Meryl’s fingers creaked as she anointed each with holy warmth, struggling to dress each gnarled crevice. The smell of incense and candle smoke was strongest in the back pew where she huddled together, a clump of dirt and tatters. She smiled at her hands. Sure, it was colder than pews further towards the altar, but the scent was the most heavenly vessel in the church. Besides, she got enough looks sitting in the back. The front would be a firing squad of stares and mumbles.
“Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world,” the priest’s intonations rose with the organ, “Have mercy on us. Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world. Grant us Your peace.”
Meryl tilted her head upward to watch. It was no different from any other mass she had sat through. The ushers conducted rows to the front for communion, releasing the spiritually hungry to join the bread line. Soon, it would be her turn. As the row in front of her gathered into the line, a family of four walked past her. A boy of 10 pulled his face below a dress shirt and tie, smushing the bridge of his nose under the white collar; a girl, Meryl reckoned his sister, pinched tight her nose, grimacing at Meryl as she pinched tighter.
The usher moved to her row. She fought her feet to the floor and shuffled into the line. The room whirled. She hadn’t eaten anything save a three-quarters-eaten sandwich she found in a garbage can on Grant Avenue. A hand on the seat backs of the pews helped steady her, a temporary cane she could not take with her. She neared the altar and prepared her legs to bear her full weight.
“Body of Christ,” she said and gulped the communion wafer, signing herself quickly. Meryl hobbled back to her seat, feeling stronger with the bit of substance.
Once the congregation had been seated, the ushers gathered up stacks of wicker baskets and began passing them across the pews. A grin ruptured across Meryl’s face, her pulse clamoring in her hands as they mined her sole pocket. From the pocket, she drew a single dollar bill, crumpled and limp. It was still damp from the puddle she had found it in. The note tingled in her hand like a habanero on the tongue, an answer to prayer, wet with God and grace.
An usher walked the basket over to her.
She emptied her hand into it, the tingling sensation refusing to dissipate, her grin splitting further, handing off the basket to the waiting usher. As she watched the basket traveling to the altar, Meryl realized the priest was staring in her direction. He was not the only one. Heads followed the priest’s gaze, landing on her. The priest descended the altar at the usher-who-took-her-offering’s arrival and whispered to him, shielding his lips from view with his hands. The usher whispered back to him and presented one of the wicker baskets, kindling a smile on his face, whispering again to the usher.
The usher strode back towards Meryl, focusing on her like a pigeon in the eyes of a hunter. Meryl twisted her fingers around the back of her hand. He knelt beside her and breathed, “Miss, the priest would like to speak with you following mass.” He stood and took his seat as the priest began a closing prayer.
Not a word grasped Meryl’s ears. What could he want? Did I do something wrong?
Mass was over now and parishioners poured from their seats out the doors at Meryl’s back. Many glanced at her as they ambled past. She scarcely noticed, remaining seated and gaping at the Psalm book in front of her.
From the right, the priest cantered toward her pew, his short stride and shuffle reminded her of an elderly jogger who passed her… home… every day. Meryl stiffened as he entered the pew, glancing quickly between the floor and the priest. He seated himself close to her; his white alb bared his ankles revealing a pair of black sandals.
“What is your name, miss?” he asked, his voice like a rush of Mourning Dove feathers.
“Well, I’m Father Schroeder. It’s nice to meet you, Meryl. You are homeless, no?”
“I thought so. But I saw you put something into the offering today.” He shifted his body towards Meryl. She could feel him looking at her, but her eyes declined to leave their seat on the floor.
“Yes, father. It was a dollar that I found yesterday. I promise I didn’t steal if that’s what you think.”
“No. I know you didn’t steal it. It was a beautiful gift you gave.” Meryl smiled at the way he said ‘beautiful’, sounding more like ‘beauty-full’ than ‘beautiful’. “And I have something I want to give you. Please give me your hand.”
Meryl looked up and stretched it out towards him, her hand blossoming open. Into her hand, the priest placed a clump of bills. Her fingers disobeyed and refused to close, agape at what lay in their midst.
“Today, you gave out of your poverty and so God gives to you out of His abundance. I do not have a home to give you, but, as you are a woman of God, you may sleep here in the house of God whenever you find need.”
“Thank you…,” she choked, tears ravaging her cheeks.
“I must go now and finish cleaning the altar. Stay here as long as you wish.”
Meryl crumpled the bills into her pocket, as the priest ambled away. I knew that dollar was a blessing. Thank you, Father. She remained in the pew, praying silently, long past the lights set with the sun.