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Divine Request

One day a woman woke up in her bed and knew she wanted to become a priest in the Catholic Church. Meno, her husband, lying next to her in bed, didn’t want her to become a priest because he’d been married to her for thirteen years and still couldn’t find anything about her that he disliked. So losing her would hurt like a nail in a kneecap.

She knew three languages—English, French, and Finnish—and Meno liked that.

Meno knew all the visible veins on her breasts and he liked that, too, especially the three that looked like the tollway exit he used when he came home at night. There couldn’t be many men, he decided, who thought of their wife’s breasts whenever they tossed eighty cents into a machine.

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“Meno?” she began that morning right there in bed. “I believe I’m being called to the priesthood.”

Meno, not at all awake, said, “I just went, Nadia. Stay in there as long as you want. I’m not going to shower this morning anyway.”

Great journeys, thought Nadia, often begin with a simple misunderstanding.

“We’ll talk after I pee,” Nadia said.

“Just a little sugar, sweetie,” Meno mumbled, “and some cream if we have any.”

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Nadia hadn’t been to church since childhood.

“Thus,” she said to Meno, both of them still in bed and sipping coffee, “this could be a false call. Perhaps acid reflux disease or an allergy to wheat gluten. Really, they say that most of the things that bother us are medical in nature.”

“You don’t eat bread or cereal,” Meno said, only then beginning to wake and to get a feel for Nadia’s vision, “and you hardly ever burp.”

“Very well,” Nadia began. “Let’s say the call is genuine, the good lord giving me an instant message on my duties and my future. What then?”

“As those things go,” Meno said, “you’re not supposed to ignore them. Scorned destinies have a way of coming back to bite you on your butt.”

“No doubt,” said Nadia. “The other thing I worry about is becoming a court case, one of those women who are terribly articulate even with their eyes brimming with tears.”

“You think they might arrest you?” Meno said.

“No, darling. Because I seek the priesthood. People I’ve never met will make sworn statements as to my personality, my intelligence, my boobs. Talk shows will want to know if I have dallied with addictive substances or ever been fat and ugly.”

“Oh,” Meno said. “By the way, not all fat people are ugly.”

“Which is what a priest’s spouse ought to say.”

“Honey?”

“Yes, darling.”

“Priests don’t have spouses.”

“I know, darling. It is a call that demands sacrifices. No doubt I’ll have to stop polishing my nails and conditioning my hair into the wonder of youthful exuberance. Priests, though, I’m sure they brush their teeth. Wouldn’t you think?”

“Unless they’re saints. I think saints sometimes have their teeth removed, occasionally by force.”

“Let’s not offer me sainthood yet. We still have to think about seminary tuition.”

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Meno bantered with Nadia throughout the morning, convinced that this was either a passing phase or some sort of intestinal dream she’d had in the night that wouldn’t let her go. Not once did Meno press the question directly that the church didn’t allow women to become priests. Others, Meno knew, would convey that message to her.

Meno tried, then, to focus on things that were more direct.

“You’ll be poor,” he said.

“Not necessarily,” said Nadia. “Priests don’t take a vow of poverty. Not all of them.”

“I was thinking along the lines of student loans, that sort of thing. My point, honey, is that, wherever I am in your picture, I’ll still be able to write a small check or buy you a cup of coffee. Plus I’m sure you’d be willing to put in a good word for me on the matter of eternal salvation and all that.”

“Without question,” Nadia said.

“I appreciate that,” Meno said. “Oh, another thing?”

“Yes, honey?”

“You’ll be celibate,” Meno said.

“I’ve thought of that,” said Nadia. “That was the first thing that came to mind once I was aware of what all those images meant.”

“It was?” said Meno.

“It was.”

“You really like it, Nadia,” Meno said, “what we do together.”

“Six times in one day. Was that our record?” Nadia said.

“I think so.”

“I imagine there are special prayers for such things, especially today with all the priestly naughtiness that’s been documented.”

“Maybe you could get a cat,” Meno said.

