The stone projected itself through the thick yellow sunlight and burst through the window in a cascade of coloured glass. Micky grinned, wiggled his big ears that had earned him his name and bent down to pick up another rock. That’s when he got a sharp high heeled shoe to the seat of his pants and went tumbling headfirst into the weedy ditch.
He wasn’t grinning at all when he peeked his nervous head up through the weeds, rubbing it where a lump was developing above the left ear. He found himself ogling at the prettiest woman he’d ever seen. She had produced a tissue, apparently out of thin air, as she wore no purse, and was daintily wiping the bottom of her shoe. The motion flexed the muscles in her perfect legs which were visible far higher than could be comfortable, until they disappeared into a tiny red dress.
“Why’d you do that?” Micky asked the stranger, although he would have liked to ask, “who are you?” Or maybe, “can I have your phone number?” No, not that last one. She might kick him again.
“Every time you break a church window, you break a saint’s heart.” she said, in a voice that was unnaturally high.
“Aww, that’s just a myth, isn’t it?”
“No.” She looked up when she said it and he saw that her pale cheeks were flushed and there were the silver glintings of tears in her eyes.
“I’m sorry Ma’am,” said Micky, pushing the prickly foliage off of him and standing up. He suddenly felt that warm, awkward thing called sympathy. He glanced over his shoulder at the abandoned church, which was rather a sorry sight. Almost all the windows were already broken and the walls were stained black from smoke or age, he didn’t know which. The roof had long ago caved in.
“Do you know any saints?” He turned his attention back to the most interesting thing around.
“Yes, as a matter of fact. I did, anyways.”
“Oh, I’m sorry Ma’am,” Micky repeated himself and right away felt stupid for doing so.
“Not your problem.” The woman turned and began to walk away.
Micky scrambled up out of the ditch and followed her, not wanting to see her pretty self disappear into the shiny silver car parked by the side of the road with its blinker still on. As he did so, the golden light around made everything feel like some sort of strange dream, full of the deep but fragmented emotions that litter the best of our sleeping lives.
“Do you pray to your saint then? Now that he—or she—is gone?” he asked, not at all sure how to ask such a question. He figured she must be Catholic, talking about saints, and he’d heard that Catholics prayed to saints once they were dead. But most of all he wanted to ask her something, to make her stop and look at him. He found himself wanting to see those glossy eyes again.
“Sometimes I talk to her,” the woman answered without looking at him. “But I don’t think she listens. I never gave her reason to listen to me.” The woman got into the car, pulling her perfect legs and her sharp black heels in with her.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” said Micky, “Are you visiting town for long?”
“No.” The door closed, the engine started, and she was gone.
Rumours of the stranger ran rampant through the town that night, feeding the gossip-starved aunts and the dream-hungry boys. Micky repeated his story a thousand times, but he always left out the part about the saints and the tears. Something didn’t seem right about sharing that part of the story. It was too personal.
As rumour had it, she was staying the night at the inn in the next town over, the only town for miles that was big enough to have an inn, even if the inn only consisted of four rooms.
Micky couldn’t sleep that night. The dream from that evening; the beautiful woman, the golden light of the sunset kept replaying through his mind. And the bump on his head and sore spot on his bum kept forcing him to recognize the incident as a reality. An actual event that had happened in the history of the day.
Finally he got out of bed, pulled on his bathrobe, slipped his toes into his still damp-from-sweat socks and went out. He snuck down the hallway as to not alert his parents, who were talking in the living room to the light of a few lamps and the sound of classical music over the radio. He stopped in the coat room to push his feet into his shoes, without undoing the laces, and let himself out. The air was chilly but not cold, and had that crisp smell of recently mowed grass mixed with moonlight.
He went slowly along the path, feeling his feet roll from the balls of his heels to his toes. He was always more aware of things like that in the dark. He was also aware of his own breath going in and out in the near silence of the sleeping town. It didn’t take many steps to bring him out of the tiny town and on the road that led past the abandoned church. He hadn’t meant to go that way. It just sort of happened.
As he walked, he became aware of the smell of something burning. Focusing his attention ahead, he saw the faint glimmering of flames coming from the old church. He hurried his steps till he was nearly running. The silver car was there again, this time on the grass as if it had been left behind in a hurry, or parked carelessly. As he neared, he came to the conclusion that there was a fire burning in the center of the building, open to the stars above. Had the strange woman decided to camp out?
Without making much noise, he reached the church and climbed up onto an old wagon wheel to peer through a broken window. There, in the center of the church, between the decaying pews was a small bonfire with what looked like a suitcase and clothing burning in its heart. And, in the bright orange light of the flames, which lept up and down and swirled around, the woman lept and swirled and danced. Her blond hair whipped about her body which was as naked as it had been at her birth. It was the most bizarre and beautiful sight he had ever seen and it gripped him right down to his own underwear, which felt suddenly rough and tight against his skin.
He gazed, mesmerized, at the sight until he could take it no more and stumbled off the wheel and sank into the weeds, pressing his back against the rough, solid, cool, side of the church. Strangely, he did not feel dirty inside, or wrong, as though he had witnessed something indecent or not for him to see. Instead, he felt an inexplicable joy, as though he had just seen the release of a captured bird and watched as it circled high into the sky, its feathers glowing transparent in the light of a glorious dawn.
He sat there for a very long time, until the crackling of the fire went out, and the soft thumps of the woman’s feet stopped. He sat there until he heard a new sound, the sound of quiet sobbing.
It suddenly occurred to him that if the strange lady had burnt her clothing, she would probably need new clothing. So, without a word, he got up and slipped away through the night, running along the uneven sidewalk until he reached his home. The light was no longer on in the living room and he knew his parents must have gone to bed.
The only place to get lady’s clothing, though, was his mom’s closet, so, heart thumping, he pushed the door to his parent’s room open and slipped in. First he check to see his parent’s dark sleeping forms still under the blankets. He had hardly opened the closet when his mother’s voice whispered,
“Michael dear, is something wrong?”
“Yeah,” he admitted.
“Want to talk about it?”
“Yeah,” he said, relief flowing through him like water through a faucet.
She climbed out of bed and they went to the kitchen and with a warm mug of hot chocolate in his hands, Mickey told his mother everything that had happened, starting with the talk of saints that evening.
When he got to the end of his story, his mother right away went to fetch some clothes. “She can sleep in the spare room tonight, if she likes.”
The stranger, whose name turned out to be Mandy, stayed with Micky and his family for three months, until she could find her own place in a little apartment in town. With his word to keep silent about the late night event in the church, Micky’s mom told him Mandy’s story.
Turned out that many years ago Mandy’s mom had been the pastor’s wife at the old church, before it was abandoned. Mandy had been a rebellious teen and had eventually run away to a city in Montana where she had done some very bad things. She had never reconciled with her mother, who had died years since.
Now she had come back, and that night in the church she had burnt all the things that reminded her of her old life. Now she was free to have a new, good life and had decided to make that life in the town of her childhood.
Now Micky understood why he had not felt wrong watching her dance in the firelight. He had indeed been watching the dance of a freed woman.