The Secret Life of Statues

By Brian Howlett

I may be only 28-inches tall, but I am fearsome. I can feel the power that emanates from me high into the domed ceiling above, and I would challenge you to ignore it. My arms and legs and beautiful hips are made of the fine Italian ceramic known as majolica. “Majolica.” “Majolica.” The sound of the word makes me wish that I could speak the language, but I am defined by those who kneel before me. My wood base is rumored to have come from the Holy Land, but I believe that to be a lie, because the large crucifix at the altar is said to contain a sliver of the actual cross of Jesus, and I know that simply can’t be true.

I am painted in aqua and rose, in once-vivid hues that made me proud, but which are now faded from the sunlight and human light pouring onto my body throughout the day. My robe, and it’s such a beautiful robe, is chipped at the bottom. It happened during Easter season of 2011, when Father Marrincin invited parishioners to take me home for a personal vigil. To make it fair, he created a draw to determine which families would have the honor. I loved the idea at the time. The flock held me in even more awe when I stood before them in their bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms. They cleared their furniture, putting me on stage. I became the center of their lives, like a movie star.

The Boyd family is among our congregation’s poorest, and know enough to attend the low mass on Sundays, and to always sit at the back of the church. Their name was drawn, and I was delivered to their home for one weeknight. As their father carried me into the bedroom, he knocked me against the stern doorframe. I suspect he was drunk, even though he and I didn’t talk in church, so I didn’t have occasion to learn his particular habits and weaknesses. The damage I sustained was minimal, but Father Marrincin ended the experiment then and there. Mrs. Boyd was mortified, and a few weeks later she stopped coming to mass entirely. I assume she found another church, but that’s no business of mine.

Our janitor tried patching the chip, but he is no old-world craftsman. He is cursed with awkward, young American blood. So now I stand before you, forced to endure a large dab of mismatched aqua paint trying to cover up the injury, but that fools no one. I do not hold this against the janitor, but I do find it odd that he is one of the few who never prays to me. Maybe because his job is with the church, he believes he already has his passage to heaven booked. Or maybe he simply doesn’t believe. After all, as I have learned through the years, not all of my parishioners believe in God, and unlike the priest, I am not here to convert. Nor am I here to judge.

I am also at peace with the way my bare left foot has become shiny from years of congress with human oils. Everyone who passes me on the way to the pews is compelled to touch me in the same spot. My sandal, which was once so beautifully sculpted, is completely worn away. The veins in my foot and knuckles of my toes are smoothed away to nothing.

Years ago the touch of a human hand would electrify me. But today there is no spark, and I have come to resent the touch, but am still awakened by it. So when they kneel at my feet to pray, I respect that they are sharing their most intimate fears and hopes, so I can’t help myself. I listen.

To Gina, who is 78 years old and poor like myself. Her left knee is arthritic. Her husband Joe died when she was a 27-year-old beauty. She has worn black ever since, according to the faith, sealing her barren, beautiful figure in a tomb. I was there on her wedding day. And I was there at the funeral. Gina comes to morning mass early so that she can visit with me alone. She believes that saying a prayer is like playing the lottery. “You have to be in it to win it,” she says to herself. I like that. She changes the sequence of the Hail Mary, Our Father, and Act of Contrition along the rosary every day, as if she is entering numbers on a ticket. I know she also prays at home, and then again once the mass begins. But I like to believe things are more real when she is with me. Her plea for relief from the arthritis is predictable, and not worth my attention. But on occasion she turns to the hate she still feels for her husband. She had loved him when they married as children, but decades of mourning will turn even the strongest love around. I know that she has confessed this hate only to me. I find the prayer fascinating, and I refuse to answer it. If I release her from that hate, I will miss out on seeing how deeply it can grow within her, and better understand what planted the seed of resentment in the first place. Was it because she could no longer have sex? I hear much about this, the love for it, the hate, regrets, anxieties, and obsessions. In the old days women would often confess to feeling physical desires that they couldn’t pursue until marriage. That vow of chastity is more unusual these days, and Gina often criticizes the younger women of our parish, suspecting that many are willfully sinning.

