Some people swore the house was haunted. How could that be when the house in question was God’s house? Ellery thought about this as she stood outside of the 17th century, limestone Catholic Church, Église Sainte Agnés. It was the oldest church in Courbevoie, located two kilometers west of Paris. She had gone there hoping to find some spirits, maybe that of her own mother, who had just died that morning back in Chicago. She promised her mother that she would always take care of her. When her mother needed her the most, Ellery wasn’t there.
What Ellery needed most was absolution from the guilt of living her own life. She had moved to France eight years earlier to be with her new husband. Although she spoke with her mother daily by phone, she rarely saw the rest of her family back in the States. To be honest, her twin daughters had never even met their grandmother formally. They never knew what she was like, how funny she could be, or even how much she loved soap operas and Pepsi-Cola. Instead they got to know her only in three minute intervals. So when the girls still wanted to go to school, despite having learned of their grandmother’s passing, it was hurtful to Ellery, but oddly, natural at the same time. After all, considering the relationship and their ages, who could really blame them? Worried about how the twins would react once the death became real to them, Ellery opted to leave them with her mother-in-law in order to attend the funeral.
Unfortunately, the distance was not caused by the traditional reasons families fracture: fights or annoyance. Ellery was terrified of flying on airplanes. Rather than deal with the paralyzing fear, she avoided air travel all together. Yet, flying 4,000 miles to confront all of the ghosts she left behind was unavoidable.
The huge wooden door was already unlocked allowing Ellery to enter. The entire church was dark and empty, save for a few lit candles off to the sides of the tabernacle. She rarely attended church anymore; still Catholic rituals remained in her memory on autopilot. She genuflected, crossed herself and sat down in the third row from the back. She wanted to kneel and pray, but when she tried, no words came. She sat back against the wooden pew. The tears streaming down her cheeks wouldn’t stop. She’d messed up and she would never be able to fix it.
Someone entered from the door just behind the alter. Early morning mass would begin soon. She figured it was the person who opened the Church doors that morning. Ellery could see a figure approaching in the distance. As the vision became clearer, it appeared to be an elderly French woman with cotton white hair. Wearing a cornfield blue flowered dress and black sturdy shoes, she walked with a slightly hunched back. Though her shuffled steps were careful, her balance was steady. Ellery judged the woman to be much older than her mother and yet she appeared to be in relatively good health. She knew it wasn’t the woman’s fault, but seeing her that way made her mother’s fate seem a bit unfair and untimely.
The woman sat down next to Ellery and began to pat her hand gently. They spoke in French.
“What is it my dear?” asked the woman. Ellery took her time before answering. Although Ellery spoke French, she did so at times with tremendous difficulty. Ironically, today would be the day she would express her most intimate feelings (to a stranger no less) without hesitation, practice or embarrassment.
“My mother is dead...And I don’t know what to do about it,” Ellery said quietly.
“I am sorry. When and where, Madame?”
“This morning in the United States“
The woman squeezed Ellery’s hand tighter.
“First, we pray together,” the woman said.
“Then, I am going to sit here with you until you do know.”
They were saying the rosary, the woman reciting in French and Ellery in English, each invoking the power of her mother’s patron saint, the Blessed Mother of Sorrows.
No more words passed between them. The woman pointed to a fresco on the ceiling above them. It was the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus, a reassuring image from Ellery’s childhood, indicating that everything would be all right. Ellery began to concentrate on the painting.
This was her absolution for her sins and she felt empowered. Before she could express her thanks, the woman had gone, disappearing without a trace.
Ellery now knew what she had to do and how to do it. Nothing was ever the same again after that.
*This short story appears in the short story collection, "Encounters in Paris"