Water and Blood

Living on the Prairies can be a challenge, not only for people but also for trees.  

The extreme cold, blistering heat, withering droughts, and overpowering winds can be detrimental to life in general.  Luckily most Conifers can manage to survive even such extremes.  Nancy’s Farmhouse is nestled in a forest populated with Firs, Spruces, Pines and Larches which drop walnut sized cones. On windy days the air is permeated with the fragrant citrusy scent, which distinguishes conifers from other trees.

Nancy relocated to the prairies, in Canada, as a young woman with her husband who has since passed away. She has been living a life of solitude, in a place that had fallen between the cracks.  In a sense, Nancy has also fallen between the cracks.  The nearest neighbors are 65 km away, the closest town 120 km and Nancy never learnt to drive, not even a bicycle. Gary had taken care of everything. There had been no need for Nancy to drive. Over 20  years have passed since her husband died of cardiac arrest.

Nancy gets up out of bed and inserts her fleshy arms in the sleeves of her sad faded pink flannel robe, as she does every morning.  For a woman her age she is sprite and moves with vigor and determination.  Her posture suggests she is on a mission, with her double chin jutting, and her neck bent forward as she walks. 

She heads down the stairs, into the kitchen, where she turns on the radio, already tuned to her favorite Country music station. Listening to country music, with a hot cup of coffee, is Nancy’s morning ritual. She enjoys the hot sun, spilling through the windows, the steam rising from the hot cup she holds between her palms.   

Little Richard called country  music ‘White Man’s Blues’. Nancy has her reasons to feel blue. She also feels as misunderstood as country music is. Willie Nelson is the last man standing from Nancy’s favorite stars of Country musicians. 

Soon her favorite talk show would be on air. The commercial for an early retirement plan always played right before the show was about to start.

“Welcome to today’s show on CML radio where we play country music you love. Our guest today, Doctor of Psychology Wellesley will be answering your questions but first let’s hear from the Doctor.”

Doctor Wellesley, please tell us about stress and how it makes people’s lives more complicated and can lead to illness.”

“Many turn of events can lead to stress, such as losing a spouse or a your job. Much of this stress is self-imposed and is the direct result of confusing your wants with your needs. Many people believe they need things when in reality these things are merely wants. 

“Another major contributor to stress, is that some people tend to be controlling or perfectionists. It’s tempting for some to fill in every waking second, checking off tasks from their to do list.  It isn’t simple to sum up in so many words, since there are various contributing factors, for example disclosure and addressing uncomfortable topics is also very important in avoiding complications in one’s life, that will otherwise lead to stress.”

“Well you heard it from the Doctor, our lines are open so please call us  at 5551212 with your questions and comments for Dr. Wellesley.”

“ We have our first caller, hello what is your name and your question for the doctor?”

“Hello, I’m Michelle, single mother of 3 and I am totally stressed.  I’d like to ask Doctor Wellesley what is wrong with wanting things, why would that complicate my life, I mean sure the kids need new shoes this year, again, but I want a weekend at the spa even though I can’t afford it. So now you tell me Doctor, what exactly is complicating my life, the fact I want it or that I can’t afford it? “

“Hell of a question for the Doctor, Michele .”

“Oh and another thing, wouldn’t a weekend at a spa be what the doctor would order for stress reduction?” 

 “Sounds like you want it and need it as well Michelle, now let’s hear the Doctor.”

“Okay, you have a point Michelle, nothing is ever 100% proof, not even the birth control pill.”

Nancy decides she’s heard enough nonsense about wanting and needing. She’d had to take care of her own wants and needs for as long as she can remember. Even her husband had never cared to understand her needs, let alone her wants. Her young girls dreams of romance and glowing love, had a short lifespan. These were extinguished on the day she walked down the aisle with a man old enough to be her father.

Nancy heads out into her yard, it’s cooler in the mornings, before the sun reaches around to the back yard, the best for watering plants. She grabs the hose and as she waters the Clematis and the Peonies she thinks how in just a little over three months they would all be under a blanket of icy snow again. Come spring they would be back, exploding with life and color. If only people could do the same.

