The Bride of Christ

By R Torrence

George Catlin slipped through the darkness of the forest, eager to feel the brush in his hand once more. This would be the final phase of his masterpiece. He paused briefly by the entrance to the grotto, pondering what might have been. But that was then, this was now. He kept to the shadows as he sneaked across the parking lot. But at the basement door, he collapsed to the ground with a howl. The entrance was cemented over! The church had buried his painting alive. His reason to live was dead.

* * *

The gaggle of reporters and cameramen that had assembled behind the multiwinged Church of Christ was wrapped in a calm-before-the-storm stillness that would break into chaos the instant the partly hidden basement door opened. Four TV vans sprouted broadcast shafts like metallic mushrooms driven mad on growth hormones. A solitary squirrel hopped here and there, passing the people as if they were simply clumps of grass. It was a hot summer afternoon, but the forest behind the church pushed shade to the edge of the parking lot.

A photographer stood a little back from the throng, apart and yet a part, as much observing as at the ready to photograph. A woman separated from the crowd to walk toward him with the effortless sophistication of the assistant editor of the Post’s “Art” section. She turned back to look at the crowd, as if checking out his point of view.

“You’ve never been one to go for the scoop, have you, John?”

“I’m here because of the rumor about a hermit’s artwork in an abandoned crypt. Think it’s true?”

“If it is, he’s painted the Second Coming of the Sistine Chapel in there.” She swept back her long brown hair to glance at him from the corner of her eye. “What do you think?”

“Sounds so bizarre it must be true,” he said.

Kitty laughed.

“That’s so like you, John.” She smiled whimsically as she gazed over the press, crowding the entrance like a pack of hyenas ready to tear into a juicy carcass. “For sure we’re the only two here about the art. They want to break the story of the biggest and richest church in the area calling the police to evict a poor hermit living in an abandoned cellar.”

* * *

That afternoon Martin Seymour, pastor of the Church of Christ, plunged into the business-club crowd, hungry to shake as many hands as he could. He made a beeline for Jack Trenton, the local car dealer who was in a dead heat for state governor. On the way Martin patted an arm here, a shoulder there, grabbing every hand he could reach. But he saved the arm-around-the-shoulders squeeze for his favorite candidate.

“Wonderful to see a congregation member make good!” he said.

“I’m not in the Governor’s Mansion yet,” Jack laughed.

“But you will be,” a beaming Martin said, taking Jack’s hand with a crushing grip.

“I’m deeply grateful for the support you’ve given me,” Jack said. “You’re the moral leader of our community.”

“And I’m grateful for your support of our campaign to protect the sacred bond of marriage between a man and a woman. It’s the defining issue of our time.”

The master of ceremonies called for everyone to be seated. Martin took his usual place, eagerly looking over the crowd of impeccably dressed businessmen for the movers and shakers, nodding and smiling at several he already knew. He breathed the energy of the room into himself.

When Martin was asked to bless the meal, he stood, arms raised for all to bow their heads. “Lord,” he said, and then hurled back to the crowd the energy he’d drawn from them, “bless these good people who’ve gathered here in the cause of decency. Protect them from those in our community who misguidedly extol the virtues of unnatural temptations in the name of individual freedom.” Martin packed more spiritual fervor into two short minutes than any other preacher in town. It would draw several of the afternoon audience to his church next Sunday, and that’s what it was all about.

* * *

Just a week before all the commotion, George Catlin, the hermit, had tossed fitfully on his sleeping mat, fighting the images of naked bodies whirling through his brain like legions of erotic dancers. Tonight it was particularly difficult to quell the desires stirring in his groin. Unbidden glimpses of the lover he’d abandoned his wife and children for repeatedly penetrated his brain—the taste of flesh, the hips pressed so urgently against his. But in the midst of their joy, he was abandoned—thrown away like so much spoiled meat.

George jumped up from his mat to pace the cell that had been his home for five years. Light flickered softly from one of the seven large candles he’d set on boxes shoved against the stone walls. Bright light wasn’t necessary. He’d come to realize that truth lived in darkness.

