December 15, 2005

End of The Eye of St Lucy

[If you want to read story in its entirety, scroll down to Part 1 and read upwards]

The scraping of a shovel against the sidewalk outside woke me. The sky was white, sunlight pouring in through the window. I turned to waken Emmi only to discover she was already out of bed. I could smell the sweet odor of bacon frying. Then I remembered what had happened the night before. Flinging off the quilt, I dressed quickly, transferring my half of the glass eye to my jeans’ pocket.

Downstairs, Emmi's mother seemed much taller than she had before. She looked down at me, telling me that Emmi had gone with her brothers to shovel driveways. I nodded mutely and sat down to eat a breakfast I could barely swallow. Every time I looked up at Mrs. Quigley, I knew she was going to question me about the eye. Every word she said was freighted with double meaning. I thought of confessing, throwing myself on her mercy, but I couldn't do that without betraying Emmi. The coolness of the glass in my jeans burned through my pocket.

When I got home, my mother was working in her study “Have a good time, Freddie?”

Numb, I said yes but offered no more. This was only a small lie, a small sin compared to the sin I'd committed the night before. I wanted to bury my head in my mother's lap and tell her everything -- not just about the eye, but about sin and baptism and how she and Daddy would go to hell if they didn’t get married again. For once, I wanted to hear her clear-headed analysis of church and religion, to have her comfort me, assure me that no matter what Emmi said or believed I didn't need to be saved.

Instead, she remained preoccupied at her desk and when I said I was going up to clean my room, she murmured, “good for you,” and went back to rifling through a stack of papers.

The following two weeks were vacation. My mother arranged for me to take typing lessons at the high school, an intensive course with classes every day. I was glad to have something to do to take my mind off what could only be impending disaster. Too superstitious to throw the half glass eye away, I wore it in my jeans pocket every day and kept it under my pillow at night. Whenever the phone rang, the pulse in my neck quickened and I was sure Mrs. Quigley was telling my mother I would burn in hell or, if Dante and Aunt Tom were right, freeze. Although my mother once said that Dante was one of the world's finest writers, I knew she didn't believe in hell. But I was beginning to.

No call came, no word from Emmi. I plodded through vacation not sneaking a cigarette even once, amending my expletives. Although my hair needed washing and my hands were stained from typewriter ribbons, I couldn't shower. I went to typing class and did my homework so listlessly my mother came to talk to me in her soothing voice about what a difficult time adolescence was. I was not relieved.

I didn’t see or hear from Emmi the entire two weeks and assumed the worst: she was doing prayer penance, or in a convent, or blind herself. By Monday morning my eyes throbbed and my vision blurred. When the school bus rattled to a stop and opened its doors to let me on, I longed to run back home and beg my mother's, Mrs. Quigley’s, and Aunt Tom’s forgiveness, even though I knew I'd never deserve God's.

From the stiff seat on the bus, the glass eyeball bulging against my skin, I peered out at the snow on the streets, drifts crusted over with soot, believing there was no one in the world more soul-sick than I. If the sky opened at that moment and God Himself charged me to come forward to stand trial, I would not have been surprised.

By the time the bus arrived at school, anxiety had my heart popping in my chest like a string of igniting caps. Miss Ivor was correcting papers at her desk, and when I came in she squinted at me and said, “Good morning, Winifred. How was your vacation?”

I didn't dare speak, afraid that a stammer or hitch in my voice might betray me. Instead, I nodded, forced a smile. The bell rang and the room quieted for roll call. Emmi still hadn't arrived. Sick with dread, compounding my sins a thousand-fold, I concocted one excuse after another, even the baldest of lies to conceal what I'd done when the accusations came. My cold Unitarian soul would brook none of them.

In the middle of the roll, the door opened, just as it had that first day months earlier, and Emmi appeared, ribbons in her wind-blown pig tails, her cheeks flushed with cold.

"So, you've decided to join us, Mary Elizabeth," Miss Ivor commented dryly. Emmi flew over to our desk and dumped her books and purse on top. Out of breath, she elbowed me and stage-whispered, “Freddie! How are you? Long time, no see, huh?”

