by Alyson Mosquera Dutemple
To prepare the eighth graders to choose their new names for confirmation, Sister Antoninus lectured them about the saints. The miracle workers, the mystics, the martyrs with their severed limbs and cut out tongues. The girl found herself drawn to stories about acts of penance, self-mortifications. She liked to hear about hair shirts, especially. Whenever the topic came around to St. John the Baptist, his image appearing on the slide projector in his wiry loincloth, a shroud on his shoulders of coarse animal hairs irritating, purposely scratching his skin, the girl was reminded with a pleasurable stab of him, the boy she loved. She held her breath and squeezed her knees together in the dimness of her religion class and wondered, with a shudder, how the source of such feelings could be anything less than a miracle, an actual gift from God.
Ever since the school year started the girl had adopted a new creed: She loved the boy who owned only one shirt. She loved the way he moved in the shirt, the way it stretched across his back each morning at the bus stop, bunching under the broken strap of his knapsack. She loved the fact that, no matter the weather, she could depend upon the shirt always being with the boy, always in contact with his skin, like the blessed scapular necklace she wore wrapped around her neck, tucked between her breasts, close to the heart, where it mattered.
There was something holy, divine even, in the symbiotic relationship of boy and shirt, shirt and boy. For instance, on days it rained, the shirt provided cover for his skin. And on sunny days, he fed the shirt with his sweat. The other students at Sacred Heart never spoke of the shirt; they simply scrunched their noses when he passed by their own perfectly laundered uniforms. Secretly, she loved the smell of the shirt because it carried his essence, the him-ness of him. In a way, she considered the shirt was the boy. Like a reverse transubstantiation, it had become an actual piece of the person she loved.
Sometimes at night, she dreamed about the shirt. Animated sequences in which the shirt took her dancing or to hilltops after sundown to watch the city lights twinkle over all the neighborhoods, even the poor one far on the horizon where the boy must have lived in real life. Most of the time, the boy was wearing the shirt in her dreams, but sometimes she was alone with the shirt. She let it wrap its empty sleeves around her like she had once seen in a movie. She was careful never to be too forward with it, letting the shirt move at its own billowy pace.
In the mornings after those dreams, the shirt’s image would remain impressed on the backs of her eyelids like a holy apparition. Sometimes it would take hours for the image to fade, and sometimes it never did, and that was just as well. She liked being able to carry a relic of the boy inside of her. In the milliseconds when the world disappeared in her blink, only the shirt remained, like the voice of God on the first day of creation.
The sun rose red over the city on the morning they were to announce the confirmation names they had chosen. The girl and her friend sat on the bus, paging through Lives of the Saints and discussing last minute patron options. The shirt, bathed in beams streaming through the window, glowed as if lit from within. She could not stop staring at the colors playing across the boy's shoulders in the seat in front of her. From such a close range, she could see everything. The worn patches of fabric, the small tears, the little broken button on the collar that she had never noticed before, like a shy smile revealing a chipped tooth.
“I really love that shirt,” the girl longed to say to her friend, for she felt, under the strange sun, her own kind of burning, a holy torture, a certainty that she could no longer continue to carry the burden of the secret in her heart. Instead, she pointed to a picture of John the Baptist in his raveling hair shirt and whispered, “Doesn’t he sort of remind you of that boy? The way he wears the same thing all the time?”
Her friend’s eyes darted from the boy to Lives of the Saints. The girl’s cheeks grew warm as she noticed for the first time how low on the hips St. John's loincloth hung in the picture, how pointed his pubic bone thrust, how suggestive his wet, upturned eyes.
“You’re right,” the girl’s friend whispered back. Then, leaning forward, the friend gave a sharp kick to the boy’s seat.
“Hey, you!” she hissed to the boy. “Did you take a vow of poverty or something? Is that why you wear the same thing all the time, Saint Nobody?”
The girl’s friend laughed at her own joke and for a moment, the boy turned in his seat. The girl averted her eyes, terrified of revealing the truth of her devotion when her gaze met his. Instead, she let out her own laugh, as wooden and automatic as a genuflection.
For the rest of the ride to school, her friend kept repeating the words “Saint Nobody,” growing louder and more irreverent. The boy did not turn around again, and each time her friend kicked and taunted him, each time the girl let her, it felt as if something was being removed from the girl herself, some vital piece taken away. She felt as if she were becoming naked, her own tender skin starting to show through in places she hadn’t ever been aware of.
She shouldn't have spoken of it. She knew this now. By speaking of the shirt, she had somehow unraveled its virtue, and the longer the idea of the shirt was out of her mouth and in the world, the less it would be sacred, the less there would be left to love.
When the bus arrived at school, the boy disappeared into the crowd of other uniforms, his own dingy shirt eddying grey in the current of pressed, white bodies. The girl shivered. She felt ill. In first period she raised her hand and asked for a pass to the nurse’s office.
“Before I let you go, please share with the class the saint’s name you have chosen for yourself,” Sister Antoninus instructed.
The girl’s trembling glance moved to the back of the classroom, to the empty desk where the boy usually sat. She opened her mouth but found she couldn’t bring herself to speak.
The nun hovered expectantly over the girl's desk. "Did you pray about it?" Sister Antoninus encouraged, mistaking the girl’s hesitation for uncertainty in her choice. “Did you ask the holy saints for guidance?” Past Sister Antoninus's dark woolen shoulder, there was a small, framed depiction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus hanging on the wall. His hands parted the cloak He wore as if to suggest that He were daring the girl to look at what He had hidden, the secret thing, aflame, vulgarly pulsing there.
A fire engine went by on the street outside. Its whine drifted up through the windows on the spring breeze, and the whole class, in unison, bowed their heads and began to murmur prayers for the injured, as they had been instructed to do whenever they heard a siren passing. A chorus of Hail Marys, Our Fathers, and Apostles’ Creeds washed over the girl’s silence.
The girl herself did not pray, though she, too, closed her eyes. As she waited for the wailing to stop, she looked for the shirt but discovered she could no longer see it. It did not appear on the secret underside of her eyelids. No matter how she looked and looked, she could find only darkness, like the world if God hadn’t bothered to speak.
Published February 24th, 2019
Alyson Mosquera Dutemple is an optioned screenwriter and fiction writer from New Jersey. She was recently longlisted for Prism International's Grouse Grind Lit Prize for V. Short Forms and a finalist in the Page International Screenwriting Awards. She holds an MFA in fiction from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and is a reader for CRAFT Literary.
Piero di Cosimo, original name Piero di Lorenzo, (born 1462, Florence [Italy]—died 1521, Florence), Italian Renaissance painter noted for his eccentric character and his fanciful mythological paintings. Not a member of any specific school of painting, Piero instead borrowed other artists’ techniques to create his own singular style. He painted many works to please only himself (an unusual practice for the time) and declared that he often found inspiration for his paintings in the stains on walls. Piero’s name derives from that of his master, Cosimo Rosselli, whom he assisted in 1481 on the frescoes Sermon on the Mount and possibly Crossing of the Red Sea in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. There he saw the frescoes of Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio, whose styles dominate his early Jason and Queen Hypsipyle with the Women of Lemnos (1499). In The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot (c. 1489/90), the permanent influence of the enamel-like colours of Hugo van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece (c. 1473–78) is first visible. Piero painted several portraits, of which the best known is the memorial bust of Simonetta Vespucci (c. 1480), mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici.