Relic – a story by Rina Palumbo

Relic

“Enzo, did you get the stuff?” Pietro whispered to his classmate as they sat at their desks. Enzo, eyes on the teacher, nodded once and then, never looking at his friend,  made a show of examining the cover of his textbook.

Father Marco rapped his ruler on his desk, and, immediately, silence filled the room. He stood, exploring the sea of faces before him, scanning for the slightest sign of insolence. His eyes rested on Pietro, and Enzo felt his friend stiffen.

“Pietro, is there something you need to share with the class?” Father Marco said as he made his way down the aisle.

“No, Father,” said his friend. Enzo felt the resignation fall on Pietro’s shoulders, weighing them down as he tried to sit even straighter, eyes lowered, his thin arms and roughened hands in front of him.

Slam. The ruler crashed down on Pietro’s desk, the impact blowing back strands of his unkempt hair and the wooden stick barely missing the smallest finger of his left hand.

“You are excused – the Directore  can listen to whatever you so urgently needed to say.”

Pietro rose from his desk and walked, with a slow, steady step, to the classroom door. He hesitated before turning the handle, then, seeming to change his mind,  pulled it open and stepped outside in one movement.

“The rest of you, take out your pencils; the math test begins now,” Father Marco said, walking to his desk and picking up a pile of papers perched on its corner. He methodically gave each child in the front of each row a stack of test papers, and each child took one and passed the rest behind them.

“You may begin,” said Father Marco as he sat down in the chair behind his desk, arms folded.

The day crawled forward. Enzo didn’t see Pietro again until the dismissal bell. Coming out of the Directore’s office, Pietro joined his friend in the short walk to the busses.

Pietro was silent as Enzo told him about the day. Father Marco had strapped Graziella and Donna for giggling; he and some boys had played football in the yard. Then Enzo stopped and asked him, “Are you sure we should do this?” 

Immediately, Pietro hushed him.

“Don’t talk about it -we don’t know who might be listening.”  With that, Pietro and Enzo walked onto the waiting school bus and,  taking their usual spots at the back, remained silent – Enzo staring out of the window and Pietro biting his fingernails. Enzo looked at his friend and wanted to say something, but the words all felt wrong. Pietro, more used to silence, turned his back and walked home. It was a long ride, and the boys were among the last to be dropped off.

Enzo headed toward his house, passing St. Timothy’s Church, the town cemetery on one side, and the rectory set back on the opposite side. Enzo couldn’t help but look up at the steeple, the bell silent now, and then watch the tiny birds that flitted in and out between the nests carefully constructed in the bell tower and the trees that encroached on the church property from behind. He stood for a few minutes and then walked home more slowly, thinking about how precarious was life for those small animals until the moment when they could fly away.

It was time. Enzo had watched the hands-on his bedside clock as they moved toward the appointed hour; the ticking had seemed to get louder as the night wore on. He got up slowly and silently. Having slept in his clothes, he walked to the back door, slipped into his shoes, grabbed his backpack, and ran out.

Pietro was waiting for him. The small rectangular window to the storage room under the stairway of the Church’s north entrance was narrow, but Pietro had determined that they would be able to slip inside. He pulled the casement out, pushed the screen in, and slid down.

“OK, come on in,” he whispered. Enzo copied his friend, letting the casement close behind him.

He landed on his feet, the impact of the drop vibrating along his spine and jolting his head forward. Unzipping his backpack, he took out two flashlights,  turned one on, and handed the other to Pietro.

“Let’s go,” Pietro said as he snapped on the flashlight, the beam changing his always pale face into a grey mask. The door opened quickly and led straight to a limited run of stairs covered with an almost threadbare carpet. Enzo followed his friend up the stairs, his flashlight held close to his body.

Pietro pushed open the door and directed his beam into the nave, where the rows of pews were lined up and waiting, holding copies of the New Testament in expectation.

For quite a few years, Pietro’s mother had been one of the women who volunteered to clean the Church. From his mother, Pietro had learned the reliquary containing a tiny bit of cloth from St. Timothy’s robe was easily accessible through a small latched door at the back of the altar. 

When the relic had been installed at St. Timothy’s, the small shop that sold Catholic paraphernalia had replicas of the reliquary proudly displayed in the window. Enzo’s mother, along with almost everyone else’s mothers, had brought one, and it stood, a golden star on top of a stem with St. Timothy’s picture attached to it. Most houses in the parish had it displayed, either in the living or dining room, alongside images of deceased relatives, candles, and flowers.    

