The Soul of Jonathan
Stephen stepped forward into the chapel, his bare feet cold against the stone floor, his bare head chilled in the Easter pre-morning. Sunrise would come soon, and with it all the Paschal celebrations – but now it was yet night, the proverbial darkness before the coming dawn, and Stephen stepped forward in only his rough brown robe, his head bent down, his thick hair just beginning to grow back around the tips of his ears. Somewhere in the congregation, he knew, sat the family he had left behind, the family that had dedicated him, their first fruits, in service to the Lord. But his eyes did not seek them, nor did he lift his head to examine his surroundings, walking only forward, meditating on Christ in the tomb as was appropriate.
"Una autem sabbati valde diluculo venerunt...." A voice, thick and rich, rang out through the cathedral, telling the first strains of the Easter, setting the scene for resurrection: on the first day of the week, very early in the morning. It was the first human voice Stephen had heard in over forty days, and he could not help lifting his head, nor could he help holding his gaze in place when he found the source of the sonorous voice – an older priest, dark hair greying slightly at the temples, his face leonine and Christ-like as he spoke the Gospel from his heart.
Stephen had arrived at the cathedral before sunrise Ash Wednesday, seemingly forty lifetimes ago, and had received both the Sacraments and the ash-and-oil anointing upon his brow. From thence he had been taken by one of the priests to a cell, where he had remained in solitude for the entire Lenten season, seeing no one and speaking to no one throughout the forty days symbolising the forty days Christ had spent in the wilderness.
In silence during those forty days had he meditated those on the sufferings of the world, and on the glory of its eventual redemption through the coming Christ. In silence had he also meditated on the weight of his chosen vocation, on the burden of being Christ's chosen hands and feet to the world. Once a spider had stung his foot, and though it had pained him, he had not cried out, but only thanked the Lord for the life of the spider and for the continued preservation his own life. Many times had he been tempted in the flesh, but those urges he blamed on the youth of his body, praying fervently for relief from these lustful longings instead of submitting to them, and in time, the fire in his loins had subsided.
Upon hearing the older priest's voice, however, he felt the stirrings again deep in his belly, and feverishly tried to pray them away again, attributing them to the ecstacy of the knowledge that he would soon be entered into covenant with Christ the Bridegroom. Surely it was only this, and nothing more.
The priest finished his recitation, ending with a resounding Alleluia!, and Stephen fell full against the ground, pressing his face to the chancel floor, awed by the mystery and glory of the moment. Why seek ye the living among the dead? His cheek felt hot against the cold stone, and he welcomed its chill. He is not here, but is risen!
"Christus resurrexit!" cried the priest, lifting his hands to the first rosy light of Easter dawn, come creeping through the sanctuary's stained-glass windows.
"Vere resurrexit," the sleepy congregation responded in kind, sounding less enthusiastic in tone, but beating out the priest by virtue of sheer volume. Stephen's lips moved soundlessly in response with them, and he got dirt in his mouth for his troubles, so he blessed the dirt and the Lord who had made the earth from whence it came.
"Christ is risen!"
The announcement resounded off the back of the cathedral, this time bringing a slightly more enthusiastic "He is risen indeed!" from the assembled masses.
That was the novices' cue to stand again – appropriate, thought Stephen – and so he did, making his way to his feet, seeing for the first time the faces of the other young men who had come up with him to dedicate their lives in service to the Church, full and luminous in the Spirit of God. There were five others, all about as young as he, who, if God willed, would stand in a few years' time in this very place hours before Easter morning, to have hands laid upon them as they became brothers in full connection to the monastary. Such a thing had been Stephen's dream from the time he had been small, and he was willing to endure whatever hardships stood along his path.
The priest gave the novitiate hopefuls the cue that they might return to the first pew behind them to sit through the early-morning Easter mass, and as Stephen turned, he saw that his count had been mistaken – seven, they were, not six, as one of their number had been stationed behind him and he had not seen. This seventh looked to be the same age as Stephen himself, and had curly black hair that seemed not only to have taken being sheared in stride, but to have rebounded with a vengeance; one of the longest returning curls fell fully to the middle of his pale brow, and he did nothing to send it away. His green eyes caught what little light there was to have and maagnified it themselves, shining almost of their own accord, a light in the darkness.
The green-eyed novice strode into the pew, and Stephen, who was next in line, followed after. They all faced forward for the opening words of the Mass, and so enraptured was Stephen by the grandeur and majesty of it all that he did not even feel the twitchings in his chest until he opened his mouth for the hymn, and instead of a glorious Surrexit Christus Hodie, out came a perfectly terrestrial hiccup.
Stephen snapped his jaw shut, but not before the young man next to him had heard – and, horror of all horrors, began to giggle. Though his lovely tenor never faltered, and, indeed, rose to the apex of the cathedral's high-domed ceiling, the novice's shoulders shook, and he could not keep the corners of his mouth from lifting into a smile. So delightful was the sight that Stephen forgot to be mortified, and instead found himself fighting off his own laughter – which made the conditions in his chest no better, of course, and every time he parted his lips to prove that he had again mastered his fleshly inconveniences, out came another slight hic that made his pewmate tremble even more violently, starting the vicious cycle again anew. Only the steely gaze from a fat friar could silence them, and even then not for long. After nearly two months of humorless solitude, with only God and his own sins for company, laughing felt too good to stop.
By the time the final triumphant Alleluia! had been sung, the terrible flood of hiccups had mercifully subsided, and when Stephen settled down into the hard wooden pew, mindful that he should keep his eyes fixed forward in an attempt to rescue what little of his dignity remained in the eyes of those who would shortly be his superiors at the abbey. Yet his resolve was tested by the feel of soft knuckles against the backs of his own, resting gently, asking nothing from him. Though he fought successfully the urge to glance down at the point of contact, simply to make certain he hadn't imagined it, he held it strong, desperate for the only place that stony April Easter morning there was warmth.
And that, Stephen would learn very shortly, was Bernard.
