David returned from his walk with a small white paper bag, a purple nylon dog leash, and a bell of the sort one might ring to get a shopkeeper’s attention. She stared at him as he removed his coat, a task made more difficult by the fact that he insisted on threading all three of his new possessions through the sleeves. After some arm flapping, he managed to extract the hand that held the bell and the dog leash, and she hurried forward to reach up into his other sleeve for the bag, “Let me take that for you.”
“What are you doing?” His voice was irritated. He swung the coat down into the space between them and stood on the fabric, pulling his hand (still holding the paper sack) finally free, “There.” He lifted the coat and handed it to Ellen, “There we go.”
She reached her own hand into the sleeves to turn them rightside-out before hanging the coat in the front-hallway closet. Turning back to him, she asked, gesturing at the bag, “What did you buy?”
He shook the bag, “Candy. I told you I was going out for candy.”
Ignoring the anger in his voice, she gestured for him to follow her into the living room, “Yes, but what sort did you get?”
“Why do you ask so many questions?” He pleated the top of the paper bag several times and then shoved it under his leg as he sat down on the couch across from her, “None of your business what sort of candy I buy. The candy’s mine – its identity is a secret for now.”
“Alright, I was just trying to make conversation.”
He sat up tall and laced the purple dog leash through his belt loops, hooking the leash’s metal clasp to one of the loops on the front of his pants. She said nothing as he wrapped the leash’s handle around his right wrist and tested the slight resulting restriction of his arm’s movements. Still sitting up straight and tall, he used the tethered hand to place the bell on his right thigh, and then he pressed a finger to the bell . . . Ding!
Ellen spoke into the echo, “What is that?”
“This? I should think it would be obvious. It’s a bell.”
“David, why do you have a bell?”
“The question is not why I have a bell, but why I am ringing the bell.” He rang it again . . . Ding!
“David, where did you get a bell?
“Jesus informs me that angels get their wings when humans suffer righteously.”
“That looks like the bell from the drugstore counter, David. Did you steal the bell?
Ding! Ding! Ding!
As the tolls vibrated in the air between them, David explained, “There are no possessions when all is of the Lord.”
“OK, so you stole a bell.” She cocked her head in question, “And so now what? Your plan is to wing some angels on the back of my belled suffering? Because the sound of that bell is already pissing me off.”
He straightened the looped handle of the leash so that it rested neatly against his wrist, “No, I have been assigned the job of notifying the angels when the suffering crests and offers flight to one worthy of soaring.”
She stared at him, “And so every time you ring the bell, an angel gets its wings?”
“That’s what Jesus tells me, yes. I am a messenger of suffering.”
“I’m never entirely sure if you are joking, David.”
Ding! Ding! Ding!
She sighed, “So you’re not joking.”
“And the leash?” She pointed at his wrist, “You stole the leash as well?”
David pulled the small white bag from beneath his leg, carefully unfolded the paper, and reached in for a piece of candy, which he slipped into his mouth. He held the bag out toward her, “Do you want one?”
She shook her head, “No thank you. The candy is yours. A secret, like you said.” She leaned to examine the purple nylon around his wrist, “This looks like a used leash. David, did you release a dog? Was there a dog attached to the end of this leash? Maybe outside the drugstore?”
“Animals cannot know the ecstasy of the bond.”
“Fuck. David, this is not good. People are going to remember you. People are going to ask questions. David, I thought we agreed you would behave. I thought we agreed you would talk to me before you did stuff Jesus told you to do.”
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! “Jesus informs me that you are interfering in my accomplishment of purpose.” He held up his leashed wrist, “Jesus allows me to play palindromic servant.”
She thought for a second . . . Dog . . . God . . . “Fuck. David . . . oh shit. David, listen to me. You can have the voice. You can keep the voice, but I have to come first. We have to come first, the two of us. We talked about this. You agreed. Jesus can’t be in charge. Please, David . . . say you understand.”
His face smoothed into childlike innocence, “Do you want a piece of candy?”
“No, David. David, I don’t want to talk about candy. You can’t fix this with candy.”
His features darkened, “I suspected as much.” Ding! “Did you know that the word religion comes from the Latin religare? It means to bind fast, to tie one to an obligation, to tether one’s hopes and dreams to faith.”
Ellen spoke quietly, “I did not know that. Jesus told you that? Jesus told you a leash was required to bind you to your duty?”
He offered her the bag of candy again, and she refused.
Ding! Ding! Ding!
“David, I think perhaps we need to take this voice of yours more seriously.”
He pitched his tone to hers, mocking her sympathy, “I think perhaps I have already been taking this voice of mine seriously, Ellen. He told me you could not be trusted. He told me to test you.”
“Jesus told you to test me?”
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! “As though you do not know. As though you did not reveal yourself to me.”
“David, what are you talking about?”
He extended his arm again to offer her the small white bag, his voice mocking now, “Would you like a piece of candy?”
He rested the bag on the couch beside him, “In ancient times, fish spoke of miracles. Jesus spoke to the fish and they spoke together of the miracles and they performed miracles and thousands were fed on the small red blood of a sacrificed few. Because others could not understand the words of Ichthys, the people attributed the miracles to Jesus alone, and because of the water barrier, Jesus and Ichthys allowed the misunderstanding to become truth.”
“David, you are not even a religious man. Who have you been talking to? Who is telling you this stuff?”
“I speak to Jesus.”
She wrung her hands, unsure what to say or do next, “What about the fish? Do you also speak to the fish?”
His steel-gray eyes bored into hers, “No, Ellen. The fish speak to me. They speak to me as they have spoken to countless others across the generations. Ichthys speaks to me of faithfulness. Ancient Christians used the sign of the fish as a symbol of their faith . . . they would scrawl its outline on meeting places. Under threat of persecution and death, the Christians turned to Ichthys and asked his help dividing friend from foe.”
“Jesus tells you this?”
“Jesus told me to test you. He offered me Ichthys to test you. He said that you would fail, and you have failed.”
“David . . .”
He threw his head back, ringing the bell over and over again as he spoke, “And now I am filled with suffering, and I ring the bell, and the angels fly.”
“David, what are you . . .”
The bell kept ringing.
He stood, leashed and belled, and walked to the front door and out of the house.
She stood at the window and watched him go.
Listened to him go.
Ding! Ding! Ding!
She walked back to the couch and sat down, picked up the small white paper bag, and looked within.
She stared into the tiny blood-colored school of fish.
Small red candy fish.
Realization dawned, and she picked up the phone.
Ellen’s voice shook, “Hello? Mom?” She listened for a few seconds, and then she shook her head, “No, I’m not alright. I thought I had things under control, but I was wrong. I need help, Mom. I didn’t know to eat the fish. I need help.” She ran trembling fingers through her hair, “Yes, Mom.”