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The Servant Song

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When he was old, Beverly Keane guided him to the tub and bathed him. His hands shook with palsy; his mind fogged up when he tried to think. Into the tub, into water too cold for comfort, with precious little soap — and when he was settled, staring at his knees where they rose up from the bathwater, at his cock lying limp against his thigh, that was when the confusion came. 

It wasn’t right, to have a woman touch him this way, to see him like this. He tried to sit up, but his abs quivered and gave out on him. He tried to push her away, fingers catching on her sleeve, water splashing up her modest clothes. 

Who was she? Who was she?

“Easy, Father,” she whispers. Her fingers wrap around his forearm, and she looks so delicate, so childlike without any makeup on, but her grip is like iron. She folds his arm against his chest with a snap, leaves a bruise everywhere she touched, takes a wash rag, coarse and full of hoarse, and rubs it over his thighs until his skin abrades — raw and red and somehow more unclean now than when she started.

“Let me be of service,” she says. 

She keeps track of time for him. She lays out his clothes before the start of each day. She wakes him, leads him to the shower, places a toothbrush in his trembling hand. She doesn’t let him close the bathroom door.

“Something could happen to you, Monsignor,” she says. “And if that door is locked when it happens, then where would we be?” She half-smiles, the same smile, the same slight shake of the head that she always uses when someone is being ridiculous. She holds up her hands as if to show how small and soft they are. “What do you expect me to do, Monsignor? Break that door down on my own?”

He thinks of the bruises on his wrists from when she fought to get him into bed, his feet from when she clipped his toenails, his side from when he stumbled against her and she drove her fist into his middle, an accident, to keep him upright. Half-hearted stigmata, never quite harsh enough to draw blood. 

She keeps the services running smoothly. She gives the altar boys harsh looks and makes sure they never point it out when he stumbles. She goes after him at night, when he wanders, and guides him back home.

She takes advantage of him, too. 

He goes to Damascus. He comes back a new man.

He bleeds differently now.

Father Paul is young, and Beverly Keane answers to him. She cleans his parish house because he wishes it, and because she is an excellent servant. She’s not afraid to get down on her knees and let the floorboards rub them raw. She’s not afraid to dip her hands in caustic chemicals, squeeze the excess liquid out of a rag, let it drip down her knuckles and leave ugly pebbled rashes on her skin. 

She does it with a smile. She does it with a shine in her eyes. He sits in his study, his Bible open, a golden ribbon serving as a bookmark. He plays with it absently, his mind ticking over the words before him, lets the fabric of the ribbon slide like silk against his thumb. In the other room, Bev scrubs the floors, and he can hear her humming. Soft at first, no words. Disjointed, her voice giving out, crackling in her throat behind closed lips. 

Then, like a whisper: 

“Will you let me be your servant,
Let me be as Christ to you;
Pray that I may have the grace to
Let you be my servant, too.”

The words of Luke all blend together. Father Paul blinks, waits for his vision to resolve, to stop blurring. He wrenches his gaze away from the Bible, peers through the open door of his study to where Bev kneels, her back to him. He reaches for the teacup she left him, sips at the bitter water.

Tea didn’t used to sting his lips.

Tea didn’t used to burn his throat.

There’s something about the way Bev brews it. He watches her through the door, the flex of her shoulder blades so sharp beneath her shirt, the rough back-and-forth of her arms, her elbows, as she grinds an old worn rag against the floor. She pauses just once, her song dying — turns to look at him as she wipes her brow. She smiles, and Father Paul’s eyes flick up to the bloodstain on her forehead, wet and watery, human iron mixed with bleach. He blinks and it’s gone, and Bev is back to scrubbing at a floor that’s already clean, and when he lifts his teacup to his lips again, his hand is trembling. 

He recognizes the taste now. He understands what is that corrodes his throat, and still he takes another drink.

There’s something about the way Bev sings.