The first several months at the abbey were exactly as they had been told to expect – early mornings, laborious chores, hard study, hours (and sometimes entire days) spent in silence and contemplation, meagre meals, frequent devotionals, early bedtimes. The compound was far enough from the nearest village that no electrical lines stretched to it – something the friars had never seen fit to remedy, the absence simply another feather in the cap of their ascetic lifestyles – and therefore the sun's setting meant that after Vespers, most of the inhabitants went straight to sleep.
Not Bernard. He had always been the night owl – something that suited him not at all in this lifestyle, as it usually had him falling asleep during Matins. He lay atop his sheets, enjoying the warming weather July had brought to the abbey, when he had the sudden urge to voice aloud the thought: "Do you ever ponder the nature of the Immaculate Conception?"
Stephen rolled and shot Bernard a glare from across the room, which Bernard could not see in the darkness, but could certainly feel. Bernard usually counted on Stephen to keep him awake during all the daytime offices, only Bernard usually kept Stephen up as late as he, which helped neither one of them. "I curse the day I was roomed with you."
"It was just something Father Jeremiah said today about our inborn capacity toward Original Sin." The man whose voice had announced the Paschal Greeting had summarily introduced himself as Father Jeremiah, who had once been a parish priest but who had, after a long illness, withdrawn to the more subdued monastic life. He was a handsome man, certainly, in whose body there showed no trace of the malady that had convinced him to retire, and when Stephen had remarked once that Father Jeremiah's face looked like a lion's, Bernard found himself oddly compelled to agree.
There was a great fwump, then the muffled sound of Stephen's voice that suggested he was trying to suffocate himself with his own pillow. "Then ask him about it tomorrow."
It was useless to pretend that he was tired, so Bernard sat up, drawing his knees to his chest. "If we all are tainted by the Sin of Adam from the moment of our births, and if we by no fleshly sin of our own but through the transgressions of those who have come before us bear the burden of the iniquity of mankind, and Christ came in flesh that he might redeem the world through being fully man and fully God, why then would it be so important for him to be born of a virgin, save to be in accordance with the words of the Prophet Isaiah?"
"If Christ came into the world right now, he would kill you so I could sleep, and it would be an act of mercy unparalleled in the Scriptues."
"But don't you wonder if—"
"Bernaaaaard," Stephen whined. "You're amazing, all right? One of the great theological minds of our time. A natural successor to the papacy. The next St. Augustine, whores and pears and all. Now, please," and he almost sounded sincerely angry, except that Bernard could hear the note in his voice that let him know Stephen was trying desperately not to crack up, "for the love of all three persons of the Triune God, the Blessed Virgin, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (for whom you are named), St. Stephen the First Martyr (for whom I am named), all the saints who have gone before us, the twelve apostles, the four evangelists, all the angels, powers, principalities, things present, things to come, and every created thing, will you please let me sleep?"
It was a very convincing plea he made, so much so that Bernard actually managed to stay silent for a full two minutes before adding, "I mean, when you consider the final dictum of the Council of Chalecedon on the physis of—"
The pillow that landed in his face hit him hard enough nearly to knock him out, and Bernard decided to let the matter rest for the time being.
It was not until September, when the first cold winds had started to return, that Bernard noticed the change. It was gradual, never any one thing, only a thousand tiny things, until the night Stephen's return woke Bernard, and it all began to coalesce.
"Are you all right?" Bernard asked, uncertain whether or not it was a dream.
"Fine," Stephen grunted before falling into his bed, still clothed, and try as Bernard might, he could not manage to care enough to resist as sleep reached up and dragged him down again.
But the next day, he cared, as he beheld the dark hollows under Stephen's eyes. It was a day devoted to silence, however, and though he looked for the opportunity to grill Stephen as to what was wrong, there was no way he could ask. Yet his silent mind was not on his studies, but on his friend, and though he thought as hard as he could, he could discern no source for Stephen's misery.
What Bernard did notice, however, was the way Stephen seemed to shrink away whenever Father Jeremiah came near. Had he done so before? Bernard couldn't recall. Father Jeremiah walked amongst them as they studied, his footfalls sharp against the stone floor, saying nothing but bringing the air of certain discipline by his mere presence. As he passed by the table where they sat, hunched over books, Stephen lowered his head, and though Bernard could not lift his head to confirm this without seeming suspicious, he thought he saw Father Jeremiah's gaze linger on Stephen's figure.
Had this all been going on for some time? Had Stephen been staying to pray late into the night more and more often of late, coming in after even Bernard (robbed of his evening conversation partner) had succumbed to sleep? Had his roommate truly been speaking and smiling less these past days and weeks? Or had Bernard simply been imagining it all?
By the next day, Stephen's sullenness evaporated, and Bernard was willing to chalk the entire incident up to the peculiarities of mood - at least, until it happened again, and Stephen resisted all attempts to inquire after his condition. When Bernard tried to joke with him about having a joyful heart for the Lord, Stephen responded with muttered retorts about the joy to be found in temperate discipline; when Bernard placed a hand on Stephen's shoulder, a friendly gesture to which they had both become accustomed, Stephen flinched away as though struck. That night, there had been no laughter hidden just beneath the surface of Stephen's elaborate oaths begging Bernard to shut up and let him have some sleep, only anger, and Bernard had grown silent for the sudden fear of provoking his friend to true fury.
There was, of course, no one to whom Bernard could speak, as the weeks dragged on and Stephen grew more distant – no one save God, of course, who was an excellent listener but had thus far provided no ideas that Bernard could discern. Bernard felt a sense of loss greater, even, than he'd felt when bidding his family farewell before setting out on the thirty-mile journey from his hometown to the abbey. Stephen had been his lifeline, his friend, his touchstone to keep himself from falling too far into the demands and stresses of the ascetic life. To feel him slipping away like this, to see him hurting and know that all his efforts to help had thus far been utterly useless, left Bernard feeling exhausted and worthless. He was at his end.
The sound of footsteps dragged Bernard from near-sleep, and upon waking he was surprised to find two things – one, his hand had apparently encircled (against his conscious will, of course; as St. Paul said, we do the things we do not want to do) his now-stiff member, begging it to an alertness divorced from the rest of his body; and two, that Stephen was not in his bed. It was, therefore, a half-crazed, half-asleep impulse that brought him to his feet and into the plain wooden wardrobe, still dressed in only his shift (which tented out conspicuously at his nether regions). His instincts were good, for he was neatly hidden, with only a crack through which he could see the room, when the room's door burst open. Even in the dim candle-light, he could make out the figures of Father Jeremiah and Stephen, the latter of whom seemed to be carried along against his own will.
