November is the month of Los Dias de Los Muertos, the Days of the Dead, when we pray for our dead and hold them close. Tomorrow begins Advent, the season of hope. May your way lie in light, looking forward or back.
[From “Virgins,” a novella published in the anthology DANGEROUS WOMEN, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. Copyright 2013 Diana Gabaldon]
Ian had made Jamie come with him to the cathedral of St. Andre, and insisted he go to confession. Jamie had balked—no great surprise.
“No. I can’t.”
“We’ll go together.” Ian had taken him firmly by the arm and very literally dragged him over the threshold. Once inside, he was counting on the atmosphere of the place to keep Jamie there.
His friend stopped dead, the whites of his eyes showing as he glanced warily around.
The stone vault of the ceiling soared into shadow overhead, but pools of colored light from the stained-glass windows lay soft on the worn slates of the aisle.
“I shouldna be here,” Jamie muttered under his breath.
“Where better, eejit? Come on,” Ian muttered back, and pulled Jamie down the side aisle to the chapel of Saint Estephe. Most of the side-chapels were lavishly furnished, monuments to the importance of wealthy families. This one was a tiny, undecorated stone alcove, containing little more than an altar, a faded tapestry of a faceless saint, and a small stand where candles could be placed.
“Stay here.” Ian planted Jamie dead in front of the altar and ducked out, going to buy a candle from the old woman who sold them near the main door. He’d changed his mind about trying to make Jamie go to confession; he knew fine when ye could get a Fraser to do something, and when ye couldn’t.
He worried a bit that Jamie would leave, and hurried back to the chapel, but Jamie was still there, standing in the middle of the tiny space, head down, staring at the floor.
“Here, then,” Ian said, pulling him toward the altar. He plunked the candle—an expensive one, beeswax and large—on the stand, and pulled the paper spill the old lady had given him out of his sleeve, offering it to Jamie. “Light it. We’ll say a prayer for your Da. And…and for her.”
He could see tears trembling on Jamie’s lashes, glittering in the red glow of the sanctuary lamp that hung above the altar, but Jamie blinked them back and firmed his jaw.
“All right,” he said, low-voiced, but he hesitated. Ian sighed, took the spill out of his hand, and standing on tip-toe, lit it from the sanctuary lamp.
“Do it,” he whispered, handing it to Jamie, “or I’ll gie ye a good one in the kidney, right here.”
Jamie made a sound that might have been the breath of a laugh, and lowered the lit spill to the candle’s wick. The fire rose up, a pure high flame with blue at its heart, then settled as Jamie pulled the spill away and shook it out in a plume of smoke.
They stood for some time, hands clasped loosely in front of them, watching the candle burn. Ian prayed for his mam and da, his sister and her bairns…with some hesitation (was it proper to pray for a Jew?), for Rebekah bat-Leah, and with a sidelong glance at Jamie, to be sure he wasn’t looking, for Jenny Fraser. Then the soul of Brian Fraser…and then, eyes tight shut, for the friend beside him.
The sounds of the church faded, the whispering stones and echoes of wood, the shuffle of feet and the rolling gabble of the pigeons on the roof. Ian stopped saying words, but was still praying. And then that stopped too, and there was only peace, and the soft beating of his heart.
He heard Jamie sigh, from somewhere deep inside, and opened his eyes. Without speaking, they went out, leaving the candle to keep watch.