Wilbur read the Gospel of John every night before crashing into the pillow. He had been doing this since he was 9 years old, because that’s what his grandfather taught him to do. He was always exhausted after reading it, and he didn’t know why. After shutting the 3 pounds of leather-bound pages, Wilbur knelt down at his bedside to pray, like he and his father used to do before bed. After rising, he would nestle into the covers, overcome with the feeling that he would fall asleep on the pit of the ocean and never wake up.
Wilbur hadn’t made the decision to become a priest. God had deci
ded for him. He had been gazing at the trichrome stained glass o
n the ceiling at mass, in one of those Sunday evening dazes. Craning his neck, the Nativity scene started to swirl across his retina. Mary, Joseph and Jesus animated in a slow dance. Wilbur interpreted it as a sign from the Holy Spirit. He marked this moment in his life as his “call to service.” He wouldn’t yet label it as his first loss of control.
The Catholic Diocese of Knoxville had rented out Deep Valley Retreat for its annual Spring Seminary Formation retreat. Located in the Smoky Mount
ains, it was the ideal remote, spiritual setting. No distractions to get between the seminarians and God.
At 9am, all 23 of the future pastors gathered for commencement in the communal area, lanky bodies hunched in prayer, crammed 5 to a wooden bench. The pavilion was enveloped by tall sugar maples, towering above them intimidatin
gly, forming a halo around them. “This is it,” their Bishop had beseeched after opening prayer. “You are stewards. This is the week that will cement your
decision, grace you with the strength for your Holy journey. Use this precious time on God’s ground to grow in your Fellowship with Christ.”
Wilbur’s throat tightened at those words. He had never made any real decision for himself before he decided to enter the seminary. He was 18 years old. This was the beginning of the rest of his holy, pious life. He
was going to be a steward. A steward for God’s people. It sounded right. He peered up towards the sky, foliage and branches woven together in a web, the golden morning light dripping through the greenery like honey. He took it as an auspicious omen. God wants me here, he thought.
Fiona hoped Deep Valley Resort would be like stepping into a 1970s micro music festival. Analog clocks and corded phones. Plaid couches, yellow walls, and linoleum countertops. Of course, Fiona’s semblance of ‘70s style was derived from Vintage instagram accounts. Deep Valley had recently upgraded its
PR from Word of Mouth to Bookings.com, in a desperate final leap for financial security. Its ratings were mediocre at best. “The woods are a good distraction from the stale stench in the room,” was a recurring online review.
“Okay, Mom, I’ll go,” Fiona had conceded after browsing the website.
The outside cabin would be a great backdrop for an instagram photo with the sepia tone filter. Retro. She just needed to pack a flannel, perch herself on the cabin porch steps, and blow some bubblegum for the shot.
Wilbur saw the delicate evening light imbuing the grounds
in a rosy haze from his cabin window. His temples were drumming with pain. He needed to get outside. Wilbur slipped on his Birkenstocks and headed right for the woods. He
inhaled the sharp woodsy air and considered turning back for his Bible. It would be a beautiful night for a Lectio Divina passage study. He quickly deduced it would be too heavy, and sprung off of the cabin porch in one leap.
The spring breeze was cool on his face. Wilbur perceived it a
s God’s breath on his cheeks. The winds softened as he became enrobed by the forest. A slender dirt walking trail appeared amidst the tree trunks. Wilbur took it, and let his feet carry him forward. He felt alive. For the first time in his life, he had no idea where he was going. The idea inebriated him, and the lush greenery seduced him deeper into the woods. 30 minutes passed. An hour. It went from dusk t
o dark in a heartbeat, the dense forest consuming the sun’s lasting rays. The temperature dropped 15 degrees in five minutes, and he could feel his toes numbing. He was grounded by the steady murmur of crickets, a chorus of “keep going.”
Wilbur turned on his phone’s flashlight, aiming it at the ground in front of him. There is nothing more stark than a piercing artificial light in the middle of the wilderness. A lantern would have been more appropriate.
He saw her then. A slender silhouette 20 yards in front of him. Orange light emanating an ethereal glow behind her. Long hair tumbling down. He inched closer, feeling like a foreign settler encroaching on a native’s precious land. He got close enough to discern that this woman was dancing in front of a fire. A bonfire, they were called? She was swaying rhythmically from side to side, letting her head fall to either side o
f her like it was weightless. Wilbur knew this was the most magical sight he had ever seen. A creature so fully at peace with herself. It was like spying on an angel during her free time, eavesdropping without words.
Wilbur advanced closer, hearing music reverberating through the trees. A song
he didn’t recognize. As he listened closer, he discerned the offbeat rhythm characteristic of reggae. Who was that artist? Bob Marley? Wilbur’s family didn’t listen to music much, only Christmas music and the occasional pop song on the Christian channel radio. Wilbur stopped adjacent to a large maple tree to observe, with about 5 trees staggered in between them. He was entranced by her graceful movements, the music taking her like the ocean carrying driftwood to shore.