"Where is your cell mate?" asked Father Jeremiah, eyeing the rumpled yet empty bed.
"I do not know, sir." Stephen huddled on the ground, still in his heavy brown robe; his voice trembled. "Perhaps gone to relieve himself in the—"
"No matter." Father Jeremiah moved out of Bernard's field of vision, and the sounds of the crossbar's being drawn across the door could be heard. "We shall not be disturbed."
Stephen straightened his shoulders, but kept his head bent. "Forgive me, sir, but if he—"
"Silence!" A loud smack accompanied the blur of Father Jeremiah's strike, and when Stephen lifted his face again, Bernard could see a dark trail of blood from his nose. "And if he does return? Your sin against God should be seen by all. You are an abomination!" Another blow, and Bernard bit his lip to keep from crying out on Stephen's behalf, knowing that if he showed himself, it would only be worse for them both. "Remove your robe and stand naked before me and the Lord."
Don't do it! Bernard thought as loudly as he could, but Stephen reached for the hem of his garment and lifted it above his head, placing it at the foot of his bed. He never moved from where he knelt on the cold stone floor, and even in the dim light, Bernard was shocked to see Stephen's very obvious erection sticking ramrod-straight out from his body.
Father Jeremiah reached into his robes and produced a black scourge, letting the tip of the longest tongue brush up and down the length of Stephen's shaft, which twitched at the touch; Stephen moaned softly. "I know what will cure you," he purred, sounding almost benevolent. "I wear beneath my robe a cilice, as a sign of my devotion to Christ. Do you know what that is?"
Stephen swallowed, his eyes shut. "No, Father."
"You will." Father Jeremiah withdrew the scourge, standing closer. "Lift the hem."
Bernard could only watch in horror as Stephen reached for the bottom of Father Jeremiah's rough-hewn garment, drawing it up the older priest's thighs nearly to his waist. There, around his thigh, lay a circle of interlocking metal loops from whence protruded small metal barbs. "Take it from me," Father Jeremiah ordered, taking the fabric in his own hands, and Stephen reached behind to where the cilice fastened by two tightly knotted leather thongs. As Stephen bent forward, Father Jeremiah rewarded him with a sharp smack across the back, and Stephen moaned in pain or ecstacy, it was hard to say.
Does he like this? Bernard asked himself, trembling against the wardrobe's door, even though he knew there was no clear answer, just as there was no clear source for Stephen's deep groanings. He thought he had now some idea as to the source of Stephen's latest change in attitude, and from this surmised that the contact was not precisely consentual – and yet, the lamplight showed a shining thread of precome dripping from the tip of Stephen's attentive member. Bernard was surprised to find that his own erection had not subsided; quite the contrary, it raged even more insistently, fueled by the sight of Stephen in a state of such obvious (if uncomfortable) arousal.
Father Jeremiah smiled placidly as he broke another stroke against Stephen's back, and Stephen gasped so hard he dropped the freed cilice. Father Jeremiah clucked his tongue. "Pick it up."
Stephen bent to do so, and by the time he rose, he found himself facing not only the older priest's thigh, but his cock, thick and pendulous. "Attend to me," ordered Father Jeremiah.
Before Bernard could wonder the meaning of that command, Stephen had taken Father Jeremiah's member in his mouth, swallowing him nearly to the root; he grabbed the cilice in his hand, poking its sharp prongs into his clenched fist. Father Jeremiah smiled and pet Stephen's hair absently. "Faster," he ordered, the word a gutteral growl. "Come and taste."
After a minute, Bernard saw Stephen's free hand reach down toward his own straining cock – then Father Jeremiah the motion, and another stripe crossed Stephen's back. "Do you attain pleasure from this?" Another crack of whip across flesh, and though Stephen's groaning was muffled, it still reached Bernard's ears. "You abomination. You filth!" Yet another crack, and Stephen's knuckles went white around the chain. "Those who sin against the Lord must—" Father Jeremiah's breath caught, and he brought the whip down, once, twice, thrice. "Must—" The whip fell ceaselessly. "Must be redeemed!" The last word became a shout, and Stephen's eyes flew open wide; his adam's apple jumped as he swallowed his master's seed, careful not to spill a drop (for surely such a thing would warrant a whipping even more brutal, Bernard thought, his breath a tremble in his own dry throat).
At last, Father Jeremiah stilled the whip and looked down at Stephen, whose mouth still held him. "Get away from me," he hissed, and Stephen obliged, falling awkwardly backward so both cock and hole lay exposed by the flame. "Better are the priests of Baal and the worshippers of Mammon than you, fornicator and sodomite!" The whip snapped against the sheets of Bernard's bed, rending the thin fabric, and Bernard wondered what such force might do to Stephen's skin. "How dare you think yourself worthy to stand before the Lord?"
"Forgive me." Stephen was in tears now, his voice little more than a trembling whisper. "Forgive me, Father, I—"
"Silence!" The whip cracked, and Father Jeremiah stepped toward the terrified novice. "Christ wore a crown of thorns as he gave his life for us; you shall wear your crown as a reminder that you as a sinner are not beyond redemption." He gestured to the cilice. "Place it on yourself."
Bernard did not know how Stephen managed, as terrified and aroused and miserable he seemed all at once, yet Stephen fastened the device around his thigh, in the same place as Father Jeremiah had worn it, biting his lip as he tightened it to let the points dig bloodlessly into his skin. Father Jeremiah smiled, folding the whip. "Stephen, what is vice?"
Though obviously pained nearly past arousal and surely past endurance, Stephen managed the proper reply: "A vice is an evil disposition of the mind to shirk good and do evil, arising from the frequent repetition of evil acts."
"And what difference," Father Jeremiah offered the scourge to Stephen, "is there between a sin and a vice?"
