First Look at Upcoming Novel: Red Marks on Your Soul

Read this excerpt from award-winning, Greta Browne’s upcoming novel.

Red Marks

I learned how to pray before I was even taught my multiplication tables. My mother’s family, thick in clotted Irish blood, was practically seeded and watered, raised from the soil as Catholics. Though it is strange now because the Catholics here are more Catholic than those inhabiting Ireland, but there is still that teaching passed down from mother to daughter, father to son.

My grandmother, large, rounded, oddly terrifying in a comforting way, leant forward on her ugly brown couch with the seething venom of a viper. She had a habit of reeling back and striking quick and hard, drawing blood to the surface of pale, innocent skin. It you don’t pray every night then the devil puts a ruby red mark on your very own soul. (She is a obvious recipient of a hard Catholic teaching.) My young self balked at that in a way unbeknown to men. It sounded utterly awful and yet it still holds the same amount of poison even after all those years. But no one tells little girls what is reality and what is a lie meant to make you quiver, or who holds insanity and who doesn’t. In the same way that girls are told to grow up, get good grades, get into the best colleges, then to find and nice man and settle down to take care of the kids and cook and clean. Maybe I despise that idea so much because it seems like such a waste or perhaps I am biased because I have an utter loathing of casseroles and aprons. Somehow, us girls are always the scapegoats in Catholicism. Adam was tricked out of Paradise because Eve was too much of an idiot and Abraham almost didn’t become the father of basically everyone due to his barren wife, Sarah. It wasn’t that Eve was simply tricked or that Sarah couldn’t have kids, but it was their own faults somehow and even at this very minute, men in the church use examples thousands of years old to dismiss women to the hearth.

Although I was small and little and naïve (and a girl!) I prayed my Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s every night. I still, somehow, despite all the odds, still do. I pray for anyone and everyone, just tacking them endlessly onto my list of people who shouldn’t die, but instead live, as if God was sitting there taking note of what I wanted. I do it before I allow myself to dream, before I allow my eyes to drift shut and the sleep to take its cold hold. There is a churning in me when I pray. My lips move, as knitting needles, to the words I have memorized, never even uttering a single syllable aloud. And when I am done, the sweater completed, such an immense wave of relief floats over me that I am ambushed by the yearning to slumber. I never wait to hear if there is someone on the other side of the telephone.

The true definition of a one sided conversation.

Pray on your own accord. That’s what Father Paul always used to repeat all the while strumming his voice through the rock-star microphone they wired up to his priestly uniform. He dazzled us, his people, God’s lambs, and even once proclaimed himself an almost incarnation of the ever famous Peter the Rock, the first pope. Father Paul would revolve around the room in pre-planned steps with this sharp smile on his face that exposed all his teeth and gums, which made it kind of horrible. He often paired this immensely fake laugh along with the smile that did not bring warmth, but instead a shiver up your neck and through your arms.

It donned on us, the ignorants, that after years and years of dedication and loyalty to the church Peter the Rock had been stealing and funneling money meant for the poor. The officials were so red-faced that they didn’t prosecute him, but instead shooed the lost lamb into a different state. He always strutted about with that stupid grin tacked all over his face and I cannot help but ponder, think, think, think if that was because his pockets were dripping with gold.

Sometimes I wonder if they let him keep the money, because taking it all back would be an admittance that he was in fault, a sinner, one of the many on the bus to hell. It was the same way that I think about all the alter-boys and girls who were abused and kept mute because they were confused as of why someone who is supposed to be never able to commit sin was able to hurt them. I understand them and their conundrum for it is one I have wrestled with for years. Priests are human just like the rest of us, so why are we making them out to be all-good ocean liners of God? I surmised early on that the church is afraid of us learning that their actual power and hold over us is limited to zero in actuality so they make sure that we must be terrified into thinking it is unlimited, unbreakable, absolute. They claim to have the power to decide our ultimate fates and we, we don’t protest because have no evidence that they don’t.

I would say that my family practices a not-talked-about branch of Catholicism that is invisible and very real at the same time. When we settle down around the table, hands clasped like we are in some movie, we say Grace and then we, in a one-handed breath, ask all of our ancestors who have ever died for help. We call upon them like we are in a demented séance and they can hear us missing them and asking and pleasing and oh please help us please help us. A lot of the time I think we ask our dead family for help because we have this twisted belief that they will be more helpful than God and ten times more understanding due to their ties to the family. Or maybe, just maybe, we have already curled our toes in and asked God and come to realize that this is our last chance for aid. That God didn’t feel like helping and they can be our advocates. Ancestor worship is what a history teacher would call it. Treason is what the Church would and I think it would be funny to see my Grandmother’s face when she is excommunicated.

