Afterlife

 

Five Points

These would be the images that followed her to Mexico: Peg shaking the dishrag in her hand as if it were Moira she would like to be shaking, making one of her pronouncements: ‘Incest.’ And Moira waiting, the way she had been waiting for years, for Peg to make herself clear.

‘You call him Father, don’t you?’ The look on Peg’s face triumphant, expectant, as if now she’d found the right words, Moira would come around, and when Moira didn’t, Peg gesturing to the long table, set with the best welcoming Delft for Moira’s brother and his American wife.

‘Ian comes all the way from New York for the all-school reunion. A lovely night at Stiller’s and all your old friends there, laughing at the very idea of you, an old maid, nearly forty you are, Moira, off in Mexico, mooning after⎯a priest.’ The word stung her lips; she blessed herself.

An hour earlier, Peg had been pleased to see her, assuming, as she had, that Moira had come down from Dublin to see Ian and to go to the reunion. As if Moira would go to that, with everyone passing children’s’ photographs about, dancing with their husbands. As it was, as soon as she said she wasn’t staying, Ian had resorted to old sarcasm. ‘Always too good for the rest of us, aren’t you?’

Now, Moira wanted only to get away, from her mother’s suffocating gestures, from the red vigil light flickering on the wall, from the plaque with Jesus Christ’s brown and gold features gazing down at her. Why had she even come home? She was never at home in Ardcree.

‘Stephen’s⎯.’ If only her mother would not look so stricken at the sound of Stephen’s given name. ‘He’s leaving the life, Mam.’

‘Ah, the life won’t be leaving him so easily.’

Pointless trying to explain that he was pushed into it as a child.

‘He’s a breaker of sacred vows,’ Peg said.

‘You don’t know him.’

‘I thought I knew you. If he does leave, for certain, well⎯. But to run after him⎯bah.’

He could marry in Mexico, Moira said, but Peg waved her words away. Mexico and its laws were a vague shimmer beyond the Irish coast and might as well not exist.

Moira felt suddenly tired, tired of these battles, ongoing since childhood. What had she been thinking? That Peg would host an engagement party, order champagne? ‘I only traveled down to say a proper good-bye, tell you where I’ll be.’

A sigh from Peg, a slow shake of the head. ‘Where will you be, then, love?’ She reached to brush a strand of hair from Moira’s cheek.

Moira jerked her head away, searched her pocket for her itinerary. ‘Tomorrow’s the thirty-first,’ she said, firmly. ‘I’ll be flying to Madrid, then the morning of the first, Mexico City and Oaxaca.’

‘Sure, you’ll be flying for days. He’ll be meeting you where?’ Peg’s face resuming its sharp-eyed peering.

‘I’ve booked a room. I’m going to surprise him.’ The wrong thing to say, once again.

‘Are you cracked, traveling all that way to meet someone who doesn’t know you’re coming?’

‘He’s at the monastery just the two months. He’s planning for me to meet him in November.’

You will love it here, the first of his three letters, written in September, had said. Bursts of flowers and a blue blue sky. I imagine the two of us walking together through the zócalo, stopping into the cafés to read, like we did in London. There’s such a spirit in Mexico⎯everything is so vivid, as if the rugged landscape, the strong-flavored food is reminding us we must get all our living done while we can. Perhaps I should have chosen a place more neutral than a monastery to gather my thoughts, but it’s only two months. The brothers are quiet; they leave me be. I imagine you joining me in November. The breaking free is much easier here. And further south, they are always in need of missionaries. We’ll be something courageous, won’t we?

‘And what about your job?’ Peg’s fingers drummed her hip, one foot tapped the floor.

‘I’ve quit my job.’

‘Dear Jesus, she’s mad. You were lucky to get that job. You said yourself there are dozens of nurses for every spot. You won’t get that job back easily.’

How to say that they wouldn’t be back? At least not soon. ‘We plan to do missionary work of some sort.’

The kitchen door swung open and Moira’s sticky-faced nephew marched up to Peg. ‘Got any more chocolate?’

Peg gave Moira one final washing-her-hands-of-her look and smiled down at Tommy.

‘Of course, I’ve all the chocolate in the world, love, and while your Mam and Dad nap, I’ll take you to see the little saint down at the church.’

‘Don’t be frightening the child with that grotesque thing.’

Another sacrilege. Peg blessed herself again. ‘He’s lovely, he is,’ she said, talking to Tommy as if he were in need of soothing. ‘You can kneel and say a prayer for him.’

