Saturday, April 09, 2011
Short Story - "The Cloak"
Tara crinkled her nose again and again as she clung to her mother’s dress. The smell in the subway was awful; it made her think of the dirty children who urinated on themselves at the shelter where her mother volunteered. When the children smelled too terrible to endure she could walk away, but in here the stench was everywhere and it made her eyes water.
Her father had never allowed her mother to take her into the subway before and now she could see why. When she’d heard her parents arguing about whether or not her mother would be allowed to take her this time the idea of the subway he kept bringing up sounded somehow exciting. “Dangerous” to her was not a word to invoke fear, but was instead an incitement to her ample curiosity. Standing here amid the silent Sunday crowds she still did not feel afraid, and as her nose adjusted to the initial onslaught of odors she looked around herself for the first time.
Her first thought was that there were too many people there for it to be so quiet. The crowd was scattered into small silent groups across the grimy brown tiles, and if they spoke amongst themselves at all it was in the lowest whispers. Those who were there alone stood in any empty patch they could find with their eyes cast down to the ground or at the tattered posters on the walls, ostensibly unaware, or at least uncaring, that anyone else was near them. Tara wondered why they weren’t all talking and making friends. She wanted to ask her mother if it was supposed to be quiet like church, but she was afraid that she’d be hushed.
To the side of everyone was an older shabby woman wearing a dingy feather cloak. Tara could see spots on the cloak where the feathers seemed to almost shine when the light hit them and thought it might have been white at one time, but it was now just as filthy as the lady herself. She studied the old woman’s face and was surprised to see that the skin itself didn’t seem wrinkled so much as dirty, yet she couldn’t shake the impression that standing here was a very, very old woman. The woman caught Tara’s eye and her mouth spread into an attractive grin, despite the grime that had to rearrange itself to make way for her smile.
“Don’t stare, sweetie,” her mother quietly admonished her from above, pulling Tara closer to her side.
Where there had been overwhelming silence before there was now an overwhelming noise approaching from the tunnel in front of them. The breeze that accompanied it stirred up the smell again and Tara frowned as she found herself disappointed yet again when the train slid into view. Her imagination had polished the reality of what was now on the platform in front of them; this graffiti-covered and tarnished beast was nothing like what she had pictured when her mother told her the subway was like a train, only underground. Tara had been anxious to hear her first real train whistle, but the only sound that greeted them was the shrill whine of the brakes screeching to a stop. She didn’t want to ride in this twisted betrayal of her imagination.
Sensing her reluctance to move, her mother picked her up into her arms and carried her onto the train. She hurried into a seat in the very back of the car where she could hold her daughter on her lap and from here Tara could see everyone as they entered. The people on the platform pushed their way wordlessly into the car. A priest took his seat on the left just a few feet away from them and her mother instinctively put her hands to the crucifix around her neck and smiled.
“We’re almost home, honey. This wasn’t so bad, was it?” Feeling cheered, she kissed the top of Tara’s head.
Almost as soon as she’d spoken her words of comfort Tara felt her mother tense again. Rushing through the quickly closing doors were two teenagers dressed in a way that did not actually frighten her but caused her to feel sure that they were not what her mother would have called “good children.” The taller of the two teens wore his hair in long, purple-streaked braids with what looked to Tara like a spiked dog collar similar to the ones worn on the bull dogs in her cartoons. The smaller one was completely bald with the exception of long bangs which he let hang down over his face. Their dark clothes were paired with jeans that were full of rips and they wore many piercings in their faces as well as their ears. There were no places left to sit and the taller of the boys scanned the car and let his eyes fall on the priest with an impish grin. He nudged his friend in the ribs and they deliberately went to stand at the hand holds directly in front of the priest, bringing them closer to Tara. Her mother quickly repeated her earlier admonishment about staring with more urgency.
