A walk by the sea (71)

Dragging her feet over cold, barren soil that led in the form of a narrow path to the small church, Mary followed the calling of something more powerful than her conscience into the tiny building that was warmed by a mere few heaters placed around the altar, and lit by a few dozens of candles, tokens of zealous gratitude by the newly found reverence of the citizens of Bodeford.

She had nothing better to do than visit the house of God, if she wanted to be honest. Having seen to her daily chores, not even her thinning inspiration could distract her from the knowledge that she had nowhere better to be. Marsh was fed, Sara was in the arms of Robert, her canvases rested side by side against the cold walls of her miniature studio, half finished or unstarted. Jo was busy striking a big deal at home, Eileen was busy struggling with a more and more capricious child.

Not even Andrew, her only link to a normal life had contacted her. Only eight days had passed since she sent her plea for his forgiveness, but she was prone to believe that he would not consider her worthy of any kind of reaction on his part. And if that would be the case, she was certain she had no right to ever complain.

An old, shrunken human figure sat hunched in the front pew, diligently praying. Sounds of stifled murmurings rose from its direction and Mary suddenly envied whoever that was, for the mere fact that he or she was able to pray, release the pain, beg for answers, while she, misplaced artist, destroyer of human lives, was still only able to express herself on canvas. Except that even that channel of communication had been blocked recently.

She noticed the slowly walking priest at the right side of the aisle, progressing behind the pillars. She turned her head, refusing to look at him, deciding that if her attention blocked him out of her awareness, he would not be able to notice her either.

-Good day to you, Mary –old Lily Levine strutted by, stopping for a very brief time to nod at Mary and pull the shawl closer on her flimsy shoulders.

-Nice to see you, Lilian –Mary smiled at a very old acquaintance, the sister of James Levine who was the self-appointed suitor of every woman in the village. –How is James these days?

The question seemed to throw the tiny person off her balance, leaving Mary wondering if James had gossipped to his sister about his repeated, albeit half joking proposals he had kept assaulting her with. Maybe it had reached the ears of most of the town how she, instead of accepting the approaches of someone more suited to her age and social status, had gone over the borders of everything acceptable and struck a deal with the devil himself, selling her soul for a romance that would likely be the scandal of the century for the quiet waters of Bodeford.

-I know you’ve been away for the holidays… you may not have heard –Lily blinked at Mary, her frail shape wobbling in the stale air inside the church.

-Heard what? –Mary asked, feeling a twitch in her lips. Amused by the unexpected mental picture of James getting married to some old hag whose heart he had been able to conquer.

-James died on the first day of the year –Lily spoke and looked ruefully ahead, as if losing focus for a moment.

From the corner of her eye, Mary noticed the priest examining the songbooks on the other side of the pews, arranging them meticulously despite their already immaculate alignment. She knew he could hear the conversation which was unstoppably turning into something grotesquely sad: he might even be eavesdropping. The wordly demise of an erring soul must be silent victory for a priest, was it not? The threshold to eternal bliss or suffering. Provided, of course, that James was an assiduous believer. No matter how she racked her brains, she could not remember ever discussing the matter of faith with James, or anyone else for that matter. No one since her childhood days, and that one random occasion when the father barged in on her private meditation with herself and the Almighty. If there was one.

She came back to reality when Lily lifted her almost transparent hand to stifle a powerless cough. Mary then recalled the last time James had flirted with her in the shop on the day her life changed.

-I am so very sorry –she mouthed her dry condoleances, unable to say more. What was there to say? Someone died… there was no more to it than grief and infinite silence. No words could ease any of the pain felt by those who loved the dead one. From the two of them, Lily was the one closer to James, and yet, Mary felt a pang unjustified by the scarce meetings between them, or the bantering reduced to childishness by James’ quivering moustache.

-He was such a jester –Lily’s dried lips stretched into a teethless smile, confirming what Mary had just dwelled on. –The morning he passed, he mentioned he would marry you after the next bridge party… he said life was too short and he would not wait any longer.

Mary’s intended smile turned into a painful grimace, but mercifully, Lily had shuffled away, her extreme old age making her oblivious she had talked to anyone just then.

James Levine dead… the old fart dead, finally. Many times she had wished for his demise. Now that her wish had been granted, she felt her own farewell to the world grow imminent. In the end, just why she had looked forward to James disappearing from her life, she was not sure… for the simple reason that he refused to show himself as anything else but a pain in her eye… or maybe because his old age and his unwavering approaches reminded her of how old she herself was… his presence had been a constant notice, one of eviction from her old body. His absence… was so much worse.

-I have not seen you around for many a week, child –the priest’s congenial voice startled her from the sombre reverie.

