The sign on the locked gates to Holy Land said ‘No Trespassing,’ but it was almost lost in the overgrowth. Graham thought he could make a convincing argument that he hadn’t seen it if someone caught him on the other side. He had seen it, though, and a rush of anxiety made his heart beat hard enough that his vision went briefly dark. It was his first day out of the house after a flu kept him bed bound for nearly a week. Jackie had already fussed over him in the car, belatedly concerned he’d rushed him into coming out, so Graham kept his lightheadedness to himself.

Graham remembered Jackie making him call in sick to his shift at Forest Park Memorial, even though he was already dressed to go, sweating and crouched in the hallway in his herringbone service suit, trying to find the strength to leave. He remembered Jackie finding the funeral home’s number, taking Graham’s phone and holding it up to his cheek.

After that, though, Graham’s memory smeared into cloudy dreams. Jackie was knocking on his door. Just checking, he’d said, bringing glasses of water and aspirin a dose at a time. Just checking. The fever blur was cut by the clarity of retching over the toilet. And Jackie with his hands on Graham’s burning arms, letting Graham collapse against him, kneeling with him on the bathroom floor. Skirting the edge of intimacy.

After a shower to rinse off days of sweating nightmares, though, Graham felt hale and sharp. Eager for a little sun and fresh air, Jackie had easily persuaded him to tag along on this adventure to Holy Land. Still, Jackie insisted Graham wear his heavy greatcoat and gloves even though it was spring and not so cold. Graham would have protested if it weren’t for the way Jackie held the coat out for him, ready for Graham to slip his arms in. Jackie had settled the drape of the wool on Graham’s shoulders and let his hands stay there, hesitating and then straightening the collar.

They paused in front of the fence that separated the grounds from the road, and Jackie put his fingers in the mesh, assessing.

“So we’re breaking in?” Graham whispered.

Jackie laughed and scrambled up the chainlink. “Did you think it would be a public park? This is real sacred Americana.”

Graham allowed Jackie to take his hand and pull him up to the top rail, adrenaline making him giddy. Caught on the other side, he fell against Jackie’s chest, then pulled away, embarrassed.

“That’s the hard part,” Jackie promised.

After that, Graham followed a few steps behind, picking his way through the overgrown path. Though his legs were well-covered, with socks reaching to mid-calf under his jeans, boots laced up over the cuffs, he still found himself thinking back to childhood warnings about ticks and poison ivy. A rare memory surfaced: his Girl Scout troop, age eight, with white athletic socks pulled over their dungarees. Even as a kid, he’d been aware of his imagination multiplying the bugs: on his skin, in his sleeping bag, in the grotty campsite showers. He put a brave face on it back then, ashamed he wasn’t more of a tomboy, but the crawling fear never left him. His feelings about the outdoors had not changed much over the intervening fifteen years, and he was glad when the brush thinned out to reveal a concrete path. HOLY LAND, on a crumbling arch, spelled out above them in red lettering.

Jackie stopped in the path to unpack his cameras. He clicked through the settings on the DSLR and hung the Polaroid around his neck. Jackie’s art paid his half of the rent and dominated the living room he shared with Graham. The trip, for him, was a working one, part of an ongoing collection of references that fuelled his painting. He took a few test shots before forging on into a landscape of miniature buildings. BETHLEHEM, a sign said at the foot of the models. Beyond it, the path curved up the hill into a wooded thicket. There were markers in the shape of tombstones dotted between the trees, memorializing the locations of crumbling dioramas. JESUS SPEAKS TO THE STORM. JESUS FALLS A SECOND TIME. Angels with shattered arms guarded devotional niches.

The place was loved once, Graham could tell. Loved, at least, by the supplicant that had put so much energy into the rococo high rise of a tiny Jerusalem and the representation of Herod’s Palace in flaking primary paint. Less, perhaps, by whoever had knocked appendages off the statues and graffitied a pentagram inside the rough cave identified by a plaque as THE SEPULCHRE. A statue of the Virgin Mary stood at the top of the path, her head cut off, so the Baby Jesus appeared to be looking up in horror at His decapitated mother. Graham frowned, kicked at the gravel on the path while Jackie clicked a burst of photos.

