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Faith

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Describe the nature of your belief which is the basis of your claim.

Explain how, when and from whom or what source you acquired the belief which is the basis of your claim.

Describe the actions and behavior in your life which in your opinion most conspicuously demonstrate the consistency and depth of your religious convictions.

Describe carefully the creed or official statements of said religious sect or organization as it relates to participation in war.

 

 

 

“Your SSS150 was filled out in … considerable detail.”

Charles only nodded.

“We don’t get very many people quoting St. Augustine in the original Latin.”

“I did provide translations.”

The essays had been overkill; he knew this and had known it the entire time he wrote. Hopefully they wouldn’t take it as an attempt to be superior. But he had wanted to say his peace, and on this subject, that was not easily said.

“Your background – well, let’s just say it’s obvious you’re not one of those cowards. One of the ones who decided he was a pacifist only when he pulled a low number.” His main questioner pushed his horn-rimmed glasses up his nose with one stumpy finger.  Charles bit back his support for other objectors; he was here to argue his own case, not anyone else’s. Erik had reminded him of that over and over during breakfast. For Erik’s sake, at least, he would stick to the questions posed.

He sat on a folding chair in a large room that somehow managed to feel airless. In front of him, at a long metal table with a plastic top, sat three middle-aged men whose faces betrayed neither contempt nor compassion. They might have been weighing which grade of concrete to use in a building project.

Another of them said, “You don’t think we have a responsibility to defend freedom? To make the world a better place?”

“To insist on a perfect world – to insist that it is within our grasp, within mortal power, if only we work our will on it – that is a dangerous position to take,” Charles said. “I do not take it. I don’t think the United States should attempt to impose its doctrine on another nation.”

“The Soviets are imposing their doctrine on North Vietnam. Pulling the puppet strings, you better believe it. But you’re not against that, I guess.”

Charles shook his head. “I oppose that just as strongly. However, I am not being asked to serve in the North Vietnamese army.”

The angrier one – the one on the left – leaned forward. “So what would you do if the Commies took over New York City? Would you just sit there?”

“I would not. Pacifism is not the same thing as capitulation. I would work for passive resistance. I could organize protests, for instance. Work behind the scenes to arrange shutdowns of factories for any industry the occupiers relied on. Look for ways to undermine enemy morale. There would be countless ways to resist, and resist effectively, without violence.” He’d had this argument Erik before, back when it was only theory – late-night bickering inspired by a bottle of wine and an episode of “Star Trek.”

This didn’t seem to impress the angry one at all. “So you put a higher premium on your own ‘purity’ or ‘conscience’ than you do on other people’s lives.”

“I don’t refuse to participate in combat because it offends my delicate sensibilities. I refuse because it is immoral. Christians must strive, always, for healing and reconciliation. We must act out of love for all.”

He would gladly have bitten back the words, true though they were. No doubt the three men behind the table considered themselves good Christians.  Charles tried not to condemn those who bore witness in a way to which he did not feel himself called.

And, on general principles, it would probably have been wiser not to annoy the draft board.

The one in the middle – the one who at least felt Charles was not a coward – folded his hands together. “Forgive me, but – if you believe that you can do away with all the evil in the world through good thoughts and wishful thinking – it’s naïve, isn’t it?”

Charles took a deep breath. “Sin is inevitable. Evil is inevitable. That’s part of what it means to be human. But we cannot respond to evil with evil.” He held out his hands as though he could weigh the concepts like so much gold in his palms. “There is the doctrine of sin, but there is also the doctrine of grace. Humanity is corrupted by sin, but illuminated by the grace of God. It is our work on this earth to give life to that grace. So we must not respond to evil by compounding it. We must respond by overcoming it.”

One of the men said, “So you’re willing to help your fellow man." 

“Always. But I am not willing to kill him.”

The angry one had a gleam in his eye as he asked, “Do you think Christ would help civilians but refuse to help soldiers?”

“Of course not. There is no limit to God’s mercy.”

Charles knew what the answer meant even before he spoke. He said it anyway, because it was the truth.

Quietly he finished, “There are no exceptions.”

 

**

 

When he arrived home, instead of pulling into the garage he parked the car well out on the drive and walked the rest of the way. Ice crunched between the gravel, and the air’s bite was sharp. Charles looked up at the gray sky, which was low and heavy with snow, and hoped the cold air would brace him. But then he reached the front door, opened it into light and warmth and a Christmas tree they hadn’t yet taken down, and furious growls that made him smile despite everything.

“I’m going to get you – ” Erik crawled forward on his hands and knees, fingers turned under as though they were claws.

His prey giggled. “I’m gonna get you first!”  With that, Jean flung herself toward Erik, and though he wrestled her down, he kept pretending that she was making a very good show of it.  Although he kept growling, play-acting for their daughter, Erik’s grin held more joy than Charles had once ever dreamed to see.

It was difficult now to remember that Erik had once resisted bringing Jean into their family. Charles sometimes thought, for Erik, the sun now rose and set on that child. 

