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Short Story

IT HAD BEEN a church once, no, had been a home for the Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which is the name she finds stamped on the inside of the missal. In the vestry, off the small chapel in back, she finds a pair of candlesticks inside of a drawer, along with the missal. A small wooden cross hangs on the wall. Otherwise, the room is bare.

The Sisters are gone. The sign in the yard has been up for months, but the house has been empty far longer than that. The green paint in the kitchen is peeling. A portion of plaster in the entryway is caving in, and there is a small puddle inside the door. On the sun porch, a yellow newspaper sticks to the floor beneath a crudely boarded window. All through the house, the walls and ceiling bloom with rust-colored stains, as though the house is afflicted. She treads lightly. She feels herself disturbing a crucial silence.

There is a fireplace, a library, a wide staircase leading to the bedrooms on the second floor. One bathroom stands at the end of the hallway. No one has bothered to turn off the plumbing. The pipes gurgle and stammer as though conversation does not come naturally and they are out of practice. What flows from the faucet is the color of tea. She lets it run itself clear, then tests it with her fingers. There is no hot water.

What are the rules for living in a church? No, not a church, she tells herself. She chooses a room at the top of the house, on the third floor, where she has a view of the yard. She finds one thin mattress on the second floor, which she drags to her bedroom. From the ground floor, she takes a pair of drapes for her comforter and sheet.

§

She’d been fired from the restaurant, though she’d never stolen a thing in her life. The room she rented from a woman named Cora was the next thing to go. I’m sorry, said Cora. I can’t extend your lease. This isn’t the Salvation Army.

Maureen had not argued. Had just started walking, one foot in front of the other, north along the train tracks. The trains passed her again and again, going into and out of the city. Goodbye, they said, goodbye Maureen! Whipping up her hair, rushing past like moving pictures and the people inside all actors. They squealed and slid through the dusk. When she could no longer feel her toes inside of her shoes, she knew enough to come inside.

The doors were all locked, but she was lucky about the broken window.

§

On the first morning of her stay, she rises in the dark, dons the drapes like a housecoat, and goes out to the yard. Here is the moon, left out all night. On the ground and in the trees: frost. She sits on a stone bench beneath a wooden trellis and the bare-knuckled joints of a sheltering vine. She watches the day come on. It scales the ridge at the top of the house and slides down the slate tiles of the roof.

Here, where she sits, the earth has reclaimed the yard from the watchful Sisters. Ivy scales the low stone wall; a thick row of hedges grows wild. Overturned pots are spilling their seed, while the squirrels rummage for their breakfast in the tangled undergrowth. In the center of the yard, Our Lady spreads her arms in welcome.

Maureen was not churched, herself. She’d learned the Our Father once, but cannot now call it to mind. Does not know Our Lady at all and cannot think why the figure in the middle of the yard reminds her of someone she knows. The tilt of her head, perhaps, draped by the stone folds of her veil; the modest cast of her eyes toward the earth.

§

Here, in the empty house, she spends her days tending her small plot of ground. She gives up cigarettes, of necessity, and finds that she does not miss them after all. Other bad habits—her usual anxiety, her tardiness, her fondness for hiding behind her hair—also fall away.

In her pocket, she keeps a small book for sketches and the stub of a pencil she found in a parking lot. She stocks her cupboard with a tin of coffee, a loaf of bread, and peanut butter. Sometimes, she eats pineapple from a can. When the fruit is gone, she drinks the syrup.

She reads Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, what she finds wasting on a shelf in the library. She learns how slim are the needs of the body.

§

The mornings are her favorite time of day. From her window on the third floor, she watches the late-year light pick its way over the rooftops of the neighborhood, mounting slowly each steep pitch, smoke already rising from the chimneys. Through the bare arms of the trees she can see for days.

Downstairs, in the kitchen, she takes her breakfast standing up, drinking her coffee like the Turks. For a quarter each at the thrift store, she found the porcelain mug and the pan on the stove. She waits for the water to boil, then pours it over the grounds in her cup.

Though she thinks of the restaurant sometimes, it seems to her strange and far away. She thinks of the pair that came in every morning. Their nicotine fingers, their denim and plaid. They greeted her with a nod. They said, Well, what’s the weather gonna do today? They liked to sit with their coffee and smoke at the counter.