I learned long ago that I do have the power to grant their prayers. I remember the Sunday that our bright young basketball player, Norman, prayed with all his heart to me to have a big game the following Friday night. He wasn’t asking me to help his father find a job again, or for the parish’s young cancer victim, Pauline, to be cured. He wanted to score points in a meaningless game. He talked to me in great detail about layups, three pointers, and a long, impossibly arcing shot from the half-court to close out a period. I loved his arrogance and selfishness. It was honest. He returned the following Sunday morning to thank me for helping him set a high-school city record by scoring fifty-three points. I was thrilled, and ever since I have taken tremendous pride in my proven divinity. Norm is now middle-aged, suffering all the menial pressures of providing for his family. He still touches my toe and kneels at my feet, but now asks that his daughter get good grades and that he can move to a day shift so that he can be there to help her with homework. I have no interest in this conversation.

Nor do those who are already dead arouse me. I find the weekday dawn masses, given up for the deceased, stifling. I know, for instance, that as Lindsay sets down before me, she is going to ask if her mother’s soul is still at peace in heaven. There is no surprise for me. There is no reason to listen. It is a prayer that has been told so often by others that the words are fossils. It is only when she strays momentarily in her thoughts to blame her mother for chasing away every man in her own youth that I stop to listen. But she is simply ascribing blame. She is not asking me to bring any change to her life. I wonder why she never mentions her father in her prayers. He is still alive and shares their home. I see him sit beside her in the pew, and it’s strange that she always keeps the thickest hymnal book between them.

I entertain thieves, adulterers, liars, even a murderer, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has spent time in a holy place. And knowing me a little now, you may think it is these more dramatic tales that catch my fancy. And sometimes they do. But truth be known, I’m not following any rulebook. And I am most definitely not struck by the pious. As far as I know, there is no reward for living a good life.

One year the church welcomed a sister congregation from Africa. Their prayers were modest: a new bed, schoolbooks, a soccer ball. Their asks were stained with thoughts of charity. But they misunderstood me. I am not concerned with the welfare of others, and I stopped listening to them after the first mass. Did they wonder why their prayers went unanswered? Or do they simply keep the faith?

I wish I could ignore Lawrence in this way. He visits me before mass and after, once the church has emptied. He is more distraught with every passing Sunday. He started a few months back by simply telling me about his frustrations with his supervisor at work. He feels he is far too talented for the job he’s doing, but she refuses to give him more opportunity, even though it is obvious how much better he is than everyone else. In Afghanistan he was a leader of many. He was born to give orders, not take them. And he works harder than any of them, but she never once acknowledges it. As our Sundays passed, his anger shifted to his co-workers. He couldn’t sleep thinking about them and how they were getting in his way of a promotion. Then today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, he surprised me, asking me to give him the strength to take his guns to the warehouse tomorrow. He has been shooting them in the ravine behind his house, staying sharp. I like surprises, as you know, but not this. I do my best to close myself to his prayer. Next Sunday, when he visits me, what will he be telling me?

Louise prays for her dog’s cancer to be cured. She actually has the nerve to bring him to church with her, and leave him tied up outside. I laugh, knowing this prayer I will never grant. People are seldom worth my talents, let alone a dog.

Paul loves his younger sister who is deaf. He prays that everyone who meets her will understand that she can’t hear what they are saying.

Frank prays to be able to eat an entire breakfast after mass, like he used to. He has had half his stomach taken away, yet he is determined to enjoy the bacon and fat that had it removed in the first place. I grant him the power to be stupid. I give him the confidence he will need to sit down at the diner across from the church and make the order.

Lally has prayed for years for her husband to be taken from her. He is a cheat. Just after Christmas he was killed in a car accident. He was the only one killed. The other two passengers were virtually untouched. So naturally, Lally thinks it was by my hand. I had nothing to do with it, but now I must endure her longer, enthusiastic visits and the extraordinary number of “Hallelujahs” and “Glory be to the Fathers” she offers to me.

