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Katie Winkler




Katie Winkler's
 work has appeared in numerous online and print publications, most recently featured in a special edition of Pisgah Review, the anthology Unbroken Circle: Stories of Cultural Diversity in the South, and Saturday Evening Post, among others. She lives and works in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and daughter. 

Pilgrimage

Katie Winkler

The guidebook said this church was a “must see,” so Sara was prepared to approach the church with awe, which wasn’t unusual. Almost everything impressed this girl. She, on the other hand, was quite unimpressive. Her unruly brown hair fell over a perpetually wrinkled forehead, squinting eyes pulled her thin lips up to reveal two large teeth, like an unhappy rodent.

She placed one sweaty, sandal-clad foot on the first stone step of the huge cathedral, stopped, threw her head back, and held up her hands, squinting, to fight uselessly against the glaring sun. She wanted a glimpse of the tower. As soon as she found it, her gaze began to drop, looking down the length of the church front, drinking in every detail, every curve of the majestic forms of bishops long dead, every whimsical flick of the craftsmen’s style portrayed in the chubby cherubs’ faces.

It seemed an insult—the rabbit-faced girl gazing so appreciatively at all that magnificence. A hot wind blew, and the church seemed to recoil from the girl’s half-closed eyes. She leveled her attention on the massive wooden doors, pushing her tiny form through with a grunt, out of the heat and into the cathedral’s cool interior.

Sara blew air through her lips, the obscene sound echoing in the empty church. She lifted her shirt up and away, up and away, trying to cool her body down. Throwing herself into the nearest pew, she pushed against the back, propping up her legs on an ornately carved kneeling bench. She stared up at the high altar, not seeing the fine, pain-staking work of refinishers who, with loving, knowledgeable hands sought to reproduce the beauty of the nine-hundred-year-old wood. She did not notice the stained glass, now made like new after yet another war’s relentless destruction.

She did allow her squinting eyes to follow the line of the arches spanning the ceiling of the church. She knew no history of how the arches were so typical of early gothic architecture; she saw and appreciated only in the way the ignorant can appreciate art, knowing beauty without the need or desire to explain it. She sat and looked at what, she knew not. Her mouth was lax.

Then, the music came.

Sara’s limbs quivered with the shock of the beginning. She sat bolt upright. Her eyes opened fully, completely. The music shook the entire church. Even the huge pillars seemed to move under the force of the sound.

In the balcony the organist was rehearsing.

The girl rose, gazing up at the music, at the one who produced it. She came out into the aisle, moving backwards until she could see the back of the one, straight and tall, who played there. As the heavy sounds transitioned into lighter ones, she saw his shoulders tense and release, tense and release. A pause when he would lift his his head to the vaulted ceiling, pushing into the keys to sustain the sound.

He played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, but she didn’t know that. Her untrained ear could not comprehend its perfection--the precise placement of every chord, held exactly as long as it should. How could she know?

But, oh, it sounded so good.

She watched and waited for the ending of the piece, not wanting it, but knowing it must come to an end. She braced herself. The sound of the chords rose and fell, the intensity filling every part of her. She knew her heart had shifted beats to match the rhythm embedded in the music. Her thoughts raced, and her pinched face contorted. If the music stopped, would her heart, now in tune, stop as well?

The slim figure at the organ began to sway. His hands left the keyboards, gripped the sides of the bench where he sat, but the sound continued strong and heavy. Then the long, white fingers met the keys again with the touch of a playful lover—tickling, trilling.

At first Sara thought she could stand like that forever, hearing the sounds, but suddenly, she wasn’t satisfied with that anymore. She wanted to see all of him, his face, the whole of that one who brought the music so perfectly to her ears. She looked and soon found the stairs leading to the balcony at the back of the church. Then, he stopped playing. She stood gaping, ready for him to turn and reveal himself. But he closed the organ cabinet, turned a bright gold key and walked away without ever showing his face.

Her eyes narrowed. She had been denied.  But he would come down, wouldn’t he? He had to. She turned and fled towards the stairs, her sandals smacking against the marble floor. She could wait. Eventually he would come down to her.

She sat again in a pew, this time perching on the edge of the hard wood, her feet together, hands in her lap. She closed her eyes, still seeing the glowing lines of the altar, the ornate ambo, the pillars, the flying buttresses—the white and black, red and hint of blue behind her lids. Sara listened, hearing the rapid beat of her heart beginning to slow. She felt the cool air swirl around her. It had been stifling outside, unbearable. But here it was not, and she was grateful.

Later, how much later she did not know, Sara heard someone coming down the marble steps, lightly, feet shuffling, as if not to disturb her. She could barely hear him moving across the floor, stopping, and moving on—the creak of the door opening and closing, echoing in the vast edifice.

Sara still doesn’t know why she couldn’t open her eyes. But she saw him, nevertheless, walking into the heat, modulated now by the setting sun, striding down the Hauptstrasse to his tiny flat near the church, preparing his simple meal, maybe drinking a glass of wine, yes, a bold, red wine, reading from a real book before nodding off in the chair. At peace.

Just like her.

She opened her eyes and looked around. A group of tourists had entered and were oohing and aahing over the beauty around them. The blessed hush had been broken, and it was time to go. Sara rose and left the church, not letting the heavy door clang behind her. She looked up, no longer needing to squint, the sun tamed by the coming night. The grand cathedral's spire sliced into the sky, reaching, reaching. She smilled and turned to go back to her hotel, knowing she would return--to hear the music again.


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