Maggie brushed her palms across the gray hair above Duncan’s ears. She cherished the contrast between his boyish barber cut and his bristly old-man hair, between his soft skin and sandpaper stubble. As she pressed her lips to his cheek, she tasted the remains of aftershave and bourbon, a carnal melody as stimulating as it was indecent. He smelled like her father.
Sheathed in a navy cotton skirt, the unfamiliar contours of Maggie’s waist drew Duncan’s touch, but he only fingered the zipper on her hip before retreating. He met her ardor with passive lips, and when she pushed her tongue into his uncommitted mouth, he groaned as if some exquisite pain burdened him. As taste became sensation, and pressure became motion, rhythmic and insistent, his hands returned to reverence her hips, and his resolute fingers tugged at the zipper.
Duncan’s ordained duties were to teach, to sanctify, and to shepherd, so he resisted the notion that he might be the cause of anyone’s fall. The impersonal compassion that fit him so well to his vocation usually insulated him from complications like Maggie. He told her she had a fixation, but he failed to see that he cultivated her devotion, that the desire spreading her legs was the compulsion driving her to her knees.
* * *
“Sister Chloe thought there would be less than twenty children,” Maggie said, sliding her pen into its holder and closing her portfolio. She glanced at Duncan whose hazel eyes gazed placidly through black-rimmed bifocals. His disregard made a lie of her memory, as if her passion had been a mere stain on his week, a spot politely ignored. She continued, “The young children’s catechesis will be based on Matthew for the second Sunday of Advent. We have a page of John the Baptist for them to color.”
She set her portfolio on a low table and peered through the window at the street made silver by the winter sunset. Despite the anniversary that approached, she loved the season of Advent — candles and Christmas, nativities and snow. She looked forward to her daughter reaching an age when they might celebrate winter together. She smiled as she thought of the tiny voice, the delighted eyes, the singular joy of her life. Maggie had been uncertain about motherhood before she met Paul, but within weeks of dating, her need for a child became overwhelming, a visceral reaction to a vague apprehension, as if she ran from a lengthening shadow. She wondered if God had filled her with such maternal longing because he knew Paul did not have much time.
“And we have a copy of your training certificate on file, so you’re set.” Duncan rose from behind his desk, leaving his chair rocking behind him. “The volunteer we had last year didn’t have Virtus training, and when the diocese found out, well, they put a stop to that right away. Not to say I don’t support prevention training.” He shook his head and drew his unruly eyebrows together in dismay. “Only God knows how many sex abuse victims could have been saved if we’d had it sooner.”
“We’re a church of sinners, Father.”
“And sometimes criminals.” His black clerical shirt bore the scars of a long day — a chili drip from the parish cook-off and sweaty collar from his warm office. He was a virile man of fifty. Tall and sturdy, he played tennis and ran four days a week. Seminary had instilled that regimen. One of the best ways to control the needs of the body was to keep it busy and get it used to doing what it did not want to do. “Was there anything else?” he asked.
Along with her clear ivory skin, Maggie’s spirited green eyes warned of a temperamental Irish pedigree, although her raven hair spilled around her face in sensuous French curls. She tucked a wayward strand behind her ear and waited as Duncan returned to his chair. “You’ve made a vow to be alone for the rest of your life,” she said after awhile.
Duncan removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Leaning back, he crossed his arms over his chest and let the glasses dangle from his fingers. He studied her with the analytical compassion of a professional. “It’s been almost a year since Paul passed?”
Maggie nodded. “Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, next Wednesday.”
“What do you suppose he would want you to do?”
She reached a finger to her lip to cover a sad smile. “He used to joke about that. He said if he died first, he expected me to go to my grave mourning him and never see another man naked.” She laughed once before her sad smile returned. Staring at the desk, she fiddled with one of her gold earrings and said, “Not many people can live like you do.”
With weary sarcasm, he said, “You mean my vow of celibacy or obedience, because from what I’m told, married men make them, too.”
Maggie erupted with a wide-open laugh, helped along by Duncan’s boyish giggle. He slipped his glasses on and clasped his large hands together on the desk. A sparse field of black hair sprouted across the weave of tendons and veins, reflecting a distinctly masculine strength. She thrilled at the memory of those hands reaching between her legs; the white slivers of his fingernails became the narrow line between an easy friendship and moments of ecstasy.
She gave way to impulse, reaching across the desk and curling her fingers into his palm. She was afraid he might slip away, but he squeezed her fingers instead. His affection made her chest ache. Heat broke across the back of her neck. She tried to speak, to warn him about what he was doing, about what she was doing.