Jean, from her place on the floor, was the one who spotted him. “Daddy!” She immediately scooted away from Erik, whose smile faded as he sat back on his knees. “Come play bears with us!”

He wanted so badly to do that, to just drop everything and be silly with his little girl, but going any longer without talking to Erik would be cruel. Scooping Jean up in his arms, he kissed her soundly on the forehead and said, “We can play bears after dinner. Weren’t you going to color some pictures for me today? I want to see those. Go get them for me while I talk to Uncle Erik for a moment.”

She frowned, stubborn as any child who knows full well that she has just heard an excuse. But Jean understood things beyond her years, sometimes – as if she could sense his feelings as intensely as he sometimes glimpsed hers. Without further protest, she allowed herself to be put down, then ran toward the room in the rear of the house that had once been his mother’s office and was now where Jean’s crayons and toys more-or-less stayed.

Erik rose from the floor, black turtleneck and hair still slightly askew from playtime. “So? How did it go? Did they believe you?”

“They believed me – ”

“Thank God,” Erik said, and for once it did not sound like an empty oath in his mouth. He took Charles’ face between his hands. “I hadn’t been that afraid since I was a child.”

Given what Erik’s childhood had been, Charles knew exactly what this meant. Relief shone from Erik, a light that had to be put out.

“Erik, they classified me as 1-AO.” He covered Erik’s hands with his own, willing strength to him through the touch.

“… what does that mean?”

“They won’t send me into combat, but – I’m considered eligible for noncombatant duty.”

“Like – like teaching, or the Peace Corps, or – ”

Charles quickly kissed Erik’s palm. “No. 1-AOs provide support to the military.” He tried to keep his voice very steady. “They say I’m most likely to be trained as a medic.”

Erik didn’t reply for a moment. He stood there, very still, his hands going cold against Charles’ skin.  His words were strained, voice stretched thin and tight: “You have to go to Vietnam.”

“There’s no guarantee that I’ll draw war service.” Even as he spoke, though, they both knew the odds.  

“Fuck.” Erik turned away and walked back into the living room; the gray wintry light through the window outlined his body as he stood there, staring outward at nothing, hands on his hips and breaths coming fast.

They ought to have been comforting each other, Charles thought. But Erik was trying to find his strength for Charles’ sake, the same way he was trying to find his for Erik.  Strange how love could keep two men on opposite sides of the room.

But now Jean was running back to him, red curls flying, eager to for him to see her latest scrawled attempt at art. Charles allowed his daughter to take over, lost himself in her pursuits, and by the time Erik joined them a few minutes later, they were both able to smile for her.

 

**

 

The discussion began again upstairs, in the library, after Jean had been put to bed. 

The menorah still sat on the mantelpiece – they were terrible about putting decorations away, Charles thought dully. He’d found unexpected delight in their Hanukkah celebration – more secret than the gaudy Christmas display downstairs, more private, and yet deeply joyful. It had been the first year Jean had liked the candles and the chocolate coins, and she had even listened to the stories Erik told … at least, she had listened as well as any 3-year-old could be expected to. Although Charles was of course raising Jean as a Catholic, he wanted her to understand and respect Erik’s traditions. For his part, Erik had said he intended to be honest with Jean about his lack of faith in God when she was old enough to ask, but was content to let Charles teach as he believed. 

Erik had joked that they would probably wind up splitting the difference and rearing a devoutly religious Jew. That had been only a couple of weeks ago. Right now, jokes and laughter seemed a thousand miles away.

“And the fact that you’re a father – the only parent Jean has, so far as the world knows – ”

“They grant deferments for that only when the absence will create a ‘profound hardship.’” Charles gestured in a way that took in the entire grandiose mansion they lived in. “Not easily argued in my case.”

“They can’t have believed your convictions weren’t sincere. You were a priest! How much farther would you have to go to convince them?” Erik continued pacing the room like a caged thing. He’d been beside himself ever since the notice had arrived, so much so that Charles had assumed Erik would be better able to deal with bad news than the grind of suspense. Apparently not.

“They were convinced, Erik. They believed me. If they didn’t, I’d be I-A. But my convictions do allow me to provide support to soldiers even if I’m not one myself.”

“And I suppose you had to tell the truth about this.” Erik’s anger boiled at such a pitch that it could scald anyone who came near, even Charles. “The absolute, virtuous truth.”

Charles slumped into the corner of the couch. All day, he’d been holding himself rigid – physically, mentally, emotionally. It was harder work than it looked. “You know that I lied to them. I told the lie I had to tell. Beyond that, I explained my objections fully. I hoped it would be enough. It wasn’t.”

For a few moments they were both quiet. Something flickered behind Erik’s eyes, something that made him more stricken than all the rest. Charles realized what it was even before Erik said, “Maybe you should reveal the whole truth.”

“I can’t.”

“They might not tell anyone.”

“They would. There’s nothing holding them to confidentiality. And you know how New Salem loves gossip.”

Ironically, it was gossip itself that had saved them for so long – that, and the fact that the great house on Greymalkin Lane remained isolated by its vast grounds.

