The Order of Apsis (a short story)

Francis circled around the grounds every morning about the time of coffee. To him it was by 5am, when he was thrilled to be awake before the rest of the inmates, which is what he called his brethren. You see, Francis was a brother in the order of Apsis- a semisecret sect of a christian church the name of which he had resolved to put from his mind many years earlier. The name of the thing didn’t matter to him. What did matter was the morning, drinking coffee, waltzing alone around the property he called home.

Francis had been a brother for at least 30 years at this point. You could say he had become somewhat of a wiseman to the younger members- those who still said their morning prayers in solitude before they even went to breakfast; those who still gathered with grace for breakfast in the great hall; those who still recalled the name of the church in which they practiced. Francis did things on his own, and didn’t like to remember so much about tradition. He was a lone wolf, and he liked it that way.

He decided to cut short his time alone on this particular morning because it was Monday – the day after their sabbath – when he liked to chat with the groundskeeper, Ned; a man whose job Francis secretly coveted, but a man who was only really around the first day of the week.

“How is it today, Father Francis?”

“The grasshoppers are clapping for you, dear Ned. I do always wonder about the ants with the orange faces, though. What do they do that their faces aren’t black as a regular ant?”

He had said this very sentence before. “You know, Francis, that they’re just the ants out here. Just ants with orange faces. But really, how are you? Your energy seems down today.”

Francis didn’t feel down. He didn’t feel up either, having had only one coffee so far. But he replied, “I said mass yesterday, my friend. You know how I grapple with my homilies. I never feel like I get them quite right.”

“I’m sure it was as stirring as the reading itself,” said Ned.

Francis let out a sigh before adding, “The congregation is getting younger by the week. I wonder if any of them know quite who we are and why.” Ned gave a little chuckle at this, before saying, “Do you even know anymore?” To which Francis laughed heartily. “You know me too well, Ned. I’ve got to be going in to breakfast though. I’ll meet you for lunch in the usual place?”

“I look forward to it. Good graces for your morning with the young brothers.”

“And to you for the keeping of the grounds. May your weed wacking be as mindful as ever.”

Francis bowed ever so slightly in Ned’s direction before turning his pace back toward the Dining Hall. He knew what awaited him there: young members of the church eager to pick his brain about his latest homily; a meal of corn mush and crisp bacon; an hour or so of gathered prayer in the small chapel which sat humbly beside Francis’ living quarters. He knew these things were coming. But it was Monday so his spirits were low regardless.

***

Entering the Dining Hall was enough work for a man as well respected as Francis. Heads turned in his direction as he made his way to the front table where his brothers Ron and Harold sat peacefully, each eating their corn meal with maple syrup and bacon. Francis sat between them in the chair reserved for him only. Ron spoke first:

“A word to Mondays past, Franky: don’t let yesterday get to you.”

“Never in a thousand lifetimes, Ronald. Harold, how’s the bacon today?

“Crisp as a fresh apple, dear man.”

Smalltalk went this way between the three of them quite often; nearly every time they spoke. Francis knew enough to know there was only so much time for spiritual meanderings when it came down to chatting, but there was something about this banality that struck him oddly this particular morning. He did his best to ignore it as silence fell and Francis went about eating his breakfast.

When he had finished, he picked up his bowl and made his way over to the kitchen where he set about rinsing his dish before drying it and putting it back in the cupboard. He found a cooking sheet adorned with fresh bacon and picked up a handful, putting it in the front pocket of the sweatshirt he was wearing. It should be mentioned that Francis was the only member of his brotherhood who dressed down during the week. He prefered the comfort of secular dress, and once had to make a serious case for not being in full gown at all times, writing at length to his superiors why he felt the need for slacks and hooded sweatshirts over long black coats and that ever present white collar he indeed despised. Only on Sundays, he’d written, does God give a good goddamn about priests being priests…all other times they were as normal as anyone else. Or so he had argued. Either way, he left the kitchen, making his way to the chapel in which he would enjoy a few moments of prayer before his mid-morning rituals and lunch with Ned.

***

On his personal altar sat many different sorts of things; small trinkets gotten over the years from all sorts of different religious men and women. Situated among the ceramic animals and medallions of all sorts were a few of Francis’ most treasured possessions: a music box with a copper lid; a Tibetan singing bowl; and three piles of incense which he would light one at a time over the 30 or so minutes he would spend reflecting this morning.

“May the Lord be in my mind, my lips, my heart,” he said as he performed the gestures appropriate to these words. He continued as only he would: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Whether it is nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune will God grant me the serenity to change the things I cannot accept, and accept the exceptions to that which I cannot change. But all as in essence and time do we go praising glory, and grace in harder times. Amen.”

By the time he’d repeated this prayer enough times for his liking, Francis was engulfed in the smoke from the incense. This being the case, he reached for a box which sat centerfold on his altar. Opening it, he gathered out a pre-rolled cigarette, lit it with a match he struck on one of his canvas shoes, and sat back in the navasana yoga pose. Bringing the cigarette to his lips, he repeated his prayer as he inhaled and exhaled, garnering a deeper peace of mind as he did.

