‘Sanctuary’

(This is a different type of post. Rummaging through my files the other day, I found a piece of fiction I wrote while living in Columbia, Missouri, in 1991. I’ve never done anything with it, so I’ve revised it just a bit to offer it here. It’s called “Sanctuary.” I hope you like it.)

The road circled a hill, turning abruptly, and Aaron barely prevented the car from heading down a rough slope into a wooded valley. He wasn’t driving fast, but he has no idea where he was, and it was difficult to see through the mist of tears.

Halfway into the turn, the car emerged from a tunnel of leafy oak and ash into a clearing below the hill.

On the top of the hill stood a church.

Sanctuary.

The word whispered itself from the back row of his brain, sending a ripple through him of something not entirely comforting. Sanctuary? Aaron braked and looked up at the church. It was old and long unused, white paint graying and flaking from too many Iowa seasons. The small bell tower was leaning to the northeast. Was that right? He glanced up and checked the position of the sun behind the clouds, then looked at his watch, calculating directions from shadows. Yes, northeast.

Sanctuary, whispered the voice.

He hesitated, then drove until he found a place to park about a hundred yards away, down another decline and out of sight of the church. He locked the car before walking back along the road and then up the hill.

The doors, as weathered and aching as the rest of the building, were ajar, frozen in place by time. Aaron squeezed through. Dim light came through the paneless windows but illuminated little: A few pews and some litter, the stump of a lectern and a bench.

Weary and disappointed – and aware of the folly of disappointment – he sat at the end of a pew, as far as possible from the empty place where the altar had once stood. Vision blurred again, and his head dropped. If this was sanctuary, it was odd indeed. But sanctuary was what he needed, a retreat from the last four days. Yesterday, Wednesday, had been the worst, waking alone in the house and being left alone by well-meaning friends and relatives. The day before was the funeral. Before that, Monday, he’d welcomed with embraces and tears those same friends and relatives who had now faded out of sight. And Sunday. The day it started . . . or ended. The morning he’d waked to find Linda lying still beside him. The doctor thought it might have been a stroke, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that she was gone.

Four horrible days. And today, the fifth, was the worst. He had found sorrow enough being in the house with the comfort of others. It was unbearable alone. So he’d fled the house and Keokuk, losing himself in the roads through the hills. And he was still alone. He put his face in his hands and wept, then turned to the right, resting against the end of the pew. In time, the tears stopped, and Aaron slept.

He woke slowly, confused, to a muted chorus of voices. “And also with you,” they said. Without moving, he opened his eyes and saw clear glass in the window. He stared at it for a moment, then raised his head and sat up.

The church was full. Pews that hadn’t been there when he came in were filled with men, women and children. Their clothes were wrong, old-fashioned. He glanced to his left. A man in a high-collared brown suit looked at a gold watch through round wire spectacles, then stroked his trimmed mustache and put the watch back in his vest pocket. Aaron turned to the front. A plain altar stood below a wooden cross high on the wall. A man in a black frock coat – the minister, Aaron thought – sat down on the bench by the lectern. As Aaron watched, the minister looked toward the first pew and nodded briefly. “Rachel,” he said.

A young woman rose from the pew and went to the center aisle, followed by a boy carrying what looked like a dulcimer, who sat in a chair to the side. Aaron stared at the young woman as she took her place. She was wearing a plain blue dress that reached to her ankles, gathered somehow at the waist and flaring out from there to the floor. She had light brown hair pulled together loosely at the nape of her neck. It framed her face and flowed down her back.

Her face was extraordinary. Not pretty, Aaron thought as he she looked at the gathered congregation, but truly beautiful, with a serenity that was so vivid that the only word he could think of was “ethereal.” She smiled, and Aaron saw something familiar in the smile, but the simple wonder of seeing it kept him from even trying to identify what it was he recognized. Then she spoke.

“Reverend Westphal has asked me to close the service with a hymn,” she said simply. “We have heard this week of the great battle at Gettysburg, and I know we all fear for our young men who have gone to war to preserve the Union. I hope this song will bring comfort as we wait.”