She felt uncomfortable around regulars, didn’t know how the others did it—Louise and Mary Ellen—their easy camaraderie, their too-loud jokes. She refilled the men’s mugs, endured the embarrassment, let them squint at her through the smoke. She knew they watched her backside when she walked away.

The one would say: What’s it look like to you?

The other: Looks to me like rain.

S’posed to be layin’ down a new driveway in Woodlawn so of course it’s gonna rain.

They’d push their mugs at her again, nodding at the pot in her hand. Too cheap to order a meal; they liked their coffee black; they left two quarters on the counter every morning, for her trouble.

§

From the windows in the parlor or the second floor bedrooms, she watches the neighbors come and go. They have dogs; they have children; they drive beetling little cars. They listen to drive-time radio; they leave their garbage on the curb.

Do they see her, too, as she comes and goes? Do they learn her habits, as she learns theirs? Maureen is careful. She conceals herself in the shadows. Standing at the window, or passing by, she moves among the reflections on the glass: the broad, flat palms of the oak in the yard; the telephone wires crisscrossed against the sky; the cars that disturb the leaves in the street, so that Maureen is outside even when she is in.

She sees her neighbors place pumpkins, like sentries, on their doorsteps. Later, they hang strings of lights from the eaves and garland their lampposts with greenery. Christmas trees appear in their windows and wreaths on their doors.

Maureen thinks of Saint Teresa. She says, with King David, “I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the housetop.”

§

Afternoons, she walks, leaving by the back door. She slips through the hedge and skirts the neighbor’s garage. Silently, she moves along the winding streets, past wooden doors and leaded glass and copper weathervanes pointed north; the hedges and fences and mossy walls of her neighbors. Their homes are brick or stone or stucco—two stories or three; there are flowerboxes in the windows, rosebushes wrapped in burlap, storm windows put up some weekend in November. There are porches and awnings, carports and gazebos which offer shelter, though not to Maureen.

She walks for hours into the wind, taking it on the chin. She doesn’t mind the cold, because what else is there to feel?

Pocketing her chapped hands, snagging her hair on a limb, she makes her own heat as she goes. She stands over the freeway, its noise like moving water, before continuing on her way; she has no business there.

Every day: a rambling raid on the neighborhood—up hill and down—never the same way twice. Dead ends—she takes them. Packed-dirt trails—limestone stairs—no trip is wasted. What is necessary is to keep moving. What is essential is only the sound of her footsteps.

She is always startled to see other people. Their voices sound strange to her ear. Some weather, they say. Help you find an address?

Over broken sidewalks and cracked curbs, around cul-de-sacs, trampling the leaves. She walks until the sky goes pink and sets the treetops on fire and possibly, too, the crown of hair on her head; she walks until a kind of delirium seizes her limbs, and she thinks they would take her over mountains, if she asked them.

§

That there are others like her, she has no notion. She feels herself at the edge of the world.

§

Night comes early in the house. The light switches don’t work. She thinks to search for a breaker box, but decides that a candle is safer. She locks the back door, then lights one of the vestry candles. Sheltering its flame with her hand, she climbs the stairs to the top of the house. Her room is small and bare. There is a closet and a single outlet in the wall. She imagines some novice sleeping, like her, on a mattress on the floor.

Beside her bed, she keeps the candles and a book of matches which say The Lucky Saddle, palmed from a bar on Beech Street. She sits on her bed and sketches by candlelight or reads from The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila: her illness, her prayers, her visions. She wonders, is a vision like a dream?

When she blows out the candle, finally, and sinks down on her bed, she listens to the silence, its high-pitched whine. She thinks of the Sisters.

Before she was a waitress, she was a nanny to children whose parents worked, which specially suited her for this new act of trespass—for walking through the rooms of strangers, for living among the objects of others. You learn about a person from the home they keep.