“You don’t like it,” Jackie said. “Are you nervous? Because of the trespassing?”

“Not nervous,” Graham answered, though it wasn’t entirely true. He wanted to tell Jackie that it made him sad, actually, to be in a place just to gawk at it while it decayed. Seeing Jackie intent on the camera, though, handsome face candidly slack and solemn, Graham bit down on the impulse. He settled on something less reproachful. “This place wasn’t built for us. I just feel like a voyeur. That’s all.”

Jackie looked up at him over the top of his DSLR. Graham felt very aware, for some reason, of how crooked his teeth were. He ran his tongue over them behind his lips.

Jackie said, “You’re a funeral director. You literally look at dead people naked, don’t you?”

Graham turned away from him, then. He knew Jackie well enough not to try to argue about the semantics of his job description and the distinction between seeing and looking; about the difference between preserving a memory and documenting decomposition. He stood and read a series of Bible verses pressed into white plaster and nursed his hurt feelings. When Jackie started back up the hill, Graham followed at a distance.

“Do you believe in a life after death?” Jackie asked after a long time. They were looking at melting faux frescos that had once held the Stations of the Cross.

Graham wasn’t sure if Jackie noticed the tense silence between them, or if he was too focused on his work. “I don’t.”

“Then why do you do what you do?”

“Because life ends, so it’s precious. It’s all we have, even if it’s ugly or sad.”

“All we ever do is go from one piece of holy ground to the next,” Jackie said.

“Yes. Maybe.” Graham believed another thing about holy ground: where there is sorrow, there it is. They continued beating through the weeds that had grown over a replica of Calvary. “Do you think there’s something? After?” Graham asked.

“Sure,” Jackie said. “I can’t imagine the things inside us can really be contained in a body. It’s impossible. So there must be something for us afterward. Don’t you think we’re more than the sum of our neurons?”

Graham often lied about his spiritual beliefs or about their absence. He knew comfort in the darkest times was worth more than his personal truth, and he told lies about his faith in Heaven and Afterward to the dying and the grieving—the people who sometimes gripped his hands too hard, looking for the reassurance that was the cornerstone of his job. But he didn’t want to lie to Jackie. “I don’t. But maybe my inner life doesn’t feel as big as yours.”

Jackie laughed. As they crested the hill, they could see an enormous cross silhouetted against the sunset. “Sometimes,” he said, “I feel like I could burst the banks of my body. Even now.”

“Is that why you paint?” Graham asked.

“It’s why I go out,” Jackie said, framing up a photo, his Polaroid camera pointed towards Graham.

With his parade of parties and wine bottles and reception cards, Jackie always seemed to be leaving the apartment. Sometimes he was still awake and red-eyed when Graham left for work. Graham wondered if there was a remedy for it, an epiphany or a pill. If Jackie would want it if there was. “I think your social calendar would kill me.”

“Probably.” Jackie touched Graham’s shoulder, then, his hand ghosting over the bones in Graham’s back, the knobs of his spine and the hard sweep of his shoulder blade, distinct even through the heavy wool of his graveyard coat. “You’re feeling okay?”

“I’m fine,” Graham said. Jackie didn’t take his hand away, though, and Graham thought maybe he understood what Jackie meant about breaking the banks of his body. Usually, he conceived of his own flesh as a sinister anchor: too capable of holding him in place, a cage of definition, rotting and wrong.

At the top of the hill, it was getting dark. The large cross lit up; its tungsten glow, weakened by broken bulbs, bathed them both in gold. Perhaps it was just the beauty of the scene, the sudden wash of light and the town laid out beneath them, and the simple fact of their togetherness, but Graham was not surprised when Jackie leaned down to kiss him.


