."
Israfel has seen many women hold firm under this kind of attack, stubbornly continuing their anecdotes while their husbands pull on their arms with an increasing lack of subtlety. Lynda Mulligan is evidently not that sort of woman. She takes the hint gracefully, obediently, lacing her fingers through John's and turning toward the door. "It was lovely to meet you, Father. I hope you'll be very happy here."
"Bless you," Israfel says vaguely as they file out. The boys are quiet, scuffing their sneakers as they follow their parents out into the sunlit churchyard. Israfel remembers the way they were in the sacristy, both of them outspoken and laughing. For a moment, the contrast gives him pause.
Then he thinks about Lynda's face, the look of quiet pride when she spoke of her sons. No trace of a sign of anything there but love and the passing on of piety. They're a normal family, two boys and their good Catholic parents. Homeschooling isn't something Israfel has come across before, but that doesn't permit him to be prejudiced against it. Everybody knows the public school system is a joke, and a Godless one, at that. If Israfel had children, he might well want to teach them himself, given the extortionate fees Catholic schools charge.
But Israfel has no children and never will. He has his flock, his duties, and his prayers. His vows make him a shepherd and a son but forbid him the path of fatherhood.
The cross of the Mass is heavy around Israfel's neck, solid and cool when he closes his fingers around it. It is his protection, his security, and his guide. Sometimes, Israfel stands like this before the mirror, reminds himself that this is what the whole world sees. Here is a man removed from normality by his own choice, by the strength of his love of God. He denies himself the pleasures of women because Paul commanded it, and through fidelity to the Holy Roman Church. In another life, Father Israfel could have been anyone, a lover and a husband and a father.
Sometimes, Israfel can almost believe the lie.
But then there are boys like Nate Mulligan, young and strong and so beautiful that Israfel can feel the flames. Pure sons of pious families, and the evil in Israfel yearns to smear its filth all over them.
Israfel is a blind man leading the blind, and sometimes it is hard to forget it. It is a sin to bear false witness, and he is sinning every day of his life.
There are greater sins. Israfel envisages them in Nate Mulligan's mouth, in all the smooth lines of his body.
As consolation goes, it isn't the best, but Israfel's used to that. For years, he has plodded on as the lesser of two evils.
Nate isn't the first boy to have moved him to lust and frustration and anguish. There is no reason why he has to be any different than all the ones who have come before.
This is a lie, of course, but Israfel is used to that and has his ways around it.
He prescribes himself a hundred Hail Marys and fumbles out his rosary. The words trip over his tongue half-felt, familiar, and by the time he has prayed ten, Nate Mulligan is out of his mind, Israfel untouchable like this, wrapped in his endless circle of prayer.
He tidies the sanctuary as he prays, then retreats to the rectory. There's half a bottle of sacramental wine left over. He sets it on the side table as he enters the house and looks at it.
He has to drink it. The Church is very clear on this question. "This is my blood, poured out for many." To fail to consume the sacrament is a grave blasphemy, and Israfel wouldn't dream of it. The congregation had been unusually small this morning, though, a lot of families out of town for the Labor Day weekend, and the resultant leftovers are correspondingly great. Probably, he should dispose of the wine in small amounts, rationed throughout the day.
By two in the afternoon, the bottle is entirely empty, Israfel's duty fulfilled. The room is swimming around him, the quantity of alcohol unfamiliar and affecting him overmuch, but his mind is blissfully empty.
It will be all right, he thinks. Everything has always been all right before.
* * * *
On Monday morning, Israfel wakes at five. There's an early Latin Mass on Mondays and Thursdays, and Israfel, as much a scholar as a priest, rather looks forward to it. His previous parish had been smaller and far less well attended and had not offered either Latin Mass or a full-sung Eucharist. This church, contrarily, indulges itself in tradition wherever it can, and Israfel delights in it. He would have been happy to chant the service even into an empty seven o'clock void. It is beyond pleasing that there are actually people here at this hour to listen as he declaims the ancient words. It isn't exactly a full house, but fifteen people is an excellent turnout for this kind of service, and Israfel glows with it.
