Sometimes the work day takes a most bizarre twist.
Desecraters of tombs, looters plucking at baubles, that’s what we were. Crowbars levered at nails screeching in protest like babies torn from their mother's womb as we tore at the boards erected to bar entrance to this once-hallowed ground. I stared at rust flows etching down cedar planks, outlining the vestiges of the Catholic cross that once stood over the doorway. White paint crumbled, graying under the oppressive touch of the sun’s heat, only to be swept away by the breath of wind and rain’s caress to dim lands of memory’s fading passages. Haphazardly nailed plywood concealed stained-glass windows that once danced with the colors of heaven. None of us knew when this old angel of grace had been closed up, but I felt the whispers singing by my as the old doors creaked open.
Did grave robbers feel like this as they broke into the pharaohs’ tombs? King Tut’s curse had always fascinated me. Were we all infidels born to be cursed, like Howard Carter? How would I feel, if this were my sacred space? In the end, did it really matter?
Our job? To open the doors of this relic of a church one final time.
“No, after you,” joked two of my demolition crew. We stepped inside, disturbing dust that billowed up, dancing in a myriad of sparkles in the brilliant rays of sunlight streaming into the chapel. God’s open arms beckoned in the echoes of chants clinging to cobwebs in the rafters.
The crowbar fell from Rudy’s hand. Metallic echoes resounded.
A slender figure sat in the front pew.
“Jesus,” Manuel uttered, frantically making the sign of the cross.
Stale air clung to our nostrils as our eyes became accustomed to the gloom.
“Is it alive?” someone managed to croak. Then, it moved. Nick’s hammer toppled from his fingers.
“Ai ... Madonna,” Manuel whispered, emerging from his catatonia. He was from a devout Catholic family and had more respect for the church and God than I’d ever had, but for a second even I nearly buckled to my knees, an instant convert.
No one dared breathe as the figure rose. A frail old lady’s fingers tracked the same concise movements over her chest as Manuel’s, only slower. She turned towards us, the holiest of smiles on her thin face, somehow personifying the ancientness of the building. Wordlessly, with a dignity that was as much a natural part of her as the Bible clutched in her hand, she moved down the aisle.
We parted to let her pass, keeping a respectful distance, unsure if she was real or some apparition that would spring on us and rip our throats out, like some bloodsucking vampire.
“What the …?” I squinted, half expecting her to turn to dust as she walked into the sunlight.
“One last time,” she said as she carefully descended the church steps, grabbing the railing for support. The others looked to me for guidance as a yellow cab pulled up.
“Look, lady,” I said, hurrying after her, “we’re here to tear down this place. You shouldn’t be here,” I blustered, trying to come across as the hard-nosed guy in charge.
“Such a pity. She was grand in her day. But then so were we all.” The wrinkles on her face smoothed as she stared back at the musty confines, the years fading away at her wrinkles. “I still hear the hymns singing out from the choir.” Her eyes moistened, no doubt seeing this sanctuary as it was before, as it was meant to be, bustling with patrons in prayer and reverence. Dust-laden alcoves, now empty, had once protected statues of Jesus and Mary. Yet framed in the softness of her gaze I spied a haunting presence shadowing her serenity, whispering his calling.
“How’d you ...?”
“Get in? I have my ways. Now if you'll excuse me, I must be going.”
My crew merely stood there, faces blank. “Ah, just an old lady,” Rudy, a big youth, half-joked.
Fingering the tattered Bible, clearly a well-used friend, she didn’t move as I returned to join her. She could have been my grandmother. She was someone’s. A fleeting hauntedness in her eyes stared back at me as she reached for the cab's door handle.
And I in all consciousness I could not let her go. “I’ll drive you.”
“I have money,” she said indignantly.
I could see that. Floral dress and long coat with a hat pinned sideways on her head, and on her ring finger a diamond that would make the Queen look twice. Everything pressed and perfectly in place, as if she were attending some elegant ballroom affair.
“I know,” I said. “This isn’t about money.” There were things money could never buy. Not for her. “I’ll drive you wherever you need to go.” For hidden in the shadows of her eyes, where dark spirits congregated, one angel stalked. Azrael. God’s angel of death, his voice calling, bearing whispers of the finality of things.
She looked into my eyes and from that stolid, frightened gaze that spoke of a peace born from angel's graces, I knew she knew as well and needed a friend. “Thank you.”
As I paid the cab driver I turned back to Manuel, his Mexican complexion still ashen from meeting his imagined Blessed Virgin Mary. “You’re in charge. Have everything ready for demo tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? She was supposed to come down today.”
