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Like a scrivener replenishing his pen at an inkwell, Connie dips his thumb into the font. "Angela Dunfey, name this child of yours. "
"M-M-Madeleine Eileen Dunfey. "
"We welcome this sinner, Madeleine Eileen Dunfey, into the mystical body of Christ"-with his wet thumb Connie traces a plus sign on the infant's forehead-"and do mark her with the Sign of the Cross. "
Unraveling Madeleine from her christening gown, Connie fixes on the waters. They are preternaturally still-as calm and quiet as the Sea of Galilee after the Savior rebuked the winds. For many years the priest wondered why Christ hadn't returned on the eve of the Greenhouse Deluge, dispersing the hydrocarbon vapors with a wave of his hand, ending global warming with a Heavenward wink, but recently Connie has come to feel that divine intervention entails protocols past human ken.
He contemplates his reflected countenance. Nothing about it-not the tiny eyes, thin lips, hawk's beak of a nose-pleases him. Now he begins the immersion, sinking Madeleine Dunfey to her skullcap. . . her ears. . . cheeks. . . mouth. . . eyes.
"No!" screams Angela.
As the baby's nose goes under, mute cries spurt from her lips: bubbles inflated with bewilderment and pain. "Madeleine Dunfey," Connie intones, holding the infant down, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. " the bubbles break the surface. The fluid pours into the infant's lungs. Her silent screams cease, but she still puts up a fight.
"No! Please! No!"
A full minute pa.s.ses, marked by the rhythmic shuffling of the congregation and the choked sobs of the mother. A second minute-a third-and finally the body stops moving, a mere husk, no longer home to Madeleine Dunfey's indestructible soul.
The Sacrament of Terminal Baptism, Connie knows, is rooted in both logic and history. Even today, he can recite verbatim the preamble to the Eighth Lateran Council's Pastoral Letter on the Rights of the Unconceived. ("throughout her early years, Holy Mother Church tirelessly defended the Rights of the Born. Then, as the iniquitous inst.i.tution of abortion spread across Western Europe and North America, she undertook to secure the Rights of the Unborn. Now, as a new era dawns for the Church and her servants, she must make even greater efforts to propagate the gift of life everlasting, championing the Rights of the Unconceived through a Doctrine of Affirmative Fertility. ") the subsequent sentence has always given Connie pause. It stopped him when he was a seminarian. It stops him today. ("this Council therefore avers that, during a period such as that in which we find ourselves, when G.o.d has elected to discipline our species through a Greenhouse Deluge and its concomitant privations, a society can commit no greater crime against the future than to squander provender on individuals congenitally incapable of procreation. ") Quite so. Indeed. And yet Connie has never performed a terminal baptism without misgivings.
He scans the faithful. Valerie Gallogher, his nephews' zaftig kindergarten teacher, seems on the verge of tears. Keye Sung frowns. Teresa Curtoni shudders. Michael Hines moans softly. Stephen O'Rourke and his wife both wince.
"We give thanks, most merciful Father"-Connie lifts the corpse from the water-"that it pleases you to regenerate this infant and take her unto your bosom. " Placing the dripping flesh on the altar, he leans toward Lorna Dunfey and lays his palm on Merribell's brow. "Angela Dunfey, name this child of yours. "
"M-M-Merribell S-Siobhan. . . " With a sharp reptilian hiss, Angela wrests Merribell from her cousin and pulls the infant to her breast. "Merribell Siobhan Dunfey!"
The priest steps forward, caressing the wisp of tawny hair sprouting from Merribell's cranium. "We welcome this sinner-"
Angela whirls around and, still sheltering her baby, leaps from the podium to the aisle-the very aisle down which Connie hopes one day to see her parade in prelude to receiving the Sacrament of Qualified Monogamy.
"Stop!" cries Connie.
"Angela!" shouts Lorna.
"No!" yells the altar boy.
For someone who has recently given birth to twins, Angela is amazingly spry, rushing pell-mell past the stupefied congregation and straight through the narthex.
"Please!" screams Connie.
But already she is out the door, bearing her unsaved daughter into the teeming streets of Boston Isle.
At 8:17 P. M. , Eastern Standard Time, Stephen O'Rourke's fertility reaches its weekly peak. The dial on his wrist tells him so, buzzing like a tortured hornet as he scrubs his teeth with baking soda. Skreee, says the sperm counter, reminding Stephen of his ineluctable duty. Skreee, skreee: go find us an egg.
