Veil of the Cross by Caitlin Rae Taylor
In Caitlin Rae Taylor’s “Veil of the Cross,” narrator Cat ushers us into the hazy dreamscape of adolescence, a liminal space of burgeoning friendships, self-identity, and lust. Taylor writes of confusion and stumbling and fear, yes; but, also, rage and power: “We wanted to be gods,” Cat announces in the opening paragraph. “Or at least I did.”
Taylor’s story, set at a church retreat in the mountains of North Carolina, sits beautifully within the tradition of exploring the raw tension and desire at the precipice of womanhood. Readers see glimmers of Julie Buntin’s Marlena here, as well as Emma Cline’s The Girls and Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville. But “Veil of the Cross” works its own magic, weaving a narrative path toward new, nuanced questions that not only ask who Cat will become, but what will be lost in the process. She is not merely learning how to make herself new—in the eyes of her friends and the one particular boy who circles, then enters, her life—but also learning what remains once her sense of identity is stripped bare. As Taylor writes in her author’s note, “I wanted this story to ask: When is the right time to grow out of childhood? And when our own false image of ourselves dies, what are we left with?”
At the sentence level, Taylor explores these questions with stunning prose, using vivid imagery that grants us access to the heady atmosphere and tactile sensations of Cat’s life during this specific weekend. The language becomes a study of contrasts: Cat’s angular figure and fuzzy, unbrushed teeth versus her friends’ curves and shimmering lip gloss; the unnaturally immaculate landscape of the suburbs versus the dilapidated structures and slick rotting apples of the retreat; the drunken revelry of the congregation versus Cat’s parents’ carefully crafted public identities. Much like any good storyteller, Cat’s powers of observation are sharp, and Taylor’s use of the first person and her protagonist’s interiority create an all-consuming ride. —CRAFT
We wanted to feed the bees. We wanted this privilege every year, but only when we were blanketed safely in the hills. We wanted something small and threatening to need us, so we could decide whether it deserved our benevolence. Here, on this mountain, at this annual church retreat, we wanted to be gods. Or at least I did.
That October morning, we girls rose with the sun, well before the breakfast bell rang, all the adults still prostrate on their mattresses, asleep beneath the thin, white quilts in each retreat center bedroom of the Annex. I woke first in my family’s room with its rough wood walls, tiptoeing past my mother and father as they snored from their separate beds. They’d requested a larger room this year so they could continue their recent trend of sleeping apart. They knew I would lead a small band of girls down to the apple tree. They knew, by sunrise, their daughter would be engulfed in a swarm. I liked to think my little philanthropic missions made them proud.
I met my fellow do-gooders outside the mess hall just across from the Main House, its stone foundation barely visible in the dawn light. I breathed in the cold air and pulled my hot pink windbreaker tight around my chest. I was always the first to arrive, the mastermind of our yearly ritual. In kindergarten, Mrs. Waverly had told us the bees were dying, and since Valle Crucis was a place of holiness, I figured we were called to do our part here. I was the priest’s daughter, after all. What was I for, if not service?
Not long after the sun broke, I heard a screen door slam, then Lark and Willa rounded the corner from the Main House. Back home, these girls lived in the richer part of town. They went to private schools, were instructed by different grown-ups with different sets of rules. Lark was a soccer champion and hated the sticky floors of movie theaters. Willa’s dad made a bunch of money working for Bank of America and lived in a gated community you couldn’t even drive through unless you knew the special code.
But in the domain of the church, none of their money mattered. On Sunday mornings, they fell in line behind me, their priest’s daughter. Holder of a mystical connection to the divine they had no choice but to envy. During church events I wasn’t the shy bookworm who dressed in oversized T-shirts during gym to hide my angular body. In my church, and especially, here on the mountain, I mattered. All church families were in attendance, and being at the Valle Crucis Episcopal Conference Center was akin to the freedom of summer camp. The adults let us roam unsupervised. And so years ago, Lark, Willa, and I began this early-morning mission. A feast for these insects.