He pulled away.
She pressed her hands to her cheeks as if that might ease her embarrassment. “I’m so sorry, Father.”
His genial expression clouded with impatience, and his gentle voice grew firm. “We should avoid being alone.” He paused to gauge her reaction. “You understand? This can’t continue.”
“Sensible doesn’t mean much to me.”
When he turned to look out the window, she wondered if the mystical winter landscape beckoned him or only warned of difficult travel ahead. He scowled at some thought, an expression as strange to his calm features as the ragged respiration and reaching mouth from earlier that week.
She assumed he had done this before, that she was not the first woman, but since he refused the cost of self-disclosure, she made her own bargain. “No one will find out,” she offered. “We can be careful.”
“This isn’t about what we can get away with, Maggie.”
“Celibacy is church discipline not doctrine. I never imagined you a hardliner.”
Love everyone in general and no one in particular. The promise made to him at seminary was that prayer, the sacraments, and an ascetic lifestyle would guarantee his vow. As a priest, he was expected to live beyond human capacity because he was alter Christus, but as he grew older, he felt less like another Christ and more like “Duncan”, despite what little he really knew about him.
He took a deep breath and sighed irritably. “I know Dante thought the hottest places in Hell are reserved for the apathetic, but I sometimes worry that God saves those spots for his errant priests.” He regained his authoritative bearing as he said, “This is a difficult time for you. It was unfair of me-”
“This is unfair of you,” insisted Maggie. “You accused me of having a fixation. I’m not a blacktracker.”
The parish secretary knocked once and opened the door. “The Hendersons are here, Father.”
As she reached the door, Maggie offered Lou and Heather sympathy for the recent loss of their infant daughter. Closing the door behind her, she saw Duncan lean against his desk, distress shading his kind eyes as he invited Lou and Heather to sit. Having chosen a vocation that tended the most critical moments of people’s lives, Duncan was comfortable in the darkness. Like the surgeon whose hands she had kissed when they failed to save her husband’s life, Duncan was God’s instrument, a tool of life and mercy.
* * *
Maggie consumed Duncan’s face with voracious hands —the fleshy cheeks, the bold nose, the mouth and eyes lined by a robust maturity. Her hands devoured every feature, as if she could draw meaning from mere form, ecstasy from mere touch. His masculine terrain provoked her with its potent solitude, as if a secret were stirring.
They had left their Manhattans by the couch and made their way to her bedroom, where Duncan insisted on turning off the lights. Along with the darkness, Duncan had transformed her haven by replacing the sweet sounds of her daughter, who was visiting Grandma for the evening, with his agitated silence.
After smearing saliva across Duncan’s parched lips, Maggie pressed a thumb into his mouth, that exquisite, full-lipped mouth whose prayers could transform pieces of bread into the body of God. Overcome with an adoration that left her trembling, she pushed away, but he drew her to him, his hand a revelation on her back.
He thought he was a mere man. He saw their liaisons as an animal conduct absent of any rational principle, an erotic agony absent of anything pure; but when they mingled the moisture of their mouths, his internal heat breathed into her, and she knew he was something closer to heaven.
She stripped off her pink dress and panties and fell with him onto the bed. She forced greedy kisses across his face and sucked his pale skin until she left bruises. Stabbed by spasms of arousal, her body clenched, and she churned her naked hips against his black slacks, her breath panting in his ear. She rocked over his tormented penis as it strained against his zipper.
He kneaded her yielding breasts and mauled the cushion of her skin, as if the friction across his palms alone could give him release. Groping between her legs, he cupped her vulva, and his inexperienced fingers plunged through slippery folds.
“Put your finger in me,” she pleaded, and when he offered two beefy fingers, she ecstatically impaled herself.
Hugged by her strong walls, his fingers rooted over soft ridges and curled into pulsating tissue. As he massaged her intimate muscles, slick fluid seeped around his knuckles. A gloss of sweat erupted from her flushed skin, dripping from her chin and anointing his face. Guttural sounds broke through her strangulated breaths. In her desperation, she tore at the blankets and her lips fought with his. He lay helpless as she rode his hand, until she finally screamed her rapture into his mouth and fell lifeless on top of him.
A streetlight cast a hazy illumination across his face. She rose to see sweat streaking his forehead and a red flush blooming across each cheek. Heat radiated from his skin, carrying a scent like wet grass. Arousal made his eyelids heavy and congested his nose, so his hot breath, laced with alcohol, puffed from his mouth. His heart thudded violently against his chest, and he reached a hand there as if he might calm it. The effeminate gesture filled her with tenderness.
