Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Erotic romance | Magical realism M/F | 2006
Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair. –G.K. Chesterton
First Week of Advent
Drifting through the house, Raphael passed the kitchen table where a wreath encircled four candles propped in brass holders. One of the candles had been burned, its tapered contour lined with a hardened flow of wax. By custom he knew the candle to be violet and the wreath pine, but in his spiritual form he could not distinguish such features.
Raphael had come to St. Mary of the Angels Parish to puzzle over the mystery of Lillian. Already, he had marveled at her melancholy afternoon as she stared out her kitchen window, and he wondered at her feverish evening, when she put written form to chaotic thoughts. Now, he settled beside her and roamed the landscape of her dreams, listening as only an angel can, while attending to the longing of her heart.
Everyone had a prayer, but Raphael could not find Lillian’s. Although he had scrutinized the sad woman from the time she made her morning coffee to when she slept, he could not find any hope left in her. Nevertheless, she simmered with intensity, as if ready to brim over with torments yet untouched. She seemed the type of woman meant for tragic love, not one to bring fulfillment to a sincere priest struggling with his vows.
But Charles loved her. It was his shy wish that had captured the attention of God’s Archangel of Healing. The only son of an overburdened widow, Charles wanted to help people because he had never been able to help those he loved most. He needed to be needed, which is why he had devoted two decades of his life to the Church, and why Raphael happily received the task of answering the hidden prayer he tried so hard to deny.
In the late hours of a Sunday afternoon, Raphael walked a gravel road, his boots leaving tracks in the pristine snow as flakes floated through the frigid air, icing his golden eyelashes and blurring his vision. He adjusted his red plaid scarf, tossing it behind his back, and then lifted it to cover his nose. It was soon wet where his warm breath puffed from him as steam. His gloved hand was stiff from clasping a heavy suitcase, but he pressed on, knowing he was almost to his destination.
As an angel, he had few sensory impressions unless he took on a body, and despite many incarnations, each one surprised him with its dazzling sensations, even a harsh prairie winter. Touching and hearing the world with his spirit was more informative, but it was hardly more interesting.
He skidded a few feet as he descended a hill, leaving two trails behind him. He glanced back, seized with a sudden desire to throw himself down and create a snow angel. When a gust of wind whipped a tree branch, flinging a pile of snow onto his head, he brushed it off and returned to his task, accepting the divine prodding with his usual good nature.
He ascended the steps, set his suitcase into the snow, and pressed the doorbell. A flurry of curtains in a nearby window was followed with a request for his name.
With a swoosh, the door opened. Lillian flipped a mess of auburn bangs from her heart-shaped face and apologized for the delay. “Come in, Father.”
Raphael stomped the snow from his boots and stepped into the warm cottage.
The house had been part of an estate willed to the Catholic Church before the First World War. A generation later, the diocese sold most of the land and buildings. All that remained to the parish was thirty acres supporting the chapel and rectory. Lillian’s grandfather had purchased the cottage, which had been servants’ quarters for the original estate and overlooked the parish graveyard.
“I didn’t expect you so soon.” Lillian took Raphael’s coat. “But of course you’re welcome anytime. I’m Lillian McKenney.”
“Father Bristol had a meeting with a parishioner, so I thought I’d walk over and introduce myself.”
Lillian glanced out the window. “My thermometer says it’s twelve degrees.”
Raphael wore his hair short, and his body carried a middle-aged stoutness. The appearance of a lingering tan and wind-burned cheeks allowed him to blend in with other men in the rural community. His face tingled, and he pressed his hands to his stiff cheeks. “I’m sure that’s right.”
“You must be freezing.” She ushered him to her kitchen table and returned a warm kettle to the stove’s burner. “I’m sorry if I’m distracted.” She tapped her head as she turned back. “Been working all day.”
