Once upon a time there was a stained glass painting. The painting depicted meadow, with trees off in the distance. The person looking at the painting might think they were looking at an uphill meadow, a short hard climb to a cool wooded spot.
Bartholomew looked at the window every day during mass. There were other windows, but most of them were full of saints, and Bartholomew wasn’t comfortable staring at the saint’s painted eyes. So he looked at the meadow. As mass continued, the sun would come through the meadow grass and color the faces of the faithful green, which always made Bartholomew smile into his hymnal.
Bartholomew imagined the green faced people had eaten a bad meat pie and were just now discovering their mistake. Their green faces were a short prelude before they began projectile vomiting up at the preacher. He imagined the pandemonium, the altar boys running for mops, and Minister Hughes trying to shout about hellfire over the din.
When he was six, Bartholomew had eaten a bad meat pie. His wimpled nanny loved to tell how he had projectile vomited over old Doctor Graves. But Bartholomew only remembered feeling very ill. What was the point of a good projectile vomit if you didn’t even remember it?
Bartholomew knew that thinking such thoughts in church was probably blasphemous. But everything he liked, from farting to spit to sticking dead frogs in people’s food was blasphemous. His nanny called him that whenever she thought he couldn’t hear, the little blasphemer.
Bartholomew knew that probably meant he was going to hell, which is why he didn’t like looking at the saint’s painted eyes. They were all looking back in that same judgmental way his nanny did, as if to say: “what are YOU doing here? Get out, repent, and perhaps one day you will be worthy to warm that sacred pew.” Bartholomew would have stuck his tongue out at them, but his nanny thrashed overt acts of sacrilege in the church.
Being beyond salvation, Bartholomew didn’t pray for that when they all bowed their heads in silent prayer before the Our Father. He prayed that, if possible, the purgatory he went to would be something like the meadow. He knew that heaven was bustling with angels, so the meadow was definitely not heaven. But whenever minister Hughes mentioned waiting for salvation in purgatory, Bartholomew thought of waiting under the cool trees at the end of meadow. After all, it was purgatory, not hell. It wasn’t as if he thought he was good enough to sing in the heavenly choir, especially since his voice had just started to go all warbling and strange, but waiting in the shade of some trees seemed a decent way to spend eternity. At least it would be quiet and relaxing.
Quiet relaxation was not something that Bartholomew had much of in his life. He attended Saint Michael’s School For Disobedient Youth, and he was a boarder because he was an orphan. The other boarders were all there because their parents didn’t want them at home, and Bartholomew could see why. Most of the time they were running about shouting and punching things, and often Bartholomew when he couldn’t get out of the way.
Bartholomew liked tricks and pranks, but he wouldn’t have been at St. Michaels except that the other orphanage, St. Mathilde’s , had been closed due to budget cuts. And when the other children had been transferred to St. Judith’s farther north, Bartholomew’s nanny had been sent to St. Michael’s. She had given a list of boys that should also be sent to St. Michael’s with her, but only Bartholomew had been transferred there.
Why his nanny hated him, Bartholomew didn’t know. Perhaps it was her fear of frogs, and the three incidents where he had managed to get her to take a bite of one. Or perhaps it was because the look on her face and the bit of frog sticking out of her mouth had tickled him so much the last time that he had started laughing so hard that he couldn’t stop, even when she had started thrashing him. Or perhaps it was because her thrashing and the laughter had been too much for his full bladder, and she’d had to clean up after his accident.
But hadn’t that been years ago now? Now Bartholomew got thrashed for looking sullen, for eating slowly, or for simply looking blasphemous. No matter how he tried, Bartholomew could not figure out how to not make his face look blasphemous. Any expression he tried seemed to make the blasphemy worse. Smiling earned him as many lashes as frowning, and screwing up his face earned him more.
One of the only times that Bartholomew was safe from thrashing was in the pew during the sermon. But he’d learned that any movement, any gesture, even yawning, would get him a thrashing as soon as he left. So he looked at the stained glass and thought about how calm and quiet purgatory would be. It was the closest thing that Bartholomew felt to being hopeful.
Today the sun was shining particularly brightly, and the green on the faces of the faithful was a lovely shade. Bartholomew smiled, and then glanced up at his nanny, who was frowning down at him. She’d been watching him with an increasing fury, and Bartholomew could see that her upper lip was already twitching in that familiar thrashing-to-come way. He looked back at the hymnal sullenly, which was sure to get him an extra two lashings.
Bartholomew glanced fearfully at his nanny, wondering if anything could lessen the blows. He blurted out: “but they look like they’re going to vomit.”
It was unfortunate timing. Minister Hughes had just finished the sermon and had just said the words: “Let us pray.” The sanctuary was silent except for Bartholomew’s voice, which quavered and squeaked upward on the word vomit.
It was enough to get that slow shuffling of turning heads, and some other boy behind Bartholomew choked off a laugh. That set off two other boys, and then the whole of the St. Michael’s School For Disobedient Youth broke out into laughter.
Minister Hughes shouted for silence, and several of the boys made retching sounds, which set off another round of laughter. In agitation, Minister Hughes signaled to the organ master, who was confused and began the processional departing music at a high tempo, forcing Minister Hughes to leave the pulpit and do a double time down the aisle behind the rapidly retreating altar boys.
Halfway down Minister Hughes tripped on his vestments and nearly went down in the aisle, catching himself on a pew and righting himself with difficulty. It was some time before order was restored, and the entire school went without lunch or dinner as a punishment.
The outburst was hardly entirely Bartholomew’s fault, but the older boys hardly needed a reason to punch and pinch him. It was just added misery to the multiple thrashings his nanny had administered. Then he was called into the Minister’s office and had to explain all over again why the meadow glass made people’s faces green and made him think of vomiting.
Minister Hughes looked like a kind man, but he was a haughty man and hated humiliation above all else. So when nanny suggested an overnight vigil, Minister Hughes agreed. Bartholomew would kneel, praying for forgiveness, before the stained glass window all night long. “That should cure you of your rebellious nature,” Minister Hughes said with a tight smile.
Bartholomew was led to the sanctuary at bed time, and knelt below the window. The floor carpet was old and dusty and very thin. In a short time Bartholomew could feel his knee bones against the wood below.
In the first few hours of the night, Bartholomew’s nanny forced him to kneel fully on his knees while she sat in the pew behind him. But as the night went later, she gradually fell silent. Only when he heard the faint sounds of snoring did Bartholomew dare to shift back on his legs. His kneecaps had given up pain almost an hour ago and now had gone numb. Silent streaks of tears ran down Bartholomew’s face.
As Bartholomew gazed up at the stained glass, it seemed to him that the meadow grass seemed to wave at him. Was he imagining it, or was there a slight breeze, bringing him the rich smell of the far-off woods?
Bartholomew glanced back fearfully and got very painfully and silently to his feet. It seemed as if he could see the sun shining through the trees in the far off woods. Could it be morning already? The grass seemed to ripple again in an imaginary breeze.
Bartholomew forgot about his nanny behind him. He reached out a trembling hand and brushed it against the stained glass. It felt not like glass at all, but like the soft feel of fresh grass. The breeze was a bit stronger now, and rustled his hair.
When Bartholomew’s nanny awoke, Bartholomew was nowhere in the sanctuary. She sounded the alarm, and a full search party was organized. After a fruitless search, one of the staff found a small pantry window ajar and Bartholomew was placed in the school records as a runaway.
But the boys of St. Michael’s School For Disobedient Youth swear that if you look at the stained glass picture of the meadow with the bright sunlight shining behind it you can see the outline of a small boy relaxing under the trees at the far edge of the meadow.
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