I stared at her.

“What did you do all vacation?” she continued. “Me? Ugh, I had to clean house and baby-sit the whole time. Except for going with Aunt Tom to the eye doctor's, I didn't get out of the house once. Can you believe it -- I'm almost glad school’s started again!"

Eye doctor? Aunt Tom? Emmi looked as innocent as she had the day we met. Nothing in her eyes hinted that the condition of her soul was as black and forlorn as mine. Before I could think of a thing to say, the second bell rang. Emmi gathered up her books then hitched her arm through mine. “Freddie, what's the matter?”

Out in the hall, I shook my arm free. “How can you ask that?” I spat. “You of all people!”

“What do you mean? I only asked why you seemed depressed. Boy, don't be so crabby!”

"Why didn't you call me? Don't you know I've been tortured all vacation worrying?"

“About what?”

“About what? Aunt Tom’s eyeball, what else!”

Emmi looked as though I were speaking in tongues, then her mouth ovalled. “Oh, Freddie! That's ancient history. They all thought it rolled off the dresser and got lost in the insulation. No one even suspected.”

“But it was a sin! We committed a sin, we ‘deliberately transgressed a law of God.’” I said, reciting the catechism she herself had taught me.

Emmi folded a stick of chewing gum into her mouth. “Oh, that,” she said. “It wasn't so bad really. I went to confession--”

“You told a priest?!”

“Sure. It's confidential. That’s what they’re there for. I told him everything. He gave me a penance, then absolved me.”

The last bell rang and Emmi unlinked her arm from mine. “See you at lunch.” She turned on her heels and headed off.

All of my sins counting against me, as Emmi's never would, I stood there in the middle of the empty corridor, alone.

Posted by pamwagg at 06:18 PM | Comments (3)

December 11, 2005

The Eye of St Lucy Part 4

I dropped off to sleep immediately and was soon dreaming that I was standing in the rain waiting for a bus. All the people in line with me had huge staring eyes like the Sumerian statues we'd studied in Art History. I didn't know which bus to take, and every time I tried to climb on board, the driver would tell me, "No, not this bus." Then I'd get off and have to wait in line again. The dream wearied me; I was glad when M. E. shook me awake.

"What were you dreaming?" she prodded.

I told her, and she sat back, a frown on her face. “That's a pagan dream.”

“What did you dream then?”

Emmi looked at me shyly then glanced away.

“Are you going to tell me or aren't you?” I demanded.

She twisted a pigtail between her fingers. Her face looked pained. "I dreamed about, well, I dreamed about Jesus..."

“Are you sure?” I began. In a flash I understood. “Emmi, you're going to be a nun!” I cried. “Nuns marry Jesus."

Emmi shook her head. “But I don't want to be a nun.” Two tears slid down her cheeks. “It’s not fair. I don't want to be a nun.”

“It was only a dream,” I pointed out.

“But this is St. Agnes' Eve,” she wailed.

I patted her on the shoulder but couldn't think of anything comforting to say.

After a while, Emmi stopped crying and sat hunched up looking out the window at the snowflakes beginning to accumulate. I pulled the quilt from the foot of the bed and tucked it around us. Emmi turned back to me, her dream apparently forgotten.

“Don’t you wonder about the saints, if they really do what they're supposed to? You know, miracles?”

I wondered, no doubt about that.

Emmi sat up, shrugging the quilt off her shoulders. “I do too. There has to be a way to find out--” She paused, a glint of mischief in her eyes. “For instance, what about Aunt Tom's eye? I wonder what she sees through it."

“You mean her second sight? If she really can see people’s sins with it?” A thought took shape in my mind. Emmi was staring at her hands and I knew she was thinking the same thing. "No. No, we shouldn’t -- "

"But we could.”

“I don't know,” I whispered. “We better not. What if she finds out?”

“Is that all you think about, getting caught? Look, we're only going to borrow it to look at. We'll give it back. Besides,” Emmi wriggled out of bed. “If I'm going to be a nun, I've got to make sure.”

