The summer of my junior year, I killed my best friend, Tony. True, it was a car accident, but I was the driver, and it could have been easily avoided. We hung upside down in a tree, the result of speed, a five-beer buzz, and cresting the hill we’d jumped a hundred times going faster than we ever had before. When I am mired in the hating of myself, I rewind to the last image I have of Tony, one not blurred by pain and blood and sustained terror. He is grinning, the wind and sun blessing him as he lifts his arms in victory. I was with him as he died, a process that took all night, and a process I was entering when the farmer found us as the black sky thinned, webbing blue and then cracked by orange and yellow. I thought perhaps Tony could still be saved, but his hand, which I had held as I begged and beseeched God, told me the truth.
It is impossible to forget, and I gather the truth of it around me in the same way I gather my vestments. My face is pockmarked with scars. Each morning I smudge the steam from the mirror to see how the years have transformed my murdering face. The windshield glass was tweezered out, and my face was stitched up. The doctor encouraged plastic surgery, particularly for my zigzagging, Frankensteinishly stitched and swollen forehead. My ravaged parents were only too glad to pay, but I would not allow it. I walk still with a limp, my left leg dragging after the 11:15 mass on Sunday when I am especially tired, but there was a time, when I wore a metal halo screwed into my skull and there was no guarantee I would walk, or have an erection, ever again.
My parents were solid Catholics, but we could not talk about the loneliness and fervor of our individual prayers, and we could not pray together. Our parish priest was on a fishing trip in Canada, and so the hospital called in the substitute, a young man with long hair and Birkenstocks, so convinced of the glory of Christ’s ferocious love that I could not help but be convinced myself when I was in his presence. He was the first person I had prayed with since Tony, and when I explained to Father Mark that I had promised God, if I survived, I would devote my life to the priesthood, he shook his head sadly. “Oh, Sean,” he breathed, “that’s not a calling. That was your own voice, not God’s. The priesthood isn’t a penance or punishment. It’s being called to be a conduit of Love. Divine Love. ”
But one summer later, I entered a seminary in rural Wisconsin where the seminarians farmed turkeys and bees on acreage surrounded by deep woods. The work did feel like a penance. I was assigned the kitchen, where we were to work in silence and offer up all that was done, from the slaughtering and plucking of the turkeys, to the preparation of meals and the clean up, as prayer. I had entered hoping for respite, but there was none to be had. My skin was a horrible home, and even when we had evensong, my mind was like the bees I watched my brothers smoke before they checked the hives.
The turkeys were easy to care for. They fed on the grains we tossed, would do anything for apple pulp, clucked and flew to roost in our small apple and pear orchard. Some would give chase when the time for slaughter came, but most had known us since they were chicks, and let us catch them up with ease. The trick was to get my hand around their ankles, as their toes were what could do the most damage, and tuck their beaks under my armpit. The turkey would instantly calm itself, nested in such a way, and I would offer up a silent prayer for the turkey and for myself. The killing never got easier; I only grew more adept at doing it. Next, I’d slip knot a rope around their feet; hang them from a grape arbor, upside down. I slaughtered one at a time, each turkey alone and I with it. The turkeys were each unique. Each season I was there I came to know each bird I killed and plucked by its colorings and markings. Some were white with dramatic black swirled like calligraphy ink; others were so densely brown I’d lose them in the rotting leaves if not for their waddle.
I sharpened my knife each morning in the dark of the kitchen, a ritual with my cup of coffee while my brothers slept, and I did love the sound of the whetstone and my blade against it. It soothed the deepest place within me that could not be quieted. The vein that must be severed is ¼ to an 1/8 of an inch from the turkey jaw line. I would smooth their neck with my thumb, and then make a precise cut, with the same weight I would give to the slicing of a hard cheese. Each turkey, and I saw this again and again, would be still, the blood a steady rivulet pooling beneath them, not dramatically, and not as much as you might think, but right before death, each turkey would flap madly, their wings so wide open and the breeze so finely feathered on my cheeks that I would hope for flight, for their flight. A quieting would happen, and they’d bring their wings in, sometimes the tips of their feathers clasping like hands at prayer.
I became expert at plucking the bird naked, and I would force myself to look at each bird, dead and exposed, and tell myself I was but naught before the eyes of God. I would think of Tony too, and hope that some winged part of him, the part of him that was transformed by laughter, the part of him that would dance after three beers, the part that was always there when he slung his arm around my shoulder and walked beside me as though he would always do so—that part had taken flight and found respite in the wide sky above us, even as I had tried to tether him to his earthly body by gripping his hand and howling for him to stay. Tony and I had hung upside down together, for much longer than these birds, do not think I did not remember. I begged the Vocation Director to let me keep the bees, but he’d shake his head and tell me I was needed in the kitchen. I had a steady hand, he explained kindly, a way of easing the birds into a kind death. “Sometimes we must go where we least want to be,” he said as he turned his open, empty palms up to me. I wanted to tell him I least wanted to live within myself, and the killing made my body more claustrophobic. “You must tend to your flock,” he intoned. “Sheppard them. I know they are birds, but they are God’s creatures too.”
Every Sunday, for I am old now, long enough out of the seminary to be a Monsignor, I watch my parishioners fold themselves up like origami in the pews. I sit in my padded seat, golden velvet and high backed, or stand while the alter boy or girl holds the gilded pages for me to offer the prayers in my cultivated voice, and I watch their faces take on the mask of boredom. The organist plays a beat too slow, and the songs always sound like dirges to my ears. The teenagers squirm and throw glances at one another. Even in church, most especially in church, there is the heavy blanket of perceived sin, all of the young men and women aflame in their own bodies, and most would be shocked to know I remember such skin, and I was their age when my skin pressed against the skin of another. I want to stop the mass and tell them not to worry, be not afraid, as Christ said, standing in the boat amidst the storm that so frightened his disciples, for certainly Christ knew what it meant to wear such skin and to want it so near to another’s. I think of my naked skin, raised in goose bumps as Becky Simons kissed my sixteen-year old shoulder, her breasts pressed into my ribs, and out further in the dark, wet grass Tony lay with her best friend. What I did with Becky felt like real prayer, felt like rejoicing and I thanked God for all of it. It was holy like the beating of those beautiful wings, a triumph, a hanging on to deep life. But I do not interrupt the mass to say these things. Inside my vestment I wring my hands instead, out of sight. Soon my thoughts turn to the naked turkeys, the pimpled skin still warm, and I wait, as my parishioners wait, until the processional hymn, when I walk out of the massive church doors, turn my face to the sky as though asking blessing from the sunshine, and then I greet them, my flock, shake hands with each of them and look into their veiled faces. I wish I could be like Father Mark for them, a conduit of God’s ferocious love, but my face wears a veil too—one for their protection and one for my own. Afterward, when they are steps away from me, they shake their heads as though waking up, as though coming back to life. Like Lazarus, they rush to return to their lives. I watch them go, and wish them peace, until the parking lot is empty.