The Bishop leaned toward the vanity, tweezers poised, and considered two uncomfortable truths. The first was that he rather liked the vanity, a piece of furniture named in sin, and second, more alarming, was that he believed eels to have souls. Both, perhaps, distractions from the third realization: his eyebrows were exploding. They were whiter and more unruly by the day, a worry he usually dismissed; but today, given the breakfast company on the way, he dwelt.
He’d dropped the tweezers when the BBC announced that the world’s oldest eel had died. It’d expired in a well in Sweden, where mourners now gathered, piling flowers. It reminded the Bishop of the week flower piles had competed and then merged for Lady Di and Mother Teresa.
His excess eyebrows snowed onto the oak vanity, a piece of furniture that reminded him of the one commandment he couldn’t care less about, and more generally, his Biblical cherry-picking of late. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain, he’d tell his potty-mouthed grandson dutifully, cringing at each admonishing. He was grooming for that child this very morning, preparing to preside at the boy’s confirmation service. That’s what he told himself. That’s why he was perched at the vanity, a guest of the Archbishop in London, removed from his usual Sunday routine at Winchester Cathedral. Today: pluck eyebrows at Lambeth Palace, deliver sermon at Westminster Abbey, breakfast in between.
He’d been up late into the night, sitting cross-legged on the second story landing, a spot he doubted any Archbishop had paused, and drifted between rereading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and listening to the world go to shit on the radio: Gaza, Ukraine, some racist town across the pond in Missouri, and this ISIS thing, which supposedly made al-Qaeda child’s play. How to welcome his grandson into this world? The boy’s mother had done that years before at Royal London Hospital, but in the morning, the boy would become part of the world of the church.
This morning, the eel’s death punctuated the global updates, and suddenly the Bishop was adjusting the volume on both his iPhone and hearing aid. ISIS beheads an American journalist in Syria, and the world’s oldest eel dies at one-hundred-fifty-five. After the second story, the Bishop muted his hearing device, tuning out the world for a moment, and lowered his eyes to prayer, praying first for the eel’s mate, one-hundred-ten, now alone in the well. And then for the deceased creature itself. Lord have mercy on his soul. Eyebrows ready, he followed the prayer with a text message: “Sermon finished. Do come over for breakfast.”
Tea was laid before the two gentlemen at a green-marble table where the Bishop supposed Archbishops wrote their Westminster sermons. The Bishop ate Cheerios, while his guest dined on bacon.
“Diarmaid, I’m losing it,” the Bishop said. “This morning, I prayed for an eel. A dead eel. The eel’s soul, which I’ve spent my whole life understanding not to exist. When a fox ate Pip’s dalmatian puppy, I explained the dog wasn’t in heaven. But now.”
The theologian chuckled. “Cecil, oh Cecil. War would have done you well,” he said.
“And you’re one to talk,” the Bishop said.
“There’s perhaps no regret greater than failing to join the Royal Air Force,” the theologian said.
“I beg to differ,” said the Bishop.
“Your afterlife argument notwithstanding,” the theologian said.
The Bishop refilled the theologian’s tea. “Pip joins the church in two hours,” he said.
“Shall I edit your sermon?” the theologian asked. “Check for traces of the eel?”
“It’s bizarre to think that Pip will live to see what the church turns into,” the Bishop said.
“And you won’t be watching from heaven?” the theologian asked.
“I find myself believing less and less in a place you claim will be absent your company.”
“You old sap.” The theologian stood and rumpled the Bishop’s white hair. “Good luck this morning. I’ll be thinking of the eel and hoping you don’t embarrass Pip from the pulpit.” The theologian still attended the Bishop’s services in Hampshire, sometimes, but not on a morning like this, in London, a family affair, the day the last of his progeny joined the church.
The theologian nodded his quiet goodbye from the doorway and the Bishop felt better, but simultaneously worse, seeing that Diarmaid’s hair was likewise whitening. He couldn’t imagine a place without the man’s company. In fact, it was easier to imagine nothing at all: the void, the abyss, the nothing, those words that clamored to do the best they could, as the theologian put it. The theologian had believed once, had even been in line to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, and still the Bishop prayed nightly for his soul. He also prayed that the Lord would forgive the rush of joy he’d felt in learning that the theologian would need his help reconnecting with the Lord.
At the pulpit, the Bishop glanced down at the boys’ choir, trying to decide which child would introduce his grandson to cigarettes. Through their hymns, high-pitched and tiresome, his mind wandered back to the eel and its lonely mate. To have both World Wars pass, trapped in a well, that was one thing. But to face another half century of confinement alone?
The boys took turns leading prayer, and the Bishop smiled as Pip’s voice filled the Abbey. His eyes met his daughter’s, and his wife’s, all too proud to regard the moment as prayer. And then, behind them, he saw the thinning hair he knew so well. The theologian’s lips were tight, and for the first time, their eyes met during prayer. When Pip sat down, and the next boy took the lectern, the Bishop again bowed his head. He tapped at his iPhone: Kayak, Expedia. British Airways had a flight to Sweden this evening. By morning, that lonely eel would know the North Sea.
Patrice Hutton is the director of Writers in Baltimore Schools. She’s currently a graduate student in writing at Johns Hopkins University. Her writing appears in The Hairpin, Prime Number Magazine, Mount Hope Magazine, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, and Public Books. She tweets at @patricey.