23 February 2008

Elizabeth Spires

[from Elizabeth Spires's "Falling Away" in Annonciade, 1989]

The early morning snowfall has put all of us in a dreamy, slow-motion mood, everyone, that is, except for our teacher, a study in black and white, dressed in a heavy black habit and black veil, white wimple, collar, and bib. A crucifix hangs from a black rope belt knotted around her waist; she has told us that if she holds it and sincerely repents her sins at the moment of death, her soul will fly straight to heaven.

Sister M——— points outside with her long wooden pointer, the same pointer that often comes down with a crack! on the desks of unsuspecting daydreamers, bringing them back to this world with a start. Outside, each snowflake is lost in the indistinguishable downward spiral of the heavy snowfall. The voice that is not a voice comes back, her voice, imagined, reconstructed from memory: How many souls in hell? More than all the snowflakes that are falling today, yesterday, tomorrow. I try to imagine a number that large, an infinite number, and cannot. Then I try to follow the path of one individual snowflake in its slow, yet inevitable, drifting descent, but lose it in the swirling pattern of white against white.

The lesson continues: How long will those lost souls pay for their sins? For all eternity. Eternity. How can we, at eleven years old, she must be thinking, possibly be able to conceive of just how long eternity is? Imagine the largest mountain in the world, made of solid rock. Once every hundred years, a bird flies past, the tip of its wing brushing lightly against the mountaintop. Eternity is as long as it would take for the bird's wing to wear the mountain down to nothing.

Ever after, I connect hell and eternity not with fire and flames, but with something cold and unchanging, a snowy tundra overshadowed by a huge granite mountain that casts a pall over the landscape. Like the North or South Pole in midsummer, the sun would circle overhead in a crazy loop, day passing into day without intervening night, each object nakedly illuminated, etched sharply in light and shadow, unable to retreat into night's invisibility. If I were unlucky, I'd be there one day, for forever, dressed in my white communion dress, white anklets, and black patent leather shoes.

Annonciade (Poets, Penguin)

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