Cathedrals

Creative Nonfiction
Arwen Dewey


You can’t say anything. Brown metal twisted into a woman’s writhing form, hunched protectively over a body that has torn itself open beneath you, frozen silent. Your grief is a brass stamp in the corner of a museum, made by no one famous, nodded to and passed over and forgotten by hundreds of visitors each day. You are sloppily reproduced by student artists with charcoal on their fingers, leaning solemnly over thick white sketchpads. But one short thin foreigner with an American accent, traveling through Europe alone, leans close enough to fog your polished cheekbones with her breathing. She stares at you until her eyes begin to water, and even then, blinking, she does not turn away.

How long have you been in this corner, in agony over a boy who was alive and now is dead? They must have told you by now that there are hundreds of those, more made every day, in every country. We live in a world of dead boys, soldiers and gangsters and activists, victims of AIDS or drugs or fast cars or depression. But this one was yours. You held him sometimes, and he was your joy, and you lived the better pieces of your life seeing the reflection of your living in his eyes. Those eyes are gone, the life inside used up. So what? Thousands of bulbs burn out every day, so many eyes, so many dead.

But only one was yours, only one was mine. We are selfish in our grief, uncaring. Most people wouldn’t dare to get close to creatures so violently emotional as we, so they will never think to judge us for this.

I could stand here and stare at you for days at a time. Admission to your naked body, like those of your cracked, faded brothers and sisters, is cheap. I have already stared at you for so long that my eyes understand you, not just the way your jagged spine stretches your skin, or the way your torso arches; I can see that your knees are aching from pressing too hard into the earth by his side. I can see that the ground is rocky beneath you. I know that the pain in your legs would please you, if you noticed it, and also know that you are beyond noticing. Your face is stretched wide, shock and denial and the most brutal kind of realization taut in its creases. Your mouth is open, and I swear to you that I can hear the silence that comes out. It is loud, is screaming in my ears, is capable of this. Lady, it hurts to look at you. You are the rocks under my knees, and I’m kneeling, like you, on bare, dry ground. My mouth too is stretched wide, but the world remains silent.

It has been a long time, a long time here looking at you and even longer since it happened, and still I can’t say anything. Sometimes pain is too sharp and tight a creature to let spill from something so fleshy and delicate as lips.

*

In the youth hostels, we would have had to sleep in separate dormitories. In the solemnly glorious castles where dozens of inglorious neon-clad tourists wait in the entrance lines, camcorders and whining children in tow, in the cool, ancient, stone-built cathedrals where, once inside, nothing outside really seems to exist, I think of him, and in my mind he sees all these things with me. In reality, I sightsee quietly, almost stoically, and walk alone from sight to sight, jostled by the crowds.

Two kids are playing on the wooden deck of a squat suburban apartment building, making a fort out of a torn blue tarpaulin and whatever patio furniture they can pull into place—crumbly cinder blocks, a folding deck chair, two half-barrels used as planters, and their mothers’ bicycles, among other things. The boy is the organized one, and the one with the strongest will power; he brings out a red-and-gold cigar box filled with candy bars (stolen from the 7-Eleven down the road)—it’s the girl who is the innocent, law-abiding one.

The snack box, he announces. They can share one candy bar each time they have a sleepover in the fort—the rest of the time, off limits. The girl eyes the snack box greedily from time to time, but says nothing—she is a little awed by the boy’s self-restraint, but doesn’t want to admit it, and besides, they’re his candy bars.

Some days I can’t remember why I’m here. My eyes, trying so hard not to look backwards, see the present in a blur. Physically, I move from place to place, distantly admiring, not thinking. But despite myself, I begin to make friends with these half-timbered buildings and lumpy cobblestone streets, and as we grow comfortable together, I find my mind wandering into telling the story, in fragments that it still stings to think about too much.

The fort stays up nearly three weeks. It was built solidly, and only their mothers’ firm requests that their bicycles be liberated lead to the dismantling of the project. But a week or two later, with new materials—planks left behind on a nearby construction site, maybe, or empty grocery boxes—they start a new one, a better one. Each time they tell each other that the new fort is the best one ever.

