Tiffany Reisz

It's Not Erotica Until Someone Gets Hurt

 

Poinsettia

By Tiffany Reisz

 

This story takes place when Søren is twenty years old and a seminarian.

As is stated in THE MISTRESS, Søren never told Magdalena his real name. Therefore he is referred to as “Marcus” in this story among other less-than-flattering names.

 

Christmas Eve

Rome, Italy

 

Magdalena sat all alone in the window of her parlor smoking a cigarette and balancing her antique walnut writing lap desk on her thigh. She wasn’t writing although she should have been. The letters had been piling up for weeks—invitations, assignations, a letter or two from an old friend…Tonight would be a perfect night to catch up on correspondence as she was alone and the house was closed up. Alone on purpose, of course. The notorious and exalted Signora Magdalena did not sleep alone except by choice.

And it had been her choice, she reminded herself. She could have had company if she’d wanted it. Magdalena had told her girls the same lie she told them every Christmas season—“I don’t keep Christmas and never have. Run along home. I want to do nothing but sleep for the next two days. If I see you at the house before the twenty-sixth, you’re fired.” Then she’d slip them two million lira each as a holiday bonus and shoo them off. She’d told Giovanni and Alessandro, her two most devoted paramours, they must leave her alone because she was tiring of them. A tiny untruth as she liked them both, but when one slept with masochists, one must be cruel as a rule. Kindness was always the exception.

Lies, lies, all lies. The truth was, Magdalena missed celebrating Christmas. But she was a madam—a notorious madam at that, if one believed the ribald verses scrawled on the sides of buildings—and a madam had to remain aloof, tough, an object of fear and respect. If her girls—loyal to a fault—knew spent Christmas alone just so they could be with whatever friends or families they had left, they might stay with her out of pity. Or, God forbid, beg her to join them at their grandfather or grandmother or mother’s house. No. Magdalena couldn’t allow that to happen. Better to simply sleep for two days, eat dinner alone on Christmas Eve and catch up on all the correspondence she’d been putting off since September. But this wasn’t a lie—if any one of her girls showed up between now and the twenty-sixth, Magdalena would fire her.

It certainly sounded like someone was getting fired tonight.

Or murdered.

Surely the girls knew better than to come back. So those footsteps must belong to an intruder…

Magdalena quietly laid her writing desk aside and crushed out her cigarette in the ebony ashtray. Taking the fireplace poker in hand, Magdalena crept down the dark hall from the parlor to the sunken kitchen where she’d heard the creaking of the floorboards under what she assumed were human feet. The house was old—three-hundred years—and it creaked like an old man getting out of bed in the morning. While on the outside the house appeared to be nothing but a crumbling old villa—yellow plaster, peeling green wood shutters, chipped marble door frames—inside she’d remodeled it to resemble the love child of a palazzo and a bordello. But for all the work she’d had done on the house inside, Magdalena never fixed her creaking floors. She considered them a security system. No one could take a step in this house without her hearing it. And whoever was in the house was taking a lot of steps in her kitchen.

Their last steps.

Magdalena kept to the left side of the staircase as that was the quiet side. Her heart raced more from excitement than fear. Perhaps it wasn’t excitement. Considering it was her specialty of the trade, perhaps it was blood lust.

She stepped into her sunken kitchen and saw no lights on but for the glow coming from inside the open refrigerator door. The door blocked the intruder from her sight. Breathing deeply to calm herself, she raised the fireplace poker over her head.

“You have an entire rack of lamb in here,” came a voice emanating from inside the refrigerator. “I didn’t think you ate mutton.”

Magdalena groaned and lowered her poker.

“I don’t, but Antonia is teaching herself to cook. And what are you doing here?” she demanded. “It’s past your bed time.”

“Eating.”

“Do they not feed you at the Gregorianum?”

“What they feed us should not be called food. What it should be called is a word that should not be used in polite company.”

“Good thing you’re in my company then.”

Her intruder closed the refrigerator door as Magdalena flipped on the kitchen lights. He had a bowl of her leftover penne alla primavera from last night in his hand, a bunch of pale green grapes hanging from between his fingers, and her last annurche apple clutched between his teeth.

“Now I remember why I didn’t want children. You boys eat your mothers out of house and home,” she said, shaking her head.

He sat down on the bench at her rough wood kitchen table, took a loud bite out of the apple, swallowed, and set it next to his bowl. Half the apple was already gone. He’d bitten it all the way to the core.

“Are you a boy or a wolf?” she asked.

“Do you have a fork?”

“Would you prefer a shovel?” She crossed her arms over her chest. She hadn’t been expecting company so she wore only her favorite black slip and black silk robe which was hardly attire for mixed company. Not that her “guest” seemed interested in her attire at all. He had eyes only for her food.

“A fork will do.”

With a sigh, Magdalena opened a drawer, took out a fork and held it out to him. He reached across the table to take it from her and she pulled it back at the last second.

“Tease,” he said.

“Say ‘please.’”

“Why are you so mean to me?”

“Someone has to be.”

“I don’t deserve it.” Marcus gave her an innocent look. She didn’t buy it for one second.

She smiled at him and softly whispered, “We both know you deserve it.”

Wisely, he chose not to argue.

“Please,” he said.

“Good, Bambi.” She gave him the fork.

He glared at her. Such a glare, it would have scared anyone on the planet, anyone but her.

“You’re cute when you’re murderous,” she said.

“Why must you insist on calling me Bambi?” he asked.

Magdalena leaned across the table and pinched his cheek.

“Because you’re my little baby priest, Bambino. And you won’t let me call you Marcus so Bambi it is.”

“You are the most evil woman I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

“So far.”

“Don’t do that.”

“You’re going love this girl. She’s more vicious than I am,” she said with her best evil grin, the one she reserved just for her baby priest.

She does not exist.”

“Oh, she exists. She’s going to ruin you and you’re going to thank her for it. I can’t wait for you to meet her.” She clapped her hands in fiendish glee.

“If you are right, I’ll eat my collar. But as you didn’t know it was me in your kitchen tonight, forgive me if I don’t buy stock in your psychic abilities.”

She shrugged. “They come and go.”

“Will Antonia mind-”

“If you touch her lamb, she’ll break your arm. You know she will and you know I’m speaking literally. She’s put men in the hospital for less.”

“I knew I liked her for a reason.”

“Eat your pasta. I’ll open the wine. Oh no, I forgot. You’re not old enough to drink.”

“I am.”

“Not in America and you’re American…”

“We’re in Rome. We do as the Romans do, remember?” he said.

“The Romans crucified Christians. Good thing I have a cross with your name on it.”

There was that glare again. She made it personal mission in life to make this young man glare at her as much as humanly possible.

“Open the wine,” he said. Then he added, “Please. I did turn twenty three days ago.”

“Did you? Aww…My little Bambi is growing up.” Magdalena pretended to wipe a tear from her eyes. She placed a glass of Brunello wine in front of him on the table and kissed the top of his golden blond head. “I’ll get my special books from my room. I think it’s time you learned about the birds and the bees.”

“You’re ruining my appetite, Magda.”

“Don’t be embarrassed. Sex is a very beautiful act between a woman and a man’s wallet.”

He pushed the bowl of penne away from him. But not out of disgust with her. He’d already finished eating it.

“My God, you were hungry.”

“I’m a growing boy, remember.”

“I know you are. Go and stand in the doorway.”

He gave her the sort of stare that could flatten a weaker woman than she.

“Do I have to?”

She raised her chin.

“Fine.” Marcus walked to the kitchen doorway and stood with his back to the frame. From a drawer Magdalena pulled out a pencil and a ruler. She placed the ruler on top of Marcus’s head and made a mark on the doorframe.

“Well?”

“You’ve only grown half a centimeter in the last two months,” she said. “For a grand total of 193 and a half centimeters which is probably where you’ll stay.”

“That half-centimeter makes me half a centimeter taller than my father. He’ll be thrilled I’m taller than he is. And by ‘thrilled’ I mean he’ll hate me more than ever.” He grinned as he said this, but it wasn’t a happy sort of grin. More a grin and a grimace.

“I’ll keep feeding you then if only to spite your father. No one enjoys torturing bad parents more than I do. Have you heard from him recently?”

“He sent me a letter calling me an ingrate, a degenerate, and a disgrace to the family name. Oh, and he told me I had to get married or he’s cutting me off.”

“And what did you tell him?”

“I reminded him that I’m under a vow of poverty so I have, in effect, cut myself off. Also I told him that considering he’s a rapist who preyed on young women and children, I was quite pleased to know I disgraced his name. I wrote this in his Christmas card.”

“Happy Christmas indeed. You’ve earned this.”

She handed him his wine glass. It looked small in his hands. He had massive hands, large as Michelangelo’s David and as well-sculpted.

“Thank you. And thank you for second dinner.”

“If you keep eating like this, I’m going to start charging you,” she said, pointing the wine bottle at him before uncorking it again.

“Vow of poverty.”

“I accept several forms of currency,” she reminded him.

“Vow of chastity.”

“There are no free meals in this house,” she said.

“I brought you a gift. Does that count as payment?”

“A gift?”

“Two gifts actually,” he said. “One is there.” He pointed at the kitchen counter. “The other is coming later.”

Magdalena walked over to the counter where a poinsettia sat in a red pot blooming hugely with bright red leaves.

“How lovely,” she said, smiling and stroking one graceful leaf. “My mother always called these Christmas Stars. Where did you get it?”

“I took it from the Motherhouse. A wealthy patron sent a hundred. They won’t miss one.”

“Took it from where in the Motherhouse?” she asked, narrowing her eyes at Marcus who didn’t meet her eyes.

“I might have taken it from the chapel altar.”

“You stole the poinsettia off the altar in the chapel at the Jesuit Motherhouse to give to the madam of a brothel?”

“I’m simply relocating it.”

“Knowing you, I’m surprised you didn’t eat it. Come to the parlor, Bambi. This will look darling on my side table.”

