If music is every single note all at once, then she understands why God fills his house with organ pipes. A woman nobly and humorously named Mary comes when there’s service and comes when there’s not and seemingly masters the art of being both there and not at all. She fills the church from a single bench. She is rafters and stained glass and candles - she is architecture. She is prayer and hymn and somehow too, she is silence. She plays every note all at once, Villanelle thinks.
It is not music.
And if it is not - and she thinks it isn’t, she has no choice but to listen and she has nowhere else to go - then everyone else is pretending it is too. She is a liar among friends and maybe together they can lie until it is not even lying. If everything can and is happening in the same meter, then it doesn’t matter what isn’t happening or whether it’s music at all.
It is all sad, plonky haunted carousel music, round and round. Fidelity, as it turns out, may not be so far from delusion and may be closer yet to circus. Red-nosed, white face-painted men in robes dressed by a book and sinners prostrate at their dirty feet for one more chance. Golden gates and love and second chances in a candyland in the sky. Second thoughts and pride of self in fiery circles below. Everything in its brightly colored place.
It is home to her the way Russia was and that is a sentiment best left at their filthy feet too.
It is easy to imagine comfort can come from this someday - she sees the way it dulls and shines the upturned faces of the fully metastasized devotees, milky eyes forever looking upward where all great and horrible things hang. Where we hang them to look at.
Even in latent states, Villanelle thinks she could like being so blind. Maybe because Eve hated it, farce, even when it was lovely. Spat it back in Villanelle’s mouth and it tasted like delusion, apparently.
Eve has diagnosed her thusly like she is the only one to figure it out, but she is not so smart, fails in spectacular fashion to consider it could be a thing Villanelle knows but knows from a place Eve can’t even see from. Like a call coming from inside the house. Like a part of the grander picture and the grander picture cannot be separated by color. It is hard to say what the picture looks like without blue or without yellow because unfortunately there is also green and some things are not just what they are, but rather bastard children of what is and what may or may not be. Beautiful, still.
It is hard to say what the picture looks like without the parts that may or may not be in her head.
And then something about how being colorblind is no better or worse than being insane, but unclear, screamed in a hotel room at 2:00 in the morning while Eve is delicately wasted and craving violence, wherever it came first. Fuse and friction, at their worst.
Even when Eve loses her grasp of consonants she never loses the obsessively detailed manuscript of disagreements she keeps holstered, locked, loaded, ready to draw and fire at any moment. She forgets nothing. Villanelle is not allowed to either, apparently, or it is going to be pressed to her forehead and blown out the back of her head when Eve is pulled taught to her most vicious and most in love and most out of love or wherever they stand.
Villanelle is not yet sure if Eve is the blue, the yellow, or most sinister of all: perhaps the green. And there will be no separating that. If nothing else, Eve is hole in brain, she can count on that at least.
So it is refreshingly dismal to be among similarly minded zealots. Like sharing really boring club drugs.
“You can’t reserve seats,” the vicar snips like she is supposed to care.
His head is a funny shape, she has a hard time hearing anything he says when she thinks that and she thinks that often. “What?”
“This isn’t a theatre,” he sighs.
Villanelle raises an eyebrow, looks him up and down. “You wear a fancy costume, you recite lines, you stand on a stage. Religion is the original theatre, or at least the original spectacle.” And spectacle is a bit of an expertise of hers.
He says something, but his head is still weird and she misses it.
“Who does it hurt?” Villanelle asks because that is a thing she asks now, a thing she has to listen to the answer to and consider. The amount of consideration Jesus requires of her is agonizingly similar to the amount that Eve required before she broke her heart for no reason and disappeared. He is simply less sexy.
“Jesus would tell me if I could not reserve a seat.”
“Everything you need to be told has already been said,” he labors, waggling the folded spine of his pocket bible to make his point. “You are asked to look inward and apply what we’ve been given. Your thirst for the literal remains your biggest hurdle..”
Villanelle’s gaze slinks to the end of the first pew and she watches Jesus pop and smack the piece of gum he’s chewing lazily. He flashes her a careless thumbs up. Villanelle frowns.
“No, I’m pretty sure he would just tell me.”
His patience wears thin enough that his voice goes blatantly flat. “I thought you had nobody here. Why do you need a seat reserved?”
“So I can get somebody back . So I don’t have nobody again. I thought Jesus was all about second chances.”
“Yes,” he begrudges. “I just don’t want you to be disappointed. I worry you see this as… transactional . Jesus died for our sins, not so you could prove someone wrong.”
In the corner Jesus grimaces and waggles his flattened hand side to side. Grey area.
“By that logic, it is kind of the same thing, no? If I don’t sin, then Jesus died for nothing. It’s like throwing out a gift card someone’s already paid for.”
