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M I C HAEL

As soon as I was asked to approach the witness stand, I locked my gaze on Shay's. He stared back at me, silent, blank. The clerk approached, holding a Bible. "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"

The leather cover of the book was finely grained and black, worn smooth by the palms of thousands who'd recited a vow just like this one. I thought of all the times I'd held a Bible for comfort, a religious man's security blanket. I used to think it contained all the answers; now I wondered whether the right questions had even been asked. So help me God, I thought.

Maggie's hands were clasped lightly in front of her. "Can you state your name and address for the record?"

"Michael Wright," I said, clearing my throat. "Thirty-four twentytwo

High Street, in Concord."

"How are you employed?"

"I'm a priest at St. Catherine's."

"How does one become a priest?" Maggie asked.

"You go to seminary for a certain number of years, and then you become a member of the transitional deaconate... learning the ropes under the guidance of a more experienced parish priest. Finally, you get ordained."

"How long ago did you take your vows. Father?"

"It's been two years," I said.

I could still remember the ordainment ceremony, my parents watching from the pews, their faces lit as if they had stars caught in their throats. I had been so certain, then, of my calling-of serving Jesus

Christ, of who Jesus Christ was. Had I been wrong then? Or was it simply that there was more than one kind of right?

"As part of your duties at St. Catherine's, Father, have you been a spiritual advisor for an inmate named Shay Bourne?"

"Yes."

"And is Shay here in the courtroom today?"

"He is."

"In fact," Maggie said, "he's the plaintiff in this case who was sitting beside me at that table, isn't that correct?"

"Yes." I smiled at Shay, who looked down at the table.

"During the course of your training to become a priest, did you speak with parishioners about their religious beliefs?"

"Of course."

"Is it part of your duty as a priest to help others become familiar with God?"

"Yes."

"How about deepening their faith in God?"

"Absolutely."

She turned to the judge. "I'm going to offer up Father Michael as an expert on spiritual advice and religious beliefs. Your Honor."

The other attorney shot up. "Objection," he said. "With all due respect, is Father Michael an expert on Jewish beliefs? Methodist beliefs?

Muslim ones?"

"Sustained," the judge said. "Father Michael may not testify as an expert on religious beliefs outside of the Catholic faith, except in his role as a spiritual advisor."

I had no idea what that meant, and from the looks on their faces, neither did either attorney. "What's the role of a spiritual advisor in the prison?" Maggie asked.

"You meet with inmates who would like a friend to talk to, or a voice to pray with," I explained. "You offer them counseling, direc 306 tion, devotional materials. Basically, you're a priest making a house call."

"How was it that you were chosen to become a spiritual advisor?"

"St. Catherine's-my parish-received a request from the state prison."

"Is Shay Catholic, Father?"

"One of his foster mothers had him baptized Catholic, so in the eyes of the Church, yes, he is. However, he does not consider himself a practicing

Catholic."

"How does that work, then? If you're a priest and he's not Catholic, how are you able to be his spiritual advisor?"

"Because my job isn't to preach to him, but to listen."

"When was the first time you met with Shay?" Maggie asked.

"March eighth of this year," I said. "I've seen him once or twice a week since then."

"At some point, did Shay discuss his desire to donate his heart to

Claire Nealon, the sister of one of his victims?"

"It was the very first conversation we had," I replied.

"How many times since have you discussed with Shay his feelings about this transplant?"

"Maybe twenty-five, thirty."

Maggie nodded. "There are people here today who think that

Shay's desire to become an organ donor has everything to do with buying himself time, and nothing to do with religion. Do you agree with that?"

"Objection," the other attorney said. "Speculation."

The judge shook his head. Til allow it."

"He'd die today, if you let him donate his heart. It's not time he wants; it's the chance to be executed in a way that would allow for a transplant."

"Let me play devil's advocate," Maggie said. "We all know donating organs is selfless... but Where's the link between donation and salva tion? Was there something that convinced you this wasn't just altruism on Shay's part... but part of his faith?"