Maybe a moonlight walk would drive out the torture of these cravings. After donning his sweats, he slipped from the basement door into the night, where the moonglow brought the shadows to life. George walked soundlessly across the parking lot into the forest on the rubber soles of his jogging shoes, passing the hidden grotto where he and the great love of his life had first kissed.

On the way back, an ugly light flashed into his eyes.

“Stop!”

George put an arm up to block the light.

A uniformed security guard moved toward him, cell phone at the ready to draw like a deputy of the Old West.

“This is private property!”

“Why does a church have to be guarded?”

“I don’t make the decisions here, bud. I just do my job. And you’re to stay off. Understand?”

“My kind isn’t allowed in church?”

“Don’t be a smart-ass! You know what I mean.”

When the guard dialed a number on the cell phone, George turned abruptly and slipped back into the dark woods to hide until the guard left. After all these years, he’d finally been found out!

* * *

John and Kitty watched the crowd erupt as a paddy wagon appeared around the side of the church and stopped beside the TV vans. Three cops got out. A police car followed with two more. The first three walked calmly to the door, while the other two held back the press, each of whom seemed determined to be the first to wedge through the open door. After about ten minutes, the media throng went into an even greater frenzy when the police emerged from the basement dragging a thin, bearded man between them.

“He looks like Jesus!” John said.

“I was just thinking that,” Kitty said. “I wonder what he’s like.”

They watched the media swarm after the police. There was a dash for cars and vans after the hermit was loaded into the paddy wagon.

“What a media event! The Church of Christ has just had a poor, Christlike hermit arrested and handcuffed,” Kitty said.

“Shall we?” John motioned toward the church.

* * *

Martin Seymour stood up at the pulpit, pitching back and forth on the balls of his feet, hands on the lectern, and looked over a sea of faces that filled every pew in his giant sanctuary, that looked around pillars and along the edges of the aisles from temporary chairs, with hundreds more sitting before TVs in the vestry, the classrooms, the activities hall downstairs. He looked full into the TV cameras that were like the giant eyes of the many thousands who watched and listened in their homes.

At this precise moment every Sunday, Martin Seymour raised his arms to receive God’s electricity from above, so it could flow through him into the people seated at his feet. But Pastor Seymour also held an MBA from the University of Chicago. He understood how to position everything he said and did to unlock the financial power that family values held for his church. “We must have the faith to be moral in an immoral world,” he began.

* * *

John and Kitty stepped down the stairs toward George Catlin’s underground chamber. Sunlight from the door behind them splashed a pathway into the darkness. At the bottom, they found a room still lit by two flickering candles the police hadn’t bothered to put out.

Kitty surveyed the pallet where George had slept, a tin plate, a cup.

“Suitably monklike.”

John poked a pile of old blankets with his toe. He stuck his head into the bathroom, where he clicked on the light.

“He had electricity, but apparently didn’t use it.” He turned from the bathroom. “There’s soap and towels…he seemed to believe in cleanliness.”

Kitty looked around her in dismay.

“But where’s the work?”

John pointed at a small door at the rear of the cellar.

“What’s that for?”

He opened the door to reveal a narrow, pitch-black corridor. Kitty brought the two candles. She peered past him into the darkness.

“Up for it?” John asked.

“You first,” she said, handing over a candle.

John stooped over and, candle in front of him, began to scuttle crablike into the passage. After several feet, he stopped. “Okay?”

“Just keep going!”

Another twenty feet brought him to a second opening. Candle held high, he stepped into a large chamber. Every inch of wall and ceiling space was awash with color.

“My goodness!” Kitty said, straightening up to stand beside him. “The man did paint his heart out here, didn’t he?”

John nodded, surveying a swirl of writhing grotesques. Everywhere, faces bulged as if strangled by an invisible hand. Here and there, devils ran amok and penitents were nailed agonizingly to crosses.

“What do you make of it?” he asked.

Kitty stifled a laugh, pointing to a chartreuse Jesus that sported a purple vagina.

“What madcap irreverence!” she said. “Imagine decorating a church like this! I bet the reverend and the church elders are just thrilled.”

“What do you think of it as art?” John asked

“Impressive, certainly. He isn’t schooled, but the colors are extraordinary…especially when you consider the absence of light. Great art? I don’t think so. How about you?”

John studied the mural again before answering.

“I seem to be missing something in all this, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“I feel the same.”

“This shouldn’t be destroyed though,” John said.

“I agree.”

“I’ll get some lights and record it for him.”

“That’s decent of you.” Kitty touched his arm gently, and John found himself liking it despite himself.

* * *

George Catlin glared at a policeman who sat unperturbed, punching at a computer keyboard.

“Will I go to jail?”

“Depends…Social Security number?”

George rattled it off.

The policeman looked at him with surprise, then turned back to the keyboard. “Repeat that,” he said and then typed it in.

“Address?”

“None. I’ve been living in the basement of Church of Christ,” George said with a sneer.

“Now that’s the problem, isn’t it?”

“Nobody was using it.”

“But you were told to leave.”

“My life’s work is there.”

The policeman shrugged.

“Whatever. Just don’t go back or you will wind up in jail.”

The policeman studied him for a while, then turned back to the computer.

“We can book you if you have no means of support.”

“Just because I don’t have a home, doesn’t mean I’m a vagrant!”

“They usually go together.”

“Not in this case. Call my bank.”

George gave the branch manager’s number, fidgeted while the policeman called…he’d already spent too much time with people.

After a brief conversation, the policeman hung up and gave George a long, quizzical look.

“Why choose to live like you do, when you’re obviously a man of means?”

“You’re not expected to understand.”

The policeman emitted a derisive snort.

You need to understand that the church is pressing charges, so unless you can get ahold of a good attorney right now, you’ll be here for a couple of days.”

* * *

After Kitty left, John carried his lighting equipment down to the basement. The struggle began when he pulled and tugged it through the tunnel to the crypt, uncoiling a long extension cord behind. It struck him that he, too, spent a lot of his time working alone.

He set up the lights to begin with a panoramic shot. As he set his camera, the overall concept of the painting began to dawn on him, and John wondered if his original assessment was too critical. He could now see that the grotesque swirl of devilry and agony actually coiled through the crypt toward the Jesus figure. The coil seemed to enter an aura of more delicate colors around Jesus, which he hadn’t seen at first, then follow a different, less developed path, which he had completely overlooked before. This was where the hermit was working before he was evicted…so to speak. These figures were not so distorted. The hermit may have intended for them to become more beatific.

John began to concentrate on the bizarre Jesus figure. Now he wasn’t so sure…was it actually a female figure, as he had thought at first? Or hermaphroditic?

It took him an hour to complete his study.

As he pulled the equipment back down the tunnel, he wondered if the church officials would ever find this crypt. Back in the basement room, he carefully shut the door to the tunnel. Perhaps whoever came down here to look would give the room a once-over and shut it up for good. Maybe that would sentence the hermit’s masterpiece to everlasting darkness, but it was John’s job to release it to the light.

* * *

Martin Seymour leafed through the day’s mail. At a cough at the door, he looked up to see his driver.

“Seville’s gassed and washed, sir, and I gave her a good polishing.”

“Excellent.” Martin glanced at his watch. “About half an hour…”

“Yes, sir.”

His driver turned to go.

“Fred…”

He turned back.

“Is that ruckus out back over?”

“Man’s gone, police’re gone, reporters’re gone.”

Martin let out a long, slow breath.

“Thank goodness that’s behind us.”

He returned to his letters, which he set aside after a few minutes to check his watch again. Downtime made him fidget. He stood, hands rammed in his pockets, moving to the window to look down on the green expanse that surrounded his church. At that very moment, a photographer snapped a picture from down below, as if framing him in his office window.

“Fred!” Martin yelled. “There’s another damned photographer taking pictures. Get security to escort him off the property.” He scowled down at the intruder. “Hold that.” The angle the photographer had chosen intrigued him.

He breezed past his startled secretary.

“Out for a walk!”

* * *

John looked up to see the pastor scramble down into the small ravine and stand next to him.

“My!” the reverend said breathlessly. “My!”

He stuck out a hand.

“Martin Seymour!”

“I’ve seen you on Larry King,” John said, taking the hand.

“That was months ago. I’d rather you see me in church.”

John smiled as he stepped sideways to take a final shot. The reverend moved behind him, as if to help sight the camera.