She’d worked for a pair of lawyers with two smug little girls. They insisted on calling her The Babysitter. They left dishes in the sink and let newspapers pile up on the floor. They kept mineral water in the refrigerator, and jars of imported olives. They bought cooking books and gardening books and books on decorating, though she doubted they read them, did not use them at least. They left petty cash in a kitchen drawer and spare change on the counter. They left piles of mail on the desk where she might find their bank statements and credit card numbers, if she ever cared to look. They never bothered to lock up their liquor. In the evening, they returned, briefcases in hand, wearing trench coats and bringing in the cold. They kissed their children and thanked her profusely. They paid her in cash at the end of the week. They were careless people, she thought.

Not like the Sisters. The Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help are ruddy souls. She imagines them lying on their beds in the dark, withered virgins, waiting each night for their bridegroom to appear. She sees them rising to their prayers before dawn, feels, too, their stiffened joints and bleary eyes. They move slowly through the rooms of the house with all the patience of holy longing.

She sees them at their chores: bent in the garden, pulling weeds; washing the windows on the porch; peeling potatoes for the evening meal. Women in whom desire has pooled in their fingers, their ankles, like gout. Their voices are soft, Maureen thinks, and on their breath, the smell of dry leaves.

§

The birds come one morning while she is drinking her coffee. They startle Maureen, shrieking and diving out of the sky, thronging the yard outside the back window. Something must have died, she thinks.

But they flock to Our Lady. They roost on her head and her shoulders, planting themselves on her outstretched arms. They squabble and squawk; they are raucous and bold. Our Lady does not flinch.

Maureen thinks of Saint Teresa. The soul is like a bird, she says, searching for its nest.

§

She had not, at first, noticed the garden shed behind the house. It is covered with ivy and secured by a padlock. Maureen takes a rock from yard and, glancing next door, she raises it to the rusted lock—two blows—three. The sound rings through the yard, startling Maureen. She scans the neighbor’s windows, but the curtains remain closed.

How easy it is to crush the old lock! She tosses it aside and throws open the door. Inside the shed, a rake and a hoe lean against the back wall. In the far corner, a bat unfolds its wings. Maureen might scream, but there is no one to hear. The bat emerges, squealing, through the open door. Maureen steps inside, where the smell of moss greets her, and the tang of rust and gasoline.

There is a bird’s nest in the rafters, which Maureen gently lifts from its perch. It is light as human hair. Loosely plaited grasses and twigs from the yard make a dry little lodging for some sparrow or thrush—gone, she supposes, with the Sisters. Maureen holds the nest in the palm of her hand, wondering at its slight frame, its crude construction. It looks like something a child would make.

Maureen turns the brittle thing over in her hand, considers the careful labor of its maker; she replaces the nest where she found it.

She feels a sudden compunction for breaking the locks and raiding the church. No, not a church, she tells herself. And there are other houseguests, too, she knows: spiders, centipedes, insects and moths, squatters and stowaways of every variety, who share the Sisters’ hospitality. The Sisters refused not a single one.

In a corner of the shed, a large bag of birdseed stands broken open and plundered by mice. Maureen drags the bag into the yard. She straightens for a moment to catch her breath and surveys the yard. The birdfeeder must be in front.

She chooses instead the stone birdbath in back. She scoops leaves from the basin and ladles out birdseed with her hands. She waits for the birds. They come singly at first, then in crowds. They are greedy, combative, scolding, rude; they are unashamed of their appetite.

She fixes herself a peanut-butter sandwich and joins the birds on the back steps. She watches them scrabbling on the lawn. The little beggar on the outside is not getting any lunch. She shakes her head and clicks her tongue. Silly thing. You’ll never get any that way. She tosses a pinch of seed for him near her feet.

Maureen licks the peanut butter from her thumb and brushes the crumbs from her lap. She reaches for her book and begins to sketch the little one. She has seen him before, she thinks.

§

Walking through the world stripped by winter, she sees everything clearly. The trees seem to shoot from the earth and branch of necessity, buckling pavement and stone, lashing their roots to the ground. There, another one springs up. It splinters the surface like the shell of an egg, breaks up glacial pallets and sets them adrift.

A world of trees, and our whitewashed rooms beside.

