Jim Meirose

The Crystal Ball

          Father Jones, the only priest in the small parish besides Pastor Nolan, buys a crystal ball from China off of Ebay. He buys it out of curiosity. He’s always wanted to have such a thing; and when it arrives, he loves it. Soon after, he begins keeping the crystal ball centered on the altar when he says mass. He says mass as usual until the consecration, when he gazes into the ball as he elevates the bread and wine. The parishioners wonder about this.
          What’s that for, said Mr. and Mrs. Phelps.
          Why’s he got a crystal ball up there, said Mr. and Mrs. Phillips.
          They gossip about the motives of the priest with the crystal ball.
          Magic, they say.
          Balls like that have something to do with magic.
          Pastor Nolan finds out about it. He calls Father Jones into his office.
          The pastor clasps his hands together on the desk and leans forward as he talks.
          Why the crystal ball on the altar, father?
          Father Jones fidgets nervously in the plush leather chair and runs a hand back over his hair.
          What? he says—Is there something wrong with it?
          The pastor taps a finger on the desktop.
          Well—yes there is. People are wondering. I’m wondering. Plus you're supposed to look at the hosts you're consecrating when you say this is my blood and this is my body.
          Father Jones raises a hand.
          Oh but I do. I only look at the ball when I'm elevating the bread or the wine, not when I say the words. What’s wrong with that—
          The pastor’s finger presses hard on the desktop.
          Why do you look at the ball at all, father? You’re supposed to look up toward heaven—
          Father Jones leans back and speaks quietly.
          Well—I like the look of the ball. It has colors inside—
          The pastor’s hand forms a fist and he straightens in his chair.
          Okay, listen. Let me cut to the chase. I don't want it on the altar any more. It distracts you from the the mass.
          But I—
          I have spoken, snaps the pastor. You may leave.
          The next day Father Jones says mass without the crystal ball, and drops the host. His voice trembles saying the words. He stumbles over the words of his sermon. He shakes nervously giving out the sacrament. The next day, he knocks over the chalice and spills the wine across the altar linens, after the consecration. These kinds of things happen repeatedly.
          What’s wrong with him, say Mr. and Mrs. Lucas.
          Is he getting sick? That must be it, he’s getting sick.
          This gets back to the pastor. Once more he call Father Jones in. He tells Father Jones the things he has been told.
          So what’s the matter, Father? Why is all this happening?
          Father Jones answers without hesitation.
          I cannot concentrate at the altar, he says, without my crystal ball.
          Why not?
          Father Jones wrings his hands and looks to the side, then back.
          I don’t know, I don’t know—please may I put my crystal ball back on the altar, Father? Please may I?
          Pastor Nolan points at Jones.
          No you may not. Listen—tell me—what else do you use this crystal ball for?
          Jones answers quietly, meekly.
          Nothing, really. I like to look at it.
          Pastor Nolan’s eyebrows raise.
          Look at it? You sit in your room and look at it?
          Yes. It relaxes me.
          Pastor Nolan sighs, and leans back twirling a pencil in his hand.
          Father, he says.
          He points the pencil.
          I don't want you to have this crystal ball. Bring it to me.
          Bring it to you? Why? I—
          Never mind why. Bring it to me. You shouldn't have it. This crystal ball is of the devil!
          Father Jones holds out his hands palms up.
          But Father, I told you, I can't concentrate—
          The pastor sharply points the pencil and speaks harshly.
          You think about it too much. Look at it too much. It's got a spell on you. Bring it to me.
          What will you do with it?
          I'll keep it under lock and key. When and if either of us gets reassigned I'll give it back to you—but as long as you're in my parish, I don't want you to be under the spell of such a thing.
          Father, no, I can’t—I’m not under any spell—I just—
          Pastor Nolan half rises.
          Don’t say no! I have spoken! Go get it and bring it to me right now!
          Yes, Father.
          The priest meekly leaves the office and the Pastor sits alone at his desk, rubbing at his chin.