“What a sweet idea, Meno.”

Meno realized he’d just replaced himself with a cat and wondered why he hadn’t suggested a dog, a big dog. He liked dogs and always had.

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That afternoon Nadia went outside to mow the lawn.

Meno normally performed that chore but Nadia said she needed to sweat and think about these strange imperatives knocking about inside of her.

Nadia put on her old sneakers and a pair of shortie bib britches, and fired up the Toro.

As Nadia moved up and down the lawn and tugged and pulled her way around the flower beds, she knew her mind was doing a good job of sorting all of this out. There were, of course, no overt thoughts floating around, nothing like an idea or a point that wanted either harvesting or the firm discipline of some perspiratory logic applied to it—only brain rain, soft and gentle, things going where they needed to go.

Then Nadia sneezed.

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Recycled bits of grass fluff, she thought, her lips and chin a sparkly mess. With her handkerchief tied around her forehead to keep the sweat out of her eyes, she had no choice but to wipe her mouth and chin with her hand, then wipe her hand on her shortie bib britches.

She sneezed again and used her other hand and wiped that hand on the other side of her shortie bib britches.

She began to feel messy and somewhat confused. Not normally allergenic, not normally affected by lawn dust or house dust or the dander of living things too small to be named, Nadia wondered if she might be catching a summer cold.

Following the seventh sneeze, Nadia released the mower and listened as the engine died. Normally, she’d always liked a good sneeze—that great cleansing moment—but this repetitiveness felt draining in more ways than one. With her eyes watery and her nose wet, she took the handkerchief off her head and cleaned herself up. She pulled a great draught of air through her nose and spat, and then sneezed again—three more times. Feeling shaky and airy, she went over and sat on the small swing Meno had hung for her beneath a cherry tree.

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Nadia wondered if this might be some kind of attack, if her eardrums were about to burst or if her esophagus might swell up into suffocating proportions. Curious, she looked down at her legs and arms and ran one hand gently over her skin looking for an insect bite. A bee? Bees did have the occasional craving for her and she usually had at least one or two stings each summer, but she’d also never had any reaction to them beyond some minor swelling, occasionally an itch. Still, she knew all about anaphylactic shock and of how the body, wildly insulted by some minute penetration, could move so quickly to harness the invader that it did itself in. Nations, she knew, often fell prey to the same thing, but her eschatological and theological needs quickly pushed any thoughts of politics aside.

Nadia found no stings nor any swellings. She sneezed again, strongly enough that the swing she sat on began to move.

“Okay,” she whispered, her throat already raw from the fluids rampaging around her nose and throat and sinuses.

Successive sneezes brought a higher and higher arc to her swinging. She assumed she was pumping with her legs but she wasn’t sure. Perhaps these monster jets exploding from her lungs were propelling her. With each backward arc she spat again and was quickly amazed by the small puddle that began forming in the dry dirt beneath the swing.

A great weakness seemed slowly to fall over Nadia. As the sneezing became more and more random, she increasingly ran into her own liquids regardless of her upward or downward arcs. Mostly, she felt squishy, juicy, and with every sneeze the air seemed to fill with more and more of her essential wetness: her feet, her legs, her shortie bib britches soon soaked; snot, tears, and a horrendous sweat pouring from her like some hyper-allergenic rainfall.

Deciding finally that something was terribly wrong, Nadia raised her head to call for Meno, but a tremendous sneeze, a Richterian assault on all that is calm and settled in nature, launched her well up into the cherry tree, upside down, a small loop on her shortie bib britches hooking her on a nubbin sticking out from the upper tree trunk. Momentarily, she felt safe, but her fluids ran in a slow gush from her eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.

“Am I possessed?” Nadia said aloud, her voice clotted by her attempt to spit and cough at the same time. “Have I become a door through which something old and obstreperous is trying to pass? Are the trolls of infamy rallying their troops, making their case for a secular me?”