The isolation allowed others to believe the story that Erik Lehnsherr, a friend of the Xavier family, rented a guest house on the grounds rather than living with Charles. After all, other such friends had occasionally enjoyed similar arrangements over the past few decades. Wasn’t it only natural that a former priest, still dedicated to philanthropy and charity, might offer another social worker a good home at a cheap price?

Gossip had taken care of the rest. Charles had put together, from various half-heard whispers and his own extraordinary insights, that the town believed Erik to be madly in love with Raven rather than her brother. As for Charles’ role in this drama, he was thought to be too dogmatically religious to allow his sister to marry a Jew, however well he might like the man. (His departure from the church was in turn ascribed to the liberalizations of Vatican II, though this process had hardly begun when he’d left; gossip was not scrupulous about timelines.) Had anyone ever been so grateful for a rumor? They had all laughed about it together, and a few times Erik and Raven had even gone into town without Charles to shop, take in a movie and otherwise fan the flames.

Had Charles told the draft board today, I am a homosexual; Erik Lehnsherr lives with me as my lover – he would not have had to go into the service. The price would have been the exposure of their shared life.

And then they probably would have lost Jean.

The adoption had taken almost a full year to be finalized – though he was Jean’s only legal guardian, though she had no living family – because the prejudice against a single man adopting was so high. If the judge had ever found out about him and Erik, Jean would certainly have been taken away.  If the truth came out now – most people drew no distinction between “homosexual” and “child molester.” In their view, such people were all sex perverts, all the same, and obviously unfit to raise a little girl. Authorities had removed children even from their biological parents in such cases. In addition, he and Erik could be prosecuted for breaking the law. If they were jailed for sodomy, then there would be no chance of keeping Jean, none at all.   

“No, you could never tell,” Erik said quietly; he hugged himself as if against the cold though he stood close to the fire. “Can you – appeal the decision? Surely this isn’t final – some local burghers sitting behind their desks and weighing your life in their hands –”

“I could take it to the state appeal board, but that would involve an FBI background check.”

Erik’s first response was to shut his eyes against the firelight. The FBI background check would unearth the truth about them more surely than draft-board gossip ever could.

To have to choose between risking his life and losing Jean – it was like being cleaved in two, Charles thought. Yet there was never any question what his choice would be, or Erik’s, either.

“So we’ll leave,” Erik said, turning back toward Charles. “We’ll go to Canada, like the others. Or some other country where you wouldn’t be extradited. Hell, we can join Raven in Switzerland.”

“Go on the run? Actually flee the country with Jean?" 

“Why not? We could do it. Transfer your assets overseas, buy the plane tickets, and in a few days we’re gone. There’s no need to come back here.”

“You’d leave Immigrant Outreach?” It was the part of the suggestion that surprised Charles most.

Erik hesitated. His commitment to his work was deep and powerful, one of the guiding forces in his life. Only his ability to help others who had been displaced by war had allowed him to continue on after the losses he’d suffered. And yet he squared his shoulders and said, “If that’s what it takes to save you.”

Charles felt his heart rending. Or was that Erik’s heart, Erik’s pain, that he felt as his own? They had given up so much for one another; this sacrifice, at least, would not be required. “I won’t run.”

“What do you mean, you won’t?”

“I’m no better than the countless young men already being sent to fight. Just richer. More able to make an escape. If I took advantage of that, it would be – worse than cowardice.”

“Principle!” Erik’s fury burned brighter again. “Honor! Morality! Has it ever occurred to you, Charles, that there’s a morality in taking care of your own family? In refusing to abandon the people who love you and need you?”

“Of course it has. But I’m not going to dodge the draft, and you know it. You knew before you even asked.”

Erik slumped against the mantelpiece. “Yes, I knew. But maybe I hoped you’d see sense for once in your life.”

They had to concentrate on the positive, Charles thought. On what they knew, not what they feared. “It’s like I said – there’s no guarantee I’ll go to Vietnam. After I’m trained as a medic, or whatever else they choose to do with me, I could as easily be sent to … Boston. South Carolina. Even Hawaii, if we’re lucky.”

“When will you know?” Erik ‘s face was painted warm gold by the fire, but there was no mistaking how drawn he looked. “How soon? What happens now?”

“Apparently I’ll get my orders during or just after basic training. Which I’m to report for in two weeks.”

“Two weeks!”

His nerves frayed to the limit, Charles held out his hand. “Erik, I’m sorry, I realize this is painful for you, but could you please just stop shouting?”

Instantly Erik was by his side, on his knees, Charles’ hands in his. “I’m sorry. You know I wasn’t shouting at you, don’t you? I was shouting at - at the whole fucking world.”

“I know.” Charles closed his fingers more tightly around Erik’s, leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “ I know.”

Erik laid his head in Charles’ lap. “I never wanted you to understand what war was.”

