Margaret Bennett had been raised to believe that praying to Mary was a form of idolatry, or at the very least a waste of time. But she couldn’t help wondering now, as she tried to center the sign MERYEM ANA EVI in her viewfinder, if things might have turned out differently, might still turn out differently, if she believed in Mary’s intercessory power. Mel was still touring the small stone chapel built on the site where the Virgin Mary had supposedly spent her final years. Margaret’s feet ached from roaming the ruins at Ephesus all morning and she told him she’d meet him at the exit where their tour group from the ms Fortuna was to gather in twenty minutes. The paved pathway led her down a shaded flight of steps overlooking the surrounding hills of Mount Koressos. The countryside was eerily quiet, save for the sound of birdsong and the wind rustling the leaves. For the first time in weeks the phone call did not weigh on her mind. At the bottom of the stairs were the miraculous fountains their Turkish tour guide had described. Mary’s house was believed to have a healing spring flowing beneath it. People pilgrimaged here from across the globe, hoping to shed their crutches, cure their addictions, shrink their tumors. Drinking from one of the fountains was said to bring health; drinking from another, wealth; and another, happiness. Each fountain was set inside a small stall, like a confessional. A tanned woman with spiked, frosted hair and bulging biceps held a plastic water bottle under one of the spigots. She turned from the fountain and glanced up at Margaret, her eyes wet with tears. Margaret licked her lips, suddenly conscious of her own thirst. What would happen if she drank from the fountains? Was the spring water even safe to drink? Maybe she’d catch an intestinal bug and ruin the rest of her trip. Ever since the phone call three weeks ago, she’d been convinced that all the good things she’d had in ample measure throughout her life—namely the three blessings one could expect after drinking from the natural spring—would soon vanish. The water, when she cupped her hands and drank from the first fountain, was warm and silky on her tongue. She leaned over the second fountain, craning her neck and positioning her mouth directly under the spigot. She gulped from the third fountain with a thirst that seemed unquenchable, and as she drank, she did something completely unexpected. She said a prayer to Mary. Let this pass from me.
When they arrived back at their cabin, a red eye blinked on the phone. She and Mel looked at each other. Only their thirty-three-year-old daughter, Syd, had their contact information, and she rarely called on their vacations. Margaret remembered her spa appointment the next day. Probably just a reminder call. Mel listened to the message while she took an ibuprofen in the bathroom. “Syd,” he called to her. “She said some woman left a strange message for you. Said it was urgent you call her back asap.” Margaret turned off the water. She glanced up, avoiding her reflection. “Well, who was it?” “That was the strange thing. She didn’t leave her name. Syd got the number off the caller ID.” Mel handed her the notepaper on which he’d jotted the number. The same out-of-state area code from a few weeks ago. She placed the paper on the coffee table, her temples now throbbing, and selected her dress for that evening’s formal dinner. The ship had begun to set sail. Through the balcony doors the port of Kusadasi inched past. “Quick,” she called to Mel. “Get the video recorder.” He was hunched over the mini-fridge. “Ah Maggie, it’s locked up in the safe. I don’t want to fool with it now.” In all their years of cruising she had never been so quick to snap a photo or roll the camera. Whenever the ship pulled out of port, only one thought crossed her mind: I will never be here again. She ventured out onto the deck, leaving an arm's distance between herself and the railing. The sun was setting on the harbor, Kusadasi ablaze in gold and apricot, like an apocryphal vision of the Coming Kingdom. The wind tousled her short curls. She felt as if she were leaving something important behind. That she hadn’t seen all she was meant to see. That even if she did return some day, nothing would appear as it did to her now. “So who’s this woman who called?” Mel hollered to her. Margaret could still hear the accusatory voice: Does the date February 25, 1970 mean anything to you? She went inside, sliding the balcony door shut behind her. The room rang with silence. “I have no idea. I’ll go ahead and shower.” Mel broke the seal on a bottled water. “You’re not going to call back?” “I’m on vacation in the middle of the Aegean Sea, Melvin. Whoever this person is, she can wait.” Margaret and Mel had taken the first of their fifteen cruises out of New Orleans, a five-day Western Caribbean. In Jackson Square she had paid twenty dollars to have her palm read by a gypsy whose upper lip was covered in a patch of black hair. “You will have only one marriage,” the gypsy reported. “It’s a nice love. Sweet.” Margaret’s eyes filled with tears, her young love reduced to something quaint and common, like a basket full of kittens. The gypsy traced one of the lines on Margaret’s palm with a feather touch. “You were born lucky,” she said. “You will live a long life. You will work with the poor, but you . . . you will always have money.” She frowned, as if personally offended by Margaret’s good fortune. “Do you see if . . . ?” Margaret studied her own palm, realizing how ridiculous, desperate she must have seemed to those walking past. “I mean, everyone’s luck runs out eventually.” The gypsy scratched between her eyebrows, the look on her face a cross between pain and concentration. She turned Margaret’s hand at varying angles, as if in search of better light under the high midday sun. She smiled to herself, then looked up at Margaret under hooded eyes, drunk-like, although Margaret felt as though she were being seen, for the first time, with perfect clarity. “It is just as I’ve told you,” she said. “The lines never lie. You will suffer little.” Those words. You will suffer little. Margaret could never get out of her head. And would her suffering, when it did come, feel overly pronounced given she’d had so little to measure it against? As a social worker, confronted with one hardship case after another, she often wondered, Why me? Why have I been spared? The gypsy called her lucky. The Church, blessed. She didn’t know what source to thank—God or the fates—but she had indeed enjoyed a comfortable, sheltered life. Shortly after that cruise, she became pregnant, first try. Her daughter had been healthy and well behaved. Even during the years of raging hormones, she and Syd rarely fought. They had such an open and honest relationship that Syd had actually come to her in high school to tell her she’d begun having sex with her boyfriend and needed to get on the Pill. Though Margaret had always preached abstinence to her daughter, she made the doctor’s appointment that same day, wishing she herself had had someone to confide in as a young woman. Syd had gone on to law school, was now married to an art curator. They were working on Margaret’s first grandchild. There had been Mel’s mild heart attack last spring, but the clot had been detected early. Her parents had already passed, but quickly and painlessly, her mother in her sleep and her father, just eleven months later, after a winning day at Belmont, a glass of Irish whiskey still in his hand. Would she have had more friends, or closer ones, if she could better relate to their adversities? And would she have been better at her job if she’d been more attuned to her clients’ needs? Her coworkers at the department of social services called her efficient, sensible. At her retirement party in June, her boss had described her as “someone you’d want in charge of your funeral.” She wasn’t sure if this had been a toast or a roast. One of her coworkers, Betsy, an evangelical Christian and breast cancer survivor, had once told her that God allowed his children to go through the fire so they might come out on the other side refined, purified. Margaret had had her hand held over the stove’s flame a time or two, but she couldn’t say she’d ever felt its full-on burn. So yes, she was due a little suffering. Long overdue. And she was convinced the origin of her suffering would be linked not to an event yet to unfold but to one already passed. She would get her comeuppance. Some days she almost looked forward to it, as one might look forward to a root canal, simply to have the damn thing done and over. Still, nothing could have prepared her for that initial searing blow to the gut when the call came. “Is this Margaret Bennett?” “Yes. Who’s calling, please?” A sound like stubble rubbing against the mouthpiece. “You don’t know me.” “Well, then,” Margaret said, “what can I do for you?” “You can’t do anything for me,” the caller snapped. Margaret’s back stiffened. “I’m sorry but unless you tell me why you’re call--” “Does the date February 25, 1970 mean anything to you?” Margaret's stomach convulsed, and she covered her mouth. “Don’t worry,” the woman said, sighing as if this were an old conversation. “I don’t want anything from you. I just wanted to talk to you, at least once. I wanted to hear your voice.” In the family room, Mel scraped a spoon against his ice cream bowl. She took the phone into the dining room. “Well, now you’ve heard it,” she whispered. “I have to go. Never call here again.” When they got back to their cabin after that evening’s entertainment (a hypnotist had convinced willing audience members into believing they’d won the lottery), Margaret sat on the edge of the stiff mattress while Mel used the bathroom. She popped the chocolate truffle on her pillow into her mouth, then ate Mel’s, as if she hadn’t just consumed a five-course meal and two glasses of wine. Across the room, the champagne bottle Syd had ordered as an anniversary gift sat in a pool of melted ice, unopened. At dinner Mel had asked, “You would tell me if you weren’t well, wouldn’t you, Maggie?” He had looked at her expectantly, like he sometimes did when holding the songbook between them at St. Michael’s, as if hoping to hear even a whisper of the ethereal voice that had first seduced him. “Mel?” she called, staring at the reading lamp attached to the headboard.