For the first time, Tommy looked directly at Moira, smug with a look of triumph. Oh, it began so early, this taking of sides, this pitching of one against the other. ‘I do wanna see it,’ he said, in his flat American accent.

‘There, see?’ Peg said, as if Moira should see how Tommy’s good sense revealed Moira’s lack of it.

‘Fine. Go off and pray to your bloody wax saint⎯and I mean the ‘bloody’ purely literally, Mother,’ Moira added, stopping, in mid-motion, Peg’s hand moving to her forehead.

Then she was gone. Pushing through the front door, pounding down the steps to her Ford, hating that she was leaving in a bad way, knowing the talk that would go on after she was gone: she didn’t even stay to visit with her brother, ah, she’s always been odd. Moira threw her purse on the seat and drove out past Rowe Street Church, shaking her fist at it.

The story of the little saint had always sickened her: In Italy, in the sixteenth century, the young son of an atheist began to secretly practice Catholicism. When his father caught him sneaking to Mass, he became so enraged he took an axe to the boy’s forehead. The boy died. Two hundred and fifty years later, an Ardcree priest returned home from a trip to Italy with a relic⎯a bit of the child’s skin. He commissioned a wax figure of the boy, dripping gash and all, holding a bunch of wax flowers, and then laid the figure inside a glass case at the rear of Rowe Street Church, where parishioners could (and did) kneel and gaze in reverence. All except Moira, who at age twelve declared it frightful and ugly and announced that anyone who didn’t think so was cracked. She’d earned a thrashing from the nuns for her sacrilegious tongue, and her mother had shaken her until she was dizzy, asking why? Why are you always shaming us, Moira?

But she hadn’t backed down. They thought they had answers, but they never asked questions. They spent all their lives accepting, praying, waiting. For what? Afterlife. Die now, live later. Moira had never believed in that kind of waiting game, and she’d spent nearly twenty years never quite escaping criticism⎯from her family and neighbors, the Church, the whole of the country, really. And then, what had saved her? Books, and two years of nursing school in London, sharing a flat with London-born Olivia Spencer, staying on to work in Chelsea Hospital. Seeing home from a different perspective, so to speak. Across the water. Seeing her family and neighbors as cloistered, over-indoctrinated, happy to believe there was something better, some day. And whenever she’d visited from London, Peg had chastised her with bitter remarks and wrung her hands because she wasn’t like the girls she grew up with, girls who knelt at red votives, girls who dropped coins in tin boxes and made wishes their prayers.

It used to be easier to laugh at those girls, when she was young and thought that love would come. But it hadn’t and she’d passed into her thirties, still at Chelsea Hospital, and Peg would write that she’d seen Mrs. Doyle or Mrs. Dean in town and they’d gotten to talking about what a pity it was Moira hadn’t found someone, and she so pretty, too. Lucky she’d taken up the nursing. In the midst of anger, a rush of fear would pass through Moira⎯because she did want what they pitied her for not having: someone to share her future. She often stood in front of the looking glass, trying to see what others saw. Was there something repelling about her? In spite of her pleasant looks, her pleasant manner, her damn pleasant everything, only a few pleasant chaps ever asked her out, and never more than twice. And to open the door to her flat every night, to see the Times still spread on the sofa where she’d left it, her tea forming a skin in the cup she’d left in the sink; to turn off the light and lie awake, the one place where she couldn’t hide from the fact that she, Moira Butler, was alone in the night and that one day she would simply cease to exist, was more than she could stand. Then she’d met Stephen and the years of waiting had seemed worth it.

Stephen. The light at the crossroads turned red and Moira skidded to a stop. A jittery restlessness returned, setting her stomach to fluttering. Maybe she should have sent word she was coming. Would he rather be surprised? She didn’t really know, and that worried her. His last two letters had not been as clear as the first one. She’d feared they might be oblique goodbyes and the not-knowing was torture. A month ago, he’d written what could only be called ramblings. This place is silent. I hear: an iron door closing somewhere, hinges scraping metal to metal. A constant wind. I mouth a word. I stop. Silence consumes me. Is my voice my self? Does the void swallow all?

Ramblings. But that was why he was in Mexico⎯to think, to get it all out. She’d sent him her own ramblings, hadn’t she? I want to dream about you tonight sometimes the dreams are so real I’m grateful for them but I want more⎯.

Now all she could do was get herself there as soon as possible, and brace herself for what lay ahead: two days of queues, ticket counters and bad food, more jitters. Hours of traveling, with little to do but go over the details of summer over and over again, scraping her memory, justifying this visit. He was waiting for her, he was.

