WHOM YOU SEEK
It is Shrove Tuesday, one year since that Lent with Connor Sullivan. Where must he be now, some seminary school, I would think, though Sister Eleanor, still the principal, and Sister Francis, who took over in the art room, will not speak to me of it. Lunch ladies mustn’t enquire about alumni, they say, with emphasis on the Latin, as though to dangle a bracelet from a wrist before someone without arms. Look at this exquisite thing for which you have no use.
When I think about it now, that day in the cafeteria, I smell the sticky syrup on the boys’ fingers but also the oily smell of your unwashed hair, because that week before you moved into the home you confused conditioner with shampoo and your hair never dried for all the moisture, which looked okay for a day and then the smell set in and I thought it was the right time for you to go. When I was a child you said the same thing about the dogs when they would urinate on the floors. Self-control, your paramount virtue.
Shrove Tuesday always infuriated you. Unnecessary excess, you said. But that week you smiled at the idea of breakfast for lunch to begin Lent, as was our habit at the school. Fun, you said.
There was much misinterpreted in those days. Maybe it had to be that way to see so clearly what before I had ignored.
Until that Shrove Tuesday, Connor Sullivan was nothing more than one boy of many. That day began much the same as any other, with me telling him, as I told the others and as Sister Eleanor told us to tell them, that God was watching and take your hands out of your pockets for whatever was in there was His business. Though the other boys flung their hands out for my inspection, Connor Sullivan made slower work of it, and I remember how unblemished his palms were when he finally presented them to me.
Took you long enough, I said.
He whispered something, underwater garble.
Speak up so God might hear you, I said.
Sister, he said. I was praying.
Pockets aren’t for praying, Connor Sullivan.
And would you believe it, Mother, he then pulled out a string of rosary beads?
The sisters had lauded the boy all year. Connor Sullivan graces a class, he is different—gifted. Each year the same sisters said the same things about a fourth grader graduating to the secondary school, as though their teaching alone mined and chiseled a jewel for the Lord’s crown. My ear was turned, is always turned, to God, waiting for his direction, and he told me nothing of these boys. These boys. It was for the order and the solitude I joined the sisters, you know this. You served my father through penitent oven roasts and gin cocktails, but that wasn’t to be so for me. I was going to serve Him, and it would be with the bread of life. First, though, these boys.
Half a year of tissue paper stained glass panels and plaster of Paris pietas, and I hadn’t seen a flicker of glory. I had to mix the colors for Conor Sullivan’s class, because they were hopeless, those boys, with measure and care, the green and the orange and the purple, dull as mud. Shrove Tuesday morning was no different, but then it was time for class and Connor Sullivan told me he was praying.
How hungry I was after that trial, ready for my tuna fish sandwich and thermos of tea, but Tuesdays were my monitoring days in the cafeteria, so off I went to monitor in hunger. Now it is the only place I am permitted in the school, although then it was an aberrance, a weekly test of endurance. Unhinging the metal clasp of first graders’ lunch boxes. Intercepting airborne raisins, celery stalks. Serving the Lord, I had to remind myself, sometimes involved listening to hundreds of slapping lips.
Connor Sullivan sat with Teddy Noonan and William Thorn and it looked from my post by the trash bins that he ate nothing, which was no good, not with the famine in Africa. We had orders. From the diocese in Philadelphia: make the children care. From Sister Eleanor: detention for any food thrown out. It was a grim day for Africa, that Shrove Tuesday, for the school secretary had forgotten to send notice home not to pack food, and the lunch ladies had already set the tables with stacks of cooling pancakes, so you would think Hieronymus Bosch conjured the scene, all the crumbs and forks and smears and noise.
But Connor Sullivan hadn’t touched a thing. He came to the trash bin, held his lunch box open, and his Styrofoam plate with the intact, syrup-saturated pancake, and said, Sister Gertrude?
His face was resolved but not stubborn, the placid firmness of just-dried glue. He asked me what the starving children in Africa do on Shrove Tuesday.