Stephen took the whip from Father Jeremiah's hands, and for a moment Bernard thought – hoped – Stephen might attack the older man with it, driving him out and giving him his due. Instead, Stephen uncoiled it in his hand. "Between sin and vice there is this difference that sin is a passing act, whereas vice is a bad habit, contracted by continually falling into some sin." And with a deep breath, Stephen swung the scourge, cracking it across his own back and crying out; the sound was far more pained, but Bernard saw Stephen's erection flood back to life, and felt his own cock ache heavily.
Father Jeremiah smiled, rubbing himself through his robes. Was the old bastard hard again? Bernard thought it unlikely, but had moved past the point of being surprised by anything tonight. "Which are the vices called capital? Strike yourself after each, that they might be burned in your flesh!"
"The vices called capital are seven: Pride," the whip snapped, "Covetousness," again, "Lust," the scourge sang even harder at that sin's naming, and Bernard saw Stephen nearly drop the whip, "Anger," a blow equal in intensity landed, "Gluttony," the force of the strike was somewhat lessened, "Envy," the scourge cracked again, "and Sloth," and again. When he was done, Stephen was breathing heavily, his head bowed, sweat matting his tangled hair.
"Why are these vices called capital?" demanded Father Jeremiah. He was asking the questions out of order, but Bernard thought this the least unorthodox thing that had happened this night.
"They are called capital because they are the head and fount of many other vices and sins," answered Stephen meekly. The scourge sang, and he pitched forward, nearly in tears.
"Which are the sins that are said to cry to God for vengeance? Twice after each!"
"The sins that are said to cry to God for vengeance are these four: willful murder," the double stripes brougth forth a look of ecstacy on Stephen's face, "the sin of sodomy," these blows hit even harder, and Bernard found that his hand had resumed its diabolical unconscious minstrations to his member, "oppression of the poor," he stroked himself even as Stephen landed the blows across his own back, "defrauding laborers of their wages," the last two fell, and Bernard found himself sick to the knowledge that he had wished Stephen to continue, if only that such a thing would have brought them both that much closer to release.
"Why are these sins said to cry to God for vengeance?" Father Jeremiah's hands had stilled again by his sides; despite his perversions, he was still an old man.
"These sins are said to cry to God for vengeance because the Holy Ghost says so," Stephen landed a great blow, "and because their iniquity is so great and so manifest that it provokes God to punish them with the severest chastisements." At this, sensing the questioning had reached an end, he awarded himself thirteen more strokes before collapsing in a heap, sobbing and wretched.
But Father Jeremiah only smiled sweetness and benevolence. "My child, Christ our Lord accepts all those who are truly penitent. Let your mind dwell upon his glory, and all cares will be washed away. Go in peace." Lifting the candle and scourge, but leaving the cilice affixed to Stephen's leg, he unbarred the latch and slipped into the hallway, pulling the door shut behind him.
Bernard was out of the wardrobe in a flash, wrapping himself around Stephen, not caring that blood stained his nightgown. He cradled Stephen's body in his arms, a pietá recreated on the cold floor. "My God, Stephen, what has he done to you?"
"I am … forgiven," Stephen whispered, smiling through blooded teeth. "Our Lord has seen fit to show me mercy."
Pietá indeed. "Into bed with you," Bernard whispered, wanting neither to press that point at this moment nor to touch Stephen along his wounds. But Stephen stood willingly and wrapped his arms around Bernard, pulling them both into Stephen's bed; they landed with their cocks firmly pressed against one another, and only the ghost of Bernard's nightdress separating them.
Stephen managed a smile. "You were there the whole time?" he whispered.
"I was," admitted Bernard, touching Stephen's wounded face. "I was, I'm so sorry, I should have stopped him, but I—"
"Isn't forgiveness beautiful?" asked Stephen, eyes shining, and Bernard felt his heart split into two.
"You're beautiful," he whispered, pulling Stephen close for a kiss. It was awkward, both unpracticed and with with added danger zone of Stephen's split lip, but Bernard felt whole. He tasted blood and fear, and arousal, and come, and a taste beneath it all he knew to be Stephen, nothing less.
As Bernard felt Stephen's hand coil around his cock, his first instinct was to pull away – this was wrong, the church said so, God said so, hadn't Stephen just recited the catechism to prove it? – but then he melted into the touch. As quickly as he could, he undressed, letting their bare bodies press and rub together, letting Stephen's fingers explore his cock. "Can … can I?" Bernard asked, brushing his knuckles against Stephen's hip.
Stephen nodded into the kiss and turned so Bernard's hand rested against his hardness, even though Bernard knew this pressed Stephen's open wounds to the bed. Bernard tried to coax him on his side again, but Stephen would not go, and so Bernard ended up mostly atop him, their hands stroking each other to orgasm, groping in the blind dark. Stephen moaned, and Bernard kissed the sound from his mouth, drawing it out with his tongue.
After only a few moments, Stephen began to shake, his hand fisting Bernard's cock furiously, and it was all Bernard could do to respond in kind, stroking blindly through the ecstacy of the moment, until Stephen came, crying out prayers to God, and Bernard followed mere seconds later, spilling his seed quietly over the place where their bodies touched. The fear and anger of the previous minutes were erased by their shared pleasure, the smell of sweat covering the smell of blood, the taste of each other dissolving the taste of terror. They stroked each other gently as their shared climax subsided, coming down in ever-slowing waves, until Bernard lay atop Stephen, both glorious and exhausted in their nakedness.
It was Bernard who moved first, shifting until he was on his back, then tucking Stephen in the crook of his arm. Stephen lay quiet for a moment, then began to sob quietly. "Save me," he begged Bernard though his tears. "Save me."
"I love you," Bernard whispered as he stroked Stephen's hair, feeling that nothing else he could say would mean anything at that moment. Stephen did not respond verbally, but held Bernard tightly as his tremors eventually subsided, swallowed at last by dreams. Bernard was not far behind him, and they slept together, two saints curled in each other's arms, as innocent and beautiful as anything in Creation.
"I know how we'll trap him," Bernard had said the next morning, before hello, before prayers, as Stephen had woken in his arms. "But I'll need your skills as an actor."
"I was never an actor," Stephen had protested, and then he had reached up and kissed Bernard full on the mouth, distracting him for several more minutes.
"Well, then," Bernard had finally managed to retort, "I hope you're a quick study."
Two full days passed before they could impliment their plan, during which time Father Jeremiah did not call for Stephen, only glancing at him during meals and lingering as he placed the Host on the novice's tongue. The boys appeared outwardly as normal as possible, attending to their duties and prayers as eagerly as ever they had, and those who listened might even have sworn the singing of their hymns had become sweeter.
Behind closed doors, however, they were ever each in the other's arms, touching and kissing and murmuring, all hands and mouths and cocks, each enraptured with its newfound counterpart. They were cautious always, not even daring to share the bed during sleep for fear one of the older priests might catch them during the night, but not even the fear of discovery could dampen their newfound joy. And it was finally the evening before they secured their freedom that Stephen finally lifted Bernard's face to his own, kissed lips still slick with Stephen's own seed, and professed his love. That night, as he lay down to sleep, Bernard's heart sang psalms of gratitude, and meant every word.
On the third day, after noon meal, Father Jeremiah took his turn in the confessional booth, waiting to hear the dreadfully dry sins of men who led lives of impeccability. One by one, the novices took their turns telling of how they had taken too many biscuits with breakfast, or recalled a long-past lustful thought about a childhood acquaintance, or admitted to yawning during one of Father Amos' famously long sermons, until there was no one left waiting in the side cathedral save Stephen and Bernard.
Stephan placed a quick kiss against Bernard's lips, then stepped inside his half of the dark, oily wooden box, pulling the door shut behind him. "Deus meus, ex toto corde poenitet me omnium meorum peccatorum," he began, not stopping until he had declared in full his desire to be freed of his sins by the act of confessing them. By the time he had finished, he was certain Father Jeremiah knew exactly to whom he was speaking.
"Confess your sins before the Lord, and know forgiveness," Father Jeremiah purred unseen through the heavy grate.
Stephen felt his skin crawl, but thought of Bernard and took a deep breath. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned gravely and against the Holy Spirit. I have taken into my body the vice of the Sodomites, the pleasuring of my body with the body of another man, for I have sinned in the past, in thought and in deed, and I feel lust in me to do this sin again."
That silenced Father Jeremiah for a moment, which Stephen took as a good sign. "You have told me nothing," the confessor finally spoke. "In what ways have you sinned?"
"I have committed the Sin of Onan, and have thrice since my last confession spilt my seed by my own hand." 'Thrice' was something of an underestimation, but Stephen did not feel the need to arouse Father Jeremiah's suspicions about his recent sexual activities. "I have born the sting of the scourge against my flesh for the sake of repentance, but it has kindled in me a lusting more powerful than the lust that should be for the mercy of the Almighty. I have sought with pain to purify my body of its fleshly longings, but my flesh has begun to long for the pain." His fingers found the hard outline of the cilice beneath his robe; try as he might, Bernard had not been able to convince Stephen of the necessity of its removal. It lay there now, encircling his thigh, and the pain he felt as he flexed that muscle brought him to hardness.
On the other side of the booth, Father Jeremiah breathed heavily. "Have you sinned alone or with another?"
"I have sinned for want of another," Stephen told him, which was a truth, if not the whole of it. "I have lifted his shaft to my mouth and have commited the sin of Sodom with him in this manner."
"Have you lain with another man as though you were a woman?" Stephen heard the rustle of robes, and knew then that his efforts were achieving success.
"I have not." This, too, was true – hands and mouths and cocks, he and Stephen had been, but nothing more. "I have desired to do so, however. In my heart, I have felt this lust, and it has made me full." He pressed the cilice lightly, letting the points dig into his flesh, and moaned audibly. "I can think of nothing else."
Father Jeremiah cleared his throat. "If you turn your heart to the Lord, child, He will—"
"Cleanse me of this sin," Stephen interrupted, his mouth pressed against the grate between them. "Mortify my flesh, Father, until I am pure again."
"Ego te absolvo a peccatis—"
"You cannot!" Stephen's fist pounded against the wall, and the booth shook. "You cannot absolve me until this fire has been purged from me! My soul is unclean, Father!" Outside, Bernard heard these words, and shook to wonder how many of them were sincerely what Stephen believed. "I must be purified before I can be absolved!"
There was a long pause, and Stephen's breath rang in his ears, drowning out all other sounds from the box. Finally, Father Jeremiah cleared his throat and spoke: "…Come to me, my child, and I will cleanse you of all iniquities."
"Thank you, Father," Stephen whispered, rising from his bench and exiting his side of the booth. Moments later, the door to Father Jeremiah's side cracked open, and Stephen slipped inside. He was on Father Jeremiah's lap too quickly, rubbing his cock against the older man's erection too insistently, ever to let the priest notice that Stephen had not, in fact, locked the door behind him.
Father Jeremiah pulled back a little – a difficult maneuver in such a tight space, even for a man as lean as he – and reached for the hem of Stephen's garment. He felt underneath it, until his fingers found the cilice, and he grinned in the dark. "The reminder of your salvation becomes an instrument of sin," he murmured as his fingers moved on, working their way up to Stephen's cock. "Perhaps it should be removed."
"No, Father," Stephen gasped, a moment of sincere panic passing across his eyes. "It pains me, and by its pleasure reminds me what a wretch I am, and how in need of salvation." He brought his mouth to Father Jeremiah's ear, tugging at the thin flesh there with his teeth. "I must be cleansed from within."
He felt Father Jeremiah's cock twitch against his leg, and smiled, knowing that his meaning had been understood. "This lust that burns in you is the devil's," the priest spat, all the while stroking at the soft skin of Stephen's balls. "Would you have it purged from you?"
Stephen moaned. "Yes, Father. Purge me, plow me, thrust your holiness into my filth that by its touch I may be made clean." He rocked his hips back and forth in Father Jeremiah's hand as he spoke, riding himself to even more persistent hardness.
