THE first Mulligan Israfel meets is the youngest. It’s a Sunday, his second in town, when Israfel finds him sitting on a beat-up plastic chair in the sacristy, glowering at his Game Boy. The contrast between the scowl and the pristine surplice is discordant, the combination making the boy seem simultaneously angelic and sullen. Israfel’s heart sinks a little, anticipating difficulties.
Nevertheless, he puts on his best disarming smile. “Hello,” he says mildly, holding out his hand. “Are you serving today? I’m sorry, I don’t know your name. I’m Father Israfel.”
He expects, maybe, a shrug of the shoulders and some kind of prepubescent grunt, as generally offered by the altar servers at his last parish. The smile that breaks out on the boy’s face is a revelation, the firm handshake even more so. “Tom Mulligan,” he returns, immediate and bright.
He’s pretty, Israfel notes detachedly. In five years, he’ll be gorgeous. Israfel wishes he wasn’t the sort of priest to whom such realizations come naturally, but wishing has never done him very much good. It could be worse. His observations, at least, are consigned to the purely objective, constrained to innocence by the smoothness of Tom’s face, his narrow, little-boy shoulders. To some men, these things would be enticements.
“Pleased to meet you, Tom,” says Israfel, and means it. He half expects Tom to return to his game, let Israfel finish blessing the water and fixing his vestments, but the boy sets the Game Boy aside on an empty seat, eyebrows drawing inquisitively together.
“I like your name. Israfel’s an angel, right? Like, the same as Raphael, in the Book of Enoch?”
Israfel blinks for a moment, astounded. It’s literally the first time in his life that anyone has known the origin of his name, beyond vague guesses, and Tom throws out the comment like it’s obvious, something he remembers from grade school. “How on earth do you know about the Book of Enoch?”
Tom shrugs, mouth tugging up at the corners, quietly pleased with himself. “I like angels. I got interested. Nate says there’s no such thing, but that’s just because he’s a jerk.”
“Is Nate a friend?”
Tom snorts and shakes his head. “He’s my brother,” he says, almost derisively, as if Nate is so very much his brother that the idea of his being anything else is laughable. “He’s meant to be serving today too, but he went off somewhere. To the ‘bathroom’,”—Tom makes air quotes with his fingers—“except that was fifteen minutes ago and nobody takes that long to pee.”
Israfel laughs softly. “Well, there’s time yet. I suppose you two know what you’re doing?”
“Been doing it three years,” Tom returns, nodding. “Since I was ten. And Nate’s been doing it since he was ten and he’s seventeen now, so I guess you could say we pretty much have it down.”
Seventeen. Israfel squares his shoulders and makes himself go on smiling, trying not to imagine what kind of seventeen-year-old this boy’s brother might make. Tom’s small right now, but there’s height anticipated by his big feet and long legs. Any brother of his would doubtless be tall, broad in the shoulders. Tom’s eyes are green, intriguing. Israfel hopes this isn’t a family trait. For both their sakes, he hopes Nate is the plainer brother.
When the other boy enters the room, Israfel is straightening his vestments, back turned on the sound of approaching footsteps.
“Hey, bitchface,” says the newcomer, glib and self-assured, although there’s fondness under the insult.
“Nate,” Tom hisses, scandalized, and Nate laughs.
“Sorry. Forgot you don’t like to be picked on in front of servants of the Lord.”
And herein, Israfel thinks, lies the trouble he’d expected when he’d first laid eyes on Tom. He finishes arranging his sash and turns around.
Nate is… definitely not the plainer brother. Tom is cute. When he grows up, he’ll be extremely appealing. Nate, six feet at seventeen, is to “appealing” what the sun is to a keychain flashlight. His surplice is immaculate, stiff starched and formal, but it sits on Nate’s shoulders with a kind of casual familiarity that suggests a level of ease in his own skin that Israfel has never enjoyed. Not that Israfel can blame him for it, given that Nate is far and away the most physically perfect person he’s ever seen in real life. He’s fairer than his brother, pale golden skin and dark golden hair, a faint constellation of freckles just visible over the bridge of his perfect nose. He does have green eyes, Israfel determines: bright, vivid green, under neatly arched brows. The line of his jaw is sharp enough to cut butter on. His mouth is as soft as sin.
Israfel is utterly undone.
Nate Mulligan is probably, Israfel thinks sadly, entirely unaware of the massive wrench he has thrown into his new padre’s life by the very fact of his existence. Certainly, he holds out his (square, long-fingered) hand for Israfel to shake, as if he has no idea that all the vileness in Israfel wants to take that hand and pull him close, debauch and consume him and never let him go.
Of course he has no idea. Why should he? Priests aren’t supposed to be like Israfel. Israfel is an abomination.