They suffer, I told him, as on any day. I peered at his wax-papered sandwich and sweating green grapes, and listened to his hard swallow.
Have you seen the pictures on TV, Sister Gertrude?
You wouldn’t be trying to distract me from giving you detention, would you now, Mr. Sullivan?
And when he heard this, he gazed at the food and the look on his face, I tell you Mother, was a shaming one, and I thought of when I rejected Sam Moore’s proposal in my last year of school, the look on his face and your face and Father’s face when I announced I would join the sisterhood, how I wanted nothing of these worldly desires for husbands and bridge parties and green lawns, and I thought not you too Connor Sullivan, you are a boy and you mustn’t look down at me that way, it is not the way the world works.
I emptied his hands. He stood and stared as I ate every bit of his cold pancake. I unwrapped his sandwich and swallowed that too, even drank his milk from the little blue and white carton. I was sweating with the work of eating so much so quickly. From the doors, Sister Eleanor nodded to me in approval and I thought, there. Waste not God’s generosity, Connor Sullivan.
But an hour later, the food would not settle. I ran to the toilets, where Conor Sullivan’s lunch pulsed out of me. Was it my body rejecting the food, or the food rejecting me?
In the quivering emptiness I heard a word in my ear, a buzzing hum, not my blood pumping but a word, one word: Him.
The nurses came that afternoon to speak to us about your things, what you might take to the home, and all you wanted were your mauve slippers and the TV set, so you could watch the golf, and they assured you yes yes, you would have a TV, even in your room if you liked. You turned to me and asked, what is a TV?
At Ash Wednesday Mass, Connor Sullivan, pale as parchment, stood on the chapel altar and held the hosts for Father Meehan. Did it ever occur to you, how it felt to watch these men and boys handle the Lord’s body, knowing it was out of reach, always? People say the olden days were better and were they ever, back when a woman could live undisturbed in a nunnery cell, be fed seeds from birds through a slit in the stone. Or when Mary Magdalene could spread ointment of Gillyflower on the feet of Christ, the real Christ. I was so far from Him, separated by a weedy field of boys, always growing taller. Catherine of Siena said that if you are what you should be you will set the world ablaze, and she probably meant the pile of burning sticks at the feet of every woman after her who wanted a life alone with God.
The priest was the first to have the ashen cross, and then the altar boys, and then the sisters, and when I approached and felt the cool soot from Father Meehan’s finger I looked at Connor Sullivan and his face and remembered that the children on TV looked the same. Black marker “x” on their foreheads to tell the aid workers who was most in need of nourishment.
In class, after Mass, I asked the boys to draw the Lamb of God, what it meant to them on this first day of Lent. The Percy boy drew what looked to be a farm, sheep grazing in a fenced field. How docile God was for him. Connor Sullivan sat in the corner, purple marker in hand. Curved over his paper like an illuminator in a scriptorium.
Through the screech of chair legs and the roll of pencils across the table, I heard the gurgling plaint of an empty stomach. I approached Connor Sullivan and asked if I could see his work. He had drawn a lamb curled up, limbs folded in a tidy knot of sleep.
So much purple, I said.
The color of Lent, he said.
Well well, Mr. Devout.
The lines around the lamb? I asked. They looked familiar, but I couldn’t make sense of the shape. An enclosure of some sort.
But Connor Sullivan did not answer and kept drawing, and so I asked him what he had given up for Lent and again he did not answer, and I grew hot and itchy under my wool cardigan.
I wanted to correct him for impudence, but more than that, for the first time, I wanted to understand.
When you saw the starving children on TV, you asked me how it was that a child could be pregnant and I thought you were going to be fine after all, that was your sarcasm, the same sarcasm that propped you up when Father stopped coming home. But no, you meant it, you were genuinely confused, your eyes unfocused when I explained that the body fought against hunger in this manner, almost laughing in its face, distending as if after a full meal, and you asked me to switch the channel because you wanted to know what was happening with Hope on Days of Our Lives.