He pauses in the middle of a brush stroke and, without bothering to rinse his mouth, strides into the bedroom.
Kate lies on the sagging mattress, smoking an unfiltered cigarette as she balances her nightly dose of iced Arbutus rum on her stomach. Baby Malcolm cuddles against his mother, gums fastened onto her left nipple. She stares at the far wall, where the cracked and scabrous plaster frames the video monitor, its screen displaying the regular Sunday night broadcast of Keep those Kiddies Coming. Archbishop Xallibos, seated, dominates a TV studio appointed like a day-care center: stuffed animals, changing table, brightly colored alphabet letters. Preschoolers crawl across the prelate's Falstaffian body, sliding down his thighs and swinging from his arms as if he is a piece of playground equipment.
"Did you know that a single act of onanism kills up to four hundred million babies in a matter of seconds?" asks Xallibos from the monitor. "As Jesus remarks in the Gospel According to Saint Andrew, 'Masturbation is murder. '"
Stephen coughs. "I don't suppose you're. . . "
His wife thrusts her index finger against her pursed lips. Even when engaged in shutting him out, she still looks beautiful to Stephen. Her huge eyes and high cheekbones, her elegant swanlike neck. "Shhh-"
"Please check," says Stephen, swallowing baking soda.
Kate raises her bony wrist and glances at her ovulation gauge. "Not for three days. Maybe four. "
He loves her so dearly. He wants her so much-no less now than when they received the Sacrament of Qualified Monogamy. It's fine to have a connubial conversation, but when you utterly adore your wife, when you crave to comprehend her beyond all others, you need to speak in flesh as well.
"Will anyone deny that h.e.l.l's hottest quadrant is reserved for those who violate the rights of the unconceived?" asks Xallibos, playing peek-a-boo with a cherubic toddler. "Who will dispute that contraception, casual s.e.x, and nocturnal emissions place their perpetrators on a one-way cruise to Perdition?"
"Honey, I have to ask you something," says Stephen.
"That young woman at Ma.s.s this morning, the one who ran away. . . "
"She went crazy because it was twins. " Kate slurps down her remaining rum. The ice fragments clink against each other. "If it'd been just the one, she probably could've coped. "
"Well, yes, of course," says Stephen, gesturing toward Baby Malcolm. "But suppose one of your newborns. . . "
"Heaven is forever, Stephen," says Kate, filling her mouth with ice, "and h.e.l.l is just as long. " She chews, her molars grinding the ice. Dribbles of rum-tinted water spill from her lips. "You'd better get to church. "
"Farewell, friends," says Xallibos as the theme music swells. He dandles a Korean three-year-old on his knee. "And keep those kiddies coming!"
The path to the front door takes Stephen through the cramped and fetid living room-functionally the nursery. All is quiet, all is well. The fourteen children, one for every other year of Kate's post-p.u.b.escence, sleep soundly. Nine-year-old Roger is quite likely his, product of the time Stephen and Kate got their cycles in synch; the boy boasts Stephen's curly blond hair and riveting green eyes. Difficult as it is, Stephen refuses to accord Roger any special treatment-no private trips to the frog pond, no second candy cane at Christmas. A good stepfather didn't indulge in favoritism.
Stephen pulls on his mended galoshes, fingerless gloves, and torn pea jacket. Ambling out of the apartment, he joins the knot of morose pedestrians as they shuffle along Winthrop Street. A fog descends, a steady rain falls: reverberations from the Deluge. Pushed by expectant mothers, dozens of shabby, black-hooded baby buggies squeak mournfully down the asphalt. The sidewalks belong to adolescent girls, gang after gang, gossiping among themselves and stomping on puddles as they show off their pregnancies like Olympic medals.
Besmirched by two decades of wind and drizzle, a limestone Madonna stands outside the Church of the Immediate Conception. Her expression lies somewhere between a smile and a smirk. Stephen climbs the steps, enters the narthex, removes his gloves, and, dipping his fingertips into the nearest font, decorates the air with the Sign of the Cross.
Every city, Stephen teaches his students at Cardinal Dougherty High School, boasts its own personality. Extroverted Rio, pessimistic Prague, paranoid New York. And Boston Isle? What sort of psyche inhabits the Hub and its surrounding reefs? Schizoid, Stephen tells them. Split. The Boston that battled slavery and stoked the fires beneath the American melting pot was the same Boston that ma.s.sacred the Pequots and sent witchfinders to Salem. But here, now, which side of the city is emergent? the bright one, Stephen decides, picturing the hundreds of Heaven-bound souls who each day exit Boston's innumerable wombs, flowing forth like the bubbles that so recently streamed from Madeleine Dunfey's lips.
