At nine years of age I met Monsignor Karavich up close when he invited me onto the altar during benediction alongside Michael Dolanski, the heroic high school halfback. Until then, the priest had been an other-worldly figure, an unreal actor on stage, looming above and orating as I knelt silently at a pew, trapped in place by my mother’s piety.
The altar put me above and out of her reach so I eagerly followed Michael’s lead, genuflecting, kneeling and rising, offering incense, and crossing myself. I even murmured when he recited arcane responses to the priest’s chanting. I seemed to be in a secret place engaged in secret activities even though mother and the others in the congregation were there. But they saw only my back most of the time. Plus, I was disguised, swaddled inside a black cassock and white surplice.
After the service, Michael respectfully bowed to the priest, kissed his ring, then quietly disappeared off into the evening. The smell of burning incense spiced the air, and the chains holding the gold and bejeweled incense boat still chimed in my memory.
The tall priest had been graceful, gliding in ornate robes around the altar, seemingly aloof to ordinary, mundane concerns. He reminded me of a hawk somehow, I guess because his sharply pointed nose, chin, and cheekbones made me think of a beak, and his long, pale hands reminded me of talons.
Father Karavich lifted his black, bushy eyebrows and beckoned with an index finger for me to follow, but he stopped at the bottom of the two steps just outside the church and turned. We were face level, and his dark eyes bored through me.
His breath struck my cheeks as if his voice required an extraordinary volume of air to produce its deep sound. “I presume you found this evening’s experience edifying and therefore wish to proceed with your training.”
“Come with me then.” He spun and strode across the grass past my mother, saying, “We won’t be a minute.”
“Yes, Father. Take your time.” She smiled and nodded, waiting there while I followed him on.
I was acutely aware of how he’d excluded her, as if he and I were engaged in matters inappropriate for women. Leaving her behind seemed very important, as if I were entering a new stage of life. Maybe adulthood.
Despite a few anxieties, I eagerly copied not only the priest’s direction, but also his gait, reaching forward to equal his strides so that I was jumping after him from foot to foot as we entered his house through the front doorway and crossed a Persian throw rug that slipped slightly with my weight on the bare wood floor beneath. He turned on no lights so that in his black suit he was a shadow leading me up a staircase whose every step was rubber-matted.
We went into a bedroom where he finally threw on a light, but it was inadequate, a single bulb glowing on the wall beneath a thick, tortoise shell-like cover. He handed me a pamphlet and told me to learn my parts. “You can have the booklet with you to read from at tomorrow morning’s mass.”
It was an instruction manual, which I paged through quickly, checking for all the Latin phrases I’d have to memorize. There seemed to be hundreds. Oh, well, the priest had said I could probably pick them up just by being on the altar with other boys and hearing their responses. Plus we would practice a few prompts and responses before and after every ritual I took part in.
“You can sit if you want to on that,” Father Karavich said.
“This box?” I asked.
I sat, thought a moment, then said, “Huh?”
Father Karavich glanced from the mirror at me and smiled. “Christ himself rose from the dead, you know. Death is not our enemy.”
I jumped up as if a nail had suddenly pierced my buttocks. A casket! What I’d seen my father buried in the year before. My mouth gaped. “What’s it here for?”
The priest went back to combing his hair and apparently spoke to his own image, not turning toward me. “Memento mori.”
Whatever that meant. “I couldn’t sleep with it in my room.”
“Sure you could.” Father Karavich patted cologne on his cheeks and grimaced when it stung. A strong scent of musk reached me. He leaned forward and dug among his teeth with a fingernail.
“It’s spooky,” I said. The box made me nervous, sitting right there behind me like a trap I might fall back into and never return from.
“Come here, Paul.”
The priest put an arm over my shoulders, took me to the window, and hugged so I pressed against him. My curly, uncontrollable hair touched his rib cage, and I thought I could hear his heartbeat.
“Good view from up here, yes?”
I looked outside at the church steeple, then down, where night lights were burning.
“There’s your mother waiting on the lawn between the rectory and the St. Alphonsus worship hall. There are the back doors, one to the vestry and one to the servers’ closet where you left your altar boy outfit. You can see the school to the right, Mechanic Street to its right. From up here, you get an odd angle that reveals how everything connects. The lay-out of things, you know? It’s a very different perspective than you get down at ground level. That’s what the coffin does. Reminds me of my connection to things in the past and the future.”
“I guess so,” I muttered, not really understanding.
“What does it tell you lies ahead for us all?”
I shook my head, unwilling to say.
The priest laughed. “You know the answer. And what does the knowledge of our coming death mean?”
This was like a catechism question. “That we better be good to get to heaven?”
Father Karavich nodded. “Also that we better make hay while the sun shines. We better have fun while we can. Carpe diem.”
He turned and lifted me high off my feet. This close to him, the scent of musk was so strong, it made me dizzy, filling my lungs, dilating my nostrils.
“Goodness!” the priest said. “You are very large for your age. A really big, strong, manly youngster.”
He carried me like that to the bed and stood me on its edge. “There. You see? You could sleep here as well as I do.”
Suddenly, he hugged me to his chest. During the lifting, my shirt had pulled out of my trousers. Now his right hand went beneath it onto my bare skin, flattened against the small of my back, and moved up between my shoulder blades. His five fingertips alternately pressed against me as if he were playing piano keys, tracing the bones of my spine.
I hung in his hands limp at first, then shivering.
His chin rested for a moment on my shoulder, his left ear against my left, and when he pulled away to set me down, something brushed my neck, and there was a sharp prick, a sting.
Father Karavich pulled his hand from under my shirt and stepped back, releasing me. He smiled, and his teeth gleamed and seemed huge.
I screamed, jumped off the bed, and still clutching the little manual, ran from the room. As I ran, I imagined as if I were actually back there with him, watching the way he cocked his head to the side, listening to me as I thumped downstairs and raced out, slamming the door behind me.
“Mother!” I yelled, running to her, grabbing her hand. “Mother, he scared me! He scared me!”
She patted my head, then grabbed my hand. “Father Karavich is a holy man. He wouldn’t hurt you.”
Maybe that was true, but had he bitten or pricked me with a fingernail? Okay, something had scared me, but I couldn’t figure out how to explain my fears to her. And really, I didn’t want to anyway. Why retreat back into the subjugated state I’d been in with her before? Why let silly fears throw me back in her clutches when I could at least be free at church?
I looked back at the house and knew before I did what I would see. Yes, there was Father Karavich, standing where we’d stood together before, filling the window, watching us. His hairy eyebrows rose once, then fell, as if he were asking a question.
Mother saw him too. She released my hand and waved, then backhanded my chest. “Be nice. He’s helping you. Tell him goodbye.”
She squeezed my shoulder until I raised a hand and waved.
A broad smile broke the priest’s face into a wrinkled mask. His teeth caught and reflected a street-light.
Then his right hand raised and he blessed us.
This time I followed mother’s lead, making the sign of the cross, unsure how to feel, knowing that tomorrow morning at 9:00 o’clock, I would have to be in Father Karavich’s presence again.
We started walking home, and I pressed the place on my neck where I’d felt the sting. Nothing like any odd sensation there now. I’d been acting silly all right.
When I brought my hand away, however, the tips of my index and middle fingers gleamed with a light smear of blood.
Header photograph: By Snyder, Frank R. Flickr: Miami U. Libraries – Digital Collections [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons