A Chance Meeting in the Night
Joy and the Devil
The night was bristly, with a cold wind and the banquet of Fall scattering across the roads, red and brown leaves cartwheeling and packing under moving boots and wheels. The bus gave its shriek, ill from its age, and with mouse feet that only came from years of housework, Joy tendered down the steps, giving a polite au revoir to the driver and quick she crossed the sidewalk and up the church steps she climbed, her forest green duffle coat bending over her body from the chilling breeze, giving her rosy cheeks a sudden sting.
Saint Francis of Assisi’s Cathedral, with its stretched shape and tall steeple jabbing the belly of the sky, groaned its doors open and she entered with a gust, nature billowing in momentarily before the doors’ weight shut out the night. Joy, with a satisfied sigh, swiped the sash from her head and shook herself out; a leaf spiraled from her grey hair, a smear of dirt she left on the tile (alongside many others), and breathing in the aroma of her religion and a dip of her fingers in the holy font she moved to her favorite pew. Gingerly, with slight work and protest from her bones she sat, and then knelt, the church blissful in emptiness, though the Father did pay her a kind nod as he passed by, but said nothing, for he knew why souls came to church on such an hour: they came for silence, and solitude. And, for well over an hour, Joy and the cathedral were silent and alone, the darkness and the late hour only thickening the solace, every moment a droplet of water on a parched tongue.
When the man in grey slacks, grey coat and oaken tie, loosened but shined, sat down next to her, his nut-brown stockman hat tipped over his eyes, she turned with a start, for she hadn’t heard the groan of the old doors, nor the blow of the outside gale, nor the footsteps of his entering, and as he appeared and sat so casually she gave a slight jump, and then gave light laugh at herself, smiling at the gentleman in apology.
“I’m quite sorry,” she said, “I didn’t notice you come in! Gave me a start.”
The man smiled, a smile that had clearly been performed a lot, for the lines on his face were rich, and deep. He was middle-aged, no doubt, slender but not thin, though a bit lanky in his arms and shoulders, and between his legs his hands rested over the top of his cane, folded dutifully, worn and browned. He tipped his hat up, showing large, oval eyes, heavy and milky, his right seeming as though glaucoma was beginning to move in. But, still they seemed sharp, and probing.
“A cold night, isn’t it?” he said with a grin, “Blustery and bleak. Just how the Devil likes it!”
Joy smiled, “Well, I suppose even the Devil needs a night for himself. A fine All Hallow’s Eve; I’m sure him and all his demons will be enjoying themselves shortly.”
“You speak so warmly of him!” the man started, a bit of surprise in his voice, and stated as such. “I’m surprised that a good, shined, church-going woman like you would permit the Devil his rights.” He said all of this in good humor, and Joy, being the lenient, imperturbable sort, gave light laugh, sure to keep her voice low and quiet, and rose and sat back into the pew, sensing the man was a talker and that there would be no more prayer tonight until he departed.
But the man then sat quiet for a time, simply gazing forward, looking upon the pulpit, the altar, with deep contentment, and perhaps a hint of longing. Joy sat with him, patiently, contently; if age had taught her anything, it was how to sit still and not engage in small talk when it wasn’t needed. The wind gave howl outside, growing with the night, and somberly, the man gave sigh, breaking the silence between them.
“He loved him, you know.”
Joy, with the instincts of a loyal hound, nodded. “That he did. The Devil loved God, with all of himself. With every bit of his body, the Devil loved him.”
“Are you a believer in fate, my good lady?”
“Difficult to answer,” Joy said with a sigh, “For God gave us free will. Seems somewhat silly to make such a thing if he had a grand plan for each of us, don’t you think?”
The gentleman liked this answer, dipping his head and grinning into his hands, and then to the ceiling he looked up, his eyes scanning over the heavens and all its angels, touting trumpets and unfurling their wings within the yellows of painted light that shone like solid pillars, the colonnades seeming as though illusions and that the roof above them was truly held up by the golden rays. The man turned to her, finally seeming as though he was ready to start the conversation he came for.
“Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Mark’s. Saint Joseph’s. The Cathedral of Christ the King.” He paused after this listing, thinking, his lip bit slightly. “I’ve sat in thousands of pews, all set under the name of some prodigious man. Yet, every time I walk into a church, in the late night, when the clouds roll and the wind, howls bright, every time without fail there you women are. Now, if I went to church to church, all under the name of a woman, and was fed the Body of a female Christ by the hand of a priestess, every day, and knelt and prayed before the form of a woman every night, for all my life, again and again and again, I think – I think, I would absolutely be driven mad.”
Again, with utter grace Joy smiled, a natural slip, and a testament to her infallibility.
“You would.” she said tenderly.
“Oh?” the man quipped.