“You’re late,” I said, eyeing Willa’s new Coach tennis shoes, pink and slim and stitched with that recognizable C. I kicked at the loose gravel with my grungy gray Sketchers. Lark had secured her auburn hair with a sparkly barrette; a swipe of shimmering gloss wet her lips. Her hair, normally a mass of curls, lay silky and straightened against her cheeks. I ran the tip of my tongue along my unbrushed teeth, trying to dislodge the fuzz from the night before.
“Are bees even awake this early?” Willa tugged at the hem of her too-thin blouse. Usually she wore a thick sweatshirt. This blouse was practically sheer and wouldn’t protect her from the cold. It clung to the newly formed curves of her body. Who had taught her to dress this new body? Would someone teach me, when it was my turn?
Lark inspected her cuticles. “Do bees even sleep?”
“Of course bees don’t sleep,” I snapped in an authoritative way, mimicking my father, even though I had no idea. “They’re bees.” The girls had never questioned me before. Just like my parents had never gone this long without reconciling.
The girls nodded and fell into their roles as followers. We descended single file down the grassy hill of the Main House’s front lawn, the building’s yellow paint chipped from time, its massive windows blank with sleep. In the cradle of the lawn’s basin grew a wild apple tree. Small and scraggly, not well tended by the retreat center staff, but to us it may as well have been the burning bush. We came from suburbs with privacy fences and manicured lawns and invasive nonnative decorative plants like periwinkles and Spanish bluebells. Vegetation with a purpose was alien to us. These apples weren’t supermarket apples, nestled in neat rows with recognizable names: Pink Lady, McIntosh, Red Delicious. This tree was unclassifiable. This tree was mysticism. This tree was our pilgrimage.
We started with the fallen fruit. Mid-October in the North Carolina mountains was not the tree’s time to flourish, but rather to retire, and a multitude of moldering apples lay at the base of its trunk, their mealy spots oozing brown fluid. These bruised apples were the easiest to crush, and we weren’t too precious to touch them with our bare hands, or to wipe our sticky palms on the sides of our sweatpants.
We gathered heaps of half-rotted fruit in our arms and dumped them carefully onto the flat cinder blocks surrounding the firepit. As the sun rose, we carried out our business, smashing the soft apples beneath our shoes. Strings of hair stuck to Lark’s lip gloss, and her fancy barrette fell into the sea of grass around us. Putrid apple juice discolored Willa’s designer shoes, with bits of fruit flesh stuck to the fabric.
“My father’s going to kill me,” she said, and Lark threw her a sympathetic look.
“Why?” I positioned another apple beneath my own ruined shoe.
“Don’t you know how much Coach shoes cost?” Willa said, a bit of spit flying from her mouth. “Over a hundred dollars.”
“What idiot would wear tennis shoes you can’t get dirty?” I couldn’t recognize myself in the cruelty of this response, but then I thought of the last fight my parents had had back at home. I realized then that my entire body felt as if I were about to slip from solid ground, and somehow, insulting Willa helped steady me.
Willa rolled her eyes and stomped another apple. I exhaled a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.
I was the only one who laughed when the bees arrived. We watched them swarm to the sweet nectar. Slow and lazy from the onset of autumn cold, the bees whirled drunkenly before landing to drink. Willa and Lark jumped away to the clean cinder blocks when the numbers grew, squealing and swatting at the air. We usually danced with them, unafraid. Six years of this ritual and none of us had ever been stung. But all of a sudden my girls were delicate and frightened.
The rock shattered us like a window, each of us a shard scattering in different directions. We ducked as it whizzed from the top of the hill and came to rest in the center of our mess, spattering our clothes in sweet, sticky goop. Willa and Lark leaped gracefully onto the grass, but I slipped, bruising my backside against the slick concrete, sour wet seeping into my underwear. I lay there, winded, as laughter descended from the hill.
Lark brushed at her stained shirt. “Not cool, Logan,” she said. “Not cool.”
Willa gave her expensive shoes a watery stare and bit her lip.