Of course, I can never ignore the plea of a child. Emma is twelve and the most unpopular girl in her school. She is safe here in church, but I pity her weakness. This week she asked me to help her take care of Laurie Casey. Laurie is the prettiest girl in grade five. Emma wants to see her fall down in the schoolyard and tear open her knees on the hard asphalt and bleed from her pretty hair in front of all the boys. This isn’t about heaven and hell. It’s about getting ahead on this earth, and that is likely all they have. Envy is pure. Envy is to be rewarded.

Whatever the prayer, the common denominator is human weakness. My fellow statues are strong, like me. Consider the twelve-foot Jesus hanging on the wall behind the altar. He is nailed to a cross. How many humans have to endure such a thing? The life-size statue of Joseph in the corner of the church is carrying the baby Jesus in his strong arms. He crossed deserts on foot to find a place for me to give birth. There are saints lining our church walls, all who had the courage to sacrifice for their faith. I’m not saying these events happened. I wasn’t there. But these are the stories that we have been sculpted to tell.

Yesterday, as our priest was preparing for today’s service, he knelt down before me for the first time since he arrived to our congregation. He normally chooses to pray at the altar, even when the church is empty. But I could tell something was troubling him. It turns out there is a plan to sell the church. He talked to me about how wasteful the size of our church parking lot is today. The city has grown by two million people over the past three decades, and there is a need to build more living space. In fact, he actually said that the size of their building was almost “sinful.” He explained that the developers would build a new, smaller church on the same site, in addition to two condominium towers. The architects were proposing a beautiful circular design so that all the pews would be around the altar. They would import a fine new altar from Italy. There would be a modern conference center in the basement. The archbishop was going to be involved in the project, and a negotiating team from Rome was arriving next month. He was excited in sharing these details with me, yet I could sense his guilt. He hadn’t yet shared the news with anyone in the parish, and knows they will be upset by change. Yet he’s right; the church is less crowded these days, and a smaller structure will suffice. He stayed with me for over an hour, going back and forth over the different scenarios. I listened to every word. He is not praying to me; only asking for guidance. But I am not thinking of him or the parishioners. If they destroy this church, what becomes of me? Will they erect brilliant new statues that are freshly painted and full of more energy than I can muster? Will they sculpt a new Mary taller than my 28 inches? Will they be moved to sculpt a more beautiful Mary?

The parishioners will adjust. I know they visit other statues outside of church. There is a large bronze in the nearby shopping mall in memory of the founder of Wandorp’s Department Store, or Wando’s, as he is called. Norman, Lally, Frank, and the others may not kneel in front of him as they do me, but I suspect they can’t resist touching his shiny left toe, as the thousands of others do who pass him every day: Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, and Buddhists alike.

A new statue has been erected outside the hockey arena a few blocks from me. It is in honor of one of that sport’s legendary players, and I am sure that many of my parishioners will also be among those to pay their respects. They will ask for hockey wins, sure. But they will be unable to resist the temptation to ask for forgiveness, or for happiness, because humans need something bigger than them. They will say a brief, silent prayer to find a wife, or to gain a second chance at work. Or they will wonder about a new car, or if their daughter will one day win acceptance to dental school.

And the storefront tycoon and the extraordinary hockey player may find it within themselves to grant that prayer on occasion, as I do. Because I can’t tell you if there is a God or not, but I do know there are statues.

 

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Brian Howlett lives and works in Toronto. He only recently started writing short stories and has enjoyed early success, being featured in literary magazines including Limestone Magazine, Crack the Spine, Queen’s Quarterly and Serving House Journal. He was a finalist in the Writer’s Union of Canada 2015 Short Prose competition. You can tell him what you think of this story at bhowlett@agency59.ca, or follow him on Twitter @bdhow.


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