He bids himself be calm, takes the proffered hand and shakes it. His voice, when it emerges—“Hello, Nate. Good to meet you. I’ve just been talking to your brother, here.”—is perfectly steady, revealing nothing. Israfel is twenty-nine years old, and he has been concealing himself from the world since he was fourteen. Fifteen years of practice, it seems, can help a man cope with challenges that once would have been insurmountable.
“Sorry about him,” Nate says and laughs. Israfel feels an absurd urge to lick the boy’s (perfect) teeth, abruptly followed by a surge of guilt that shoots hot through his jaw like a vein of molten silver.
“Not at all,” Israfel protests, and the fact that his voice continues to be even is nothing short of astonishing. He smooths his sash, fussily and unnecessarily. His palms are damp against the cloth. “He was very illuminating.”
Nate laughs again and clicks his tongue. “Oh, I bet. Trash talking me to the new priest already, huh, Tommy?”
Tom crosses his arms and tosses his head in a gesture several years too old for his childish frame, eyebrows raised scornfully. “Was not. Believe it or not, I do have better things to talk about, Nate. And it’s Tom.”
“Oh, right. Of course. I forgot about how you’re all grown up now.” Nate shoots out an arm, curls it around his brother’s head, and drags him into something that might have been a headlock but could equally just be an attempt to smother Tom with his armpit. It’s immature and rough, and Tom’s protesting vehemently while he pummels Nate with his far-smaller fists, but there’s nothing but fondness in it, really, and both of them are laughing as they grapple.
The foolish, obscene twist of jealousy in Israfel’s gut is simply further evidence of the true hopelessness of his situation. He is a grown man—a man of the cloth, moreover, sworn husband to the Church of Christ and no other—and he’s envious of the thirteen-year-old whose face is currently smushed into Nate Mulligan’s armpit.
“Holy Mary, pray for us sinners,” he mutters in a voice inaudible to earthly ears as he heads out into the sanctuary.
It doesn’t do much to reassure him, but currently, it’s the best plan he has.
The Mulligan boys serve the Mass more efficiently than anyone Israfel’s ever worked with before, even including the fifteen-year-old girl in Illinois who’d spoken to him about entering a convent. These boys serve as if they’ve known this service about as long as they’ve known language, and as far as Israfel knows, it could be true. Their matching expressions of quiet devotion make him smile a little as he circulates the chalice, remembering the way they’d teased each other earlier, irreverent and carefree. They’re both evidently anxious to display their devotion to their work.
When he meets their parents, when the Mass has been served and the congregation is filing past him into the graveyard, Israfel has a better understanding of why. The boys disappear back into the sacristy to put things away and change back into their own clothes, which takes long enough that Mr. and Mrs. Mulligan are required to hang back from the line to wait for them, making them readily identifiable. By the time the little family reaches Israfel at the door, the church is empty, the smell of incense headier in the silence that’s fallen.
“Mr. and Mrs. Mulligan, I presume,” Israfel says, putting on his most inviting smile as he holds out his hand for them to take.
Mr. Mulligan’s grip is strong, insistent. There’s something militaristic in his bearing too, and both things together suggest some time in armed service. His free hand is clasped on Tom’s shoulder, but it isn’t a reassuring touch, nor a particularly friendly one. It’s a firm hand, rather, as if he feels that his youngest son is somehow in need of stern handling, and the picture they make is altogether too familiar. Israfel has known a lot of “firm-hand” fathers in his time in the ministry, all of them reminiscent of his own.
The gruff voice is absolutely in accord with the man. “John Mulligan,” he says, and then, “and it’s Captain.”
Israfel isn’t sure whether to congratulate himself on his fine deductive reasoning or flush at being so pointedly corrected. In the end, he simply smiles awkwardly, and John obligingly continues, unabated.
“Good to meet you, Father; good to meet you. I hope my boys here didn’t give you any grief?”
Israfel laughs and shakes his head. “They’re extraordinarily well behaved. The best altar servers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, in fact. You should be proud.”
“Oh, we are.”
Mrs. Mulligan’s tone leaves Israfel in no doubt as to her sincerity, even if her husband’s white-knuckled grip leaves him questioning. She’s slightly built and blonde and evidently the source of her eldest son’s good looks. She delicately declines to shake Israfel’s outstretched hand—an affectation Israfel has rarely seen in women below the age of seventy—but her smile is very genuine and oddly familiar.
“And I should hope they do serve a perfect Mass. We always run through it in Saturday-morning school, before we study the catechism, so there’s no excuse not to. Is there?” She grins sidelong at her eldest son, squeezing his hand affectionately.