The vicar’s face twists into an involuntary scowl. He spends his gift cards frivolously on the sin of sodomy, always he is acting like there is something wedged in his rear.
“Relax. I am just lightening the mood. I’m nervous! I just need her to see for real. I need her to see I can do this. What is important is that I am doing it, not how I am doing it, yes?”
Yes. She is sure. She carefully pens RESERVED on the back of a pamphlet in big letters, letters you can’t miss. They can’t be missed. They won’t be, Eve will see. There is nothing more ostentatious than the house of God, so if she has to stand under his dead son to be seen then so be it. Eve has never been able to look away from a gruesome spectacle.
“I’ve earned this,” she decides aloud. “I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. God will see. And she will see the way he sees.”
“ He will see you no more than the rest and no more than he already does,” the vicar says quietly. “We don’t just have faith in God. We have faith in the intrinsic reward that following His path will provide us. Whatever the cost, whatever ends. We do not wait for God’s proud hand on our shoulder, hm?”
Villanelle purses her lips and tries not to let her skepticism show. Intrinsic sounds a lot like imaginary or worse.
“If God is to be everyone’s everything, then you alone cannot be his charge. He can be your king, but it is you who must govern yourself, child.”
“That,” Villanelle says slowly, “Has not historically gone well.” She sighs. “Is it so wrong to follow His rules to be loved ? Isn’t that what Jesus did?”
“Well,” he says with some finality, brushing the fronts of his slacks as though to put himself back together. “If so, then that historically did not go very well for him either, hm?”
Villanelle’s mouth pinches in the corner and she glances toward the ends of the pews. Jesus crosses his eyes, lolls his tongue out, head hanging limp on his neck in a cartoonish impersonation of death.
“You are, of course, also welcome to die for the selfless love of mankind whenever you like,” he adds, just beyond his station, shaking his head at himself even as he says it. It is maybe the only time Villanelle has liked him at all, this slip of decorum.
“Does it have to be for all of them?”
He does not grace her with an answer and that gives her far too much freedom to interpret at her will, which she does. Often. If he can do it with things people said billions of years ago, then she can do it with twice the context.
He leaves her and she hangs her sign on the pew she chooses after a careful process of sitting and sliding around the front of the chapel until she finds the best angle. When she’s done, she reclines against the paper and admires the view. It will be better with her in it, of course.
Light filters in rosy-pink through the stained glass of Jesus's whore mom and gives everything a muffled, glowing quality that she’s always felt some swimming, drunk version of peace in. “This will work, right?”
Villanelle’s chin swings sideways and she gives Jesus a baleful look. “If it does not work, it is your fault. I am trying to do everything you do.”
“That is exactly why it won’t work.”
Villanelle studies him and tries to gauge how serious he is being. He merely takes the opportunity to flick his fingertips through the ends of his long hair, enjoying the attention. “You’re as sexy as you are annoying,” Villanelle murmurs.
“I see you’ve been perusing the New Testament again. Try not to hold it against me too badly.” Jesus crosses his ankles and folds his hands on his knees, feminine and ridiculous. “I need you to be honest with me. I’m going to be direct, okay? If you cannot be honest with me-who-is sort-of-you, then who can you be honest with?”
“I’m not agreeing before I know what I am being honest about.”
“Lying’s a sin, you know? Are you using me to fuck Eve?”
Jesus nods, patronizing, gestures widely for her to bare her soul and if he really knew, he would gesture much, much smaller. He wastes his energy.
“I don’t need to use you for that, I’ve already done that. I want more than that. I need to be different. I need to be something I’m not and you may look like me, but you are the spectacular opposite of me. If I can be you, there will be nothing left for Eve to be mad about.”
Jesus makes some clogging noise of disgust and shakes his head. “Ugh, that is worse. I think I would have preferred you were using me to fuck her.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know. Because you don’t want to. You want to read a book about a nice guy that people murdered and tried to pin their rules to in stuffy parables and then you want to wear him like a character because you think love is just a stupid thing you can fool with a costume.”
Villanelle purses her lips and stares blankly up at the pulpit. “No, I mean I don’t understand why Jesus is allowed to say fuck . The other stuff, I probably know. I’m pretty sure you are me.”
“You don’t know it,” Jesus sighs sadly. “You don’t want to.”
“And I can fool anything with a costume. Love is a stupid thing and I’m going to win.”
Jesus laughs and pulls affectionate fingers through the ends of Villanelle’s hair. “Have you ever heard the expression, the house always wins? You lose by playing.”
“If you’re going to sit here telling me I’m wrong, you could at least tell me why,” she pouts, sliding her own arm across the back of the pew so she can grab Jesus’s loose fingers in her own and squeeze plaintively. “Tell me what I already know but do not know that I know. It is not cheating if it is already mine.”
