First Time, part 2 (Davies Tales #9b)

(For part 1, please click here.)

Aidan Davies and his father walked out of the sacristy. “Wait a moment,” said Alastor. “Let me look at you.”

Aidan stopped and turned in a circle. He had on more layers of clothing than any sane person would wear in the month of June. But he always joked that the psychological testing that candidates went through before becoming priests was done to make sure you were crazy. On top of his suit trousers and black shirt, Aidan wore a white alb, a garment which he used to pretend was a toga when his childhood fantasies built ancient Rome in the churchyard. On top of the alb, he wore a green stole, which more than a handful of people had called a “scarf” when they paid him compliments for its subtle patchwork design. And on top of the stole, he wore a green and gold chasuble, which weighed on his shoulders like a down comforter. Aidan flapped his arms to move the chasuble off of his hands. Of course I’m going to spill wine on it today, he thought. It’s a good thing, then, that it cost more than my first car. Aidan smiled ruefully and gave the chasuble a quick once over, looking for previous stains. There weren’t any.

Alastor stepped to his son and straightened the neckline of the ornate garment. Then his hands suddenly went to Aidan’s shoulders and his father gathered him into a strong embrace. “I remember when you wore a chasuble on Halloween. Your mother had to pin it to keep it from dragging.” He pushed Aidan back to arms length. “Now look at you.”

Alastor choked off the last words, seemingly as surprised as Aidan at his sudden show of emotion. Alastor kept his hand on Aidan’s shoulder as they walked to the back of the church where the early service crowd was trickling in. Churches fill up like movie theaters, Aidan thought.

His father stuck his head outside and clucked good-naturedly at a few stragglers. As they settled in to their pew, Aidan made a quick head count. Two dozen or so. Pretty standard for an early service in the summer. Well, if I do trip and hit my head on the altar only a few people will see it. He glanced at his watch and gave a thumbs up to his father. Alastor led the way as they entered the nave and processed down the center aisle. Aidan had never walked behind his father in procession. This is something new, indeed.

The first half of the service came and went. Aidan kept stealing glances at the altar, wondering how something he used to play under could seem so imposing now. At the Peace, he shook hands with the two-dozen parishioners and embraced his father once again. Then he turned to face the altar and his parents’ advice from earlier that morning came to him. Go to the bathroom before you put your chasuble on. Check. Remember that God’s there too. Aidan looked at the cross and out the window to the misty morning sky. He looked back at the altar and at the people assembled. His mother’s advice had seemed so obvious when he sat perched on the edge of her bed. She might have said, “Remember that gravity will keep you from floating away.” But here in the church, with that special table in front of him, Aidan could not remember, could not see how he could go and stand behind that table and invoke God’s presence.

Aidan pulled his father to one side. “I don’t think I can do this,” he said. He tugged at the collar of his alb. “I don’t think I can consecrate communion.”

Alastor steadied his son with a look. It was the look the veteran paratrooper might give the new recruit before pushing him bodily from the plane. “And what makes you think that you’re the one doing anything,” he said simply.

Aidan stared blankly at his father. “You’re just the hands and the mouth,” said Alastor. “No delusions of grandeur. God’s doing the heavy lifting.” Aidan nodded and turned back to the altar. Alastor stepped up behind him and whispered, “And God does the heavy lifting whether or not you realize God is here.”

Once again Aidan let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. God is here. God is here and that truth has nothing to do with me. No delusions of grandeur. “Okay. I’m really ready this time,” he said.

He mounted the steps to the altar and unwrapped the chalice. He folded the veil and laid it aside. He put the burse on top of the veil. He dumped a few dozen wafers onto the paten. He took the two silver cruets from the credence table and set them next to the chalice. Then he froze and his eyes went wide. He looked at the two containers: they were identical and they were solid metal. One held wine and one held water, but there was no earthly way to tell them apart. He pulled the stopper from one and glanced inside. Too dark. The liquid could have been either. He checked the other. Looks the same. He picked them up to feel the weight, hoping the cruet containing the wine would be fuller. No such luck. He put them down and gave his father a sidelong glance, along with a half grimace that he hoped communicated, “Help me!”

Perhaps, his father didn’t understand his attempt at telepathy. Perhaps, his father was trying to loosen him up some more before the Eucharistic prayer began. Perhaps, his father was getting him back for all those times that Aidan held up his watch to signal that a sermon had gone on too long. Whatever the reason, Alastor Davies gave his son a shrug, and not just any shrug, a comically expansive shrug, like one you might use while playing charades.

Aidan did his best to hide a scowl. Then he did the last thing he could think of. He tipped just a bit out of one cruet. Water. Of course. He switched cruets and poured. A more experienced priest wouldn’t have panicked. A more experienced priest would have known that less than ten percent of the congregation would have any clue that something was amiss at the altar. But Aidan had been a priest for less than twenty-four hours.

And yet, as his panic subsided, Aidan noticed something else filling its place. What is it? Aidan searched within himself before beginning the prayer. Ah, there it is. Peace. And what’s that next to it? Yes. Joy. Aidan lifted his head and smiled at the two-dozen people scattered around the church. “The Lord be with you,” he said.

In the end, he didn’t spill wine on the chasuble. He didn’t trip and bang his head on the altar. He didn’t have a panic attack. All he had to do was jump and pull the ripcord. And the wind caught his chute and brought him safely to ground.

Back at the kitchen table later that day, Aidan paused in the middle of eating his grilled cheese sandwich. Aquinas was curled up on his lap, sleeping soundly. Lucy and Alastor sat across from their son. They hadn’t stopped beaming at him since they arrived home. “So, Dad, I have a question,” he said.

“The Sox have a day game. Starts in about half an hour,” Alastor said.

“No, that’s not it.” He took a bite. The cheese stretched as he pulled the sandwich from his mouth. “How do you tell which cruet holds wine and which holds water?”

Alastor smiled at his wife, who reflected it back at him. He put on his best professorial tone and said to his valedictorian, Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude, Master of Divinity, seminary-trained new priest of a son, “You smell them, of course.”

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