She picked up the bright red poinsettia in one hand and her wine glass in the other, and started toward the downstairs parlor.

“You never ask, do you?” He followed her with his wine glass in his right hand, the wine bottle in the left. “You only give orders.”

“You think I’m controlling?”

“Commanding,” he said. “People want to obey you. Not me, of course. But I like studying you to see how you do it.”

“People want to obey anyone. If you act like you’re in charge, people will follow your orders simply out of relief that someone else is leading the way. It’s easier to follow than to lead. Leading takes courage which is why so few people want to do it.”

“I want to lead.”

“You want to be a dictator.”

“I don’t deny it,” he said as they entered the parlor. He switched on the crystal table lamp and she set her poinsettia next to it. “If you know you’re better at leading than others, why not take charge?”

“People like leaders. They do not like tyrants.”

“I can be a benevolent dictator, can’t I?” He set his wine glass down on the end table and went to work on her fireplace.

“You’re already a dictator. Now let’s work on the benevolent part.”

“I am benevolent,” he said. “I brought you a poinsettia.”

“Yes, and I’m highly suspicious of the gesture.”

“I was attempting to be kind.”

“Is this Father Ballard’s doing again?”

“It might be,” he said, as he crouched in front of the gray marble fireplace. He lit the tinder under the log and carefully coaxed a fire into life. She watched him as he worked, intent and calm and capable. She always left the men’s work to the men in the house. Only thing they were good for, in her opinion. That and the money they spent here.

“What was his assignment for you this week?”

“He told me to give someone a Christmas gift, someone Christ would give a gift to. He said if I act like a human being, I might eventually turn into one.”

“Fake it until you make it? I believe that’s what you Americans say.”

“I told Father Ballard to keep his expectations low. He said they couldn’t possibly get any lower where I was concerned.”

Magdalena laughed as she sat on the love seat and tucked her feet under her robe.

“I wish I could meet your confessor. Father Ballard sounds like my sort of man.”

“He’s trying to teach me to have Christ-like compassion for my fellow man.”

“How is that proceeding?”

He stared into the fire. “I loathe my fellow man.”

“Carving you into a human being is proving to be one of the labors of Hercules. But we’ll get there, Father Ballard and I. And when I’m done sculpting you, I’ll put you on my mantel.”

“Is that what this is? Sculpting?”

“You are a work in progress, my dear. I just need to sand down a few more rough edges. Then you’ll be perfect.”

“I have no rough edges.”

“You scare Bianca.”

“Then Bianca is a coward.”

“Bianca is a sadist and her father’s a capo in the Sicilian mafia. And yet you terrify her.”

“Why do I terrify Bianca?” he asked as he lit a match that he let burn all the way down to his fingertips. He didn’t blow it out. He let the fire singe him. All the while he watched dispassionately like an alien performing a procedure which studied human reactions to pain. When the match finally burned out he flicked it into the quietly roaring fire.

“I can’t imagine,” she said.

He stood up and faced the fireplace, testing the heat and adjusting the damper. As usual he was clad in all black tonight—black slacks, black clerical shirt, black jacket, and no white collar. He rarely wore the collar in her presence. She almost wished he would. The hollow of his throat was an object of preoccupation for her, and she’d already promised herself she wouldn’t sleep with him although she did love to flirt with him. He really wasn’t her type despite his undeniable appeal. He needed to put on a few pounds to flesh out his tall frame. He had a trim waist and hips and broader shoulders than a priest would ever need. And she did love a blond. They were so rare in Rome, blond men. He had a lock of hair that would fall over his right eye after he’d exerted himself with Caterina, the one girl in the house brave enough or stupid enough to play with him in his darker moods. Magdalena tried to convince herself she let Marcus into her home and her life because she found him attractive. She did but that wasn’t why. Usually male sadists repelled her. It wasn’t personal. Like repelled like—she and Marcus were two north ends of a magnet. But while Marcus was a sadist, he was still nothing more than boy. He wasn’t competition, nor was he a threat. He submitted to her not as a slave to a Mistress, but as a student to a teacher. Better he learn from her than on his own. An untrained boy of his strength and intensity with that level sadism could kill someone by accident.

“Where’s your fireplace poker?” he asked as he crouched in front of the fire again, apparently not satisfied with its output.

“In the kitchen. I was going to use it to knock you unconscious before I knew it was you.”

“You gave me a key to your house. Don’t be surprised if I use it.”

“I gave you the key so you could feed Moussolini when I was gone on my trips, not so you could raid my refrigerator.”

“You didn’t specify I could only use the key for feeding your cat. And I refuse to call him by that name,” he said as he took his usual seat in the large red and gold armchair with the gilt legs. A chair fit for a king. Probably because it had once belonged to King Charles Emmanuel the IV of Sardinia.

“Moussolini doesn’t care what you call him as long as you feed him,” she said, lifting her small drowsing black and white tuxedo cat out of his basket by the end of the love seat. The cat immediately spied the poinsettia and hopped on the sofa arm. With his one white mitten, Moussilini batted at a red leaf. “Isn’t that right, sweet Mous-Mous?” She tickled his chin whiskers.

“Don’t let him eat that,” Marcus said. “I heard they can poison pets.”

“Holly berries,” she said. “Those are poisonous. Poinsettias aren’t. He’d have to eat dozens of leaves to get sick from a poinsettia.” But she still plucked him off the chair arm. She scratched his ears, an activity he usually enjoyed except he’d noticed Marcus was in the room and Moussi, her naughty tyke, had no time for her when his favorite human was in residence.

The cat leapt lightly off her lap, trotted across the Persian rug, and jumped into Marcus’s lap.

“Go away,” he said to the cat.

“It’s Christmas Eve. You have to be nice on Christmas Eve. If you can’t have compassion for your fellow man, surely you can have compassion for a cat.”

“He’s shedding on my trousers.”

“It’s what cats do. And you know you love him.”

“I sympathize with him, that’s all,” Marcus said as he stroked the cat between the ears. “He’s named after someone terrible. I’m named after someone terrible. He has to put up with you. I have to put with you. We share many sorrows, don’t we, Mus?”

“Mus?”

“Danish for ‘mouse.’”

“And you speak Danish because you are Danish…”

“I also speak Swedish and Norwegian and French and Latin and German and Italian and—”

“I only want to know where you’re from. Why don’t you tell me more about your childhood?” she asked. “Why all the secrets?”

“You know enough of my secrets.”

“Never enough,” she said, grinning. “I want all of your secrets.”

“Ask Mus. I told him my secrets in August when you were in Greece, and he and I had the house to ourselves.”

“He’s a cat. You can’t get a straight answer out of a cat. I’ve tried.”

“You know perfectly well you could find out anything you want to know about me. You have your ways,” he said.

Magdalena leaned forward and rested her chin on her hand.

“But I don’t want to know your secrets,” she said. “I want you to tell me your secrets. The secrets aren’t the prize. You giving up your secrets to me—that is the prize.”

“You know about Kingsley,” he said.

“He’s only one of your secrets.”

“He’s the only secret that matters.”

She smiled at him. “You want to believe that,” she said. “But you don’t, and neither do I.”

He cocked his eyebrow at her but said nothing. He leaned back in the chair and stroked Moussi from the tips of his ears to the end of his tail. Moussi stretched and preened and purred under the attention.

“My pussy loves you,” she said.

“Mus, are you old enough to be living in this den of iniquity?” he asked the cat.

“Moussi is two years old which is twenty-five in cat years, which is still older than you are, Bambi.”

“Do you hear what she calls me?” he said, looking down at the cat. “Why do we put up with her?”

“Because I give you both exactly what you need to stay alive—food for him, willing victims for you.”

“She makes a good point, Mus.” Marcus scratched Moussi under the chin and if a cat could smile, this one did. “I wish I could argue with her, but she’d take my willing victims away.”

“No willing victims tonight, I’m afraid. All the kids are home for the holidays.”

“You’re the only madam I know who refers to the women in her employ as ‘the kids.’ It’s somewhat unnerving.”

“I am the only madam you know. Also, I like unnerving people. It’s what I do for a living. Unnerving, undressing, unmanning…”

“I’ve noticed.”

“Did you come here for release tonight? If so, we can call Caterina. She’s home with her brother, and he lives close by.”

“I came because it’s Christmas. And to eat your food. But mostly because it’s Christmas.”

“You knew I’d be alone?”

“I knew I’d be alone.”

She narrowed his eyes at him. “Don’t play me,” she said. She didn’t like it when Marcus voluntarily showed any vulnerability. She didn’t trust it. It was a game and she was the Game Master around here, not him.

“I like playing people,” he said. “It’s what I do.”

“You won’t make me feel sorry for you. I refuse to feel sorry for you.”

“Then why did you take me in?”

“Because you’re beautiful and rare, and I like looking at beautiful, rare things. As you see…” She waved her hand around the room, at the eighteenth-century Seymour card table, at the van Dyck painting hanging over the fireplace, at the priceless Qianlong jade bowls on the end table. “And this of course.” She stroked one bright red poinsettia leaf. “My only Christmas decoration. I tell the kids I don’t keep Christmas so they’ll leave me alone in the house for two days.”

“Do you want me to leave you alone?”

“No. I want you to stay,” she said. “Although I don’t know why I do. You’re wholly unlikeable.”

“You did say I was pretty.”

“No, I said you were beautiful. And I do have a Christmas gift for you so it’s good you came by.”

“You do? Why?” Not what. He didn’t ask what the gift was. He asked why. He didn’t trust her any more than she trusted him.

“I don’t know,” she said. “You mentioned something you wanted a while ago, and I decided to get it for you. Of course you’ll wish I hadn’t given it to you when I do give it to you. If I give it to you. What do you think I should do, Moussi?”

Moussi only answered with his roaring rumbling purr. That whoring slut of a cat had rolled onto his back and offered Marcus the soft underbelly for scratching, which Moussi never did with her. She was taking all his Christmas sardines back to the store.