Jesus gives her a sympathetic look and squeezes back as he turns fully and folds one leg in onto the bench of the pew between them. They regard each other face to face and there is no music.
“If I love Eve for who I want her to be and she loves me for who she thinks I can be, what is the harm? What is and what is not are about as real as you. That is to say: debatably neither.”
Jesus loosens his grip momentarily so he can slip his hand higher up her arm and grip her tight around her forearm, scooch a bit closer on the pew until they’re eye to eye. “You think Eve wants to love a thing that it hurts you to be? That changes you to be? If you win your game, she loses. If you lose your game, she loses. Why must you play?”
Villanelle frowns. “Just because I am the only one who will admit it’s a game doesn’t mean I’m the only one playing.”
“You lose too,” Jesus says in a low tone. “You are prostituting your feelings.”
“What do you know about prostitutes?”
“Crack a book, Villanelle. Having apostles is like a neverending bachelor’s party,” Jesus outright giggles and yes it is very funny, but also orgy parables do not help her. “There’s a reason the blood of Christ is bad wine,” he stage-whispers.
“I should…get Eve drunk?”
Jesus heaves an almighty sigh and they lapse into holy silence. “Well, it couldn’t hurt,” he eventually mutters and drums his fingers against her skin.
“I need you to believe in me. If you don’t, who will? Do you believe in me, Jesus?”
Jesus gives her the benefit of taking another second glance up and down her person before breaking it to her gently. “Not really.”
“And I suppose that’s my fault too,” Villanelle snipes, swiping up her stack of pamphlets and storming off. “You don’t know me, you just stole my face.”
“What are you going to do, Villanelle?” He calls after her and it is not music. It is a note, and sustained, booming acoustics but it is not music . He stands and even that cannot fill the church, it barely fills a single seat. The pipes take up some dissonant mess as she storms off and she thinks she hears her own laughter booming above it, muffled and hauntingly joyless.
It’s not music and it’s stuck in her head all through a bland dinner and blander conversation. The vicar keeps giving her these little looks like he feels sorry for how stupid she is and she wishes she was stupid enough at least not to notice.
May looks at her like the wrong kind of angel. Blessed, beautiful, righteous and wholly correct . It’s the first time Villanelle pauses to consider how vile it would be to see Eve look at her like that. That is what is wrong with her. This involuntary revulsion to seeing gentle love untempered by the violence she’s capable of. It puts her in a sort of mood and dinner’s even quieter than it usually is.
In her room, the very moment she can escape without it being considered fleeing, Jesus is mocking her with a pout. “You’re upset with me.”
“Don’t take it personally, I’m upset with everyone most of the time.” She shoots him a dirty look and tears her shirt over her head, throwing it on the floor for the first time since she’d been begrudgingly offered the room. She’s tired of picking up and folding. She wants to be undone.
“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.” Jesus sits on her bed and pats the quilt beside him, inviting her to sit.
Villanelle glares and stays right where she is. “All I do is repent. So far there has been very little in it for me. Not intrinsically . Not anything. No King or Prince can know me, not from your throne. Not from my own blind faith that builds it for you, either.”
Jesus nods, uncharacteristically serious. He pats at the bed again. “I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.”
“My first love is not what you want it to be. It never will be. It is just as cruel, though perhaps. Or is it only cruel if the faithful do not deserve kindness?” Villanelle sneers and turns her back and braces her hands on the vanity, stares at herself in the mirror until she’s sure it’s her. “Stop speaking to me in scripture.”
Jesus hums some noise of acquiescence. “Well, perhaps you should stop thinking in scripture. We don’t have to speak of why Revelations stands out to you above all else. You know many don’t even recognize it as the word of God?” Jesus’s thoughtful hum hiccups into chuckles. “Quite an imagination, that John fellow.”
“Imagination,” Villanelle scoffs and sits hard on the small stool in front of her mirror. “It is honest. Bow your head or brimstone. Easy choices. Renounce the whore or die. We could have skipped a lot of the rest of the lessons, the only thing that governs is violence and fear. I think I alone am better equipped to understand and serve God than anyone else.”
“Well, you hardly need me to solve yourself, do you? Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent. You can do whatever you want, Villanelle, that has never been your problem. ”
“What is my problem?”
“You’re overcomplicating matters. Come here.”
Villanelle looks over her shoulder and Jesus beckons her and certainly, she has decided that she must follow so she does. She stands, dropping her pants to the floor as she does, winding her hair together loosely, dropping it over her shoulder. She clambers messily onto the mattress and lays at his side, chin to her chest, hands folded petulantly across her belly.
“You’re close,” He whispers. “If God is so easy to figure out, so easy to serve, why is one sinner so hard for you to love? You’re reenacting the end of mankind to avoid an honest truth. To play this game of kings.”
