A Time to Die (January 2009 Story of the Month)

by Eric Bennett

There's a righteous violence in me, a holy murder.

"Let us pray."

Everyone has a perfect death, a right ending to their life. And in each face, I see it—the way a person should expire.

"Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

For some it's the blue gasping of asphyxiation, the greedy gulp of drowning, or the warm bloodletting of a cutting blade. It would be wrong to devise a murder; rather, I allow homicidal images to appear like the face of a choir boy floating up from baptismal waters.

"Turn to page 276 and let us sing 'What a Friend We Have in Jesus.'"

I survey my congregation and imagine some of them in snapshots of crime scenes; Mr. Moeller's throat pig slit, Ms. Thigpen poisoned, Dr. Schundler's face shot off. These mental Polaroids are prayers.

I prefer communion mornings, all those faces tilted, throats exposed. Wafer swallowing. Wine sipping. I envisage my sheep's slaughter best in close proximity.

"The body of Christ broken for you."

"The blood of Christ shed for you"

Today's homily is from John 19, the crucifixion. Relishing the retelling of hammering nails, piercing sword, and the agonizing death of the son of God I emphasize phrases like "lamb to the slaughter." My passion paints a picture that has the blue-haired old ladies weeping and the spit-cleaned boys cringing at being nailed naked.

"It is finished."

I shake the hands of each parishioner as they leave. Piously receiving compliments on the morning message, I imagine their murder.

"God be with you."

"And also with you."

Monday morning in my walnut-walled office, Ms. Gruber informs me that hospital visits for the week have doubled. "And attendance is down by one third," she adds. "There's simply too much work for one man to do, Father."

I turn and look into Mrs. Gruber's melon face, "There is no greater love than a man lay down his life for his friends." Gazing at her halved cantaloupe countenance I wait for a revelation of her fatality.

And it comes.

Pulling into the hospital parking lot I say a quick prayer.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."

"Good to see you again, Father" chirrups the male nurse at the front counter.

"I'm here for Ms. Bender?"

"She'll appreciate the visit. Room 437."

"God bless you, son."

Sleeping, Ms. Bender is pressed into the bed by a single sheet. Thin skin and veined, her arms rest at her sides. She is frail and fading but the light above her bed halos her face saint-like.

Gently, I lift her lolling head with my left hand and withdraw the pillow. I kiss her on the forehead.

Then, I smother her.

There is a moment of clenching in her hands, but she passes peacefully. I wipe white sputum from the corner of her mouth, place the pillow beneath her dead head, and walk out of the room to the familiar alert of a life support system going haywire.

"Come unto me all ye who are weary and I will give you rest."

I don't turn to watch the nurses rush a crash cart into Ms. Bender's room; I do stop to get a bag of Doritos from the vending machine in the waiting room.

"I am the bread of life."

Driving back to the church I marvel that most people believe their days eternal, all evidence to the contrary. I suppose it's in our nature to entertain hope that somehow a miracle will always save us. This is why God sent me—to teach his children that all things must end.

"To everything there is a season: a time to live and a time to die."

In the moment I park my car, everything happens. Two police cars screech around the corner gravel sliding in front of me. One police car rushes up behind. Six doors fly open. Guns are ready-aiming. There is a bullhorn.

"Hands! Show us your hands. Now!"

I lift my hands.

"Get out of the car."

"Get out of the car."

In that moment I understand that God has rendered me powerless. And the miracle is to be that there will be no miracle. I am not spared this knowledge and yet, I welcome it.

Looking in the rearview mirror I see my own perfect death, my final act of mercy.

"Thanks be to God."

Lifting my hands, I step out of the car.

"Take six steps back and lay down."

I step forward.


I step forward again.

"One more step and I'll shoot."

I smile. And take one more step forward.


BIO: Eric Bennett in New York with his wife and four children. He loves fierce wounded things and beginning sentences with the word "and." His work appears or is forthcoming in several online literary and art journals including Foundling Review, The Battered Suitcase, Prick of the Spindle, PANK, and LITnIMAGE.