The Preacher's Skull
When I left home, I didn’t speak to my father again until the day before he died. He had cancer. He called asking for a casket burial in the same graveyard where my grandfather was buried. I had him cremated. I did, however, keep the skull, because Grandmother asked me to. My grandmother was a wannabe Catholic. I wasn’t. I thought she must have wanted it for some burial rite. Instead, she kept it pickled inside an oversized mason jar.
My father was a Mormon preacher, a tall, pale man with sandy blonde hair in a dark suit and hat. He always wore an amused smirk with me as if he’d just caught me sinning, which I always was. I was Father’s daughter and an only child, a sin by itself. I ran away from home at fifteen when he tried marrying me off to a cousin twice my age who already had a kid. Father and I were similar creatures. I was a speechwriter for politicians, and through them I preached to the listless who wanted to believe in something. I also dressed in dark suits—men’s suits. I owned a bowler hat. And expats of Father’s church often said I could have been his clone, save for my dark skin, hair, and eyes. They were a gift from Grandmother—a Nicaraguan immigrant who didn’t believe in God but wanted to. She was eighteen when she and Grandfather married. He was twenty-eight.
I lived with Grandmother in Reno. She was a mystery writer. We shared a home office in her condo. Both of our spaces were mirror-images of each other, mahogany desks with Mac desktops and twin Japanese peace lilies. When Father died, Grandmother placed his skull on the corner of her desk by her peace lily. She tied a ribbon around the jar’s neck and positioned it to face her.
“I met your grandfather when I was fourteen,” Grandmother said. “My parents had passed before I even got to America. I was living with a family friend that I couldn’t stand. Your grandfather offered me salvation, a higher purpose,” she cackled. “Damn, I was a stupid teenager.”
My father was Grandmother’s only child. She’d sing him to bed, even though her voice was scratchy and off-key. But it was the only thing that made him sleep. When Grandmother was twenty-nine, she tried to escape with Father. She didn’t succeed because Father ratted them out to Grandfather and she had to leave him behind. Father held a grudge for that until the day he died, as if he had anyone to blame but himself. He’d suffered from insomnia ever since she left. I never told Grandmother. It would have troubled her.
Grandmother would sometimes talk to the skull as if it were Father. She baptized it. Taught it Spanish—really taught herself since she was no longer fluent. Read it Agatha Christie novels. Once, she even read it a first draft of her newest manuscript. Normally, my grandmother was a quiet, reserved woman. She was a virulent Atheist, or really an Anti-theist more than anything. She was only Catholic to spite Grandfather. I hardly heard her talk more than she did with Father’s skull. I asked why she did it and she shrugged and said it was because, for once, her son was finally a good listener. Father never liked listening to anything except the sound of his own voice. He certainly disliked mine, said it was too low and gravelly, that I sounded like an old hag who’d taken too many cigarettes. I appreciated the silence death forced upon him. A part of me was afraid that Grandmother’s yammering would compel him to respond.
There was a week where I was left alone with the skull. My grandmother went to a Mystery Writers of America conference, sitting on some panel for small-press published authors. Grandmother asked that I take care of my father. It was the first and only time she ever asked me to take care of anything. She didn’t even usually trust me to take care of the apartment on my own, hiring a housekeeper in her absence.
Grandmother told me to keep the skull at my desk, and I did. I’d never realized just how ugly my father was until I had to consider his features in skull form. His cheekbones were long and gaunt, his eye sockets too wide and sunken. His chin was sharp and pointed like a blade. I wondered if the same hideousness was reflected in my face. I had to take a benzo.
To make him less unsettling, I made Father a top hat made of paper-mache. I made it Father’s least favorite color—salmon pink. I decorated it with tiny chartreuse buttons and a chartreuse ribbon. I added a mini ace pin. Then I glued the top hat to the top of the mason jar and smirked.
“You look like a little gentleman now,” I said.
“You might almost look as good as me.”
Of course I do. You have my good genes.
My grin widened, then fell. I sighed, tore the top hat off the mason jar, then threw the top hat into the recycling bin. Then I felt bad about throwing away half an hour of work and stuffed the top hat into a drawer instead. I wiped down the top of the mason jar with a Kleenex. Then I covered it with a rag.
When Grandmother came back, she complained that I’d neglected the skull.
