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Halcyon Days

Painting God's Ceiling

PaintingGodsCeiling

In the beginning she told herself they were small things; no matter at all. She placed them, one by one, in the small carved box at the back of a closet and said, no matter, it is no matter at all, these things I have lost. 

One day she opened the box and discovered it was full. Not one more thing, no matter how small, was going in there. She held a memory fragment in her hand. It shifted gracefully in and out of the light, more transparent than not. It was beautiful, whatever it was. Her heart ached. She looked into the box for an appropriate substitute. Maybe something without so much meaning. I hoard things, she told the box. I keep things I don't always need. Maybe we could make a trade, you and I.

The box was silent.

Catalina sat on her knees in front of the box. The memory in her hand had become nearly formless but it didn't matter. The heart loves what it loves. As the box wasn't speaking, she was going to have to work it out on her own. She stirred the contents with her fingertips, looking for an edge, anything to separate one memory from another. It was hopeless. She put the lid on the box and shoved it to the back of the closet. 

When she returned to the kitchen, which is where the memory got loose in the first place, she realized it was gone and that her hand was bleeding badly. Her son asked what had happened, and was she alright, and what did she need, and come sit --- Mami! Your hand! 

She was stitched up at the clinic and returned to the sofa in front of the television. Someone else would have to make dinner. In the morning she found her daughter at the kitchen sink. Why are you here? Move over, I have to make breakfast! No. No, Mami, go sit down. I will make your breakfast. What about your brother? He's been fed. You slept late.

Catalina stared at the texture on the wall across the room and tried to make sense of the wriggling lines. She helped her daughter with the dishes and broke a bowl and the whole day unraveled at her feet. She tripped on a line and went down.

Her grandchildren come in and out of the house and she is always cold. A crochet hook moves in her right hand, wrap and slip and wrap and slip and wrap and slip. She looks down at her work and counts the hexagonal shapes, changes her mind about the next color, and reaches into her bag. Out pops something, but it isn't what she wants. 

Mami, what do you need? Her daughter opens the bag wider and holds it up to the light. This color? No. This? Can you say? Oh! That! You want purple! Yes. 

Purple has been gone for quite a while.

Catalina goes back to her work and makes herself invisible. 

No one knows what is in Catalina's mind; not even Catalina. These are fierce winds and choppy seas with no words, no charting, and no sextant to read the night sky. We can only know what we know. We can only do what we know. We think these things; but she may not.

She talks to God. She no longer prays but her family thinks she does because what else would you be doing with that rosary half the day? No more Hail Marys, no more Our Fathers, but the fingers count the beads anyway. The fingers that count the beads are doing exactly what they have always done, they are rungs on the ladder to God. As the beads pass through her fingers, she whispers into her lap and she is not quite so timid with God as she might have been. 

Where are my words? Where is my life? How can I be sitting here like this? What is the use of me? What am I to do, God? God says nothing. Like the box. 

There is a brief moment when Catalina recognizes that while she may not hear God talking or know the word for the thing that holds lost memories, they may still be there. For a brief moment, Catalina is at peace.

As her illness progresses, her family no longer believes she remembers much of anything. She needs help with most things, speaks little, and gets lost in the house she was born in. They agree it is good that her hands are still moving. They look into her bag and see most of it gone. Her work is enormous, spills over her lap and onto the floor. She tries to keep it balled up and hidden. They think she's hiding it from them, but she is not. 

Catalina is afraid to look at her own work. She can't stop her hands, but she cannot bring herself to look at the disaster that was once her art. 

One night when she is sleeping, they take it apart, not all of it, but most. They wrap it back into balls and drop them into the bag. What's left of her work is folded neatly and left in her place. In the morning she picks it up, sits down, and feels the weight of it in her hands. She still won't look. But this is awful. I've forgotten how much should be here. This doesn't feel right, but I don't know what right is. In the palm of her hand there is another memory, wispy and sweet. Her heart aches and she closes her hand around the thing. For one moment it is there, and then it is gone. 

She looks down at her work, without really looking, reaches into the bag, and begins again.

The morning Catalina didn't get out of bed, was the morning they found out she'd emptied her bag. It might have gone completely unnoticed if her son hadn't realized they'd forgotten to undo her work. It was a week before the house settled back down. Another before the neighbors stopped bringing food; and on the third week, the priest came again. 

Catalina's work was folded neatly in its place. The empty bag sat its feet. Father asked if he could see her work and her daughter said, of course. Have a look, I'm sure it's lots of lovely purple. She really did love her purples. Do you know, that is the first word she lost? I don't think she even knew when it happened but it was the day she cut her hand in the kitchen. All that blood and she looked like she'd had a piece of her heart cut out. 

Father picked up the work by two corners, expertly flapping it open and into the light. Time stopped.

Some hearts have an echo, or a murmur. It's a sound you can hear when you are hearing absolutely nothing else. The silence of the murmur was transparent, and lovely. The box in the back of the closet had tipped itself over and let itself out. All that was Catalina, start to finish and back again, washed through the house. It washed and rippled over chairs and under tables, coming to rest like a cloud that hovers just off the ground. Father laid the blanket flat on the living room floor. He walked around, straightening edges and pulling corners until he was sure that God could see it all.

Father opened the door to let in the light, and stepped aside. He said, to the room, she has painted the ceiling of a beautiful cathedral. Maybe she saw it once and her hands remembered. 

No, said the box. She has painted God's Ceiling. God's Ceiling was the only thing she had left; all that she could see, all that she could hear. When she finished her work, she was done.

But no one was listening to the box.

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