paper cuts from the pages of leviticus | illustrations by ana carolina maciel  

 

“Sundays make me bleed. It hurts more now than it used to, but I still rub the tender skin between my fingers to try to remember what topical pain feels like. Physical pain shouldn’t make you scream. At least that’s what Father used to tell me.”

I’m walking with closed arms, clutching the diesel mug to my collarbones. You know how people say things can warm your heart? That’s bullshit. Even with a scorching coffee melting into my chest, my heart is arctic and still.

It doesn’t make sense for me to pass the church on the way to the cemetery, but I know that I will. I do a lot of things that don’t make sense. But I’m perfectly sane, thank you very much. I just like the way the church looks in the morning with its reflective rainbow glass, and I like the way it feels in the morning with its illuminated wooden door. The door is smoother, warmer. The perfect morning wood.

My fingers are tingling with heat just thinking about it, so I slip them out of my gloves and into my mouth, loosely gripping each digit with my tongue. I have a lovely tongue: long, strong, and Himalayan pink. I should use my lovely tongue to do wise things, like confess my sins or speak His word. At least that’s what Father used to tell me.

paper cuts from the pages of leviticus | illustrations by ana carolina maciel

Elliot tore a page from the Bible. Gently tugging from the upper left corner, he released a small piece and kissed it.

“He loves me,” the boy whispered, taking the small piece of paper onto his supple tongue. His eyes fell to the back of his head as he lifted it to the crucifix on the wall.

“Elliot, what are you doing?” Father Drake demanded. He snatched the remainder of the page from the boy’s hands. Elliot stuck the dissolving verses to the roof of his mouth, staring at the priest with wide eyes and a crooked, adolescent smile.

“I wanted to taste the word of God.”

I stopped believing in God the moment that Father died. It was easy, really, though I still feel bad for disobeying Father’s wishes sometimes. But how can you still believe in God when He takes one of His own devoted servants without warning?

I shut out the world for the first week, tonguing a bottle of cabernet sauvignon until it began to taste like water. Even when I tried to extract precious drops directly from the cork, I felt the substance transform from concord grapes to hydrogen atoms in my throat.

It still aches sometimes. Like a twelve-year-old boy tired of his own hand. I could yank myself up as often as I wanted, but it would never be as good as having that person beside me. And I could cram the evidence in my jeans, but it would never be sweet again.

I’m at the church with the same, eager twelve-year-old boy hands. Still moist from saliva, I run my fingers over the wooden door, sighing in a steady, kindred rhythm. Blue reflections from the window pass over my wrist and become one with my veins. I smile.

“His lips were blue,” I say aloud, half hoping someone would hear me and be curious enough to ask whom I was talking about.

And I would say Father Drake. Father Alexander Drake, the only Father I ever loved. And perhaps this person would buy me a coffee in exchange for my story. And perhaps we would spend hours talking about our fathers or our lovers or our lives until the blue veins in our wrists began to puff out of their fleshy barriers and beg to meet one another. Or until our caffeine-stained tongues began to inflate with hormonal impulse and crave one another. But things like that don’t happen in real life. And people shouldn’t lust after one another so easily. At least that’s what Father used to tell me.

“Father, I have these strange urges, and I can’t control them,” Elliot confessed, staring at the webbed skin between his fingers.

Father Drake ran his own fingers through his russet hair and tilted the boy’s chin up so that their matching blue eyes could meet.

“Elliot, I know what these urges are, and you must try to control them. They are sinful. Do you understand?”

The boy shook his head, saying again, “No, I have very strange urges. And strange dreams about other people. About the people around me.” His eyes fell from the priest as they grew wet with embarrassment.

“Like what, Elliot?”

The boy paused, bit his lips, and answered.

“Sometimes, I dream about you.”

No one is ever inside the church this early in the morning, so I decide to let myself in. The heavy door echoes as I close it behind me, but I’m the only one who will care if it makes a noise or not. Despite the heavy beams of sunlight coming in from the wall-to-wall windows, the floor is cold. I don’t have to be barefoot to know. I can taste it.

It’s not a beautiful church, but I dream about it almost every night. Everything inside is a dark shade of gray or brown, so I dream of my stark, naked form up against the wall to contrast it. Other bodies might join me as we become acquainted with the grime of the church’s belly, splintering our bare extremities as we arch ourselves over the wooden pews. It would usually just be one other body, though, and that was enough for me.

There’s a low-hanging crucifix above the organ. After some twenty-five years, it’s still slightly crooked. During silent prayer, I would often fantasize about climbing a ladder to straighten it out just to see if Father Drake would be proud of me for doing so. I constantly craved his recognition, even if it meant telling him my darkest thoughts, because at least we could spend time together. There’s no way he enjoyed those private talks as much as I, but I still tell myself that he did.

paper cuts from the pages of leviticus | illustrations by ana carolina maciel

I’m at the church with the same, eager twelve-year-old boy hands. Still moist from saliva, I run my fingers over the wooden door, sighing in a steady, kindred rhythm. Blue reflections from the window pass over my wrist and become one with my veins. I smile.