“I’ve received very few Christmas gifts in my life,” Marcus said as he buried his fingers deep into Moussi’s fur. “I went to school in England and spent holidays with fairly distant relatives. Distant in every sense of the word. I was nothing but a boarder. My mother gave me a Christmas gift last year, and I didn’t know how to thank her.”

“What did your mother give you?”

“A lovely handcrafted straight razor that had belonged to my grandfather.”

“Your mother gave you a straight razor. How appropriate. Considering.”

“I only use it for shaving.”

“You’re old enough to shave now?”

Marcus looked at her. That look again. She did love that look.

“What about you? What was Christmas like for you as a child?” he asked.

“No gifts for me either,” she said. “Christmas was nothing but going to Mass. Mamma would take me to church with her on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day if she wasn’t working. My father was Roma and they weren’t married. Mamma was an outcast from her own family. She had to move us to another town to escape the scandal and our poverty was extreme. We had no money for gifts, no money for large holiday meals—only the Church.”

“Your family had an excuse—poverty. Mine didn’t. Except for a poverty of the soul, perhaps. I worry sometimes I inherited their poverty,” he said.

Magdalena walked over to him and sat on the arm of his chair, facing him.

“Bambi, darling, I’m going to tell you something and you must believe that it’s true.” She tucked a strand of golden blond hair behind his ear.

“Yes?” he asked.

“You did.”

He looked at her for a very long time before laughing. A year and a half ago he wouldn’t have handled such a bare-faced insult so well.

“You are a magnificent bitch.” He made it sound like a compliment and she took it as such.

“It’s true,” she said. “You had to have your own confessor tell you to bring me a Christmas gift because otherwise it wouldn’t occur to you to give something to the woman who took you in. Would it? Sounds like poverty of the soul to me.”

“You only took me in because you find me attractive.”

“No, I took you in for the same reason I took in Moussolini—I needed help keeping the vermin out. A baby priest is a good as a bodyguard.”

He leaned his head back on the chair and stared flatly at her.

“I brought you a Christmas plant. Couldn’t you pretend to be nice to me for one minute?”

“I can be nice to you for…” She glanced at the grandfather clock on the opposite wall. “Fifteen seconds. Starting now. Bambi, I do find you very attractive despite the fact that you are cold and distant and self-absorbed, thoughtless, a snob, utterly entitled and—”

“Your fifteen seconds is almost up.”

“There is a spark of something inside you that’s as beautiful as the outside. Since I can see that spark, I feel it’s my duty to blow on it and start a wildfire.”

Magdalena leaned forward, pressed her lips together and blew, aiming for the hollow of his throat. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back, baring his throat to her. She wanted to bite it, hard, sink her teeth into him and make him bleed. She’d had more than one lover accuse her of being a vampire and perhaps she was. But she had no desire to drink the blood. No, she wanted to drink pain and Marcus…her Marcus, his pain was the finest of vintages. Old pain, well-ripened, seasoned with sex and betrayal and sadism—her favorite flavors.

“I should have asked for your body for Christmas,” she said.  

“It’s not going to happen,” he said.

“Why not?” She pouted at him. He hated pouting.

“I have a very good reason,” he said. “And it’s not the reason you think it is.”

“That you’re a coward who is terrified of his own sexuality?”

“No. Nor am I terrified by yours.”

Magdalena’s blood cooled a few degrees.

“What do you mean?” she asked too innocently, too casually. “My sexuality?”

She sat on the arm of his chair and leaned across his lap, Moussi in-between them.

“You are the most beautiful woman in Rome. This is saying something,” Marcus said.

“You really think so?” She batted her eyelashes to make him laugh. He didn’t laugh.

“You have the thickest, most luxurious black hair I’ve ever seen. It’s a starless night in your eyes. Your breasts are magnificent and your hips are everything a man who loves women could hope and dream of. You have long shapely legs. You dress like a fashion plate. You smell like an orchard in June—everything delicious and ripe for the plucking. And you’re tall. I love how tall you are. And you have exquisite warm olive skin like Kingsley’s and to say there’s anything like you that’s like him is the highest compliment I can give anyone. There is nothing undesirable about you. That is all I will say on the subject.”

Magdalena exhaled heavily and shook her head.

“I see you know my little secret,” she said. “May I ask how you know it?”

“You were right—my mother is Danish. I visit her in Copenhagen when I can. Copenhagen is both a large city and a small town. When I came by in August to feed Mus and bring in your mail, I saw you had received two letters from a surgeon in Copenhagen. A legendary surgeon. There’s only one reason people outside of Denmark go to Denmark for surgery, only one reason they go to this particular surgeon.”

She nodded slowly. “I see.”

“You know I don’t care, yes? I need you to know that.”

“You’re being considerate of my feelings. How…unlike you.”

“If you’re going to think ill of me—”

“Which I do.”

“I want you to think ill of me for the right reasons, not because I care you weren’t born female.”

“I was born female. But there were…are some ‘abnormalities’ present, as the doctors called them. These ‘abnormalities’ have caused complications in my life. This particular abnormality is something some men find horrifying and other men with a particular fetish find irresistible. Then again, you’re not most men, are you?”

“Are you having surgery? I realize this is not any of my concern.”

“But you’re still asking.”

“You ask me rude personal questions all the time.”

He had a point but she hardly wished to concede that.

“My mother raised me as a boy until puberty started and it became obvious that a boy wasn’t what God had intended me to be despite the presence of what looked like a very male organ on my person. As I developed as a girl, I started dressing like one, acting like one. The priest at our church called me ‘demon seed,’ ‘unnatural,’ an ‘abomination.’ You don’t forget something like that. You don’t forget being called demonic. It stays with a person like a brand or a burn. You carry it with you, in you.” She touched her chest over her heart where the anger still burned.

“That’s why you left the Church?”

The first night Marcus had come to her house she’d almost refused him. He wasn’t the first priest who sought release in her home, but he was the first priest she’d let in if only because he wasn’t a priest quite yet, and she thought perhaps she could save him from that path. When he’d asked her about her hostility toward the Catholic Church she’d told him only that her priest had hurt her family and she could never forgive the Church. If God wanted her back, he could send the Church to her for she would never ever return to it.

“I didn’t leave the Church. The Church left me. It rejected me, cast me out. I do not go where I am not wanted.”

“You are perfect as you are,” he said. “You are not demon seed.”

“A priest said I was.”

“Yes, a dried-up evil old priest who lusted for the little boy he thought you were and despised you for failing his sick pedophilic fantasies.”

“Tell me how you really feel, Bambi.”

“I would never tell you what to do with your body. But-”

“That’s not true at all. Once you told me exactly what I could do to my body. I believe the statement started with ‘Go’ and ended with ‘yourself’ with a third word in-between that was most unbecoming a priest-in-training.”

“That was a figurative statement I said only after you had a police officer come to the house and arrest you for murdering a client and it wasn’t until he had you in his car did you reveal it was all a joke—a joke on me.”

“That was a fun evening, wasn’t it? I love jokes.”

“You don’t need surgery. You need psychoanalysis.”

Magdalena laughed and laughed. Nothing made her happier than driving Marcus mad. And it wasn’t easy to do which is why it was so rewarding when she succeeded. 

“If I had psychoanalysis and started behaving myself, then would you want to sleep with me, Bambi?” She tossed her hair over her shoulder, placed her finger on her lip in a perfect pout, feigning innocence.

“Oh, God no.” He sounded utterly disgusted by the very idea of her behaving herself. “Sleeping with you would be enjoyable for an hour or two. Torturing you by not sleeping with you? That will never cease to be fun for me.”

“What if I let you hurt me like you hurt Caterina?” Torturing beautiful men was her absolute favorite hobby. She could do this all day. And usually she did.

“I couldn’t hurt you with a chainsaw and a Kalashnikov.”

“That’s true enough. But you and I both know that’s not it. You’re terrified of falling in love again, aren’t you?”

“You would be too if you were me.”

“Eventually you will have to let go of your fears for Kingsley. He’s an adult.”

“He is if he’s still alive. Both his parents are dead, his sister is dead. And he has a bad habit of engaging in incredibly reckless behavior even under the best of circumstances.”

“He did sleep with you.”

“My point exactly.”

His jaw was set like a granite statue and he wouldn’t meet her eyes. She and Marcus taunted and teased each other constantly and the insults were never-ending, but when the subject of his former lover Kingsley came up, Marcus did not play.

“I haven’t seen him since he left school, and he still drives me to distraction. He’d be so proud of himself if he knew I worried every day he was dead.” He looked up at the ceiling and shook his head.

“Kingsley,” he said and nothing else. It sounded like a plea.

Or a prayer.

“Love is a curse. Love is a burden. A beautiful curse. A beautiful burden.”

“I’d cut out my own heart if I could,” he said.

“I’d cut out your own heart if I could too.”

“Oh, you’re too kind.”

Magdalena caressed his cheek. He had the most marvelous cheekbones. A ship’s navigator could use them as a sextant to align ships and stars.

“Listen to me—whatever happened in the past is past. That’s why it’s called the past. In time you will love someone again and you won’t have to be afraid.”

“Her?” he asked.

“Her.”

“When you talk about the future as if you know it, you sound deranged.”

“My father was the king of the gypsies—Mamma told me that. I have his gifts.”

“Your mother lied to you. There is no such person as ‘the king of the gypsies.’ And you know even better than I do you aren’t supposed to call them that. Your father may have been Roma, but he couldn’t do magic and neither can you.”

“Ha,” she said and then “Ha,” again. “I can’t do magic says the boy in training to turn wine into blood.”

“I said you can’t do magic. I didn’t say I couldn’t do it.”

“Someday you’ll see I’m right. Someday you’ll know.” She bent to kiss his forehead.

“You may do that again.”

“You like having your forehead kissed?” she asked, running her fingertips through his hair.