I wished Emmi weren't so eager.


My voice said, “I'm coming,” but my heart felt like a bowling ball dropping over my foot.

The floorboards creaked as we crept over to the curtain. Cautiously, we peeked around it. Aunt Tom was lying on her side, her face to the wall. On the table by her bed was the small china cup where she put the glass eye every night before going to sleep. Emmi laid her finger across her lips then inched forward. I followed, stepping as quietly as I could. Aunt Tom let out a rumbling sigh and my whole body trembled. I held my breath as Emmi tiptoed closer to reach into the cup. When she finally held up the glass eye in triumph, she gave a thumb's up with her other hand. I shivered, wishing she would hurry, but she stood by Aunt Tom's bed as if roots were holding her legs to the floor. Holding the eyeball up towards the window, she held it close to her own eye and turned it over and over between her fingers, staring.

"Come on," I breathed.

Emmi crept back over to me. “You look at it. I can't see a thing.”

Holding the precious eye in a closed fist, I dragged her back around the curtain, then crawled into bed. My stomach curled as I opened my hand to examine the eyeball more closely. Gingerly, I turned it over in my palm, then held it up so I could squint through it at Emmi.

"What do you see?" Emmi urged, then snatched the eye back. "Did you see anything?"

"No, it just makes everything look kind of wavery."

Emmi held it up again, peering first at it and then through it at me. "I don't see anything either. It looks like plain old glass." Her eyebrows wrinkled in puzzlement. “Aunt Tom swears it works. I can't keep anything from her. She says she can see my soul and I believe her."

“I don't. And you shouldn’t either. It's a fake, that's what I think."

“It can't be. Aunt Tom wouldn't lie!”

“Maybe she wasn't really lying. Just a little fib. Anyhow, at least it means you won't have to be a nun. Aren't you happy about that?” I put my hand out. "Let me see it again."

Emmi moved away. "No," she said. "Aunt Tom never lies."

“C'mon. Give it here. I just want to look at it one more time.” I reached out to wrestle it from her.

Emmi held it tight and pushed back against the headboard. Irritated, I leaned forward to grab it, but just as I managed to pry open her fingers she released the glass eye before I had hold of it. I wasn't quick enough. The eye rolled off the bed and fell to the wooden floor with a crack. Both of us scrambled to the floor only to find the eye severed neatly in half.

"Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!" breathed Emmi. Pitifully, we tried to fit the halves together.

“Girls, what's going on back there?” Aunt Tom grumbled sleepily.

Emmi paled. Don't move, she mouthed.

My fingers holding the broken glass, I sat frozen. Aunt Tom moved in bed and made sounds as if to get up. Finally, Emmi squeaked, “Sorry, Aunt Tom, I just knocked over a book.”

I held my breath. An eternity passed before Aunt Tom grunted, turned over in her bed and fell asleep again. I looked at Emmi and knew the same panic was written all over my face.

“Oh God,” I whispered, forgetting not to take the Lord's name in vain. “Now what?” My hands were shaking. I handed the glass halves to Emmi, who gave one back to me.

“No,” she said, as if I were trying to deny my part in things, “You keep one half. We're in this together. We won't tell anyone what happened. They’ll think it rolled off the table, or that Aunt Tom misplaced it.” But Emmi didn’t believe her own story.

“She'll know! She has second sight!”

Emmi’s eyes formed slits then opened wide. “No, she won't -- she won't have the eye.”

Posted by pamwagg at 12:06 PM | Comments (1)

December 07, 2005

The Eye of St Lucy Part 3

“It’s true -- Aunt Tom knows everything; she knows my sins before I even commit them.”

A slow shiver worked its way up my spine. The story made me ache. As a Unitarian, I knew there was no such thing as second sight, but I wished I were Catholic so I could believe in it.