Logan, an older boy we had all known since we were babies, skipped down the hill and rocked on his feet in front of Willa. He swiped an errant polyp of apple flesh from her cheek. Her face flamed as she whispered a hushed thank you to this boy who had just tested out his homemade slingshot on us. He grinned at all of us, little girls playing in our muck.
“Cool off, it was just a joke,” Logan said to Lark. He winked at her from under a fan of thick black lashes. Lark’s face reddened. I sat up. Why had I never noticed his eyelashes?
Logan had been our friend once. We had run together through sprinklers, built sandcastles, ridden home from playdates in his mom’s SUV. Back then, we’d all had the same wiry legs and passion for make-believe. Now: his newfound aloofness, his hairy upper lip, his playful cruelty.
Lark looked away, gave a weak laugh, and picked the matted ends of hair out of her gummy lip gloss. The corners of Willa’s mouth twitched upward. Then, somehow, they were all laughing together. At me. Flipping their beautiful hair and drawing closer to one another, facing me, compelled by the shared joke of my bruised body.
Willa doubled over, tears in her eyes now.
“You really should see yourself, Cat,” she said. “Shouldn’t she, Logan?”
Logan smirked. “You girls won’t last a day in seventh grade next year if you keep playing with Barbies.”
“This isn’t like Barbies,” I said, trying but failing to get myself on my feet as I slipped in the sludge. A ring of yellowjackets hovered at the edge of the feast.
“Middle school girls don’t play pretend,” Logan said.
“What do you know about any girls, Ogie?” I spat his old nickname at him, the one he’d abandoned when he turned fourteen and started growing tiny calf muscles from soccer, dark hairs thickening on his shins.
“I know boys like me don’t like it when girls like you smell like old fruit,” he said.
Willa snorted, tried to bite back her smile.
Lark stopped laughing and leaned down to help me up. “Come on, Cat,” she said. “Let’s go get ready for breakfast.”
I followed her and tried to block out Logan and Willa’s giggles as they watched me go, the seat of my pants stained dark with juice, I was sure. Still, all the bees alive now. Alert. Calling in a unison hum after the ponytailed gods who fed them.
At night we used to give the adults makeovers. Pulling them from their rocking chairs in the Main House. Luring them into the Annex’s common room with the promise of glitter and purple cream eyeshadow that smelled of clay and burnt plastic. Usually they came willingly after half a bottle of wine. One year my father even let us paint his fingernails, leading worship the following morning with his gold nails winking in the fresh sunlight. The sight had made my mother giggle all through the service.
Tonight, Lark and Willa were nowhere to be found. The Annex was strangely quiet, except for me, sitting in the center of my bed, a cornucopia of cheap makeup spread out around me. I chewed the inside of my lip. I’d never had to wait for Lark and Willa when it came to makeover night. It was their favorite activity of the entire retreat. I pushed the mountain of makeup aside and headed to the Main House in search of my girls.
After around 9:00 p.m., the Main House was no longer family friendly. Episcopalians are famous for their embrace of alcohol. Every church event I’ve ever attended always involves at least one case of wine. And at Valle Crucis, far from their jobs and mortgages and other responsibilities, my father’s flock imbibed generously. Tipsy fireside sing-alongs became tuneless, drunken shouting. I never had the desire to see the grandmothers I’d known since birth stumbling between tables, wine spilling from their glasses, cheap glitter smeared across their cheeks. It was a preview of adulthood I preferred to ignore. I had been taught by my parents to always have control over myself, to always be aware that the congregation was watching. That God was watching. If he was feeling indulgent, my father would have half a glass of white wine. My mother would nurse a weak gin and tonic with extra lime juice while she played checkers with Deacon Sally. They were vigilant, my parents, never letting their flock see the tender smooth of their underbellies.
Tonight, the Main House smelled of sweat and hot cheese, but my parents were also nowhere to be found. Adults sat on couches and wooden rocking chairs huddled around the crackling fire. Laughter and conversation drowned the sound of Lark’s brother strumming a guitar in the corner. Thick wooden tables were covered in empty wine glasses, half-finished games of chess or rummy, and an assortment of tinfoil-covered Tupperware, their contents mostly consumed. Willa and Lark weren’t on the ground floor, and suddenly I was too tired to climb the stairs and find them.