"Yes," I said. "When Shay told me what he wanted to do, he said it in a very striking way. It almost sounded like a weird riddle: 'If I bring forth what's inside me, what's inside me will save me. If I don't bring forth what's inside me, what's inside me will destroy me.' I found out later that Shay's statement wasn't original. He was quoting someone pretty important."

"Who, Father?"

I looked at the judge. "Jesus Christ."

"Nothing further," Maggie said, and she sat back down beside

Shay.

Gordon Greenleaf frowned at me. "Forgive my ignorance. Father. Is that from the Old Testament or the New Testament?"

"Neither," I replied. "It's from the Gospel of Thomas."

This stopped the attorney in his tracks. "Aren't all gospels somewhere in the Bible?"

"Objection," Maggie called out. "Father Michael can't respond, because he's not a religious expert."

"You offered him up as one," Greenleaf said.

Maggie shrugged. "Then you shouldn't have objected to it."

Til rephrase," Greenleaf said. "So, Mr. Bourne quoted something that is not actually in the Bible, but you're claiming it's proof that he's motivated by religion?"

"Yes," I said. "Exactly."

"Well, then, what religion does Shay practice?" Greenleaf asked.

"He doesn't label it."

"You said he's not a practicing Catholic. Is he a practicing Jew, then?"

"No."

"A Muslim?"

"No."

"A Buddhist?"

"No," I said.

"Is Mr. Bourne practicing any type of organized religion that the court might be familiar with. Father?"

I hesitated. "He's practicing a religion, but it isn't formally organized."

"Like what? Bourneism?"

"Objection," Maggie interrupted. "If Shay can't name it, why do we have to?"

"Sustained," Judge Haig said.

"Let me clarify," Greenleaf said. "Shay Bourne is practicing a religion you can't name, and quoting from a gospel that's not in the

Bible... and yet somehow his desire to be an organ donor is grounded in the concept of religious salvation? Does that not strike you. Father, as the slightest bit convenient on Mr. Bourne's part?"

He turned, as if he hadn't really expected me to give an answer, but I wasn't going to let him off that easy. "Mr. Greenleaf," I said, "there are all sorts of experiences that we can't really put a name to."

"I beg your pardon?"

The birth of a child, for one. Or the death of a parent. Falling in love. Words are like nets-we hope they'll cover what we mean, but we know they can't possibly hold that much joy, or grief, or wonder. Finding

God is like that, too. If it's happened to you, you know what it feels like. But try to describe it to someone else-and language only takes you so far," I said. "Yes, it sounds convenient. And yes, he's the only member of his religion. And no, it doesn't have a name. But... I believe him." I looked at Shay until he met my gaze. "I believe."

June

When Claire was awake, which was less and less often, we did not talk about the heart that might be coming for her or whether or not she'd take it. She didn't want to; I was afraid to. Instead, we talked about things that didn't matter: who'd been voted off her favorite reality TV show; how the Internet actually worked; if I'd reminded Mrs. Walloughby to feed Dudley twice a day instead of three times, because he was on a diet. When Claire was asleep, I held her hand and told her about the future I dreamed of. I told her that we'd travel to Bali and live for a month in a hut perched over the ocean. I told her that I would learn to water-ski barefoot while she drove the boat, and then we'd swap places. How we would climb Mt. Katahdin, get our ears double pierced, learn how to make chocolate from scratch. I imagined her swimming up from the sandy bottom of unconsciousness, bursting through the surface, wading to where I was waiting onshore.

It was during one of Claire's afternoon drug-induced marathon naps that I began to learn about elephants. That morning, when I had gone down to the hospital cafeteria for a cup of coffee, I passed the same three retail establishments I'd passed every day for the past two weeks-a bank, a bookstore, a travel agency. Today, though, for the first time, I was magnetically drawn to a poster in the window, EXPERIENCE AFRICA, it said.