In a diner on the way home from Holy Land, Jackie ordered them both coffees and a slice of cheesecake. He allowed Graham the intimacy of an unsupervised scroll through the raw photos on the digital camera. Graham saw all Jackie’s tenderness in the meticulous framing, each subject allowed weight and light. Almost everything was crumbling, but Jackie captured the statues and dioramas performing their original function: sharing in the divine. He’d preserved their memory, revealing life still warm underneath the decay. It was a skill Graham admired.

“Why do you paint when you have the photographs?” Graham asked. Jackie owned bags of lenses and tripods, hard drives of HD files and wallets of film, warm chemical baths and amniotic rinse waters in the darkroom that should have been their hallway closet. His photographs were not simple references, but art in their own right. Still, he was a painter, and photography was just a step in his process.

“There’s something the camera can’t catch. I don’t mean light or color, but something. Feeling, maybe. Travels faster than light.” Jackie drew a line in the air with his hand, some intangible idea speeding away from him. “You know what I mean?”

Graham nodded.

It was a little like the soul of a person that went missing after death: the spark that only the best embalming could imitate, and a thing that somehow transcended matter. A seed of truth trapped in memory, more honest than the impersonal facts of the body, even in the earliest stages of decay.

Graham didn’t say this to Jackie.

“The light up there is only right for about five minutes,” Jackie complained, looking through a series of pictures washed out by his flash. “The cheesecake is worth the trip, though,” Jackie promised.

Graham had noticed Jackie’s particular love for bad food. He drove out of the city, sometimes, to eat at New Jersey diners in the middle of the night. He ordered disco fries clotted with American cheese and was obsessed with cheap filter coffee that he drank by the gallon, compelled by the promise of free refills. Graham passed his cheesecake across the table once the waitress placed it down.

“You don’t want it?” Jackie asked, even as he reached out his fork to take a bite.

“I shouldn’t have dairy,” Graham said.

“Oh, sorry,” Jackie frowned. “I didn’t realize that.”

Graham waved the apology away; he didn’t expect anyone else to keep track of his internal intricacies. Even to him, his body often felt like a stranger’s: wrong and distant, ungovernable.

In the aftermath of their pilgrimage, even, his flesh was singing, gripped by the agony of adrenaline. Graham had not kissed a man since he was fumbling through his first puberty, dysphoria smearing his sexuality with dread and discomfort. Now, his desire was solid and cutting, concern and fear and need racing each other through his thoughts. He would need to tell Jackie, he realized, about his body.

Jackie hadn’t kissed Graham again since they’d made out in the shadow of the cross at the top of the hill. Neither of them had said anything about it, but Jackie nudged Graham with his foot under the table while he flipped through Polaroids, gently intimate. “What do you think of this one?” Jackie asked, turning a picture to show him.

Graham took the photograph from between Jackie’s fingers and saw himself looking out of the frame. His long hair was loose and picked up by the wind, features sensuously blurred, one grey eye and the crooked canine in his smile barely in focus. With his narrow shoulders and his black coat, he looked ecclesiastical and hungry, someone too long in fasting. The hilltop cross was a dark gash against the twilight sky behind him, transformed into something sinister. Graham knew it was just rusted metal, unseen broken bulbs set into the frame, but like him, it was changed.

There was writing on a stone at his feet, nearly invisible. Graham had not seen it in the underbrush when they walked up to the cross. ‘Lion and lamb shall lie together,’ written in blood-red cursive.

It was a snapshot of a perfect world, where Graham was worthy of love, where Jackie’s hunger could be quietened in his company, and the two of them walked on holy ground.

Cecil Fenn is a writer and transmedia designer. Originally from New York, he worked in music studios, theatres, and funeral homes before settling his creative practice in London. His work has appeared in The Dread Machine and Palisatrium’s Short Story Substack, among others. You can find more of his writing at “Holy Land” was shortlisted for the Aurora Prize and first appeared in print in Canthius Issue 12.