In those days, Janet was always hungry. It seemed to her that the space behind her bellybutton was just that, a space. No number of fish fingers or baked beans seemed to be able to fill this gap within her, and, just lately, Janet had begun to suspect there was something missing inside her. That she had come without an important piece and was somehow unfinished. This thought filled the six-year-old with a vague dread and it was with that familiar feeling of emptiness that she entered the classroom with her thirty-two other classmates on a wet Wednesday in March.
The color of the morning was the same heavy asphalt grey of all the mornings that came before it and would come after, and the air was damp even though it had not been raining. Janet watched misty vapors rise from the navy jumpers of her classmates and thought about ghosts. These were the children Mrs. Thatcher worried were not getting enough calcium for their bones to grow big and strong. And how were they going to grow up and get a job if they did not have strong bones? So rations of milk in small cartons were served at room temperature and Janet drank until the straw had searched out every corner of the box for final drops. She shivered and, scratching the back of her red scabbed hands, stood behind her chair. Children were not permitted to sit until prayers were said.
“Now remember, everyone’s eyes must be closed when saying prayers, and I will be checking to make sure that they are,” Mrs. Donohue said. “And yes, I can keep my eyes open, because God wants me to be checking that the eyes of all the boys and girls in this class, and under his care, are closed. So now, hands joined . . . Our Father . . . who art in Heaven . . . ”
But Janet broke the closed eye rule without wanting to. She knew following it should be easy, but she just had to peek at the sullen, dark haired boy to her left. She did not have the words to describe how she felt about Robert Conroy, only that the thought of him made her ache in that space inside her where there was nothing. This inability to control both her eyes and her emotions caused Janet much concern about the fate of her soul. However, this particular morning it was moon-faced Louise Callaghan’s misfortune to be caught in the glare of Mrs. Donohue.
“Louise Callaghan is a little girl who cannot even control herself for two minutes, boys and girls. Not even when God, Our Father, has asked her to.” Many of the children smirked in the direction of the disgraced, while others like Janet felt only relief and pity. Mrs. Donohue lifted her eyes to the middle distance and intoned:
“Lord Jesus, we ask you to forgive Louise Callaghan, and all those like her, who do not know how to behave and be good. We know Lord, that even if I do not see all of those naughty children like Louise Callaghan who cannot behave, that you see all and that nothing can be hidden from your eyes.”
Now all, smirkers and sympathizers alike, peered up nervously at the many representations of Our Lord surrounding them from on high. There was the one that hung above the smelly cloakroom, a Jesus bathed in light, holding a large stick in one hand and a lamb in the other; another startlingly blue-eyed Jesus gazed down on the little children from behind the teacher’s desk. But, as always, Janet’s eyes fell upon the anorexic loin-clothed figure being crucified above the chalkboard. Suspended from his palms, forehead bloodied, irises turned upward in agony, Janet was drawn to this Jesus more than the others. The concave slope beneath his ribs made her think that he too felt empty on the inside.
And after further chanting of holy words and chastisements, the children were permitted to rest their bony behinds in plastic chairs. Janet shifted her weight from one bum cheek to the other as she, like the others, struggled to find a comfortable position. As usual, she was aware of constant restless movement. Children struggled to pull the frayed edges of inherited uniform jumpers over the wrists of their too long arms, to hoist mismatched socks over scraped knees, and to itch chilblains and occasional lice. The search for physical comfort was unceasing and the room wobbled on wonky furniture.
Now Mrs. Donohue clasped her hands before her.
“Now, as you know, the first set of seven Holy Communicants will receive the sacrament for the first time this coming Sunday. April 1st. The second set a week later, and so on until all have received the Blessed Sacrament.”
The group of first rounders sat up straighter, catching each other’s eyes and smiling because they were among the chosen few. Janet was not, and, as no explanation was given for how batches of children were scheduled, she had no choice but to believe that it was because God loved pretty girls like Kerrie Brown and Lindsay Challoner more than he loved her. The Lord, Our God, was giving them yet another thing to share, and Janet knew they would use it to further exclude her.
“We have all worked very hard to prepare ourselves for this blessed event, even if you are not one of the lucky ones going this Sunday,” Mrs. Donohue said as she stood, chalk in hand.
“To review, who can tell me some of the things we have learned about in preparation?”
Children stretched their arms in the air as far as they could go. Gasps and groans on pained faces, breathing through their teeth as they contorted themselves to get attention.
“Yes, Russell Connelly.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Donahue recorded the word in chalk.
“ Kerrie Brown?”
“Yes. Another. Joanne McGrath?”
“Host, Miss. And Wine.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Donohue turned back to the class. “What happens to these things? Colette Jones?”
“They get turned into the body and blood of Jesus, Miss.”
“Correct. Who can tell me a word that begins with the letter “C” that describes the host being turned into the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus?”
And the gasps reached a new level of zealotry. When Robert Conroy was selected, disappointment was palpable.
‘That’s right. The host and the wine, as Father Flynn says the words of Holy Consecration, become the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus.”
