Father Denton Ramirez found the dead baby tucked behind the bushes outside the rectory of St. Gerard’s Roman Catholic Church. He noticed the sight as he, shivering in the winter cold, locked his front door. The baby lay in a wicker basket, his cherub face blue and frozen mid-cry like a gargoyle.
Sheriff Willis showed up shortly after.
“Time of discovery?” Sheriff Willis says, sniffling.
The two men stand on the rectory’s porch, the portly Sheriff Willis knelt down and bundled up in a down jacket, and the rail-thin Father Ramirez standing.
“Around 4:30 a.m.,” the priest says. “That’s about the time I usually begin preparations for the 6 a.m. mass.”
Sheriff Willis wipes his ruby nose with the back of his sleeve. He makes the sign of the cross.
An empty gesture, Father Ramirez thinks as he kneads the black cincture of his cassock with calloused fingers. He can see the tears forming on the edges of the sheriff’s eyes.
The sheriff stands and walks to the edge of the porch, his sights set out over the empty parking lot.
The day is young, but beyond the stripped trees and ploughed fields, fingers of peach sunlight grasp ahold of the darkness. A cold February wind whistles across the frosted landscape. It’s the time of year when winter’s embrace tightens around the waning season’s final full month, reminding all that the delineation between the seasons is naught but a human appellation. Nature isn’t wont to a cardboard box and cookie cutter terms.
“Walk me through it again,” Sheriff Willis says.
So Father Ramirez walks him through it, again.
He didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary last night, he says, just the usual creaks and moans a rickety building produces in inclement weather. Nothing remotely resembling an infant’s cries. After waking, he drank two cups of coffee as he watched snowdrifts flitter across the rural hillsides. The coffee was spiked with whiskey. He leaves this latter detail out. Imbued with libation’s warmth, he dressed and left the rectory, intent on heading to the church, he says. He wanted to reflect in front of the crucifix; he wanted to try and hear God, who’s been long silent. He leaves this out too.
“And then I found the boy,” Father Ramirez says, swallowing. “And I called you.”
Sheriff Willis crosses his arms.
“Is it true what they say, Father,” he says, turning. His neck is bent so the wide brim of his hat obscures his face. “Do unbaptized children not go to heaven?”
Father Ramirez is familiar with the sentiment, but knows it’s not based in any doctrine. He doesn’t feel like discussing theology.
“God keeps a place for innocents,” he says.
Sheriff Willis meekly smiles, tips his hat, and walks to his patrol car to radio for back-up.
“If there is a God,” Father Ramirez mumbles.
He’s blessing the Eucharist when she slips into the church. A cold, baying wind suffuses the space before the oak door bangs shut. The scant parishioners cast reproachful glances over their shoulders. The young woman returns a glazed look, heavy eyelids and dry, parted lips. Though she’s young, her skin is wrinkled, lived in. Her raven hair is streaked with gray. She sits in the back pew, but her head pivots side-to-side as if she’s searching for someone.
Father Ramirez recognizes her immediately. His hands, clasped around the chalice above his head, tremble. He hasn’t seen her in close to a year.
Her presence transports him.
He’s no longer at the altar. Instead, he’s in the confessional listening to a heroin addict spill her soul to him through a wooden screen. Her voice is raspy; her breath smells of vodka. The air, sticky with June’s humidity, is claustrophobic.
Then, he’s no longer on his side; the partition is breached. He tastes sin, ashy like cigarettes.
In unison, the congregation climaxes with an “Amen,” and Father Ramirez is back in the church.
Quickly, he lowers the chalice, placing it on the altar.
The liquid inside sways and spills over the chalice’s rim, staining his fingers. It’s as red as blood.