§

Someone has made a wreath of apples. Whole apples, glossy and red. They’re fixed to the door of a two-story home. Maureen sees them from across the street and crosses over to the other side. She climbs the steps onto the porch and stands before a stranger’s door, staring at a stranger’s apples, a perfect ring over the welcome mat.

She reaches for one of the apples and plucks it off the stake that impales it with the others. It comes away easy, firm and smelling sweet. She feels the weight of it in her hand, anticipates the give of its flesh, the tang of its juice in her mouth.

One dozen apples, she thinks. I’ll bake them in a pie. It’s been so long since I’ve had pie. She could pry each apple from its stake, carry them home in her coat, peel them and core them and wrap them in pastry, bake them until bubbling and hot.

She looks again at the ring of apples on the door, gap-toothed without its fellow. She returns the apple to its place, plunging the stake through its heart. The little dagger eats through the flesh; it tears at the pulp, elicits the sap.

She leaves the way she came, crossing over to the other side of the street.

§

It is night, though she doesn’t know the hour, when she hears the knock at the door. She doesn’t move from her bed, only lies in the dark, listening. She hears boots on the porch. She rises and goes to the window.

Two policemen are in the yard, shining their lights in the ground-floor windows, sweeping them over the yard. Maureen thinks of the apple, but no, that’s silly. One of the neighbors must have called. She strips the drapes from the bed and throws them in the closet. She gathers the candles, her sketchbook and pencil, and throws them in after. Then she steps inside and closes the door behind her. If they enter the house, if they climb the stairs, if they are curious at all, they will find her. She imagines them outside in the yard, their flashlights sweeping over the lock on the shed and the ground floor window, broken.

She waits in the dark.

They are inside now. Two uniformed men, wearing guns on their belts. Their flashlights take in the kitchen. If they look in the cupboard, they will find the birdseed, the secondhand dishes, her loaf of bread. They enter the parlor, where the windows are bare; they shine their lights into the mouth of the fireplace. One of them motions to the other—look at this. They are in the chapel—its accusing silence, the strange light of the stained-glass Savior.

They are on the stairs, now, the second floor—the empty rooms where the nuns once slept, the bathroom which they shared.

Maureen huddles in the closet, half-blind and shivering. Is this what it’s like to come to your senses? To meet them in a garret, alone? Have they been here all along?

§

Her sweater is coming undone, unraveling at the sleeve. She has worn out the knees of her jeans, and her socks, too, are failing. She inspects her big toe through the hole it has made.

She washes it all in the bathroom sink—her sweater and T-shirt, her loose-fitting jeans, her dingy socks and underthings. She wrings the water from the clothes and hangs them to dry over the bathtub.

In the cloudy mirror above the sink, her naked self stares back. Eyes, breasts, the oh of her navel. The hair on her body grows like the yard. She is some other girl. She must be.

Maureen turns on the faucet and dunks her head in the basin. With the gray brick of soap, she lathers her hair, her fingers searching her scalp. She lets herself enjoy the way it feels.

Bare-headed, damp, she paces the rooms of the house clothed in drapes. Discalced: a word which she finds in the library. It means barefoot. She sees the Sisters moving unshod over the wooden floors, which like old bones resist.

In the sunroom, Maureen sketches figures on the floor in the dust. She makes for herself a whole company of others—girls and boys on horseback, in cars; mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts; a sailboat beside a barn and a whole flock of chickens. She draws a giant ladybug.

This is where she entered the house that day in early fall, where she threw her leg up over the sill. The window—there in the corner, the one which allowed cold drafts of air and blistered, flat-footed girls—the window is no longer broken.

§

She wakes to the scraping of shovels outside the window. She hears voices calling to one another across driveways and sidewalks: the whole neighborhood seems to be out. She goes to the window. She touches the glass. In the yard below, Our Lady is dressed like a bride in white.

Maureen goes downstairs. The snow is still falling. She steps barefoot onto the lawn, lets the cold scald her toes. She remembers from her childhood: drawing pictures in the snow with maple syrup; plucking them up whole and letting them melt on her tongue. How she would fall to the earth and spread her limbs, leaving her own imprint behind, calling for her mother to come see.