I edged past the adults, all too far gone to sit for a makeover. I raided the kitchen for a snack sugary enough to help carry me through the many disappointments of this year’s retreat. But instead of finding an uneaten pan of brownies or a canister of caramel corn, I found Logan bent over the kitchen sink, pouring a bottle of blueberry beer into a clear plastic cup.
I leaned against the doorframe with my arms crossed. “Be a shame if your parents found out their fourteen-year-old was a drunk,” I said. I thought the line sounded slick, like something someone in a movie might say.
Logan laughed, unbothered, and continued to pour. “My parents are passed out in their rooms. They don’t give a shit.”
I straightened my shoulders and cleared my throat. People rarely cussed around me, priest’s daughter and all. Something about this new teenage Logan dulled my power. The way other church kids held their tongues or changed their minds when I was around. The way they shrank so I could stand that much taller. So unlike the kids at school who spoke over me in class, who picked me last for kickball in gym.
“Don’t you care what God thinks?” My parents had not raised me to be judgmental of others, only judgmental of myself. But how else could I regain the footing I’d somehow lost here? How else could I remind Logan that I was important?
Logan snorted. “Here,” he said, handing me the cup of the frothy beer. The bright purple foam fizzed and popped.
Then he pulled another beer from the six-pack next to the sink, another plastic cup from its stack. He poured his own drink, took a long sip while I watched.
I asked, “Have you seen Lark and Willa?” I stood there with the cup in my hand, unsure what to do with it or myself. Every moment of the retreat had been outlined years ago. There were traditions to be kept. And this year they’d all been soiled.
“Willa’s dad found her new Coach shoes all covered with gunk and grounded her for the night,” Logan said. “I tried to get Lark to sing some karaoke with me, but she got embarrassed and ran upstairs after she murdered ‘Baby One More Time.’
“Girls,” he said with a shrug, as if, like his guy friends, I shared his understanding of the world. “Come on. Let’s sneak out back. There’s a fire.”
I followed him back through the main room of chattering adults. I wrapped both hands around my plastic cup, trying to shield its contents. My heart raced, but no one looked at me, and an unfamiliar thrill surged through me. I spent most of my time trying to figure out what adults expected of me and how to execute those expectations, not how to defy them. Without that pressure and without my regular role as pious ringleader of the church girls, I felt unhinged from my body. I floated above myself, struggling to fit back into the boundaries of my limbs.
And suddenly we were outside, where someone had built and then abandoned a fire in the firepit. The morning’s apples had been cleared away, and for the first time, I wondered whose job it was clean up our mess.
Still, I had smuggled my first bit of contraband past all the people who were supposed to guide me, and it had been far easier than I’d expected. I sat next to Logan on a warmed cinder block and stared into my cup.
“How many times have you done this?” I asked him.
“Done what?” He sipped his beer and looked into the crackling fire.
He snorted another laugh. “A little too much for you, Bee Queen?”
“No,” I said, hoping the glow from the fire hid my flushed neck. I brought the plastic cup up to my face and breathed in. The drink smelled sweet and yeasty, like communion wine. I tipped the cup up and let a large gulp slide down my throat. It went down bitter and burning, but I swallowed my cough. I took another sip, which tasted smoother, and then turned to see Logan watching me. His facial expressions had become a mystery to me, but if asked at that moment, I would have said he looked impressed.
“Tasty,” I said.
“You’re such a dork,” he said, but his voice was light and the fire cast pleasing shadows against his face.
I didn’t think about boys very often. Not much about them interested me. Usually I found myself only judging their aesthetics when I was around Lark or Willa. Like I didn’t know I was meant to be intrigued by them until other girls reminded me. But Logan wasn’t just a boy anymore. He was headed to high school soon, a place I had barely thought about because it seemed I might die before I made it there. Like the future was a channel my television could not receive, the screen of it fuzzy and loud. Willa’s new curves. Logan’s new muscles. Lark’s glossy new hair. They were all changing faster than I was. And these changes made them blind to my power. My power came from the church, from my father, and I’d never thought it would dwindle. But the way Logan was looking at me now—like I was important again, like I mattered to him in a new way.
