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The Temptation of Sangre de Cristos

2009 story submission by Kim Crow

1.

The monastic retreat in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was meant to un-complicate my life. I booked a room at the hermitage of the Benedictine Brothers of The Five Wounds at the suggestion of my shrink. “Bernard,” he said, “Clear your mind. Get out of here for a few weeks.”  According to the good doctor’s theory, the spiritual nature of the retreat was ideal because I could be around people without actually having to talk.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d been through parochial school and grew up to be only mildly socially inept. Besides, I had spent the better part of four months on the floor of my apartment, depressed and listless. For those who have no firsthand knowledge of this disease—the exchange of even the most minor of pleasantries can become the most major of chores. I’m not proud of those four months, but they are in the past thanks to a heady cocktail of Lexapro, Lithium and underemployment. Depression has been a minor undercurrent in my emotional life since my twelfth birthday when Gina Marggiano wouldn’t show me her tits in exchange for a $50 Government Issue savings bond from Nana. It’s still Gina’s loss, if you ask me.

According to my Cock, which happens to be the world’s greatest barometer of depression, I’ve been on the outs for about three years. Still, five months ago when The Washington Post’s review of my latest book sparked a veritable shitstorm of bad press, I decided not to fight my already declining mood. I slipped in to one of the darkest points of my life. I say one of because I’ve been this low before and I’d put money on the fact that I’ll be down there again soon.

The book, a ghostwritten memoir of a second tier politician, was to be another minor victory for me. This post-scandal-bang-it-out-get-it-to-print-while-my-name-is-still-in-the-papers autobiography happens to be my specialty. Unfortunately for all parties involved, I was not playing my A game. I thought I gave them exactly what they asked for: a redeeming story of a Congressman who now finds peace from his Lord and Savior instead of in the arms of underage Asian prostitutes. But the Congressman now had to deal with the fact that his piety, “lacked sincerity” and was “utterly unconvincing.” I thought I had something to be proud of when one blogger actually used the term, “two dollar fucky sucky” in response to my rendition of the prostitute debacle. My agent thought otherwise and promptly dropped me.

So here I am in the painted canyons of New Mexico. My room has a small desk, a cot and a watercolor image of the Virgin of Guadalupe hanging from a single nail. Here in this small room at the Five Wounds Hermitage, I was supposed to glean a little insight into religious conviction and sincerity for my next born-again plot point. I was supposed to feel right at home with my limp dick surrounded fellow celibates at vespers.  I was supposed to make grand observations about life, liberty and the pursuit of not fucking people over for no good reason.

But I lost my train of thought.

2.

The good doc was right about one thing, a monastery is a great place to be alone together. Silence is encouraged, if not outright enforced by several strategically placed needlepoint frames reading, “’Be still and know that I am God.’ Psalm 46:10.” By the end of the first week, I’d had enough silence for a lifetime.

Luckily, the other visitors seemed to have had enough, too. The first to break the silence was Paulette Danvers, a news anchor with cropped blonde hair and a crooked smirk. “I talk for a living, so this whole not talking thing is about to make me just scream.” She said in her West Texas drawl. She spoke slowly, and eyed you in that southern way that infers imminent pain to one who can’t slow down long enough to hear her round out her vowels so talk can become “taaahwlk.”

Mentally, I had already formed an alliance with Enid Tseung during the week of silence. We’d both taken an interest in the book exchange shelf, and I was grateful for her nod to pass over one of the more dogmatically themed titles. Enid was focused in her meditations but always made time to bake bread and drink peony tea in the evenings. This, I found, had also made her popular among the resident monks.  Enid was an actor escaping the sweltering heat of New York City in the summertime and was paying for the trip with the money she earned as Korean Seamstress #3 on an internationally syndicated crime drama. She had simple lines and flourishes tattooed on her arms and the phrase, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes” marked across her back. She was personable, yet kept her distance and it was this quality that truly made me respect her. We could share laughs about growing up with names more suited for an elderly aunt or uncle, or we could pass each other without any sort of acknowledgement.