He hopes it isn't too obvious, as he steps up to the altar, that his enjoyment of the Latin is almost indecent. He should not, perhaps, be smiling as the words trip transcendent from his tongue, but he can't seem to help it. Like this, he feels that he is speaking the language of the Lord, that the angels must truly be listening. It's a baseless feeling, he knows. It isn't as if he really thinks that God speaks Latin, but nevertheless, he can't shake it. The confiteor in the Latin feels like exorcism, like uplifting his heart to be cleansed.
Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatae Mariae semper Virgini, beato Michaeli Archangelo, beato Joanni Baptistae, sanctis Apostolis Petro et Paulo, omnibus Sanctis, et vobis fratres, quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Ideo precor beatam Mariam semper Virginem, beatum Michaelem Archangelum, beatum Joannem Baptistam, sanctos Apostolos Petrum et Paulum, omnes Sanctos, et vos fratres, orare pro me ad Dominum Deum nostrum.
They will pray for him, he thinks, the host of saints and angels, and his sins of thought and word and deed are confessed. As the words roll out of him, a little of his guilt rolls with them, until he is so light that it's vertiginous. This, he thinks, is why he loves the Church; this euphoria and a Mass that feels like spell work.
The Brethren wish Israfel God's forgiveness, and he luxuriates for a moment in it, loving the sound of the Latin, like benediction or magic. He likes this parish, and the parishioners like him. He will fit in here. Everything will be fine.
It will. Israfel has faith.
* * * *
For six days, everything is. Israfel visits elderly ladies and mothers with new babies, watches the bell ringers with interest when they practice in the belfry, and presides over coffee mornings for older people. This is a sleepy parish, old-fashioned and quiet in an autumnal, New Englandish way, and Israfel loves it.
On the seventh day, God rested, but Israfel cannot.
The average age of a congregation goes a long way toward determining what activities are provided, and Israfel's is a little over middle-aged, all told. Consequently, Israfel finds his schedule filled with things that women over forty might enjoy but is not called upon to operate a Sunday school. What children there are in the church seem to be educated in the catechism by their parents.
Israfel is used to having his altar servers be older people for midweek Masses, but ordinarily, the list of teenagers forced by their parents into serving on Sundays is long. In his last post--already beginning to feel like another life--Israfel had been required to devise a sort of rota, allotting Sundays to volunteers over a six- or seven-week period. In this town, things are far simpler. The first and third Sundays of the month are served, without exception, by the Mulligan boys. Alternate Sundays fall to Anne Thompson and Jessica Dobson, who served the Mass his first Sunday presiding. The Mulligans, Israfel recognized belatedly, had not been there that week, perhaps out of town for some reason.
This week, the Mulligans are very much present.
Anne and Jess, while less adept than Tom and Nate, certainly know the service to the letter and perform their required tasks without any interference from Israfel. Israfel is grateful to be able to leave these things to trust. There's nothing worse than attempting to give a heartfelt sermon through a niggling sense that the altar servers are about to inadvertently set the sanctuary alight. Today, Israfel has prepared a homily based upon the life of the apostle Mark, which he is more than a little proud of, and he looks forward to delivering it in good form. Mark is, after all, his favorite.
At least it can be said that he begins well. The congregation seems to have taken to him, Israfel is pleased to note, and their attentive faces do much for his confidence. "We are never," he begins, "so close to Jesus as we are brought through the good news of the Gospels. This is most true of Mark's Gospel, which...."
Oration is one of the skills in which every seminarian is trained, and Israfel has always been especially good at it. He knows as well as anyone that eye contact is one of the simplest and most useful things an orator can do to engage people's interest, and an interested congregation makes the difference between a good homilist and a bad one. Israfel's homily is well rehearsed, and he lets his gaze travel over the faces of his parishioners as he speaks, easy and assuring.
He doesn't know all their names yet, but, with all the fervor of a young priest with his first full parish, he most certainly means to. He tests himself in his head as he scans the second row of pews, naming those he can and mentally marking those he can't to speak to later, so that he'll remember them next Sunday. The old woman at the end of the row is one of the sacristans, Mrs. King. Her husband is seated to her left, and then Mr. and Mrs. O'Donnell with their new baby (blissfully quiet). Beyond them is a single woman in her thirties, whose name Israfel does not know, and then--he has to drop his gaze a few inches--Tom Mulligan. He appears to be finding his knees terribly interesting, for which Israfel can't really blame him--even if the only interesting thing about Tom Mulligan's knees is that they are bare, because his parents seem to believe in the archaic custom of shorts-on-Sunday-until-you-grow. Teenagers don't listen to homilies unless they have vocations, and Israfel doesn't hold it against them.
So when Israfel's eyes drift on over to Tom's left and alight immediately upon Nate's, he's a little surprised. Every other person in the church below the age of twenty-five appears to be studying the floor, but Nate Mulligan--beautiful Nate, with his angel face that brings out all the evil in Israfel--is staring straight back at him.
It's a little disconcerting.
"It's possible," Israfel hears himself saying, "it's... possible... I mean... some scholars believe that we do get... get a glimpse of Mark in his own Gospel, um. That he writes himself in, as it were, like Vonnegut."
The little ripple of amusement that spreads through the church at that makes Israfel feel a little better about the stumble, but his cheeks still feel overheated. He is speaking, for goodness' sake, and Nate is looking at him. The concurrence of events is hardly unprecedented. He ought to be pleased.
He ought, in fact, to be looking somewhere in the region of Mrs. Elliott on the far side of the pew by now, but for some reason, he is still staring straight at Nate, as if waiting for the boy to break eye contact before he can tear his eyes away. Nate's not doing anything except look, but his eyes are so steady, so endlessly, emphatically green, that Israfel cannot bring himself to forsake them. The thought crosses his mind that it must feel rather like this to be in thrall, as in the old stories. He is still speaking, and he knows that his voice is even and measured, that his words are emerging exactly as intended, but the homily is an afterthought, now, nothing but a footnote to the all-consuming Book of Nate. It's ridiculous, but the thought of moving on rings an ache in Israfel's head, a promise of pain.
And then Nate moves.
It isn't, to be honest, the sort of movement that would be obvious to anyone else, unless they, too, were fixated on his face. Israfel cannot understand why everyone in the church is not fixated on Nate's face, but then, he supposes, most people are less easily drawn than he is. As it is, he can see nobody else watching and must presume that the quirk of Nate's eyebrow, the slow, lopsided smile, are for him alone. Nate's face goes from studious to smirking in the space of a second, and Israfel's cheeks are already heating with it when Nate puts out his tongue--not ostentatiously, but as if inconsequentially, naturally--and wets his lips.
It's only a flash of pink on pink and a shimmer of lingering dampness, but Nate is still looking right at him, and Israfel is abruptly, shamefully, half-hard.
He jerks his eyes away, heart thundering in his chest, and struggles wildly for speech.
"Of course the, um, the, the disciples of Jesus, those who were... who were with him on his ministry..."
It's a good save because Israfel is a good speaker, and the congregation doesn't seem to have noticed, but Israfel knows, can still feel beneath his cassock the heat engendered by his treacherous thoughts. For a moment, he is blindingly, terrifyingly sure that Nate Mulligan somehow knows his secret, that the boy is toying with him with intent.
When, ten minutes later, he dares a glance back at Nate, he finds him kicking surreptitiously at his brother's feet, the two of them grinning at each other with their heads ducked. Everything about his posture is innocent and young, and Israfel immediately feels wrong on every level, not only feeling these things for this boy, but trying to thrust the blame upon his shoulders. Nate is just a boy whose face has probably caused him enough trouble as it is. The last thing he needs is to be saddled with Israfel's desires and mistaken assumptions and fears.
After the service, Israfel is unexpectedly overtaken by a blinding headache. He cannot possibly stay to wish the congregation well. He is terribly sorry, but he's sure his deacon will perform the task very well on his own.
Israfel retreats to the rectory like a deserter gone to ground and buries his face in his pillow.