The floor is as cold as I predicted. I lower myself onto it, crossing my legs like I did as a child. I fold my hands in my lap and close my eyes, breathing in the lingering dust and sin. It’s not comforting, but it is familiar. And it aches. I hardly notice my hands rotating in my lap as my mind slips into a more desirable past. A past with Father.

I move slowly down the aisle after I erect myself, pausing to pet the first bench of each row. Once I’m at the front, I take a seat and reach into my coat pocket for the Bible Father Drake gave to me. It’s the only physical gift he ever gave me. I always have it on me, but I rarely touch it. There’s really no need for me to read it.

I thumb the pages like a flipbook, wishing I could remember where the verse is. I was never very good at memorizing scripture, and it used to bother me so much because I wanted to impress Father with it. Whenever I opened my mouth to speak the intricate prose, clumsy syllables tripped my tongue instead. I studied the verses almost every night, but nothing ever really stuck. That’s not to say the scripture wasn’t sticky enough. I made certain that it was.

I shouldn’t do things like that though. At least that’s what Father used to tell me.

“Elliot, did you read the pages from Leviticus like I asked?” Father Drake inquired as the boy slowly returned the Bible to him.

“Yes, Father.”

“And did you learn that the thoughts you’ve been having are sinful?”

“Yes, Father.” Elliot nervously scratched his calloused hands as the priest opened the book to revisit the verse.

Elliot shut his eyes as Father Drake’s own widened.

“Elliot, what is this?” Father Drake worriedly implored, scanning his slender fingers over the tacky glaze on Moses’ name.

They both knew what it was. The silence confirmed it.

Father Drake could only muster up a single word for the boy.

“Why?”

Elliot licked his tightened lips, finally harboring an idea too wicked to confess to Father.

“I wanted to have sex with God.”

Even though I don’t believe in God anymore, I still believe in the power of His word. I have to. I never knew how much that single line of scripture would affect my life, and not even Father could properly prepare me for the damages.

Damaged; that’s what he used to call me. And I know he was right because I could sit here for hours, masturbating into God’s right hand and reading the cum-coated words over and over like a bedtime story, and it wouldn’t matter. I wouldn’t feel a thing.

The light switches windows, and I don’t care that I’ve been here too long or that people will begin filing themselves into the pews like overlooked documents. My body feels so stiff and heavy; I know I won’t be able to move in time for the masses attending mass. Somehow, I know that my head is made of glass and my arms are made of wood, and I cannot decide which one will be easier to break.

I can break my skin with this Bible. I have before. I used to play a game with myself on Sundays. I gave myself paper cuts between my fingers and tried my best not to scream. If I screamed, I lost the game, and I would have to wait until the next week to try again. I usually won, though. It didn’t hurt much, but the skin never had time to heal because I did it so frequently. Now I play a different game; I try to count the number of scars in the shape of tiny crosses still lingering on my skin. It’s harder than it sounds, though, because there are so many lines that overlap and create little checkerboard patterns.

I’m tempted to give myself another one to make my game more interesting. I could tell myself I’m doing it in honor of Father Drake, but that’s a lie; I’m doing it for myself. Father Drake wouldn’t approve of it anyway.

Now that I’ve been holding the book for so long, it’s warm with destructive promises. My lovely tongue finds its way to the golden letters of the title, lapping up the nights I spent alone and the nights I spent on my knees. Everything tastes salty. And I can’t help but wonder if God would taste salty, too.

I open the Bible to Leviticus, inspecting each space between my fingers to find room for another tiny cross. The middle finger of my left hand has a vacancy, so I push all of my other fingers down one by one to isolate it. I let the extremity stand on its own until it aches, all the while pondering the crudeness of making this phallic gesture in church. But this stopped being a holy place when Father died, and anyone who says otherwise probably thinks things can warm your heart.

I dangle the page over the flaccid skin of my chosen digit, trying to remember what physical pain feels like. Wouldn’t Father be so proud of me?

I start crying at the thought of it, tightening my already white-knuckled grip on the Bible. My victimized finger is shaking from caffeine and fear and tear-dodging, and I know that if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.

Just before my vision is obscured by the watery film, my eyes cross to the crooked crucifix on the wall. I have no desire to fix it now. It’s better off being a little twisted.

“He loved me.”

And the page goes down, down, down.

A peak of blood announces itself at the surface of the digit as the page makes quick contact with it. I don’t scream. Physical pain shouldn’t make you scream. At least that’s what Father used to tell me.

It’s emotional pain that should make you wail in your sleep. It’s trying to fuck God as payback for making you gay. It’s falling in love with your priest because he tried to help you. It’s visiting his dead body every day as a tribute to his memory. It’s an arctic heart. Euphoria and fury. And it’s this, all of this, that should hurt more than giving yourself paper cuts from the pages of Leviticus.