The bored college girl staffing the office was talking to her boyfriend on the phone when I walked inside, and was more than happy to send me on my way with a brochure, in lieu of actually telling me about the destination herself. "Where were we?" I heard her say as she picked up the phone again when I left the office, and then she giggled. "With your teeth?"

Upstairs in Claire's room, I pored over pictures of rooms with beds as wide as the sea, covered with crisp white linens and draped with a net of gauze. Of outside showers, exposed to the bush, so that you were as naked as the animals. Of Land Rovers and African rangers with phosphorescent smiles.

And oh, the animals-sleek leopards, with their Rorschach spots; a lioness with eyes like amber; the massive monolith of an elephant yanking a tree out of the ground.

Did you know, the brochure read, that elephants live in a society much like ours?

That they travel in matriarchal packs, and gestatefor 22 months?

That they can communicate over a distance of 50 km?

Come track the amazing elephant in its natural habitat, the Tuli

Block...

"What are you reading?" Claire squinted at the brochure, her voice groggy.

"Something on safaris," I said. "I thought maybe you and I might go on one."

"I'm not taking that stupid heart," Claire said, and she rolled on her side, closing her eyes again.

I would tell Claire about the elephants when she woke up, I decided. About a country where mothers and daughters walked side by side for years with their aunts and sisters. About how elephants were either right-handed or left-handed. How they could find their way home years after they'd left.

Here is what I wouldn't tell Claire, ever: That elephants know when they're close to dying, and they make their way to a riverbed for nature to take its course. That elephants bury their dead, and grieve. That naturalists have seen a mother elephant carry a dead calf for miles, cradled in her trunk, unwilling and unable to let it go.

Mdggie

Nobody wanted Ian Fletcher to testify, including me.

When I'd called an emergency meeting with the judge days earlier, asking to add Fletcher to my witness list as an expert on the history of religion,

I thought Gordon Greenleaf would burst a blood vessel in chambers.

"Hello?" he said. "Rule 26(c)?"

He was talking about the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which said that witnesses had to be disclosed thirty days before a trial, unless otherwise directed by the court. I was banking on that last clause.

"Judge," I said, "we've only had two weeks to prepare for this trial- neither of us disclosed any of our witnesses within thirty days."

"You don't get to sneak in an expert just because you happened to stumble over one," Greenleaf said.

Federal court judges were notorious for trying to keep their cases on the straight and narrow. If Judge Haig allowed Fletcher to testify, it opened up a whole can of worms-Greenleaf would need to prepare his cross, and would most likely want to hire a counterexpert, which would delay the trial... and we all knew that couldn't happen, since we had a deadline in the strictest sense of the word. But-here was the crazy thing-Father Michael had been right. Ian Fletcher's book dovetailed so neatly with the hook I was using to drag Shay's case to a victory that it would have been a shame not to try. And even better-it provided the one element I'd been lacking in this case: a historical precedent.

I had fully convinced myself that Judge Haig would laugh in my face anyway when I tried to include a new witness at the last minute, but instead, he looked down at the name. "Fletcher," he said, testing the word in his mouth as if it were made of sharp stones. "Ian

Fletcher?"

"Yes, Your Honor."

"Is he the one who used to have a television show?"

I sucked in my breath. "I believe so."

"I'll be damned," the judge said. He said this in a voice that wasn't wish-I-had-his-autograph, but more he-was-like-a-train-wreck-I-couldn'tturn- away-from.

The good news was, I was allowed to bring in my expert witness.

The bad news was that Judge Haig didn't like him very much-and had in the forefront of his mind my witness's former incarnation as an atheist showboat, when I really wanted him to be seen as a grave and credible historian. Greenleaf was furious that he'd only had days to figure out what tune Fletcher was singing these days; the judge regarded him as a curiosity, and me-well, I was just praying that my whole case didn't selfdestruct in the next ten minutes.

"Before we begin, Ms. Bloom," the judge said, "I have a few questions for Dr. Fletcher."

He nodded. "Shoot, Judge."

