Chapter 4 - Anastasia
Anastasia pressed her ear to the heavy wooden door. It was cold against her cheek, chilled by the strong September breeze. From inside, she could hear the rhythm of voices pulsing through the wood. A hymn, judging by the cadence, though she couldn’t make out which one. There were so few now she could draw up from memory—she sometimes found herself humming them as she washed the dishes. But it had been years, and even those had started to blend together in her mind, their verses interchanging, messages distorting. Whatever words they were singing, they could not reach her ear.
The familiar throb returned behind her eye, pulling her head from the door. She rubbed it with the heel of her hand. When she was younger, she had thought of the headaches as a ghost, drifting into her presence, pressing on her mind, keeping her company. But now that they had a name, she couldn't ignore the truth anymore.
The door ceased its rhythm, and Anastasia leaned against it once more, straining to hear what was next. If she’d estimated right, it was almost time for the sermon. She hoped the microphone was working. Last week, she’d barely been able to make out a few words, and though she liked the hymns just fine, the sermon was really what she came for. It was funny, growing up, she had always dreaded the sermons, too much sitting and listening. Her mother would make her sit up, look straight ahead, stop drawing on the bulletin. And sometimes, as the pastor scanned the pews, Old Testament vitriol spraying like saliva from his lips, he would catch her childish eyes and hold them, daring her to look away from the truth. So she made a game of waiting to see how long she could hold his gaze before rolling her eyes, big and exaggerated, to make sure he saw. She'd never been able to muster the guilt he seemed to want from her.
A sudden thumping rose from inside. Again, rhythmic, but not like music or even voices but more of a percussion, and she pressed her ear tighter to the door to try to fit it with the memories she still had. The breathing of organ chords, the off-tempo clapping of an old, suburban room, the intoning of verses, John 3:18, 20:17, 31, and then the thick wooden door was wrenched open, and Anastasia’s throbbing palms smacked against stone floor, as she stopped just short of burying her face in a pair of off-white, orthopedic sandals. Quickly righting herself, she looked down into the bright, tired face of a white-permed woman in a green paisley pullover. Her yellowed teeth pushed at each other like an elbowing crowd.
“Oh, I’m sorry dear. I didn’t know anyone was out here,” she said. Her voice was small, like air squeezed through a pursed balloon. “I was just letting in a little light.”
Anastasia breathed deep, the woman’s dry, floral perfume causing the throb behind her eye to spread across her face. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again.
“Well no need to stand out in the cold,” the woman said, taking a half step back to allow room for her to enter. “Won’t you come in and join us?”
In the space she’d created, Anastasia had a clear view of the inside. The angled light through the stained glass cast a fractured rainbow against the stone floor of the foyer. Beyond that, the rows of dark wooden pews stood mostly empty, but the energy of those in attendance was palpable. A few had their hands raised. She heard the drone of the preacher, a scattered chorus of Amen.
“No, really, thank you,” Anastasia said finally. “I was actually—I have to be somewhere…”
They stood in the echo of her words for a moment, the woman smiling deeply into her face. The lines at the corners of her lips cut a clear, deep path to her green-gray eyes, sharp and defined and sure. Anastasia wanted to look away, but she found herself unable.
“Well alright then dear,” she said. “But wait here, just one second.”
The woman disappeared for a moment and Anastasia was finally able to look down. The toes of her shoes pressed against the threshold of the doorway, wiggling. And then the woman was back, holding a book in her bird-boned hands.
“For you,” she said, holding it out to her. “For your journey.”
Anastasia took the book in her hands, and for a moment, their fingers brushed. She felt a warmth bloom up her arm.
“Thanks,” said Anastasia.
With a deep nod, the woman turned and shuffled slowly back into the sanctuary. The pastor was no longer in the pulpit, and Anastasia watched as the organ pipes sprung to life. She swore she could almost see the sound, bathing the gathered crowd, its life stopping just before the threshold. She looked down at the book in her hands. The small bible was bound in textured red vinyl, the gold letters embossed in the front. She thumbed quickly through it, and it fell open to a dog eared page, the corner turned down so slightly it could just have easily been an accident. Her eyes flit across the verse, halfway down.
Jesus turned and saw her. “Take courage, daughter,” He said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was cured from that very hour.
Anastasia kicked her toe lightly against the threshold once, twice, swinging her leg back and forth, here and there allowing the tip of her shoe to tap against the stone inside the foyer. But only just.