Obediently, Tara turned her gaze to the right side of the car and met the eyes of the old woman from the platform again. The people nearest the woman had moved to the edges of their seats to reduce to possibility of coming in contact with her dingy feathered cloak. She felt herself smiling at the woman despite her mother’s warnings. There was something comforting about her gentle face. It was her eyes, she realized. The woman had perfectly gray eyes with no color of their own, but they reflected a bit of whatever shade crossed her sight. At this moment her gaze was upon Tara and her deep indigo coat, giving a sparkle of blue to her eyes. It was not surprising to Tara when the woman’s gaze flicked to the teens across from her that her eyes were suddenly tinged with the darkness from the boys’ clothing.
“Sad, ain’t it?” The taller boy was telling his friend loudly, gesturing toward the priest less than a foot away from him. “You know this guy probably ain’t never been laid.” The priest did not look up at the two.
“Just ‘cuz he’s a priest? Nah, man, that don’t stop ‘em.” The shorter boy leaned closer to the priest to force him to look into his face as he spoke again. “You been suckin’ some little boys dick, right? Or maybe all you priests get together somewhere and jerk off to each other in your skirts.” He laughed harshly, the priest flinching in the onslaught of the teen’s breath.
The other passengers tried to ignore the conversation but Tara heard her mother gasp.
“Son, I don’t care what you say to me, but please don’t talk like that in front of children,” the priest pleaded with the boys.
“Dude!” The taller boy elbowed his friend. “That fag just called you ‘son.’ Don’t that piss you off?"
“Shit, yeah, it does. If what I said is so bad,” he continued with the priest, “why don’t your God just shut me up right now?"
“Because he gave us a choice! You didn’t have to choose to act this way any more than I had to choose a life of service. You can always make new choices, too,” the priest pressed more softly with him. “He always welcomes back his children."
The boy was still smiling malevolently at the priest. “Tell you what, Padre. I’ll make a deal with you.”
“I’m not interested in any deals,” the priest replied.
The train was slowing for the next stop now and the gray-eyed woman was gathering her cloak about her to take her leave. She cast her gaze to Tara one last time and nodded once sadly as she turned to leave. Only a few people got off the train with her. Tara turned on her mother’s lap so she could still see the platform through the window as the doors began to close. Everyone else, including her mother, had their attention glued to the teenagers and the priest.
“You’ll like this one, man. I’ll shut up and I won’t say anything else you don’t like if I’m wrong."
On the platform those who’d exited the train made their way hastily up the stairs, eager to return to the open air. Only the old woman lingered. She turned slowly and faced Tara, her smile returning.
“I’m gonna give your God a chance to prove himself.” The boy stood back and spread his arms dramatically, his faced lifted to the roof.
Tara smiled back at the woman, noticing that she suddenly seemed younger and cleaner, as if the dirt and filth were falling away from her feather cloak as she watched. Slowly, her cloak began to open.
The boy grabbed for the hand hold as the doors shut. He cupped his free hand around his mouth and called out, “Hey up there, God? Look man, if you’re up there why don’t you just give us a sign? Obviously, you didn’t have time to keep my mom from dyin’ of cancer and it’s probably been too much trouble for you to keep my dad from drinking a bottle of gin every night and beatin’ the shit out of me, so how ‘bout somethin’ simple? Like strike me down with lightening, that should be fun for you. Come on!"
Her cloak kept opening, each feather now a pristine white, until each side stood straight away from her slender, strong body. Her white gown underneath held the same immaculate radiance. Tara gasped as the train began to pull away from the platform.
“See?” The boy dropped his arm angrily, but also a little sadly. “There’s nothin’ there. Nothing. You can spend your whole life believing in a lie, but I ain’t. No way."
Tara returned her attention to the priest as the platform slid out of sight. He looked worn suddenly with the heat of the boy’s rage. “Son, faith just doesn’t work that way. You’ll never see God if you’re only looking for miracles."
“It’s all just bullshit anyway, man,” the taller of the two boys interjected, less passionately than before. He took his friend and they moved away toward the opposite end of the car.
Her mother kissed the top of her head again. “I’m sorry, sweetie. It’s almost all over. We’ll get home and I’ll fix us a nice dinner, OK?"
“It’s OK, Mommy.” Tara didn’t know why her Mommy was so upset, but she wished she’d thought to show her the angel before it flew away.
It would have made her so happy.
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