This was very much unlike Paulette. She did not have the capacity to pass by another person in the monastery without at least a wink or a nod. On my way to breakfast, I saw her hone in on Marlene, the third guest at the retreat and assault her with an, “Oh, Hi sweetie! What are you gonna get up to today?”

Marlene blew her off with a quick, “The day’s too young to tell. I have to get some caffeine in me first.”

“You better get some tea in you, girl,” said Paulette as Marlene lazily swayed down the hall. Marlene had that cool, uncalculating way of blowing Paulette off without inciting one of those teeth sucking notes of disapproval.

Ah Marlene. She wore her honey blond hair tucked into an unruly ponytail that morning. Her eyes, light blue and speckled with peridot, seemed rife with mischief. In the sunnier days I’ve spent in Penisville, I would have considered Marlene to be a homing device for my hard on.  Today, is no different from any other day these past depressive years. There’s not even a tingle of interest from my long-dormant penis.

“That woman is like nails on a chalkboard,” said Marlene as she adjusted her perfectly placed pout into a wry smile. “If these monks weren’t here, I swear I’d fucking kill her.”

“Nah, don’t do that. I’m sure a few of the good folks down in San Angelo might notice if their evening newscaster suddenly made her vacation permanent.”

“Of course she’s news anchor,” laughed Marlene. “I thought she must’ve been in real estate, but now that just seems too obvious.”

This was the first real conversation I’d had with Marlene. I’d been avoiding her like the plague for fear that I would come on to her and then would not be able to perform thanks to my lackluster cock. I tried not to think about how utterly lame it seemed to have no sort of reaction with the doubly tempting sinful act of fucking in a god damn convent. So much for my school boy fantasies.

I studied her body, and I’m sure she noticed after the silence lasted just a beat too long. She started in on some small talk, “So, Bernard. What brings you to Five Wounds?”

“My book got panned. I lost my agent and I got pretty depressed. My shrink thought this would be a good idea.”

“Heavy stuff. Sorry to hear about your book.”

“Thanks, I kind of half assed the whole book think now that I’ve had some time to think.” I said, and I think I meant it, too. “So, what about you? What brings you here?”

“Chlamydia.”

“Chlamydia?”

“Yep.”

“Seriously?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Huh. It’s not every day that the clap brings you to a monastic retreat.”

“Actually, it happens more than you might think. This is my second trip to Five Wounds. That’s why Brother Timothy and I have a special understanding.”

“You’re  joking, right?”

“Oh not like that. Tim’s just an interesting fellow. It’s not every day a practicing homosexual joins up with some hardcore Benedictines, you know?”

“That’s a complicated life.” I said, my mind racing at the possibilities for a new memoir subject.

“It’s a great story, but it’s not mine to tell. You should ask him about it while you are here.”

“I just might have to do that,” I said, wondering where I might bring such a topic up casually with Brother Tim. “So, I’ve been meaning to ask you. Marlene’s an unusual name. Were you named for Marlene Dietrich?”

“No. My Grandmother was a big fan of the Grimm Brother’s fairy tales. I’m named for the girl a story called The Juniper Tree.

“I don’t remember that one.”

“Oh, you know. Childless couple has miracle child but the wife dies and is buried under a juniper tree. The grieving husband sets flowers down upon her grave every day for many years until he is remarried. Anyway, the child he has with his new wife was a girl called Marlene. And little Marlene loves her brother.”

“Is this the one where the boy gets his head chopped off by the stepmother and a magic bird is born out of the tree?”

“That’s the one.”

“So, were you really serious about the Chlamydia?”

“Unfortunately, yes. I hate it when Arnold finds out this way.”

“Arnold?”

“My husband. He always finds out about my fucking around on him at the doctor’s office. He gets Chlamydia. We both get treated. Then I get banished to a convent for a few weeks. It’s good for us; I’m out of his way when he’s angry and he thinks we both win.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Well. It’s all in his mind. I realized a long time ago that pitying the poor bastard wasn’t such a strong foundation for a marriage. But he’s a better person that I can ever be, so I stick around.”

“Hmm,” I said, still ingesting this revelation when the bells for morning mass rang from the rust-colored adobe across the courtyard. “Walk you to mass?”