Emmi gave me a chance to save my soul. In the past, I had used prayer as a means to practical ends: “Please, God, let me pass my math exam,” or “Please, God, make my mother and father get back together again.” It was always a last resort and I never put much faith in it. Now Emmi taught me how to say Our Father and Hail Mary and gave me a string of rosary beads. She urged me to go to sleep every night with a prayer on my lips and to thank Jesus and all the saints when I woke the next morning. I began reciting prayers in my head several times a day, finishing with the special plea Emmi learned from Aunt Tom: “Dear Jesus, please put a circle of love and protection around --” naming as many people as I could think of.

Even though I promised to quit smoking and swearing, Emmi continued to worry about my soul, since in my unbaptized state I could never go to heaven.

“Freddie? Freddie?!” She shook me in the middle of one night.

“What?” I mumbled, trying to get my bearings.

“Are you awake? Wake up. It's important.”

“I'm awake,” I groaned, pulling a pillow over my head. “What do you want?”

Emmi pulled the pillow from my face and drew what felt like an "X" on my forehead with a wet thumb.

“What are you doing?” I put up my hands to fend her off.

“Shh. I'm baptizing you,” she said. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit...”

“You can't do that. You're not a minister.”

“Priest,” she corrected. “And I can too. Anyone can. It's called 'in extremis' and I'm pretty sure it works. What if you died in your sleep?”

“It won't do me any good. I'm Unitarian. We don't believe in baptism.”

“I do." Emmi’s voice sounded grave. “I want you to have a chance to go to heaven. But you have to be good from now on. Really good, I mean. From now on all your sins count.”

That worried me. I wasn't sure I could keep from sinning for the rest of my life. Just knowing I couldn't made me feel like screaming "SHIT!" at the top of my lungs. Also, I was pretty sure that divorce was a mortal sin, and I wondered how I'd live in heaven if my mother wasn't there with me.

New Year’s Eve, Emmi telephoned me to celebrate at midnight and to tell me January 20th was coming.

“What’s so special about that?” It wasn't either of our birthdays, and Christmas was over.

She breathed out an oh-so-patient sigh. “It's St. Agnes' Eve.”

“So what?”

“St. Agnes was a martyr, beheaded for refusing to marry a pagan. On the night of her birthday every January 20th, girls are supposed to dream about their future husbands.”

I scoffed, “That’s just superstition.”

“It's a lot more than that,” she insisted. “Wait and see.”

Sharing Emmi’s bed the night of January 20th, we could hear Aunt Tom snoring.

“How will we remember our dreams?” I wondered. “By the time I wake up, I’ve already forgotten.”

Emmi wasn’t worried. She showed me how to concentrate on the time I wanted to wake, say 3:00 AM, while banging my head against the pillow that many times, assuring me it worked like a charm; we wouldn’t even need an alarm clock.

Posted by pamwagg at 03:18 PM | Comments (1)

December 03, 2005

The Eye of St Lucy Part 2

One late fall afternoon, we were studying saucer-eyed Sumerian figurines in Art History, when she elbowed me, whispering. “Meet me after the last period.”

When the bell rang at the end of the day, Emmi was waiting for me outside. “Come on, you can take the second bus. I brought something I want to show you.”

She led me over to the bushes in the back and carefully drew a grocery bag out from under, then handed it to me.

“What's this?”

“Just look. It's why I got kicked out of St. Sebby's.”

I reached inside and pulled out a round band of cardboard with yellow paper triangles that came together at the top. Around the edges and in intricate designs at the center were glued different colored Lifesavers. Clearly a hat, but it didn't look like any hat I'd ever seen.

Emmi looked at me expectantly.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Don't you even know?” She looked crestfallen at having to explain. “It's a bishop's miter, what a bishop wears when he’s saying mass. I made it.”

“You got expelled for making a hat?”

“I didn't just make it. I wore it.”

Clearly I understood nothing.

“You don't get it, do you?”

“What's so terrible about wearing a bishop's hat?”

“ Not a hat, a miter.” Her turned-down mouth made it clear I was missing the point. “I wore it to the Halloween party at school, and the nuns made me confess to Father Kilroy, the smelly old fart. He gave me ten rosaries as a penance then expelled me anyway, even after I'd spent all afternoon in chapel saying them.”