He appeared at the bathroom door in his pajamas, a string of dental floss in his hand. He looked so tanned and rested. So at peace. She envied him this.
“I forgot now what I was going to say.” He crossed the room. “What is it, Mag? You haven’t been yourself this whole trip.” She shook her head. When a tear suddenly spilled from her eye, he sat immediately and took her hand. “I don’t deserve you,” she said. “What are you talking about?” “Do you like our life? Would you change anything?” “I love everything about our life. About you. I wouldn’t change a thing. Now what is all this?” She wiped her tears. “We only have two more days. Maybe the reality of my retirement is finally sinking in.” He drew her closer. “Oh, is that what this is all about?” She laid her head on his shoulder, allowing him to believe this. “You’ll love retirement . . . except for having to put up with me more.” “Oh, you hush.” Mel patted her leg. She could feel the low rumble of the ship’s motor, imagined the deep sea churning beneath them. “I’m not tired,” she said finally. “I think I’ll go have a nightcap.” He patted her leg again, as if all had been resolved. “Good idea. Maybe it’ll help you get to sleep.”
She had been ten years old the day the water almost claimed her. At the edge of her family’s property, she’d ventured out alone one winter morning onto the frozen pond - something she’d been forbidden to do. She wanted to skate like the Russian figure skaters she’d watched on TV, who, even on the black-and-white set, seemed illuminated in technicolor. From their toe picks to their fingertips, she had never witnessed such grace of movement, the skaters spinning on one foot, gradually gaining speed, faster and faster, their arms reaching alternately up to the sky, then back to their chests, as if trying to thread pieces of heaven into their hearts, and then finally their bodies dissolving into a shimmering blur until it seemed they might turn to fairy dust and disappear altogether. Over and over she practiced spinning on the pond, not realizing she was wearing the ice thin. She had no sooner heard a faint pop and seen the growing fissure beneath her feet than she felt the freezing water, like a thousand knife pricks. The panic beyond panic as her hands beat against the same unyielding block of ice. She never told another soul what saved her. Not the proverbial guiding light but a sound. An angelic voice, like a perfectly tuned violin, beckoning her toward the opening in the ice, carrying her on the waves of its vibration, only to withdraw the moment she’d reached safety, the bow plucked from the strings. But the music had imprinted itself on her soul, and for years she could mimic that angelic voice almost to perfection. Almost. When she developed vocal nodules in her forties and the doctor advised her to stop singing, she was partly relieved. She had been given a gift, but that gift had also been a burden. The celestial voice in her head a taunt. The first time Mel heard her sing—a soprano solo for the university’s Christmas recital—he dropped to one knee, a theatrical hand to his heart, and asked her to marry him. They had never met, and he was only half sober, but he told her he wanted to wake up and go to sleep every day to that voice. After he graduated and set off for boot camp, he entrusted her to the care of his roommate. His last words to her from the train station platform: Wait for me. She hid the pregnancy from everyone, even her roommate, who had put on weight herself that senior year. By her third trimester it was deep winter in Vermont. People filled out, wore layers. In her dorm room she read Anna Karenina, her throat constricting at its plaintive refrain: But what’s to be done? Terminating the pregnancy had never been an option, but this had more to do with practical considerations than moral. She had no idea where to go, who to trust. Such things were never talked about back then, or even hinted at--at least not in her family and circle of friends. She wrote letters to Mel. In some, she told him she was pregnant. Pregnant with his friend’s child. She could not marry him. She didn’t deserve his love. In the letters she did mail: I miss you desperately. August feels like an eternity away. Counting down the days. Forever yours, Margaret. Her doctor at the health clinic knew of a couple. The couple would pay for the doctor and lawyer fees. No one, she was assured, would ever know. She told herself the baby would be better off; she would be better off. What happened had happened to someone else. A young, stupid girl who for one night wanted to escape the chains of her staid, secure future. Wanted to be as free and bold and reckless as a child spinning on thin ice. On her father’s arm that summer, the train of her white dress shh-ing against the paper runner, she could not believe it was all behind her. And no one was the wiser. The powers that be had intervened once again, saving her from the numbing waters. She slept soundly in the nook of Mel’s meaty arm at night but tiptoed through her days as if walking on a frozen pond, anticipating with every step an ominous crunch. When she entered Stingray’s Lounge, a man dressed in black was on stage, belting out the lyrics to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Dear Lord. Karaoke night. She caught sight of the singer’s clerical collar and laughed out loud, something she hadn’t done the whole trip. The young priest had been on several of their shore excursions. She’d asked Father Mike to take their picture in front of the Parthenon in Athens. An enthusiast of Greek architecture, he told them that the temple’s lines, appearing perfect to the naked eye, weren’t straight at all, but rather slightly curved to give the appearance of perfection. She had liked the ruins better before knowing this tidbit. She found an empty table toward the back of the lounge. “Work it, padre,” the man beside her yelled. “Ms. Margaret,” the cocktail waitress greeted. “Will it be the usual?” “Oh, dear, better make it an Irish whiskey tonight. On the rocks.” As she waited for her drink, she flipped through a thick binder of karaoke songs on the table. I wanted to hear your voice, the caller had said. Margaret’s vocal nodules made her sound hoarse. A smoker, the woman might have guessed. When Carina returned with her drink, Margaret asked, “Who watches your baby while you’re away?” Carina had just signed an eleven-month contract with the cruise line and wouldn’t see her infant son for another nine months. “Four children,” Carina corrected. “My mother watches.” She smiled, holding her black tray against her womb like a shield. She and all the Filipino staff smiled incessantly, as if this were a prerequisite for their jobs. Carina left to take another table’s order. Margaret sipped her whiskey, feeling a sudden maternal protectiveness toward Carina. Over the last few weeks, she’d tried to block the memory of the phone call from her mind. Tried to tell herself it must have been some terrible misunderstanding or someone playing a sick joke. But the woman had known the date Margaret had given birth. Maybe the woman had gotten the information through hospital records. Or the lawyer’s office. Or even the adoptive parents. These days it didn’t require much research to link a maiden name to a married or track down a phone number. A few days after the woman had first called, Margaret called back the number. A hospital switchboard operator answered. Margaret asked where the hospital was located. Connecticut. A small consolation, as Margaret lived in Vermont. She tried to find out the caller’s identity, but the operator needed a name; the hospital had over four hundred patients. But maybe the woman—this potential daughter of hers—wasn’t a patient, but an employee of the hospital. Maybe a nurse. A doctor even. Did she have children? Maybe Margaret was already a grandmother. But what if this woman wasn’t a well-adjusted citizen but a full-fledged psychopath? What if she began stalking her? Or threatened to tell Mel? Syd? Or demanded God only knew what kind of recompense? Father Mike stepped off the stage to a raucous round of applause and a few shrill whistles. Margaret waved him over to her table. “Those were some fancy moves you had up there,” she said, accepting his outstretched hand. It felt rougher than she’d expected, and she imagined him raising houses and chapels around the world on mission trips. Father Mike mopped his brow with a cocktail napkin. “You’re up next.” “Oh, no.” “Ah, come on,” he said, pulling up a chair. “Don’t you sing?” “I used to. I even sang in the choir, if you can believe.” He looked at her with bemusement. “Why wouldn’t I believe?” Not expecting the question, she shied suddenly. “Oh, I don’t know. That seems many moons ago. Back when I was a Protestant.” She was going to leave it at that, but Father Mike motioned with his fingers for her to cough up the goods. “When our daughter was born, I converted to Catholicism.” She poked a piece of