Altar Ego Book Cover I perched demurely on the hard wooden pew, dressed in my Sunday Best clothes. I was wedged between Mama and Papa, unable to even twitch without a reproving glare from my mother.

The church was packed, and the congregation sat in hushed silence as the priest, a fat wedge of paper notes in his hand, made his way up the worn stone steps to the pulpit. The altar with its silver crucifixes and leather-bound Bibles was lit with shards of colored light from the sunbeams penetrating the age-darkened stained glass windows. It was the only bright spot in the entire place.

Papa had long ago perfected his ability to close his eyes and press his fingertips to the bridge of his nose, adopting a position which projected the appearance of one deeply contemplating the worth and import of the parable being recounted in the sermon. He was, in reality, fast asleep, his head supported by his hand. His snores were miraculously inaudible even in the quiet nave where a single buzzing fly could provide a distraction.

Mama sat bolt upright, impeccably attentive, with her gloved hands clasping her clutch bag in her lap. Her eyes were bright and alert for any signs of backsliding or misbehavior from her friends and neighbors in nearby pews. Her sharp observations would fuel a whole week of spiteful gossip and curtain-twitching nosiness. She was a one-woman guardian of church attendance, noting with relentless precision who was present and who was not, who paid attention to the parables and who did not, who contributed to the collection plate and who passed it on without reaching into purse or pocket.

The sermon from the priest in the pulpit droned on and on. My heavy Sunday dress and thick layers of petticoats felt so constraining and stiflingly hot, even in the relative cool of the church. I longed to run free in the hot sun I could see blazing through the windows, tossing aside the constraining undergarments and chemise, then shelter from the heat by exploring the cool cellars and caves that lay, I imagined, beneath the old church.

I too had perfected a strategy to overcome the boredom, a way of coping with the unrelenting tedium of the service with my mind intact and my behavior uncriticized. Sitting motionless in the quiet church, I imagined a fantasy world, in a place and time I could never quite name or fully describe, and where I was not constrained by the conventions my parents purported to hold so dear.

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