“I like being able to see into your gown.” He touched his forehead again over his left eye. “Right there. Best angle.”

She kissed him where he asked her to because it gave her the chance to smell the fireplace smoke in his hair, a warm earthy scent. Very male and mouthwatering. Well worth the price of flashing him her breasts.

“I have no plans on having any surgery,” she said. “Although I thank you for your entirely unsolicited advice. I visited the good Danish surgeon because he’s writing a paper on the particular condition I have, which is now believed to be caused by a hormonal abnormality in the womb as opposed to the work of the Devil.”

“Good,” he said. “Surgery carries risk. I wouldn’t want to lose you.”

“Because you like me so much?”

“I don’t like you at all. But, as you said, you provide me with food and willing victims. Therefore my continued ability to function is in your hands.”

He smiled at her, the sort of smile that dared her to slap him. And she considered it. Then again, she was a sadist. She wanted to slap nearly every man on earth. She refrained. For now.

“I should never have brought a baby priest home.” Shaking her head, she walked to the fireplace to warm herself. “I’m always bringing home strays. At least Moussilini pulls his weight around here. Haven’t seen a mouse in six months.”

“You want to put me to work for my keep? I will work.”

“Can you work?”

“I can reach items on high shelves.” 

“I have a much better idea. Up.” She crooked her finger at him.

He pointed at his lap. “Mus is asleep.”

“He’ll forgive you for waking him. You’re his favorite.”

With a sigh, Marcus plucked the sleeping Moussi off his lap. The cat went limp in his hands as Marcus carried him over to his basket and laid him gently inside.

“Stay,” Marcus said to the cat.

“That is a cat, not a dog. He doesn’t respond to commands.”

Together they watched as Moussi turned in a circle in his basket, turned in a circle again, and then laid down.

“How do you do that?” Magdalena asked.

He shrugged, a surprisingly adolescent gesture from Marcus. Then again, he had been a teenager until three days ago.

“I have no idea.”

“Let’s see how well you respond to commands. Come up to my bedroom.”

He cocked that eyebrow again and she wondered if he’d practiced that in the mirror.

“Not for sex,” she said. “Your gift is up there. Also I need a guinea pig to test a new toy.”

He looked at her, not moving, not blinking.

“If your eyebrow gets any higher, it will end up on the back of your neck,” she said.

“What toy is it?”

“It’s nothing invasive, I promise,” she said as she strode from the room. “I test the butt plugs and vibrators on myself. Come, come.”

She patted her thigh as if calling a dog to her.

Magdalena half-expected he wouldn’t follow her. She half-expected he would simply leave as she walked away. It’s what she would have done in his shoes as it was the most sadistic thing. Someone offers you a gift but says you must earn it? Walk away. Reject the gift, reject the giver. Nothing hurt more than having a gift rejected. To his credit and to her pleasure, he followed her up the main stairway to her bedroom.

“You keep your bedroom door locked?” Marcus asked as she unlocked the door with a key she wore tied to her wrist with a red cord.

“I value my privacy. You will too whenever you have privacy again.”

“I doubt I will. Jesuits tend to live in community. Makes it harder to have a private life.”

“Which is what you have me for. Tell me ‘thank you, Magda.’”

He exhaled. “Thank you, Magda.”

“Good Bambi.”

She opened the door to her bedroom and switched on the Tiffany lamp at her bedside.

Marcus remained standing inside the door.

“Do you like it?” she asked, as she sat on her bed. “My bedroom?”

“It isn’t what I expected.”

“What did you expect?”

“Something less…girlish.”

“This room isn’t girlish. It’s feminine. Like me.” She stretched out on her side and the robe parted to reveal a long bare leg. The room was entirely white but for the deep blue tile floors. White padded headboard and footboard on the bed, delicate white table and chairs, white and gilt dresser, white and gilt chandelier glowing with the softest gold light.

“I assumed there would be whips on the wall, chains on the bed, and for some reason I pictured swords crossed over the fireplace.”

“I think you’re describing your dream bedroom.”

“My dream bedroom wouldn’t have crossed swords over the fireplace. Crossed scalpels, however…”

He glanced over his shoulder at her with a look on his face to curl a girl’s toes.

“Now I know what to give you for Christmas next year.”

“Obsidian blades, preferably.”

“You should take your shirt off,” Magdalena said as she casually twirled the cord of her black robe. “It would please me.”

“I’m not taking any clothes off until you tell me what you’re doing to me.”

“I’m not telling you what I’m doing to you until you take your shirt off. And if you don’t take your shirt off, you won’t get your Christmas gift.”

“A gift you already said I would regret taking from you.”

“Yes.”

“It’s a miracle of God when two sadists alone in a room together manage to agree on anything, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Less theological musing, more stripping.”

“I may not want this Christmas gift after all.”

“I know you aren’t modest, Bambi. I’ve seen you naked.”

“That was a different situation. I was trying to prove a point.”

“You certainly proved it.”

Magdalena laughed her lowest, most throaty laugh, the one she used when seducing rich men into handing over their wallets. Last summer her lover Alessandro had taken her, the girls, and Marcus out on his boat for a lazy day in the sun. Antonia, Bianca, and Caterina colluded together the night before the trip, deciding to tease and torment Marcus as much as possible on their trip. A pretty nineteen-year-old Jesuit? Magdalena’s new pet? How could they resist? Once they’d cast anchor a few kilometers offshore in the deep blue waters of the Mar Tirreno, the three girls set up their chaises longues and, stripped off their bikini tops and started teasing him—“Marco, come put oil on my back…Marco, come put oil on my front…Marco, come tell us all about Jesus…” They’d all stared at him, daring him to refuse, daring him to do it. They were all at least five years his senior, all three beautiful, sadistic, and very well-trained prostitutes. And her girls were absolutely certain they were scandalizing him with their naked breasts and their incessant flirting. In response to their requests, he’d simply replied, “in a moment,” before stripping off every last stitch of clothing, folding it neatly, and then diving off the side of the boat into the water. Five minutes later, now wet as well as naked, he’d climbed up the ladder, wrapped a towel around his waist, and dutifully applied the tanning oil to the backs of each of Magda’s suddenly subdued employees. Her girls had stripped half-naked. He’d stripped completely naked, and in doing so he’d put their shamelessness to shame. No longer was he “Marco” or “Magda’s Pet.” After that day he was “Signore.”

“Still waiting,” Magdalena said. “And you’re still wearing your shirt.”

“Can you at least give me a hint why you want me to take my shirt off?” he asked. “I’ve seen what you can do with a branding iron. I don’t want to have to explain a phallic-shaped third-degree burn to the school nurse.”

“I have no intention of branding you. Not tonight.”

“Will this involve bleeding?”

“Anything could involve bleeding when you and I are involved.”

He still didn’t make any sort of move to undress. With a sigh Magdalena left the comfort of her big soft bed and walked over to him.

“Here. I’ll help.”

First she slid his jacket off him and hung it on the corner of her dressing screen. Then she unbuttoned the top button of his shirt and waited for him to say something. He didn’t.

“It’s not like you to be shy,” she said. “You know you have a fabulous body if a bit too thin for my tastes.”

“My reticence is neither cowardliness nor shyness. I’m feeling vulnerable tonight, and I would prefer it if you didn’t take advantage of me in my current state.”

Magdalena laughed in his face. Loudly.

“You don’t believe me?” he asked.

“No.”

He clasped his hands behind his back. “I wouldn’t either.”

Magdalena unbuttoned the rest of his shirt buttons.

“Are you really feeling vulnerable tonight or are you playing me again?” she asked. She and Marcus had yet to have a conversation where one of them didn’t attempt to fuck with the other’s mind. She’d gone as far as telling him she was dying of cancer to see how he’d react. He’d gone as far as telling her he’d fallen in love with her and was leaving the Jesuits to be with her. She’d almost believed him and had laughed so hard when he’d revealed himself she’d almost wept. If he told her he was feeling vulnerable, two motives were possible—he was feeling vulnerable, or he wanted to play with her mind. The first was possible but unlikely. The second was a near certainty.

“As you are continuing to undress me, it’s clear my answer to that question is irrelevant.”

“It’s not irrelevant. I simply care about my desire to see you shirtless more than I care about your desire to remain shirted.”

He exhaled heavily as she pulled his shirt out of his waistband. She let the tails fall as she took his hands one by one in hers and unbuttoned his cuffs.

But she didn’t take his shirt off, not yet. She placed her hands flat on his chest.

“Your heart is racing. I make you nervous,” she said with a grin.

“You make me very nervous.”

“Are you nervous or are you aroused?”

“You could tell if I were aroused.”

She glanced down. Pity.

“Nervous, then. Are you worried I’m going to hurt you?”

“I would be a hypocrite if I were. I hurt Caterina frequently.”

“Caterina is a masochist. You are not a masochist.”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Cheeky.” She stroked his chest from his collarbones down to his waist and up again. She didn’t linger in any one particular place. She merely wanted to familiarize herself with his body, his skin. The day on the boat she’d only watched him undress, watched him walk naked to the side of the boat. She hadn’t touched. Now she wanted to touch.

“I suppose I must have some masochistic tendencies in me to join the Jesuits.”

“Why did you?” she asked as she pushed his shirt off his shoulders and slid it down his arms. He had warm skin, smooth as only the skin of a young man of twenty can be.

“I felt called to join. I can’t explain it.”

“Do you wish you hadn’t been called?” she asked as she held out his shirt in front of him and then pointedly dropped it on the floor.

“Not often, but sometimes.”

“Tell me when.”

She ran her hands up and down his arms. He had marvelous arms—beautiful firm biceps, well-defined even in repose. Lovely veins from his hands to his elbows. She could see his pulse throbbing in his right wrist. The urge to bite that throbbing vein was nearly overwhelming.

