Wednesday, December 23, 2020

SHORT STORY: First Communion

I was awoken by Dad opening the door to my bedroom.  He urged me to ger dressed.  It was early – too early in fact – and the strange blue light of the morning permeated my bedroom curtains.  As my feet hit the floor, I wiped the sleep (or lack thereof) out of my eyes and followed Dad down the hall to the garage where we got into the car.  Ambivalent birds sung their dawn chorus as we drive through the empty streets.  Too early for traffic.  My thoughts still foggy, I stared out the passenger side window, watching as the street lights silently winked off.

“What about Mum and Jamie?”, I asked, through a yawn.

“They’ll be waiting for you when we get home.  You’ll see”.

When we arrived at the hospital, everything happened just as Dad had told me it would.  He stood there proudly, watching me give the nurse at the front desk my name and all my details. 

“Samuel Gladstone.  Age Ten”.

Pretty soon, I donned a hospital gown, the type that tied up at the back with flimsy strings leaving bare arse cheeks exposed.  Once again, I found myself in clothes that made me feel foolish, but Dad seemed pleased as he silently observed from the sidelines, admiring my youthful composure and self-reliance.


That day was the culmination of a series of events that began the Friday before my First Communion.  It started when the priest first came to our house.  I remember it distinctly. Mum was in the kitchen cooking, Dad reading his paper and Jamie, my little brother was enduring yet another piano lesson in the spare room.  The sound of him awkwardly playing the scales echoed throughout the house while his piano teacher, Mrs Pritchard, sat beside him wincing disapprovingly.  Though I was a few years older than Jamie, and mercifully spared such lessons, I hated Mrs Pritchard.  She always smelled of pickled vegetables and wore a permanent scowl.

“Sam!”, called Dad a few moments after the doorbell had rung.  I bounded down the long corridor of our house to see Father Medici clumsily wheeling a large, steel trolley through our front door.  It was cumbersome, like the ones at the supermarket, and contained an assortment of semi translucent plastic containers, each one sealed tightly.

“Hello Samuel”, offered our parish priest through a fraudulent smile, “I’ve brought some options for you and your father to take a look at”. 

It was weird to see him out of context, almost as if his powers were diminished by virtue of being outside the church and wearing “street” clothes like the rest of us.  I never warmed to Father Medici, I’m not sure why.  Dad seemed to like him, but there was something about him I found disagreeable.  He was insincere, smarmy like a used car salesman.  Even as a child, I could detect it.  In the kitchen, I could hear the sound of vegetables being chopped come to a halt.  Mum didn’t like Father Medici either.

“Don’t be afraid, son” said Dad as he guided me towards the trolley to examine my choices. 

There were so many.  Some larger than others.  Different colours.  Some were squirming horribly, while others simply slept, apparently unphased by my presence.  I’d never been this close before – I had no idea what was expected of me or what criteria I should have used to choose properly.  I was told my choice was important, especially as it concerned my First Communion.  In the end, I merely picked at random.

“That one”, I said, selecting a black and white striped one of intermediate size.

“Excellent choice” grinned Father Medici, a set of false teeth on full display.

Dad placed his masculine, spatula like hands upon my shoulders and squeezed them with pride.  His hands felt warm, but his approval felt warmer. He chatted with the priest outside the house for a short spell as he loaded the trolley back onto the van he’d driven.  I watched them both from the living room window, peering through a curtain.  Just then, Nana entered the room, she clapped her hands together in anticipation.

“Oh Samuel”, she said in her old Polish brogue, “How quickly time passes.  Just think, this time tomorrow you’ll be a man”. 

She wrapped her arms around me, dispensing the type of embrace that only a grandmother can.  Unconditional, and free from parental expectations.   The sound of scales rang out throughout the house, yet again.  Stupid Jamie.

The next day, anticipation filled the air.  Mum had been up since 5am cooking, preparing food in vast quantities for the party we’d have after the church ceremony.  Annoyingly, I was awoken my Jamie, rifling through my belongings.  He’d often make himself at home in my bedroom while I slept.

