Mother Mary: A Short Story from Kelly Cooper
by Kelly Cooper
The state of Fourth Street remained still this particular Monday morning. Trees, grey and nude, stood as motionless as statues. Nobody was out for a morning walk, no raccoons sifting through last night’s trash, as if they too knew not to go outside. Everything in Charleston was stagnant—everything except the shuffle of Mary’s loafers dragging along the sidewalk as she huddled and wobbled along the cement like a penguin. In fact, her outfit was fitting for such a comparison, as her white vest stretched and squeezed around her large breasts and came to a button close just above her bellybutton. Her black skirt dragged behind her, picking up traces of dead and damp leaves. But she didn’t mind. Mary—sometimes called Mother Mary for her matronly qualities—was looking for a church. She’d been in churches for funerals when she was a young girl, and had lately been spending time on the roofs of a few on Fourth Street. But today—on this Monday morning—Mary had a personal reason to go inside.
Charleston was covered in churches from head to toe, boasting a skyline as sharp as monster’s teeth. It was crowned “The Holy City” years ago, but recently lacked a commitment to its label. Mary hurried along, looking across the street, then back to her side, then across, frustrated with which one to choose. She’d passed two Lutherans, four Baptists, and several Christian offshoots.
“Where the hell are the Catholic churches?” she asked out loud.
Up ahead on the right side of the street, a large angular building peaked out above the churches nearby. Mary started to jog, anxious to see if she’s reached the correct denomination. She approached the brown edifice, which appeared to have been constructed in the shape of a trapezoid. In the front to the right of the main entrance, a small patch of grass hosted a small sign which read,
St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church
Mass times: M-F 8:00 a.m.
Saturday 4:30 p.m.
Sunday 8:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 4:30 p.m.
Confession M-F 6:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.”
Mary thought about the time. “Is it 6:00 yet?” she wondered.
She hadn’t been paying attention to time all night. In fact, she wasn’t sure what day it was. She decided it couldn’t be too far from the opening time, and approached the door. Her loafer crunched on a newspaper, with a headline that stretched almost as tall as the top fold. It read, “Four dead, one pardoned.” She disregarded the trash, and opened the door.
The interior was larger than the church looked from the outside, with deep red velvet carpets stretching into the dark and distant corners. The door shut and echoed throughout the building as Mary took her first steps inside, her big blue eyes widening at the site she barely recognized. Six-foot long windows of patron saints stared down at her as she walked down the center aisle, their somber eyes fixated on her movement. A musty scent greeted her senses, reminding her of the way her grandmother’s house smelled.
“Hello?” she asked as she walked toward the front. She heard only her own voice repeat back. The only other person in the church was a middle-aged man praying intently in a distant pew. A young boy sat next to him, staring at the windows.
“Is there a priest around?” she asked louder as she approached the altar.
Draped in white gossamer cloth, the altar looked untouchable; holy. A large, well-used bible lay open with a blue satin ribbon resting in the middle. Mary brushed her hand on the bible, and began to read a verse that looked like it had been highlighted years ago.
(Luke 13:3) 3 “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way…”
Mary stopped as another door echoed shut. A petite man dressed in black appeared out of the back door, walking slowly toward the altar. He was nearly bald, with white hair resting gently in a ring around his head. His deep wrinkles were visible from a distance. Mary spoke clearly and loudly—“EXCUSE ME PASTOR. CAN I CONFESS SOMETHING TO YOU?”
The old man looked up at her and smiled. He held up his hand and waved, hinting that he needed more time to reach her. Mary tapped her fingers on the altar, anxious to talk. Finally she hurried over to him to save him the time.
“Pastor, or father, or priest, or, what do I call you?”
“Father Wesley, please. What can I help you with child?”
Mary grabbed his hand and looked into his eyes. “Father Wesley, I need to talk to someone. Please.”
“Of course, of course. What is your name?”
“I’m Mary. Can we go into a confession? One of those rooms where we can’t see each other?”
“Ah, Mary. A fine name. Of course. Right this way.” He pointed his hand toward two tall wooden stalls on the left side of the church.
Mary paced toward the wooden booths, unsure of which one to enter. Father Wesley was about 25 yards behind her, approaching at the rate of a turtle. Mary gazed at the dark cedar booths, which blended into the velvet carpet, looking like an extension of the floor. The two doors had a cross-hatch pattern that made façade look see-through.
Mary, unsure of what do while she waited, felt her hair. It wasn’t as soft as it used to be, her curls now eternally tangled and crusted. She bunched it up in a pile and clipped it together, and felt her completed style. She licked one hand and pressed firm on a part that stuck out, rubbing it hard into her skull. She then took the clip out, wiggled her head, then put up her hair once more. She took it down again as Father Wesley approached.
“In here,” he calmly instructed.
Mary entered the dark box and kneeled down.
“What can I help you with child?”
Mary paused, then sniffed loudly.
“It smells musty in here.”
“Indeed. These booths are older than I am.”
“How old are you, Father?”
“83 years, child. Now Mary, why are you here?”
“Father, I…” Mary closed her eyes and exhaled loudly. “I’m on my deathbed. I’m going to die soon.”