“When I’m sitting in class and being taught things I already know by a priest who likely wouldn’t recognize Jesus if Jesus were to walk up to him and slap him in the face with a wooden sign that read ‘Hello, I’m your Lord and Savior’ in three languages.”

“When else?” she asked as she walked around his body, not taking her hand off him for one second. She stood behind him and caressed his back with her fingertips. His flesh bristled at her touch but he didn’t move away.

“When I remember I have a baby sister I barely know,” he said. “I would like to be in her life, but she’s in New York and I’m here. Her mother sent me a Christmas card and Claire signed her own name in purple crayon.”

Magdalena could hear the smile in his voice, the wonder that children grew so fast, the sorrow that Claire was growing up so far away from him.

“Flawless…” she sighed as she tickled his back with her fingertips, starting at the top of his shoulders and scoring his skin gently all the way to his hips. “Not a welt. Not a bruise. Not even a freckle. You are a pure blank canvas of flesh.”

“Tempting, isn’t it?”

“If you let me I would whip you until your back was broken open to the sinew, open to the bone.” She was aroused just thinking of it.

“Have you ever whipped anyone that hard?”

“Yes,” she said.

He whistled, impressed.

“Jealous?” she asked.

“I covet your sadism,” he said. “And your willing victims.”

“He was my slave and he was dying. He asked me fulfill all his masochistic fantasies before he grew too ill and weak to enjoy them. I hastened his death but gave meaning to his life. His words.”

“Your cruelty was an act of mercy.”

“It always should be. Remember that.”

“Yes, Magda.”

He said it like a teenage boy might say “Yes, Mother” and she nearly got her whip out then and there. Instead she untied the silk cord of her robe and drew his wrists together behind his back.

“Magda—”

“Hush. This is part of your training. You bind Caterina’s hands when you beat her. You should know how it feels.”

“I know how it feels.”

That raised her eyebrow but it didn’t stop her from wrapping the black cord around his wrists and tying it off.

“Who ever dared to bind your wrists?”

“You don’t want to know the answer to that.”

He’d hinted at some trauma in his childhood, something to do with his sister Elizabeth, something that caused them to write letters to each other once a month but avoid being in each other’s company whenever possible.

“I am inclined to agree with you. Simpler question—do you like it?”

“No.”

“Do you dislike it?”

“I’m annoyed by it.”

“By it or by me?”

“Both in equal measure.”

“Does it hurt?”

“No, but I can imagine my fingers would start to go numb if I stayed in this position for longer than a half hour.”

“See? This is why I do these things to you. You must learn empathy. You need to understand what your slave or submissive will feel.”

“Lesson learned.”

“Did you do this to Kingsley?”

“Tie him up? Of course.”

“I mean, did you tie him up and interrogate him?”

“Often. I liked making him tell me secrets he didn’t want to tell me.”

“What secrets?”

“He told them to me, not you.”

“You’re discreet. Like a good lover. Are you a good lover?”

“I’ve had worse.”

“You’re deflecting because you don’t want to answer and the answers you do give me you give begrudgingly. Bambi—you are a terrible submissive.”

“I’m not a submissive.”

“That certainly explains why you’re so very wretched at it. Now answer the question—are you a good lover?”

“I admit I’m not certain how to answer. Pray tell, Magda—how would I know?”

“You would know if you weren’t. If your lover didn’t respond to you, if your lover didn’t come back begging for more…”

“Then I was apparently a very good lover. Kingsley was quite enthusiastic, very good at begging. And rather shameless about it.”

“What did he beg for?”

“More. Always for more.”

“More what? More sex? More pain?”

“Yes and yes. More everything.” He paused as if letting himself remember something. “More affection mostly. I’m…not as affectionate as I should be. As I should have been,” he corrected.

“What stops you from showing affection?”

“I…” He sighed, a surprisingly defeated sound, unusual from someone so defiant. “I don’t know.”

“Because you aren’t very good at it?”

“I haven’t had much practice in my life. I was close with my older sister Elizabeth until we were separated by my father. I kept to myself after that, as much as I could. Until Kingsley. But even after that, when I met my baby sister the first time, I didn’t hold her. Kingsley did, but I couldn’t.”

“How did you feel when you saw him holding your baby sister?”

“I felt…jealous.”

“Jealous? Of a child?”

“Jealous because he was better at something than I was. Something that came so easily to him was impossible for me. I wasn’t accustomed to being bested at anything.”

“You have thousands of strengths. If you didn’t have a few failings, you’d be even more insufferable than you already are.”

“He was a natural with her. I’d never seen anything like it. He was born to be a father.”

“Ah. There we go. Now I see all. You were jealous because you saw he was not only good with children, but he wanted children. And you two can’t have children together. You were jealous because you discovered he wanted something you couldn’t give him. That’s why you felt jealous when you saw him with your sister.”

“I don’t want to talk about Claire and Kingsley.”

“Fine. We’ll discuss only Kingsley. How often did you fuck him?”

“Magda.”

“Answer me.”

“These questions are unduly personal.”

“You’re tied up in my bedroom. Did you expect a quiz on Roman architecture?”

He exhaled.

“At first we only met once a week for three weeks. He was impatient for more time with me, and I let him believe I was doing him the greatest of favors by allowing him more time with me.”

“But you wanted more too.”

“I did. Not that he needed to know that.”

“So how often then?”

“We would sneak out to the hermitage three nights a week. Then four. Then five. Then nearly every night, every chance we could.”

“How many nights?”

“Fifty-seven.”

“You counted.”

“I remember them all.”

“From anyone else I would consider that romantic hyperbole. Not from you. You aren’t the sort to exaggerate.”

“And I have a very good memory where my body is concerned.”

“And your heart.”

“And my heart.”

She drew a cross on his back with her fingernail—one line down from the nape of his neck to the small of his back, one line across from shoulder blade to shoulder blade. Then she pressed her lips the spot where the two lines intersected. He shivered.

“You like being kissed?” Magdalena asked.

“You caught me off-guard.”

“You’re never off-guard,” she said, scoffing. “You like being kissed? Yes? No? Answer me, Bambi.”

“Who doesn’t?”

“You never kiss Caterina.”

“Kissing is for lovers,” Marcus said. “We’re friends only.”

“You flog her, cane her, cut her, burn her, and ejaculate on her back when you’re finished.”

“This is why I have so few friends.”

“Do you like kissing?”

“I remember liking it.”

“Does kissing arouse you?” She kissed his right shoulder blade.

“No. But neither does petting Mus, eating your pasta, or looking at the stars, but I enjoy them all the same.”

“Most men find kissing arousing.” She bit the center of his back—not hard enough to break the skin but hard enough to leave teeth marks in his flesh.

“As you said earlier, I’m not most men.”

“And me touching you doesn’t arouse you.”

“No. But again, I enjoy it.”

“You enjoy being touched?” She licked the center of his back over the bite mark she’d left behind

“Not usually. I can count on three fingers the people I would enjoy touching me.”

“Me.”

Behind his back Marcus extended one finger.

“Kingsley,” she said.

Marcus extended a second finger.

“Who’s number three?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “According to you, I haven’t met her yet.”

“I’m honored to be in such exalted company. Your two soul mates…” She slipped her hands into his pants’ pockets to squeeze his hips. “And me.”

“Magda—”

“Oh, what have we here? A love note?” She pulled a folded sheet of paper out of his right pocket.

“Hardly,” he said. “It’s homework. You may put it back in my pocket now.”

“Not yet. Mamma has to check your homework before she lets you turn it in. What was the assignment?”

“We had to write a few hundred words from the first person point-of-view of a character in the Nativity scene.”

“You Jesuits are turning into such…such hippies. I remember when Jesuits were terrifying.”

“That’s hardly something to aspire to.”

“Speak for yourself.”

She unfolded the paper and smoothed it in her hands. Marcus had lovely handwriting, very strong script, masculine. Not surprisingly he pushed down hard with his pen so that the page bore not only his words on the front but the raised indentations from the words on the back.

“It’s a silly assignment, but it’s due right after the Christmas holidays so again, I need that back. Please.”

“Patience, patience. I hope you wrote in the point of view of Mary’s ass.”

“Melchior of Persia, one of the three Magi. And it’s really not worth—”

“The more you protest, the more I want to read it…” She said in her most teasing tone. “And of course you’d choose to play the part of one of the three Wise Men, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes, well, considering I’m tied up in your bedroom, I’m now questioning that decision. Wise man I am clearly not.”

She glared at him over the top of his homework assignment.

“Quiet,” she said. “I’m reading.”

With an exaggerated throat clear Magdalena began to read aloud. Marcus looked upward as if beseeching the heavens for deliverance from her. Let him pray all he wanted. She wasn’t going anywhere.

 

The king was behind them now as was the star they had followed to find him.

 

“Good first line, Bambi.”

“You’re the worst person on Earth.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere.”

 

Their steps were heavy and slow, the steps of tired men who’d walked far to attend a birth and found themselves instead at a funeral.

 

Magdalena stopped reading and glanced at Marcus. He didn’t meet her eyes. This wasn’t quite the story she’d expected. More curious than ever, she read on.

 

Behind them arose the cry of a child—a hungry child longing for his mother’s breast. Balthazar winced as if it were his own son who wept thusly and he powerless to comfort the boy. I felt as he felt but kept my feelings off my face.

“His death is on his forehead,” Balthazar said. “And he only a child.”

“I saw it too,” said Gaspar who looked at me as if hoping I would contradict them.

“As did I,” I said, unwilling to lie though I was tempted to comfort my companions. I hoped the child’s mother could not see his death as we could. Even in his laugh, in his bright dark eyes I saw the shadow of his suffering, black wings on a white dove—the angel of death hovering near. All men suffer and all men die but to see such a brutal death in the eyes and on the forehead of a small blameless boy, is to know that the price of knowledge is far greater than gold.

Balthazar stopped in his tracks as if the child’s cry had ensnared him.

“Is it wrong to look back?” Gaspar asked.

