Sunday, January 20, 2019


The little old church was so small and shabby that it usually escaped notice from the outside.  It was raining and a leaky roof was gradually turning one wall to a deeper color as it grew wet.  Probably the building had been a small chapel attached to a larger building, maybe a university or a major downtown church, but times had changed and now it was not-quite-derelict.  It had a dome, some of the chandeliers (rather strangely designed) had survived with functional if mismatched bulbs, but some previous installation of the Stations of the Cross was now only twelve nails evenly spaced between the side windows.  Only the round Rose Window at the front was stained glass, though it was missing a few panes or parts of panes.

When the door at the back burst open, gusting wet cool air came in accompanying a tall figure, a hatless man in a Navy pea-coat.  The woman, no longer young and no longer robust, sat at one side of the remaining pews -- about half were missing.  She wore a black academic robe, as though dressed for preaching but without a neckband collar or tabs.  She sat sideways with her feet drawn up under the old silk robe that had rotted under the arms. Her knees under under her chin.  She seemed to feel at home.

The man stood for a moment.  It was dark outside and he was waiting to be able to see again.  It was a while before he realized the woman was there. He noted that she had a child's haircut, a bowl cut, but her hair was gray.  His own hair was also gray and long, confined in a queue. His jaw was the usual stubble.  When he walked down the aisle his boots rang on the stone floor.

"Hello," the woman said mildly.  She was not afraid or angry or even welcoming.  "Can I help you?"  Standard politeness for "what do you want?

The man's hat turned out to be in his hand and now he beat it against his leg to knock water out of it.  "Don't want anything.  Just getting out of the rain."  He looked at the front of the room, which was still an elevated platform, noting that there was no furniture. no altar, no symbol on the wall except for that Rose window way up high.

"They took everything with them," she said.  "Altar, candles, the works."  

He saw that she was holding a book.  "What are you reading?" he asked, to be polite though it was a little nosy.  Still, people who were reading usually told the name of their book.  Anyway this was confusing and he needed clues.

She paused, considering the answer to be private and too intimate to tell, but recognized his confusion.  "Prayers for those who are grieving."

He backed off.  "Are you the clergy here?"

"Sort of."

"Are you preparing for services for someone who died?'

Without looking at the book, she said, "Who are you but a drop in the ocean, a grain of sand, a mote wavering in a sunbeam?"

"What kind of church is this?"

"Is it possible to have a church without a congregation?  Is it possible to have a sacred place without singing?"

He laughed.  "You sound like a poet."

"You know poets?"

"I AM a poet!"  They both laughed, she stood up to shake his hand and he saw she had bare feet.  "Why are you barefoot?"

"I like feeling the stone."

They both sat on the edge of the platform, plain wood now that the carpet had been ripped off.

She pulled the old torn silk around her.  "The secular and the sacred have almost merged now.  It was just a convenient idea anyway."  

"May I smoke?"

"Filthy habit.  Go ahead.  I don't believe in taboos."
He fished in his pockets for cigarette makings and shook out a bit of tobacco, explaining, "It's my own mix.  That's why I roll 'em."  He lit it with a wooden kitchen match.  "Only carry a few of these at a time.  They light too easily now and I don't want a conflagration in my pocket."

"Will you tell me a poem?" she asked.  The smoke curled up in the dome.  The end ember glowed.

"We thought the cosmos had no edge.
We were right and now you know.

We thought we were the only ones.
We were wrong and now you know.

We thought time began with the first word.
We stopped asking and now you know.

We stopped thinking.
Because now we know.

"Is that your poem?" she asked.  "Do you consider yourself bitter?"



"Both."  The cigarette didn't smell entirely like tobacco.

"You should write a poem about a conflagration in your pocket."

"You should write one about your feet on stone."

They laughed.  She rubbed her feet together.  "They do get a little chilly."

A sudden commotion up high. In through a hole in the Rose Window flew a bird.  It was not a dove or even a pigeon.  Bigger than those, it was a barn owl who was accustomed to living here on a ledge high under the dome. Its wings were wide and white. It's beak was not for pecking -- it was a hook for rending.


This is a story written after reading Lakoff and Johnson all evening.  The principle is that one needs a context (the old chapel) to keep in place the many symbols that are everywhere.  These two people have an internal context, that of being poets, but from different natures.  What they share is their emphasis on responding to the sensory (rain, stone floor, lack of furniture, disrepair) which is not conventional, but gives them something shared until something happens or something comes from outside.  It's not that skillfully written (esp. the "poem") but -- come on!  It only was an hour's work, but a writer could open it up into quite a suggestive story about the two people interacting.  The roof could cave in, the building could catch fire.  I thought about adding a fire station just across the street, so that the yowl of the siren overwhelmed everything else.  Rose Windows have quite a suggestive history.

Or you could make this a story inside a story by revealing that this story is being discussed in a classroom or a literary sort of bar near a university, so the symbolism of owls and Stations of the Cross could be brought up. Or one could discuss the relationship between poets and priests.  This is an opening.

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