“All for wearing a hat -- I mean, a miter? That’s weird.”

“No, it was wicked. You're not supposed to make fun of nuns or priests and especially not the bishop. Sacrilege is worse than murder, practically.”

I told her I was Unitarian and she looked at me, her eyes narrowed.

“Is that the same thing as atheist? I've never met an atheist.”

“I'm not sure. I don't think so. No one ever told me it was.”

“Do you believe in Jesus?”

“Oh, sure. Of course.” But I wasn't sure at all. In Sunday school we learned about the life cycle of spiders, of solar systems. I didn't remember Jesus ever being mentioned. But I knew I couldn't be an atheist, not if I wanted Emmi to be my friend.

“Well, I hope so. I don't want you to burn in hell.”

“Don't worry, I'll be okay,” I reassured her.

Emmi scratched her nose and looked doubtful. To change the subject, I jumped up. “We better hurry. Race you to the bus -- last one has to write the other's weekend composition!”

Emmi and her seven younger brothers and sisters lived in Catholic territory, Though her house was large, it was not large enough; Emmi slept in the attic. Living with the Quigleys was an elderly distant cousin everyone called “Aunt Tom.” According to Emmi, until Aunt Tom lost her sight, she had been a “religious” and still observed the “canonical hours,” which meant nothing to me. Aunt Tom was tall as a man and blind as a parsnip, but refused to use a cane, negotiating her way through the house with her bony hands stretched out before her feeling her way.

Rejecting the privileges blindness might have conferred, Aunt Tom insisted on sharing the attic with Emmi, instead of taking up a room by herself. Curtained off, Emmi's section of the attic commanded the window but not the stairway, so every time we went up to her room, we had to pass through Aunt Tom’s side. This was barren but for a narrow iron bed and a rickety three-legged table holding a braille missal and a smelly incense candle, burning day and night in front of a picture of the Virgin Mary.

When she wasn’t praying, which she did several times a day, Aunt Tom had Emmi and me take turns reading aloud from The Divine Comedy, which she knew most of by heart and which I quickly discovered was about Hell and not funny at all. After she learned I wasn’t Catholic, she asked me to read to her about Limbo, where the “virtuous pagans” went, in sight of but outside the gates of heaven for all eternity.

“I’m not a pagan. I’m Unitarian,” I corrected her.

“Precisely my point, dear,” she answered. “There’s a place in God’s plan for each of us.”

That same night when I was sleeping over, Emmi told me the story of Aunt Tom’s miracle. “In the convent, Aunt Tom was called Sister Thomas Aquinas,” she explained. “During an epidemic of brain fever, she took care of the other sick nuns until she got sick herself and the infection went straight to her eyes. She prayed to St. Lucy -- that’s the patron saint of eyesight -- and even with her eyes bandaged spent hours kneeling on the stone floor at Mass every day.” Emmi stopped and got to her knees on the bed. “Like this,” she demonstrated, extending her arms straight out to either side, closing her eyes. Then she sat back and continued, “So anyway, one night, Sister Thomas had this vision: St. Lucy, with a candle in one hand and a mirror in the other, holding the mirror so it reflected the light onto the walls. Aunt Tom, I mean, Sister Thomas, tried to question her, but the vision vanished. This scared her something wicked. She tore off her bandages, and you know what? she had gone completely blind.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a miracle to me,” I grumbled.

“Just wait,” Emmi said. “The miracle happened a few weeks later. The doctor had taken out one of Sister Thomas’s infected eyeballs and had the socket fitted for a glass one. So there she was, sitting in a chair in the sun, totally blind, when the doctor came to show her how to fit the glass eyeball into her socket. The minute he did, she saw, plain as day, that he was having an affair and that because he was unfaithful, his wife would die a tragic death. After that, Sister Thomas wouldn’t let the doctor near her. He was evil, he was a fornicator, she shouted, he’d burn in hell. The doctor said she was lying, that the fever had gone to her brain, but she insisted she was telling the truth. The nuns didn’t know what to think. A few weeks later, they heard that the doctor’s wife found out he was cheating on her and committed suicide. Sister Thomas declared God had taken her first eyes so St. Lucy could give her second sight, the ‘eye of discernment.’” Emmi’s voice lowered and each word became a whisper of awe: “It’s true -- Aunt Tom knows everything; she knows my sins before I even commit them.”

