All I Ever Had – a short story by Mike Neis

All I Ever Had

Christianity marked us, but it marked you, my dear sister, more than anyone I knew. Mom hated it. She hated anything that threatened the household. I never saw her so angry as when you took me to be baptized. After that, she stopped speaking to you. Dad liked talking about Christianity with his friends, so he sympathized. He drew the line, however, when you started bringing sick people home.

“Go to the sanitarium,” he said. “You’ll find plenty to do there.”

I did not have your gifts. All I ever had was music. I had difficulty with what the priest said, but from the moment I heard the faithful sing, I wanted to join the chorus. Like leaves and branches, music and Christianity came inextricably linked for me. I loved singing the Gloria most. I think the assembly liked it too—they sang it so well at Mass.

I was also skilled with the lyre, which I played at home for Mom. I tried playing in the theater but did not like it. I preferred playing in church. The theatre was cold, and the audience sat back and judged me. In church the assembly was part of me.

The chorus made me their director, even though I had never been much of a leader. One day the deacon approached me after Mass, and put his face in front of mine. “You can’t sing that Jesum Christum Regem song!” he said. “Jesus is not equal with God the Father!”

My heart thumped. “But it’s a good song,” I said. “I can’t just eliminate it.”

The pores in his pink face shouted his anger. “But it’s wrong! How can the earthly son be as great as the eternal father? At least change the words.”

“That’s how the song goes,” I said.

“We’ll see about that,” said the deacon. The floor shook as he walked away.

The church was relentless in its challenges to do more, so I joined you at the sanitarium. The stench of sickness assaulted my nose. I heard crying and moaning. They assigned us to bathe a large woman, but her complaints showed years of unrestrained bitterness. We were too rough. The water was cold. I was stupid and you were the devil. After that we cleaned bed pans which was simpler, even if it smelled awful.

After a few hours I was exhausted, but you remained. You were always stronger than me. I left while you helped a physician reset the broken arm of a screaming boy.

On my way out I stopped at the common room. Patients were resting and staring into space.

“Are you a doctor?” asked an old woman.

“No,” I said.

“Oh,” said the woman, looking down. “My side still hurts. I’ve been here for so long, and I’m so lonely.”

My heart pounded. “I’ll be right back.”

I went home for my lyre. I returned and sat down next to the woman. I sang folk songs and anything I could think of. I was tired and did not sing well, but the patients listened. Some sang along with the popular songs. Then I went home.

***

Dad said to keep quiet when they decreed the new laws against Christians. Persecutions had already swept the land before. Times would change. The emperor’s reign would end.

Enemies can make things happen, however. When they arrested you, I knew you would not back down.

I came to visit you at the detention center. “I want to see my sister,” I said.

“Will you get her to recant?” they asked.

“I want to see my sister,” I repeated. They let me in.

The buzzing of flies hung in the air. You were happy to see me. The magistrate would be coming that afternoon. You shared a cell with four others whom I recognized from church. They sat on the dirt floor and stared into the air, limp, motionless.

My heart thrashed in my chest. I knew what to do. What I was meant to do. I started singing the Gloria, just like in church. The guard jumped as if stung by a hornet. “Shut up!” he said. “Shut up!”

He hit me and I fell. Then I started singing again.

You were horrified. “Brother! No! This is not for you!” The others in the cell looked up, and then they started singing too. My face hurt, but I pulled myself up and bellowed the words. You could not stop me, any more than I could stop you.

More guards came. “He’s one of them.” They picked me up and threw me into the cell. When I got up, the side of my head was bleeding.

At the trial I would not speak. I let you do the talking. The magistrate did not want to pass the decreed sentence. He tried to find some way to make you relent, but you refused. You had eloquence, understanding, and strength.

All I ever had was music.

The next day we walked, hand in hand, into the square to have our heads cut off. I was glad to be with you. I saw our parents in the crowds. Dad watched in a stony silence but Mom did not. She pointed her finger at you as we passed. Her words pierced the still air like a diving hawk.

“You killed my son!” she said. “You killed my son!”

.

Mike Neis lives in Orange County with his family, and works as a technical writer for a commercial laboratory. His work has appeared in Stonecrop Review and Anti-Heroin Chic. Besides writing, his outside activities include church music, walking for health, and teaching English as a second language.

 

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