The acolytes ascended three crimson-carpeted steps and knelt behind Monsignor Clandillon, Tommy on the left, Marty on the other side. Marty took the bell-ringing duty; he always insisted on that privilege. He lifted the bells in his right hand carefully, so as not to chime prematurely, and was ready to join Tommy in raising the back of Monsignor Clandillon's chasuble when the great man genuflected.
Monsignor Clandillon bent over the gold chalice and whispered, "Hoc est enim corpus meum," Take and eat of this, all of you, for this is my body. He then moved slightly backward to begin his genuflection. Tommy took hold of the hem of the sacred vestment. The next instant Tommy felt the Jesuit's heel slam hard into his thigh.
"Unnnnh," Tommy said.
Monsignor Clandillon turned and flashed a most unpriestly and ominous look of annoyance. Tommy's thigh burned. He squinted, and blew out a couple short, hard breaths. Marty put his hand over his mouth to stifle his laughter. The priest turned back to the altar, raised the bright white disc above his head for the scattered congregation to see. When the consecration concluded, Marty rang the bells three times.
In the sacristy after mass Monsignor Clandillon called out, "Quinn?"
"Yes Monsignor?" Tommy stopped, while Marty snickered and disappeared into the passageway behind the altar.
"A wee bit out of position, were you not?"
Monsignor's closely cut white hair disappeared beneath the pale gold chasuble as he pulled it upward. On the front and back of the garment was an elaborately embroidered cross, and within a disc at the intersection was a circle in which were the letters IHS. He placed the garment in a wide, shallow drawer, smoothed out the wrinkles, then pushed it in to join the dozen others.
"Yes, Monsignor, I was out of position."
"And when I struck you with my foot, it was painful."
Monsignor Clandillon untied the rope-like cincture at his waist and removed the narrow stole with fine silk tassels at its end, and then took off his white cotton alb that looked like an extra-long night shirt. His t-shirt was stretched tight over his ample belly, and his bare arms were pale, and thick with muscle.
"Experiencing pain for a larger good is an ancient tradition. Did you know that?"
"Can you give me any instances?"
"The martyrdom of St. Sebastian."
"Very good, lad."
Monsignor Clandillon put the white garment carefully on a padded hangar. From the shelf he took a starched white clerical collar and a light, short-sleeved black shirt. "But the concept goes back even further, to the early Roman Empire."
Monsignor Clandillon turned, fixed his blue eyes on Tommy, and raised his forefinger.
"Quickly, now. Give me the second declension, singular: Puer."
"Puer, pueri, puero, puerum..."
"Excellent. Now, back to ancient Rome. Among the numerous pagan religions of the period was the worship of the great mother goddess, Cybele. Her son, Attis, goes mad. He emasculates himself under a pine tree and bleeds to death. Do you know the meaning of the word 'emasculate?'"
"It's the most profound mutilation. A cutting off of one's privates." Monsignor Clandillon pointed beneath the overhang of his belly.
"In any event," Monsignor Clandillon said, putting on his black jacket, "the priests who worshipped Cybele conducted rituals that emulated Attis' sacrifice. They'd work themselves into a frenzy to wild music and beating drums, then mutilate themselves, as had Attis. As I said, self-sacrifice has ancient roots. Can you think of any others? Other than the most obvious?"
Monsignor Clandillon smiled. "Excellent. Yes, Oedipus. And so what, my son, is the lesson here?"
"I'm sorry, I don't know."
"The lesson is simple," Monsignor Clandillon said softly. "We priests are so often compelled to give the best part of ourselves to a higher purpose. The Mother Church demands the greatest of sacrifices. Do you understand?"
"Very well. Come here, my son." Monsignor Clandillon rested both his hands on the top of the boy's head and rendered a silent benediction. Tommy stood still, feeling the warmth and heaviness of the man's hands.
"Now, be off with you, lad."
Tommy left the sacristy and headed through the corridor behind the altar to the other side of the church, to the room where the acolytes hung their cassocks and surplices.
The cruets and lavabo bowl remained on the small table on the other side of the door. They needed to be drained, washed, and placed into the cabinet. The crumpled linen towel belonged in the hamper, for the nuns to collect for laundering.
The water cruet was empty, but the other one contained an inch and a half of rich, amber fluid. Tommy looked around quickly, listened carefully for any approaching footsteps.
He raised the cruet to his lips, closed his eyes, and drank.