“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life,” Villanelle says flatly back and shoots him a small glare. “It is all game of kings.”
“Do you know why we play music in church?” Jesus asks her and it is more delusion, Villanelle has never heard music in that church and she never will. “To rejoice. Music is happy.”
“I should be happy to suffer?”
Jesus turns, curls on his side so he’s staring at the side of her face, sharing the same pillow. “You should be happy to be happy. You will suffer. But neither love nor God nor the thing you’re replacing with Him is a labor of misery. Why do you think it has to be?” He reaches out, twirls a lock of her hair around his finger and tugs lightly until she tips her chin and meets his eyes.
“If I cannot make myself into the thing she loves, then I can at least take that power from her.”
“You can’t!” Jesus laughs and rolls on top of her abruptly, thighs bracketing her hips and hands braced on her shoulders. “You can’t, you can’t, you can’t! You will just be a sad girl in a church in love and forever sure that’s not what it is! You think the suffering is love! You’re an idiot. You’ll be a murderer in a white robe unable even to enjoy the fleeting joys you’ll get before damnation. I’m being honest. I love you. How much she hath glorified herself, and lived deliciously, so much torment and sorrow give her: for she saith in her heart, I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow.”
“Are you calling me the whore of Babylon? Is that all I am to you?”
“And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not,” he teases and leans down until their noses touch. “You are everything. That’s what you want, isn’t it? You’re everything ,” he says like he’s making fun of her and then he kisses her lightly on the mouth.
Villanelle doesn’t respond to it and is uncertain if she would have if there’d been time to consider it. “Oh, you wield love like a weapon and play wounded when it’s turned on you,” he says wistfully and his hands slide up to her face, behind her jaw. He kisses her again, harder and she’s not sure if she’s reciprocating or if she’s alone. “He that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword,” Jesus pants into her mouth like a threat. “Don’t make me kill you.”
“You sound like her.”
“I can be her too,” Jesus suggests as Her tongue slides off the back of Villanelle’s teeth and Villanelle thinks she hears something, distant, horrible and strange. “Is this how she hurt you?”
“No,” Villanelle hisses. “We were good at this part -” Breath whistles through Villanelle’s teeth as hands briefly squeeze at the sides of her neck, blue in her tightening vision. “Fornication is a sin, you know?”
“ Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created,” Jesus reminds her with teeth in the thin skin of her jaw and hands sliding down her body.
Villanelle realizes her hands are twisted in Her shirt and she has to pry one off to pull one of Her hands further down her body, directing Her to get to the point. And she does, abruptly. She slips lower, hikes Villanelle’s thighs up to get a better vantage and slips her hand just as abruptly into Villanelle’s underwear to press up and rock against her. Her other hand holds flat between her ribs like, stay.
The normal obscenities don’t come to Villanelle’s lips, she just stares empty-mouthed and thinks I don’t care what I have to be for you.
Eve reads it in her face, in her brain, in the way she can’t keep anything from her. Eve bares her teeth, disappointed, and knuckles harder against her cunt like she can fuck Villanelle back into herself. This was one of the last times. When she started acting like Villanelle was slipping through her fingers and Villanelle wanted to scream I’m right here, what do you want.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Eve tells her. “I’m not that. ”
It’s not seductive, she knows, but she can’t stop. Her hands are wrapped desperately into Eve’s shirt so hard it’ll never iron out. It’s desperate and it pushes Eve further away. “You could be. I could be.”
“I don’t want that. I want you,” Eve exasperates even as she pushes two of her fingers unceremoniously inside of her, causing a surprisingly undignified noise to bubble up from Villanelle’s throat. “If you need me to be worshiped, that’s about you, not me.”
Villanelle whines and grabs Eve’s wrist so hard she can feel each tendon flexing to stroke inside of her in a way Eve must have learned from only herself. Eve fucks like she’s getting herself off and it feels worse, it feels better, it’s more intimate than she thought a person like Eve would ever be capable of being, but she is.
“Quiet,” Eve orders her, pulling her thighs even harder against Eve’s own for better traction. It’s nearly degrading the way Villanelle’s folded up in on herself so Eve can have what she wants, but it’s also comfortable the way they’d gotten before it all crumbled. “Shush. I mean it.”
Then to be mean: “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.”
“ Stop . You’re ruining it,” Villanelle grits out. “Stay out of it.”
He doesn’t need to embellish , this was already a good night. It is as she remembered it, but in sharper detail, in fanciful refracted color like viewed through stained glass. Enough of it is real, she doesn’t care.
Eve gives her as close to an apologetic look as she’s capable of and bends down to kiss the end of her sternum gently. She lingers there, seemingly lost in thought. Villanelle wants to rip it from her, wants to crack her skull and pour it out onto the bed, because she feels she can never see. All she sees is her own shortcomings and her own blindness because she doesn’t understand.
