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The Ruin You've Made

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“This is what I miss, Cordelia: not something that’s gone, but something that will never happen. Two old women giggling over their tea.”

I’m not sure why I’ve come here. The building is small, with a steep gabled roof. “The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saint Matthew” is printed on a notice board in black letters. Underneath that, “Tai Chi on tuesdays”. The last “T” is lowercase, a minuscule crucifix tapering to a jaunty hook. I am possessed by the absurd urge to laugh, and it comes out as a strangled sound, grotesque and shameful.

Inside, the silence is weighty. It has been marinated in hymns and sermons. And fear. Air has mass, but we do not feel it. All of the air around us is at the same pressure, distributed evenly on all the parts of our bodies, pushing up, down, left, right. Thus, we tend not to notice it. I think of people walking in the street, their bodies cloaked with layers of air, simultaneously heavy and weightless. I wonder if they are aware of this burden, and whether the realisation would make a difference.

It has been years since the Sunday dinners with the Smeaths. The old regime has been toppled. I have been liberated. But here, I can’t see my hands through the fog of holiness.

The sun shines through a crude stained glass rendering of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Her hand is pressed over the heart that must be beating underneath, dark red and wet with blood. Perhaps there are holes in it. Her pupil-less eyes gaze upward and her features are serene, even as she floats ever higher, surrounded by laughing cherubs. She is a finished woman.

I turn away and from the shadows underneath the pews emerges Grace Smeath, lying face down on the ground. She is flat. She has been pressed through a wringer, discarded bones and organs. She is nothing but two sheets of skin stuck together, airtight. I think of her, taking a penknife, slitting open the entire left side of her torso. She reaches in and throws out handfuls of bones that clatter as they hit the floor. The slimy organs squelch in her hand, breathing little bubbles of blood before they fall to the ground with a plop. Then, she slides through the wringer and comes out flat as paper; two-dimensional.

Now, she is slithering like a snake down the aisle, her deflated body pressed against the floor, her face lifted, eyes on me. Her mouth is lopsided. She reaches me, then begins to crawl up my body like a slug, up the front of my shirt until her face is level with mine. I can feel her flattened body pressed against me, cold and hard as leather, and she grins too wide, with too many teeth, to be Grace.

“You lied. You should ask God to forgive you. That’s what I do, every night.”

Then, she is gone. It was Cordelia’s voice. I am shaking.

I fall to my knees and touch my forehead to the ground. This is not how Christians pray, but I am not praying to their God. He is shapeless. I cannot trust him. I feel the sunlight shining through the Virgin, warm on my neck. It is her that I beseech. I hide my desperation. I will not plead or promise piety in exchange for peace. I will haggle for the lowest price and emerge victorious. A bargain.

Nothing happens. I lift my head slowly. As I stand up, my knees creak. I am rusty, my hinges need oiling.

I feel betrayed, but the emotion is second-hand. I am outside of myself, watching the other me like an actress in a film. She can smile and flirt and cry, but she is not real, just an image on a screen. I walk out of the church feeling empty. I do not know why I’d been expecting something else.