The song ended then, and her body gradually stilled. She flipped her hair, glancing to her left. Their eyes locked then.
“Hey!” Fiona bellowed. “Who’s there? I thought I was alone!” she stammered, a discernible embarrassment to her voice.
“Sorry, sorry,” Wilbur murmured, his voice shaking. “I was just walking here, I don’t know, there’s this path-”
“I’m Fiona,” she offered naively, her eyes scanning his figure. “I’m just staying over here with my family, we had a bonfire, I got carried away I guess. Have you been watching for a while? What’s your deal?”
Despite his heart racing, Wilbur moved closer to the fire. They were close now, just feet apart, the dwindling bonfire the only buffer between them.
“No, no, I just, it’s pretty dark, I guess I was attracted to your fire, I mean, no,
just, I don’t know this place-”
“Oh, gotcha, you’re lost. Well, I was kind of creeped out you know! Are you a serial killer or what?!” Fiona questioned, tacking on a grin and nervous laugh at the end.
The embers of the fire crackled, filling the stiffness between them. Wilbur was stunned into silence. He had never spoken with a girl before whom he didn't know already from school, or youth group, or his extended family.
“Uh, no no, sorry, I’m here for a retreat. I’ll go back now, I really should find
my way back-” Wilbur glanced behind him, as if he knew where he needed to go. He had no clue how to get home, not the slightest sense of direction. Fiona had disoriented him, knocked the wind right out of him. He felt lightheaded all of a sudden. But his feet kept him planted, right there, in front of this angelic face.
“A retreat! For what? Like rehab? Boy Scouts? Church? You look freezing! If you want, I can get you a blanket or something, you can hang here by the fire and warm up.”
Fiona was entranced. This guy had an adorable sheepish expression, doe-eyed and embarrassed. His tall frame was adorned in sweatpants and a waffle knit henley long sleeve tee. Jesus sandals on his feet. She loved seeing boys in their pajamas. Even more, she loved seeing boys at their most vulnerable. He was nervous, and he needed her help, but classically, was too shy to admit it. Yet, there was something impish in his face. Something she needed to extract, like a hypnotist draining their patient o
f repressed trauma.
Wilbur felt his own inhibitions melting. The heat of the fire warmed up his entire body, and a spark began to flicker inside him.
“Sure, thanks, that’d be great.” He tried a meager grin. He felt his feet bringing him close to her, and she motioned for him to sit down in the Adirondack chair across the flames.
“I’ll be right back.”
Before Wilbur had any chance to process what was happening, Fiona cam
e back with a canteen thermos, a plaid flannel blanket, and a cigarette. Fiona dropped the blanket in his lap, and handed him the thermos.
“Hot chocolate, but it’s not so hot anymore,” she confessed, shrugging. Her voice was deep, slow, and thick, like molasses. She dropped into the Adirondack chair to Wilbur’s left, perching her elbow on the armrest.
Wilbur noticed the cigarette between her slim fingers. She just held it there like it was a prop. He looked down and sipped from the Thermos, praying silently that it was what she said it was. Hot chocolate in April? We were deep in the mountains after all, there was a palpable chill in the air. He remembered his toes were numb, and wiggled them as he rose the canteen to his lips.
“So, what’s your name?” Fiona inquired.
“Wilbur. Hey, thanks for the hot chocolate, it’s great.” He managed, draping the blanket over his shoulders and hands, starkly aware of how childish this made him look.
“Wilbur? Wow, sounds straight out of a Beatrix Potter book. Cool.”
“Charlotte’s Web, actually. Yeah, my parents are kind of old school.” Wilbur kept his gaze down at his thermos. He was gripping it so hard, his knuckles turned white. He tried to fixate on the fire’s rapid dance, raging from the night’s breeze.
“Old school? How so?” Fiona gazed up at the sky while she positioned her legs in criss-cross applesauce on the chair.
“I don’t know. Like, they kind of screwed up with my name. I was supposed to have a saint’s name, like my brothers. Peter and Michael. My grandparents pointed out too late that Wilbur isn’t a saint's name. Turns out there’s a famous Bishop named Wilbur, though.”
“Wow. So you guys are religious then. My parents are totally opposite. We’re here on a hippie holiday. I’m shocked there’s no incense lit out here,” Fiona offered. Neither of them had made eye contact yet. They kept their gazes at the fire, with just stolen glances at each other in between.
Wilbur suddenly got the feeling that his hot chocolate was tasting off. Bitter, almost. He kept sipping it as something to do.
“So, you smoke?” Wilbur was startled at his own question.