“I understand it better than you might think.” He had seen wounds decades old burning in the hearts of former soldiers, had heard whispered confessions of atrocities in Italy or the South Pacific that shocked him to the core. And Erik himself had taught Charles perhaps the ultimate lessons in what evil could be, how close and how powerful it could become. Even now, the pushed-up sleeve of his turtleneck showed the first few numbers of his tattoo from Auschwitz.

“You don’t, Charles. It hasn’t touched you. Hasn’t scarred you. I never wanted you to be scarred the way I am.” 

“It may not come to that. Let’s not mourn for what hasn’t yet happened.”

Erik nodded, but his eyes remained dark, fixated on ghosts from his nightmarish past. His thumbs brushed along Charles’ thighs, gentle comforting strokes back and forth. “Are you very afraid?”

Charles hesitated, waiting for the most honest words. “No, but – I think that’s mostly because it’s not real to me yet. What’s real is that I have to leave you and Jean.”

“Don’t.” Erik’s voice choked off, and he had to swallow hard before continuing. “Don’t talk about that now. Like you said – it hasn’t yet happened. You’re here tonight. With me.”

They made love right there, clothes strewn on the Persian carpet, their bare skin painted with warmth by the fire. Neither of them wanted to part from the other even for an instant, so they contented themselves with hands, lips, tongues. Once again Charles marveled at how Erik’s ferocity could turn to gentleness, how a feeling as mysterious as love could express itself so eloquently through touch. How an act he had been brought up to consider not merely sin but also perversion – was a pathway to a kind of togetherness, of utter acceptance and devotion, that Charles could only call holy. As Erik groaned against Charles’ shoulder, shuddered in his climax, Charles closed his eyes refused to think of a time when Erik would be any farther away than he was right now.

 

**

 

Early the next evening, Raven returned home from her holiday in Lucerne. Erik was upstairs bathing Jean, and Charles decided to seize the moment to talk with his sister alone – even if that meant not giving her so much as a chance to take off her coat or put away her skis.

“They can’t do this.” She stood very still, sable coat speckled with snowflakes that hadn’t entirely melted yet. “They can’t just – snatch you up like that.”

“They’ve snatched up tens of thousands of other men. Why would I be any different? You know I had to register after I left the priesthood.”

“But still.” Raven braced her hands against the nearest chair. Her face – always startlingly changeable, as though she were several women wrapped into one – now appeared more girlish to Charles than it had in a long time. How long had it been since he’d noticed the baby fat still rounding her cheeks?

They had adored each other from the day his parents brought her home from the orphanage, and yet they had never been truly close. Charles’ piety served as a stark contrast to Raven’s rebellious nature. While he had been serving as an altar boy, she had been sneaking cigarettes from their mother’s purse. Yet her eyes had shone with pride on the day he was ordained as a priest, just as Charles had delighted in showing her off to parishioners when she came to visit in one of her high-fashion outfits.

The first year after he’d left the priesthood, he and Raven had forged a stronger relationship. No prude, she had long suspected her brother’s homosexuality, acknowledging it almost before he had. She had accepted Charles’ relationship with Erik easily enough – rarely speaking of it but never objecting.  Besides, she obviously liked Erik in his own right; they were similar in many ways, with their quick tempers, irreverence and wit.  Raven had welcomed Erik on the nights he visited and spent time with Charles on the nights he didn’t. He and his sister had sat up watching late movies and even making Rice Krispie treats a time or two. Give them footie pajamas, Charles had thought, and they would have been just like kids again.

Then Erik had moved in, and Raven had – not moved out so much as stepped back. While she still had her room and kept many of her things at the mansion, she spent very little time there any longer; sometimes Charles thought she visited only to go out with Erik for the afternoon and fuel the rumors that protected their household. Her pied a terre on the Upper East Side was her true home these days, and every month or two seemed to bring a new trip to an ever more exotic destination: Rio, Honolulu, Santorini. Somehow she found a way to spend even more money on clothes, which Charles would previously have believed to be impossible. At times he’d even wondered whether his sister was becoming a shallow socialite, content to flutter colorfully over the world without ever touching the ground –

--but then he always found out he was wrong. Like the way she’d lit up with joy after discovering that he was going to adopt Jean. Or the depth of sorrow and fear in her eyes now.

Raven was his sister, and she loved him. That was all that mattered. And that was why he could ask this of her.

“Please, before Erik comes downstairs, I need to talk with you about something,” Charles said quickly. “Of course I’ve run this by him, too, and he agrees with me, but he finds the subject upsetting.”

“Do I get to be upset too?” she snapped. “Christ, Charles – ”

He hated it when she took the name of the Lord in vain but had long since given this up as a lost cause.

“—give me a minute to breathe, would you? I still can’t believe this is actually happening.”

Raven, too, could lash out at the very person she wanted most to protect; she and Erik truly were much alike. “I’m sorry. Forgive me. I know you’re very shocked, and I hate rushing this discussion, but it’s important.”

“Okay, okay.” She brushed back a lock of her tawny hair, nodding slowly like someone still half in a bad dream. “What is it?”

“I have to – make certain preparations, just in case.”

“Don’t say it!” Raven had a superstitious streak.