"How does a man who was an atheist a decade ago convince a court that he's an expert on religion now?"

"Your Honor," I interjected. "I'm planning on going through Dr.

Fletcher's credentials..."

"I didn't ask you, Ms. Bloom," he said.

But Ian Fletcher wasn't rattled. "You know what they say, Your Honor.

Sinners make the best reformed saints." He grinned, a slow and lazy smile that reminded me of a cat in the sunlight. "I guess finding God is like seeing a ghost-you can be a skeptic until you come face-to-face with what you said doesn't exist."

"So you're a religious man now?" the judge asked.

"I'm a spiritual man," Fletcher corrected. "And I do think there's a dif ference. But being spiritual doesn't pay the rent, which is why I have degrees from Princeton and Harvard, three New York Times bestselling nonfiction books, forty-two published articles on the origins of world religions, and positions on six interfaith councils, including one that advises the current administration."

The judge nodded, making notes; and Greenleaf stipulated to the list of Fletcher's credentials. "I might as well start with where Judge Haig left off," I said, beginning the direct examination. "It's pretty rare for an atheist to get interested in religion. Did you just sort of wake up one day and find Jesus?"

"It's not like you're vacuuming under the sofa cushions and bingo, there he is. My interest grew more from a historical standpoint, because these days, people act like faith grows in a vacuum. When you break down religions and look politically and economically and socially at what was going on during their births, it changes the way you think."

"Dr. Fletcher, do you have to be part of a group to be part of a religion?"

"Not only can religion be individualized-it has been, in the past. In

1945, a discovery was made in Egypt: fifty-two texts that were labeled gospels-and that weren't part of the Bible. Some of them were full of sayings that would be familiar to anyone who's gone to Sunday school... and some of them, to be honest, were really bizarre. They were scientifically dated from the second century, roughly thirty to eighty years younger than the gospels in the New Testament. And they belonged to a group called Gnostic Christians-a splinter group from Orthodox Christianity, who believed that true religious enlightenment meant undertaking a very personal, individual quest to know yourself, not by your socioeconomic status or profession, but at a deeper core."

"Hang on," I said. "After Jesus's death, there was more than one kind of Christian?"

"Oh, there were dozens."

"And they had their own Bibles?"

"They had their own gospels," Fletcher corrected. "The New

Testament-in particular, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John-were the ones that the orthodoxy chose to uphold. The Gnostic Christians preferred texts like the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Truth, and the

Gospel of Mary Magdalene."

"Did those gospels talk about Jesus, too?"

"Yes, except the Jesus they describe isn't the one you'd recognize from the Bible. That Jesus is very different from the humans he's come here to save. But the Gospel of Thomas-my personal favorite from Nag

Hammadi-says Jesus is a guide to help you figure out all you have in common with God. So if you were a Gnostic Christian, you would have expected the road to salvation to be different for everyone."

"Like donating your heart to someone who needs it...?"

"Exactly," Fletcher said.

"Wow," I said, playing dumb. "How come this stuff isn't taught in

Sunday school?"

"Because the Orthodox Christian Church felt threatened by the

Gnostics. They called their gospels heresy, and the Nag Hammadi texts were hidden for two thousand years."

"Father Wright said that Shay Bourne quoted from the Gospel of

Thomas. Do you have any idea where he would have stumbled over that text?"

"Maybe he read my book," Fletcher said, smiling widely, and the people in the gallery laughed.

"In your opinion, Doctor, could a religion that only one person believes and follows still be valid?"

"An individual can have a religion," he said. "He can't have a religious institution. But it seems to me that Shay Bourne is standing in a tradition similar to the ones the Gnostic Christians did nearly two thousand years ago. He's not the first to say that he can't name his faith. He's not the first to find a path to salvation that is different from others you've heard about. And he's certainly not the first to mistrust the body-to literally want to give it away, as a means to finding divinity inside oneself. But just because he doesn't have a church with a white steeple over his head, or a temple with a six-pointed star surrounding him, doesn't mean that his beliefs are any less worthy."