The cigarette was still limp, dangling between Fiona’s middle finger and th
“Actually, not really,” Fiona said in a thread of a voice. “My mom does. It’s hers. I didn’t know if maybe you wanted some, but I’m getting the sense you don’t? Unless, you’re like a rebel?” Fiona rambled. She was immediately embarrassed. “Sorry, never mind. I didn’t mean-”
“No, you’re good. I’ve actually always kind of wanted to try it. But, no thanks.”
Wilbur drummed up the confidence to intentionally look at her then. Fiona was radiant. She had the creamy, freckly skin, eggnog sprinkled with nutmeg. The fire imbued an orangey glow on her face, illuminating her pillowy lips.
Fiona noticed from her periphery, and immediately blushed. She tossed the cigarette into the fire. Too late to try to fake it now.
“No, I’m not that bad of an influence. So, why are you here at Deep Valley Retreat?” Fiona added a condescending tone on the last 5 syllables.
Wilbur considered lying. He considered telling her that he was here with his fraternity, for what was called.. mountain weekend. He knew about that kind of debauchery from Peter. But lying was a sin, he didn’t do it.
He mustered up the strength. “I’m actually here for Seminary Prep.”
“Seminary prep? What’s that? Wait, no way, like the seminary, for priests?”
“Yeah, um, this is like part of our preparation. We have this spiritual retreat, lots of prayer and reflection, you know. It’s our first night.” It had just dawned on him that he was probably missing dinner in the dining hall. “What time is it? I should probably go..we have this dinner...”
Fiona glanced at her apple watch. “It’s 8:30 already! Wow, so why do you want to be a priest? Catholic, or what denomination?” Fiona was floored. She had always wanted to ask someone this question. It was incalculable to her, that someone this handsome would want to be a priest. She glanced at his round, kind eyes. Caramel. She studied his broad, masculine hands gripping the thermos. She wanted to unfurl them from the thermos and study them, comparing them against her own. Why did he want to s
wear to a life of celibacy..was he gay? No. She could sense he wasn’t. Fiona’s mind was racing.
Wilbur paused before answering. His deep voice began to permeate the silence, finally comfortable enough to speak slowly. “Honestly, I don’t know. Something I was kind of destined for I guess, everyone said I would be one since I was, like five. My uncle is one. It kind of just seemed like the right vocation for me…” Wilbur avoided stating the word “priest” out loud. That wasn’t really his label, yet, at least. For now, he was just a seminarian…
The flames' shadows danced on Wilbur’s cheeks, drawing Fiona’s eye to Wilbur’s profile as he gazed at the fire. Her pupils ascended up the splotchy stubble dotting Wilbur’s sharp jawline, from his chin to his ear. A beard not yet populated, but trying, budding through like a springtime garden. Her eyes flew to his mouth as he bit his lip, then traveled to a forest of eyelashes marking his downcast eyes. This man is going through some cognitive dissonance. He needed her. And she wanted him.
“Wow, I wish my family was religious. Something that really grounds you, te
thering you to some higher notion of right and wrong,” she managed, returning her gaze down. She fiddled with the 4 rings on her fingers, twirling them off and on.
“Is your family not religious?”
“No..we aren't. The vices of my parents steer us, in a way. We only do things that are intrinsically fun. And on a whim. No church. Bowling, hay rides, haunted houses, that kind of stuff. Karaoke bars. My parents think they’re still 20. I’m their only child, and it’s my spring break. So that’s why we’re here. Sometimes, I feel like I’m third-wheeling their eternal honeymoon. The mood of the fire kind of heated them up, y
ou know, so they went inside. And I stayed here, dancing to their old CD...”
Wilbur was struck by how you could open up to some strangers so fast. He had never discussed his family life before with any of his fellow seminarians. Not even with Rubin, his best friend. I guess there are some people you get deep with really fast. He wanted Fiona to dive deeply into his own waters and reach his ocean floor.
His family had never even been out to watch a football game together. Wilbur never knew how a family could do things for the mere fact of having fun. Wasn’t that sinful? His family only did things practically, with the annual vacation to the outer banks every July.
There’s so much life I have left to live.
“So are you religious at all?” He shot her the question.
“I am, if you mean dance is a religion. Or music. Or obsessing over the different hues of the sunset.” Fiona had turned it on. She knew herself well, but there was something so enigmatic about Wilbur. His name, his beliefs, his aura. She would get there, unravel him. He was like a bird born crippled, trapped in the nest, too set in his ways to learn how to fly. She would give him wings.
Fiona enraptured him. He was entranced by her energy, her confidence, her effusiveness. Her uninhibited dancing, and her unchecked banter. He wondered if he had ever really taken any risks before. So he did. He looked her straight in the eyes.
“So you feel things,” Wilbur stated. “Your religion is...sensation.” His eyes traveled from her golden eyes, down her flannel shirt, the first 3 buttons undo
ne, exposing her left shoulder, a delicate collar bone, a thin purple bra strap.…then landed back to her eyes.