          —what is wrong with that boy? What is it with this ball? I can’t wait to see it—
          Relaxing slightly, he leans back in his chair.
          —Yes—I really can’t wait to see it.
          The quiet of the dark paneled room envelopes him as he waits.
          Father Jones comes back to the office with a supermarket shopping bag with something large and round in it, and the top taped down tight with heavy duct tape.
          Here it is Father, said the priest, placing the heavy bag on the desk.
          Good, good—
          The pastor sits up straight and reaches for it. He starts to undo the tape.
          Here let me see—
          The priest pulls the bag back off the desk.
          No, he says to the Pastor. You can’t see it.
          The pastor’s jaw drops and his eyes narrow.
          What do you mean I can’t see it? he half shouts. Give it here—
          Father Jones raises a hand.
          You can have it. But you musn’t see it. If you see it, you’ll end up in the same boat as me.
          Oh? And what boat is that, father?
          You’ll end up addicted to it—like me. That would be wrong. The colors are seductive—
          The pastor sweeps his hand across.
          Give it here.
          The priest drew himself up, took a deep breath, and spoke.
          I’ll only give it to you if you promise not to look at it, he said.
          Pastor Nolan rises and points.
          What do you mean? You dare to give me conditions—
          The priest stands rock steady.
          Yes. I dare to.
          The pastor looked deeply into the priest’s soft brown eyes.
          —he means it he really means it—
          This is highly irregular, blurted the Pastor. But all right—
          —what am I about to say I can’t believe what I am about to say—
          All right Father Jones. I’ll promise.
          —what have I said—
          Thank you father. I believe your promise means something. I know you won’t look at it. Isn’t that right?
          The pastor stands deflated and answers slowly, nodding.
          That’s true. My promise means something.
          Father Jones pushes the brown paper bag onto the desk toward the Pastor with a nod and quickly leaves the room without saying anything more. The pastor sees tears beginning to form in the priest’s eyes as he turns away. He stands there, before the bag.
          —what a hold this thing has on him. How, why? Why should this be?
          The pastor pushes a finger at the bag and feels the hardness of the ball inside. He runs his finger down and feels its roundness. He slightly lifts the bag. He feels its heaviness. He is dying to look at it—but he had given his word; and his word means something.
          After all, he is the Pastor.
          He represents Christ here in the Parish.
          Christ would keep a promise.
          He gulps. He squeezes his fists tightly at his side and bites his lip After standing there a moment, he quickly picks up the bag. He goes to the side of the room and puts the bag into a dark wooden cabinet and closes and locks the door. Then, it being late in the day, he steps out of his office and locks the door and goes upstairs to his room for the night.
          The next day, he goes to his office after saying early morning mass. He thinks of the ball as he does his paperwork, and he finds his eyes are repeatedly drawn to the cabinet door behind which is the ball.
          —I must see the ball I must—
          He rises and takes the key from his pocket.
          —yes you must see me, says the ball—
          Quivering, he holds the key in his hands. His hand goes up toward the lock—
          No! he blurts, slapping his arm down with the other hand; he steps back.
          —Christ would not do this—no Christ would not—no! I have promised—I have promised—
          He stumbles back to his desk. He feels the tug of the crystal ball.
          —no! But I am weak, and I need to make sure—
          Once more, he calls for Father Jones to come see him. As he waits the tug of the ball wraps around him—but he hangs on. Father Jones comes in the room.
          Yes father? says the priest.
          The pastor holds out the key to the priest, in a trembling hand.
          Here. Take the key to this cabinet. The crystal ball is in here. It is tempting me. Take the key, father, and hide it in your room. I cannot be trusted with it—
          But your promise means something—you are the Pastor—
          But I am weak! Please take the key and hide it in your room. No matter what, don’t let me have the key, until one or the other of us is reassigned.
          All right, says the priest, taking the key.
          The ball is of the devil, says the pastor. Thank you for helping me.
          You’re welcome father.
