Herculaneum is quiet tonight. The Festival of Vulcan is over, and the revelers have all gone home. Only the dogs are awake. I hear them howling as I stand here on my balcony. The sound is strangely chilling, but I refuse to let it spoil my mood. Gone are the dark forebodings that have hectored me for these past weeks. Tonight I am happy, happier than I’ve ever been. My Marcus is home. Eight long years he has been stationed in Jerusalem, but he is home tonight, sleeping inside the apartment, along with our son Alexander. We are a family, the three of us. At last!
“Marcus.” I whisper the name out loud just to hear it, to feel it on my tongue. “Marcus….” My body aches pleasantly from our lovemaking. I had thought it might be strange, awkward after all this time, but it was wonderful. Better than before he left. I was young then and he was my hero, tall and strong and handsome in his uniform. I gave myself to him willingly, even eagerly, and he took me with a tenderness I’d never known. But tonight it was different. I reached for him like a starving woman. I took as much as I gave. I cried out and held him fiercely as he shuddered in my arms. Ah, Marcus, I am no longer that young girl. I am a grown woman, the mother of your child, and you are thoroughly, undeniably mine. No one, nothing can take you away from me again.
The dogs have gone silent. There is a stillness, like the moment just before a storm breaks. Then comes a deep, rumbling growl from the mountain, and the earth rises and falls like a great, rolling swell on the ocean. The tremor passes quickly, but I can still feel it in the boards under my feet and in my hands as I grip the railing.
I turn to face Vesuvius and draw myself up tall. “Old man,” I tell him under my breath, “all my life I have listened to your grumblings and been afraid. But not tonight. Tonight I am invincible, a giantess, looking down over the sleeping city. You will not frighten me.”
I have to laugh at my own hubris. Here I am, standing out on the balcony in my shift, shaking my fist in the face of the gods. But I do not care. Never have I felt so brave. Now I venture even farther. “Hear me, you Fates,” I whisper, “I will have this one night with no fear, no anxiety, no doubts. This night my soul is free! “
Throwing back my head, I gaze up at Diana’s silver disk floating among the constellations in the vast, blue-black arc of the heavens. Tomorrow is the twenty-fifth day of the month of Augustus, in the first year of the reign of Titus. Tomorrow is the first day of my new life.
My little boy is clinging to the rail of an old, wooden boat that rolls and pitches on raging seas. Through the blur of foamy debris that swirls all around him, I see him reaching out to me, calling to me with open mouth and wide, horrified eyes. But he has no voice. All is drowned in a great, hideous roar of elemental sound. The earth trembles beneath me as I stand watching him swept away on the tide.
Sometimes the dreams varied. Once my husband was there, running down a beach at night, and once I was in an unholy church, and once I was on a narrow street, fleeing from some huge, nameless menace, but the most haunting was the boy and the boat and the storm and the deep, incomprehensible roaring sound and me standing helpless on shaking ground. Always I was alone, and always I woke up screaming.
I was twenty-eight when Barry and Sean died.
When I call them to memory, they come to me in bright, sharp flashes: Barry walking me back to the dorm under an orange canopy of autumn leaves, his blond head haloed in moving, mottled sunlight…his slow smile…his intent blue gaze.
Barry standing behind me at the vanity table mirror, carefully removing my bridal veil. My hair tumbles down in red-gold waves. His eyes shine back at me in the glass…”Do you know how beautiful you are?”
Barry standing under the stained glass windows, smiling softly, holding his first-born son as the priest dabs holy water on Sean’s tiny forehead.
Barry and Sean sitting on the edge of Lake Michigan, working on a sand castle, heads close together, bright hair flying. Sean’s two-year-old grin as he packs down the damp sand.
A bright summer morning…Barry and Sean out in the garage, collecting their beach gear. Me honking at the two of them as I back out of the driveway. “Don’t forget your Dr. Seuss!” I call out the car window. They both look up and wave. Barry tosses up a beach ball and catches it one-handed. Sean grins elfishly as he holds up his book. It was August 24. My Sean’s fifth birthday. He was to start school in less than two weeks.
I’d talked Barry into taking Sean to the beach so I could go to the store and get things ready for his surprise birthday party that evening. It had been a busy morning, blowing up balloons, hanging streamers, hiding little notes for the treasure hunt. I was pouring the cake mix into baking pans when the phone rang. They’d been in an accident, been taken to the hospital at South Haven.