There seemed no other answer. History, too, had its cases, its people serving as conduits for strange spirits or simply nutty ideas, those folks often rich with magnanimous change while thought to be entertaining wayward creatures in certain body cavities. She wondered what it was like to be hanged or burned or drowned for possessing a terrible truth, then decided that she at least had the hanging part down okay. Birthing, whether from the uterus or the brain, never happened without consequence.

Finally able to manage one loud “Meno!” Nadia’s heart sank as she heard him pull the car out of the driveway. She tried to remember if he’d said something about going to buy groceries, or going to the liquor store, or running away from home forever to be free of this snot-coated, tree-trapped vixen who seemed to be growing lighter by the minute, but it didn’t matter. He had things to do. Men always took great pride in having things to do.

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Nadia felt another sneeze growing in her, perhaps the last sneeze, the most deadly of all sneezes. She felt every stray histamine in her body rallying upward for one final cleansing, the one, she was sure, that would rip her shortie bib britches from her body, enlarge her nose, and push her hair out from her head to angelic lengths. She puckered her face and closed her eyes. With her fists clenched she waited, her body now feeling hollow.

Hollow?

“Oh my,” she said aloud.

An echo welled up inside, her words reverberating off of knee joints, ribs, and elbows. Her mind was surely functioning, but her skull felt empty, sucked clean of brain and membrane. She began to draw from seemingly useless classes years ago such items as pancreas, spleen, gall bladder, ovaries, kidneys, all those processors of the world’s mistakes—the liver, yes, nor should one ever neglect a moment of gratitude toward the lungs. Yet—they were gone; she was sure of it. There was nothing left inside except an odd warmth, something of a hot balloon floating around, a condom full of warm milk

“Could it be my soul?” she said, once again aloud, these words not directed toward any listener, though she knew she’d welcome even a curious stranger because she was, after all, hanging upside down in a cherry tree. “Is the soul little more than a rubber playing handball against my rib cage?”

“Actually, it’s more than that,” came a reply.

“It is?” Nadia said.

“You know those breath tapes, those little strips you put on your tongue that dissolve and make your breath fresher than fresh?”

“Yes.”

“The soul’s like that. It’s there and it isn’t there. Plus, it always hides when it senses someone looking for it, or if it hears beseeching words or teary complaints. Souls are very shy. Yours, right now, is quite nervous, so I’ve cleaned you out a bit to give it some room to wander around. That usually does the trick.”

Nadia, still hanging like an ornament on a Christmas tree, tried to look upward in the direction of the voice. The neck, however, had its limits and she could see nothing, though she was briefly grateful that her vertebrae, thus, were still intact and functioning.

“I can’t see you,” Nadia said.

“Few can,” said the voice, “and fewer still can hear me.”

“Oh,” Nadia said, “so you’re, like, not normal.”

Au contraire, Miss Britches,” said the voice. “I am the standard of normalcy. I am the median, the mean, the well-trained puppy, the happy marriage, the balanced checkbook, the on-time commuter commute, the . . . ”

“Okay?” Nadia said in her, now, deeply nasal voice.

“In everything that is wrong you will see me by my absence.”

“Wow,” Nadia said. “I wish I could talk like that.”

“You do,” said the voice. “I mean, all of you do. That’s how it works. So anyway . . . ”

“So anyway?” said Nadia.

“This priesthood business.”

“What?”

“Um—black clothes, white collar, ad deum qui laetificat?”

“You’ve been talking to my husband?”

“Excuse me?”

“A rather intimate vision,” Nadia said. “He’s the only one who knows.”

“Miss?” the voice said. “Nadia, is it?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not Sam Walton.”

“This is very confusing,” Nadia said. “In fact, I’ve felt a terrible confusion since early this morning. You’re God?”

