THE LAST PLACE PETER figured he’d find himself Easter midnight was in church.
Overhead, a twin-barreled roof, the musty dim chapel flickering with candlelight and glints of gold, silver, and enameled icons, choking with incense. He was pressed against the back wall. Beside him, a long crack the quake had split in the whitewashed mortar. Around him, a crush of village women in their best embroidered skirts and headgear. No sign of Ariadne.
It was hot. The villagers had all launched into the Nth round of singsong chants, his throat felt like sandpaper, and the old people were squeezing past for one more circle of the walls to kneel on the floor and cross themselves and get up painfully slowly to kiss each one of the gilt icon frames and the gold-foil plaque with the crucifixion-resurrection scene.
Now he knew why there were so many Orthodox saints and martyrs—suffering this drill.
He cleared his throat and looked over the bowed heads, strings of wildflowers, and racks of guttering candles to the front of the chapel. Demetrios stood beside the brocaded vestments of the visiting priest, holding a thick book and singing the passages for the crowd to echo, his big voice ringing off the walls. No pews, just a few chairs they’d brought in for a couple of really old geezers and the girl with her broken arm in a sling—the only real injury from the quake. The kid with the swinging censer was coming around again, and Peter’s eyes glazed with the suffocating swirls of incense.
He could almost smell another scene:
Fumes of the droning diesel generator, ripe muddy swamp, sweatsoaked powder and lavender toiletwater. Strings of light bulbs flickering over tent walls, and he’s in the choir in his white robe. The Reverend’s voice thunders hellfire and redemption, and the crowd cries, “Hallelujah, amen!”
Ginnie’s beside him, eyes dancing as she pinches his butt under the robe. “Don’t let Pa get a whiff of your breath, you yahoo. Out with Gramps again?”
Peter swallowed, and sent off a silent prayer for her.
The flickering candlelights and shadows, heat and incense, singsong chants ebbed and surged around him in dizzy waves. He sputtered and jerked back as water suddenly splashed in his face.
Everybody was getting sprinkled. The priest moved down through the crowd, holding a decorated candle, followed by men in their shabby best suits carrying a miniature gold casket decked with poppies. The villagers clotted into a procession as overhead the bell started clanging again.
Someone pressed an unlit candle into his hand. “Come, you must light your candle from the Papa’s for good luck this year.”
He jumped at the husky voice in his ear. Ariadne smiled up at him, looking tired but radiant, fresh-scrubbed beautiful in an embroidered peasant blouse, damp tendrils escaping a white scarf. Her eyes, almost indigo in the candlelight, held clear and steady on his.
He started to ask her where she’d been, if she was okay. Instead he just stood there, fingers clutching the wax taper, swimming down like a fool into those deep purple-blue seas.
Demetrios’s voice boomed over them, and he nudged them forward to light their candles before the procession moved out the door. “Chairete, Niece. You’ll tell us all about it, eh?” With a wink at Peter, he strode out into the darkness of bobbing candle flames and bell peals.
Ariadne beckoned Peter toward the doorway to follow the candlelit line snaking around the chapel. A woman in a vest stiff with gilt embroidery cut her off, tugging at her sleeve, ducking her head shyly and crossing herself. She gestured behind them. Some villagers were helping the two old men to their feet as they gripped lit candles in determined hands. The injured girl still sat, face pale, hunching over her splinted arm. The woman went to her, leaned down to whisper, and looked back expectantly at Ariadne.
Beside Peter, she went still, face distant. He thought she would turn and leave, but she took a deep breath, handed Peter her lit candle, and moved over to the girl, crouching beside her chair and murmuring. The girl shook her head and cradled the injured arm, then finally nodded. Ariadne untied the sling, gently unwrapped the bandage and splint. She pressed her hands around the bruised, swollen forearm. The girl gasped, whimpered. Her mother took a step closer. Ariadne murmured again, and the girl started taking deep, slow breaths. They stayed that way for what seemed to Peter a long time, as he stood awkwardly in the doorway and the candles dripped wax.
Peter jerked, swearing as hot wax spilled over his hand.
Ariadne was rising, smiling down at the girl. “You see, it isn’t broken. Just let it rest, and do what I’ve shown you.”
The girl, face flushed, flexed her wrist. She looked up in amazement. “It doesn’t hurt now, Mama.”
The woman darted forward to touch her daughter’s forearm and gently probe it. Peter blinked. It had to be a trick of the guttering candlelight, but the bruising looked less livid. The mother gasped and fell to her knees, clutching at Ariadne’s hand to kiss it.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish