A Canticle for Meg
dedicated to and in memory of two women of the 20th Century, rest in peace. Names and places are changed but thanks to my mom, grandparents and my cousin Sharon, for sharing old family albums and stories.
Kate stood quietly with bowed head and lit the tiny votive prayer candle under the icon of the Sacred Heart. The church was filled with a silence so profound she could hear her thoughts and memories swirling around like a softly wailing wind inside her head. It had been awhile since she had been inside the church. She watched as the sun broke through the stained glass in smooth golden shards. The window portrayed the child Jesus and his cousin, John the Baptist, spilling the waters of grace from a small pitcher into the peaceful corners of the sanctuary.
As she sat down in the nearby pew, a woman knelt beside her in devotion, fingering pearl rosary beads, while her mouth moved in silent, chanting recitation. The woman had graceful, white hands and Kate immediately thought of her cousin Meg’s hands, not in prayer, but gingerly draping a set of lustrous, oriental pearls around her slender neck. Kate had loved the look and feel of Meg’s pearls.
She looked up toward the altar and remembered that the center of the cathedral was called the nave after the Latin word for ship. The curved apse with the raised dais at the high end represented the helm, where the congregation looked for steady guidance in the midst of tempest and storm. She remembered a beautiful summer’s day when Meg’s ship arrived in the town harbour, with the Captain standing tall on the bridge
The year following Kate’s mother’s death, her older cousin had come up to Seattle to take her down the coast by steamer to San Francisco and San Diego for a holiday. Meg was married to a sea captain and they had sailed all over the Pacific, from San Diego to Shanghai and up to Anchorage. Her husband came from a long line of seafaring men dating back to the old days of windjammers and clipper ships.
Kate grew up in a neighbourhood of honest, hard-working folk. There had never been time or money for many luxuries. She had arrived in America with her parents when she was about to start school. Other family members had also emigrated from Scotland and Ireland and all had made modest but comfortable lives for themselves. The lovely Meg stepped out of these humble beginnings and into something far grander. She was tall and slender, with black hair and ivory skin. Her every gesture seemed to breathe a sweet grace and Kate looked up to her as an older sister, with great affection and love.
That early summer on board the coastal steamship was one of the happiest times of her life. She stood laughing at the ship’s rail with Meg, as dolphins raced in the wake and clamoring gulls filled the wind. Sometimes her face and hands were wet from the salty, blowing spray of a brief summer squall but she would only go inside when Meg called her for tea. In the early evening she loved to see Meg’s Captain walking on the bridge and to hear the music of the ship’s bell, as the sky flooded gold at sunset.
Meg and the Captain often touched each affectionately, and whether it was a brief clasping of the fingers, or a gentle brushing away of a wisp of hair Kate sensed a wave of electricity that seemed to pass from one to the other. It illuminated them and everything around them. Kate was affected and her own adolescent heart would race at the thought of the two lovers alone at night in their berth and Meg in the Captain’s embrace.
When the holiday finally ended it was hard to return home again, but Kate knew her father needed her, and so it was promised that a strand of pearls would be brought back for her from Singapore. She waited in anticipation, dreaming of exotic harbours where Meg and the Captain strolled hand in hand, and sat sipping tea in tea shops under colourful umbrellas.
The church bell began to toll in deep, resonating waves calling the faithful to Mass. Kate thought of Donne’s poem as solemn worshipers entered the sanctuary. For whom is the bell tolling? War had just been declared in Europe. There would be terrible losses to come. She was only nineteen and she thought anxiously of her own young husband and of all the husbands and people who would be caught up in events beyond anyone’s control. She placed her hands protectively on her swollen belly. She felt the baby awaken to the sound of the bell, stirring fearfully inside her as though it sensed the unrelenting summons to suffering. This would be her first child and if it was a girl she would call her Margaret Maire,- Meg for short.
The kicking of a tiny foot that usually brought so much joy, had in that moment turned into a blow of piercing sorrow. Meg would never be a mother thought Kate bitterly. In an abrupt and terrible twist of fate Meg never returned from that far off place of monsoons and sudden hurricanes.
On a hot, humid night, in a fevered moment of time, Meg was murdered by her husband in a storm of jealous rage and suspected betrayal. Afterward, in despair he had killed himself. The news arrived on a merciless tide, overwhelming the family in shock and grief. No one would ever fully know what really happened, nor ever fathom the madness of such a horrifying and unforeseen tragedy.
Kate locked away her emotions and struggled to find a comforting grace in a life that had become unpredictably cruel. Everything in her world shifted relentlessly. What hidden shadows could cast such darkness over the hearts of good men? How did a grand love story end in this way? Was the beautiful Meg in heaven with her Captain, or were they forever condemned? It was much too painful to contemplate. In anguish she withdrew into a stoic view of the uncertainty of life.
The congregation stood reverently, as the priest and servers began to move in somber and hushed procession up the center aisle to the altar. When the church organ began to play, the choir commenced a majestic opening Laudate. The music swelled like a wave on the ocean, engulfing the spaces of the church to the very tops of the tall pillars. As it ascended joyfully into the domed nave, Kate closed her eyes and allowed it to carry her as though she were again standing with Meg near the bow and rising upward on the crest. The billowing sky beckoned them and the baby suddenly leapt, like John the Baptist in the womb of his mother when he sensed the joy of an approaching redemption. The cleansing grace of a summer rain began to fall as a storm gathered on the dark horizon. The altar bell rang out an alert. At the sound, the captain opened his arms heavenward for deliverance, and the passengers knelt in supplication. It was then that a great sob surged upward from the depths of her and, looking down at her wet hands, she realized that they were drenched in tears.