“Get out of here Jamie!”  I shouted, hurling a pillow at his head and missing.

“I don’t understand why the whole house has stop for your stupid First Communion”, he spat, before issuing his customary raspberry and leaving.

Mum came in not long afterwards, “Ignore him.  It’ll be his turn in a few years.  Maybe then he’ll understand”.

After I bathed and brushed my teeth, it was time to get ready.  It took me ages to put on my suit.  I’d never worn one before.   I managed to put on my cummerbund, but Mum had to help me with the bow tie.  Now dressed, I inspected myself in the mirror and immediately hated what I saw.  I looked like a tiny penguin.  Despite feeling stupid, and the general itchiness of my attire, Mum said I looked handsome and that it was only proper to dress up for such a momentous occasion. 

Before we left, Nana got her camera out to take a photo of me.  She looked at me longingly, as if she were trying to preserve that particular moment in time.  It was an expression I’d never seen before.  I wondered where Dad was.  I hadn’t seen him all morning.

At the church, the air was thick with incense.  It was a Saturday, and the church was full of people.  I loitered about the entrance with a bunch of other boys who were also making their first communion that day.  I knew some of them from school.  There was Danny.  He waved at me excitedly.  He was wearing a suit too, except his was grey.  Father Medici made an appearance, now clothed in his gaudy vestments.  He shook all our hands in a half-hearted attempt at ingratiation. 

When the mass began, we all followed him down the aisle as the opening hymn was sung.  As I passed the many faces of the congregation, all prideful and solemn, I contemplated the sacrament before me.  First communion – but communion with what?  Despite the potent reactions from the adults around me, it all seemed so insubstantial.  A rite of passage into manhood, no more significant than a mere birthday.

We reached the altar, and Father Medici ascended the handful of steps to the podium while we waited in line, as though presented before the congregation for their viewing pleasure.  I spotted Mum in the crowd; she was sitting with Danny’s family.  She watched me intently, discreetly wiping a tear from her eye, hoping no one would notice.

Father Medici began to speak.  I’m sure it was important but my mind had started wandering (as it sometimes did).  My attention was drawn to the large crucifix behind the altar.  Our lord and saviour Jesus Christ, nails through his hands suspended above an ophidian.  Someone handed me a candle to hold as the choir began yet another dreadful song.  The wax smelled old, and the flame illuminated my face.  Eventually, it was time for the scripture reading.  The priest approached the podium again.

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” the priest droned on as I tried my utmost to summon my concentration.  I scanned the crowd once more, finally catching sight of Dad.  His face was stern and serious.  Why wasn’t he sitting with Mum?

After what felt like forever, the moment arrived – a thin wafer and a sip of awful tasting wine.  Camera flashes aplenty, and for a moment, I remember feeling everyone’s eyes upon me.  It was euphoric.  Not long afterwards, the mass was concluded and Mum and Dad, now together, rushed towards me to offer their congratulations.  Mum cast her arms around me, squeezing me tight, while Dad offered an understated backslap.

“Remember son, today’s only window dressing.  The real ceremony happens tomorrow”.   He was right, I guess.  From what I’d been told, the next day would be quite different.

I left the church with my family joyfully and traversed a short distance to the community hall where the party was to take place.  There was a band and a huge cake with my name on it.

“Congratulations!” and “Good luck tomorrow”, came the string of well wishes from cousins, rarely seen aunties and various octogenarians who’d crawled out of the woodwork just to pinch my cheeks.  It was the biggest party I’d ever seen, and, to crown the occasion was an entire table full of gifts – all for me. I crossed my fingers, hoping for video games and a set of bongo drums, but past experience cautioned me that books and clothes were more likely.

We ate and drank and danced until the evening became the night, and I bid farewell to the friends and family who’d come to see me.  Poor Jamie threw up by the bins outside – too much cake.  Served him right.  At home, I cast aside my itchy suit and crawled into bed where I quickly drifted off into a golden, dreamless sleep.


