The dull, rhythmic thud of a cane sounded throughout the chapel. Worn wood wove around the warped shaft like a mess of braided vines clinging to a tree in the forest. Attached to the crutch was an old woman whose warped spine complimented that of her cane. She hunched over the support staring at her feet as she shuffled down the aisle and looked up without bending her neck from under thin eyebrows at the cross behind the altar.
Her entire life she had seen that poor man hanging there, clad in nothing more than torn cloth and a crown of thorns. Every Sunday she had consumed his body and imbibed his blood, swearing the sincerity of her belief in his divine martyrdom with a resolute, “Amen.” Yet today, that sincerity faltered.
This evening, there was something different about him. Perhaps it was the way the setting sunlight hit the statue, but for the first time, she noticed how sad he looked. In Catholic School she had always been taught that Jesus had died to save humanity through his love—”we should not weep at his passing, but rejoice in his rising—but she didn’t see that love or compassion in his face today. The hanging man wore an expression of immense grief and sadness, as if in lament and fear of the death that was to come.
Instead of kneeling before the effigy as she had done so many times before, upon approaching the altar she turned left. The old lady shuffled by the choir pew. She glanced at her usual spot in the alto section but proceeded to the large wooden door concealing the bell tower staircase.
It took an exceptional effort for her frail arms to coax the rusted hinges into opening. They cried out in wailing, ghoulish shrieks as the door began to budge. Dank air rushed into the chapel like once stagnant water suddenly released from a shattered dam. The smell of rotting wood wafted over the weary woman. She entered the landing and looked up through the middle of the spiraling staircase. It rose into blackness—into nothingness.
“This is what he must’ve been afraid of,” she thought. The lady closed her tired eyes and watched the final tear run down that holy, sorrowful face. She let out a deep breath and looked down at the box in her hand and the dancing senorita on the lid looked up at her. “The only woman who could compete with me,” the old lady chuckled to herself. Her husband had loved to joke about his ongoing “affair” with the senorita. “At least you know I’m not with some other lass! Two ladies are more than enough for me.”
Every night after dinner, her husband would pull out the custom-made balsa wood box from its perch in the closet. He would gently blow on it and wipe his hand across the lid as if he were an archaeologist unearthing an ancient artifact. Then, in a sharp departure from this reverent treatment, he would nonchalantly flip the lid open, relishing the sound of the wood glue stretching and cracking under the strain. Thrusting his head in before the aroma could disperse, he would shut his eyes, take a deep breath, and exhale with a smile.
“Fresher than that new baby smell,” he would say with a devilish grin.
The box held his “holy trinity”. Most precious was the rosary, an old family heirloom older than the Declaration of Independence. Next came his father’s pocket edition of the King James Bible. These two relics had protected his father in the trenches of Eastern Europe, and they had been with her husband as he stormed beach after beach in the Southern Pacific. Last was (what he called) his “Fountain of Youth”: cigars. Specifically an ever-changing supply of Cubans he would buy illegally from an old war buddy.
Each night, her husband would carry the box out to the back porch where she waited. After lacing the rosary through the fingers of his left hand—his cigar-holding hand—he would strike a match, inhale, and blow out a puffy white cloud as he relaxed into the well-worn love seat facing the backyard. The couple would sit and talk, occasionally reading scripture aloud, until the Sun went down and it was time for the nightly news on the radio.
Now standing at the bottom of the staircase, the old woman thought about her husband. She had never liked his adulterous smoking habit, but she had never complained. Her only fear had been cancer, but neither of them got it. In fact, she was thankful that it gave them so many great conversations over the years. She had always cherished that time of the day.
The senorita on the lid was still looking up at the old woman. The dancing girl flaunted her Spanish youth and taunted the old woman with a mischievous smile. The old lady scoffed and looked up as well. She took another breath, steeling her resolve and expelling her fear of the darkness that lay in wait above. Reaffirming her grip on the box and cane, she took the first step up the stairs of eternity.
She labored up the creaking steps for what seemed like hours. Her heart was pounding louder and faster than it had in decades, but she battled on. After several flights, the old woman was forced to take a rest. Catching her breath, she looked back down at the box.
“The things I do for you,” she said in exasperation. He had asked her to bring the box up to the top of the church tower that night—their anniversary. She pictured the smile that would brighten his wrinkled face as he inhaled the first puff of Cuban smoke. “For you…” her thought echoed.
Against her better judgment, she looked up the tower to see how much further she must climb. To her surprise, she was quite far along. The stairway was no longer a black abyss. She could see light at the end. Even though it’s nearly impossible to lose your way on a staircase, she had felt lost in the darkness. Now, the unknown eternal black had become finite and familiar. It encouraged her to resume the upward odyssey.
As she huffed up the steps, she allowed her mind to wander. She thought about the last time she had climbed to the steeple. It had been the most emotional night of her life. Her husband had taken her up to the top, claiming that he wanted to soak in the town one last time before shipping out to the Pacific the next morning. Yet when they had arrived on the landing of the bell tower, she had found a small box on the window sill.
She had grabbed it with giddy anticipation and turned around to find him on one knee. Before he had even finished her name, she had shouted yes—clasping her hands to her mouth in shock at how loud her affirmation had been. He had beamed up at her with a smile that was still perfectly ingrained in the old lady’s mind.
When the newly engaged couple returned to the chapel, they had been greeted by their immediate families and a priest.
“What if I had said no?” She had exclaimed in disbelief, as they reentered the candle-lit church.
“Hm. I guess I never thought about it.” He had shrugged.
When she reached the top of the stairs tonight, there was no box on the window sill. She walked across the dusty floorboards. The cane echoed down the steeple staircase. She entered the ray of soft light pouring in through the window. It took a second for her eyes to adjust from the darkness of the staircase.
The woman gazed out at the city before her. It had grown since the last time she stood in the bell tower and looked out. Instead of houses and farms, the horizon was lined with the lights of corporate buildings taller than the pinnacle of the church’s steeple. The city lights looked like reflections of the stars. She held up her ring finger and admired the modest diamond wrapped in gold as she had done on the night he proposed.
That night felt like a lifetime ago. The old lady remembered her youth as tears trickled down the long lines of her face. She set the box on the window sill, precisely where her ring had been those many years before, and opened it. She grabbed the rosary and laced it through her left hand. Then she pulled out the pocket-Bible and gently opened its tattered pages.
With fingers trembling, she read, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
She pictured that face in her mind. It was full of fear and sorrow, but not with self-pity. The man on the cross anguished over the ones that would be left behind—the living. She now realized it wasn’t fear of the unknown darkness. Death revealed its secrets as it approached the living. The nearly departed man feared those left to mourn his passing. Had he given them enough love? Had he done everything to ensure they could live the life he always wanted for them in his absence? Had he calmed her fear of being left to live alone? Had he told her that his love is still as strong as it was that night in the bell tower?
The old woman understood. He was not gone; his love still touched her. She was not alone. She now realized whose face she had seen hanging from the cross in the chapel. It was her husband’s face: the face of Jesus.
“Believest thou this?” She finished the bible passage.
This was written for last week’s FFFAW picture prompt. Normally the posts are limited to 150ish words, but I just couldn’t limit myself this time. As such, this post is coming in two days late and probably won’t be accepted… but 仕方がないね！
There’s no new prompt this week, but if flash fiction is your bag, be sure to check it out!