Once she’s done watering the plants, she moves over to a white plastic table, with matching white plastic chairs. She grabs a pail and cleaners nearby, then begins to meticulously scrub the surface of the table. She is very thorough, exaggeratedly so.  The furniture had not been in need of washing. Nancy had given it a good scrub the previous day and she remembers perfectly well.  Her favorite part is pointing the water jet, set for maximum pressure, watching as the soapy foam slides off the surface, leaving a glossy white finish. A thin layer of water reflecting the cumulus clouds that are gathering in the sky, promising relief from the heat.

Life is but a disappointment for Nancy.  She married exceedingly young to her father’s wishes. Her family was poor, and the best they could do was marry her off while she was still very young to a man 22 years older than her.  

Her husband Fred, had been a second father to her, except for her wifely duties.  When he would lay on top of her in the dark, panting and sweating from his brow, she became disconnected from her body. Her husband was not an accomplished lover, not that Nancy would have known what one looked like or cared for one. For Nancy, those 90 seconds lasted an eternity, until her husband rolled off her and promptly fell asleep, as he did every time. She would then make her way to the washroom where she would bathe herself scrupulously, sucking in all the pain while removing any trace of her husband from her body. 

Luckily, her wifely duties had stopped with the onset of premature menopause at barely 32 years of age. Nancy had welcomed the change.  

On her honeymoon night, once her husband had fallen fast asleep, Nancy had almost burnt her skin off, submerged in a tub with running boiling water. It had been an act of violence, not remotely close to any story she had read. No one could have prepared her for what awaited her on her wedding night. The passion which flowed in her husband’s veins was tainted with irritation and antagonism.  Submerged in the hot boiling water she watched the blood that flowed from her loins blend with the water in swirls.  

OUT OF PLACE

He is a man of small stature. His demeanor, by contrast, is that of a King. I am a hired hand and have been ushered into the private quarters of his highness.

The king roars and a woman clad in a long colourless robe enters the quarters with a tray bearing the traditional lebanese coffee set. She silently hovers the tray over to the table and exits without a sound, her head bowed down from start to finish.

“Have you ever seen such a beauty?” 

I look back at the woman as she exits the room,“yes she is stunning.”

“Yes, a real beauty she is. This is a Kalashnikov, do you know it?”

The king is cradling a machine gun.

“I knew you could appreciate it, even as a woman. See just like you, I point and shoot.” 

The king is pointing the rifle straight at me from across the room.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to shoot you, at least not till you’ve done your job. Then we’ll see.” The king is roaring at his own joke. I am not exactly laughing.He swiftly moves across the room with his rifle in hand. I jump back a little. 

“Come here, what is wrong with you?” He grabs my upper arm and ushers me towards one of several armchairs.

“Today you shoot me and not the other way around. Now sit down and have the coffee before it gets cold.”

The man doesn’t know how to speak unless he is gloating or ordering people around.

“I’ll pass, thank you. I’d rather get started. I’ll set up the equipment. Where would you like me to shoot you sir?”

“I think I would like to use the spiral stairway. Me coming down the stairs or up the stairs? Which is best? I want this to be perfect. Yes, you can shoot me as I am moving down the stairs.” 

“Good. You set yourself up and I will be right back.” 

He leaves the room. I hear him barking at someone in the giant marble hallway where the stairwell leads to the upper floors.

I head out to the front hall and grab the equipment I need to set up. I cross paths with the silent dark robed woman. I’m moving very rapidly.  I have no intention of staying any longer than necessary. The dark robed lady is on her knees, wiping the individual steps with a lint cloth,  in preparation for his highness’ descent.  

Fresh cut flowers have been placed in 2 large gilded porcelain vases which sit proudly on either side of the staircase. The walls are lined with white and gold fine pinstripe wallpaper. A larger than life oil painting of the king, encased in a lavish Rococo gilded frame, adorns the main wall of the foyer. 

“He looks much taller in the painting than in real life, don’t you find?” 

The woman on the stairs actually cracks a smile. To me it feels like a conquest.

The king can be heard as he makes his way down the stairs. The dark robed woman takes it as her cue to leave. The king appears to me clad from head to toe in military uniform and regalia. 

“I want you to shoot me with this beauty”

He is holding another rifle. This one has an unusually large scope on it.

“This is AS Val, designed for russian special operation forces. You know what the added value to this model is?”