“You would.” she said again, “Because you are a man. Everything drives you mad. Rejection. Pride. Wealth. Poverty. Being told that women have been beneath you for thousands of years. Being on top drives you mad. Being on the bottom does. Being average. Being in the middle. There’s no pleasing you.”
A silence fell between them.
“… I think you’re having a laugh at me.” the man said, grinning once again.
She gave a chuckle. “You, are a smart one.” Joy said, leaning towards him, arching her brows as a smirk oozed from her and she tapped her finger at him. Then, pleased-as-punch, back into the pew she settled, her gaze turning to the front of the church, at peace and in serenity. “But, course it makes me upset. When I was a girl, I wanted to be a priest. God’s love shined brighter than any star for me. But, I was told I couldn’t. Said they’d make a nun of me, and I thought, ‘Well, damns to that!’—Ha! Put up a big fight about it too, but, they called it a fuss. My mother called it my time-of-the-month. Thought about going Presbyterian, but, truth is I was a Roman Catholic. That was my heart. So here I stay.”
The man watched her, and listened to her speech intimately, his brow tented, his head tilted, eyes listless, like an old eagle gazing into a sea below.
“You have a staunch heart.” he said.
“And your’s is sad.”
“Not black?” he responded. “I see there’s no fooling you.”
“Oh, how could any heart be black. Fathers and mothers we all have, as do we hopes and dreams, fears and struggles, pains and joys. If anything we are all white hearts, mashed full of every color that is, striving to strip ourselves into blackness so to be rid of all this complication and uncertainty. Living is a mess.”
“A mystery. Though, perhaps you could shine a light on that.”
“I’m afraid I cannot.”
“Well, can’t blame an old woman for trying.”
“Perhaps if you had been designed without curiosity, life wouldn’t be so hard.”
“Oh, it’s not so hard.” Joy said truthfully, “It’s more just strange than anything. Strange and wondrous and contradictory and changing. Always changing. But, some things stay the same. Like stories like these. You comin’ in here, having a talk with me, on a blustery Halloween night. In a church of all things. Pretty darn classic.”
“… I do believe the wind has stopped.” the man said. He looked at Joy with a sort of respectful sorrow.
Joy turned to him, her eyes for the first time giving way, and there, they misted. The lump that she had been restraining, crept into her throat. But staunch her heart was. Staunch and brave. And her hands she clutched in her lap, and she attempted to swallow the lump, but it remained firm. Her chest, restricted. She licked her lips, and asked.
“Is it going to be painful?”
“Very. And I am sorry for it.”
She took a breath, it holding a shiver. She turned her head to the stained-glass window beside her, the Virgin Mary holding her babe gently, as though the Light of the World, the Lamb of God, the Lord and Savior was but a delicate fawn, in need of a mother’s love. Joy, at last, swallowed the lump. She turned again to the man, who had taken off his hat, his once smiling face holding deep sadness, his eyes welled, and he took her hands, gently, and held them up and kissed her fingers, and gave a small sob. A soft trickle barely there, but there it was. He composed himself, and in a moment, though strained as it was, he gave his smile to her.
The door of the church opened, the sound came through loud and clear. Heavy boots could be heard, and that of a shuffling, a sort of agitated movement that seemed unsettled, prickling neck hairs. Joy did not turn to look.
“A man.” she stated, sensing the poetry now of all that had transpired between them.
“Yes, a broken one. He is angry. Unable to face himself. At a loss with the world and its many complications. It has nothing to do with you. It has nothing to do with anyone or anything, really. He is just sad, in love with something he cannot know, does not understand, a loss that he is grieving over, a wound, never healed. And so, he will act upon this sadness tonight. You are just here. The church doors were just open. That is all there is to it.”
Joy breathed heavily, but soon, an accepting calmness swept over her. Eyes, wet and wide, she asked one final question, whispered it.
The man, solemn, stood, and to his head his hat he placed. He looked at her, woefully, his eyes speaking cruelties and pains, and sorrows that could not be put to rest, could not be forgotten, could not be endured. When he spoke, it was with certainty, but a heavy sadness lay over it; a shroud of misery, he could not lift.
“Because I am broken. Unable to face myself. At a loss with the world and its many complications. I am in love, with something I cannot know, do not understand, a loss that I am grieving over…a wound, that will never heal.’
“But, I have asked the Reaper to be kind to you in your passing. And, for this, I shall not bother your children, nor your children’s children, for this is a dark evil I am permitting tonight. I would ask forgiveness, but penance is for people, and I am not a person. I am nothing. Not black nor white. Not life nor death. But, I would ask, perhaps hope, that you not think too harshly of me. That when the Gates greet you, you enter with the love in your heart you have carried so nobly all your life. I know, that this is a selfish desire.’
“But, goodbye, for now and forever, my dear Joy.”
And the Devil departed as he came, like a whisper, like a dream. And Joy, slowly rose from her seat. The wind, howled. And it sounded bright.