Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A New Short Story For You, Prayer Shawls

Prayer Shawls


The word was mouthed soundlessly into folded hands, so that anyone who might have seen Betty Volk would have believed the old woman was deep in prayer.

Her eyes were cast forwards, but it was not the crucifix in front of her which held her gaze. To the left of the altar was a display of shawls, made by women of the church to be donated to patients at the local hospital. But there was one in particular that demanded her attention. That shawl, that bright, gaudy shawl captured her attention like a neon sign, making all else about it seem drab by comparison. Everything else—the other shawls that were on display, the green pennants behind the altar, the chalice into which Christ’s own blood soon would be poured—nothing else mattered. Those garish colors stung at her heart like knitting needs plunged by hateful hands.

She closed her eyes, trying to drive away the malice it aroused in her. But closing her eyes she saw the face of Mabel, the woman responsible for her pain. She saw that glib smile that passed for kindliness to so many who knew her superficially. She saw the woman who bought her clothes new rather than from Goodwill and rummage sales the way she and most of the others in the knitting club did. She saw Mabel’s hands, hands that had not been worn down by years of work the way her own had.

She opened her eyes again, saw her own gnarled and misshapen fingers in front of her. Once she had been capable of producing such finery that she would have put anyone of them to shame. Now pain gripped her hands so tightly it brought tears to her eyes while she had knitted the prayer shawl that was on display with the rest of them.

Hers was a simple blue shawl, tasteful, but thick and well constructed. Mabel’s was a flimsy thing, made more for show than comfort. Dear God, it looked more like something a lady of the evening might wear, not something to keep an old person warm. Betty had used yarn donated by a parishioner, but Mabel… Where did she even find such yarn?

It betrayed the whole idea of charity, betrayed those who had contributed yarn for the project. It was all about vanity for that…Bitch…Mabel. The hatred rose again in her, a hatred so burning and alive it almost made her feel young again, almost made her feel capable of things she had never even considered in so many years. She was old—oh, so old—but there were passions that were still sharp in her. It seemed that all that was once good in her had been taken by time, while those passions that should have mellowed with age, should have been conquered at long last by maturity or simply dissipated with the ebb of vitality, still lingered in her.

Lust. Dear God, it still possessed her, though nobody would ever want to consider the idea. Pride. It still determined her behavior, though there was precious little for her to take pride in at this stage of life. Jealousy. She prayed that she might be free of it, but somehow it seemed more difficult to pray with any degree of focus nowadays. Age and human frailty had overridden and overcome all that was once best in her. And while she once believed in the superiority of spirituality over the physical, time had taught her many bitter lessons. It seemed as if her inability to straighten her fingers to pray somehow prevented her prayers from coming out straight. She was merely clay, a poor vessel for holding the virtues she wished to possess.

She had spent the better part of mass obsessing over the shawls, over her hatred of Mabel. She mumbled the required responses and amens without really being aware of what she was saying. At some point the priest had pointed to the shawls and explained to the parishioners that they were to be donated to the sick at the local hospital, but Betty took no pride in her accomplishment, spoiled as it was by thoughts of Mabel.

Lost in thoughts that had taken hold of her despite her attempts to drive them out with prayer, she suddenly became aware that the priest was now in front of her. It was time for communion, and he was delivering the host first to those in the front row, those like herself who were too old and infirm to stand in line like the rest. She opened her mouth to have the host placed upon her tongue, then took hold of the chalice and drank perhaps deeper than she should have of the wine.

A thought flashed through her mind, powerful and compelling. For an instant, the idea of spitting into the chalice so that Mabel might unwittingly drink from it came to her. It filled her with revulsion, and she choked it down quickly into the dark recesses of her mind. She concentrated on the host within her mouth, hoped to find strength and salvation from its presence within her.

She swallowed determinedly, lowering her gaze once more to her hands folded in prayer. But the thoughts continued to come from the dark areas within her.