‘Hello, lucky patient. I see you’ve a room to yourself,’ she said on the day in late June when Stephen Lewis⎯pneumonia, out in two days⎯was assigned to her patient list at Chelsea Hospital.

The man in the bed looked up, distractedly, from his book. A blank pause, then his face transformed into a smile directed wholly toward Moira. ‘You’re Irish.’ His tortoise-shell glasses slipped down his nose and he pulled them off with a shrug. ‘Me, too.’

‘Where from?’

‘Galway.’

‘Bogman.’

He laughed, the joke catching him by surprise. ‘I’ve lived in Dublin mostly. And you?’

‘From Ardcree, but I’m in London nearly twenty years now. Makes me frightfully old-sounding, doesn’t it?’ she said, instantly regretting the ‘frightfully.’ Britishisms had become part of fitting in years ago; other Irish saw them as affected. But he hadn’t seemed to notice. She pulled his chart from the end of the bed. ‘Visiting London?’ She felt for his pulse, checked her watch.

‘I’m on sabbatical.’

Moira finished counting and released his wrist, marked his chart. ‘What from?’

He didn’t answer, and she looked up. His eyes, fixed on his book, refocused.

‘Philosophy, theology,’ he said.

A teacher. He looked like a teacher, with that high forehead, that thoughtful expression. She glanced at his book, a cloth-bound tome that looked a hundred years old. The Anatomy of Melancholy. ‘Tongue out.’ She slipped the thermometer into his mouth, and looked at him, smiled. He had a gaunt sort of face, with high cheekbones. Thinning hair, mostly gray mixed with brown. Not particularly handsome, but there was something about his eyes. She scanned his chart. Forty-six. The thermometer beeped and she pulled it out. ‘Well, you’re getting better.’ She clipped the chart back on the bed. ‘What does one do with a sabbatical?’ She folded her arms and stood by his bed, ready for a chat.

He leaned forward. ‘Can I tell you a secret?’ he mock-whispered, dark eyes conspiratorial.

‘What?’

‘No one knows I’m in hospital.’

‘No one? Do you not want visitors?’

‘No. I’m completely alone. And it’s wonderful.’

‘I think we all need that sometimes. I like to go to the Savoy and just sit in the lobby with a book. Being alone in the middle of bustle⎯it’s exquisite.’

‘Yes,’ he said, suddenly a little too intense. ‘We can’t know true communion until we know solitude.’ They exchanged startled looks, then broke away in a kind of mutual embarrassment.

‘You’re radiant,’ he said the next morning when he woke and she was standing by his bed, her hand on his pulse. And it wasn’t in a sexual way at all, there was none of that come-on patter. ‘There’s a look of peace about you.’ Moira had heard that before. Ethereal, a painter friend had once said. Pale hair a cloud around her shoulders. ‘Skin like white linen at dusk’⎯the painter’s words. But she knew that look was more dependent now on tricks of light and cosmetics. Her skin was getting slack around the eyes; her hair required a rinse every six weeks. Soon there would be nothing left of the physical Moira she had been. So she let go, relishing Stephen’s attention, and made very excuse to visit his room.

And then he’d been released. Her flat was in Richmond, his only two streets away. Fate, she let herself believe. Especially when he wanted to see her and the first weeks were waves of pleasure and discovery. Moira gave herself up to him, to the intensity of his attention, to the way he knew how to touch her, with just a brush of the fingertips, as if he was in awe of her. There had been so little lovemaking in her life. She became delirious with it, filled with a sense that here was someone like herself⎯a man who read aloud from books, whose eyes never left hers when they talked.

Those first few weeks, the English weather was unseasonably warm and dry and Stephen, still pale from his illness, wanted to be out in the sun. ‘Take a holiday,’ he urged. ‘You and I, we’ve been slaves to responsibility.’ Moira lied and took weeks off work, ready to throw away her job if it came to that. Anything that kept her from him became an enemy, a distraction. Together, they strolled the bookshops on Charing Cross Road, and knowing he was beside her, right there to be touched and talked to, made her giddy with disbelief and happiness. There was the American Playwrights’ Festival at Cottlesloe⎯a Tennessee Williams revival⎯and the Saturday night concerts at Kenwood, the open-air cafés. One night, after seeing a revival of Streetcar, Stephen spoke of Blanche with nothing in his face to suggest he saw anything similar and tragic in Moira, and Moira felt particularly relieved by that. They were seated at a table in the outdoor section of Oranges and Lemons. Moira had often passed the place, wistfully, and she shivered to think she was there with him. The wind rustled the potted palms and rippled through Stephen’s hair; fairy lights strung around the canopies reflected in his eyes. ‘This night, this uncommon breeze,’ he said, buoyantly. ‘And you. Suddenly, life is right.’