We faced East toward home, and the child king we left behind us in the West. Our steps coming to him had been light and quick. To leave him was to step with naked feet onto shattered glass.

“You can look back,” I told him. He did and so did Balthazar, but I kept my eyes toward home. If I looked back I feared I would stay, never to see home again. And yet, strangely, though I knew home was East in Pārsa, my heart pulled me West to the child as if he was where my true home lay.

“What do we do now?” Gaspar asked. While Balthazar and I sought answers to questions, it was Gaspar who sought the questions themselves, a different form of wisdom though no less needful. “How do we go on?”

“One step. Then another,” I said. “As always.”

“How do we serve the king so far from him?” Gaspar asked.

“It seems wrong to leave him,” Balthazar said. “Yet wrong to stay.”

“He came to us first with his birth,” I said. “Then we came to him. We return home and wait for him to come to us again.”

The child’s cry had ceased at last, and I imagined him in his mother’s arms, a mere child holding a child. The king would be well cared for by young Mary and her older husband, Joseph. Wisdom taught us to love a child and fear a king, but it was the child I feared and the king I loved.

“How do we love the king from afar?” Gaspar asked as if he’d read my mind. Perhaps he had. “How do we keep our faith?”

“We wait.” I took a step forward and away from the king, another step onto shards. It went so deep in my foot I felt it in my throat. “The love is in the waiting.”

“The love is in the waiting,” Gaspar said after me.

Balthazar nodded his noble head. “Yes, the love is in the waiting.” They turned East again. We walked on.

By our clocks and calendars and charts, it has been one thousand eighty-five years since that night we put our backs to the star.

I am still waiting for my king.

 

Magdalena’s hands shook as she slowly and neatly refolded Marcus’s homework assignment and slipped it back into his pocket.

“I hope you receive a good grade,” she said softly.

“I will. Then again, I always do.”

“Thank goodness they don’t grade on personality,” she said and Marcus’s eyes flashed as if the insult had struck home instead of glancing off as her insults usually did.

“But—”

“Interrogation over.”

Magdalena quickly untied his hands. She shouldn’t have read his homework assignment and she regretted it. She’d read love letters less personal and intimate than those few hundred words in the voice of a man who loved a king and had to walk away from him. “You’re boring me now.”

“But you said you had a new toy to try out.”

“I do. But I don’t need you shirtless to test it.”

“Then why did you make me take my shirt off?”

“To see if you would.”

He grabbed his shirt off the floor and pulled it on in a manner both irritable and perfunctory. If she had to characterize his expression she would use the word “petulant.”

“Forcing me to remove clothing to earn a Christmas gift is not how normal people celebrate Christmas,” he said.

“How would you know?”

“I was trying to have a nice Christmas with you, Magda.”

“Why? You’re not nice. Neither am I.”

“Should I leave? Let me rephrase that. I should leave.”

He buttoned his shirt as he strode to the door. She put herself between him and it and raised her hand, daring him to take another step forward. He didn’t.

“You do not have permission to leave,” she said.

“You call me a coward, but it’s you who shrinks back in horror when you see you me as human being for one single second. If you don’t want to know what’s in my heart, you should stop cutting it open.”

“It wasn’t horror, Bambi. It was boredom. And you do not have permission to leave,” she repeated. They had these contests of wills all too often. If she didn’t win, he would lose. This boy had to learn to lose or he would be more dangerous than he already was. For his sake and the sake of anyone he would ever pastor, ever befriend, or ever love he to learn to lose well.

“I didn’t ask permission.”

“You didn’t ask permission to come into my house tonight. You will not leave until you have been given permission.”

“Then give it to me fast or I’ll leave without it.”

“You are acting like a child. No, not a child—a brat. We have made too much progress for you to regress into the pouting beastly little boy you were when we met. You asked me to help you become a ‘good sadist.’ Your words, not mine. You want to know how to be a good sadist, brat? Here’s how—don’t make your kink somebody’s else’s problem, and as they say in your country—don’t dish it out if you can’t take it.”

For what seemed like an uncomfortable eternity, Marcus said nothing. He said nothing and he didn’t look at her. He looked past her at the wall. Give in, Marcus, she willed silently. You won’t break if you bend a little. You don’t have to win every fight. Giving in is a form of giving and Christmas is a time for giving. Give me your surrender. Give me your submission. I’ll reward it a thousand times over, I swear.

But she could say none of that aloud. He must surrender freely or it would be a worthless gesture.

“I’ll stay,” he said. “Until you tell me I can go.”

“I want you to stay. I do.”

“I want my Christmas present,” he said.

That made her smile. He sounded so young when he said it.

“You do? Why is that?”

“You know me…intimately. Few people do. I would like to know what someone who knows me thinks I would like for Christmas.”

Magdalena touched his face and straightened his collar.

“Good boy. But first, we still haven’t tested out my new toy.”

“What is your new toy you’re determined to have me test?” he asked with an exasperated sigh.

“This.” She stepped aside and pulled back the room divider that separated the main bedroom from a large alcove. A piano sat under the arched ceiling. A baby grand that her latest conquest—a former assessore in Venice or something of the sort—had given her last week. Marcus’s eyes widened slightly at the sight of the piano. She loved it when she managed to impress this usually inscrutable young man.

“Is that a Broadwood?” he asked.

“It is. A 1929. Giovanni gave it to me because I told him I’d never see him again.”

“Why would did you say that?”

“I thought I could get a piano out of him. I was right.”

“Do you play?”

“I do,” she said.

“Why have you never told me?” He furrowed his brow at her.

“Because you never asked. Someday you’ll learn people other than yourself exist. Maybe you’ll even like those people someday.”

“I doubt it. May I?”

“I insist.” Magdalena waved her hand at the piano bench.

“St. Ignatius had a Broadwood. My school, not the founder of the Jesuits. I have no idea what sort of piano St. Ignatius had.”

“You’re happy,” she said, lightly stroking his cheek. “You only tell jokes when you’re happy.” 

“I…I have happy memories of playing the Broadwood at my school. I was playing it when Kingsley saw me the first time, when I saw him. He didn’t know I saw him. He still doesn’t know.” He took a seat at the bench and rolled up his sleeves. She’d forgotten just how attractive a man’s forearms could be when they were sinewy and strong, and a pair of large sculpted and terribly talented hands were attached to them.

“What should I play?” he asked.

“I have a piece if you don’t mind sight-reading.”

“I don’t mind.”

She opened the window seat in the piano alcove where she stored the sheet music and pulled out a very special folder. She didn’t hand the music to Marcus but placed it on the music rack herself. Then she sat at his side.

“A bit of the Red Priest to be played by my Golden Priest.” She ran her hand over Marcus’s golden-blond hair. He looked up at her. “You like Vivaldi?”

“I haven’t played him since starting seminary. But the Concerto from Winter is fitting for the season.”

“Yes, very fitting,” she said with a tight smile. “I’ll forgive you if you falter. Vivaldi is trickier than he looks.”

“I won’t falter. It hasn’t been that long.”

“Of course. The piano’s been tuned. Play when you’re ready.”

She watched his eyes as he scanned the front page of the sheet music, re-learning the opening bars with his eyes before playing with his fingers. She hoped he wouldn’t turn the pages and look at the entire piece. That would ruin the surprise and that’s the last thing she wanted. But he had the arrogance of both youth and talent and thus started playing at once.

He played slowly, more slowly than the movement called for, and yet the pace didn’t drag so much as it meandered gently around the room, calling to mind a walk in the snow, a morning walk on morning snow. She wondered if he thought of Maine as he played. He’d told her about his school days at St. Ignatius and the solace he’d found there in the forest with the Jesuits. He’d told her how much he liked the priests at the school, one especially who’d gone out of his way to help him and protect him from his father. He’d said he’d found Maine beautiful especially its brutal and bitter winters that made one grateful for the smallest of things—a roaring fire in the library fireplace, the gift of a hand-knitted afghan and scarf sent from his sister Elizabeth, a hot cup of Lapsang Souchong tea in the mornings. And Kingsley. He had been grateful for Kingsley, Marcus had said. Kingsley who stole the covers and kicked in his sleep and swore most violently when attempting to start a fire in their little hermitage’s fireplace while Marcus would watch over his shoulder, mocking Kingsley’s failures and trying not to laugh out loud at his French lover’s cursing. On the coldest nights Marcus refused to touch Kingsley until the room was warm enough for them to take their clothes off, a refusal which made building the fire an emergency proposition for the ever-eager Kingsley. She could easily picture Marcus’s young lover, sixteen years old, in the first blush of his young male beauty, long dark hair falling over his even darker eyes and those dark eyes would be narrowed in concentration, his fingers working feverishly with tinder and matches, his exhalation of relief as the fire finally took hold of the wood, and of course, the kiss that would follow. The kiss of victory when Marcus rewarded Kingsley for his efforts…and then soon after that kiss, Magdalena could imagine the first red flickers of firelight dancing over Kingsley’s naked olive skin as Marcus beat him with his belt or a cane. Yes, Magdalena could see it all as Marcus played the concerto. His steel-gray eyes were soft now, not steely at all, and only half open as he played like a man half-asleep and daydreaming. His lips were slightly parted as if in preparation for a kiss. She’d never seen him look this young, this peaceful, unguarded and gentle. They did say music soothed the savage beast. She almost hated to destroy this lovely moment of peace with him.

But she did it anyway.

Marcus reached the end of that page’s music and he nodded to her. Magdalena turned the page.

Immediately Marcus’s fingers faltered on the keys, a terrible atonal noise, and then all the sound ceased. Now there was nothing but silence.

Marcus reached out with both hands and lifted the sheet music off the rack.

“How?” he asked. It was all he asked.

“Six months ago you said, and I quote, ‘I would give anything to know if Kingsley is alive. That’s all I want to know. I don’t need to know how he is, where he lives, what he’s doing, and I don’t want to know. But if I knew he was alive, I could sleep better at night. I could be at peace’ Do you remember saying that to me?”