Charles kept on. “I would prefer to make Erik Jean’s legal guardian, but I’m not sure he’d be allowed to adopt her. It was hard enough for me, and I’m a U.S. citizen. A former priest, and our family has lived here forever. Erik doesn’t have my advantages. He might well be denied custody. She could be taken away.”

If I were killed. The unspoken words hung in the air, even as Charles refrained from saying them for Raven’s sake.

“So here’s what I want to do,” Charles said. “I’m going to make you Jean’s legal guardian. A single woman would have much less trouble adopting to begin with, and with you as her aunt already … it would be easy, probably. But I’ll arrange for Jean’s inheritance to go into a trust, and make Erik the executor. That would give him some legal authority in her life.”

“Stop talking about inheritances,” Raven whispered. “Just stop it.”

“We have to get through this. Do you understand? We have to settle these things. I have to know that if I – that if something happened, you’d be willing to raise Jean along with Erik. That you could stay here instead of going all around the world for a while. And that you wouldn’t keep Erik from being her father, in any way.”

“Of course I wouldn’t! What do you think I am?”

Charles crossed the room and embraced her tightly. “My beautiful sister,” he said. “I think you are my sister and my friend and one of the very best people in my life.”

Raven’s arms slid around him. Within her he sensed a turmoil even deeper than her fear for him, but then, he’d just given his sister a staggering responsibility. It had to be as unnerving for her to accept as it was for him to ask.

And it was very, very hard to think of Jean growing up without him.

It won’t happen, he told himself. Statistically, you’re most likely to come home without a scratch.

But they had to be prepared.

 

**

 

Charles refused to treat his departure for basic training as a big deal. “Only six weeks,” he kept saying, as though it were one of Raven’s international jaunts.  Erik and Raven went along with this as best they could. Nobody spoke of what would follow basic training.

But six weeks – that was bad enough. Charles had never been apart from Erik or Jean for so long. Even that separation would devastate him. How was he supposed to endure a year without them? Although he was no innocent about the dangers of war, Charles could not yet wrap his mind around any wound he might suffer more devastating than being taken away from his family and his home.

Yet the alternative was rank cowardice, so: basic training.

He was sent to Texas, to a special training course for conscientious objectors. The young men Charles met on those first days were for the most part Quakers, Mennonites or Jehovah’s Witnesses, though there were a few university types who joked ruefully about not getting into grad school in time. Few of them were remotely prepared for the grueling ordeal that lay ahead.

Charles, to his surprise, was prepared – at least, mostly. The early hour at which they had to rise was fifteen minutes later than he’d gotten up for morning prayers throughout his career as a priest. Although the drill sergeant had strict standards for the making of beds and the neatness of uniforms, Charles thought the man wasn’t nearly as severe as the priests who had overseen the seminary.  Although it was no pleasure to have his hair shorn or to be served food that was hardly better than slop, neither of these travails was entirely unfamiliar. Having every moment of every day scheduled, observed and judged – he’d been there, too. Charles understood something few other civilians ever did: the demands of true, all-encompassing discipline. He had embraced that life joyfully before; he could endure it now.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t been as well prepared for struggling across an obstacle course while wearing a 40-pound backpack.

“Move your fucking asses!” the drill sergeant bellowed as Charles tried yet again to force himself over the final wall. He had reached it ahead of most of the others, which was meaningless, as he now thought he was likely to die right here. Once again he clutched the plastic netting and began attempting to climb it, though it twisted and jerked under his feet like a bucking bronco. The straps of the heavy backpack seemed as though they would sever his arms from his body at any moment. “Did you faggots think going CO would solve all your problems? The medical pack weighs even more than the combat gear, so the joke’s on you! Get your worthless hides into gear, cocksuckers!”

Odd to think of cocksucker as an obscenity, when it’s such a pleasant thing to be, Charles thought, blinking as drops of sweat stung his eyes. More pleasant than this, by far.

The mean-spirited, casual, unceasing mockery of homosexuals suffused every moment of Army life. It was, of course, mockery only; the unspoken assumption was that no one here could possibly ever do anything so supposedly vile. Charles was keenly aware of the irony of this attitude being promoted by the same people, in the same place, where the ability to kill another human being was considered a virtue.

Right now, however, he had more immediate problems to deal with. Like this accursed wall.

Once again the netting twisted under him, binding his fingers and leaving him struggling. The weight of the pack felt as though it were deliberately, malevolently towing him downward. His arm muscles burned, and his overheated gut wanted badly to eject its contents. Charles longed to give up and simply let the drill sergeant scream at him, but something within him refused.

This might not be a mere exercise someday. What if he had to do something this hard, or harder, to save another person’s life?

Theoretical possibilities were too weak to move him, though, so Charles forced himself to imagine something even more demanding. What if it were Erik? What if Erik were in trouble on the other side of that wall, and only you could save him? Get to Erik. Get to him, now!

And somehow, his body obeyed. Charles righted himself and managed to fling his weight over the top of the wall. After that, the final crawl under the wires seemed simple.