The birds have already been here. She goes back into the house and out once more, her pockets stuffed with birdseed. She sows the seed on the snowy ground, around the birdbath and under the trees. It sifts through her fingers, spills from her hands, until her pockets, finally, are empty.

§

The first snow does not stay on the ground, but the second does, and the third. The yard in back is mapped with the traffic of birds and squirrels, a rabbit or two. And here: is this the hoof of a deer?

§

The days are brittle, bloodless. The coldest ones see their advantage and take it. She cannot go outside and finds herself hoarding heat in the little chapel where the Sisters once prayed. Maureen does not know how to pray, so she sits on her hands and watches the snowflakes clamor like moths about the lamp-stand scenes of the stained-glass windows. They pelt the glass for hours while she sits in the dim room; she feels herself at the bottom of a pool, a stone dropped in a deep well. She imagines the Sisters at their mass, their hushed voices breaking the silence. She sees them sharing the Lord’s Supper, what she knows of it from movies—the wine, the host—they take it on their tongues. Such bitter fare.

At the window, the moths are frantic.

§

She found it when she first arrived, though she’s never been down there. Now, she is looking for heat. She takes the two candlesticks and starts down the skeleton steps.

High in the wall, streaked with grime, one window allows a little light. The floor is made of cement, and in the center is the grate of a drain; there are apple boxes stacked against the wall and two wooden chairs like those in the chapel. On the opposite wall, a washer and dryer—even nuns must launder their clothes.

At the far end of the room, in the corner, is a fat boiler. With the light of her candle, she examines the thing, though she’s not sure what she’s looking at. There is a red button and red words beside—instructions, she hopes. They say: push to release gas. She pushes the button.

The instructions tell her to light the pilot, so she reaches in with the flame of her candle. There is wax dripping everywhere; she can’t get the thing lit. She sets down the candle and pulls the sketchbook from her pocket. She tears a page from the back and twists it into a wick, then lights it from the flame of the candle.

She presses the red button. This time, the pilot catches and holds. She blows out her little torch and watches the light glow, then go out. She tries again, another page from her book, to the same effect.

She rubs her forehead with the back of her wrist and pushes her hair from her face.

A third time. A third page from her book. She presses longer on the gas, tries longer with the flame, one minute, two. The light holds—wait, now, wait—then dies.

Maureen looks wildly around the room for some clue, some tool, maybe, that will show her what to do, but there are only empty boxes here and dusty chairs.

§

Sometime after Christmas, the pipes freeze. The evergreen wreaths are gone from the doors; brown-needled pines are slain on the curb.

§

It snows and snows and snows.

§

She holds the cold inside her, letting it simmer, a pot on the stove. Her limbs have been rattling for days. She moves through the house wearing drapes, which trail behind her, a hothouse vine. Her hands in her pockets find kernels of birdseed. She dreams of the shore; there is sand in her sheets.

§

She waits. Every day, with her ear to the ground. The bells in the clock tower call out the hour and the candles are worn to stubs.

§

The girl, when she comes, is just as she’d hoped.

She says, Well, this is a dump, isn’t it?

She pulls a tissue out of her pocket and blows her nose into it. I don’t suppose I could get a bath?

Pipes are frozen, Maureen tells her. She shows her the kitchen, her small stash of food. They eat a plain supper.

The girl is full of gossip and news. Says she hasn’t seen cold like this in five—eight years, tops. Says the nuns in Hell’s Kitchen serve the best beef stew you ever had. Says she’s just come from the train.

Thought I’d see what was north, she says. Change of scenery. A bum took my spot on the 2 train. He was a one-legger who could sing. And a veteran, he said. Well, you can’t compete with that. You ever ride the trains?

Maureen shakes her head.

It’s not bad. I once knew a guy who pulled in a hundred bucks, easy, on a Friday night. Said he had four kids, but I didn’t feel sorry for him. He bagged a lot of loot. My gig was, just be honest, right? Don’t come up to people looking like some kind of doper or freak. Don’t give ’em a reason to hate you—definitely don’t give ’em a reason to hate themselves. Just smile, be straight with them. People appreciate that. I do better than some. Can’t complain.

Maureen says, I was a waitress.

There, that’s not a bad gig. What happened to that?