-Hello father. I was spending time with my son who lives abroad –she offered, wishing to be friendly to the parishioner the sole purpose of the likes of which was apparently to put everyone ill at ease.

-So I heard from Sara –he nodded repeatedly, as if cladding the act of hearing news, or the person of Sara, in a cloak of piety befitting the Almighty’s abode.

Mary followed suit and nodded in agreement, not knowing what to say next. Her thoughts roamed to mental enquiries as to why the priest was asking about her through Sara, and how did he ever contact Sara, the latter not ever having been anywhere near the church. Luckily, priests are trained to engage in conversation the person facing them, even at the cost of smoothly jumping from one uncomfortable subject to another, and the one standing before a slightly dumbfounded Mary was no less apt in that capacity.

-I sense a wall of denial around you still, my child. Have you not received answers yet?

She gawked at the inquisitive eyes of the man who was probably unaware of most significant details of her life. Between the gnawed at crucifix that looked less and less stable hung on the rusty hook and the expectant black-cloaked priest shifting his weight with a sense of propriety and importance she wondered if allowing free course to her instincts: cursing aloud would be a mortal sin in the eyes of an Almighty of whose existence she was as little assured as ever.

-With all due respect, Father, this is not the time or the place to question my faith or the lack thereof –she responded diplomatically between squeezed lips, rising to leave.

-Your lack of faith? What is the reason of your visiting our heavenly Father’s house, then? –he asked the question that unfailingly sent her into a mute fit of wrath.

-If you really wish to know, it was because I was freezing cold in your heavenly Father’s ungodly weather outside –she retorted and left the reply-less priest stand in his own footsteps.

How dare he, she fumed, and walked, and fumed, and hit her toe in a rock, and fumed, and stumbled over a slippery clump of fern. Oh, it was no use. The angrier she felt, the less stable her steps were. The punishment of a God who had been punishing her long enough.

Passing the graveyard, she glanced over at the few rows of gravesones, neatly aligned, differring in every aspect of shape, size and colour. With the backdrop of black birch-trunks and soil they gave the impression of something out of this world. Mary pondered the sight, noticing that the stone she had seen an old man stand by on that day of horrors, was now solitary like the others, standing upright and forlorn amidst its lifeless brethren. In a moment of clarity, she spotted the name of James Levine above a new grave marked by numerous wreaths of evergreens and artificial roses. She wished she could have walked by in a less agitated state, paid her respects to an old friend, but as it was, her only desire was to reach her home, intact and without any more bruises.

She felt cold even inside her house, the emptiness of which was accentuated by a quietly sleeping cat and a fire, its life-force running low. There would have to be more logs brought in, but she was too cold and weak to even think of stepping outside to the tiny wooden shack situated between her house and side-fence. A hastily brewed tea restored some of her vitality and after pulling another pair of socks over her feet, she buried herself under a camel hair throw, both hands hugging her mug of hot liquid.

Despite trying to stay positive, she felt anger rise like bile in her throat. How was she to even believe in a God, let alone accept any answers he might have, who chose to remind her just when she had found a foothold in her life, that life, her life, was not worth much. The distance between her son and herself, the silence of Andrew and now the disappearance off the earth of a person who, in her worst moments, had nevertheless been a puny straw for her to hold onto all but made her inwardly collapse.

The longing for her art was something that she felt could not deal with, either. Every other evening or so, she dutifully stood her paint-stand beside the fireplace to give the canvas the warm light necessary for painting. She tried painting still-life, even landscape from memory, but contours refused to be sketched: there was no use, she felt. What use was there, why would she paint, who was ever to look at them, what advantage was she to draw from them? They would just remind her of her selfish past and how mistaken she had been about most of the world, about people, about herself.

And yet, despite all the infallible knowledge derived from her recent experiences, her soul was craving her art, her vision, her way of expressing herself. Without her art, she felt numb, she felt muted, thoughts dying inside her before she could shape them into anything palpable.

Thoughts of lost loves, of once felt happiness came and went, ebbing and flowing, sucked into the void of her invisible sea, the only one she could visit, the one struggling to survive within. There had been too many storms over the previous days to allow herself the luxury to walk out to the seaside. Reports of missing people were also keeping her at bay with adventure, however strongly she yearned to soak in the salty drops of drizzle raining on her saggy skin. There was so much to miss, and nothing to appreciate, really.

The lack of companionship, that of family, or friends, or any purpose whatsoever in her life made her believe that the rest of her days would constitute a stretch of triteness, the length of which would be proportionate to the mercy or ruthlessness of that whose random decisions she seemed to be directed by.