This evening, he had chosen me to keep him company, when he could have just as easily chosen someone else. The rock, the slingshot—these were details supplemental to the story of how Logan might come back to me. And once he came back, Lark and Willa would too. Everything would be as it once was. I tried to think of something important to say, something that would stick in his mind and make him think of me when he was alone. I didn’t know what boys did when girls weren’t around, but suddenly it seemed very important that he remembered this night once it was over. That he remembered I was the one who had stolen beer with him. That I was the one who sat with him in the dark.
“So you really into all this God stuff?” he asked.
“Aren’t you?” I said, my voice small.
He took a huge swig of beer, seeming to down half his cup in one go. “I don’t know. I used to be. But it just seems kinda lame, you know?”
“Yeah, totally.” The words tumbled out, surprised me.
“So why do you do it then? Act all high and mighty? Because you’re kinda cute. And kinda funny. You don’t have to act superior.”
Something twisted in my gut. For the first time as The Priest’s Daughter, I had no idea what to say. All that ran through my mind was: he thinks I’m cute. In response, I chugged the rest of my beer and everything lightened just a little.
“Family pressure, huh?” he said, but his voice was dull again, disinterested. Already he was bored with me, the novelty of my beer theft worn thin. “Makes sense. Your parents are like Stepford people. All perfect and stuff. So boring.”
“My mom threw a casserole dish at my dad once,” I blurted.
“Woah, seriously?” Logan turned to me, his full eyebrows high on his face, his eyes wide. My heart thundered.
“Yeah. He ducked and it shattered against the wall.”
“What did he do after?”
“He threw a vase on the ground,” I said. I could still see the pink roses against the kitchen tile, lying in a puddle of stagnant water and broken glass. He had bought them for their anniversary.
“Do they do that a lot?”
“No,” I answered honestly. “Mostly, they don’t talk much. Anymore.”
“Man,” Logan said, then tossed his empty cup into the fire. “Who woulda thought? Marital problems with the Father.”
I opened my mouth to refute him. I wanted to tell him my parents didn’t need to talk that much. That they sat in pleasant silence, reading together on the couch, my mother’s feet propped on my father’s lap. His hand resting on her shin, slipped inside her pant leg. I wanted to tell him that after they threw the casserole dish and the vase, they apologized and spent the evening cleaning up broken glass together. But I would have also had to tell him those were not the first dishes broken in anger in our household. I would have to tell him about my mother’s night terrors, about the pills she sometimes had to take. I would have to tell him about how scary my father was when he yelled, even if it wasn’t very often.
I didn’t tell him any of these things. To the church people, my family was not flesh and bone. We were porcelain dolls that came to life on Sunday morning. I wasn’t supposed to sneak around with boys and steal beer, much less hope to be kissed. I was supposed to feed the bees. I was supposed to be an acolyte on Sunday mornings and keep my white dress clean. I was supposed to be a magnificent cross mounted behind an altar for other girls to see and emulate.
I shrugged and threw my cup in the fire alongside Logan’s. Watched them both as they slowly melted in the heat, breaking down, becoming unmade. Becoming less of what they were meant to be.
It was okay that Logan didn’t kiss me that night. These things don’t happen like they do on TV or in books. One night by the campfire, two cups of stolen alcohol, one small confession. It wasn’t enough, but it was a start. He thought I was cute. He thought I was funny.
I didn’t meet Lark and Willa down by the apple tree the next morning. Instead, I watched them through my window, their shadows muddy behind warped glass. I thought maybe they might start without me, but the Sunday morning worship bell called them away. I felt sorry for them. Their lip gloss and expensive shoes, their tight blouses and unoriginality. They couldn’t do one thing without me. They tried so hard to be what they thought boys wanted; and here I was, pocketing my secret night with Logan like a stone.