As he reached the finish before anyone else, panting, the drill sergeant barked, “Maybe you’re not a complete pussy after all, Xavier!”

“Sir,” Charles said. He had to gulp in another breath to get out the rest. “Thank you, sir.”

No one in this group had to learn how to shoot. They did, however, have to learn what to do when being shot at. It wasn’t that Charles hadn’t realized this was a possibility, but being told how to take cover, being shown actual pictures of camouflaged enemy soldiers, made it all feel far more immediate.

Not as immediate as it’s going to feel when it happens, he told himself, a joke too black to ever be shared. 

In the truest, deepest sense, Charles was not afraid to die. He did not believe in a child’s storybook heaven with clouds and harps, but he had always known that human beings were more than mere flesh. God had given him the ability to sense souls – to know them intimately – and so he was as confident of everlasting life as he was of the sun rising in the east.

But not to return to Jean – to leave Erik bereaved and lonely yet again in his already harsh life –

When they told him how to take cover, Charles paid close attention.

His favorite part of basic training was, by far, the medical course. Charles had been tempted to stay on to earn graduate degrees in science, specifically genetics; the academic discipline had fascinated him, and the Church would have supported his further education. Ultimately his determination to get to the real work of being a priest had won out. Charles cared more about reality than theory. But here, reality and theory came together. So much of what he’d learned about the human body was made concrete as he learned how to stop bleeding, how to diagnose diseases, how to splint a broken limb. It intrigued him as deeply as any other academic subject ever had, perhaps more so.

The worst thing about basic training – being away from Erik and Jean – remained hard to bear, but he was so perpetually busy and exhausted that Charles found the terrible homesickness only came over him at night, when he would close his eyes and imagine them near, nearer, even in his arms.

Thank you, Charles would pray. Thank you for creating them. For letting me share their lives. For every moment I have shared with those I love.

And he would be comforted for the few minutes before sleep claimed him.

All in all, he did very well, even on the day when the drill sergeant announced that he had their orders. Every single one of them – every last medic in Charles’ training course, himself included – were headed straight to Vietnam.

Some of the recruits murmured curses or gasped, but Charles remained perfectly at attention. He understood discipline.

 

**

“Look at you,” Erik kept saying. “Just look at you.”

Charles laughed. For the moment, any fears about the future were completely subsumed in the joy of their reunion.  “I still can’t get used to it.” He ran one hand over his close-shorn head. “I have a feeling we’d better try, though. See how thin it is here in the back? Hopefully bald is a look you can learn to like.”

“I’ve learned already.” Erik kissed him soundly, and Charles gave into it. 

Right now they were the only ones at the mansion. Raven had taken Jean to the park so that Erik and Charles could have some time to themselves – and, he suspected, to continue getting to know the little girl she would now help to raise for at least one year. Erik had been the one to pick up Charles at the train station, which had been both joyful and torturous: Joyful to finally see Erik again, to feast his eyes on the sight of him, and yet torturous to have to refrain from kissing him until they were alone.

But they were alone now.

Charles pulled Erik’s sweater over his head, then helped Erik wrestle him out of his olive-green uniform. But as soon as his bare chest was exposed, Erik paused. “Look at you,” he repeated, but with a new, tantalizing note in his voice. 

Vanity, vanity – and yet Charles couldn’t resist a satisfied smile. He’d worked hard enough for it, after all; basic training had put on five pounds of solid muscle. The glow of pure lust in Erik’s eyes warmed him through. “What about this?” he murmured as he began kissing the side of Erik’s throat. “Could you get used to this?”

“Mmm.” Erik’s thumbs traced the new, firm lines of Charles’ abdomen. “Let me try.”

As deeply as Charles felt about lovemaking being sacred, there was something to be said for surrendering to the moment, to the body. Six weeks of sexual deprivation had felt like forever; how had he ever gone without this for years on end?

He pulled Erik close, as he always did when they began. What did he want? The tendrils of a fantasy curled around Charles, ethereal as mist – Charles taking control, being forceful, claiming Erik with almost brutal strength.

Well. That wasn’t how it usually went. Yet Charles found he liked the idea – and he liked it a lot.

“Come here,” Charles said, pushing Erik down onto the bed, and oh, the light in Erik’s eyes when he did --

What with one thing and another, they wound up with barely enough time to pull their clothes back on before Raven returned home with Jean two hours later.

“Hello, sweetheart.” Charles opened his arms for Jean, then hesitated. He’d been gone so long, and she was so tiny – “Do you remember me?”

“You’re my daddy!” Jean ran into his embrace, and Raven beamed down at him, and the taste of Erik’s kisses was still sweet in his mouth. Charles thought he had never been so perfectly happy.

But they all knew another leave-taking was all too near.

 

**

 

Two nights before Charles was to ship out for Vietnam, Raven threw him a “Goodbye and Good Luck” party.  Champagne, cake, sandwiches, false high spirits – the usual sort of thing.

