Calvin Cummings 

A Man, Mercy, Another Man, Muriel

    Balloons caught in the limbs of a tree, heart-shaped, pink, glittering in the sun, the car zipping past, the weather too warm for the season, a scratch of pollen in his nose! These things reminded him he was alive and allowed him to forget where he was headed.
    “Did you see that?” he asked his driver from the passenger seat.
    “See what?” she asked.
    “Two heart shaped balloons, pink, stuck in a tree,” he said. She turned left. “Quite poetic,” he added.
    “What do you mean?” she asked.
    “I don’t know. It’s just poetic.” He thought for a moment. “It suggests something. It—well, it has a story.”
    She watched the road.
    “I mean that—in a poem—?” He was struggling to explain it. “The balloons are things themselves, but they also suggest other things.”
    She watched the road.
    “Like you can imagine it, can’t you? How the balloons got there? A party. A proposal. Something else.”
    She turned right.
    “Something significant,” he said, “or mundane. It doesn’t matter. But something—”
    “Here we are,” she said as she pulled into the drop-off lane of the hospital’s radiology building. He thanked her and wobbled out of the car on his cane. He waved at her as she accepted another fare on her phone, which was mounted above the vents, blasting cold air.
    She was glad to be rid of him. She hated it when they sat in the front seat, next to her, for what?
    She pulled around past the emergency room, the ambulance bay, towards a nondescript building at the edge of the hospital campus, where a much younger man stood outside on a curb holding a plastic bag full of clothes, a man who looked vaguely like the profile picture she’d seen moments before.
    “Mercy?” the man asked through the open window. The driver nodded.
    The man settled into the backseat with his bag. Mercy drove on. She looked at the man in the rearview mirror. She became overwhelmed with a sick feeling, a curdling in her stomach as he pulled up the ramp and onto the highway. What was it, Mercy wondered, that was filling her with dread, this sourness? What did she see? She looked at the young man harder. The young man pulled his jacket tighter across his body, like he was cold. Mercy looked more, when she could, as she under-passed and tailgated, attempting to beat the traffic.
    Mercy pulled up to the man’s house, stucco and tiny. The man did not thank Mercy for the ride, just slouched out of the car and walked to his front door. He stumbled slightly at the front step, still a little wobbly from all the lithium, the tramadol, whatever else they’d given him this time.
    He found about a week’s worth of mail bursting from his mailbox, wet from previous rain, rain he didn’t remember. Inside, the litter box was full and the food-tower empty. He called after the cat, “Muriel!” There were scratches, deeper than he’d seen before, on the corner of his bedroom door. He checked the flap on the door to the backyard, which sometimes caught in such away that the cat could get out, but not back in. He wrestled it loose. He opened the door and called again, “Muriel!” before noticing the signs.
    Bloody paw prints...the head of a tiny bird placed gingerly at the corner of the deck...the rotted board of the neighbor’s fence finally fallen over onto the butterfly bush...the sun setting...the cat gone...a far-off howling, whistle-like, that could be a coyote...or wind in the palms...?

Like Ten Lamps

    After the hieromonk died, his fellow monks appealed to their bishop to make their case for sainthood. They recounted his miracles, his healings, how the icons of Mary streamed myrrh from their eyes after he blessed them. They also explained that when he prayed they had to tie a rope to his ankle to keep him from floating up to heaven.
    After the hieromonk’s memorial, one of the monks sat beneath the crooked tree in the monastery’s courtyard. He felt immense jealousy about the hieromonk’s legacy, a sanguine ache behind his sternum. The way the hieromonk was being spoken about in the halls, the way the hushed voices chattered about everything the hieromonk had done for God’s Kingdom...the jealous monk’s stomach burned and his lungs seemed always out of breath. These feelings had prevented him from singing the litanies during the service, and he realized now that he had, in essence, by not pleading for God to let his beloved friend into heaven, implied that God should send the hieromonk to hell.
    Why? the jealous monk wondered. Why do I feel these stupid feelings, when I loved him so, when I want only the glory of God?
    He walked back inside and braced himself against a window. Clouds collared the mountain. A large bird, something predatory, shot out from somewhere just below his view. The bird beat its wings twice then dove into the clouds. “Well, if he’s going to hell,” the monk said,“then so am I.”
    At the refectory, the other monks had been served and were eating the honeyed wheatberry. The jealous monk sat at the end of one of the long tables, but shook his head when offered the food, as he’d decided he needed to fast.
    Another monk stood and walked to the front of the room. He called upon the monks to pray, once again, for the sainting of the hieromonk.
    “They’ll never do it,” said another monk.
    “They don’t believe.”
    “But the Lord knows,” said another.
    The jealous monk tried to control himself but couldn’t. He stood. “Are we not all saints in Christ? Like the Protestants believe,” he shouted. “Are we not all deserving? How special was he anyway?”
    He sat down, bitter tears rolling down his cheeks.
    The monk at the front of the room was incredulous. “You’ve seen what we’ve seen,” he said. “Do you deny it? Do you not know what you’re saying?”
    The jealous monk put his head in his hands. Once, before living in the monastery, when he was a boy, his mother had caught him stealing salted lamb during Advent, and so his father took him into their field with the plow. The plow was heavy, rusted, impossible to pull through the rocky, frozen soil at the foot of the mountain. “Again,” his father said when he dropped the plow. “Again,” his father said as the skin peeled off his palms.
    A crowd had formed around him, their hands on each other’s shoulders, leaning, whispering. “I thought it wasn’t about what we see,” the jealous monk muttered into his hands.“I thought it was about something else.”
    The monks continued murmuring, agreeing and disagreeing with this statement. “What’s he saying?” the monk at the front of the room demanded. “What’s he lying about now?”
    The jealous monk lifted his head. He stared at his hands, turned them over, let his wrists go weak, then clenched them into fists, which he held out in front of his chest. He missed his friend, who he knew would know what to say right now, what to do, where to take the jealous monk and how to pray. The jealous monk could still see the candlelight scattering on the wall of the hieromonk’s chambers, the smoke bleeding off the censor as the hieromonk shook it at the laity, the brass in his chanting, chanting, chanting...
    The jealous monk remembered something he’d read. “I am poured out like water,” he said. “And my bones are out of joint.”
    He closed his eyes and prayed for the will to want to be forgiven, but also to forgive and also, yes, please Christ, Son of God, to abandon his soul to hell if it might mean the hieromonk would be brought into heaven, and, yes, actually, Christ, anyone, he’d do this for anyone, please, even the spiteful monk scolding him, the whispering crowd around him, his confused mother, his cruel father, even the bird he’d seen diving through the clouds, the frozen rocks of the field, the mountain that the monastery sat on, the stones and pillars, the bent and hollow tree in the courtyard, too, everything, everything, please.
    When he was done, he opened his eyes and stretched out his fingers, as if to receive a benediction, and each erupted in glittering flames.