ice in her glass with her forefinger. “It was important to Mel. I don’t think his family has ever quite forgiven me for making him marry in a Protestant church.” She laughed. Father Mike smiled obligingly. Carina returned to the table, presenting the priest with another Guiness—on someone else’s tab. “One of the fringe benefits of my job,” he said. Margaret watched Carina back at the bar, joking with another server. “To think how little they’re getting paid to put up with heathens like us,” she said. “Present company excluded, of course.” “Of course,” Father Mike said and licked the beer froth from his lips. On stage now a woman in a rhinestone halter sang “The Tide is High” in a monotone. “Sometimes, Father, when I look around this big boat, all this glamour and glitz, it sickens me. They’re setting up a midnight buffet on the Lido Deck even as we speak. How much can one person possibly eat?” The priest shook his head wistfully. “Father,” she said. “I have a confession to make.” A shadow crossed the priest’s face, but before she could tell him she was only teasing, he had scooted his drink aside and was now leaning forward, hands clasped, head bowed. She studied the copper highlights in his hair. I gave up my child, my own flesh and blood. She found me and I gave her up again. And no one knows. No one no one no one. “I’ve been on a cruise almost every other year of my married life,” she said. “And I can’t stand being around water.” Father Mike seemed to contemplate the dizzying geometric pattern in the carpet. When he looked up, he was grinning. “Then I don’t suppose you’re looking forward to Venice.” She raised her glass to him. “Got that right.” Her heart felt lighter, as if she’d just avoided an accident. Father Mike settled back into his seat. “So why do you do it? Cruise, I mean.” “Oh, I like to cruise, don’t get me wrong. But Mel loves it. In an ideal world, this is all he’d do. Everything already planned out. All he has to do is show up.” “I usually find that people who are afraid of the water never learned to swim.” “I never did. That’s part of it, but . . . oh, goodness, it’s too long a story.” The priest winked at her over the rim of his ale glass. “Ah, the truth shall set you free.” She imagined the look of befuddlement on Syd’s face after learning she had a sister. Syd who, from the age of four to ten, had begged for a sibling. And how could Mel possibly forgive her for such a long-held secret? For such a betrayal? But even when she’d considered this in the past, she knew that he could, and probably would. In time. What worried her more, what she could not bear, is destroying the foundation on which Mel had built his life. Toppling everything he knew about himself. Her. Turning the temple of their love into a ruin. No longer would she be his Maggie. The woman with the voice like an angel. The true and decent woman she was in his eyes. The true and decent woman she’d spent her entire married life trying to be, wanted to be, and believed she’d almost become. Almost. Father Mike was asking if she’d ever been to Venice, their next and final port. Margaret had been once, on another cruise. He had been several times, couldn’t get enough of it. “What do you plan to see in the City of Water?” “Mel wants to visit the Basilica.” “And you, you heathen?” He said this with a smile. “Oh, I might just check into our hotel and read a good book.” “For shame. Did you go to the Palazzo Ducale last time?” “I was too busy buying overpriced souvenirs.” “Oh, but it’s a must-see. The Golden Staircase. Tintoretto’s Paradise. All those secret chambers. . . . I promise you, you’ll walk away a changed person.” Margaret swilled her whiskey. “Well, now that,” she said, relishing the alcohol’s slow burn down her throat, “would be worth the price of admission.” She returned from her massage the next afternoon to find another red light flashing on the phone. Syd again, afraid Margaret hadn’t received the message from the day before. And now another call from the same number. This time an extension had been given. “Mom?” Sydney had said at the end of the message. “Is everything okay?” Margaret’s hands turned numb. So here it is. No getting away from it now. But what’s to be done? What’s to be done? Mel was attending Mass in the theater. She still had time. She snatched up the phone, reviewed the directions for ship-to-shore calls, and dialed the number. Several transfers later, a voice said, “Mrs. Bennett? Thanks for calling back. I’m Karen McElroy, a nurse here at Alliant Health. I’m afraid I have some sad news.” With a polished mix of professionalism and condolence, the nurse told Margaret that her daughter had passed away the night before. The daughter had requested, when the time came, Margaret be notified. “Mrs. Bennett?” She sank to the hard bed. “Yes.” She clamped the phone to her ear. “Yes. How did she . . . what did she die from?” “I’m sorry,” the nurse said. “I can’t give out that information.” “Oh.” Margaret’s face burned. “Well, can you tell me . . . did she have family with her?” “Yes.” “Did she . . . ?” “We tried to keep her as comfortable as possible.” “I see.” She remained seated long after placing the phone back in its cradle, listening to doors open and shut down the hallway, room stewards greeting guests by name. Your daughter, the nurse had said. My daughter. The daughter she had never named. Whose name she would never know. She bowed her head and folded her hands, squeezed until her knuckles ached. When she lifted her chin, a sound issued from the back of her throat. Her mouth widened to accommodate it. One of the highest notes she’d ever reached. Almost inhuman. She held that single note, pure as spring water, not caring who might hear, until her voice failed. Then she fell back on the bed, hand to throat. A fine drizzle fell upon the Piazzo San Marco, burnishing the stone. Hawkers seemed to crawl out of nowhere selling umbrellas and rain ponchos. Their ship had arrived late into port, and after checking into the hotel, she’d just barely made the last tour at the Doge’s Palace. Mel had probably already toured the Basilica and was back in the hotel napping. Only half listening to the tour guide now, she positioned herself near the wall overlooking the square. She zoomed in on a winged lion, the symbol of St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice. Venezia. Her heart suddenly flooded with sympathy for the sinking city. A city with a brave face but a beleaguered soul. She focused the camera on a young girl in a yellow slicker tossing bread to the pigeons. Soon a flock of them descended on her, landing on her arms and shoulders, even her head. The girl looked scared to death, as if not knowing why this was happening or how to prevent it. In the hospital room all those years ago, a moment’s hesitation. She had asked to hold the child. One nurse wouldn’t comply, but another did. Not knowing what to do for the writhing, beet-faced bundle in her arms, rooting for her breast, she hastily traced the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead, then handed her back over to the nurse. Let this pass from me. And it, she, her daughter, had passed. Her prayer had been answered, yet she didn’t feel blessed or lucky or even particularly relieved. No burden felt lifted from her shoulders. In fact, she felt more acutely the strain of a weight she’d already been carrying, though for how long she couldn’t begin to guess. The tour had concluded and she retraced her steps to the Bridge of Sighs, the bridge connecting the palace to the Leads prison. She hoped the crowd had cleared so she could snap a few photos. Earlier, the guide, escorting their small group through the dark, narrow corridors of the prison, pointed out a message one of the prisoners had inscribed on the walls of his cell. Learn to suffer. Another prisoner, Casanova, had been sentenced to five years at the same prison. But the infamous womanizer escaped one day from that most secure of prisons. The first to do so. One of life’s riddles seemed bound in the story of the two prisoners—one man striving to embrace his suffering, the other choosing to evade it. And who could say which man, in the end, had been the freer? Now, on the enclosed bridge, she found herself alone, the rain falling soundlessly. She imagined inmates crossing over to their cells, sighing, according to legend, at their final view of the city, for it was believed once across, no prisoner ever returned. She raised her camera. I will never be here again.
AIMEE ZARING’s work has appeared in New Southerner, Blood Lotus, Arts Across Kentucky, The Rumpus, and the anthology New Growth. She has an MFA in Writing from Spalding University and is the recipient of an artist enrichment grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. A frequent book reviewer for The Courier-Journal, she also teaches English to elderly refugees. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband and dog, Edelweiss. Her website is www.aimeezaring.com.