The guests were mostly people that he and Erik had worked with at Immigrant Outreach and the counseling center, along with the few parishioners Charles had been able to maintain a relationship with since he left the priesthood. He was moved by how many of them were willing to make the trek out to New Salem, as most of them were Manhattanites, and any distraction from his upcoming departure was welcome.

But more than anything else, he was taken aback by how long it had been since he’d seen – nearly all of them, really.

“Father Jerome!” He put his arms around his old friend, laughing out loud. “And you wore the uniform of the enemy.”

Jerome touched the brim of the Mets cap ruefully. “Only for you, Charles. Only for you.”

During the terrible weeks when he’d realized he had to leave the Church, Father Jerome had been Charles’ main source of emotional support. He’d defied the monsignor to stay in touch with Charles through Immigrant Outreach. And yet Charles had hardly spoken to him in six months.

Some of Erik’s friends were there as well, the few Charles had met. Once Erik had been very close to his rabbi and others who worshipped at the same temple; once Erik had moved in with Charles, however, he had more or less stopped attending. These people who might have been Charles’ friends too … he’d never gotten to know them. His emotional life, and Erik’s, were now lived largely within the boundaries of their home.

We are so little a part of the world, Charles thought. He and Erik had chosen this path; it was the price of being together, of having Jean. They could not tell their friends about their relationship, and so they did not spend as much time with their friends. They had to live apart from the rest of society to live as a couple and as a family, and so they rarely went out anywhere beyond their few usual haunts. He had paid this price without hesitation, as had Erik. But at moments like these, Charles was reminded of how very high the price was.

He watched Erik talking animatedly with a few of his old friends, obviously enjoying himself, gesturing around Jean balanced on his knee. For the moment, at least, the dread of Charles’ departure didn’t lie on him as heavily. Erik had needed this more than Charles knew. More than Erik himself knew, probably.

Charles thought, It’s unfair. Although he had always known this, he had never consciously given voice to it before, and the answering rush of anger startled him.

He ducked into the kitchen to collect himself. There he found Father Jerome cutting himself another piece of cake. “Glad you like it,” Charles said, trying his best to smile. “Jean made it. Which is to say, she helped me stir the batter. She’s very proud.”

“Ah, that girl of yours has already become a chef, has she? I’ll be sure to compliment Miss Jean on her masterpiece.” Father Jerome placed his slice on a waiting saucer, then cleared his throat. “I’m glad to have caught you alone, Charles. I wanted to ask if you’d consider taking this with you.”

From his black jacket he pulled a Bible – not just any Bible, but Father Jerome’s cherished Challoner Douay-Rheims, bound in dark-green leather. It had been an ordination gift to him from his older sister, who had died the following month. Charles knew that Bible had never left Father Jerome’s possession, and hardly left his person, in the decades since.

“Father Jerome.” Charles clasped his friend’s hands around the binding of the book. “I’m moved.”

“Perhaps it will bring you luck.”

“You don’t believe in luck any more than I do.” He shook his head slowly. “No. I can’t. It’s one of the kindest things anyone has ever – but I can’t. If something were to happen to it, I’d never forgive myself.”

“You’re to keep it on you at all times,” Father Jerome said, his voice gruff. “Nothing would happen to it then, unless something were to happen to you, and if that’s the case then I won’t be worried about the Good Book, do you understand?”

Charles swallowed the lump in his throat; already the anger was gone, not forgotten but dwarfed by love. “Please, no. I’d rather think of it here, safe, with you. The offer is gift enough. I’ll never forget it.”

Father Jerome sighed. “Have it your own way, then.” His milky blue eyes studied Charles from behind the thick, horn-rimmed spectacles he wore. “How are you bearing up?”

“I’m not afraid. But I hate to leave the people I love." 

A moment’s hesitation – and then Father Jerome said, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”

Erik. He was going to ask about Erik.

But Charles’ gift showed him that Father Jerome did not need to ask – he had suspected for so long that the knowledge was already all but sure. The question was only a way of helping Charles realize that it was safe to answer 

“Mr. Lehnsherr –” Now that the moment had come, Father Jerome couldn’t seem to find the words. “He’s – well, he’s the gentleman in the case, isn’t he?”

Charles let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Yes. Yes, he is.”

Church doctrine held that Father Jerome should immediately have begun attempting to save Charles from sin. Instead, he simply nodded. “He seems like a good man. 

“The best of men.” Now that the truth was out to one more person – thus increasing the total number to four, including Erik and himself  – Charles felt an almost unbelievable rush of relief. And, with it, hope. “May I ask a favor of you?”

“Anything, of course.”

Now he was the one struggling for words. “So few people know about me and Erik. Really it’s just you and Raven. If the worst comes to pass – ”

No. Enough euphemism and soft talk.

“If I die, Erik will be devastated. He’s been through so much already in his life. More than any one man should be asked to bear. But Raven will have her own grief to endure, which means there won’t be anyone for him to lean on. Anyone who knows the whole truth, I mean. Unless you’d promise to reach out to him.”

“I would, of course. I would have in any case, but now I can promise you.”