“No sir, I don’t”

“It has an integrated silencer. I like my weapons and my women better when they are quiet.”

If I were a guy I guess I  would be laughing and going along with the joke. I Just can’t find it in me. 

“I’m ready if you are sir. Shall we?”

“Shall we?” what kind of talk is that, this is not a Shakespeare play. Where did you learn to speak like that?” 

When I get nervous, I step out of my usual crass and confident style of communication. I throw on a cloak of politeness, which transports me back to some turn of the century period in time. My manner of speech alters. I’ve always known this. But now is not the time to self analyse. 

“Sir I’d like to start you up at the top of the stairs, so I can shoot you as you are on the move, as you’ve requested.”

“I like it! An action shot.”

He comes barreling down the stairs, zig zagging and aiming his rifle straight at me the whole while.

“Excuse me sir. You need to go a little slower and if you zig zag like that it’s difficult for me to get a good composition.”

“And you call yourself a professional” Only when you can shoot and hit a running target then you can say you are a pro.” 

What a jerk. Right about now I’m wishing I was shooting bullets instead of pictures. I am evidently feeling out of place, but I remind myself that a photographer is also a director.

“I can do that sir, I can shoot you running, flying or fucking, if you’d be so kind as to trade me your AS Val for this Nikon.”

“Now you are making jokes, haha. I will do as you say, ok.”

“Good, so try and follow a straight line as you make your way down. Oh and try not to hold the rifle up so high, or we won’t see much of your face.”

“Right, okay, is this better?”

I had temporarily tamed the lion king. Long enough to get the job done.

LOCKDOWN: A Brief Diary

It is a very summery day for March. Then again Milano has not seen a real winter since 1986.  All store windows now sport a sign which reads, ‘Only one client at a time’.  The usual homeless kid is sitting out in front of the Tobacco store, all bundled up.  The empty coffee can, he uses to collect spare change, is as empty as the streets are. 

I pass by the bar where the local  pensioners usually meet.They too have suspended their gatherings, to stay in line with the new regulations. I spot Mr. Bonetti, who lives in my building. Looking freshly steamed and pressed as always.

“Good day Mr. Bonetti,” I say, shielding my eyes from the sun, he must be at least twice my height. 

Mr. Bonetti barely nods hello as he scoots by me, heading down the street, in the opposite direction.  No chit chat today.   Mr. Bonetti and his wife are a stylish looking, upper class couple who have been living in Milan their entire lives.  We live in the same building, where I rent and they own several apartments.   

Mrs Bonetti is a petite woman with childlike features topped by a sweet disposition, which makes up for her husband’s bearishness.  Although over the years Mr. Bonetti has softened up. 

He went from a grumpy old man to never missing a chance to chat with me and have a laugh or two. It’s so true what they say, about not judging people based on first impressions. Inside Mr. Bonetti’s rigid, stretched out form, dwells a passionate, life loving, young and mischievous version, I get glimpses of the once young and sprite Marco Bonnetti. He must have been a lady killer in his days, his smile still has the power to short circuit an entire neighborhood.

Mrs Bonetti, on her daily rounds, usually meets up with a group of ladies, at the local cafe in the neighborhood. She is always impeccable with matching this and tha. Permanently manicured nails, meticulously paired with her lipstick.  She boasts a thick silver mane and not one strand of hair is ever out of place. 

These ladies, six in total,  have been meeting at the same time every day, for as long as I’ve lived in the neighborhood, which is almost a decade.  Two of the women always have their dogs with them, the widows. 

One of the two widows, Mrs Motta, a matronly looking woman, the antithesis of Mrs Bonetti. Mrs Motta has a wiry energy, for a person with a stout build, which is exacerbated by her chain smoking.  Even on a good day Mrs Motta sounds grumpy.  She always wears the same grey wool coat in winter and she has her place at the cafe carved out.  

I make my way to the front gate of my building and head to the reception area where the mailboxes are.  

At the elevator, a neighbor is waiting, I join her and she chooses to take the stairs, leaving me the elevator all to myself.

I open the door to my apartment to find 2 large suitcases in the hallway. Marcella, my roommate steps out of her room with a smaller suitcase, which she sets next to the other two. 

“My mother is terribly worried and she wants me home in Rome.”