She thinks she never will and she thinks it will kill her or worse, it won’t.
It doesn’t happen that way, though, it happens the way she remembers it. Eve comes back to herself, comes back to Villanelle, and leans back up the length of her body to look her in the eye.
It’s her favorite form of violence.
Villanelle watches herself sink backward into the reflection there as Eve twists her fingers up harder against the rigid front of her body and makes her come wordlessly. And she hears it - she fucking hears it .
Two notes, uncluttered, seven bars in pinpoint pitch that aches and wobbles and hooks up under her ribs and makes her want to cry. “ Music .”
“You don’t need to flatter me, but I’ll take the compliment.”
Villanelle’s actually surprised to find she’s still there, mouth twisted up in the corner, expression careful. She doesn’t pull her fingers from inside her, just keeps her there on the end of her hand. “What?”
“Nothing. I just like when you’re quiet.” For all her delightful meanness, this wasn’t mean. Villanelle remembers that much and it’s not something that’s been meddled with in her vision. It’s honest and she knows because Eve’s free hand drifts upward and she thumbs the line of Villanelle’s jaw with a slack expression.
Villanelle holds her shirt tighter. “Was there anything I could have said - anything I could have done in this moment to keep you here?” Villanelle asks, because even if she wasn’t brave enough to ask then, she thinks she’s safe here where it’s all distorted color and vision. If she had done everything right, she would have asked.
Eve smiles, fond, and it breaks Villanelle’s heart. “You didn’t have to do anything. That was the point, love.”
“ He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.” Jesus shrugs as he lets her thighs down from their prop against his own. He wipes his hand absently across Villanelles’ stomach and sits back on his knees watching her curiously. “I love you, Villanelle. She loves you. I don’t know what this other thing you want loved is.”
Villanelle groans and pushes against Jesus’s chest until he rolls off of her and bounces onto the mattress at her side, shoulder-to-shoulder. They both fold their hands over their bellies and sigh in tandem. “I won’t know unless I try.”
“If I know, you know.”
Villanelle frowns. “I can’t be trusted. So neither can you.”
“Well we can fuck again if you think it’ll help.”
“I do not.”
When she dresses the next morning, she dresses for the redemption she wants, not the redemption she will probably get. It is the way the vicar rolls his eyes and says it is too much that tells her it is exactly enough. Jesus will not upstage her at her own baptism.
When she enters the church on her special day, she has to not scream. Past experience has taught her it is not welcome behavior.
Jesus is in her special reserved spot on the best end of the best pew. He looks smug. Which in not-exact terms she is pretty sure must be a sin too. But none worse than anything else she’s imagined, apparently.
“You’re right, this is the best seat. Look at how I sparkle.”
“If you want me to shalt-not-kill, you are going to have to move right now.”
Jesus gives her a sultry dare of a look and she is not so sure this is really Jesus anymore, but she’s not sure -sure. “I don’t want anything. Want not, and all that. You are always so sure everyone wants things from you. Who hurt you, child?”
“Oh so now I cannot even want,” Villanelle gripes. She wedges herself between the endcap and Jesus’s trespassing thigh until she can elbow him a seat over and vacate Eve’s seat. “You are cruel. For last night too, I don’t like your lessons. I don’t like how you wear her face or she wears yours. That night was not yours to have or use against me.”
He nods and his eyes wander off into the rafters and she knows he won’t apologize, but maybe it’s enough he lets her say it. “Does Job fear God for nothing? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land-”
“-But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has and he will surely curse you to your face.”
“You’re quoting Satan to me? Now? It’s a bit late for that. If God took Satan’s friendly suggestion, surely I can ignore yours.”
“Was he wrong? Real faith is devotion in the face of bad fortune. Strength of character in the midst of utter ruin. It is Satan who believes only reward justifies love. I told you you would suffer, everyone does. I just think you look for too much meaning in that. You’re surprisingly flappable at the first sign of hardship. All or nothing. Either love and faith is bliss or it’s horror, but never both.”
Villanelle bares her teeth in a grimace. “Sometimes it feels like Satan is the only reasonable guy in the room and we’re all just clapping along. God fucks with Job and proves what? ”
“Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. After everything. ”
“What an idiot.”
Jesus bellows out a laugh at that, throws his head back and it warms the rafters as it rolls through them.
“Jesus has anyone ever told you that you’re kind of an arsehole.”
“No,” he says proudly and Villanelle is approaching sure -sure. “Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right?”
“I have you idea. You have personally perverted more than I ever could have imagined. Or did imagine.”
“Villanelle, come closer. Come,” Jesus beckons, curling his fingers toward his suspiciously fake beard.