It all seemed a world away from me now, as I lay in my hospital bed, patiently waiting.  All of the necessary forms had been filled out, and I had been given a plastic wristband which bore my name and birthday.  Before too long a friendly orderly came to wheel me into the operating theatre where masked doctors were waiting.  I drank in my surroundings, noting the steel accoutrements, harsh LED lighting and the blue latex gloves everybody wore.  A nurse with gentle eyes rested her hand upon my chest in reassurance.  It felt warm.  The head surgeon, a tall man with wiry hair protruding from his mask introduced himself.

“Hello Sam.  How are you feeling today?”

“Fine.  I guess”, I replied, unsure of how one should be feeling mere minutes before surgery.

“What we’re going to do today is make a transverse incision, along your abdomen.  When we reach the large intestine, we’ll make a smaller incision into which we’ll place your implant”.

I nodded in agreement.

“Nurse, bring in the implant, please”.

The gentle eyed nurse disappeared from the room for a minute, and returned with a translucent plastic container, exactly like the one on Father Medici’s trolley.  Inside was the snake I had chosen just a few days earlier.  There it was, glistening and livelier this time; I could hear its distinctive, breathy hiss from inside its plastic prison.  Vermicella Annulata – its proper name, was hastily scrawled upon one side of its container in black marker.

As the surgeon prepared me for the anaesthetic, instructing me to count backwards from one hundred, the snake and I locked eyes.  Its serpentine visage looked back at me with cold indifference.  The edges of the room grew fuzzy, and my eyelids became leaden as I started to succumb to the irresistible urge to fall asleep.  Sinking beneath the inky blackness of unconsciousness, I wondered if this was what my death would feel like.


Dad was there, waiting for me when I woke up in my hospital room just a few hours later.

“Don’t touch them”, he cautioned as I examined my stitches and the large scar that ran across my stomach, “They won’t heal properly if you mess with them”. 

Father Medici was there for some reason.  I wondered why.  He and Dad shook hands and seemed quite pleased with themselves.  As my drug induced stupor began to wear off, I recalled the surgery – why I was there. The snake.  The black and white striped snake that had been put inside me.  I could feel it, moving, churning, settling within me.  My insides felt cold, as though I’d drunk a few litres of ice water.

“You’ll get used to it” Dad simply said after I’d complained.  His words seemed distant and meaningless.

Back at home, things seemed different somehow.  I spent a few days suspecting that everyone had changed, but in reality, it was me who had been altered.  Mum was happy to have me home, though I carefully observed unguarded moments where she seemed to regard me with almost nervous apprehension.  Nana’s touch felt empty, and her tone with me no longer warm.  As for Jamie, he seemed terrified of me, staying well clear of my bedroom.  It was as if consciousness felt like a waking dream, or perhaps something even less than that.  Like the fading embers of a memory. I didn’t realise I’d feel this way.  Was this what First Communion was supposed to feel like?

I inspected myself in the mirror and felt nothing at all.  An absence of self, generated by the reptile now nestled permanently in my belly.  I stared, vacantly into my own empty eyes and could suddenly taste the annihilation of my boyhood.  It was deepest red, like arterial blood and roughly hewn as if from a woodsman’s axe.  An empty chasm where joy used to reside now supplanted by a simmering, calculating rage.

I’ll never forget the words Dad said to me in my hospital room after I’d awoken from surgery.  He said that he had been through the same procedure, as had his own father.  It was all part of the sacrament – First Communion – communion with the serpent, to take it inside you and make it a part of yourself.  It was the birthright of every male.  As the old priest opened up his prayer book and offered foolish words on my behalf, Dad clasped my hand tight and offered the following advice.

“Every man has a snake inside him.  It is what it means to be a man.  You must learn to control it son, or it will begin to control you”.



No comments:

Post a Comment

SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins