Fiction · 12/31/2014

Burn This

First, as always, truly open your heart; ask.

What if the voice answers?

Now, open your eyes. See the white church gray in the night. See the empty flowerpot halfway up the back steps. See the backwards stained glass.

If headlights bloom like ghosts in the distances, simply be still. No one else will see. All breezes die.

In the perfect dark, pour gasoline into a puddle of the rough white cloth you pulled from the altar. When you light the match, it’s all the light.

When you get back into your car, there will not yet be flames in the mirrors. Drive into town. Circle your old high school, then drive back to the church. A man stands in the nothing-light from the open door of his pickup, pressing a phone to his skin. The church is fire, alive, beautiful, true.

The church is destroyed, but still real. See now inside yourself the church. The same red carpet as when you were young, like blood in the dark.

Holy water shivers in brass cups; dip your finger in, taste it.

Downstairs in the basement: stacks of folding chairs against the far wall. A bare kitchen with cracks in the floor. A storage room with boxes and music stands and a television and more chairs and, leaning against the wall, a painting of Jesus with a silver fish in each of his hands.

Upstairs now, open a closed door. The dressing room. A giant beige locker, inside, dozens of robes for altar boys. Twenty red ropes looped around the same wire hanger. A large black safe, unlocked, cracked open. Inside, a green-velvet-lined space for holding the golden chalice. Atop the safe a plaster lamb, maybe lost from the nativity set, white with a soft gray face, head dipped, eyes closed, asleep.

Above, a left-on ceiling fan that wobbles as it spins, and will forever, even though the church is gone.

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Weeks later, in ordinary daylight, another church. Peeling white, too close to the road. An old man in a gray suit is climbing up the stairs.

The church is ringed by well-cut hedges. On the sidewalk out front, a woman in a flower-print dress bounces a baby and talks on her phone. The baby watches you.

There is a thread of singing. You follow it up the stairs. The church is only half-full. Next to the altar, a children’s choir, eight or nine kids, maybe middle-school age, singing in unison with a round-faced woman in an aquamarine curtain-like dress who is strumming her guitar too hard; what if you built a guitar out of yourself, and made your own nerves into strings?

In the moments after the song is over, you can hear through the open front doors behind you the cars passing outside, like the interior sliding of the river.

The priest, a stocky man, maybe your father’s age, waddles up the aisle behind one shuffling altar boy.

His homily a story about another priest he knew who was about to leave for a humanitarian mission to administer treatments for malaria. The priest is not a good singer, but sings slowly, to listen to what he is singing.

You cannot help but hear yourself recite the Creed in your own head, the same way. When your eyes are closed, you can feel in the back of your neck that someone is looking at you.

You are in line for the Eucharist. It tastes like paper and air.

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Since you are up early Sunday morning, drive into the city. Park near a big stone church. Slip in without making eye contact, because that way no one else will see you. Sit the very back right corner, next to the confessional booths draped-closed by thick red curtains. Rows of candles flicker. Morning light stain-glows the apostles. Old women in black bend their heads. The smell of incense and wet stone. The priest is tall and young; his voices echoes in the cave.

Drive until dusk. The edge of a different town that is like your town. A stone wall, an old graveyard on uneven ground with gravestones the pocked gray of the boulders and the ramshackle stone wall. A sign on the other side of the road for a new housing development: “Coming Soon” with a drawing of a giant white house bright as stained glass in daylight. A muddy dirt road cutting into the trees. A few ranch houses along the road; a motorcycle for sale. An old barn, a historical marker about a slaughter. Then, bigger houses, basketball hoops in driveways, lawns. Then the center of town. No traffic. Lonely hovering blinking yellows. Then a hardware store, a brick post office, a brick Dunkin Donuts with posters of donuts the size of children. A grocery store with giant dark windows. The long, low high school. And, then, a church. It is white, freshly painted. A plastic banner is stretched above the closed doors: “Pray for Peace.”

When you pull around the back of the church there is a big blue van that is a face. Kill the lights. Don’t shake apart. Close your eyes; open your heart.

Remember camping trips with scouts. Remember poking at the gray and red and black coals with a stick, like everyone else. Remember sitting on a log staring into the fire at the end of the evening, as if you are tired. Look closely; the flame comes into being just above the thing burning. The part of the fire that does the burning is invisible.

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On a clear Wednesday evening enter the doors and breathe in the maroon-carpeted lobby. Through the open doors in there is a small choir of teenagers arranged in a formal semi-circle to the side of the altar. They are choir types — one giant red-faced red-headed big-bellied boy standing absurdly straight, a girl with long stringy black hair and giant glasses opening her mouth too wide, too tensely, with every sway of the director’s wispy, blue-suited body.

They are not singing a hymn you know. Everyone sings at the same time, but different melodies. It is listening to a song and the memory of a song at the same time, or standing in a doorway between two rooms, each with its own small choir. It is a lovely sound, clear and layered at the same time, and not loud but piercing, gentle as needles.

The director hears something you do not; he tips his ear out, toward the big-bellied redhead, and the singing goes soft and then the director flutters his hand and shakes his head and holds up his open hand, straight up into the air, and the singing ceases. He leans in close, and his singers lean in close; you cannot hear what is being whispered, what is wrong.

But singers can’t damage a song.

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Out here, the sky opens like hands open; the land flattens out; stars multiply, bright grains of sand on a black mirror. A wooden sign by the road: Holy Trinity Catholic Church cut in, in gold. The sign is lit by a floodlight that has been planted in the thick stiff recently-cut grass below. The church is a low building, with dark wood siding and a white triangular entry way stuck on front, like a boat had sailed along the highway to the church and crashed in.

The parking lot is small, and empty. Keep an eye on the empty road in both directions.

Don’t think. Snap through the little window in the basement door to reach in and open the lock. Inside, on a table in the basement, a giant Mary statue mostly covered with newspaper; on the altar, a giant golden book laid open, like a person.

Pour the gasoline; hold the flower of fire in your hand; open your heart; ask.

Consider the breath of flame there, in your fingers, the truth.

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The morning after, drive to the supermarket and walk into the produce aisle and pick up a bag of carrots; they are so heavy and bright and strange.

The next morning, call the boss, make an excuse, go back to work. Get hooked onto a crew taking out a few sick trees too close to the parking lot of the town soccer fields. The morning is damp, and the dull oranges and yellows and browns glisten among the still green shoots of the evergreens. The smell of wet earth and, from somewhere, smoke.

Don’t think; feed the chipper. Someone will lend you goggles; at lunch, someone will toss you a Coke. It is as warm as blood; drink it too fast, because you are more thirsty than you thought; feel it sparkle and burn in your throat.

Mid-afternoon, the sky clouds over and the air cools and is good against your arms and face. Climb into the bucket-lift with the long pruning saw like an oar with teeth. As you are lifted, feel the whirr in your feet.

When you are aloft, look out into the endless greens and browns and yellows of the forest canopy, then down at the men looking up at you, then up at the bright gray featureless sky that is just as far away as it was when you were on the ground. But you are not on the ground; you are held up, in the palm of a hand.

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Rob Roensch’s fiction has appeared recently in Epoch, Wigleaf and American Short Fiction. His book of stories, The Wildflowers of Baltimore, was published in 2012 by Salt. He lives in Oklahoma City.