The boy played a series of simple chords, and Rachel began to sing:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found.
Was blind, but now I see.

As she started the second verse, the congregation joined her tentatively, first one voice and then another.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace that fear relieved.
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

When the third verse started, all in the church but Aaron were singing, and the simple melody and gentle words became a moving and increasingly louder statement of faith and hope that penetrated his despair. He joined them.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
We have already come.
’Tis grace has brought us safe thus far,
And grace will lead us home.

As the final verse started, the rest of the congregation fell silent, leaving Aaron’s and Rachel’s voices to carry the song. He almost stopped as well, but as the first syllable left his lips, Rachel looked directly at him, smiling around the words as she sang, encouraging him to continue.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright, shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

The dulcimer repeated the chords of the song after the fourth verse, and Aaron closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them, Rachel was smiling gently at him, and Aaron felt something flow between them that he could not name, something that made the two of them somehow inseparable yet still separate. The dulcimer completed the chords, and Rachel sang alone:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found.
Was blind, but now I see.

Aaron stared at her as she moved back to her place in the first pew. Reverend Westphal stood. “Go with God,” he said, and the congregation began to move from the pews, Aaron with them. The man next to him turned and extended his hand.

“It was good to have you worship with us, Aaron,” he said. “We hope to see you here again.”

Aaron shook the man’s hand numbly, hardly noticing that the man knew his name. His eyes were on Rachel, who was now in a small knot of people in the aisle. Those in Aaron’s pew, including the man who had spoken to him, slowly made their ways into the aisle, and when Aaron got there, he found himself standing next to Rachel.

She looked at him gravely. She wore like a cloak the aura of serenity that Aaron had noticed just moments before. “God rest you,” she said quietly. “We will sing again.” Then she turned and slipped through a gap in the crowd of people near the door. Aaron watched as she left the church.

He woke in the car, cramped and dazed. A pale pink line on the horizon below the hills promised daybreak. He moved his head to relieve his aching neck, then looked at his watch. It was 5:20. How long had he been sleeping? He stretched, and then he remembered the church and the congregation. He remembered Rachel.

Aaron threw the door open and ran up the road and then to the top of the small hill. The church was as he had first seen it. Its windows had no glass. The doors were weathered and slightly ajar. He went inside, and even in the vague light of early morning, he could see it was nearly empty. He walked to where Rachel had stood as she sang. The floor was warped, long unwalked.

It must have been a dream, Aaron thought. I must have fallen asleep in the church, then walked back to the car half-sleeping. He walked out of the church and watched the sun light the low clouds. It was a dream, he was certain. He walked down the hill and was halfway to the car when he stopped.

Maybe it was all a dream. Not just the church on this country road, but Linda as well. Maybe he’d dreamed or imagined it all. It was possible, he thought. And the more he thought, the more possible, the more likely, the more certain it became. Linda was home, waiting for him, wondering where he’d been all this time, worrying about him.

He ran to the car, started it and drove down the winding road, knowing that he’d find a road that would lead him to another and eventually to one he’d recognize. And he would go home to Linda.

An hour later, he parked the car in his driveway and hurried into the house. “Linda?” He walked through the kitchen into the hallway. “Linda?” She must be in the living room. “Linda?”

He stopped in the doorway of the empty living room. Cards of condolence and sympathy lay on the table near the front door, in front of a framed portrait of Linda. An arrangement of wilting flowers stood next to the portrait.

Aaron exhaled heavily as he stepped to the couch and sat, staring at the tableau on the table. Again he wept.

Late that afternoon, he drove once more into the hills, parked the car, then took his wallet out of his pocket and left it on the seat next to the keys. He turned and walked up the curving road. As he came to the small hill, he could hear Rachel’s voice coming from the church:

I once was lost, but now am found . . .

The voice in his head whispered: Sanctuary.

Aaron walked quickly up the hill and went to join the congregation.

One Response to “‘Sanctuary’”

  1. jb says:

    Nicely done, sir. Thank you.

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