Villanelle stays where she is, leans back a little actually. “We are already very close.”
Jesus slings an arm around her shoulders and regards her from under his weirdly long eyelashes. “Surely God does not reject one who is blameless or strengthen the hand of evildoers. He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.”
“Okay, any time now would be nice.”
Jesus gestures widely at his empty, tacky house. “ Faith is independent of circumstance. Walking the path of the righteous is not a paid job. You will be disappointed if you sit there cupping your empty hands and waiting. And that is not a truth owned only by God alone. I have already begged you simply to be , is it pointless then to beg you to let Her as well?. What do you think will happen when you kneel?”
“You talk so much.”
Jesus snorts an undignified laugh through his nose. “I am making a point. That is all I have been trying to do and if you didn’t need a point, you wouldn’t have put me here at all to make one.”
“Okay, make it faster. The service is in ten minutes.” Villanelle lowers her chin, mirrors his expression to the decimal and watches it transform into something dignified. It is wholly foreign on his face the way it looks.
“You cannot dress up as Jesus to be loved any more than you can dress Eve up as God to be served.”
“ You are the one dressing up as me, dressing up as you,” Villanelle scoffs, but resists very little when Jesus pulls her tighter against his side, chafes his hand warmly against her arm and shakes her a little like he’s commiserating. “And I can certainly try,” she concludes grimly.
“I know,” Jesus sympathizes and it is so annoying because he is her so of course he knows, he does not get credit for it. “It’s not enough to see the end. You have to feel it, don’t you? You need blood in your teeth to know you were wrong. It’s actually very biblical of you. Like a hapless character in a parable.”
And Eve does not not show up. Villanelle watches from the vicar’s door as the church fills up.
Okay, it does not fill up. It is very empty and maybe she didn’t necessarily need anyone else there, but watching Jesus watch her with his arm slung smugly around the empty reserved seat makes her wish at least some other people cared enough to show up. Everyone else is old, regular zealots who stumbled in off the street because the thinner their days wane, the more desperate, the more devout they become. Devout enough to come watch God put his heel to her neck on an unremarkable Tuesday afternoon between services. She cannot help but begin to empathize with this desperation.
But if a tree is baptized in the woods and nobody’s there to hear it, is the tree baptized at all?
Jesus flutters a wave in her direction. Villanelle flips him off which feels profound. Mrs. Neebly pales and grips at her heart when she catches her but she’s pretty sure God also tells us to mind our own business.
Villanelle retreats back into the vicar’s office and scowls. “We need to reschedule.”
He gives her that stupid long-suffering look he’s been giving her all year and she wonders when the last time he read the old testament was. He is supposed to be happy to suffer.
“Send them home. Get rid of them.”
The vicar drags a hand down his face. “What’s wrong?” He hazards, against his better judgment. But it is God’s judgment he should be worried about. Or hers , she is not yet in God’s light and he tempts her every moment for a last hurrah.
“She didn’t show up. Her invitation must have gotten lost. Maybe I got the address wrong or she moved locations when I wasn’t paying attention or she forgot the day or she’s stuck in traffic or-”
“Or she just didn’t come,” he finishes. “Don’t wait for validation, Nelle. Walk your path with or without her.”
“What is the point of that?!” Villanelle demands. “I won’t take a path she won’t walk with me. That’s a stupid path. If she’s not on it, it’s probably not a great path anyways. She’s a smart lady!”
“Calm down,” he grumps and shuffles some books around his regal desk. “I’m going to chalk this up to nerves. Do you wish to walk in God’s light or not? Do you have faith? That’s the only question you have to ask yourself today. In 7 minutes.”
“I mean, I definitely had more when I thought she was going to show up.”
He rolls his eyes and it makes her more upset. It reminds her of Eve. Who didn’t show up. “Let’s just get this over with.”
He circles his desk and stands in front of her and seems to discard anything comforting he was considering saying. Instead, he claps a hand on her shoulder with his mouth in a thin line, then leaves her there alone in his office. Even God can’t find good help these days, it would seem.
She stalks the length of his office a few times, bites at her thumb nail when that isn’t enough. On her fifth pass, she slows near the mirror and looks at herself. You know what she looks like? She looks like an idiot in a white dress about to let God murder her sheep to prove she can kneel.
“Eve isn’t here. Why didn’t she come?” She asks herself.
The herself who is the only one available to her hums thoughtfully from across the room. He swings his sash in a jaunty pattern at his hip and strokes at his fake beard. “She didn’t come because she doesn’t want to see you kneel. The mean old virgin is right, though. All you have to decide in the next 4 minutes is if you want to be a Christian or not. It’s really not that complicated.”