Maureen shrugs. I never liked it, anyway.

Her name is Alice and she is good company. The tips of her fingers crackle; the current running through her limbs is live. She leads with her chin and waggles her wrists; she is strident, beaked, with fly-away hair. She likes butterscotch candies wrapped in bright foil wrappers which she keeps in her pockets and offers to Maureen. She sings songs about a girl named Clementine. Through the night, she keeps watch at the window.

§

It snows, then thaws; the pipes un-freeze; the sky is a bottle-blue. They walk every day, farther than she’s ever been. Heading west, crossing the traffic on New Holland Road, they plunge into wooded silence. There are gloomy Tudors here, mission-style stucco, castles built high in the rock.

My God, Alice says. Who lives here?

They crane their necks to the bank of homes on the bluff above the road, each with its face turned to the light. Maureen wonders what the view must be like from up there. It can’t be more pleasant, she decides, than here on the ground. Down here is where the light catches in the tinder of trees and flares up and blazes in the windowpanes.

§

It is Alice’s idea to build a fire. Because it is snowing and has been for days—the wood in the yard is wet—they will have to use the banister, she says. Maureen watches her prowl around the handrail, sniffing out its weakness, testing the posts, looking for how to dismantle it.

We need something heavy, she says. She picks up the iron poker where it is leaning against the fireplace. She hefts it in-hand and eyes the banister. Then she sinks the shaft into the banister’s skull. Again, she swings the poker, bringing it down with a thud. The banister does not yield. She drops the poker and wrings out her hand. We need heavier, she says.

She passes through the doorway into the kitchen. She considers the appliances, then moves to the window. Outside, the snow is falling on the lawn. It collects in the open arms of the evergreens, which sag with their load. Our Lady stands, as ever, planted in the center of the yard where the snow has made a little white cap for her head and a matching fur-trimmed cape around her shoulders. You’ll have to help me carry it, Alice says.

It’s not clear at first what she means. Maureen watches her walk out the back door into the yard. She crouches down at the base of the stone figure and looks back at Maureen. Maureen does not move from the doorway. She has never laid a finger on Our Lady. The snow keeps falling, knitting for Alice a cap like Our Lady’s. She waves for Maureen to come.

Maureen does not feel her feet leave the linoleum, but she hears the door bang behind her. She feels the wet snow on her eyelashes. Together, they wrench Our Lady free from the ground, like uprooting a turnip. They carry her, prone, into the house, where they use her against the banister like a battering ram. They bring her to bear again and again against the wood; they bludgeon the spindles until they crack, part, give way. Our Lady does not protest, nor yield her quiet beatitude. Her arms remain spread at her sides, welcoming this new mortification as they have welcomed the birds and the squirrels and the ivy, as they have welcomed Maureen.

Maureen pulls the lighter from the pocket of her sweater. She lifts it to one of the broken posts and watches the flame take root. For a moment, the post in her hand is a torch. She tosses it into the fireplace and lights another. Another and another, each one added to the fire, which smolders and stinks and fills the room with smoke. The flue, says Alice. She finds the lever, coughing and blinking in the thick air.

Alice looks over at Maureen. You ever see a saint do that? She reaches for Maureen’s hands and presses them between her own. She scours them with her palms until Maureen’s knuckles are red.

When they have warmed themselves, Maureen looks over at Our Lady, who is standing where they left her in the corner. Her face is streaked with the little trails blazed by the melted snow. The top of her head, once capped with white, now bears the marks of her struggle with the banister. Maureen considers her knowing smile, the tilt of her head. Now that she has entered the house and its troubles, she cannot go back into the cold.

§

And then a thaw. The planks of ice skittering down the roof make a dry sound, crackling like the wood in the fireplace. The vine on the trellis is also ablaze—the tips of its fingers flare up and curl.

There is fire on the roof, fire in the yard. They wake each morning to the world on fire.

There is a pawnshop on the corner of Dunwoody and Main, across the street from the train station. Maureen lays the brass candlesticks down on the counter. What will you give me for these? she says.

The man behind the counter pulls a few limp bills from the register and lays them down beside the candlesticks.