A heavy blanket of numbness dropped over me. I hung up. Wiped my hands. As I got into the car, I remember thinking… We’ll have to get them transferred to Kalamazoo if they’re going to be hospitalized. South Haven’s too far to keep running back and forth.
It didn’t really hit me until I drove past the crash site on Highway 43. I wouldn’t have recognized Barry’s VW bug except for that bright lime green color we’d both picked out. It was nothing but a crumpled mass of metal squashed beneath the wheels of one of those huge, black, military looking SUV’s. I knew then. I knew as soon as I saw it. I didn’t even slow down, just stepped on the gas and started to pray.
Sean was already gone, his broken little body stretched out pale and cold on a table. Barry held on in a coma for three days until the doctors finally convinced me that he was brain dead and could not recover. It was two more days before I could sign the order to cut off life support. By then, I had sunk into a near comatose state myself.
I held my husband’s hand and watched the heart monitor flatline. I felt myself entering the tunnel with him. There was no light at the end. It was dark, quiet. A vacuum. “Mrs. McCarthy,” someone said. “Mrs. McCarthy, it’s over. He’s gone.” I looked down at Barry’s hand still resting in mine. Just a few days ago it had touched me, stroked me, caressed me. Now it was just a lump of inanimate clay. I let it go.
I stood up. They handed me some other paper to sign, muttered their condolences. Walking back down the corridor, I noted the coldness and sterility of the environment, the masklike faces on the people drifting by. I made my way across the wide, echoing lobby to the automatic glass doors. It was an empty husk of a woman who descended the hospital steps to the parking lot that day.
I had no one. My parents were dead. Barry’s parents hated me for “pulling the plug” on their only son and turned their backs. Some of the teachers from my school called, and a few came to the funeral. I remember standing there in my black veil, accepting their condolences, hoping they wouldn’t try to hug me. They were outsiders, invading my grief.
At my principal’s insistence, I saw a doctor who persuaded me to try a grief management group that met at the public library. I went so far as to spruce up and drive over there on a Monday night. But when I found the room and paused to look through the glass door, what I saw was a group of strangers, most of them elderly, seated around a table nursing their own pain while trying to feign empathy for the others. I turned around, went back to my car, and drove off.
My only solace came from the Gothic stone structure that had occupied its downtown corner for eighty years. I took comfort in the worn pews and simple, draped altar, the flickering candles, the dry, echoing sound of footsteps on stone, the huge empty space itself. Just listening to the old prayers and liturgies seemed to quiet me, to dull the ache, like warm water over a wound.
Some of the parishioners tried to include me in outings and church activities, and once I was cajoled into going to one of their home prayer meetings, but I couldn’t bear it. I found myself saying normal, sociable things, pretending to be the same Anne McCarthy they’d known before. The strain was too much. After a few minutes, I got up and walked home. I preferred to pray in solitude, with my rosary.
One night I had been sitting for over an hour repeating “Hail Mary”s when I suddenly stopped. The silence in the room hummed around me, and I realized I was feeling nothing. Nothing at all. No grief, no pain, no pleasure, no sense even of who I was. It was as if I were floating on the ceiling, watching this woman sitting there with a string of beads. And, most frightening of all, I felt no connection to God. I had been mumbling words into the air, where they had just evaporated. No one was listening.
That night I had the first of the dreams.
I am in the church, standing before the statue of the Holy Mother. I’m pleading for her forgiveness, and I reach up to touch the folds of her robe. For some reason, I expect them to be soft and warm, but they are cold. Icy cold and hard as marble. I look up into her face, and her eyes glitter down at me, two blank stones in her painted face. From somewhere in the echoing room, a soft voice whispers, “Tu non proprium hic esse.”
You don’t belong here….
Suddenly terrified, I back away. I turn and run up the aisle toward the open doors.
The next day I went to confession.
Father Martin had heard my sins and given me Holy Communion since I was a child. He’d been there when I was sixteen, the day I’d come back from shopping with my friends to find a squad car in the driveway. …We’re very sorry, Miss Ryan, but there’s been an accident…sailboat registered to your father…lightning struck the mast…your parents, your brother Tommy…calling off the search…is there someone we can call...?