“Surely you aren’t Mary,” he replied.
“No father, you don’t understand. I’m going to be killed very very soon. I need the final prayers that priests give people right before they die. Please, I need them. I need to be forgiven.”
“Mary, have you been to confession before?”
“No, never. I’ve never needed to.”
“But everyone sins; none of us are perfect Mary. None are as perfect as our Lord. Confess your sins, Mary, and the Lord will grant your forgiveness.”
“Well, well ok, but I don’t know how to begin,” she said. Her fingers, clasped and intertwined, became muggy and damp. She extended her fingers out and in and out again. A single drop of sweat escaped from her mess of hair, and inched down the side of her face. A tear followed. She blinked her eyelids down for a few seconds, then slowly opened them back up. A thick layer of water lubricated her eyes, illuminating the blueness of her pupils.
“Three weeks ago, Father, someone threatened my life. A man at the grocery store. He was ringing me up for my things, and we talked about the weather and the wind and what not, and as I said thank you and before I walked away, he flashed a knife at me and mouthed that he was going to kill me. So I ran as fast as I could out to my car. So I waited there for hours until I saw him get off work, and I….I killed him.”
Mary began to sob, sniffing in between words. “I shot him Father, then drove away.”
Father Wesley sat still in his booth as his wrinkles sat deeper in his face in an expression of fear.
He stuttered, “Mary, you…”
She interrupted, “And then a few days later I was walking in the park, and a woman was playing with a darling baby girl, or boy, I couldn’t tell, and I asked if I could hold it, and she said no. Then she pulled my collar into her face and said that she had a gun and she was going to shoot me.” She started panting. “So I waited in my car until I saw her leaving.” Mary inhaled and sniffed her dripping snot. She exclaimed loudly, “And I shot her too Father, I shot her.”
“And there were three more, Father. Three more people who told me they were going to kill me. The woman in the department store, the man at the crosswalk, and the small black boy. Oh God! The boy,” she cried. “I shot them all, I shot them all dead. I didn’t know what to do Father. They were all after me.”
Mary sobbed loudly, her wails reaching every creak and corner of the church, reaching up toward the stained glass figures, reaching past the bible on the altar.
A moment of wordlessness passed between the walls of the confession booth, Mary sniffling and crying, and Father Wesley sitting completely still.
“Mary,” Father Wesley stated. “Mary I need to ask you a few more questions before I can grant your Last Rites.”
“No!” Mary yelled. “Please father. Please do it now! I must be forgiven. They’re after me—the police. They know who I am Father. They’re going to take me and put me to death.” Mary began to shake back and forth. She wrapped her arms around her elbows and began to dig her nails into her skin.
“Mary, Mary what’s going on?” Father Wesley’s voice began to shutter. Just then she pushed the walls of the confession booth, hitting the screen between herself and the priest. She began to beg.
“Please father! Please forgive me!” The shake of the confession booth resonated in the church walls. Mary inhaled and exhaled deeply and began to wheeze. As she started to choke on her saliva, she burst through the door of the confession booth, almost breaking the door down, only to be confronted face-to-face by the man and boy who had been praying in the corner of the church.
The man watched Mary in disgust. Dressed in light-blue scrubs, the young black man lifted his left fist to his right hand, rubbing and squeezing them together. The light coming through the upper cathedral windows reflected on his nametag. It read,
Roper St. Francis Hospital
“Get up,” he said.
Mary was unresponsive, still on her hands and knees, sobbing on the ground. Father Wesley quietly exited the confessional and sat on a chair against the wall, a dazed expression now permanently occupying his face. He watched the strong man watch Mary, his forehead now perspiring.
“Get up for God’s sake!” His yell reverberated around the angular walls. The church was still empty.
Mary slowly rose to her feet and looked at her beckoner.
“Are you responsible for the murder of those four innocent people?” Luke demanded.
Mary stared at the floor, eyes wide open. She couldn’t answer. Luke grabbed Mary’s shoulders and began to shake her.
“Did you murder them?” he cried.
Mary gently pushed the man’s hands off.
“But they threatened my life, they were going to kill me. And there were five. I killed five of them.” Mary sobbed. She hunched her shoulders and brought her hands to her wet, red face. Luke put his hand on the boy’s right shoulders and squeezed tight. They watched Mary cry, and listened to the only noise that disturbed the church. Luke spoke.
“Ma’m, do you recognize my son?”
Mary didn’t look up. The man pushed her. “Look up, lady,” he demanded. “Do you recognize my son?”
The boy stood still, looking up at the woman who he’d encountered a week earlier outside of his school. Mary looked back, beginning to recall the boy—brown hair, brown eyes, 3 feet tall. She furled her brows, and looked scared.
“Y…yes, he tried to kill me last week! He threatened to kill me!”
Mary backed one foot behind the other, moving closer to the confession booth, staring blankly at the boy who she believed had threatened to take her life. She stood tense against the confession booth, her heart beat almost audible from the outside of her skin.
“Pp.pp.please…get away…” she stuttered.
“Ma’m,” the boy said. “Ma’m I ain’t gonna kill you. I never said I would.”