When I had Holy Communion in the second grade and first tasted the holy of most holy wafers to ever exist on the face of the planet—I was mildly surprised. Everyone in my life had promised I would be changed, closer to God, and find “solstice in the Lord”. I found that there was a warming in their lies before the cracker even touched my lips. It was the moment before it even happened, when my little lungs could hardly even breathe because my body was about to be a vessel of God and Christ and all the saints and angels. It was held above my head by a priest I didn’t even know the name of and it was odd, the color of it, and the way it was thin as paper. I was being burned with excitement and choking before they even laid it on my tongue the old-fashioned way my mother had instructed me to. The taste was of cardboard and just as undetectable in every way. I closed my eyes, made the signature sign-of-the-cross, and something inside me plummeted as I came to the realization that I was no holier than I was before and that the only thing I was part of was a bunch of people who gathered together on Sundays to eat disgusting wafers and pray certain words.

During the Christmas season, when the Church strings up lights of purple and pink because those are the wonderful colors that everyone associates with Jesus’s birth, my darling mother signed myself and my younger sister up to sing in the choir loft during the evening mass. The two of us, in our best finery and heeled shoes, wobbled up the hidden stairs to line up by instruction of the plumply poka-dotted choir director. I realized by then, much to my utter shock and intense horror that I was the oldest there (fourteen-years old) and I hulked like a titan over all of the tiny four and five-year-old girls. When it came time in the mass to stop for the Eucharist, a half-blind usher came up to distribute it out and after I received mine I watched as one of the younger five-year olds was given the bread. For some reason it left me completely unfazed and unresponsive. The choir director screamed a strangled yelp as if someone had chopped off one of her hands. She had her hooks in the girl within a millisecond and started whacking her back in a whomping motion that sliced the air. Spit it up, spit it out into my hand, right now, now, NOW! The girl at that point was sobbing and coughing saying that she couldn’t stop chewing and chawing and then she swallowed it in a guilty action that made the choir director collapse on the floor in a fatty puddle. I remember how she had immediately turned to me with these eyes that said something in the vein of “never say a word to any other soul alive”. And then her eyes were like switches circling across the floor as she swore us all into secrecy aloud. I laughed then, a little awkwardly to myself, when I saw it in the girl’s eyes that she thought she was going to hell over a stale cracker.

I struggle to be a religious person. If I told that to my religion teacher she would tell me that there are no bad Catholics, (except abortionists, gays, and feminists, oh my!) and that I am a wonderful masterpiece of God—or something equally incredibly offensively horrible and cheesy. But the truth, harshly, is that I get as inattentive during mass as a kindergartener and I find my mind drifting and twisting and tumbling until I am no longer there anymore. The entire ceremony, I’ve seen it all before and what once was magic now seems just an old man repeating even older words. And at least I have my little prayer at the end of the day and goddamn it, that is good enough for me. I say my prayer because I choose to, not out of fear that when the grim-reaper comes to collect that he will look me up and down and up and down and see the truth behind my face, that I have had two-thousand-six-hundred red marks and it is more than the average and I now have a one way, nonrefundable ticket to hell. No, I say the prayer because it is routine, it is day after day after day and curling up under the covers of my bed, having just a single, drowsy moment and all the while keeping me sane.

I have made it a point, a pact, a promise that in my life I never do anything out of fear. There is no obligation instilled in me to pray because I have an ultimatum hanging over my head, at least not anymore.

The prayer, when analyzed under a scientific microscope, makes no sense whatsoever. We cannot gain anything by prayer in a realistic standard and perhaps that is what makes it wonderful. There certainly is no proof that it does any good, for any of us, but I do it all the same. It’s because I am still that little girl hanging on the edge of my grandmother’s sofa listening to her spin awful yarns. She is still me and I am still her, but we are utterly different and yet the same. We pray because maybe it could be magic and maybe all of our wishes will come true, and if they don’t, whom does it hurt? The thing with religion is that it really is just a story that we tell each other over and over again in repetition so many times that it becomes our reality. It is almost a placebo for our fears of what happens after death—an insurance that we aren’t going to go to some fiery place as long as we pray and repent and purge. I sigh and hum and ha, because even if I don’t want to believe in it, I still do and perhaps that is my own fault.


 Written by Greta Browne

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