St Antony’s Tongue

3 Aug

She had bored her children senseless, her husband too. They had seen St Catherine’s head in Sienna, St Antony’s tongue in Padua, and enough of St Andrew’s bones that they could make him whole again three times over.

This church wasn’t beautiful, not like the European cathedrals with their vaulted ceilings and domes, their saints carved in wood or in cold stone, monuments to man’s ingenuity as much as to God’s glory. She had seen the old cathedral on the way in, sinking into the ground, unable to stay upright under the weight of prayers. But this church was modern, white and vast – no bosses or frescoes, no flying buttresses or architraves. Only roses: roses of every size and hue blossomed on the altar; spilled down the steps; flooded the floor. Palest pink, deepest red, buds curled tight or reaching tipping point, just before the petals begin to fall and the perfume turns to a rank stink.

She wants to stand and look at the flowers forever, but the tour guide is impatient. He herds them onto the conveyor belt which takes them in front of the icon. A miraculous poncho. The words sound bizarre, but her eyes fix on the imprint of the Virgin on the poor man’s cloak. Then she shudders as her feet catch on the end of the walkway and she is ushered out into the humidity.

‘Look at them,’ their tour guide says. He thumps his hands on the side of his head. ‘These crazy Catholics.’

And she look. Watches with envy as old women crawl along the boulevard – a pace, a prayer, a pace, a prayer.

‘Some come on their knees for mile, others just start up there.’

He points, and she follows the path of his finger. Women in the traditional dress of their region – the black brocade with aprons are local, while the white embroidered dresses she recognises from the Yucan. She watches their lips move in supplication or thanks. More women than men, of course. Praying for a barren sister or a crippled niece, making their pilgrimages with roses in hand.

She has watched all over the world as they bring photographs, mementos, little ribbons to lie on the tomb of the saint, or to press against the icon, and then their lips. She watches as they kneel and pray, ignores the pleas of her children and her husband, takes them to another church and another. She points out sculptures by Michaelangelo and paintings by Giotto gives them a coin to light a candle so she has time to sit in a pew, bow her head, and wonder again where she lost her faith.

This story was inspired by the photograph for July 9th at Creative Writing Ink


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