Feb 25, 2009

Words on that Wednesday

Because he was bored with the crosses, the priest wrote words with the ashes that Wednesday. He was bored by the cross, with its frozen pose of Jesus, and tired of the crosses, which were all the same anyway, always smudge-smudge the same. It was stupid. He was tired of it. So he did it different. Instead of always in the same shape of a cross, he wrote out what he wanted to say. On the foreheads of the parishinors he put letters, smudging them on in the ashes of burnt palms and oil.

On the head of the first old lady, he put a big T. On the second, a small woman with wide eyes and loose skin, he put an H. A chubby child got an E, a man an R, a young woman an E, and he did this to all of them, all the penitent, that Wednesday at the beginning of Lent.

Of course they noticed. There's no mistaking the dash-dash of a cross shape pushed into the skin above your eyes. The wrinkled Carmalite couldn't tell it was a P the priest was putting over her eyebrows, but she knew it didn't feel like a cross. The mechanic, still in his work clothes and feeling the gritty mechanic soap in the lines of his elbows, didn't know and couldn't know it was G he received from the priest, but he knew it wasn't normal. And then, of course, everyone saw their own foreheads later, looking in the mirror in the bathroom or in the car, driving away. Looking at the smudges that looked like shapes they wondered, was it just the old man's shaky hand or was that really -- didn't it look like a P, an E, an N, a G?

But none of them knew what it meant. Or if it meant anything. Each was alone with a letter, and even if they had asked each other, they wouldn't have known if this was madness or meaningful code, silliness, insanity, blasphemy or prayer. They wouldn't know, couldn't, even if they'd compared their foreheads, they could've never arranged themselves in the random arrangement of filing down the aisle. But they didn't ask each other. Each one was alone with a letter, a smudge. They were each a piece of something bigger than themselves, and they hoped it was meaningful, moving, maybe even inspiring and a great example of something, like how everyone was important to God. But each was alone with a letter, their letters lost and disassembled into anonymity, left with a longing and listless worry.

But even if they had known, even if they'd just asked the secretly chuckling priest and he'd told them, they would still have been confused. It wasn't a prayer, or didn't seem to be. But it also wasn't clear blasphemy. It wasn't meaningless, not exactly, but it wasn't really full of meaning either. It was just a joke, smudged out on the foreheads of the people. Letter by letter, what the priest wrote was a joke he'd heard from a kid. It went like this:

There were these two penguins sitting on an ice floe. And one penguin says to the other one, You look like you're wearing a tuxedo. Then the other penguin says, Well, how do you know I'm not?