I beamed at him. Fletcher was easy to listen to, interesting, and he didn't sound like a left-wing nutcase. Or so I thought, until I heard Judge

Haig exhale heavily and say court was recessed until the next day.


Lucius

I was painting when Shay returned from his first day of trial, huddled and withdrawn, as going to court made most of us. I'd been working on the portrait all day, and I was quite pleased with the way it was turning out. I glanced up when Shay was escorted past my cell, but didn't speak to him.

Better to let him come back to us on his own time.

Not twenty minutes afterward, a long, low keen filled the tier. At first I thought Shay was crying, letting the stress of the day bleed from him, but then I realized that the sound was coming from Calloway Reece's cell.

"Come on," he moaned. He started smacking his fists against the door of his cell. "Bourne," he called out. "Bourne, I need your help."

"Leave me alone," Shay said.

"It's the bird, man. I can't get him to wake up."

The fact that Batman the Robin had survived inside I-tier for several weeks on crusts of toast and bits of oatmeal was a wonder in its own right, not to mention the fact that he'd cheated death once before.

"Give him CPR," Joey Kunz suggested.

"You can't do fucking CPR on a bird," Calloway snapped. "They got beaks."

I put down the makeshift brush I was using to paint-a rolled wad of toilet paper-and angled my mirror-shank out my door so that I could see.

In his enormous palm, Calloway cradled the bird, which lay on its side, unmoving.

"Shay," he begged, "please."

There was no response from Shay's cell. "Fish him to me," I said, and crouched down with my line. I was worried that the bird had grown too big to make it through the little slit at the bottom, but Calloway wrapped him in a handkerchief, roped the top, and sent the slight weight in a wide arc across the floor of the catwalk. I knotted my string with Calloway's and gently drew the bird toward me.

I couldn't resist unwrapping the kerchief to peek. Batman's eyelid was purple and creased, his tail feathers spread like a fan. The tiny hooks on the ends of his claws were as sharp as pins. When I touched them, the bird did not even twitch. I placed my forefinger beneath the wing-did birds have hearts where we did?-and felt nothing.

"Shay," I said quietly. "I know you're tired. And I know you've got your own stuff going on. But please. Just take a look."

Five whole minutes passed, long enough for me to give up. I wrapped the bird in the cloth again and tied him to the end of my fishing line, cast him onto the catwalk for Calloway to retrieve. But before his line could tangle with mine, another whizzed out, and Shay intercepted the bird.

In my mirror, I watched Shay take Batman from the kerchief, hold him in his hand. He stroked the head with his finger; he gingerly covered the body with his other hand, as if he had caught a star between his palms. I held my breath, watching for that flutter or feather or the faintest cheep, but after a few moments Shay just wrapped the bird up again.

"Hey!" Calloway had been watching, too. "You didn't do anything!"

"Leave me alone," Shay repeated. The air had gone bitter as almonds; I could barely stand to breathe it. I watched him fish back that dead bird, and all of our hopes along with it.

Maggie

When Gordon Greenleaf stood up, his knees creaked. "You've studied comparative world religions in the course of your research?" he asked

Fletcher.

"Yes."

"Do different religions take a stand on organ donation?"

"Yes," Fletcher said. "Catholics believe only in transplants done after death-you can't risk killing the donor, for example, during the donation.

They fully support organ donation, as do Jews and Muslims. Buddhists and Hindus believe organ donation is a matter of individual conscience, and they put high value on acts of compassion."

"Do any of those religions require you to donate organs as a means to salvation?"

"No," Fletcher said.

"Are there Gnostic Christians practicing today?"

"No," Fletcher said. "The religion died out."

"How come?"