“You know there is a travel ban and even if you manage to get on the last train to Rome tonight, you are taking a big risk?”

“I’m not taking the train, I will be taking a taxi.”

“A taxi? That is going to cost you a fortune, I mean a quick calculation. That would be well over 1000€ for certain.”

“1200€, I checked, that is what it will cost.”

“Do you have that kind of money?”

Marcella is a student in Milan. Her family in Rome live in Settecamini, an urban zone of Agro Romano, a thirty minute drive from Rome. They are not wealthy by any means, and a scholarship is what has made it possible for Marcella to study in Milan.

“My mother insisted, you have no idea, she must have called me at least 60 times today. I have some money as a down payment for the taxi and she will pay the rest when I get there.” 

“How is your mother doing?”

“Here you can ask her yourself, that’s her calling again.” She hands me her phone.

“Hello, Mrs Gioia, Marcella is just getting the last of her things, she’s ready to leave shortly. How are you doing?”

“Oh you can’t imagine, life has gotten so complicated with this CoronaVirus. I had to get something called an App for my phone, so I can do groceries and have them delivered.” 

Mrs Gioia has a very loud manner of speech, on the telephone, I’ve never actually met her.

“You know people over 65 are not allowed to go out. It took me over one hour to figure out how to use this shopping app. When I was finally ready to check out, the first delivery date available was in 3 weeks. Thank god Marcella is coming home.”

“Well I guess it’s good bye then.” Marcella takes the phone. 

“Ma,  I’ll call you from the taxi ok?”  Marcella instinctively leans towards me for the traditional 3 kisses on the cheek. She freezes in her tracks. “This sucks, I don’t know, I mean I want to hug you but.”

“Go on now Marcella, I’ll see you soon enough, when all this madness is behind us.”

As I prepare dinner, I reflect on how none of us, not me, not you, no one was expecting reality to make such a sudden shift. The world as we knew it, life as we knew it, seems to be far gone now and the terrifying thought is, we don’t know what it will transform into. 

I take half the dinner, an apple, a liter of water and place everything in a bag. I  head back out onto the deserted streets. It’s raining. The street lights are still off, the neighborhood is plunged in darkness. I find the homeless kid in his usual night spot, where he stretches out in his sleeping bag, under the cover of a storefront.

“Hello, I brought you something hot to eat, some fresh fruit and water.” I hand him the bag.  

An invisible and powerful force is spreading across the planet, it is gaining speed and strength, as it tears down the foundation and fabric of our society. This force is showing us that in a world that wants to put up walls, boundaries don’t exist, that we all belong to one species. Far too many have forgotten this. 

 “Are you warm enough or do you need more blankets?” I ask the nameless young man huddled on the ground, surrounded by all his worldly belongings, which fit into a medium sized red suitcase. 

“No, that’s fine, I’m fine, thank you.” 

“Where are you from?” 

 “Ukraine, I am from Ukraine.”

“I was in Moldova several years ago, beautiful land and people.” He nods in approval as he organizes the food I brought him. 

 “Enjoy your meal then. Will I find you here tomorrow as well?”

“Yes, I come here at night only, at 8 o’clock usually.”  

I wish him a good meal and a good rest and tell him I’ll be back to check on him the following day. In the dark he thanks me quietly, with a smile.

On my solitary walk back home, my cell phone makes me jump as it rings with the bouncy music, which sounds completely inappropriate under present circumstances.  It’s Gabriele, an acquaintance not quite a friend. 

“Gabriele, what’s on your mind, I haven’t heard from you in what, 2 years?”

“You won’t believe this, this is unbelievable.  My brother got arrested for travelling outside the city without permission, three months in jail.”

“Gabriele, that is terrible news, I’m so sorry.”

“He was making one last delivery, a Venitian mirror, my dad and I restored and we really need the money, right now, business was slow and now it’s come to a total halt. This is surreal.” 

Gabriele’s family have been in the antique restoration business for generations. 

“What do you make of this situation, I mean I was reading some article about what’s really going on, but it’s hard to figure out what is true and what isn’t. I mean most of my friends are in denial and then there are conspiracy theories that are actually starting to make sense to me, you know what I mean?”

“I hear you Gabriele.”

“What do you think?”

