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The Dead of Winter

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Mary, Queen of Heaven, star on life's dark sea,

All our hearts are given, Virgin pure, to thee.

Life and land and nation at thy feet today

All in consecration joyfully we lay.

Quiet steps on the carpet of diamonds. First we drape the paper on snow. Smooth the paper out. Then we draw the blanket from the shopping bag. Blanket's worn with holes, enough to see the print beneath. We stretch out as far as we can. The bottom of a stairwell, metal steps painted black and rusting. Concrete under the paper under the blanket. No snow anywhere anymore. We've been out so long it's turned to diamonds. Diamonds falling from their velvet case.

We close our eyes but the lids won't stay in place. Diamonds sparkle underneath our fingers. Flex. Unflex. Flex again. So they won't bunch up in knots. We saw a woman one night in the doorway by an all-night teller machine with her hands so tightly fisted there was no blood left to give them color. Bones in a desert garden.

We breathe and it's warm. Weird to see something so deep inside us shape itself before our eyes. We stand up, stamp our feet. Shoes loose at the seams. Such bad stitching these days, all by machine, none by hand. We remember Sundays after church. Uncle Larsen sat in the cellar with shoes on plastic posts as he tugged the thread through every eyelet in a sole held tightly in his hand. He clenched his teeth and breathed heavy through his nose and wouldn't stop even if he pricked his finger. Each sole had to be held in place before he'd stop to rub the blood back to the tips.

We pack up our blanket and papers, walk up the stairs. Quiet on the carpet of diamonds. Ice scratches windows in storefronts. If our feet press down too heavy we'll crush the diamonds to dust. Sky thick, black and clear. A mug of coffee in our fists at the shelter this morning. An old man in a beard and hooded sweatshirt by the coffeepot touched the spigot to allow a stream of black heat in our cup. Thirty of us in the shelter door. Twenty more outside, ankle-deep in diamonds, denting the door with their fists.

Shelters close early when diamonds stack so deep. We sat in church, touched the Stations of the Cross until the priest asked us to leave. Sometimes they're open all night, and Mary seems to wave at us when streetlamps strike the glass a certain way. Pull whatever doors we find. Alleys heaped with ashcans, chained to hooks in the wall. Glass doors scratched with ice designs. Fingers in our gloves worn thin. Slight burn of frozen metal on the skin.

T-shirt. Sweatshirt. Flannel button-down over both. Winter coat with elbows ripped. Jeans and cotton underwear. Three pairs of socks. Shoes loose at the sole. Baseball cap. Brown scarf. Gloves worn at the fingers. Quiet inventory on the carpet of diamonds. We regret our sins. We step inside a doorway, kneel down, cross ourselves. Rummage through elastic band of socks for cigarette butt. Strike a dry match from our pocket on the brick. Once. Twice. It sputters to light and we shiver the cigarette in the cup of our hand. The match burns so long we only notice when the glove ignites and the chill leaves our hand for a blister. We pat it on the diamonds and they smolder.

The wind hollers, a hymn in church rafters. Walk backwards for awhile, slow cautious steps. The sharp straight razor of Uncle Larsen's barber, grooming us for choir. His doughy hands slapping us with tonic. We stood in the doorway of the teller machine, slapping the woman's cheeks. Her head lolled in our hands, a sleeping child.

Queen of God's creation, Spouse of God's fair love,

Peerless is thy station with thy Son above.

In thy pure maternal hands our own we press;

Lead us to eternal heaven's happiness.

Wind lifts diamonds in the air. We lift our feet. One. Two. One. Two. Bang our hands together. We sang our hymn and the parishioners applauded. The elderly men of the parish held small baskets on the ends of poles and reached into the pews for offerings. Clatter of coins. Rustle of dollar bills like pant-legs whiffing down an empty hall. For Mary, Mother of Jesus, we stood in corridors of nursing homes and raised our voices. Old women in wheelchairs. Old men limbless on canes. Ammonia so thick it left an ache behind our eyes. Like a shelter urinal. Uncle Larsen sewed our robes with crosses on the collars. Ammonia so thick we raced to the men's room when we finished and fell to the floor in nausea.

Three more turns to an abandoned building. Boards so loose against the windows it only takes a tug to enter. Hunched over, slower steps. Feet a whisper on the diamond carpet. We learned the quiet footstep on the carpet at church. Learned to regulate our breath. Learned the craft of mending soles from Uncle Larsen. Learned to look at laces of our polished shoes and see the knot as symbolic of our bond with Mary. Uncle Larsen with the heavy cloth and canister of Kiwi, scrubbing Mary's jet-black hair. Look down at our shoes to see a row of crucifixes tightened. Turn our eyes to heaven and see crucifixes where roof beams overlap. Close our eyes and never see the dark. Always Mary's hair, Mary over us, Mary deep in love with us as long as we walk in the footsteps of her Son, soft and peaceful. Even over burning sand, even over glass, even over surfaces invincible as diamonds.

Tug the boards. They fall and splinter on the walk. We try to grasp the window frame but our hands are stiff. We hop up and hook our arms inside, then hoist ourselves. Spider webs stretch frozen into glass. Boards crumble at our step. Quieter. Softer. Barefoot Jesus on desert sands, stepping over scorpions without a sting. Place the papers in a corner. Drape the blanket over them. Kneel down, close our eyes, open them again with a word of prayer.

Outside a sky as dark and graceful as Mary. No communion but Mary in the coffee at the shelter, warm and invigorating. No death in the doorway of the all-night teller but Mary rescuing a dying lamb from drifts of pale evil. Jesus at the temple of the moneychangers, scattering their diamonds to the soil. Mary in the sky, scattering her diamonds to earth. Uncle Larsen, at bedside by morning, dumps our clothes on the floor to inspect the seam. Clothes imperfect, voice imperfect, outside the church each step we took too heavy and imperfect.

Wind roars through the house. Boards shudder. We buckled to the floor. Uncle Larsen at the open front door of our house. Uniforms carry our belongings to the walk. Zippers and buttons glitter in sunlight. Shoes popped at the seams. Uncle Larsen crying "please." We are poor. We are imperfect. We gather up our clothes in shopping bags and carry them away. The woman in the all-night teller doorway our burden as we carry her to the shelter on our back. Uncle Larsen wears all his clothes at once. Stuffs his pockets with heavy shoes. Steel tips. A finger to our lips in silent prayer. Carries his imperfect body to the river while we sleep. Too deep to bring him back.

We lay still. Body imperfect. Fingers as heavy as stones. So heavy we can't form the cross. No more wind. Breath thin as spirits. Diamonds on the floor, our blanket. Quiet now. Mary's weeping, moaning through the house, covering our eyes with jet-black hair, sweeping all sensation from our skin.

Well we know the kindness, shining in thy eyes,

From our sinful blindness thou wilt help us rise.

Earth can claim no other, Virgin, like to thee;

Ever blessed Mother, hear thy children's plea!

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