“You imagined my fingers inside of you. I feel pretty confident you don’t want to be a Christian,” Jesus tsks , eyebrows raised, suggestive in an entirely unwarranted way.
“Why do you care what I want? Your God is interested only in my subjugation and he should be relieved I’m not naive enough to care or dress it up prettier.”
“I told you I love you, Villanelle. How could I not? And we do not kneel for the sake of kneeling. If that were so, walk outside. Kneel for the groundskeeper. Kneel for the first person to bat their eyelashes at you. Kneel for Satan for all either of us cares.”
“You don’t believe in me. Nobody does. I can do this.”
Jesus holds his hands out, palms up and empty. “Come. Hold my hands.”
Villanelle stares at him over her shoulder for a long moment before skulking over and dropping her hands limply in his outstretched ones. “Okay now what?”
“Now nothing, you just looked like you needed someone to hold your hand.” He rubs his thumbs across the backs of her hands and smiles. “Feel better?”
“Yes,” Villanelle begrudges.
Jesus beams, radiant and queer. Then he pulls her closer and folds her against his shoulder. She slumps there with her cheek against his robes. “I think you are making a mistake.”
“Oh good, that means that I think that too. Even I do not believe in me.”
Jesus strokes her hair. “You are not just being unfair to you, you are being unfair to Her. Are you so sure Eve would kill your sheep and murder your wife to watch you kneel? Are you so sure she would choose this kind of worship? Do not grumble at me, you are not here to serve God. Stop lying to Jesus and stop lying to yourself. It’s a sin, if you care about that sort of thing beyond this fun game we’re playing.”
“Eve…would definitely murder my wife if she knew.”
“You know what? God is cruel. He’s taken children, he’s killed good hardworking men and women, he’s drowned the world and waged war on it, he’s cleansed the earth in fire and blood. Did you actually read? It’s gruesome.”
“Yes,” Villanelle says quickly. “I skimmed,” she amends after a beat. “Parts were so boring.”
“So is that how Eve wants you? Beaten, drowned, killed, faithful to the bloody end?”
“Hm,” Jesus seems thoughtful when he pushes her back by the shoulders and holds her there to look at her. “How would you like to be loved like you are the end of the world? Like you are a tyrant and your love is a duty whipped into scars on your back and nailed into your palms and sat on your head like a mocking crown?”
Villanelle stares so long she’s sure she’s looking at nothing at all. “What else is there? Is that not how I have always been loved? Like I am awful? Like I am King?”
Jesus chucks her under the chin and pushes her toward the door. “Maybe. And how has that worked out for you, hm? If you think love is a crown you can abdicate, then by all means. Give it to my father if Eve will not take it. It will be in good hands, safe hands. You will be governed into goodness. But I think your delusion is not who wears the crown, it is the crown itself. Do not give up all that you are for something shiny and gold. Something that isn’t even real .”
Organ sounds stir to groaning life, all of them at once, filling the dusty space with as much as it can until nobody can hear anything that might be real. Jesus has to raise his voice when he grabs her temples too hard, shakes her head so he’s sure she can hear it above the din. “Hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.”
Villanelle squints alone in the office and he’s not there, but he must be because that is not a thing she has ever known or even thought to know.
When she opens the door, 6 minutes late, the vicar is glaring at her subtly and the parishioners are glancing at watches and craning to find the delay, ruffled by the lapse in decorum in a way that draws them from the din of faith and nothingness they perpetually doze in.
Eve is sitting in the best seat in the church, arms crossed, irritated.
Villanelle stares at her until everyone else is staring back at her except for Eve and fine, fine ! She takes center stage under the cross, under bleeding feet, and waits until Eve gathers herself enough to meet her eyes. She looks disillusioned, faithless, beautiful and tragically underdressed.
The vicar is speaking, shooting her exasperated little looks because she’s just standing there and she’s supposed to wait, but she will not. This is about her.
And Eve is here. She came to the house of delusion and she sat where she was asked to sit.
“Nelle?” The vicar is staring at her and she’s forgotten everything that she was supposed to do because Eve scoffs so audibly that the congregation shifts with discomfort. Jesus is sitting next to Eve, arm behind her on the bench. He hushes her, smothering a smile behind his stupid hand. He doesn’t think she’ll do it and neither does Eve.
When she doesn’t say anything, the vicar edges closer. “Have you received Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?” He must repeat, because he does it quickly, like a chore. He is not even the first in a long line of people to find her mortal soul a chore - he is not so special as he thinks he is.
Jesus pinches his forefinger and thumb in an a-okay sign and winks obnoxiously.
“Yes,” Villanelle grits out.
Eve sucks her teeth irritably and raises a critical eyebrow.
“Will you obey and serve him as your King for the rest of your life?”
Eve’s expression shifts, both eyebrows raise. She’s daring her. She doesn’t think Villanelle will do it!