“First off I think it has become a delicate balance for most of us, whether to give in to our gut instincts, our rational minds or paranoia, especially since all three are justified at the moment.” 

“I’m going ape shit crazy, I think I have left a permanent groove on my floor from pacing back and forth for days. I don’t even bother dressing anymore.  I stay in my boxers all day. I don’t cook, I’ve been binging on peanuts and mini Vienna weiners.  I even forgot to take a shit this morning. Nothing makes sense anymore.”  

Gabriele is naturally high strung at the best of times. I’m just not sure why he is calling me, but I suspect he has been scraping through his contacts and has called everyone he ever met. He’s got the lockdown blues.

 “Maybe your diet needs to change  Gabriele, sounds like you may be constipated, more than forgetful.”

“I almost forgot why I was calling. I thought we might get together you know. Have some wine. Hey I can cook for you.”

“Gabriele I don’t mean to offend you but it’s not going to happen. You and me. We tried years ago, remember.”

“No, no that’s not what I meant. Just a nice meal and good wine together that’s all.”

“Tell you what, once the situation is under control and I don’t risk getting arrested for a Wieners and peanut dinner, then we’ll talk about it.”

“Got you. I’m a bit lonely and cagey, you know. I’m not ashamed to tell you I am also afraid. Do you believe there is a sinister plan at work here,are they culling us for what is to come?  I mean you must be familiar with these so-called conspiracy theories right?”

“Sure. It is the Universe conspiring to make us into a better species. This invisible enemy has no prejudices, no favorite race, religion or political associations. This invisible enemy has shown us that we are all one and made of the same stuff. It is in times such as these that we are revealed to ourselves and to others, moments that lay bare the truth about who we are and the world we have built.”

“Wow Madda, you are creeping me out. That is deep and sounds like the second coming of Christ or an alien invasion or something if you put it in those words.”

“Stay strong Gabriele and make an effort, take a fucking shower. I can smell you from across town.  You are wired, try and get some rest and don’t stress so much over something you can’t control.” 

“Easier said than done, I can’t even see my parents, God you have no idea how much I miss my mother’s cooking and to think I used to complain about having to go over every Sunday, what I wouldn’t do now for a plate of her Carbonara.” 

I turn on my computer and go online.  The local news is live and the entire nation is commenting on the even “stricter measures” the government is considering to contain the threat which has put us all in lockdown. 

Reading the comments, those that I can catch, as they are scrolling by so fast on the thread it reminds me of the credits at the end of a TV series, they were never intended to be read. 

I can smell the fear in those comments. The same people that fought tooth and nail against the initial quarantine rules, before the lockdown, those that in rebellion arranged large gatherings and festivities, they are some of  the same people that are now screaming at the government to stop vacillating and move ahead with stricter measures.

They have been tamed by their own guilt and fear and they have entered another level of unconsciousness. The outbreak has become a platform for every cause on the planet. Someone comments with ‘Dear God don’t make the outbreak stop until Abortion is abolished.’

People are lost in the matrix more than ever.  The collective mass’ subconscious is projecting onto the virus its own state of profound confusion and dissociation from reality.

The virus is a catalyst in our initiation in terror, myself included.  All that fear in each and everyone of us, tucked away and hidden has just joined yours and the fear of millions of others.

LIVING WITH THE DEAD

“Lucy, are you dressed yet? 

“Be right there Mom!”

“Hurry or you won’t make it back on time for lunch.  You know how your father hates it when lunch or dinner are served late.”

It is morning, on the eve of Christmas, in Montreal. Lucy’s mother is yelling above all the chatter in the kitchen.  Christmas is a highly charged time of year for an Italian family, immigrated from the south of Italy.  The preparations begin days in advance, with all the matriarchs busy creating their magic in the kitchen.

“How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t run down the stairs, I swear you’ll break your neck one of these days.” 

Lucy enters the kitchen ready to head outdoors into the cold. 

“What did I tell you about having your boots on in the house? Just because we’re at your aunt’s house, the rules don’t change.  Now do what your aunt tells you.”

 Barely eleven years of age, Lucy is the eldest of three sisters. A tall spindly girl with big brown eyes and thick stubborn hair, which drives her neurotic mother crazy, as nothing seems to tame Lucy’s unruly mane.