The morning after I found out, my mind was raw, absolutely emptied and scraped brutally clean. I stepped outside and saw with stupid shock that the world had not responded. The world, it seemed, hadn’t even heard. There were the neighbors’ houses and neatly trimmed lawns, and the forested hills beyond, big and green and luscious in the bright sunlight. The fact that there was sunlight, and that it dared to be bright in the face of this, that it dared to shine, and that my body should stoop so low as to be warmed by it…

The boy and the girl are going on a hike. The hill is steep, and the girl is exhausted before they have gone very far. “Oh look, blackberries!” she says to the boy, and stops walking. She hopes he won’t notice her strained breathing as she picks a few berries and pops them into her mouth. “Have some!” she tells him, “They’re good!” The boy usually teases her mercilessly when she shows signs of weakness, but this time he keeps quiet. He smiles at the girl, and says encouragingly, “Come on, we’re nearly halfway there!” To the girl, the boy is the sun—an incandescent bulb, constant ideas and activities and vibrant energy. Determinedly, she summons what strength she has left and starts trudging along behind him again.

There was a woman jogging down the road that morning, wearing blue cotton sweatpants with a pink racing stripe, and matching pink sports bra. She smiled at me, and called out, “Good morning!” My mouth shaped the polite response before I could think, and even stretched in an automatic smile that felt stiff and fake and like treachery. I don’t think she even noticed.

The boy and the girl are recording their own radio program, complete with silly advertisements for imaginary new Barbie dolls and psychic services. They play the tape for their mothers afterwards, who laugh and laugh.

I still have conversations with him, in my head. It’s my way of trying to understand, or maybe acknowledging that I probably never will, and trying to accept that. I say, Do you still remember the adventures we were going to have? How we were going to end up filthy rich off one of your schemes, and travel around the world together? We had so many plans—two natural-born daydreamers. Well, here I am, traveling around the world like we always wanted to, now what? I need a new plan, and you were always the best at coming up with those. Who am I supposed to daydream with now?

It’s a rainy day, and the boy and the girl are sitting inside, writing skits together and then acting them out. They try to outdo each other with the number of dopey jokes and gruesome murders they can fit into each one.

Over and over again I ask him, Why didn’t you let me know, somehow, that you were hurting that much? Did you try, and I just stupidly, blindly didn’t get it? How could I not have known? Why didn’t I feel it, why couldn’t I smell it in the air around you like roses or too much garlic?

He doesn’t answer, which is why I can believe that these conversations are real.

The boy has his driver’s license. He borrows his mom’s van and drives with the girl and another friend high up into the mountains. The directions are vague, but they find the place eventually—a natural hot springs an older friend has told them about. During the long drive, they listen to a mix tape the girl and the boy made together, and sing along, making up goofy new words to the songs.

The hot springs is on a cliff, overlooking a pine forest in the valley below. It is very beautiful. Soaking in the steaming water, the three speak softly, because when their voices rise the cliffs send echoes bounding around the valley, and the calm and the quiet are too perfect to disturb.

Sometimes the thought of that silent anguish scares me so much that my body shakes with it. In the dark when things are quiet and there are no more distractions, I am suddenly alone, not neutrally, but in a dull thudding sort of way; I can practically feel the air throbbing against my skin, too close around me. Then the horror of it strikes me again, and I call out to him, wherever he is now, saying oh God, what did your grandmother do first? Did she scream, or cry, or maybe faint? I know the police came. I know you had left a note for her. Did she call them first, knowing that going alone to find you there would be too much for her, if it were true?

Or did she go running up the hill alone, hoping to catch you in time?

The boy is sick and the doctors don’t know why, or what his illness actually is, but he doesn’t seem to be absorbing nutrients very well, and he doesn’t have much energy anymore. When the girl comes to visit, she is so bright-eyed and happy to see him, full of stories about college life, her new job, what she’s been doing since they last saw each other. It doesn’t occur to her that there might be a hidden reason for his sudden invitation, but she is worried about him—he’s so tired, and on a flour-free diet calculated by his latest doctor to treat the chronic infection that took hold a few months before. The two cook nut muffins and make nut sandwiches and laugh trying to eat them, watching them crumble in each other’s hands. They go for bike rides, and take walks along the beach and splash in the waves, but the boy is always so tired afterwards, and takes long naps, while the girl sits beside him on the sofa and strums her guitar, and sings him old songs. She hopes he will get better soon.

I say to him, Do you know these things? Do you know that in the back of my mind there will always be this image, dangling, of your body, thin and tired and hanging from a branch I will never see on some solid, indifferent oak on a California hillside? Dangling by the neck, I say to him. My God, by the neck. Did you think about it, while knotting the rope around yourself, did you for one moment think, how ironic that there are people who love this neck I’m working so hard to strangle? But I shake my head at him there, and half-smile as I say, Actually, I know perfectly well what you were thinking. You were trying to figure out how to make a noose like in the movies, that sleek spiral wrap around the main cord, and you just couldn’t figure out how to do it. If I’d been there, we would have giggled over that one, how the suicides and murderers-with-rope in movies always know instinctively how to make perfect hangman’s nooses. “You should’ve taken a class or something,” I would have choked out between giggles, “before trying it for reals. What’s your grandma going to say when she sees this shoddy job?”