Then, in August, the rain returned and they were forced in. Moira envisioned a cozy time, with fires, long chats, but indoors, Stephen seemed to distance himself from her, especially if they were at his flat. He made every excuse not to invite her there. It was a temporary rental, he said, a bed-sit. There was only the one chair.

One wet Sunday after her shift let out, she decided to surprise him and knocked on his door. He pulled it open with a distracted expression that turned annoyed, briefly, when he saw her. He recovered and smiled, but hesitated before asking her in.

Moira sniffed the air and tried to joke. ‘Incense? Are you a closet druid, Stephen?’

He looked alarmed, although of course, it was only later that the alarm registered, made sense. At the time, Moira said, ‘It’s dreadfully dark in here,’ and moved to pull up a window shade.

‘Don’t,’ he said sharply.

She froze.

Stephen laughed falsely. ‘I want it dark today. My cave,’ he said with an exaggerated flair. He coughed, then covered his chin with his fist, and said out of nowhere, ‘I’m due to return to Dublin soon,’ as the room, her own body, all receded, replaced by a buzzing in her head.

‘Although I must say,’ he said, ‘I’m at a crossroads.’

Would he ask her to join him in Ireland? Should she presume to ask? She felt, instinctively, that there were certain details about his life that he wasn’t ready to talk about, so said nothing, and waited until the time was right.

It was around that time that Stephen began his strange talk. ‘Why should I care about death if I have never cared about life?’ he announced one Saturday afternoon. They were in her flat, reading on her sofa, listening to the rain outside.

Moira looked up from her tattered Woolf reader. ‘Pardon?’ He wore such a brooding look, she was almost embarrassed for him. She found herself wondering, did he appear silly, affected, to other people? She hated that about herself, that she would care how he appeared to others. ‘Pardon?’ she asked again.

Stephen tapped his book. ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude.’

‘Ah, that book you’ve been reading like a bible.’

A barely detectable flinch. He closed his eyes and Moira watched a pulse beat in his eyelid. ‘What’s wrong, Stephen?’

‘‘We are drowning in our own solitude, looking for certainties, finding only one.’’

‘But Stephen,’ Moira said. Life had never been so good⎯the warmth of his leg against hers on the sofa, the sound of rain beating the long windows. ‘Look at us. This is not solitude.’

His eyes slid toward hers, as if loose in their sockets. Then they slid away. ‘But it is, in its own way. . .’ He broke off. ‘I’ve not been fair to you.’

She drew herself in tight, braced herself. For what? She didn’t know, but her mouth, her throat, turned to wool.

‘I’ve an old friend in Oaxaca⎯Mexico. I’ve been meaning to tell you. I’m going there for a few months.’

Moira straightened up and put down her book. ‘Mexico⎯why?’

‘To think. . .I need to sort through some issues.’

‘Out with the secrets,’ she wanted to say. But playing the inquisitor now might drive him away. ‘Exactly where are you on sabbatical from, Stephen?’ was all she could muster.

He looked up at the ceiling, studying the long cracks up there. ‘A group,’ he said, ‘that sends me to teach here and there.’

‘You were pushed into it,’ Moira said the day he finally told her, her words dropping numb and heavy from her mouth. Trying to be calm. They were walking through Kew Gardens. Trees were dripping from the heavy rain of the morning and she was trying to control the panic rising in her. She had guessed he had some secret⎯had been preparing to deal with the fact that he had a wife somewhere. But a priest!

He’d disappeared for three days. She’d checked the hospital lists, wondering if he’d become ill again. Nothing. Finally, he’d shown up at her flat, stubble on his jaw, his eyes red-rimmed. He was back, from wherever, there was relief at that⎯but he looked dreadful. He stood in the doorway, rain dripping down his head. He didn’t step in, just opened his arms, head down, and told her.

And her first instinct had been to recoil⎯from a feeling indeed like incest, although she would never have admitted that to her mother. Following close behind was a spiral of pleasure that she’d had a priest, made a priest love her. Then she’d flushed and pushed past him, wanting only to get outside, to draw great breaths of air.

He was struggling, he said, with leaving, and Moira leaped on that. ‘Don’t feel badly,’ she said. ‘It’s an unnatural way of life. Back home, they fill us full of guilt.’