“We don’t use that word anymore; you know, God, Yahweh, Jehovah,” the voice said. “Over the centuries, it got a little dusty. I kind of liked CEO but a bunch of the folks nixed that. Said something about eternity and all its trappings not being a business. Can you believe it—we one time had a serious movement to rename All Souls Day as All Customers Day? Anyway, I guess the biggest problem is that names denote, and I’m not exactly denotable. That’s technical talk. Mostly, all this talk about me, whether cute or not, illustrates that you can’t talk about me. Just doesn’t work. You know those sneezes from a moment ago?”

“Yes?”

“I’m good at those and they’re fun, too. A presence, is what I amount to, something like the memory of a decorated cake after it has been eaten.”

“Do you suppose you could help me?” Nadia said.

“It’s what I do, kiddo,” said the presence.

“I’m a little stuck up here.”

“Oh. I thought you might be referring to that priesthood thing. Really, Nadia, a bad idea.”

“It is?”

“Misguided. Those folks—the priests—I’m not going to run them down, but, they’re really just temporary, kind of like security guards at a rock concert—necessary, but not at all related to the real thing. It’s kind of like the mediocre leading the uninterested into the inane. Anyway, look at you—hanging here in a tree. That’s a hoot and I need that. Listen—do you know how to dance?”

“Yes. I mean, my husband and I, we go out dancing once in awhile. You know, clubs and bars, plain old music—a little rock, some country—not ballet or anything like that.”

“Can you show me what you do? I haven’t looked into dancing in a long time.”

“Up here?” Nadia said. “I’ve never danced upside down, but I suppose I could try.”

“Oh,” said the presence. “Of course.”

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Nadia heard the crack as the small nubbin of branch gave way. She fell gently against one branch, then another. More cautious than afraid, she kept grasping at branches as she fell, getting handfuls of cherries that squirted their sour essence all over her. As she hit the ground, it was with all the force of stepping off the last rung of a stepladder.

Quite messy, she began slapping at the bits of leaf and twig and cherry that covered her, all of it, and herself, quite sticky now with all those proteins from her earlier explosions mixing in with the fruit sugar of the cherries. My God, she thought, I’ve become a cherry cobbler.

“That’s what I mean,” the voice said. “That’s very funny.”

Before making her way to the laundry room and the bathroom, Nadia remembered the presence had requested that she dance, so she began to do that, certain tunes floating into her mind that she hadn’t thought of in a long time, but good tunes, favorites. Removing her shortie bib britches—all stretched now and messy—and finally her underwear, she began dancing naked across the yard and into and out of Meno’s garden. Coldplay mixed with Pearl Jam, and Dr. somebody with a grandiose thump-thump-thump in her heart traded riffs with Cheap Trick. Eventually, Bruce Springsteen sang something with Mariah Carey, as Nadia, exhausted, sank to the ground near Meno’s pond. She slept then for hours and hours and finally woke near evening to find that Meno had put a blanket over her.

Through blurry eyes she could see that Meno had washed her shortie bib britches and hung them on the line to dry.

Copyright © 2007 by G.K. Wuori

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G.K. WuoriG.K. Wuori writes:
While working in a lay capacity at a Protestant seminary, I was often intrigued by the "call" to serve in the ministry that many of our students said they had received. Who was calling? I wondered. Was it really God? Taking it all a step further, I wondered what would happen if a woman were "called" to serve in the Catholic Church. Since the role of priestess is still denied within that faith, would God be able to find a diplomatic way to admit he'd "called" the wrong number? Actually, it all really started with a sneezing fit one summer's day.

G.K. Wuori is the author of more than seventy stories published throughout the world in the U.S., Japan, India, Germany, Spain, Algeria, Ireland, and Brazil. A Pushcart Prize winner and recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, his work has appeared in such journals as The Gettysburg Review, The Missouri Review, Other Voices, The Barcelona Review, StoryQuarterly, The Massachusetts Review, Shenandoah, and TriQuarterly. His story collection, Nude In Tub, was a New Voices Award Nominee by the Quality Paperback Book Club and his novel, An American Outrage, was Foreword Magazine's Book of the Year in fiction. He currently lives in Sycamore, Illinois. He can be reached via his website: www.gkwuori.com.

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