I joined Lark on the front porch of the Main House where my father stood behind a makeshift altar—a card table draped with cheap linen. My mother sat at his side, and I wondered if the congregation knew they’d slept in different beds for the entire retreat. Looking at them now, my mother gazing doe-eyed up at my father, my father smiling down on her like Jesus, it seemed impossible there could be anything the matter with them at all.
“Where were you?” Lark asked. We stood at the back of the congregation, leaving the rocking chairs for the adults.
I shrugged and smiled. Keeping an air of mystery, letting her wonder what I got up to when she wasn’t around.
“So we’re done feeding the bees then?” she said, crossing her arms.
“I think we are,” I said, satisfied, like I had grown five years older over the weekend, like I had left Lark and Willa behind on my way to becoming a woman.
“Thank God,” Lark said, rolling her eyes. “I’ve been waiting for you to get tired of that stupid thing for years.”
“Feeding the bees. Like. It was fine when we were kids, but now it’s just messy and kinda dumb, don’t you think? They’re bees. I’m sure they can, like, get their own food, you know?”
“But….” The renewed superiority leaked out of me. “I thought you guys loved it.”
“Honestly, we hate it,” Lark said. “We’ve just been waiting for you to grow out of it. We didn’t wanna hurt your feelings. So glad we can move on. Hey, did you hear I sang karaoke with Logan last night? He told me I was funny. I think he likes me. And Willa found a cigarette in her dad’s suitcase and smoked it when she was supposed to be grounded. Can you believe it? What did you do last night?”
“N-nothing,” I said. “Nothing important. I’m, um. I’m going to go find Willa.”
At the center of the porch, Lark’s older brother began to strum “Amazing Grace” on the guitar. My father lifted his heavenly arms, draped in white robes, and his flock rose to their feet. My mother led the song, her clear voice soaring over the crowd. I had never missed a Sunday service before in my life, but I left them there then, my perfect parents, to do their jobs. To make the people in their image.
I descended the porch stairs and rounded the corner to the main lawn where no one would see the hot tears on my face. What was I, if not for service? Who was I, if not a leader? If not the mold by which other girls should make themselves? I hugged my arms around my body, thinking perhaps I might not be for anything at all.
I spotted them before I made my way down the hill. Willa and Logan beneath the apple tree. Logan’s new slingshot and Willa’s sweater lay abandoned on the gravel drive. There among the rotting fruit, they whispered to one another, their foreheads pressed together, their noses almost touching. Willa’s shoulders were smooth and tan, womanly. Logan reached up and lay a palm on the exposed flesh. I shivered at the secondhand intimacy. She would be telling him about the cigarette she stole the night before. She would be telling him about all the other boys she had kissed. He would be telling her about how he made a fool of the priest’s daughter. How he tricked her into stealing beer and letting loose the mundane secrets of her parents’ marriage. The ones that made them just like everyone else.
It wasn’t until they kissed that I even knew I’d picked up the slingshot in one hand, a rock from the gravel drive in the other. It wasn’t until Logan’s tongue found its way into Willa’s mouth that I felt the rock spring loose from the rubber. And when the rock kissed the soft well of Logan’s temple, I thought how odd the blood looked racing down his cheek. That lurid red, like apples beneath my feet.
CAITLIN RAE TAYLOR is a writer, editor, and designer based in the southern United States. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of North Carolina Wilmington where she served as the fiction editor for Ecotone and the publishing assistant for Lookout Books. She has also worked with nonprofit press Milkweed Editions and was a resident at the Taleamor Park Writers and Artists Residency near La Porte, Indiana. She is currently the editor of Southern Humanities Review and the art director/designer for Press Pause Press. Her fiction, book reviews, and interviews can be found or are forthcoming in Cotton Xenomorph, Pacifica Literary Review, The Adroit Journal, Hobart, Moon City Review, the Alabama Writers’ Forum, Southern Humanities Review online, and Germ Magazine. She is at work on a short story collection.
Featured image by Brad Huchteman courtesy of Unsplash