When he was a boy, he said, he’d draped the kitchen table with a bedsheet and played at serving communion. ‘It’s a sign,’ his Gran had said. ‘He’ll be a priest.’ And they all looked at him, his mother and his little sisters, his two older brothers, shyly, with a new respect. And he felt the power of it, and played at it even more. And then, when the game began to wear off, he hid the fact, because his mother was so proud of him, and the priests down at St. Gerard’s had taken a special interest in him, and he liked being altar boy, liked shaking the bells, being part of the mystery.

‘Entering the life⎯it just happened. I was a boy who liked books and quiet. I had no other prospects really. I didn’t start out with noble motives. Why was I so disappointed when I found them lacking in others? I’ve turned my eyes from it, so many years. I even knew of a priest in Belfast who pressured a bombing witness not to testify against the IRA.’ He was talking to himself, eyes barely registering Moira’s presence. ‘We give sermons,’ he said. ‘Shining bits of light here and there. But all we really do is move the darkness around.’

Look at me, she thought. Take my hand. Anything.

‘The sabbatical was a chance to be just Stephen Lewis for a while. If I had told you I was a priest, that day in the hospital, you’d have treated me differently.’

‘No⎯.’ Moira started to shake her head, but knew it was true. Her legs ached, weak from tension, but the benches were puddled with rain. ‘You were just a boy pushed into it,’ she said again. ‘You can still do good. You could do mission work.’ She became eager, picturing them in Guatemala or Somalia, nursing sick people, brushing away the heat and flies together.

‘I never want to hurt you,’ he said, words she grabbed at. He took a bit of her hair between his fingers, and said, ‘This is real,’ as if to himself. Then to her: ‘Let me work through everything. When I can break free, we can start fresh.’

She could do nothing but agree to wait. And looking back, she saw that there had been clues and she had been blind to them. Was that her problem, that she tried to force things to be what she wanted? She had invented a story for him⎯teacher on sabbatical⎯and never dared question its authenticity. At least now, everything made sense⎯his strange behavior, his moods, even the incense. All could be attributed to his indecision.

Then he was gone, so quick Moira couldn’t quite grasp how quick. This was September. She’d been like a sleepwalker. He was gone and London was alien, had always been alien, she realized. When Stephen returned, it would be to Dublin so she packed her boxes and moved there, scrambling for a job at St. Vincent’s. It meant working nights and weekends, but she was lucky, lucky to get it, everyone said. She often stopped to imagine her life in a year’s time. The wait would be over, Stephen’s tangle of legalities worked out. He could teach at one of the schools around Dublin. She counted the weeks⎯one, then two and nothing from Oaxaca. Hope draining, she would lie on her bed, queasy with an uneasy vision: the future laid stretched and flat as endless present.

Then came the first letter. Stephen was in a fertile beautiful place and he was waiting for her. She kept the letter in her pocket at work, on top of her bedside table at night, to read over and over, one word her claim to calm: November.

Then the next letter arrived, with its rambling sentences, then the third, sparse, alarming: I dread final things. Finishing books, ending holidays. We look back with fondness and nostalgia. Now becomes then. This becomes that. What are future generations but endless incarnations of ‘this?’ And what is ‘this?’

She had to get to Mexico. Stephen was confused and he needed her, and she should have tried to talk him out of going to a monastery. That atmosphere was the last thing he needed.

Two days later, on the last leg of her journey, during the final departure⎯from the yellow polluted skies of Mexico City, down, down into the clear blue air, white clouds, and mountains of Oaxaca, she gave herself up to the relief of knowing the waiting was nearly over. When she stepped off the plane, it was two o’clock in the afternoon. Her eyes and mouth were airline-dry, her body a tired weight, but there was a thrill, too, that didn’t leave her. I’m somewhere else, she kept thinking. Somewhere other than a wet rainy island, I’m where Stephen is. When she emerged from the Oaxaca airport terminal, she was dizzy, disoriented. She was waiting, she realized, for gay fiesta music, like movies always played to identify Mexico. But there was only the sound of wind and rustling leaves, and the swoosh of cars passing. The air smelled dry and faintly fragrant with wildflowers, and the sky was intensely blue, as Stephen had said.

She had to fight the impulse to go straight to him, but her plan was to sleep well and look her best by morning, then surprise him. She caught sight of her reflection and was startled to see how calm she appeared. This apparent composure strengthened her resolve. Coming had been the right thing. She couldn’t wait in limbo forever, living on the dribs and drabs of infrequent letters. She had to know what Stephen wanted. She walked toward where a group of travelers was being loaded onto a van. The driver, a small man with quick, busy hands, took her suit carrier. She told him she was going to the Oaxaca Camino Real.