“None,” Nate tells her flatly. He’s looking at the ground, patient but rather expressionless. Israfel finds himself wishing the boy would look up, but admittedly it is probably for the best that he doesn’t.
“Do you teach a special Saturday class, then, Mrs. Mulligan?” he asks, politely inquisitive.
“Lynda, please.” Lynda smiles at him, and it’s Nate’s smile, straight-toothed and compelling. “I homeschool them, actually; I trained as a teacher, but obviously, after these two came along….” She laughs and spreads her hands, as if the rest is self-explanatory—as indeed it is. Lynda Mulligan is clearly a very conservative Roman Catholic. Israfel wonders if this is the general attitude in this parish—that married women ought not to work outside of the home—or if she is simply exceptionally pious. His last parish had been rather lenient on such matters.
“She’s a marvel,” John puts in, his tone fond but rather brusque. Israfel recognizes it immediately. It is undoubtedly the tone of a man eager to quiet his wife before she can launch into a twenty-minute narrative about a subject in which he is entirely uninterested. He reaches over Tom’s head for Lynda’s hand, squeezes, and tugs, his intention unmistakable. “Aren’t you?”
Lynda laughs. “Whatever you say, hon.”
Israfel has seen many women hold firm under this kind of attack, stubbornly continuing their anecdotes while their husbands pull on their arms with an increasing lack of subtlety. Lynda Mulligan is evidently not that sort of woman. She takes the hint gracefully, obediently, lacing her fingers through John’s and turning toward the door. “It was lovely to meet you, Father. I hope you’ll be very happy here.”
“Bless you,” Israfel says vaguely as they file out. The boys are quiet, scuffing their sneakers as they follow their parents out into the sunlit churchyard. Israfel remembers the way they were in the sacristy, both of them outspoken and laughing. For a moment, the contrast gives him pause.
Then he thinks about Lynda’s face, the look of quiet pride when she spoke of her sons. No trace of a sign of anything there but love and the passing on of piety. They’re a normal family, two boys and their good Catholic parents. Homeschooling isn’t something Israfel has come across before, but that doesn’t permit him to be prejudiced against it. Everybody knows the public school system is a joke, and a Godless one, at that. If Israfel had children, he might well want to teach them himself, given the extortionate fees Catholic schools charge.
But Israfel has no children and never will. He has his flock, his duties, and his prayers. His vows make him a shepherd and a son but forbid him the path of fatherhood.
The cross of the Mass is heavy around Israfel’s neck, solid and cool when he closes his fingers around it. It is his protection, his security, and his guide. Sometimes, Israfel stands like this before the mirror, reminds himself that this is what the whole world sees. Here is a man removed from normality by his own choice, by the strength of his love of God. He denies himself the pleasures of women because Paul commanded it, and through fidelity to the Holy Roman Church. In another life, Father Israfel could have been anyone, a lover and a husband and a father.
Sometimes, Israfel can almost believe the lie.
But then there are boys like Nate Mulligan, young and strong and so beautiful that Israfel can feel the flames. Pure sons of pious families, and the evil in Israfel yearns to smear its filth all over them.
Israfel is a blind man leading the blind, and sometimes it is hard to forget it. It is a sin to bear false witness, and he is sinning every day of his life.
There are greater sins. Israfel envisages them in Nate Mulligan’s mouth, in all the smooth lines of his body.
As consolation goes, it isn’t the best, but Israfel’s used to that. For years, he has plodded on as the lesser of two evils.
Nate isn’t the first boy to have moved him to lust and frustration and anguish. There is no reason why he has to be any different than all the ones who have come before.
This is a lie, of course, but Israfel is used to that and has his ways around it.
He prescribes himself a hundred Hail Marys and fumbles out his rosary. The words trip over his tongue half-felt, familiar, and by the time he has prayed ten, Nate Mulligan is out of his mind, Israfel untouchable like this, wrapped in his endless circle of prayer.
He tidies the sanctuary as he prays, then retreats to the rectory. There’s half a bottle of sacramental wine left over. He sets it on the side table as he enters the house and looks at it.
He has to drink it. The Church is very clear on this question. “This is my blood, poured out for many.” To fail to consume the sacrament is a grave blasphemy, and Israfel wouldn’t dream of it. The congregation had been unusually small this morning, though, a lot of families out of town for the Labor Day weekend, and the resultant leftovers are correspondingly great. Probably, he should dispose of the wine in small amounts, rationed throughout the day.
By two in the afternoon, the bottle is entirely empty, Israfel’s duty fulfilled. The room is swimming around him, the quantity of alcohol unfamiliar and affecting him overmuch, but his mind is blissfully empty.
It will be all right, he thinks. Everything has always been all right before.