“Aloha and addendum prayer: bless the clouds which brought us here. Be all that which destines to be a proper man with the tears of Christ falling around us. May we live as soaked through to skin, swimming.”

The latest of Francis’ made up prayers was a favorite of his. It should be said he’d been making them up for years, once even taking to recording them all on paper, though he’d given that up long ago. His prayers were his own. And he liked it that way.

He put out his cigarette in a clay pot that was sitting beside him. He also extinguished the incense, and placed the box back in its place on the mantle. Pleased, he sat down on his bed, layed back, and fell asleep.

***

“Lunch in the Garden de Ned, I presume! What a way to pass time on a Monday.” Exclaimed Francis as he drew closer to where Ned was sitting beneath a row of evergreen trees, on a stone bench whose seat curved slightly inward near the back, forming a place to lounge comfortably. “I’ve brought lox for us today monsieur. With bagels and cream cheese; wine I’ve stolen from the tabernacle!”

Ned smiled wide at this last comment, saying “You make that joke every week about this time, Frank. It’s still as comical as ever.”

“Yes. But this time I’m serious. It doesn’t matter. It’s always just wine. Never actual blood the way some people believe. There’s no transformation. You know what I always say: the best thing about Christ was that when he knew he was going to be killed, he gathered his friends, got drunk and made bread. It’s quite beautiful really. He had a dinner party; saw his funeral, and that was that. If it weren’t for Pilot, we’d treat every Easter like the party it was meant to be.”

“That pilot. What a stick in the mud,” said Ned gayly. To that, Francis slouched down slowly onto the bench beside Ned, his eyes suddenly filled with tears. Ned gave a smile full of warmth. “What is your plight today, Father? I can sense your illness.”

Francis then took a cigarette from his shirt pocket, lit it, and inhaled before passing it to Ned. “It’s yesterday’s reading, as always. It’s always yesterday’s reading that on Mondays troubles me.” Ned’s smile faded but not the warmth in his expression. “Leviticus. What a disappointment it is that I should homilize Leviticus. Of all of the-” Francis stopped for a moment and stole his gaze from the ground back up to Ned. “Are you familiar?”

“If you could refresh my memory.”

“It regards the bread offering. That only the finest of flours and oils shall be offered. It fills me with distaste, I’m telling you. What of the people who cannot offer the sweetest luxuries? What of the poor or famine? I am at a loss. My homily said so. I feel a stiff change coming to my life here. Already I am seen as a black sheep. Though to some, I say, a sheep with the thickest wool. I see so much wrong with the Bible we preach; that I have spent my life studying. I’m very tired of reading the same book over again. Is this what a midlife crisis feels like, Ned?”

“I can speak to that just as you speak of Leviticus. My feet are ankle deep in mud most days, however, and I can honestly say that that brings me closer to God than any fine flours or oils ever could.”

“It’s how I feel when I make up my prayers instead of reciting them.”

Ned smiled softly. “You make them up?”

“For years I have. I’ve kept it a secret even from you, Ned. Can you believe it?”

There was a lonely silence before Ned replied, “What’s next for you today, my friend? Where will you go from feeling this way.”

“I thought we could share our usual pipe and then I’ll go listen to Donovan and pretend I’m not a priest. Then I’ll wake up from my daze, have an evening coffee, before telling anyone who will listen that our church is head over heels and I intend to shutter out the demons which it seems to project. I’ll sit down with the new brothers and I’ll make up my prayers for them. And then, just before bed I will smoke a cigarette, say my 30 rosaries, drift off to sleep. I’ll dream of fast cars and bullet trains. I’ll wake to the smell of today’s bacon left over in my jacket pocket. Then, I’ll leave this church – this way – behind. I’ll charter a boat and live out at sea until my old age cripples my skeleton. And I’ll wish I were never born. Then, just before I die, I’ll believe completely I was always wrong, and I’ll be reborn into this famished state on this ugly plane of existence, and I’ll begin again on my path to nirvana. That’s what I’ll do Ned. That’s what I’ll do.”

Ned’s face was full of sorrow as he replied, “You’re an irregular bodhisattva, Francis. You shouldn’t be so tortured every week. I can’t take another speech like this one, as you say similar things each Monday. This time, though, I can sense you’re true to your word. And I just want to say thank you. Thank you for-”

Francis cut him off by saying “For the bacon. You’re welcome.” as he thrust forth a handful of what were now bacon bits. Ned let out a large sigh. The two men looked at each other for a moment before Francis suddenly got up. “I’ve got a lot of learning to do,” he said. Ned just nodded, stuck out his hand to receive Francis’ which happened to still hold the bacon he’d offered. The two men shook hands anyway, crushing it to powder.

“I’ve to get back to my duties,” said Ned.

“Say no more. I’ll go now. Goodbye dear man.”

“Goodbye Father,” said Ned.

“Brother,” replied Francis.

“Brother,” replied Ned.

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