‘Ah,’ he said, ‘the convent.’

‘Convent?’

‘Was convent,’ he said, gesturing, ‘long time ago.’ He shrugged and pointed to the back seat of the van. She crowded in with a few of the people she recognized from the plane. Squashed in beside her was a man of about fifty with breath like cloves. He crossed his leg and shifted closer to her. ‘Hello. I am Luis. Where are you staying?’

The guidebook said men often considered women traveling alone fair game. Be firm and cool, the book suggested.

‘I am a nun and I am visiting a friend of mine who is a priest at El Sagrario.’

In a motion so quick Moira almost laughed, Luis uncrossed his leg. ‘Sister, I hope you enjoy yourself.’

Moira was free to look out the window. Closer to Oaxaca City, the streets were narrow, colonial. Houses and buildings were covered with garlands of marigolds. There was noise⎯the sound of a crowd. Further into the city, laughing groups spilled from the sidewalks. A group of children dressed like ghouls ran through the streets waving skull-shaped lollipops. Paper skeletons swung and bounced among the ornate ironwork of store windows.

Moira turned to Luis. ‘What is this? Was Halloween not yesterday?’ Did Mexico even celebrate Halloween?

‘Los Días de los Muertos.’ Luis pointed to the guidebook she was holding. ‘You can read about it in your guidebook, Sister.’ He took the book, flipped through it. ‘There.’ He pointed. The first two days of November. Day of the Dead. . . a belief that the souls of the dead return. A celebration. . . a facing of death, embracing it. Children dance in the street, playing at being the Bride of Death and her friends.

Of course. All Soul’s Day. Moira could hear Peg admonishing her for always forgetting the holy days of obligation. She watched as girls dressed as brides twirled about, like the girls at home making their First Communion⎯little brides, veils and all. Catholicism and its extremes. As bad as the wax saint. ‘Why, it’s quite revolting, isn’t it?’

Luis leaned across her to look out the window. ‘Why? Death is life, Sister. Or does your notion of afterlife not comfort you?’

He did not seem to expect an answer and Moira did not give him one. But she knew she had no notion of an afterlife. No comfort except in hoping that the thirty or forty years remaining to her would be happy ones.

‘There is the zócalo.’ Luis pointed to a plaza, a green, leafy place, an oasis of old trees with cafés, shops. The zócalo. What Stephen mentioned. Tomorrow she and Stephen would walk through the zócalo, talking about Los Días de los Muertos with a tourist’s bemused distance.

Luis tapped the driver’s shoulder. ‘This is where I say good-bye, Sister.’ The driver stopped by a stall selling bunches of marigolds and carnations and pulled the door open. The flower smell filled the van.

Outside, another stall displayed heaps of glistening sugar skulls. A small boy with blackened eyes and a scar painted across his forehead licked his finger and touched one of the skulls. Luis flipped a coin to the stall’s vendor, a woman colorful in stripes. He took three sugar skulls, tossed one to the boy, another to Moira, then bit into his and grinned as the van pulled away from the curb.

As the van made its away up along the zócalo, Moira wrapped the skull in tissue and put it in her purse, feeling dizzy again, with the flowers, the crowds, the stalls, the street dancing. It was exotic, it was what she wanted. Then she flushed hot. What if Stephen were there? Walking along. She wouldn’t want to see him by accident. She lowered her head and minutes later, the van pulled up to the hotel. And it was perfect. Walls of thick old stone, grassy courtyards edged with flowers, fountains. And her room, perfect as well. Intimate, with a window overlooking a courtyard and arches surrounding a stone basin. La lavanderia, a maid told her. Where the nuns once washed their garments. The place, after the grit of traveling, was like a fantasy. She was ready for a light meal, a foamy bath, sleep, and then, Stephen.

But in the morning, she woke late, horrified to see that the sun had long passed by the window. Her plan was a ruin, her stomach cramping from hunger. She called for service, for bread and tea, which arrived thin and red. She drew a fresh bath, but barely dipped in and out, her stomach fluttering now, the first doubts slipping in. She would be seeing Stephen any minute. What if he was not happy to see her? Her hands shook combing her hair. She applied a faint bit of taupe shadow to her eyelids, a smudge of palest rose to each cheek, and pulled on a dress of springy ivory material that had managed to escape wrinkles.