He peered at her with frightened eyes. “My God, Maggie, what are we doing?”
* * *
Maggie wound through the jumble of parishioners after Mass. She arrived beside Duncan to hear part of his conversation with John, a gangly and argumentative high school student.
“Yes, the Greeks gave us the Sophists and the Cynics,” Duncan was saying, his fingers clasped together in front of him. “Men who distorted reason for profit and then self-destruction. It’s not so different today, though I think we call those people ‘public relations’ and ‘teenagers’.” He laughed at his own joke.
John began to repeat his teacher’s admiration for the ancient philosophers before Duncan interrupted, waving his hand as if to ward off the thought. “I’m not sure I’d accept life lessons from any of them,” he said. “There may be contingencies in history, but God isn’t one of them. He’s the one continuity. Jesus tells us that for all men the road’s the same; the only difference is how far each is willing to travel.”
Maggie waited until John left before she took hold of Duncan’s arm and squeezed it. “You don’t mention obedience very often.”
“My homily, you mean.” Duncan smiled as if Maggie had caught him at something. His eyes became twinkling slits behind his square lenses. “Yes, it seems everyone would rather hear about love,” he said in his lullaby voice. “Including, I imagine, God.”
Maggie felt chided by his sarcasm. “Yes, well, obedience kept Jesus at Gethsemane until the soldiers arrived,” she said, crossing her arms as she settled back on her heels. “Not love. It’s good to hear the other half of the story sometimes.”
Duncan’s violet chasuble draped heavily over his simple alb, and a cross of golden threads stretched over his chest. His shoulders appeared broad beneath the regal vestments, but the white linen of his alb bunched at his wrists and ankles, as if he wore his big brother’s clothes. Maggie appreciated Duncan’s contrasts. After four years at Holy Trinity, she knew Duncan’s artless appearance hid an alarmingly astute human being.
He nodded at Mrs. Heebler who thanked him as she passed. “You divulge a lot with your predilections,” he said, returning his attention to Maggie. “Have you figured out where obedience fits into your life?”
His paternal gaze held her with a generosity of spirit Maggie did not anticipate. She always expected he would censor her, accuse her, avoid her, but his desire continued to travel avenues begun with a momentary touch, and since losing Paul, she had no ability to abort a moment pregnant with love in any form.
In public, Duncan expressed little passion but great warmth, seductive in a retiring way, like a summer afternoon. The affection she felt from him at times like these had not transferred to those reckless interludes when propriety was no longer an issue. Stripped of the church’s shelter, they soothed their emotional pains with an erotic salve that seemed only to leave them more wounded than healed.
* * *
Seven parishioners were in the rectory’s den when Duncan arrived after Mass. Maggie and Helen leaned forward in their chairs. Joe sat on a couch with one leg resting across the other knee as he absently tugged on his exposed black sock. His wife and a second Mary sat next to him. Nick and Janice sat in foldout chairs with a tray table holding steaming coffee.
The parish offered book discussion groups during each liturgical season, and Duncan had selected a book about mystics for Lent.
Duncan accepted a mug of coffee from Joe and sat down across from Maggie. She read aloud from a thin book. “With that, he tenderly placed his right hand on her neck, and drew her towards the wound in his side. ‘Drink, daughter, from my side,’ he said, ‘and by that draught your soul shall become enraptured with such delight that your very body, which for my sake you have denied, shall be inundated with its overflowing goodness.’ Drawn close in this way to the outlet of the Fountain of Life, she fastened her lips upon that sacred wound, and still more eagerly the mouth of her soul, and there she slaked her thirst.” Maggie closed the book before adding, “That was written by her confessor.”
Helen crossed her legs. She smoothed her brown polyester skirt as one narrow loafer tapped the air. “I’m not sure I’d call that erotic. It’s about love, love of Jesus.”
Maggie picked up her copy of the book the group had been reading. “Talbot completely avoided talking about St. Catherine’s erotic experience. But he goes on and on about her suffering, although that’s erotic, too, in a way.”
Duncan gazed into his steaming mug and said, “She led a life of sacrifice and self-mortification, an important lesson for Lent, and the point of this book.”
“She tortured herself,” replied Maggie. “What was she working so hard to control?”
“Exactly,” said Duncan, as if Maggie had made his point for him.
“Exactly what? She abused her body like any good Christian. She saw temptation in every thought. It’s a different world now.”
Gray eyebrows rising, Duncan said, “Different how? Truth hasn’t changed for two-thousand years. Revelation ended with the last Apostle, Paul.”
“What if the metaphor’s real?”
“Sex? With Jesus?” His voice grew glacial as he said, “St. Catherine starved herself, and I think you’re right that she may have experienced something orgiastic in her suffering.”
“She loved God,” said Maggie. “Why draw an arbitrary boundary between two feelings, one allowed and one not? You can’t just dismiss her ecstasy as low blood sugar.”
“Nor can you read sensuality into a spiritual metaphor.” He paused as if reconsidering what he was about to say and said it anyway. “The boundary isn’t arbitrary.”
His banality pierced her like poison, so Maggie retreated, letting the conversation drift on without her until the words became like echoes, sounds without meaning. She realized her dream of love haunted Duncan like a nightmare, but they were both getting used to deceiving themselves.
After the group finished, Nick took photos. He scooted Duncan into the middle with a wave of his hand. Maggie noticed that despite the jostling, no one touched Duncan, and when she saw one of the photos hanging on the bulletin board the following week, she noticed the parishioners bunched to each side, an arc of space like a halo around him.
* * *
Maggie climbed above Duncan, her legs to either side of his face. Black curls brushed against his nose. Wrapping his arms around her smooth thighs, Duncan sucked in her swollen clitoris, drawing the bud between his teeth and holding it there as he scrubbed it with his tongue.
Maggie cried out as she pulled away. “Too much. It’s too much.”
He nuzzled the folds of flesh again, searching for the swollen clitoris, but it had hidden itself. He pushed one finger into her vagina and sucked in her temperamental clitoris when it plumped again. As his inexperience wrestled with her sensitivity, he knocked a stack of journals to the floor.
Books overflowed from the shelves in Duncan’s room to create untidy piles in inconvenient places. His bed was narrow, covered with one worn blanket and two thin pillows. A painting of Jesus teaching children graced one wall and a calendar and crucifix on the others. The room was functional and masculine, but its lack of comfort did not matter to either Maggie or Duncan after a day of lingering touches on a car trip to the diocesan cathedral.
Duncan’s gentle efforts exhausted Maggie’s patience. She needed fulfillment, not protraction. She seized his hands, pulling them to her breasts. Her pink areolas puckered in excitement, and she held his hands until they pinched her nipples. She spread her labia while her fingers coaxed his tongue to the most needful areas. Her whispered pleading grew throaty, and her body shivered as she slid across his face.
He dropped a hand from her breast, and when she realized what he was doing, she crawled to the other side of his bed. Embarrassed, he began to explain that he only wanted to control his excitement.
Surrounded by piles of black and gray hair, his meaty prick throbbed with the rhythm of a violent pulse and arched like an elegant weapon above his heavy testicles. A sublime longing muted Maggie’s grasping desire. She stared at the immanent flesh made perfectly masculine. “It’s beautiful. Hold it, Dun. I want to watch you.”
Dismayed by Maggie’s request, Duncan resisted as she pushed at his hand. He took hold of her chin. “You hold it,” he demanded, his smooth voice cracking under a loosening rapaciousness. He pulled at her hand, and she slid her fingers sinuously around his shaft. The loose skin moved with her grip, rolling over firm ridges. She teased her fingertips up the belly of his shaft, trailed them through the split of his crown, and stole a drip from his urethra.
He groaned and pushed her to her back. He mashed his prick against her labia, dragging it through the neat bush of black hair before he dipped the swollen head into her warm furrow. When she spread her legs, her submissive offering dilated his senses and robbed him of what reason remained.
He rushed to enter her, and she tried to slow his push, but the well-padded head of his penis had already trespassed through tender flesh. It had been a very long time since he had been with a woman. He screwed his thickness into her, burying his aching prick deep in her snug walls.
“Slow, slow,” she groaned. “Dun, yes. Oh.” Bliss heated her cheeks, and her eyes grew lazy. She weakened under his thrusts. She rolled her head from side-to-side, tossing her curls into a tangle, as the sounds of sticky and vigorous suction mingled with her moans. She wrapped her legs around his back and relaxed her hips, opening herself to his aggressive thrusts.
His sweaty hands curled around her shoulders, and he pressed fevered kisses across her inflamed lips. “Do you like this?” he breathed, his voice shaky with extremity as he shoved his ruthless prick into her. “Tell me, Maggie.”
She spoke too softly at first. He repeated himself until she muttered a series of obscenities so electrifying that acute spasms seized his groin. He thrust furiously, penetrating her as deeply as he could and emptying himself of every agony.
* * *
After presiding over Mass each morning, Duncan spent an hour in exercise, followed by a few hours at the veteran’s hospital, visitations to homebound parishioners, meetings with commissions of the parish ministries, the parish staff, or parishioners for marriage preparation, baptism, funerals, or counseling.
