Ceremony (Chapter 6)


The Cathedral gleamed unctuous in light from candles, corpulent, amassed like tropical flowers in heat, and pelting me with occasional droplets of wax that the candelabra could not contain, as I walked beneath them to the altar. The incense was thick like fog, and the air stretched dry like a sauna, so that I sweat, and noticed how rough the cotton of my gown, though white and pristine, so thick that the moisture was absorbed, and it clung to my stomach, my thighs, my calf muscles, all strained, fatty skin quivering in the taut pressure I exerted with each step, owing to my balancing—it had taken some time to notice it, across my brow, a crown of metal so old and long exposed to air that its corroded patches struck my tongue when I opened my mouth to catch my breath.  The usual murmurs and shuffles were magnified, exaggerated, as if thousands of voices were murmuring around me at once, and thousands of feet were shuffling impatiently, but I could see not turn my head to look, so precarious was the weight I carried, and when I tried to peer out of the corner of my eyes, the brightness turned all to shadow.

It felt like nights of exhaustion and tedious delirium until I reached the altar. When I did, I woke, to find my mother holding me, where I had fallen asleep above the covers of my bed. She was wearing a coat and she was wet with rain. She was shaking me and pulling me to my feet, and half-asleep still, I blinked, searching for the book, and unable to find it, whimpered to myself. She said nothing but wrapped a cardigan around me, and then a coat, and took me by the hand, dragging me out of the apartment, where she had set a suitcase. We descended the stairs, loudly at the odd hour, and a car outside, a car she had evidently rented, waited for us, parked illegally in front of our building. She drove.

I slept again, sightlessly, dimly, head hitting the window of the car, and whenever we woke we were amidst fields, distant lights heralding other people’s lives, and the sense of departure becoming more intense as she drove.

It was nearly dawn when we parked the car in a side-street of the city. We had not said a word, and I could not think of any to say. I was thirsty and she offered me water. She shook slightly as she walked alongside me down the street. I knew we were in the city again, quite near to where we had dinner that evening after the visit to the Cathedral. With that thought, we turned the corner and it was before us, the Cathedral. The gates stood open, nobody asking for tickets, nobody inquiring why we were there or why we passed through it. I stopped, afraid of entering, and finally turned and spoke to her. “I can’t.”

I remembered what I had read in the book before I had woken, and with the thought my neck ached, and I felt a burning sensation on my forehead as if wax had just fallen on my skin. “Sarah,” she spoke my name soothingly, “Sarah.” But nothing else, as she let go of my hand and walked ahead of me, up the stairs, and passing through a door.

Alone on the stairs, I waited. I don’t know how long, but day never brightened; the sky was heavy with clouds and the air was moist. Nothing stirred until a pigeon descended. As it winged its way clumsily onto a ledge, my attention was absorbed, so that I was startled, as if by the appearance of an apparition when I saw a woman, elderly, frail, walking up the stairs to my side. I would have called out but my body moved ahead of my words and I rushed towards her and hugged her and she, rather than turning with horror, embraced my shoulder, rested her head on it and, calmly, gently, disentangled herself and proceeded up the stairs.

Someone was waiting. I waited. I climbed another stair, and another, and then waited again. It would be dark inside, but the smell of incense would be strong. She would be there waiting. Seated in the darkness, staring ahead. I waited. Nothing happened until something did, and I walked forward, felt the door and the darkness that hurt my eyes, and I took a step forward, inside, toward the altar.


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