While I swept the church, a woman in a tight, red dress strode down the aisle, her stilettos clicking on the marble floors. Each click hammered at a memory just out of reach. I shook my head and kept sweeping.
“You!” she said, pointing at me, her voice harsh and demanding. “Get me a cushion. I need to pray."
I opened my mouth to tell her we didn’t have cushions, this wasn’t a dinner party …
Her face made me gasp. A crack jagged from her hairline to her chin: a ragged, ugly wound that looked like it might break open any moment. I tore my eyes away from her broken face and went to the confession room where I knew Father Mario kept a cushion secreted for the long hours he spent there.
As I handed her the worn pillow, she grimaced as if vermin crawled through the weave. Holding it by a corner she went to the next to last pew and knelt, her hands folded on the the pew in front of her.
Suddenly, I heard a growling noise, loud and fierce. The words were savaged as if the struggle to get free of her throat had ground them into hamburger. "MEGRUGLEAMEN!!! … MEGRUGLEAMEN!!"
The woman's hands circled her throat as she rocked back and forth, as if fighting someone or something. I ran toward her and reached the pew just as she turned toward me and heaved a stream of yellow bile across the pew and onto the floor.
I skidded to a stop as I saw the yellow mound wriggle … snakes! Black, baby snakes spread across the floor in all directions … midnight snakes dotted with yellow flecks of bile.
My heart pounded as I spun, first watching the snakes disappear and then turning back to the woman in red who had swooned against the pew. I needed to call someone … the priest or someone. What were we going to do about those snakes … and this woman? I felt her pulse. It was thin and weak.
I looked at the jagged gash splitting her face, swollen and inflamed, roughly stitched together as if by a child. Pus oozed from the knotted track that crossed her forehead, skittered down the side of her nose, cut her mouth into an upside down cross, and suddenly disappeared under her chin. She might have been attractive once but now all I could see was that fractured face.
“megru …” The whisper vibrated low and harsh as she came out of the swoon. “Gruglea … gruglea …” she cried grabbing my shirt and shaking me. Her eyes bulged as she tried to sit up. She jerked her head around to look behind us and then all around the church. The smell of charred meat … fear … steamed from her skin.
“Are you okay. Is someone after you? Are you in trouble?"
She whipped her head back toward me, grabbed my lapels and screamed again in a sound that made my guts rumble, “MEGRUGLEAMEN!!!” Again and again, as if her life depended on doing whatever that command implied.
“I don’t know what you want …” I tried to hold her hands but she yanked them away from me and leaped up, running toward the door where she collided with Father Brian and then spun out to the street before he could catch her.
“Who was that?” he asked.
Before I could answer, he spied the yellow mess on the floor and looked at me with a frown.
None of the snakes were in sight. I thought about all those black forms wriggling under the pews. I thought about the sound of the woman's heels clicking on the floor making me feel like I, too, might throw up. I thought about the too many years I had swept these floors, cleaning up messes left by the praying masses. I thought of my comfortable chair at home with my cat Zadie.
Father Brian’s baby face looked at me expectantly.
“Some woman. I think she must be sick."
“I’ll pray for her."
“That would be good, Father. I’ll just clean this up and head home."
“Bless you, Thomas."