Even his time alone came with innumerable demands — prayer at dawn, dusk, and bedtime, mail from the diocese and friends and preparation of his daily homilies. He turned down more offers for dinner than he accepted, and by the end of the day, he retired to his room at the rectory, grateful for the quiet and his bottle of bourbon.
Like most men, Duncan had many acquaintances and a few truly intimate friends. Like most priests, he considered himself a servant, because the vocation that had summoned him continued its loving lessons in humility into his third decade of service.
Duncan was startled when someone entered the confessional and sat down in the chair across from him. He closed the book he was reading and began the sacrament he had performed nearly every Saturday for twenty-five years. “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” He saw that it was Maggie. “Amen.” Before she could speak, he said, “I can’t hear your confession.”
The small confessional was a dark room at the back of the church. A bulb no brighter than a nightlight shone over Duncan’s gray hair. He wore his white alb, and around his shoulders hung a narrow white stole with black crosses laid atop embroidered circles of gold. At each end, a horizontal band of black crossed the white linen. Several books rested on his lap.
“You don’t know why I’m here, Father.”
He considered what mortal sins she might have to confess apart from those with him.
The remaining icy clumps from the spring snow melted into navy spots on Maggie’s light jeans. She unwound her white scarf and slipped her white-knit hat from her hair. The sheltered intimacy of the confessional wrapped her in the lavish comforts of an abiding faith. The only other place she felt so utterly bare and subdued was in bed with Duncan. “I’m pregnant.”
He continued to stare at her as if she had not spoken. After awhile, he tried to speak and failed. He found it difficult to breathe. As if he were crippled, he shook his head slightly, seeking help.
She reached out her hand. “Please,” she said, lifting her hand a little higher. He rested his right hand on her palm. Following on shallow breaths, her eyes closed before she leaned back and let her warmth slide away from his. “I’ll be able to work until the baby comes, and I have my mother to help after that my sister, friends.”
He knew Maggie had been the child of an emotionally absent father, and she had a daughter by an absent husband. Duncan put himself in the context of her life for the first time to see that he had become one more of her absences. He wondered about the newly made wounds of her soul, injuries she refused to see or just failed to acknowledge; even in the dim light, he saw her eyes dancing.
Although sexual consolations could not cure loneliness, he had shared in her spiritual defection, marveling at the wet landscape of her raging body and measuring his satisfaction by her excess. Now the rein had been torn from his grip. He knew it was an illusion anyway, that contentment was self-deception. He thought he knew how his life would go, with most of it already behind him, but his mental egress had been amputated. It was like starting from scratch, all the sacrifices of his life suddenly meaningless.
A memory stirred, holidays with his sister’s family — chaotic, tangible, and intimate. Children were not ideas. He felt dizzy. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, and they both knew he was talking to himself.
“You’re very good at the big picture,” she said. “This is one of the details.”
“No, Maggie. We’ll manage this.” How often had he chastised his confreres who maintained intimate relationships and considered celibacy an idolatrous practice? He recalled the physical difficulty of remaining celibate when he was young, yet he had proven to himself that celibacy was possible, at least for an idealistic seminarian. That was twenty-five years ago. Now, when he found carnal desire the least of his temptations, celibacy was that much harder.
“What will you do? Leave the priesthood?” Maggie’s voice grew hushed. “What you do, you give hope. You make God real. What could possibly matter more?” She pressed her hand to her belly and said, “But I want him to know you.” She paused, expecting Duncan to respond, and when he said nothing, she countered his somber expression. “This isn’t some punishment, Dun.” She was beaming.
He watched her leave, amazed at her resilience, her confidence, her faith. When he was alone, he thought to himself that everything a man gives up says as much about him as what he keeps. The life he might have had with a woman was still not his to claim, but he began to imagine what being a father in the most personal sense of that word might mean. Having a child would not change the priest, although he suspected it might change the man. Like restless specters, relief and sorrow walked within him, and his chest grew heavy.
When he was at seminary, he had believed the flesh held nothing spiritual. A more mature faith taught him that the sum of Creation in all its complexity was more precious than even the very purest soul. That is why he knew love was always a blessing and life always a gift. That is why he counseled young couples that pregnancy was an opportunity to realize their absolute dependence on God’s mercy.
With a few minutes left, he made his way to the sacristy to prepare for Mass. Like a traveler returning to his native land, he found his way back to the familiar ground of his priestly vocation, but he knew this routine was a respite before the Creation he served and the God he loved would continue his lessons in humility.
© 2005 Teresa Wymore. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.