By Stephanie Grella
Early darkness spilled into the streets as the wind whipped our faces like a premature lashing of what was to come.
“This way,” Ty said, gesturing us up the side steps of the church.
Liv nudged me with her elbow.
“You sure about this?” She asked, her eyes small and apprehensive.
I shrugged. “Are we ever sure about anything we do?”
A golden glow of light sifted through the church, while the familiar scent of bible and oak blanketed the air like perfume.
“There,” Ty said, nodding in the direction of the veiled statue we all knew as St. Clare. She was a follower of St. Francis. A saint who fled a life of wealth in search of humility. We knew her name, but her face was a mystery to us all.
Since I was a young girl, the statue had been covered with a white baptismal sheet, the outline of her outstretched arms resembling the taunting shape of a ghost. And every Sunday, while the priest spoke his homily, I’d watch her silhouette with eyes hungry for truth. This was the night, the three of us decided. The night that would satisfy our cravings.
Ty neared the statue as Liv and I followed closely behind.
“She’s even creepier at night,” Liv whispered.
“Fuck, let’s be honest,” Ty said, “this thing is creepy as hell no matter what time of day.”
Nearly forty years ago, the priest at the time, Father Peter, said he saw the statue move. He was alone in the church, and with no witnesses to corroborate his story, the parish of ardent believers took his word as fact. The neighborhood denounced the marble monument, claiming it was cursed by an unsightly malevolence and should never be seen again. So here it remained, veiled in shame at the shoulder of a gilded altar. A reminder of evil’s ubiquity.
“Will you do the honors?” Ty turned to me with an eager smile.
“Why me?” I asked.
“It was your idea, wasn’t it?” Ty said.
“Hey, you want to see what’s under there just as much as I do. Don’t act like—
“Well, we’re here now,” Ty interjected. “Stop being a pussy and just do it already.”
I glanced at Liv. She was biting the inside of her cheek, avoiding my eye.
“Fine,” I said.
I reached for the sheet, and with one tug, St. Clare appeared before us.
“Woah,” Ty muttered. “She’s so…big.”
Her beauty stunned us into a deep silence. In the shadowy church, she was a force of light. I craned my neck to scan her from top to bottom. Her smooth, ivory body hovered over our adolescence like a looming tower. The shallow carvings that were her eyes shone with a relief as real and human as any I’d ever seen. With her arms raised in perpetual prayer, she was no longer a faceless ghost, nor a symbol of sin. She was a woman with a story. A follower reborn to lead. She was free. And I couldn’t help but feel like I was the maker of that freedom.
“Check out her eyes. It’s like…like they follow you as you move,” Ty whispered. “Maybe that’s what that quack was talking about.”
“You mean the priest?” Liv asked, clearly offended by Ty’s blatant disrespect of a clergyman.
“You see?” Ty pointed to her face. “Her eyes almost look real.”
Liv and I watched St. Clare quietly. There was no movement.
“Now you’re just seeing things,” Liv said. “Plus, the story goes, Father Peter saw one of her arms move, not her eyes.”
“And you believe what that old man said?” Ty let out a high-pitched laugh that echoed in the emptiness. “I bet you still think the cracker they give us is Jesus’ body and shit.”
“If it’s such a joke to you, how can you think her eyes are really moving?” Liv asked.
“He doesn’t,” I said. “He’s just screwing with us. How can anyone think a statue can move? It’s literally a he-said-she-said argument. But because she’s an inanimate object, people take the priest’s word for it. Because not only is he a man, he’s also the closest thing to God people have to believe in.”
Before Ty could launch his rebuttal, a creaking noise came from behind the altar.
“What was that?” I asked, fear catching in my throat.
“Let’s go,” Liv said, moving across the aisle toward the side door. Ty followed.
“Wait,” I called out, pointing to the statue. “What about her?”
“Throw the sheet over it and come on,” Ty shouted back without stopping.
I picked up the sheet, stretching it out as best I could, and threw it high above my head. It crookedly settled on top of the statue when a flame set the white sheet ablaze. I jumped back as a thick trail of red and orange traveled up her body. In a panic, I looked around to find the fire’s source. Behind the statue sat a neat row of candles next to a donation box.
“Jude, let’s—holy fuck!” Ty shouted from the side door. “What did you do?”
My eyes began to water. From the smoke. From my sin. When the flames reached the top of her head, I turned and ran out the door.
Outside, I heard Ty tell Liv what he saw, and she burst into tears. I started to run, and soon, I heard my accomplices’ steps quicken behind me like beating hearts. It was only when I reached the main road that I looked back. The stained glass windows burned bright against the black sky. What was once a house of virtue was now a sea of sin. The image of St. Clare pierced my mind like a dagger. Her freedom, brief and overdue, was gone.
An alarm rang out into the streets, as shrill and cold as any church bell. Two calls with the same, guilty answer.