Father Martin was the only living person in the world I still trusted. Yet, today his familiar profile, seen through the carved grillwork, seemed vague and somehow alien in the dim light. My insides quivered, and I felt sick as I leaned back against the confessional’s inner wall. I drew in a ragged breath and began.
“Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It’s been four weeks since my last confession.”
“How are you, Anne?” came the soft, slightly raspy voice.
“I don’t know, Father. I can’t….” The words caught in my throat, and I stopped, took a couple of deep breaths.
“All right, take a moment. There’s no hurry.”
“I have sinned,” I tried again, “but I don’t understand.”
“What kind of sin do you think you’ve committed?”
“I don’t know,” I said wearily. “I don’t know, Father, but it must have been something terrible, because God has turned His back on me.”
“God never turns His back on us, Anne. But sometimes we turn our backs on Him. Do you think you may have done that?”
“I’ve done everything, Father. I’ve prayed, I’ve gone to mass, I’ve said ‘Hail Marys’ until my tongue is numb, but….” I took in a long breath. “But I can’t reach Him. He’s just not there.”
“He’s there, Anne.”
“Well,” I almost snapped, “I can’t find Him.”
“You sound angry,” Father Martin said evenly.
I sighed and hesitated.
“Anne,” he prompted, “is there something else?”
“I had a dream, Father. An awful dream. I went to the Blessed Mother for help, but….”
I could hear Father Martin’s soft breathing through the grill as he waited.
I gathered myself and plunged on. “She was made of stone. She spoke to me in Latin. She said I didn’t belong there. I was afraid of her, and I ran.”
He was quiet for a moment, then he said, “You had bad dreams after your family died, too, didn’t you?’
With that quick slash the old wound gaped open. I hated him for saying it. “That was different,” I hissed through the grate. “I blamed myself.”
“Yes, I remember.”
Suddenly I was a grieving teenage girl again. “I should have been with them. I wanted to go to the mall. I couldn’t be bothered to go boating with my family that day.”
“And so you survived.”
“Yes,” I said bitterly.
“And now, once again, you have survived.”
“Yes, lucky me. I took my eye off them for one morning….”
“Off Barry and Sean?”
“Yes!” I blurted. “Barry and Sean, my mom, my dad, my little brother! Everybody I’ve ever loved! I hate love! It’s a trap! I never want to love anybody or anything again!” The adult woman in me heard the hysteria, the unreasoning passion, the melodrama in these words as if they came from some someone else’s mouth. I found myself standing naked in a store window with my deepest, rawest emotions on display.
Quickly I drew back. “I’m sorry, Father. I’m not myself. I’m sorry.”
There was a long silence, and then the priest said, “Anne, when are you supposed to go back to your teaching job?”
I shuddered at the thought. Eighth grade Latin students…over-parented, bored, self-centered…. “My leave is up the week after next. They’ve got a nun subbing for me right now.”
“Why not take the rest of the semester off?”
I shook my head reflexively. “I don’t think I could do that.”
“Why not? It’s not the money, is it? Didn’t Barry have insurance?”
“Yes, yes I’m fine. It’s not that.”
“Anne, you’re nowhere near ready to be around children again.”
“But, Father, I have an obligation….”
“Your first obligation is to make peace with God, Anne.”
The words struck home, and I felt myself tearing up. “And how do you suggest I do that, Father?”
“Maybe a retreat would do you some good.”
“There’s a convent run by Benedictine nuns north of Grand Rapids.”
“Wait!” I was aghast. “A convent?”
“Just for a month or so,” he said gently. “It’s beautiful there, Anne, quiet and peaceful.”
“Peaceful,” I repeated tonelessly. “A peaceful exile.”
“Not exile, Anne, sanctuary. A place of safety where you can begin the healing process.”
Sanctuary, I thought. Peace and quiet. No demands. No need to put on a brave face…. A long silence ensued while I digested the idea and he waited.
Finally I sighed. “I guess I could try it for a few weeks.”
“I’ll make some calls,” he said.
I passed up the holy water as I left the church. My thoughts came with cool detachment as I walked down the steps…get thee to a nunnery…. So be it. Maybe I really don’t belong here anymore.