143. Ash Wednesday

Riah plucked
A chicken.
She had caught it,
Twirled it, snapped its
Neck, a chore that
James refused:
Silly, but she
Yielded, fearing tears.
She lugged the limp
Carcass to the house.

At the table
She gave to Louise
A simple task, picking
Out the wriggling
Weevils from the flour.
Bored, Louise was asking: “Big
Crowd on Sunday? Church?”
“Some.” Louise
Nodded wisely.
“Some our regulars don’t come
No more. Don’t
Have the clothes. Lord!
It’s so obvious to stay
Away.”
With her thumbnail
Louise halved a weevil. “Which
Hymns this week?”
Plucking with quick
Motions of her wrist, Riah:
“Hmm. ‘Holy Holy,’ and ‘Faith
Of Our Fathers.'”
“Hmm.” Louise flicked out
Weevils, watched them
Land. “Your dad
Used to go?”
Riah shrugged.
“Did when Mama
Told him. Liked to talk
Religion though, explaining
Things. Your pa go?”
“Nope. Mama.”
Louise held
A palm of black-flecked flour:
“Your ma ever
Take you to her church,
Mass, I mean,
Before you moved here?”
She heard no
Reply. She looked:
Riah’s mouth came
Open. Then it
Closed. She sat,
Hen in hand.

Louise seized
The chance and told a lie:
“I had an aunt.
She was Roman Catholic.
Yes, she was.” Riah,
No reply.
“My aunt, she had
Brown hair, thick like yours.”
Embroidering her tale: “Real
Rich. She wore a necklace,
Fourteen karat gold,
Virgin Mary in this
Fetching dress, and some funny
Letters–I forget–”
Gazed at Riah, hopeful.
Riah: “BVM.”
“That’s it. Guess you seen.”
No comment.

Louise shrugged, then
Switched to a new subject.
“Lord, the sermon
Sunday was so dull! I
Liked to just walk out.
Does your preacher
Hate the radio? Ours–”
“At our old home,
Before we moved here,
Each year Mama
Took me to Ash
Wednesday. They put
Ashes on.
Last time that we
Went, it was at
Night.”
Louise looked up: What?
“By the wall, we
Sat right by a door–led
To a tiny
Cloakroom–with
A door that led outside.”
Louise forced
Herself to keep on working,
Plucking at
The flour, keeping watch.
“The last time was
Night, and very late–Mass
Seemed so long,
Then the long lines
Waiting for their turn,
And I wasn’t
Big. And Mama said,
Whispered I could
Go play in the yard.”

Louise waited.
Then asked: “So’d you go?”
Riah sat with
Hands on chicken neck.
“I was scared to. But
I wanted out.
So I waited
Till the priest was loud.
Got up–hit
The kneeler, almost tripped.
Then I made it,
Pushed through the first door.
But it closed
Behind me. And it
Locked. It
Clicked.
Pitch black.” And here
Riah stopped, eyes
Vacant, far.
Frowning, Louise
Slowed. She picked
At the flour,
Snapped up five or
Six bugs, threw them down.
Glanced at Riah.
Louise said:
“Outside door won’t
Open.”
“Yes.” Voice
Barely speaking,
Riah breathed: her
Eyes returned.
“Never should have
Left. Was wrong to do.”
“Well,
How long were you
In there?”
“I don’t know.
Till they finished. Hour.
All the time I
Should have been in church.”
Picking out two
Weevils, Louise
Sighed.

“Strange part was, I’d
Wanted that Ash Wednesday…
Once I got there,
Seemed a little
Long–but I liked–
They’d draw that Cross
On you and they
Say–it means,
You’re dust, and to
Dust you shall return.
Say over and
Over, like a song.
I loved watching
Folks walk from
The altar. They all
Had that mark.
Babies with black
Cross. I would be
Thinking: not just
Me. Them too. Not
Only me.
This one chant–
Asked Ma what it
Meant–I asked,
Since she looked so
Peaceful when they
Sang….It meant,
‘Leave the past in
Ashes.'”
Riah’s face looked
Stripped of where she was,
With a plain
Desire, washed stone-smooth:
“‘Leave the past in
Ashes.'” Fingers
Clenched: “That’d be
Something else!”

Louise sank in
Thought. The past?
Left in ashes?
Leave it.
Leave it? The thought
Staggered her. She
Waved her hand:
“I might like that,”
Louise said, “a lot.
Or–” swift frown,
Eyebrows lowered:
“If you leave it–
Might be nothing
Left.”
She shook her head.
Riah: “Should have
Stayed. I should.”
“Oh, hogwash!
What right did they
Have to stick you there?
Hail the mighty
Roman Catholic church, with
Busted doors!”

Riah, pensive,
Pulled another feather.
Louise leaned in:
“Know what I’d done,
Riah?” Riah
Shook her head, so
Louise waxed expansive:
“I’d have stomped and
Kicked in there! Sure would!”
Louise, boisterous: “Throw some
Hissy fit!
The nerve that they
Had to lock you up!
Know what I’d have
Done?–” Riah,
Flushed. “–I’d have
Sued ’em!
Sue ’em right down
To their last gold
Idol!
You’ve heard, Riah,
Surely,” she confided, her
Tone, a conspirator’s:
“The Pope has more
Dough than Henry Ford?
Sure!
Buys them gowns and
Fancy hats he wears!”

Riah laughed.
She turned to her
Chicken. Louise
Called, “Look–with
All this Catholic
Talk, you’ve egged me on!”
She’d drawn on her
Face a flour
Cross. Riah
Clicked her tongue, their
Signal: back to
Work.

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