“Yes.” His voice sounded hollow as a reed.

She rested her chin on his shoulder, smiled and pointed.

“You see the marquee there? It says Monstre Sacré? That’s a student film and it played in that theater for only two days as part of a competition. And that was ten days ago. So as of ten days ago, your Kingsley was alive and well. That is him, isn’t it?”

She looked at the eight by ten photograph in Marcus’s hands, the photograph she had secretly placed between pages of the sheet music. In the center of the frame stood a young man walking toward the camera. He wore a long coat and scarf tied carelessly around his neck. A tall young man with sharp and elegant features, short dark hair with a touch of wave in it and eyes like a cat’s—enigmatic, watching, careful, predatory.

Slowly Marcus nodded and in a low voice, a voice she could barely hear, he whispered, “Yes, it’s him.”

“He’s more handsome than you are. You have good taste in boys, Bambi.”

“He’s not handsome. He’s beautiful.”

Abruptly Marcus stood up walked away from her, the photograph in his hand, his eyes on the page. She turned on the bench, wanting to watch his every move, his every expression. He paced the floor of her bedroom, back and forth in front of the fireplace, stalking across the tile like a caged leopard gone mad from captivity and therefore all the more dangerous.

“How did you find him?” he asked, not looking at her, only at the photograph.

“I hired someone. I knew Kingsley’s name and the arrondissement he grew up in. It took all six months. Your Kingsley wasn’t easy to find.”

“His hair is short. I’ve never seen it short. Why would he cut his hair?”

He sat on the end of her bed but stood up again as if he’d sat on a spring.

“I don’t know. Maybe he had to cut if off for his work.”

“What does he do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where does he live? Is he in Paris now? Is he in school? He’s intelligent. He should be in university.”

“I don’t know where he lives. I didn’t ask.”

“Why not?” He turned and faced her, his voice demanding not commanding.

“Because I didn’t want to know. If I knew I’d be tempted to tell you. And you said that all you wanted to know was if he was alive. So that’s what I gave you for Christmas—proof of life. His life. He lives. I can’t answer any other questions about him.”

“But you could have found out for me?”

“Yes.”

“And you didn’t? Why? To torture me?”

“Of course.”

“Do you hate me?”

“Oh…poor Bambi.” She shook her head, tsk-tsked him. “I know it hurts. Every boy who falls in love the first time thinks he invented the concept. I’ve been in love too. I know what torture it is. But I’m not merely torturing you—although I am. I wanted to teach you a lesson. If you’re going to make wishes, you should learn to ask for what you want, not what you think you should want. You wanted to know if he was alive. That’s all. So that’s what I gave you.”

She crossed her legs and rested her elbow on her knee, her chin in her hand. She smiled and wondered if he would strike her. It wouldn’t surprise her if he did. That smile she wore had caused more than one man in the past to attempt to slap it off her face. Those men failed, of course, and one of them lost use of that slapping hand for his trouble.

In two long strides, he traversed the floor from fireplace to piano bench and stopped in front of her. She braced herself.

He bent over and kissed her lightly on the lips. So lightly it was like being kissed by a bird’s wing. Her lips tingled as if they’d been tickled.

“Thank you for my Christmas gift, Magda.”

“You’re quite welcome, Bambi.” She patted the piano bench and he sat next to her again, the photograph still clutched in his hands.

“Can I keep this?” he asked.

“It is yours, but let’s keep it here at the house. For your own sake, dear.” She patted his knee and he allowed it, his grief for his long-lost lover making him a child again. He leaned his head on her shoulder and she kissed the top of his head. “Don’t you think it should stay with me?”

He inhaled deeply and nodded.

“But you can visit it anytime,” she said. “You can keep my house key.”

He nodded again and sat up straight as if suddenly remembering he was a grown man and should act like it. Poor lamb, from the tension in his jaw, she could tell he wanted to weep, but his pride wouldn’t allow it.

“He’s smoking,” he said. “He shouldn’t smoke.”

Magdalena noticed for the first time that the young man in the photograph, Marcus’s Kingsley, held a cigarette between two fingers of his right hand. A Gauloise by the looks of it—the soldier’s breakfast. She’d lied to Marcus—nothing new there, she lied to him all the time. She’d lied when she claimed she didn’t know what his Kingsley did for a living. Two years ago, Kingsley Théophile Boissonneault joined the French Foreign Legion, which is why he’d been so difficult to track down since La Legion were often deployed. It was why he’d cut his hair short. And it was why she didn’t tell Marcus what Kingsley did for a living. Learning Kingsley had joined the French Army would hardly give Marcus the peace he sought.

“He’s French. Of course he smokes. I smoke.”

“You’re not Kingsley.”

“So I can give myself lung cancer, but he can’t?”

“I would never have given him permission to start smoking. I would have refused to kiss him. That would have made him quit.”

“Ah…young love. Ordering your lover to change to suit you. It’s cute when you’re a teenager. Not nearly as much as you get older. But what would you know of that? You’ll never fall in love again, will you?”

“No, I won’t.”

Magdalena smiled to herself, but didn’t tease him. She’d done enough of that tonight.

“You’re right, he really is a beautiful young man,” Magdalena said, looking at the photograph. “Wonderful bone structure. A good Greek nose. And those lips…I would have bitten that bottom lip until it looked like a bee had stung it.”

“I did bite his lips. Not hard. I couldn’t leave marks where the others would see them. Or I tried not to. I failed a few times.”

“On purpose?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“But you aren’t sure?”

He shook his head.

“Well…” she said. “I’ve had many a client ‘accidentally on purpose’ wear a lipstick-stained shirt collar home to his wife in the subconscious hope of getting caught cheating.”

“It wasn’t that. All the students at school were afraid of me,” he said. “I admit I cultivated that fear. I didn’t enjoy it but it was for the best I kept myself apart from them. For their sake and mine. But with Kingsley…he loved me. I wanted everyone to know someone could love me. And that I could love. I don’t think they would have believed it even if Kingsley shouted it from the rooftops. They’d already made their minds up about me. Only Kingsley saw me as I am, not as I wanted to be seen.”

“That must have driven you mad—being infiltrated, having all your defenses breached.”

“I wanted to strangle him for pursuing me and not for the usual reason I want to strangle someone. Although…” He stopped and smiled as if remembering something dark and something beautiful. “I swear I did everything I could to discourage him. I almost broke his wrist the first time he kissed me. He kissed me without asking first, and I pushed him off me and onto the bed, held him down by his wrists. I heard one pop. It…”

“It aroused him.”

“It did. I could see it in his eyes. He almost came from it. I knew I’d found someone like me. The one.”

“There’s more than one.”

“There’s only one Kingsley.”

“There’s more than one masochist in the world. Trust me. I have most of them in my Rolodex.”

“I know there are. I know…”

He lowered his head for a moment as if praying.

“You will see him again.”

“Is this another prophecy of yours? You know in the book of Deuteronomy, we’re instructed to put false prophets to death.”

“Not a prophecy. I simply know you’ll see him again. Somewhere, someday…”

“I want to believe that. And yet, I don’t want to.”

“The love is in the waiting,” she reminded him. “Come, finish playing my song for me.”

“If I can.”

“Why couldn’t you?”

Marcus held up his hands in front of him. They were shaking. She knew how he felt, all too well.

“Let’s have more wine. That’s what we both need.”

She stood up and paused at a sound she hadn’t expected to hear—a knock on the door.

“Who on earth…”

“It’s your Christmas gift,” Marcus said. “Your other Christmas gift. I’ll play for you later.”

He stood up and headed for the door. She didn’t follow.

“What did you give me?” she asked, her eyes narrowed.

“Something you will probably hate.”

“You make me curious.”

“Can you trust me long enough to at least see if you want your gift?”

“No, but I suppose I have to.”

He held out his hand, which surprised her. He didn’t seem the handholding sort of man. She reached out but he pulled his hand back at the last second.

“You bastard,” she said.

“Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Jesuit. Now come with me or you’ll never get your gift from me.”

She raised her hands in surrender.

“Very well. But if this isn’t the best gift I’ve ever been given, I’m banishing you from the house until after New Year’s Day.”

“That’s six days away.”

“New Year’s Day of 2015.”

For all her consternation, she was rather curious, so she followed him from her bedroom and down the steps to the parlor.

“I’ll get the door,” Marcus said. “You stay here.”

“You’re telling me what to do in my own house?”

“Yes.”

He walked off and left her standing alone in the parlor. To say she was irritated would be an understatement. It was a good thing Marcus was such a pretty boy or she wouldn’t allow him such liberties. She really should stop spoiling him. In fact, if this gift disappointed her, she would likely insist he submit to her in a much more meaningful way if he wanted to keep coming to her house, eating her food, and playing with Caterina. She’d make him her footstool. She’d make him cook for her. She’d make him bathe her and shave her legs for her. With his straight razor.

Marcus walked back into the parlor and much to her surprise, he had a man with him. A man of about forty years of age, salt and pepper hair, and wearing a cassock.

“You brought me a priest for Christmas?” she asked, glaring at Marcus.

“Magdalena, I’m pleased to introduce you to Father Stuart Ballard, my confessor. Stuart, this is Magda, my other confessor.”

“I’m also a prostitute and the madam of a brothel, Father Ballard. Are you sure you should be here?”

“My God, your English is flawless,” Father Ballard said, grinning broadly, a kindly grin, fatherly almost. “You even speak with an English accent. Bit of Yorkshire in there. How on earth did you come by that?”

“When I was sixteen, my pimp sold me to the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. I learned English from him. And piano. He was quite proper when he wasn’t buggering underage prostitutes.”

Father Ballard seemed to digest this information. “Tory, I imagine.”

“However did you guess?”

“Thatcher’s been buggering the whole country.”