"When you have a belief system that says you shouldn't listen to the clergy, and that you should continually ask questions, instead of accepting doctrine, it's hard to form a community. On the other hand, the Orthodox

Christians were delineating the steps to being card-carrying members of the group-confess the creed, accept baptism, worship, obey the priests. Plus, their Jesus was someone the average Joe could relate to-someone who'd been born, had an overprotective mom, suffered, and died. That was a much easier sell than the Gnostic Jesus-who was never even human. The rest of the Gnostics' decline," Fletcher said, "was political. In A.D. 312, Constantine, the Roman emperor, saw a crucifix in the sky and converted to Christianity. The Catholic Church became part of the Holy Roman Empire... and having Gnostic texts and beliefs were punishable by death."

"So, it's fair to say no one's practiced Gnostic Christianity for fifteen hundred years?" Greenleaf said.

"Not formally. But there are elements of Gnostic belief in other religions that have survived. For example, Gnostics recognized the difference between the reality of God, which was impossible to describe with language, and the image of God as we knew it. This sounds a lot like

Jewish mysticism, where you find God being described as streams of energy, male and female, which pool together into a divine source; or

God as the source of all sounds at once. And Buddhist enlightenment is very much like the Gnostic idea that we live in a land of oblivion, but can waken spiritually right here while we're still part of this world."

"But Shay Bourne can't be a follower of a religion that no longer exists, isn't that true?"

He hesitated. "From what I understand, donating his heart is Shay

Bourne's attempt to learn who he is, who he wants to be, how he is connected to others. And in that very basic sense, the Gnostics would agree that he's found the part of him that comes closest to being divine."

Fletcher looked up. "A Gnostic Christian would tell you that a man on death row is more like us than unlike us. And that-as Mr. Bourne seems to be trying to suggest-he still has something to offer the world."

"Yeah. Whatever." Greenleaf raised a brow. "Have you ever even met

Shay Bourne?"

"Actually," Fletcher said, "no."

"So for all you know, he doesn't have any religious beliefs at all. This could all be some grand plan to delay his execution, couldn't it?"

"I've spoken with his spiritual advisor."

The lawyer scoffed. "You've got a guy practicing a religion by himself that seems to hearken back to a religious sect that died out thousands of years ago. Isn't it possible that this is a bit too... easy? That Shay Bourne could just be making it all up as he goes along?"

Fletcher smiled. "A lot of people thought that about Jesus."

"Dr. Fletcher," Greenleaf said, "are you telling this court that Shay

Bourne is a messiah?"

Fletcher shook his head. "Your words, not mine."

"Then how about your stepdaughter's words?" Greenleaf asked. "Or is this some kind of family trait you all have, running into God in state prisons and elementary schools and Laundromats?"

"Objection," I said. "My witness isn't on trial here."

Greenleaf shrugged. "His ability to discuss the history of Christianity is-"

"Overruled," Judge Haig said.

Fletcher narrowed his eyes. "What my daughter did or didn't see has no bearing on Shay Bourne's request to donate his heart."

"Did you believe she was a fake when you first met her?"

"The more I spoke with her, the more I-"

"When youjirst met her," Greenleaf interrupted, "did you believe she was a fake?"

"Yes," Fletcher admitted.

"And yet, with no personal contact, you were willing to testify in a court of law that Mr. Bourne's request to donate his organs could be massaged to fit your loose definition of a religion." Greenleaf glanced at him.

"I guess, in your case, old habits die fairly easy."

"Objection!"

"Withdrawn." Greenleaf started back to his seat, but then turned.

"Just one more question, Dr. Fletcher-this daughter of yours. She was seven years old when she found herself at the center of a religious media circus not unlike this one, correct?"

"Yes."

"Are you aware that's the same age of the little girl Shay Bourne murdered?"

A muscle in Fletcher's jaw twitched. "No. I wasn't."

"How do you think you'd feel about God if your stepdaughter was the one who'd been killed?"

I shot to my feet. "Objection!"

"I'll allow it," the judge answered.

Fletcher paused. "I think that kind of tragedy would test anyone's faith."

Gordon Greenleaf folded his arms. "Then it's not faith," he said. "It's being a chameleon."


M I CHAEL | Change of heart | M IC HAEL