There was a moment of silence. Like a distant bell ringing in a church. The moment settled. And then.
“But it’s not really, is it, Miss.”
There was a sweep of air as thirty faces whipped around to the direction of the speaker: to the direction of Janet.
She had spoken without realizing she was about to speak; even with everyone looking at her right now, she was not sure it was she who had spoken and turned slightly in her seat in search of the source along with everyone else.
“What? What did you say, Janet?” Mrs. Donohue’s voice was unusually quiet. She shook her head as if to clear it from an obvious delusion.
Looking from face to face, Janet felt a sharp stab of panic grow and flourish into a wave of heat rising through her body. Their room was still but for the darting eyes of her classmates. Some looked from teacher to student in confusion at the lack of protocol; Janet had not been called upon, nor had she raised her hand. Others could barely contain their delight and anticipation at what would surely not end well for her. For you see, all had heard the absence of a question mark in her voice. She had not asked, she had stated. The beige wafer was not a holy thing. It was a mass-produced piece of cardboard. All knew that Janet might just as well have said: “Don’t be so stupid.”
‘I just said . . . I just said tha’, it isn’t really his body . . . is it . . . It’s a wafer.”
This time there was an audible gasp from Colette Jones which spread from desk to desk. Some hands went to mouths, there were embarrassed grins and nervous laughter at this altogether new and amazing situation. They looked at Janet as if a car were speeding towards her and they wanted nothing less than to watch her mowed down.
The strange thing was that after those first hot seconds of fear following her proclamation, Janet felt an unfamiliar surety in what she was saying. A calmness settled within her, a confidence that allowed her to face the impending doom her classmates anticipated. She continued without being asked.
“I just mean that it is a small wafer. That you go back to your seat with, Miss. It isn’t anything other than that. There’s no blood, no body or anythin’.”
Mrs. Donohue’s mouth had formed into a gaping hole in the middle of her face. Her hand went absently in search of a pen, as if she felt that this incident should be recorded. She could find neither her pen nor her voice. Janet, eager to please, felt that it was only right to fill the ensuing silence, especially since Mrs. Donahue had clearly not understood what she, Janet, was trying to say.
“I mean . . . I just mean, there’s nothing like a body,” she looked toward anorexic Jesus’s protruding ribs. ‘Like, there’s no bones or nothin’. When you get it, there’s nothin’ like no body to it . . . it’s just that circle . . . ”
But in that instant, Mrs. Donohue’s slackened jaw recovered. Janet heard a shriek as her teacher’s grey head flew backwards with the force of laughter, “Ahah!”
Mrs. Donohue chuckled and shook her head, relieved at the realization that Janet’s comment came not from a great and dark evil, but from the empty head of a gaunt six year old. Children now began to mutter, as their teacher struggled to control her laughter. Their interest in the situation waned when it became clear that Janet would not be destroyed before their eyes.
“I see Janet,” Mrs. Donohue said smiling softly. “There are no bones in the Holy Eucharist. No fingernails, no hairs, nothing like that.”
“But that’s not . . . ” Janet attempted to counter.
“You don’t need to worry, everything is quite safe,” she let out an exasperated, but amused sigh.
“Oh, yeah I know that, I was just thinkin’ . . . ”
“That you would be going back to your seat chewing on a part of Our Lord’s finger.”
At this there were howls of laughter from around the room. If the class were not going to get to see a stoning, at least they could come together and enjoy Janet’s humiliation. Even the ones who had secretly been wondering about the actual body-thing gratefully joined in the communal jeering. Their mocking silenced Janet.
She made no more protestations and made no further attempt to be understood. The laughter died down quickly after that and learning continued beyond Holy Communion, to making change with plastic coins and coloring daffodils to take home to their parents. Janet performed these tasks as she was told and dutifully learned nothing in the process.
The grey drizzle of the morning continued into the afternoon. Janet ate the free school lunch of rubbery liver with a scoop of gluey potatoes, and used her finger to gather up the remaining smears of gravy on her plate. Then, standing alone on the edge of the playground, throwing pebbles into puddles, she listened to the growl of emptiness inside her. Her hands explored the grooves between her visible ribs, counting each solid hoop with her fingertips and thinking about anorexic Jesus above the chalkboard. Would there be enough of his sunken chest to go around? When she was given his body to eat and his blood to drink, would she feel him? Would she understand Jesus then? Searching for voices in her head, Janet missed the shrill whistle that signaled the march back inside for afternoon lessons, and suffered the public leg slapping from an irate dinner lady for daydreaming.
Later, the little children sat cross legged on the dusty assembly room floor as the Headmaster told them about a naughty boy who asked God for forgiveness just before he died of a horrible disease. Janet did not listen. She had learned today that it was best not to listen, and that she never would again. Instead, she watched the red handprint on her shin as it faded. She marvelled and picked at the red scabs on her knees. The beauty of her own blood. The purity of its redness as it coursed down her legs and stained her white socks. She dabbed the stream with her finger and lifted it to her lips. Janet smiled. For the first time in her memory, she felt full.