Sanctuary

When Heidi creeps out of their rental cottage, Mark is asleep. Across the sand-covered street, the red, orange and blue beachfront cottages brace against the blustery wind tearing through their underpinnings. Between two cottages teetering on their two by four stilts, Heidi stops to watch the dark, turbulent waves flail the beach into submission.

William Butler Yeats's poem Second Coming comes to mind: The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. After writing her graduate school thesis on his poetry, she'd been inspired to become a poet. But Mark found her ambition foolish and expensive and she'd given it up to be his wife.

 Such purpose in his thoughtful long walks through the countryside and then writing verse in the evening by an inn's woodstove while his soggy shoes dried by the crackling open fire. Why can't I live like that?

She hears something behind her and spins around. But it's only the wind knocking over another trash can. Around the corner the wind dies down and she quickens her step down other empty streets until she finds what she was looking for.

Through a clearing in the clouds, rays of light shine down on the freshly painted white clapboard church where, on last year’s winter holiday, there had only been a sandy field of weeds and brambling bush.

At the driveway entrance a wooden sign is nailed to a post. It gives the hours of Sunday service, but this isn't a Sunday, and the parking lot is empty. The church door locked.

Disappointed, she sits down on the porch step and watches a family of orphaned kittens dig through the trash cans for food.

Before she met Mark, she'd freely roamed through Europe and had stood wide-eyed in front of the steeples of Chartres and the gothic domes of Notre Dame. In her mind, she can still envision the dusky light within their chambers, the lofty stained-glass windows streaming rainbows down upon her. Candles illluminating the chipped statues of Mary Magdalene whose beatific smile shone down on Heidi when she lit a candle in remembrance of those who had died while she lived on. She had hoped to find Mary in this new church.

A car braking on the dirt path brings her to her feet.

A lanky, white-haired elderly black man looks at her suspicously. When she’d left the cottage, she hadn’t thought of what she was wearing. The torn black jeans, dark glasses and the hoodie over her head might give the wrong impression.

She smiles and waves. “Hi, I was hoping the church was open.” She keeps smiling until he finally approaches her. “The last time I was here this was just an empty lot.”  

The man must have decided this young woman wasn't a threat to him or his church and, introduced himself as Martin, the new church's pastor. He turned a key in the lock and said, “Please come in. It's much warmer inside.”

She stood in the portico and breathed in the hushed silence. If she’d been alone, she’d have walked up the center aisle and sat near the altar, not to pray but just to feel sacred, inviolable. But Pastor Martin obviously proud of his church wanted to show her around.

The modern kitchen was shiny white with new appliances and a rustic farm table in the middle with a vase of yellow daisies. From its window, she could see the rocking chair on the back porch of the rental cottage.

Last night she had sat there, under the shadow of the church, and traced the swelling bruise on her face where Mark had slapped her against the wall. In time it would change from purple to yellow and then disappear leaving her visibly unmarked. Until then, she had hoodies and sunglasses to hide behind.

"That's where my husband and I are staying," she said, pointing to the cottage.

"Does your husband strike you often?" he asked.

She was taken aback by his candor, but didn't deny it. "How did you know that?"

"I was here last night. There's a lot of wild cats roaming the streets. I often hear them screaming. If I had known it was a human voice I'd heard, I would have called the police."

Heide pulled the hoodie down over her face.

"Don't hide it," he said gently. "He's the one that should be embarrassed. Show  everyone what he has done. Shame him."

Heidi starts to leave.

"Wait, please don't go. You haven't seen the rest of our church."

He walks her through the pre-school classroom. There were tiny yellow chairs arranged around low tables that were covered in puzzles and games.

“Do you have children?” he asks. She shakes her head. “My husband doesn’t want children.”

“I see. Well, there’s still time for you, isn't there?” His smile reminds her of Mary Magdalena and she smiles too.

Back in the church, he explains that the organ had been donated by a parishioner.

"My mother played the organ in our church when I was growing up," she says. "I had hoped to light a candle for her in front of Mary Magdalena.”

Pastor Martin said he was sorry, but this was a non-denominational church without religious icons. He told her it was the largest church in Outer Banks and pointed behind the altar saying they were planning to install a video screen so to reach out to the larger community.

“Build it and they will come,” she said. If Mark had been there he would have snickered at her using such a stupid cliché, but the Pastor seemed to find it appropriate as he nodded in agreement.

“You're right about that. We had our first service two Sundays ago and seventy-six parishioners filled the pews." He was expecting a larger turnout this Sunday and invited her to come back.

Looking up at the organ on the balcony she felt suddenly weary. When she too young to sit in a church pew by herself, she would curl up by the organ and watch her mother's feet press down on the pedals, filling the church with celestial angels.

She became aware of Pastor Martin telling her it had taken a year to rebuild the razed church that had been beaten down by the many storms on Hatteras Island.

“A phoenix rising,” she said, relieved again that Mark wasn’t there to hear her use yet another cliché. He was a Yale professor of English literature and often laughed at her feebleminded expressions. 'Can you believe she has a masters degree in creative writing and still talks like an idiot,' he'd say to his friends.

“Yes, it is,” the pastor says, flipping on the electricity. The powerful high-beamed lights sting her eyes even behind the sunglasses. She asks for a glass of water.

Standing by the rear window, she sips from the glass, half listening to Pastor Martin. Her eyes are following the sandy breach, dead bushes, weeds, wilted grasses and over a half-collapsed fence separating the cottage from the church. Unaware of her gaze, Mark is stirring a bowl. He promised to make breakfast. A peace offering, he'd said, when he turned to her this morning and kissed her bruised face.

She stiffens and gulps down the water.

She thanks Pastor Martin for showing her his church and hurries out the backdoor. She feels his eyes on her as she lifts herself over the broken fence, but when she turns to wave good-bye his head is bowed and his hands clasped in prayer.

From the cottage backyard she sees Mark's back at the stove flipping pancakes. The smell of sizzling bacon and the feeling of what once was, makes her tumble to her knees. She hugs herself until the last silent tear disappears into the sand leaving no trace of her self-pity.

Under the window, she crouches so Mark won't see her and stealthily steps away from the pancakes, the sizzling bacon, the heated Vermont maple syrup, and the fresh-squeezed orange.

In the car boot is her suitcase. She'd packed it after Mark had fallen asleep on the couch. Her purse is on the seat. The keys in the ignition.

Mark calls to her from the front porch. He's wearing an apron, a spatula in his hand. It's almost laughable how young and innocent he looks. "What are you doing out here? I thought you were one of those damn cats creeping around the house," he says. "Come inside. Breakfast is ready."

She pushes the hood off her face and raises her head high.

"Heidi? Do I have to come out there and bring you inside"

He starts to walk toward her. She jumps into the car, throws the gear into reverse, and pulls out of the driveway. In the rearview mirror, she sees him running after her.

She does not stop. Not this time. She makes a sharp turn at the corner and rolls out of view while on the radio Whitney Houston belts out I Didn't Know My Own Strength.