          Thank you.
          The priest leaves. The pastor stands with his hand pressed to the cabinet.
          —I have won—I am still tempted—but I have won—
          —I can’t get at it—
          —I won’t get at it—
          The days go by.
          Each night, the pastor ends his day by standing at the cabinet with his hand pressed to the door, the tears forming in his eyes, but safe; safe from the devil.
          During this time Father Jones continues to be immensely clumsy and accident-prone. He still drops the hosts, spills the wine—until at last he accidentally cuts himself with a pair of scissors while opening a package and goes to the emergency room. The pastor learns of this. He calls in the priest late one evening, well after dinner, after standing with his hand pressed to the door for an hour.
          Father Jones arrives and sits down across the desk from Pastor Nolan.
          What is wrong father, says the pastor—I’m told you’re still not yourself. And now this—accident with the scissors. Are you sure you’re all right?
          Yes. I’m fine. Just clumsy is all.
          The pastor looks the priest deeply in the eye.
          You’re still under the spell of that thing, aren’t you father?
          No. I—
          The pastor stands and draws himself up full height. His lip trembles. Temptation fills him, like a hand filling a glove. His will weakens. He forgets Christ. His mouth opens. He hears himself speak.
          Bring me the key to the cabinet—
          —I can’t believe I’m saying this—
          We’ll open the cabinet, he says—we’ll look at the ball. We’ll face it down forever. I too, am tempted—it’s stronger than you or me—but we will destroy its strength, with prayer.
          —I can’t believe what I am hearing—
          Lets pray over it together. Let’s be strong.
          His hand shoots out.
          Give me the key, he says strongly, deeply.
          Father Jones rises also.
          No, he blurts. I can’t. You said not to give it to you until—
          I have spoken! Give it here!
          But I cannot let you break your promise—
          I take back my promise. Give it here!
          The pastor’s hand goes out. His eyes blaze.
          Father Jones shakes his head and holds out his hands.
          I—I can’t give it to you right now. It’s in my room.
          Then go get it. Get it now!
          All right—all right I will—
          The priest rushes from the room wringing his hands. The pastor steps over and presses his hand against the cabinet door, closes his eyes, and trembles with excitement.
          —I will see it—I will look at it. I must. I must—I’ve no strength left—
          The pastor steps back away from the cabinet, and with his eyes burning into the dark door, he sinks into his chair and begins to wait for the priest.
          Time passes. An hour. An hour and a half.
          He calls for the priest.
          No answer.
          Three hours.
          He calls for the priest.
          Still no answer.
          I will go to his room, he thinks, rising. I will go get the key—
          When he gets to the priest’s room, he finds the room is empty.
          —it’s late—its late—where could he be—
          He waits a while, but after an hour, frustrated and trembling, he goes up to his bed.
          Guilt suddenly seeps into his mind, as he undresses for bed.
          —tomorrow is another day.           Tomorrow. Tomorrow—but Lord, God, please increase my strength—I know its wrong—deep down I know it—help me Christ—
          Far from the ball, in his bed, strength comes. Drifting off to sleep, he hears God.
          I will give you strength.
          You do not need to see the ball.
          You are making a fool of yourself.
          No! No—
          Yes you are. It is just a crystal ball—a round thing, a clear, round, nonliving thing. A thing of this earth. Not of God or of the devil. No more significant than a stone in the street.
          It is nothing.
          The pastor sighs deeply, reassured. He rolls onto his side on the bed. He feels sleep beginning to wash over him. He thanks God the priest had not come back.
          Praise God, praise God—he is strong. He can face it again. He pulls the covers tightly up to his neck. He draws his knees up into a fetal position. He is warm. He is safe.
          He is the pastor, after all.
          A deep dreamless sleep mercifully envelopes him.
          The next morning after saying mass, the pastor goes to his office, and finds the door has been forced. He always locks the office—the doorjamb is splintered.
          Jesus Christ what is this—
          He runs his finger over the broken wood.