Raphael adjusted his collar and snapped the hem of his black clerical shirt to remove the wrinkles. After he sat down, he touched the table’s centerpiece, a wreath surrounding four candles. One violet candle, its wick darkened, stood among the three yet to be lit. The pine branch was real, its fragrance the source of the fresh aroma he had noticed since entering the house. “Father told me you’re a good poet.”
She turned to look out the kitchen window. “I’ve had two volumes published, not like my dad, you know. He was brilliant.”
“Logan McKenney was, indeed, a brilliant poet. I know of one very worn copy of ‘Ransom Soul’.”
When the kettle whistled, Lillian dropped teabags into two cups and sat down. She sipped her steaming tea. “Were you raised near here?”
Raphael tasted his tea. “Apple-cinnamon?”
“Ginger-spice.” She looked him over. “After tea, I’ll show you the house. There’s plenty of room here, so I hope you won’t feel crowded. I keep to myself mostly.”
“Father told me you never leave.”
A blush spread across her cheeks. “My writing keeps me busy.”
He realized she had taken his comment as an accusation. She was sensitive to what people thought of the reclusive poet’s reclusive daughter. Although he recognized her discomfort, he could not look away. Despite visiting her many times, this was his first experience of her precise voice, her soft red hair, and the mutable green of her sad eyes.
He spoke with her a while longer, doing his best to avoid her questions about his life. He had no capacity to lie.
Later, after he had unpacked, Raphael examined the objects in the house. The wooden Advent calendar hanging by the fireplace was an heirloom from Lillian’s mother. Its thirty blue doors once held the traditional mystery of peppermints and prayer cards behind them. Nearby, a purple cloth covered the shelf used as an altar, where she set a sterling crucifix her father had given her the year he died. Behind the crucifix lay a brittle leaf from Palm Sunday, a box of white votives, and a handful of holy cards, including one painted with an image of the angel Raphael.
He picked up the fanciful portrait of himself, rubbing his finger across the glossy print of a young man with long golden locks. He had not taken on such a body since all those centuries ago when he accompanied young Tobias on his journey. The prayer on the back of the card was a request for Raphael to intercede on the petitioner’s behalf, but he did not recall Lillian ever reading the card. This was not her prayer.
Much could be understood from a woman’s attachments, and Lillian maintained the cottage as if it were a museum, displaying artifacts from her childhood, some unmoved since her parents had lived there. The house was an anchor, stranding her against a familiar shore, and Raphael decided he would have to find a way to free her.
“I put some towels on your bed, but feel free to get whatever you need from the hall closet.” As Raphael returned the card to the altar, Lillian stepped closer to peer at the calendar. “My mother used to put candy in it for us. She passed away when I was ten.”
He brushed a finger across the glossy wood. “Us?”
“My brother and me.”
As she crossed her arms and forced a smile, he realized how difficult it was going to be for her to live with someone in the house, to remain attentive when every day felt like another weight added to the heavy burden of life. “Does your brother live nearby?”
“I need to do some laundry. Do you have anything you’d like me to wash?”
“Thank you, no.”
“Feel free to use the machine whenever you like, or I can do your clothes if you leave them in the hamper.”
“I don’t expect maid service, Lillian. Just having a room until the repairs are done is a blessing. I’ll take care of the rest, like I would at the rectory.”
She smiled at a thought. “There was a time when St. Mary had a housemaid. My father use to talk about stopping by the rectory to see if Gisele had made a pie. She often favored the altar boys with a slice of rhubarb before Mass.” As she left the room, she commented, “I guess it’s lean times for the Church now.”
Raphael thought of Lillian’s brother, Lew, who had committed suicide two weeks before graduating high school. He already knew from his spiritual visits that Lillian thought of Lew every day, often as she had last seen him before the closed-casket funeral. She had been the one to find him, dead in his bed, music playing so loudly no one recognized the sound of the gunshot. Despite having nearly twenty years to heal, she lived as someone experiencing a recent loss, like a shadow impatient for the light to go out.