“Stuart,” Marcus said, his tone that of a son embarrassed by his father. “Politics is hardly an appropriate topic of conversation at Christmas. Or buggery.”

“You’re getting stuffy in your old age, lad. And Christmas is nothing but politics. King Herod murdered Jewish toddlers because he didn’t want to lose his throne to the newborn king. If murdering Jewish people for power isn’t politics I don’t know what is,” Father Ballard said.

“You must be quite a treat at Christmas parties,” Marcus said.

“I don’t go to Christmas parties, Marcus. Too many young people at them who have no concept of history.”

“He’s allowed to call you Marcus and I’m not?” she asked, glaring at Marcus but pointing at Father Ballard.

“He is not allowed to call me Marcus,” Marcus said. “He does it anyway.”

“I’ll just put my things over here on this table. You two talk. But talk loudly. I’ve missed hearing my native tongue.”

“Bambi, a moment please.”

“She calls you Bambi?” Father Ballard said, half-laughing. “No wonder you let me call you Marcus.”

“Marcus and I will be back momentarily. Forgive me. Marcus?” She grabbed Marcus’s ear, pinched it, and dragged him by it to the corner of the room.

“That was more painful than I imagined it would be,” he said after she released his ear. “I’ll try that on Caterina. I promised her I’d break her on New Year’s Eve.”

“Why is your priest in my house? And why is he putting napkins on my end table?”

“That’s a corporal and a purificator. He’s preparing to celebrate Mass.”

“Mass? In my house?”

“Months ago you said, and I quote, ‘I will never step foot in a Catholic Church again after what my priest did to my family. If God wants me, He can send the Church to me.’ Since I’m not a priest yet, I can’t say Mass, therefore I asked Stuart to come celebrate Christmas Midnight Mass at your home.”

“Your priest is here to say Mass for me?”

“Yes.”

“Just me?”

“And the choirs of angels. Myself as well. I haven’t taken Communion yet today.”

“Mass. At my home. For Christmas. Said by a Jesuit priest.”

“If you’ll allow him to. He will leave if you ask.”

She put her hand to her forehead and turned her back to him.

“Magda?”

“Do you have any idea how much the Catholic Church has hurt me?”

“Yes, sorry about that.”

“Yes, so sorry,” Father Ballard called out from the other side of the room. He looked genuinely sheepish as he gave her a little wave.

“Sorry?” She spun back around. “I was called ‘demon seed’ by my priest when I was a thirteen-year-old child for doing nothing more than being a girl. My priest told my mother I needed an exorcism to save my soul. I had to run away from home to save myself and you know who took me in? A pimp. And he was kinder to me than the fucking priest was, and you say ‘Sorry’?”

“We’re very sorry?” Marcus said.

“May I speak with you a moment, Ma’am?” Father Ballard asked. “Please?”

“At least this one has something akin to manners,” she said. She strode across the floor to where Father Ballard had sat up his makeshift altar, Moussi at his feet watching him curiously.

“Yes?” she said to Father Ballard. “You may speak.”

He clasped his hands in front of him and bowed his head a moment. When he lifted his head again, all trace of mirth, of amusement was gone.

“Marcus has told me a little about you. Knowing what I know, I suppose I should have this conversation in a more penitent position.”

“Yes, you should.”

“Very well.” He slowly dropped to his knees.

“Stuart?” Marcus said.

“I have this, my boy. But thank you for your concern.” Father Ballard looked up at her from his kneeling position on the floor. “My dear lady, please allow me to apologize on behalf of my Church for the insults inflicted upon you and the damage done to you and your family. We clergy are far too human. And sometimes we are so human as to seem inhuman. There is no excuse for what your priest did and said to you as a child. None. And I will offer no excuse. God will punish that priest. I have long believed that when a child is harmed by an adult, that person stays a child in God’s eyes.” Father Ballard’s eyes glanced a moment in Marcus’s direction. “You are loved as a child, cosseted as a child, forgiven as a child, forgiven everything unconditionally because no good parent can stay angry at a small child for long. The Lord teaches us that the last shall be first. In your priest’s eyes you were last and lowly. In God’s eyes you will be first and honored.”

“I like the sound of that.”

“Also Marcus tells me you’ve taken him in and helped him come to terms with his many, many varied and sundry perversions—”

“I only have the one,” Marcus said.

Father Ballard ignored him.

“Any woman who could put up with that—” He pointed at Marcus. “And treat him with even the smallest modicum of compassion—”

“Actually, she’s very mean to me.”

“Shut up, Marcus. Your betters are speaking,” Father Ballard said. Marcus stopped talking but his eyes communicated a great deal of information.

“I like you,” Magdalena said to Father Ballard. “I wish I didn’t.”

“You aren’t the first to say that to me. As I was saying, any woman who treats that piece of work over there with a modicum of compassion is already a saint in my eyes. God knows he’d try the patience of Job—and the patience of Stuart.” He pointed at himself. “As for your former priest…I don’t know why he called you what he called you. It doesn’t matter in the least to me. Nothing you were or are or did or have done or are doing merited such cruelty. No child merits any cruelty. Your very life is a miracle and to call your life and the mystery of your creation ‘demonic’ is a sin God will punish. ” He held out his hands, palms up and she took them in hers, thinking he wanted help off the floor. But he didn’t. He simply held her hands in his. They were large warm hands, gentle but with calluses on the tips of his fingers. She liked that. “Dear lady, I will not ask you to come back to the Church, because the Church does not deserve you. But I would ask you to allow me to say Mass in your home and serve you Communion. It would be my honor.”

“Your honor? To offer Communion to the madam of a brothel? To a woman who unrepentantly whores herself?”

“There are four women in Christ’s lineage—his great-grandmothers, so to speak. Tamar, who played prostitute to seduce her father-in-law; Rahab the Harlot, who gave aid and shelter to Joshua’s spies; Ruth, who seduced Boaz; and Bathsheba who committed adultery with King David. Christ called the clergy hypocrites, but he dined with prostitutes. He would have liked you more than me. Even more, Christ would have loved you more than he loved me. I know this. It hurts me and humbles me to say it but it is true—you’re closer to God in your brothel than I am in my church. Jesus had a great fondness for women named Magdalena after all.”

She sighed.

Heavily.

“You’re good at begging,” she said.

“I’m a Jesuit. They teach us to beg. Usually for money from rich patrons, but the lessons apply anywhere.”

“Tell me why you have calluses on your hands. Seems suspicious for a priest.”

His eyebrow quirked in confusion. “I play guitar. Electric. He hasn’t told you that?”

“He has not.”

“I force him to play with me.”

“What do make him play?”

“Two weeks ago we did a duet of Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond.’ If I can find the sheet music for The Who’s ‘Tommy’ we’ll tackle that next.”

“Surely you’re joking.”

“He’s not,” Marcus said. “He makes me play gaudy rock music with him in exchange for him allowing me to play what I want on the school piano. It’s neither my style, nor my forte.”

“He’s far too modest,” Father Ballard said. “The boy could tour with Clapton, I swear. Although Slow Hand has nothing on me.”

She wanted to smile but didn’t. Instead she waved her hand imperiously, like a queen.

“You may stand.”

He came to his feet with more humility than grace, pausing first to pat Moussi on his head.

“You’ll allow me the honor?” Father Ballard asked. “And it would be my honor, truly.”

“I…” she began and paused. She took a steadying breath, rested her hand on her chest. “I confess I do miss Midnight Mass. My mother always took me every Christmas until I ran away. She would like this.”

“But would you like it?” Father Ballard asked. “I will walk out the door right now if you don’t want me here.”

“I would like you to stay. I suppose you should hear my confession and absolve me before I take Communion.”

“Dear Lady, the Church sinned against you far more than you sinned the Church. We need your absolution. You don’t need ours.”

She swallowed hard and turned to Marcus who came to stand at her side.

“No wonder you’re turning into a human being,” she said to Marcus. “He’s good for you.”

Marcus bent to kiss her cheek.

“You’re good for me,” he said.

All was forgiven.

“It’s midnight,” Father Ballard said. “Shall we begin?”

“Yes, we shall.” She glanced over her shoulder and crooked her finger at Marcus. He walked to her and stood at her side.

“English or Italian?” Father Ballard asked her.

“I’m older than I look,” she said. “Could you say it in Latin? Please?”

Dóminus vobíscum,” Father Ballard said.

Et cum spíritu tuo,” she replied, the words coming back to her instantly like the lyrics of an old favorite song she hadn’t heard in years but had never forgotten.

Father Ballard took a gold chalice from his bag and set it on the table.

“This is a good gift,” she said to Marcus.

“I am truly sorry that my Church hurt you.”

“I don’t mind being hurt. I don’t. Pain is my life. But your Church…it did more than hurt me. It damaged me.”

“It did.”

“I can’t forgive it.”

“No, I don’t imagine you can. I won’t ask you to.”

“But…” She began. “But while it’s hurt me, it’s helped you. I see that. I can give it that much credit.”

“I promise you this—when I am a priest I will protect the children like you and like me. I won’t harm them.”

She nodded, believing his promise.

Father Ballard had slipped into his purple chasuble and stole. He took her poinsettia off her side table and placed it on his altar.

“So that’s why you brought me the poinsettia from your chapel,” she said.

“I didn’t steal it. I merely relocated it—one altar to another.”

“You’re much like a poinsettia, Bambi. You really are.”

He furrowed his brow at her. “How so?”

“Because everyone has this erroneous idea that you’re poisonous. And you’re not. You’re not at all.

Before Marcus could reply, Father Ballard began the Mass.

Outside the window behind Father Ballard snow began to fall. A little bit of snow, just a flake or two. She felt a warmth in her chest, joy blooming bright and red as a Christmas Star. Marcus had given Christmas back to her.

Maybe he was one of the Magi after all.

Not that she would ever tell him that.

She much preferred being mean to him.

 

 Merry Christmas, Sinners! 

Happy New Year from Nora, Kingsley, and Søren!