And this? she says. The wooden cross from the vestry.

One more bill on top of the pile.

Maureen pockets the money and sets the bell tinkling. Alice is waiting outside, stamping her feet on the sidewalk. Down the block, past the plate-glass storefronts, the clocks in the windows, the painted plates and neckties, to the grocery store on the corner.

They buy a jar of pickles and a bag of oranges, on sale. Alice surprises her with a box of saltines and sardines in a tin. These are my favorite, she says. All the way home, she waves a pickle in the air, singing a song about a man with long ears. She sings it until Maureen joins in.

There are two white trucks in the driveway when they return. Flaherty Bros, LLC, it says on the side of the trucks.

Contractors. Maureen knows them by their denim and plaid. They watch the men from across the street, loading their tools into their trucks. A giant dumpster has appeared on the lawn. There are stacks of lumber against the house.

They watch the trucks leave before crossing the street. The back door is unlocked, as they left it. Inside, the kitchen has been dismantled: the cabinets pulled out, the linoleum ripped up, appliances removed, the whole room vandalized.

The birdseed, says Maureen.

The rest of the house is untouched, but Maureen knows the contractors will be back. Our Lady stands where they left her, near the splintered banister. We have to hide her, Maureen says. There’s the basement, I suppose.

They descend the steps into the basement, holding Our Lady between them. The flame gutters in the stump of the candle, throwing shadows on the walls. They’ve wrestled Our Lady out of the earth, and now they are returning her, like the stone of a peach. They plant her behind the boiler, where she won’t be seen.

Do you think she’ll be all right here? Maureen says. It’s awfully dark.

Alice considers the mild expression on Our Lady’s face, the thoughtful tilt of her head. She says, I think she’s seen worse.

§

The month of February takes its toll. The contractors return each day. She hears them in the house, with their hammers and drills, hears their boots on the stairs; they puzzle over the banister. She prays to Our Lady to send them away, though she does not know she is praying.

§

Alice says little, these days.

§

Maureen is surprised by the changes taking place in her. She can’t account for this strange lightness—does not know it is her limbs. They’ve eaten all of the oranges. Maureen sleeps, now, nearly all the time. She believes she can hear the Sisters moving through the rooms of the house, the rustling of their robes, the dry rasp of their fingers.

The Sisters, the Sisters, she aches for them. She knows that they would spread their arms to her, if they could. She would lay her head in their wide laps and they would smooth her hair back from her face. They would say over her the words of benediction and of rhyme, the liturgy of desert dwellers and those who live in caves; and those who sleep between cool walls of stone and stretch themselves on beds of pine; those who live under bridges, in open fields, and in tents; the sailor beneath the stars, the circus act, the soldier; on railroad car and river barge, the saunterer, the gypsy.

While outside, the wind howls and tosses back the head of every tree, Maureen sleeps in the center of a great dome.

§

Back at the Salvation Army, it is Christmas. There is tinsel on the tree, wreaths on the doors. They laugh when they see her, ask if she’s only come for the food. She sees trays of chocolate, caramels, popcorn, aged cheddar, Gouda, Swiss, Stilton. Cranberries, oysters, puddings, and stuffing; lovely red apples heaped in a mound. They fill their plates and their mouths.

She goes downstairs where they are preparing the turkeys. Dozens of turkeys are being stuffed with an onion, a can of chicken, and a quart of lime juice. It’s a secret recipe, they tell her.

She thinks she is on the stairs now and she is climbing to catch them. Where she turns at each landing, they are racing ahead. She climbs higher and higher, but the stairs climb faster.

Then sometimes, she hears behind her a low, dark growl. It is coming from the basement, she knows. It is chasing her; it is gaining. Maureen begins to run. She cannot catch the stairs or outrun what is coming.

And then it is on her, breaking through floorboards, crashing through windows, gathering her up in its arms, this tree heaving out of the earth.

Oh good, she thinks. They won’t find me here.

In the upper rooms of the tree, there are birds—a whole company of them, and Maureen among them. They make such a noise, pitching their voices from the treetop.

She cannot see the sky for the canopy above her.

 

 

This story was selected for Best of the Small Presses 2009.


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