|Dedicated to my mother, who loves it more than it probably deserves.|
The old church was rotting quietly away on its foundations, marble steps crumbling unobtrusively with every footstep that crossed them, though those were few and far between. White-ish plaster imitated the stone of the old Cathedrals, but the lofty arches were chipped and flaking with wear and wind to reveal the red-brown brick underneath. The carven image of the Virgin was the only piece of true craftsmanship; huddled helpless in her high niche, the smog-stained figure held her child close, protecting him from wind and rain. All in vain. The statue was chipped by gunshot, the baby shattered into myriad stone fragments that had long since worn away to nothing.
But still the bells rang.
Silver notes glistened warmly through sleet and smoke, echoing clear and sweet to the cold corners of the city block, where people as helpless as the old church and her crumbling icon huddled, tattered coats pushing back the winter wind. The crackle of a beggar's fire disguised for a moment the quiet, steady step of the approaching stranger, and he was past with a swish of fabric by the time the old man held out his rusting metal cup for a bit of change. His head was bowed into the collar of his coat, but it wasn't the cold that kept his face buried and his eyes to the ground.
His muddy, inexpensive sneakers made little sound as they mounted the steps to the church, and the aging marble gave off a sigh with their passage, familiar. The cracked and peeling wooden doors creaked open in front of him, closed behind him, and he stopped there, in the doorway, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his ragged jacket. He stood that way, silent, until the last peal of the bells faded away, settling in the air like the dust and cobwebs that plagued the old church.
He remained silent, even when the woman in black entered from a far side gallery. The sneakers scuffed through the dust on the floor, and she turned to him, hearing the noise.
You're early, this year, she observed, turning back to the icon of Mary at the front of the church, and he shrugged.
I was feeling religious this morning.
Ah, were you? With fingers nimble despite a wrinkled and arthritic appearance, she placed a small candelabra before the icon, who looked down on her with a benevolent smile, child tucked close to her.
He shrugged again and approached her. Behind him he left tracks of dark mahogany. I missed her.
Of course you did, my child. The old nun leaned forward slightly to place a candle in each of the spaces of the candelabra, eight candles.
You'll ring the bells again? His head still hung low, and his shoulders hunched to drive his hands farther into his pockets. His eyes shifted upward to the face of the icon, who smiled at him even as she had the old woman, who did not answer him. He moved closer to her, feeling the matches he held clenched in his fist, deep in the bottom of his pockets.
We shall see, she said, and she moved aside, old hands flicking quickly through the ritual of the cross. She seemed unable to carry herself upright, shoulders slumping lower and lower as she limped to the pew and sat down, head bowed and hands folded in her lap. She, like her old church, was falling apart.
He moved forward again, pulling the matches out of his pocket with a soft tug of fabric. The nun lifted her head as he struck the first one, watching the tiny light move toward the first candle, then the second. It had burned nearly to his fingers by the third candle, and he dropped it quickly, snuffed, on the fourth. He stuck his fingers into his mouth, then struck the next match a moment later and lit the fourth and fifth.
Will you ring the bells? he asked again, lighting the sixth candle.
Her head nodded sleepily, then jerked upright again. Her eyes fixed on the six points of light. I'm an old woman, my child. A seventh light started from a candle, then an eigth, and he turned to her.
Please, he said. Please ring the bells for her.
She looked at him silently, watery gaze drifting to the candles behind him and the icon, framed in a soft glow of light. Without a word, she tottered to her feet, straightening her back with the effort of practice and habit, and she walked the worn path to the gallery.
He waited until she was gone and turned back to the icon. She smiled down at him, much like his mother. Like any mother. On impulse, he sank to his knees, and the first peal of the bells rang out, above him and beyond him in the smoggy sky. She was always smiling, this mother, smiling like the woman who held his hand when he crossed the street, who hugged him close at night when he was afraid. The second bell pealed, and the image of Mary blurred with tears. Unlike the icon that huddled quietly above the arch of the old church, the child was not the one who had been shot, shattering the image of mother and child.
The third bell rang, and he bowed his head under the silver notes. He could hear her voice before she fell on the steps of the old church, warning him softly to be careful in the traffic. The fourth bell pealed, and he saw her there, still on the steps, eyes closed, unmoving. The small child weeping while the bells of the small church pealed, eight times.
A last, shimmering note died away, and the nun made her unsteady way from the gallery to the sanctuary, eyes blinking as the pain in her back flared with each step. The boy was gone when she reached the icon, still lit by the soft glow of candlelight, and the woman's smile seemed sad. She held her child close.
The wooden doors swung shut with a sigh of winter air.