“I think I’ll sit this one out. See you around,” she said before turning toward her room in the women’s wing of the hermitage. I turned after opening the door to the courtyard, and caught her smiling back at me from across the room.

“Bernard? You know my door is always open for you.”

“Right,” I said, unsure of what else to say and unstirred by the unsavory notions swirling in my brain.

3.

I wasn’t trying to avoid Marlene for the next few evenings, but I found myself spending more time at the table sharing some fresh pastry with Enid and a half dozen or so of the monks. Brother Timothy joined us, too, though I never mustered the courage to ask him about his former life. Instead, I admired how freely and easily he laughed. I found a certain comfort in the way the lines around his eyes exaggerated the joy on his weathering face. I knew in these evenings together that Brother Tim had found peace here in a way I could never understand.

Marlene quietly passed on these occasions, and Paulette declared herself unavailable every night. “Oh Enid, honey! Aren’t you just the sweetest little thing. It’s so gracious of you to invite me, but I seldom eat carbohydrates, and I never indulge after 7:30 in the evening.”

“ But surely you must like sweets,” pried Brother Tim playfully.

“It’s not a question of like or dislike. It just goes against every instinct I have as a news anchor trying her best to keep the ratings up to make a silly little mistake like an unplanned little piece of sweet roll popping up and causing all this trouble.”

“Well Paulette, then you’ll just have to plan to join us one night before you go. What’s your favorite treat? I’ll make sure its there,” offered Enid.

“Oh, you don’t have to trouble yourself, honey.”

“I bet she just loves chocolate chip cookies,” tempted one of the younger monks.

“Maybe Peach Cobbler?” I said, hoping Enid would catch my subtle hint.

“Cupcakes?” suggested Enid.

“Ah ha! She’s blushing. Cupcakes it is,” said Father Tim. “Paulette, I think the Good Lord is calling you to join us for some cupcakes tomorrow evening.”

“Is He now?”

“It’s like you told me earlier, Paulette,” teased Brother Tim. “The Lord is everywhere you want to be. Just like Visa.”

“Well I guess one little cupcake isn’t gonna hurt.” Paulette conceded.

“If Paulette’s going to join us tomorrow, we need to make sure Marlene’s invited,” said Enid. “Bernard, will you go and ask her for us?”

I made a brief protest about heading into the women’s wing, but my protests were quickly dismissed. Since I was the only one without a Raspberry Brownie in one hand and a tea in the other (mine having been promptly gobbled up before it even had a chance to be blessed), I was the prime candidate for delivering invites.

I trudged up the hall of the women’s dorm, cursing my fate of not even getting my stiffy to half mast for what seemed like a decade. I rapped on Marlene’s door, and as I anticipated, she appeared as nature intended for her to be seen.

“I thought you’d never come,” she said as she pulled me to the bed by my belt loop.

4.

For the sake of my ego, I will have to leave most of the rest of the evening to your imagination. Marlene, with no small effort on her part, finally resigned to the fact that there Boner Express coming into her station’s platform this evening. She gave my cock one final tug and said, “Jesus, you’re not going anywhere tonight, are you Big Guy.”

“Don’t call my dick Big Guy. That’s what I call my neighbor’s cat.” And with that, I rolled off the cot and pulled up my pants. I walked to the door and sighed. “That cat’s a fucking bruiser. It must weigh 20 pounds.”

From the simple comforts of my own ascetic bed, it occurred to me that I should have returned the favor. On second thought, I’m sure the girl can take care of herself.

5.

There were few survivors of the Five Wounds Cupcake Massacre, and none of us could quite piece together the exact events of the evening. It started simply enough, with Enid presenting a plateful of Red Velvet cupcakes. By the end of the night, it was hard to discern which chunks of red in the monastery’s kitchenette were cupcakes and which were bits of human shrapnel were.

What is clear is this: upon reaching for her second cupcake of the evening, Paulette was transformed in a flash of light to some sort of winged beast. The blast caused by this transfiguration was enough to knock me out, and when I came to, I crawled toward Enid Tseung, now crouching behind the upturned table.

“Bernard! Oh, God Bernard. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner!”

“What the fuck is this, Enid?”