Over Connor Sullivan’s shoulder I began to see where the lamb slept. In the swollen belly of a child. All around, from the sky, fell tiny purple lambs, cocooned in raindrops.
And that is when, Mother, I realized what the boy had given up for Lent.
Connor Sullivan was fasting.
The light shone through the windows of my classroom, bright lemon light. When I hung Connor Sullivan’s drawing on the glass, the purple pigment stood out like veins on an outstretched arm.
This year, like that year, the fourth graders will put on a liturgical play, though without Connor Sullivan it no doubt will be amateurish at best. He played the angel, you see, the angel who tells the apostles that Jesus is not there, when they come looking for him in the tomb where his body was laid to rest. Quem queritas the angel intones, whom do you seek? When I heard Connor Sullivan speak the lines the day after Ash Wednesday, when I walked past the open doors to the auditorium, I thought if an angel were on earth surely he would sound like that. Honey-voiced.
Under the stage lights his skin looked bruised, his eyes a bit sunken, and he swayed a little. Sister Eleanor observed in the sole occupied seat. Her back was to me, but she knew I was there, turned, waved me over—she was like that, I came to realize, as attuned to her habitat as a forest predator at night.
Have you noticed anything, with Connor Sullivan—the angel?
So she sensed it too, I thought. The piety. He’s begun to stand out, I said.
He hasn’t spoken to you of anything?
We exchange few words in my class, I said.
Tuesday, he didn’t finish his lunch, she said. You made a bit of an example of him.
He asked me about the children in Africa. What he should do. I simply showed him, I said.
I was about to add that I had been wrong, that my logic was misguided, and that his—the fasting—was exalted, but Sister Eleanor spoke.
His mother telephoned this morning. She thought he wasn’t eating. Will you keep a watchful eye on him?
Of course. Watchful.
Sister Eleanor called to the stage. Well done, she boomed.
I stood up to leave, but she had more to say.
We wouldn’t want an incident, Sister Eleanor added.
As a teacher I should go where I was needed, and I felt strongly, Mother, that this wasn’t a question of incident. It was a question of glory. And Connor Sullivan, he needed me. I was the only person who understood. Me, and God.
Outside, I followed the small corridor to the stage entrance. The velvet curtains blocked all light, but I found my way to an opening. He was talking with another boy, one of the tomb guards. They looked up at me, surprised, and the guard went off, scurrying.
Am I in trouble? Connor Sullivan asked.
I am not here to punish, I told him. The stage lights made me feel drowsy and the words felt thick in my mouth. He studied my face then bowed his head and held up a finger. He disappeared behind a curtain. When he returned, he held his lunch box to me.
I’ll leave it in your cubby, I said.
In my classroom, I threw out the food. A hard-boiled egg, a plum, scrolls of ham in rows. I did the same with my lunch. Then I tore some scraps of watercolor paper, allowed myself to suck them to a pulp in my mouth, and stood silent by the back wall until Connor Sullivan returned before lunch to collect the empty box.
It is a special secret, this kind of worship. You want to grab passersby, shake their shoulders, announce your discovery, but proclamation must be resisted. I was starving, but felt hungry for nothing other than to see how close to God I could get.
You might recall that weekend, it was the Saturday I made you all of the recipes you earmarked from the Joy of Cooking. Roasted boar, oyster rarebit, orange chiffon pie. You did not notice I ate nothing and you squealed like a baby fed ice cream for the first time, scarfed plate after plate until you fell asleep in the chair and I carried you into your bed, hoping you would remember how to use the toilet. Sparks streaked across my eyes as I stood up but I still had the strength to lift you, though you were only as heavy as your clothes. Some radiant energy held me up, the room glowed with it. For a moment I thought you had passed, but then, with your breath, I knew it was a sign. God witnessed my worship.