The authentic holy relic, the only one with a piece of sacred cloth within the star, had been installed on the altar with a long ceremony led by the Archbishop. It had been a massive draw for supplicants at first, but, over time, the crowds eventually began to thin out again, swelling only with the holidays. And here it was as it always had been, in a small opening under the altar, partially visible through tinted glass.

Enzo knew that a small piece of St. Timothy’s robe was in the center of the star, but he had heard his grandmother on more than one occasion whispering that it had a drop of holy blood on it. When she uttered these words, she always kissed the gold St. Timothy’s medallion, which hung on a necklace Enzo had never seen her remove.

The Church they now walked into was a dark echo of the night outside, except for a small light in the vestibule and some votives still flickering in the memorial area. The twin beams of chemical light harshly lit and flooded the altar. Their footfalls were muffled by the heavy, if faded carpet, and the silence felt as oppressive as the darkness. St. Timothy himself seemed to complete the silence with his closed lips and blank eyes in a sizeable gilded portrait in the apse.

Pietro knelt down in the back of the altar and found the little hinged door just as his mother had told him. He pushed it forward and removed the relic, handing it over to Enzo, who was surprised at how heavy it felt. Pietro took out his mother’s replica from his backpack and placed it on the altar, the dark wine-colored spot against the faded velvet telling him exactly how it should be positioned. He stood up, and Enzo handed him the actual relic. Pietro, thinking a moment,  wrapped it up in his handkerchief before putting it in his backpack. Enzo felt lost and empty at that moment and wanted to say something, but, once again, his words failed.

So, wordlessly, they retraced their steps to the storage room, and Enzo, always the stronger one, gave his friend a boost up to the window. He handed up the screen and then pulled himself up and through. Flashlights off, Enzo put them in his pack and started walking home. He stopped for a moment when he heard his friend running through the woods, taking a shortcut home,  his fast, steady rhythm gradually swallowed up by the silence of the night.

Suddenly Enzo felt the weight of that deep night, like the shadows and silences within the Church threatening to pull him under. He was afraid in a way he had never been before and started running home. Out of breath, he snuck through the door and, as quietly as possible, hurried into the bathroom, exchanged his clothes for the pajamas he had hidden in the hamper,  and,  flushing the toilet for good measure,  went into his room and tried to sleep.

Pietro was absent from school the next day. Not an unusual occurrence, he often had to miss school to help out at the family’s small grocery store. Enzo did not see his friend until Sunday when he was an altar boy serving Mass with Father Marco. He watched Pietro as much as possible as he went through motions he, as an altar boy, had gone through on Sundays past. But, it was hard for Enzo not to stare at the small window framing the relic. He expected something to be different, the falseness to be realized, something to break, anything that would mark the difference between what had been and what was there. Even when he went up for Communion, his heartbeat thundering in his ears, nothing happened, a simple fact that disappointed him.

Afterward, outside the Church, the small group of attendees formed and reformed into smaller and bigger groups, going back and forth between adults and children. Father Marco, a fixed point,  stood to the side with a smile that, as always,  never seemed to reach his eyes. Enzo moved away to stand in his usual spot behind the Church, where he could watch the birds in the bell tower. Pietro joined him a short time after. They walked into the forest and sat down, their backs against an old maple tree.

“How is your sister, Pietro?” said Enzo taking his eyes off the flitting birds to look at the profile of his friend, a face he felt he no longer knew as well.

 “Better, I think. It’s hard to tell. She gets better then worse, then better again.”

“Maybe it takes time,”  he sighed. “I don’t know how it’s all supposed to work. In the stories they tell us, it seems like miracles happen right away, but maybe sometimes it takes time. I just don’t know.” Pietro said as he stood up.

Enzo stood as well. “Why don’t you come over for lunch – my mother and grandmother made lots of food, there will be people you know, my aunts, uncles, cousins. You could eat with us and then maybe play football.”

“Sure, let’s go,” he said,  running ahead of Enzo.

They raced all the way to Enzo’s house. Entering the front door, Enzo started leading his friend toward his room. Pietro stopped for a moment in the living room and looked at the replica of the holy relic on the lace-covered side table. It looked like he wanted to pick it up, but as soon as his hand went forward, Pietro retracted it. He turned to see Enzo watching him, and Enzo saw something in his eyes that reminded him of the profound silence that had enveloped them that night in the Church.

“Let’s go,” said Enzo to his friend. They spent the afternoon together, eating and playing, running in and out of the house, always trying to fly a little bit further away each time.

Rina Palumbo came to writing after a career in college teaching and has published work in Survivor Lit, Beach Reads, and local magazines and journals. She is currently working on a novel and has two other long-form works in progress, and continuing to write short-form fiction, creative non-fiction, and prose poetry.

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