Her eyes closed, the blackness within her became more overpowering. The prayers she silently uttered seemed to be lost somewhere in parts of her mind no longer accessible by her aged spirit. Within a gap where memory could no longer find the words, she heard the voice of Henry talking soothingly to his mother.

Henry. What a despicable little lickspittle. Mabel’s youngest, her special child, her baby. Spoiled brat, more like it. She had ruined that child. She never allowed him to grow up, never let him become his own man. And now here he was, middle aged, and still living at home. Taking pleasures in things someone with a bit of youth to them should not be bothered with.

He should have had a wife, should have had a life. Instead, his life centered around his mother. And when she passed, what would he have then? Bah, what a waste of life.

She turned her head to see Henry arm in arm with Mabel. It was disgusting. It looked more like man and wife than mother and son. It was unnatural, that’s what it was. And Mabel, she was lapping it all up. Her child was like the shawl, not something with a value in and of itself but a thing to garner attention for her.

Henry stood back so that Mabel might receive the host, then he followed. Such a dutiful child. You could see the thought in Mabel’s eyes, could see the pride she took from his debasement. Anything to get attention, anything to have all eyes on her.


Very well, thought Betty. If it’s attention you want, it’s attention you will receive.

Having received the Eucharist, Mabel moved to the left where a deacon awaited her with chalice held in front of him. She walked right in front of Betty, noticed her and gave her one of her fake smiles. And in that moment the darkness took control of Betty.

Betty had her cane in one hand. Henry was now taking communion. For a moment, Mabel was without the support of her son, without which she might well have needed a cane, just like Betty. With a deftness that surprised her, Betty moved her cane subtly in front of her, directly between the legs of Mabel, throwing her off balance. Betty looked up at Mabel’s face to see the smile die, turn to surprise and then fear.

It pleased Betty. For a moment she felt young again, felt the thrill of excitement and accomplishment. She could still make her mark on the world.

Betty watched it all as if it was occurring in slow motion, as if at last time had slowed down for her, as if time was finally giving something back. Mabel came down hard, harder than even Betty would have imagined. The surprise and fear that was on Mabel’s face was now wiped away and replaced by agony. She lay there, motionless.

Apparently, beneath the fine clothes she wore, she was every bit as frail as Betty. In that moment, the regret began to well up in her, but the thrill she felt at what she had done never really left her. She felt that she was still alive, still capable of doing big things, even if what she had done was horrible. She was alive, she could right injustices. She still had power.

Henry was hunched over his mother now, who was lying face down. He attempted to roll her over but his actions were accompanied by a piteous shriek, the old woman’s voice an insufficient tool to express the pain it must have caused her. Betty looked at Mabel, whose face was now turned towards her. Blood dripped from her nose in gobs, but she knew that was not the main source of her pain. It was a hip, Betty could see that by the way she responded when Henry had sought to move her. She could sense that it had shattered like an old piece of stained glass.

Gone was any semblance of pride or sense of superiority from Mabel’s countenance. So wrapped up was she in her own pain she didn’t even care about how undignified she appeared with the blood pouring down her face, the grimace of agony on her face that rivaled the one carved into the face upon the crucifix. Pity rose in Betty once again. Like a pendulum, pity and satisfaction moved through her. She had the natural revulsion at seeing another human being in pain. And then she remembered the smile that had been on Mabel’s face and the pendulum swung back again. Betty preferred the look Mabel had upon her face now.

For a brief moment, she forgot where she was, and permitted a smile to come to her lips. Then she remembered and wiped any sign of satisfaction from her appearance. She looked at Mabel, but she hadn’t noticed, so wrapped up was she in her pain. Henry too, had no attention for anyone other than his dear mother. Relief surged in her, until she averted her gaze and saw another member of her knitting circle. Flora had a look of horror on her face, but it was not Mabel she was looking at. She was looking at Betty.

Flora knew. Betty was certain of it. Betty could tell by the way Flora could not avert her gaze, although she tried to look away.

Yes, Flora knew. It was time to close her eyes, to appear deep in prayer as she contemplated what to do about Flora. She would have to be dealt with.

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