“What a magnificent view from down here,” he said. “It emphasizes the grandeur of the steeple. What a proclamation!”

John snapped the shot, turning to look into the reverend’s slightly overweight, slightly florid face.

“It strikes me more as an aspiration. A yearning,” he said.

Martin waved that away like swatting a fly.

“Oh, no! The Church of Christ is a proclamation of God’s will.” He pointed to the spire, which, from this angle, truly soared into the sky. “Can’t you see the grandeur? You picked this angle yourself. And how the walls form the foundation for it…a church built on a firm foundation.”

John smiled, thinking that in the bowels of Reverend Seymour’s firm foundation was the hermit’s frenzied, erotic, irreverent mural.

“The Episcopalians built it originally, but we’ve greatly expanded it.”

“Why’d they sell it?”

“They needed the money,” Seymour said with a shrug. “Their attendance was way down, and ours was way, way up. This is to be our national cathedral.”

“Sounds like a bank acquisition.”

With a laugh, Martin clapped him on the shoulder. “A bit of economics in everything, my boy. But the strong are rising.”

He paused to give John the once-over.

“You don’t seem like a member of the press?”

“I freelance.”

Martin thought that over.

“I’d like to commission you to do a photo study of our church.” Martin paused slyly. “Do you do portraits?”

“Some.”

“Then we can add a formal portrait of me.”

He reached out for a handshake on their deal.

“Before I go, can I ask you a question?” John asked.

“Fire away!”

“You’ve heard about the hermit’s paintings?” Martin nodded. “Do you know how the rumors got started?”

“Nothing mysterious about that, my boy. A member of our congregation who owns a convenience store other side of the woods had this customer for a few years. Recently this man, obviously a bizarre sort, unburdened his tormented soul to the owner, ranting about some painting he was creating in our church. Our man was shocked at the blasphemy the hermit described, so called me right away. That’s when we called the police. If he’d been a simple squatter, we’d have called social services. But we don’t tolerate blasphemy!”

“Did you find anything?”

“Security didn’t see a thing. So either the man is delusional or he’s hidden his filth away. But not to worry, we’re cementing the door over tomorrow.”

* * *

“John!” Kitty called. “They found the hermit dead at the cemented-over entrance to his crypt, apparently from a heart attack.”

“Oh my God! That poor bastard.”

“This is all so sad…”

“You need to come to my studio,” John said. “I’ve found something.”

“Maybe tomorrow.”

“I think you should come over now!”

“I have such a difficult schedule today.”

“You really need to see this.”

* * *

“You’re acting so ‘scoopy,’” Kitty said as John ushered her into his studio. “This isn’t like you.” Then she stopped stock-still when she saw a montage of photographs covering an entire wall, which made up the whole of the hermit’s work. “Wow!” was all she could get out.

“Let me take you through it,” John said, sweeping his hand over the entire wall of distorted, agonized faces. “This is what we saw at first.”

“This is more powerful than I realized.”

“I agree,” John said. “But let’s dig deeper.” He directed her attention to the bottom right edge of the painting.

Kitty’s eyes narrowed. “It’s a recognizable face.” She moved closer, squinting. “But for the life of me, I can’t recognize who it is.”

“I can,” John said, handing her another photo. “It’s Martin Seymour. I’ve been doing a portrait of him, and I’d recognize that face anywhere.”

“But why is he in the painting?”

“Look at the letters at the very bottom, just above the edge of the painting.”

Kitty leaned forward, squinting.

“Oh my God!” she said. “Who would have thought?”

MS + GC
IN ETERNAL LOVE

They stood, side by side, gazing at the montage.

“I feel like Alice,” Kitty said.

John looked at her quizzically.

“I mean, as I really get engrossed in this mural and wind up at those initials, it’s like I’ve entered a world where everything is upside down.”

 

——————–

Ron Torrence has been writing for many years. His stories range from near mainstream treatments to far-out, dream-like pieces. The Bride of Christ is his 30th published story. He’s published a non-fiction book, In the Owner’s Chair, (Prentice-Hall), and many articles on small business management, including work featured in the Wall Street Journal. He spends summers drinking in sunsets on the Lake Erie shore and winters in the vibrant culture of Washington, DC.


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