Whether because Stephen had never been so forceful before, or through some nagging of his own conscience, Father Jeremiah paused, and Stephen felt certain then that all was lost as the priest pushed Stephen from his lap. Yet Father Jeremiah did not guide him out the door, but up against the wall, spreading his legs and hoising Stephen's robes up over his hips, baring his ass. "Your lust burns hot within you," Father Jeremiah hissed in his ears, and Stephen could feel the tip of the man's cock resting wetly against his ass. "Its only quenching can be with the heat of an even bolder fire."
"I want the fire," Stephen pleaded, his face pressed against the wooden wall, and it was true, he wanted it more than anything right now. "I want it to consume me from within. I want to be made holy again."
"And so you shall," Father Jeremiah assured him. Stephen felt two fingers slip into the cleft of his ass, seeking out his hole, his unholy hole, pushing him apart, readying him to receive whatever the old priest sought fit to give him. "And so you shall."
It was at that moment Bernard thrust the door wide, that he – and the three horrified senior priests assembled behind him – could see what transpired within.
The resulting pandemonium was so intense that neither Bernard nor Stephen could fully keep track of what was being said. The focal point, however, seemed to be Father Jeremiah, and Bernard could determine from a few caught fragments of conversation that there had been other accusations made before by other novices, apparently dismissed at the time for lack of evidence, and Bernard thanked God that He had given him the foresight to construct a trap rather than merely file a complaint. More priests came in, intrigued by the commotion, only to end up adding their angered voices to the din. If Father Jeremiah had anything to say in his defense, it was drowned out by the angry shouts of his colleagues as they took him away, in the direction of the abbot and perhaps even the bishop.
So involved were they all with the person of the victimizer that they forgot all about the plight of the victim – which was just fine, Stephen reckoned, as Bernard yanked him inside the priest's side of the confessional booth and latched the door behind them.
"Fill me," Stephen demanded the moment they were free from sight, taking care to whisper even though there was no way he would be heard over the shouts just beyond the door. He kissed Bernard wetly, hoisting his robe above his waist again.
Bernard smiled, kissing back. "I surmise my timing was good?"
"Your timing was amazing." Stephen groaned – this wasn't happening nearly fast enough for his taste – and went for the hem of Bernard's garment. "Now ravish me or I shall become cross with you."
This made Bernard laugh and kiss Stephen harder, his hands in Stephen's brown hair, their bodies pressed hotly together. Stephen moaned and lifted Benard's robe over his hips, feeling for Bernard's shaft with both his hands, feeling Bernard move against him. "I need you," Stephen begged. "Please, I need to feel you moving inside of me."
"Turn around," Bernard smiled, guiding Stephen to move so his face and hands rested against the wall, and Bernard's cock brushed the small of his back; Stephen's legs came to brace against the priest's seat, the wooden ledge pressing in just beneath his knees. It had been how Father Jeremiah had held him only minutes earlier, and there was again the undercurrent of fear, yet this fear felt entirely different. With Father Jeremiah, the fear had been manifold: fear of God, fear of pain, fear of the weight of their sin, fear of what would happen when Bernard exposed him to the world, fear of how his own desire for redemption had been so twisted. It was this last that stung the most, he thought, for he from the moment he had looked upon another boy with lustful eyes, he had feared himself a truly damned creature, cast automatically beyond earshot of God's mercy. It had been this on which Father Jeremiah had preyed, and Stephen had let himself be taken in because of his great terror.
But Bernard absolved all these fears; when Bernard held him, Stephen felt not damned, but saved. He saw then that he had known from the moment he'd laid eyes upon Bernard – the heavenly irreverent Bernard, full of questions and wonder, his eyes and skin and hair wonderfully flawless in that Easter morning. Bernard, the angel at the tomb, escorting Stephen back to life.
The only vestige left of that earlier fear, then, was the tremble of uncertain excitement as he felt Bernard's hand move along his smooth buttock, tracing the skin gently before moving deeper, to the source of Stephen's heat. His fingers were slick, and Stephen wondered briefly what the sweet odor that filled the confessional booth was – then realised that Bernard must have opened the decanter of anointing oil kept in this half for the priest's use, and nearly gave away their position by laughing. It was so perfectly Bernard, so perfectly perfect, that Stephen found himself asking breathlessly, "Are you an angel?"
Bernard snorted quietly. "Would an angel be buggering you with consecrated oil? Now stand still." One finger slipped inside Stephen's ass, and Stephen had to bite his lip to keep from crying out. It hurt, and he wanted more.
"Don't have to be ... so gentle," Stephen managed through clenched teeth, moving as much as he dared to encourage Bernard all the way inside. "Not glass ... won't break...."
"No," Bernard whispered back, withdrawing his intruding digit momentarily, "but I'm afraid I might." It was then Stephen heard the quiver in Bernard's voice, felt the oiled hand against his nether regions tremble, and knew that Bernard was not an angel, but as human as he.
He reached back and stroked Bernard's soft cheek, taking a deep breath. "I simply meant that you needn't worry yourself to be too gentle," he reassured his lover (his heart rejoicing at the thought of using such a word to describe Bernard). "You've seen my pleasure at the hands of far rougher treatment."
"All the more reason to be gentle." Bernard's body was warm against Stephen's, his words soft air over Stephen's earlobe. "I'm not he." Two fingers pushed their way inside of Stephen, a third joining them shortly after, and Stephen moaned at how his muscles expanded around them; he breathed slowly, forcing himself to relax, allowing Bernard to enter him. "Are you all right?"
Stephen braced himself against the wall, holding his feet as far apart as was practical, and nodded. "Amazing," he murmured, and it was true. His knees trembled slightly, and, trying to hold himself steady, he leaned forward against the priest's bench, more kneeling than standing. Staying silent was the hardest part, for though he wanted to shout his ecstacy all the way to Heaven, he could still hear faint noise from just beyond the confessional walls, and knew better than to test their shared luck in this respect. Instead he brought one hand to his mouth, biting the knuckle of his index finger.
Bernard sighed and placed a kiss against the nape of Stephen's neck. "Indeed you are." Stephen could feel Bernard's hitching his robe higher, and shuddered at the anticipation of what would come next.