          No, oh my God—Lord God—Father Jones broke in here last night to get the ball!
          He steps to the cabinet and presses it with a hand.
          I have no key to check if it’s gone! It must be gone. It must!
          He slumps down leaning on the cabinet edge with his hand still on the door.
          Jesus, Jesus—forgive me, forgive me—
          But God damn that Father jones!
          Father, says a voice from the door. The pastor turns, his face flushed.
          Father Jones stands there, smiling, holding out the key. He goes over and puts it on the pastor’s desk. The pastor grips him by the arm, and speaks strongly.
          You broke into my office last night. Look at that doorjamb. You took the ball.
          What, says the priest, pulling away. I did not—
          Yes you did! Give me that key!
          The pastor grips up the key and goes to the cabinet. He unlocks it, the door falls open—the taped shut bag is there. He presses it with his finger. He turns to the priest.
          You swapped something for it. It’s not in the bag—
          I did no such thing—what kind of a person do you think I am—
          The pastor’s fist raised.
          Then who broke in my office? Why would they—there’s nothing here of value—nothing but the ball—
          The voice of God echoes in the pastor’s ear.
          —it is no more significant than a stone in the street. Calm down, calm down. If its there or not—it doesn’t matter—
          Father Jones steps up to the cabinet and rests a hand on it.
          I don’t know what went on here Father—but here—lets look at it. Let’s make sure it is in the bag—
          No, said the Pastor, stepping between the priest and the cabinet.
          —but I need to look at it, says Father Jones—please—I need to see it I need to look at it—
          Turning, he closes and locks the cabinet. He faces Father Jones, chest thrust out.
          I have gained my strength back, father, says the pastor. I have prayed hard about this. I have given my promise. No one shall look in the bag. You don’t need to see what’s in it. It doesn’t really matter what’s in it. As a matter of fact—
          I don’t need you to keep the key for me anymore.
          The pastor slides the key into his breast pocket. Father Jones grimaces.
          But—we were going to look at it together, he says—we were going to pray over it—
          No! I have spoken! That will be all, father! You may go. Have a good day.
          But we were going to—
          I said have a good day father! Goodbye!
          The priest leaves with tears once more forming in his eyes.
          The pastor walks over and touches the splintered door jamb.
          —but who broke in my office—if he didn’t who did—
          —did someone really take the ball?
          The cabinet door wasn’t forced. If someone took it, they must have had a key.
          The pastor wrings his hands and stares at the cabinet door.
          I should call the police—but no. This is a private matter.
          He looks up toward heaven.
          Lord—can I check to see if he took the ball?
          His hand slips into his pocket. The key comes out.
          My office was broken into Lord. I need to know. Did he take the ball? Why else would someone break into my office—he must have taken the ball—
          He watches himself lift the key to the lock.
          —I can’t believe I’m doing this—
          He watches the key turn. The door opens. He lifts out the bag.
          —Lord God, give me strength. I know have promised—but I just know someone has taken the ball—the ball is not in here—they’ve switched it with something else—
          I won’t be seeing the ball.
          The ball’s gone. Father Jones has it.
          He tears down the tape, strip by strip.
          I will deal with him later—but for now after all someone broke into my office I have a right to see what might be missing I just know father took the ball he just made a big show of wanting to see it he knew I wouldn’t let him see he knew I wouldn’t open the bag, he knew I was strong with Christ, very strong—he was calling my bluff—to take suspicion off himself.
          I will deal with him later.
          But now lets’s see what he put in here—something heavy, something round—
          Let’s see.
          What is heavy? What is round?
          The last strip of duct tape gives way. The bag opens.
          He looks in—his eyes widen—his legs weaken. He looks toward heaven.
          —My Lord and my God! he cries, as he falls to the ground.

Jim Meirose's work has previously appeared in Otoliths, and also in many other leading literary magazines and journals including Alaska Quarterly Review, New Orleans Review, South Carolina Review, and Witness.
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