Outside, she crossed the courtyard, and followed a cool stone passageway to the lobby. A young bellman stood by a desk. ‘I need a driver to take me to El Sagrario, please,’ she said.

‘That is not one of the monasteries for tourists. I have a list of places you may visit.’ He reached for pamphlets on the desk.

Moira motioned to stop him. ‘No. I must visit someone at El Sagrario.’

He looked disbelieving and Moira began to feel impatient.

‘Perdóneme,’ he said. ‘Women are not allowed.’

A ripple of panic, quickly quelled. ‘It’s my friend. I’m sure it will be all right.’

The bellman held up his hands, shrugged. ‘Bueno, bueno. Wait.’

He whistled for a taxi, held the door open for her to get in. The taxi pulled north out of the hotel, out of town. Behind them, the sounds of the festival were faint.

‘You go to festivities?’ The driver turned to beam at her.

‘Not yet,’ she said, hoping her tone showed she was too distracted for small talk.

‘Maybe later.’ Later, with Stephen. Together, watching the dancing skeletons, Moira would comment on how appalled Peg would be by them, unable to recognize how like her little saint they were. She would tell him, too, how Peg had called their relationship incestuous, and they would shake their heads, glad to be away from all that.

The trip to El Sagrario seemed long, but when the driver announced they’d arrived and Moira looked at her watch, only twenty minutes had gone by. It was another few minutes down a winding drive, past iron gates, to a mammoth stone place crawling with red bougainvillea. The driver pulled up to a gate, and Moira’s self-confidence plummeted. Her hands could barely open the door. ‘You had better wait,’ she said.

Heart pounding, she followed a gravel path to a large iron gate and pulled a rope. Deep in the bowels of the place, a bell toned. Moira peered through the bars. Inside, a courtyard of yellow, orange, and red flowers surrounded stone statuary. Bees flitted among the blossoms. She waited, the silence loud in her ears. The place seemed deserted. Perhaps everyone was at prayer, or rest. It made sense that a monastery would follow some schedule. She checked her watch, her body sick and anxious now. A good five or six minutes had passed. Then an iron door creaked and a man wearing a gray robe moved slowly through the garden. As he drew closer, Moira noted his ruddy complexion, his greying sandy hair, wondered if he was Stephen’s Irish friend.

He nodded slowly at her. ‘Si?’

‘Habla inglés?’

‘Yes.’

‘My name is Moira Butler. I’m here to visit a friend of mine. Stephen Lewis?’

The man quietly sucked in his breath. ‘Miss Butler. Yes. I know who you are.’ A good sign? Bad? His accent was Irish⎯Stephen’s friend, surely. He seemed to consider, then reached into a deep pocket and pulled out a key ring. He unlocked the gate, swung it open, and gestured to a stone bench. ‘Rest, my dear.’

She sat, trying to ignore her leaping pulse, her dry throat. The monk settled beside her, his long robe brushing against her knee. ‘You’ve come a long way.’

His manner was too strange. If she acted normal, maybe everything would be normal. ‘Indeed I have, and I would like to see Stephen, please.’

He looked around the garden. He passed his hand near a bush, releasing a cloud of monarch butterflies that fluttered onto another bush. ‘My dear, this is a place of sanctuary.’

Her heart began to thud then, so loud the sound pounded in her ears. The monk was squinting at her, breathing through his mouth, his lips a crackled network of lines. ‘We’ve offered him sanctuary and cannot compromise it.’

‘Just tell him I’m here.’ She scanned the stone windows. If Stephen knew she was right outside⎯.

‘He knows.’

The phrase stunned silence ran through her head. Stunned silence. ‘I don’t believe you.’

‘You must realize,’ he said. ‘Stephen is fragile. He came close to breaking down. I’m sorry you came all this way, but he’s made certain decisions.’

A fog descended on her, a darkening; she could barely see. ‘Let Stephen tell me himself.’

‘Miss Butler,’ the monk said, leaning close. ‘Stephen’s experienced his first real call.’ His face shone with a beatific light, and he spoke so solemnly and urgently she wanted to shake him.

She would shake him with words. ‘You listen to me,’ she said, her voice quiet and firm against a sinking of hope. ‘You bring him here or I’ll tie myself cursing and naked to this stone bench.’ She would do it, too. She would.

The monk’s face tensed, sympathy gone. He looked at her for a long moment, as if she were a bad taste in his mouth. Then he stood and told her to wait.

Minutes passed, during which she was conscious only of uncertainty and humiliation and something deflated and gone quiet. She felt as if she was watching a film of someone else’s life. The story had been a bit of a letdown and now she was simply waiting to see what might happen.

