Down in the hollow, the last yellow squash of the season flashed among red and indigo birdhouses in the immigrant women's gardens. Emma climbed the stone steps bordered with rock lilies to the white church on the hill. The tepid holy water warmed her cold fingers as she blessed herself at the doorway. In the side aisle, the priest sat on the top rung of a stepladder, touching up the faded mural of Christ emerging from clouds, appearing to his apostles. The empty church smelled of candles, linseed oil, and the fainter scent of red wine and tobacco that always trailed the priest. Dressed in a pair of work boots and khakis, the blond priest called Emma by her full name, Mary Margaret, and praised her proper speech. As Emma approached, he smiled, wiped his hands with a turpentine-soaked rag and descended, motioning for her to follow him into the sacristy behind the altar.
In the sacristy, the chalice from Mass remained on the counter, a wine-spotted napkin slung over its mouth. Crumbs from the communion bread clung to the silver dish beside it. Emma wiped them from the silver dish with her sleeve. Glancing up at the framed picture of Mary sitting beneath the cross, holding her dead son in her arms, she remembered where she was. She blushed, setting down the sacred plate. The priest only laughed, nodding toward the picture.
"That was made by Michelangelo." He pronounced the name "Meek-el-angelo" because he'd once lived in Rome and could speak to the Italian miners in their own language. "Notice Mary's face. She still looks seventeen, too young to be holding a fullgrown son in her arms. Now look at her hands. Those are the hands of a much older woman."
Emma thought of her mother's young, sorrowful face bent over the steaming tub of laundry, her old hands emerging from dark wash water.
"Is it a sin to grieve?"
The priest paused.
"Sorrow is essential to forgiveness," he said. "The soul must feel sorrow and detest the sin committed in order to reconcile with God."
"My mother never sins."
"Everybody sins. There are sins of omission. It may be something she hasn't done that is her sin."
Emma thought about her mother's chores, trying to recall something her mother hadn't done that could be her sin. She did laundry on Monday, ironing on Tuesday, baking on Wednesday, more washing on Thursday, cleaning on Friday and shopping on Saturday. Sundays, she knelt on the hard floor of this church, a rosary threaded through her chapped and twisted fingers.
She's done nothing wrong, Emma thought. She does everything. She works enough to wash away the sins of the world. "No," she shook her head firmly. "My mother never sins."
The priest stood warily, sorting through the vestments in his open closet, filling the pails with altar robes and cloths. Before closing the closet door, he pulled a tall, black book down from the shelf. At first, Emma thought he would give a sermon on how Christ died gladly for her sins, but when he opened the book rice paper fell from engravings of men carved in stone.
"Michelangelo believed the human form existed inside a block of marble, and that he was the only one who could release them," he said. "When he died, he left a series of men with one whole arm or a head emerging from blocks of marble, the rest of their bodies trapped inside the stone. They are called 'The Prisoners.' "
Named for the whole features that escaped from stoneAwakening Slave, Atlas Slave, Young Slave, Bearded Slavethey lined the hallway leading to the statue of David, a whole and perfect man. The priest closed the book and gave it to her. "You can take it with you," he said, tucking the book beneath her stack of laundry. "Let me know what you think."
Unsure of this man, his soft, clean hands, his book filled with men imprisoned in stone, Emma backed away. Walking out through the church, she passed the mural of Christ emerging from clouds. Standing over his apostles, he thrust his empty hands over their heads, as though proving nothing was up his sleeves. Outside, Emma walked down to the foreign place to show the book to her Aunt Maria, to ask if she ever heard of Michelangelo, to see if she knew of an Italian artist who could release the bodies of men from stone. Purple morning glory bloomed mysteriously on the right side of her aunt's pine porch. Goldenrod blazed across the shale barren to the left. The door to the house was open, revealing a darkened hallway filled with the grandfather's model sailboats and battleships, a statue of Mary standing behind a vase of roses. Emma sat in the rocker outside the doorway, waiting for Maria to return, thinking how much she would like to hitch a ride with her longshoreman uncle, travel back to Naples, brave the dragons beneath the Straits of Messina, explore the wonders of Sicily.
Excerpted from In the Garden of Stone by Susan Tekulve. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Tekulve. Excerpted by permission of Hub City Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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