Worldly Goods
by Alice Petersen

Wordly Goods Pew

Photo via r.nial bradshaw

MIRANDA did not go through the great door of St Luke’s Anglican Church on Rue Montcalm. The great door was only opened to welcome the bridal parties of kings and queens who had never, and would never, visit. Likewise, the door remained closed against the hordes with battering rams who had also never visited, unless you count the CBC Christmas carols sing-along.

No, Miranda did not go through the door. She stepped over the sill and went through the door in the door, plunging deep into the green gloom of the narthex. After the clang of the door shutting, the silence settled again, thick as silt, between her and the walls.

She walked down the aisle between the polished shoulders of the pews, each footstep producing a floating bubble of sound that dissipated in the parchment-coloured heights where regimental banners with ragged fringes hung motionless from oaky ribs.

Rectangles of polished brass repeated the inscription In Loving Memory at intervals down the length of the walls. Beside the pulpit a copper vase of blue hydrangeas recalled the coiffed hair of women in other decades.

The sound of her steps reminded Miranda that here was order, containment, rhythm and organization: years of flower rosters, lesson readers and orders of service going to the print shop on a Wednesday at three. Surely, in this vast container of wishes and regrets, there would be a place where she could lay down her own insignificant basket of thoughts?

The pew creaked as she slid into it. Her damp coat swished against the wood, but she had been walking all afternoon and she was too cold to take it off. She knelt on a hassock, ungiving and cold, which members of the guild had embroidered with a chalice that looked like a yellow eggcup against a scarlet ground. The sun’s rays poured from the egg cup.

Who holds you now? She asked the egg cup, for it was quite empty.

The woman behind the glass wall at the hospital had been definite; no there was nothing to collect, nothing to hold; it had all had gone out with les déchets biologiques.

In the stained-glass window beside Miranda floated a woman in a kelly-green dress, her toenails outlined in thin black lines, her hair spiralling like curling ribbon in the invisible wind. She almost stood, but not quite, on a glassy sward strewn with chamomile daisies and strawberry plants.

A glassy sward. It could not be called grass. It was not an ordinary world up there. This mother was unharried, energetic, young. On her hip she held a child whose eyes were crossed. An older child caught at her skirt.

Miranda knew that every object in the window had a meaning; but ifthe goldfinch perched in the flowering dogwood, the lamb nibbling on a patch of clover, and the border of lilies all meant somethingto her now, then it could all equally mean nothing after the lights were turned off.

In one of her earliest memories Miranda was standing on a pew during a hymn, watching a shaft of scarlet and blue light illuminate the ridges along the forehead of the beadle. And in that shaft of light she had sensed the shaggy head of God turned, for a brief moment, towards a man who bothered about parking in the right spot and young people leaving hamburger wrappers in the church grounds. It had been a very long time since Miranda had experienced any sense of blessing, but now, in this church, she felt the hopes of small people like herself and the beadle, coming out in puffs, like breath, because small people cannot stop hoping for things to get better, just as they cannot stop breathing by act of will.

Miranda had no paper tissues left. If she cried again as she had been crying she would have to wipe her nose on her sleeve and, no matter what she felt about faith, she could not bring herself to do that in a church.

She was resting her head in her hands when the organ began making rumbles in the deep. Up in the loft someone was doing pedal work, going heel toe heel toe, up and down a scale. The player was not very good, but there was a strange comfort to be had in the malformed quality of the uneven swells and buds of sound that travelled along the ribbed interior of the church.

The music stopped and there was a metallic tapping sound as the organist came down the staircase from the organ loft. The footsteps continued down the aisle and stopped at the end of her pew. Miranda looked at the damp, frayed cuffs of the man’s jeans. He too had been outside in the spring flood, but his shoes were highly polished and flexible. This must be the organ scholar.

“Hey,” he said. “Don’t cry. Follow me. There are ladies out the back.”

Since Miranda had not known what to do for a week now, she followed him down a curving corridor where mossy yellow light streamed in through a window shaped like a clover. Near the end of the corridor a secretary sat in a cabinet with glass walls.

“Here you go,” said the organ scholar. He gave Miranda a quick smile and went out.

“Thanks,” said Miranda.

The secretary waved Miranda towards a seat beside the desk.

“I’m in the middle of a mail merge,” she said. “Hang on. I’ll be with you. I don’t want to waste the labels.”

Miranda sat where she was told, curving her hand over the oak arm of the chair where it had worn pale with use. She did feel better, to be among people. While the secretary hissed at the printer, Miranda read the notices pinned on the wall beside her.

Holy Eucharist 10am Sunday
Six-hand Euchre Mondays 7.30pm in the Church Hall
Full Communion, Ascension Day, May 1st
Drop-ins Welcome
Youth Group Roller Derby for Christ and Pizza Night
Sign-up Sheet

When the secretary had finished her labels, Miranda asked to see the minister. She thought that he might have a few words for her to be going on with; just a short line to pull her out from the place where she felt she was quietly drowning, but the secretary shook her head.