And then there he was. Coming through the stone gate, white-faced and disbelieving, shaking his head. ‘Moira.’ His robes rustling as he sat beside her. ‘I can’t believe you’ve done this.’

Her eyes brimmed and she viciously forbid herself to give in to sentiment. ‘And why not? You talked of me coming here. In November, you said.’

He started to speak; stopped. Started again and shook his head, dodged her searching eyes. ‘Your first letter came,’ he said. ‘And I read it and held it in my hand and thought, what have I done? What could I have been thinking?’

‘Look at me,’ she said. ‘Look at me, at least.’

And he did look, with horrible sorrowful eyes. ‘I was selfish, I know. I confess it.’ And he went on confessing, about how he’d had visions of himself as an old man, a man with regrets. ‘For never having tried any other life.’ He faltered. ‘Not really knowing the choices.’

‘So I was an experiment.’

‘No.’ His eyes lingered on her mouth, her throat. She saw the change in him then, the return of uncertainty, and it stirred something like disgust in her.

‘I’m lost,’ he said.

Don’t look to me. A thought out of nowhere, the look of him becoming⎯distasteful. Amazing how that could happen, and so abruptly. I made you up, she thought, thinking also, No. Not wanting the fantasy to end, superimposing the vision she’d carried in her head over this man sitting beside her, head bowed, just the top of his scalp revealed to her. A thinning spot she’d touched and kissed. Again, disgust. A desire to get away.

‘You did want to leave but you’re afraid to,’ she said. ‘You haven’t received any bloody call.’ She remembered the sugar skull and pulled it from her purse, pushed it into his palm. ‘This is what religion is to you. A sugar coating, and you know it.’

His finger worked over the sugar skull, rubbing its eye sockets. But he was back in the fold and there would be no admitting anything.

‘I’m going south,’ she said, barely aware of what she was saying, the idea forming as she said it.

‘South?’

‘South.’ A good idea. One that felt right. ‘Guatemala.’ Or somewhere. ‘The missionary idea was a good one, and it’s still good, even without you.’

She recognized the sympathy in his eyes, a look she’d been seeing all of her adult life. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

‘It doesn’t matter.’ She said it fiercely. She wanted him to believe her. She said it again. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ She never wanted anyone’s pitying gaze leveled at her again.

Then she was blindly making her way through the gate, ignoring his feeble calls. She flung herself into the cab, gesturing to the driver, who pulled away in a skid of gravel. She was alone, alone. She had always been alone. In the dry stunned mess of it all, her only thoughts were self-pitying ones that filled her with grief. The beautiful room. No one to share it with. No looking at Stephen across a table, no walking through the zócalo hand-in-hand.

She looked up from her blur when the driver stopped the car. They were near the zócalo, in the thick of the festivities, and he gestured for her to get out. ‘You be okay here, lady. Eat. Drink.’ She took bills from her purse and pushed them into his hand. His eyes were brown, benevolent, like Stephen’s. She didn’t want to look at them.

The next hours were mad, a time she would never quite remember, a frenzy of heat and marimba music and color and stopping from bar to bar, drinking sour flavors and sweet thick syrupy liquids and buying a bouquet of marigolds, then ripping the petals and trying to hurl them into a fountain. But they only fluttered and floated. Everything was on sale for the dead⎯candles, flowers, bread. She bought a gauzy veil and let the vendor pin it to her hair. She liked the feel of it blowing against her throat, the back of her neck. Evening came on and women wandered the plaza with baskets of flowers, shouting, ‘Flores para los muertos! Flores para los muertos!’ Moira rose from her stupor with images of Blanche duBois and the Cottlesloe festival muddling her head, thinking it really was like a bad joke. As the night darkened, the beat of the music deepened, pulsing into the air, louder and louder. People were dancing, weaving among each other, shaking paper skeletons, laughing.

A man who seemed delirious with joy waved his arms, urging anyone who was not dancing to join in. At first, Moira was awkward, feeling that all eyes would be on her, but as she began to move, she saw that no one was watching and she gave herself to the rhythm, the pulsing of the drums, the vibrating cymbals. There was nothing, nothing else. There was nothing but this moment. She shouted it aloud, and the noise swallowed it up. Giant pinwheels arced through the air; they lit the night sky. A stallful of sugar skulls grinned at her. She would buy more, handfuls of them. She would pack some of them up, fearful souvenirs, and send them to Ardcree. The rest she would take to Guatemala as medicine, as reminder.