Very nice and measured, like it's meant to be. I hope it continues like this.
Father Gregory couldn’t conceal his surprise when Mary actually showed up the following week. He also seemed both annoyed and pleased at the same time; annoyed to have to think about the gargoyles, yet somehow pleased that someone was finally willing to take the problem out of his hands.
“They’re filthy,” he said. “Be careful. Years of guano.”
She drew plastic gloves from of her backpack and brandished them. “I’m prepared. I’m guano take care of the problem.”
Father Gregory groaned at the pun.
“All right,” he said, doubtfully. “If you really mean it. But I won’t blame you if you find it too much. Do as much or as little as you please. To tell you the truth, I’m not completely sure these gargoyles will ever be reinstalled.”
She was dressed even more casually than usual, having dug out her oldest clothes out of the back of the closet, a strange combination of a worn dress blouse and some old gym pants. She didn’t figure anyone was going to see her.
He led her up the spiral stairs. About halfway up, there was a small bathroom. “You can get your water from here. Pour the waste into the toilet if you will. The sink has old plumbing that clogs up easily.”
There was a small utility closet on the same floor as the storeroom where the gargoyles were stowed, and inside she found brushes and pails. It was obvious they hadn’t been used in a long time. There was a bag of powdered soap, and she quickly realized that it was so concentrated she needed to use very little in each pail full of water.
She stood at the doorway of the storeroom, the steaming pail in one hand, a stiff brush in the other, and stared at the gargoyles, paralyzed by their size and number.
What have I gotten myself into? She asked herself.
The largest gargoyles were toward the back, leaning against the wall just under the window. The glass was filthy, and the glow of the morning sun barely lit the room. She looked around for a light switch, but when the bare bulb in the ceiling came on, it didn’t add appreciably to the light.
Near the door were some smaller gargoyles, which had apparently been added to the collection later. She recognized them as coming from the side of the cathedral, rather than the balustrades.
I’ll start with the easier ones.
A small gargoyle lay on its side, just inside the door. It was about half her size, and she was able to wrestle it upright.
This is the one, she thought, looking into its eyes. The stone felt almost warm to the touch. Despite the glaring eyes, the horns, the gaping jaws, the creature didn’t look malevolent, it seemed almost thoughtful. As if it had started out angry, full of hate, and had wearied of it, had reconciled with its fate, and was at peace. She dipped the brush into the water and started on the top of the gargoyle’s head, between the horns. The dirt and grime and guano at first seemed as hard at the rock itself, but as the moisture seeped in, it started to break apart in chunks. A big piece slid off, leaving a trail through the dust of the gargoyle’s face. Underneath was revealed the original stone surface.
The rock had an almost pearlescent shine, and the gray was mixed with streaks of red. Suddenly, it all seemed worth it. She wanted to see what this fellow really looked like underneath all the shit. She pushed down harder with the brush and other chunks came off, and it was as if a bird was hatching new from an egg. The gargoyle’s eyes were shinier than the surrounding rock, as if they had been polished. It gave the appearance that there was a soul beneath, staring out, pleased with her efforts.
She learned that if she splashed water on the gunk, and let it set for a while, it would loosen it up, making it easier to remove. It was messy, but she didn’t figure anyone would care. The water couldn’t harm the slate floor, and she could sweep up the dirt when it all dried. She had cleaned most of the gargoyle’s head when her cell phone went off.
For a moment, she couldn’t figure out what it was. It was as if she had somehow been living in the past, in a time before there were such things as phones – when rock and water and air were the principle elements of everyday life.
Her phone was in her backpack. She rose with a groan, realizing that she’d been hunched over for so long that her muscles had cramped. She hurriedly peeled off her gloves, but by the time she had removed them, the phone had stop ringing.
She felt a sudden dread. Was she supposed to be at work today? Sure enough, it was her boss.
“Mr. Sutherland?” she said, when a gruff voice answered. “Did you need something?”
“Where the fuck are you?” he said.
“It’s…. it’s my day off, sir. I am volunteering at the church.”
There was a long silence at this. “I didn’t know you were religious,” he said, finally, as if grudgingly admitting that this might actually be an excuse he couldn’t bully her out of.
“Is there something I can help you with?” she asked.
“Where the fuck did you put the Peterson papers? He wants the deal done…like yesterday.”
“I put them on your desk before I left last night. All they need is your signature.”
“I’ll be back first thing tomorrow, sir…” she ventured.
“I see them,” he grunted. Then he asked what he had probably really called her to ask in the first place. “How did Peterson sound? Was he…pleased?”
Mary knew what he was asking. On a good day, Peterson sounded like he wanted to chop your head off. On a bad day, he wanted to flay your skin off first. Mary had sympathy for her boss. She knew that the rest of the staff thought Sutherland was a complete bastard, but she just tried to imagine herself in his position, having to deal everyday with the likes of that billionaire prick, Gerald Peterson. It would turn anyone into a cranky S.O.B.
“He sounded…normal,” she answered. In other words, he sounded like an utter asshole, but no more so than usual.
“Good,” Sutherland said, the relief obvious, but at the same time trying to sound casual. “That’s good. I’ll see you in the morning then!” He hung up without waiting for an answer.
She clicked off the phone and dropped it into her bag. She turned, starting to put on the gloves, then hesitated.
The gargoyle was looking at her. Well, of course he was. He couldn’t help but look at her, facing as he was directly in her direction. Yet… there was thought behind that look, not only thought, but emotion. As if the gargoyle was somehow concerned for her, sympathetic to her blight.
“Only one more month,” she said the gargoyle. “Just enough to pay for Mom’s surgery, then I quit. I swear.”
The gargoyle appeared to blink.
She closed her eyes and swayed, dizzy. I’ve been working too hard, she thought. I’m starting to see things. When she opened her eyes, the gargoyle was stone again, and yet the eerie sense of consciousness was still there.
“Look, it’s not my fault that they are ripping people off. I’m just the secretary. If it wasn’t me, it would be someone else.”
You are part of the sin, when you ignore the sin, the gargoyle said.
“Okay, that’s it,” she said. “Just as soon as I finish you off, and I’m going to turn your face to the wall, you judgmental little beast. Then I’m done for the day.”
Again, she reached for the gloves and again she hesitated. She reached out with her bare hand and rubbed the top of the gargoyle’s head.
She sprang back with a cry, for it had felt as though the stone had gone soft, like skin, and that it had moved, almost as if their was a living pulse. It is just anthropomorphism! She thought, in alarm. Hell, you named your damn car Sylvester. No wonder you think a gargoyle is alive!
She finished cleaning the statue, careful not to look into its eyes again. When she was done, she stood back and examined it.
It was beautiful. There was no other word for it. What had seemed vaguely creepy and threatening covered in soot and grime, was exposed to be a tortured creature, not an evil one. A creature struggling with its demon nature. The very essence of guilt and shame.
No wonder I relate to it.
She heard a voice from the doorway.
“I never knew...” Father Gregory stood frozen, as if stunned by the sight of the gargoyle.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Who knew?”
Father Gregory finally approached the creature and bent down to look into its eyes.
“I think the congregation is wrong,” he said. “These creatures must to be restored and returned to their proper places. They are the soul of the cathedral.” He stood and beamed at her.
“Thank you so much for this blessing, Mary Patronis,” he said.
“I’m glad to do it,” she said. But inside, she was wishing she could back out of it. ‘The soul of the cathedral,’ the Father had said, and she thought he was right. At the very least, these gargoyles had the power to expose the soul of those who looked on them.
She left the gargoyle where it was, facing the door.
Just one more month, she thought. Then I quit that job and never look back.