“Sure, why not?” Villanelle grumbles. “Do it already.”
A vein pops on the vicar’s temple and he has to close his eyes briefly to gather whatever remains of his patience. “Because you’ve professed your faith in the Lord Jesus, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Jesus whoops in the quiet of the chapel like he’s heard a wedding announcement. Without waiting for the guiding hand of the vicar or the rest of the stupid words, Villanelle hangs her hands on the sides of the bowl, then slams her face into the water with an audible slapping noise, staring into the ruddy copper basin, waiting.
If God can drown the world for a kiss on the ring, she can dunk her face in a bowl of water for love. Choke on it , she thinks grimly.
After about thirty seconds, she starts to wonder what the going rate is for ablution. She probably should have asked. She doesn’t feel any different, nothing is happening.
So she stays and waits and hopes her lips aren’t turning blue.
Things take on a strange quality around ninety seconds and stranger yet at 2 minutes, and she hopes it is God and not just her brain suffocating. Lately it has mostly felt like the same thing. If He can’t bother to make her a thing to be loved or a thing that loves then he might as well kill her already.
Blue and then black and then something not quite a color pings at the corners of her vision until someone seizes her by the shoulders and yanks her back out of the bowl spluttering into the rosy light. They’ve got her with an arm slack around her chest and another across her belly and she collapses back against the body behind her. She wonders if she passed out fully before being fished out.
The first thing she registers, spluttering, her back braced against someone’s chest and vision saturated in the eerie swimming colors of the colored glass is Jesus clapping alone, uproariously. May is standing in the front row near tears and the vicar is looking at her from beside the pulpit like she’s the devil. The joke is of course on him, she’s holy . Absolutely dripping in it, actually.
“Jesus Christ,” Eve curses against her ear so the bedraggled wet ends of Villanelle’s hair puff out and stick to her cheek. Villanelle sees the way Eve’s seat is empty and goes slack against her hold.
Jesus cheers louder.
When Villanelle’s chin swivels so she can eye Eve in the marginal space over her shoulder, Eve’s own eyes are wide and angry and lovely. “What the hell are you doing?” She bites out, but the hand at Villanelle’s stomach slips off so Eve can reach up and pull wet strands of hair gently from Villanelle’s eyes and smooth them back into place.
Villanelle slumps harder back against her. “Abdicating,” she slurs.
“The king is dead, long live the king.”
Eve hisses out a forceful breath between her teeth, right against the back of Villanelle’s head and Villanelle has to wonder if she’s even aware of the way she presses her nose and mouth to Villanelle’s wet hair like she loves her. “Did I break you? Is that what this is?”
“I saw Jesus. He’s a drag king, Eve.”
“I - just now?”
“Wow, okay. I’m…taking you to a hospital.”
Eve strains, trying to hoist her up to her own feet again. Villanelle doesn’t bother helping - if she doesn’t help, Eve won’t be able to foist her off. She’s not ready to be let go of. “It could have been you, Eve. You could have been king, you know? I’d have given that to you.”
Eve’s nose slides lower toward the base of Villanelle’s skull, the back of her neck. “You’re king idiot is what you are. How about you abdicate that for a change . ”
“Okay. Tell me. Tell me the way you want to be loved, because I don’t understand. It’s not simple for me.”
Eve hums, a mellow frequency Villanelle wants to live inside of. “Yeah, I know.” Her hold squeezes a bit and Villanelle wonders if Eve knew she was hugging her whether she would still have done it. “Can you stop, though? Stop giving me things I don’t want. Stop taking away the things I do. What the hell do you think Jesus is going to do for you, I am dying to know.”
“I think I maybe had sex with him. You were better, though.”
“I…yeah. Okay,” Eve sighs and shakes her head to herself, but it’s closer to nuzzling or maybe that is wishful thinking, more reimagining. “Listen to me. For real, not me screaming at you or you enjoying it. I am too old to want to be your martyr or your everything and I’ve loved too much of the worst of you to not be devastated if it’s gone.”
“I just don’t want you to go. I won't survive it. I didn't.”
“Then stop leaving. In pieces or all at once. Stop dressing me up and stop dressing yourself up.” Eve pulls her up with surprising strength, sets her forcefully on her feet and pushes her upright to hold her own weight. She sways, but holds fast in front of the congregation. “I fell in love with a terrible thing and if you can’t admit that you did too, then it won’t matter what we're trying to be. We are not made for trying to be other things, not to each other. But we are made for each other.”
“Stand up,” Eve says. Her grip loosens and skates to rest hesitantly on Villanelle’s lower back, making sure she doesn’t sway backwards. “Keep the crown and I’ll keep mine and if we're lucky, neither of us will see heaven.”
And that almost, almost could be music too.