Flakes of paint fell to the floor as Marie pulled the door shut and locked it. Already the effort of climbing the
stairs from the basement had caused her to wheeze and crackle. Leaning on her stick, she sucked in the air.
Bells resounded in the sky. She had to hurry if she was to get there in time.
Setting off, straightening her back, willing her feet forward, she tried to ignore the pain in her chest and focus on the white domes glinting ahead at the top of the hill. Cobbles rose and fell under her slippers. ‘Our Father, who art in heaven,’ she muttered, passing Café Betrand.
From inside, Jean waved. ‘Hello Marie.’
She nodded pushing past the pavement tables where men and women kissed the air as they spoke.
In the square at the bottom of the steps leading to the domes sunlight flickered the trees; artists stood with easels. She paused, leaning against the railing. Her feet and hands felt colder. Why had she left it so late?
No more than a hundred to climb; steps she’d once skipped while Innocent tried to catch her. One, two, three. Stop. Four, five. Stop. Six. Seven. Eight.
When she reached halfway she was breathing heavily. It was harder now; the pulse through her body fiercer, her breath shorter.
The bells rang out. Domes gleamed. Cross the white terrace. Then fifty more.
She inched forward. There they all were – standing or squatting next to blankets covered in goods – tall black men with long fingers inviting the tourists to ‘come and see’, ever watchful for the generous purse and the police. One or two of the men wandered around the square with toys, winding them up, releasing them into the air, watching them rattle until they spun earthward, catching them before they reached the ground. Innocent had caught her eye like that, calling to her, pressing treasures in her hands. His palms were pink; his arms strong, making her safe; his voice gentle, making her forget Thou shalt not. She bit her lip. How her body had ached with desire.
Clouds drifted overhead. She nodded to herself and sat down. Innocent’s lips had covered her own never taking no for an answer; her belly and breasts paled under his hands. Her breath was returning to normal again, and the pain was a dull ache, easing with every moment she rested. Around her, people were pointing cameras at the domes, waving each other into pictures, frowning, smiling when finally the shots were taken. She touched her forehead; her photos were stored there: images of the past into the present – lovers waltzing in and out, the bulge of her belly, a glimpse of the baby, the top of its head over the crook of an elbow, doors shutting, bloodstained sheets, whispered voices through the years. The pain. Had she not suffered enough?
She trembled as she walked on. Innocent danced in her mind, just out of reach, leading her on. Lovers again, only this time her trying to catch him, bathing under the sun, in the woods, on the lake. His laughter growing louder the higher she climbed until, breathless, she reached the top and sat in the entrance. Across roofs, church towers, skyscrapers and the line of the river below his voice called out. ‘Marie, I’ll show you the way.’
‘I’m scared,’ she replied.
‘There’s no need.’ Then he was gone.
Nodding to the strains of the bells, slipping the rosary through her fingers, she whispered, ‘Forgive me my sins, as I forgive those who have sinned against me.’
With one last burst of energy she stood and shuffled to the door at the side. Turning the handle, she opened it. A sparrow fluttered above.
Greeted by incense and the organ swelling the air with hymn she’s a child again holding Mama’s hand, listening to the sombre voice of the priest. ‘Cross yourself, whenever you enter the House of God.’
She dips her hand in the holy water and makes the sign of the cross, genuflects, then takes her seat at the back of the congregation who pray fiercely against the hum of passing tourists. Sun shines through stained glass saints, throwing coloured light over priest and choir.
A baby cries.
The pain starts again. Marie leans forward. Clutching her chest, she sinks to her knees. Unbearable crushing then it’s gone.
The candles burn bright. She’s never noticed how big the flames are before, or how they dance so high almost touching the ceiling, blending with the rays of light. And Innocent, how strange that he should be here.