Fiona returned his hungry gaze. This guy has so much soul searching left to do. I’m here to help.
Before Fiona had the chance to advance into his lap, Wilbur was standing in front of her chair, and reaching for her hand.
“Walk with me,” he said. They set off together in the woods, their feet almost skipping in cadence, like little children playing hide and seek in the dark. They wandered together through the trees, sauntering slowly. Their conversation trickled
in and out in low decibels, matching the creek in the background.
A cluster of pine trees opened up at one point on the trail, forming a window to the sky, and both of their gazes followed upward to an innumerable colony of stars. They were sharp, piercing their eyes like darts. “I feel like….we’re in the womb of the Earth,” Fiona gushed.
They didn’t speak the whole way back to Wilbur’s cabin - not with words, or sentences. Instead, their hands found each other. They intertwined them
. They repeated each other’s names in their own minds, silently. They laughed at the flashlight as their only source of guidance, and sighed as their sandals clunkily tripped on the tree roots.
The marriage of moonlight and chill air led them back to Fiona’s cabin area. Neither was hungry, oxytocin suppressing their appetites.
“I’ll be right back, I’ll get a lighter and some newspaper for the fire pit,” Fiona whispered, already walking towards the house. “Oh, and maybe something hot to drink, some blankets,” she coquettishly added, as if singing a list in her head. Inside the cabin, Fiona willed herself not to take things too quickly. Wilbur was something she had to open carefully in order not to lose all at once, like a bag of M&Ms.
Wilbur took a seat on the grass and wrapped his knees with his hands. He knew what was coming, and felt a slew of guilt in his rising chest. No, he thought. If Fiona didn’t need to ask for permission, he could ask God for forgiveness.
After a couple of minutes, Fiona returned with her arms full. He helped her start the fire, and then they stared at it briefly, tension swirling in the air. They eventually fell into each other, backs supported by the earth, the crackle of the fire as a backdrop.
They fully submitted to each other that night. She gave him hot chocolate, and he gave her proof of virtuous men in the world. She gave him a door, and he entered it willingly into her roof. She gave him a window into lust, and his soul was healed.
Afterwards, their chatter matched the cadence of the bonfire’s flame at their feet. Strong, charged, and appetitive, then slowly and gently flickering out. Eventually, they fell asleep on the ground, limbs entangled like a soft pretzel, crickets humming their approval.
The screeching of Wilbur’s 6:30 alarm jolted them both awake. Wilbur’s arm fumbled out of Fiona’s hair as he reached for his phone, lying inches away in the grass.
“Good morning,” Fiona managed, her voice drenched with sleep.
“I’m sorry for the alarm Fiona…I have this sunrise small-group at 7,” he managed, his voice breathy. He sat up abruptly, discombobulated.
“Come back after,” Fiona mumbled. She sat up, and wrapped the blanket around her, and positioned herself in front of him, staring at his eyes.
Wilbur looked down, gazing at his untied shoes across the fire pit, last night’s transgression unraveling in his head. The guilt rained down on him. He couldn’t bear the salacious view of her, that milky skin, pink cheeks. Suddenly, the guilt poured down harder, slumping his shoulders.
“Okay, then do this. Say you’ll see me again,” She implored.
Wilbur remained silent, and Fiona was stunned by her own lucidity. She knew, right then, the answer. Wilbur wouldn’t see her again. She hadn’t succeeded. He had made the decision to believe his future was held in God’s hands. Little did he know there were more hands in the world to hold.
The two of them silently placed reality on the stove and waited for it to boil, refusing to face each other.
“Well, you can still dream,” Fiona spewed, gazing at the dis
tant forest. She was suddenly almost angry, and her voice gained momentum. “Say you’ll remember me. Ri
ght here, in this sticky, cold, dewey twilight, in these tangled blankets. Say you’ll see me again, even if it’s only in your wildest dreams.”
Wilbur nodded. He turned to face her, held her face in his hands and pressed his forehead against hers. He knew this may be the last time he would ever see a woman this close again. He paused, wanting to get it right.
“I’ll see you again, Fiona,” he said. “In my dreams. You’ll be there, wearing your beat-up flannel. You’ll be ther
e with the stars reflected in your eyes, rosy cheeks streaked with tears, staring up at the massive open sky, wishing it could swallow you whole.”
He dropped her face, squeezed her hand, lifted himself to his feet and never turned back.
In years to come, Wilbur would often think of Fiona as his first dance with fire, his long lost treasure buried deep away. He imagined he could find her again, trailing her like the North Star. He would follow rays of light emanating from her chest, like those Sacred Heart paintings with thorns wrapped around Jesus’s beaming heart. Except in his reveries, Fiona’s heart didn’t have thorns. Hers was flecked with stardust.