Big Rudy nudged his shorter friend. “Hey, let’s hurry and we’ll have time for a couple of wobbly pops at the peeler bar.” The irreverence of youth ... was I much better at their age?
“I don’t understand, boss.” Manuel scratched his head, staring at the elegantly dressed lady from another age. Time slid back fifty years, trolley buses clanked by, Edsels tooted their horns and I pictured her standing there in her youth.
“Neither do I. Call it giving two graceful old ladies another day.”
I opened the door to my pickup, wishing it wasn’t full of signs reading Aggressive Demolition. Hastily I cleaned papers, lunch bags and coffee cups off the seat, and she climbed in as regally as a movie star entering a limousine. “I really appreciate this.”
“I know. You’re welcome. Where to?”
As we drove around the older section of town she asked to stop here and there, sometimes staring at empty lots with buildings that no longer existed. Sighs occasionally escaped her lips and she’d talk softly of memories. Often she’d get out and walk to the front of some house or store and stand there, remembrances of earlier days shuttered in the silence of the mind’s eye. I didn’t ask any questions. If she chose to, we’d talk more later.
“Mill Lake, please.”
Damp pungent earth, so foreign compared to the construction smells I was used to, greeted us. “Help me, please. This will be hard on these old feet.”
Under her clothes she was paper thin.
Few people were around, only nature’s smells and sounds. Now and then I’d have to hold her up, as if my strength and the Bible she cradled so fervently to her chest were all that were keeping her going.
Arm in arm we walked along the trail a little ways before sitting down at a park bench that had a view of the entire lake in the heart of Abbotsford. “Can’t go any further,” she gasped, tears slowly ebbing down her face.
The November day was warm and hints of cedar drifted in the moist air, the lake surface smooth as glass. Canada geese honked and ducks squawked as if sharing a bawdy joke between themselves.
“There really used to be a mill here, you know. Right about over that playground. I met my husband when he was working at that mill.”
“How long you been here?”
She chuckled, a surprisingly rich voice from earlier years. “All my adult life, since I was twenty. At first I could count the number of buildings in this town on my fingers. John and I used to walk around this lake most evenings. We’d feed the ducks that stayed for the winter and some years we could even skate on the lake. The paved walkway was just a muddy trail back then. "By the way, I'm Agnes McCurty.”
I grinned, surprised that the frail woman sitting beside me was the same Agnes McCurty whose voice had been one of the loudest raised in protest against the Adams Block reconstruction project. “Dale Green. My folks moved here from Ontario about fifteen years ago.”
“You’ll have seen some changes here too, then.” She sighed. “After the church closed in seventy-nine, I used to sneak back in every so often just to sit and pray. I was one of the ladies who helped out, arranging flowers, Sunday school, bake sales, what have you. I guess I kind of forgot to give my keys back.
A few years later my husband died and my three kids moved out east. Oh, they phone from time to time, and my eldest begs me to move in. Claiming they could keep more of an eye on me, but without my home, my roots, what good is that?” She shivered, the wind seeming to ghost right through her. The birches and poplars were bare, huddling for the winters that never seemed to come anymore.
“Take me home, please. 1173 Essendene.”
I knew the address. Only half a block from the church and slated to come down next week for a shopping mall. Revitalization, businessmen called it. In her pre-war house, furniture was covered with dust-sheets and boxes were stacked carefully, many marked Goodwill. A suitcase sat by the door. “Will you take that for me?”
Her front door sighed closed behind us, her hand shook badly as she struggled with the key in the lock, "I can't."
Tears streamed as I helped her to lock the door for the last time and I drove her to one more address. Her last one, St. Andrew’s Retirement Home.
Two attendants in white came to greet us. “We were starting to worry about you. Expected you a few hours ago.”
Agnes, who had fewer movements of time’s hands left than any of us, regarded him with a quiet smile. “I knew this wouldn’t be easy today,” she said as I unpacked her bag from my truck and she stood hugging her Bible. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure, Agnes.” I gave her hand a gentle pat. I doubted I’d muster half the braveness when I found myself in her situation one day. Which I knew I would. Nowadays retirement homes were much more than places where old folks went to die, but in the hush of the doors closing behind her I heard the whispers of God’s angel calling once more.
I’d never forget that sound.
The shutting of a life.
About the Creator
I believe in whacking a reader upside the head, toss them screaming into the book, and just when they think they are starting to figure things out toss a curveball. they say that you don't have to be mad to be a writer, but it sure helps.
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