“Nnn…no, but you said you were. Last week. You said you had a gun,” she replied.
“You must be mistakin’ me for someone else Ma’m. I said ‘Hello Ma’m’ and ‘Have a good day Ma’m.’ And the next thing I know, you tried to shoot me!”
Mary tapped her hands against the confession booth, now looking down at her white vest covered in drool. She looked back up at the boy. He was soft and innocent, no older than seven or eight.
“And you missed,” the boy’s father added.
Mary, now alert, made eye contact with the boy.
“You, you mean I didn’t shoot you? You’re alright? Oh God! Oh God you’re alive child! But…but you fell down; I thought I knicked ya in the shoulder.”
Luke looked puzzled at Mary’s comment, as if shooting his son was some kind of game. The boy replied, “Well it was loud as heck, so I fell down!”
Mary pounced toward the boy, and grabbed him tightly, feeling his thick hair and warm sweater. Luke, unsure if he should detach the two, placed his hand on his son’s head.
“I’m so sorry!” Mary cried, her face burrowed in his sweater. “I am sorry honey. I…I don’t know what I was thinking.”
She stepped back, now knelt on the floor, meeting the height of the small boy. She then took his hand and looked at his eyes, wide and scared and watery.
“Do you forgive me?” she asked.
The boy stuttered a little, and before he was about to speak, his father interrupted.
“Why should he forgive you? You tried to kill him for God sake! You tried to kill my son because you imagined something that wasn’t real. My son did nothing, and almost died. Now tell me Ma’m, why should he forgive you? Why should I forgive you!”
Mary looked up at the furious father, now holding one of his son’s shoulders, and placing his other hand on the boy’s heart. The boy touched his father’s large, strong fingers, feeling the tense muscles and veins. They wouldn’t come off even if he tried his hardest. He was protected.
“F…Forgive me because I am sorry. I think there is something wrong with me and I don’t know how to control it.” She paused, and squeezed the boy’s hand a little tighter.
“I am so, so sorry. I’m a monster.”
The boy looked up at his father, unsure of what to think. Luke kneeled down to his son’s height, the two adults and boy now the same height. He kissed his son on the cheek.
“I forgive you, Ma’m. My daddy always said to forgive people when they are sorry, and you’re cryin’ so I think you’re sorry. I forgive you.”
Mary wimpered, her tears streaming toward the ground. Drops fell on the carpet, and many wet her lips. The three people sat on the floor of the Church, eye level, Mary holding the boy’s hand, the boy holding his father’s hand. Mary looked around the building, noticing the morning sun illuminating the center aisle. She looked at Father Wesley, who looked like he had been crying.
“Father,” Mary gestured loudly. “Father, will you come here?”
Father Wesley placed one frail hand on the arm of the chair and helped himself up. His elderly eyes glistened as he approached the three people.
“Father, I have been forgiven by this boy—this boy who I thought I killed.”
“Yes Mary, he has forgiven you,” he confirmed. Father Wesley cleared his throat. His tone changed.
“But the question remains: do you forgive yourself for your sins? Mary, the boy has been pardoned. But the other four people are still dead by your hand. The fact of the matter is, Mary, that you cannot receive your Last Rites unless you’re awaiting execution or terminally ill. I can give you a penance, but I cannot prepare your soul for death. I cannot prepare you for that journey.”
Mary quickly let go of the boy’s hand and stood up, alert and confused. She tilted her head, looking disappointingly at Father Wesley.
“What?” she asked. “Father, I told you. I’m on my deathbed. The police are going to capture me and put me to death for my sins.”
“But Mary,” Father Wesley questioned, “How do you know they’re after you?”
Mary giggled. She looked up at Father Wesley, then down, trying to contain her laughter. Luke backed away toward the pews with his son, clenching him tightly.
“Father,” she snorted. “Of course they’re after me! Have you seen the headlines? Did you see the wanted poster? The image looks just like me! Boy, they got that right. Talented illustrator. They’re probably right outside of this church, ready to take me away Father. Now won’t you grant me the Rites? It’s inevitable, Father. I’m gonna be on death row sooner or later.”
She sighed, and looked at the boy, wrapped tightly by his father. Luke picked up his son, and walked briskly out of the church, leaving Mary and Father Wesley alone. Mary looked back at Father Wesley, his eyes not tearful anymore. They were dry, wide and dark.
“So what’s it gonna be, Father. Am I pardoned or not?”
Father Wesley retorted loudly.
Mary leaned back, not expecting the elderly man to be so firm.
“Get out of here. This is the Lord’s house. You are not welcome here. You don’t care if you live or die; you just want to believe you’re not going to Hell. Leave His house now and never come back.”
The last syllable of his rant cracked, leaving a resounding echo that circled the inside of the building. Mary, now expressionless, turned around, and exited the door through which she entered.
It was sunny outside, the light now warming the grass and leaves which lined the street. Still no one or thing was out. Just Mary, walking slowly down the street, numb.
She thought about what Father Wesley said about not being terminally ill or awaiting execution. She giggled. She heard sirens ring in the distance, slowly approaching Fourth Street. She laughed louder.
Check out Kelly’s website to learn more about her.