Her mother is high-strung, chain-smokes, and keeps a tidy house.  “You’re putting too much flour in the mix, it’s gonna bake as hard as your head.” She punctuates her comment with a fake slap across the back of her husband’s head.

The entire family has gathered at Aunt Angelica’s home for the Christmas holidays as is customary.  Aunt Angelica is the closest thing to a grandmother Lucy has since she’s never met her grandparents, who lived and died in Italy.  Her aunt Angelica is dressed in black, from head to toe.  Her widow’s pale skin and tiny frame are misleading, she is far from fragile. Aunt Angelica is a lioness, fierce, loyal and at times scary, or at least this is how Lucy perceives her.

“Lucy, remember,  light 3 large candles, one for uncle Fabio and 2 more for your grandpa and grandma, then 2 smaller ones for the twins, God bless their souls. Don’t forget to say a prayer as well, asking God to let them out of purgatory.”

“What is purgatory like Aunt Angelica?”

“Purgatory is like a waiting room Lucy, a place where you wait your turn, where all sinners go and have to wait their turn.”

“Like going to the Principal’s office at school?”

“Purgatory is not meant to be easy Lucy, it’s a place where we pay for our sins, in order to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the gates of heaven and that can take years.”

“Years?  That is a long time.” Lucy tries to imagine what years must feel like. Time is funny that way. She’s noticed that when she is waiting to see the Principal, for example, or the dentist, it feels like forever and even the clock on the wall moves slower.

“Some people sin more than others, so you see Lucy, the souls in purgatory need our help.” Angelica hands Lucy a pile of change, “Your uncle Fabio he was a good man, bless his soul, but he was no angel either, he could use a little extra help.”  Lucy puts the change in her coat pocket.

“Lucy, Lucy, men are weak when it comes to sins of the flesh, the flesh is weak. One day, when you‘re a woman, you’ll understand what I’m telling you.” Lucy makes a mental note, not to commit any sins of the flesh, as these sound serious.

Lucy understands more than the adults give her credit for.  She has seen some of the boys at school give away their lunch money so they don’t get beat up.  It’s all clear and straightforward to Lucy.   In order to avoid unpleasant circumstances, trade-offs are necessary even for the dead.

“Be careful now and don’t stop,” Lucy interrupts Angelica, “to talk to strangers, I know aunt Angelica.” Lucy gives her aunt a kiss on each cheek and heads out into the cold bright morning.

It had snowed all night, big fluffy flakes. The sun is blinding, as it bounces off the icy blanket of snow, as far as her eyes can see. This is North Montreal in the mid-sixties, flat open fields, ready to dig and start building as soon as the snow melts. Not a single tree left to stop the wind from blowing the powdery snow in swirls and gusts.

As Lucy makes her way towards the Church she ponders upon her uncle Fabio’s predicament.  She tries to put herself in his place or the twins, she imagines it can’t be very pleasant being in-between places, paying for sins.  On occasions, she’d been sent to the  Principal’s office, where she was told to wait outside, in a small adjacent room, and sit on a hard polished wooden bench.  On these occasions Lucy recalls her tummy feeling all knotted up in anticipation and fear of the punishment which might be awaiting her. The Principal is a very serious man,  just like God, he never smiles and whenever the children have done something deemed inappropriate, they are sent to the small room with no windows and the hard wooden bench, where they wait in angst to pay for their wrongdoings.  Similar to purgatory but not as bad, at least she gets to go home after detention.

Lucy and her sisters often spent the holidays at their aunt’s house, their aunt being the eldest Matriarch in the family who had immigrated to Canada. Lucy gets to sleep in her aunt’s bed, now that her uncle is in purgatory.  Placed on the dresser, in her aunt’s bedroom,  is a small oval picture frame with a black and white photograph of her dead uncle Fabio’s head.  His picture is lit by a tiny bulb, which is encased at the base of the frame. In order to avoid her uncle’s floating head and unmoving stare in the dark, every night, Lucy turns on her side, her knees curled up to her chin and pulls the blanket over her head.

Lucy has reached the Romanesque church with its two steeples.  She is playing with the loose change in her pocket.  She feels very small once she finds herself reaching for the immense bronze cast doors.  She steps into the cold, echoey interior, her boots make clickety-clack sounds that reverberate throughout the church. 