Blessing the Virgin's name, he descends the concrete stairs to the copulatorium. A hundred votive candles pierce the darkness. The briny scent of incipient immortality suffuses the air. In the far corner, a CD player screeches out the Apostolic Succession doing their famous rendition of "Ave Maria. "
The Sacrament of Extramarital Intercourse has always reminded Stephen of a junior high prom. Girls strung along one side of the room, boys along the other, gyrating couples in the center. He takes his place in the line of males, removes his jacket, shirt, trousers, and underclothes, and hangs them on the nearest pegs. He stares through the gloom, locking eyes with Roger's old kindergarten teacher, Valerie Gallogher, a robust thirtyish woman whose incandescent red hair spills all the way to her hips. Grimly they saunter toward each other, following the pathway formed by the mattresses, until they meet amid the mora.s.s of writhing soulmakers.
"You're Roger Mulcanny's stepfather, aren't you?" asks the ovulating teacher.
"Father, quite possibly. Stephen O'Rourke. And you're Miss Gallogher, right?"
"Call me Valerie. "
He glances around, noting to his infinite relief that he recognizes no one. Sooner or later, he knows, a familiar young face will appear at the copulatorium, a notion that never fails to make him wince. How could he possibly explicate the Boston Ma.s.sacre to a boy who'd recently beheld him in the procreative act? How could he render the Battle of Lexington lucid to a girl whose egg he'd attempted to quicken on the previous night?
For ten minutes he and Valerie make small talk, most of it issuing from Stephen, as was proper. Should the coming sacrament prove fruitful, the resultant child will want to know about the handful of men with whom his mother connected during the relevant ovulation. (Beatrice, Claude, Tommy, Laura, Yolanda, w.i.l.l.y, and the others were forever grilling Kate for facts about their possible progenitors. ) Stephen tells Valerie about the time his students gave him a surprise birthday party. He describes his rock collection. He mentions his skill at trapping the singularly elusive species of rat that inhabits Charlestown Parish.
"I have a talent too," says Valerie, inserting a coppery braid into her mouth. Her areolas seem to be staring at him.
"Roger thought you were a terrific teacher. "
"No-something else. " Valerie tugs absently on her ovulation gauge. "A person twitches his lips a certain way, and I know what he's feeling. He darts his eyes in an odd manner-I sense the drift of his thoughts. " She lowers her voice. "I watched you during the baptism this morning. Your reaction would've angered the archbishop-am I right?"
Stephen looks at his bare toes. Odd that a copulatorium partner should be demanding such intimacy of him.
"Am I?" Valerie persists, sliding her index finger along her large, concave bellyb.u.t.ton.
Fear rushes through Stephen. Does this woman work for the Immortality Corps? If his answer smacks of heresy, will she arrest him on the spot?
"Well, Stephen? Would the archbishop have been angry?"
"Perhaps," he confesses. In his mind he sees Madeleine Dunfey's submerged mouth, bubble following bubble like beads strung along a rosary.
"There's no microphone in my navel," Valerie a.s.serts, alluding to a common Immortality Corps ploy. "I'm not a spy. "
"Never said you were. "
"You were thinking it. I could tell by the cant of your eyebrows. " She kisses him on the mouth, deeply, wetly. "Did Roger ever learn to hold his pencil correctly?"
"'Fraid not. "
"Too bad. "
At last the mattress to Stephen's left becomes free, and they climb on top and begin reifying the Doctrine of Affirmative Fertility. The candle flames look like spear points. Stephen closes his eyes, but the effect is merely to intensify the fact that he's here. The liquid squeal of flesh against flesh grows louder, the odor of hot paraffin and warm s.e.m.e.n more pungent. For a few seconds he manages to convince himself that the woman beneath him is Kate, but the illusion proves as tenuous as the surrounding wax.
When the sacrament is accomplished, Valerie says, "I have something for you. A gift. "
"What's the occasion?"
"Saint Patrick's Day is less than a week away. "
"Since when is that a time for gifts?"
Instead of answering, she strolls to her side of the room rummages through her tangled garments, and returns holding a pressed flower sealed in plastic.