How hard it is to help people. Sometimes the only way to help is from within. I read once about a Roman woman, how when her mother was imprisoned for worshipping Christ this woman, the daughter, came to visit and though the warden had denied the mother all food, the daughter had recently born a child, and she slipped her breast through the bars of the cell so her mother could drink from her. Yes, help has to come from within.
The next Tuesday I monitored lunch again. The noise in the cafeteria throbbed in my ears, the whine of a phone left off the hook too long. Connor Sullivan had visited earlier, to deposit and retrieve his emptied lunch box. I had the classroom key copied at the hardware store the night before and presented it to him, so he could come and go as he pleased. I placed the brass shape in his hand and he beamed as though passed a key to the kingdom.
I scanned the cafeteria, but he wasn’t there. And the next day, the morning came and went with no sound of a key in the door.
At rehearsal, I walked to the auditorium. Father Meehan stood on the stage, and Bobby Greyson stood before the others where Connor Sullivan should have been. I cleared my throat.
I was checking on Connor Sullivan, I said. He left early yesterday, and I have not seen him this morning. Sister Eleanor told me to keep watch.
And you thought he might be here?
He’s the angel, I said.
Father Meehan wiped the corners of his mouth with his paw-like hand. Yes, he said, but he isn’t here, and we had to make do.
He was a perfect angel, I said.
The guard I had seen backstage with Connor Sullivan blushed.
So, where is he? I asked again.
Sister Eleanor might know. But he is not here.
He was right, through the window of Sister Eleanor’s office door I saw the brass shine of Connor Sullivan’s hair. Though I wanted to knock, I waited. I felt winded from walking and leaned against the wall to catch my breath. Everything looked daubed in Vaseline.
When the door opened, it was not Connor Sullivan who emerged but a woman, in loud silk pants and a garishly sparkling necklace. She looked at me with hard eyes. Connor Sullivan followed, and then Sister Eleanor, and we all stood there and saw, I was sure of it, how Connor Sullivan and I mirrored each other, our angled, long faces, our bird-thin limbs.
The woman spoke. Is this the one? Sister Eleanor nodded.
The same shroud of freckles covered her nose and cheeks, the same as on his face. I leaned forward to embrace her, to show her my goodwill, but she cringed, that is the only word for it, and walked away with him. His head swiveled to look at me, but the woman boxed his ear.
We learned of your intervention, Sister Eleanor said. It was not in your place, Sister Gertrude.
The heat, the prickle again. I ran to my room and his picture was gone, the window barren of its purple light.
During my shift I listen to the boys talk, and they talk about nothing of meaning, all postures and poses with words, what they think they should be talking about when pushing a plastic tray along: I’m gonna beat him at recess, chorus is so lame, my sister is in love with George Michael, cool, hey man, later. They talk around themselves and I adjust my paper cap, willing them to halt the circles and cut through, say something that splits them in half. Perhaps they must come of age, but this is what Connor Sullivan already possessed, the needle thoughts that pierce you deep. What a rare thing. Under the heat lamps, my arms turn wax soft, and it reminds me of the last time I saw him, the second Sunday of Lent, a Mass I was asked not to attend because it was a Sunday and could I not take a day to worship in private, me, a sister, the thought of a missed Sunday. They had suspended me from school, but God’s doors are open to all.
Connor Sullivan on the altar, a marble column in his white tunic, his red hair so bright, nearly on fire. Father Meehan with the censer. My head spun from the incense, as did Connor Sullivan’s—I saw it, in his eyes, the cross. His body tipped backward as if tugged by string, into the bed of lilies, and the hundreds of Eucharist hosts that had been on the platter in his hands, they scattered on top of him and on the altar, on the feet of Father Meehan who, so startled, knocked over the chalice of wine.
A whimper in the crowd: his mother? But no one went to him. Until I did.
I ran, Mother. I hurdled over the altar gate, skidded on my knees to cradle his body, so light. The hosts plumping up with wine soft in my hand as I scooped them from the floor and fed him, fed myself. And the heat, Mother, the heat of the candles, and the silence. I was in heaven.