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"Iconography" by Stephanie Frazee

I attended mass with my son. His first time, my second. My first time was my boyfriend’s niece’s first communion. My boyfriend said the sanctuary might spontaneously combust when I walked in. I wasn’t sure which way his meaning went, but he, a former Catholic school boy, seemed pleased I was religion-averse. Now, we’re married, and this mass was my sister-in-law’s funeral.

I loaded my son with too many instructions, more for my benefit than his. I’m an ex-Fundamentalist. Decades have passed since I was a churchgoer, but I’ll always be recovering. Catholicism, with its ancient rituals and international hierarchies, intimidates me. I grew up with dunking baptisms and 20-something year old elders, like my father once was, gatekeeping the path to heaven. Catholics used profanity and drank and smoked and would not make it through the gates, I was told. 

I instructed my son: We’re not Catholic, so we’re not allowed to touch the holy water. Don’t touch the stack of anti-abortion pamphlets. Really, let’s not touch anything. Stand when everyone stands, sit when they sit, kneel if they kneel. We don’t need to sing. We won’t know the words. We have to sit at the front, but we can’t go up for the crackers. It’s going to look like juice, but it’s not going to be juice.

I followed the program with my finger so he could see how much longer it would be. We stood and sat and no one kneeled. I tried to observe as someone who’d never been in a church, to see what my son might see. The sanctuary was adorned with art depicting torture, a stabbing, blood, a dead man: things I wouldn’t let him watch on TV. The priest: a man with whom I  would never leave him alone. 

The priest dipped a brush in holy water and flung it across the coffin. My son nudged me, a panicked whisper: Some got on my hand. He showed me a drop on his thumb. That’s ok, I said. But I didn’t wipe it away with my own hand. 

The altar boys’ hands shook as they filled the thurible and lit the flame. Flame: something else we don’t let him touch. The youngest, just a few years older than my son, was about the age I was when I chose to be baptized. The youth pastor pushed me under so fast I didn’t have time to hold my breath. When I emerged, choking, water slipping from my body, I felt a change spread through me. I felt clean, stripped of the filth I blamed myself for. I didn’t tell anyone what I felt, because it confirmed I needed to be forgiven, it proved I was dirty and needed to be cleansed. It proved I wouldn’t make it through the gates my father helped guard because of the very things he had done to me.

There are things they have in common, my former religion and this one. 

My father: another man of god I would never leave my son alone with.

Later, I asked him what he thought of mass. He was sad he hadn’t had a chance to get to know his aunt before she died, but he thought the art was interesting. 

Stephanie Frazee's work is forthcoming from Bayou Magazine, The Evergreen Review, and Door Is A Jar, and her work has appeared in ONE ART, Third Wednesday, Juked, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. 


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