But we wouldn’t have laughed. He would have cried in front of me, then, instead of hiding in his room like he did when I was visiting the month before. As if the walls were feet thick, as if I couldn’t hear his ragged sobbing.

The girl and the boy are leaving the rental stand at a boating club. The boy is finally going to show off his sailing skills, acquired over three years of summer boating camps. He slips easily off the dock and into a large and slightly battered blue sailboat, then holds out a hand for the girl to join him. They take off in the steady bay wind, which quickly becomes ocean wind. The boy lets out more sail, until the boat is rushing along at a terrific speed and tilted sharply, nearly perpendicular to the water. The girl eyes the waves nervously, but tries to relax and enjoy herself because she has just turned and seen the way the boy is sitting behind her, his body silhouetted against the horizon. For the first time since her arrival the week before, the exhaustion has dropped from his skinny frame; he looks almost happy.

I wish I had dared to try to reach out to him. I wish I had known. I would have held him in that moment, if he had let me. I would have said, Stay here with me. Live in this world with me. Let’s have adventures together, let’s find out if there’s a way to be grownups and still be happy here. We’ll go to Switzerland, take you to doctors there, they’ll give you back your energy, make your body work right again. We’ll leave no note, we’ll just disappear, they’ll always wonder what happened to us. We can live free in caves in the mountains above Zurich, and frighten the tourists, and howl at the moon, become the stuff of Alpine legends, and die old and wild and happy.

I don’t know, will never know if that would have been enough. But sometimes the pain of the things I did not know to say sears through my mind until I feel like there is nothing left to do in this life but hurt for the past.

*

I’m not Catholic, and he wasn’t either—still, when I visit the cathedrals, more than anyplace else, I go in for us both. I stop just inside the door first, near the holy water, and I breathe in deeply, the smell of old stone and cool air, and with it I breathe in the taste of centuries of people believing. It’s not important that we believe in different things. It’s the believing itself that connects us, our common recognition of the holiness of this place, our shared awe in the face of what is magical and powerful and untouchably real in the world. The high ceilings, their flying buttresses or gothic arches, the stained glass sending panes of colored light drifting down over the cathedral floor. I think of my friend, and I’m not really thinking about the simple fact that we always planned to come here together. I’m thinking, if I can stand here and sense so clearly the others, the faithful of long ago, and feel their belief that still impregnates these stones, maybe there is no time here, and no separation that matters after death. Here, more than anywhere else, I can pretend that we are still together, and believe that it is something more than pretending.

In the great cathedrals, there are always tourists, but the stone is so still and dark and vast that their presence detracts from the solemn majesty only in the way a mosquito at a campfire distracts from the warmth of the flames. There is a vivid, breathing silence that makes the voices of the tourists insignificant and even covers the incantations of the priests during mass. Sometimes that silence surrounds me absolutely, until the insect-buzz of my own existence grows so finite and distant in my head that I have to go outside, just to remember how to breathe again. The blue light from the stained glass is liquid, flowing over the floors as if it were water flowing over time, ancient otherworldly water that flows in still circles yet drenches the stone everywhere, puddling against the walls. It touches the carvings and pictures of old stories that are also portraits of old faith, the lifelong blind devotion that the centuries of artisans and cathedral-builders brought with them here. These things remain; this devotion stays.

I have walked halfway around the cathedral, and chosen the place. My coins clunk down into the moneybox, and I take a votive candle from the shelf beside the chapel of the Virgin Mary, and light it on other people’s prayers, already burning on the dark metal frame. I don’t have to shield the flame, there will be no gust of wind, but I do anyway until, with my right hand, I’ve set the red plastic candle-cup in the holder nearest the top of the frame; he always wanted to be the best, the highest, the brightest.

I watch the flame intently until its flickering steadies, and it begins to grow. I don’t pray. I stand there in silence for a long time, staring at the candle with the calm desperation unique to those of us who want something very badly and know without a doubt we’ll never get it. With all the force I can muster I think at that little flame, “Live. Live. Live.”

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When not writing fiction, Arwen spends her time singing 17th-century lute music, practicing Spanish, and bicycling. She lives in Southern Oregon. E-mail: hokadinkum[at]gmail.com

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