“Don’t try to talk to him about God or heaven. He’d despise that.” How could he explain anyone so complex, so haunted, as Erik in only a few seconds? Charles focused on what Erik would probably do, what he would need most.  “Just be there for him. Tell him that you know the whole truth and let him – rage at the world. Let him rage at you.”

Being a priest meant often allowing the grief-stricken to vent their pain at you, on you, through curse words and tears and even the occasional blow. Charles had endured his share of it; Father Jerome would be a veteran capable of taking even Erik’s considerable wrath.

Charles finished, “Be sure to tell Erik that I asked you to look out for him, all right? Otherwise he’ll find it officious. And it might help him to know that I was – prepared. 

Quietly, Father Jerome said, “You can count on me.” He laid his hands on Charles’ head, the ancient gesture of benediction.  

 

**

 

The last day before he shipped out was the worst. Raven’s façade of cheery denial crumbled, and her face suddenly seemed like that of a woman ten years older. Erik was wound tight, pacing and grumbling, irritated at everything in the world. Both of them seemed convinced that Jean was ailing, but Charles knew how sensitive his daughter was. How aware. She wept constantly and lay about listless not because she was sick, but because she sensed the grief surrounding her.

He simply hoisted Jean into his arms and held her, virtually all day.  It would be long enough before he got the chance again. Charles spent hours trying to memorize everything about her – the curl of her ear, the flush of her cheek, even the scent of her skin.

A tour of duty in Vietnam lasted one year. A third of Jean’s life. When he came home, she would be transformed, and this Jean, the little girl heavy in his arms, would be no more.

But everyone changed. Jean would grow up this year whether he was here to see it or not.

Still, Charles wished he could see it.

Jean fought sleep for more than an hour past her usual bedtime, but finally surrendered to it.  Raven, who would be taking Charles to the train station at dawn, had already turned in.  So he and Erik were alone as they walked along the hall. As they came to the top of the stairs, Erik turned toward their bedroom, but Charles caught his arm. “Go out to the gardens with me, would you?”

“—all right.”

Charles had to smile. “Not one question about why I want to go outside after dark when it’s cold out? You’re humoring me.”

“Just this once.”

“More than this, I think,” Charles said as they went downstairs. “Erik – are you very angry with me?”

“Angry?” Erik looked so stricken that Charles immediately felt guilty for even voicing the thought. “Charles, no.”

“You’re furious. It’s eating at you; I can feel it.”

“You and your insight.” With a sigh, Erik said, “It’s not you I’m angry at. It’s the Army. The war. The thought of losing you.”

You won’t lose me, Charles wanted to say, but didn’t. Neither of them put much stock in platitudes. Instead he confessed what had been worrying him since the day he’d learned his draft status: “I thought you were angry because I refused to go to Canada. Because I wouldn’t dodge the draft.”

“I wish you had. And if you’re reconsidering – it’s not too late.”

“You know I’m not.”

Erik breathed out, less frustrated than resigned. “Yes, I know. Just as I’ve always known you have a strong sense of responsibility. If you didn’t, we’d never have met. I might not agree with you about where that responsibility lies, but – you are who you are.”

“So what you’re saying is that you knew what you were getting into.”

“With you. Not with this war.” Erik paused for a moment, and Charles could feel the weight of fear and hope that bore Erik down. And yet he only hesitated for that instant before putting on his coat and handing Charles a hat.

They walked outside. It was clear weather, at least, despite the cold. Charles gazed up at the stars; he’d missed them when he lived in Manhattan. Already they were dimmer than they had been when he and Raven were children. How many more years before the ever-expanding city lights swallowed the constellations whole?

“This is your church, isn’t it?” Erik said. “Your personal cathedral.”

“Yes.” Of course Erik would have understood about the gardens all along. 

“And so why have you brought the atheist with you to talk to God?” Erik hesitated for one moment. “If you want me to pray with you, I will.”

Charles was shocked – and, briefly, hopeful. “You would?”

“I don’t share your faith, and yet – I love it, because it’s a part of you. And right now I’d plead with anyone or anything for you to come home safely.”

“That’s not what I’ll pray for tonight. I try not to ask God for things – I mean, I do, of course. I’m only human. But mostly I praise Him, and the glory of His works. And I give thanks for all the good things in my life.” Smiling softly, Charles added, “You’re one of the things I thank God for.”

Erik lifted Charles’ hand to his lips and kissed the backs of his knuckles. “I’m hardly an answer to prayer.”

“You don’t even know,” Charles said. The frosty air whipped between them, and for a few moments he could only gaze at Erik. With the moonlight painting his face in the colors of silver and snow, Erik looked almost stark – something hewn out of rock, perhaps, or forged in high heat. So many people would see this face, hear the black side of his temper, and think he was a cold, forbidding man. They would never see the real Erik, the gentle yearning those grey eyes could hold.

Softly, Erik said, “Promise me you’ll come home.”

“Erik – you know I can’t – “

“It’s uncertain, nobody knows the future, yes, I know it all, but promise anyway. Come home to me.”

To hell with superstition. If this was what Erik needed, Charles would provide. “I promise.”