“I’m afraid this is Reverend Postlethwaite’s afternoon for sermon preparation. He’s not to be disturbed,” she said.

Miranda nodded. She did not want to be a bother.

The phone rang. The secretary sighed and rolled her eyes.

“The number for the bazaar collection committee is on the newsletter, but people will keep calling the office.”

The secretary took the call, tucking the phone under her chin while she made notes on a pad of paper. After she finished she looked at Miranda.

“I think I know what it is, just looking at you,” she said. “You know, young women come to the church in their times of trouble and they get more upset than necessary. I blame the architecture.”

She leaned forward out of her chair and dropped her voice. Miranda felt the cloud of close warm air that hung about the woman’s mauve stretch-knit suit.

“We had one couple in the congregation who had the whole nursery already decorated. Can you imagine that? Valanceand pelmet, the entire layette, coloured to match.”

Miranda experienced a deepening horror at the faint fluff on the woman’s cheeks, the mascara that had rendered her eyelashes into sundew tentacles.

The secretary sat back, satisfied with the effect she was producing.

“Now then,” the secretary continued. “How about a sit-down in the choir room. You can wash your face in the bathroom there. After that, you can join the ladies in the kitchen. They’re sorting for the bazaar. It’s either clothes or books this morning, I forget which. I’ve told them to cull ruthlessly. Mouldy books out of mouldy basements. We don’t need those.”

She leaned forward again.

“One member of the congregation, who shall remain nameless, donates a copy of The Satan Bug every year.”

Miranda stood up, ready to follow. Anything to get away from the glass walls.

On the way to the choir room they passed the church kitchen where three women stood at a melamine countertop, spreading out clothes, appraising the fabric with their fingertips, folding each garment, writing a ticket, stapling it onto the label. Beside them on the ground were two boxes marked three dollars and five dollars.

The women were all the same, round-bottomed, soft and giving, like manatees in tweed skirts. As Miranda watched, one held up a melon-coloured garment with a neckline frilled like the body of some animal that might idle along the edge of a tropical reef.

“…looks like Mrs MacAndrew’s blouse,” Miranda heard her say, “better put it on the five-dollar table or she’ll be offended.”

What the women did not want they threw into a couple of boxes at their feet. Culled shoes were piled up by the door in a jumble of leather hollows, evaluated, discarded, soon to be gone without trace. Miranda wiped her cheeks and backed away from the doorframe. The desire to cry had left her utterly. All her grief was already there, already seen, or unseen, assessed as valuable, or not at all.

Now she thought only of escape.

She followed the secretary down the corridor and into a room marked “Choir.” The choir room was lined with metal lockers named for their owners: Chuckie. Piper. Nora. Smokestack.

The secretary looked round, frowning.

“I’m always at them to tidy it up,” she said. “I blame the tenors but I’m afraid some of the sopranos are just as bad. Now you get yourself sorted out, then join the ladies in the kitchen when you’re ready. There’s plenty to do. The company will do you good.”

She went out, shutting the door behind her.

Miranda looked around the room. There was nowhere to sit down except for a low bench over which the scarlet robes trailed, half-on and half-off their hangers. She picked up a stray sheet of music with a footprint on it and read the first line.

He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.

The litter on the floor was not unlike the scattered remnants of a shipwreck: an empty crushed can, a section of a belt that had sheered off with too much buckling. There were shoes here too, black choir shoes in a jumbled row under the bench. The shoes were scuffed and down at heel. But they had not been cast aside. These shoes yet lived, anticipating the return of the singers’ feet.

Miranda did feel calmer. The dried trails of her tears made track lines that dragged the skin on her cheeks upwards.

Outside, the afternoon sky gleamed pale yellow. Miranda went into the adjoining bathroom and slipped the nails out of the window frame. It took all her strength to wrench the sash up as far as it would go. The weights jangled like bells inside the frame, but nobody came. She threw her shoulder bag down to the ground, then climbed out onto the sill. It was not a long drop, but far enough for someone who hadn’t jumped in a while.

For a moment, perched on the window sill, Miranda felt absurdly like a pigeon. She launched herself out into the air and heard her ankle crack as she fell forwards onto the speckled asphalt that lapped up against the edges of the church. She got up and pulled her coat in around her. The cold wind bit her knees where her tights clung, wet from the puddle in which she had landed.

The print of the ground was still in her palms when she came upon the man punching a code into the locked door under the portico, a cup of hot drink in his hand, his umbrella hooked over his arm. Miranda recognized him as the Reverend Tim Postlethwaite. No one else would smile at a limping stranger appearing out of one of the creases in the body of the church.

“Righty-ho, back to the ark,” he said. “Enjoy your afternoon.” He shut the door behind him.

Before, Miranda had thought that she would never stop crying, but now she opened her eyes wide and swallowed. She was thirsty. Pods of moss bulged suddenly green along the cracks where the stone walls met the asphalt. She pulled her coat around her, checked her shoulder bag, walked out gladly into the wet flow of traffic and people, their black-clad legs sticking out from beneath their black coats. Miranda had left nothing behind at St Luke’s Anglican. What was important was safe, and with her, still.

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