"Think of it as a ticket," she whispers, lifting Stephen's shirt from its peg and slipping the blossom inside the pocket.
Valerie holds an erect index finger to her lips. "We'll know when we get there. "
Stephen gulps audibly. Sweat collects beneath his sperm counter. Only fools considered fleeing Boston Isle. Only lunatics risked the retributions meted out by the Corps. Displayed every Sunday night on Keep those Kiddies Coming, the cla.s.sic images-men submitting to sperm siphons, women locked in the rapacious embrace of artificial inseminators-haunt every parishioner's imagination, instilling the same levels of dread as Spinelli's sculpture of the archangel Chamuel strangling David Hume. There are rumors, of course, unconfirmable accounts of parishioners who'd outmaneuvered the patrol boats and escaped to Quebec Cay, Seattle Reef, or the Texas Archipelago. But to credit such tales was itself a kind of sin, jeopardizing your slot in Paradise as surely as if you'd denied the unconceived their rights.
"Tell me something, Stephen. " Valerie straps herself into her bra. "You're a history teacher. Did Saint Patrick really drive the snakes out of Ireland, or is that just a legend?"
"I'm sure it never happened literally," says Stephen. "I suppose it could be true in some mythic sense. "
"It's about p.e.n.i.ses, isn't it?" says Valerie, dissolving into the darkness. "It's about how our saints have always been hostile to c.o.c.ks. "
Although Harbor Authority Tower was designed to house the merchant-shipping aristocracy on whose ambitions the decrepit Boston economy still depended, the building's form, Connie now realizes, perfectly fits its new, supplemental function: sheltering the offices, courts, and archives of the archdiocese. As he lifts his gaze along the soaring facade, Connie thinks of sacred shapes-of steeples and vaulted windows, of Sinai and Zion, of Jacob's Ladder and hands pressed together in prayer. Perhaps it's all as G.o.d wants, he muses, flashing his ecclesiastical pa.s.s to the guard. Perhaps there's nothing wrong with commerce and grace being transacted within the same walls.
Connie has seen Archbishop Xallibos in person only once before, five years earlier, when the stately prelate appeared as an "honorary Irishman" in Charles-town Parish's annual Saint Patrick's Day Parade. Standing on the sidewalk, Connie observed Xallibos gliding down Lynde Street atop a huge motorized shamrock. The archbishop looked impressive then, and he looks impressive now-six foot four at least, Connie calculates, and not an ounce under three hundred pounds. His eyes are as red as a lab rat's.
"Father Cornelius Dennis Monaghan," the priest begins, following the custom whereby a visitor to an archbishop's chambers initiates the interview by naming himself.
"Come forward, Father Cornelius Dennis Monaghan. "
Connie starts into the office, boots clacking on the polished bronze floor. Xallibos steps out from behind his desk, a glistery cube hewn from black marble.
"Charlestown Parish holds a special place in my affections," says the archbishop. "What brings you to this part of town?"
Connie fidgets, shifting first left, then right, until his face lies mirrored in the hubcap-size Saint Cyril medallion adorning Xallibos's chest. "My soul is in torment, Your Grace. "
"'Torment. ' Weighty word. "
"I can find no other. Last Tuesday I laid a two-week-old infant to rest. "
Connie ponders his reflection. It is wrinkled and deflated, like a helium balloon purchased at a carnival long gone. "My eighth. "
"I know how you feel. After I dispatched my first infertile-no left t.e.s.t.i.c.l.e, right one shriveled beyond repair-I got no sleep for a week. " Eyes glowing like molten rubies, Xallibos gazes directly at Connie. "Where did you attend seminary?"
"Isle of Denver. "
"And on the Isle of Denver did they teach you that there are in fact two Churches, one invisible and eternal, the other-"
"Temporal and finite. "
"Then they also taught you that the latter Church is empowered to revise its rites according to the imperatives of the age. " the archbishop's stare grows brighter, hotter, purer. "Do you doubt that present privations compel us to arrange early immortality for those who cannot secure the rights of the unconceived?"
"The problem is that the infant I immortalized has a twin. " Connie swallows nervously. "Her mother stole her away before I could perform the second baptism. "
"Stole her away?"
"She fled in the middle of the sacrament. "
"And the second child is likewise arid?"
"Left ovary, two hundred ninety primordials. Right ovary, three hundred ten. "
"Lord. . . " A high whistle issues from the archbishop, like water vapor escaping a tea kettle. "Does she intend to quit the island?"