Fiction, Vol. 1.3, Dec. 2007
Three pews in front of me, Ava retucked her hair behind her ears, lifted her back slightly, and stretched the bottom of her black top down. In the dim light and poor ventilation, stale air strung itself in spirals along the beams in the ceiling and oozed down over each head of hair, down every strand, every bracelet, coated the ledge of every wooden pew, and through the mess of it, I could hardly make her out. The thick atmosphere grew like mildew, expanded, loomed, and sank over even the slightest, youngest eyes to slow their blink.
Monsignor anchored the bottoms of his elbows to the thick book, shifted his weight while sculpting sounds, avoiding certain letters that his poor eyes could not discern through heady incense, and the difficulty of knowing most of them would not even be heard:
“To you we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this land of exile,” he said.
Ava shifted and decorated his sermon with the glittering sound of her car keys as she sifted through her purse. Though her gaze was still, her hands were searching, and they stirred up sounds of breathing chandeliers, which did not match the unnaturally colored lights set around the altar.
Her hands, they used to move like ribbons, but I could tell by the way her hair moved that they did not anymore. Random movements popped like bubbles; I could see people stand and disappear out of the corners of my eyes. In the church’s full watchfulness, only quiet Ava moved. She belonged like that, I thought to myself unintentionally as Choir children tip-toed from the shadowy corner of the altar to where a piano waited. Ava pulled an expensive brand of breath mints from her purse, and set one through her closed lips, like a lady. Her fingernails were bitten.
She turned to Rich, her husband, and held the container before the both of them, like she often did with thoughts she would not vocalize. And as the space between them congealed to her movement, I saw Rich’s reasonable hand stiffen and pat the air gently, and she hid the container out of sight. Ava tilted her curls to him and held the back of his elbow, but if I knew Rich, he sat reasonably, with his arms lightly at his sides and his palms facing upwards and his shoulders sagging. The back of his neck relaxed and would turn slightly every so often to imply he was listening, though I’m not sure to whom. “Give me a reason,” I imagined her saying. I didn’t have to see him to know that he only parted his lips enough to breathe.
I noticed the patterns of beams holding the church together, the absence of pillars in the center to hold the building up, and I realized the poor architecture of the building. Eventually the wood would warp, and everything would collapse. I thought of my students, and wondered if they thought I was useless. My eyes swept the frame of the church and I wondered about translation, if anyone had thought to think of this structure mathematically, and if they had seen its simple flaws. Its beams too untied to support, its windows too thick to let light in, the vulnerability of wood and the way it rots and deteriorates back into soil — how mortal, how human it is. And how in the middle of the night, years ago, it had burnt to the ground.
“Real architects know the nature of a place will always overpower their attempt at domesticating it, and that you cannot build everywhere, often in the places you would most like to,” I said to my students. “If you build a structure the way you kiss your lover,” I asked them, “do you think it would last? Or is architecture more the marrying type?” She said she belonged to this (she made a wide motion with her arm) when I said I can’t belong to things I can’t believe, and I can’t believe in things I can’t see. That was the night that the fire took Ava’s church, the one I built. You could see the smoke a mile away.
Now the doors are locked at night.
The height and the harsh light of the white ceilings made the children shrink like a violet’s squinting stare at the sun. Fluorescent light wore away at the walls, and up along the roof; flying buttresses fought to fling the heavy roof of the chapel upward. The paint was thin and sterile, there were only a few frames on the wall, and the carpet was unworn. The only memory of the old church was in the weighted air. There was a faint smell of authenticity from something unseen, something barely felt, something old. But by most, it seemed to go unnoticed. The sheer stress of
gravity is all that pushed us down to kneel where aimless traces of smoke resituated on the floors and ledges of pews stripped of their finish. But there was a different force that pulled us all to stand, pulled us to mass in the first place: Gravity and magnetics, their marriage and the architecture of their assembly.
As I glanced around at children eating Cheerios and clutching Matchbox cars, and fathers reading novels, and women smoothing their skirts, I realized that all they really wanted was a reason to belong to these people they would never know. They wanted a home around them. The opaque drapes cloaked the windows in blood-red velvet, and any natural sunlight was dimmed red through the stained glass. All the light was artificial, and made it difficult to see the faces of the children’s choir, except for the elderly, whose eyes had been forced through time to adjust to that light. Ava stared down at the Bible, but I knew that in the muted light she could not read it.
Once, the church had been anchored to Monsignor’s feet, but that church had long ago burnt down. His elbows leaned hard on his book as if it were the only way he knew how to stand, how to belong to himself and his young choir.
The tallest boy walked through the dust and sat before the piano, which was seldom played. We stood. The hollow sound of old wood when my knees knocked into the pew reverberated through my bones, and other people shuffling echoed down the aisles. Ava rose beside Rich, upright in her stiff, appropriate dress and I couldn’t imagine her feeling at home anywhere, like a line of unplayable musical notes that could only exist on paper because no one is good enough to play them.
“Lead us home at last.” Monsignor removed his glasses, and as he raised his arms to the wooden beams that supported the church, they fell from his fingers onto the floor.
The tallest boy took a moment to feel the keys, touching the highest ones delicately, at first keeping careful pace with the flickering candles, but soon he leaned into a melody of his own accord, and the flames became stretched and still. And as he played, the choir children began to sing.
A young priest approached the podium and held the back of Monsignor’s elbow, guided him to a chair against the back wall away from the piano.
The far faces of the choir children were blurred and distant. They were an idea unrecognizable to me and to Rich, but Ava seemed to snap still, wrapped and suspended in their stunning violin voices which spiraled outward and encompassed her. The vacant light dimmed through the stained glass darkened the little girls’ hair, but they stood their full height and made their voices into a stream of silver that cut through the solid air, making the flames flinch. Ava seemed to become a beam as she rose into her full posture and whispered in Rich’s ear. Her lips were for more than breathing with, or at least, they used to be. She said she never wanted children, but I never believed her. She clapped for them and I stood up with the bell. Light-made liquid streamed out of her mouth; I saw it as I rose. The air in the room became too thick for me to breathe, like swallowing velvet, and smelled of aging men shaking hands who held greasy baskets — reasonable men, like Rich. My palms tingled. Everything I touched was made of chalk.
Bare branches framed the steeple of the church, and as I pulled on my coat the bells began to ring. I saw the structure clearly like the frame of an unfinished house, a house of unbudded branches that I knew, in the cycle of things, would eventually burn down again. As each one swayed, one above the other, sparrows flew out over the churchyard and spread out carrying the sound of chimes in the direction of the wind. I jammed my hands in my pockets and felt for a pack of matches. I thought of those children as candles, and saw myself as one of them, calm in the comfort of a full church, deciphering its architecture, the way the pieces of pine and cedar fit together, their splinters and their strengths, what it means to be a part, apart of a structure. As I lit my cigarette I thought of Ava, and wondered if she still slipped out in communion bells for the comfort of empty cars, and smoked with the light birds. And I wondered if she was still like a sparrow who only belonged to someone when she could fly away.