Posted by pamwagg at 11:11 AM | Comments (3)

December 01, 2005

The Eye of St Lucy Part 1

Without wishing to offend anyone, I offer my short story, written several years ago and unpublished:

Pamela Spiro Wagner

The whole thing never would have happened if it hadn't been for Mary Elizabeth Quigley. I already knew right from wrong. I knew, for instance, that it was wrong to kill and right to tell the truth. But though I had my share of faults (I swore, and once I stole a pack of cigarettes from Liggetts, and I had a bad reputation, earned for playing doctor with boys and using four-letter words in ways that indicated I understood them) the Unitarian Sunday school I went to was curiously silent on the concept of sin. It wasn't until I was twelve and started junior high that, thanks to Mary Elizabeth, the word “sin” entered my working vocabulary.

The teachers at Briar Ridge Elementary had liked me, bad reputation or no; I was popular, the class clown. But at Winterskill Junior High, instead of being indulged for my “vivid imagination,” I was scolded for not paying attention, my cutting up treated as disruptive. Regularly kept after school for detention, I became a loner, no longer sought-after or in the in-crowd. To make things worse, in homeroom, where we were seated alphabetically, no one else's name ended in a letter after “P,” and since my surname was Stoll, the other half of my desk was left unoccupied, and I was odd girl out at the back of the room.

It was well into November when Mary Elizabeth, late to class her first day, appeared at W.J.H., still wearing her parochial school jumper with the St. Sebastian's insignia over the breast pocket. Miss Ivor, our homeroom teacher, reminded her the bell rang at 7:30 sharp. Instead of finding excuses or arguing, Mary Elizabeth bowed her head, murmured, “Yes, Ma’am,” and made a little curtsey. Tittering swept the room. I might have joined in, if she hadn't been assigned to sit next to me. Instead, I swallowed my giggles and made room for her on the bench. She was chubby, with a pink freckled face and scraped-up knees and still wore pigtails instead of a pageboy or Toni Home Perm like the rest of us. Nudging her slightly, I introduced myself. Although she kept her face forward and her hands folded on the desk, she whispered back, "Freddy? That's a funny name for a girl."

“It's Freddie, 'I, E', not with a 'Y' and it's short for Winifred, my mother's name, which I absolutely hate. Can you imagine going through life with such a sucky name? When I grow up I'm going to change it to Laura Marchand, or maybe Camilla Howell Higgins. Even Penelope--” I pronounced this with a silent final 'e' “-- would be scads better than Winifred.”

“Hey, I've thought of changing my name too. There were a zillion Mary Elizabeths at St. Sebby's. Everyone called me 'Emmi’”

Miss Ivor frowned and looked up from her desk. “Winifred Stoll and Mary Elizabeth Quigley, may I have the courtesy of your attention or must I reassign desks?”

I quickly opened my notebook. Emmi dropped her head and blushed, a slow red climbing her neck and staining her cheeks and the tips of her ears.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, some odd behavior Emmi learned at St. Sebastian's, I warmed to her from the start. I noticed her erect posture when she sat or walked and began to copy her, not in fun but because I admired her. She told me how the nuns at “St. Sebby’s” used to strap a yardstick to her back to keep her from slouching. “Slide your feet, girl, don’t stomp,” they were always reminding her. Once, my mother said Emmi was a Good Influence, a remark she soon regretted speaking aloud when it caused me to revert to my old swagger. I had my reputation to maintain after all and I didn't want to be contaminated by any influence, good or bad. But I had to admit I liked Emmi.

Posted by pamwagg at 10:51 AM | Comments (1)