There is no one, it is empty at this hour. For the Christmas midnight mass, only a few hours away, there would be standing room only.

Lucy removes her mittens and dips the fingers of her right hand in the holy water recipient, a marble carved vessel, framed by three winged chubby cherubs.  She executes a quick sign of the cross, realizes she crossed over to her right shoulder instead of her left.   She immediately corrects this, then heads towards the bank of votive candles on the far left wall.

The morning light spills through the stained glass windows depicting the Sixth Station of Christ when Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. There is a strong scent of amber and frankincense in the church.  Lucy twitches her nose, she does not care for the smell.

She is debating whether to follow her aunt’s instructions entirely or make slight adjustments, as she did on previous occasions.  Lucy retrieves the coins with which she has been entrusted, to save the souls of unknown dead relatives. 

The church offers 3 different-sized candles, for different budgets, which clearly indicates, God is not one to judge the dead by the size of their candles.

Lucy lights 3 medium votive candles for the dead adults, they cost less than the large ones and one medium-sized candle for the twins to share, leaving her some spare change. 

She performs a rapid sign of the cross, accompanied by a clumsy curtsy in place of saying a prayer, as she had been asked to by her aunt Angelica.  Lucy doesn’t feel comfortable asking God for favors or anyone for that matter, she prefers to keep her transactions with God simple and detached as she does with the Principal. She finds it’s best not to get noticed at times.

She doesn’t exactly like churches either and the only time she goes is when her Aunt Angelica is around and during the holidays. Lucy is grateful that her parents are not churchgoers. They never pray at home, not before dinner, nor before bedtime. One last sign of the cross and Lucy hurriedly dashes for the doors without looking back.

Once Lucy is out on the street, she feels relief rushing through her.  She crosses over to the other side of the street, where she walks into a shop. The sweet scent of chocolate and vanilla brings an instant smile to her face, it is a nice respite after the amber and frankincense that still clung to her clothes and nose.

“The usual young lady?” Asks a friendly face, from behind the counter, at the pastry shop where Lucy has practically become a regular client.

“I will have two chocolate eclairs today please, thank you.”

“Two eclairs! That deserves a nice box with a pink ribbon then.” The man behind the counter places two eclairs in a small pink box with fancy gold script on the lid and a pink ribbon to match.  “There you go Miss, two chocolate eclairs, that will be 50 cents.  He hands over the box to Lucy and she places the change in the small plate provided on the counter.

On her way home, Lucy stops at a nearby park, where she brushes the snow off one of the swings and sits down, placing the box of pastries on her lap. She slowly unties the ribbon and opens it. She picks up one of the two eclairs and takes her first bite.  Her eyes close as she sinks her teeth into the crisp coating of dark chocolate, followed by the velvety cream filling flowing into her tiny mouth.  She saves the second eclair for later and heads back to her aunt’s for Christmas Eve preparations.

That night, as soon as her mother has folded Lucy into her aunt’s bed and turned off the lights, Lucy finds herself alone with her dead uncle’s floating head, again.  She has been practicing staring back at her uncle Fabio in the dark and she can now manage several seconds before shutting her eyes.  In the dark Lucy pulls out the pink box, from the night table next to the bed, slowly and quietly opens it.  Thoughts of purgatory and chocolate eclairs are colliding in her little girl’s mind, as her uncle’s severed head watches her biting into the pastry shell, savoring the cream and chocolate mix.

Lucy gasps as she sees her uncle break into a smile.  She shyly smiles back and as she does, the tiny bulb flickers and dies, her uncle vanishes, swallowed by the darkness.

The following morning, Christmas morning, Lucy is eager to tell her Aunt Angelica the good news.

“Uncle Fabio is out of purgatory Aunt Angelica, You don’t need to worry anymore.”

Angelica is moved by the child’s statement. “Sweet sweet child, it is true then, God does speak out of the mouths of babes,” she hugs Lucy, “the best Christmas gift I could ask for.”

Everyone is happy just as Lucy intended. The wait is over for Uncle Fabio.  Aunt Angelica no longer needs to worry about his soul.  There is one less soul to rescue, which means one less candle to light at church. One could say Lucy has found her own way of living with the dead.