Sunday, December 2
She climbed the steps in the rain, floppy knit hat clamped over her head and pulled down tight so that only her earlobes and a few tired wisps of gray hair showed. Her right hand was on the brass stair rail, the left clutching a burlap sack that contained a few odds and ends from Goodwill. Her legs were heavy, as if they had soaked up the bone-chilling showers that had burst from the pregnant sky a few hours before.
She paused at the top, looking over at the steeple of Independent Presbyterian as it strained to touch heaven, silhouetted against the leaden sky.
The live oaks in Chippewa Square were bearded in Spanish moss, gray-green in the twilight, and their dark leaves rustled softly in the quiet wind as they had forever. The massive trees stood guard around the rigid bronze statue of Oglethorpe in the center of the square. The General still stared south, towards Florida and the long-dead Spaniards who had threatened his tiny city on the edge of the new world all those centuries ago.
Her breath, visible and half-frozen, curled like a ghost in the winter air.
The church door stuck at first, swollen shut by the rain, but she put her shoulder into it and it yielded. The warm, sweet air inside the narthex flowed around her like water, suffused with the languid scent of melted wax and the crisp tang of spruce from the Chrismon trees at the front of the sanctuary.
He was still there, alone in the dark. The man was seated in a pew down front, on the left.
A single light in the baptistry illuminated the Advent wreath. The wreath levitated there, waiting, its dormant candles yearning to be lit. A few silver beams of incandescence – moonlight? or something else? – plunged through the slatted windows like swords, scattering their beams across the man’s broad shoulders.
His glasses caught the light and scattered it, like a jewel.
“You’re back again,” she said.
“I never left,” he said, turning ever so slightly to her.
His voice was soft, like moist cotton.
She sat down beside him on the pew, which creaked a bit.
For a moment they said nothing.
“Where’s your mother?” he said, finally.
“Home, I guess,” she said.
His hands were the gnarled hands of a warrior. They had grasped the stuttering barrels of anti-aircraft guns at Pearl Harbor as Japanese planes screamed overhead. They pulled bleeding comrades from shattered foxholes, the coils of their intestines spilling out onto the ground as tracer bullets whizzed about like deadly fireflies.
He never talked about the war.
“The world was different back then,” was all he would ever say.
But his hands were also the hands of a loving husband, clasped around his wife’s waist as they kissed at the First Baptist altar table during their wedding. And they were the hands of a proud father, holding his baby daughter aloft as she beamed toothlessly at him in the morning’s first light.
He held his daughter’s hand now, decades later, her breathing still and soft as ever, hat pulled down over her head as the night slipped past them like a dream and all that was left between the two of them and God was the ever-shrinking universe.
“Love you,” he said.
“Love you, too, daddy,” she said, smiling.
In the narthex, someone lit a candle. Its flame was like a solitary star, flickering silent and alone in an empty galaxy.
(to be continued)