“Bernard, for my day job I work as a special agent in a Top Secret classified branch of the Department of Defense. I’ve been sent here because we’ve been observing her news casts for a long time now. It’s become clear that Paulette is a beast of epic proportions.”

“Jesus Fucking Christ! What sort of a sick joke is this?”

“ It’s not a joke, Bernard. Our team of forensic experts figured out that this transfiguration happens whenever Paulette eats carbs at night. That’s why I’ve been doing so much fucking baking around here.”

“I thought you were being nice.”

“I’m so sorry, Bernard. I didn’t know it would happen this quickly. I thought we had some time. Brother Tim’s in on my secret. I just sent him to get us the truck. We’ve got to find Paulette before she needs to feed again.”

“And what are you going to do with her when you find her?”

“She’s got Marlene. So our first priority is to keep the hostage safe. Our second is to destroy any and all evidence of the beast.”

I looked around the room. The wall of windows along the western wall had been shattered. The air in the room was thick and viscous and smelled like a butcher shop after a thunderstorm. I got sick on my shoes, my breaths became short and rapid.

“There’s not time to freak out, Bernard,” said Enid with the sort of focused intensity that must make her a ridiculously powerful performer. “Go find the beast. For God’s sake, find Marlene!”

6.

I ran west towards the canyons. I’d taken many walks there during the day, but in the twilight, I fought to recalibrate my senses. The shadows all seemed exaggerated. The nightsong of crickets was silent, as if the insects’ instincts were also on high alert.  I scanned the ground for tracks, but found nothing in the red clay earth.

I ran at a steady clip, looking for Marlene, the monster and a place where I might hide at any given moment. I must have been a mile deep into one of the canyons when I heard Marlene.

“Bernard! Over here.”

There was Marlene, crouched in a hollow of a blanched skeleton of a tree. She clutched at her leg where a wound pulsed liquid crimson. “Marlene, she bit you?”

“No. Talons,” said Marlene, weakly.

I tore my pants up to the knee to make a tourniquet.

“Hold this as tight as you can. We don’t want you do lose any more blood.”

“Okay,” a feeble reply.

“Do you have any idea which direction the beast was headed?”

“No, I just crawled here to hide.”

“I think you’re safe here for the time being. I have to let Enid and Tim know that you are here and you are alive.”

I ran back towards the monastery, checking for the beast’s tracks through the patches of scrub brush. Finally, at the mouth of the canyon, I saw a fresh print where three clawed talons had marked the earth just moments before. I crouched down in the scrub, hoping that I had seen her before she had seen me.

7.

The beast stood in silhouette, sniffing the air for my scent. Lights approached from the mouth of the canyon. Headlights. The beast turned as Enid and Brother Tim pulled up in the monastery’s old Datsun pick up. They plowed headlong into Paulette’s monstrous body.

“Grab the sledgehammer! Hurry!” shouted Brother Tim.

I ran to the truck bed and picked up the 16 pound hammer.

“Strike her in the throat,” screamed Enid. “It’s the only way we’ll survive.”

I raised the hammer above what used to be Paulette. I could not kill Paulette, even though the woman drove me bat shit crazy.

“Hurry! She’s coming to,” yelled a voice from the truck. From some strange corner of my mind, I heard the voice of my psychiatrist. “Disassociate, Bernard. Disassociate.” And thus I dropped the hammer upon the beast’s throat. I raised the sledgehammer and beat the beast a few more times for good measure.

“Oh thank fucking Christ! Hallelujah!” praised Brother Tim as he dropped to his knees.

Enid came running forward, “Where is Marlene? Is she okay?”

“She just beyond that gully. In a tree. She’s hurt, but she’s alive.”

I ran blindly towards Marlene. Nothing in the Sangre de Cristos could have kept me from her in that moment. I found her skeleton tree and broke into a full sprint. “Marlene! We’re safe. You’re going to be okay.” I fell to my knees and I fell into her body, so thankful to whatever God there may be that I could hold her in my arms.

“Oh, Bernard! Thank you! Thank you!” Marlene clutched me tight and whispered in my ear, “You sure have a lot of cajones for an impotent bastard.”

© 2009 Kim Crow

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