“You have to talk to him or he’ll get lonely,” she said. “And what’s with the rag?”
I shrugged. “I just didn’t want to look at him.”
Grandmother scoffed. “You look at him every day in the mirror.”
When I first ran away to Grandmother, she thought I was Father. She was high at the time—she was high most days. A part of me wondered if she wanted me to be Father. Even when she knew I wasn’t him, she still occasionally called me by his name, gave me clothes she thought would fit him, called me her “little doll,” the same pet name she’d given him. She once even sang me to sleep. Grandmother’s debut novel had been about a woman whose missing son mysteriously reappeared ten years later. Maybe she saw, in me, fiction becoming fact.
With the skull, it was as if her son had been returned to her twice. One son was antisocial and stubborn, just like her. The other was quiet, restrained, also like her, only he was a better listener. How could I compete with a skull? They couldn’t complain about oversharing or about what was for dinner. Skulls could be wonderful sons in a way they couldn’t be wonderful parents. Father couldn’t give me advice. He couldn’t be there at the college graduations he’d already missed. He couldn’t console me when I was anxious or depressed. He was dead.
One day, Grandmother went out for groceries while I was struggling with writer’s block while writing a speech for a former pastor-turned-gubernatorial candidate. Sarcastically, I asked Father for advice, asked him to demonstrate the kind of fear-mothering sermon he would spread if he were running for governor. Father, of course, stayed silent.
“You’re never quiet,” I said.
I picked him up.
“You won’t take your chance to say your piece?”
For twenty years, Father must have waited to call me a sodomite. A sinner. A slut. I was right in front of him now. He could say whatever he wanted.
But he didn’t.
When I was thirteen, I prayed for a day with Father where the Lord compelled him to silence. I had my wish granted later that evening. I was reading him a passage out of Leviticus as punishment for some long-forgotten slight. It was dark. It was raining outside. Father sat upon a lumpy brown armchair while I read at his knees. He was as stiff and stern as a corpse. I hardly noticed, focused on finishing the passage. At first, when I realized he wasn’t listening, I thought he was dead. That was how still he was. I felt his pulse, realized he was just sleeping. I was afraid to leave, lest he wake up. And so I rested my head on his lap and napped.
When I woke up again, he was stroking my hair. But he was still asleep. I wished he could stay like that forever. Asleep. Still. Dead. It’s easier to pretend that way. I should have paralyzed him. Thrashed him with a blunt object. Cut out his tongue. I loved him, but not enough to ruin him. To silence him, the way he sought to silence me, silence Grandmother. I knew he didn’t silence us because he loved us, but silence could be love. Or at least it could substitute for love. It’s why men sought silence from their wives and children. And it’s why God was so beloved. You couldn’t hear him.
Now I held Father in my palms, a false idol. He was lighter than I thought he’d be. A permanent smirk was etched in his jaw. I almost threw him against the wall. Almost. But I didn’t. For a brief second, I saw my face in the reflection of the glass. It perfectly matched the skull. I clenched the jar so hard I thought it would crack. There was one difference between us.
“I’m still here,” I said. “Still exist.”
I shook the skull in such a way that it seemed to nod.
I finished the speech with platitudes about family, about the values Nevada is raising children to hold, about the youth outgrowing their parents. When I finished, I picked up the mason jar again. When I shook it a certain way, the skull’s jaw flapped up and down like a dummy. I puppeteered the skull around while speaking my speech aloud, laughing as I made it mouth the words. I was so engrossed that I didn’t even see my Grandmother standing at the door. She was smiling at us, thumbing a rosary against her chest.
“My little doll,” she said.
I couldn’t tell if she meant me or the skull.
Pushcart Prize and Best of Net nominee Bryana Lorenzo is a Cuban and Nicaraguan American short story writer. She’s had her fiction featured in Outlander Zine, The Graveyard Zine, Rhodora Magazine, Le Château Magazine, The Literary Canteen, Pile Press, Agapanthus Collective, Novus Literary Arts Journal, io Lit, The Talon Review, White Wall Review, Birdie Zine, Occulum Journal, Caustic Frolic Magazine, Same Faces Collective, and Art of Life Magazine. Her work is also forthcoming in As Alive Journal. She’s currently attending UCLA for Political Science