When Bernard felt Stephen's fingers begin to slip out of him, having stretched him to Bernard's ostensible satisfaction, Stephen bit his knuckle hard, trying to contain himself. It took every ounce of self-control he had to keep from reaching back and impaling himself directly on Bernard's cock. But he had been trained as a monk; therefore, his supply of self-control was near-inexhaustable. Besides, he told himself, shutting his eyes and breathing heavily, anticipation was part of the spice.
"Are you nervous?" Bernard's voice was heavy with arousal, and Stephen could smell fresh oil poured out from behind him.
"Are you?" Stephen laughed softly. The hem of his robe brushed along the top of his exposed cock, and he moaned again. He wanted little more than to reach down and take matters into his own hands (so to speak), but one hand remained dilligently by his mouth, the other splayed out against the wall of the booth.
Bernard returned a nervous chuckle. "Yes. I confess." There was a slicking sound from behind Stephen, who tried desperately not to think too hard on what was making it, for fear he himself might come just from the imagining. "I confess I wanted you from the moment I saw you."
That took Stephen for a cold loop – of all the things he might have expected Bernard to say under these circumstances, that was not among them. "...Truly?"
"Truly," Bernard repeated, his voice a dusky whisper.
"But...." Stephen searched for the appropriate protest. "But you're the beautiful one."
There was a small pause in which Stephen feared he might have said the wrong thing – and then Bernard was hugging him, wrapping his free arm around Stephen's chest, holding him tight in a moment where the center of Stephen's universe was contained in how he could feel Bernard's heart beat. "You make me complete," Bernard whispered. "I saw you and knew."
Stephen felt a tear steal from his eyes, making its escape down his cheek. "Knew what?"
"That I would love you," Bernard answered simply. "And I do."
Stephen's heart caught in his throat. "And I you." His cock throbbed, and he bent his head forward, pressing his forehead to the confessional wall and taking a deep breath. "Now, for the love of Saints Patrick, Sebastian, and John the Beloved Disciple, will you finish what you started before the waiting kills me?"
Bernard laughed again, a breathy exhale, but instead of hearing a reply in words, Stephen felt something press against his hole, something larger and wetter even than Bernard's fingers. "St. Sebastian wouldn't want that, now, would he?" Bernard gripped Stephen's hip with one hand – carefully avoiding the cilice that remained strapped to Stephen's thigh – using the other to drive his cock slowly in Stephen, all the way to the root.
"God!" Stephen whispered, a exclamation less unintentional blashphemy and more an exhalation of gratitude to the Divine. Even all his hours spent driving lustful thoughts from his mind had not been able to erase from his mind the speculation of what this might feel like – yet here, with Bernard's body full against his, heat joined to heat, Stephen realised all his imaginings had missed the reality of the sensation by a mile. He caught his knuckle between his teeth, stifling any further vocalizations.
Once fully inside, Bernard paused for a moment, letting them both grow accustomed to their new positions, before slipping out experimentally, then thrusting back in. "All right?" His newly freed hand went not to Stephen's other hip, but wrapped around to stroke at Stephen's straining cock. Unwilling to let himself speak, Stephen simply nodded, shutting his eyes. It was more than all right, but there was no way to say so without compromising their position, so Stephen remained quiet. There would be time later, he prayed, to say everything he wanted to say. God willing, they would have all the time in the world.
The oil took and shared their heat, warming and rubbing just thin enough that Stephen could feel every line, every vein where their bodies joined. His knees trembled, and might have given way had the bench beneath him not held him up. Everything felt overexposed and sensitive, nerves unable to find their way between pain and pleasure, and for no small moment, Stephen wanted the pain – the sharpness of the scourge, the anger of the blow, the fierce shock to his system the first time he had lifted his hand to his wounded back and brought it away bloodied. Father Jeremiah had been standing above him, that scourge in hand, staring with a wicked smile at the shameful erection between Stephen's legs.
He could see Father Jeremiah now, if he thought about it, staring at him with those cruel eyes that promised redemption but never delivered. So often had the older priest brought him to the brink of ecstacy, but never over into release. That ecstatic freedom was solely Bernard's domain.
Stephen's body shook as Bernard ploughed into him, whimpering a little as Bernard's oil-slick hand tightened around his own cock. The sensations weren't clear like pain, but pervasive, a warmth that spread throughtout his body, fire burning from the inside out. He couldn't say that Bernard was being gentle, for the fingers pressing new bruises into his hip and the cock thrusting in and out of his ass would belie such a claim, but every move that Bernard made was cushioned with love. Even the sharpest blow from Bernard's hand, Stephen reasoned, would bite less for having his kind heart as its source.
Bernard's hand tugged harder against Stephen's cock, and Stephen could feel that they were both close, so close. Sweat began to roll down Stephen's temples, and he bit his teeth deep into his knuckle, silently begging Bernard to continue, to finish them both off. He moved his hips as best he could, slamming them against Bernard's body, rocking back against him in an effort to coax Bernard even deeper into him. "Please," he allowed himself to choke out. "Please."
"Yes," came Bernard's gasped reply, and he held Stephen harder, fucking him deep, driving into him with as much force as he dared. Stephen barely supressed a moan, turning his head and catching the sound in the hood of his cloak; his teeth bit into his lower lip, and he felt the copper taste of blood on his tongue.
With Bernard's hand moving over him, and Bernard's cock moving in him, Stephen had no chance of resisting for very long. He shuddered and bucked against Bernard's body, gasping as he came in a deep gush, feeling his body reach beyond his conscious control toward his release; his hips moved faster against Bernard's loins, and even as his own climax raced through him, he could feel Bernard shudder, and moan, and spill his seed deep inside Stephen.
The two of them stayed like that for a long moment, even as their erections subsided and their heartbeats returned to a resting state. Stephen wondered briefly the reason for the hesitation, then remembered what lay beyond the confessional – monks, priests, questions, possibly tribunals, and, in the end, the likelihood that they would be separated. And so he held Bernard like that as long as he could, until his knees finally buckled and his feet slipped to the floor, where he might have landed had not Bernard's strong arms reached out and pulled him up again.
Thus they sat in the priest's seat, Stephen tucked across Bernard's lap, playing with the curls of black hair that sweat had trapped at the back of Bernard's neck. "I love you," he said, feeling it the only proper response to the situation.
Bernard did not answer, but reached for Stephen's leg, pushing the robe again from his skin. He stopped his explorations at the thigh, at the cilice whose points made indentations in Stephen's pale skin. Silently, he untied the leather thongs, letting the device fall to the floor with a clatter, and this time Stephen did not stop him, only left it go, marvelling at how he did not know how much pain it had truly caused him until it had been released. "You're free now," Bernard told him, running his fingers over wounded flesh that would, in time, heal.
"Because of you," Stephen answered, turning to Bernard's face for a kiss. He tasted Bernard's sweat on his lips, dissolving the lingering taste of blood, and he smiled. Absolution had been easy, after all, so easy he should have guessed it from the beginning. After all, Christ's greatest lessons had been those not of pain, but of love.
The moment was shattered as they heard their names called from beyond the dark confessional, and sighed in unison. "...We should go see what they want," Bernard quipped casually, gripping Stephen's hand in his own.
"We should," Stephen answered, drawing himself to his feet in one reluctant stretch. He pulled down his robe again, patted it out in a storm of fussy gestures, and was about to make some other pithy comment when he noticed the streak of white his seed had left on the side of the booth's wooden wall, which gave him cause to laugh. "You think we should perhaps clean that up?"
"Let it be," Bernard laughed with him. "They can add wanking during confession to his laundry list of sins." He reached for Stephen's hand, twining their fingers together, and his voice became serious. "You know they'll separate us."
Stephen shrugged. His newfound sense of freedom extended to all avenues of his life, it seemed. "We'll tell them the truth. Every inch of it."
"They'll never let us stay."
"Good, because I don't want to stay here."
"I won't lose you."
"You'll never lose me," Stephen promised, catching one more lingering kiss before walking bravely out of the confessional booth, hand in hand until they could hold on no longer, toward whatever their fates might have in store.
The sea wind that ruffled Stephen's long hair was already winter-cold, and Stephen pulled his coat tighter as he stood on the dock. He'd finally agreed to leave quietly, trusting ecclesiastical justice to take care of Father Jeremiah in exchange for getting his own life back. While part of him feared that this would be covered up by the church heirarchy, he'd heard the whispers already by the end of that same day, and reasoned that catching even a most senior and respected priest visibly in the act of preparing to commit sodomy was more evidence than most were willing to let slide.
Stephen, for his own part, had not stayed to hear any more. By the time he'd finished speaking to the brothers that day, his few possessions had been packed for him, and though he'd been allowed to spend that one more night in the monastary, he'd been ushered out first thing that next morning. He'd waited all night for Bernard's return, as the two of them had been separated while speaking to the priests, but by the time the brothers had come to escort him to the gates at the next dawn, Bernard's few possessions still lay in their proper places. The brothers could not – or would not – answer his queries as to Bernard's whereabouts, and so he had left not knowing.
Alone, with barely a trifle to his name, he'd headed not in the direction of his home village, but to the west, to the coastal towns and the boats that journeyed on from them. He had decided against visiting his family – what, after all, had there been to say? – but had send them a letter assuring them that he'd write from whatever foreign shore took him in. With any luck, by the time they figured out the whole tale of what had happened, he'd be halfway across the Atlantic, on the way to whatever fortune the New World had for him.
He'd slept by the side of the road most nights, for without his rough brown robe, none had recognized him as a (now former) monk on whom it was their duty as Christians to take pity. But he did not mind – the nights had been bearable then, and the fresh air had even done him good. At least, he reflected, he'd made it to Galway before the first frost had set in. The nights now held a chill he would not have wanted to encounter on the open road.
The city was little like the village where he'd been raised, and he knew he was not doing particularly well for himself here. He'd made himself a few coins through carrying loads at the docks, and had found temporary refuge in the loft of a local blacksmith, but knew he had not the strength in him to continue the work, and that the charity that had housed him these few weeks was nearing its limit. He rubbed his shoulder, reaching for the place where he'd strained it that day. This was not the work for him, he knew, and while he was not certain Canada would be better, he knew it had to be a new beginning, a resurrection of its own kind. That, at least, would be a place to start.
But he wasn't worried. After all, true to form, he'd left two testaments.
The brothers would never have found it. Even had they searched and gathered Bernard's belongings for him, even if they knew (as Stephen was sure they had) that the two boys had been involved in immoral dealings far beyond Father Jeremiah's influence, they never would have thought to keep the letter from Bernard's hands – for, Stephen had reckoned, never would they have chosen to deprive a poor lost soul such as Bernard of the Holy Scriptures.
He kept his spirits high by imagining the moment: seeing in his mind Bernard step beyond the walls of the monastary, look through what few possessions he had been left, leaf through the worn King James Bible he called his own. Stephen dreamed the smile on Bernard's beautiful face as he turned to the eighteenth chapter of I Samuel and saw the six words – 'Galway. Find me. I love you.' – scrawled in the margin next to the verse: And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.
The wind blew Stephen's long hair into his eyes, and he dragged the strands away, staring across the water as the sun set on the land. He'd saved twice enough by now for his passage, but he knew he could not leave. There was nothing for him in his new beginning if he had to make it alone.
The sound of a steamer's great whistle resounded through the harbor, startling Stephen to turn around. The sinking light lit everything in its path with a rosy glow: boats, buldings, streets, people. Most went about their business, hurrying in from the cold, making themselves useful; only one figure stood still, leaning against a lamppost, staring out at the sea.
Stephen squinted against the growing dark. The cut of the coat was unfamiliar, and Stephen was yet too far away to see the man's face, and thus he might simply have let his eyes pass over the sight. But the rose light stopped him as it caught in the man's hair, the dark, curly hair that spung forth much as it had that Easter morning, tinted pink with the barest hint of sun, a halo in its own right. And Stephen knew him then for who he was, saw him truly, and held his breath, lest the man vanish. The figure did not disappear, however, but inclined his head toward Stephen, seeing him silhouetted against the last light, standing straight as a man who can hardly believe he might have come to the end of his searchings.
His heart pounding in his chest, Stephen flew forward, racing across the dock toward the one with whom his soul was knit, toward the one he loved as his own soul.
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